Chapter 37 - Citadel
Krux led me through hospital corridors full of a mix of demons, devils, and souls - some were patients, some staff, and all very organized. Other than the eclectic collection of body-types, skin tones, and random number of limbs, the place had that same frenetic-yet-focused feel of most busy hospitals I’d been in. Bureaucracy blended with function all mixed together as white lab coats, suits and ties, and professional skirts.
I stood out like a sore thumb or an outcast from one of those medieval historical re-enactment groups as I pushed past them all. The armored breastplate and feathered kilt felt all the more primitive as compared to the security stationed at the glass doors which exited to a landing platform. They stood there complete with modern body armor and elegant-yet-nasty rifle-sized blasters packing a punch orders of magnitude higher than the agent’s pistol. While the demons among them only had five to six souls suffering at their cores, their equipment likely made up for the lack of raw potential and then some.
Hmm. At least my senses were recovering now that I was away from that room. Whatever wards had been in place likely had contributed to feeling so cotton-smothered. While things weren’t completely clear yet, it was more like opening eyes underwater at a sandy beach: hazy and silt-covered but functional.
I was about to ask Krux if those guards were standard security or a special detail, but emerging into the outside air blindsided all other thoughts as smoke and sulfur invaded sinuses, triggering a coughing fit.
“C’mon, over here,” said Krux, reaching up and pushing the small of my back towards one of the black vehicles parked along the wall where the platform met the building. Each had their own clearly painted spot - not that the delineations were the same size though, as the air-cars were a menagerie of styles: some clearly influenced by designs from Earth with the usual four doors and boring automotive aerodynamics but others were blobs of spiked metal in all kinds of formations. They also all seemed made out of the same reflective dark material as was the building itself and were clearly built for function and not style.
Krux’s vehicle had a sharp pointy nose and two seats back-to-back for the cockpit with four fins spreading out behind not unlike a dart. The front seat was sized appropriately for his stature and he ushered me into the other which not only faced backwards but also could have fit someone twice my size, leaving me like a child who had just graduated from a kid’s booster seat and now relied solely on the seatbelt to not slide all over the place.
My seat therefore had a great view of the engine thrusters quad-clustered between the body and the fins. They kicked us forward with a roar of yellow flames as soon as I’d managed to get the confusingly six-point straps hooked in. With a quick boost Krux had the craft off the pad and into a stream of air-borne traffic. Krux had donned a headset which included what must have had VR-style screens in it, and as there were no visible markers in the air around us to indicate things like lanes so I figured it must all be handled via the displays as the traffic pattern was clearly organized. Spotting some larger winged demons weaving through the sky alongside the vehicles, I noted they too had goggles strapped to their faces and snouts.
Man, Neil Stephenson had termed mobile VR-wearing folks ‘gargoyles’ but this was ridiculous. Cyberpunk 666 style.
“Hey Krux,” I said over a shoulder. “You’ve got your own wings, so why the ship?”
He snorted. “I ain’t got a death wish, that’s why.” Something between the size of a Mack truck and a Boeing airliner overtook us and cut us off with inches to spare as if to emphasize his point. “I’d end up a splat on some asshole’s windshield.”
“Is this whole place just these office buildings?”
“Nah. They’re all built over the fighting pits.”
“Uh dare I ask what those are?”
“To earn a place in the Above you gotta be strong, fast, or clever. Best be two out three. The weak stay below and rot. Now shut it and let me drive.”
Stuck in the back I watched as he flew past vehicles like he was a crazed taxi driver from Rome, but in turn others madly zipped in front of us while everyone weaved in that pre-rush-hour madness before the bumper-to-bumper deadlocks occur. All around were the various traffic streams, like airborne ant trails criss-crossing everywhere between the endless and regularly spaced vertical buildings. With just the right angle of view the difference between walls and windows of those structures could be made out. I suspected the windows were actually all the same material just thin enough to let through the glow from the sky-fire above spamming everything with their rather hypnotic light. Up close as we sped around corners the buildings showed the passage of time: pockmarked and dented with spots smudged and no longer reflective. Every now and then there’d be an area of wall that looked like it had been patched with lava left to drip down and cool in place.
Within the high-rises the sparks of spirits and souls could be seen going to and fro, bustling amidst offices or perhaps home-spaces, some much larger than others. All contained behind those walls without balconies and without any personal exterior touches, just the occasional landing pads of that same stone extruding from the walls with freshly painted parking lines. There weren’t even any advertisements or decorations anywhere to be seen, just row after row of equally tall monoliths, regimented and oppressive in conformity and continuity.
I had a disturbing thought that the fiery aurora hanging overhead occasionally dipped down to engulf the entire grid.
What also bothered me was the scale. On the Rock all towns I’d seen rarely went over three stories. The landscape remained mostly stable where folks had gathered but it wasn’t always guaranteed. Just like riding wagons across ever-shifting terrain, so too could entire farms morph into new configurations seemingly at the whim of the realm’s pattern. Oh the crops would be the same type of plants and the buildings usually would be quite similar - but dimensions of things could shift and alter which was problematic if your bottom floor shrank while the top grew larger and the supports weren’t up to the increased load. Granted this was a different realm entirely, but it too had the same not-quite-real feel to it while also feeling sharper and much more on-edge. Though that could have been just me.
Still, how could they have built structures that stretched downward for hundreds of stories without suffering cataclysmic occasional collapse?
I was about to ask Krux when the horrible answer became obvious.
Lots of souls.
Each building had its set of sparks, sure - but about half were squatting in equally regimented locations. Unmoving and upon closer inspection weirdly smeared. They’d been soul-forged into the support beams holding everything up, fixating the pattern at regular intervals.
Floor after floor, soul after soul, each divine spark reduced to nothing more than anchors for architecture. Forever. Dis was literally built on the souls of the damned.
I wanted to throw up and not from Krux’s wild driving.
Suppressing a heave I caught view of an oblong spheroid ship about three times the size of Krux’s doing its best to cut its way through traffic. That by itself was nothing unusual from the flow, but the pattern-analysis part of my awareness kicked in and flagged the motions as unusual. It took a few more lane changes (both horizontal and vertical) to understand why.
The ship was following us. An attempt to scan the inhabitants caused the stomach to lurch further, this time from actual vertigo.
Good grief, they were blocking my sight.
“Flipping wonderful,” I muttered to myself before yelling again over the shoulder. “Krux!”
“Zip it till we get there!” he snapped. “This requires focus.”
“Yeah well, we’ve got a tail.”
“You shittin’ me?”
“Five back and one up. And I can’t scan them - they’re shutting me down just like the crew who stole the barrels.”
“They can do that?”
“At a distance, yep.” Of course I wasn’t sure they couldn’t do it with me standing nostril-to-nostril but didn’t want to admit that.
“That’s freakin’ fantastic!” The agent actually sounded gleeful.
“How the heck is that a good thing?”
“Because I hate traffic.” He flipped a switch. “Control, this is Special Agent Class Three Rizhog Krux, daily pass-phrase is ‘Yeshua Wore Dreadlocks’. I am declaring a security event, keywords Archon and Lethe. Repeat: I am declaring a security event of Archon and Lethe.”
There was a brief pause then speakers in the cabin crackled in response. “Pass-phrase confirmed. Event recognized and registered. Special Agent Krux is hereby granted temporary Class Five authority; Control is standing by for orders.”
“Orders are need-to-know broadcast only. Dispatch five teams from external divisions to the Citadel immediately: two heavy, three light. Contamination protocols in effect, spirit and flesh. Threat to the Sarim, understood? All squads dispatched are not to be from any currently in Citadel duty rotations.”
The operator spluttered their reply. “Uh, the Grand Conclave is the target? You serious?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying you idiot! Follow the protocols and get on the damn radios! I want those teams moving yesterday!”
Over the speakers the operator’s gulp was clearly heard. “Yes, sir! On it, sir!”
“One more thing,” the agent continued. “Contact local traffic patrol at my location. Vehicle X-Y-Four-Three-G-H-Two-Niner is to be pulled over and occupants detained.”
“Any specified reason, sir?”
“Tell ‘em only to be creative. Lethal force authorized. Krux out.” Killing the radio comm, Krux hit another switch and a set of lights right above my head burst to life sending red and blue in all directions to accompany the painfully loud klaxon siren. The nose of our ship flung upwards and we burst free of the traffic to the non-craft designated space between the lanes, zipping past everyone and spiraling our way towards the tops of the high-rises.
“Yeeeha!” shouted Krux as the engines of his craft roared in unrestrained glory. “Hey, were they stupid enough to jump the lines?”
I didn’t respond right away as I was busy being thankful for the armor preventing the safety belts from digging into my chest as the ship tried to accelerate out from under my seat. “Unph, no, I don’t think so.”
“Too bad. I’ve been wanting to test out the rear missiles. Paid enough for ‘em.”
We flew just above the tops of the buildings, sandwiched there between the dish and wire antenna-strewn rooftops and the roaring inferno directly over us radiating its light and intense heat through the canopy’s glass. While Krux’s ship had air conditioning it obviously couldn’t keep up. I was in the middle of reconsidering my earlier joy of being stuck inside metal and padded clothing when from my reverse perspective the fires simply fell away from us along a hard edge and we found ourselves under dark and empty sky. The flames behind were being diverted around a spherical force, the towering river of fire flowing along its circular boundary that revealed just how tall the mountainous flames really were.
As Krux maneuvered higher still into the clearly artificial bubble I wondered what would happen if it burst. Would we even have time to curse before the hypnotic yet deadly hellfire reduced us to ash?
I hoped to not find out.
Having faced backwards as we flew in it wasn’t until Krux landed that I got a good look at where he’d been taking us. Climbing out of the ship onto another black-stone platform I paused to try and make sense of what I was seeing.
Set against a backdrop of surrounding hellfire was the Citadel. The structure was a cross of massive medieval castle and function-driven spaceship. Walls rose upwards to form layer upon layer of battlements, each with huge emplaced weaponry of various types all aimed outward. Each turret could easily have been the size of an entire WWII battleship, and the entire structure was covered with them. Yet the whole construction had an elegance to it, the curves and lines simple and functional but also somehow graceful. Platinum and gold plated sections merged utility and beauty, even while antenna spires and focused scanning dishes emerged from tower upon tower like quills from a porcupine. The overall shape formed this crenelated sphere crowned at the top with a brightly-reflective golden dome. Beyond the physical manifestation, the edifice’s spiritual pattern was forged of the densest and most secure weaving I had ever beheld.
The Citadel radiated purpose, majesty, and overwhelming destructive power.
And we were standing on it.
While I was stuck staring about like a gob-smacked tourist, Krux had flashed identification to two security officers who had come trotting out of the local access hatch. One immediately ran back in while the other stood between Krux and the entrance, legs spread and a mean-looking blaster held easy but ready.
The whine of additional engines diverted my attention as ships the shape of bricks looking a lot like floating SWAT vans swarmed in for a landing alongside Krux’s own much smaller vessel.
Walking back over to me, Krux dropped a white ear-piece and throat microphone into my hand. “Know what these are?”
“Comms,” I said, trying not to sound like a rube. “They always on or do you need to activate them?”
“They’re live and these go only to my own private channel. Get ‘em on. In a few minutes Citadel security is going to stream out that hatch. You happen to spot any who’ve been compromised by your Grigori pal, tell me which asap. Got it?”
“He’s not my pal. But yeah, understood.” I popped the ear bit in place and peeled plastic film off the throat bead before sticking it against my skin.
Krux grunted with approval before turning to face the newly arrived ships.
The rear doors of the transports opened up and row after row of grey armored devils and demons disembarked, each fully covered by full-body hazmat suits with self-contained breathing apparatus, and wielding a variety of soul-forged weapons: swords, axes, and guns of all sizes that made most sci-fi movie weapons look primitive in comparison. They moved with such crispness and focus that I cringed in realization - even with all of Hank’s help and guidance my crew had never reached such levels of professionalism.
One large hulk of a demon broke off from the rest and hustled over to us, a skinnier one following after it.
“Krux you old barghast!” A deep voice boomed out through speakers set on the guy’s shoulders. “What’s this emergency sit-crap we had to rush out here for?”
“Major Quorg!” Krux grinned. “Need some PPE for myself and the lady here. Got spares?”
“Sure.” Quorg waved at the demon stepping up behind him who in turn nodded and hurried off to another ship. “Now what by Asmodius’ facial scars is going on? We get breached? You know the Majordomo ain’t gonna like us crashing this party.”
“If we don’t end up shooting him I’ll apologize later.”
Quorg paused. “That don’t sound good.”
The demon who had run off hustled back, tossing me and Krux square-folded suits to be worn over our clothes. These weren’t fully self-contained, but they did have serious-looking air scrubber masks.
Krux deftly caught his suit and shook it out. “Assume everyone inside the Citadel is hostile until I say otherwise. Let me suit up and I’ll explain on channel thirty-seven.”
To the Major’s credit he didn’t scoff. Instead through the faceplate of his helmet the red eyes narrowed. Tapping the controls embedded in the armor against his wrist, he began speaking but not through the speakers. The disembarked soldiers proceeded to set up a defensive perimeter including some serious-looking heavy weaponry they lugged out of the ships.
The suit in my hands wasn’t designed for someone wearing skirted battle armor. As I was about to admit I had a problem, the metal around my waist shimmered and changed shape yet again until to all appearances I was wearing a suit of armor complete with greaves over the shins. The sleeves smartly only came down to mid-bicep to trust the forearms to the protection granted by Camael’s bracers.
We won’t mention the ecstatic caresses provided as the armor did so, nor the flushed gasps of breath I tried (and likely failed) to hide.
So yeah, I quickly hopped into the hazmat get-up. So did Krux, who also belted a holster around his waist which held his nasty little pistol. It was good we’d hurried as the hatch to the Citadel opened again and about twenty armed security demons bustled out along with a three-horned white-bearded demon wearing a purple and gold robe long enough to trail several yards behind his hooves.
With the long beard swaying in the hot breeze the guy in the fancy getup looked with clear disdain upon the forces assembling. “Agent! This is unacceptable. You insult the Grand Conclave with your presence!”
Krux’s eyes shot me a look from behind his own mask before turning to face the robed demon. Staring up at the taller figure Krux held up a now-gloved hand. “Majordomo, by authority vested in Realm Security I hereby take operational control of the Citadel under emergency code Two-thousand three hundred and fifty-four as the Class Five agent on site.”
“Preposterous. Conclaves are neutral, the Citadel has no requirement to answer to agents of Dis!”
Quorg stepped up behind Krux and the size differential was not unlike a giant guard dog protecting a kitten, though I suspected Krux didn’t really need any help. Clearing his throat Quorg said, “The emergency code is clear in certain matters. If you examine sub-section twenty-three, paragraph five you’ll find…”
Tuning out the legalese I focused instead on each of the members of Citadel security. Demon, demon, devil, wait…those two in the back.
I relayed the info to Krux who in turn interrupted the Majordomo’s rebuttal to Quorg’s chapter and verse. “I believe, Majordomo, that this will answer your concerns.” The hand he’d held up to placate the official then instead clenched to a fist and in that moment several blasters discharged simultaneously. The two Azazel-corrupted guards immediately crumpled wetly to the ground having lost most of their heads and the contents of their chests. Citadel security flinched and thought about raising their own guns but Quorg’s team already had them dead to rights.
Heck, five of Quorg’s team had literally teleported behind the line of Citadel security and were already pressing guns against the backs of the skulls of those guards who seemed the most formidable.
Without any change in tone towards the Majordomo, Krux continued speaking. “Chaos corruption has infiltrated your Citadel. You will turn control over to us.”
The Majordomo blinked. To my amazement all pompous officiousness fell away as the horned demon’s eyes narrowed to angry slits. Turning towards the two fallen guards he tugged a gold pendent out from under the collar of his robe. The ruby within the pendant bathed the smoking guards with its reddish glowing light.
Where the light fell on the guards the color shifted from red to fogged-over black.
Enraged but holding it under tight control, the Majordomo simply nodded. “So be it. How widespread and do you have enough soldiers?” He then used the ruby to scan the rest of his guards but this time the light remained red and clear.
“Remains to be seen.“ Krux watched the Majordomo confirm my own report. “Are the Bene-Elohim still locked within the upper floor?”
“As per Conclave protocol, yes. The Kings for the most part have already departed but their captains and cohorts remain for further discussions. Their own Kerubim guard the sealed entrances and we are not allowed inside.”
“We need to get a message to them.”
An uneasy feeling built up in my gut and it took a moment to understand why. “Dammit, Krux!”
Everyone swiveled to look at me. I’d forgotten to use the comm.
If Krux was annoyed by that I couldn’t see due to the gas-mask covering his face. “What?” he snapped. Yeah okay, he was annoyed.
I pointed at the bodies. “You just alerted the asshole that you know about him. He uses guys like this for remote viewing, not just as marionettes!”
Krux raised a finger to retort but whatever he was going to say got cut off by the muffled thumps of several distant but obviously substantial explosions. We all scanned the walls of the Citadel for sources but the thick stone armor hadn’t changed.
The Majordomo swung to one of his guards. “What was that! Report!”
Listening intently to the radio-bead in his own pointy ear, the guard stammered, “Detonations on many levels, sir! Reports of several fires coming in!”
“Were any from the Aerie under the dome?” Krux demanded of the guy.
The guard hesitated but a glare from the Majordomo made it clear he’d better answer. “No, sir!”
My mind raced. This realm had technology, heck it had tech beyond that of Earth. But being in the hospital had been like sitting in any ordinary high-rise. Including all the safety standards as mandated by an entrenched and widespread bureaucracy.
“Holy crud,” I said rather loudly while restraining the desire to throttle Krux. “The Citadel, it’s built like all the buildings in the city, right?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Then it’s got fire suppression systems.” I glared at him through my mask.
The short agent wasn’t stupid, recent actions not withstanding. His eyes went wide behind his faceplate. “Oh shit.”
Quorg looked down at him. “What’s the issue, boss?”
I stared up at the very top of the Citadel, the part that Krux had called the Aerie perched like a cap on top of the tallest tower. “Well Major,” I said with a calm I totally didn’t feel, “if you had a few thousand gallons of the Waters of Lethe and wanted to weaken as many angels as possible so you could work your corrupt chaos mojo on them, how would you go about doing so?”
As if to punctuate my statement a beam of dark chaos energy blasted out of the dome and lanced the sky, many warped and scorched panels from the dome crumbling into further pieces as they fell to impact the structure below.
Seriously, did they not get vampire and demon hunter movies down here in Hell? For shame.
Chapter 38 - Strength
Krux reacted first. “Quorg! Call your fliers. Get me and the lady up there. Majordomo, kill the sprinklers in the dome.”
Quorg and the Majordomo exchanged glances as Quorg said, “You sure about that, boss? You know what that blast means: this clusterfuck is now in the hands of the angels. What good would we be against an Archon?”
“We can buy time for the feathered idiots to recover and fight back,” Krux said through gritted teeth. “While the Majordomo here does everything in his damned power to get help.”
“Help?” The Majordomo looked at Krux like he’d gone mad. “From where?”
“You said the Kings had already left. Get them back!” The agent pulled his pistol from the holster, thumbing off the safety. “Contact Samael, do whatever you have to do!”
“Boss,” Quorg said solemnly. “Going in there ain’t gonna end well. For you or this lady you’ve brought with you.”
Krux gestured with the gun. “She goes or I shoot her here and now.”
I shivered. “You know I’m not up to facing Azazel.”
The agent stared at the weapon in his hand before looking towards the ripped hole in the highest tower. His neck and what I could see of his face through the mask had stretched taut. “It doesn’t matter. You’re here and you’re who you are. I’ve lived too long to ignore such coincidence. While everyone outside our cage may wish to forget that Hell exists, we still do. We’re the bulwark against oblivion and the Universe knows it. Her whims keep sacrificing us to win, but sometimes that’s just what it takes. You’re going.”
Six of the winged demons formed up around the two of us. Four had the biggest and meanest looking rifles I’d ever laid eyes on, the other two had shouldered their weapons and moved behind me and Krux.
I didn’t want to go in there. I didn’t want to be torn apart by more chaos or have my will battered to smithereens by a mad and fully empowered angel.
I didn’t want to die.
“Alright,” I said. “Let’s go.”
With a nod from Krux we were grabbed by our waists and lifted into the air. It wasn’t until we were almost to the hole in the dome that I realized I should have asked for a weapon of my own.
As we approached the hole Krux ordered the smallest (and therefore possibly the fastest) of our escort to do a recon fly-by. On a set of dragonfly wings she swooped lower to skim the surface of the dome and zip right across the opening before banking and returning to where we hovered.
“Energy duel across the middle of the Aerie, sir,” she reported. “Hard to see who’s involved. The Sarim and retainers appear knocked out in their seats. The doors at the far side are blown apart.”
Krux considered. “We go in. Land in front of what’s left of the doors. If need be retreat through the opening. Move.”
We went. Not like I had any say of course, what with being carried like a wingless sack of not-potatoes.
As we cleared the shattered opening my vision went screwy as it tried to make sense of things. The whole space inside was a circular auditorium like one would see at the U.N. with curved rows of skinny tables and benches all facing each other. Except most of the tables were all akimbo and many bodies - winged and otherwise - lay strewn about large puddles of iridescently glowing water. Gritting through the sensations I braced against the emotional broadcasts of angel after angel radiating their internal battles as they struggled to maintain their precious memories and therefore their sense of self. Wave after wave smashed against a multitude of winged figures chained to metaphorical rocks as they fought to breathe through each brief pause of engulfment. Not all resisted though - throughout the room there were many who had embraced oblivion’s kiss to fall into utter silence and solitary unconsciousness. Against all that I had to forcibly focus on myself and not slip within each individual spirit’s need and pain, despite a heart crying out with the echoes of their plight.
To say this was disorienting would be an understatement.
At the center tables and chairs were smashed to pieces and amidst that rubble two beings faced off against each other. Waves of insanity spewed forth from the intent of a black-robed angel with spread what weren’t really wings but rather scrawled torturous script which kept oozing from its back, all of it incomprehensible as the language was one that should not be. The eyes of the angel were that black on black and I knew who truly looked out of them.
For within the core of that angel its once sacred Name had also been smothered by that horrible writing, and an entirely different signature was forcibly scrawled upon their fabric.
Against that horrible madness stood another. Wearing a white suit gone grey with dampness, a man planted feet with hands extended, bracing against insanity’s onslaught with sheer will. Beads of sweat poured down a tanned and beardless face, but he somehow held on.
What was within this man confused me. He was a soul but also not. Behind his gaze burned an expanded focus, and in attempting to see it clearly I gasped for billions of such eyes all looked back. Each contained the same Name and it was through that collective that the chaos was, albeit barely, held in check.
Unfortunately this man, this individual vessel for that Name, could not handle the true combined power of the whole to which he belonged. Already his pattern had begun to fray from the internal pressures, blisters forming across the skin as manifestations of the incredible strain. Around both combatants the air - or more precisely the realm itself - warped and twisted, threatening to unravel.
Beyond them two mighty and tall doors had been blown off their iron hinges and that’s where we landed, splashing into the puddles as we did. The five escorts immediately took cover positions and aimed their now-seemingly puny guns at the maelstrom growing in between the two combatants. With the way the space was convulsing they had no clear shots, and a couple of the soldiers cursed.
“Do we fire anyway, sir?” one asked.
Krux took it all in and shook his head. “Spread out, find the Sarim and get them out of the water. Strip the wet clothes off. Get them to wake up! Go!”
They scattered, eerie armor-under-hazmat figures moving through the strobe-like illuminations emanating from the struggle at the center.
I was looking around to see if I could spot which of the knocked-out angels were the strongest when Krux grabbed my arm. “Is that him? Is that Azazel?”
It was my turn to shake a head. “No. I think it’s another Grigori, but Azazel is puppeteering him.”
“This Beelzebub ain’t lookin’ too good.” He pointed to the guy in white.
Beelzebub? I swallowed. “Uh, he’s trying to hold the realm together and contain what Azazel is channeling through. But it’s too much.”
“Can you help him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Try! I think I see Abagor.” With that Krux scrambled away over tossed chairs and all the unconscious or moaning angels.
Try? Try what? A madness beyond comprehension, beyond the structure of the creation of all things, spewed forth from the dark angel to slam into a collective focus pouring from a being who had once aided in forging the origins of everything. What could I possibly do to help? Their interaction twisted and spun infinities about pinheads that I had no means to deal with. Without the power of the light I had no counter, while I could speak the language underlying the fabric and thereby manipulate it I had no clue how to reinforce it. Beelzebub was utilizing the sheer application of overwhelming intent, his willpower orders of magnitude greater than my own mind could grasp.
Yet the body through which he worked was unraveling at the edges, and if it went - so too would the presence of the greater being of which it was a part. This was a race between the two of them as to who could first undo the other’s local channel.
Taking a step forward I reached out with both hands, trying to connect with the realm, to feel and navigate its pattern and programming. The nature of this place burned with a driving force far different from that of the Rock. Etched into the words from which its existence depended was a singular intention:
A strength without weakness, one born of fire and pain and hardened into the purest of essences. The light which lay behind the existence of Earth and the physical realm was comprised of uncountable aspects, but what supported this realm was distilled to a single frequency. Uncompromising and ready to strike down any flaw, the base nature of this reality was working against Beelzebub and Azazel both, lashing out to destroy each and every flaw induced by the streaking chaos.
There was no redirecting that intention, it was integral to the core of the Citadel, of this realm, and of this Hell.
Feeling that intent I had an idea. I could reinforce that directive within Beelzebub’s body, reroute the overriding impulse to fortify instead of tear down. Harsh but focused words flowed past lips that strained with the effort, the sounds guttural and primal as I shouted them across the space between us. Shockwaves burst forward sending a tornado of focus about Beelzebub. Where those words and his will met the realm rang out like a gong a hundred meters wide. Azazel’s agent staggered back as Beelzebub hammered past the chaos to strike blow after blow directly against the darker angel, seeking to sever the connection between puppet and master. This Grigori’s corrupted wings curled forward, trying to shield against the onslaught. With an incoherent cry the scripted feathers lashed out to send a spike of chaos spiraling across the room.
Not at Beelzebub. At me.
The crimson fires of Camael’s bracers burst forth, burning away the hazmat gloves and sleeves as I crossed arms with all the raw intent within this realm I could muster. The lancing tear in the reality slammed itself into fire and will, shoving ankles backwards through bits of the broken table behind me. With another scream I tried to hold on, leaning into that spike with all that I’d tapped into.
Except it wasn’t enough.
This realm, this place forged of strength, was missing its anchor. As I dug deeper in desperation to find something to brace against I found instead an absence where a great presence had once been. The heart of the realm lay empty for - just as Krux had said - Samael had quit and severed connection with that which was his. The center was hollow and offered no purchase upon which to stand.
The attack consumed my vision, the madness spiraling about a shrinking coherency chipped and whittled down to a central dot of fading blood-red flame.
From within the spherical cage the chained angel remained at its center. Bowing her head she began to hum, the deep vibration filling her chest to grow louder and louder until the prison cavity shook with the intensity of the building resonance. Reflective shards broke free from the small crack marring the glass surface, the gap widening as the fissures spread wider still.
Reaching a crescendo, she pulled tight against chains binding limbs and wings as she shouted their shared Name, sending through the opening all its resolve and power to one who out of pain had tried so hard to forget.
Camael’s fire had never yielded. Against Abyss and Heaven both, right or wrong this realm and those within had never yielded.
Neither would I.
Rallying at the razor’s edge of consciousness I felt a surge of inner certainty and with its underpinning poured into the fabric all the defiance I could conjure. Infused into the weaving was every demon I’d cut down and every devil I’d destroyed, along with every moment I had stood against a larger foe and refused to buckle. To that was added every pain I’d endured in watching those I loved suffer, every outrage against the injustices I’d witnessed, and every desire to stand against such wrongness flooded into that last flickering ember.
It burst again into a fire even fiercer than before, enveloping not just my wrists with its brightness but filling the entire chamber with its intensity.
Against those reinforced flames the attack from Azazel’s puppet shattered and burned away.
Beelzebub took the opportunity to redouble his efforts against the Grigori. “Servitor! Keep using Samael’s realm. Shield us and we shall sever the abomination’s connection!”
Sweat dripped down the inside of my hazmat hood as that red fire redirected to scorch a path towards Beelzebub, flames infused with a continual stream of the realm’s primal energies and that inner certainty. Reaching further and further outward I tapped as much of the realm’s intent as I could, visions of the buildings and the pits below filled with struggling demons and souls ripping through my mind as I did. The figure of Beelzebub became wrapped within a burning sphere that began to cross the distance towards the channeling Grigori, pushing past all the insanities placed in its way.
Black-lightning infused chaos coalesced to form a long and wicked blade within the Grigori’s grip. Beelzebub ignored it. Throwing out his arms, his will caught hold of my own to toss our entire mix over the dark angel as a flaming blanket which carried the weight of the entire realm along with it. The breach of energies coursing free from the Grigori bounced back upon itself as the net smothered all, eliciting a ear-splitting screech as the sword swung wide to try and cut a way through.
The swing never landed as Beelzebub blinked forward, plunging a fist through the dark angel’s shielding feathers and past its ribcage to grip its blackened heart. Charcoal blood spilled like tar from the wound, gushing over Beelzebub’s forearm to splatter and hiss, skin dissolving from the contact.
As he clenched fingers around the physical heart and the spiritual one, Beelzebub spoke calmly. “Bold was your attack, but against our unity parlor tricks such as Beliel’s lost tears have no effect.”
“And yet without assistance your defense was inadequate,” answered Azazel even as his vessel’s pattern began to unravel. Lightless eyes regarded me, recognizing the armor gleaming past the melted coverings of the hazmat suit. “Ah General, again you have surprised. Impressive that you survived. But the work is near complete and the King is checkmated. We see no defeat but victory.”
With those words still echoing in the chamber those eyes lost their depths and went dull. The dead angel slid off Beelzebub’s arm, falling to the cracked marble floor with an echoing wet thud.
As the flames around us faded away, Beelzebub turned to regard me with a penetrating gaze.
“All the Servitors of the House of Light are known to us, yet you are not,” he said entirely without emotion despite the struggle we had just survived. “Nor do you manifest properly as one. Explain.”
“I’m new to Hell.” Wariness flooded muscles already strained by what they’d just been through. “That going to be a problem?”
Eyes with countless more behind them fell upon the bracers. “You bear the Butcher’s armaments yet utilized them in our defense. Quite remarkable. Thus do our brothers remain secure that they may yet join our holy singularity, preserved from the foulness of that which is not. Be assured, Servitor, you have nothing to fear from Beelzebub this day.” He lifted arms covered with the multitude of blisters and sores. “This vessel bears the taint of the beyond. Corruption must be purified. Until again we meet young one, we bid you farewell.”
It happened within a fraction of a nanosecond. One moment he stood there talking and the next he was engulfed in hot white flames. There was no time to react, no time to try and counter, it just was.
The eerie thing is those many eyes steadily met mine from within the fire even as the body was quickly consumed. They never blinked nor did he utter a single sound of pain. A human-sized torch flared until muscles and bones collapsed, and they burned on until not even ash remained.
Too stunned to move all I could do was watch.
Krux’s shout from across the room snapped attention away from what was now the only dry spot on the floor. “Jordan!” He was kneeling over a slender yet muscular angel with wings the shade of an all-covering fog during the final rays of daylight. Krux had propped him up against a marble column and had gotten the guy out of a soaked tuxedo, stripping him down to nothing more than a pair of tidy-whities.
Around the arena-like chamber only a couple of the soldiers were still moving, though not all that well. The rest were unconscious and scattered amidst the angels they’d been trying to help.
“What happened to your team?” I called out to the agent.
“Are you kidding?” He waved a hand towards where all the fun had just ended. “Most minds can’t take that kind of shit.”
“Yours apparently can.”
“I’m already insane. Goes with the job. But my crew aren’t the issue - we’ve got a different problem.”
“We do?” I frowned. The bad guy was gone, along with the creepy million-bug-eyed powerhouse. Other than Azazel’s cryptic threat at the end, what the heck could be bothering the agent now?
Krux struggled to keep the guy upright and not sink back into waters still glowing with Beliel’s desire to forget all things. “Traffic control radioed. They couldn’t hold the two in the car following us. You were right, they’re angelic. Last sighting had them flying straight for here.”
A groan escaped my throat. “You serious?”
“Can you see how close they are?” Krux asked. “Maybe we can run for it.”
“You giving up?”
“Without Beelzebub, we can’t hack this. The angels here are useless.”
He was right. If Azazel had another puppet Grigori on the way, all of us were beyond hosed now that Beelzebub was gone. Sucking in air through the hazmat mask I tried to scan beyond the Citadel. Unfortunately the fallen angels all around us still radiated too much static from their continuing inner struggles for me to make sense of anything. A throbbing headache was the instant result instead.
Then again it was probably already there and I only then noticed.
“I can’t see squat,” I told him with a grimace, flipping off the hood and mask to try and get fresher air. “We running?”
There was a pause. Krux then replied, his voice strangely calm. “There’s no point.”
I followed his look of defeat to the crack in the ceiling. “Oh.”
Beyond the dome burned six wings of brilliant fire. Wielding an equally flaming two-handed sword hovered a being of power clad head to toe in the finest obsidian and gold ever produced by Heaven’s armorsmiths.
Except for the dark skin of forearms remaining bare.
I blurted the first words that came to mind. “You’re late to the party, you asshole!”
Archangel Camael, Regent of the Seat of Light, Champion of the Powers and Butcher of the Fallen spoke from behind his gleaming helm.
“I offer my sincerest apologies.”
Chapter 39 - Watch
Within a tall tower overlooking the Boston waterfront Isaiah climbed the last few service-only steps leading to the roof. Coatl’s information had been clear: yes, Bishop had been at his nightclub, but had ensconced himself upon the roof. Even Coatl didn’t know exactly what Bishop was doing up there, as again the ancient vampire had employed his phasing magic to shift the area outside of normal space.
All Coatl could report was that the crystals holding enough deathly energies to level New England had been carefully moved up to that roof. When pressed about how a vampire could lurk atop a building exposed directly to the sun, Coatl only replied that his Master could make spaces where no sunlight would ever dare shine.
While Diego had wanted to go with Isaiah, Director Goodman had ordered the wizard to stay behind. Once already had Diego fallen under Bishop’s spell and they had no idea what other undue influence could linger from experiencing such.
In the interest of diplomacy Isaiah was therefore sent up by himself. No cops, no super-agents, and due to the numerous wards all over the building, no ghostly assistant to shout warnings or even final words of ‘I-told-you-so’s. Just himself and an emergency transmitter to summon the helicopters standing by to swarm the rooftop - likely to arrive after it was too late to be of actual help. Coatl had taken them to the highest floor and by his blood granted access to the service stairs, but that was as far as he had been allowed to go.
The rest was up to Isaiah alone.
There was a certain irony to it, Isaiah decided. After so many years at the gaming table and tossing his best friend into made-up no-win-scenarios, here he was about to face his own. The report from the Academy was that Circe’s preparation of a second circle was still not complete, not to mention the DPA had yet to find anyone with the capability to teleport something that size without potentially triggering an explosive energy release prematurely.
Not unless Isaiah himself could figure out how Jordan had pulled that off. Somehow he didn’t think divine inspiration of that kind was going to strike.
Although these days one never knew.
To his surprise the door at the top of the stairs was unlocked. Pocketing the small magic-tech gizmo he’d been provided to summon delayed assistance, Isaiah stepped out into the harsh glare of the mid-day sun. Whereas the nearby harbor had filled nostrils with salt-spray and brine during the walk from the cab into the building, here thirty stories up the air was fresh and clear as the wind was blowing from the east out into the bay. As for the roof itself, slightly sloped concrete filled the circular space between several idle industrial air-conditioning units. It was otherwise empty: no sign of apocalyptic weaponry nor crazed vampiric masterminds.
As to be expected.
When asked whether he was sure he could phase-align himself and gain access to the hidden-in-plain-sight secrets, he had expressed confidence. With the crisp fall breeze tugging at his coat he found himself no longer as sure. Thought and memory slipped back and forth between his humanity and the ancient mindset of a being whose wings had darkened long ago when the full burden of his holy purpose had finally descended upon him. As the luxury watch upon his wrist clicked its seconds forward he found himself hesitating.
The wrong move here could devastate millions. Stepping further could risk unleashing a backlash beyond horror.
Yet going back would leave all those lives to the mercy of the ageless vampire’s unknown grand designs.
Tick with doubt. Tock with certainty. Tick with heart-racing panic. Tock with the steadfastness of eternity.
With him caught somewhere in between.
On the way up he had removed the leather glove covering the hand whose skin was both alien and yet more his own than the other. Reaching forward with it his will coalesced and the next gust of wind swept the sun away as one scene replaced another. Dark was the sky, air heavy and tinted to allow only the least fraction of light to pass through. Purple and blue-black crystals akin to the photos shown him of El Paso’s setup dotted the rooftop - connected not just by their immense energies but by circles and script laid out with painstaking precision in freshly painted blood. Outside the lines lay a pile of plastic blood-bank packets, each squeezed empty to their last drops.
At the center sat a man appearing more caricature than real, his naked olive-brown lengths stretched to appear more like toothpicks than limbs. All shared the same bloody script slowly drying upon a leathery hide which had more than its share of scars. The man hummed a tune as he worked, harmonics beyond a mortal’s voice lending eerie resonance. Meanwhile the paintbrush held between extended fingertips slid across the roof’s surface, guided by the other supporting hand with movements efficient and pure.
A final circle closed around a shard of a blade, the jagged metal reflecting green like tarnished copper in the odd light cast by the towering crystals. With a cross-section indicating a weapon larger than any man could swing, the broad fragment was ten inches across with dual blood-grooves running parallel along the width.
What caught Isaiah’s attention was not the blood-painted sigils nor the artifact placed so carefully before the naked vampire. No, what gripped his awareness was the barrier spiraling though the air around the outer circle and pulsing with the power of seven sacred names each beautiful and distinct.
Elohim. Raphael. Uriel. Jophiel. Gabriel. Camael.
The painter paused his artistry with a low-rumbling laugh. “The world still provides surprises even to bygone relics such as ourselves. The auguries spoke of unexpected guests but if I had known it would be you - why, I would have put out a proper offering. Perhaps a Macallan Nineteen Twenty-Six.”
Isaiah’s hand hovered before the space warded against by the holy names. “What have you done?”
Bishop’s laugh cut short. “Is it not obvious? I have slipped behind your great Seal and with this shard of sword, forged as it was from the extraordinary metals of my brother’s lost body, I shall pierce the boundaries of Limbo. With this I will rip open the pocket into which he was imprisoned along with the rest of my condemned Nephelim kin, all of whom failed your criteria for incarnation.” The blood-painted sigils across the vampire’s skin began to pulse, preparing the immense power required to warp space, time, and spirit.
Standing to take his place within the ritual’s center focus, Bishop gestured and in response the fragment of sword-metal rose until it floated at chest height of the taller man. Eyes sharp with concentration Bishop spoke again. “Sariel believes you to be the one who will break this Seal, now that the first three have gone. He acts out of fear more than reason, but as we both know fear is a powerful motivator.”
Isaiah felt a tingling against his fingers. The Fourth Seal. That which prevented angels and demons from walking freely upon the Earth. It hung there in the air between himself and the Nephelim. The loss of the first three Seals had weakened its anchors yet it remained fixed with ancient purpose. “And you do not fear?”
“Oh I do, I most certainly do. But mine is constrained to a single item: failure in the task I set for myself. One decided upon millennia ago after Gabriel first arrived in all her glory to deal with the existences of myself and my cousins. To pursue that end I searched far and wide, finding the means to sidestep your imminent mandate of forced rebirth in which all knowledge would be lost and locked away. Thus did I die and yet still live.”
The razor-edge of the sword’s fragment gleamed, streams of violet electricity streaking from its surface to pull at the prismatic lines linking crystals, Nephelim, and now the blade itself. “The question for today,” Bishop continued over the growing harmonic hum building now in the air itself instead of from lips, “is whether you fulfill Sariel’s nightmare and break that Seal - one bound by your own Word and holy Judgment - in order to stop me. He refused to believe that the other seals had not been lifted at the direct bequest of Heaven. You and I however know the truth: Heaven has not rescinded their mandate and even now is likely swarming with feathers all atwitter to debate what they shall do regarding the breach of the three. Therefore I inquire: will you yourself perform such a transgression and accept the consequence? Or will you stand as witness when brother once again meets brother as per the story of old.”
Palm of darkest night pressed against those Names and the powers behind them.
Tick, an angel’s fingers touch the timeless will of the Most High. Tock, a man envisions the destructive release of an angel-borne army which had once carried terrible chaos across the world.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the broken blade began to pierce beyond. Blood-soaked sweat beaded upon the vampire’s shaved head as he strained against the prison bars locked in place by celestial forces. “Decide with care, Archangel.”
Chapter 40 - Purpose
Relief burned alongside an anger equal to the flames of Camael’s blade as his wings lowered him to the center of the room. Reaching the ground the angel went down upon a knee protected by metal greaves against the lingering water’s magic, and with gauntleted fingers removed his helmet. A single raven braid fell past wide shoulders to dangle past cheekbones somehow darker than the obsidian of the armor.
I wanted to weep. I wanted to rage. I wanted to shriek obscenities at his face and pound fists through that sacred armor. Instead I stood there shaking and with a hoarse voice hissed, “This is your fault!”
The warrior whose sword and wings had tasted the blood of entire regiments silently bowed his head.
“Danielle died because of you! You started all this!” Strained words came out as stammered shrieks. “You weren’t there when I - when SHE - needed you!”
“She fulfilled her destiny. As you are fulfilling yours.”
I choked out a bitter laugh. “Really? For all your talk of light and fate look where we stand. There is no light in Hell!”
“Yet I behold one even now.”
The sound of someone clearing their throat came from above. Another figure had descended through the missing piece of ceiling, though not by wings but rather had floated down while sitting cross-legged upon a maroon carpet. He wasn’t wearing the usual brown trenchcoat but by the buzzcut haircut and sardonic expression I knew him. “As much as reunions are fun and all,” he said, “maybe we should focus on the situation here.” A tattooed hand gestured towards the scattered unconscious angels, guards, and Krux who was openly gaping at the new arrivals.
More specifically the Agent of Dis was staring in shock at the visage of the legendary Butcher of Heaven kneeling before me.
“Barakiel,” Camael said as red wings folded upon his back while he again stood. “Tend to Abagor please.”
“Sure, sure.” Nick-who-was-Barakiel pointed at a table near Krux which promptly flipped itself upright in a gust of wind that also dried it clear of the waters. “Get him up on that for now.”
Krux grunted. “He’s a lot heavier than he looks.”
Nick gestured again and Abagor popped airborne to land with a solid thunk on the table, grey wings pinned between wood and bare skin. Leaning over him, Nick placed a glowing palm against Abagor’s forehead. “Someone want to explain what’s going on?”
Dammit. As usual whenever Camael (Soren) showed up there were immediate pressing matters to deal with which made kicking him no longer seem appropriate. Come to think of it, I owed Nick a lot more than just a kick.
Except they were both in Hell. “You two. You came for me.”
“Of course,” Camael said.
“I’m only here because he blackmailed me,” Nick muttered while continuing to prod the unconscious fallen.
Looking around at the destruction of the circular room, Camael took it all in. “This is Azazel’s doing.” Returning focus to me he asked, “You defeated him?”
I glared. “Hardly. Beelzebub was the one who punted his butt.”
Krux recovered his wits and interjected. “She assisted. Azazel knocked out the Conclave and from what she’s told me he was going to try and take them over. Both Beelzebub and Azazel were working through proxies, neither survived.”
“Then the situation is handled.” Camael nodded and addressed me. “Leave this to the local authorities; we have much to discuss.”
Ice flooded through my veins. “No, this isn’t over. Azazel believes he’s won. He didn’t get to eat these guys but there’s something else.”
Coughing came from the table. Abagor, with help from Nick, sat up before spitting out a chunk of glowing phlegm. “Butcher,” he breathed, “Was this your doing? Do you bring slaughter to us all this day?”
Camael lowered the burning sword. “No.”
Abagor nodded and not without relief. “You never were one to attack the defenseless,” he rasped. “Yet you are here. Why? Has the final trumpet sounded at last?”
“I come only for her, brother.”
“Brother?” Abagor coughed again. “The Butcher calls me brother.” Eyes the same grey shade as his wings regarded Camael flatly. “Then perhaps all is not lost.”
“We will depart and leave you to your recovery.” Camael moved a step closer to me.
“Would you then shirk our most sacred duty?”
“I have no duties in Hell but one.”
A raw chuckle escaped Abagor’s throat. “Think. Feel the resonance of this battle.” Watching Camael’s lack of reaction Abagor’s eyes hardened. “You knew already.”
“Knew what?” I asked.
Abagor answered. “The Grigori is one of us no more. Chaos has claimed his spirit.”
“And thus he was banished to Hell,” stated Camael calmly. “Though he has demonstrated the capacity to reach past the edge and harness the energies, Azazel hasn’t the inner might to survive immersion and thus become a full Archon.”
The angel lying on the table exhaled. “He believes he has won. I am disabled here alongside my strongest, and Samael - like Lucifer before him - has left us. Beliel’s realm lies defenseless and any plea to the others for assistance will be seen only as a trap.”
“But what is Azazel after?” I asked, things still not making sense. “More waters? So he can try this crap again?”
It was Camael who answered while still staring fixedly at Abagor. “No, it is not the Tears Azazel desires but the source which infuses the waters with the need and power to forget. He seeks what Beliel left behind when Lucifer cut him free.”
I growled, throwing hands up in frustration. “Dammit, just spit it out directly. I’m sick of the cryptic-phrased bullshit and today I’m all out of cheesecake.”
Nick snickered and gave a straight answer. “Azazel seeks the raw power anchoring that realm’s existence. He desires the hammer of Creation’s forging. In other words, he wants Beliel’s mace.”
Abagor continued to lock eyes with his ancient blood-soaked enemy. “With that in hand Azazel will gain the might to stand within the Chaos and Beliel’s realm shall be its first prize. Tell me, brother, will you fulfill your purpose to defend Creation? Or does Hell no longer qualify? The leader of your House abandoned us long ago, will you now do the same?”
Camael did not reply to the fallen angel but instead turned to me.
“The Light is within all things. Come, we must hurry.”
He held out a hand and like an idiot I took it.
As in Aradia’s memory I was again held carefully within Camael’s arms as we sped towards Azazel’s shadows. This time however it was only us two: Azrael was not with us and no cohort of Powers paved the path ahead. Just a blood-stained warrior now cut off from the strength of his Host carrying the remnants of an angel who no longer could reach the Light.
His wings pulled us through the space between spaces, guided by will and resonance. Despite eyes clenched tight the patterns to the realms of Hell flickered through my mind with all their spirals of time and energy. Each was a pocket of stability within a static vacuum that pushed against a void of an entirely different caliber, one pressing inward with the mindless yearning to swallow all.
Towards a convergence we flew, manifesting upon a beach I knew well: waters of the deepest of deeps cast wave after wave against a sandy shore too stubborn to erode, standing resolute within that darkness against eternity.
He’d brought us to the Edge. Though with how the terrain here constantly shifted and morphed I could not say if it was the same stretch where Twitch had found me, or whether it was near where we’d found Hank.
Such distinctions may not have mattered at such a place.
Air sucked into lungs which had not precisely existed a moment before and I gasped while a physical sensorium reasserted itself.
Strong arms that held me close never flinched. “Take a moment to reorient. We will need your vision.”
Blinking at the absolute darkness, the mind could focus only on the swirl of energies and the spray of chaos scattering from the surface of the waters. “I’d imagine yours works better than mine at the moment.”
“That may not necessarily be the case.” It was simply spoken but a wash of controlled sadness permeated the words.
I bit a lip. “How bad is it?”
“You sent Nathanael, didn’t you? Why him first and you only now?”
“To protect you while we prepared. Where is Nathanael now?”
“You don’t know? He’s here. As a guest of Abagor’s soldiers.”
“Then he may yet aid us.”
A wind blew past, scraping skin with its oddly charged spray. The sound of this ocean’s crashing echoed through my bones, as if each decibel twisted at things within. “There’s no going back, why even come?”
“It is my sacred duty to carry a message. The most important message I have ever been graced with the task of delivering.”
“It’s for me, isn’t it.”
“Yes.” He turned us around to face the waters upon whose surface spun incomprehensible infinities. “Therein lies your path out of Hell.”
“Into the Abyss? Are you mad?” Even standing this close I could taste oblivion’s need.
“Through the chaos that lies between. The physical planes of mortality lie betwixt pure order and the chaos, one layered across the other. Archons of Chaos traverse its spans, exerting subtle influence past the barriers preventing the exercise of their full strengths.”
“I’m no Archon. Not even sure I’m still an angel.”
Camael’s eyes burned behind his helm, casting the first visible light upon our surroundings. “You are what you are. As he was what he was.”
“The Bringer of Light, the Morning Star. He who was and always shall be the First. For this is the road by which he slipped past Elohim’s Edict. In this manner did he and this realm’s progenitor escape eternal banishment.”
I shivered and not from the cold. “That’s how they did it? That’s insane. There’s no way I can do that.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because you must.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know.” He paused, giving great consideration to his words. “Hear me, Amariel. For you are the manifested Promise sent as a gift to all that is. Not because I say and believe it to be so, but because Creation itself bends to place the stones beneath your feet. Her need is yours as yours is hers. Therein shall always be found a ready path.”
A thousand questions followed but none had the chance to be given voice. The beach tilted sideways with a thundering and terrible groan and if I hadn’t still been held against Camael’s chest I would have been tossed right into the waves now made even more sinister by his crazy pronouncements. Crimson wings kept us steady and ignored the local gravitic confusion causing sand and rock to tumble and splash into those waters. Only his burning feathers preserved our orientation against the ensuing madness.
Together we bore witness as cracks appeared throughout the patterns maintaining the Rock’s substance.
Camael’s arms tightened. “Azazel has reached Beliel’s anchor. We are out of time.” No sooner had he spoken were we launched across the sky like a ruby-streaked comet flashing across an otherwise empty heaven.
Frozen terrain I’d ridden across so many times spun past in the glow from our passage but instead of the remembered quiet solitude the ground split and rumbled, crevices and fissures spilling across the landscape while heated lava burst from below to clash with the ice-filled surface. Outpost Epsilon was a barely registered blip from the blue lights upon its peak, a dot amidst valleys and hills rolling into each other as waves of instability pulsed outward from within the realm’s center.
I both heard and felt the entire Rock shriek its protest.
To this side’s Hole we flew, ignoring the glowing shield surrounding a hill which demon mercenaries had once besieged. Instead we plunged through the excavation those demons had left behind. We weren’t the first to traverse such a path for a gap in the patched terrain lay open - stone scorched unnaturally black by forces which had shoved the underlying patterns aside to shred equally both the rock and all the souls still laboring to fill the dig site. Sparks fizzled from soulstones unable to form due to the damage ripping through their spirits by the raw chaos unleashed to tear into the caverns below. Their destitute cries of agony as they suffered absolute destruction echoed those of the realm.
And I could do nothing for them.
Transforming from comet to arrow we dove, through the Hole and into buried passages of stone, ice, and lava - all hissing and spitting with the contusions rupturing the sigil-forged sentences comprising their reality. Weaving our way towards the center I spotted other lights which were broken and flickering much like the souls, all scattered amidst the damage inflicted by the being which had carved its way directly through all the caverns under the surface.
One such light spluttered with a familiar sapphire glow.
“Hank!” I shouted before remembering that wasn’t his true name. With the hand not pinned by Camael’s embrace I fervently pointed. “Nathanael!”
Camael’s trajectory slowed instantly, his will and wings stretching out to prop up the corner of the cave where Nathanael lay.
My friend didn’t look good.
Three of those beautiful wings lay crumpled and burned by the unleashed chaos, blackness warping feathers and spreading as fractals into the rest of his essence. One eye swelled shut and hands clasped a gash across his midsection where even the might of heaven’s armory had failed. Forcing myself out of the crimson warrior’s grip I dropped to the unsteady ground and rushed to the wounded angel’s side, my brain not wanting to admit to the horror of what that infecting darkness implied.
Nathanael coughed, blood spilling from the side of his mouth as he did. Staring up at the warrior hovering behind me he said hoarsely, “We were holding him off, chief. But Abagor’s lads lost the fortitude lent by their leaders, I couldn’t cut it solo.”
Hands which had just released me now gripped a flaming sword of war. “You did well.”
The responding tired laugh was all Hank’s. “Not well enough. If I hadn’t been cut off by Hell’s Seal, I could’ve taken him. But now he’s tapped the Chaos and he’s got the mace. It bucks him like a wild stallion, but he’s got it.”
Camael’s eyes flashed with the red fire and fury I’d channeled so many times.
But behind those flames lay a brighter spark still. Spoken as both command and comfort he said only two words:
I didn’t see him move. One moment he was there and the next only trails of fire remained. The ground heaved and spun as Camael, Third Horseman of the Apocalypse known as War, engaged the shadow lurking in the next cavern over at the very center of the realm.
Nathanael used two of his remaining wings to protect us both as we tumbled about like hapless deckhands in the midst of a typhoon. The roaring sound was deafening, and whether I wished to perceive the clash or no the impact to the patterns between the immense forces could not be denied.
Flaming Sword versus Mace versus Darkness scraped across my vision like claws through a chalkboard.
As we bounced across the rocks, I heard Nathanael mutter, “Kick his ass, chief.”
How I even heard him over the extraordinary din remains a mystery. All I could do was cling to Nathanael as the realm shook, as if the blows raining down upon Camael were also hammerstrikes to this reality. Each swing of Beliel’s mace impacted the foundation underlying the solidity of the mountain and gaps began to open as if the unending maw over which the entire realm hung had opened wide in anticipation of swallowing whole the entirety.
Over the terrible sound of the realm’s fragmentation rang Azazel’s voice, taunting his adversary.
“As we once warned your precious little spark, the Light is but a lie. Accept this. Embrace it! Your misguided loyalty has led you to the same fate in store for all, forgotten and banished to where the Light refuses to touch. It has turned its back upon you as it did us. Admit the truth, we were but toys to be cast aside at entertainment’s ending.”
Camael responded only with sword and fire, but how could he prevail against such a shadow? His blade and flames carved at a nothingness quickly becoming more an extension of the emptiness hanging over us.
“What happens if he loses?” I shouted to Nathanael, staring at his bruised face as the fight moved further away amidst explosions of steam. The towering ice which the mace had frozen and shoved skyward for eons cracked and boiled as the combatants hurled might and will against their opposite.
The seraph gave a kind yet terribly sad smile and a hand sticky with blood touched my face. “Should Camael fail, we and all the souls on this forgotten rock shall embrace the nothingness.” His breathing was labored and shallow, each intake more difficult than the last.
More explosions and the caverns rocked again, the fissures in the fabric growing wider still as gravity screamed a final defeat and let go. The debris around us began to float only to accelerate into further destructive collisions. Grabbing tighter to Nathanael lest we be cast apart, I asked, “Can he win?”
My friend had breath enough only to whisper, “Not alone.”
Fingers left a wet trail across a cheek and as they fell free his sapphire light began to fade.
Camael had been right. We were out of time. Closing my eyes I went within to do that which I should have done cycles ago.
The translucent cage sat tilted at the center of a shallow crater, the sphere intact except for the one jagged hole. Its occupant knelt with wings folded behind her, each feather as pure and white as untouched snow yet bound by the same steel chains which manacled ankle and wrist. No depths of ocean surrounded the prison now, only sunless sand stretching out in endless and featureless dunes. Before the prison stood a man whose unsteady image kept flickering as if cast by an unsteady projector.
“I didn’t want any of this,” said the man. “Then things just kept happening, one after another.” Placing a palm against scratched glass, he studied the angel within as well as his own uncertain reflection.
The prisoner nodded silently, brushing a reddish gold strand away from saddened eyes.
“And I’m scared,” the man admitted. “Not only of a responsibility larger than I can even comprehend but also of what it means for me specifically. I do this and all inner hope of a peaceful afterlife for us dies. There’d be no going back. Nor would I ever find any kind of quiet life like she had wished for me at the end.”
He sighed, watching as the hand against the surface transformed into slender elegance.
“I’m not suicidal either, not really,” she continued. “I never knew whether that dream of reunion was certain or fantasy; it was just a glimmering possibility should the worst happen. Maybe clinging to it nudged the willingness along, easing each sacrificial decision with its teased hope. Who knows. But in the end all those choices were made for one overriding reason only: I’d have never forgiven myself if I hadn’t tried.”
Looking up, she peered past a reflection exactly matching the prisoner within. “Shoving you in there was an attempt to remain myself, to stop the changes and fight against the non-stop madness. And yes, to run away and hide. All the while lying to myself that you and the light were beyond reach, that I too had been abandoned. I wanted to blame you - and through you, God - for all the pain even while blaming myself.”
Resting forehead against the chilled surface her eyes clenched tight. “I’ve been stupid, angry, and blind. And because of that things are about to go horribly wrong.”
Inhaling deep she steadied and lifted her head. Extending a hand through the gap in the prison’s shell, a single card appeared between thumb and forefinger. “Regardless of blame, we are needed and I won’t run from that any longer. But I too can’t do it alone.”
The prisoner stood, taking a restricted step closer to the barrier between them. Looking at the image upon the card she smiled.
Mirrored hands clasped and the resulting flash of brilliance set an angel free.
The symphony. That glorious symphony.
The music of the All, transcendent and pure with the harmonies fueling all love and life filled my ears and spirit. Even here, within the realm of Beliel’s broken heart, it rang true behind every speck of manifestation and behind the spark of every soul within its domain. Obscured, hidden, ignored, but there. It had been so long since I’d touched that song that I wanted to jump for joy and shout in exultation with every last fiber of my being.
Except there was work to be done.
Below me lay beloved Nathanael, struggling still against the blight eroding a name once beautiful but no longer buttressed by a connection to the throne, a throne which had cut this part of creation away from its mercies.
Mine however were right here.
Brushing lips against his forehead, I breathed two names into his pattern. First was his own refreshed and filled with enough light to push aside the darkness trying to smother it. The second was mine, written as a promise that no matter where he was within creation the light would never again fail him for as long as he remained true.
Those Mediterranean blues snapped open as he gasped, breathing in deep as the two names worked in tandem to purge the chaos tearing at his spirit.
“Rest now,” I sang more than spoke before arrays of feathers shining with untrammeled glory unfurled to stretch into the space above us.
On six wings of iridescent fire I rose towards the clash still happening above. Darting through the broken caverns I reached out even as I flew, shining light into Beliel’s realm and granting it strength to resist the fractures trying to tear it apart.
In so doing I touched the souls - and yes the demons and devils - who had made this realm their home.
All were given the support to hold against the shadowy pull of the Abyss, the same shadow lurking as a cloud to obscure the Spark in the sky above where Beliel’s icy perch had once stood. The Archangel’s dark mace, the Second’s counterpoint to the First’s unrestrained brilliance, lay within the shadow’s grip to hammer against the red-flamed weapon of a defender deflecting blow after blow.
The ice-volcano’s caldera lay in ruins, fragments of frozen cliffs cascading outward in all directions for gravity within the realm no longer functioned according to design. Its anchor gripped by a darkness more chaos now than angel, the rules of manifestation had ceased to appropriately apply.
A blur of crimson fire, Camael launched countless attacks at the core of the dark cloud spreading over the realm, but each assault had less penetration than the one before. Azazel, one hand on the mace and one hand reaching towards the Abyss, had tapped the layer of Chaos lying between, its twisted non-language spiraling down to fuel the dark cloud’s growth.
With a snap of a wrist more concept now than substance, the long and spiked mace caught the red-flamed warrior across the chest sending him crashing into a floating chunk of mountain. In a rasping voice booming across the forests and hills stretching out below the shadow gloated.
“Admit defeat, Archangel. With this realm and weapon we have gained the means to finish what was started. Your beloved Light has failed.”
Camael, weary and battered, steadied himself with sword again held at the ready and spoke his reply. “No. She succeeds.”
Like an arrow fired from Erglyk’s bow I shot out of the remains of the volcano and burned through the cloud, an inverted meteor tracking a specific target. With hands glowing bright I grabbed hold of Beliel’s mace to try and wrest it free. Azazel’s grip however was strong and we spun around each other, swirling ever closer to the boundary between the realm and the un-being that lay beyond as the light and chaos streamed behind us in growing circles. To the faceless shadow of the once-angel I shouted, “This is not yours to take!”
“It is already ours!”
As we struggled to yank the physical item away another battle transpired on a different level entirely.
One inside the mace itself.
For within the weapon Beliel had over ages upon ages poured out the full measure of his pain. All the regrets from having become infected and attacking his beloved Heaven, the agonies of being lost within the madness and having struck down the very siblings whose manifestations he had helped make possible. Raphael had with great effort purged him of the taint, but not the guilt. Never the guilt.
Thus he had fallen, sentencing himself to the furthest reaches whereupon he had built this tomb from which to stare into the Abyss, to spend the eons desperately trying to forget while also pondering in each passing moment whether the time had finally come to plunge beyond and be no more.
Now, with the taint of the Chaos again funneling through this ancient piece of himself, that paralyzing frozen guilt screamed its pain.
A pain I understood.
Into the mace I poured my own heart and guilt. But along with it I poured the truths I had discovered since, that there were always those who needed help. Sadly we couldn’t save them all.
But we could try.
Through me the mace felt the spirits of every soul and entity within its domain. How through the light of the Spark which Lucifer had left behind which was refueled by souls otherwise abandoned this realm had become a garden unto itself: trees and crops watered by its melting ice bringing sustainment not just to this once-tomb but to many of the other realms placed beyond the reach of Heaven.
Even here, awash with all that anger and sorrow, the weapon - nay, the tool - had brought growth and succor to where there had been none. Even here, Beliel’s original purpose still was fulfilled.
This was its true legacy.
The reaction from the mighty implement surprised me and Azazel both. Ripping free from our hands the mace swung at the shadow’s core with a force not seen since the Beginning, striking across all layers of meaning to hammer Azazel and his cloud of darkness back beyond the threshold and into the depths of waters which were not water.
Before the blow landed the fallen shadow managed one final act: with a multitude of tentacled arms he had grabbed hold of my waist with all the strength the chaos flowing through him could wield. Though my wings set those arms aflame, he held on. As he slipped beyond those boundaries those arms pulled me with him.
The last thing I saw was Camael holding sword before him in a farewell salute. His eyes, no longer burning with the blood-red fires of his rage, blazed instead with a clear and brilliant reflection of the light shining forth from my restored wings.
He didn’t have time to say it again yet his message was clear:
Chapter 41 - Verdict
The sky was clear yet the mid-day sun did not shine. Within the shifted pocket darkness had fallen except for the unearthly glow of the ritual woven between empowering crystals and the greenish metal fragment receiving their bounty. Behind the curtain forged by Heaven the vampire urged the shard of blade to seek between the layers of reality, to reach the spirit to which so long ago its material had once been connected. Streams of power coalesced before the shard, the raw dirty-violet mixing with verdant tarnish to spin in the air and at its center take shape.
And also grow.
Even from behind the Great Seal Isaiah could feel the tremendous forces being focused as the crystals discharged power sufficient to level the city. As Isaiah watched the energy’s target became first a blob then pulsed into a towering muscular copper-green torso from which a gigantic head emerged. Long strands of that odd metal stretched downward past the forming shoulders to fill in the chest and abdomen. Features upon the face were similar to the vampire’s own, twisting as it pushed against the separation between its prison and the earthly plane.
Like a metal statue brought to life the eyes opened and flared with violent promise. Lips split with a sharp-toothed grimace but as the eyes locked onto the vampire standing a few feet behind the floating shard a harsh smile spread wide.
“Brother,” said the head, its voice muted as if carried across chasms of separation.
“Ohya,” Bishop acknowledged, shoulders and body tense with the strain of guiding levels of power beyond which any mortal could bear.
“Our chains, they shake and bend. Have you grown strong enough to break the oppressor’s will? Our father would be so proud.”
“Proud? Shemyaza never cared for such emotion. Tools to his ends we were, nothing more.” Grunting, Bishop pulled more energy from the stores of deathly pain and sent it forth.
“Is he ready then to continue the struggle? Has he decided it is time at last for our revenge against the lackeys of Heaven?” Flat eyes examined the ritual space. “You use borrowed power, is it his?”
The shard brightened as additional lines of energy crossed the space to infuse the breach further. “Do you really think father would deign to work with the likes of me? If so madness has rotted your mind.”
The one called Ohya frowned. “Blame not me for father’s wroth at your weakness, little Hahyah.”
“That is not what I blame you for.” More lines connected to the shard until it burned like a small purple sun.
A dangerous focus hardened upon Ohya’s metal features. “Fool! The connection is already forged, harness the power to twist the chains asunder. Set me free!”
“You spoke of revenge,” Bishop said, taking a step back. Blood-smeared sweat poured freely down his neck and chest but the burning runes turned it to a thick and smoky steam. Raising hands as if in a benediction, his voice echoed the pain of many thousands of years. “Here is mine.”
The piece of sword darted forward, warping space and the spiritual fabric with its passage as it plunged across to bury itself within the giant’s metal chest before exploding. The shockwave ripped across the layers, shredding the roof’s tar-covered boards in a wide circle tossing debris-ridden dust across the surface.
As Isaiah blinked his eyes clear, Bishop sank to knees exhausted by far more than magical strain. “Mother, it is done,” he whispered as bloody hands fell limply to his sides.
The dust began to settle. In the center where before Ohya’s top half had floated now only a head could be seen. In addition however two arms floated, fingers digging into the folds of reality to continue the pull against the bindings keeping the planes of limbo and the roof separate.
Booming laughter echoed across the darkened rooftop.
“Clever, Hahyah. Quite clever.”
Bishop stared aghast at what hovered before him. “Not possible.”
Metal lips snarled. “Did you think the eons would pass in idleness? I have examined every strand of my spirit, worked tirelessly to harden and remediate any discovered flaws. Room enough was there in this trap to test our might against each other, to bind the useful portions of the weak into our own patterns. You have cracked open the door. I shall step across, free our cousins, and see just how weak you truly are.”
Faces pushed themselves forward into the quivering rip beside the giant’s own rage-filled visage. Hand after hand joined his to strain against the connection’s impulse to close.
Slowly the gap widened.
“No!” Throwing tired arms out once more, Bishop forced more energy from the crystals in an attempt to counter. Sparks flew as violet crystal after violet crystal went dark, their reserves run empty.
His brother laughed again, a dark and hateful sound. “Time to witness one last time father’s chief lesson: in the end, only your own power matters.”
Bishop in desperation looked past the forming portal to the angel incarnate standing beyond the outer circle. Yanking the last of all the crystal’s energies he directed it not at the escaping Nephelim but into the symbols writ large at the corners of his ritual. The rooftop’s shifted space pulsed and reconfigured itself a couple feet wider than before.
Isaiah, who had watched from behind the Great Seal he dared not break, now found himself standing upon its other side.
Unlike the song heard upon a different rooftop this time there was only a mighty note summoning his spirit to action. Moving towards the growing rift the air behind him filled with the shimmering image of raven-feathered wings whose size could never be measured. The pigmentation coating his hand flowed up the wrist and arm as the outline of another figure coalesced about him: coat, tie, and glasses superimposed with a dark cloaked figure of endless night and finality. Before the strained and many shouting faces of the Nephelim no longer stood just the visage of a man but also that of another.
And the Lord of Judgment ignored their howled cries and pleas.
With left hand and will he reached out, lending strength to the ancient wards struggling against prisoners desperate for escape. In so doing he felt their spirits, felt the malevolence, the raw hatred and anger, along with their burning need to rampage once more across the world.
In all this time these had grown worse. No contrition, no remorse, and no understanding. All thoughts bent only on satiating desires for power, glory, and the pleasures believed to come with them. Corrupt to the core, throwing themselves at the barrier as a shrieking mob eager to spread the stain of their existences upon the world and beyond, now mewling and begging for him to cut them free. These unworthy spirits whose existence had caused Aradia’s end, whose legacy had ripped his best friend from the world, now had the temerity to ask for his aid.
The words of the woman on the plane flashed through his mind.
I say end it. Better that than locking them up forever. Call it a mercy.
He could do it. He could summon his ancient weapon, take hold of the scythe forged from staff and blade to cut the last bindings of this prison from all of Creation. He could toss all within into the embrace of the Abyss, their evil destroyed forevermore. They, all of them, deserved so much worse.
It would be so easy.
All he had to do was reach for it.
His other arm extended out to the side, sliding between the layers of Is and Isn’t as a deep burning anger rampaged free within to call that part of himself into manifestation. The part which claimed the harvest so that the wheat may be separated from the chaff. The part which had yearned across the ages to settle all debate once and for all.
The part which Judged in the absolute of absolutes.
Expecting a weapon of separation and finality he instead found himself grasping another’s hand, one slender yet tightly clinging to each of his fingers as if terrified he might slip away.
In a burst of comprehension he knew that unlike his own, this was a hand which he could never let go.
Anchoring himself firmly to the world upon which he stood he pulled with all that he was. Brilliance blossomed across the rooftop as at first glowing fingers and wrist appeared, then an arm, until complete she stumbled free. Only then did he release her grip in order to catch her against his chest as her legs started to fold. He sank to a knee simply to keep her supported that she not fall.
Astounded beyond measure he stared at her and the six burning wings of pure light which were quickly fading into the air behind. The gold rings of her eyes - still filled with remnants of that glow - beheld the rift and all those who desperately yearned for its escape.
“Such pain.” Her words were hardly more than a whisper, at first he mistook them as applying solely to herself. Tattered and scorched portions of formerly elegant armor clung to a body gaunt and worn, once long hair now spiking in short tufts. But most of all it was the immense weariness behind her eyes that struck him. To see her in such a hollowed state hardened his heart and with a furious cry he reached past her to again summon the tool by which to enact irreversible verdict.
She winced at the sound, pulling back from robe and jacket to stare into the shared face hidden within the hood. “What are you doing?”
“These spirits deserve not existence.”
“Please, no…I’ve seen the loss of too many souls.”
The trembling in her words ripped through him, stirring that rage further still. “They are forever a threat to that which is and especially to you.”
“Isaiah.” Fingers both soft and calloused touched the outstretched arm. “Is it by your will or the Most High’s that you judge?”
He froze, the length of the scythe a smooth surface against his palm.
Tension twisted across body and face, terrible to behold. After a scream of raw and unending frustration, Isaiah-who-was-Azrael slowly bowed his head. In the silence that followed he withdrew an empty hand and with a gesture the rift collapsed, resealing the denizens within to their original sentence and giving end to their resumed cries. Taking her into his arms he carried her out of the now-defunct circle of drained crystals and past the Great Seal already reclaiming Bishop’s shifted space. Carrying her with strong yet tender grip, his angelic nature again condensed itself within the mortal shell as he lifted her into the bright daylight beyond.
It took over twenty seconds for the helicopters to arrive once summoned.
As for the vampiric Nephelim, Bishop had already disappeared.
The helicopter was loud. Way too loud. The seat was hard and uncomfortable as were the many straps into which I’d been buckled. Past the windows a sun flared with painful brightness above a coastal city I didn’t recognize.
Across from me sat Director Goodman who stared as if I was an apparition who might at any moment slip into the ether. They’d shoved a headset over my ears through whose speakers they had asked question after question which I’d ignored. I had no answers to give them. All I knew was that Isaiah was next to me with coat and arm wrapped around my shoulders, throwing repeated looks of worry crossed with relief.
Within him however still smoldered a spirit whose gaze tore to the center of one’s own.
To that presence I spoke my guilt directly. “I’m sorry.”
Dark eyes behind Isaiah’s regarded mine and replied. “For what would you apologize?”
“I lost her.”
Azrael weighed my thoughts and Isaiah gave reply through the headset, voice clear despite the deafening roar of the rotors above. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Something inside gave way and into my friend’s arms I wept for the first time since having fallen to the realms below. Long choke-filled sobs soaked his shirt and he held me close for the rest of the flight without needing to say another word.
Chapter 42 - Muster
They met up at the Lilim’s wagon-camp halfway between the portal in the Spires and the re-staffed Outpost Epsilon. Vance and his twin daughters had, after some effort, arranged to host the gathering of demons, souls, and angels.
Having completed a hefty round of Cookie’s finest stew and Vance’s varied barrels of alcohol, they sat around the campfire. Some gazed at the flames which gave the brightest light around while others stared at the now-duller yet still burning sigils set against their skin.
It was Vance who broached the subject.
“So she escaped.” With a sigh he took another sip from a bejeweled goblet belonging more to a rich demon’s table than a vagabond’s camp. “For us, a pity.”
Barry, fur-lined cloak tightly wrapping his bulk, grumbled as he put an arm around Ruyia’s shoulders. “Ach, I dinnae even get to thank her fer savin’ this sad-sack of a soul.”
Ruyia leaned into the Scotsman’s embrace. “I wonder if you’ll ever get the chance.”
Twitch gestured widely towards the empty sky with both hands before pointing at the ground before them all.
Soren - as Camael and the other angels had chosen more mundane visages for this conference - agreed with him. “Yes. She will indeed return.”
To this there were many heads shaken in disbelief whereas others nodded fervently.
Veronica frowned as she huddled under a pile of furs. “How can you be so sure?”
It was Maddalena who answered after throwing a quick smile towards Twitch. “She can no more abandon those she cares for than an ocean may cease being wet. It is only a matter of time.”
Yaria crossed arms over well-patched assassin’s leather. “And what would she be returning to? The realms of Hell are a mess. Samael has forsaken his throne. Abagor recovers. The rest argue and Beelzebub stirs. Question is what to do about it.”
The largest amongst them, taking up an entire bench all to himself, grunted. “Train,” announced Balus, his one eye fixed upon the darkness past the fire. “Recruit. Wait.”
They considered the giant’s words and it was Horatio who then cleared his throat to speak. “That raises a different issue.” The weight of all the powerful gazes upon him caused the soul to hesitate before he rallied to finish the thought. “We lost almost half our team in that last battle. Major Praztus still serves Duke Valgor. Even the Lilim here, and I mean no offense, never fully joined. If we are to work together, who leads?”
Most swung their attention to Soren while others to Balus, but from a seat spaced slightly further away from the group came a sharp laugh. “That’s obvious,” Nick said with a grin. “It’s got to be him.” So saying he pointed not at Soren but at Hank.
The soldier, who’d been leaning back with wine glass held loose in post-meal contentment, startled into a more upright position. “Me? What in tarnation makes you say that?”
The Lilim all nodded agreement as did Soren.
“Because,” Soren told his former captain, “you carry her Name within and it burns bright for all who can see.” More warmly he added, “You may outrank me now, old friend.”
“Well ain’t that a kick in the head.” Hank downed the rest of his drink before getting to his feet for a refill from a nearby pitcher. “Y’all agree to this?”
Nick waved a tattooed palm. “Not me, I’m out. I’ve got other things need doing.” Surprised by the unfriendly glares and outright growls from the crowd, the Grigori ran fingers through his short hair. “Hey, it’s just some personal business. I’m not like the last guy. Nothing for you folks to get your panties in a bunch over. When it’s done maybe I’ll think about signing up.” He shrugged. “Never know.”
Hank gestured at the circle. “What about the rest of you? If,” he said before catching himself and giving a nod to Twitch, “I mean when she comes back she’s gonna need us.”
Soren rose and held up his own glass. “I have and always shall serve the Light.”
Twitch jumped to his feet, beer sloshing from a mug to match the other’s gesture.
Balus’s voice boomed over the barren plain as a long tentacle also held forth a frothing bucket of grog. “To Jordan! To Commander!” Except for the one dissent the rest stood and echoed the demon’s toast before drinking their portions dry.
After wiping his face with a sleeve, Hank threw Soren a rueful look. “When this goes sideways I’m gonna blame you. Just so ya know.”
Soren considered the comment in all seriousness. “Nothing to which I am not accustomed.”
Hank chuckled. “True enough.” Turning his attention to the empty sky, he paused before nodding to himself and placing the glass upon his seat. “Right, then.” Taking a step away from the circle, his many wings again released their sapphire splendor.
With raised eyebrows below the otherwise bald forehead, Soren asked, “What are you thinking?”
“Well chief,” the angel said while looking far above, “we’ve been stuck for ages as incarnates back on Earth, but I ain’t forgotten my true calling. And with what I witnessed as she granted me her gift I do believe I’m feelin’ inspired.”
Without waiting for a response Nathanael took to the air, the glow of his passage clearly visible across the unending darkness until finally dimming as he flew higher and then higher still.
There was no sound, no explosion, no drum of thunder. Only a flash of white covering horizon to horizon, and when the afterimage faded they all beheld what the angel had caused to be.
The dark tapestry of the sky was now lit by a single yet brilliant star.