Exira also found release that evening at 6:29, but it had been ready for what it knew would happen; it had an easier time slipping back into the world of the living because it had done this several times before, the first time it could remember having been in 1348 in what was then called Persia. Today it was either Iran or Iraq, one of the two, and Exira hoped to hell it didn't pull another assignment out there in that region. Sometimes it was allowed to float for decades and other times it was required to report to the elders at the very moment of its release. So far, it had heard nothing, and it was likely that it wouldn't. Exira wasn't much in demand these days and there was a feeling circulating the lower pits that Exira was inept. It made its horned flesh bubble and crack in anguish, knowing that they thought this about it, but without a difficult assignment there was no way it could go about proving them wrong. It would amount to another waiting game.

The details of its many lifetimes blurred whenever it tried to call them into focus, so many of these lives were forgotten about as soon as the living and eating was done. It had gone through the procedures of changing over so many times that it was no longer even the slightest bit frightened about going through from one level to the next. It could get cynical about these matters and let its guard drop down, but surely the overlords would let him hear about his bad judgment in a matter such as that. It was a slave to their whims- and it knew that it had to listen to them, no matter what they were saying to do- and it was all much like mortal employment that to laugh about it was like wasting one's breath.

Exira smiled the sickly grin of a wounded angel.

It felt a certain affinity for its host that was most uncommon, and now that Timothy was gone, it missed him. It would certainly miss the daily tunneling through the folds of Timothy's puckered mortal flesh, racing from one lung to another to avoid its detection. Once- just for grins and giggles- Exira had worked its way upwards through Timothy's esophagus and past his epiglottis from its safe positioning in a bronchial passage in Timothy's right lung. From his lower esophagus, it moved ever upward through the oropharynx and then the nasopharynx as nothing more than a tickle in the throat, exiting through the host's nasal air passage. Exira got himself stuck but good in Timothy's left nostril because- in its excitement over finally being able to stretch its legs- it had started to revert to its preferred size prematurely.

Timothy had experienced all this as nothing more than a chunky booger that needed to be blown through his nose in the middle of the night- and it was only through quick thinking that the demon had been able to alter its natural coloring from fiery black to a wan greenish-brown hue- but Exira had seen for a sorry moment having to explain to its elders that both the parasite and its host had met their respective cessations of life because it had ascended in size inside the guy's nose. Exira would be drummed out of service and left alive only for the sake of breaking entrants into hell without any possibility of ever being released from that state again.

Eternal life was hell.

Once it had been sure that both the man and the woman were safely asleep, Exira pushed its way through the folds of the Kleenex and dropped over the lip of the wastebasket onto the floor, landing with such force on the hardwood flooring in their bedroom that it feared that it had sustained a mortal injury in the physical world- which would be yet another cause for immortal punishment. The demon got to its feet and stretched out, in much the same way that a human being does in the morning after a good night's rest- only this was Exira's first wake-up call in nearly a year and a half. It saw part of its body in a silhouetted outline as its size doubled and then re-doubled itself.

A phone number, written in a woman's flowery script, lay on the bedside table, scrawled onto a piece of pink stationery: 573-o3o3.

A candle that the woman had laid out on the dresser guttered and spluttered as Exira's skin soaked up all the available oxygen in the air surrounding it. The man snored for a moment and it sounded as though he was having trouble breathing. Exira was quite momentarily alarmed, because it didn't want Timothy Karacas to wake up while it was outside of his body, stretching its metaphysical legs. That would be catastrophic to its mission objective. It considered itself to be a master of the realm between here and there- and here, in the physical world, was where it had always felt the most vulnerable.

Its knowledge of human languages and customs was superfluous, and it had found Timothy Karacas out of blind luck and chance. With humans the rules were a little different but it enjoyed infesting them nonetheless. Exira had needed a time of hibernation before it started its infestation of Timothy's body, and it had enjoyed that rest gratefully. It felt it owed Timothy a little consideration for that if for nothing else at all. His bowels had sustained it, unknowingly, turning into a black tissue the intestinal placenta from which it had been feeding.

When Exira awoke, a year after it had seeded itself within its host, it had grown to seven times its intended size. It was being choked on all sides by fecal matter and digestive juices that burned its skin. Its first movements had brought about an intestinal rupture that had landed Timothy in the hospital for a week and a half, before it had magically healed itself. It had not been ready for Timothy to die yet.

The horn-like nubs lining its forehead glowed a dull yellow, as they did whenever Exira was in a state of repose. As it uncurled itself on the bedroom floor, a plethora of bizarre images- both past and present- flooded though its mind.

It stood to its full unblemished height of four and a half feet, then wickedly squinting its eye-slits, checked itself out in the reflection of the polished glass. Perhaps in anticipation of its next haunting, Exira stood in front of the mirror and admired itself for perhaps twenty minutes or half an hour, posing athletically in the pitch darkness. When it heard the woman start snoring again- and it loved to hear her protestations to Timothy that she didn't snore, that she had never had snored, that there was no chance that she would ever snore at all- Exira walked around to her side of the bed, staring down at her sleeping figure lying naked and supine beneath the sheets. With its mind, Exira was able to taste and enjoy her most delicate folds of flesh, wantonly soiling with its seed the woman's most secret, most intimate tissues as it caressed her. In its fashion. For a moment, Exira thought that it could remember its own life, in its own fashion.

Such joys were short-lived.

Thank God it had been able to get the woman to leave, although it had enjoying playing with her mind for the few hours a day that she was home with Timothy. Exira could make Timothy twitch or belch or fart or scratch himself or say things that even he wouldn't remember having said only minutes after his mouth had pushed forth the syllables, and before the cancer treatments had been discovered, Exira thought that it could get the woman to leave simply with Timothy's behavior. More than once, Melanie had tried to get Timothy to see a psychiatrist, and more than once, had accused him outright of having a split personality.

But for those few sweet, short moments, there it was in the mirror.

It looked like something that might result from a cross between a stork and some black-skinned angelic form of reptile. There was nothing short of a divine grace with which it handled itself in the few moments it could live without a host. Its arms were reverse-jointed, making it possible for the demon to climb up a wall without even looking at it.

The moments of physical actuality were the most dangerous, and on a few occasions over the millennium- no more than a handful, but each one of them equally mortal in their potential for its eternal extinction.

Once, in Egypt, an old man had seen it changing into this form from what it had been prior to the killing of its host- an egg-like tumor in the belly of an asp kept in a wicker basket in a market fair about sixty kilometers outside of Qattara. It had chosen to implode the snake from within- this had been when Exira had enjoyed being vicious more often than was absolutely necessary- and the snake had literally choked on itself, splitting open from stem to sternum with a tearing sound that brought harsh light into Exira's eyes for a blinding moment before the lower demon had been properly able to recognize the source of this light for what it really was: unblemished, unspoiled sunshine.

The old man, fascinated by the sight of the snake exploding, had time to call three or four of his friends over to witness what he was seeing. Exira pulled itself to it full height in double-time, and it felt its skins stretching before they'd been ready to do so. With its pointed beak, and teeth, and scaly skin, and hand-sized blinking eyes, they started to mention the name of Osiris, the god of the Dead.

'It is an abomination,' said one of the men, in a language that Exira understood almost instantly, out of pure intuition.

'Daimon- Qiyamat, qiyamat a tawil! Qiyamat, qiyamat insan al kamel!'

Again, the names and images of Horus and Osiris were invoked.

These were the first unfiltered human words the Exira had heard in ages, and all it could to was laugh in response before speaking:

'No, friends,' it had said to them in their native tongue, 'I have feasted upon the likes of your gods, and ejected their bones from me.'

The four or five of them- Exira couldn't remember how many there had been, only the efficiency with which it had dispatched them- had turned on their heels to run, but it had been on them in an instant. One of the men, Exira had figured, had been felled by heart failure: he lay limply at the demon's feet. That left only three or four of them, and those he had decimated with a single sweep of its claw in a semi-circle, effectively slicing open their backs from the napes of their necks to the tops of their wriggling buttocks; even in death, they still looked scared. Their eyes stared brightly and sightlessly into the mid-morning sun, these eyes having brought death to their owners by viewing something that no mortal being could have digested in a realm of acceptable sanity. They would have run off screaming of demons, warning their brethren of plagues, of bastards of nature that had come back to life to return to their rightful places as Lords of this world.

As their corpses stopped twitching, as their blood cooled into tiny fragmented rivers on the sand, Exira poked a tentative finger through the sheer opacity of time and resistance, and pulled forth a name as old as any other, but with more meaning for the demon.


The demon blinked in unstaring confusion.

Nona. My mother's name was Nona. She was the ninth child- of ten.

Where did that name come from? What did that name mean to me?

A daughter?

My daughter. I have a daughter, named after my mother, Nona.

And all at once, such memories were years ago, impossible to trace.

Blinking its eye-slits, unable to remember what had just seared its brain, Exira tried to decide its next action. Into the sand at its feet, Exira scratched a simple picture as it squatted, pissing a blackly trickling rivulet of urine, next to the dead it had so recently dispatched. In its design was a woman, a woman drawn with the head of a jackal and the heart of a viper, her eyes distant, her heart somehow bleeding, as she stared hard into an unseen sunset. This woman wanted to run for the sunset- all but invisible in the distance- all the while knowing in her heart that she would never be able to run at all. All of this, all these memories, now years ago, past any recall.

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