Again, Hermes Trismegistus and I found ourselves entering the stairwell of my company’s office building. The absolute darkness of this sub-level, relieved only by the beam of my weapon’s built-in light, struck me as both surreal and chilling. No doubt our enemies had cut the power merely to conceal themselves, but they seemed almost to have meant to create fear in the building’s human occupants.
As quietly as I could, I descended the staircase that led to the second and third sub-levels. I felt no great concern as yet; my most recent awareness of the final remaining demon had placed it in the bottom sub-level. Still, I refused to take foolish chances. Luck had been with me, I suspected, in the dispatching of the first two mummy-creatures. I could not count on such good fortune a third time.
Tris walked by my side. I had to admire his ability to step noiselessly, similar to mine. Now, however, I needed to hear from him. After stopping about halfway between the first and second sub-levels, I whispered, “What kinds of power do demons like these seek?”
Tris likewise halted, and faced me. “All kinds of power; their interests and desires are actually very diverse. Some crave gold or jewels; others want to rule over multitudes of humankind.” He paused, and chuckled softly. “I heard of one demon that tried to steal the entire contents of the library at Alexandria.”
Suddenly, I found a better answer in Tris’ words than he could have known. This building did contain a very real form of power—a great wealth of information stored on computers. Over the past forty-eight years, the brilliant minds of Transpheri Technologies had invented or furthered more ideas and projects than anyone could easily comprehend. Every byte of this incredible wealth took up electronic space in the network of hardware filling much of the lowest sub-level. I considered this vast information so precious that I had never allowed anyone to build a direct connection between it and the internet. This safety measure, among others, had kept my system absolutely secure—until the night when demon-mummies invaded my office building.
“I have a very good idea what this demon wants,” I murmured back to Tris. I filled him in, and despite his unfamiliarity with the very concept of computers, he seemed to understand. Then we proceeded in silence, down to the bottom.
When we had descended to the final sub-level, I halted again and switched the light off. Tris also stopped, just to my left. “I’ll sense what I can from here,” I breathed, “and if we need it, you can silence us again.” Without waiting for an answer, I again opened all of my faculties to every iota of sensory input that I could gather.
At that instant, a low voice hissed to my left, “Silence you!” With the second word, a sharp blow landed on my head. Multicolored lights swam before my eyes, and I knew nothing more.
* * *
I regained consciousness on the rubber-matted floor of the stairwell. My head throbbed mightily with each beat of my heart, and even as I lay flat, dizziness gripped me. I heard nothing but my pulse in my own ears, and saw only unrelieved blackness before my eyes. I no longer held my weapon, and had no idea where it had gone.
First things first, I told myself. In the absence of a more pressing crisis, I gave myself a moment to finish healing before doing anything else. Even as I decided this, the pain in my head began to ebb. In another moment, it had faded to nearly nothing. I spent the final seconds of my healing wondering at the strangeness of a god blessing the good fortune of his own divinity.
Now healed, I began to search blindly for my weapon. Nothing lay within two feet or so of my reach, and searching much farther in that way would have taken much too long. I would have to do what Tris had suggested earlier: adjust my eyes to see in the practically absolute darkness of this underground level.
But first, I needed to carry out my first intention. I had to try to sense the whereabouts of the demon—and of any surviving mortals. The latter thought did nothing to calm me, so I brushed it aside and opened my senses.
Yes, one demon remained, off in the farther reaches of the sub-level. A number of human beings also occupied this depth; all or most seemed to have gathered into one place, perhaps one room. I took some comfort in that, knowing that they would find such strength as they had in numbers.
Then I turned my attention to my eyes. A long moment of effort sufficed to transform the black void enveloping me into a visible, if surreal, floor of a building. The stairwell and the entrance to the sub-level grew clear, although colorless, and countless tiny, brief flashes of light erupted around me. This, I knew, was radioactive decay—the miniscule, ever-present glow emitted by practically all matter on earth to some degree or other. Seeing that shower of flashes in the darkness told me that I had enhanced my vision to its limit.
I rose to my feet and swiveled my gaze from side to side, scrutinizing the stairwell. As I had feared, my weapon lay nowhere in sight; undoubtedly the demon had carried it off after attacking me. The absence and near-certain abduction of Tris, on the other hand, brought hope rather than dismay. After all, only a living sorcerer, not a dead one, would have been worth the trouble to drag off.
So I set off in the direction of the mummy-demon, without my weapon or support from Tris. I knew that I would have to be as quiet as possible, and to keep my senses wide open. Rather than shooting the creature, obviously, I would simply beat it into a pulp. I had rarely done such things for centuries, but the thought of pounding this monster with my fists brought more satisfaction than I really wanted it to. Deity or not, I preferred to think of myself as having grown and matured with human civilization. At times, my own thoughts and impulses hinted to me that I had done no such thing.
Proceeding in as close to absolute silence as I could manage, I kept my senses wide open, although motion made that more difficult. I did retain some awareness of the demon: it seemed to have holed up in a room some distance ahead of me. Human presence as well awaited me in that direction; closer than the mummy or more distant, I could not tell. Step by step, I edged cautiously toward both my adversary and my charges.
I have no idea how long my approach took. I can only say that I walked for a time, rounded a corner that took me to the left, and continued. I heard no noise that I did not myself create, and saw only the hallway and the doors branching off from it. As slowly as I moved, it seemed to take forever—a term that no deity has any business using lightly.
Finally, however, I began to notice a subtle change. Furtive sounds, almost inaudible even to me, began to reach me from ahead. They might have been mortal voices speaking quietly in a closed room. Then that ceased, and I heard the distinctive noise of a door swinging open on well-oiled hinges. I looked around, and saw that one door ahead of me and to my right had indeed been opened. It now stood motionless and ajar, having opened maybe two feet away from the hallway rather than into it.
Then something I could not identify reached just out of the doorway. I tensed, and had just time enough to form a worrying suspicion—and then a light brighter than anything I had ever seen lanced out of the darkness, directly into my eyes. The torrent of light burned, worse than if I had stared into the sun. I cried out, squeezed my eyes tightly shut, and clamped my hands over them.
“Mr. Lester!” I recognized the voice of Becca, my assistant, despite her horrified tone. “Are you all right?”
No, I’m not all right. For now, I’m completely blind. Also, the demon knows that I was coming, and that I know where it is. Even now I sense its alarm, its determination to be prepared. I’ve lost any possible element of surprise.
Everything is just great.