Dark Day, Bright Hour – Snippet 02

A blink-and-you’d-miss-it expression of deep pain crossed Zeeviel’s face before he glowered. “Just caring for my Charge, Derek, something you know nothing about and yet should.”

Breezy and insolent. “Once I sew them up at a crossroads, they’re not my responsibility anymore. That’s your problem, Zeevi, you get too attached for your own good and then end up, well, here.” He eyed Freddi up and down in a frankly filthy manner, and I bristled. “But I can see why you like this one. She’s a cutie.”

Freddi’s lip curled. “You can try to touch me and see how cute you think I am afterwards,” she said.

“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? But I’m not dumb enough to try. Yet.” The word was imbued with promise, and I scowled.

“And you,” Derek continued, turning his attention to me. “Thinking you can actually do anything to harm me. It’s adorable.”

“Escort them to Lucifer’s tower, Derek,” Babur said. “Make sure they arrive relatively unscathed.”

Derek waved a theatrical arm at me. “Are you kidding? This one clearly wants to punch me. He turns that look on any of our less-tolerant brothers, and they will eat him. Slowly.”

“Well, then.” The other demon’s smile wasn’t one. “Give him a weapon. Allow him to defend himself.”

“Give a weapon. To the meatsack,” Derek said flatly. “One that will work down here. You don’t ask much, do you, bro.”

Babur lifted an eyebrow. “Everyone knows you collect all manner of things, little brother. Crossroads demons are inveterate packrats. I’m sure you have something suitable.”

Derek rolled his eyes, and an enormous .45 revolver fashioned of antique brass and dark wood appeared in the flat of his hand. Engraved filigree decorated the barrel, and an esoteric symbol had been burned into the grips.

Reluctantly, Derek offered it to me. “Never needs reloading, with enough stopping power for anything short of one of the Princes of the Seven Deadlies.” He raised a finger. “Don’t lose it, because I’ll want it back at the end of this stupid adventure. I assume you know how to use it.”

The gun fit my hand like it was made for me, and tucked right into my shoulder holster. “Yes. I know how to use it,” I said, blinking. “Thank you.”

“Don’t–!” Zeeviel rubbed his forehead. Could an angel get a headache? He looked like he was developing one. “Now you owe him, Anthony. One of the currencies of Hell is favors.”

Derek’s smile was sharp and feral and not at all friendly. “Well, he’s stuck down here anyway. Bound to happen sooner or later.”

“And you will no doubt pick the most inconvenient time possible to collect.”

Derek spread his hands, and the smile stretched to a grin. “Yes, and? Demon, hello.”

“Don’t make me hit you again,” Zeeviel said between his teeth. “Because I will.”

“You might not like the results this time, Zeevi.” Derek had to know his smile was infuriating. “You’re on our ground now, and it’s best to tread lightly on it.”

“Maybe we should start,” Freddi said quickly. “How long will this take, anyway?”

“An eternity encompassed in the blink of an eye,” Derek answered. Off her exasperated look, he continued, “Time is meaningless down here. It takes as long as it takes. Not like you have to eat or sleep, and you wouldn’t like the food anyway. It’s terrible.” He turned and set off down the line, and we trailed behind him like ducklings while the rest of the people watched with varying degrees of envy.

A bald and liver-spotted old man with his mouth pulled into a permanent frown stepped out of the line. “Hey! How come they get to go ahead of us? We were here first.”

He barely got out the last word when Babur–without hesitation–speared him through the chest with the pitchfork and lifted him into the air while he let out a high-pitched scream of abrupt agony and terror. A roasting pit materialized on the cracked obsidian, complete with a spit. While we all watched, frozen to the spot, the demon rammed the spit all the way through the old man from mouth to tailbone and set him across the coals, yanking his pitchfork out with no regard for the fact that it was barbed.

The old man’s screams became inarticulate animal sounds as Babur casually turned the spit over the flames, poking him with the pitchfork to make him bleed. A few moments later, he sliced into the man’s abdomen and came out with his liver, which he ate in just a few bites, with much satisfaction.

“Anyone else want to complain about how we do things down here?” There was general and frantic headshaking all around.

My stomach tied itself in a knot. Freddi turned green. Zeeviel’s lips tightened, and his knuckles whitened around his sword.

Derek made a face. “Like I said. The food is terrible. Let’s go.”

We started on our way again, and I asked Zeeviel, “Why didn’t you stop him?”

The angel frowned, and his wings slumped. “This is not my place. The people here chose their fate, and it’s not for me to step in and mitigate their just recompense.”

“You’re saying he deserved that?” I swallowed hard and wondered exactly what I deserved.

“That or something very like it.”

“Hey, at least he got to skip the line,” Derek piped up.

Freddi was still green. “Is he going to spend eternity that way?”

“Eh, probably not. Babur’s just having his brand of fun.”

“Oh, good,” she said, relieved.

“His eternal fate is probably much worse.”

Her face fell, and he let us chew on that as we walked with him in silence. The reek of the place was nearly overpowering, a miasma of spoiled meat and rotting eggs and burning hair. I decided it was a good thing we didn’t need to eat, because otherwise my appetite would be nonexistent. Freddi stayed closer to Zeeviel than she strictly needed to, and I unholstered the gun. Every sound put me on more of an edge as we approached the beginning of the line, which culminated in an enormous desk in front of a gate fashioned from human bones.

The single demon seated behind it wore a green visor and wire-rimmed glasses, and he turned from a giant stack of paper to scrutinize our group over the bridge of his nose. “Keep them out of trouble, Derek.”

I tilted my head. “You already know about us?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, “of course I got the lowdown on this little jaunt of yours. Hell is meticulous about our paperwork.” A snort. “More meticulous than Heaven, if she’s any indication.”

Zeeviel glowered. “Don’t you mock the Lord, Hellspawn.”

“I would never.” He tried for an innocent look and failed utterly. “The paper-pushers and bureaucrats, however, deserve my full and unstinting scorn.”

“And what of you?” Zeeviel said.

“I’m actually good at my job and don’t lose people.” He made a shooing motion, like we were annoying insects he wanted to be rid of. “The gate will open for you. Tower’s in the middle of the city. Don’t get lost. You won’t like it if you get lost.” He turned back to the line and hollered, “Next!”

I didn’t like anything about this place, but it seemed impolitic to say so. Derek led us through the enormous gate that guarded the city. A shiver passed through me as we crossed the threshold into Hell itself, and the enormity of my situation hit home.

Living with the Mob, you learned to cover your emotions. “Why does Hell need a wall?” I asked, deflecting.

“To keep the riffraff out,” Derek said. It should have come across as flippant, but somehow didn’t. “There are worse things in Heaven and Earth and even Hell, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Great, a demon that spouted Shakespeare. Freddi moved closer to Zeeviel. “Worse than demons?” she asked.

“Oh, honey, you have no idea. Sometimes a sucker in the line makes a run for it. We let them. They don’t get far, and no one ever sees them again. We hear them, though. For a long, long time.”

She grimaced. “This place sucks.”

“Well, yes.” Derek rolled his eyes. “That’s kind of the point. Our loving Father–” he practically spat the word, imbuing it with all the venom of a large and pissed-off cobra. “–made sure it would be this way. If Hell was a vacation on the beach, why would anyone want to go Upstairs?”

I craned my neck like a tourist. This close to the gate, Hell was an inner-city slum, filled with enormous rats and ominous shadows. Things stirred within the shadows, or maybe they stirred the shadows. It was hard to tell. The sidewalks and streets were crumpled and empty of life, other than the rats, and dust devils swirled detritus between the buildings.