A dark form limned with flickering flame materialized at the far end of the conference table. Bexel, third lord of the Second Hell, unkinked his neck and nodded at Julani. The hell binder amulet hanging against Julani’s chest thrummed, and he relaxed ever so slightly. The demon remained bound, and thus remained the Group’s instrument. For now.

Julani rapped the polished tabletop. “What took you so long? I’ve been waiting for an hour.” His assistant Teva entered the room, dressed in a man’s suit, carrying a silver tray bearing a pitcher and two glasses. She laid the tray on the table and stepped back, hand on her holstered pistol.

Bexel’s golden eyes regarded Julani for a long moment, and then the demon looked away. “The Invincible Overlord is dead.” The demon’s voice rumbled like distant thunder.

“Damn it.” Julani drained his water glass in one long swallow and motioned to Teva, who promptly refilled it. “The Group isn’t going to like this, Bexel.” He shook his head. “Who will keep the local princelings in line?” Or the feuding religious sects, for that matter. He massaged his temples, trying to ward off a headache. The Overlord kept everyone in line. Every time the position was vacated, simmering resentments boiled up and the new steam trains stopped running on time. The Group’s trade and freight hauling operations depended upon the ‘iron dragons’ working like those new mechanical clocks the Group was about to market.

Julani closed his eyes. His temples throbbed. “How did he die?”

“It was an accident.” The demon’s tone was unreadable as always.

“Impossible. We had this particular Invincible Overlord protected seven ways to summertide.”

Teva handed him an itemized list of the Group’s precautions to protect the latest Overlord.

Julani ticked off the points. “Food double tested. Triple guarding, with a separate monitor for each layer of guards. Five residences, each with a safe room. Bribes to keep the local mucky mucks in line. And finally, and most expensively of all, new steam-powered armor to integrate with the nine talismans he had been fitted with. Nothing and I mean nothing could get at him.” Julani smacked his hands together. “Damn it, being invulnerable is part of being invincible, isn’t it?”

The demon shrugged. “The Invincible Overlord took some one-on-one time with a private lady dancer, without armor or any ‘constraining’ talismans. They were balancing on a lantern platform over a penthouse garden and he slipped. If he’d been wearing even the fifth warding talisman, he’d have been fine.”

Julani snorted. “You call that an accident? Next you’ll tell me that the previous Overlord’s immolation was one as well.”

“Cooking fires do sometimes explode, Julani,” the demon pointed out.

“And adding dragonfire capsules make that even easier.”

Julani frowned. Damn it. A year since the new Invincible Overlord had come to power, the fifth in six years, and finally order had been imposed on the rapidly growing Vast Lands. At last trade flowed across the continent, trade controlled by the Group. The Group’s profits were finally soaring.

Now this. It didn’t matter what the demon claimed, this had been a hit. It had to be.

He paced the room, trying to work it out.

“We do have an immediate consideration.” Bexel’s words interrupted his train of thought.

“A replacement. Yes, I know.” He closed his eyes, fingering the amulet. His finger tips tingled. The demon web quivered like a taut string. Bexel was anxious, and…the web hummed slightly. The demon hid something from the amulet.

“Very well, Bexel, what do you suggest?”

The demon swallowed. “We don’t have time to search for a replacement. We need someone to become the next Invincible Overlord now.”

Julani waved his arms. “We don’t have any candidates.”

“We do indeed.” Bexel regarded him flatly. “You.”

Julani’s frown deepened. So that was the Demon’s infernal little scheme. Get him into that job.

“No.” Julani shook his head. He hadn’t gotten this far just to become an assassin’s target.

Teva was at his elbow, pressing a glass of pinot into his hand. She was always efficient, unlike the male valets he’d had in the past, who tended to be distracted by skirts, and bribes.

The demon shrugged. “There is one other option.”

Julani gulped wine. “Let me guess. Release you.”

Bexel nodded. “Put me on equal footing with the group, and give me complete freedom of movement and action.”

Julani shuddered. Releasing Bexel would put the Group at his mercy. They had summoned the demon all those years ago for two reasons. One, Bexel was a very speedy messenger. Two, it kept the Demon out of the hands of the religious sects, especially the Blood worshippers, who might do something stupid like set Bexel free. And a free Bexel would be a very nasty thing. There would be no guarantee that Julani or the rest wouldn’t wind up as his playthings.

“Then you must become the next Invincible Overlord,” Bexel said.

Julani wiped his mouth. Bexel was correct that they needed a new Invincible Overlord now, before the princelings and the sects rose up. But Julani was the one that the hell binder amulet was linked to — if he died, the binding broke. Bexel would be freed.

Julani glanced over at Teva. She met his gaze evenly. She remained ice calm at all times, unlike the last two Invincible Overlords. If women were allowed to be in the Group, Julani had no doubt she would be running things inside a year.

Teva performed each task with calculation and ruthless efficiency, always ready.

Julani smacked his forehead with his palm. Of course! Incredible that no one in the Group had ever thought of it before. Obvious, now, when they were between a demon and a very hard place.

Julani grinned at Teva. “How would you like a promotion?”

Bexel and the world would be hard pressed to stop the new Invincible Overlord.

Dale Ivan Smith is a fan of the underdog. His stories have appeared in 10Flash Quarterly and Every Day Fiction.

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