Hooded figures stood in a circle, their voices unified in ancient song. But for a ring of candles burning on the floor before a high altar, the room was black as night. Darkness hung like fog, profound as the words they sung, pressing in upon the hooded figures as they made their incantation.
Their leader held a book in his hands, bound in leather with leather straps and a silver buckle, the pages yellowed and cracked with age. As he read, the illuminations came to life in answer to his call. Centaurs and satyrs galloped across the page. Ivy reached out with curling tendrils, leaves quickening in the wind.
Before the men in robes, a figure was drawn upon the floor. It was inside the circle of candles, a star with symbols in each of the spurs. With a final gesture at the final phrase, silence fell upon the room. The floor within the pentagram turned dark. Its shape began to falter, growing liquid, thick and black as oil.
A finger appeared, iridescent green and scaly, then another. An entire hand reached up from a place farther than the deepest ocean. The room began to hum with distant screams, the torture of a million souls. A second hand reached from the oily darkness, grasping the fabric of this world and taking hold, pulling itself through.
The creature was hideous. It was the size of a child with the face of a toad. Its scaly body was sick with disease, the sores oozing bloody goo. Horns grew at odd angles from its head and shoulders, its leg and arms, a part of the disease that had taken this form instead. The demon choked as it took a breath, the clean air foul to its lungs. Every movement paid in suffering, it stepped toward the leader and bowed.
Holding up a sphere of glass, the leader invoked the forces of darkness. This time it was not to call, but to confine the beast that had been summoned. Into the glass the demon’s reflection was captured, and so too its will and its existence in this world. By the glass, it could be controlled. By the glass, it could be sent back.
“Do as you are commanded or suffer the consequences.”
The leader placed the ball of glass upon an altar with many other objects of power. There he warded the thing with magic so the demon could not touch it.
“Now, protect this place,” he commanded. “Protect our treasure.”
The house was dark. All was quiet. There was a party down the street at another fraternity house, the music loud enough to be heard blocks away, but the place might not be empty. They had to be sure.
“What do you think?” said Steve from the sidewalk, trying to make it look like he had stopped to tie his shoe and not to look at the house. He was young and tall and good looking, dressed in a black hoodie and black jeans. “It looks okay to me.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the second man, Tyrone, said. He too was young, but he was much shorter than his companion. He was also dressed in black, but his shirt and trousers were neatly pressed, the light from the lamppost shining dully on the tips of his wingtips. He held up a small mirror and murmured a few words to charge the device with power. Looking into the mirror for a moment, he said, “All clear.”
A blur in speed, a figure swung down from one of the oak trees, landing on the ground in a crouch. It was red, but there was no telling what the thing was. A ball of shimmering energy flew from Tyrone’s open palm, but the thing was already on the move and the ball of energy broke open upon the ground, flashes of light fading to dark.
Steve went to pull something from his pocket, but the red thing was already on him, sweeping his legs out from under him, sending him to the sidewalk with a brutal thud. Tyrone saw it come for him next. The thing had grown somehow, was twice as large as it had been when it emerged from the tree, and it had a savage look on its face.
Gasping in terror, Tyrone threw up his hands and turned. But before he could run away, the thing grabbed him from behind and lifted him from his feet and planted a wet kiss on the side of his face.
“Hello ladies, what’s shakin?” a voice boomed.
“Rufus!” Steve said, picking himself up.
“Get off me,” Tyrone said, wrenching himself free, adding curses to punctuate his disposition.
Rufus was a big guy, taller than Steve and twice as broad. He was wearing a flannel shirt of red and black plaid, and his hat proclaimed sports affiliation with a wheel and a bird’s wing. Rolling his eyes, he said, “Settle down, Tig. Don’t get your panties in a twist.”
“What are you doing here?” Tyrone replied.
“I crave the storm,” Rufus said, “and I thought I’d give you guys a hand.”
“Oh, man, it would be great,” Steve said, fixing the contents of his pockets. “We could really use your help.”
“We don’t need him,” said Tyrone.
“Come on, it’s Rufus,” Steve said, as if the statement explained everything. Holding out his hand, he said, “Never mind him, glad to have you with us.”
“Thank you,” Rufus smiled at Tyrone and shook Steve’s hand. “Are you guys ready to get cracking or are we going to stand around all night?”
“Which way do you think?” said Steve.
Tyrone said, “Anyway we choose is going to be warded, but I would imagine in a place like this, the doors will be the most likely choice.”
Rufus said, “I always thought you were a back door man.”
“Come on, you guys,” Steve said. “Just get along for the next hour and you can tear each other apart all you want.”
Tyrone marched off without saying a word, following the sidewalk in its roundabout path to the back of the house. The others followed, not as interested in stealth as they had been while making their plans. It was fall, and the oaks had shed their acorns, thick on the grass and concrete. Rufus filled his pockets as they went.
“What’s that for?” asked Steve.
Rufus shrugged. “Chaos is my nature.”
“A strange, but not entirely unexpected, response.”
“I like to keep things interesting.”
“I have to agree, it’s never dull when you’re around.”
“You hear that?”
Steve pondered the question for a moment, then decided upon his answer. “Cricket?”
“Important for what reason? No. Wait. The chaos thing again, right?”
“Now you’re getting it.” Rufus bent over and made a sound very like a cricket with his fingers. “Old Michigan farm boy trick. If I had known I was coming, I would have stopped at a bait shop and gotten a quart or two.”
He must have spotted the cricket, because he prodded what looked like a small stone into his hand. To the insect, Rufus said, “There you go buddy, good job.” He put the cricket in the front pocket of his shirt and buttoned the flap.
“Will you guys stop acting like idiots and get over here?” Tyrone said from the back door.
Steve said, “I guess the idiocy is over.”
“Guess so,” Rufus agreed, “and I thought it had only begun.”
The fraternity house was an old Victorian two story. Even in the back, there was a grand entry and a broad porch. Tyrone was already at the door, holding the mirror in his hand as he slowly made a sweep of the frame, the hinges, the lock, and the knob.
When he was satisfied with his analysis, he put the mirror into his pocket and held out his hand. Curls of green light slid from his fingers, latching onto the doorknob. There was a flash and Tyrone drew back his hand as if burned.
“The lock has been magicked,” Tyrone said.
“Let me give it a try,” Rufus said, coming up the stairs.
“Oh please, like you can do any better. You’re barely passing spells.”
“Life is the real test. Besides, you can’t see past your own nose.” Rufus began feeling the top of the doorframe with his hand. Not finding what he sought, he lifted the doormat, then looked over a potted plant. Reaching into the pot, he found a key and held it up for Tyrone. “These are frat boys, and Gam-Thets to boot, not the pointiest nails in the bin.”
“That’s never going to work. The magic won’t be fooled.”
Rufus didn’t listen. He put the key into the lock and turned. The door opened.
“After you,” he said with a bow.
They came into the kitchen. It had been remodeled since the old days, built to service a group of young men rather than a family.
“This is as good a place to start as any.” Tyrone said, his mirror out once again, opening a cupboard door.
“What are we looking for?” asked Rufus. “Secret room?”
“Yes, they probably put it on a door so they can conceal it, but make it easy to get to. Look for something with a rune or symbol of some kind.”
“Uh, guys,” Steve said. “Look.”
The kitchen was dark except for the green display of the microwave, the stove, the refrigerator, and a clock radio. Each of the young men could feel the presence of an enchantment. They knew some creature shared the room. The light of the electronic displays were not as they should be, were unnatural. As they tried to figure out what was happening, the displays stared back at them, an unnerving sight, much like eyes, making them feel like they were being watched. The stove blinked.
“Go!” Tyrone shouted, a blast of energy flying from his hand, striking the stove where a creature with green eyes had appeared.
The creature was small and pig nosed, a type of imp that was commonly used for minor servitude. It was quick, but the thing had moved in the wrong direction, toward Tyrone instead of to the side. The imp was consumed by the blast of energy, screaming as it burned to ash.
From the glowing displays, three other imps appeared. Steve had been fingering something in his pocket as he walked in the door. Now he pulled out a wand and pointed it at the nearest imp. A beam of light shot out of the end and took hold of the imp, sucking it back into the wand. Just as quickly as the imp disappeared, Steve was on to the next.
Not to be outdone, Rufus went after the clock radio. It was the farthest away, but he was there in moments, taking a dirty fry pan from the sink as he went. Before the imp could move two steps, Rufus swung down with the fry pan again and again, smashing the imp into a sticky mess on the countertop. The clock radio fared about the same. With a dish towel, he swept the remains into the trash.
“Justice,” Rufus said with satisfaction. “It was an alarm clock.”
“That was fun,” Steve said. “All clear?”
Looking at his mirror, Tyrone said, “Yes, sorry. That was my fault. I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry.”
“No big,” Steve said. He put the wand back into the pocket of his hoodie and took out a ski mask and gloves. “You going to suit up?”
“Good idea. We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Time to take a step back and think.”
“Right,” Rufus said. He had been looking at the floor and had found what he was looking for. Stooping down to an air duct, he opened the flap on his shirt pocket and took out the cricket, sending it down the grate. “Here you go, bud. It’s going to get awfully cold tonight. You’re better off down there.”
“He’ll starve,” protested Steve.
“Yeah, okay. I got some trail mix. That should do it.”
As Steve and Tyrone looked for the secret room, opening cabinet doors, lifting framed pictures from the walls, Rufus occupied himself in other ways. Under the sink, he shut off the cold water supply. In the refrigerator he turned the temperature down to freezing. A few acorns went into the toaster. By then, Tyrone and Steve had finished their search.
“It’s not in here,” Tyrone said.
“I got nothing,” Steve agreed.
“Jackpot!” Rufus said, reaching into a drawer. He held up a small tube. “Glue, the lords of chaos provide.”
“Would you hurry up? There’s no time for that,” Tyrone said as he walked into the hallway.
A line of glue dripping from the end of the bottle onto the bottom of a cereal box, Rufus said, “Relax, Tig, I’ll catch up in a second.” He stuck the cereal back into the cupboard and turned the cap on the glue.
From there they checked closet doors and the pantry, finding no sign of the hidden room. Coming to the parlor, a decision needed to be made.
“Upstairs or down?” Steve asked, looking to Tyrone for suggestions.
Rufus said, “Knowing these guys, there’ll be all kinds of nasty little beasts in the bedrooms, as much for their brothers as for intruders like us.”
“You’re right about that,” said Tyrone. “These old places don’t have much in the way of basements, usually just the utilities and a little storage. It seems an obvious choice if you want to hide something.”
“Hey guys, come look at this,” Rufus said, standing at the entry to the parlor, “pocket doors.”
He pulled out the first. The door slid smoothly out of the wall on its track. They examined both sides and pushed it back into the wall. The second door was off the track. With some maneuvering, it too slid shut.
“Nice,” Steve proclaimed even before the door was all the way out. “There it is, pretty as can be. Good job Rufus, I never would have looked there. Hide it in plain sight. Good thing you came after all.”
Tyrone only sniffed as he examined the rude sigil in the door, what could have been mistaken for graffiti or a child’s scrawl. He tried a variety of spells, finally announcing, “We’re going to have to figure out the combination, a series of knocks is how it’s usually done. There’s nothing here suggesting otherwise.”
Using the rhythm from the most popular songs of the day, Tyrone began methodically working out the combination he hoped would open the door. Nothing worked, so he moved on to many of the classical rhythms most students would be familiar with. He had been going at it for some time and was becoming irritable when Rufus spoke up.
“I got it,” he said. “It’s the Gam-Thets, remember? We’re thinking too much.”
“Enlighten us then, genius,” Tyrone snapped.
“You got it, sweet cheeks.” Rufus held Tyrone’s gaze, smiling as he tapped and sung the words, “Shave and a haircut, two bits.”
The wood was bathed in light. From the surface of the door, a magical doorway appeared, opening inward. Beyond the pocket door was a room, maybe a hundred feet long. The floor was paved with flagstone. The walls were paneled and richly stained, lined with strong boxes and chests of all shapes and sizes.
At the far end was a high altar. Torches on either side provided the only light, but there was a circle of unlit candles on the floor. Upon the altar was a glowing orb, a crown covered in diamonds and other precious stones, a wand of ancient appearance, and a dented old cup.
“There it is!” said Steve, looking at the altar. Hopeful it wouldn’t be him, he said, “Well, uh, who goes first?”
Tyrone didn’t look eager to go either.
“Fortune favors the bold,” Rufus said. In he went.
“Man, there is some seriously bad juju in here,” said Rufus, shivering as he entered the room. “Either that or someone is tap dancing on my grave.”
“Let me go, you big baby,” Tyrone said, pushing by. He strode across the floor, fixed on the altar and its promise.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Steve said from outside. “Shouldn’t we check things out first?”
“They’re not going to put anything in here,” Tyrone said confidently. “It doesn’t make sense. The only people who come in here are the brothers.”
“He might have a point, Tig,” Rufus agreed with Steve. “Maybe you should slow down for a minute.”
“Look who’s talking,” said Tyrone. He was halfway across the room, skirting the ring of candles but intent upon reaching the altar and taking the prize. “This is my show and I’m taking what I came for.”
“I’m not trying to steal your thunder, Tig. You can have your stupid trophy.”
“Then why did you come?”
“Nothing better to do, that’s all. Looking for a little fun.”
“Yeah, right. That’s a likely story.”
“Look at all this,” Steve said, forgetting his apprehension and following the others into the room. The moment he was inside, the magic doorway shut behind him.
“Uh, guys,” Steve said, “we got trouble.”
Glancing over his shoulder, Tyrone said, “Don’t worry, it’ll open right back up. Even if the password doesn’t work, it will be easy enough to open from in here.”
The glass ball on the altar began to glow brightly. A low hum could be felt in their ears, a vibration on their exposed skin.
“I don’t like this,” said Rufus.
But Tyrone wasn’t listening. He stood before the altar, gazing not at the crown or jewels, but at the dented old cup.
“Here it is,” he said in a quiet voice. “We’re finally going to show these jerks who’s boss, and I’m the one who did it. The pride and glory of the Brotherhood of the Gamma Theta has come to an end.”
As Tyrone reached out to take the cup, his fingers touching the tarnish metal, there was a loud crack and the smell of brimstone stained the air. Tyrone spun around, expecting some treachery from Rufus, balls of fire lit in both hands.
Seeing the big man in his ridiculous red plaid shirt, Tyrone loosed both balls of flame. But it was no longer the three of them alone in the room. Tyrone saw only after he had attacked Rufus that a demon had appeared.
Hearing the noise and smelling the sulfur in the air, Rufus looked up to find two balls of fire streaking toward him. He had been ready for something to happen, but hadn’t expected the threat to come from one of his team. As he dodged the fireballs, just getting up to full speed, something blocked his way. It was Steve, and Rufus crashed into him, the balls of fire grazing his shoulder as he fell to the ground.
Slapping wildly at the flame, Rufus pushed away from Steve, rolling on the floor in a desperate attempt to put out the fire. At last he stripped off the shirt and threw it away. The room was quiet. He looked up and saw a demon.
Quick to recognize his mistake, Tyrone flicked his fingers and produced another fireball in each hand, throwing them at the demon. A creature born of fire, the flames broke like water on the demon’s scaly hide, lasting only while the magic lasted, then burning itself out.
With a cruel laugh, the demon started toward Tyrone. Its claws were daggers and its teeth knives. No more weapons did it need to do its work. Backing away from the demon, the altar and its treasures, Tyrone began casting a spell. Twisting his fingers and giving a push, lightning leaped from his grasp.
Streaks of white light struck the floor, the ceiling, the wall, flickering in jagged lines toward the target. This time the demon used a counter spell. When the lightning struck, it crossed its arms and pushed back, returning the blast of white fire. Tyrone was knocked against the altar, breaking it under him. The treasures went tumbling as he fell limp to the floor.
Raising his wand, Steve invoked the magic. The white beam shot toward the demon, but the creature was too fast, and it moved out of the way before the light could touch it. The creature wasn’t fast enough to avoid Rufus.
Even as the demon dodged Steve’s attack, Rufus sped by, his arm outstretched, catching the demon under the jaw. The demon’s neck was thick, but not invulnerable. The blow made it gasp with loss of breath.
Slowly regaining his senses, Tyrone looked around him to find the cup, the crown, and the crystal ball within reach. He tried to take the cup, but could hardly move his arm. There was too much going on around him that he did not comprehend. Rufus and the demon were fighting, a blur as they sped around the room, making his head swim. The light from Steve’s wand was bouncing off the walls, sometimes coming as close to striking Tyrone or Rufus as the demon.
There was a glimmer in the ball of glass. Looking closer, drawn by light, Tyrone searched its mysterious depths. There he saw the demon. It was like a film inside the glass ball, mimicking each move the demon made.
Realizing what the ball was, he started dragging himself toward it. Every movement was torture. All his muscles screamed in pain. Rufus was knocked against the wall and fell next to him.
Picking himself up, Rufus said to Tyrone, “You okay, Tig?”
“Yeah,” Tyrone said, nodding his head toward the crystal ball. He was on his knees, struggling with every inch, and the ball was almost in reach. “It’s the crystal ball. We have to break the ball.”
But it was too late. The demon had come. Chased by the blasts from Steve’s wand, the demon ran and cartwheeled and flipped and summersaulted to get away. As Tyrone picked up the crystal ball, the demon was upon him. It knew what he was about to do, and snatched the ball away even as Tyrone made to smash it on the ground. Across the room the demon went, the crystal ball tucked protectively against its body, baring its teeth at Steve as it ran straight toward him.
Afraid, indecisive, Steve fiddled in the pocket of his hoodie, pulling out an amulet of silver. Even as the demon raced headlong toward him, Steve backed out of the way, holding the amulet in front of him for protection. The demon flicked his hand and the magic door burst into existence, the foyer of the fraternity house beyond. Out the demon ran and into the night.
“Go figure,” Rufus said, looking to Tyrone. “You got an explanation for that?”
“I got nothing,” Tyrone said, just as stunned by what had happened.
“All we had to do was set it free,” said Steve, feeling their eyes upon him. “What? It’s the family business. Of course, someone will end up having to deal with it eventually. The little buggers never stay out of trouble. I think it’s part of being a demon, can’t help itself, you know.”
“Someone will have to take care of it, but not us, right?” Rufus said.
“Oh no, if anything it will go after whoever summoned it.”
“Even better.” Rufus smiled, picking up the cup and handing it to Tyrone. “This is what you came for.”
“Yes, thanks for your help,” Tyrone said. “Glad you came along, and uh, sorry about the fireball. I got carried away.”
“No worries, dude. Time to celebrate. I can wait to see their faces.”
Author Bio: Mike Phillips is author of The World Below and Reign of the Nightmare Prince. His short stories have appeared in ParAbnormal Digest, Cemetery Moon, Sinister Tales, Beyond Centauri, the World of Myth, Mystic Signals and many others. Online, his work has appeared in Lorelei Signal, Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Midnight Times, and Fringe. He is best known for his Crow Witch and Patrick Donegal series.