It drifted through the walls, attracted by the commotion. Perhaps thinking that the excitement meant food. It saw Bryan as he was putting away the sealed card and charged at him, seeing that he was life and ready to fight the demon already possessing him like lions fighting over a kill. Bryan reached into the demon’s bag of tricks again, again stinging his nerve endings, and sent up a barrier. It wasn’t visible, but the approaching demon bounced off it and approached again. It pinged against it like a fly at a window, soft red light going forward and back, forward and back.
Bryan growled at the mindless thing and etched the circle of fire, brought down the barrier, and reined the demon into another card.
He looked up. The third was still above, hadn’t yet noticed him. As he let his grip on his possessor’s power release, light began to seep back into his surroundings, but slowly. He felt more than saw his way to the stairs at the end of the hallway, tripping once over a corpse. He could have used his demon’s powers to map out the hotel in his mind, bodies included, but the human body and mind could only take so much abuse, and though things were pretty routine so far he had to allot for the unexpected. Not that he expected any unexpectedness, but it had been drilled into him: only take what you need.
He remembered Hussein’s words to him in a tiny office stuffed with boxes, one room of a suite of six. “You could fly and shoot fireballs from your ass with one of these in you, but the consequences wouldn’t be worth it.”
It felt like miles to climb two stories, but he made it, and he could see a little better now. Not because his eyes were adjusting to the dark, but because his mind was adjusting to the demon. He had twenty more minutes before he absolutely had to dispel it from his body, if one were following rules. But who followed rules?
The third was in a room with no corpses, hanging in a corner as if confused. And it might have been, with no more life around. It noticed Bryan too late, and in a moment it was sealed in the four of hearts. Bryan took a deep breath as he stuck it into the deck, but it was a hard breath, as if he was pulling the darkness into his lungs. He took one more card, thankful to be getting rid of the thing in him, until the next time he invited one in. He turned as he raised the card to his lips.
Something was coming – rushing towards him. He hadn’t seen it. He threw up a barrier.
It hit the barrier so hard Bryan could feel the impact, and he slammed into the wall behind him, his head knocking hard against it. He blinked stars from his sight and struggled to his knees, head reeling and possessor eating away at his consciousness. He couldn’t black out. If he blacked out…
The demon tore through the barrier like ripping through a sheet of cloth.
Impossible, Bryan asserted, shaking his head to clear it even as the demon poured through the tear. He tried to place the flame around it, but it was dim, he saw now how dim it was – a pale rose rather than red. That’s why he hadn’t seen it sooner. He couldn’t see it until the possessor had taken over him to a darker degree.
What was this thing?
It flicked the fire aside and leapt at him. It tried to enter him, and the possessor fought back. Its body, its life. It scratched at Bryan’s insides and the demon outside tried to claw in.
Somehow Bryan set the ring of fire around the demon, somehow he got it into the card that was now crumpled in his hand, but he couldn’t remember doing it. With a shaking hand he fumbled one more card out of the deck and raised it to his lips, breathed the possessor out and into it. The rush of light burned his eyes and though he felt a loss of weight and pain he still crumpled to the floor and threw up.
Andrade was the one to point out that he was bleeding. He was led to an ambulance where his left arm could be bandaged. He had somehow acquired a long gash on it at some point.
“What the hell happened in there?” she asked, looking over Bryan’s bloody arm and bruises in shock.
Bryan glared at her through a swimming haze, as if he were drunk. His head was pounding. “You said there were three.”
“I saw three. Until… I don’t know. Are you okay?”
He finally noticed the concern on her face, and his anger at her faded. It wasn’t like she had put the demons there.
“There was a fourth,” he said.
Andrade shook her head in disbelief. “But I saw…”
“I don’t think you could have seen it. It was pale, and powerful. It broke through my barriers, tossed me across the room.”
Her face turned white. “Did you catch it?”
“Of course.” He tried to give her a cocky grin, but it came off as a pained grimace.
“Can I see it?”
He had her hand him his bag, and he took the deck from it. His fingers burned when he touched the card, and something struck his mind, just for a second. Anger? Joy? It was hard to tell which, and once it was gone it was hard to tell whether it had come from the card. He slid it out of the deck and held it up for her.
She stared at it for so long he interrupted her.
“What is it?” He wasn’t sure whether he was asking about the demon specifically or the situation in general.
“It looks different. Not pale – to me – but different. Like a shadow on a white page. I’ve never seen anything like it. This is why I didn’t note it in the building.” She looked past it to him. “Bryan, this might be a beta.”
The possibility had been in his mind all along, but hearing it said out loud, confirmed in a way, made his blood run cold. “But I thought those were only in Japan and Germany. Not Chicago.”
She looked at the card again, her voice far away. “They’re supposed to be.”
“Are you sure it’s a beta?”
“How can I be? I’ve never seen one. But what else could it be?”
Bryan knew her sight was different from what he saw when possessed. Andrade and her comrades didn’t see the demons as red lights, but as something more abstract, almost in a fourth dimension, like a tesseract emitting emotion. Unexplainable, indescribable. So any description of a beta was pretty useless. It had to be seen.
He studied the card, noting the pulse running over its surface. It was stronger, deeper than the usual demon. He shivered and shoved the thing back in the deck, not wanting it in his hands anymore.