Dark Day, Bright Hour – Snippet 07

Wade he did. His belly hung below his knees, but his legs were like tree trunks and his arms like anacondas. A pair of hideous soot-colored wings sprouted from his back and sent cyclones of air swirling down the street as he flapped them and rose above us. The physics on that shouldn’t have worked–nothing should have been enough to carry his bulk into the air–but things like physics clearly didn’t hold sway in Hell.

He roared and dove, and we scattered out of his way before he had a chance to land in the middle of us. He seemed to be aiming mostly at Zeeviel, who used his sword to counter several dark orange bolts of power flung from taloned hands. He couldn’t stop them all, however, and one slammed into his shoulder, spinning him around; another hit him in the middle of the back, driving him to his hands and knees on the sidewalk. His sword spun away, and I frantically fired round after round at Beelzebub, to no great effect. Then I had my own problems as a trio of pitchfork tines pierced me through my chest from back to front, and a demon yanked me toward him to wrap his arm around my throat from behind.

My legs kicked, and I scrabbled at the arm with one hand as my air was cut off, but quickly realized how useless that was. Instead I aimed over my shoulder with the gun and fired at what I hoped was his face. He let out a shrill shriek and abruptly let go, but I still had a pitchfork problem and dropped to my knees, bleeding and gasping. The other demons had grown new respect for my weapon, and they gave me a wide berth, instead concentrating their efforts on Derek and Zeeviel.

Derek held his own surprisingly well, but Zeeviel was in trouble. Beelzebub flapped higher and continued to hurl bolts from the air, which meant he was out of Freddi’s reach. Zeeviel’s sword had reappeared in his hand, and he was sprawled on his back doing his best to counter them, but I could see his struggles weakening. More than one bolt hammered past his defenses.

Sprouting his wings, Derek let out a battle cry and launched himself into the air toward Beelzebub to hound him like a large and angry sparrow. The Prince of Gluttony swatted him away several times, but he always came back, and they spiraled lower–

Low enough for Freddi to grab Beelzebub by the ankle and yank.

He tumbled to the ground in a flurry of leather and fat, and she straddled his chest, wrapping her hands around his throat under the multiple chins and squeezing. “You think you can just attack my Guardian like that?” she shouted at him. His face turned purple, his body bucked, and then he disappeared, along with his minions, leaving nothing behind but a bad smell and squeaking, fly-ridden pigs.

The rest of us sat there and gasped in various states of “injured.” Derek dropped down beside me and grasped the pitchfork. “Hold still. Let me move this out of you.” It disappeared from my body and reappeared in his hand, and he tossed it away.

The wounds burned and bled, and I was pretty sure at least one of them had punctured a lung. “I can’t believe I can still brea–” The penny dropped. “Oh.”

Derek did an obnoxious little snap-and-point. “Ding ding ding! You’re already dead. You don’t need to breathe. You just have to remember that.”

I glanced up to see lightning flickering through the clouds, which it hadn’t done before, and I frowned. “Does that mean something?” I asked.

Derek looked at the new weather pattern. His mouth pulled to one side. “That veil Lu mentioned. We really need to get Freddi out of here. I for one am not looking forward to a premature Armageddon. Just because it catches Heaven flat-footed doesn’t mean Hell will automatically win.”

Freddi knelt beside Zeeviel, who laid his head back and closed his eyes with a groan that sounded more annoyed than anything. His shirt was burnt through in three places, along with the skin underneath, and his wings hadn’t escaped unscathed either. One set of flight feathers had been completely charred away.

“Then why did it work when I strangled Fat Boy?” Freddi brushed Zeevi’s hair back from his forehead, which seemed to ease his pain.

“Because you are Redeemed and had hold of his True Essence. We can’t touch you without agony.” Derek shrugged. “And if you touch us, it hurts.”

Slow applause sounded from the direction of the café, and we turned to see a new demon slouched at one of the tables sipping an obscenely large glass of wine. She–for she was very obviously female–was blue-skinned and naked from the tips of her curly horns all the way to the soles of her feet, which were propped, ankles crossed, on the table in front of her. Her hair stood out a wild blonde rat’s nest that still somehow managed to be attractive, and it trailed down to not-quite cover her enormous centerfold breasts. Indolence rolled off her in waves, and I almost fell asleep right there on the sidewalk. A billy goat chewed his cud beside her.

“I hardly credited it, but the rumors and memos are true,” she said. “This is rich.”

We scrambled to our feet as best we could. The punctures through me had mostly healed. Zeeviel looked battered, but better.

“Belphegor,” he said. “I should have known that where Gluttony laid his head, Sloth would soon follow. Here to nibble Beelzebub’s scraps?”

Belphegor waved a languid hand. “Pfeh. I have far better things to do with my time than mix it up with heroes like you lot. Much more entertaining to watch you flail uselessly about and ultimately fail.” She eyed Freddi over the rim of her wineglass. “So she’s what all the fuss is about, eh? Doesn’t seem like much.”

“Try and touch me and see what happens,” Freddi said, crossing her arms.

“Oh, dearie, no. I’m lazy, not stupid.”

“Which side are you on, Belph?” Derek asked. “Because it looks like we’re in the middle of a power play whether we like it or not.”

“You don’t know me very well if you expect me to choose a side, little brother. I don’t get involved in Hell’s reindeer games. I just watch the festivities and snigger on the sidelines.”

“Then you haven’t changed at all since you Fell,” Zeeviel snapped.

“Why would I? I am as Father made me.” There was a certain amount of rancor in a word that should have been an endearment, but not much. She pointed. “The river is that way. You should probably get going before one of the other, less congenial, Princes comes along to mop up after Beelzebub.”

“She’s not wrong,” Zeeviel said with a huff. “I hate when the Other Side has a point. Shall we?”

“I think that’s a super idea,” Freddi said. Her lips thinned. “She couldn’t even be bothered to steer us in the wrong direction.”

“Too easy,” Belphegor said airily. “I’m sure you’ll be getting in your own brand of unique trouble very soon. Toodles.”

We left her there, sipping her wine, and continued on our way. The neighborhood devolved to banks and pawn shops. Freddi touched my arm, and I immediately felt better.

Zeeviel still limped. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “I don’t have access to the same Grace I do when I’m on Earth, so it takes longer to restore me to full health.”

“Something we’ll all be sure to take full advantage of.” This demon wore a suit that put Derek’s to absolute shame, but he was over-hairy and wolfish around his face and hands. A bushy tail sprouted from his well-tailored pants rather than the whip-like barbed appendage I’d grown used to seeing, and a fat red frog sat on his shoulder, snatching leftover flies from the air with its tongue.

“Five minutes. Is it too much to ask to go five minutes without the Princes getting all up in our business,” Derek said. He didn’t inflect it like a question. “Come on, boss, cut us some slack.”

“Well, we’re all interested.” The demon walked around us, and we stayed facing him in case of accidents. “Our biggest big brother has painted a target on your foreheads, and it’s just a matter of time before someone collects on that particular bounty.”

Zeeviel’s sword was back in his hand. “Someone like you, Mammon?”

The demon continued to circle us like a large and hungry shark. “Perhaps. Perhaps.” He tilted his head at Derek, an unreadable glance passing between them. “Smart money doesn’t bet against a crossroader, though, and since Derek’s with you, might be best to see which way the chips fall before committing. Or.” A group of smaller demons appeared in his wake, remoras to his hammerhead. “Make something happen. That’s always profitable.”