Chapter 32 - Plan
Boston police were waiting for them at the gate when they landed. There had been an awkward stand-off while Diego called the DPA to confirm that the detectives were actually on assignment as opposed to being there due to possible unseen influence from mind-controlling angels.
Assurances were received and soon Isaiah and the wizard were delivered to a brick-walled police precinct sitting alongside a narrow Boston street. Being Californian all Isaiah could think of as they were ushered past the windowed doors facing the rear parking lot was that a single earthquake could level the entire structure. Given the number of brick buildings they’d passed on the drive there, the entire city had better hope against such seismic events.
Or, say, powerful geo-magic.
The halls of the station that morning were crowded with agents all wearing blue and black blazers emblazoned with a wide variety of three-letter acronyms, along with more men wearing slightly over-sized business jackets who eyed the rest suspiciously. As for the cops whose home-base had been so invaded, they were doing their best to go about their business but clearly resented such a presence.
Especially as no one would tell them just what the hell was going on.
“This way.” A marked DPA agent led the newly arrived pair across a squad-room with desks piled high with casefiles, each with a computer sitting amidst stacks of paperwork piled there as testaments to the failure of the quaint notion of a ‘paperless’ office. Walls were covered with print-outs spelling out the city’s current pressing sins, the ancient cork-boards underneath having borne their pinned weight for too many decades.
Within a conference room were pressed still more agents, many with dour expressions and crossed arms. At the head of the table stood Director Goodman, his short gray hair and sheriff-style mustache looking as tussled and tired as the bags underlining his eyes. He was in mid-argument with a red-faced man whose own gray hair had long ago given up its fight against baldness, the short ringed haircut echoing that of historical monks due to the wide face and broad stature of its owner.
“El Paso was a clusterfuck,” Goodman was stating, voice heated but controlled. “That’s why I am here. Your men have no idea what they are dealing with.”
A tall man in police dress-blues whose many ribbons told impressive stories of the past interrupted them both. “We’ve dealt with vampires before, Director. We’re equipped which is how we caught the one you were after. We’re wasting daylight, established plan says we go in hot with fire and sun-lamps. Burn ‘em right out.”
The large flush-faced man glared angrily at the Director. “The reports my agency received were so blacked-out our printers ran out of ink. All that was readable was the target, this club by the harbor. I heard that the El Paso operation went smooth, no struggles or injuries. If that was such a mess then there’s too goddamn much they aren’t telling us. My god man, fill us in! We all got emergency orders to get our respective butts out here in force, but for what? If it’s a vampire nest like the one in oh-four, why deviate from protocol?”
Goodman, having caught sight of Diego and Isaiah, ran a tired hand across his forehead. “Clear the room. You and Superintendent MacDougall stay, along with those two.” He pointed at the fresh arrivals.
“All my agents here have clearances.” Thick arms crossed an even thicker chest bulging under the suit jacket.
“Just do it, Gerald. I’m going to get an earful about this from above as is.”
The two stared at each other. The man named Gerald finally cracked a faint smile. “Alright, Elliot. You win.” A broad hand with a naval academy ring gestured to the room. “You heard the man. Everyone out.”
It took a couple minutes for the mass of governmental agents to exit. The last one out closed the door.
“This room secure?” Goodman asked the taller police captain.
“As much as budget allows,” the Boston cop replied wryly.
Pulling out a chair, the DPA Director sat then motioned for the rest to do so. After they had done so, he spoke. “Our real target is a being who has many aliases, known to most as Bishop. Yes, he is by all reports vampiric. He is also something more.” Goodman pointed at Diego. “This is Special Agent Martin Diego of the DPA, wizard class five. He is my team’s expert on these matters. Diego, please elaborate on Bishop’s nature to FBI Deputy Director Gerald Wilmington and Superintendent Thomas MacDougall of the Boston PD.”
The wizard blinked with shock while Goodman stared meaningfully at him. Isaiah hid a smile behind a hand. That was an amusing way to restore someone’s job without giving them any chance to refuse. Isaiah also caught that Goodman had just explicitly authorized the revelation of classified information to the two gentleman in attendance.
“Ah, si,” Diego stammered before collecting himself. “Pardon. Bishop was not originally a man, rather he was - or in truth still is - a Nephelim.”
“A what?” asked the superintendent. Irish Catholic skepticism and distrust of magic had deepened the lines on his face at hearing Diego was a wizard.
Gerald raised an eyebrow at the police captain. “Means he was born of a woman and an angel.” Goodman looked at him in surprise and Gerald simply shrugged. “I did research after that footage of angels fighting in the skies over Aleppo. Figured that was your team covering things up when the vids disappeared.”
“Wasn’t us,” Goodman admitted.
Gerald’s other eyebrow joined the first.
“Señors,” Diego continued, “Bishop has been alive since before the history of civilization. His skills in the mystic arts reflect the knowledge gained over across the ages of man. And yet…” The wizard trailed off, regarding Goodman with hesitation. “How much can be told, Director?”
Goodman drummed fingertips against the conference table. “Focus on the immediate potential threat. They have a need to know.”
The wizard nodded. “We believe Bishop has in his possession a mana-storage device of a scale never before imagined. Detonation of a similar device with a thousandth of the power was recently experienced at the Whateley Academy. A fully powered one was triggered at a pyramid in Giza. Quick thinking by…by a talented magic user managed to teleport that device to a prepared location which sent the explosion off-world.”
MacDougall, his dislike of magic being reinforced by every passing minute, scowled. “Is such a thing in my city?”
“It is possible,” Diego admitted. “We do not know for sure.”
“The nightclub,” Gerald said to Goodman. “You think it could be inside.”
“If Bishop is there then it most likely is too.”
“If?” sputtered MacDougall. “You don’t know where this monster is?”
Isaiah decided it was time to speak up. “If the vampire you have captured is Coatl, then Bishop will not be far.”
“And you are?” asked Gerald of Isaiah.
“Not an agent, then. You’re here why exactly?”
“I’m sorry, Gerald,” Goodman interrupted. “That’s not something I’m authorized to tell. Not even to the FBI.”
Gerald was nonplussed. “You know I’ll try to find out anyway.”
MacDougall glanced back and forth between the various men. “I heard about the attack on the Academy. If this magic bomb thing is nearby, can it be detected?”
Goodman shook his head. “El Paso proved we can’t. Only luck prevented that raid from triggering a potentially catastrophic disaster.”
The Superintendent didn’t like the sound of that. “And how much of the city will we need to evacuate if such a device is here?”
Diego was solemn. “Señors: based on the data of the one which was spirited away, evacuation will do no good.”
The top cop frowned. “There’s got to be a safe distance. Just lay it out - what’s the radius?”
Goodman’s fingers stopped drumming. “One thousand miles. The impact will cover the eastern half of the United States and Canada.”
The room went silent. The last hint of red from earlier irritation drained from Gerald’s face. “You can’t be serious.”
Isaiah leaned forward, his expression hard. “The entirety of the Middle East owes its continued existence to the one who teleported the device out of Egypt.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” MacDougall sputtered. “What in God’s blessed name are we supposed to do against that?”
“A similar fail-safe as was employed is under construction,” Goodman told them. “We’re working on alternate ways to transport a device to it if need be.”
“You can’t just get the person who teleported the other one?” Gerald asked.
“She,” Isaiah said forcefully, “gave her life doing so. She’s gone.” As much as Isaiah wanted to believe that Soren and Nick could succeed, he knew it was beyond even the longest of shots that she’d ever return. It hurt to say it, as if doing so diminished hope’s chances. But reality was reality.
Wishing for something with all your heart would not make it so.
Gerald studied the lawyer and asked, “You knew her?”
“Yes.” Isaiah inhaled. “She was a good friend. The best I’ve ever known.”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
Isaiah nodded acknowledgment of the sentiment as words had temporarily failed.
The top cop returned his attention to Goodman. “If there is a bomb, can it be defused?”
The Director tilted his head to Diego inquiringly. “Well?”
Diego held up clasped hand then spread them quickly apart. “If the crystal storage matrices are damaged, irreversible collapse would cause detonation. If she couldn’t stop it, I don’t see how we can.”
Gerald tugged nervously at a cheek. “Right. So what’s the plan, Elliot?”
Director Elliot Goodman locked eyes with Isaiah as he replied.
“We send in our best candidate to negotiate.”
A dark-skinned youth lay on a reinforced table wearing only underwear and manacles. The attached chains strapped him firmly down and held the well-toned arms taut above his head. Tattoos of brilliant Aztec artwork colorfully covered his chest and extended over arms and legs, depicting ancient gods and glories, each line and fill clear upon a canvas devoid of all hair. Eyes much older than the face stared into the fluorescent lights above. Wires ran from the chains to a series of additional unlit lamps mounted across the ceiling and walls, their reflective dishes ready to fill the entire room with the sun’s complete spectrum at maximum brightness should any wire pop free.
Even an accidental sneeze could be deadly to a trapped vampire.
Isaiah had been standing over the prisoner for a full five minutes after being allowed in by reluctant authorities. At Director Goodman’s command all video and audio feeds of the room had also been disabled.
Neither the man on the table nor Isaiah had yet to speak.
Walking around the bound figure, Isaiah studied the markings before finally stepping back.
Unexpectedly, Coatl spoke first.
“A ghost follows you.” Syllables carried a hiss due to a tongue whose tip had been forcibly split.
“You are not a cop.”
“I am not.”
“Who are you then?”
Isaiah moved closer to the bound man, entering the field of his vision. “You tell me.”
Brown eyes squinted then went wide first with panic before settling in resignation - if not peace. The words that followed were not in English. “Are you here to ferry me to Mictlan, Lord? Is it my time at last?”
Isaiah paused, stilling surprise that the foreign meaning was clear. Pushing that shock aside, he found himself answering in the same ancient tongue. “That remains to be seen.”
“I am a faithful servant of the gods. My life belongs to the Master, my life belongs to the Yoalteuctin.”
“The Master. Where is he?”
“Near, yet far. He prepares.”
“For what does he prepare?”
“Fulfillment of his greatest purpose, Lord. The Master shares not the details with the servant.”
“You will take me to him.”
Coatl flinched, the chains rattling in response. “The Master wishes to not be disturbed.”
Fingers of night gripped the bound man by the throat and more. “Be reminded, priest of the Yoalteuctin. Not all deaths are equal.”
A cold beyond that of temperature seeped past skin already in equilibrium with the room. “Forgive, Lord! The servant will comply!”
“Yes.” Isaiah, his hand feeling not as flesh but as the blackest of bone, leaned closer still. “You will.”
Chapter 33 - Cards
Desiccated fingers whose softest touch was once bliss itself reach across a bed’s metal railing. “Listen to me. I have to go, and you have to stay. Find someone, have a family. For me, love. Promise me. Swear it.”
Vistas of memory stretch to their limits, areas of strength desperately binding the threads together against a force hammering at the structure and demanding a release from all pattern, all order, and all coherence.
Standing before a gravestone, a man comforts a lost child. “Don’t worry, hon. We’ll face whatever comes together. Always and forever.”
Pain beyond rationality, beyond all ability to bear, beyond all agony conceived by physical form.
Two girls embrace, one youthful-yet-old holding close the younger chewing a lip in a reflected gesture. “I swear I will always be there for you.”
Where weakened the tapestry cracks, splintering with sorrow. Foreign energy - colorless yet past the blackest of black - twists and strains against the fractures to undo that which was, that which is, and that which could be.
Within a cab crossing a desert they huddle close as they prepare to face what dangers may come. “It’ll be alright. I’ll be right there with you.”
Each scenes repeats, playing out over and over as the fidelity begins to fragment and still someone screams.
A cat of gray and white watches with sad emerald eyes as an explosion of trapped horror rips outward during an instant of sorrowed realization where two sacred vows reach their end.
Once more. Colors fade as static swallows sound. And again.
“Promise me. Always and forever.”
A hand trapped behind glass swings the very chain that binds it, cracking a small opening in the spherical prison. Jagged edges scrape skin as fingers reach through to grab hold of that which has locked her away before it’s too late.
An ocean wave crashes overhead to cover all, the sphere splashing deep into dark and cold. Within the tide’s chilling embrace the weaving of memory and self freezes, each sliver of the past becoming numb and distant.
Fingers close around mine and I wonder whether it was her or I who screamed.
“Impossible. Father dosed her with more than any soul or devil has ever-”
“Have you heard nothing I have said? Hers is no ordinary spirit.”
“She’s spasming. Move aside! She’ll shatter the coach if not held down!”
“No. Drink, my Queen. Drink and sleep! Below the curse’s touch you must slumber still.”
“You are crazed, witch. You’d better know what you’re doing.”
“This is not a moment of knowing. This is a test of faith. Tu sarai - sempre - la prima strega. La prima strega divenuta nel mondo…”
Soft fibers pressed against a cheek. Fleeting disorientation as recognition of gravity’s arrow realigned perception.
I was on a couch.
More specifically I was laid out on a couch covered with a thick crocheted blanket, its wispy loops tickling nose and eyelids while firm cushions pressed into back and side. Scent of incense, reminding of a girlfriend I once had. She’d kept her apartment filled with clouds of smoky nag-champa and dragon’s blood resin.
Confusion. How long ago had that been? A year? A decade. More?
Sound, the quiet exhales against the blanket and the riff of playing cards being shuffled by a practiced hand. A woman’s voice, nonchalant yet amused. “Easy does it. My boy was right. You’re a mess.”
A single candle illuminated the shiny blue-cloth draped over a round pillar-style table. Behind the table sat the woman, broad face with full cheeks peering past horn-rimmed glasses. Thinning bangs whose red dye had badly faded flickered in the scant light as she tapped the cards together to reform a deck. A patternless and pale t-shirt lay above faded jeans, the fabric stretching for she was not of small stature.
Sitting up it was not the bookshelf-filled room that swam but myself, yielding a groan which itself sounded odd. The hand which pushed upright was also weird, stubby knuckles brushed with thick hairs whose many cousins occupied the thicker wrist and arm.
Foreign yet familiar.
“Where am I?” Voice deep but not too deep. Mine?
The woman shuffled the cards again. Next to the candle sat a closed mason jar containing still-swirling tarry goop. Flashes of darker lightning within pulled at things underneath my skin forcing an aversion of eyes to regain stability.
“Nasty stuff,” the woman said with a nod at the jar. Practiced broad fingers adorned with rings of silver and gold moved with their own grace to again separate and merge the split deck into a coherent whole. “Chaos-infused spellwork. Not the worst I’ve seen. Though it still took some doing to pull away from all that prior contamination. As to your question, you’re between.”
“Between?” An instinct to look deeper caused the room to waver. Leather book bindings upon the shelves glossed over, blending together into glass. Windows? A sharp thwack to the forehead by the cards interrupted and restored the scribed volumes with their candle-lit clarity.
“Quit that.” She was still on the other side of the table, well out of reach. As she leaned over, her knees spread to each side of the small table and bare feet were poking out of the jeans. The toenails weren’t flat, rather they were thick and sharpened to curved claw-like points. “Yes, between. You are caught betwixt past, present, and future. Here, look.”
Tapping the edge of the deck against the table three times she then drew from the top, flipping a single card over. It showed a white marble lighthouse rising above a rocky and stormy seashore, a bolt of lightning striking its top only to cascade down the walls to shatter the stones underneath.
“The Tower,” said the woman. “Unexpected events which uproot one’s very foundations. Your past.”
As she spoke the image on the card shifted, the lighthouse twisting into a hospital whose windowed doors and many rooms grew clearer in memory. So many days and nights spent there, as the concrete path through those doors became harder and harder to tread as my wife Caroline had grown physically weaker - yet somehow stronger in spirit. For her had I taken each step, her strength carrying me through. The scene, sensing recognition and remembrance, twisted anew into something else.
Transformed, instead of the hospital upon that strange shore now sat a chair. Wood carved with ancient symbols flashed in the illumination from the sky’s brilliant multi-forked assault upon it, splinters bursting as the wood shattered into the chaos of the surrounding maelstrom.
Unlike the actual chair it resembled, this one had been empty.
I looked away. Crossing arms they become smooth, resting against a chest that had gained curves.
Familiar yet foreign.
She drew a second card, placing it next to the first. “The Hermit, reversed.”
Against better judgment I gazed at the upside-down picture. Upon a barren landscape sat a wagon, its blue crystal lamp dimly illuminating a fur-and-cloth-wrapped driver whose goggled eyes stared out the into nothingness.
The woman tapped a long red-painted nail against the card. “Hmph. The present. You’re afraid.”
“I am?” Voice higher, melodic but weary. “What am I afraid of?”
“Only you can answer. But you’ve got to be willing to listen.” Scooping the two cards up she returned them to the deck. “Well then. That does it.”
“Wait, what about the future? Aren’t you supposed to show three?”
Waving the deck she flashed a coffee-stained grin. “That card you’ll have to pull yourself.” The many books blended again, reddish light streaming through covers turning to glass and washing out everything else. Table, couch, and the woman herself faded, bleached away by a harsh sunset.
As the candle itself flickered out I heard her say one last thing.
“When the moment comes, remember this: which future you pull is entirely up to you.”
Chapter 34 - Rolling
The room was much like the ones in all the other hospitals I’ve unfortunately experienced. It had the usual bed, portable table, nurse’s sink station and what I hoped was a private bathroom. In other ways it stood out with features all its own. The walls were the opposite of the standard white I’d been accustomed to and instead were panels of shiny stone akin to hematite. Also the wide windows showed a city of tall skyscrapers huddled beneath an ocean of fire, the flowing sky-flames painting everything in the room in bright crimsons, yellows, and flashes of orange. A mix of flying vehicles and large winged creatures formed lines of regulated traffic which wended to and fro between the buildings like some deranged science-fiction and fantasy crossover movie.
The I.V. bag and plastic drip-line running to a wrist was much more standard fare. Rune-enforced leather straps pinning said wrist with matching versions holding hips and ankles firmly below blankets were not.
However the main difference from the usual medical care was the seven-foot tall tomato-paste devil wearing a doctor’s white coat and navy-blue dress slacks which totally complemented the pair of remarkably recurved horns sprouting from his head. His bulk didn’t so much as stand as loom over the foot of the bed as if it were a line of scrimmage. Seriously, he looked like he was waiting to pound some hapless quarterback into a smear of grass and shattered hopes of ever seeing the end-zone.
I’d have joked about him needing to play for the Rams but with the restraints holding me down I wasn’t in a laughing state of mind.
“It appears you have woken up. Welcome back.” The devil flashed what could have been an attempt at a disarming smile which utterly failed. Instead the teeth gleamed white with more of an unnerving sneer.
“Uh, hi,” I croaked, fighting down internal panic. My bracers were gone and I had no more reserve of power. I was trapped.
“Do you remember your name?”
Too many possibilities came to mind. “Yeah.”
“I’m afraid I must insist on hearing what it is.” Meaty hands with immaculately trimmed nails a darker red than the skin raised a clipboard which seemed awfully tiny within that grip. The smile tilted to a leer. Or maybe that was the just paranoid interpretation.
But what if it wasn’t?
I swallowed, trying not to fight the bindings and squirm even further away from the guy. “You can call me Jordan.”
“Jordan, yes. Excellent.” With a pen he checked a box on his board. “And how do you feel?”
“Let us continue our evaluation and perhaps the restraints will no longer be necessary.”
“I’d like them off now.”
“Not until the evaluation is complete. They are there for your protection as well as that of the staff. Physically, how are you feeling?” The smile slipped and eyes of rust watched my every twitch.
“Like I was hit by a truck. An all over bruise and ache. Maybe a bit fuzzy-headed.” That wasn’t quite right. I actually felt clear, in a way I hadn’t in a long time. It was the world around me which was foggy. Like it was out of focus.
Or like I was missing perceptions that I’d gotten used to. Uh oh.
“Do you remember what happened?” the looming devil asked. “Why you are here?”
“Uh, I got slammed by a seriously awful spell. Don’t remember much after that. Nor do I remember the sky ever being on fire, that’s usually reserved for the ground. Where exactly is ‘here’?”
“You are a patient at the Penultimate Hope hospital, located within the city of Dis upon the Plains of Gehru. Given the nature of the ‘seriously awful spell’ you suffered, you should not have survived with either physical form or mental acuity intact. From the attack nor the treatments administered I might add. I am hoping you may offer insight where those who brought you into our care have so far refused.”
“You’re my doctor?”
“Chief Resident Jeghash at your service.” He stepped closer and the nod of those massive horns caused me to flinch. Okay, it wasn’t so much a flinch as a full-force jerk against the straps.
The damn things glowed and refused to tear, causing instead the entire bed to lurch and clonk against the wall behind.
He paused as the situation registered. Instead of a patient who might have an epileptic fit he finally saw a vulnerable woman stuck to a bed facing a ten-foot tall monster. Taking a deliberate step back he gestured a single claw at the bed and the restraints loosened and fell away.
It wasn’t done out of mercy. There’d been a moment of measured thought behind those eyes that considered I might reveal more if ‘freed’. Of course the door to the room could also be locked and reinforced for all I knew.
Still, I instantly yanked legs up under the blanket and huddled with my back against the headboard. The hospital gown felt thinner than the sheets and I pulled the blanket up higher.
“When you were brought in you were experiencing seizures,” he said. “Those truly were necessary given your physical strength.”
The claw tapped against the clipboard and he attempted the non-reassuring smile again. “We are here for your care, Jordan. To do that better it would help to know everything about your…situation.”
“Does this place have doctor-patient privilege?”
“Insomuch as you can afford, yes there is a strict confidentiality. Though in this case specifically there are, I must admit, additional legal complications.”
Why oh why did that not surprise. “Such as?”
Doctor Horny-Head lost the overly-large smile. “Realm security regulations. You are the victim of nothing less than an assault by what appears to be the work of an Archon of Chaos or similarly attuned practitioner. I am required as a matter of law to report such to the authorities.”
Huh. Even Hell had rules regarding patients getting gunshot. Or in this case, chaos-blasted. “You call the cops already?”
He feigned a smug look of false innocence. “I am quite sure the proper forms are being filled out and are in process. The requisite staff are diligently working on this in addition to properly accounting for the sizable donation recently received by our hospital. The tax paperwork for reception of such is stringent, you understand, and requires rather timely filings.”
“Why yes. It would seem that upon the day of your arrival our top-rated hospital was graced by a generous anonymous benefactor with a gift of valid currency from another realm. A veritable treasure-chest’s worth I am told. To be sure, cash has additional reporting requirements and our clerks are dedicated to filling out each box and line item thereof with immeasurable care.”
Good grief. I had a feeling I was only half as rich as before. One chest’s worth, eh? Good thing Erglyk had had two of them. And here I thought healthcare back home was expensive.
Though as this was Hell what else could one expect. And if they’d already been paid, I guessed Maddalena or Yaria had made the deal - which would have included terms such as no molesting the naked patient. The flutter in my chest eased, if only a little bit.
Speaking of Hell, this raised a question of loopholes. Too many years listening to Isaiah go on and on about contracts had left me jaded. “And what of my care itself? How large is that bill running up?”
“No need to concern yourself. Our facility is satisfied with the publicity contract arranged and already executed.”
Say what? “Publicity? What happened to confidentiality!”
He smirked. “Fear not. It was not to publish your stay that was arranged, but rather the specialist your people brought in to assist with your treatment. It is always our privilege here at Penultimate Hope to work closely with such esteemed personages. Her time is obviously quite valuable and she understandably departed once your condition stabilized.”
I was lost. “Who?”
“She who was once the First Wife to Adam and the Conquerer of the Outer Realms. You have the great honor to be saved by none other than the former Archangel Lilith.”
Holy - or should I say unholy? - crap.
The doctor put both hands behind his waist, clipboard included. “As you may imagine our curiosities are piqued. We have needed to work directly with your spirit energy and therefore have more questions than answers. Any mortal soul administered such quantities of what has to be the purest vintage of the Waters of Lethe I have ever encountered would have slipped unto permanent mental oblivion.” He looked at me meaningfully. “And any normal Nephelim would require the turning of an age before recovering even the slightest of their memories. Yet you have awoken clearly still in possession of your faculties. Granted further testing should be performed to make such a determination more clinically sound.”
Waters of Lethe? Wait, was that what Maddalena had given me? How the heck had she gotten her hands on that? No, that wasn’t right. Yaria had said her father had done it. Vance. Oh man, he’d also gotten his mother to heal me.
As I’d healed him. Talk about a debt being paid in full.
In fact I probably now owed him.
I shrugged as best I could while keeping the blankets covering as much as possible. “Maybe Lilith had something to do with it.”
The doctor looked down his nose at me. “Perhaps.” Nope, he wasn’t buying that. “Before you worry yourself, you will find your artifacts in the closet opposite the bed.”
“Two bracers of obvious angelic origin, one set of demonic armor, and a chain bearing Earth military-style dog-tags embedded with a highly-skilled obfuscation spell. Plus some boots and garments which I am told required extensive effort to clean.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I was surprised that Erglyk’s armor had survived until I remembered (somewhat painfully) that the blast from Ithx had ignored everything physical to directly attack the spirit. Camael’s bracers might have helped but the armor not so much. To that spell the armor and the entire realm we’d been on may as well have not existed. Which meant the fallen had probably been unable to detect its release. Nathanael/Hank included.
“Now, as your doctor, I must ask you: what happened? And who - or what - are you?”
“Just a soldier who jumped on the wrong goddamn grenade.”
He sighed wistfully though his expression made it obvious that he hadn’t expected a real answer. “You reek of an incredible story, Miss Jordan. Are you sure you do not wish to share? It could shed light upon your circumstances and aid us in completely healing your pattern, one which still shows signs of distress I might add. There are aspects to it, frankly, the likes of which I have never before seen.”
I choked at the mention of ‘shedding light’ and tried to pass it off as a simple coughing fit. “Gah. Sorry, throat is awfully dry. Any chance at some water?”
“I will send a nurse in to provide you a beverage.” His polite demeanor fought against frustrated curiosity. “Without full details we cannot aid you properly, you understand?”
“I think I’d like to talk with my…with the people who brought me here. It’s tricky, okay?”
The devil wanted to push it but decided not to. “Perhaps after a meal visitors can be allowed. Also once the referral paperwork is complete a psychologist will be by to properly evaluate your mental well-being. In the meantime we shall continue to monitor your condition for any potential relapses.”
Shoulder blades twitched at the thought. But whereas I’d been feeling the wrongness embedded in the phantom wing ever since I’d arrived in Hell, now I felt nothing.
Not even the wing itself.
The doctor saw the nervous chomp against a lip and tried to offer reassurance. “Do not worry, you are in the best of hands. Now, I will return later in the day on my next rounds. Until then, rest up and do eat something. If you remember anything pertinent to your treatment that you wish to share,” he said giving another one of those insinuating glares, “simply tell the nurse and they will summon me immediately.” The way he said ‘immediately’ made it clear that such attention was far from usual treatment practices.
“Thank you. There’s still a lot to process, you know?”
“Of course. Until later then, Miss Jordan.” He strode out, needing to turn sideways in order to fit through the door. After he was gone I breathed out slow, putting my face in my palms.
Jesus, I was shaking. I caught myself wishing Balus had been here to out-tower the doc and hoping the big one-eyed guy was okay. The fact that I did so made me realize I really did have a lot to think about.
Not that I had anything else scheduled in the suddenly empty day-planner.
The curtain of fire covering the sky outside rolled on, the interplay of colors bouncing off the polished stone of the walls and floor. Other than the three-eyed matronly nurse who’d come in and served a lump of hot mystery meat on a red ceramic platter I’d been left alone. She hadn’t liked me much, likely due to getting grilled on what exactly had been used in the meatloaf. There were certain things I most definitely was not going to eat, even if they had been no one I knew.
When she walked out a fourth eye set in the back of her head still flashed with annoyance at having to explain a critter obviously well-known to the citizens of Dis but not to a remote-realm hick such as myself.
I’d like to say the meat tasted like chicken but it totally didn’t. It was more like a gristle-filled wedge of bland tofu.
All of which was a distraction from the whirlpool of thoughts trying to sort themselves out and failing. Chief of which was about Hank.
Why hadn’t he told me?
He’d known who I really was, probably all along. He was strong too. What had Drek called him? ‘Nathanael, Captain of the Powers’. From Aradia’s memories I knew him. At Camael’s command he’d led the squad of warriors in that final push against Azazel, reinforced by the light consuming Aradia as they dove towards that madness.
Had I found him on the Edge or had he found me?
Knowing Fate’s heavy hand and sense of irony, the answer to that was likely a mix of both.
He’d been hurting, huddled on that shore. That had been no act. Having now seen the damage to his pattern he likely had just fallen past the boundaries, and had been suffering the loss of being torn from the holy symphonies, cast alone into the dark.
Camael must have asked him to find and help me. And in so doing Nathanael had made the ultimate sacrifice and tossed himself Below.
Still. Why didn’t he tell me?
I pushed uneaten flavorless chunks around the plate.
Several logical-sounding answers came to mind, but none of them addressed the feeling that I’d somehow been betrayed by a friend. Much like I’d done to Isaiah by letting him believe that I was dead.
Karma was indeed a bitch.
That’s how Maddalena and Twitch found me when they came in: still on the bed in a paper-thin gown and staring out the window while a halfway eaten meal lurked suspiciously upon the wheeled tray. Twitch was in his reaper outfit complete with goggles pushed up his forehead, the robes having been given a serious washing. I’d have bet good coin they hadn’t been that white in ages. Maddalena wore a slender sea-green dress that hung to her ankles and did nothing to hide how skinny she was.
Not that I had any room to talk. A mirror set on the bathroom door opposite the bed was showing a similarly scrawny woman who had a rather haunted expression as she huddled under a clumped-up blanket.
Maddalena strode over which blocked that view, placing cool hands against forehead and cheeks.
“Good,” she said with professionalism. “No fever. Physically you are whole.” Glancing at the plate she tsked. “You should finish that.”
“And hello to you too,” I said before looking past to Twitch with remembered concern. “Hey bud. Last I saw you, you were being carried off. Everything okay?”
He stepped closer and nodded, a finger gesturing at Maddalena.
She’d been able to heal him. Thank goodness. A burst of air I hadn’t realized I’d been holding escaped a relieved chest. “You nutter! Charging the golem like that? That was crazy! You should have let me do it.”
Shaking his head that finger moved first to himself then with an angry flip was suddenly directed fully at me.
Dammit, he literally had a point. Sinking back against the pillows a few toes poked out from under the blanket. “Yeah, okay, I didn’t do much better did I?”
“You did much worse,” Maddalena said. “Which we need to talk about.”
I glanced around the room then at her. “Maybe, but not sure this is the best place for that.”
She shook her head. “Conditions of the donation required secure quartering. This room has been warded against all manner of surveillance.”
“Even against recording stones sneakily placed for later playback?” That came out with more reproach than I’d intended.
Blanching, she looked to the floor. “I apologize, my Queen. If I had known-”
My snort interrupted her. “Queen? Unless my memory really is messed up I don’t recall receiving a coronation.”
This time she met my gaze with an inner resolve of a kind I’d seen before within the eyes of Callas Soren. And, come to think of it, in the expression of Twitch’s sister, Jenna. Standing straighter she said, “By your own admission you are Aradia, daughter of the Goddess, sent to Earth to teach and protect. You shall always be a queen.”
“Earth?” I scoffed. “And yet here I am. In Hell.”
“Just because you are divine does not make you infallible, my Queen. Which is why many of us are concerned. And not just about your recovery from this assault.”
I resisted the urge to roll onto my side away from them both. “I know damned well I’m not infallible. Puns fully intended.”
“Twitch worries that you are too much like how he once was.”
“Huh?” Umm, he was a guy and I was once a guy. Had he figured that out? To quote Charlie Brown, ‘Augh!’
Twitch tugged on Maddalena’s shoulder, giving a nervous shake of his head.
“No,” Maddalena said, brushing him off. “She needs to hear this. We put it off and look what happened.” She then touched my hand. “I’ve spoken with Yaria and Ruyia, and they concur with Twitch’s assessment.”
“Which is what exactly?” I asked, becoming irritated at how clearly uncomfortable this was making Twitch.
“That you have been trying to find a way to die.”
I blinked. Say what? I gaped over at Twitch in shock. “You think I’m suicidal? Me?”
The pain in his eyes as he slowly nodded made me want to cry.
“How many times,” Maddalena asked as she squeezed my fingers, “have you attempted martyrdom? To throw yourself away if only it would rescue others from harm?”
“But I don’t-”
“Want to die? Think, my Queen. Think of your actions, as painful as this may be. You risk your existence without hesitation. You saved me from eternal torment as a result but I beg you, try to look at this clearly. Is there no truth to his fear?”
My mouth opened to tell her no, that of course there wasn’t.
No words came out.
Outside fire reflected across a ceiling tall and distant. How many times had I risked it all?
Dear god. Too many.
In the storage unit with Danielle, into the blackness surrounding Evie, in the skies above Aleppo against a fallen angel, and with the bomb at the pyramids - and those were just the instances back on Earth. Here in Hell I’d faced numerous bloody-minded demons and plunged fists and indeed my entire self into their flesh and spirit, heedless of any personal cost. Time and time again. Evil chaos magic included, I’d taken it all on. Each done in the name of saving others.
Was that really all there was to it?
I’d even thought in jest at the absurdity of it all and that I needed to quit doing that kind of thing. Sarcastic humor sure, but part of me knew.
That part had always known.
Because of what I’d lost once within the hospital room shown in the woman’s card, bright where this room was dark. We’d sworn to be together until the end of our days, she and I. Without forewarning of how short her days would turn out to be.
Danielle’s death had added to it. As did the loss of my sister, whose happenstance accident still lurked in my gut as meaningless and capricious despite my having touched the all-loving light hiding behind the fabric of the universe.
But those two had not been the source. It all went back to her.
There was nothing I could have done to save her. No way to throw myself into a pyre and pull my wife free. No miracle cure developed at the last minute, no magical healer found to restore a body whose own cells choked out the last strands of her life.
She died and only the still-embodied wreckage of dreams answering to my original name had remained.
As stupid as it was there was a slice within my heart holding on to the belief that my end could - just possibly - have me waking up not to yet another hospital but instead within her arms. I’d never been able to explain why attempts by Isaiah to set me up on dates had caused only anger and resentment. How could it have been right to enjoy such things again? I had sworn to try but she was gone, and that corner of pain believed I should have gone with her.
Except I was too stubborn to die without having the right reasons. Despair and sadness alone were nowhere near enough, something Azazel had never understood in all his attempts to crush my will.
Even falling to Hell hadn’t stopped the impulse. The lack of reality within these realms felt more like a bad simulation than anything true. Yet every leap into the grinding gears of ridiculous danger on behalf of others caused that tiny inner voice to rejoice that maybe, just maybe, its buried hope would finally be realized. Requiring only to fight in those moments against the end as hard as possible - teeth, nails, and fists - so the excuses could never be examined. Would never be examined.
Like they were now.
I yanked my hand away from Maddalena. “I’ll consider it. You’ve made your point.”
“I said I’d think about it.”
Twitch again touched her shoulder and she took a step back though she clearly wanted to keep pushing the issue.
Arms folded across the skimpy hospital gown. “Where are my weapons? The doc only mentioned my armor.”
“With the Lilim. We could not bring them into the hospital.”
“How long have I been out?”
Maddalena leaned against the wall, clasping hands neutrally in front. “We got you through the Hole immediately, but it’s been many sleeps since.”
“Through the Hole?”
“Yes. Before the battle Vance had received word from the reaper named Barry that two individuals had visited the outpost and inquired about you. By name and description. Tuthos - who’s been reassigned to Epsilon - believed one of them a fallen, possibly even a Grigori. The visitors were told nothing and they walked off into the dark with no supplies just like they’d arrived. Ruyia and Yaria had heard reports of a similar pair searching for you on the light side as well.”
Shit. “Was it Azazel himself? Or another Grigori working for him?”
“They didn’t know.”
“What about Hank and the fallen? Wouldn’t the spell that hit me have been proof enough to get their aid?”
“According to Vance the angels set over the Rock would have indeed been convinced. And killed you at once for having become tainted lest it spread. It was thought that in your condition it was best to get you off realm immediately and to better specialists more willing to help.”
“How? I thought the portal in the Spire was destroyed.”
“The Lilim repaired it. The reforged rift opens into a warehouse within this city. One under the Lilim’s control.”
That bothered me. Peddling needed items and trinkets to reaper outposts would never generate enough revenue to justify the cost of such a portal, especially given how difficult they were to make according to Vance’s description and how annoyed he was about losing the first one. “Where are Yaria and Ruyia? Can they come visit me here? Or Vance for that matter.”
She gave a small shake of the head. “They’re still in the city, but no they cannot come see you.”
“Because of the potions.”
“You mean the Waters of Lethe.”
This time she nodded. “Yes. They are forbidden by direct order of the Holy Originalists.”
“The fallen angels. The ones who rule Dis dislike such terminology.”
Oh. Okay. That kinda made sense, them not wanting to be called ‘fallen’. But the ‘Holy Originalists’? Huh. That was a new one. “I keep getting told how rare and expensive that stuff is. But it being that highly illegal? Why would the angels care?”
“I’ve heard it said that to the angels it acts as a poison, one whereby physical contact alone with the purest of solutions will drain them of their power.”
“But not their memories? I thought it washed those away.” Saying it aloud put two and two together. The spell unleashed by Ithx had attacked memories, especially ones filled with painful instants of weakness and vulnerability. Vance must have dosed me with the stuff to suppress the memories and thereby create a buffer so the spell couldn’t reach them until Lilith could pull the chaos mess out. Many poisons can be used carefully to cure, this must have been much the same. In a flash of insight I arrived at the sum of five and began to understand.
“The fallen,” I said. “Their centers, their words - they’ve got massive holes there. I’ve seen the gaps. Their memories must be a good chunk of what keeps them going. Their sense of selves holding on as buttressed by all their experiences since the moment of their creations. Pure ego and will forged by their history. Weaken those, and good grief. They’d wither. They’ve got nothing else.” There was something more there, something about the nature of angelic memory which felt important but the details eluded me.
“I wouldn’t know, my Queen.”
“Wait.” I held up a hand as thoughts picked up speed in a different and more immediate direction. “Huh. I think I’m getting it.”
“The real picture. Major Praztus once called the stuff ‘Beliel’s Tears’. And Vance said Beliel came to squat on the Rock, that the realm was once Beliel’s own. One with a core of ice that keeps pushing up from the center until the Spark melts it. That’s got to be the real River of Lethe. The purest stuff is probably at its source underground.”
Twitch’s eyes went wide. He’d figured it out too. Locking gazes we both boggled as the pieces fell into place.
“The Lilim,” I said to Maddalena though I was still staring at Twitch. “They’re drug smugglers. And they’ve paid off the Reaper Captains for access to the supply.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s the Hole. It goes right through the Rock. People and supplies traverse it all the time. It’s a natural place to tunnel horizontally once halfway down to get to the source of the Waters without being observed. It’d need to be a long-ass tunnel, but so what? When you’ve got eternity to dig that’s not a problem. Who knows how far out the stuff pools down there either. Maybe that’s why we were warned so heavily not to drink any melted ice unless it was distilled first.”
Maddalena nodded and I continued the thought. “Erglyk’s chests full of cash - she must’ve made a fortune working for the Lilim. Tuthos too. She’d let Vance load their wagons with fresh ‘water’ for their rounds between the outposts. Instead I bet Vance would go straight to the Spires with the goods and shove ‘em through his private gate. No inspections and no fuss, directly into this city from the remotest of remote areas away from all attention.”
Twitch gestured wildly, making squares in the air. Then flicked his fingers away as if from an explosion.
“Oh god, you’re right,” I said. “The vault. Ithx stole stuff from behind the wall and dragged it out of Epsilon. I bet it was filled with casks containing the purest stuff Erglyk and Vance had ever stashed away.”
Maddalena caught on. “But if Ithx took that-”
I finished the thought for her. “Then Azazel has it. And the assaults on the Hole could have been attempts to discretely reach the source directly for more.”
Jumping up and down Twitch furiously pointed at a chalkboard by the door which had a ten by ten grid of squares on it, many of which had been crossed out with X’s starting at the top left and working across then down.
It was a calendar.
“The Grand Conclave!” I blurted, catching his meaning. “The fallen princes are all here. In Dis. Together and probably meeting in the same room. This is what Azazel meant when he taunted me about capturing a King!”
Maddalena’s eyes grew wide. “You think he’ll attack one of the Sarim?”
“Worse than that. He’ll likely to try to take out as many of them as possible, hoping to conquer most of Hell in one clean strike. We have to warn them!” Sitting higher in the bed I took in a deep breath and shouted at the top of my lungs.
Twitch rolled his eyes and pointed to the call button attached to the bed’s rails.
I pushed the silly thing twice. And then again for good measure.
Chapter 35 - Resignation
Doctor Jeghash was good to his word. The linebacker-sized physician showed up within minutes of the nurse finally bothering to give him a call. Anyone who’s spent time in hospitals knows full well how backwards that was, usually nurses are responsive and the docs are never to be found.
Not wanting to waste time explaining things twice I told him simply to get that paperwork filed immediately and to do whatever he could to rush someone in authority out so I could give my statement. I hinted heavily that time may be of the essence. Even if I knew where the Conclave was being held (which I didn’t), I sure as heck couldn’t just show up at its gates like any other crazed and damned soul ranting about the end of realms or whatever.
Somehow I didn’t think nutjobs with doomsday proclamations would be tolerated all that well here in Hell. There was probably a specific demonic feeding pit for them so they could babble about apocalypses while slipping past eager sets of devouring teeth.
Appearing somewhat dubious that any threat I could report was truly that time-sensitive, Jeghash nevertheless followed through. There may have been another cold determination regarding risk versus reward involved. After all, procedure demanded a swift investigation and if such inquiry revealed me to be one of the aforementioned sign-holding prophets with a screw loose none of that would be on him.
That and this possibly being the only way to satisfy his natural curiosity regarding who the heck I was and how I’d shown up with primal chaos crud wreaking havoc on my uniquely configured spirit. Considering he hung around with us while we waited on the investigator - even ordering the nurse to bring us all tea - I heavily suspected the latter.
We’d only managed to drink about half our cups when a three-foot tall winged devil waltzed in on bat-like clawed feet. He still managed to dress the part of a cop as he was wearing a custom-tailored miniature trenchcoat over a white shirt and red tie, said shirt and coat having slots for the brown leathery wings to stick out the back. He may have been wearing shorts under the coat, but I never got a good look.
At least I hoped he was wearing shorts.
Stone-like eyes quickly darted about the room to evaluate all the individuals within as well as all the potential exits before they settled upon the towering doctor. “You Jeghash?” he demanded, unfazed by the height differential.
“I am,” replied the doctor politely. “And you are?”
“Special Agent Class Three of Realm Security. Name’s Krux. What’s the rush, doc?”
“Our patient was attacked by chaos-empowered spellwork. I believe she is ready to give her statement.” He nodded in my direction.
The beady intelligent eyes shifted their attention and the cop pulled what looked like a simple electronic recorder out of a pocket. One thumb-flick and a tiny red LED started flashing. “Right. Let’s start with the basics. Name and realm of arrival?”
Maddalena and I had debated about this while waiting for the doctor and she hadn’t agreed with my decision.
But the witch stood quietly as I spilled the beans.
“I’ve been using the name Jordan and I crash-landed on Beliel’s Rock only so many cycles ago,” I said, still propped up on the bed. “But I’ve had other names. The one you’ll be most interested in is Aradia, daughter of Lucifer and the Goddess Artemis.”
The argument with Maddalena had been quick. Twitch had remained neutral, he’d known I was angelic but not the specifics. If the details had shocked him, he hadn’t shown it. Frankly - much like with the Duchess - I didn’t see any other way to lend enough credence to my story for anyone in authority to take it seriously. At some point the fallen were going to be involved, and the word of a damned soul alone was never going to cut it. The Duchess also already knew, how long she’d keep it a secret would depend on whatever advantage she needed in the moment.
What I hadn’t expected was the agent’s reaction. He’d frozen in place staring at me like I was radioactive and he was wondering if he’d already been overexposed. “You for real?”
“I wouldn’t make that up. The doc can confirm my pattern is rather unique.”
Jeghash, who had responded by raising immaculately trimmed eyebrows in controlled astonishment, nodded quick agreement. “The base structure of a Nephelim is entirely consistent with the findings, though we would never have guessed such an esteemed progenitor. It does not explain all that has been observed but it fits the gathered data.”
Krux whistled and re-thumbed the recorder to kill the red light. Then pushed another button before returning it to his pocket. “Shit.”
“That a problem?” I asked.
“Girl, you have no idea.” To the doctor Krux said, “Make no record of this. Understood? And tell no one. If I hear you’ve breathed one word I will rain all kinds of fire - literal and metaphoric - upon that tall head of yours.” Krux looked around the room again. “This space secured?”
“To the best of our ability, yes,” answered Jeghash, clearly not liking being threatened. “What precisely is the issue?”
“You all know of the Grand Conclave, I assume?” Krux said, looking at us all again - and this time lingering on Twitch as if reevaluating whether or not he was a threat. “It’s the biggest news item of the moment being blasted across all the channels, so if you haven’t you’ve been living in a hole.”
I decided not to make a joke about having actually gone through a Hole twice and instead just said, “We know about it, which is why I need to tell you what the hell has happened. The bastard who did this to me is going to attack the Conclave.”
That got his attention back. “Hold up. Attack the Conclave? Who?”
“A Grigori named Azazel. Recently punted off Earth by the angel Camael after being locked under a mountain for thousands of years. Which was due to being a chaos-wielding jerkwad that nearly got the Earth destroyed by the Host after his infection of it.”
If thick brown hide could pale, Krux’s would have tried. “You willing to tell me everything? If the feathered assholes - no offense to your family - are up to something on Earth, it could explain some of the mess going on around here.”
I bit my lip and he noticed the hesitation.
“Listen, girl,” he growled, “there’s something you gotta understand. Whatever nonsense got shoved into your head back on Earth about how awful we are down here - and yeah, okay, a lot of that is true - we’re also still the front line standing against the Abyss. Got it? So I need to know it all regarding any incursion from the Chaos. And I need to know it now.” Behind those brown pinpricks lay eons of experience of which too much had obviously been unpleasant. There was also underlying fear there, and not from what I’d just told him. Something else was worrying him greatly which I’d somehow just made worse.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “My story in exchange for what’s got you so panicked. Because you’re right, you do need to know. But so do I.”
The small wings on his back twitched then settled. “Just you and me?”
There was a pregnant silence in the room until Doctor Jeghash coughed. “I suppose this is our cue to depart.” He crossed the room and held the door expectantly for Maddalena and Twitch.
Maddalena hovered by the bed. “My queen-”
I patted her arm. “I’ll be fine. Go on.” Looking past at Twitch I gave him a weak smile and nodded.
He didn’t return the nod, but he did pull Maddalena to follow him out. The door closed behind them with a solid chuff.
The devil agent gave the palm up and fingers curled universal gesture of ‘bring it’. As if that wasn’t clear enough he also said, “Hit me.”
So I did. Metaphorically, of course.
I didn’t tell him everything. He had no need to know I’d gone from an outie to an innie nor the exact details of events on Earth. Instead he got a summary about me discovering myself as a nephelim-turned-angel by accidentally breaking the First Seal, how Camael had broken the Second by tossing Azazel off the metaphorical cliff, and that I’d been blown up by another Grigori who’d been stupidly trying to prevent the breaking of the Third. I did tell him about the attack on Epsilon, the war between the dukes, and how Azazel kept infecting people and turning them into unwilling pawns - angels included. I also noted for good measure about seemingly being the only one around who could see the signs of his invasions into their patterns.
This led to describing how Ithx was booby-trapped by Azazel with the nasty-on-nasty spell designed to take out an entire battlefield and the subsequent mad rush to a hospital. Here it got a little tricky. Fibbing a bit about there having been vials of Lethe waters in the chests inherited from Erglyk via Dhalgrix along with the discovered fortune, the Lilim were painted as heroes for recognizing that the tinctures could be used to save my sorry ass. This placed the blame for drug-smuggling squarely on Erglyk and was an easy segue into describing the hidden stash of potentially hundreds of gallons of the stuff hiding behind the vault as well as Azazel’s possible desire for more with all the assaults on the Hole he’d tried from either side.
To the agent’s credit he stood there and listened to the whole thing without interrupting. I wound it all up by telling him about Azazel’s words spoken through the hapless Ithx regarding capturing a King.
“That,” I said, “is why I think he’s going to go after the Conclave. This Abagor guy will be there, right? Along with all the other ‘Kings’.”
“How much did they get from the vault?” Krux asked without skipping a beat.
“They had four wagons that I could see. If each wagon held more than one large cask? Maybe two to three thousand gallons worth of the stuff.”
“Shit,” he said for the second time since coming into the room.
“Your turn,” I prodded. “Tell me what the heck spooked you so badly the moment I mentioned Lucifer being my dear old spiritual dad.”
He eyed me and clearly was considering keeping his mouth shut.
“A deal’s a deal,” I said angrily. “I told you mine, you tell me yours. I took a risk telling you who I am because you need to believe me about the threat Azazel poses. Pay up.”
The wings flexed again. “It’s the first Grand Conclave in ages, you know that?”
“Yeah. Something about the last one happening when Lucifer left.” I frowned as the implications of that began to finally dawn. The various dreams (and nightmares) of Heaven filtered past. They only made sense if Lucifer had somehow made it to Earth long after losing his duel with Michael. And Beliel, he’d been visited by Gabriel on Earth when she had arrived to deal with the Grigori. Which meant they both had left Hell for Earth.
Holy moley, they’d found a way to escape. If they could do it, could someone else?
Krux nodded and kept talking. I had to refocus and push aside those thoughts for now. “Exactly,” he was saying. “Lucifer disappeared, as did Beliel at the same time. This left a terrible power vacuum amongst the factions and the available real estate.”
“That doesn’t sound pretty.”
“It wasn’t. The war to re-balance was a friggen’ mess. Lost a lot of comrades in that disaster.”
“Sorry to hear that. Alright, I’ll bite at the obvious question. Why the heck was another Grand Conclave called now?”
“There’s been no official announcement, but I’ve got sources.” He paused again, a habit that was definitely getting annoying.
“Rumor has it that Samael the Destroyer, Chief of the Holy Originalists and Warleader of the Sarim, announced his resignation as King of this realm and his other protectorates along with all other titles. He’s quit.”
I sank back against the bed, trying to wrap my head around that. Rubbing my face I said, “That’s uh, that’s pretty serious.”
“Yes it fucking is,” Krux agreed. “Which makes things tricky for both of us.”
My eyes refocused to find Krux standing there with a small pistol held in one clawed hand pointed directly at my chest.
I froze. “What the hell, dude?” Ever so slowly I raised unarmed hands.
The guy didn’t look happy, in fact he looked terribly resigned. “Tell me, Aradia. What do you think will happen when all of those angelic followers abandoned by Samael discover that Lucifer’s daughter just so happens to be in this specific city here at the heart of all the Destroyer’s realms?”
“I don’t know, Krux. I just got here. You tell me.”
He pointed the gun at the star clearly visible across my palm. “Isn’t it obvious? At least half of them will flock to your banner and plunge this whole place - and many realms beyond - into what could be the worst civil war we’ve seen since the original shitshow in Heaven. Which leaves me wondering.”
“Whether I should kill you now to prevent at least that much of the catastrophes to come.”
And here I thought our conversation had actually been going fairly well. Shows what I knew, eh?
Chapter 36 - Farewells
With a hand far too steady for my liking the bat-winged agent shifted his aim to point the weapon squarely between my eyes. The gun shouldn’t have held much more than a .22 but even in my weird post-Lethe state the dang thing radiated concentrated energy. Whatever it shot wasn’t going to be limited to just a metal slug - not that my head currently had any protection against that either.
As uncomfortable as it had been, I was really missing my helmet.
“Krux, don’t do anything hasty,” I said, keeping hands up. “Shooting me would be a mistake.”
His finger twitched closer to the trigger. “Really? Way I figure it, now may be the only time you’re vulnerable.”
Gulp. “Me, sure. But you’re forgetting who brought me here.”
“The two damned souls outside? Dealing with them shouldn’t be a problem.”
Arguing that Twitch could likely disarm and shove that gun up his ass in an instant if only my friend was in here didn’t seem like it’d help or convince. Unfortunately the room didn’t have windows through which Twitch could notice what was going on. Besides, Krux was so short he probably would have been out of view even if there had been.
I kept talking. “They aren’t the ones who got me to Dis and this hospital.” Maintaining eye contact I wondered if I could dive off the other side of the bed fast enough to avoid whatever that thing spewed. The way the guy held the weapon though was far too professional; he knew exactly how to stand and exactly how to stay focused on target. Not good.
“Oh, and who would that have been?”
“The Lilim. Lilith herself lent a hand with my treatment.”
That caught him off-guard. “Lilith? You’re who she came to visit after bailing on the Conclave?”
“No shit.” The small jaw shifted while his mind chewed on that tidbit of information.
“Her son owed me a life debt,” I added. “I saved his, he saved mine. Now how do you think they’re going to take hearing about a cop ruining that payback?”
“The Lilim won’t retaliate. They have no authority in Dis, this ain’t their realm.”
“You’re the one who just said Samael quit. How long will it take for your superiors to toss you under a bus to avoid the Lilim carving out a portion of the city for themselves? They could use this insult as easy justification.” I had no idea if I was bluffing or not, but I wasn’t the one who was so worried about civil war. “Killing me could cause the exact opposite of what you want.”
“Maybe so,” he said. Cool calculation gave way to a deeper anger behind his aim as the devil’s expression hardened further. “But I may never again get the chance to take one of you out.”
Oh joy. He hated angels. That so didn’t help. “Dammit agent, you’re wasting valuable time!” I snapped, matching his anger with some of my own. “The real threat is out there right now. Azazel is going to make his move and you’re drawing a bead on the one person who can help shut that jerk down.”
“Help?” he growled. “You’re squirming from having a single firearm aimed at your face. Don’t bullshit me that you’re up to taking out a chaos-allied fallen.”
“What good will your weapon be if you don’t know where to aim? Can you detect who’s been infected and taken over? Because I bet you can’t and you’re going to take a knife in the back from your best friend without ever seeing it coming.”
“You saying you can?”
“Yeah. And I may be the only one you’ve got who knows what the hell to look for. Azazel takes over angels and souls alike - most seem to not have any idea it’s even happened. For all we know your entire department or all the guards at the Conclave could already be contaminated. You need me, Krux.”
The finger inched off but not entirely. “How do I know you aren’t infected?”
“Because I’m the only patient given the all-clear by Lilith herself. You can ask the doc.”
He considered and after an all-too-long moment lowered the gun. “I will. In the meantime, get dressed.”
I did my best not to explosively exhale. That totally would’ve ruined the cool-as-a-cucumber vibe I’d been faking. “Get dressed?”
Pocketing the weapon he moved towards the door. “That’s what I said. You and I are heading to the Citadel, whether it be against doctor’s orders or not.” He let the door slam behind him.
Relief at danger’s passing was short as the shakes returned worse than before. With arms crossing over super-chilled feminine assets busy trying to poke their way through thin fabric, the sound of chattering teeth echoed through the silence the agent had left behind.
Maybe it was residual effects from the poison-as-cure, but even having faced demons and behemoths of stone somehow this little guy had gotten to me. He could have blown my brains out and there would’ve been nothing I could have done to stop him. Normally energy such as was contained in that gun felt manipulatable but the brain’s handle on that sort of activity was presently wadded in mental sheets of thick woolly padding.
In other words I was, maybe for the first time since waking up in Hell, totally helpless.
I shivered on the bed for a minute trying to wrap my head around it. Worse still because of my own mouth Krux was going to drag me into what could easily turn into a war-zone. And here I was without even my squad of demon skull-wreckers to watch my back.
Never had going back to sleep sounded so appealing.
Being stupid my feet hit the floor and after removing the intravenous drip hands rummaged for clothes. At least I had the armor, though it looked ridiculously medieval compared to the modern-like surroundings. Not that I cared much. Protection was protection.
God help me, right now I needed as much of that as I could get. Hank’s dog-tags and Camael’s bracers especially included. And even if Erglyk’s outfit wouldn’t do anything against direct chaos-fueled mayhem, it’d still help against things like short-but-jumpy members of the local trenchcoat brigade.
Before exiting I caught sight of the girl in the mirror. With a couple of inches worth of unbrushed red-gold hair sticking out in wayward directions she looked like one of those anime-armored heroines except for a few key details. Shadows hung like bruises under eyes no longer as bright as they’d once been, yielding a gauntly tired appearance of youthful features betrayed by haunted experience. All in all she looked scared, chewed up, and spat out.
A moment of guilt washed through me but it didn’t change anything.
She and I still walked out of the room.
The agent was down the hallway arguing with the doctor. On one side was the authority of an agent of the state, and the other was of responsibility for patient care. Neither were going to back down without a fight. Twitch and Maddalena stood right by the door, and as I came out Twitch tried to push me back into the room.
“I have to go,” I told him, refusing to budge. “And you need to stay with Maddalena.”
That earned another angry gesture from him which became a sudden and fierce hug.
Returning the embrace I squeezed him back even harder. “I’m sorry. I can’t let you go with me, not this time. With this guy it won’t be a physical fight. Not really.” Pulling the cloth down from his face I gently touched the scar-covered cheek. “I can’t risk him corrupting you. I just can’t.” Saying it made me realize how true that was. The thought of such darkness flooding through my friend brought a lump to my throat. Twitch was too sweet, too pure a soul - he deserved so much more than he had ever received.
I could only offer him a kiss which held wordless communications all its own.
It startled him, and at first he froze before returning a sad-yet-passionate response. As our lips finally separated he still held on to me. I didn’t really want to let go either.
Maddalena, standing past Twitch’s shoulder, stared at us both with growing concern. “Why do I feel that this is goodbye?”
At this he let go, allowing me to pull the shorter woman close in turn. “Because,” I said with a cheek resting atop her brown curls, “I don’t know what will happen. And I’m tired of making the mistake of not bidding those I love a proper farewell. Thank you both, I owe you each so much. More than I currently have time to say.”
She clasped arms around my waist and with face resting against my chest she whispered, “The Goddess is with you, Aradia. As she is in my prayers, so are you in hers.” With that said she squeezed one more time before separating. “The Lilim have given us sanctuary; you can find us at their embassy. I will hold your funds in your honor until your return.”
I was about to thank her again but the agent marched over to us with the doctor more than doubling his height behind.
“Let’s go,” said Krux.
“I advise against this,” Jeghash said more as a formality, his slumped shoulders showing that he knew full well that the fight had already been lost.
“I hear ya, doc,” I told him. “But Agent Krux isn’t giving a lot of choice.”
“No, I’m not,” Krux said. “We’re taking the elevator, keep up.” He brushed past us to march towards the end of the hall.
With one last smile to Twitch and Maddalena I did as bid. The elevator didn’t keep us waiting long and opened like either a small portal or a large gaping maw depending on how you looked at it. Granted it was a maw with mounted rows of buttons resting above safety-mandated placards describing in boringly standard demonic font what to do in case of fire or emergency. There were even helpful diagrams of various demonic silhouettes obeying the proper procedures.
Given the circumstances that seemed awfully mundane.
Turning around I caught one last glimpse of the two souls watching my departure. Twitch had removed a glove to hold up the back of his hand where the star symbol still burned.
I returned a matching star-marked wave. After the doors had closed I could still feel the ties between us.
Despite the scars his lips had felt incredibly soft.