The two of us crept down the staircase that led to the uppermost of the lower levels. I took the lead, using my weapon’s built-in flashlight to illuminate the way.
“Why do you use that?” Tris whispered suddenly. “Can’t gods see in the dark?”
“Of course we can,” I hissed back. “But one: not as easily, and two: if I let my eyes adjust to total darkness, what happens if we run into light? Temporary blindness doesn’t thrill me any more than most people, thank you.”
“Ah. I understand.” Tris lapsed back into silence, leaving me to my thoughts.
Several steps later, I voiced a question that had taken some time to surface. “Tris, why would those creatures follow you here? What would they want here that they couldn’t find anywhere else?”
Tris remained silent for a moment. “Well, in my experience, demons are attracted to power of all kinds, especially magical. When I brought myself here, I left a magical trail that they would have followed. They would have needed no other reasons to come here, but for all I know, they might have discovered more cause than that to stay.”
“You, my friend,” Tris replied, “are yourself a great storehouse of power. You might be drawing them, or perhaps something you keep here in this storehouse of technology. You know, I must say that the irony of that fascinates me.”
“Irony?” My irritation began to climb again; surely this could wait. Sometimes Hermes Trismegistus allowed his fascination for academia to override the urgently practical.
Then I understood, a heartbeat before he explained.
“You, a god, concern yourself with the scientific and with those who study it and master it. I, on the other hand, while technically a mortal, delve into the secrets of magic. Each of us strays into the other’s natural domain rather than specializing in his own.”
“That is true,” I breathed. “We’ve always had that in common.”
Then I halted our slow descent, and raised my hand for silence. We had neared the first of the lower levels, and again I extended my senses outward. Immediately, I realized that no intruders lurked nearby. Reaching farther, I perceived that the two remaining beings had separated. One prowled in a yet lower level, while the other had hidden somewhere in the more distant reaches of this nearer floor.
After clearing a few remaining steps, we would have to leave the stairwell and venture into the open hallway of the first basement level.
“Tris,” I whispered, “you said that you could make us invisible to them for a moment. Can you be more precise, in modern units of time?”
“More than one minute,” Tris replied, “maybe a minute and a half. Not as long as two, I think. Then about a minute before I can work the magic again.”
“And while it works,” I continued, “they won’t be able to see or hear us, or even see my light?”
“That is so,” Tris affirmed.
“Then here’s my plan. We run forward while the magic works, and look for places to hide and wait out the times between the spells.”
Tris nodded. “A good, practical plan.”
We exited the stairwell, and paused at the entrance to the hallway of the first sub-level. Rather than speak aloud, I pointed to Tris and shrugged, to indicate my readiness.
Tris raised both hands, palms facing each other. Then, through my entire body, I felt rather than heard a soft poof.
“I’ve done it,” he announced at a normal volume. “Lead the way.”
I took off toward our right, the direction leading to the demon according to my earlier search. I leveled off at a brisk jog rather than an all-out sprint, to allow the sorcerer to keep up. In the eerie silence of the unpowered sub-level, I easily heard his footsteps and his breathing just behind me.
This sub-level, like every floor in the building, consisted of offices and other rooms opening off of a single hallway that looped around in a rectangle. My feet carried me past closed doors and occasional open ones, none showing signs of life.
Before long, we passed a corner that abruptly shifted our course ninety degrees leftward. Just after that, Tris called, “We need to find shelter soon.”
At that moment, I saw an open door and ducked into it. This room, I recalled in an instant, housed a small technical library as well as several tables and chairs for reading.
As soon as I entered the library, I realized why the door had been left ajar. A mummy hunched over a table near the room’s opposite end. A motionless figure lay on the table; the creature held the head of the prone body in both cloth-wrapped hands.
I froze, as did Tris behind me. I took only a second to comprehend what I saw, but the demon released the body and spun around to face me. It turned its misshapen head rapidly from side to side, and a low growl escaped its partially-revealed snout.
I pointed my weapon at the creature’s chest and fired. With a barely audible hum, a faint purple-blue beam crossed the room and struck its target. A burst of flame erupted from the mummy’s chest, and it emitted a hideous wheezing noise as it sagged to the floor. Seconds passed, yet the thing did not grow silent until I finished it off with a second blast to its head. Then it lay still, twin plumes of smoke curling up from its wounds.
“It couldn’t see us clearly,” I remarked softly, “maybe not at all, but it noticed us somehow.”
“I don’t know what it sensed,” Tris replied quietly. “Maybe the spell had just begun to wear off, or it might not have hidden us perfectly to begin with. I’m sorry, but I have no way of knowing.”
“If it’s the best we’ve got,” I remarked, “it will have to do, regardless.”
Then I thought of the figure on the table, and approached. In my weapon’s light, I immediately recognized Audrey, the missing receptionist. She breathed, but she had a disquieting pallor. I noticed a number of small rips in the sleeves of her blouse, and scratches on her face.
I turned to Tris. “What do you think?”
“The demon drained energy from her for sustenance,” the sorcerer replied. “She needs rest, but she should be fine in a few days.”
Audrey stirred, and slowly opened her eyes. “Wha—” she began drowsily.
I bent down over her. “Audrey, how do you feel?”
She grew visibly more energetic. “Mr. Lester! What’s going on?” She paused. “I’m cold and tired, and I’ve had nightmares. Someone was demanding that I tell them everything about everything. What happened to me?”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” I replied. “Just rest. I’ll move you to someplace more comfortable.”
“Okay.” Seldom in recent years had I heard such simple, touching trust in a mortal voice.
I haven’t used my muscles for quite some time as I once did, swinging a hammer at some handiwork on an anvil. Nonetheless, I easily picked up the woman in my arms—sleeping again, or on the verge of it—and carried her to a well-cushioned chair. Then I fished a penlight from a nearby drawer and placed it on an end table adjacent to the chair.
We gods have an ability to speak to mortals in their sleep, implanting our words in a way that they remember. “Here’s a light if you need it,” I told Audrey, “but stay here until the lights come on.”
Audrey gave forth a soft, inarticulate noise. Hopefully, she would simply rest until we had resolved the crisis. To help her in that, I removed the light jacket that I had worn to my magical plot, and draped it over her semiconscious form. At that moment, I could not do much else for her.
“What was that nightmare she mentioned?” I asked Tris.
“I think this demon tapped her for knowledge,” Tris replied, “learning from her as well as feeding.”
“‘Lester’?” he remarked then.
I stepped away from Audrey. “Jeffrey Lester,” I clarified in a low voice, “my chosen name among mortals. I haven’t shared the name Hephaestus with very many people for quite some time.”
“You saw fit to tell it to me,” Tris pointed out.
“You were a special case,” I answered. “I didn’t see a problem sharing my identity with someone calling himself ‘Hermes the Thrice-Great’. You never were much of one for modesty.”
Tris raised his eyebrows. “How is your limp?”
I had to smile. “Reduced from a real handicap to a subtle imperfection long ago, as you know perfectly well.” Lack of modesty can be excused in some, after all.
Then I raised my hand for silence, and opened my senses again. Yes, one more demon remained, on the third sub-level. Several mortals also occupied that floor. Beyond that, I could tell nothing from when I stood.
I told Tris what I had found, and we stepped outside the reading room. I locked the door behind us; Audrey would be able to open it from the inside when she chose to leave. Until then, a demon would have to exert considerable force to get to her.
Tris and I headed back toward the stairwell, to descend to the bottom sub-level of the building. A single demon remained below, endangering my people. I don’t take kindly to threats to my mortal changes.