The demon Tyenx’s mouth split wide as his raucous, malformed laughter rolled across the hazy demon plane. Triggering poison that had laid dormant inside Tammy, Seth, and Ismene, the last lingering traces of hellwasp venom still in their systems came to life, filling each with directionless rage. The feeling surged through them, filling them like the rush of a drug.

Alien control coursed through Seth and Tammy, locking their limbs and making all movement impossible save through great effort. The anger they felt shook their bones, unable to do anything constructive with it.

An ancient voice enthralled Ismene, and she suddenly felt comfortable, like her worries drained out of her, replaced with a warm anger at her party for bringing her to that terrible place; anger most directly focused at the immobile Seth, whom she immediately turned and tackled.

“These people absolutely matter, Seth, how dare you leave them behind!” She yelled, pounding her fists into his face and chest. “You leave everybody behind, you’re never there to help anyone — why are you even here? Why are you even with us?” Blows continued to rain down on her helpless assistant as fury demanded she give in to the rush.

Roger had been pushed back nearly to the ritual circle by the shadowy monsters striking from the crimson mist, unable to ply his immense intellect to an effective strategy against the otherworldly spirits. Glancing over his shoulder and catching sight of Ismene brutally attacking Seth, he caught a sharp claw across his armoured forehead in his moment of distraction.

Finishing his linking ritual, Tommy was knocked backwards with the force of a bright azure portal opening before him. “Well, well, well,” came a deep, resonate voice as Frank Johnson, human host of the demon lord Bael’fagore and manager of “Big B’s Bone Machine” biker bar and night club, stepped into the otherworldly hellscape of Tyenx’s dominion.

Knowing all too well the truth behind Frank Johnson, Jolene drew her sword and brought it to Tommy’s throat in one smooth motion. “What have you done, Tommy?”

“Oh c’mon,” the biker bellowed, “did nobody else see that entrance? You,” he glared at Jolene who wilted from his fierce gaze, “put that sword away. You,” he gestured to Ismene, shaking her free of Tyenx’s rage, “stop hitting your friend. And you,” he turned his attention toward the towering form of Tyenx himself, bristling with spines and stingers, many coated with Tammy’s blood, “what a long way you’ve come.” His voice resonated on the molecular level, shaking every atom in the plane. Roger was fascinated.

Tyenx shuddered at the attention, taking a step backward.

“Technically I asked you to handle this situation instead of me, Tommy, but you called and here I am. What’s up?”

“Do you know the rest of his name?” asked Tommy of the new entrant, slowly rising to his feet. “He’s done something to make the bottle you gave us ineffective. If you have the last bit, I’ve got this handled.”

Turning his attention again toward Tyenx, the he smiled as sweetly as any predator before their prey. “Who was that poor little bastard you intercepted, Artist Formerly Known as Tyenx?” His former henchman shook his head. “Resisting? That’s impressive. Tommy, he must have merged his essence with something else, something almost equally strong.”

“I can help with that!” Seth called out cheerfully, still pinned under Ismene, bloodied from her assault.

Big B lifted him to his feet with a gesture. “What have you got, kid?”

Requesting and receiving his pendant from Ismene, the one that was purported to help him find more about his past, he gingerly walked toward the tall biker, holding it out in an open palm. “This necklace tells the truth about people! A werewolf told me so, and I believe her, which is why I don’t wear it.”

“Cute trinket, kid, but I think this will help you a lot more than it will me.”

The Tyenx creature screamed, finally overcoming the stasis that Big B’s arrival had enforced on the area. Time seemed to resume its normal pace, with Tammy bringing another savage blow against the demon, suffering retaliatory strikes in the process. The rest of the cowled figures in the ritual circle dropped, leaving just one standing — an older Asian man Ismene didn’t recognize, salt and pepper hair dull in the ambient crimson glow.

Bael’fagore, studying Tyenx’s little outburst, scoffed and extended a finger back toward Tommy’s ritual jar. A new symbol etched itself upon the spirit bottle’s glass, and Tommy set to work trying to sound out the arcane phrase.

Seeing an enormous bird talon emerge from between a pair of Tyenx’s oversized wings, Seth ran and tackled Tammy before the claws could strike her, taking the full brunt of the attack himself. Lifted into the air, the avian hand squeezed him tightly, smashing him against the ground with bone-crushing force. As it released him, he lay still and unmoving amid the roiling mist.

As Tommy finally comprehended the new script,. all of the wasps and hell-shadows, formerly focused on Tammy and Roger, respectively, turned their attention solely to Tommy, hate and malice shining in their multi-faceted eyes.

“Mikannaeurixtyenx, Demon and Lore Keeper of Nuinailatrempt, Chaser of the Unhallowed, Grub of Secrets, Devourer of Lies, and former Vassal of Bael’fagor the demon lord, I banish you to this prison!” he screamed, holding the etched glass triumphantly over his head.

Waves of force issued from Tyenx, knocking everyone save Big B to the ground. All of his human seeming and aspects erupted and exploded from within, leaving his true form screaming and throbbing inside an invisible wall of force. Four explosions erupt far off in the cloying mist, rocking the very ground of the plane.

Wide-eyed, Tammy sheathed her kopesh, extinguishing the divine flames thereof, exclaiming “my mistress is out there!” She began sprinting away from the party, chasing something only she saw, ignoring all that transpired behind her.

Tyenx’s body began to destabilize, mixing into a slurry which flowed through the air toward the bottle in Tommy’s hands as he focused his will upon the completion of his spell. Bael’fagor watched on, seemingly disinterested. The increased magic of the area, both from the ritual itself, the transformation of Tyenx, and the successful activation of the sealing jar, began to surge in pulses of pressure, popping everyone’s eardrums again and again. More explosions rocked the distance and random bits of debris and ashes appeared in the ritual circle, as the remaining cultists disappeared in a flash of blood and refuse.

“I see the river!” Tammy called from far off, peering through the thick fog for a ferryman she knew should appear.

Hearing the sound of lapping water and pushing through heavy clumps of reeds, she continued advancing. A large skiff emerged from the shadows, floating atop the rust-colored mists, poled by a gargantuan, jackal-headed man. Tammy held up the coin she took from Ismene in silent offering. Accepting it with a huge, gnarled hand, he nodded slowly. “The way is long,” he droned ritualistically.

“I am ready,” she bowed respectfully, committed to returning to her spiritual home. A ramp extended from the raft to the shore, and Tammy took the fateful step aboard the boat of the dead.

Still sucking Tyenx into the mystical bottle, a resounding “pop” was heard from behind Tommy. Gasping, Ismene called out that the portal back home was gone, before noticing Seth’s limp form on the undulating ground and sprinting to his side.

Roger set his abilities to dissolving the surface of the summoning circle, flecks of metal and shimmering mica bursting from his fingers with each gesture, the mists receding as the circle waned in power.

Finally having captured all of Tyenx’s essence inside the bottle, Tommy looked at the singular fly buzzing inside. Corking it, he offered the etched glass to Bael’fagor. “You wanted this, right?”

“Good man, doing as you agreed. You might want to look away — this next part isn’t pretty.”

“Their minds are more resilient than ordinary humans,” Roger offered, but nevertheless looked away himself.

Upending the bottle, Bael’fagor’s lips opened in concentric, toothed circles as he drank the fly, its molten blood spraying everywhere as he chewed and chewed and chewed the essence of his prior servant. Tommy watched on with grim satisfaction, knowing the demon that had so plagued their lives would never again return. Big B wiped his suddenly-human mouth after finishing his meal. “Good boy indeed.”

Roger and Tommy joined Ismene at Seth’s side, using all of their abilities to try and save his life, magical, technological, and otherwise. As they worked on their companion the mists subsided, enormous demons that had once marched on the horizon turning their attention toward the small group. The gray humanoids once futilely running away from the enormous beings began sprinting toward the group, toward the river that the receding mists had revealed behind them.

“We need to cross the river,” Ismene frowned, looking at the shrinking distance between the group and the approaching hordes. “I have the coins and we can meet the ferryman.”

“We could just go home,” Roger shrugged nonchalantly. “No need for rivers or boats.”

“Excuse me,” Bael’fagor butted in, addressing Roger specifically. “I know all of them,” he gestured both to the group of investigators and the beings in the distance, “but I don’t know you.”

“I’m a regular human, from here. Well, for certain locations of ‘here.'”

“Of course you are,” the demon lord frowned with narrowed eyes. “Ismene, do you remember our deal?”

She nodded. “We get you the demon in the bottle, you help us out.”

“‘Out’ being the operative term. A river has two sides, right? The side you’re on, and the other side. Right now you’re pretty much as far away from ‘your side’ as you canbe. Cross that river, and get to the other wide. Heck, you’ll even end up near your werewolf friends on the American River, safe and sound.”

“Can we trust him?” Roger frowned, skeptically. “I can get us home without any sort of river or otherworldly payment.”

“It’s a long story,” Ismene tried to hand-wave the complicated and weaving relationship the group had with a demon lord inhabiting the body of a biker bar owner.

“I just want to go home,” Seth whined from the ground.

“I think we all do,” Ismene agreed. “The question is whether to let Roger take us home or trust the river.”

A long pause settled over the group, uncomfortable to all save Bael’fagor, who seemed unphased by everything that had happened.

“I need to take the river,” Seth admitted self-consciously. “It’s something I just have to do.”

Ismene frowned, helping him to his feet, and handing him a mystical coin from her pocket. She rubbed his shoulder in a half-hug that spoke volumes.

“If you get back to Sacramento, look us up,” Tommy offered, half-joking. “If we get back to Sacramento ourselves.”

“Trust in yourself,” Ismene admonished, finally embracing Seth in a tight hug. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and gripped the coin tightly in his pocket as he began to walk, stiltingly from his injuries, toward the far-off river, frequently looking over his shoulder, his face a mixture of forlorn resignation and cautious optimism. Soon he was little more than a speck in the distance.

“Shall we?” Roger asked, drawing Ismene and Tommy’s attention. With a deep shared sigh, they gestured to Jolene to join them in a tight circle, Roger concentrating on creating a portal that would take them home.

Header image titled “The River Styx” by Polish artist tamowicz, created for an online concept art contest