Dark Day, Bright Hour – Snippet 12

We trailed after him. It wasn’t like we knew our way around, and the geography of Hell was, rumor had it, ever-changing. Even if I flew aloft to spy out the way, avenues shifted and the path would be altogether unreliable once I returned to the ground–assuming our nastier brothers would even allow me to take flight without smacking me down. I shivered to think what would happen to us if we lost Derek.

And then I shivered again when I remembered that I’d already lost him once. A lump formed in my throat. I wanted to weep, but showing weakness in Hell was an invitation to disaster. All I could do was love him. It wasn’t enough, but it was what I had.

Anthony counted on his fingers, musing silently before speaking. “Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony. We’re missing Lust, Pride, and Envy. And we only got a definite ‘no’ out of Beelzebub. Mammon and Shaitan are still deciding, and Belphegor can’t be bothered. Huh. I don’t think we’re as bad off as it might look at first blush.”

“Could be, could be,” Derek said. “Or maybe they’re marshaling against us and they’ll ambush our little gang of rebels all together. Upsetting the status quo around here is dangerous.”

“You could stop being a ray of sunshine for just a little while,” Anthony said to him dryly. “It wouldn’t hurt you.”

“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that? I get my kicks where I can.” Derek eyed Freddi. “So you got any more bright ideas about saving my sorry ass now that you’re done throwing up?”

Her chin lifted. “I may or may not have wheels turning. And you may or may not find out when the time comes.”

He stopped short, squeezed his eyes shut, and rubbed the spot between them. “I’d rather not, honestly. I Fell, I’m stuck, I live with it. I’ve lived with it for thousands of years. You’ve only known me for a blip of time. Deal.”

She crossed her arms. “Make me.”

“Well, and I can’t make you, can I?” He set off again. “But I could take you back there and let you get another look at poor Arnonis. Shame about him, really, he was less of an asshole than a lot of people down here. Probably why he tried to un-Fall.”

I decided to put a word in with Father when I returned Home. It couldn’t hurt, and Arnonis was still my brother at the end of the day. But I didn’t say anything to Derek; he’d only scoff. It hurt my heart to see how cynical he’d become.

Hirsute and dressed to the nines, Mammon chose that moment to shimmer into being, already walking beside us. “How goes the recruitment?”

“Not as bad as you’d expect, boss,” Derek said. “So far the only definite ‘no’ we’ve gotten was Beelzebub, and that’s not really unexpected. Shaitan apparently took a liking to Freddi here quite some time ago, and he’s still on the fence.”

“And how are you getting on with these?” Mammon gestured at us.

“I can see why Shaitan likes Freddi.” Derek cast a glance at her that didn’t have as much animosity as I would’ve thought, considering the previous conversation. “She’s a spunky one.” He laughed, but didn’t sound amused. “And she thinks she can save me.”

“Does she?” Mammon’s brow lowered. “I hope you realize that sort of nonsense will go horribly for you. Don’t do him any favors, missy.”

Derek bared all his teeth. “I took them to see Arnonis. It was instructive.”

“Ah, good.”

“Have you given any more thought as to our project?” I asked. “Hell’s hierarchy would be shaken up by a success. I would imagine you’d move up in the ranks.”

“I’m watching odds shift, little brother. Don’t be impatient.” He made a considering noise. “Shaitan would definitely shift them more in Meph’s favor, however. Keep me apprised, Derek.”

He disappeared, and Derek frowned after him. “You’re the boss,” he said to empty air.

“Derek?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Odds,” he muttered, and set off again. “I guess we’ll see.”

We rounded a corner to find Belphegor lounging indolently at a sidewalk table. “Hell is abuzz with your antics,” she said. “What a lively mob of miscreants you are.”

A frisson of unease skittered up my spine. “Has it got back to Lucifer?”

“He keeps his own counsel up in that tower. Getting in to see him, even to tattle on you lot, wouldn’t be easy.” She popped a sliver of something disgusting into her mouth. “You’re probably safe. For now.”

“And how about you?” Anthony asked. “I mean, you’re my patron demon, or something. Shouldn’t you be on my side?”

“Oh, darling, you are adorable. People like us don’t make waves. And if we take it into our heads to do so, look what happens.” She waved a languid hand at him. “You get in trouble.”

He looked around at the naked, damned souls on the street, suffering eternal torment, and then down at himself, clothed and sound. “Not a whole lot of trouble.”

“That’s because she’s messing up your punishment. You’ll come to me in the end, dear boy. And then what fun I’ll have.”

Anthony quirked a brow. “Won’t you be too lazy to torment me? I notice that the Seven don’t tend to keep pet humans.”

“I’m between souls right now. I traded the last one to Asmodeus for getting tiresome.”

My face twisted with distaste as I imagined what the Prince of Lust did with the souls under his dubious care. It was an eye-opening look at the workings of a place I never thought I’d visit, and I vehemently hoped I’d never return.

“What’d you get for it?” Derek asked with morbid curiosity.

“A favor owed to be cashed in at a later date. I haven’t decided yet.” Her lips curled slowly up. “Maybe something to do with you.”

He just snorted. “Asmodeus isn’t the boss of me, and I work too hard to fit in with your bunch.”

“But why, though?” Belphegor asked. “It’s pointless. We’ll all be destroyed in the end no matter what, so why bother?”

“Daddy left me down here to rot. If I can take some of his precious souls with me when it all goes boom, so much the better. Because fuck Him.”

I flinched. “Derek.”

“What? It’s not like he can damn me more, is it?”

“I just remember–” I shook my head minutely. “I remember when you were better than this.”

He shook out his misshapen bat wings. “Yeah, well, I had feathers back then, didn’t I?”

That made me flinch again, which in turn made him tighten his lips and put the wings away. Belphegor just laughed.

“Oh, shut up, Belph,” Derek snapped.

She straightened and fixed him with a stern look. “Don’t you forget yourself, salesman. Slothful I may be, but I am perfectly capable of bestirring myself to action if I deem it necessary.”

His jaw muscles bunched, and he turned and strode away, leaving us to catch up. Freddi caught him first. She nearly laid a consoling hand on his shoulder before remembering what would happen to him if she did, and snatched it back instead, huffing out a frustrated sigh.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He rounded on her. “Don’t. Don’t do that. You did nothing wrong. We all did–” He waved an arm that managed to encompass me, Anthony, all of Hell, and Heaven while he was at it, along with himself. “But you didn’t. None of this is your fault, and it’s also not your fault that you can’t fix it. So just stop.”

“I did plenty wrong. I just… repented, and got forgiven for it.”

“Well, the Son died for you, not for me. His holy Blood doesn’t cover my multitudinous sins. And that’s the way things are, and ‘sorry’ doesn’t change anything.”

Freddi cast a glance upward from under a lowered brow. “Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t.” Stubborn girl, but it was that stubbornness that had won hard-bitten men into new and better lives. She believed in them, expecting them to be good, and many of them couldn’t bring themselves to disappoint her.

Derek would be a harder nut to crack. He’d turned his heart to stone, probably so it wasn’t at risk of breaking anymore, and I couldn’t exactly blame him. I just hoped Freddi wouldn’t break her own heart trying to save him.