Dark Day, Bright Hour – Snippet 05

Derek looked him up and down. “Your current form is very… stalwart, Zeevi. It smacks of overcompensation.”

Zeeviel crossed his arms and gave him a slow eyebrow lift. “Don’t push me, Derek. That has never gone well for you.”

“You’re on our ground now.” Derek bared his teeth. “And I’m tougher than I look, as well you know.”

“Can we not?” Freddi said. “I get that you two are caught in the ugliest family feud in history, but I don’t want to be stuck in an elevator with it, if it’s all the same to everyone.” She glared. “Stand down, both of you.”

“Oooh, she’s fiery, Zeevi, I see why you like her.”

“Don’t make me hit you,” she said. “I have the feeling you wouldn’t like it if I do.”

“No, ma’am, I wouldn’t. But then the Morningstar would have to send a cleanup crew to the elevator, and he’d be cranky about that.” Derek tilted his head. “You wouldn’t like him when he’s cranky. I don’t know if he can touch you. But he can certainly touch Anthony and Zeevi, if you care.”

“So how about we all stand down and try to get along?” I said. “None of us wants to be here. There’s solidarity in that, at least. And maybe, if we’re going to meet the friggin’ Prince of Darkness, we should have a semi-united front.”

The elevator chose that opportune moment for another discordant ding and opened its doors. The anteroom confronting us was opulent, with red and white velvet-chased wallpaper, plush crimson carpeting we sank into at every step, and hand-painted wainscoting that was beautiful until I looked too closely and ended up recoiling in horror instead. The frescos up here were far worse than the ones in the lobby. Looking at the wallpaper brought no relief, because the same eye- and mind-bending patterns on the outside walls had followed us in.

The ceiling had a scene painted on it too, and I barely glanced at it before tearing my gaze away to look at the carpet instead. What was it, I wondered, about Hell’s penchant for wallowing in gruesome scenes? Didn’t they get tired of being surrounded by work-related art all the time? I sure would.

The door into what was no doubt Lucifer’s Inner Sanctum–ha–was dark, thick, and heavy, with antique brass strapping and fittings. The demon guarding it had an attitude that matched his downstairs compatriot. He crossed heavy-muscled arms across a broad chest and regarded us acidly, but Derek didn’t turn a hair. “Hi, Moleshior. We’re supposed to see Lucifer, so be a good minion and let us in.”

Moleshior’s lip curled, but he didn’t say anything. He opened the door and stood aside with a mocking bow.

Freddi and Zeeviel marched in like they owned the place, Derek gave him a wide berth, and I sort of scuttled after them and tried not to be noticed. When the door shut with a solid and final boom behind us, I flinched.

If the anteroom was opulent, the throne room was palatial. The crimson carpeting continued inside, but it shared a checkerboard pattern with the marble from downstairs. The ceiling was four stories high, and a window overlooking all of Hell comprised three entire walls. Lucifer’s seat of power rested upon a raised platform up half a dozen curved steps. The throne itself was carved of bone-inlaid mahogany and other rare woods, with a pair of grinning human skulls decorating the uprights. Luxurious padding covered in snow leopard fur graced the thing where padding would be most appropriate, and Lucifer himself…

I involuntarily hit my knees. Derek was already on his beside me, his forehead pressed to the floor, though Freddi and Zeeviel stood straight and tall. The Morningstar was the most inhumanly beautiful and horrifically splendid being I’d ever seen, and my eyes kept sliding away like they couldn’t look upon him for long. I think I squeaked. Amusement quirked his lips as he gazed down at me before turning his attention to the others.

“What an interesting development,” he said. “Little brother, you really should kneel to your betters.”

“When I see one of my betters in this place, then will I kneel,” Zeeviel answered. His voice was steady, his chin up, and his attitude held no deference at all to a being whom I was sure could snuff him out, casually, with a snap of his fingers.

Lucifer sniffed and turned his attention to Freddi. “And you.”

“Get thee behind me,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Because suddenly, there he was, behind her, closer than I ever wanted a demon to be to me. His wings snapped open and unfurled, and they belonged to no mere bat; they were dragony and hideous and positively dwarfed Zeeviel’s. Lucifer reached a clawed hand for Freddi’s arm–

And pulled back, hissing, as the odor of burnt flesh filled the air.

She smiled sweetly at him. “Yes. I’m sure.”

So even he couldn’t touch her. I found that knowledge heartening, but Lucifer seemed annoyed. He strode up the stairs to his throne and flumped down on it, hooking his leg over the arm and drumming his fingers on his thigh. “You do realize that no one has ever escaped Hell.”

“I’m not surprised,” she said. “But I also realize I’m not supposed to be here, and the bare fact of me messes up some kind of balance for you. So it’s in your best interests to get me gone as soon as possible.”

“I’ll decide what my best interests are, little miss.” He smiled at her, all predator. “The longer you remain, the more chance there is to corrupt you and get you to renounce that so-fragile faith you humans have. Since you’re here, it’s not too late, even now.”

Zeeviel’s lips tightened, and Lucifer turned that smile to him. “Oh, you don’t like that, do you, little brother, but you know it’s true. Your Charge may be Redeemed, but we can change that, yes we can. As for you,” he said to me, and I gulped audibly.

“I’ve taken him under my protection, Lucifer,” Zeeviel said. “I’ll thank you to leave him there.”

“How amusing. He is mine and will always be mine, no matter what happens to this one.” A gesture at Freddi. “His fate is decided and he is exactly where he belongs.” His face hardened. “And your ‘protection’ means exactly diddly and squat in this place.”

Zeeviel didn’t waver, and I was grateful. “Nevertheless.”

“Well, then. Let him accompany you on your journey to the bank of the River Cocytus. If you reach it, you are free to go with her while he stays. Watching you leave with the knowledge that he is trapped here, alone and bereft, for all eternity.” He bared his teeth. They did that a lot in Hell, I noticed. “I can think of no more fitting punishment for a man who sent many of his compatriots screaming to this very place.”

It wasn’t an instant handing me off to be tortured. I’d take it. The longer we could delay that particular bit of awfulness, the happier I’d be.

“Derek.” Lucifer sat forward and steepled his fingers. “You were assigned this duty for a reason and will continue to escort them. I am fairly certain that your job on this jaunt goes without saying.”

“Yes, Great One.” Derek’s forehead was still on the floor; he hadn’t looked up. It made me feel a little icky, to be honest, and I forced myself to my feet. Maybe I did belong here, but I didn’t have to bow down. Lucifer wasn’t the boss of me.

At least not yet.

“What happens if we don’t make it?” Freddi asked. “Is there a time limit on this?”

A malevolent smile curled Lucifer’s lips. “Assuming you remain Redeemed, then the boundary between Heaven, Hell, and Earth will thin. Humans will get a glimpse of the unseen world they’re surrounded by, and many of them will be driven mad by the sight. And that will help usher in the End of Days, sooner than planned. No one will like that. Except perhaps me. Because we will be prepared, while Heaven will not. Just keep in mind that the longer you stay, the better the chance is that we can corrupt you, and the more the boundary thins. So, please do take your time.” He flicked a hand impatiently. “Begone.”

I didn’t particularly want to turn my back on him, but Zeeviel spun on his heel and marched out, spine straight and wings bristling, so I followed with Freddi. The angel plucked Derek up by the back of his shirt and hauled him along, and those enormous doors closed behind us with another boom of finality.

My breath whooshed out with relief. “Where’s this river?”

“On the other side of the city.” Derek grimaced. “Getting there is not half the fun, trust me.”