Dark Day, Bright Hour – Snippet 06
“I trust you as far as Anthony can throw the Morningstar’s throne,” Zeeviel said. “But we appear to be stuck with one another for the nonce.” The elevator welcomed us with a gaping maw, and I stepped in with some trepidation, because Lucifer was the Prince of Lies, right, and who was to say he’d give us safe passage out of his building?
The music was even worse on the way down. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop from Lucifer’s cloven hoof.
But it didn’t, and I was the first one out of the elevator when the doors opened to disgorge us in the lobby. The others followed at a more sedate pace. Maybe this whole situation was wigging me out more than I wanted to admit. None of them seemed affected, and Derek held his hand out. “Valafax, I’ll have my gun back now, please and thank you.”
The demon handed it over with a certain amount of disgruntled reluctance, and Derek gave it to me. I holstered it with a nod of thanks and stumbled toward the front door. Just a few more steps, and I was outside heaving in huge gulps of air.
“Be eased, Anthony.” That was a hand on my back and feathered wings over my head, as Zeeviel gave me what comfort he could.
“Lucifer’s a psychopath,” I managed. Oh, God, I did not want to stay here.
“Well, yes.” That was a new voice. “Falling will do that to an archangel.”
Zeeviel sighed. “Mephistopheles. Must you?”
“It seemed an opportune moment.” The demon’s voice lowered. “Not everyone is pleased with how the Morningstar is running things. Some say the time is ripe for revolution.”
Zeeviel’s palm didn’t quite hit his face, but he rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “So the first rebels are rebelling yet again, and, oh, look, the second in command is leading the charge. Why am I not surprised.” It was a statement, not a question.
Mephistopheles ignored the sarcasm. “I hear you’re heading to the River Cocytus. If you could sound people out along the way, it might go better for the one you’ve taken as your Charge once you leave him.”
“Think we’ll make it, do you?” Zeeviel asked. “Lucifer seemed to think otherwise.”
“Yes, well. If Lucifer would spend more time down here among the rank and file and less time up in his Tower lording it over the rest of us, he might get a better feel for the way things actually operate. For example–” He nodded to Derek. “No one bets against a crossroader unless they’re remarkably stupid. Demons like our Derek have an unerring sense for which way the wind blows, and they wager accordingly. Derek seems to have thrown his lot in with you, so the less foolish among us are lining up for some of that action.” Flexing his wings, he eyed Freddi. “Especially with her flinging all kinds of monkey wrenches into the works.”
“Smart money’s on us?” Zeeviel rubbed his chin.
I wasn’t sure that the smart money was taking the fact that Lucifer had assigned the task to Derek into consideration. I decided not to mention it.
The angel continued, “I suppose that’s encouraging.”
“Only if you play your cards right. The Seven Princes are taking an interest. If you can get them to come over to my side, then cooler heads might prevail at the End–and we can, perhaps, be more reasonable about the whole thing.” Mephistopheles glared around at nothing in particular. “I, for one, would like to avoid a bloodbath.”
“That would be ideal, yes.” Zeeviel pinched the bridge of his nose. “Lucifer is Michael’s meat, but if we can de-fang him before the shooting starts, it’d be better for everyone.”
“Keep it in mind, little brother. That’s all I ask.”
The direct teleport to Lucifer’s Tower meant that we’d missed a lot of ambience we’d’ve picked up had we walked. I counted that as a blessing in a place that had few of those lying around, because we couldn’t take a shortcut to the river and the full effect was…
Our first encounter with a Prince of the Seven Deadlies was at what resembled, for want of a better description, a sidewalk café, in a neighborhood filled with bars and restaurants–some “upscale” or what passed for such in Hell, and some, well, less so, all with a distinctly orange tinge. A demon so enormously fat I wondered how he walked sat at a table while lesser demons scurried around serving him. Pigs rooted through litter on the street, and flies buzzed everywhere.
I squinted, and shuddered. “Is he eating what I think he’s eating?”
Even as I spoke, he picked a naked woman up by her heel, opened his maw impossibly wide, and dropped her in headfirst and screaming. The screams continued, audible but muffled, while she kicked her way down his throat. A few seconds later, his stomach bulged farther, and took on the appearance of a balloon with a struggling person trapped inside. Impressions of hands, feet, elbows, and finally a face, mouth and eyes wide with terror and pain, pressed against it. He licked his fingers off one by one, and when he finished with the tenth, his belly was smooth again. I swallowed hard.
“Meet Beelzebub, Prince of Gluttony,” Derek said. “While most of us use human souls as currency, he’d rather consume them. On the one hand, it’s a waste. On the other, it gives him more strength than you’d think, at first blush. None of us have decided if it’s a mercy or not, because we haven’t figured out what happens to those souls after he devours them.”
“Any idea which side he’s on in this rebellion?” Freddi asked.
“He’s not much for rocking the boat. He likes things as they are, but it won’t hurt to ask.” Derek paused, then added, “Probably.”
Beelzebub noticed us and laughed. “So the rumors are true. I hardly credited them.”
“Hell is full of incorrigible gossips,” Derek said, “but this time they’re right.”
The Prince of Gluttony beckoned us closer. “Let me have a look at you. Hm.” He shook his head and his smile disappeared. “This bodes ill. She upsets the balance. And you–” He turned the full force of his stare on me. “You should have been given over to one of us right from the start. Little brother,” he said to Zeeviel, “I like not your interference with our affairs.”
“Lucifer himself has given me leave to take my Charges to the River Cocytus.” Zeeviel’s tone was even. “If you have an issue, take it up with him. Unless, of course, you’re thinking of defying the Morningstar.”
“Why, Zeeviel, what a dreadful fibber you are. I did not realize it was given angels to lie.” Beelzebub tsked. “Lucifer has given you leave to try to take your Charges to the river, if I read the memo aright. I misdoubt he will be very upset if all three of you perish in the going.” He rose ponderously from his seat, and I gulped, because he really was enormous, in both height and girth. “And perhaps we should nip this foolishness in the bud before it fairly begins.”
Zeeviel’s chin came up, and his sword appeared in his hand, shining like the sun and driving the darkness before it. Freddi took on a glow of her own and stepped up beside him. Not to be outdone, I pulled the gun from its holster and held it down beside my leg, finger on the trigger instead of beside it, because safety be damned in Hell.
Derek looked from us to Beelzebub and back, heaved a put-upon sigh, and summoned a sword of his own, a curved black blade with a wicked point and a fearsome edge. “You couldn’t have started by pissing off smaller people, Zeevi?” he asked between his teeth.
“My mere presence seems upsetting to s–oof.” This as Zeeviel was tackled from behind by one of Beelzebub’s screeching hangers-on. We’d been surrounded before I realized what was happening, and I berated myself for not paying better attention. I’d have thought that Beelzebub was impressive enough all by himself, but his followers didn’t hesitate to make their displeasure known.
My gun came up and a minion went down, an enormous hole blown in his chest from point-blank range. I shifted aim and fired again, catching other action out of the corner of my eye. Zeeviel rotated as he fell, landing on his back rather than his front, and skewered his attacker on his sword. All Freddi needed to do was touch them to send them writhing to the ground, smoking. Derek didn’t seem all that impressive while he walked along with us, but he was poetry in motion as black blood spattered through the air and imps fell beneath his blade.
Zeeviel rolled to his feet, and the four of us ranged ourselves in a circle, guarding each other’s backs like we’d been doing it all our lives. Only a few other demons were foolish enough to throw themselves against that, and those quickly dissolved into screaming puddles of tar–shot, stabbed, or touched. The smarter ones backed off and let Beelzebub wade in.