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Faking It With the Demon: An Australian Feel-Good Paranormal Romantic Comedy

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A fake girlfriend...


...from Hell?


Jilted by his fiancée, Ryan joked that a fake girlfriend would get his well-meaning family off his back. But he didn't mean it. He wasn't expecting his buddy to grant his wish like a damn genie in a bottle.


Torturing the souls of the damned?


Not as much fun as it sounds.


Zoephus wants out of Hell. She's willing to make a deal for the chance to escape. How hard could it be to play the fake girlfriend of a human, anyway?


For a demonic fake girlfriend, Zoephus isn't what Ryan expected. Since when are demons gorgeous, oddly polite, and hilariously ignorant of the modern world? He just hopes she won't break his coffee machine. Or his heart.


Bound together for fifty days, the lines of real and pretend begin to blur, emotions inevitably get involved, and yearnings intensify. But when truths and vulnerability are laid bare, hearts could be left shattered.


Can a heart moulded in the flaming depths of Hell truly love?


Faking it with the Demon is a feel-good, heartwarming fake relationship romantic comedy that's devilishly good fun. Set in sunny Sydney, this standalone romance promises cosy charm, no cliff-hangers, and a guaranteed HEA.


Get it now.


**

Year:
2020
Language:
english
ISBN:
c9ffcf24-2234-4287-a4c6-ecfc411d397c
File:
AZW3 , 409 KB
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Faking it with the Demon




Raising Hell Downunder Book 1




Rhiannon Hartley





Copyright © 2020 Rhiannon Hartley


Faking it with the Demon



First published 2020



Email: rhiannonhartleyromance@gmail.com



URL: http://www.rhiannonhartley.com



All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a database and retrieval system or transmitted in any form or any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the owner of copyright and the above publishers.



Cover by Germancreative



ISBN: 9798688495348

Imprint: Independently published





Contents





Title Page

Copyright

1 RYAN

2 ZOE

3 RYAN

4 ZOE

5 RYAN

6 ZOE

7 RYAN

8 ZOE

9 RYAN

10 ZOE

11 RYAN

12 ZOE

13 RYAN

14 ZOE

15 RYAN

16 ZOE

17 RYAN

18 ZOE

19 RYAN

20 ZOE

21 RYAN

22 ZOE

23 RYAN

24 ZOE

25 RYAN

26 ZOE

EPILOGUE: RYAN

About The Author





1 RYAN





The first thing Ryan noticed was the goats. Ryan had never seen so many goats. The bleating swarm had surrounded the car when it pulled off the main road to a dirt track.

"This is it, mate," the Rydr driver said. "Can't take you any further, not with this lot around. Your friend a farmer?"

"Something like that," Ryan said, wondering the same thing. "Thanks for the ride," he added, carefully opening the car door just a crack to avoid hitting a particularly inquisitive goat.

He got out gingerly, pushing the goat away with one hand. It bleated loudly in protest, giving him a thoroughly unimpressed look.

"Sorry," Ryan said to the goat. "Just didn't want you to get hit by the door." It bleated again, bounding away.

Ryan watched the car pull out of the narrow lane like the driver couldn't wait to put as much distance as possible between his car and the sea of goats. Ryan really couldn't blame him.

Ryan wove his way through the milling goat; s towards a ramshackle house. Paint was peeling from the cladding, and he could see an old sofa on the verandah, a pile of gumboots by the door, and yet more goats. Goats everywhere.

The door opened. "Ryan!" a voice greeted him. "Good to see you, mate!"

And there was Wade. Wade with his scruffy blonde hair, fisherman pants hanging dangerously low on his hips, and bare chest on display, now covered with some serious ink that hadn't been there the last time Ryan had seen him. But it was still the same Wade that Ryan had known for more than half his life, with his easy grin and bulging green eyes that didn't seem to blink quite often enough.

"Hey Wade," Ryan said, returning the smile. "You've, uh, got a lot of goats."

Wade laughed out loud. "You know, they're not even mine," he said, good-naturedly pushing a goat away with one hand when it attempted to sneak past him into the house. "I think they belong to a neighbour, but they tend to just show up here. I think they like me. Drawn to my energy, I reckon."

"Animal magnetism?" Ryan suggested, raising his eyebrows.

Wade snorted. "Must be!" he grinned. "Come on in, don't let any of these bastards try to follow you."

Ryan picked his way to the door, managing to just close it behind him to the sounds of irritated bleating.

"Welcome!" Wade said, waving a hand around at the cluttered living room. "What can I get you? I've been working on a home-brew. I reckon this batch is my best yet."

"Sounds good," Ryan said, following Wade through the house. Every surface was cluttered with heavy-looking books, spiral-bound sketch pads, half-burned candles, and bunches of dried herbs. There was a strong smell of incense, heavy and spicy, hanging in the air. A pair of battered leather sofas were clustered around a coffee table that looked like it was made from recycled wooden pallets. But the kitchen that Ryan followed Wade into was surprisingly clean and modern, with glossy white cupboards and stainless-steel appliances. Something that smelled strongly of cumin and onions was bubbling in a slowcooker on the countertop.

"I like your place," Ryan said, looking around. Despite the clutter, Wade's place wasn't filthy or unwelcoming. It felt like a student share house crossed with a second-hand bookstore, and there was something oddly comforting about that combination. It was nothing like Ryan's own terrace house near the city centre, with its grey linen sofas, gleaming polished floorboards, and tasteful vintage movie posters in identical black frames on the cream walls. Of course, he couldn't take all the credit for his home's immaculate cleanliness. He was fortunate enough to have an enthusiastic and scrupulous cleaner come every week. Ryan doubted somehow that Wade had a cleaner.

"Cheers," Wade said. "Like the kitchen? Fancy, isn't it?" He opened the fridge and pulled out a tall glass bottle full of an ominous looking dark brown liquid. "The landlord started doing this place up, he was going to live here himself. But then it all went to crap, and I got a great deal on the rent because he only got the kitchen done. The goats are just a bonus."

Ryan snorted out a laugh and accepted a clay tankard that he strongly suspected Wade had made himself. He sniffed the liquid inside, and there was a strong smell of hops. He really should have brought some IPAs, he thought to himself. Most home-brews were borderline undrinkable.

"Come and sit down," Wade said, leading him back to the living room.

Ryan sat down on one of the huge leather sofas. As he sat, he felt his heel connect with something on the floor. He looked down and saw a tray of what looked like mushrooms poking out from under the sofa.

"Ah, get back under there you cheeky bastards!" Wade said, standing up and toeing the tray back under the sofa with his bare foot. "They're mushrooms," he confirmed. "I grow them myself, just for personal use. They should be legal, really. The government shouldn't be able to tell you that you can't put a damn plant in your own body. It's crazy, huh?"

"Crazy," Ryan agreed. He privately thought that it should be very much illegal to ingest anything that Wade was growing under his sofa. Still, he didn't want to challenge Wade's libertarian principles so early in the evening.

He sat down carefully, feeling far too aware of the mushrooms growing beneath him, and cautiously took a sip from his tankard. He was surprised to find that the beer had a mild, pleasant flavour. It was cool and refreshing after the long Rydr trip from the city, and he took a longer sip. "That's some good beer," he said, looking up at Wade, who had been watching him for his reaction.

Wade's face cracked into a satisfied grin. "Like I said, best batch yet. So, how the hell are you? Must have been years since we last caught up."

"It's been a while," Ryan nodded, taking another sip of the beer and letting out a sigh. "I'm good," he said. "Work's going well."

Wade raised his eyebrows. "That good, huh?" he said. "Come on, what's up with you? What happened with that fiancée of yours?"

Ryan took a much longer sip of beer and then set it down on the rickety coffee table. He looked down at his hands and tried to think of what to say. "Long story," he eventually muttered. "She's, uh, not around anymore. But it's for the best, really."

Wade's face crumpled in sympathy. "I get it, I get it," he said. "You don't wanna talk about it until we've sunk a few more cold ones."

Ryan made a noise that he hoped was non-committal. The truth was, he didn't want to talk about what had happened with Marina, his former fiancée, no matter how many cold ones they managed to sink. He rubbed his hand over his face, trying to force away the unhappy memories. "So, uh, how have you been? What are you doing these days? Still reckon you're going to change the world with techno folk?"

Wade let out a loud laugh. "Bloody hell," he chuckled. "You won't let me forget that, huh? I really was an obnoxious little shit, making you listen to my mixes all the time. Thanks for being cool about it, back then."

Ryan grinned. He and Wade had become friends in high school, and he had spent many happy hours hanging out in Wade's childhood bedroom. He'd sit on the patchwork beanbag that Wade's mother had made and listen to Wade's latest electronic compositions on the crackly computer speakers. He had quickly learned to make an appreciative noise when the bass dropped and Wade threw his arms into the air in apparent ecstasy at his own musical genius.

"No, music was never going to be my thing," Wade admitted, scratching at the stubble on his chin. "But I'm doing pretty well these days, you know, as a consultant warlock. Pays the rent on this place."

Ryan almost choked on his beer. 'Consultant warlock'? Was that some new term for drug dealer he hadn't yet come across?

"That so?" he said, unable to stop himself from grinning.

"I'm not joking," Wade said, suddenly serious. "It's been a great business. I mean, it pays for this place and a bit of travel. I was in Mongolia a few months ago, have you been? Amazing place, the culture . . ." he trailed off.

"No," Ryan said, trying not to smile. "No, I haven't been to Mongolia."

"You should," Wade assured him confidently. "Anyway, at first I was just messing around with a few spells, the odd full moon ritual, but the more I got into it, the more I seemed to have a knack for it, you know? First thing that's ever come easy to me. Turns out, there are loads of people looking for a little magical help in their lives. And I can provide that. I'm like, the conduit for people who can't access this stuff on their own."

Ryan didn't know what to say. Wade seemed to be completely serious, but he couldn't be sure that Wade wasn't just messing with him to find out if he'd be polite enough to go along with it.

But as Ryan looked around the room, at the bunches of drying herbs, at the fact that Wade had more candles than a homewares store, and at the titles of some of the books laying around, he realised that no, Wade wasn't messing with him. It was just that Wade had clearly totally lost his grip on reality. Maybe that shouldn't have come as a surprise. Wade had always been quick to experiment with every mind-bending substance he could get his hands on. The mushrooms under the sofa showed he hadn't slowed down on that front. It seemed that years of expanding his consciousness had finally caught up with Wade.

"Well, I'm glad it's going so well," Ryan said, taking another long sip of the beer. There was no point arguing with Wade about his reality. Besides, it would be a shitty thing to do when he was a guest in Wade's home. And off with the literal pixies or not, he liked Wade, and it felt good to sink back into the warmth of their long friendship and their shared history. There was no need to ruin the evening with his skepticism about dark forces and unseen energies.

Wade gave him a look that said he knew that Ryan didn't believe a word of it, but he too chose not to argue the point.

"So that's me," Wade went on. "Business is booming. And I'm not exactly short of company, if you know what I mean. It's not just the goats that are attracted to my energy." Wade gave him a leering wink, and Ryan let out a genuine chuckle.

That he could believe. Women had always been attracted to Wade's good-natured, scruffy, chaotic enthusiasm, even back in high school. Wade might have attracted bullies, but he also attracted their sisters.

"Glad to hear it," Ryan said dryly, finishing his beer. It seemed to have disappeared oddly fast, but Wade was already at the fridge and retrieving another bottle. He refilled both of their tankards.

"So, work's good, is it?" Wade said, relaxing back into the cracked leather of the sofa. "Still doing that software thing?"

"Yeah, still doing the software thing," Ryan said. "Got a few clients at the moment, doing some custom builds. I've got this one huge contract, but the client - Felix - is doing my head in. Keeps changing the specs, and then acting like it's always been that way. Frustrating." It was more than frustrating. It was seriously rage-inducing and Ryan had already put in a lot more than his contracted hours. Still, he hadn't pushed back on Felix's constant changes. Ryan had always hated confrontation.

Wade made a sympathetic sound. "Sucks, man," he said. "There's always people like that, want more than they've paid for, can't make a decision to save their lives. I had this one guy, he comes to me wanting a virility ritual. Pretty much magic Viagra, you know? And that's a one-off thing, maybe for a dirty weekend. But when he rocks up, he's all 'Oh yeah, I want it to last a month.' And he had the audacity to be pissed when I said it would cost more! Had to get out his contract in the end. He wasn't happy."

Ryan nodded as though this was a perfectly normal contribution to the conversation. He let Wade tell him about his clients, his many and varied female visitors, and his latest trip to South America. Wade insisted that it was to meet with shamans, but Ryan privately thought that it had a lot more to do with the free availability of a distinctly non-magical substance on that continent.

The home-brew kept flowing, and Ryan found that every tankard seemed to go down a little more quickly than the last. He was getting a pretty decent buzz going, and it felt good, so very good, to let the alcohol turn down the volume on that ever-present voice inside his brain. The voice that told him that he wasn't good enough. That he was no good at his job, and that he hadn't been man enough to keep his fiancée.

"So, your former fiancée," Wade began, leaning forward. "Marina, wasn't it? What happened?"

Ryan let out a long sigh, stretching his arms out as though he needed to prepare himself to even be able to talk about it.

"Well, you remember the guy I was working with, Alex? My business partner?" Ryan said, taking another long drink from the tankard.

"Alex . . ." Wade mused. "Short guy, talked a lot, kind of had a chip on his shoulder?"

"That's the one," Ryan confirmed. "It was Alex who introduced me to Marina. She was a family friend, said that he always thought of her like a little sister. That she'd never been interested in him, but he thought she'd like me." He paused, wincing at the memory. "And she did. At least, she did at first."

"Shit, I think I can see where this is going," Wade grimaced.

"Yeah," Ryan agreed. "And she wasn't into him, she really wasn't. Until he and I split. He wanted us to sell to some big corporate, but I didn't like what they wanted to do with our product. Data collection on people, it felt kind of evil. I mean, the money they were offering was insane. But, we had already made decent money. Good money."

"You've got your own place in Paddington, don't you?" Wade said. "No mortgage?"

Ryan nodded in confirmation.

"Yeah, that must have been some pretty bloody decent money," Wade said, letting out a sigh. "But that wasn't enough for Alex?"

"Nope," Ryan said. "He wanted to have 'screw you' money. It was like he had something to prove. Anyway, he sold to them after we split. Some of it was probably my intellectual property, but I wasn't going to sue him or anything. He knew that. I mean, he was my best friend. I thought he was, anyway."

"So, he got the 'screw you' money?" Wade asked, propping up his bare feet on the coffee table. Ryan was briefly distracted by the sight of the thick callouses on Wade's feet. He wondered if his old friend ever actually wore shoes, but then his attention snapped back to their conversation.

"He did," Ryan said with a long sigh. "Got the Maserati, a yacht, all that crap. And then . . . Well, it turned out that Marina didn't see him as a big brother anymore. Not when he had that kind of cash."

"That's cold," Wade said. He sat up suddenly, pushing off the couch and sitting next to Ryan, wrapping one arm around his shoulder in a half-hug.

"It is what it is," Ryan said simply. "Thing is, when she did it, I was more upset about Alex betraying me like that than about losing her. It's not like I'm pining after her or anything. When she did that, it was like, I knew what kind of person she really was. And I don't miss having someone like that in my life."

"You're a wise man," Wade said seriously. Then his tone changed. "So, are you seeing anyone new?"

Ryan let out a groan that was much louder than he had intended and Wade moved back, putting his hands up.

"Shit man, I didn't mean to—"

"It's okay," Ryan said quickly, alarmed at his own reaction. "You're cool, you didn't say anything wrong. It's just, people keep asking me that. My sister. My parents. My friends. Even my goddamn cleaner keeps asking me that. 'Have you met anyone, Ryan? Are you putting yourself out there, Ryan? You're not getting any younger, Ryan!'" he parroted his mother's concerned voice and sighed.

"That's a lot of pressure," Wade said, scrunching up his face.

"Yeah," Ryan agreed. "Sorry to be putting all this on you. I didn't mean to vent like that."

"It's okay, man," Wade said. "What are old friends for? I haven't forgotten what you did for me in high school. I would have gotten the shit beaten out of me if it wasn't for you."

Ryan waved a hand. "That was nothing, and it was ages ago."

"It wasn't nothing," Wade objected. "No one had ever stood up for me like that before. Or since then, really. You saved my arse."

Ryan quirked his lips into a half-smile. "It's just what you do when your friend's getting picked on. And you happen to be a head taller than everyone else."

Wade laughed. "Yeah, you always were a big guy," he mused. "But now, you're more muscle man than burger king."

Ryan snorted. "Yeah, yeah, make fun of the fat kid," he said. He had been unusually tall and a little heavy as a teenager, due to his mother's fondness for baking. He was still tall, of course, but daily runs and heavy weight training had given him a body he knew a lot of guys would kill for.

"You weren't fat, just kind of beefy. It was a good thing for me, you looked intimidating as hell. Lucky none of those guys at school ever worked out that you'd never thrown a punch that wasn't in Street Fighter."

Ryan laughed again, but Wade looked thoughtful.

"I could help you out, now, you know," Wade mused.

"With what?" Ryan said, trying to sit up a little straighter. He could feel the home-brew was hitting him now. Just how strong was that stuff?

"With your problem. Everyone getting on your back about moving on," Wade said, pressing his fingertips together and giving Ryan an appraising look.

"It's fine, man." Ryan shook his head. "I just wish there was some way everyone - my mother, especially - thought I was seeing someone new, so they stopped worrying about me. Like a fake girlfriend or something."

There was a moment's silence, and then Wade spoke.

"I could arrange that. I could easily get someone - well, someone from the Nether Realm - to act as your decoy girlfriend. I mean, it'd be a bit of work finding a demon who'd agree to do it, but I could. I'd do it for you, man."

Ryan choked on his mouthful of beer. "A demon girlfriend?" he couldn't stop himself from laughing at that. He had really tried to pretend he took Wade's claim to be a consulting warlock seriously, but this was too much.

"A demon fake girlfriend," Wade clarified. "Just playing the part for a while, to get your family off your back. But you don't believe me, do you?"

"Look, I can get behind the idea that you do rituals for people, they feel better, they reckon it's magic, but . . ." Ryan said.

"You think I'm just messing with people? That it's some kind of scam?" Wade said, hurt evident on his face.

"No, no!" Ryan said quickly. "I didn't mean it like that. I mean, obviously, you believe this stuff too. I can see you're really into it. I mean you've got all the..." Ryan waved a hand at the table cluttered with books, candles, and bunches of herbs.

"But you think I'm nuts?" Wade pressed.

"I didn't say that!" Ryan protested. "Wade, if you believe in it, I respect that. You know, I'm an atheist, but it doesn't mean I don't respect other people's religious beliefs. I didn't mean to—"

"I know, dude. It's a lot to take in. And you're a skeptical kind of guy. You always were," Wade said, settling back into the couch. "Guess I'll have to prove it to you, then. Just wait. You'll see."

"Wade, I didn't mean to—" Ryan said, feeling guilty at the defensive, hurt expression on Wade's face. Yes, he thought Wade's claim to wizardry was ridiculous, but he hated to hurt someone's feelings. Especially Wade's. Wade was always so upbeat, so full of enthusiastic optimism. Hurting Wade's feelings was like kicking a puppy, and it made him feel like a complete asshole.

"I know you didn't mean to be harsh," Wade said, shrugging. "Let's leave it, okay?"

"Sure," Ryan said, grateful to let it drop.

"So, did you hear that Katie - you know, hot Katie from school - has got three kids now?"

"Three?" Ryan repeated, trying to look astonished, but mostly grateful for the change of subject.

He let Wade talk about what had happened to mutual acquaintances in the time since they had last seen each other, and found himself drinking more and more of the home-brew.

When Wade eventually helped him through the mass of goats into a Rydr car sometime after midnight, the possibility of a demonic fake girlfriend was the last thing on Ryan's mind.





2 ZOE





"I've been working with my team on punishing cyberbullies," Bethias said. "It's been most enjoyable. Everything they've said online, we make them read out loud to their mothers. You can feel the humiliation, the shame, the guilt . . ." Bethias trailed off, looking dreamy.

"I don't understand," Zoephus said, knitting her eyebrows and looking at her colleague. "What is a 'cyberbully', exactly? Is it to do with an internet?"

The two middle-management demons were walking down one of the many hallways in the labyrinth-like administrative central of Hell. The walls were greyish-beige crumbling plaster, and an unusually high-static blend of carpet in a sickly green colour covered the floor. The fluorescent lights gave off a high-pitched hum and flickered at random intervals, and bland paintings with subtly unsettling proportions adorned the walls.

Hell was nothing like the souls of the damned expected. Once they got over the shock, disappointment, or indignation of ending up in Hell, that was the first thing they tended to notice. There was a complete lack of fire and brimstone, pits of lava, and red-skinned, be-horned devils poking them with pitchforks. Of course, their relief was always short-lived.

Once they entered their personalised punishments, they were begging to be poked into pits of lava.

"The internet," Bethias corrected her, rolling her eyes. "You don't make much of an effort to stay up to date, do you?"

"I do try," Zoephus objected. "But there's been so much this last hundred years. Nazis, Agent Orange, reality television, and now these bullies on the cyber."

Bethias let out an exasperated sigh. Zoephus knew she must have said something incorrectly again, but it didn't look like Bethias was going to bother remedying her error.

"When I was on earth, it was simple. You had your village, your oxen, your crops. Maybe some goats, if you were lucky. It's all so complicated now," Zoephus said, wrinkling her nose. "Now, we're punishing souls for what they did to people they never even met. People on the other side of the world."

"Well, things have moved on," Bethias said. "It's far more enjoyable for us this way. So many new sins are possible, and that gives me much greater scope for creativity when it comes to punishment."

Zoephus made a faint noise of that could have been read as either agreement or disagreement. She had no desire to argue with Bethias about it. Again.

"How is your team going? You're still working on the unfaithful husbands and wives, I see. Zoephus, you've been doing that for centuries. Isn't it time to try something new?" Bethias chided.

"I undertook that secondment to masters who cheated their servants out of their rightful wages," Zoephus protested. "That was different."

"It wasn't exactly a career-building move, was it?" Bethias said, once again showing her talent for the human art of understatement. "You only did it because working on that level made it easier for humans to summon you. Why you so enjoy being summoned by humans, I'll never understand."

Zoephus made another noise, this one equally non-committal.

"I like being summoned as much as the next demon," Bethias went on. "So long as there's food or sex involved. Ideally both. But you seem to be willing to be summoned just to chat."

"Humans are interesting," Zoephus said defensively. "I like finding out more about them." That wasn't entirely true, and she knew it. But there was no way that she could tell Bethias why she really liked being summoned.

The truth was, Zoephus missed Earth. She missed being human. Her human life had been both short and mostly unpleasant. She had been married off in her teens to a man who was repeatedly unfaithful, and she had spent most of her time on earth exacting petty revenge upon him. When she had died and found herself in Hell, she hadn't been especially surprised.

When Zoephus had been alive, she had thought her village was the whole world. But now, with a longer view of both history and geography, she knew that she had the misfortune to have been born in a particularly dull time and place. She yearned for another human life in this modern world. A do-over. And perhaps, when that life ended, she wouldn't end up in Hell again. But she couldn't tell Bethias that. She had never told anyone.

"I don't see why you even like humans," Bethias objected. "You're always going on about how untrustworthy they are. Violent, sex-crazed, vain, self-interested. And that was just you."

Zoephus let out a small snort of amusement. She certainly couldn't disagree with Bethias on that account of her mortal life.

"I don't have to like them to find them interesting," Zoephus said carefully. "Come on, the meeting will start soon, and you know these corridors last forever."

"They're meant to," Bethias said, shrugging, but she matched Zoephus' quickened pace.


✽✽✽



Team progress meetings were a relatively new development in Hell. A human invention, of course, but borrowed by Hell's bureaucracy for their mind-numbing tedium and ability to make the participants lose the will to carry on existing. Demons were no match for mortals when it came to inventing new forms of torture.

Zoephus had already given a brief summary of her team's latest developments; each and every soul of an unfaithful husband or wife was reaching the required level of suffering and torment. Bethias might criticise her lack of creativity, but Zoephus was quietly proud of the way that she had moved her team on from simply repeatedly disembowelling their charges. Instead, they had developed personalised endless loops of punishment, where the unfaithful soul discovered their own lover making the beast with two backs with a person they had always trusted during their mortal life. Siblings were best, though childhood friends also achieved pleasing ratings on the pain and suffering matrix.

Maximum suffering was accomplished with far less effort on her part, and this way, there were no piles of entrails to be disposed of at the end of each day.

Of course, no one had listened to her progress update, just as she never listened to anyone else's. Hell's upper management wasn't especially concerned with methods or the distinction between physical and psychological torture. Provided that each damned soul received suffering tenfold to that which they themselves had created on earth, middle managers like Zoephus had free reign.

When the meeting was over, Zoephus left quickly before Bethias could approach her again. She wanted to be alone. The closest thing she could get to peace and quiet in Hell was to wander the corridors of the central administration building, allowing herself to get lost in the endless passages. She didn't have a particular purpose, but she was in no hurry to get back to her team of overly enthusiastic entry-level demons.

She stood in front of a painting that depicted a bowl of fruit resting on a table. At first glance it was unremarkable, but if you looked at it a little longer, you could see that the grapes were just a touch too large, the apples oddly bulbous, and the light seemed to hit the pear at precisely the wrong angle. Looking at any of the artworks displayed in the central administration building for too long would make even the most senior demons nauseated.

As she stood there, contemplating the fruit, she felt a tug in her middle. Zoe frowned, and put her hands to her stomach, waiting to see if it would come again.

"Zoephus," she heard a voice say inside her head. "Zoephus, I summon thee!" She felt another, more violent tug in her middle. This summoner had a decent level of power; the summons was much harder to ignore than most of the attempts she had experienced.

Why not let herself be summoned? It wasn't as though anything would change in Hell while she was gone. If anyone complained, she could always claim the summons had been too strong to resist. It was almost true.

She closed her eyes, letting out a long breath, and actively stopped resisting the call. Instantly, she felt her body contorted as she was transported through time and space. It was like trying to force a lion through a cat flap.

But just as quickly as it had begun, the squeezing feeling ceased, and she stood up, blinking. She was in an arcane circle, neatly drawn in chalk on the wooden floorboards.

A man was standing in front of her. He had scruffy blonde hair, and his bare chest was covered by a large tattoo in an intricate design of flowers, vines and antlers. He didn't look much like the humans who usually summoned her. He wasn't wearing a black robe for a start, and she couldn't see a dead rooster anywhere. Why did so many humans assume that animal blood in some way aided a summoning?

"Zoephus, I have summoned thee!" the man said in a confident, ringing voice.

"Hello," she said, and then stopped, clearing her throat. She tried to deepen her voice and sound more intimidating. "Why have you summoned me, mortal?" That seemed to be the sort of thing humans expected her to say when she was successfully summoned, after all.

"Well, it's complicated, actually," the man said, dropping his formal tone. "Kind of an unusual situation, really. Why don't you sit down? This could take a while."

Zoephus raised her eyebrows. That definitely wasn't usual. Mostly, humans asked her for riches, power, or to kill another human for them. As if she'd have the faintest desire to do so, even if it was within her power. Which it wasn't.

She sat down cross-legged in the middle of the circle and was surprised when the man tossed her a plump cushion. It was maroon with a paisley pattern and smelled faintly of a herb she couldn't recognise. She caught it, and gratefully placed it beneath her bottom. When you were used to living in Hell, a hardwood floor was unpleasantly cold on the nether regions.

"I'm Wade," the man introduced himself. "Okay if I call you Zoe? Zoephus is a bit of a mouthful."

Zoephus frowned. That certainly wasn't usual either. Humans tended to be less conversational and more 'quaking in terror' when she appeared before them. Zoe. He wanted to call her Zoe. She rather liked it. It sounded human. She could be Zoe.

"That is acceptable," she said, and looked at Wade, waiting for him to explain the apparently complicated situation. He fiddled with what looked like a roll of paper for a moment, twisting the end tightly and then sticking it in his mouth and lighting it on fire. Zoe hid her astonishment. This must be some new human affectation, she thought. She'd never be able to keep track of all the things humans did to amuse themselves.

"Well, the thing is, I've got this friend, right?" Wade started, inhaling deeply on the burning roll of paper. As he did, an acrid smoke began to fill the room. "And he's got a problem. He was engaged, and the girl broke up with him for his best friend. Bad business."

"You wish for me to wreak revenge on these mortals?" Zoephus asked. She couldn't, of course. But she didn't blame Wade for asking. Revenge on the unfaithful was at least something she might have wanted to do.

"No, no. Not revenge!" Wade said quickly. "No, the thing is, my friend - Ryan - he's okay. He's over it, really. But the problem is, no one believes him. His family, his mother especially, keeps asking him if he's seeing anyone. If he's moved on. And that's what's getting to him."

"I do not understand," Zoe said, frowning again. "In what way do you think I could assist your friend?"

"Well, he needs to be able to say he's moved on. That he has a new girlfriend. And I was thinking, you could pretend to be his girlfriend. You know, his family and friends could see you with him, and they'll stop bothering him about moving on," Wade explained, taking another drag on the bundle of paper. The smell of the burning paper roll was vaguely herbal, and matched the smell of the cushion. He must do this peculiar ritual frequently, Zoe thought.

Zoe sat in silence for a while, considering the matter. This human wanted her to pretend to be his friend's girlfriend. She knew what a girlfriend was. The term was new, but she had picked it up in her work with the souls of the damned. Girlfriend was a term to describe a woman with which a human had a relationship, but was not married to. In fact, being a girlfriend did not even come with the expectation of marriage.

"Why would I consider doing this for you?" Zoe said slowly, although she was already intrigued by the idea. Wade's proposal would mean spending a significant amount of time on Earth, surely. And that was far more appealing than going back to Hell.

"You're the fourth demon I've summoned about this," Wade admitted. "And the other three, they all said you were the only one who might go for the idea. Apparently, you've got a bit of a reputation. You know, as someone who likes visiting Earth."

Zoe visibly bristled. "You cannot hope to fathom my goals, mortal," she said in a voice that she hoped was both threatening and profound. She knew the other demons talked about her. She knew they said that she wasn't quite right in the head, that her fondness for Earth and interest in humanity was behaviour ill-befitting to a demon of her position.

"I know, I know!" Wade said quickly. "But I do have something you might want. That might convince you to make a deal with me. I have a soul stone. Picked it up in Mongolia, actually. Have you been there? It's great."

Zoe ignored the last part, she was too interested in the substance of what he had said. "A soul stone?" she repeated, excitement quickening within her.

"Yeah," Wade confirmed. "And I'm willing to make a deal. You spend fifty days as my friend Ryan's fake girlfriend, and I'll give you the stone. I'll do the ritual to make you human."

Zoe let out a sharp intake of breath. If a demon takes possession of a soul stone, they can be made human once more and live a mortal life. And when they do eventually perish, their actions in their second mortal life are what determines whether they go back downstairs or somewhere else. Desire flooded through Zoe. She would do almost anything to possess such a stone.

"It's a good deal," Wade said, sucking in on his rolled-up paper again.

It was indeed a good deal, Zoe knew that. For her, anyway. Most demons would have no interest in regaining mortality. But she did. For centuries, it had been her darkest and most secret desire. And now, there was a way. All she had to do was pretend to be the girlfriend of some mortal man for fifty days. She had endured years of torment before she became a demon herself. Fifty days was nothing. Fifty days, for a mortal life. Fifty days to become human again.

"What are the conditions of the contract?" Zoe said finally, looking at Wade with what she intended to be a fiery demonic glare. She let her eyes flash red for just a moment. That always seemed to impress humans. But Wade didn't even flinch.

"Well, I would have to bind you to him, for the fifty days. No offence, but I can't let you, you know, just have free reign outside the arcane circle, not while you're still . . ."

"A demon?" Zoe supplied.

"Exactly," Wade agreed, nodding.

Zoe sat still for a few moments, as though she were thinking it over, but she had expected something like this. Unless the conjurer happened to be both a chaos magician and incredibly stupid, humans would never let a demon out of the arcane circle without some kind of binding.

"Are there any other stipulations?" she asked.

"No, not really," Wade said. "Just, I know you're a demon, but can you try not to be too demonic, when you're with Ryan? He's a good guy, and he's been through a lot. He only wants a fake girlfriend so that his mother stops worrying about him. It's not for revenge, or to prove anything to his ex."

Zoe was startled but oddly touched, by the request. A human had never before suggested that she might be capable of behaving in a way that wasn't demonic. They seemed to forget that all demons had been human once, just like them. Was Wade seeing a glimmer of humanity in her? Maybe, or it could be that he was just a naive optimist. She didn't know.

"I cannot make any promises," she said after a moment. "But I suppose I can attempt to fulfil your wishes."

"That's fine," Wade said quickly. "Just try. Okay, so I guess I'll set up the portal to his place and send you over. Done deal!" He grinned at her.

"One final question," Zoe said, ignoring the grin.

Wade inclined his head. "Yeah?"

"What is this land?" she asked, indicating the dark room full of heavy books and flickering candle flames. "Whose kingdom will I be living in?"

"You mean, what country is this?" Wade said. "Australia. We're in Sydney, Australia. Capital city of New South Wales. Do you know about Australia? I don't know where you lived when you were, you know, still human."

"I lived in a small village in what is now apparently known as Sweden. Eleven centuries ago," Zoe said. Australia. As far as she knew, she had never been summoned to Australia before. Still, she was aware of its existence. She knew it contained a startlingly large number of deadly creatures.

"Sweden," Wade repeated. "So, you must have been a Viking!" he said excitedly. "That's wicked!"

"Yes, I was wicked," Zoe agreed, wondering why Wade felt the need to point that out. "That's how I ended up in hell."

"No, it means . . ." Wade started, but then he trailed off. He was looking at her the same way Bethias did when she said something - some new and modern word - incorrectly. "Well, I hope you'll like Australia. It's hot, hope you can handle the heat!"

"That will not be a concern," Zoe said, and her lips quirked into a smile. "It will remind me of home."





3 RYAN





When Ryan awoke the morning after his catch-up with Wade, he was immediately aware of two things. The first was that Misty, his border-collie, was snuggled in tight behind him like a furry big spoon and was licking his neck with great enthusiasm. The second was that his mouth felt dry and crusty, his head was pounding like a kid who had just learned to play the drums was practicing in there, and his stomach was on the verge of ejecting its contents forcefully.

He pushed himself up and, much to Misty's dismay, ran for the bathroom. He gagged as last night's toxic mix of home-brew and mushroom stew came up, but at least he managed to get to the toilet in time. Misty gave him a sympathetic whimper and rested her paw on his knee. He sat on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor and promised himself he would never, ever drink home-brew made by a self-proclaimed warlock again.

"I really messed that one up, didn't I, girl?" Ryan said, reaching out to stroke Misty's back. She whined as though in agreement, and he couldn't help but smile. He'd never admit it to anyone out loud, but Misty really was his best friend these days. He had rescued her two years ago when she had failed to make it as a sheepdog because she was, in the farmer's words, too bloody friendly. That didn't stop her from rounding up the other dogs at the park. Ryan had been embarrassed the first time it happened, but luckily, the other dog owners had found Misty's antics both hilarious and charming.

He groaned as he pushed himself to his feet, gripping the sink for support. He turned on the tap and scooped mouthfuls of cold, fresh water into his dry, tacky mouth. When he felt like he was able to stand on his own, he turned on the shower and waited for the water to reach a suitably scalding temperature. There was nothing like a shower that threatened to burn off your top layer of skin after a night of heavy drinking. He slipped off the jeans and t-shirt that he had, shamefully, fallen asleep in, and stepped under the stream.

The hot water felt good against his skin, and Ryan didn't know how long he stood there, letting the water fall over him like a baptism, washing away last night's sins. It took considerable effort to force himself to leave the sanctuary of the shower and return to the cruel and harsh reality of the dry world. He had just wrapped a towel around his hips when a noise like a thunderclap echoed in the small bathroom. Ryan jumped in shock, painfully knocking his elbow against the towel rail. He swore, turning around and rubbing his smarting elbow.

There was a tornado in his bathroom. At least, it looked like a tornado. A twisting mass of black smoke was curling up from the tiled floor. Misty was barking at it while backing up into the tiny gap between the toilet and the wall, just like she did during thunderstorms.

Ryan stayed pressed against the wall, staring at the mass of swirling smoke. Was there a fire coming up from the kitchen below? That didn't make any sense, but neither did any other explanation for the dramatic and sudden appearance of a small tornado in his bathroom.

There was another loud crack like thunder. Ryan swore, Misty howled, and the smoke disappeared, leaving in its place a woman. A woman, naked and covered in ash on his bathroom floor.

Ryan let out a yell that was considerably more high-pitched than anyone would expect from a guy his size. The woman sat up, blinking and wiping ash from the bridge of her nose. Ryan had one single thought. There must have been hallucinogenic mushrooms in Wade's stew. Or his home-brew. Probably both. And now he was tripping balls. He had hallucinated a naked woman appearing from a tornado in the middle of his bathroom floor. A very pretty naked woman, he couldn't help but notice. He wasn't sure if that made things better or worse.

Misty, however, wagged her tail and amiably greeted the woman on the floor with a lick to the face. The woman looked at Misty with confusion. She stood up, brushing the dust off her slender thighs and looked at Ryan.

"Ryan?" she asked. "You are Ryan, the friend of Wade the conjurer?"

Ryan covered his ears. Now his hallucination was speaking to him. That was even worse. Why had he hallucinated a naked woman on his bathroom floor? Why couldn't he just see bugs on his skin or his walls melting?

The woman frowned at him and spoke again. "I am Zoephus, demon of the Nether Realm. I am under contract to serve you for fifty days, as you know." She stopped for a moment, looking thoughtful. "The conjurer, Wade, called me Zoe. He believes this is a more appropriate name for a human. You may call me Zoe if you wish."

Ryan leaned back against the tiled wall, which was not melting, and covered his eyes. This was too much. A demon called Zoe. His subconscious was clearly more messed up than he had ever realised.

At his lack of response, the woman frowned, her bright blue eyes fixed on him. "Ryan?" she said again. "Are you ill? Is there a problem?"

"A problem," Ryan repeated, trying not to look at the hallucination, and especially not at her distinctly shapely naked body. Hallucination or not, it made him feel like a creep. "You're a hallucination, of course there's a problem!" he said, his voice rising as the beginnings of hysteria began to set in.

"A hallucination?" Zoe repeated, sounding mildly offended. "I'm not a hallucination. Or a projection. Your friend, Wade, has some skill. He was more than capable of successfully summoning me to the earthly plane and binding me to you."

Ryan let out a noise that would have embarrassed him in any other circumstances, and watched, in helpless horror, as Misty licked the woman's hand and tried to get her to scratch her behind the ears.

"Could you please put something on?" Ryan said, indicating the towels folded neatly over the rail behind the door. "It's very distracting. Why would I hallucinate a naked woman? I must be a serious creep." He wished that he himself was wearing something more than a towel wrapped around his middle. If he had known he was about to totally lose his marbles, he would have put on track pants and a hoodie at least.

"We've already established that I'm not a hallucination," Zoe said, frowning at him. She selected a towel and wrapped it around her middle. Her bare breasts were still totally on display. "Is this sufficient?" she said.

"Not really," Ryan said. "You're still, well . . ." He didn't want to say exposed.

Zoe paused for a moment, looking thoughtful. "Is this the human taboo on women's breasts?" she said, looking at him like he was hopelessly behind on the times. "I didn't realise that it was still operational. I mean, you have an internet and fighter jets and the stock market. Are you really still uncomfortable with female breasts?"

Ryan shook his head wordlessly as a self-proclaimed demon who may or may not be a hallucination gave him a lecture about the double-standards of men and women's bare chests. Zoe sighed and picked up another towel, draping it over her shoulders and covering her breasts.

"Is this satisfactory?" she said, looking at him.

"Uh, it's fine," Ryan said. He caught sight of himself in the mirror. He looked just the same as he always did. His dark hair was wet from the shower, the towel was neatly tucked around his waist, and he hadn't suddenly grown a tail or a third arm. It was that someone had just appeared in his bathroom. Someone who really shouldn't be there.

Zoe brushed some soot from her long blonde hair and looked up at Ryan. "The contract has begun," she said seriously. "Wade told me that you require a decoy girlfriend in order to prove to your family and your friends that you are no longer emotionally invested in your unfaithful former lover. When do we begin our work?"

Ryan let out a groan, rubbing his face with his hands. He closed his eyes, and very slowly counted to ten. Then to twenty. He opened his eyes, and Zoe was still there. Her blue eyes were fixed on him, and she looked like she was waiting for something from him, somewhat impatiently too.

"You're not real," he said to Zoe, but it was more wishful thinking than a statement of fact. Zoe was absentmindedly scratching Misty behind the ears, and Misty's eyes were closed in appreciation, a hint of her pink tongue poking out. Misty could definitely see Zoe. Therefore, Zoe couldn't be a hallucination. But whenever he tried to force his brain to accept the consequences of that fact, it seemed to come to a grinding halt and start smoking ominously.

"That is quite rude," Zoe said, looking rather annoyed and even slightly hurt. "Wade told me that you asked for this. It can't be a surprise. Am I not what you expected? Do you believe I would be in some way inadequate as a decoy girlfriend? I assure you, my knowledge of humans is more than sufficient for me to perform this role."

Ryan leant back against the bathroom sink. Memories of last night were coming back to him slowly. Wade had told him that he was a consultant warlock, and he had privately thought that Wade had simply lost his grip on reality after years of enthusiastic and indiscriminate drug use. Wade had said . . . What had Wade said? Wade had wanted to help him. And Ryan had foolishly said that he wished he had a fake girlfriend so his mother - and everyone else - would stop worrying about him and pestering him about the apparent abundance of other fish in the sea. Wade had told him he could do that by summoning a demon.

Ryan hadn't thought anything of it at the time, he had just taken another long sip of his home-brew and eagerly pursued the change of subject after the awkwardness that ensued from his disbelief in Wade's claims. But Wade had also said he'd show him. That Ryan would see he wasn't delusional at all.

He wondered, briefly, if there was a possibility that this was an elaborate joke. Perhaps Wade was filming all of this for a YouWatch stunt? His brain grabbed onto the idea with great enthusiasm. Maybe Wade had hired some special effects guy to make the tornado and . . . But no, that still didn't explain how Zoe had materialised on his bathroom floor from the tornado. He looked down at the floor beneath Zoe's feet. Not a single tile was broken, though there was a fine layer of ash marked by Misty's paw prints.

"I . . . I didn't ask for this," Ryan said slowly. "At least, I didn't know I was asking for this. I didn't think . . ." He knew he was stammering incoherently. There was no way to put into words that yes, he had technically said that a fake girlfriend would be very helpful, but he hadn't actually meant that Wade should go ahead and summon a demon to play the role. Because he hadn't thought that was the sort of thing that he needed to specify.

"You didn't ask Wade to summon me?" Zoe said, looking at him with perplexed astonishment. "That's not possible. He assured me this was what you requested. I am bound to you for fifty days. Surely he would not have taken such action if this was not what you requested."

"Bound to me for fifty days?" Ryan repeated. "Bound to me?"

"Of course," Zoe said, as though this was obvious. "Despite his unusual appearance, Wade is not an irresponsible conjurer. One never summons a demon into the mortal realm without binding them. Usually, an arcane circle is sufficient, but if they require the demon's presence for a longer period of time or in multiple locations, then the demon must be bound to a human. To avoid us wreaking mischief, causing mayhem, and tempting humans into sin. Not that we do that. You humans manage to get into enough mayhem and sin without our help."

Ryan let out a noise that was something like a whimper. "What does, um, being bound to me, entail exactly?" He shouldn't be getting into this. He definitely shouldn't be entering into a conversation with the not-a-hallucination and probably-not-a-practical-joke woman standing in his bathroom. He should run away, right now. Possibly to the police, or maybe to the nearest psychiatric facility.

"I can't go more than 17 metres from you in any direction, under metric reckoning. Or 55 feet, if you prefer imperial measures," Zoe said, and she puffed out her chest a little, as though she was proud of knowing both metric and imperial measurements.

Ryan supposed that demons probably didn't have much use for measurements. What was he thinking? Was he seriously entertaining the possibility that what Zoe was saying was true? That she really was a demon that Wade had summoned?

"That seems, um, rather harsh," Ryan said, as his mind whirled with confusion. He was trying to make this extremely surreal situation fit into his neat-and-tidy, sceptical, logical worldview. So far, it was going very badly. He had never had any place for the existence of Nether Realms or demons in his understanding of life.

Zoe looked surprised. "I always thought so," she said, nodding in agreement. "But that is the way it has always been. Nothing I can do to change it." She shrugged, the towel rising worryingly for just a moment.

Ryan sagged down further against the sink but stood back up as it gave an ominous creak. Even if he was having a complete breakdown in his mental health and worldview, he didn't need to compound the situation by destroying his bathroom.

"I, um, I'm going to call Wade," he said slowly. As he said it, it definitely seemed like a good idea. Wade would sort this out. Wade would tell him laughingly, that yes, he had infused the home-brew with heavy hallucinogens. The kind that could even make him think his beloved dog could see the demon in his bathroom. Wade would tell him that the effects would wear off in a few hours, and everything would go back to normal. Ryan made a mental note to never accept so much as a corn chip from Wade in the future.

He edged slowly past Zoe, keeping to the wall. "But first I need to put some clothes on. And so do you."

Zoe smiled brightly at him, throwing off the towel that was covering her breasts. "Excellent," she said, sounding delighted. "I've always wanted to try modern human clothing."

Ryan turned away, trying not to look at Zoe's - admittedly very impressive - breasts. "Just stay there!" he said, opening the door and trying to back out without looking at her. "Stay in there. I'll, um, I'll pass you something."

He shut the door behind him, breathing out hard. He looked around his bedroom. It looked the same as ever. His bed was a tangle of sheets and blankets, and he could see Misty's dark hair had collected on his pillow. Light was snaking in from between the long grey linen curtains. His mobile phone was tossed onto the floor by the bed, but a little green light showed that he hadn't broken it in his drunken haze last night.

He rummaged through a drawer and dressed quickly in grey track pants and a black t-shirt. What could he give Zoe to wear? She was a lot smaller than him. He pulled out another t-shirt and a pair of running shorts he had ordered online. They had turned out to be obscenely small and looked like hotpants on him, and he had never bothered to return them. That would have to do.

He opened the door a crack and passed the clothes through. "Um, Zoe?" he said tentatively, hoping for a brief moment that there would be no reply because this had all been a vivid, terrifying dream. "Do you want to put these on?"

"Thank you!" he heard Zoe say brightly from the other side of the door. No such luck.

Ryan sat down on the bed, picking up his phone and calling Wade. It rang for a long time before Wade finally picked up.

"Ryan!" Wade sounded delighted to hear from him. "How are you pulling up after last night? Is Zoe there with you?"

Ryan let out a strangled sound of horror. "Wade, what the hell is going on?" he managed to sputter out. "There's a . . . a woman in my bathroom. Who says she's a demon. And that you sent her to me. This is not okay."

Wade had the audacity to chuckle. "She landed in your bathroom?" he said. "Sorry mate, I'm still new at portals."

"That's not . . ." Ryan started. "That's not the point. The bathroom isn't the point. Why is there a demon in my house at all? Demons don't exist. Portals don't exist."

"I told you they did," Wade said indignantly. "I told you, I'm a consultant warlock. I knew you thought I was nine kinds of crazy, but I did tell you. And you said that having a fake girlfriend would be helpful. So, I sent you one."

Ryan let out a groan, and collapsed back down onto the bed, covering his eyes with his forearm. Aside from everything else, he was still incredibly hungover. He just wanted to close his eyes and pretend none of this was happening. Because it couldn't be. It just couldn't.

The bathroom door opened, and Misty came bounding out. She jumped onto the bed and began licking his face cheerfully. Clearly, Misty had no problems whatsoever with this situation. Ryan raised his head, pushing away Misty's enthusiastic grooming attempt. There was Zoe, standing uncertainly in the doorway and looking around his bedroom with evident curiosity. At least she was wearing clothes now, although his t-shirt was almost long enough to be a dress and the shorts hung low on her hips.

"Ryan?" Wade's voice came through the phone. "Ryan, are you still there?"

"Yes," Ryan said. "This is seriously screwed up. Am I just tripping? What the hell did you put in that beer?"

Wade let out a snort of amusement. "You're not tripping," he assured him. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't realise you were so sceptical. This is a bit of a shock for you, isn't it?"

"A bit of a shock," Ryan repeated. "This is more than a bit of a shock," he said, his voice rising in near hysteria.

"Okay, okay," Wade said. "I can see this is a big deal for you. Do you want me to come over? We can talk it out."

"Come over, and make this whole thing go away," Ryan pleaded. "And make me forget it ever happened."

"I can't do that," Wade said. "Look, I'll see you in an hour, okay?"

The phone call ended, and Ryan forced himself into a sitting position. Zoe was still there. And she was moving through his bedroom, examining his possessions. She reached out to pull back one curtain, jumping in surprise at the sudden daylight that flooded in.

"Wade's coming here," Ryan said to her. "To, um, to sort this out, okay?"

Zoe turned to him. "What is there to sort out?" she said, knitting her brows.

Ryan shook his head. "Look, I'm going downstairs to make some coffee. Do you . . . do you want coffee?" he asked. He had no idea if demons liked coffee. And just thinking that made his headache all the worse.

Zoe looked at him strangely, as though considering his question. "I know that humans like coffee," she said finally. "And so I think I would like to try it."

"Okay then," Ryan said, still shaking his head, and he let Misty lead them downstairs.





4 ZOE





Zoe watched in fascination as Ryan pushed some buttons on a machine shaped like a box and a brown liquid suddenly spluttered forth into a porcelain cup. She knew about electricity and advances in human technology, but she hadn't known that they had invented a machine that could produce coffee with just the touch of a button. Maybe Bethias had been right, she hadn't kept as up to date as she should have.

Ryan was avoiding looking at her. She had been surprised by his reaction to her appearance. After all, Wade had told her that Ryan had specifically requested a fake girlfriend from the Nether Realm. That didn't seem to be true. As far as she could tell, Ryan had had absolutely no knowledge of demons or Hell before she had appeared before him. She supposed that must have been quite a shock. A bit like when damned souls first found themselves in Hell. It took some of them quite a long time to believe that they were even dead, let alone in Hell. She wrinkled her nose. Wade had been rather dishonest, then. She would never have agreed to the deal if she had known that Ryan hadn't actually wanted a demon like her to play the role of girlfriend for him.

It was a shame, she thought. Ryan was a very attractive human. He was tall, and she had seen that he was strong and muscular when he had been wearing just that towel around his middle. He had a nice face, she thought, with dark brown eyes and a strong jaw. Yes, certainly an attractive human. She thought that it would not be unpleasant to pretend to be his girlfriend.

"Do you want milk or sugar?" Ryan said, looking at her for just a moment.

Zoe had no idea how to answer that. "Is that typical?" she asked instead. "How would a human typically consume this coffee?"

Ryan winced, as though he didn't like being reminded that Zoe wasn't human. He was taking the shock better than some, she thought. He hadn't tried to attack her, for a start. That had certainly happened a few times in Hell. And he had even offered her refreshment. Zoe thought that was very polite of him.

"I'll put some milk in," was all he said though, pressing another button.

Zoe gasped as she saw a frothy stream of milk shoot out of the machine into the cup. Where did the milk come from?

Ryan handed her the cup, and she sniffed it gingerly. It had an unusual smell, but she didn't dislike it. Of course, coffee had never been around during her lifetime. But milk certainly had. She was reasonably sure she had liked milk, but it had been a very long time since she had eaten or drank anything at all. Unlike Bethias, she had never tried to convince the humans who occasionally summoned her to feed her. Or fornicate with her, for that matter.

She took a small sip and made a sound of surprised disappointment. "It's bitter!" she exclaimed, looking accusingly at Ryan. "Is it supposed to be bitter?" She set the cup down, taking a step back from it.

"Sorry," Ryan said quickly. "I guess it's an acquired taste. I didn't really like it when I started drinking it."

Zoe looked at him with confusion. "Why would you continue to ingest a substance that you did not like the taste of?" she asked. "Did someone force you? That was cruel."

Ryan almost smiled then, but he shook his head. "No one forced me," he said, as though what she had said was funny. "It makes you more alert. Helps you to stay awake. Keep focused."

"It's a beneficial elixir, then," Zoe said, looking at her abandoned cup with more interest. "But why does it taste so bad?"

Ryan did that half-smile thing again. "It doesn't, once you get used to it," he said. "Here, I'll put some sugar in for you."

Zoe watched as he retrieved a small container from inside one of the cupboards and added in two heaped spoonfuls of sugar. He stirred it slightly.

Zoe picked up the cup again and took another sip. It was still bitter, she thought, but she didn't say anything. It had been kind of Ryan to offer her the beverage.

Ryan picked up his own cup and drained half in a single gulp. He leaned against the marble countertop and sighed.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, still not quite looking at Zoe. "I'm sorry I freaked out when you appeared. It's not your fault that . . ." he paused. "That this is all new to me." He wiped his mouth with his hand. "I guess it's a bit like being interviewed for a job, and the hiring manager tells you you've got the job, just show up on Monday. And Monday comes, and the boss asks who the hell you are and what you're doing there. I'm sorry if I made you feel like that."

Zoe couldn't hide her shock. Ryan was apologising for having potentially hurt her feelings? Most humans wouldn't have even considered the possibility that demons had feelings, and certainly wouldn't care about hurting them. After all, demons were supposed to be evil, as the punishers of damned souls. No one ever stopped to consider that perhaps demons were just playing their assigned part in the grand cosmic machinations. Perhaps some demons were evil, just as some humans were, but it certainly wasn't a job requirement.

"You are a kind man," Zoe said, looking at Ryan solemnly. "Your apology is not required, but you are a kind man to offer it. I am grateful that you didn't attack me."

Ryan looked taken aback. "Attack you?" he said. "I'd never attack a defenceless person. Especially a woman. Even if . . . even if I didn't expect to see them suddenly materialise in my bathroom."

Zoe looked around the room, trying to think of something appropriate to say. His house was extremely pleasant, she noticed. She liked the clean timber floors, the neat white cupboards of the kitchen, and she especially liked the huge bay windows letting in light. That was something she had missed in Hell. Natural light.

"You have a fine dwelling," she offered. "It is large and pleasant, and I admire your many possessions."

Humans were always talking about what they owned, even after their deaths. She couldn't keep count of the number of times a damned soul had offered her a share of their earthly possessions if she would let them escape Hell. Many seemed to believe that owning a large number of possessions ought to excuse their sins. Therefore, admiring Ryan's possessions ought to be a winning compliment.

Ryan coughed slightly, but it sounded to Zoe as though he was covering a laugh. "Uh, thanks," he said.

"Is this your ancestral dwelling place?" Zoe continued.

"Er, no," Ryan said. "I bought it a couple of years ago."

Zoe nodded serenely. "You must be a wealthy man. To purchase a large house and have so many possessions," she said nodding.

"I've been lucky," Ryan replied, and Zoe was surprised at his apparent modesty.

He sat down on the sofa, still drinking his coffee. She hadn't been invited, but Zoe followed him, still holding her mostly untouched cup. She sat down and was surprised when Ryan's dog immediately sat beside her, resting its head in her lap.

"You also have a fine hound," Zoe said, running her fingers through the dog's silky black and white fur.

Ryan snorted out a laugh. "That's Misty," he said. "She likes you, which is . . ." he trailed off, not finishing his sentence.

Zoe looked at him for a few moments before voicing the question in her mind.

"You have many possessions, and you are a handsome man. You are also polite and pleasant. And have a loyal hound. Why did Wade believe you required a decoy girlfriend?" Zoe asked, looking at him intently. "Surely, many human women would be glad to be your girlfriend. A real girlfriend, not a fake."

Ryan let out a laugh that was more like a sigh. "Well, I didn't really mean it," he said. "Wade and I, we've been friends a long time. We caught up last night, and we were drinking. Alcohol, that is," he confirmed.

Zoe nodded her head. "I understand alcohol," she assured him. "Many of the damned souls told me that their sins were only the result of their consumption of alcohol. This is untrue, but it is known that humans believe that it makes them do things that they otherwise would not."

Ryan huffed out a breath of laughter. "Well, it certainly seems to make me talk more than I usually do," he said. "Anyway, I said something to Wade about how it would be good to have a fake girlfriend, because then my friends, my family - especially my mother - would stop asking me if I was seeing someone. If I had moved on. I don't want them to worry about me. But I don't really want to date at the moment. I'm happier on my own."

Zoe pondered this. She wasn't sure if it was true, and she wasn't even sure whether or not Ryan himself believed it. But it seemed prudent not to challenge him.

"You do not wish for your loved ones to be concerned about your wellbeing," she said, nodding to show him she understood. "That is a noble motive."

Ryan sighed again. "I don't know about noble," he said. "I wanted them off my back, it's seriously annoying that my love life is all anyone can ever talk about. My mother never seems to care about how work is going, or if I'm happy. It's always just 'Are you seeing anyone?'"

Zoe nodded. She didn't know much about the marriage customs of humans in modern Australia, but it seemed that Ryan was of an age where he was expected to be married. Or if not married, working actively towards that goal. It must be troubling to his family that he didn't seem to want that, but personally, she couldn't blame him.

When the fifty days were over, when she had the soul stone, she wouldn't be wasting her time on boyfriends and relationships. There was so much of life to enjoy, so much of the world that she wanted to see on her own terms - not just when she happened to be summoned there. Of course, she wanted to have intercourse. She barely remembered what the experience had been like, and she was eager to find out if it was as enjoyable as Bethias claimed. But she was a demon. Even if she became human again, she knew she'd be incapable of love and she certainly wouldn't let herself become someone's girlfriend. What a waste of time.

"I can imagine that would be difficult," she said to Ryan. "It is understandable that you would value your independence. Particularly after being betrayed by your former lover and closest friend."

Ryan grimaced. "Wade told you about that part too?" he said. "Yeah, Alex was my best friend. That hurt more than when Marina left, honestly."

Zoe tilted her head. "Demons do not take direct vengeance on humans on Earth," she told him. "But I can assure you that their souls will be punished in Hell for their sins. They will repay the hurt they caused, tenfold. I hope this gives you some comfort."

Ryan snorted out a laugh. "Thanks," he said. He looked like he was about to say something else when a knock on the door interrupted his train of thought.

"That must be Wade," he said, pushing himself off the sofa.

Zoe wasn't sure if she was meant to follow Ryan or remain on the sofa. Misty was sitting on top of her, however, and did not seem to want to be disturbed. She decided to stay seated.

A moment later, Wade, the conjurer, was following Ryan back into the room. He looked just like he had when Zoe had last seen him, except that now he wore a shirt over his previously bare chest. That was probably for the best, Zoe thought. Wade's bare chest was not so muscular and attractive as Ryan's, so there was no benefit to its being displayed.

"Well, I see you guys have met," Wade said, looking at Zoe. Misty lifted her head from Zoe's lap to look at Wade but didn't change her position. She let out a huffing sigh that sounded almost human and rested her head on Zoe's bare thigh.

"Yeah, you could say that," Ryan said. "Wade, what the hell is going on? You said you were a warlock. But this is . . ." He looked at Zoe helplessly. "Is this just a big joke? Please tell me this is a joke," he said in an almost pleading voice, and Zoe felt a stab of rejection in her chest. The emotion startled her, and she reached a hand into Misty's fur, stroking the dog as though seeking comfort.

"You know it's not, mate," Wade said, sitting down on the sofa next to Zoe without being asked. He propped his bare feet up on the coffee table, and Zoe noticed the way that Ryan looked faintly irritated when he did. Perhaps bare feet on a table was a breach of etiquette for these humans, Zoe thought, storing the information away for future use.

"But demons?" Ryan said helplessly. "I mean, really? It can't . . . it can't be real. It just can't."

"Dude, how much more proof do you need?" Wade said, sounding a little exasperated. "I mean, you didn't believe in any of this because you couldn't see it with your own eyes. And now you can!" He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Zoe, can you do one of your demon things for Ryan here, help him get over the hump?"

Zoe wrinkled her nose. 'Demon things' sounded vaguely insulting. But she looked at Ryan, and let her eyes turn red with hellfire for just a moment. It seemed to have the desired effect. Ryan jumped back, aghast.

"Please don't do that again," he said to Zoe, his voice sounding a little hoarse. "So, demons are real? Hell is real? Does that, like, mean I'm going to Hell for being an atheist? Is God real too?"

"Nobody goes to Hell for that," Zoe said, shaking her head. "It's quite amusing, actually. None of Earth's religions prepare people for what happens after their death. They're always so surprised by the reality of Hell. Many of them think that their religious beliefs on Earth should somehow protect them from the consequences of their cruelty, malice, and greed. It doesn't," she paused for moment. "As for God, I have no idea," she admitted. "It has never been necessary for me to ponder much on that matter."

"You don't know?" Ryan said, frowning, and then he looked at Wade. "How can you guys not know?"

Wade shrugged. "Look, dude, as far as I can tell from my connections in the Nether Realm, magic is very real, demons are real, Hell - and Heaven - are real, but nobody has any idea who started it all off, or if they're still around. Doesn't seem too important, really."

Ryan made a plaintive sound. "Not too important?" he repeated.

"Don't worry about it," Wade said, waving a hand casually. "God, Goddess, Flying Spaghetti Monster - whoever's up there, if they are, they're not exactly taking an active role on Earth. Or what comes after. You just need to get your head around demons and magic, Ryan, don't get into the existential stuff."

Ryan looked at Wade. "Even if this is all true, which is one thing, it's another to send a demon to me without asking. That's messed up."

"I did ask you!" Wade protested. "It's not my fault you thought I was nuts. I was just trying to help you. You told me that a fake girlfriend would get everyone off your back, make them think you're moving on. And so, I summoned Zoe here to help you. You should be happy."

"Happy," Ryan repeated, his voice rising in pitch again.

"Look, I get that this is a bit of a shock. But you gotta admit, this is what you wanted. Zoe here will be great. You can post loads of pictures on FaceLook, it might even get back to Marina and Alex. I mean dude, she's bloody gorgeous. Perfect fake girlfriend."

Zoe brightened at that. "Yes, I am," she agreed, nodding her head enthusiastically. Zoe knew she was highly physically attractive. She had been the most beautiful maiden in her village.

Ryan let out a strangled sound, and he looked defeated.

"I . . ." he started, and then sat down slowly on the sofa. "There's no way we can, um, get rid of this?" Ryan said, indicating Zoe to emphasise what "this" was. Zoe felt another stab of hurt. She now understood that Ryan hadn't been fully aware of the reality of demons or of contracts when he had told Wade that he wanted a fake girlfriend. But somehow, she didn't like to hear that he wanted to get rid of her.

"Well, we could break the contract," Wade said, scratching at the stubble on his chin and flexing his dirty toes on Ryan's pristine coffee table. "Zoe here, she's contractually bound to you for fifty days. She agreed to it willingly because I have something she wants. A soul stone. And I'm sorry Zoe, but if we break the contract, you have to understand I can't give you the stone."

Zoe's face fell, but she nodded. Of course, she couldn't have the stone if she didn't fulfil her part of the contract. Even if it was through no fault of her own.

"Wait, what's a soul stone?" Ryan said, looking up. "And why does Zoe want one?"

"A soul stone, well, it's kind of self-explanatory," Wade said. "If a demon gets one, they can undergo a ritual to become human. They get to live out a mortal life. Then, when they die, if they've managed to avoid being too shitty, maybe they don't go back downstairs. Maybe they go to Heaven, whatever that's like. Of course, most demons wouldn't even want one. But Zoe does."

Zoe nodded, looking at Ryan. His face had changed, and he was looking at her with something like sympathetic interest. "You want to be human again?" he asked her.

"Yes," Zoe said, sighing. "It is unusual, I know that. But I lived for such a short time, and I saw and did so little. And I have heard all about how Earth is now. So full of exciting things to see and do, to experience. Now a woman may live an independent life, travel as she wishes. She does not even have to marry. And I don't want to go back to Hell," she admitted. "Even as a demon, it's dull. Endlessly repetitive and dull. I want to live a full mortal life. And have the chance to go somewhere else when it ends."

Zoe watched as Ryan took a deep breath, looking at her steadily. "You want to become human again," he repeated, his eyes fixed on her.

"Yes," she said. "Perhaps you don't understand. Demons aren't evil. At least, we don't have to be. We have a job to do. Punishing the wicked. I don't enjoy it, especially. And I haven't forgotten what it was like to be human. I miss it. That was why I accepted Wade's deal. But I understand this is not what you wanted and that the contract must be destroyed." She set in her face into a neutral expression, patting Misty's head again.

"Let's not . . ." Ryan began, and then paused. "Let's not rush into that. I didn't realise . . ." he sighed again. "It would be good to get everyone off my back," he said thoughtfully, looking as though he was thinking through the possibilities.

"It's exactly what you wanted," Wade reminded him. "You said that a fake girlfriend would solve all your problems."

"And it's fifty days, the contract?" Ryan asked, looking at Wade.

"Fifty days," Wade confirmed. "Long enough that people can see you're serious with her, and they won't bother you again for a while after you two stage a spectacular breakup at the end. Don't you have a wedding to go to soon?"

Ryan's face darkened. "My cousin Shannon," he said. "You'd think it was the royal wedding, the way she's been going on about it. Daily countdown on FaceLook. 47 days to go!" His final words mimicked a high-pitched, overly excited young woman's voice.

"So, you can take Zoe as your wedding date, everyone sees you together, and then you 'break up'," Wade said, nodding enthusiastically. "It's perfect, dude."

Ryan didn't say anything for a few moments. He just sat, staring into his empty coffee cup.

"Okay," he said finally. "Okay, we won't break the contract. Fifty days and Zoe gets to be human. And I get everyone off my back. We can do that."

Zoe let out a surprised breath. Unless she was very much mistaken, the primary reason that Ryan had changed his mind about breaking the contract was that he felt sympathetic to her. He didn't want to be the reason she didn't get the soul stone. Ryan really was a most unusual human. To show compassion for a stranger was rare enough, but for a demon? When you had only just discovered the existence of demons that morning? She quietly resolved to be the best decoy girlfriend the earth had ever seen. Ryan, she thought, deserved it.

"Thank you," Zoe said awkwardly.

"It's okay," Ryan said, looking sheepish. He didn't seem to be very comfortable receiving compliments or thanks. "Besides, it will be good to have you around to keep the family off my back." He stood up, stretching, and Zoe saw just a strip of his lean muscled stomach.

"Anyway," Ryan went on. "Misty likes you. She never liked Marina. So how bad can you really be, demon or not?" he smiled at Zoe, and she smiled back in what she hoped was the appropriate way.

She was determined not to be bad at all.





5 RYAN





Wade was gone, and now Ryan was left in the house with Zoe. Zoe the demon. Zoe the very pretty demon. He didn't know if that made things better or worse. He supposed it was a good thing, given she was meant to be playing the role of his girlfriend.

"So, um, I guess you'll be staying here with me. For fifty days," Ryan said to Zoe, who was still sitting on his sofa with Misty on her lap. Misty was half-asleep and looked very well-satisfied with her position. That was odd. Sure, Misty was generally friendly, but he had never seen her this cuddly with a complete stranger.

"Yes," Zoe said, nodding her head. "And I will play the role of your girlfriend to the best of my ability, I can assure you." She looked at him earnestly, her blue eyes very bright. Her blonde hair was still streaked with ash, and there was a smudge of dirt right across her left cheekbone. "When do we start?"

"Er, let's just . . ." Ryan said, scratching his chin. "Let's just go over some ground rules, first. I should show you around the place."

"That is reasonable," Zoe agreed, pushing Misty off her lap and standing up. Misty whined in protest, jumping off the sofa ready to follow them.

"You've made a friend already," Ryan said, indicating Misty. "She likes you a lot."

Zoe looked perturbed. "Is that a good thing?" she asked, wrinkling her nose. "To have a dog friend?"

Ryan snorted. "Yes, I'd say it was. People say dogs are good judges of character, but . . ."

"But you think not. Because I am a demon," Zoe continued, looking a little hurt. "I'm not evil, Ryan. At least, I try not to be."

"Sorry," Ryan said, feeling guilty at the expression of hurt that had crossed Zoe's face. "It's just a lot to take in. I mean, I didn't believe in demons. Or warlocks, or any of this. But in my culture, well, demons are evil. Guess that's kind of prejudiced of me."

"It's okay," Zoe said. "I am used to it. Whenever I am summoned, the humans who have conjured me assume that I am evil. They always believe that I can do things for them like murder a rival or take revenge on a former lover. I cannot. And even if I could, I would not wish to. My job is to punish those who deserve it in the afterlife. Even my most wicked colleagues would never harm a living human. You're perfectly safe with me."

Ryan didn't know how to respond to that, so he began to walk through the house, pointing out things to Zoe.

"Well, you've seen the kitchen," he said. "You can help yourself to anything in the fridge or pantry," he said, opening both to show her the contents.

Zoe looked intrigued by the fridge in particular. She reached out to touch a bottle of milk sitting in the door.

"It's cold!" she said, looking up at him in surprise. "This silver box keeps food cold?"

"Yes," Ryan said. He had never thought he'd have to explain the purpose of a refrigerator to a house guest. "So if you take anything out of the fridge, remember to put it back in so it doesn't get spoiled."

Zoe nodded. "I appreciate your hospitality, but I will not require this facility," she told him. "I don't need to eat or drink. My body does not require mortal sustenance. When a demon eats, it's for amusement. I have a colleague, Bethias, who demands to be fed whenever she is summoned. It's rather amusing, actually. The mortals believe it is some kind of sacrifice to win her favour. But the truth is, she simply enjoys eating. And fornication, of course. But whether she requests that is dependent on the attractiveness of the summoner."

Ryan was briefly disturbed at the thought that Zoe might be expecting the same. "Er, right," he said, not looking at her. "Well, if you do want to eat anything for the novelty, you're welcome to."

"Thank you," Zoe said brightly. "I am grateful for your hospitality. Particularly as it is unnecessary."

Ryan couldn't help but smile at that. He led her down the hallway to what was originally intended as a formal dining room. Instead, he had turned it into a large, airy office.

"This is my office," he said. He could see Zoe almost itching to go and examine the flashing lights and flat screens of his dual monitor set up, but she clenched her fists, as though exercising great self-control not to do so. "Um, it would be best if you didn't touch anything in here. Because it's for my work."

"I will not enter this chamber," Zoe said with a solemn nod of her head. "This is where you perform the labour that has allowed you to acquire your many possessions, correct? I will not interfere with your wealth creation."

"Um, thanks," Ryan said, pleased by how seriously she took his request.

"What labour do you perform?" Zoe asked curiously. "Is it to do with an internet?" she said, looking at the glowing lights of the monitors.

"Sort of," Ryan said. He didn't want to correct her word-use. She hadn't been on Earth more than a few hours, after all. "I, um, make software. Bespoke, for different companies. Software is . . ." he searched for words that might make sense to her. Did she even know what computers were?

"Software allows people to do specific tasks on a computer more easily," Ryan said finally. "Um, do you know about computers?"

"Yes," Zoe said, nodding wisely. "I know all about computers, an internet, and even bullies on the cyber. Many of them end up in Hell, you know."

Ryan chuckled. "I'm kind of glad to hear that," he said. "People can be pretty awful when they think they're anonymous. Hidden behind a screen. They say and do things they never would otherwise."

"It is the anonymity which emboldens them," Zoe said. "They always had the desire to say and do these things. An internet is merely the vehicle which allows them to commit those acts of cruelty."

Ryan paused for a moment. "I think you're right," he agreed.

He quickly showed her the laundry, which she also found fascinating. He didn't know how long it was since Zoe had been human, but it certainly didn't seem like she had much experience with modern technology.

Ryan led Zoe back into the living room and opened the sliding door from the kitchen to his small courtyard. Misty bounded outside and immediately began to urinate on the grass.

"Sorry girl," he said. "You must have been holding that in a while."

Zoe had followed him outside, and she looked almost bewildered. She put up a hand to shield her eyes from the bright sunlight overhead. "It's so warm," she said, stretching out her arms to take in the sun's rays. She reached out to touch a trellis of ivy growing over the wall that separated his yard from the neighbour's. Zoe touched the dark green leaves almost reverently.

"I guess . . ." Ryan said, making a quick deduction. "I guess there aren't any plants in Hell?" He was amazed at how quickly he seemed to be comfortable with saying things like that.

"No," Zoe confirmed. She was on her knees now, carefully patting the grass and watching how it sprang back up. "No plants, no sunlight. It has been a long time since I have been outdoors. I was summoned into some woods once, but I was trapped in an arcane circle, and it was dark, so I could not see much. Couldn't touch anything except pine needles."

A stab of pity went through Ryan at Zoe's childlike wonder and joy in his tiny backyard. It must be hard, he thought, to never see sunlight, feel fresh air on your face, to never touch a living thing. Even for a demon.

"You're welcome to come out here whenever you want," he said, feeling a rush of emotion that he couldn't identify. "Misty might join you, just be careful not to lock her outside when you come in."

Zoe stood up, nodding gravely to show she understood. "I am grateful," she said. "Grateful that you will allow me to share in your outdoors."

Ryan turned his head away. "You don't need to be grateful for that," he mumbled and opened the sliding door again.

"Um, I'll show you the spare room," he said, and Zoe followed him upstairs.

The spare room was neat and airy, though smaller than his bedroom. "You can sleep in here," he said. "While you're staying with me. Um, the sheets are clean, and I think the bed is pretty comfy."

"I don't sleep," Zoe said bluntly. "But I appreciate your hospitality," she repeated. Ryan could see that somehow it was important to her that he knew she was grateful. And that was rather touching - and surprising - coming from a demon.

"Oh," he said. "Well, I think this can be your room anyway," he went on. "While you're here. If you need some, er, space. And privacy," he said. "The main bathroom's just next door if you want to take a shower. You, um, have some ash in your hair."

He opened the bathroom door, and Zoe went inside, looking intently at herself in the mirror. He supposed she hadn't seen her own face in a while.

"There are towels on the rack," he said, indicating with one hand. "I'll try to find you something else to wear. We'll have to get you some proper clothes, too . . ." he trailed off because Zoe had started to pull up the t-shirt she was wearing.

"Uh, I'll give you some privacy," Ryan said, backing away.

"You don't have to," Zoe said, thankfully letting go of the t-shirt hem but moving closer to him. "Do you wish to fornicate with me?" she said, looking at him very directly. "I have not experienced fornication since my mortal life, and I can barely remember it. I am eager to discover if it's as enjoyable as so many humans claim. You are an extremely handsome man. I think it would be very pleasant with you."

A rush of horrified embarrassment went through Ryan. Not least because Zoe was so beautiful that most guys would have immediately accepted her offer, even if they knew she was a demon.

"Er, no," he said, moving backwards, and fumbling for the doorknob behind him. "That's, um, that's very flattering, but no."

"Do you not find me attractive?" Zoe said, wrinkling her nose and looking at herself in the mirror. "I was the most beautiful girl in my village, Ryan. My husband gave my father ten oxen and forty goats as my bride price. That's a lot of goats."

Ryan let out a strangled noise. "No, Zoe, I mean, you're very beautiful, but—" he broke off, seeing that he had offended her. "I don't, er, fornicate with anyone I'm not in a relationship with. As a rule. I don't have casual sex."

"Oh," Zoe said, and her face resumed its former cheerful countenance. "I understand." She paused, looking thoughtful. "However, should you change your mind, I would be glad to fornicate with you on another occasion."

"That won't be—" Ryan said helplessly. "Let's just make a rule that we keep our clothes on when we're in the company of other people. Okay?"

"Okay," Zoe agreed, nodding.

Ryan looked around wildly, hoping for a change of subject to present itself. "Do you know how a shower works?" he asked.

"No," Zoe said flatly. "I assume it is for washing oneself. But where is the tub?"

"Uh, there's no tub," Ryan said, moving past the thankfully still-clothed Zoe to the shower. "The water just flows over you, washes away the dirt, and then it goes down the drain."

Zoe looked thoughtful. "I suppose that would be more hygienic than a tub," she remarked. "One would not be sitting in one's own filth by the end."

"Er, yes, that's the general idea," he said. "There's body wash - like soap," he clarified, pointing to a container of clear liquid. "And you see the ones marked shampoo and conditioner? They're for your hair. Shampoo first, then conditioner." He had a nasty feeling that this could all go horribly wrong. It seemed likely that his bathroom was about to be flooded by a demon discovering the joys of modern plumbing for the first time.

Ryan pulled the handle, and a stream of water appeared. Zoe jumped back in surprise and then reached out a hand to touch the warm water. "Plumbing," she said, nodding sagely. "I have heard about this. Of course, they did not have it in my village."

"Um, this way makes it warmer, the other to make it cooler," Ryan explained. "And just push it back in to turn the water off when you're done," he said. "I'll leave some clothes outside the door for you, okay?"

"Okay!" Zoe said brightly. "Once again, I am grateful for your hospitality and the opportunity to experience a modern human convenience."

"No problem," Ryan said hurriedly, and backed out of the bathroom as fast as he could.

He shut the door behind him and closed his eyes. Fifty days. How was he going to cope with Zoe for fifty days? He felt a lick on his hand and looked down at Misty.

"You like Zoe," he said, almost accusingly. Misty inclined her head as though to say of course she did. "Come on, let's find her some more clothes."


✽✽✽



An hour later, Zoe was dressed in an enormous pair of Ryan's track pants and a button-down flannel shirt that swamped her small frame. Her damp blonde hair was neatly combed and hung around her delicate face. Ryan had needed to give Zoe an impromptu lesson on how to mop a tiled floor, but his bathroom was thankfully still intact.

And now he wondered what on earth he was going to do with her. She was sitting cross-legged on his sofa, flicking through the pages of a cookbook with what seemed like great interest. His mother had bought him the cookbook, but he had never even opened it. How did you entertain a demon for fifty days?

Ryan wondered if he should offer to take her on a walk with Misty when his phone began to buzz. He pulled it out and made a face. It was his mother.

"Hi Mum," he said heavily into the phone.

"Ryan!" his mother's voice came from the other end of the line. "How are you? You sound tired. Are you working too hard again?"

"No, Mum," he said. "Not working too hard."

"Well, that's good," his mother, Kristen, continued. "Because if you're all work work work, then you'll never meet anyone."

Ryan couldn't help rolling his eyes. That had to be some kind of record for how quickly his mother had brought up the subject of his meeting someone.

"Is that a telephone?" Zoe's voice suddenly rang out. "But where are the wires?"

Ryan winced, trying to cover the mouthpiece but his mother had definitely heard Zoe's voice.

"Ryan!" Kristen said, sounding both astonished and delighted. "Is that a girl? A girl, there with you right now?"

"Er, yes," he said, looking at Zoe and putting his finger to his lips and wondering if the "shush" gesture was universal enough to silence an enthusiastic demon.

"You never said a word," his mother chided him. "Who is she? What's her name? How long have you been seeing her? Is it serious?"

Ryan closed his eyes for a moment and began to lie. "Her name's Zoe," he said. "And, er, she's a friend I met, you know, when I went backpacking? Anyway, she's in Sydney, and, um, we're just catching up."

"And you didn't think to tell me," Kristen said, sounding hurt. "David, come here! Ryan's got a girl living with him!" His mother seemed way too eager to share the news with his Dad.

"No, Mum, it's not like that—" he tried to tell her helplessly.

"Her name's Zoe, he met her backpacking," Kristen recounted almost shouting into the phone. "She must be from Europe. And now she's staying with him! What's she like, Ryan? Is she pretty?"

"Guess that trip was good for something after all," came his father's guffawing voice.

"Mum, please," Ryan said helplessly. "She's just a friend, staying with me for a little while, it's not—"

"When can we meet her?" his mother asked excitedly. "You should bring her round for dinner! Is she a vegetarian? Gluten-free? Lactose intolerant?"

"No, Mum—"

"I'll make your favourite lasagna, and—"

"Mum, please—" Ryan pleaded, but his mother was far too excited to be put off.

"Mum, I've got to go, I'll call you later," he said, screwing up his face.

"Of course," Kristen said knowingly, sounding delighted. "I wouldn't want to keep you from your guest. Love you, darling!"

The phone call ended, and Ryan closed his eyes for a moment before looking at Zoe.

"That was your mother?" Zoe asked. "I apologise if I alerted her to my presence before you wished our decoy relationship to begin."

"It's okay," Ryan sighed. "She would have found out sooner or later. But we need to come up with a back story for you. I told her I met you when I was backpacking in Europe."

"That is appropriate," Zoe said. "When I was human, I lived in a village in what is now called Sweden."

"That's good," he said. "Do you speak Swedish?" he asked, curious. "I mean, do they speak different languages in Hell?"

"I speak Swedish," Zoe confirmed. "And every other human language."

"Is that like a demon superpower or . . .?" Ryan asked because that was a seriously useful skill to have.

"No," Zoe replied with a brief smile. "Just exposure, over the centuries. I had to work out what the souls of the damned were screaming at me, you know."

Ryan shivered slightly. "Well, that's handy, anyway," he said. "You could probably get a job as a translator. When you become human."

"Is that considered gainful employment?" Zoe asked, tilting her head curiously.

"It's a decent job," Ryan said, not wanting to admit he had never really thought about it. "Actually, that's what we'll tell people. You're a freelance translator. That won't raise too many questions." He paused for a moment. "And I think we'll tell people your parents were eccentric. Raised you away from the modern world. Like, survivalists or mega hippies. Just to explain why you're . . ."

"Why I'm what?" Zoe said, frowning slightly.

"Why you're a little unusual," Ryan admitted. "No offence!" he said quickly. "You're doing really well for someone who's from, um, Hell. But we just need to explain why you're not fully across things like wearing clothes and using the internet."

Zoe's face dropped, but she nodded. "I understand that my knowledge of human social customs and technology has limitations," she said gravely. "I will endeavour to rectify this quickly."

The funny thing was, Ryan truly believed that she would. She seemed to be taking this fake girlfriend business very seriously. Zoe was clearly determined to do a good job. It was rather touching in a strange way. If he had ever let himself imagine what a demonic fake girlfriend would be like, he would have assumed manipulative, lazy, and flat out evil. Not earnest and full of enthusiasm. He guessed he really didn't know a lot about demons. It seemed like they had earned an unfair reputation in pop culture. It was sort of racist, really. Except that most people didn't even know they existed.

"Thank you," Ryan said, and her eyes stayed fixed on his for just a little longer than was strictly necessary. He looked away. "I'm starving," he said, wanting to change the subject. "I'm going to order some pizza. Have you ever had a pizza?"

"No," Zoe said, shaking her head. "But I have heard of it. Cheese and tomato sauce on round bread, correct? One of the newest demons said that it was what he missed most about Earth. Even more than fornication."

Ryan couldn't help but chuckle. "It's pretty good," he said and flicked open the takeaway app on his phone.


✽✽✽



Ryan could see that Zoe had been shocked at the way that a few swipes of his thumb across his phone screen had somehow led to a young man on a motorbike delivering two large cardboard boxes full of steaming pizza an hour later. He'd have to explain about smartphones at some point.

He put out two plates on his dining table and selected a beer from the fridge for himself. His hangover had mostly settled, but he wouldn't risk having more than one. "Do you want a beer?" he asked Zoe.

She frowned. "Is it typical to drink beer?" she asked.

Ryan smiled. "Yes," he said. "That's one thing I can tell you for sure. Most people in Australia enjoy alcohol, probably more than we should. But one or two isn't enough to feel the effects."

"I am sure I would be impervious to its effects in any case," Zoe said, sitting down at the table. "But I would like to try it. Is it like coffee?"

"Well, it's another one that's probably an acquired taste," Ryan admitted. "Most people don't like it the first time that they try it."

Zoe frowned. "Why don't you humans create beverages that you actually like the taste of?" she asked. "Is it not possible? You could add sugar!" she said, nodding like she was glad to have been helpful.

"Oh, we've got plenty of drinks with sugar too," Ryan said. "I guess people like having a range of options."

Zoe seemed to accept that, and Ryan put a beer in front of her, popping the cap. He sat down and flicked open the pizza box. Immediately, the aroma of molten mozzarella, cooked onions, and sausage hit his nostrils, and his stomach rumbled impatiently.

He picked up a piece and Zoe did the same, moving it to her plate and looking at it almost suspiciously.

"How do I consume this?" Zoe asked.

"Just pick it up," Ryan said. "You don't need a knife and fork for pizza." He demonstrated, though he probably wasn't the best model of table manners. He shoved almost half the piece into his mouth in a single bite, letting the taste melt over his eager taste buds. It was delicious.

He watched as Zoe tried to emulate his actions, and she carefully took a small bite from the end. She chewed thoughtfully and then looked at him.

"This is good," she announced after a moment. "Much better than the coffee."

Ryan huffed out a laugh. "I'm glad you like it," he said. He took a sip of his beer and watched as Zoe did the same. Her face contorted in dismay.

"Not a fan of beer?" he said.

"No, it's not nice," Zoe said, shaking her head in obvious revulsion. "The taste is very unpleasant."

"You don't have to drink it," Ryan said. "I don't mind."

Zoe looked grateful and ignored the bottle in favour of the pizza. She ate slowly, in small bites, savouring each mouthful.

"So, if it's not a rude question, how long were you in Hell?" Ryan asked. He was curious about that.

"About eleven hundred years," Zoe said casually, and Ryan coughed out a mouthful of his beer.

"That's a long time!" he said coughing.

"Are you ill?" Zoe said, frowning at his coughing fit.

"No, no," Ryan said, thumping his chest. "Just surprised. I didn't realise you were so . . . I mean, that's a long time."

"I suppose it is, in human terms," Zoe said. "But time passes differently in Hell. It's unchanging, relentless. Well, I suppose the decor in the central administration building changes every century or so, and we need to come up with new punishments as different sins are invented by humans. But it's just an endless cycle. There's no day, no night, just Hell."

"I can understand why you'd want to leave," Ryan said.

"Most demons don't," Zoe said, chewing thoughtfully on a mouthful of pizza. "At least, not permanently. Many like to visit Earth to indulge in carnal pleasures. Mostly food and fornication. But they enjoy punishing the damned in Hell."

"And you don't?" Ryan asked, surprised.

"Not especially," Zoe admitted. "It's just something which must be done. I specialise in unfaithful spouses, and I suppose I should have a sense of satisfaction but . . ."

"You want something else," Ryan suggested. "New experiences."

"Yes," Zoe said, nodding. "I don't want to be in Hell forever. And I'm not ready to move on, either."

"Move on?" Ryan said, interested. "What, so your soul doesn't stay in Hell forever?"

"Oh no," Zoe said, shaking her head. "Each soul is punished. It must receive tenfold the suffering that the person created on Earth. It takes longer for some than others, as I am sure you can imagine. When their suffering is completed, they can choose to become a demon and punish other souls, or to move on. I don't know what happens when you move on, but I believe you cease to be. Most souls choose to move on."

"And you didn't want that?" Ryan asked.

"No," Zoe said. "My time on Earth was so short and so uninteresting. And I spent most of it caught up in vanity and petty vengeance against my unfaithful husband. When I learned of soul stones, I was de