Also previous, sorta
"This is a really bad idea," said the necromancer.
"It'll be fine," said the fairy.
The two of them stood in downtown Reno, across the street from one of the many large casinos in the city. They were standing shoulder-to-shoulder and speaking low, trying not to let the crowd of people waiting for the cross light to hear them.
"We're going to get arrested," Tom said. He didn't sound particularly upset, just stating a fact. "We're going to go to prison and get shivved and die."
"Then you could patch us up," Terra said reasonably. "You worry too much. It's not like we're going to rob the place, we're just using our natural advantages."
"So do card counters."
The light changed, and the crowd surged forward. "They don't arrest card counters," Terra said. "They ask them politely to leave. That's our worst case scenario: they ask us politely to leave. Seems like a safe bet to me."
Tom followed her up the steps with a sigh. There was no point in trying to argue when she got an idea into her head.
Slot machines greeted them as they entered the casino, as did a smiling man in a black vest, who directed them to a nearby area that reminded Tom of a teller station at a bank: same protective glass, same little speaking hole, complete with teller.
There was some process about showing IDs to get a rewards card that he stopped paying attention to. Terra had taken the lead, so he turned his attention to all the blinking lights. They were everywhere: on the sea of slots that made up the bulk of entertainment in this area, they were on the walls, decorating the palm trees and hula girls painted there-- they were even on the floor; some kind of LED wired between the linoleum paths through the carpet like little walls. And while looking at the lights, he managed to notice just how many security cameras there were-- inconspicuous little glass bulbs hidden in the patterns on the ceiling and in the murals on the walls. Around the edges of things-- out of the way of the customers but still present nevertheless were snappily dressed security guys
Shit, he thought glumly. We are so fucked.
“Here,” said Terra, snapping him out of his thoughts. She dropped something over his head, looping it around his neck.
“What’s this?” he said. It appeared to be a plastic card on a bungee tether.
“That’s how they keep track of winnings,” she said. “You insert that into a slot machine or something, or let the dealer swipe it before the game.” She flicked her own card with her finger. “This is way fancier than when I was a kid. Back then, you just bet on cards, then beat the snot out of anyone trying not to pay.”
He would have taken his time looking at everything the casino had to offer, but Terra took his hand and guided him along as though she knew exactly where they were going.
“Have you been here before?” he said.
“Nope!” she said. “But most of these places have the same vibe, y’know?”
They weaved their way through the floor and finally landed in a small hall where the restrooms were located, and Terra bid him good luck.
"Seriously," she said. "This will be fun!"
"Not if you keep making us look suspicious," he hissed. Two women gamblers were heading into the ladies room and giving him and Terra odd looks.
"It's more suspicious to talk about looking suspicious," Terra said cheerfully. “Good luck, see you in a bit.”
Before he could think of anything snappy to say, she left, vanishing out of the alcove and into the swarm of machinery and people.
Well, it was too late to back out now. With a sigh, he went into the men’s room. To the casino’s credit, it was one of the nicer public bathrooms he’d been in; clean, big, no graffiti on the mirror. He went into the far stall, covered the seat with a protector, and sat down, still fully clothed. If this went south, he didn’t want to have to face some casino bouncer with his pants around his ankles. Then he pulled out of his pocket a music player and earbuds.
It was an ancient MP3 player-- he wasn’t even sure if they made them anymore. It hadn’t worked for years, always popping up a message about being discontinued and needing to switch apps or something, but he’d let Terra fiddle with it, and now it worked better than it had when it was new, though the song selections were nothing he’d ever heard of before.
He skimmed past titles that were written in Ogham script and Cuniform into the section of music that had actual letters he could recognize. The words still didn’t make sense: he couldn’t read Old Norse or Gaelic, but at least they were things made this millennia, probably. He scrolled further and further down until finally he found the small collection of songs he had insisted Terra put in the device, and then, at the very very bottom, he found the newest one he and Terra had recorded just recently to experiment with.
The title was nothing but a heart emoji.
He selected the heart-song and the sound of a heartbeat filled his ears, loud enough to hurt. Wincing, he turned the volume down a tick, but didn’t dare to turn it down any farther; if he lost the heartbeat, then there was a good change he’d lose track of his body.
With a deep breath and the sound of his own recorded heart beat pounding in his ears, Tom let himself die.
Death came easily to him, these days. He’d been practicing.
When he opened his eyes, the world looked gray. He hovered above his own corpse, his spectral head taller than the wall of the stalls, and he sighed in relief. Dying these days was oddly freeing. No body means no odd little aches and pains, no hunger, no need to use the bathroom. No body means his spirit had a little more leeway and he could finally stretch.
Alrighty, he thought, floating through the stall, then the wall, until he was out on the main floor. Immediately, the gray world was flooded with lanterns. Every person in view burned with inner light that dimmed, then brightened again in patterns; he could see their heartbeats reigniting them each time.
The sight of it was intimidating, in a way. All of these people, all of these souls. The people might’ve been nice, or they might’ve been assholes-- he didn’t know. Most people were probably assholes. But the fires inside them were still beautiful, and had he lungs, it would have taken his breath away.
Okay, he thought to himself, tearing his eyes away from the scene. Gotta find Terra. Gotta find-- oh.
There she was. In a world that had been reduced to shades of blues and grays, that had blurred around the edges as though everything else was the ghost, not him, Terra was a beacon of color. While the lights inside everyone else, everyone human, were white and bright, Terra’s light had yellows, greens, reds, and blues, and swirling and shifting around her like a burning halo.
Smiling, he floated towards her, no longer distracted by the other souls.
She was sitting at a slot machine, though she wasn’t playing it that he could see. Her card was inserted, but she was just watching it, as though waiting for something to happen, even though she hadn’t pressed the button or pulled the lever.
Still smiling, Tom leaned against the machine-- careful to not let himself sink through. With an effort of will, he reached out and pulled the lever.
To anyone who’d been paying attention, it would have looked like the lever had pulled itself down without help. Terra’s eyes brightened-- literally. In the real world, they were brown, and had been brown since he’d named her all those years ago. But here, they shone orange, then gold, then orange again, flickering like a fire.
“Come on,” she said quietly. Though the noise of the casino around him had gone muted and near-silent, he still heard her voice clear as day. “Let’s go play.”
* * * * *
The next hour or so went fine.
Slot machines were oddly easy to fool; he simply shoved his hand inside them and made them stop where he wanted them to. But that got old fast, and neither of them had the patience to do it all night, so they found something else to do.
When she played cards, he'd ghost behind the other players, then let her know what their cards were by whispering spectrally in her ear, or tapping her arm. They didn't stuck around the card tables long, mostly because Tom forgot most of the rules of the different card games, and Terra wound up losing more than once. But she quickly made up for it at the Craps table. When she tossed dice, he'd take them and flip them to be better-- feeling a little like someone playing with toys while he maneuvered them in the air to look like they were spinning naturally. At one point, he caught himself awkwardly climbing onto the table, then suddenly sinking through when he remembered he could just phase through, and that it was in fact easier to just phase through.
He was in the middle of guiding the little ball at the roulette table when there was a sudden pain in his belly. It was as though he’d been stabbed with a spike of fire, and he screamed immediately, so shocked by experiencing pain in that painless gray plane.
There was just enough time for him to see Terra's worried expression, and the confused faces of the other players before he was yanked back into his body.
He woke with a gasp, nearly falling off the toilet in surprise. Before anything else, he felt his stomach, lifting his shirt to try and find the wound.
But there was none, at least none that he could see.
“Hello,” said someone close.
He looked up and saw a man in a suit glaring down at him, standing just outside the stall.
"Oh," said Tom. Then, "Occupied."
The man didn't look amused. To the cellphone in his hand, he said, "Psychic in the ground floor men's room. Looks like astral projection. Likely has an accomplice. Bringing him in."
"Hey dude, I'm not--"
"Please don't waste my time.”
Then, the man snapped his fingers, and there was a wet sounding plop on the ground.
For a moment, Tom wasn’t sure what he was looking at. It was like a puddle-- no, a pile-- of black goop had suddenly appeared at the man’s feet, For one awful second, Tom thought hte man had managed to shit himself through his pants, and he had no idea how to respond. Then the blob rose up, rounding out, turning into some kind of horrible shit-like gremlin, and Tom breathed out, relieved.
Then the thing grinned, revealing needle-like teeth, and the stink of evil hit him like a punch to the gut. Tom retched on the seat, holding his hand over his mouth and nose.
"Holy shit dude, that's a demon!"
"Yes," said the warlock. "Get up and do as you're told, and I assure you won't be harmed."
"Dude!" Tom said again. "That's a demon. You can't just let those things wander around! What if it goes nuts and starts eating people or something?"
The man sneered at him. "I assure you, I have it under complete control. Now. . . "
The slime demon gurgled its way forward, towards Tom.
"Get up and follow me, or my friend here will make life highly unpleasant for you."
Tom blinked and rose creakily to his feet. There was a crick in his neck from hunching, and it felt like his whole body was sore-- probably because he'd been dead too long.He'd have to tell Terra that next time they fooled around with ghosty stuff, he couldn't leave his body for so long.
Satisfied, the warlock turned away, and the demon trundled behind him. Tom left the stall, but stopped. Already, he felt a headache coming on.
Am I really going to do this? thought the part of him that just wanted a quiet afternoon. But the rest of him said, "Look, dude. No offense or anything, but I can't let you have a demon walking around.”
"Excuse me?" said the warlock, glancing up from his phone, contempt coloring his voice. "You are in no position to be making demands--"
"I'm serious, man. You don't know how bad those things are--"
"I assure you I am far more familiar with the matter than you. If you will not cooperate on your own, then my assistant will have to assist you."
The slime demon gurgled joyously and puffed out its froggy throat. Then, it began to swell, inflating like a balloon until it was big enough to brush against the ceiling tiles and wide enough to entirely block the way to the door. It grinned at him with teeth that were now as long as his forearm.
"Restrain him," the warlock called from somewhere behind the demon.
The demon croaked in answer and leered at Tom with piggy, yellow eyes. Then, with a surprising swiftness, a third arm made of sludge launched itself from the demon’s chest and smashed Tom directly into the wall. The ooze hurt where it touched, as though it wasn’t slime he was being attacked by, but millions and millions of hair-like slivers, small enough to stab, but not large enough to draw blood, and the demon pressed against him, crushing him into the wall.
Then the warlock barked something at the demon, and the pressure eased. The arm slipped away, melting back into the slimy flesh of the demon, and Tom was left coughing on the floor. There was an odd heat on his face. When he touched it, his hand came away with blood, and he groaned. The last thing he wanted was for some strange warlock getting his hands on his blood.
“Now,” said the warlock. “Get up and follow me.”
Tom got unsteadily to his feet. For a second, he thought about doing what he was told, just because it seemed the easiest thing to do. Then he remembered the last time he’d dealt with a warlock, and decided that nothing good would come of it.
“Last chance,” he said instead. “Get rid of that thing.”
He couldn’t see the warlock-- the demon was still in the way-- but there was a moment of stunned silence. Then, “is this a joke?”
But Tom didn’t hear him, really. He was too focused on the sudden feeling of cold coursing through him, sliding through his veins as though his blood had frozen, wrapping around his heart like vines of ice. And in his hands, a black, misty fire began sprouting from his fingertips.
The warlock didn’t see it. If he had, he probably wouldn’t have ordered the demon forward-- which he did. The slime demon, blissfully unaware of the danger, oozed its way over the tile, towards Tom.
Instead of backing up, or trying to run away, he stepped towards the demon, hands streaked with the black, oily magic.
He shoved both hands into the gelatinous belly of the demon as it approached and sank nearly up to his elbow inside its oozing flesh. The demon grinned with a mouth that would have looked froglike if not for the many teeth. But just as quickly as it had come, the grin disappeared, replaced by confusion.
Inside the demon, black tendrils of magic began to writhe. It was difficult to see the change from the outside; the color of the demon was nearly the same as that of Tom’s magic, but he felt death weave through the creature like growing roots, he felt it spreading through the demon’s body, up through its swollen belly and into whatever core was powering it. Then, when he was certain his magic was stitched through every possible inch on the demon, he closed his fists.
The demon screamed in pain, unable to do anything else. It screamed and screamed, and the mirrors above the counter of sinks shattered in their frames.
Somewhere through the noise, Tom heard the voice of a man screaming-- the warlock, presumably. He might’ve felt bad for him, except that he knew any warlock powerful enough to snap-summon demons out of thin air had probably done horrible things to get that strong.
Then, the demon shattered too. One moment, Tom had his hands squeezing onto-- welll, something soft and gross feeling, and the next, it felt like he was holding falling sand. The demon's entire body collapsed in on itself, turing to ash, and then even the ash burned away to nothing.
The warlock was on his hands and knees. There was a pool of black vomit beneath him, and Tom winced.
“Hey,” he said, moving towards the man. “Do you need me to call somebody--?”
"How did you do that?" the warlock demanded. Despite the vomit and coughing, his voice still sounded imperious. “How did you dispel it?” he stood up, shaking a little, but otherwise fine.
Tom flexed his fingers. The demonic sludge had evaporated, but it left his hands oddly sore. “I didn’t dispel it. I killed it.”
“Don’t be stupid,” the warlock said. He snapped his fingers again. Then again.
Nothing happened. He frowned and snapped a third time.
“He’s not coming back,” Tom said. “I’m sorry if you liked him, but dude. He was a demon. Those things eat people. It would’ve killed you if it had the chance, and that’s if you were lucky. Like, I've seen them do really awful stuff--"
"Shut up," the warlock snarled. he kept snapping, trying with his other hand when his left didn't work. "You can't kill demons," he said.
"Uh. Yeah? I can? Like. You saw me--"
"Clearly, you didn't," he said. "You've still got--" he started gesturing to the black magic on Tom's hands, but then stopped.
"Yeah," Tom said, raising his hands so the warlock could see. "This is mine."
The warlock blanched.
"You're not a telepath," he said eventually.
Tom braced himself for more questions, or maybe some yelling. But instead, the warlock snapped his fingers again. Rather than more demons appearing, an enormous and complex burning sigil appeared, hovering in mid-air between them.
Then, the warlock turned and ran, shouting into his phone, "Necromancer, ground floor! I repeat, necromancer, ground floor!"
"Oh," said Tom. Then, "shit."
Tom tried to follow him, moving around the strange mark, but the sigil cast out some kind of unseen force field; it might as well have been a solid wall blocking the way.
"Oh come on," Tom grumbled. His hands still were streaked with death magic, so he went directly in front of the burning sign and put his palm flat to its surface.
The change was immediate; where he touched, the sign went from glowing red to charred black. The darkness swept outward through the symbol, like a swiftly moving rot, and second later, the entire thing crumbled away. The path to the door was open again, and Tom left the bathroom.
Terra was already walking towards him. "What happened?"
"Cheese it, the fuzz!" he said, walking briskly towards where he though the exit doors were located
Terra quickly grabbed his sleeve and started guiding him in the correct direction, apparently wise enough to know that now wasn't the time for questions.
Though he didn't see any change in the crowd, he imagined some kind of security horde of demonic bouncers slinking their way through the casino, tailing them. They made it out the doors, across the street, and into the parking garage without trouble. Only once they were actually inside the car did Terra say,
"Why do you stink like Hell?"
"Warlock," Tom said, turning the key in the ignition. "One of the security guys, I guess."
"What? No way. Since when do casinos hire wizards? That is so unfair!"
She crossed her arms and fumed, glaring at the dashboard.
"I guess we weren't the first ones to think of using magic to cheat after all," Tom said, suddenly feeling exhausted.
"It wasn't cheating," Terra said automatically.
"Well, whatever you call it, they really didn't like it."
He pulled out of the spot and started following the arrows down to the exit.
"Man," said Terra. "I didn't even get a chance to cash our winnings."
"Doesn't matter," said Tom.
"I guess this means we can't call out rich on Monday, huh?"
"I'd be happy if we don't have to call out eaten-by-demons. You don't think they'd follow us, do you?"
"Nah," she said. "Why would they? They scared you off, and it's not like we actually got any of the money.
"Yeah," he said, feeling a little better. "Yeah, you're probably right."
They waited at the light for what felt like ages before finally joining the rest of the traffic, vanishing in the rush.