The demon moved faster than the mundane body it possessed should have allowed. The red steam telegraphed its movements, flying toward me before it leaped, and I dodged its grasping hands. I teleported away and cast a speed spell on myself. I’d hoped that the demon would attack me magically. As I dodged another lunge, I knew it wanted to wrap its hands around my neck. With no idea how long this body would last, I couldn’t just keep dodging and hoping it would burn out. I needed to force the demon to use magic. The more unnatural power it channeled, the faster it would deteriorate.
I cast a binding spell. The demon froze for a couple of seconds. The steam doubled as it broke free with jerking movements. Before it could come after me again, I hit it with a stream of fire. It walked through the flames unbothered by the clothes, skin, and hair burning away from the body’s torso and head. I cut off my spell and stepped back, only to trip over a tree root. The demon kept coming toward me, still burning. Cormac surprised me by flinging stones at the demon. It glared at him, and he faded out of sight. I rolled to the side and teleported as it jumped toward me.
I landed in the branches of a tree. Looking down at the scene, I saw leaves catching fire. I revealed my hiding spot by hitting the demon and its surrounding flames with a blast of water. The pressure of the stream knocked the demon off its feet. It floated back to its feet, looked at me, and smiled. The burned flesh cracked and bled around its lips and cheeks. It rushed the tree, but instead of climbing up to me, it rammed the trunk. The branches shook beneath me as the tree fought to stay rooted. The demon couldn’t uproot the tree. Even with that otherworldly strength coursing through it, that body had limitations. Rot spread through the tree where the demon touched it.
The decay spread up quickly. I watched leaves wither and fall away. The branches wouldn’t support my weight for long once the demon’s magic made it up to me. I teleported out of the tree and cast cutting spells on the rotting tree branches. The first one hit the demon hard and knocked it to the ground. Knowing the tree wouldn’t recover, I kept up the spells, burying the demon under limb after limb. The pile of debris didn’t move, but I knew it wouldn’t be that easy. Instead of letting the last few branches land at the tree base, I called them to me. I used the cutting spell as quickly as possible to sharpen these branches into stakes.
The pile shifted, but the demon didn’t burst out as I expected. Something hit me from behind, knocking me down and breaking my concentration. My stakes fell to the ground around me. I turned over, and the demon grabbed my ankle and flung me toward the tree at the center of the dead zone. I hit the ground hard and rolled a few times, stopping at the tree’s base.
I’d avoided stepping into the dead zone until this point. I knew it would help me isolate the demon, but I didn’t actually want to fight the demon from within it. The demon kicked me in the gut when I pushed myself up. It kicked me again, and I couldn’t breathe from the sharp pain in my side. As it pulled back for another kick, I reached out with my magic and pulled a stake toward us. It flew so fast that it burst through the demon’s gut and plowed into the withered tree behind me. The demon looked down, confused, but didn’t show any sign that it felt the pain the gut wound should have caused. Before it returned its attention to me, I repeated my attack, pulling all my stakes at once. They lifted the body off its feet and pinned it to the tree.
I scrambled away from the tree and struggled to my feet. It hurt to stand up straight, and every breath reminded me of the ache in my side. My stakes pinned the demon facing the tree. It looked over its shoulder. It didn’t pull a full Exorcist rotation but definitely bent past what the human body should have been capable of. The demon’s breathing grew ragged. The stakes destroyed at least one of its lungs. It looked at me with pure loathing.
“You can destroy this body, but you can’t stop me from finding another,” it said.
“I’ll be waiting,” I said. I hoped to stop its summoner before he gave it another body to use against me, but it wouldn’t help to tell the demon that.
The demon pushed against the tree. The body it possessed couldn’t take much more damage. Still, I didn’t want to give it a chance to get to me with the last of its energy. I cast a binding spell. The demon struggled but didn’t break free this time. I risked getting closer. Even with all the magic I’d used, Peter’s energy flowed through me. It had to be enough to banish the demon at this point. I didn’t know a spell for that, but I trusted my magic. I focused on the power holding the demon in our world and attacked it.
My and Peter’s combined power washed over the demon, surrounding it. It screamed as the magic spread further. The energy flowed up and down the withered tree. Then it spread across the ground until it encompassed the entire dead zone. A dome of light formed around us and shone brighter. I closed my eyes as it grew more intense. The demon’s scream faded away. As it went, so did the feeling of wrongness that defined the dead zone. When the light faded enough to open my eyes again, I saw a sapling standing where the withered tree had been.
The body the demon had possessed lay at its base. The magic erased all our battle’s damage but wouldn’t bring him back. This body lacked the taint of the others the demon used. His loved ones could put him to rest peacefully. I looked at the man. He could be much old than me, breaking the pattern of middle-aged men the demon had taken over so far. I pulled a battered leather wallet from the body’s pants pocket. The I.D. inside read William Lowell-Bryant.
I spat every swear I knew out in a stream of profanity. If the demon broke his spirit like the others, we wouldn’t get anything from Cal summoning him. Thinking of Cal reminded me of Cormac. I didn’t know what the demon did to him. I walked to the spot I’d seen him last and concentrated on his energy. He stood frozen in place, more diaphanous than usual. I dispelled the demon’s magic and sighed with relief when it didn’t form another connection with me. Cormac grew more opaque and looked around in confusion.
Between the fight, restoring the dead zone, and freeing him from the spell, I’d used most of Peter’s magic. While I’d miss feeling invincible, I thought the way I’d used the power would satisfy him. I cast a healing spell on myself and erased the ache in my side. The sun would be up soon, and I’d need to report the body to DPI. I didn’t like risking them finding the link between William and Milton, but I knew I couldn’t leave it here for someone else to find. I put some protective spells on the body to keep scavengers away. Then, Cormac and I found a comfortable enough place nearby to wait for the sun.