Chapter 10 - Trumpet
Outside the tent where Vance slept peacefully, Yaria was setting up a tall tripod-mounted bronze spyglass. Hank and Twitch were inside with Ruyia preparing lunch from the not-as-small-as-it-looks tent’s well-stocked larder. After I’d grabbed the wrong ingredients for a third time Twitch had pushed me gently aside and taken over as Ruyia’s assistant, much to Hank’s amusement.
Hey, I never claimed to be a chef and furthermore the spices and herbs available in Hell were completely different from anything on Earth. Having spent most of my time living off hard tack from the back of a wagon it’s not my fault I didn’t know the difference between a ‘kyrish root’ and a ‘draxo leaf’. My wife had done all the cooking in our house before cancer stole her away, after that there was a lot of frozen pizzas, tuna, and sloppy joes.
And tacos. Man, I missed tacos.
Yaria tightened the final screw affixing the spyglass to the mount. The contraption was something out of a cheesy fantasy movie with all these different colored lenses sticking out of the main tube which could be easily swapped in and out at different places along the viewing column.
It was a good thing Yaria knew what she was doing as she quickly selected a specific combination and slotted them in place. Swiveling it about, she aimed the scope towards the mercenary encampment parked outside the still-glowing shield protecting the Hole’s hill.
“You are a strange one,” she commented while sighting one eye through the viewport and adjusting the various focus knobs, her dark haired braid resting against a shoulder.
“Yes. I am beginning to understand my father’s interest.”
“And now we Lilim owe you a great debt, Reaper Jordan of Outpost Epsilon.” She looked up from the scope to regard me seriously.
I tried to wave it off, uncomfortable under her stare. “We’re on a team. There’s no debt in helping a comrade-in-arms.”
“If you had saved my father in combat I would agree. But do not think we fail to recognize the risk you took in curing the curse from his blood.”
“Risk? There wasn’t any risk to me. Really. The curse was bound to him.”
She tsked. “You misunderstand. You possess power. No ordinary mortal soul could have done what you did. By curing my father you exposed this. Yet you could have done nothing. Our family will honor your sacrifice and your secrets—whatever they may be.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “Uhm, thank you.”
She turned one last knob and stepped back from the scope. “Take a look.”
Eager to get the conversation changed I went over to peer into the device. The camp was in perfect focus: tents, wagons, and what looked to be a small horde of bored demons practicing fighting techniques. Either that or they were all drunk and having a brawl.
Hard to tell with demons.
In the center of the encampment was a tent far larger than the others and as I watched a pair of graxh pulled a covered wagon out of it. Soon as the wagon was clear another went in, driven not by a demon but a soul.
In fact there was a line of wagons waiting to go in along with a trail of them heading to the back of the camp away from any lights.
“That’s odd,” I muttered. The wagons were heading into a space being kept deliberately dark. Awhile later they came back out. I kept watching in case I could make heads or tails of what they were doing but the lack of light was complete.
Hank came out of our tent holding a bowl of steaming stew and announced, “Food is ready.”
“We will be done shortly,” Yaria said. Then to me she asked, “What do you see?”
“Wagons, many of ‘em,” I said. “They go into this big tent and later out, one at a time. Then to a spot they’ve got totally blacked out.”
Hank moved closer. “And they go back to that original tent after?”
“Looks that way, yeah.”
I looked up from the scope. “What?”
He pointed at the powered shield surrounding the base. “Standard siege tactic. Go under the defense.”
Yaria disagreed. “Their wards also go underneath.”
“How far down?” Hank asked. “What’s the objective of that lot? They expected to get in all easy-peasy like at Epsilon without resistance. Y’all at some point said this Hole was a conduit to the ‘light side’. Anyone feel like explainin’ to this idiot what y’all meant exactly?”
Without warning Yaria pulled Hank’s stew from his fingers and held up the bowl. “See this? This is the Rock. The Hell we’re currently standing on.” Crouching, she pointed his spoon at the ground. “This here dirt, it’s the Abyss.” Slamming the wooden bowl upside down to the ground she immediately rapped a spot near the bowl’s rim with the spoon. “And this is where we stand, close to the Edge.”
“Hey!” Hank protested. “That’s my lunch!”
She smirked. “Should have eaten quicker, mortal.”
“Not nice, lady.” He stared longingly at his lost meal.
I glared at the amused warrior. “Was that really necessary?”
With a shrug she said, “He’ll get more.”
Instead of getting angry Hank simply sighed. “What a waste of good eats.” He then pointed at the spoon and - to his credit - got back to business. “So what’s the Edge?”
“It’s where we first met,” I said, still giving Yaria the stink-eye. “That beach was where the realm and nothingness meet, separated only by the thin layer of Chaos between on the surface of the waves.”
“Chaos? And if I’d gone for a swim?”
Yaria chortled and plinked the spoon against the bowl again. “Oblivion. You go in, that’s a final exit.”
The newly arrived soul’s eyes widened. “Well shit. Cut that kinda close, didn’t I?” He tilted his head. “Hmm. What’s under the bowl? Other than bits of dirty stew. More swamp o’ nothing?”
I shook my head. “No. That’s the Light Side of the Rock. Farms and forests mostly; it’s where our food comes from.”
In the dim lighting, Hank raised a dubious eyebrow. “Oh? It’s pretty dark on this side and we ain’t the ones facing the swamp.”
Yaria dropped a weak glow-crystal hidden up her sleeve into a hand and after tilting the bowl rolled the crystal underneath. She then let it fall back with a loud thud. Thick steam managed an escape as she did so, filling nostrils with the enticing aroma of Twitch’s cooking. My stomach gurgled hopes for imminent acquisition.
“Many eons ago,” Yaria explained while ignoring my stomach’s obvious noises, “the angels created the Spark and hung it in the middle. Every hundred cycles more souls are thrown in to keep it burning.”
I winced. I hadn’t known that.
Hank however was nodding. “Right then. Now yer makin’ sense. This Hole cuts through the bowl, and your Duke whats-his-name, he mainly based on that side? With his army?”
Yaria stood up, leaving the bowl where it was. “That’s the sum of it.”
Rubbing a stubbly cheek, Hank considered. “A small force like these mercs can’t be meant to attack anything on the other side, that’d be stupid. Maybe they could hold this post but why bother? From what you’re saying, the only value it’s got is that conduit and the logistical connection between the sides.” He paused to let that sink in.
Yaria must’ve understood something I didn’t. “Interesting line of thought,” she said, “They hit Epsilon because its wayfinder covered the route they needed to get here. Looting the outpost also gained them supplies. Even with those, if they take the Hole and sit they’d eventually starve.” She grinned at Hank. “Maybe you’re worth feeding after all.”
“So what are they doing?” I said, feeling confused.
Hank pointed below the glowing sphere. “Destroy the passage. Once that’s done I bet they’ll book it back to wherever they came from. Before they run out of stuff to shove into their stomachs.”
“Can they do that?” I asked Yaria. “I’ve never been through to the other side. What’s the setup?”
She considered. “There’s a single wide platform. Rails line the walls and guide the carriage to take it straight down. Brakes hold things in place until dropped. Momentum carries it most of the way and steam-power then drives it the rest.“
I tried to picture it. “Won’t everyone be upside down at that point?”
Yaria gestured in a loop. “Near the center gravity flips and the carriage is rotated about so passengers’ down becomes up.” She snorted. “Your mortal engineers complain endlessly about the physics. But each realm has its own rules.”
Thinking about it more, Yaria said, “If they dig to the platform they could drop it close to the other side and then destroy the gearing and the rails above them in sections all the way back. Rebuilding would be a bitch.”
Hank nodded. “They could also dump enough rock and dirt to clog the center.”
“Who would want to do that?” I asked. “I thought the Duke was at peace with his neighbors.”
Yaria gave me a look like I was an idiot. “There is no permanent peace in Hell, girl. This would accomplish much. It cuts the Duke off from receiving fresh souls and makes him look weak.”
“Lemme guess,” Hank said, “there are plenty of other dukes who’d be more’n happy to pull this off.”
“Naturally,” the Lilim agreed. “Though conduits aren’t usually messed with. Destroying one may invite attention from the overlords.”
“Overlords?” I said. “You mean the fallen angels.” In other words the beings I most wanted to never be near. Great.
I peered through the telescope again having had a thought of my own. “If they’re digging then those wagons are loaded with rocks and dirt from their excavations, right? And they’re dumping it all in the dark to keep the progress hidden.” I watched another wagon come out of the central tent, its graxh pulling hard against what must have been a rather heavy load kept hidden under the canvas covering the wagon bed.
“Makes sense,” Hank said. “Our mission is to report to the Hole, right? How’re we supposed to do that anyway?”
Yaria tapped the telescope, causing my view to wobble and shift. “This viewfinder’s many lenses. With these we have means to signal and receive securely.”
“Then we need to find out how deep they’ve gotten,” Hank said. “Getting inside that tent is gonna take a trick or two.”
Re-finding the driver of the latest wagon I had a better idea. “Hey, Yaria? Are you and your sister as stealthy as your scouts?”
I stepped back from the scope. “Check out the guy driving the wagon who just left the main tent. He’s the one with the silliest mustache ever.”
She took a look. “What about him?”
“Think you and Ruyia can sneak into that dark area and grab him on one of his circuits through? He’s been inside that bigger tent.”
Yaria pondered. “Interesting. He looks soft, should crack after only losing a few fingers.”
Gulp. “Uh, no need to torture him.”
“Think he’d talk willingly?” Hank was cautiously concerned.
I snickered. “Offer the right job and I bet he’ll tell us anything we want to know.”
Yaria looked up at me with suspicion over the telescope. “You know this soul.”
“From Epsilon,” I said. “And he’s totally wasted as a wagoner. I doubt you’ll find a better chef anywhere else on this entire rock.”
That earned a grin from the woman. “Father would enjoy judging such a claim.” Crossing over to our tent she stuck her head past the flap. That canvas definitely had additional magics at work as no light escaped. “Ruyia! Food will wait. We have work!”
After a short burst of bickering between the two sisters about how one never lets the other finish a proper meal, Ruyia and Yaria bid us to watch over Vance before disappearing on foot into the deep shadows between our spot and the mercenary camp. In their non-reflective black ninja armor unless a searchlight was pointed right at them I doubted any guards would ever notice they’d been there.
At least until Cookie was discovered missing. One issue at a time.
Staring at the spot where they’d faded into the dark, my thoughts were interrupted by someone taking hold of a shoulder and pulling me towards the tent. Hank laughed and merely watched as Twitch dragged me away.
My protests did no good. Shoving me inside, Twitch placed a fresh bowl and wooden spoon into my hands. He mimed eating then crossed his arms stubbornly.
“Ok, ok! I’ll eat, sheesh.” I floomped (yes, that’s a real word which I totally just made up) onto a particularly plush cushion and pulled down the cloth keeping my face warm. As I took a bite he shuffled closer, anxiously wringing his hands.
“Seriously tasty, dude.” I smiled at him, taking another large spoonful. Honestly the stew was darn good. He’d managed to get the herbs and spices to blend together perfectly. After swallowing I said, “Ruyia and Yaria are off rescuing Cookie, maybe he should take you on as an apprentice!”
He blinked at the news, but also gave a wistful glance to the crockpot hovering over the small fire as if that was a future he’d never contemplated before.
Hank hadn’t followed me in, so much to Twitch’s instant annoyance I got up and stuck my head out the flap again. The cold assaulted exposed cheeks immediately. “Hank! You gonna refill your bowl?”
The soldier glanced up from the scope and shook his head. “Not yet. Gotta keep an eye on things in case those two are discovered. You both eat. Twitch can then take watch while you sleep.”
“Sleep? Now? Are you nuts?”
“You’re exhausted from that healing stunt you pulled.” He raised a finger at me. “Don’t argue, it’s true. Always take rest when you can. Somethin’ happens we’re gonna need you at your best.”
Damn. He was right. I’d been so keyed up after that and with scoping out (literally!) our next move I’d ignored how drained I actually was. And now that I’d thought about it the tiredness hit me all at once.
“Argh, fine.” Under Twitch’s mindful glare I sat back down to finish eating. While I did so he laid out some thick blankets and a pillow by the fire. He even fluffed the pillow twice before realizing what he was doing.
I pretended not to notice both that and the quick embarrassed expression he’d shot my way after.
Taking another savory bite, what Hank had said about Dhalgrix and his mercenary plans ran again through my head. If those demons succeeded then all the outposts up here would be sunk, eventually running out of food. Given the distances involved there was no way all the reapers could get here in time to fight off the demon assault. I wasn’t even sure they could. If the defenders of the Hole also decided they couldn’t take out Dhalgrix and just remained within their protective bubble, then the rest of us were hosed. Even if Vance hadn’t been hurt, the five of us weren’t capable of winning a straight up fight either.
What were we going to do?
Yawning, I barely noticed Twitch removing the empty bowl from slack fingers and guiding me over to the fire-warmed blankets. I may have murmured an objection as he unlaced and removed my boots but the softness of the blankets and their soothing warmth swept over me. Before I knew it I was out.
Except unlike Vance’s slumber mine was anything but peaceful.
Raphael found her walking the Garden of Dreams with wings folded and long feathers brushing the garden’s rich soil behind bare feet. A fringed white sarong matching her halter-top clung lightly to her waist and curled upon itself as she knelt before a rosebush, one thick with lush green vines and blooms whose every petal absorbed a distinct shade of rainbow and beyond. Each bulb different and each dream carried within the sweet scent unfolding from the center equally unique in its blend of ferried emotions and imagery. Toes curled into the soft ground to feel the slender roots coaxing forth from the firmament all the subconscious energies from which the intoxicating perfumes were distilled.
So lost in her reverie was she that Raphael needed to say her name twice to catch her attention.
Pushing strawberry strands away from satin cheeks, her smile shifted to concern at seeing her brother’s agitation. “What is it? Has something happened?”
“We have a problem. Beliel has returned.”
Brushing the fresh dirt from her fingers she stood. “Since when has Beliel’s arrival ever been considered problematic?”
Raphael, in his own white toga and golden bracers, extended his wings. “The gatekeepers denied him entry.”
Alarm chased away all remnants of serenity. “Which gate?”
“The West. Come!”
In a rush of wind feathers carried them up and out of the Garden that lay in nestled seclusion at the base of her personal gleaming tower of gems and marble. Beyond its boundaries they found their passage blocked for it was as if everyone within the heavenly city had also taken to the air to stream towards the West. Lingering confusions and raw doubt from the First’s recent resignation acted as ready kindle upon which a spark had now been struck, and the spaces between the many towers clogged with wings and shouting.
Along with the sounds of combat, sword against spear against shield.
Above the din and confusion a voice urged many on.
“Beliel fights for Lucifer! Lucifer fights to restore the Light!”
In opposition other voices called out, “Beliel has gone mad! Defend the Throne!”
No order was to be found in the skies or on the ground as brothers and sisters, each lost within a side of the forming mobs, summoned forth weapons of glorious fire and light.
And both gathering sides, seeing the two airborne Archangels struggling to get past the throngs, laid claim to their support.
“Gabriel is for Lucifer! She and Raphael fight for the Light!”
“No! Gabriel is for the Throne! Oblivion to those who rebel!”
Beset on all sides the two spun, finding no clear path. Explosions erupted across the city, flames lighting spires which had until that moment survived the worst of war. For Samael’s rebellion had never breached the holy gates, but now terrible bloodshed had at last arrived within the walls.
“We must get to the Throne!” Raphael cried as they tried to force past those screaming for them to declare their allegiances. “The destruction is aimed straight for it!”
Seeing no way past, Gabriel knew what must be done. Reaching out she summoned to hand a golden shofar, the instrument’s simple curves belying the tremendous potential contained within. With a blast Gabriel blew a singular note, the shockwave ripping across the air sending angels tumbling from the sky as their ears, nay their essences, trembled within the disorienting power cast forth by the perfect and thundering sound. Tapestries of glass shattered throughout the city as the pulse sped outward past each gate and into the realms beyond.
Raphael too was stunned, but with tremulous dismay. Used only once before since it had manifested within her hand on the day the first angel’s blood had fallen to a brother’s sword, Gabriel’s Horn had announced to all the worlds Samael’s defeat giving mark with holy resonance the end of that terrible and unimaginable conflict. According to prophecy delivered thereafter by the sacred Servitors of Light whose eyes pierced the veils of all possible futures, the third sounding of Gabriel’s mighty shofar was destined to herald the arrival of the Day of Judgment.
And now, to clear their path to the Throne, the Horn had sounded a second time.
Gabriel lowered the trumpet to shout at her shocked companion. “There he is!”
Like two loosed arrows they darted past their dazed and stumbled brethren to reach the steps rising towards the gleaming tower containing Elohim’s Seat. Two immense doors, stretching taller than could be seen from the stairs before them, remained shut.
As they had since the day of Lucifer’s departure.
An angel in blackened armor, wielding a mace which had obliterated several structures in its march towards these steps, barely stood having been staggered by Gabriel’s mighty blast. Between him and the tower descended Michael with sword of blinding fire and shield of light, the archangel, armored in golden righteousness, taking his holy place as Defender of the Throne.
Behind Beliel swarmed thousands of angels chanting his name, and unto Michael’s sides rallied more.
Gabriel, heedless of the dangers of coming between such a gathering, sped to Beliel, Raphael but two breaths behind.
“Beliel!” Hovering before the dazed warrior, her ivory a portrait in contrast with his ebony, she stretched forth hands to clasp the dark helm despite the black and twisted lightning coursing through not only the armor but his spirit. “Beliel, what have you done!”
From behind the metal was heard a groan as eyes infected by the colorless depths of chaos flickered momentarily to brown. “Gabriel?” A mailed fist released and both weapon and angel fell.
“Most High protect us,” cried Raphael as he caught his brother, arms wrapping around the corrupted armor. “The Chaos has taken his pattern.” The mace smashed into the steps, its landing impact echoing mightily off the twin doors like an unheeded knock.
For the doors stayed closed.
“We must save him.” Gabriel pulled free the helm, tossing it aside so she could touch directly the gaunt and strained face of the Second of Heaven.
The battlefrenzy in the crowd wavered but again a voice shouted from behind the mob.
“Gabriel heals Beliel! Defend them! Defend Lucifer’s right hand or the Light shall fail!”
The same lightning which coursed through Beliel flickered amongst the crowd, and as one they surged towards the tower with wings and blades.
Michael, blazing with dreadful Purpose, beat flaming sword once upon his shield before stepping forward to meet them with eyes resolute yet filled with sorrow.
Such a clash was not to be.
Fire brighter than the cores of suns flashed between the lines, blinding all. Even Michael was forced to raise shield against the intense heat and overwhelming luminosity driving the two sides apart.
As all fell back from the searing flames, those who had taken up arms for Beliel in Lucifer’s name gave a thundering cheer.
Their champion had arrived. The Morningstar, the First and bringer of the most holy light, hovered high above upon six radiant wings spread wide across the sky.
His booming voice trembled arched passageways and towers alike as he called out to his warrior brother.
“MICHAEL! LET NO FURTHER BLOOD BUT OURS BE SPILLED THIS DAY!”
Gabriel, throwing herself into the effort to save her brother’s spirit, heard Michael’s calm reply.
A hand tugged forcefully on the blanket I’d cocooned myself within and all visions of glorious towers and flashing fire fractured and fell away.
“Hey Jordan,” Hank said. “Wakey wakey. The twins are back. They’ve got your chef.”
I didn’t respond as the dream hit me with an undeniable truth. That voice in the crowd spurring the angels’ crazed frenzy, I recognized it. I’d heard it while on a plane to France and again under the pyramids at Giza.
The voice was Alal’s.
Chapter 11 - Loyalty
Alal. Archon of Chaos.
The fae queen’s champion Gwydion, in the middle of our spat outside the pyramid of Djoser, had expounded on how Alal had been the one in the first War of Heaven to arm the rebel angel army with blades of chaos.
Such as the sword he’d used to make a mess of my wing.
That she had helped me escape notice from Sariel’s goons when I had arrived to Gisa via unexpected teleport had confused the heck of out the old warrior. It was something he and I could agree on wondering. Why would a being of chaos help a newly-made angel of light?
What game was she truly playing?
Not that I had time to really worry about it now, what with Hank shaking my shoulder telling me to get up and go deal with more pressing matters. Groaning I slowly sat up, disentangling myself from the warm blanket, and looked around.
The twins had dropped Cookie by the fire inside the tent, hands bound with thick leather behind his back and a dark hood draped over his head. Twitch stood by the tent flap and the way he kept looking between Cookie and the twins standing guard with their weapons ready made it clear he wasn’t happy about their treatment of our friend.
Hank casually chose a chair between Twitch and the twins and sat ready at the edge of the seat.
What the heck?
Getting up and shoving thoughts of Alal aside I stepped over to kneel by Cookie’s sprawled form. Gone was his kitchen apron and usual brown doublet, instead he was clad in a threadbare grey tunic. Mud spattered toes and callouses testified to lack of shoes but what really caught my attention was the awkward way he lay on his side trembling in obvious fear of making any sound.
His right leg was clearly broken. Deep bruises already blossomed down the calf to peek out from under the tunic.
“Jesus,” I breathed. Glaring at Yaria I pointed at the leg. “Was that necessary?”
She shrugged, flipping the dagger in her hand into the air before smoothly catching it again. “He tried to run.”
Crap. This was my fault. I hadn’t told them explicitly not to harm him.
I leaned over the wounded chef, saying gently, “Hey Cookie? I’m going to remove the hood, okay?”
He flinched when I touched the fabric but then my words registered because he stilled and I was able to slip the cloth free of his head to reveal a sweaty forehead and a stringy drooped mustache in serious need of a trim or some of Vance’s wax. I also untied his hands despite Yaria’s disapproving glare at doing so.
Wincing at the brightness from the small cooking fire he blinked at me. “Mon dieu! Jordan, they have captured you too?”
I smiled as re-assuringly as I could. “Captured? No, nothing like that. In fact I asked them to rescue you.”
“Rescue?” He tried to shift positions to see me better but inhaled sharply as the broken leg moved, hand reaching down instinctively to his thigh. The back of it had a new symbol, the pierced triangle of the mercenaries.
Grabbing the hand I stared at the mark. “You joined these assholes?” Dark thoughts of betrayals crossed my mind, chasing away the friendly smile.
He swallowed. “Non, is not like that. I had no choice, you must believe! They got in, I know not how. They slaughtered everyone who resisted. I am no warrior, ma cherie!”
Ruyia, busy eating some of Twitch’s stew, spoke around a mouthful. “On that he tells the truth. This rabbit knows only flight, not fight.”
“Yes, yes!” Cookie’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “They took down the Captain; what else could I do but surrender?”
Hank spoke up. “We need to set that leg.”
Pointing her blade at the chef, Yaria disagreed. “Not until the rabbit tells us what we need.”
Cookie flinched from the dagger, wide eyes pleading. “I will tell you whatever you wish to know.”
“The dig under the large tent,” I said. “How soon until they reach the passage under the defenses?”
“I don’t know exactly. But I overheard the commander saying they were close.”
I let go of his hand. “Their commander, that’s Colonel Dhalgrix?”
“Yes, him. He is anxious to be done with this job.” Cookie blinked as something else occurred to him. “God be feared. Jordan - you must flee! Get away from here!”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “You think they can track you?” Ruyia and Yaria exchanged glances and Yaria came closer with the knife. Motioning at her to wait, I said, “Explain, Cookie. And fast.”
He vehemently shook his head despite the pain the movement caused his leg. “Non, I am worth nothing. But on you the commander has sworn revenge!”
Hank stood up. “Why would he swear revenge against Jordan? I thought these two had never met.”
“Her room at the post,” Cookie said, the words spilling over themselves. “Their wards, they killed his second and his wizards. He has raged about this! Without them he cannot breach the shields. They were supposed to blow up the Hole and block the passage by now. I have overheard many of the demons complaining of this and wishing they were free of the contract.”
In my mind I saw again the scorched bodies upon the floor outside my quarters. I grinned. “Good.”
Cookie’s eyes went wider and he leaned further away from me. “Not good, non! The commander swallowed Barry and killed the other reapers, but you? He will take his time with torture first. You must run. Now! Get away while you can!”
Hank put a hand on my shoulder. “How strong is he?” he asked more to me than Cookie though the chef didn’t realize that and blurted his answer.
“He killed Captain Erglyk with nary a mark to show for it!”
I looked to Hank. “You know my thoughts on the Captain. Taking her down is impressive.”
He remembered. “The Abrams. Right.”
Yaria interjected. “We are not here for fighting but reconnaissance. If they are close to breaching the passage we must send word to the Hole. When father wakes up we leave.”
Someone made a strangled gurgle of frustration. It took us all a moment to realize it was Twitch who had made the sound. Glaring at me from under goggles pushed up his forehead, he gestured wildly about then slammed a fist into a cupped hand before reaching towards me with an obvious plea.
Well, obvious to me anyway.
“What did he say?” Hank asked, both twins also looking my way for explanation.
I pursed my lips. “He says we can’t just leave. We have to do something.” I looked to Hank. “Remember what happens when they take out the passage? All resupply to the outposts up here stops.”
“They’ll all starve.”
Ruyia scowled. “We do not have the numbers here to make a difference. Yaria is right. We leave.”
Twitch reemphasized his gestures. And then he pointed again at me.
I didn’t translate his meaning to the others but I understood. It wasn’t what I wanted and would totally make a mess out of trying to stay hidden.
But he was right.
We were reapers. And all the reapers in all the other outposts were, without even knowing it, counting on us to save them from collapsing in on themselves from starvation because souls don’t die. They just suffer.
I turned to Yaria. “If we knock out their commander, this Colonel Jerkface, does someone else just take his place?”
She looked at me like I’d grown a second head. “I would not have wanted to fight your Captain Erglyk. My sister and I are skilled but I do not think it possible for us to, as you put it, knock out this Colonel. Even our father would hesitate.”
“Say it was though. What happens?”
Yaria considered. “They accepted contract for this. Which means he made a binding deal. The mercenaries are only bound to that contract through him.”
“So if he dies?” I prodded.
She leaned against a table and crossed her arms. “Should he fall in battle or be removed by stealth then the rest are free to choose another leader and to renegotiate the contract.”
“Or abandon it since things have gone sideways on them,” I said. “No wizards. No easy access to the Hole.”
“True,” she agreed. “But his forces would protect him. We have no means to accomplish his death.”
Twitch still glared at me. No longer pleading either, the insistence in his eyes was clear.
With a sigh my shoulders slumped. “Yeah, we do.”
Everyone but Twitch looked at each other then back at me. Yaria raised dark eyebrows. “Explain.”
I shrugged. “This grand asshole commander made it clear he has a personal grudge against me. Just as I do against him for killing my captain.”
Her eyes widened. “You can’t mean it.”
Giving her a rueful smile I tilted my head towards Twitch. “He won’t forgive me unless I try.”
Cookie’s face went even paler. He whispered, “Ma cherie, don’t do this.”
Casually raising a hand like a student in a classroom, Hank asked, “Would someone tell the new guy here just what the heck y’all are talking about?”
Yaria, warrior as she was, regarded me with perhaps an even greater respect than I’d earned from healing her father. She motioned for me to be the one to spell it out.
I did so. “It’s simple. I will challenge Colonel Dhalgrix to a Duelo Asmodai.”
Chapter 12 - Options
Many cycles ago and again after one too many tankards, Barry had decided to offer up another one of his lectures on demons.
Wiping some of the froth from his beard he had said, “The thing to remember, lass, is they dinnae have souls. When they die, thash it. No pullin’ up into a comatose orb, none o’ that - they ish gone forever-like.” With a grin he had let rip a loud belch which echoed mightily in the cavernous dining hall. “And like us woe-begotten mortals stuck in these realms they dinnae age neither. They be immortal long as no one slices ‘em to ribbons. Except for the few bloodthirsty dobbers addicted to the thrill o’ combat, they be risk averse plotters layering schemes one atop the other to get the only thing that matters to ‘em: survival at all costs.”
The Captain had in other conversations backed up Barry’s assessment whenever I’d probed her about the politics of the various realms. Places like our Rock with far more mortal souls in residence than demons were ruled by feudalism, demonic families having carved out entrenched strongholds by not causing too much challenge to those above while making sure those below in the hierarchy stayed put. Rare was direct violence between head-honchos as that was deemed far too dangerous and risky to their immortal hides.
Humans, in their mortal lives, know they have a limited number of years to live. Their priorities are to preserve their offspring and if possible - and even if it required sacrifice - improve the situation their children would inherit. For children were their legacy across time.
Demons, on the other hand, had children only to expand their own power. And any child who became a threat would also be put down.
Intrigue and subtle shifts of influence were the coins of the realms. From what the Captain had mentioned of the more populous ones, they sounded like terribly stratified bureaucracies which would have made Stalin red with envy.
I’d asked her about how the fallen angels fit into things, but with a shrug she said she didn’t really know. According to the lore they ruled from far above the fray of mortal souls and demons, intervening only if the realm’s fabric itself was in danger.
Or if a demon grew powerful enough to foolishly think themselves on equal footing.
Law and order was therefore imposed with iron scaly fists by the older demons in charge, as any chaos was naturally perceived as a possible personal threat. There was no tolerance for crime, getting caught by those in power with whom you had no influence meant almost always death.
Weeding out undisciplined young demons was harsh and final.
But occasionally, as is wont to happen, feuds developed between individual demons which would threaten to drag down entire power alliances and upset the carts of their more powerful superiors, possibly plunging the overly-important stability into a mess. Thus, after one realm nearly shattered under the weight of two factions hurling all their available energies at each other in something like a nuclear holocaust level exchange of force, the angels had intervened.
Specifically, a former general of the Maschitim named Asmodias sent his winged brothers to capture the two faction leaders that had let things get so out of hand. After erecting a mighty stadium he bid the two demon lords to duke it out in front of all the demons in the realm, winner take all. If they balked or if any other demon shed blood in that stadium Asmodias promised he would slaughter not just the specific offenders but every last demon within both factions.
Thus was the Duelo Asmodai born. Stories had been passed down that there were even instances of angels carrying out Asmodias’ threat when, after a Duel had been invoked, one side or another had attempted to cheat and interfere during the fight.
Only truly neutral parties had survived to tell the tale.
Hank, naturally, was opposed to the idea and immediately indicated his considered opinion. “That some kind of duel to the death? You’re crazy.”
I shrugged and slid a dagger into the sash at my waist. “Yeah, probably. But I don’t see any other alternatives.”
He grunted. “There are always possibilities.”
“Not in this case,” I disagreed. “We’re on our own little slice of the Rock’s top side. Beyond the outposts are either the Edge or the Spires, the rest is enclosed by the sweep of a large methane lake. Yeah, it gets that cold the further you go in. These jerks attacked us through the Spires, which most likely means they are working for the Duke who controls the territory on the other side.”
Ruyia lowered her bowl. “Not necessarily. There is a gate in the Spires.”
Spinning around to hiss at her sister, Yaria’s tight braid whipped about and almost smacked into Hank’s face. “Watch what you say!”
Glaring back, Ruyia crossed arms in a mirror of her twin’s pose. “Or else what? You know what we could offer them. Father would approve.”
Frowning, I looked between the two. “Gate? What sort of gate?”
Facing off with Yaria as if daring her to try and stop her, Ruyia answered. “The sort that can portal you to other domains if you know the rituals. Amongst those peaks are alignments which make such possible. Pledge yourselves to the Lilim, join our caravan, and you can escape this place.”
Hank said to Yaria, “This true? Y’all would offer us safe haven?”
Throwing a last look of disgust at her sister Yaria reluctantly nodded. “Father has wanted to recruit Jordan from the moment they first met. He’d take you and Twitch as long as she joined.”
To me Hank said, “That sounds a much safer plan.”
Twitch stomped a foot and gave another sweeping and more insistent gesture.
Dangit, he was still right. I asked the twins, “Is your gate large enough to resupply each and every outpost and keep them going?”
Ruyia made a sour face. “Only so much can be transported at a time. Gates need a lot of energy to recharge. We can get our people and you out, that is all.”
Well that sucked big time. More politely I said, “It’s a generous offer, but I can’t accept. Twitch and I are reapers. We can’t abandon the other outposts. I have to take that jerk down.”
I had expected Hank to argue further but instead a small smile curled at the corners of his mouth. “You really believe you can win?”
That was the question, wasn’t it. Could I beat this guy? I’d fought a lot of demons since getting stuck here, but none were close even to the Captain’s level. Camael’s bracers gave me an edge, sure, so maybe I could just burn the bastard. Barring that I’d have to cheat as perhaps only I could. Which was precisely what Twitch was counting on with those usually haunted eyes now overflowing with faith, adoration, and a hope I’d never seen in them before.
All because when he first found me lying in that smoking crater near the Edge I still wore wings. Bloody ones, sure, but I had them.
“Yeah,” I said, scooping up my spear and moving towards the tent flaps. “Besides, if this guy tries to swallow my soul I’m betting he’ll choke on it.”
Only Yaria laughed at that.
Pulling back the cloth and letting in the cold from outside I looked over a shoulder at everyone. “I’m choosing Yaria as my second and witness. Everyone else stay here. Use the telescope to observe the outcome.”
Left unsaid was should I lose they’d better hope Vance had woken up so they could take to the air and flee as fast as he and Ruyia could carry them.
Before I went out Twitch ran up and threw his arms around me in an uncharacteristic and fierce hug.
I squeezed him back just as hard. “Get Cookie’s leg set and splinted, okay?”
He nodded after letting go. Which took an extra second or three.
Hank offered me a salute. Ruyia’s eyes held uncertainty but she didn’t voice any further objections. Cookie just stared like I’d gone insane. As for Yaria, she checked her weapons were all still in place then motioned for me to march out first into the shadows that awaited.
Yaria and I proceeded to cross the dark open space between our tiny camp and the mercenaries’ rather more expansive one. Likely out of respect, one warrior to another, she kept quiet while we walked.
Was Cookie right? Had I lost my mind? And if I had would I even be able to tell?
The empty plain beneath my feet had no answers.
When we were about to step into the outer circle of light forming the perimeter of where we’d be spotted by their guards, Yaria threw an arm across my chest to stop me.
“You must make of him an example,” she said quietly so her voice wouldn’t carry. “Destroy him utterly. Leave no doubt that you could easily do the same to the rest. Otherwise your plan fails.”
Not giving time for a response she muttered a quick spell and tossed a fireball of reddish orange into the sky above, making our presence immediately obvious to the entire camp. Shouting in a clear and commanding voice her words rang out to anyone within a mile who had ears to hear.
“Behold! The Reaper known as Jordan of Outpost Epsilon gives challenge to Colonel Dhalgrix by right of honor! By her will a Duelo Asmodai is declared! Let her foe tremble in despair for she has come in righteousness and fire to deliver death and vengeance upon he whose wretched existence offends her!”
That was that. There was no turning back now. If the dream earlier had been a forewarning rather than inspiration I was in trouble. Thinking about it, I wondered if I was to be cast as the Michael or Lucifer in this scenario.
According to legend I had better hope I got Michael’s slot.
Chapter 13 - Duelo
Ever been stupid enough to whack a wasp nest with a stick? Back in elementary school a kid named Kyle did just that when a handful of us saw a paper-mache hive sticking out from under the eaves of a gym equipment shed. We’d been playing four-square and Alice had missed her catch of the red ball due to a particularly good throw and the ball had skipped all the way over behind the shed. We gave immediate chase, Kyle taking the lead. Kyle wasn’t all that bright but as he was the tallest and fastest he believed leadership was his by natural right. After we’d all marveled at the nest, Kyle had bent down to pick up a long stick. With a rather stupid grin breaking out across cheeks which a few years later would sprout an acne harvest the envy of any botanist, he raised it up. Realizing his intentions I simply noped right on out of there.
Before I could reach the rest of the class still playing at the pavement squares an ear-piercing shriek was heard followed by Kyle and all who had stayed with him running full-tilt towards the rest of us. Naturally in pursuit were enraged squadrons of wasps hell-bent on pointy rear-end revenge.
The school nurse ran out of cortizone cream that day.
Yaria’s loud announcement had much the same effect on the mercenary camp as Kyle’s stick. Demons of all shapes and sizes dropped what they were doing and came running while those closest to us shouted and began arguing with each other.
“Mortals have no rights to a duel!”
“All in Hell can give challenge!”
“Hey, no pushing!”
“Ten denari to the first to take their heads!”
That last was screamed by a blob made mostly of mouths and arms as it broke from the pack to bound towards us like a big-rig’s tire having broken free of its axle. As teeth and limbs spun across the dusty ground Yaria unsheathed her blackened sword and stepped forward, feet taking a wide yet balanced stance. I readied my spear while also preparing to dodge and strike but needn’t have worried.
An orb of blazing green lanced out from above the forming mob to slam into the charging demon, tossing it sideways a good fifty feet while driving a long rut in the pale dirt.
All eyes turned to the source of the blast.
Standing a good twenty feet tall and towering over the rest was a cyclopian figure straight from some crazed heavy-metal music video. A single burning verdant eyeball centered a face covered by this massive samurai helmet complete with sharp golden crescent moon curving upward and rust-colored plates hanging to the sides. The mask’s details included a particularly menacing metal grimace. Four tentacled arms also clad in the articulated reddish metal spread wide as the owner’s voice cracked over everyone’s heads.
“Foolishness cease! Decision for Commander to take.”
The growing crowd of demons parted to reveal the rest of the cyclops and its pair of oak like and similarly armored legs.
One tentacle whipped out towards me and Yaria while another uncoiled to gesture at the large tent where the digging was being done. “Come. You shall now.”
Yaria nodded so we both followed the four-armed thing whose head probably destroyed ceilings wherever he went.
Unless demonic architects plan for sizes like that and make everything taller. The outpost had been built into caves so it’s not like I had seen any real buildings made for demons yet. But wouldn’t designing for such make the regular-sized demons feel even smaller? And at what height should the doorknobs go? Did they require two equally functional knobs set as different vertical spots? I idly contemplated the pros and cons of such considerations all while being led towards a fight that could end with either outright destruction or eternal pain.
Thoughts can be weird like that.
Wagons full of covered dirt and rock had paused on their way to dump their cargo, the souls holding the reins of the graxh staring at us as we went by. Most had the blank faces of those whose emotions had been crushed eons ago but one guy with a ratty grey beard and frizzy hair removed a hat of beaten cloth and held it over his heart with a bowed head. You know, like we were passing by on the way to my own funeral.
Yeah, that was not encouraging. Nor was the stench of all the unwashed demons standing there gawking.
As we approached the main tent a massive demon stepped out flanked by two smaller and horned flunkies. Not that I paid the other two much attention as the main guy was honestly too darned impressive.
Imagine if Dwayne Johnson somehow magically had a love child with Andre the Giant and that kid grew up with the best nutrition and training around. And then abused the heck out of all the steroids advanced science could provide.
The guy who emerged from the tent would have put that kid to shame.
Wearing only a pair of pants, his hairless chest was at least a mile wide under all the grey dirt which almost but not quite covered the reddish hue of his skin. Hands big enough to palm basketballs the size of overinflated beach-balls brushed dust off of biceps and forearms straight out of some twisted anime artist’s dream of what over-powered muscles should be. Of course what really caused a sharp inhale was sensing how many souls this demon was sucking power from. A quick estimate put him at at least triple what Captain Erglyk had swallowed.
Bowing its head, the cyclops spoke to its leader. “To Commander, challenge given. Honor right, mortal claims.” One tentacled flipped in my direction.
Commander Dhalgrix raised a bushy black eyebrow and looked me up and down. When he smiled I realized my choice of body-builders was mistaken. That toothy grin was pure Terminator.
“Interesting,” he said with a leer. “You must be the reaper called Jordan.” The tent flaps behind him totally didn’t shake from his booming voice. Really.
I coughed to find my own tongue, it having tried to hide within the safety of the throat. “Yep. That’s me. You the fiend who killed Captain Erglyk?”
“Oh yes.” The grin widened further to expose even more teeth. No molars as far as I could see, just incisors and canines all the way to the back. “The good Captain provided more entertainment than I’ve had in ages.”
In for a penny, in for a pound. “As amusing as your wizards and sub-commander roasting themselves at my door? Too bad I didn’t get to watch.”
Anger stirred and the demon’s eyes burned like coals. But even as tendons across the ridiculously thick neck tightened the gaze returned to their previous cool black. “I do admit that the death of the wizards would indeed have provided a laugh given their hubris in underestimating your spellwork. As such all would almost be forgivable, except for one thing.”
Shit. This dude had his emotions under tight control. “Really? And that is?”
The grin disappeared into a snarl. “The death of my brother Krichgon to whom I owed a life-debt, now never to be repaid. So I offer you my gratitude for presenting yourself so easily to allow what little satisfaction remains possible to offer his memory. I accept your challenge under the aegis of the Duelo Asmodai. Your destruction shall be at my hands and no other.”
His brother. Uh, Cookie had failed to mention that little detail. So let’s recap: I just challenged a horribly overpowered demon, one who’d obviously mastered its passions, and was motivated by familial revenge to cause me as much suffering as possible.
I was feeling oh so smart with this plan.
Yaria stepped forward. “As the challenger she chooses the time and place. That choice is for the duel to be fought now upon the plains beyond your camp. Seconds present only, all other observers to remain within the camp’s bounds and no further.”
Dhalgrix grunted. “Acceptable. As the challenged I choose the method of fighting.” He paused, eyes narrowing with calculated thought before the sharp grin reappeared even more leering than before. “No armor, no weapons, no talismans. As we each are forged shall we fight.”
Uh oh. No armor meant no super-powered bracers of Camael badassery. And something about the curve of that smile was more bothersome still. I looked to Yaria for clarification. “That second part, it have any special meaning?”
Her lips pursed like she’d just swallowed a lemon. “It means you both fight naked.”
Ever just have one of those days?
Grey dirt and matching stone mixed with scattered ice stretched out for a good mile all around. There wasn’t much conversation as the four of us walked the distance until Yaria was satisfied with a spot maybe a hundred yards or so outside the camp. Riding wagons was out as graxh qualified as ‘observers’ according to Dhalgrix, who had done his demonic-slant to interpreting the conditions.
Maybe he thought a simple stroll like this would tire me out prematurely. As if.
Abiding by those damned conditions I sat on the hard ground to first remove my boots, then quickly piled the rest of my clothes into a clump for Yaria to guard. It took a bit of effort to get out of all the cold-reducing layers. Finally, I placed the bracers on top of the stack. Unspoken was the fact that should I lose Dhalgrix would lay claim to everything I own, including my share of the soulstones Twitch and I had gathered on our last run. He might have even been able to lay a claim for Hank as well. I hadn’t thought of that.
At the edge of the camp the entire horde of mercenaries had lined up in haphazard rows, casting long and oddly shaped shadows across the plains between us. Those with good eyesight hooted and hollered as I got to my feet and turned to face the hulking demon I was about to fight with nothing keeping me warm except sheer chutzpah. A freezing wind rustled the inch-long hair covering my scalp which somehow made everything feel colder. It’d been too many sleeps since I’d last shaved the dome so I was sporting a punk-rock look due to the gold and red sprouting straight up. While his fiendish crew whistled and shouted a number of anatomically challenging suggestions, my opponent leered in obvious appreciation of everything I’d just revealed.
The guy stood proudly with burly hands on muscled hips showing off his own physique. Yeah, even his hips had thickly corded muscles. He’d already stripped off the pants and surprise surprise hadn’t been wearing any underwear. Let’s just say that everything under those pants was in frightening proportion to the rest of his bulk and it wasn’t just his facial expression that was approving of my nude appearance.
“You gonna stand there and gawk or are we doing this?” I growled, fighting down the urge to try and awkwardly cover myself with hands and arms. If it got any colder my poor nipples were gonna transform into ice-picks.
“To think such beauty lay under so much wrapping,” mused Dhalgrix, showing a hunger that had nothing to do with food. “No sorceress in my travels has ever been so comely. Had I known I might have offered you my bed instead.”
“Too late for that.” Not to mention the thought of sharing a bed with this jerk made all of Twitch’s early cooking turn unpleasantly within my stomach.
He nodded. “Quite true.”
The four-tentacled cyclops shouted. “Declare readiness.” Both him and Yaria had retreated a safe distance away. Given the cyclops’ size she looked like a child in comparison, albeit one with many sharp implements standing by. With the only light coming from the crystal-torches placed around the mercenary camp it was rather dark out here so the two of them were silhouetted against that glow. It was a good thing I didn’t need solid lighting to see my foe. All the souls within him flickered brightly enough, serving as a good reminder of why he needed to be taken down.
“Ready,” I said while sliding a foot back to take a balanced guard position.
He tilted his thick head to one side then the other, loud cracks coming from the massive neck. “Also ready.”
Without fanfare the cyclops declared, “BEGIN!”
Before the word had a chance to echo in my ears I realized I’d made a mistake.
The guy was fast. Twitch-level fast. And I hadn’t prepared for it. In a blink of an eye that incredible mass had crossed the distance and a fist punched upwards with the strength of a howitzer to slam towards my chest.
It was all I could do to shove forearms in the way.
The blow tossed me up and back at least twenty yards, all air bursting past teeth which couldn’t even muster a proper ‘oof’. Arms were still instinctively crossed to protect where he’d struck and thus didn’t slap outward to the ground to distribute the landing.
As a result the back of my head crashed into the dirt and the totally blank sky above filled with glowing sparks before becoming yet darker still.
Upon a churning purple-black sea of pain and horror bobbed a perfect sphere forged of glass. Trapped within an angel pressed slender hands against the curved walls while shouting words unheard beyond. A black corruption wove itself across the feathers of one of the elegant ivory wings, binding it much the same as the iron chains clasping her ankles and wrists. A tender face, burdened with sadness and worry, held eyes shining with a light sublime, an inner illumination offering peace and wisdom to any who would embrace their glory…
A voice was shouting at me. Hank’s?
The darkness resolved into a giant shadow falling from above with a knee aiming straight for my chin. Without thought I rolled, shoving hands against the ground to launch the rest of me even further aside.
The knee and the giant behind it crushed a good three feet deep into the dirt, stones and ice bursting outward in all directions much like a meteor strike.
Knowing he wouldn’t stop to admire the artistry of his impact I tilted, lifted legs, and with a spine-arching thrust did a kip-up to get feet back under me. And perhaps more importantly, I threw my vision open to peer into the incoming possibilities, that weird lattice of immediate futures stretching across a part of my mind. This was something I’d spent a fair amount of effort training while sparring with Twitch whenever we’d be out on our rounds.
You know, when no one else could watch. Having seen me fight while using it was another reason he’d had such faith in me winning this duel.
I sincerely hoped that belief wasn’t horribly misplaced.
This time I hadn’t underestimated Dhalgrix as he came charging immediately after getting off that knee, aiming blow after blow with hands and feet, each getting either deflected or avoided as I danced around moving in tune to a song one note ahead of his. The lack of a sports-bra was an irritation but I did my best to ignore the reported complaints coming from the boobs bouncing so freely. I didn’t dare let that be a distraction. Given the power I’d just witnessed I really couldn’t afford another direct hit.
As it was forearms were already protesting that initial blow, the blossoming bruises twinging with each new swing and block.
At blinding speed we moved and counter-moved all while the crowd of demons went nuts with shouted cheers at the violence. Meanwhile that non-human awareness of mine searched deeper into the tree of possible events like a chess grand-master playing the ultimate blitz game where her next moves had to be recorded before the opponent had even made theirs.
The lack of Camael’s bracers hurt, but they had also shown me much when guiding my previous sparring. As there had been tons of idle time sitting on a wagon and crossing a whole lot of nothing I’d done a fair amount of detailed mental review of all such bouts. While I’m sure Camael himself would absolutely kick my ass, I’d managed to pick up on some of his techniques.
Applying that knowledge I was able to catch Dhalgrix’s arm with an Aikido-like maneuver and press my weight perfectly to snap his elbow. I followed up by dropping my own knee against his, except mine came down straight whereas his was stuck angled on its side.
Despite its thickness that crunched too.
I would have then sent a fist to his temple but a crackle in the air and a cautionary premonition warned me off. His good arm had extended and a sparking blue field spread outward.
It was a blue glow that I recognized. Dhalgrix was using Barry’s specialty, the ability Barry had wielded to power up his axe or do as the demon was now: using the summoned energy as a force field.
Barry’s soul was in there somewhere and the jerk had already stolen his power.
The last time I’d blindly punched such a defensive field my fist had been crushed rather rudely so this time I checked the strike and backed off to re-evaluate.
Behind the raised defenses Dhalgrix stood on his one good leg. Instead of wincing from the damage I’d inflicted the bastard simply laughed.
“Astounding!” he declared. “And here I thought you’d be just another sorceress dependent on pre-cast incantations and trinkets like all the rest.”
“You’ll find I’m full of surprises.” I couldn’t resist the quote. Not that this asshole would get the reference.
“Then let us discover more of them.” With an enjoyment seemingly out of place given his condition, a greenish hue flowed over his knee and an awful cracking could be heard.
It was the same sound my own bones and tendons had made against each other when I’d used the power of the light to fix equally nasty wounds from having been kicked through a wall. The light which was now all too out of reach for me to reach.
The massive demon’s emerald energies obviously weren’t.
His leg healed and straightened to take its full share of the weight yet again, and his skin…well, it rippled. Hardened spikes pushed outward past the flesh and between the blue glow still held between us and the distant lights from the camp, it was clear that the texture of the dust-covered reddish skin had shifted to now give off a shinier specular reflection from patches where my fervent blocks had brushed off the dirt.
As if his hide had become metal.
“I thought you said no armor!” I shouted. What the hell?
“’As we each are forged’,” he laughed again, clearly savoring the moment. “You are free to reforge your own skin should you wish.”
What the Hell indeed. I should have known.
He grunted as his eyes narrowed with more deadly seriousness. “Now then, little soul. Let’s see what other tricks you can bring to the fun.” With one hand wielding Barry’s stolen gift like a medieval shield and the other forming a mace out of the sparkling blue power, he bulldozed towards me again.
It was all I could do to dodge while frantically searching for counters. To the roaring crowd it probably looked like he was chasing me around in circles. Which wasn’t far from the truth.
But not entirely the case.
He was fast in wielding that shield, eager to shove it against any blow that came his way even with that hardened carapace now offering its own protection. But the various spikes sticking out of his arms, chest, legs, and even neck made some movements difficult as the metallic extrusions kept clicking and grinding against each other causing slight errors in his swings. If he was at all frustrated by my continually dancing out of reach he didn’t show it, nor did he slow down. If it was a battle of attrition I was after he was more than happy to oblige.
I knew eventually I’d tire and he’d get get one of those turbo-fueled strikes in. As it was my shins and arms were complaining mightily against the abuse they’d already suffered. At this rate they’d eventually break just from all the hairline fractures alone and I’d be toast. And if that mace hit I’d be naught but jelly spread on top.
I needed to take it up another notch.
My time sparring with Barry faking being less capable hadn’t been entirely a waste either. I’d studied the Scotsman’s energy and contemplated how he made it work. Better still I’d pondered how to defeat it. As Barry had been a friendly and stand-up kind of guy, one who hadn’t tried to hit on me, I’d never put those thoughts into practice. That and doing so would have revealed more abilities I hadn’t wanted exposed. Given the current situation though I didn’t have much choice. A secret held by a smear in the dirt wasn’t worth much.
It was time to put theory into practice.
Spinning, I slapped a hand at his stolen blue shield. Except I didn’t touch it exactly.
Instead I pulled free the primal spark energy provided by Barry’s trapped soul and wrapped that stolen power around my fingers before completing the spin and executing a pointed lunge at Dhalgrix’s windpipe.
The toughened hide splintered under the directed energy release which snapped against the weakest part of his armored pattern. Even as Dhalgrix choked from the impact he raised the blue sparkling mace to try and smack me away but I wasn’t done.
My other hand had already swept through the mace as well, pulling its energy free so I could slam all it could give right into Dhalgrix’s skull.
He went down, falling hard on his ass, but as I jumped in for more strikes he again glowed green. His legs coiled with tremendous speed and I had no choice but to abandon my attacks and ride out his following upward kick that sent me over his head and into a forward dive.
I’d like to think my landing was more graceful than his as I rolled through it and back to my feet. My vision shimmered for a moment though and I had to blink a few times to refocus.
Dammit, I was getting tired.
Dhalgrix may have been in similar condition as instead of rushing at me after getting back up he just stood there, massive chest heaving with large intakes of air through the now-healed windpipe. He was staring but no longer with amusement or any lust at what heaved freely upon my chest from each breath of my own. I stared back, noting that now both of us were smeared head to toe in the gray dirt sticking fast to our skin from all the frozen sweat and blood.
“You’re a channeler,” he said, the Neanderthal brow furrowed with thought and calculation. “And you move in anticipation of every attack.” Those dark eyes widened. “Could it be that you have precognition as well?”
“I’m just lucky.” I began to circle around him, keeping feet light but steady.
“No. This skill goes beyond luck.” He watched my movements with caution and, dare I say it, admiration. “I had planned to torment you for a thousand cycles as fitting punishment for all to witness. But now? Girl, you are a golden treasure amidst a sea of flotsam. He who absorbs your power would reign supreme!”
I snorted dismissively. “You don’t have what it takes to swallow this soul, you pathetic jerk. Now, are you done bloviating or what? I’ve still got a whole bag of tricks with your name all over them. You’ll be screaming just like your brother as he was cooked alive before I’m done with you!”
His control fractured, eyes glowing red in the darkness.
This time they stayed lit.
“Let me show you then, little soul, why your feeble Captain died so readily. And why no mere mortal should ever dare challenge my might!”
Multiple lines of crimson cut their way across the metallic chest. Not blood either, more like lava. With a shout the hide burst outward along those mismatched gashes, the multiple flaps spreading apart the entire torso. All the spikes folded around that gaping maw like horrible braces-needing teeth.
Behind what would give dentists nightmares for weeks wasn’t a tongue but a vortex. It was as if he’d opened a hatch to the void of space, the lack of an airlock sucking the freezing air and pulling in the loose dirt and stones knocked free from our fight. My bare feet also began to slide painfully across the ground towards him.
Much to his confusion I didn’t struggle against the pull.
I dove right on in.
Chapter 14 - Requests
In the legal profession it is not entirely uncommon for opposing councils, after the completion of downright ugly multi-year lawsuits with each side spilling ink-filled carnage across every filed brief, to find to their astonishment that in separate and new cases the interests of their respective clients had now aligned. Thus hardened opposition at times become allies. For in the world of business should a large company lose in a matter they may hire the very law firm who had recently kicked their legal posteriors in the arena of the courts to assist on the next issue of money and law under litigation. For Isaiah, however, never before had he found himself unexpectedly working with two individuals who had caused him so much personal pain.
It was a testament to his will that instead of calling the Director of the Department of Paranormal Affairs to coordinate the capture of the two men - nay, the two angels - he embarked to negotiate an entirely different course of action.
The Director’s secretary had wasted no time in transferring the call after receiving permission and the Director got right to the point when he immediately picked up.
“Mr. Cohen. Your sudden departure from the memorial services has had us all concerned. Are you safe?”
“Director Goodman, when you consider who wishes my demise it is likely that I am currently in the safest company one could find.”
A pause. “Soren is still with you.” It was a statement and not a question.
“Indeed. And he has agreed to not contest my providing you with further details of the situation of which you may be unaware, a precondition to my mediating on his behalf. For he desires to make a request of you and your agency.”
“That man is currently sharing the top of the global most-wanted lists with many terrorists. Therefore I do not foresee being inclined to fulfill any bequests from such an individual.”
“You may wish to reconsider, sir. What if I were to tell you that Callas Soren is in fact the archangel Camael, Regent of the Seat of Light, Commander of the angels of the Powers, Captain and Champion of the Host of Heaven, and with the breaking of the Second Seal has regained the full mantle thereof? Would this not change your calculus?”
Through the phone’s tinny speaker could be heard the creaking of a chair from someone sinking further into its leather. “Yet he is having you speak for him and not directly.”
“It is his declared wish to avoid the need for a demonstration of that statement’s truth and hopes that my vouching for him in this matter will suffice. Panic serves neither your interests nor his.”
“Tell that to Los Angeles with what he pulled off last summer.”
“I agree that he has much to answer for. His request is related to a course of action hoping to correct at least one of his failures, an attempt which will remove himself and another entirely from the world. Perhaps even permanently.”
“Another? Is he taking you off-world?”
“No. Not me. He has recruited Mr. Wright to assist. They plan a journey to Hell in order to free my best friend and brother. They mean to rescue the spirit of Justin Blythe.”
“Forgive me, Isaiah. This is a lot to take in. Jordan is in Hell?”
“According to Soren, yes. She fell to there after Circe’s spell tossed both her and the bomb beyond Earth’s reach. And we have learned of a way for her spirit to return home. Even if it means Soren and Wright will be stuck thereafter.”
“Everything I’ve been told says that once a soul is in Hell they can never leave.”
“My friend’s spirit is not that of just any angel. Soren is convinced it can escape.”
“Wait a moment. If Soren is Camael, won’t he fall from grace by going to Hell himself?”
It was Isaiah’s turn to pause. “I do not know. That does seem likely.”
“He’s willing to Fall in order to save Jordan.”
Isaiah considered, and the truth was obvious. “He is. It is my opinion that in his eyes Jordan is the only thing that currently matters in the universe.”
“And Wright agreed to go with him? That doesn’t sound at all like Nick.”
“Soren offered him that which could not easily be refused. And before you ask, no I cannot share those details.”
“Cannot or will not?”
“Those agreements are private affairs.”
“I see. What does Soren wish then from the DPA?”
“We will be visiting the storage facility in Los Angeles where all of this started. He requests all agents to vacate the building itself and only maintain the exterior perimeter to prevent intrusion during the visit.”
“The lockers? What does he need from there? All the relics have already been removed.”
“He has not said. He did indicate that you are free to leave your cameras on and observe, but for the safety of your men they must exit the facility.”
“Why do I get the feeling that this is not so much a request as a warning? He’s going to do whatever he wants regardless, isn’t he.”
“I believe that should even the entire Host of Heaven or the hordes of Hell array against him he would still march along the path he has chosen.”
“Would they want to?”
“Between you and me, I have no idea. The answer to that is far more complicated than I am able to comprehend at this moment.”
The Director exhaled. “We’re caught up in circumstances far beyond the likes of us mortal men, Mr. Cohen. Alright, if only to save my agents and the cops plus potentially acquire further intelligence, we will agree. We’ve traced this call to where you are in Turkey; how soon does he need the building evacuated? Is he with you?”
“He requests it be emptied within thirty minutes. Myself, Wright, and Soren will arrive presently.”
“Portals again I take it. Fine, I’ll get it done. Anything else?”
“Yes, though it is my own request and not his.”
“What is it?”
“Once they are gone I wish to visit the Grigori Zakiel. I understand he is in the custody of your agency.”
“He’s unconscious. Why would you want to see him?”
“Sariel still desires my death. Zakiel is the best lead towards finding Bishop—and through him Sariel. Unless you’ve found either one already?”
“We’re looking everywhere for both but so far no luck. Jordan told us that Bishop’s got a third bomb so he’s our top priority. While Zakiel may know something, none of our psychics have gotten through to him. Have you asked Wright if he knows how to find Sariel?”
“All he has is a possible name for Sariel’s incarnate. I will give it to you once Soren and Wright have departed this world.”
“Thank you. Still, I don’t see how your seeing Zakiel will help with anything. Not even Louis Geintz from Whateley could get his mind to respond.”
“Yet he spoke to Jordan and I have good reason to believe he will wish to speak with me.”
“Why? What aren’t you sharing, Mr. Cohen?”
“Get me to Zakiel and you may find out. Thirty minutes until our arrival, Director. The clock starts now.” Isaiah ended the call.
In the cramped hotel room the other two angels who had been listening in got to their feet.
Soren gestured towards the door. “Don’t forget your coats, gentlemen. And bring the umbrella.”
A rare autumn storm covered Los Angeles with roiling grey clouds. Steadily falling drops accumulated to slowly wash away the sins of previous summer heat and dry valley winds. Having used one of Soren’s many portals to appear in yet another alley, the three men - two in dark coats and one in beige - crossed the single block to reach the storage facility on foot. Only one stood under an umbrella’s protection.
The other two had waved hands at the falling water and ceased being targets from the sky’s deluge.
Isaiah was surprised to find a crowd braving such weather to press against hastily erected security fencing topped with barbed wire which now surrounded the facility. The crowd faced off against the police on the other side as all were becoming drenched from above.
The cops looked the more miserable for the crowd outside was singing.
In fact they sang a hymn.
For to his angels he’s given a command,
To guard you in all of your ways;
Upon their hands they will bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
“What’s going on?” Isaiah asked his drier companions. Several people in the crowd held aloft large signs but being behind them he couldn’t make out what was written. A priest in coat and collar stood before the throng guiding the hymn, a bad comb-over wetly clinging to the wrong side of his head.
Nick chuckled. “Haven’t you been watching the news? Pictures of Jordan in Egypt went even more viral than the ones from Syria. Someone also caught sight of her leaping off the top of this building which caused its own frenzy. Religious sensitives had already flocked here, drawn by the leftover resonances from Callas’ shenanigans. Plus her friend’s statements to the press didn’t help.”
“Resonances?” Isaiah frowned. His skin had started tingling as they approached, an electric tugging at things felt only in his dreams.
It was downright distracting.
“Transfiguration,” said Soren, “accomplished within the glory of the light. This shall be a holy site for generations. Now come.” He stepped off the sidewalk and approached the gate barring the parking lot as the crowd had politely left the road clear.
With the rain and the crowd’s rapturous singing focused around the priest the three managed to slip past the gate before being noticed. The guards, decked out in bulletproof vests, assault riot gear, and covering yellow ponchos, had seen them coming and after checking photo instructions on their phones quickly cracked the gate wide enough to usher the trio inside.
Seeing the gate move the crowd surged towards it but with a loud clunk the opening had slammed shut yet again. Disappointed, the odd mix of homeless and devout middle-class churchgoers returned their attention to the priest who encouraged them to finish the hymn.
And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of his hand.
As singing went Isaiah had heard worse.
A sergeant with greying sideburns let them into the building despite being obviously disgusted with the orders to clear out and allow three civilians free access to the facility. The sliding glass doors closed behind, shutting out both rain and song.
“All personnel are outside getting soaked, sirs,” the sergeant said crustily. “How long is this gonna take, whatever the hell this is?”
Nick grinned but before he could respond Soren’s hand on his shoulder cut him off.
“It should not be long, Sergeant,” said the taller sorcerer. “We appreciate the cooperation.”
With a grunt the man handed Soren the keys to access the elevator then stepped back to re-trigger the doors. Before they closed a second time he muttered “the hell you do” loud enough to be heard.
Nick, still amused, shook his head. “I think a more important question is how long until the good policeman there realizes two of his most wanted criminals just waltzed on in here.”
“All the more reason,” Soren said, “to not delay.” He led them past the lobby’s collection of folding tables and portable computers which had turned it into a field outpost and reached the white-painted elevator. Using the key to get it to open, he stepped in and pushed one of the buttons.
Stepping in beside him, Nick asked, “Don’t you want the floor below that?”
“If I had, Nicolas, I would have pressed differently.”
As they rode up Isaiah admitted to himself that the entire situation had crossed way into the surreal. A master sorcerer who was actually the third horseman of the apocalypse was on his left, while on his right was the sorcerer’s wayward apprentice: a man whose efforts had come close to either killing or driving mad most of the people on the planet.
Thinking about it Isaiah decided that law school had definitely not prepared him for this sort of thing. And even if they had offered, who in their right mind would have ever taken such a course?
Well, alright. He might have been curious. But still.
The doors opened to more white hallway lined by orange single-car garage doors, most of which were open to empty storage spaces. Except they weren’t exactly empty, seeing as how their walls were covered in twisting lines of paint which still guided energies simply dizzying to behold. The longer Isaiah tried to follow the patterns, the more the rustling felt underneath his skin became obnoxious.
They stopped in front of unit number four-oh-five which had its own distinct energy lacing walls, floor, and ceiling. The itching between his shoulder blades reached levels distinctly uncomfortable yet also strangely intoxicating. The lawyer found himself swaying and he had to reach out to the doorway to steady himself.
Soren regarded Isaiah, expression warming from the usual hardness. “You can feel it. The hum of her holy choice, the echoes of her ascension which even now spreads outward across the cosmos with its declaration of sacred promise.”
It was all Isaiah could do to nod. The fire running through veins and nerves was growing hot with something other than heat. He felt confined and restricted in ways he had never before, as if an external pressure tightened its grip while desperately yearning to stretch beyond the skin. He wanted to revel in the energies bursting like novas across perceptions previously unknown to him. All the visions and dreams of heaven and its angels became all too real as he stood there, no longer constrained to the boundaries of sleep and therefore acceptable fantasy.
Here, in this place, those visions felt more real and solid than did the world outside the building. Within his heart leapt in desire to join a song far more powerful than the small reflection carried by the voices of those out in the rain.
Nick crossed his arms, hands rubbing over the sleeves of his coat. “Can we get on with it? Being in this place is like having an Olympic-class weightlifter pound nails through my skull with a sledgehammer.”
Isaiah caught the flash of pity across Soren’s face as the sorcerer stepped inside the unit, reaching a hand to its center. The lines of force twisted towards the fingers, and with that twisting the air emitted a small ‘pop’.
In Soren’s grasp now lay a softly glowing orb no larger than an apple. Sparks flashed through its glassy surface to dance through the clouds contained behind. Floating there, hanging in the midst of those small roiling clouds, were two broad-feathered and perfect grey wings each with lightning cascading through their veins.
Staring at the orb, Nick’s eyes became transfixed and echoed the storm perceived within. “Even should I take them from your hand,” Nick said quietly, “I can never use them. Once severed they cannot be rejoined.”
Soren held the orb out to the other man, nay, the other angel. “You must have faith once more, Barakiel. For within the light of lights will all such faith be rewarded.”
Fingers reached out but hesitated and Nick/Barakiel looked back to Isaiah who still hovered by the doorway. “Will you swear to not break the fourth seal? To preserve the souls we Grigori created?”
Unbidden words passed Isaiah’s lips. “I shall do as I have always done. Preserve that which should be. Where there is divine light you shall find my hand holding true to protect each and every spark from the ever-waiting darkness.”
The fallen angel looked again upon the tiny wings floating inside the orb’s containing matrix, so close to his touch. His wings. With every pulse of lightning they called to his core. “How did you get them, Camael? They were lost within the flood.”
At the saying of his truer name Soren’s visage shifted. Feathers of red fire billowed out into the room behind him and the winter coat transformed into glorious armor of black and gold. When he spoke the words filled the space with an undeniable power and underlying grace. “These were never lost. I was bidden retrieve them and so it was done.”
“Bidden by whom?”
“Aradia. Before the attack which cost her life.”
Barakiel held his hand still though his fingers stretched towards that which was his and whose lack had fueled an inner hurt through countless incarnations. “How far could she have seen, I wonder? Has everything been according to her plan?” The hand trembled as he whispered, “She asked if I could still believe.”
The fire-feathered angel released the orb and let it hover there on its own. “Only she can answer your question, just as only you can answer hers.”
To those within the room the storm inside the orb merged with the one in the sky above. The rune-covered ceiling faded away, leaving them standing below roiling thunderclouds rumbling with the potential of tremendous gathered energies.
Taking a deep breath Barakiel declared, “Then let us find her and in so doing perhaps gain answers to both.”
A bolt of lightning arced from that sky to strike the orb and the hand that took it. The echoing crescendo of thunder shook the building to its foundation and the blood-winged angel caught his fallen brother before his body could hit the floor.
Kneeling to gently lay it upon tiles quickly becoming slick with rain, the angel looked up to his older brother.
To the one who had borne witness.
“Azrael, you must pull forth his spirit. Free him from the bindings placed by you and Gabriel upon all our kind who walk this world. Free him from the grip of the Wheel that he may accompany me unto the realms below.”
Like in a dream Isaiah understood. Entering the room he went to one knee himself and placed a hand of obsidian over Nick’s chest. Fingers sank past the coat, the skin, the muscle, and even bone to touch spirit.
Pulling with the might of inevitability the ghostly visage of both the magician and the angel he once was rose from the body into the air, translucent arms unconsciously holding close the collection of feathers again forming full-sized and lightning-kissed wings. Lines of angelic script and ancient will spun brightly around the spirit, preparing to escort it to yet another lifetime within the mortal realm as had been done to it so many times before.
Standing, Isaiah stretched out the dark hand once more. With the stroke of a single finger the bindings placed upon the spirit recognized his authority and fell away in a shimmer of fading sparks.
Forearms bare and unarmored carefully lifted the spirit higher as Camael also stood, no longer physical but having already crossed over.
The two angels regarded each other. War and Death stood within a sacred space where the truths of spirit lay open to all those willing to see.
Azrael spoke, his words carrying beyond the walls. “Send her home, Camael. Send her home that her light may shine complete. Lest her spirit become tainted by shadow.”
As he took flight to carry their lost brother to where all their fallen brethren had been exiled so long ago, Camael replied.
“By the Light it shall be so.”
Chapter 15 - Bottled
Thought and vision fractured as the vortex swallowed all. Only scattered fragments resolved into coherency as they rushed past my awareness.
None were pleasant.
A green minivan pulls away from the curb, crying siblings strapped tightly into car-seats unable to turn and watch as their father sinks to his knees while his bruised and battered wife takes their children forever away. It was supposed to have been one drink, just one drink…
The Cardinal laughs as the dark-haired woman kneeling before him restores lost vigor to his loins. Outside the walls of her cell the pyres awaited any disobedience, the fresh scent of straw serving as reminder to the cost of defiance should she fail to use her healing arts upon his mottled flesh…
An exhausted and mud-covered sergeant holds the blood-soaked body of a fellow soldier. He curses god, himself, and then his friend for his disregarding orders and entering the rear of the village only to run into the rest of the platoon sweeping room to room. In the dark he was mistaken for the enemy who had already abandoned the area…
Strobe-light burns her retinas, the press shoving and shouting at her upon the courthouse steps. Behind emerges a man in a tan and well-pressed suit which sells for more than six months worth of her rent, laughing and waving at the multitude of cameras. A detective’s mishandling of evidence forced the judge to let him go free despite the pools of blood which had once stained each of those corrupt fingers. Her sister’s blood…
A setting sun clads a pyramid with crimson rays, the desert beyond still swirling with the disturbed dust of earlier battle. Bodies are carted away into waiting emergency vehicles, white cloths covering their still forms some of which were armored and others not. Hair slipping free of the shroud on one of the gurneys rustles in that wind, locks of purest snow swaying in a cool breeze one final time…
That one I recognized.
“This is wrong.”
Bare feet felt gritty sand bunching between the toes while ears pulsed with the roar of helicopters overhead a eyes examined the wreckage forged of battle between technology, sorcery, and that which blended such together…
“I said it’s wrong!”
Eyelids closed with the focus of forcing real memories to the surface. I had not seen the aftermath of this battle. I’d teleported far away and exploded somewhere safe. The residual energies of that explosion still lurked within and the resultant ever-present headache of suppression helped return clarity.
“This isn’t real. You hear me you foul putz?”
The echoes of wind, people, and machines faded, replaced instead with each deliberate pull of breath into my lungs. Not that they were real at the moment either, nor was the solid ground now pressing into my heels’ callouses.
Another’s dark chuckle filled a smaller space. “You defy me even here. Remarkable, though irrelevant.”
Chains rattled and I opened eyes as a swarm of metal links flashed forward to wrap around my still naked body. Arms, legs, chest, and neck, all were caught tight by strand after strand of chain. I grunted as it all dug tightly into the skin and slammed me against the stone walls of a cave lit only by a pair of freestanding torches.
Dhalgrix stood there, no longer in his armored form but rather wearing dark slacks and a ruby velvet smoker’s jacket of all things.
“Nice outfit,” I croaked past the restrictions binding at my throat.
He smiled, fangs peeking past lips. “Such power. You may well be worth the combined mettle of over half of those I have swallowed.” Extending a palm outward he shuddered at what he sensed. “Maybe more. Surrendering now will be less unpleasant than if I need to break you first.” The smile became a sneer. “Though I shall take my pleasure of you regardless, mortal. We have eternity for me to savor ravaging such beauty.”
I couldn’t help it. Despite the choke-hold I laughed, emitting a sound more bitterly harsh than even his.
Which, of course, was not what he had been expecting and the sneer fell away into a snarl. “You lost, do you not understand? You and your foolish challenge! Now you shall suffer for my brother’s death and I shall savor every tear and cry of anguish. I won, you hear me? I WON!” He took a step forward and slapped me across the face with enough power to snap necks.
Well, most necks anyway.
“No,” I said, spitting blood onto his face. “You didn’t.”
Maybe I should have pitied the asshole. But I had none in my heart for such as him. He was a leech and a sadist, and deserved everything about to hit him where it hurts.
Because we weren’t anywhere real or solid. In actuality his demonic essence had wrapped itself around my spirit to begin the infernal process of sucking out all the despair and anguish it could force me to experience. Through that suffering he’d harness the power of a soul’s divine spark and steal it for his own.
He had the power of maybe forty such lost souls fueling his strength in this place. Quite formidable per his experience.
Not to mine.
That tower of light barely seen within my own inner vision still remained far too distant to be of any use, its infinite promise as distant as the furthest stars only seen through telescopes atop god-forsaken mountaintops. Good thing I didn’t need it. For I held the energies of hundreds of thousands of victims still burning with all the released fury and terror which had accompanied their untimely demise.
And it ached to be free.
Metal links exploded outward, some searing through the jacket and into the demon’s make-believe flesh, a demon who still had no clue what exactly he’d eaten.
“How-” He never got to finish the thought. A purplish-energy clad uppercut launched his chin and the rest of him across the fake cave to crash into perceivably impenetrable walls. His jaw shattered under the blow and as he slid down the stone so did all traces of his arrogance.
Demonic-red eyes filled instead with fear.
The construct we stood in didn’t serve any further purpose. With a word spoken in the tongue of those who assisted the creation of all things I ripped the walls away, my will wrapping around the foul spirit stronger than his steel cables could ever have managed.
As I sent my perceptions through the fabric of his essence to sort out that which was demon versus his trapped victims’ souls, I found myself talking.
Not that he could respond. I didn’t let him.
“Your mistake,” I was saying, “the one I was waiting for, was for you to pull me in. Here, out of sight of the Fallen in your own blighted but private inner space, I have no need to hold back.”
Two souls still glowed brightly through the taint smothering their light. One was fresh but the other had been entwined for countless ages. Yet somehow it burned with a refusal to fully succumb.
“You know one of the hardest things to deal with since I fell to this cursed rock?” My voice started off strangely calm and distant. “Not following every screaming instinct and ripping each and every one of you demons apart. Because it’s all I feel while in your damned presence. The pain of all those souls you make suffer. Even the ones so far past consciousness they’re naught but pebbles pulsing with barely lit memories of their darkest moments, they too cry out to my heart for freedom.”
I didn’t possess the light to cleanse them. Only the rage to peel back the surrounding oozing blackness and separate each one in turn from that horrid external influence tilting them into repeatedly reliving their worst moments.
Like me they’d have to deal with the residual crud on their own.
“Yet I’ve held it all in check,” I continued. “Release would have brought attention from forces I know too well I’m in no shape to deal with. Me cutting loose would ripple through the realm, disturbing the powers that maintain it. Fate already chewed me up and spat me out, so that was fine. I was done! Finished! I’d found a remote existence, no bother to anyone. Then you showed up with your horrific crew and in your mercenary greed you wiped out the small semblance of peace I’d scraped together. Because of you I’ve had to take action, risking notice and getting involved in a demonic pissing contest that has nothing whatsoever to do with me.”
The demon’s spirit gurgled and with a mental snarl of my own I squeezed, forcing first the azure-tinted soul free and then the verdant green.
“I’ve been quiet and out of the way, don’t you see? I just wanted to be left alone. I’ve had enough! No more insanities! No more bullshit destinies! Those just screwed up my life and took away everything that I loved!”
Tightening that sickeningly purplish power further, I forced another soul free.
“I did all I could and Danielle still died! How was that right?! Hadn’t I suffered enough when the fucking cancer killed my wife?”
“Now Isaiah is stuck facing that continuing madness alone! Right when he needs me the most!”
With a shout I hammered against the demon’s spirit triggering a shower of escaping souls, all streaming past in colors once vibrant but now so awfully dim. One by one they ejected until all that was left was a dark fold of essence whose stolen power leaked into the ether. Just a scribble shoved onto a weak pattern at birth, all to anchor the spiritual cohesiveness long enough for the newborn leech to attach itself to its first hapless soul.
“And you know what else?” I screamed at that darkness. “I miss my friends and my kitty you demonic son of a bitch!”
With a final word I lashed out to burn away all traces of the bastard’s true name.
He shrieked then, a shrill note of terror as if his tonsils scraped along a chalkboard. Piece by piece, every bit of his essence supported by that underlying name peeled away, like a house finding itself without a foundation in the midst of a tornado strike. Roof tiles stripped skyward first, then the ceiling and its support beams, only to be followed by all the furniture, doors, and finally the walls themselves.
He howled to the last remnants of brick and mortar and was gone.
As was the spiritual space I’d entered when he foolishly swallowed me whole.
Agony welcomed me back as perceptions refocused upon the barren hellscape outside the mercenary camp. Finding myself on hands and knees against the hard and dusty ground I coughed and immediately wished I hadn’t. Arms and shins throbbed with countless deep bruises, ribs creaked with who knows how many fractures, and all the sweat and blood smeared solid grey as if I’d been dragged to some drug-addled beautician’s crazed mud therapy.
Yaria’s mighty whoop cut through the pain.
“Victory belongs to the Reaper Jordan!”
Lifting my head I regained my bearings. The menagerie of demons who had lined up at the edge of the camp to watch the fight stood in growing dismay, their minds unable to process that their mighty commander had just dissolved into the breeze. All that was left behind was a pile of dimly glowing stones, an unconscious and naked Barry, and a scraggly-haired brunette sitting on her own nude posterior peering about with muddled confusion.
Oh, and me.
The samurai-helmeted cyclops still standing next to Yaria was the first to react. I flinched expecting an attack as his bulk shifted, but instead the towering tentacled power-house dropped to one knee and bowed his one-eyed head.
“Hail Jordan. Hail Commander!”
As if knocked over by a slow-moving wind the other demons followed suit, each also taking a knee (or whatever available limb) in shocked silence.
There was an awkward pause before nerve-spiking pain tore across my palm as if a hot poker had shoved right through. I cried out as molten-metal crimson ripped across the skin, burning itself brighter into an eye-blindingly whitish gold. The scent of seared flesh assaulted my nose as matching flares and grunts of pain swept across the entire crowd. When it all faded we each stared at the shiny new brands now seared into our flesh. Some had it on hands or arms, others on chests or even foreheads. But all had been marked by the same symbol.
An elegant four-pointed star.
I hadn’t done it. The rules governing this realm must have accepted my victory and automatically imposed the required bindings upon all of Dhalgrix’s vassals. They were now bound to my service and will.
As the implications sank in I gave a strained giggle while leaning back to look up at the all-too-empty sky. I couldn’t help it. An over-stressed and exhausted brain decided to picture the demons as reporters complete with fedoras and trenchcoats ill-covering their varied bizarre physiques and they jostled forward in my imagination with microphones to shout the same question:
“Jordan Emrys! You’ve just inherited your very own band of hellish mercenaries! What do you plan to do next?”
Did Hell have its own equivalent to Disneyland? I was so ready to go.
Dibs on the purple tea-cup and the Mad-Hatter’s hat.