Originally posted August 13, 2022
The devil is not so crass as to wait outside your door. She leaves a calling card pinned to it and is gone before the doorbell's chime fades into the city's rumbling heartbeat—disappearing into a cab, or behind a truck; denying you any glimpse of her.
The card is heavy in your hand; thick paper, expensively printed. Embossed with a curving floral pattern that doesn't pretend to match the elegant red ink.
On the front: her name. What she is. How she may be called.
On the back, carefully penned: a time, a place. An invitation.
The reason is entirely absent; there's no trace of why or how you might have caught her eye. No hint of what to expect if you go where she commands—
Everyone's heard stories of what devils do, and you more than most. Even the most casual chat can bear a high price.
If you were other than as you are, the choice might have lingered in sleepless nights and uneasy days; you might have spent hours equivocating and arguing with yourself, roped in the advice of your more experienced friends, asked for help—
But you're you, so it's an easy choice.
The bar is quiet when you arrive, like a beast only just stirring before its nightly hunt; hazy-eyed bartenders and servers drift wordlessly between empty tables. Its lights are dim, its windows spread open to catch the last moments of the false-sun's failing light—
And there she is, perched at the bar, idly running a fingertip along a half-empty glass's reddened rim; her gemstone eyes rising to meet yours as your footsteps incautiously ring out through the bar's dusty silence.
She grins as you take a seat near (but not next to) her.
"I wasn't sure that you'd come."
Your reply is a noncommittal shrug. An imposition of distance: a denial of information. Your thoughts remain your own (for now).
Besides, it's a chance to take a closer look at her.
She's small, as far as devils go; barely a foot taller than you. Her suit is faintly iridescent, dense fabric woven from something that shifts and breathes in time with your own lungs. The faintest hints of a ring of horns disturb her short hair, and midnight drips from her eyes.
No jewelry, no adornments; no mask. If she's wearing makeup it's obscured beneath traces of the moment her eyes are lost in. As unaggressive as a devil can present itself—
A drink slides across the bar to you: a bloody mary.
Her mouth splits open in a wide smile.
The glass is dewy and slick in your hand, as cold and unyielding as a former lover leaving for the very last time. It reeks of spice and tomatoes; your nose wrinkles at a hint of the burning heat which awaits your lips. A proud stalk of celery stands encrusted with salt.
It tastes like everything you expected.
"Good, isn't it?"
With the heat and confidence of the drink settling into your bones, you dare to answer.
"Yeah, it really is."
"See if you can convince them to tell you where they get the salt. I've never managed to."
"... the salt?"
Surely you must have misheard, but you glance down at the ring around the glass's rim and the celery anyway. Just to see if there's an obvious reason the salt should matter, of course; nothing more than that.
It looks perfectly normal. Just irregular chunky crystals.
"Yes," she says with a nod, "it's, well ... you'll find out in a moment."
"That's," you shake yourself—this can't possibly matter. This can't be why you're here. It must be just a game, but you ask anyway: "That's not why you wanted to meet, is it?"
"No, of course not."
You glare at her. You've never thought of yourself as intimidating, but something in her many-faceted eyes—something behind the starry ooze, behind the clean smell of moonlight lingering on fallen leaves—quails before your ire.
"... finish your drink and I'll tell you."
She sips at the dregs of her own drink as you make quick work of yours. Each gulp feeds the fire suffusing your body, the burn in your lips and the glassy sharpness curling around your tongue. Perhaps there is something special about the salt, perhaps something in the—
Your alcohol-muddled musing snaps back into focus as she sighs and begins to speak.
The story she tells you is nonsense.
You're struggling to pretend to take it seriously long before the implication that you're some sort of chosen one, and then you're just laughing at her.
"Don't laugh! I'm serious."
"This is just, fuck," between the alcohol and the story it's hard to get words out, "this is too funny! Me, a chosen hero? That's absurd!"
"And yet you are. But," she adds, "not exactly a hero."
"I've never heard of a chosen villain."
"Not that either. The world doesn't do that sort of thing. It's just," she waves one limb (something which is not exactly an arm, not any more), searching for the right way to say it, "you are, you will be, something dangerous."
"That's sort of hot, honestly."
She laughs, a bright tinkling noise that sends ripples through her suit and through your lungs. "It is, isn't it! But it's not something we—those I speak for—can tolerate."
You almost smile in reply, but you catch yourself: it's getting too easy to forget what she is and isn't. A devil is not a friend, no matter how a lonely thing like you might pretend and no matter how happy she is to laugh for you.
"... so what, you're going to kill me?"
"No! No. Well, maybe. But these days we prefer less messy solutions."
Death is, of course, out of the question.
You're not quite sure if you'd choose anything over death, but you certainly want to understand the options she's offering you—no matter that this is absurd, no matter that this is almost certainly just a game she's playing with you.
"Another drink, first? Mine is, well," she glances down at her glass, empty save for a handful of abandoned celery leaves, "and I dislike talking with a dry throat."
"Sure, why not."
You try to catch the bartender's eye, but it's already sliding two fresh drinks across the bar. Another pair of bloody marys, with no chance to ask for something else—the bartender is already receding into shadows which seem so much deeper than when you first arrived. The false-sun's last light has faded from the sky; streetlights struggle to illuminate the gathering night.
At least it tastes just as good as your first, as you slowly sip it and the devil begins to speak.
"Our preference is to make the potential within you our own. To pluck the pearl and grow it into something more useful. To make your existence safe."
"... that sounds, uh ..."
"If you'd refused to meet, you would have woken one morning to find that something about you had changed, and you would never have heard from us again."
"I don't like that idea."
"No? It would be so simple. You might never notice the difference."
"... is there any other ...?"
Your breathing has shifted; shallower, faster. There is something deeply unsettling about the way her suit's motion has matched it: the way it flexes around her angles and curves, the way shimmering waves of color wash over it in time with your quickening heartbeat—
Is it still a reflection of your body? Or is your biology merely mimicking the motion of the thing wrapped around her? It's not really clothing at all, is it ...
"We can't simply let you proceed as you are."
"... right. But is there ...?"
She grins and takes her time nibbling on the celery; sucking the spicy drink off it, licking away some of the salt. Drawing the moment out. Waiting.
"... you said something about growing the potential. Into, uh, something that hell would find useful."
You take a deep breath before your next words. This is really the heart of it: whether there's a way to keep everything within you (no matter that there's probably nothing special there, no matter that this is absurd) and your life too.
"Does it have to be removed for that?"
There's something deeply gleeful sparkling in her gemstone eyes as she answers, her words as precise and concise as any move in the game she's forced you to play.
"It does not."
"Can we do that?"
"Do you understand what you're asking for?"
"... not really."
"You are asking to become one of us, problem-to-be. That's what being made useful to hell always means, in the end."
"I could give you some time to think about it. Borrow a few days. Although," she a finger against her cheek, "that might be a bit hard."
"Don't want to give me a chance to slip away?"
"Not particularly. Not that you'd succeed, but it wouldn't reflect well on me if you tried."
"... hell has bad bosses too?"
"Something like that."
"Well," you say, the words flowing too easily from your lips, "I don't need time."
The devil favors you with another grin as she tilts her head questioningly at you; for a moment you see an earring dangling down from her ear, dripping with the same moisture that coats your tongue.
"... no. It's the only real choice, right? And I've changed before."
"I was hoping that you'd see it like that." She waves one of her hands in the air; somewhere in the bar's darkness bodies shift and cloth rubs against skin. "Let's have another drink to celebrate!"
"I ... really? I don't know if I can manage another ..."
"Just try your best! We have to or this won't work. Rule of threes."
It's not long before there's another drink sitting next to you, its dewy sides scattering crimson light across your hands as you reach for it. Your stomach roils as you lift it to your lips—