Two Games

Ellie drew a line, straight and perfect. She used a yardstick, of course, and a protractor for the angles. Precision was key. She appreciated the old ways more than most, but not enough to risk containment failure.

She drew another line, and another, white chalk scraping neatly over black stone. Done. She checked it thrice, paying close attention to the intersections. Nine out of ten diagram errors happened at intersections.

It looked perfect, to her eye, which meant it should look good enough to theirs. Next were the lures. She placed one at each corner of the pentagram, well clear of the containment zone. A drop of blood. A hair from her head. A promise, written in her own hand. A pair of eyeglasses her father had left behind. And, finally, the urn which held her mother’s ashes.

She would never trade any of these things, not for any price. But they would stand out. If anything was looking across from the other side, they might attract its attention.

Finally, she placed the offering. She’d bought a sheaf of gold leaf, the kind used for fancy canapes: real twenty-four karat gold pressed to half a micron thick. It was surprisingly affordable. She lay a single sheet down in the very middle of the pentagram.

Ellie chewed her lip, looking the diagram over one final time. This might be the single largest mistake it was possible to make. Her mother would have screamed at her. But she’d checked her reasoning. She’d double and triple-checked it. At some point, you had to be willing to trust logic.

The plan would work.

She placed her hands on the great black stone. It was colder than the air in the already-chilly basement, so cold it stung. Actually, no, that wasn’t quite right. It was the same temperature, roughly. The stone just had higher thermal conductivity. It sucked the heat from her hands faster than the air did, but it wasn’t actually any colder.

Precision was key, when dealing with demons. Absolutely key. She needed to be in that particular mindset, the sort that annoyed everyone except mathematicians and philosophers. Most of all, she needed to remember the fundamental rule. She didn’t need to agree to anything.

Her hands were cramping from the cold. She closed her eyes, opened her mind, and looked for the edges of the pentagram. It was hard to see, even inches from her fingertips. Would it be easier the second time, she wondered? When she finally found the figure in her mind’s eye, the pressure from the other side was immense. All the barrier needed was a sharp look, and it popped.

“Young,” a deep voice said, in front of her and far too close. Her eyes snapped open, and she fell back onto her elbows, away from the pentagram.

A man stood in the center of the diagram, mere feet from her. He was short, and a little chubby, dressed in a disarmingly worn gray suit. He looked very normal. Ellie pushed herself to her feet, elbows throbbing where they’d struck the hard concrete, and straightened her blouse. No, she reminded herself, it wasn’t a man. It was just doing a very good impression of one.

“So young,” the creature said again, tucking her small sheet of gold leaf into a pocket. “You should call me back in a few years.” It smiled, and the expression reached all the way to its eyes. Ellie felt a shiver run down her back, but did her best to keep her posture straight.

She rolled her shoulders. She didn’t psyche herself up, didn’t dig down to find new reserves of courage hidden inside her. She did run through the rules again in her head. Be precise. Don’t say anything unnecessary. Don’t agree to anything she hadn’t worked out.

The creature’s eyes had left her, sweeping across her basement. “You have a lovely home,” it said, eyes lingering on a seemingly insignificant patch of wall. “Is this a Victorian? Maybe an Edwardian. So hard to tell if you can’t see the moldings.”

Ellie resisted the urge to answer, and shortly after resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Most likely the creature knew exactly when the house had been constructed, and a hundred other things, just from looking around. It was trying to bait her into conversation.

That was the thing about demons. They were brilliant. But they weren’t necessarily all that clever. Her mother had likened dealing with demons to playing chess against a grandmaster who’d had a few too many drinks. It was what had given Ellie the idea for her plan, actually.

She bent down and picked up a small stack of papers. The creature nodded, holding out its hand to receive them. Ellie nodded back, and very deliberately laid the papers out in front of the diagram, far away from the edge of the containment zone.

“Don’t you think that’s a little paranoid?” the creature asked. It smiled again, dimples forming in its cheeks. “I can’t quite read from here. Could you slide those pages a bit closer?” Ellie ignored it. She crossed her arms, waiting, tucking her hands into her armpits. The silence stretched.

Suddenly, the creature’s posture changed. It straightened, spreading its feet, the slack in its posture gone. Its face blanked, the muscles relaxing. “Fine,” the creature said in a monotone. “No deception.” Its eyes scanned rapidly over the document Ellie had laid out, taking maybe a second a page.

The deal she’d laid out was mostly boilerplate, standard contractual protections written by people smarter than her. The language was precise and specific, tested years ago by people braver than her. If something went wrong, it wouldn’t be with the contract. Probably.

The core of the deal was simple. They would play a game of chess, where she would take white. The demon would get one minute per move. She would get half an hour. If the demon won, it would receive an ounce of gold. If she won, or if they tied, she would receive two million pounds of gold.

“An ounce is far too meager,” the demon said after a few seconds of reading. “And I do not have two million pounds of gold. A ridiculous sum. My counter-offer: we play for a thousand pounds of gold each.” The creature left unsaid what would happen if she couldn’t pay, which was almost certainly what it was hoping for.

Ellie breathed an internal sigh of relief. Most demons couldn’t care less about gold, but there were a lot of the nasty things kicking around on the other side. Put out the right offering, and you had a pretty good chance of finding an eccentric one. Now it was just about the haggling.

She’d known the creature would reject her first offer. If it hadn’t, she would have lost gracefully and coughed up the ounce of gold, sliding just a little further into debt. But it was important for her plan that it make the final offer to her.

She needed to speak, which meant it was time to pay attention. She couldn’t agree to anything. Every other possible mistake was recoverable, but she absolutely couldn’t agree to anything. Her voice was stilted and formal when she spoke, focusing carefully on every word. “I would consider an offer where you get a thousand pounds of gold if you win, I get two thousand pounds of gold if I win, and I win on ties.”

The creature nodded jerkily, like a child’s puppet. Ellie resisted the urge to roll her eyes again. As far as she knew, imitating a jerky puppet wasn’t any easier than imitating a human. Perhaps it was trying to put her at ease, by letting her think it had dropped all pretense.

“Very well,” the demon said. “My offer, then: the contract as you have laid it out, with the one ounce you might owe me replaced by a thousand pounds, and the two million pounds I might owe replaced by two thousand. Acceptable?”

Ellie rehearsed the question she wanted to ask in her head, making sure she wasn’t agreeing to anything. “May I have a few hours to think about it?”

The creature shrugged limply. “No rush.”

Ellie took a deep breath. This was one of the subtle pitfalls she’d worked out. She needed a formal commitment. “Would you formally commit to allowing me to accept the stated deal at any time in the next six hours?”

She got no response. The creature was silent for an uncomfortably long amount of time. She realized her hands were clenched tight under her armpits. Slowly, she forced the muscles to relax, instead clasping them lightly behind her back.

Finally, the creature spoke. “Very well,” it said. “I so commit.”

Ellie nodded, and stooped to gather up her lures.

Ellie closed the basement door behind her, leaning against it and sliding down to the ground. She landed on her butt with a heavy thump. Her body had dumped what felt like a year of adrenaline reserves in ten minutes of conversation. She looked down at her hand, and it was shaking, marked with angry red indentations where her nails had bitten into the palm.

She’d prepared for this, too. Even budgeted for it in the schedule. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly, in and out, until the trembling began to subside.

She stood and walked up the main staircase, up and up, feeling oddly light. She couldn’t waste too much time. She was on a clock now. The time pressure would make it even harder to be careful, to think through every detail. She reminded herself again that it was better to have the plan fall apart than to take stupid risks.

She unlocked the door to the attic and slipped inside. It was dimmer than the basement, and dustier, but at least it was warm up here. She blew on her hands, rubbing them together. Now that she’d calmed down, she realized they’d been freezing that entire time. It made sense. Adrenaline was a vasoconstrictor.

The pentagram up here was already drawn out, along with the second contract. She set out the lures again, placing another sheaf of gold in the center. After a moment’s thought, she grabbed the second contract and laid it out as well. No point in wasting time. She congratulated herself again on thinking to separate it from the other papers.

It would have scuppered the whole thing, if the creature down below – she hadn’t even asked its false name, she realized – had caught a glimpse. The second contract was identical to the first in every way, except that this time, it specified that Ellie would play black instead of white.

How do you beat a drunk grandmaster at chess? You play two drunk grandmasters at the same time, taking opposite colors, and use their moves against each other. It was the perfect scheme. Either she tricked them into accepting, in which case she literally couldn’t lose, or one of them caught on and she lost nothing.

She just had to be careful, and just for a little longer. She closed her eyes and placed her hands on the second stone.

Far away, on the other side, a shape stirred in the formless dark. A second beacon was lit. A lure, as the humans called it, in their hubris. A tentacle lashed out.

The beacon would be easy to reach under normal circumstances. With part of the shape already poking through nearby, it was trivial. There were others there, scratching at the edges of the gate. The tentacle lashed at them, driving them away. None were strong enough to resist.

The gate opened. The tentacle pressed gently against the boundary, careful not to break it. Humans liked to feel as if they were inviting it in.

A different beacon was lit, far away and far brighter. The shape broke a tiny shard of its cognition off, leaving it in control of the two tentacles dealing with Ellie Ranholdt, and turned its attention to more important matters.

The tentacle poked through, and the shard broke itself into three parts. The first took control of the shabby marionette in the basement. The second manifested a featureless silver orb in the attic, speaking only in lilting rhyme. The third coordinated, and approved. It was important that Ellie Ranholdt believe she was dealing with two rather than one.

Ellie Ranholdt would have her thousand pounds of gold. It was a small price, an investment in the future. She was a talented young woman. She was clever, and careful enough to avoid the truly obvious dangers. She might take the money, buy her way out of debt, accomplish great things, and never trifle with demons again.

Or perhaps one day, ten years from now, or twenty, she would have another problem. And she would always remember tonight. She would remember the demons’ crude tricks, their shortsightedness. She would remember the way her caution and planning had paid off. She would light the beacons again.

Written on January 13, 2021