Dark Day, Bright Hour – Snippet 10

She followed, looming over his cringing form. The glow intensified, a bright golden nimbus in a dark place. True Faith was demons’ Achilles heel, and she used it to remarkable effect.

“I also don’t like when people insult and threaten my Guardian. You might want to see to that.”

Meph shielded his eyes and looked down. She could–and might, at this point–smite him where he crouched, and that realization had finally penetrated. “Fine, fine.” He eyed me from between his fingers. “You’ve got a feisty one, there, Zeevi. I wouldn’t have credited it. I think I like her.”

“Anyone who mistakes my Charge for a shrinking violet will soon be disabused of that very silly notion,” I said, letting a bit of amusement creep into my voice. “Freddi, let the nice demon up, please, there’s a good girl.”

She stalked over to stand beside me, arms crossed. “He’d better start being nice, if he knows what’s good for him.”

Meph heaved himself to his hooves. He tugged the bones of his nose to a semblance of straightness, but it still leaked, albeit more slowly. “Do think on what I’ve said.” He clapped his wings together and disappeared in a swirl of ill-smelling smoke accompanied by a muted lightning flash.

I glanced at Anthony and Derek, who watched the proceedings with raised eyebrows and mouths firmly shut until Meph vanished. Derek turned a speculative gaze to Freddi, and a slow smile curled his lips. “We might survive this after all.”

“They keep forgetting they can’t touch me,” Freddi said, still testy. “And I’ll teach that lesson over and over until they learn, if I have to, but I’d rather not. Be easier on everyone if they’d just let us get to the river and leave in peace.”

“In case you missed the memo, it’s not too peaceful down here,” Derek said. “But in the interests of that, we’d best be on our way.”

I fell into step beside Freddi. “I wish you could settle a bit. I know Hell is difficult–“

Difficult?” She waved an arm at the array of demons and suffering human souls around us. “I keep thinking we’re going to run into my big brother down here. ‘Difficult’ doesn’t even start to describe how I feel about this place. It’s one thing to believe in it when it’s all pie in the sky by and by, Lord. It’s quite another to be smacked in the face with it.”

Ah, there was the rub. Her elder brother Wes was her greatest failure, or so she thought. He’d been shot to death in a drug deal gone bad, and she’d never forgiven herself for not saving him. Not that it was her fault, because he made his own choices at the end of every day just like anyone else. But Freddi couldn’t help but blame herself, and she’d made it her mission in life to save everyone. Whether they could be saved or not.

She glanced between Derek and Anthony, and her brow knit. “Do you think…?”

I shook my head. “By every rule I know, their condition is permanent.” A slight shrug. “That being said, it’s possible that I don’t know all the rules, and Father’s mercies are new every day. Anthony yet has his freedom here, and Derek–” I sighed. “I think he might have some forgiving to do himself before anything changes for him.”

“Oh, stop it, Zeevi,” Derek said. “You and I both know that Father’s dubious mercies don’t extend that far. Don’t give them false hope.”

“Oh, but false hope is the best hope, darlings.” Belphegor materialized already walking with us. Still naked, female, and languorous. “But I’ve always found it best to just surrender to the inevitable.”

“Don’t you have some lazing around to do somewhere?” Derek grumped at her. “Somewhere else, I mean.”

“Not really.” She waved an airy arm in Anthony’s direction. “Just waiting for this one to come to me. I do wish you would get on with it a bit faster.”

“We keep getting interrupted,” Derek said. “Plus there’s the whole recruiting-the-Seven job Meph has us doing.”

“That’s going a bit slow, too, isn’t it,” she mused. “Well, have fun, kids. Freddi, dear, try not to be too disappointed when Anthony must stay behind. He’s been mine for a long, long time.” She disappeared.

Anthony cast his gaze downward, and Freddi touched his arm. “Might be that a demon doesn’t know any more than an angel does when it comes to these things,” she said.

Derek scoffed. “Oh, trust me, when someone arrives who belongs to one of the Seven like this, they know.”

“Oh? And who did I belong to?” Freddi asked.

The Prince of Wrath chose that moment to pop into being. His hair was on fire, and he grinned horribly down at my Charge even as I placed myself firmly between them. My sword was in my hand without me quite knowing how it got there. He towered above us with enormous fists clenched and coiled power emanating from his being.

“Why, me.” His voice sounded as if he’d been gargling boulders.

“Shaitan,” Derek said, “do you mind? We’re working here.”

“So I’ve heard.” Shaitan tilted his head. “Working for Mephistopheles, not Lucifer. Fascinating.”

“Meph thinks we’ll all be better off if Lu’s weakened when the final battle comes down. He says he’s going to try to mitigate the damage. Might be we could live through it, if a hothead like the Morningstar isn’t in charge, you know?”

Shaitan laughed. “I know all about hotheads, yes. This one, for instance.” He pointed at Freddi. “Such amazing anger roiling about inside. You hide it well, Winifred, but I’ve always enjoyed that about you.”

“Shaitan.” I lifted my blade. “You should probably leave her alone.”

The flames on his head leaped higher. “Or you’ll what, little brother? You hold no power here.”

“That may be.” Freddi stepped forward. “But I do. And you should probably think twice–or maybe more–before you lay a hand on any of us.” She was glowing again, mainly around her fists.

He laughed again. “Oh, I do like you, my dear. And I’ve heard all about what happens to my brethren who are foolish enough to touch you, or allow themselves to be touched by you. Blood, screaming, burning. I like to think, at the end of the day, that I am not a fool.”

“Foolish enough to Fall,” she said.

“Everyone makes mistakes. All we can do is live with them.”

A crease appeared between her eyebrows. “Do you think it was? A mistake?”

He shrugged. “Whether I think so or not, it isn’t one I come back from. Daddy doesn’t love us that much.”

“What if He does, though?” she said earnestly. “Just because it’s never happened doesn’t mean it never will.”

“Little girl, are you trying to… save me?” Shaitan blinked several times.

“Maybe. Maybe I think no one’s irredeemable. Maybe I think there’s a better way of winning this war than turning people to Mephistopheles’s side instead of Lucifer’s. At the end of the day, they’re both demons. But if you and the others could repent, and go Home? That… that would shift the balance of power in ways I can’t even imagine.”

He laughed. “Your faith is touching, Winifred. She’s spunky, Zeevi, and as I say, I like her. Always have.”

“And even if you don’t repent, you should still come over to Meph’s side. He’s not wrong,” she said. “Or, at least, as not-wrong as a demon can get.”

“You’ve given me something to think on, Winifred.” The flames on his head died down. “I can’t say that happens too often between me and a human. I’ll see you again before you leave–if you leave.” And on that ominous note, he vanished.

“That was different.” Anthony frowned at the spot where Shaitan had stood. “I expected a real fight out of him, not… whatever that was.” He looked up, and his frown deepened. “Also, is it my imagination, or is the sky not as dark as it was when we first started?”

Freddi rubbed her arms as if trying to scrub off something nasty. “He said he likes me. Gross.”

I wrapped a wing around her shoulders. “Don’t let him get to you. It’s their stock in trade, keeping you off balance.”

“You really think that? That there’s hope for them?” Anthony asked.