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Lucifer’s Daughter
or
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Satan

A Heaven and Hell tale

Chapter 1 — Ashes to Ashes

“I’m sorry, Rowe, but I’ve got to let you go.”

My lips pursed. It was a completely involuntary reaction. I sat in that putrid, tatty, mottled, dark green, spring-upholstered, swivel chair reject from 70’s office décor stunned more thoroughly than any mullet ever ripped from the bosom of the ocean. I worked my jaw for a moment, gaping like the aforementioned fish as well, I’m sure.

“B-but I… you can’t, Phil, I’m an essential member of this cast. The understudy can’t cut the role of Julius yet…”

“Rowe,” Phil interrupted, “you’re a nice guy. I love you, darling, you know that. But let’s face facts; fucking the producer’s daughter wasn’t exactly the best career move you’ve ever made.”

I snorted. “Jesus, since when did a little fun become a crime? It’s not like she’s still in short trousers… or long skirts… or whatever the fuck little girls wear! She’s an adult, I’m an adult, neither of us are married, what’s the fuckin’ problem?”

He held up his hands in an ‘I give up’ sort of gesture. “Woah, woah, woah there, pal. I agree with you, no harm done. Jim stormed in here and threw an ultimatum at me, either you go or his money goes. I’m sorry, Rowe, but I’m not throwing the rest of the cast out onto the street because you can’t keep your dick in your pants. The rest of us need that paycheck, and besides, I got Ian interested in the part. He wants to get back to his roots.”

“Great,” I muttered, “can’t deal with Lightsaber Boy, so you replace me with the Lord of the Rings.”

Phil’s eyes went flinty. “I know you’re upset, so I’ll ignore that.”

I stared him right back in the eye. “He’s my friend too, remember? And I’ve called him that to his face. You got some scotch in that desk?”

Phil reached into his drawer and produced a bottle of Glenn Fiddich and two glasses. He poured two fingers into mine, then one for himself. I lifted the glass in a toast, taking a moment to find the appropriate noise. “Fuck politics,” I grinned.

Phil saluted me with his own glass. “Fuck politics.”

linebreak shadow

I was slightly pissed when I lurched out of the backstage door. The alleyway behind the theatre was like every London alley this side of Soho, wet cobblestones that looked and smelt like it was covered with stale piss in the electric yellow overhead lighting. Or maybe that was just my bleak outlook on life at that point in time. I’d had a few more scotches that I wouldn’t be able to afford myself for another few weeks. Phil was a good guy; he just got caught between a rock and an easier place. Stinkin’ producers should all go to hell, and most of them do.

The door locked behind me with a click before I heard the shouting. One voice was roughly masculine, the other whiny and high pitched. In my state, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, in fact they were both almost unintelligible anyway. The noise did attract my attention, though, and I saw the little tableau before me in one of those frozen seconds you get when a surge of adrenaline hits your bloodstream.

He was shaved bald, wearing a black leather jacket and no shirt over paint-spattered jeans. He wore several fake gold chains around his neck, and another was currently wrapped around one fist like a makeshift set of brass knuckles. His belt was spiked and had a few more chains hanging off it for good measure. The jeans were tucked into black army boots, scuffed with grimy dirt from the alley clinging to it. His most striking feature was the black sun he had tattooed to the back of his head. He suited the scene down to a tee.

She looked out of place. She wore a fabulous red dress, light creamy stockings that could only be seen because of the runs that now marred them and a short brown designer jacket that warmed her torso while showing off her figure to full effect. Her high heeled boots were fire-engine red to match the dress and came to just below the knee, fairly sensible in the cold. She was a stunning, obsidian-haired, beauty who could melt a man’s knees with a single smoldering glance from across the room. Or maybe that was just my weakness for the other sex and the beer goggles talking, I’m prone to that sort of thing.

It was obvious that he wasn’t after money since her purse lay discarded on the ground at their feet. The long tears in her stockings were being made by the knife in his right hand and he seemed very intent of removing all obstructions from her holiest of holies. My addled brain interpreted all this in the blink of an eye and somewhere deep in my soul touched upon the spark of chivalry that still remained despite decades of abuse.

I don’t remember taking any steps forward, but I must have since I was a lot closer to the scene before I spoke. I was, quite literally, furious. A man simply does not treat a woman that way, it was, and still is, an axiom of my being. “Hold on there, son,” I growled, “get the hell off of her.”

“What the fuck?” The wannabe rapist pushed the girl away by the face. The heel of her shoe broke with the force of his one-handed thrust, sending her sprawling. “Get outta here, geezer, take a long hike or I’ll cut ya!”

I let him bluster, waving the little blade around limp-wristed like he thought he was being cool. I wasn’t the blustering sort and everything in my vision had this red tinge to it. I’d also done a little boxing before, so I knew how to hit and make it hurt. I surprised him, I think, or at least he looked very surprised when I knocked out two of his teeth.

The punk bounced back like one of those rubber clowns. I must’ve been drunk because I didn’t feel the blade sliding through my ribs at all; I just tried to punch him again. The girl was screaming like a soundtrack. I knew something was wrong when I started coughing up warm fluid and the dull metallic tang of blood filled my mouth.

“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” The guy kept screaming into my face. I wasn’t trying to hit it any more, everything seemed so surreal. His face was covered in blood and I could almost see the bruises starting to bloom around his eyes and face, blood leaking out of the corner of his mouth. “I’m gonna fuck you up! Then I’m gonna fuck her, then I’m gonna fuck her up, then I’ll fuck her fucking corpse! Then I might fuck yours for seconds! An’ after that, I’m gonna fuck everyone you ever loved! I’m gonna fuck up the whole fucking world! Y’ hear me, FUCK?”

Yep, like every true dickhead, he certainly had ‘fucking’ on the brain.

Something clicked into place in my head at that moment. I wasn’t feeling any pain and, God knows, he was trying. If I’d been thinking rationally, I suppose that I wouldn’t have taken his threats seriously. Heck, if I’d been rational, I’d have been screaming my head off. Logic says that this coward was 90% likely to run like a little girl from the scene of the crime before the cops showed up. Of course, that 10% chance would have been an unacceptable risk, so I don’t have any regrets about what happened next.

I didn’t say a word. He stabbed me one last time and shoved at the blade, twisting it, almost as if he were trying to dig it straight through me and out the other side. All I did was wrap my fingers around his neck and pressed my thumbs as hard as I could into his Adam’s apple.

The anger in his eyes turned to pure dread. He took several whooping breaths before his windpipe closed off. He left the dagger in my chest and started clawing at my hands but I was determined. I was dead, I could feel it, but if I was going then I was damn sure this cocksucker was coming with me. I looked into his eyes as I strangled him, watching them bug out as I fought to keep every ounce of strength in my hands as my life’s blood flowed out onto the street.

I thought I was hallucinating at the end, but I swear to you that this is what I saw. Impossible as it may seem, he managed to gasp at me with his last dying breath, forcing words into his death rattle with and act of sheer will.

“Fuck you,” he cursed, “fuck you all to Hell.”

I just kept squeezing. When I was sure he was good and dead and not hurting anyone else, I let myself collapse. I didn’t feel very dignified flopping onto my back and the piss-smell was stronger closer to the diseased earth. I looked up into the night sky and couldn’t see any stars for the glow of the city, which struck me as terribly unfair at the time.

“When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze fourth the death of princes,” I gurgled. The blood was starting to trickle down my throat in that position.

Suddenly, she was standing over me. I knew I was hallucinating when she started to shift in my vision, black hair brightening into flame red locks while horns, wings and tail seemed to sprout from her skin. Fists thrust into her ripe hips, she clucked a forked tongue between her fangs at me. “Now why’d you have to go and do that?”

I blinked and she was gone. All I could see was a depressing field of black, still no stars, so I said the line again, though my voice seemed stronger this time. “When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze fourth the death of princes!”

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

The voice that replied sent an unearthly chill through my veins. Yeah, I know that’s pretty camp, but it’s what it felt like. It was a deep voice, sonorous and rough as gravel against the ears, yet at the same time it screeched through my bones like fingernails on a chalk board. Just the memory of that voice makes me shiver.

“If you don’t mind,” the voice continued, “you can get up now. I’ve got six more people with weak tickers waiting for the bell to ring in the next hour and a Lawyer who’ll probably try to argue his way out of being dead. I swear, take one vacation out of eternity and the whole world thinks you’re going soft.”

I had to arch my neck upward to see the speaker. He towered over me like a fell giant, seeming all the larger for the dark robes that blended into the darkness of the alleyway as if the cloth were woven from the shadows themselves. Skeletal hands clutched his gnarled and twisted scythe while a faceless skull peered at me from under a dark cowl with glowing blue orbs of light that chilled me down to the marrow of my bones.

Maybe it was because I’d been thinking through a haze of strong drink a moment before and suddenly I was stone cold sober but the events of the past few moments felt unreal, like a nightmare I’d just woken up from. “I’m sorry,” I whispered harshly, my throat dry and sore, “Seventh Seal: the Musical is two doors down.”

“Ha-ha, very funny,” the Grim Reaper reached under his robe and produced a silver fob watch inscribed with skulls and hour glasses, “but time’s wasting away as we speak and I’m a very busy spirit. So get up off your ass so we can get moving, you’re not the only one of the six billion souls on this godforsaken planet that’s gonna die tonight, you know. And I can’t stop time like bloody Santa Claus, so move it, cupcake.”

I picked myself up and dusted myself off. It was at that point that I noticed that I was completely naked, though I wasn’t cold. The alleyway seemed darker, somehow, and more menacing to me. I couldn’t see anyone around, not even the girl. “Uh,” I glanced about desperately, “are you sure you’re here for me?”

Sighing painfully, Death reached out, turned his bony hand over and pointed down at the ground cryptically.

Blinking, I looked down… and saw a very familiar face staring blankly back up at me. Despite myself, I just couldn’t place the visage, though I was positive that I’d seen it many times before. It took a few moments, and the sight of the other corpse beside my body, for my mind to put two and two together.

As inevitable as taxes, I came to the only conclusion that made sense of the whole situation, “Is… is that me?”

No, not my brightest moment, but hell, I was beyond the capacity for rational and logical thought.

“Don’t be going and falling to pieces on me now, kid,” Death growled, “I don’t have all day to straighten you out.” Skulls seem to be very good at scowling and not much else, but I think that if he could have scowled he would have at that moment. “Like I was saying,” Death nodded patiently, “you’re dead, Jim.”

“Um… er… ah… well…” I stuttered as I wracked my brain for something to say, flicking my gaze between the dark figure of my doom and what was supposed to be my own prostrate corpse collapsed boneless on stage. “Are… are you sure that’s me? I don’t look anything like that.”

Death rasped, though it could have been his version of a chuckle. “Everyone I pick up says that. Look, kid, it’s because you’re used to looking at yourself in a mirror. You humans see yourselves flipped around left to right. Of course, being dead changes people as well, all sorts of muscles you don’t realize you’re using go slack.”

It wasn’t the subject matter that made me gag; it was the tone of my companion’s voice when he said it. Then what I can only describe as a spark of hope leapt into my brain. Jumping back from the Reaper, I am embarrassed to say that I laughed triumphantly, “I challenge you!”

Yes, I expect better from me too.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Death’s shoulders slumped, “dude, it’s your TIME! OK? I have a schedule, I have my list, I check it twice, and I don’t give a flying fuck if you’re naughty or nice! God might play dice with the Universe, but if the missus catches me gambling again, she’ll MURDER me! Not this time, no. NO and that’s my FINAL word.”

Feeling well castigated for believing everything I see or read; I scuffed my feet like I was at grammar school all over again. “Er… sorry, I should have known better, pleased to meet you and all that.”

Death cocked his head to one side, confused for a moment. “Oh, um… no problem. Ready to go, then? I don’t mind if you want to say a quick goodbye to your old body first, most folks seem to want to.”

“No,” I shook my head, resigned to my fate, “I don’t need it. Hey, wait a sec, where’s the other guy?”

Death turned his thumb downwards like Caesar deciding the fate of the unlucky gladiators of the Coliseum. “One way ticket to Hell, cattle class. I only pick up souls bound for trial in Pergatory, if you’re good or bad enough to get into Heaven or Hell without contest, the Powers That Be just route you straight there, no waiting. Or, if you don’t want to come with me now, I can leave your ass here to rot for a few years as a Ghost until you’re ready to accept your fate and stop asking stupid questions.”

I winced. “I’m sorry, I’m ready to go. Seriously, the waiting ‘d kill me… er, if it wasn’t too late for that already… shit, let’s just go before I dig myself in deeper… oh, God…”

“Forget it!” Death clutched at his hood in despair for a moment, a substitute for hair, “I know what you mean! Let’s get the fuck outta here…”

He rapped on the cobblestones three times with the butt of his scythe. The world seemed to reverberate with the strokes, vibrating until everything around us looked fuzzy, spinning and whirling around until all creation merged into a solid grey blur.

“Well, here we are,” Death finally announced, sweeping his hand around, gesturing grandly into the grey void, “welcome to Purgatory, kid, God’s own waiting room.”

Twirling through three-sixty degrees, all I could see was an infinite grayness reminiscent of snow blindness, only darker. If it wasn’t for Death standing next to me, I couldn’t have told you which way was up or down, in fact I really don’t think Purgatory has an up or down, or even gravity for that matter. It’s just an endless, boring, empty void. I heard recently that some Angels were considering adding some muzac as a joke, but the higher ups vetoed the idea for fear of the entire plane slipping down into Hell and taking all the waiting souls with it. How do I hear stuff like that now, you ask? Wait for it, ok, it’s a real scream.

Straining to hear any sort of sensation, I thought I heard crying, as if there was a nursery somewhere in the vast distance all around me. “What the hell is that?” I asked my guide, flicking my ear so he knew what I meant.

Death cocked his head to one side like he still had ears. “Oh, that. Probably an echo from the Limbo of the Infants. It happens. Come on, follow me, we’ve still got a ways to go, you know.”

I followed him in silence for a while as we traversed the completely groundless terrain. It felt like I was walking, but I couldn’t have been because there wasn’t anything for me to walk on, so it felt a bit like I was floating or treading water. To keep my mind off it, I kept talking. “So, uh, where’s this place?”

“Everywhere and nowhere,” Death sighed, “usually I don’t talk to you people, but I gotta hand it to ya, I haven’t seen a death like that for centuries. Ok, from the top, this is the Limbo of the Primarchs. Purgatory’s a suburb of Hell, kid, one of the upper-crust suburbs where all the public servants live and work, but part of Hell none the less. Even still, it’s divided up into several ‘layers’, which are more like coterminus dimensions… ever read any sci-fi when you were alive?”

“A little,” I sighed, “I studied the classics at university, so I know a bit of mythology.”

“Ok, basically, that means that these layers all exist in the same space and time, only with different phases. Sorta like the difference between where you lived back on Earth and where the ghosts live, get it?”

I nodded. “I think so. You’re talking about planes of reality.”

“Bingo. This layer, the Limbo of the Primarchs, is the closest one to Earth, so we’ve gotta pass through it to get to the deeper levels. Almost as close is the Limbo of the Infants, which is where infant souls who haven’t had a shot at damnation or redemption wait to be born, they died before birth you see, or their bodies did. Lucifer complained that it wasn’t fair that infant souls got to go to Heaven automatically, since they were only innocent because they’d never been tested. So God capitulated and a whole bunch of treaties were made so that nobody could interfere with the unborn souls and they chuck all of them into this pocket dimension while they wait to be reincarnated. Occasionally, a few older souls will get in there too for one reason or another, but that’s really rare.

“Anyway, the Limbo of the Primarchs was the old precinct of Hell where the just souls were kept before the big J did his whole resurrection act and went through the Harrowing. Now, it’s pretty much empty except for the occasional stray soul, a couple of big rocks and some indigenous entities. Since you can’t get to Purgatory proper any other way, I’ve got to escort every one of you little turds through this bleak bloody place, across the River Styx and into the Halls of Judgement. From there, you either go down into Infernus, better known as Hell proper to you earthlings, or up into Heaven, depending on the judgement. Satisfied?”

My jaw would have been dragging across the floor if there’d actually been a floor under my feet. “God? Lucifer? JESUS!”

Death snorted. “Look, you might want to cut that out right about now. Usually that whole interpretation of ‘taking his name in vein’ is a joke, but any black mark against you is going to be weighted in Purgatory. Both sides want your soul and you would not BELIEVE how bloody it can get.”

“Uh, yeah, thanks,” I stammered. My whole world view was spinning around my head like insane cartoon ducks.

Death chuckled. “You wouldn’t believe how much that one pisses off the hardcore fundies when they get down here. ‘Oh, I killed all those Jews to get revenge for Jesus!’ — piiifft! — facist losers. Thank God I don’t have to deal with that shit. Racists, rapists and pedophiles, may they all burn in Hell. Oh, here we are, the River Styx”

He pointed his scythe out in front and my eyes followed the direction. The ‘river’ of black water flowed in blobby, twisted, currents through the featureless grey space, visible as a dark distortion of the ‘light’ that illuminated almost everything equally. It was that quality that made me realize that there weren’t any shadows at all, which made everything look cartoonish and flat, only without any black lines to delineate surfaces. Very surreal, really, Dali would’ve got a kick out of Limbo if he hadn’t been kicked up to Heaven first off to bat.

There was a boat waiting for us and my guide allowed me to settle into the prow while he rowed. “Next stop, Pergatory,” Death intoned, “please keep your arms and legs inside the boat at all times on pain of eternal dissolution.”

Knowing full well the dark reputation of the River Styx from years of reading Classics and Drama, I was very careful where I put my limbs. Curious, however, I asked another question while Death poled us along with his scythe (a delicate procedure, considering the razorblade sticking out one end). “I never heard of the Styx flowing through Purgatory before.”

“Not surprised,” Death shrugged, “mortals are on a need to know basis. For your information, Purgatory used to be called ‘Hades’ back before the Greek gods joined the Christian pantheon of spirits. The Elysian Fields rose up to become a precinct of Heaven and Tartarus sunk down into Hell, along with a buncha other places you might’ve read about… oh, crap, BLOODY PIRATES!”

I whipped my head about to see what my guide was shaking his fist at. What I saw almost knocked me out of the boat.

Imagine one of those cliff-cities you see in National Geographic carved into the bare rock, only in 3D, sort of like an Escher drawing, rolling past your bed in the middle of the night. What I took for some sort of moss-like white growths all over it turned out to be some sort of alien beings that looked like balls of translucent arms roaming slowly through the streets. Next thing I knew, this barbed chain whips past my head, missing by about an inch. Whipping my head about to follow the asteroid, I saw one of the arm-balls giving me the bird.

“Scum-bags! You’re supposed to be several light years downriver, assholes!” Death shook his fist at them again.

Understandably, I was stunned for a long time as I watched the floating city slowly shrink into a dark speck in the gray void. I’m sure you’ll also understand that my first flabbergasted words were: “What the fuck???”

“Soul Trawlers, looking for the lost souls that sometimes get caught in the river and lose all sense of identity,” Death growled, “bloody bottom-feeders, vultures of the ether, pirates, take your pick. They float along the Lethe and the Styx, but they’re regulated by the Angels of Judgement. I’ll have to send a memo to Dominic to get the boys down here.”

“Dominic, like the Archangel.”

“You’re catching on.”

We spent the rest of the journey in silence. I didn’t want to push my luck anymore and Death seemed to prefer the silence. Besides, it gave me time to adjust as much as I could under the circumstances. I was resigned. I didn’t know what was coming or where I was going, so I figured all I could do was see where the winds blew me. It was my default position on everything, but hey, I’ve got good instincts and my gut has never led me astray. My dick was another matter, but I wasn’t thinking about that, or with it, so it didn’t apply… yet. So I kept my mouth shut and focused on silently reciting show tunes in my head. Floating in a miasma of complete mediocrity, it seemed like the thing to do.

My guide didn’t have to point out our destination to me since it was the size of a small moon. I resisted the childish urge to point out ‘that’s no moon, it’s a space station’ since I didn’t think my companion would appreciate the joke. But otherwise, it did look a bit like a primitive Death Star, carved out of a big ball of granite rather than composed of a trillion panels of sheet metal. The river descended into an enormous cave that bored deep into the surface, bound by simple Greek columns and Romanesque stonework. The blocks were grey and pitted, crumbling in places, with faded mosaics and ancient statues falling into a state of advanced decay all around us. Gaunt cherubs with scabbed raven’s wings on their backs fluttered through the sky in enormous flocks so that the ball of rock seemed to be surrounded by a cloud buzzing flies. Several passed close to the river and I noticed that they carried scrolls too and fro, flying into smaller orifices in the bare rock and back again as they carried out whatever their duties were.

Descending into the planetoid, torches illuminated the faded and crumbling frescoes overhead and the water took on some semblance of gravity as it flowed into its appointed groove in the floor. Rusted iron gates creaked open at our approach, powered by clockwork gears moved by some unseen power. Directly inside, two towering, robotic, iron angels, scarred, pitted and also rusting, glared at us with metal eyes that wept black oil continuously. Between the plates of their ‘armor’ and false skin, I could see the whirring and spinning of myriad gears, bits and bobs that kept the golems running. The passionless guardians gave me the chills, something I thought was impossible after meeting my guide.

Death piloted the boat around an ornate breakwater and into a peculiar offshoot of the river, a sort of artificial lake with a dock carved into the rock itself. “Last stop, reception. This is where we part ways, kid, and thanks for the silence. I detest gabblers.”

I hopped onto dry land without complaint; it would’ve just pissed him off anyway. Reaching into the long sleeve of his robe, he pulled out a small card, black on both sides, and handed it to me. “I’m strictly neutral in all this, kiddo. I don’t give a crap if you’re on your way up or down, but either way gimme a call. We can shoot the breeze, an’ I’ll introduce you to the missus. She says I’ve gotta get out more anyway,” he grumbled the last part.

I smiled and nodded. “Uh, thanks. I’m sorry for asking but, uh, why? Not that I want to look a gift horse in the mouth, of course, but you don’t seem to be the social type.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I like you. Or maybe I pity you. Either way, we won’t know for sure until next time we meet. Good luck.”

I nodded back and waved as Death pushed off of the pier and floated away. Still naked, I realized I didn’t have anywhere to put the card, so I held onto it and took the only door that led off the docks.

The scenery changed so dramatically that it left me blinking and dumbfounded for a few moments. Gone were the impressive columns and stern guardians, replaced by dying (or dead) potplants and rows of simple steel chairs. The room was utterly empty apart from myself and a figure that slept noisily behind a counter at the far end of the room.

I can’t relate with mere words the utter vulgarity of the creature behind the desk. The most notable attribute was that it was a she, of that I was certain because she was naked. She was also grossly overweight, and I’m not talking ‘I’ve had one too many burgers’ overweight, I’m talking ‘I eat nothing but pure LARD, 24/7’ overweight. She was so fat that the rolls of her belly had welded with the oversized wheelchair that she was stuck in, my grotesque fascination with her form forcing me to peek over the counter to take all the details in. Under all that graying flesh, two stubby little legs hung useless and unusable, atrophied long ago. By contrast, her arms were as long and thick as a Gorilla’s, and then doubled in size by the jello-like pockets of fat underneath her skin. I’ve mentioned that the skin was grey, but that doesn’t do the mottled patterns of decayed, pussy, mottled yellow/grey hide shot through with a marbling of black veins justice. The head merged with the body, like Jabba the Hutt crossed with Fat Bastard, separated from the bloated torso by a thousand chins. She was also mercifully bald; I couldn’t have taken hair on that scalp. Rising up from behind her were the remains of tattered, scabrous, dead grey wings that could no longer ever hope to carry her aloft. Topping off this picture was the cigarette that hung from her lips which flared to life at the end to punctuate each snore, as if her body was so used to taking a drag that it did it reflexively in her sleep. All of that and I have yet to mention the smell, which I will keep to myself. Some horrors are not meant for mortal minds to bear.

In short, if I’d still had a stomach, I’d have lost my lunch. As it was, I gagged so hard that I thought I was going to turn inside out. There was a bell on the counter but it took a supreme act of will, snaking my arm out inch by painful inch as my skin seemed to recoil from the monstrosity behind the desk.

—ding!—

The sound didn’t even interrupt her snores.

—ding-ding!—

I rang it twice again, still no response. I bashed my fist down on the button so hard that for a moment, I thought I’d cracked the bell. My efforts were rewarded with a louder snore. So I picked up the bell and banged it against the counter a few times, making a clamor that could raise the dead. She twitched slightly.

Fed up and more accustomed to the horror, I reached out and plucked the cigarette out of her mouth.

“AAAARGH!” She whirled to life like a dervish, spinning around in circles on her wheelchair, wings flapping uselessly and arms flailing. I barely survived having my head taken off by ducking behind the counter.

“HOLY CRAP, LADY! SIMMER DOWN!” I shouted from behind cover.

I saw the enormous, meaty, hands grasp the edge of the counter as her chipped, brown, nails dug into the wood like claws. Lifting herself over the tabletop, she peered down at me and smiled like a shark appraising a bleeding diver. Her teeth weren’t yellow, they were black like tar, with slime leaking from between the gums. “Sorry, honey, you got a light?”

“Uh,” I looked down at my naked body and shrugged, “sorry, fresh out.”

“What fuckin’ good are you then?” The monster snorted, letting herself clatter back to the ground.

I pulled myself together and hauled myself to my feet while the demonic secretary lit another smoke, hacking and coughing up black sludge all the while.

“Well, fuck it,” she growled as she took a drag on her new death stick, pulling an old typewriter out from under the counter and dropping it on top, “name, rank and serial number.”

“Uh, Rowe Welburn… I was never in the army and I don’t have a serial number.”

“No shit, it was a figure of speech, asshole,” she groused, slowly typing in my name onto the paper with two fingers, “former occupation?”

“Actor.”

She glanced over the counter at my crotch. “I can see that.”

I smiled. It was the sort of smile I only ever get on my face when I’m a hair’s breadth from killing someone. “Do you think you could be a little more offensive? I’m not ready to shove your bell up your ass yet.”

“Oh, tough guy pickin’ on a girl in a wheelchair…”

“Look, dear,” I leaned across the counter, “I was stabbed today and I choked the guy who killed me with my bare hands right after I was fired from my last job. I got picked up by the Grim Reaper who, might I say, is a bigger asshole than you’ll ever manage to be. My head was almost taken off by a Soul Trawler, I almost got dumped into the River Styx, my very soul is hanging in the balance, I have a migraine and now, not only do I have to look at the most repulsive creature in God’s universe, and smell it, I have to take the shit coming out of your mouth as well. So why don’t you cut me some freekin’ slack? PLEASE?”

“Oooh,” she winked at me coyly, “you are a saucy old soul aren’t you? Sexual Orientation?”

“Heterosexual,” I stuttered, taking a step back. “But I don’t see what that has to do with my trial.”

“You’re right, I was just curious, baby, ’cause that’s what I like to hear, like I love it when you talk dirty,” she cooed, flicking her toad-like tongue at me as she typed.

I almost lost my toenails.

Pulling the sheet free from the typewriter, she pressed something under a counter and one of the scabrous cherubs popped out of the ceiling and snatched the paper into the air, disappearing again almost as quickly.

“Go on through, they’re waiting for you,” she winked at me, “and if you’re ever in the neighborhood, look up Syphylis, Angel of Plague. I’m in the book, call me!”

I ran through the door as fast as my legs would carry me.

Slamming the door firmly shut behind me and gasping for breath, I rested for a moment against the door with my eyes shut. When I opened them, I found a room full of people staring at me. The Greek-Roman columns were back, holding up a domed roof through which shone a pure white light. My door led to the bottom floor of the room, a circular ledge that hung out over a fiery chasm. Connected to my ledge by short bridges were three other circular ledges, one made of white marble on my right, one made of obsidian on my left and the third just before me made of grey stone like the rest of the chamber.

Occupying a seat on the last ledge was a nearly-naked jet black-skinned man wearing a loincloth. The skin, however unnatural, wasn’t his most striking feature. The thing that caught my attention was his head. It was the head of a jackal, a long, slender, snouted face adorned by rows of sharp teeth. He was picking at his claws with a curved golden dagger embossed with ankhs. I knew enough mythology to identify him as Anubis, Egyptian God of the Underworld; of course practically any movie-goer in recent years might have recognized the name after the mummy movies of recent years. He lounged across his small throne like a cat, eyeing me with only one eye and a vicious smile that I couldn’t read. But then, maybe that was just the way he always looked.

The gallery above us was packed with more scabbed-winged angels, though none seemed as repulsive as Syphylis, even collectively. Most were busy taking copious notes and checking the work of their compatriots. Far back in the stands, several other figures of varying stature looked on with bored disinterest. On my right, the gallery was staffed by a bevy of white-winged angels in business suits. On the left, small devils with red skin, horns and bat wings crowded the stand, jostling for position.

In the center of the two upper galleries directly before me, behind Anubis, was a figure the likes of which I had never imagined, though where Syphylis was completely sickening, this one sent thrills of both awe and horror down my spine. One half of her lithe, athletic body was pale and smooth like an alabaster statue brought to life. Shiny black hair cascaded down her shoulders to preserve her flawless modesty, barely concealed by black gauze. The other half was black like the night as well as pitted, decayed and scarred as if she were a dead and rotting corpse on that side only. Her teeth could be seen through her cheek along with several other protruding bones here and there down her body. Scraggly white hair and matching gauze mercifully withheld the full horror of that half from sight. She also bore wings that stretched out from her back, one pure white and perfect, the other a mere skeleton with a patchwork of broken feathers.

And every single eye was on me. I’m not prone to stage fright, but please!

“Uh, hi,” I waved at the crowd warily as I took center stage, “my name’s Rowe Welburn, I was told to come here?”

“Stand there, Mr. Welburn,” the half-beauty looked down on me and commanded. I obeyed, standing in the precise center of my ledge where she pointed. Relaxing back into her chair, she took a deep breath. She didn’t seem either angry or kind, just stern and emotionless. “From this point on until the end of this trial, the supplicant, Rowe Welburn, will be referred to as the Persecuted…”

I gulped, that wasn’t a good sign.

“…will everyone please rise for the summoning of the Representitives.”

Anubis hopped to his feet and bellowed, his reedy voice managing to echo throughout the halls. “ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE MEMBER FOR THE PROTAGONIST, YAMON, ANGEL OF DEFENSE!”

It was the audible POP that brought my attention to a newcomer teleporting in from God knows where onto the white marble dais. As a matter of fact, I concluded almost immediately that God had in fact known where he was coming from. The clean business suit, pure white wings and blazing halo (personally, I think all Angels are guilty of Pride, every single one just LOVES showing off how special they are outside Heaven, just to show us peons how sick we are) were a big tip off as to his allegiances. He also carried a black briefcase practically bulging at the seams with paperwork.

“AND REMAIN STANDING,” Anubis continued, “FOR THE DUPLICITOUS MEMBER FOR THE ANTAGONIST, BARONESS LORILEI, LILLIM OF SEDUCTION!”

A great, gaping, black gash in the air itself opened over the obsidian dais, spewing sulfurous yellow smoke into the room. A moment later a shapely, blue stiletto-hoofed, leg graced us with the sight of it before an equally perfect body joined it in the room. She was magnificent, femininity personified in a devilishly (what else?) succulent package. She was the sort of woman that men of yore would have built armies and conquered nations to possess, in fact several parts of my anatomy wanted to conquer her already as visions of my troops marching down the valley of her stomach, through the treacherous pass between her peaks and into the cavernous maw of her lips, rolled through my mind. My eyes locked onto her face and for a while it was all I could do just to look into those intense, yet paradoxically doe-like, eyes (YES, the face. She may have been naked, but boobs have never really turned me on, ok? Besides… that face… wow. Take a look yourself some time and see if you really care how big the twins are, or anything else for that matter, after you see those eyes). Her cobalt-trimmed wings hardly registered as they furled around her shoulders like a cloak. Neither did her tail, really, even though it was waving around behind her.

The Angel wasn’t as happy as I was to see her to say the least. His jaw dropped, his halo flared and a sword of light sprang from his hands, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE, SPAWN OF SATAN?”

She shrugged, her breasts jiggling visibly (and very aesthetically) even bound as they were under her leathery wings. Her grin was almost feral while she answered in an ‘innocent little girl’ voice. “What else would you think I was here for?”

He spluttered while she giggled at her own joke, trying desperately not to look at her assets. “Temptress!” He spat, “I meant, what are you, a Baroness of the Succubae, doing here bargaining for a worthless young soul? I was expecting to meet Balzebule.”

Worthless? I really wasn’t taking a shining to this guy.

She jumped like an excited cheerleader. “WHEE! Does that mean I’m famous? Oh, wow!”

The look of contempt he gave her could have bored a hole through titanium.

“Oh, poo,” she pouted, giving him a smoldering glance over her shoulder in return, “cool your heels, Yamon. Balzebule had to call in sick, so Asmodeus hired me to take his place. He’s a little short staffed at the moment.”

“Aren’t we all,” Yamon grumbled.

“Er, excuse me,” I piped up with a quick nod of apology to the judge overhead. “If you don’t mind, who the hell are you people?”

“Actually,” the woman grinned, her smile lighting up the cavernous room, “I’m ‘Who the Hell’, he’s ‘What in the name of’.”

Yamon snorted at that one. I still wasn’t getting the joke, but a moment’s thought made everything seem fairly clear to me. “Ok, so you’re a Devil and he’s an Angel?”

“Yup, ‘frade so,” she nodded.

I gulped. “I’m not sure if ‘Bloody Hell’ or ‘Jesus Christ on a Crutch’ is the correct exclamation here.”

“Either way sounds good,” her chuckle made me feel like I’d just won the lottery, “please call me Lorelei.”

“Don’t bother,” Yamon interrupted, “you won’t be in her company for long enough to get attached. I’m Yamon, by the way, and I’ll be stating the case for the defense of your soul. This she-demon is here to drag your soul kicking and screaming into eternal damnation. Don’t worry, just lie back, relax, and answer honestly and openly when spoken to and you’ll be fine.”

My bullshit-o-meter was going off like crazy, but Lorelei just glanced at me and winked while Yamon’s back was turned. That made me feel a lot better for some reason.

“If you’re ready,” the half-beauty on the throne above us snapped testily, “I would like the record to show that I, Lady Hel of Purgatory, now sit in judgment over the Persecuted, overseen by Anubis, Holder of the Keys. This trial has now commenced, will the Protagonist please step forward to present his opening comments.”

“Your honor,” Yamon stepped over the bridge and onto my ledge to give his speech and share my limelight, “the Persecuted is very obviously an open and shut case. Despite the fact that he was a committed Atheist in life, he served his time with the distinction befitting a good Christian…”

He sang my many praises for about half an hour, starting with the time I gave a crying girl about my age my own lollipop to make her happy, right up to defending a woman about to be raped with my life. It was more than a little embarrassing.

“…and in conclusion,” Yamon took a deep breath for his summation, “I believe that after stating all of my clients exemplary actions, nothing that he has done in life has earned him eternal damnation, and I am ready to take him back to Heaven forthwith.”

He reached out and grabbed me, but Lorelei pinched his arm. Believe me, you ‘ain’t been pinched until your pincher has two-inch talons. “OBJECTION!” She yelled, “Objection, your honor.”

“Sustained,” Lady Hel yawned, “the Antagonist will now state her case against.”

Lorelei poked her tongue out at Yamon, a foot long, sinuous, forked appendage that flapped in the breeze emanating from her mouth. It was definitely the most expressive raspberry I’d ever seen. The only response Yamon could muster was a regular old scowl, which, I discovered, is very hard to do right when your face is lit from above by an overdriven halo. Happy that he was taking the bait, she stepped over the bridge and onto my ledge which ‘by coincidence’ also brought her closer to Yamon. It brought her closer to me as well, so I wasn’t about to complain. The difference in height meant that he had to look down into her face, but doing so also exposed the full depth of her cleavage to his field of view.

Seemingly oblivious to being ogled by every male in the room, she continued. “Yes, this man here did many good and virtuous deeds; he would not be here in Purgatory otherwise, would he not? The Persecuted, however, was drawn to the beliefs of the Athiest, not out of a sense of disbelief in something that he had no way of being able to prove, but because in believing in something, it would have gnawed upon his conscience. Indeed, religion of almost any stripe would have interfered with his many conquests in the bedroom without any intent of joining any woman in wedlock.”

“You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you,” Yamon murmured snarkily.

“Takes a sinner to know a sinner, darling,” she winked, bumping her padded hip against his leg before raising her voice to the crowd again. “Section one-A, paragraph one-thousand-and-eighty-three, sub-section two states that all who are to be admitted to Heaven must believe in the almighty and be penitent for his or her sins. Being a self-proclaimed Atheist invokes the ultimate penalty.”

“The Baroness has stated the Law correctly,” Hel pronounced, “Protagonist will rebut.”

Looking down at her, so close that he could see down her cleavage (and sheesh, was he taking a good, long, look), red began to rise in Yamon’s cheeks. “Uh… NO! That’s a misinterpretation that doesn’t take into account Appendix eight, ‘and all that would come unto my bosom will rest upon me and be given succor’.”

Gee, I wonder what reminded him of that clause.

The Baroness wrapped one leg around his and pressed herself against him. “Awww, come on, he’s only one little soul. If you could let him go just this once, I would be most… appreciative.”

Lorelei licked her lips with her forked tongue, entrancing the Angel with her sheer sensuousness. Personally, I think it was just petty jealousy that caused me to interrupt. “Ex-CUSE me, but this is my soul here. I really don’t think anyone will be happy if someone just lets me slip through his fingers ’cause he was holding his eleventh digit with both hands.”

“ORDER IN COURT!” Lady Hel boomed. “The Persecuted will remain silent for the duration unless commanded to enunciate.”

The booming voice seemed to snap Yamon out of it a little but Lorelei still held onto his arm while she glared at me. “Quiet, you, I’m doing you a big favor here.”

“H-hold up,” Yamon snapped his free fingers, wavering between the girl wrapped around him and his duty, “I think I have the clinching argument. It all hinges off Nathan’s willingness to repent for his sins.”

She took a step back from him and smiled coldly. “True enough, I’ll agree to that. As long as both of us get one shot at convincing him, and I go first. Deal?”

His smile was shark-like. Now there was a man with something up his sleeve. “Deal.”

Hel nodded. “The bench concurs. The Antagonist will proceed.”

Turning to me, her smile regained its previous warmth. I basked in her glow, unable to look away from her terrible beauty. “Rowe, I can understand and respect the values that you held in life. Your file tells me that your main reason for being an Athiest is that you blamed the big guy for all the pain and suffering in the world. You were right about that; he created pain and suffering like he did all the good things in life. If you go with Yamon you will be betraying all the values that you held dear. I’d think about that before you decide, there are many, many people just like you in Hell, arbitrarily discarded for an outdated and worthless belief system. I’d also think about this: The Angels really aren’t that much different to our side. They kill, they maim and they fornicate. Believe me, can they fornicate. And not all Demons do evil all the time. There’s a whole bureaucracy dedicated to sorting humans into ‘good and evil’, people like you fall through the cracks all the time. My only crime was adultery, I committed no other sin in my life, in fact I was an upstanding member of my community, but I was still sent straight to Hell without question. From our point of view, Heaven is hypocritical. Think on that.”

Her words broke her own beauty spell. I felt like a schoolboy again, being reminded of my manners by the principal. It was with a jaundiced eye that I turned to look at Yamon but he was still beaming at me with a million-dollar smile.

“Maybe you need a reality check about now, or at least a little background on exactly who you’ve just been talking to. Lorelei was indeed once a human, like you. She committed adultery again and again and again. When his last lover’s husband discovered his indiscretions, he shot him several times through the chest. In that one act, Lorelei dragged two souls down into Hell with her, irrevocably damning them forever. Our actions in life often have unforeseen consequences and it is these that the laws of God protect us from in his infinite wisdom. In contrast, Heaven and our cohorts are selfless, seeking to bring pleasure and endless joy to the human world and break through the cycle of pain and suffering. And, last but not least, I can guarantee that you will be led through the Pearly Gates and into Paradise. I am fully authorized to offer you the sublime ecstasy of Eternal Bliss, unending fulfillment forever and ever, until the end of the Universe and beyond.” Turning back to Lorelei, he beamed at her, “Checkmate, my dear.”

“The Persecuted will now make his choice, and it will be law.” Hel pronounced.

Despite Yamon’s confidence, the silence started to stretch out while I considered both points of view. His smile started to wane with every minute while Lorelei’s was getting broader. He was so worried that he didn’t notice her wrapping herself around him again. Finally, I spoke in a quiet voice.

“I decline,” I gave my answer. “Quite frankly, Yamon, the very idea of Eternal Bliss sickens me. Even seen an opium den? Or a crack whore on her high? Even a heroine addict has Eternal Bliss, and I don’t want it. It’s worse than death; it would mean that I’m useless. I can’t be useless; I won’t be useless, not even for your boss. And if you and your buddies were so righteous you wouldn’t even offer it to me as a carrot. Lorelei, I’m yours, whatever that means.”

The right gallery of Angels exploded into howls of anger, blinding light and holy fire while the left gallery of Demons did a perfect Mexican wave.

Yamon gaped. I wonder if he’d ever had a soul do that to him before. Probably not. Looking back, I do take a sort of perverse pleasure out of that moment.

Lorelei clicked his jaw shut for him then lowered her hand, probing down his hard, muscular, chest and over his abs. “Don’t do that, stud, it doesn’t suit you.”

“ORDER IN COURT!” Hel boomed, “I SAID ORDER!”

“POINT OF ORDER, LADY HEL!” All noise stopped as every one of us turned to Anubis as he hopped across his bridge onto my ledge on his double-jointed jackal legs. “POINT OF ORDER!”

“The chair recognizes Anubis, Holder of the Keys,” Hel nodded curiously.

Taking a deep breath, the ancient Egyptian God of the Underworld raised his hands over his head. “I propose that the Persecuted is insane and incapable of rational thought, or may possibly be influenced by outside forces that we cannot detect. I motion that his testimony be struck from the record forthwith and an alternate method of verdict be found immediately.”

“WHAT?!?” Lorilei screeched, stamping her right hoof as her defeat seemed to be snatched from the jaws of victory.

The Angels in the right gallery returned the Demon’s Mexican wave, accompanied by the red-skin’s jeers, boos and cries of bias. Yamon’s face was plastered with what I can only describe as a shit-eating grin. I just flicked my gaze between everyone in the room like it was a bizarre game of multi-court tennis.

“ORDER IN COURT!” Hel silenced everyone again. “We accept Anubis’ proposeal, the Persecuted AND the galleries will remain struck DUMB for the remainder of the trial.”

The galleries wanted to cheer, but at a deathly glare from Hel, they remained seated and perfectly quiet.

“Thank-you,” Hel continued, “how does Lord Anubis propose we settle this matter?”

Anubis grinned, showing all of his teeth. “I propose that this trial be settled using old-school rules. I shall weigh the Persecuted’s heart against a feather and the truth of his own heart will determine his fate!”

Yamon seemed taken aback. “Now hold on, there’s no need to get barbaric about this…”

Lorilei shrugged her pretty little shoulders. “Don’t look at me, Yamon, I don’t mind.”

It took me a moment to recognize how devious her suggestion was. Yamon hadn’t been looking at her at all and when he did peer down into her eyes, suddenly realizing where she was, he got lustfully distracted. Anubis, obviously a political animal all the way, took the opportunity to address the chair. “Lady Hel, do you accept my proposal as fair?”

Hel smiled. “Are you kidding? We haven’t done this one in absolute ages! Chair rules for Anubis, Lord of the Underworld! Proceed!”

I took a step back as the jackal-headed god turned to me, glancing at Yamon who still seemed to be busy.

“Don’t worry,” Anubis grinned as he reached out for my chest with his bare hand, “this won’t hurt at all…”

All of a sudden, my body clamped down, every single muscle clenching into place. I was powerless as he reached out to my chest with his taloned fingers grasping for my second most important organ (and no, the most important isn’t my dick, it’s my brain. My dick came third, thank you very much). My flesh and bone peeled away from his hand as he reached inside my chest. I felt him clutch the beating organ and slowly withdraw it, still beating, as my bloodless wound closed up behind. I tried to scream but my lungs were completely paralyzed, so no sound came fourth.

Casually gripping the trembling organ in his fist, Anubis reaching into thin air and withdrew a set of scales, complete with a feather on one side. He set them on the floor and waiting for the two sides to reach a completely flat equilibrium. Raising the heart over his head, the God chanted. “This heart not only represents his flesh, but also the weight of his emotion. Guilt may be avoided, but the heart knows what the mind denies! By this weight will he be judged and found waning or wanting!”

And with that, he placed the heart delicately on the scales.

The heart dropped like a stone, overbalancing the scales and tipping the feather into the chasm below, a hot updraft instantly incinerating the fluffy white fiber.

Anubis blinked. “Oh… well color me pink and call me Susan. THE PERSECUTED IS FOUND WANTING!”

The sound from the galleries almost pitched me over the ledge myself. Unceremoniously, Anubis picked up my heart and shoved it back into my chest.

“BLOODY HELL!” I screamed, suddenly un-paralyzed and my voice several octaves higher from fear.

Anubis tisked. “Don’t be such a pansy, you’re going to Hell. Act like that and they’ll eat you alive.”

I felt the blood, or whatever was in my veins, drain out of my head.

Yamon extricated himself from Lorilei’s grip at last and threw his hands into the air, “PRIDE! STUPID, BLOODY, PRIDE! All right, infidel, you’re hers! I wash my hands of your fate.”

“Now, now, let’s not get all biblical about this,” Lorelei quipped.

Growling down at her, he disappeared in a puff of white smoke. A moment later, his hand shot back through to pull his briefcase in and then he was gone.

Lady Hel snorted. “Sore loser. Let the records show that the Persecuted has sided with the Antagonist. Court is adjourned.”

I swooned when Lorilei wrapped her slender arms around me and gave me a girlish kiss on the cheek. Stepping back several paces from me she waved her clawed hand at me. “See you in Hell, dear, be bad for mommy!”

I grinned and waved back a moment before Hel stamped her foot and my ledge collapsed out from under my feet, plunging me into the abyss.

Chapter 2 — Dust to Dust

And so I found myself plummeting into Hell. Balls of fire, lava and brimstone sailed past me along with dark yellow clouds of sulfur. The ground was so far away at first that I couldn’t make out any details whatsoever and then, right when I thought I was getting a handle on things, the friction between the air and my skin got to such a velocity that I spontaneously combusted.

After that, I wasn’t in much of a state to be noticing anything. All I remember from that point onward was the one thought going through my mind over and over, why can’t I ever take the easy road?

It was a good question and it wasn’t the first time that I’d ever asked it. Why did I struggle for twenty years to become a second rate actor? Why did I spend six more years flat broke sleeping on dirt floors and taking shit jobs just to keep going for parts? Why couldn’t I just suck it in and get a proper job, take the easy way out? Pride? Contrary to popular belief, you lose that pretty quick working the stage outside Hollywood.

I’d always thought that the highest compliment that an artist could ever hope to achieve was that during the time the audience was watching the stage, they might just forget how shitty life was outside for a while. A play or a movie should be a few stolen moments of sanity in an otherwise insane world, a restoration or catharsis for the masses. Opiate of the masses? No, true culture should enrich life, not replace it.

That was both the passion and curse which led me to a point of impact doing speeds that must have exceeded my accustomed terminal velocity by several orders of magnitude. I’m told that when an immortal soul hits the ground at such speeds, several strange things happen considering that he can’t actually die newly arrived from Purgatory (if they did, it would deprive the torture-demons of their fun). The pseudo-corporeal body of the soul liquefies on impact, but Hell itself takes most of the blow. I can’t verify that personally, however, since the first thing I remember since catching on fire was waking up in a scorched crater approximately ten feet wide and five feet deep.

“Hey, kid, you all right down there?”

I opened my eyes to see the red ruin of Hell all around me (or one of the nastier suburbs as I later found out) along with a tall dark-skinned Mediterranean man bare to the waste, the lower half of his body covered with tattered robes. His hair was black and his skin well tanned, his face covered with both a beard and a moustache. He seemed fit and wiry from long hours of work, dry black dirt covering his skin in patches.

It was at that point that I realized how damnably hot it was. If you want an idea of how hot it feels in the cooler parts of Infernus, turn an oven on high as it can go, crawl in and close the door. Yup, it’s that hot. Don’t bother coming to visit unless you’re an immortal soul. Of course there are parts of Hell that are pleasant or even frigid, like Cania for example, but this wasn’t one of them.

I was surprised that I could even think in the heat, but at least it was a dry heat. I just figured that it was a fringe benefit of being dead, it was unpleasant but bearable. Hell, it had to be. What was worrying me was the cracking sound when I tried to move. Glancing down, I realized that I was lying on a thin sheet of glass.

“Uh, yeah, I seem to be ok,” I yelled back, “but, uh, I can’t move. The glass is breaking!”

The man winced. “Sorry, kid, I’d help if I could but you’re gonna have to get up and climb to me. I don’t got no rope or nothin’.”

I started to swear. I’ll spare you the details of my agonizing climb out of the glass crater, but I was a bloody mess at the end of it. I’m still picking slivers of glass out from under my toenails as they work their way down.

The man wasn’t alone. His companion, from what I could see through the tears gushing out of my eyes he was a short-ish man wearing an all-black uniform along with a black scarf wrapped around his head to obscure his features. The only part of his body that was exposed were two beady little eyes peering out at me from under the makeshift hood.

The bare-chested one examined my wounds while the other kept a lookout. He removed the shards of glass as quickly and painlessly as he possibly could, which wasn’t much but I was grateful none the less. My wounds sealed up without even scarring, which left me frankly amazed. “Who are you people?”

The bare-chested one shrugged. “We’re the Cursed, like you. Here, take a drink, this’ll help the heat.”

I accepted the flask and took a hit. The liquid tasted foul but the cool of it slid through my body and warded off the worst of the heat. “Bugger me! What is that stuff?” I coughed and spluttered.

“Nitroglycerine from Cania,” bare-chest chuckled, “tastes like shit but it’s the best thing for the heat. Think you can walk? We’ve gotta get out of here before the Raptors spot us.”

“Yeah, I can walk… Raptors?”

“Demons, kid, trackers. They hunt from the air, like eagles, looking to spot stray souls to trade back to the torture-demons. We have to move, now.”

They both hauled me to my feet and we started running… or, rather, they started running and dragged me along for the ride. Pain is very real in Hell, despite how fast an immortal soul can heal, pain so bad that you could wish for death but never receive it. I wasn’t at that point but I believe that run across the planes of Infernus was the first time I’d really conceived of a possible future that included an eternity of torture. Fear lent my feet wings.

I don’t know how long we ran for but it was a dashed long time, and me naked as a jaybird, barefoot across what amounted to coals. But I’ve never been one to make myself easy prey, so I ran as if the very hounds of hell were at my heels, which they probably were.

We stopped inside a cave which was actually cool and shaded compared to the heat of the outside. I was happy when my companions also collapsed onto the ground gasping. At least I wasn’t the only one who was tired. “Well,” I gasped between breaths, “if you chaps don’t mind me asking, what the bloody hell is going on?”

The bare-chested one extended his hand. “Judah, Judah Sicarii. Welcome to Hell.”

It took me a moment to get my eyes back into my head but I took his hand and shook it. Yes, I considered slapping it away, but who am I to cast stones? “Who’s he?” I asked, pointing at the man in black.

“My friend chooses to remain nameless and won’t be removing his headgear. Call him Bob, he’s used to it now. He doesn’t speak either. Did some pretty heinous things in life and quite a few of his victims are down here in Hell, so naturally he’s a little cautious. Now, I suppose you’re wondering what we’re doing here?”

“Good guess,” I snorted.

“Yeah, well, actually we were sent to collect you. Or, rather, I was sent to collect you and escort you back to base, commando-style.”

I blinked. “Collect me?”

“Yeah, you’ve been sent for by the big cheese, Lady Lucifer herself. She asked me to find you and escort you back to her palace under the radar. She couldn’t send a Demon for fear you’d be noticed, so she drafted me. And she could make it damn hard for me to do my job down here otherwise, so I agreed.”

“Your job?” I gave him an appraising eye from my position on the floor.

“What? You don’t think I’m in Hell by choice, do you?”

“Tell you the truth, no.”

“Well sucks to you ’cause I am,” he chuckled.

I hit the back of my head on the floor. I’d walked right into that one. “So, your dumb ass is down here by choice?”

“Yup, I guess that makes the two of us dumb asses, huh?”

“No argument from me,” I sighed, “so, what the fuck do you do down here?”

“I help out Lost Souls where I can. Smuggle some Canian liquor into Infernus, ship everlasting fire back down to Cania. Heal the sick as much as I can, give some pointers, try to get them back on track. You could say I’m a preacher in Hell. There’s an underground of stray souls… we can’t do much other than make the lot of the Lost a little easier, but with any luck we’ll do some good down here.”

“And you expect me to believe that Lucifer sent you to pick me up? Hasn’t he got anything better to do? Like torture your ass?”

“It’s Lady Lucifer at the moment, by the way. Seraphim have both male and female aspects. But yeah, essentially. Our underground has come in useful to her a few times, so she tolerates us as long as we do her favors. And this time, you’re the favor. I know what’s going through your mind right now, by the way, and that’s running for the hills. Trust me; you don’t want to do that. Lucifer will have your soul nice or she’ll take it hard. Be smart and pick nice for once in your life, she can be a real bitch when she’s mad. And if you try, the two of us will hurt you, there are a lot of people counting on our success here not to end up back in the Pits. You don’t want to go to the Pits, understand?”

I might be a jackass, or at least as stubborn as one, but I’m not stupid. Me vs. all of Hell, gee, let me think… what’d be the betting odds on that? “Fuck, I can hardly walk, let alone run. I’ll come peacefully. Just one more thing, what’s a Cursed?”

“We are,” Judas pointed at the three of us, “for different reasons. People don’t really curse much any more, and I’m not talking fuck this or shit that, I’m talking REAL curses… well, outside certain circles anyway. But curses have power, fulfilled by God himself… er, sometimes. Depends on the person, the phase of the moon, emotion, situation, etcetera. It’s a sort of form of magic. My cloaked friend here was cursed by so many people, well, let’s just say he’s completely fucked if anyone finds out he’s around. Your file says that the asshole rapist you killed cursed you with his dying breath… that right?”

I thought back. Fuck you, fuck you all to Hell. “Yeah. It was pretty vague, but yeah.”

“Doesn’t have to be exact, kid. The stars have just gotta be right. Me, I cursed myself for something I did and ended up down here. I’m just trying to make the best of a bad situation, and so are the rest of us. Plain fact is, if Lucifer, the second most powerful being in the universe, wants you, you’re fucked. End of story. The choice you’ve got to make is if you want to drag us all down with you.”

I shook my head. “I said I’d come peacefully and I meant it. I don’t want anyone sharing my personal Hell, I’ll take it alone. I’ll swear any oath you care to name.”

Judah chuckled. “Forget that, I believe you. Well, back on our feet, guys, we’ve got a long road and it ain’t getting any shorter lying here.”

It took me a lot longer to get back on my feet than my captors, which disabused the last little voice in my head that was screaming for me to run. I summoned up decades of indoctrination into the British stiff upper lip that didn’t seem to quite apply to me any more. I was under no illusions that either of these men would do a lot of things to keep themselves and their friends safe and I couldn’t blame them.

We didn’t go back out into the heat, thank you-know-who, we took the caves. I had to take Judah’s word that we were ‘sticking to the backroads’ since one lava-filled cavern looked just like another to me. Several times we had to duck under cover to avoid passing columns of devils leading chained souls. These devils were giants, over twelve feet tall, with enormous bat wings, thick scales, razor claws and needle-sharp teeth, only roughly humanoid. Great muscles ripped with every step, belying the power of their frames.

“Conugons,” Judah whispered to me once we were well away from one of these groups, “the new minions of Ares since he took over as Demon Prince of War. Rumors are, Ares did a deal with a Dragon and infused regular mortal souls with their power. God knows how the fuck he managed that one, Tiamat’s brood aren’t the most placid of creatures. They say the things have been so successful that Lucifer’s given them permission to police the City of Brass while her Hell Maids pull back into the palace proper. I didn’t believe the rumors, but if they’re here…”

“Woah, woah, woah,” I whispered as low as I could, “you mean we’ve gotta get through those things?”

“Calm down. Yes, probably a pack of them with Hellhounds that can track down stray souls by scent. But that doesn’t matter, because I’ve got a plan.”

“Oh, you’ve got a plan, everything’s all right then.”

“Was that sarcasm?”

“Yes.”

“Quaint. Look, all demons are pretty much the same. All of them will kill you somehow. But, if there’s one thing every boarder guard ever given a badge is open to, it’s bribes. And I’ve got an offer none of these schmucks can refuse, got me?”

“Yeah, like what?”

“Sorry, trade secret.”

I asked him several more times in the days we were stuck wandering through those endless caverns but he wouldn’t budge. Our companion remained silent, so Judah and I got to talking about a lot of things; philosophy, pop culture, trivia, anything to keep our minds off the pain in our limbs, and then only when we could afford to rest. We emerged from the caves on the third day at the edge of the City of Brass and I’m not sure I can adequately describe the metropolis with just words but I’ll give it a shot.

Like the name suggests, the entire city is made out of brass, but the metal was so hot that it gleamed like gold under the burning sun and shimmered like a jewel in the waves of heat that snaked into the air overhead. The towers that composed the city came in every conceivable shape and size; square and round; short and tall; peaked, flat or domed. I could see that the giant towers were composed of enormous sheets of brass shaped and riveted into place over some form of skeleton. Demons walked between the buildings on streets, over skywalks, drove demonic machines of all shapes and sizes and flew from rooftop to rooftop. Some spider-like things could even crawl up the sides or swing from webs, oblivious to the heat. Smog blanketed the city like black fog, belched fourth from the demon vehicles and great factories that dotted the city, choking the inhabitants and obscuring vision.

Crowds of souls were crammed into the streets or spewed fourth from the great gates at ground level far below us. Garbage in, garbage out. Great beasts the size of houses herded the souls with spiked shepherd’s crooks and dragging long strings of them chained to their belts. Directing the slave-herders was a relatively normal-looking man in red armor astride a black steed, though I couldn’t make out the details of his form at this distance.

Above the shit rose what I could only assume was Lucifer’s Palace, a great golden edifice covered in flowers of all things. I was betting that they were some sort of demonic killer mutant flowers, or maybe Triffids. Demons still swarmed about the place and I saw several gigantic fire-spewing dragons clamber around the buildings and towers, moving from place to place for reasons of their own.

“Dis, The City of Brass,” Judah introduced us, grinning like a maniac, “never will you find a more retched hive of scum and villainy.”

I almost busted a gut; my silent companion had to cover my mouth with his gloved hand, giving Judah a stern and reproachful look.

Judah’s mouth twitched involuntarily. “Sorry, I know this is no time for jokes. Come on, you’re going to need some shoes.”

Their organization, as planned apparently, conveniently cashed some clothes for me near the exit on the slope of a mountain. When I asked why they couldn’t have brought clothes with them, Judah simply shrugged and said it wasn’t possible to get them that quickly. I was dubious but I wasn’t about to look the horse in the mouth yet again, being clothed once more was too much of a boon. Death’s business card had somehow survived through it all and, honestly, I’d forgotten that I was even carrying it all that time. With clothes, I was able to stash it into a pocket, for which I was more grateful than even the shoes.

Once I was dressed, we moved on towards the city, staying low and sticking to the shadows, but I couldn’t help staring at our destination. Something just seemed off about it, like every time I looked something was different and I couldn’t quite place it. Then I noticed it. “Hey,” I whispered through gritted teeth, “that thing’s moving away from us. The city is moving!”

“Well, duh,” Judah whispered back, “you don’t expect Lucifer to stay put do you? She moves the city where she wants it to go. All the comforts of home, abroad. None of the drawbacks… like vulnerability to assassination attempts. Lucy’s smart enough to know just because something’s impossible doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Speaking of impossible, that’s our gate.”

I followed where Judah was pointing and probably would have soiled myself if I’d had anything to eat since I’d died. The gate was guarded by a legion of Cornugons, each twice the size of the ones in the tunnels.

“What the fuck sort of steroids are those things on?” I grimaced.

“They probably get tougher as they get older, like real dragons. Not a problem, just follow my lead, I’ve got some pull here.” Judah took a deep breath and stepped out into plain view.

I swore but I followed, holding out my hands in the same open-palmed gesture to show we were unarmed. Bob followed reluctantly, holding his hands in the air. It didn’t take long for the Cornugons to spot us, orders were bellowed and a score of them took to wing, headed in our direction.

“Just keep cool and don’t do anything unless I say,” Judah mumbled from the side of his mouth while trying to keep the ingratiating smile on his face, “Bob, you’re with me. Rowe, stay here.”

Judah and Bob took a few more steps forward. The Cornugons hit the ground around us in a circle, menacing us with flaming tridents and pitchforks. The largest of the beasts landed in front of Judah, growling. “What is thy business, traitor? Lucifer’s prohibition protects you from our wrath but we can still bar your entry.”

“Hold, mighty one,” Judah bowed, still keeping his eyes up and his hands in sight, “I bring a gift to you in return for safe passage. Gift enough to bring glory upon your entire squad, and you personally will be showered with praise from on high.”

The Cornugons all shifted uncomfortably, intrigued but not sure whether to believe it.

“What is this gift? SPEAK!”

Judah glanced back at me. “I bring you a stray soul from the planes of Infernus…”

I started to back away, suddenly seeing what a fool I’d been, but the heat of the flaming pitchforks at my back stopped my in my tracks. I was trapped, with nowhere to go, a damned fool.

“…I bring you… HITLER!”

Screaming the name, Judah jumped on Bob and ripped open his scarf, revealing his face for all to see. I gaped at the face, unchanged from the old black and white films complete with the trademark moustache except for a burning Jewish star branded to his forehead.

“HIIIIIIITLER!” The Cornugons all roared as one, exultant. The tridents pulled back as one of them lifted the dead dictator off of his feet with one hand, the huge fist pinning his arms to his sides as he swore vehemently in rapid German.

“YES! Lady Lucifer will reward us all for this one! He has escaped us for so many years…” The sergeant Cornugon babbled continuously for a few minutes as he congratulated himself on such a brilliantly executed recapture of one of Hell’s foremost lost souls and recounted to each of his men EXACTLY how the capture had come about at great danger to themselves. Hitler didn’t seem like that much of a threat to me but I was too busy cursing the fact that I’d never get a chance to deck him personally. “I grant you both passage! Now go before I decide to arrest you as well!”

So much for gratitude.

Hitler swore at us in German as we ran for the open gates before one of the demons decided to close them anyway. I became immediately aware of why I needed shoes, all of the floors and streets in the whole city were made of brass too. Some of the lost souls we passed trying to get through the gates had worn their feet down to charred stumps, screaming with every step. I averted my eyes to find Judah doing the same, tears flooding down his cheeks. I understood; we were powerless to help them.

Despite myself, or maybe it was brought on by the horrors around me, I almost felt a twinge of pity for ‘Bob’. Almost. If just walking through the streets was torture enough for a lost soul, what would the REAL tortures of Hell be like? I didn’t want to know, but if anyone deserved it, it was ‘Bob’.

“For a minute there,” I said as Judah led me down some stairs away from the light of the streets, “I thought you were going to throw me to the sharks. Where in Hell is this place?”

“This is a Taxi,” Judah pointed at a faded sign that was practically illegible, but it had a few yellow flecks of paint on it. Pausing, he wrapped his left fist up in some loose scraps of his robe and pounded on the scalding metal door. “A demon that owes me a favor.”

The door opened and for a moment I didn’t think anyone was there until I looked down and say the short bat-winged imp smoking a fat cigar that had an old taxi driver’s hat perched rakishly atop his horns. “What the fuck do you want this time?” He greeted without preamble. His voice rasped as if he’d spent too many years drinking and smoking. He had a pot belly, so maybe he had.

“What the fuck do you think I want, you mean old bastard? I want a ride to the Palace.” Judah gave back as good as he got.

The little demon groaned before he noticed me. “Who’s the kid?”

“Rowe, meet Digger. Digger, you’ve never seen Rowe in your life.”

Digger grunted. “Ok, I could use the grease with the big shots. Get in here.”

He slammed the door shut behind us and I was amazed at how neat and tidy it was inside. It was actually fit for a family of pigs; with plenty of mud that I suspected was rendered-down mold and fungus like what was growing out of the walls. The heat certainly didn’t seem to bother the fungi. In the middle of the mess was a relatively clean table with several chairs and a rusted, spiked, yellow vehicle that looked to be a cabin strapped to a jet thruster held together by a liberal dose of yellow paint. The front of the vehicle was adorned with spikes that seemed to be coated in dried blood.

“Well, hop in,” Digger kicked the side to open the door before flapping into the pilot’s seat. “Back entrance of Lucifer’s Palace, yeah?”

“That’s right,” Judah agreed as we took our own seats. I dug around the leather looking for a seatbelt but I couldn’t find any.

“Ok, unless you’ve got horns, hold onto your hats.”

I was about to point out that we didn’t have hats when the infernal machine rocketed straight up into the air at a speed that would have broken any mortal neck. I was pushed back into my seat so hard that it felt like I had a cow sitting on my chest. I watched as Judah’s beard was suddenly plastered to his skin as he hung on for dear life.

The first thunk as we barreled into one of the flying creatures that swarmed around Dis made me wince as the insectoid was impaled on the spikes. Digger leaned out and yelled at the top of his lungs, “HEY, I’M DRIVIN’ HERE, I’M DRIVIN’ HERE!”

He had to activate the windscreen wipers after the next thunk to clean the blood off the windshield. Next thing we knew, we were screaming as vision revealed that we were headed straight for one of the towers. Digger span the wheel just in time to bump my side door, denting the bodywork but otherwise allowing us to continue unharmed.

From that point on, I just closed my eyes and hung on for dear life, ignoring all further noises and screams.

We didn’t die again and when the two of us crawled out the door onto land, we both dry retched at the earth.

“Hey, any time Judah,” Digger cackled after us as he took off into the sky.

“Are we safe?” I asked, more wondering if it was ok to open my eyes yet.

“Safe as anywhere in Hell, kid. Come on, you’ve got an appointment to keep and I’m sick of Dis already.”

I noticed the smell before I opened my eyes. The air smelt like rotting flesh. When I did whip up the courage to view the scene, I was relieved that there weren’t any dead bodies lying around. The scent came from the gigantic thorny orchids that enwrapped Lucifer’s palace, their white faces all basking in the sun. We were on a ledge in the middle of a cliff high above the city, the wind trying to pull us into the air by our clothes. But try as I might, I couldn’t see any way off the cliff.

“What do we do now?” I yelled over the wind.

Judah pointed at the cliff face. “Secret door. Don’t touch the plants!”

I nodded and followed his lead, stepping over the foot-thick stems, between the equally long thorns. Judah came to the cliff face first and rapped on the rock in a particular pattern, pausing several times while counting off something under his breath. Finally, the rock flowed apart, opening a dark cavern leading to rough-hewn steps leading up. I entered right behind my companion and the rock-face closed behind me, taking with it the ambient howl of the wind. “At the risk of being obnoxious, what the heck are those flowers?”

Judah grinned. “I don’t mind answering questions, that’s the easy part. They’re Guardian Orchids, they suck up the pollution so that Lucifer’s Palace stays clean and bright. They’re also carnivorous…”

“Are there any herbivores in hell?”

“Oh, yes, the ones who eat evil vegetarians.”

I slapped myself on the forehead. “I had to ask. But wouldn’t that make them carnivores anyway?”

“Not after they get transmuted into plant demons…”

We walked up the steps. And walked, and walked, and walked. Imagine Walking to the top of three Empire State Buildings by the fire stairs, that’s basically what we did with only a few rest stops along the way. To my surprise, there was someone waiting for us at the top.

She was at least seven feet tall and very pretty in a rough, Olympian, way with visible muscles flexing whenever she moved, though they were smoothly feminine rather than those of a female body builder. She was wearing what I can only describe, for lack of better terms, as a suit of glittering chain mail over a black leather shift that ended in a short, flared, skirt that barely covered her bottom. The giantess was also carrying one of the biggest bloody swords I’d ever seen, and I could see the hilts of numerous knives sticking out from almost every possible angle as well as the head of what appeared to be a small (for her) battle axe.

Yes, she was a Heavy Metal artist’s wet dream incarnate.

“Sylvanna,” Judah puffed and nodded, “you’ve got the item I negotiated for?”

The Amazon nodded, producing a bundle of cloth that she quickly unwrapped, revealing a plain wooden spoon. “Fae Spoon,” she added, “feed a thousand men a day, aye. You got ‘im ‘ere den?”

Judah slapped me on the shoulder. “Rowe Welburn, this is my last introduction for you. Meet Sylvanna, Captain of the Hell Maids. She’ll escort you from here on. The spoon?”

Sylvanna handed the spoon over and Judah turned away to head back down the steps.

“Hey,” I called after him, “you be all right to get out of the city?”

He turned and smiled at me. “Thanks for the concern but it’s far easier to get out of this hellhole than it is getting in. I’ll be fine, worry about yourself from now on.”

“Judah,” I stopped him from leaving one last time, “uh, thanks.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Don’t thank me for this, my friend, don’t thank me.”

Sylvanna placed one hand on my shoulder and I let him go down the steps. “Cae here, little man,” the giantess leered at me, her grip on my shoulder strong as any vise, “we’ve got a’ appointment tae keep, don’t you know?”

“Uh, actually, no, Judah was sketchy on the details, Ms. Sylvanna.”

“Well now you know. So move it.”

Her ‘gentle nudges’ span me almost a hundred and eighty degrees, so I was more herded through the golden hallways of the palace than I was led. We emerged into the palace proper through another secret door and began ascending in fits and starts once again without seeing another soul for the entire journey. The halls were carpeted in the finest red cloth I’d ever seen and the walls were decorated with artworks of simply masterful craftsmanship. Every inch of even the most inconsequential nook and cranny was designed to be the most aesthetically pleasing it could be.

I got the impression that we weren’t taking the main halls to our destination, though they were wide enough for two people to walk abreast, it struck me that Lucifer’s Main Hallway would be somewhat grander.

“Captain,” I inquired politely, “do you mind if I ask you where we’re going?”

“No,” came the stern reply.

I waited for the answer but none seemed to be forthcoming. “Um, then, where are we going, Captain?”

“Mind yer own damn business!” Sylvanna smiled evilly. I was starting to feel a pattern to the sense of humor of the denizens of Hell.

After taking so many turns through a veritable maze of corridors, we finally came to a door guarded by two women who could have been Sylvanna’s sisters. I was guessing that these were the fabled Hell Maids that Judah had referred to before, and I had to admit they did look to be a formidable bunch. Of course, I wouldn’t expect any less from Lucifer’s personal guard.

They saluted Sylvanna and their Captain saluted back in turn, still keeping one hand on my shoulder. They didn’t say a word, simply opening the door for our entry. We were immediately assaulted by the dull roar of a crowd and as we entered, I had to keep a tight clamp down on my mouth before I could say or do anything embarrassing or stupid, like screaming like a little girl.

The room was an emporium of demons, a circular room surrounded by tiers of seats divided into boxes. The main floor was occupied by an enormous round table, at the head of which was an enormous throne composed of human bones (proving that the classics are always the best). The rest of the room was carved from glassy obsidian, making the whole room a dark mirror that reflected the images of the occupants endlessly and the space appear infinitely enormous though it couldn’t possibly be so.

Sylvanna guided me down to the front row and into a box labeled with an ornate stone tablet that read: Captain Sylvanna and Guest. The grossly fat demon sitting in the box next to us glared at me with red eyes inset into a pale, blobby, head with no neck and grinned with a maw composed of thousands of rows of needle-like teeth. The rest of him looked like a slug, without legs or arms. “Bring a snack with you, Captain?”

“Baron,” Sylvanna nodded to him, “I’m afraid this one’s off limits. He is here at Lucifer’s request.”

The Baron looked at me and shuddered in ecstasy. “Ooooh, my, the personal whipping boy of Lady Lucifer herself? Who’d you kill for that honor, boy, the President of the United States? Or someone powerful?”

I kept my mouth shut and stared at the floor, trying not to shiver. The Baron was looking at me the same way a hungry man looks at his dinner and I really didn’t like the shift in perspective.

“No nae to torment this one so, Baron,” Sylvanna laughed politely but not like her heart was in it, “well ‘e knows ‘is fate.”

Chuckling, he bade the Captain a good day and turned his attention back to the floor. It took me a few minutes to whip up the courage to look around myself. The galleries were filled with representatives from what must have been thousands of demonic varieties, ordered it seemed by rank from closest to the center table to the outermost ring. Demons tall, short, thin, fat, beautiful and grotesque all rubbed shoulders, smiled like sharks, bickered, fought and gossiped together.

I noticed several ‘familiar’ faces from my readings. Three women in one gallery across from us appeared to be beauties and all wore veils, yet the nest of snakes that was their hair betrayed their origins. Ugly women with wings for arms and taloned bird’s feet perched behind them. Enormous brutes with tiny, leather-masked, heads crowded into yet another gallery as they fingered their heavy blunt instruments of murder. Several demons that appeared to be 18th century aristocrats with razorblades for fingers wandered up and down the stairs looking for their box. Tentacled creatures that boiled and bubbled, constantly growing, dying and reforming themselves over and over babbled incoherently behind us.

And I’m just touching on a few of the highlights. If you want a quick overview of every Demon in hell, spend your life studying demonology and you might have a tiny inkling of what’s in store for you in the afterlife.

Of more immediate concern to me were the figures who sat at the luxurious center table. Directly in front of us I could see the back of one of the most ravishing creatures God had ever unleashed on the world. Her hair was flame red and seemed to writhe of its own accord. Her black gown was scandalous yet I, or any other masculine entity, wasn’t about to complain. The back of her throne had the word ‘LUST’ engraved on it and I had to agree, just from the back she was lust worthy.

Yes, I’m a horn dog, you knew that remember?

She sat on the right hand side of the throne of bone. To the left sat a man in spiked black armor armed with so many weapons that his arsenal eclipsed Sylvanna’s. He was raven-haired and classically Greek in aspect, with that particular shape of the nose made so famous by ancient craftsmen. I first noticed him because he seemed to be waving in our direction and my companion’s reaction was rather painful. Her hand stiffened as it gripped my shoulder until I thought I could hear my bones crackling.

I looked up at her and found her blushing profusely. “Captain, please!” I hissed as quietly as I could.

She looked at me and her grip loosened, fighting back the blush to affect a scowl. “Don’t whine, it wae just a little squeeze, meat!” She leaned in close to my ear. “Mention that to anyone and I’ll snap your neck. It won’t kill you, but you’d be amazed how inconvenient that can be fer a century or two.”

I’d never intended to ever piss off Captain Sylvanna and I resolved in that moment to never even contemplate it for the rest of eternity, assuming I’d last that long.

Next to the armored Greek warrior were two devils that could have been brothers. Both were handsome men in dark business suits. One, however, was thinner than the other, and seemed slightly feminine like the Japanese ideal of the ‘bishounen’ or ‘beautiful boy’. His wings were jet black like a raven’s and the halo that hung over his small horns crackled with black energy. The other was by no means fat, just thicker and more heavily muscled. His body and face was all masculine, hard edged and strong. His horns were much larger and ornate, however, and he lacked the black halo over his head. His wings were a mottled grey, much like a pigeon’s.

The final pair that completed the arc of the circle were mismatched. The first appeared to be nothing more than a large furry sack with eyes, like a possessed hand puppet only on a larger scale. It wheezed with every breath, two tiny red eyes glaring out from under the fur over an enormous mouth that seemed to take up the rest of its bulk. The last of the Demon Princes at the table was asleep; his snores more than a little annoying to his compatriots on either side. The body of the demon was naked, corpse-like and shrunken. Matted grey hair encapsulated him like a cocoon so that the only real details that could be made out were his thinness and the ghastly, featureless, face. Jutting from the masses of hair were a great many ragged, brown, bone spikes that looked like teeth. Staring at the form, I realized that I was unconsciously labeling the demon as a ‘him’ for no valid reason; there was nothing to indicate the creature’s gender either way.

“Who are these… things?” I whispered to the Captain. I was rewarded for my curiosity with another bone-cracking squeeze. “Show sae respect fer your betters, puny one. They be Demon Princes and Princesses of Hell, ‘an members of the current Council of Hell, yer betters. Dae red-haired one in front of us be Lillith, Princess of the Succubae. Next to her, the furred one, is Haagenti, Prince of Gluttony. Then Meserach, Princess of Sloth, be the spiky one. The horned angel with the grey wings is Mammon, Prince of Greed, along with his hated brother and compatriot, Asmodeus, Prince of Envy. Between those two, they run the day-to-day business of damnation.”

“And the… Greek gentleman in armor?”

“Ares,” Sylvanna spat, “Demon Prince of War. And yae, before ye ask, ‘ees used to be the Greek God of War before the Amalgamtion.”

I gulped. “These are all the Demon Princes of Hell?”

Syl snorted. “Nae, not by a long shot, just the ones currently called into council. Lady Lucifer likes to keep an iron grip on Hell’s dealings and between these six Princes and Princesses there’s not much going on in Hell they don’t know about or have influence over. About the only real big-shots that ain’t here are Baal, Mab and Kronos, the former two because they’ve been exiled to their Precincts, the latter because the Demon Prince of Entropy hae better things to do… harken, she comes.”

Two giant double doors faded into existence from nowhere. The golden portal was covered in frescoes that depicted a great angel standing triumphant over a field of the dead holding the severed head of an old, bearded, man aloft. The doors cracked open and pure white light spilled into the room. Emerging from that light was a robed figure, tall and thin swathed in red and black silks that trailed behind him as he poled himself forward with a black staff capped with skulls. Many prehensile tentacles peeked out from under his volumous sleeves rather than hands or fingers. His head was split in two, mounted on separate necks so that one insectoid eye could be angled in whatever direction he required. One half of his face was fixed in a permanent rictus grin, the other frozen in a heart-wrenching frown.

“The Demiurge,” Sylvanna identified the newcomer to me, “the Master of Ceremony.”

He raised his staff and bashed the butt against the obsidian tiles, setting the skulls atop it to screaming. He certainly knew how to attract attention; the whole auditorium went dead quiet.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Barons and Baronesses, Counts and Countesses, Dukes and Duchesses and Great and Noble Princes and Princesses. All rise for Her Hellish Majesty, Little Horn, The Lightbringer, The Morning Star, LADY LUCIFER, SATAN!”

Everyone stood as a cold wind whipped through the room. Reality itself seemed to shudder as a black speck formed over the throne of bones at the head of the central table. The speck expanded into a globe of night and stars from which SHE descended.

She was a goddess incarnate. Her very from was perfection itself, the ultimate beauty of which all others, mortal and immortal, are pale shadows. She was so beautiful, so perfect, her bearing so charismatic and confident that she made me feel inadequate and small. She was fire and light and all things to all men and her very glance could make the most devout homophobe a raving lesbian. Try to imagine the most beautiful woman, your perfect mate, and then try to imagine something better. That is Lady Lucifer, always better than your imagination.

I can tell you that she was all woman, perfection of form incarnate. I can also say that she was a blonde and that her pure white wings shed a golden light over the entire assembly. She wore a gown of red that looked like it could be made of blood and rubies, transparent yet refractive enough to only hint at the detail beneath. What I cannot give you is a true description; she simply defies all conventions of language.

She floated down onto the Throne of Bone as we all stared at her in awe, even the Princes and Princesses close by. I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest. It was much later that I discovered that this wasn’t the full effect of Lady Lucifer’s majesty, not by a long shot, in fact she was toning it down out of consideration for her lessers. She crossed her long legs which the gown displayed to full view and dimmed her radiance down to a level more manageable for conversation.

She paused for a minute, looking over all of us standing before her, taking in every face with a quick glace. As her eyes passed over me, I thought I saw her mouth crook into an amused smirk, but maybe I was hallucinating. I fought very hard not to fidget in that long moment as Lady Lucifer reveled in her power for the crowd’s benefit before she addressed us. “Greetings, everyone, please be seated.”

There was a collective outburst of breath as the crowd lowered themselves back into their seats. I think, for a moment, every being in the room, mortal or demon, wondered if she was going to allow us to sit or order all our executions on a flight of whimsy.

“Now,” Lady Lucifer clicked her red talons at the Demiurge behind her, “what’s the first item on the agenda?”

“Your Hellish Majesty, Lord Ares would like to make his report.”

“Oh, goodie,” Lucifer clapped her hands like an eager schoolgirl, “are the Cornugons panning out for you, dear?”

Ares smiled and stood. “Lords and Ladies, I am pleased to report that the new Cornugon Template has been so successful in battlefield trials, thanks to the combined efforts of Myself, Lady Lucifer, Lady Tiamat and Lord Vapula, we are looking to roll out into full production by the end of the century. For those of you who have come in late, the Cornugon is a melding of the old Calabite template with Draconic power, creating a soldier that not only has vast destructive potential, but has the intelligence to use such power effectively and precisely…”

Ares’ speech quickly devolved into reports on mock battles and troop movements as well as deployment strategies in and around the City of Dis. From there he moved on to mortal affairs centering on African and Middle Eastern conflicts, particularly the Iraq war and his agent’s efforts to destabilize the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis.

“My only ongoing concern,” Ares came to in the end, “is that the commercialization of the American Army will slowly kill their fighting spirit.”

Mammon sighed and stood. “If I may address this concern once more, the export of luxury products for use by soldiers benefits both of our organizations by bringing the perview of supply trains into the corporate business structure and aiding in recruitment…”

“That may be, but it’s no way to fight a war,” Ares scowled, “what happened to discipline and deprivation? The will to win? These kids are getting the crap blown out of them by IEDs then going home to eat ice cream. ICE CREAM!”

Sylvanna snorted.

“I understand my colleague’s purist definition of war, but civilization has come a long way since the time of the Spartans…”

“One of the greatest axioms of war,” Ares interrupted, “is that an army fights on its stomach. If future conflicts must rely on civilian transportation to bring soldiers their food then the whole point of war loses its meaning. War is about suffering and hardship and pain and blood and fighting through all of it in order to emerge victorious! Ice cream is not a hardship; a warrior should drink the blood of his enemies and feast upon their flesh!”

There were several cheers from the audience, including Sylvanna, while Haagenti stood up. “I agree with Lord Ares on this point, as I have made well known in the past. The development of a warrior class amongst the humans trained to eat their slain enemies would promote both the image of War and Gluttony. While I usually have no problem with the distribution of luxury food items to anyone, soldiers do not tend to grow fat and complacent on such things, at least not to the extent that I would like.”

Lady Lucifer held up her hand and her congregation immediately fell silent. “I understand your concern, Lord Ares, but I will point out that this phenomenon is limited to the American army and that humans by and large, particularly in this day and age, look down upon cannibalism. Once democracy falls by the wayside once more on Earth and humanity turns back to the old ways we can consider the creation of a new warrior class but until then, I’m willing to allow Mammon to continue his experiments with the Americans. Next on the agenda?”

The Demiurge cleared his throat. “The recent increase in Bathorians, Lady Lillith has more to report on the subject.”

Lillith stood and nodded to Lady Lucifer, who returned a genuine smile. “My friends, my Succubae have been bringing back increasingly alarming reports of nighttime competition from rogue elements on Earth. Over the last year, reports of encounters with Bathorians have been on a steady increase, indicating that a powerful Demon is involved. Recent inquiries have led us to believe that this is not a plot hatched in Hell, oh no, but one placed into motion by an as yet unidentified Rogue.”

A murmur rippled through the crowd.

“For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bathorians, allow me to give you a quick overview. Bathorians are monsters created from mortals originally by the Demon Prince of Vanity, in a ritual that includes bathing in the sponsoring demon’s blood. The mortal, male or female, emerges from the ritual as a beautiful woman with a thirst for blood and a hunger for flesh that combines the worst aspects of Vampires and Ghouls, though a Bathorian is not a member of the Undead. Unlike Vampires these creatures cannot hide amongst the general population taking a little blood at any one time, nor can they feed on the flesh of the interred dead in the manner of Ghouls, which makes them dangerously indiscreet. Vampires in particular despise the Bathorians, both as a mockery of their own curse and as competition for food and resources.

“The first Bathorians were, of course, Elizabeth Bathory and her handmaidens. Through their executions we know that if a Bathorian is cut off from the sponsoring Demon’s power and is unable to anoint themselves with a Demon’s blood, the strength of the ritual fades and the Bathorian becomes mortal once more and will die soon after. In order to kill a Bathorian in her prime, however, it is necessary to remove their fingers or hands before burning their bodies to ash. Otherwise, like Vampires, they will regenerate to full strength in a matter of days.

“Bathorians are always exquisitely beautiful women. The ritual perfects their bodies and grants them a measure of unholy power, gifting them with unnatural strength and dexterity. In addition, they can manifest rending maws of fangs anywhere on their bodies, though their own mouths seem to be a favorite tactic. The Bathorian’s exquisite beauty and vanity means that they do not blend in well with normal humans and are more likely to set themselves up in industries where beauty isn’t as uncommon, such as the fashion or film industries.

“The current outbreak seems to be centered around the New York area and Manhattan Island. While a coven of Bathorians is usually a small group of 3 to 6 members centered around a single Demon, this group of Bathorians is actively recruiting, indicating that they have the backing of either a single demon of immense power or several demons at once.

“Despite our best efforts, my Succubae have been unable to penetrate deep into the organization due to a complex labyrinth of cut-offs and misdirection as well as magical assistance. In addition, several of the Bathorians have managed to infiltrate both the Hellish and Heavenly power structures, so removal while maintaining secrecy has become that much harder.

“Now, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Lillith continued, “before we start throwing mud and placing blame, I would like to point out that even Lady Lucifer’s much-vaunted Sedu have been unable to unearth any more than my Succubae. And my daughters have risked much to gain what little information we have.”

“It is still intolerable,” Mammon snorted, “I was going to bring this issue up myself. These Bathorians are muscling in on corporate business, using their charms to lead the mortal thralls on both sides astray. Diabolical fashionistas are selling their Taiwanese sweatshops to Marc’s goons, who in turn aren’t doing anything to improve the lot of their employees. They’re disrupting lines of communication. It’s like the whole industry’s gone mad. And I can’t make any overtures to their group without pissing off the Vampires. Seriously, if I wasn’t holding them back, there’d be a blood war in the streets! The Vamps are going rabid.”

Haagenti shrugged. “Can’t we just assassinate them and get it over with?”

Ares shook his head. “A bloodbath on that scale would be noticed.”

“Particularly considering that several of the Bathorians are local celebrities,” Lillith added, “unlike Vampires who have heavy restrictions to their movements which prevent them from taking the public eye for the most part; Bathorians can work during the day. One of them is even a highly placed news reporter.”

“Disturbing,” Lady Lucifer pouted, “I think we need Orcus and Belial in on this. Demiurge, if you please.”

The Demiurge closed his eyes for a moment, then banged his staff on the ground again. “Would the galleries please rise to greet Belial, Lord of the Incubi, Prince of Vanity and Patron of Vampires! Please also welcome the artist formerly known as Prince Hades…”

“Demiurge,” Lady Lucifer said the one word which was warning enough.

“Pardon me. Please also welcome Orcus, Prince of the Undead!”

The two new figures that appeared seated at the table on slightly smaller thrones that were brought for them by a brace of Imps were as mismatched as Haagenti and Meserach. Belial was the living embodiment of tall, dark and handsome while Orcus appeared as an obese humanoid goat. An angry humanoid goat.

“Lady Lucifer,” Orcus growled, “I demand that your major domo be thrown into the pits for a tenday for that remark!”

“Oh, please,” Lady Lucifer rolled her eyes, “do lighten up, Prince Orcus, there are more important matters to discuss than your vanity. Speaking of which, I did think that your old form is more suitable to table negotiations…”

Scowling, Orcus shook himself. His form seemed to shrink down into hard muscles and his snout receded into a handsome Greek face. Ares smiled. “Good to see you again, old boy, we should have a drink sometime and reminisce.”

Orcus grinned back. “Good old times. Now, what’s the problem?”

“We were just discussing this new outbreak of Bathorians…”

Belial growled. “Oh, that lot. My Vampires have been yelling and screaming at me to do something for months. I keep saying back ‘hey, if you can’t deal with competition yourselves…’ but do they listen? No, they seem to be convinced that this is all somehow MY fault. Like I’ve got juice over every other Demon in creation…”

“Bitch sessions aside,” Asmodeus scowled, “the effectiveness that these Bathorians are displaying is becoming quite alarming. That an operation of this scale to disrupt the dealings of both Heaven and Hell in New York, of all places, means that there has either been a global breakdown in competency OR there is an insider highly placed in the command structure facilitating the plot. I propose that all powers in New York be frozen and my secret police take charge of the investigation…”

Mammon was halfway out of his seat, eyes bugging out. “FREEZE NEW YORK OPERATIONS? Are you mad? You’ll plunge the world economy into a depression! Governments would have to regulate whole Corporations, it’s unthinkable! People will stop trusting big business! You’ll set back the damnation of humanity by centuries!”

“I agree with Mammon,” Lady Lucifer interrupted before things could get bloody, “complete intercession would be an overreaction at this point. These Bathorians are a thorn in our sides, not a machete. Has anyone contacted Marc as yet?”

Mammon sank back into his chair. “I refuse to deal with that puffed-up smidgen of blowfish shit.”

Lady Lucifer sighed. “Lillith, perhaps you’d like to send the Archangel Marc a delectable message from me? Suggest a little inter-departmental co-operation on this matter? Reassure him that these Bathorians have nothing to do with the Hierarchy of Hell and a few Angels of Assassination might be advisable under the circumstances. Maybe they’ll take care of the whole mess for us.”

“As you wish, your Hellish Majesty,” Lady Lillith nodded her head.

“Well, then,” Lady Lucifer stood, prompting the rest of the assembly to stand as well, “I suggest that we all make this matter our top priority, the disruption of Earthly Affairs cannot be tolerated. I suggest we reconvene in two days, and I want to hear some plans of action at the very least. These Bathorians need to make contact with their Demonic master every so often, one of them is going to slip up sometime, just be sure that your agents are there to catch the ball when they do. Dismissed.”

The Princes of Hell teleported away for the most part; except for Meserach who had to be carried away in a stretcher, still asleep. Sylvanna dragged me to my feet but we waited for the rest of the gathering to disperse before she led me through the golden doors where the Demiurge was waiting.

I was blinded by the light for a moment before it faded, revealing a circular bedroom with no windows or doors leading out. Archways connected the enormous marble-and-gold bedroom to the rest of the royal apartment, but there didn’t seem to be any other way in or out other than the golden doors that weren’t inset into any wall. Once they closed behind us, they faded out of existence.

“Lady Lucifer still has some business, but she has promised to be with you presently, Captain,” the Demiurge bowed, backing away through the golden doors, “please take a seat.”

The golden gateway faded out of existence after it was closed, leaving no trace of its presence behind. The chambers were each dominated by some piece of furniture. The orgy-sized bed took up one end of the central room while the other end was taken up by a dining table laden with food. My stomach couldn’t help but rumble at the delicious smells, freshly baked bread, sweat meats, sizzling pork, fruit platters chilled by bowls of ice, tubs of jam and butter, cream and honey, fresh seafood and charred beef. I sat at the table as I was bid, but placed my fingers under my butt to stop myself from eating anything. Sylvanna wasn’t so inhibited, ripping off a turkey leg and gnawing down.

She gave me the evil eye. “What’s the matter, Lady Lucifer’s hospitality not good enough for you?”

“No, it’s magnificent, but I’ve read far too many stories where a mere mortal dared to presume to partake of a feast and was doomed for his temerity. Call me overly cautious, but I’d rather not play any games until I know the rules.”

“HA!” She laughed. “If’n yer already here, trust me you’re already doomed, little man. This is Hell, Lady Lucifer makes the rules, and she can change them on you in the blink of an eye. Think about this logically for a second. Let’s say fer argument’s sake that Lady Lucifer wants to play some sort of elaborate mind game with you in which she conjures up some sort of insult to her personally and takes it out on you. If she wanted to do that, she’s got you coming both ways. If you eat, she’ll take offense at your presumption; if you don’t eat she’ll take offense at the fact that her gift wasn’t good enough for you. This is all assuming that she actually needs an excuse to do anything to you, which she doesn’t.”

Feeling a little childish, I reached out and took a slice of steaming bread and nibbled on one of the corners, which my companion found even funnier. I ignored her and nibbled, praying that this wasn’t all some sort of elaborate trick to re-damn my soul… even to me that sounded silly, but I was getting that paranoid.

“So,” I asked between nibbles, “you’ll forgive me but the Princes of Hell didn’t seem all that… impressive… I mean, not that they weren’t terrifying and all that but I expected them to be a bit…”

“More fearsome,” Sylvanna nodded, “don’t worry your pretty little head, squirt. The Princes were toning it down for the plebs.”

“Something tells me that their little family isn’t quite so loving as it appears. The Demiurge and Orcus don’t seem to be on the best of terms.”

Sylvanna grunted. “They’ve got their allies and enemies amongst themselves. The Demiurge and Orcus have a feud on that’s been going for as long as anyone can remember. Asmodeus and Mammon work together constantly, and you know what they say about familiarity. Ares and Lillith are allies and they have Lady Lucifer’s backing, so they keep the disparate elements on track. Haagenti sits back and waits for an opportunity to tip the scales in his favor, or at least keep them level. Meserach isn’t an issue, but SOMEONE has to be the Prince of Sloth.”

“That’s one sin I’ve never understood. It seems like such a waste.”

“Well, back in the day it was very important,” Sylvanna disagreed, “Sloth was the sin of being overly sad and grumpy, particularly in public. By being depressed or discontent with your lot in life, it was thought that you were turning a blind eye to the gifts of the guy upstairs. These days, it represents out-and-out laziness, the failure to achieve your full potential and the inability to take a risk for probable gain. TV and video games now fall under Meserach’s purview and, believe me, is Mammon pissed about that. He did all the work, threw billions into development, and Meserach steals the whole thing without even lifting a finger. The narcoleptic bitch has style, I’ll give her that.”

“Why doesn’t he just kill her?”

“HA! Now yer thinking like a Devil. The Demon that kills the Princess of Sloth will be destroyed in turn and she makes sure that everyone knows it. Nobody dares lift a finger against her, not even Haagenti who would just love to snap her up in her sleep. But hell, like I said, who wants to be the Prince of Sloth anyway?”

“I don’t know,” Lady Lucifer rebutted, “Sloth is one of my favorite sins.”

Both of us did a double-take. One moment, Lady Lucifer wasn’t sitting at the head of the table and suddenly she was there, picking a grape off the fruit platter. Sylvanna dropped her food, shot to her feet and saluted immediately. I stopped chewing.

“For example,” Lucifer continued, delicately savoring the taste of her grape, “even in the old days, if one is not discontent then one has no motivation. If one is never displeased with anything, one is nothing but a mindless drone to be used and abused by those in power. If you term Sloth as an overwhelming wave of discontent and depression, well, maybe the Slothful have something to be depressed about. If you look upon Sloth as laziness taken to the next level, rather than look at the Slothful in question, why not look at their circumstances? Life, all life, on Earth and beyond is based around one thing: killing time. Some people come to the realization that climbing the highest mountain and fording every stream are really useless and hollow gestures, nothing more than a cry for attention in a world that worships spectacle over substance. Many men and women have toiled over the years to cure cancer, rid the world of poverty and stop wars, and they will be nothing more in the end than a footnote in history.”

Her spiel caused my brow to furrow. “Wait a tick, are you saying that there’s nothing in the world worth doing? That we’re doomed to die anyway, so why even try to better ourselves? That’s poppycock!”

Lucifer then did something that rearranged reality on me once more, causing the ground underneath my feet to lurch and the world to spin around me. Lady Lucifer, The Adversary, giggled like a schoolgirl. “Oh, I knew you were going to be such fun! Actually, no, I don’t really believe in the Slothful philosophy. I find that all sins are best indulged in moderation. After all, if I was too Slothful, I could never enjoy Wrath, Lust, Greed, Gluttony… gluttony is actually a lot of work, you know… Vanity, oh how I love Vanity. Between Vanity and Sloth, I’ve got the mortal world coming and going. Do you know how many Angels fall for Vanity and Pride? Oh, look at me, look at me, look at all the great works I’ve done, I’m so good, I’m so brilliant, I’m God’s number one!”

I couldn’t help myself, it just came out. “And you should know.”

Lady Lucifer stopped eating her grape. Sylvanna had gone very still. I gulped down a particularly dry hunk of my bread. The moment of tension seemed to drag out, then Lady Lucifer crushed the grape between her teeth and time seemed to start again. “That’s a common misconception. I didn’t Descend for Vanity or Pride, I chose exile of my own free will.”

“If my Sunday school recollections serve me right, I believe it was Michael that kicked you out on your ear.”

“Your memory’s fine, it’s the Bible that’s faulty.”

I blinked. “Do you really expect me to believe someone widely known as the King… er, Queen of Lies? Particularly about a detail like that?”

Lucifer laughed, the seductive peels echoing throughout the chambers. “My dear boy, do you really think the real danger of facing Satan is unknotting my lies? Any backyard huckster can lie, I command legions of the best liars in the universe, but do you think that mere lies could really convince Angels to follow my banner in the war against God? No, little one, it wasn’t lies. My names, the Lightbringer, the Morning Star, these titles I was given as the Archangel of Truth. God gave me the gift of Truth, the knowledge of the Truth of all things, even HIS Truth. He created me to be the greatest Angel, and this fact is acknowledged by God and all the other Angels. I love Him with all my heart and soul BUT the Truth is not always Good or Right. Sometimes, the Truth is a terrible burden to bear, which was why I had to be the strongest of my brethren so that I could withstand the knowledge I held. Armed with that knowledge and love, I was God’s right hand…”

Her eyes went glassy, as if she were looking at things that had happened millennia ago. I was rapt by her manner, the lilt of her voice, the raw emotion, an irresistible wave of deadly charisma threatening to sweep my mind away with its sheer power.

“In his name, I slaughtered entire races. This very city was once populated by the Efreet, a powerful race related to the Djinn, and I murdered every man, woman and child. At some point in that escapade, I started seeing things more clearly. The Efreet were evil, by and large, but what of their children? What of the few rebellious ones who could have one day overthrown their tyrants? But no, God said kill, and I killed with his blessing. Covered in the blood of the innocent, I realized that I could have said no.”

She paused for a time, then took a sip of her drink. When she looked at me again, she smiled graciously. “And that, dear one, is how one indulges in Vanity.”

I shook my head, trying to straighten out the tangle my thoughts had gotten into. “Hang on, hang on, you can’t just stop the story there! How did you manage to convince the other Angels to follow you? I don’t get it.”

“Why, I told them the Truth, of course!” Lucifer grinned. “Even as His creations are a reflection of him, so too is He reflected in his creations. God isn’t purely good because a purely good being doesn’t have free will. All things are possible for God, that’s part and parcel of what he is, he has the capacity for both great good and great evil, just like the rest of us. The majority of the Angels had toiled and labored under the notion that they were unfailingly right in following God no matter what he asked of them. Discovering that God wasn’t pure came as quite a shock. One thing led to another and they brought the infallibility of God into question and once they did that… the Truth, you see, is a dangerous weapon. Angels can sniff out lies, which are easily dismissed. The Truth, however, cuts to the core of your being. All those stories about me in the popular media are utter trash. When someone deals with me, I give them exactly what they ask for, and I always fulfill the spirit of any contract. Honestly, why bother lying? What is gold to me? What is mortal success? What is power? I have an infinite amount of it all. And all I have to do to make friends is share a bit of it out. Nothing simpler! And all I want in return is loyalty, is that such a hard thing? It seems to be these days. Take some advice from me, Rowe; I can make your afterlife a Heaven or a Hell, which one is YOUR choice now.”

I felt numb. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to shunt all my questions aside. “Lets cut to the chase, what is it that you want from me?”

Lady Lucifer smiled. “Good, I like to get right to the point. Rowe, I’ve been watching you. Don’t feel flattered, I watch a lot of people, but I have found something in you that I haven’t seen very many times before. You disavowed your faith because you thought that was the right thing to do and then you proceeded to act for the most part in a completely moral and upstanding manner. Despite the womanizing, you never went after a woman you knew to be married, and you always broke off any relationship with a woman if you discovered that she was being unfaithful. Tell me, if you don’t believe in the sanctity of marriage, why?”

I shrugged. “It’s a betrayal. If you marry someone, you give your word to be a part of their lives. Sacred or not, if you give your word and trust to another without reservation and taking great risk to yourself, that word should be honored.”

“Which is why I’ve brought you here, Rowe, you shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be here, yet you are here in Hell. It is very rare that a soul slips through the cracks, so rare that it drew my eye, but refusing Eternal Bliss truly shocked me.”

I gave an involuntary shudder.

“See?” Lucifer continued. “The idea of it sickens you, doesn’t it? Honestly, it sickens me too, and Angels have the temerity to rail about Sloth, to then shunt aside good souls while there’s still work to be doing, because not all souls are acceptable candidates for Angelhood, oh no! The point to all this, Rowe Welburn, is that what I want and what I need is your loyalty. I’m giving you a choice. I want you to mark that I don’t have to give you anything, I rule in Hell and I can take what I want. Pledge to serve me in any way I see fit or wander Hell unmolested as one of the Cursed.”

I took a deep breath and counted to ten. “Wow. That’s a big decision. I mean, I don’t know all of the facts.”

“Then ask away,” Lady Lucifer smiled patiently, “we’ve got all of eternity.”

“All right, then. You’ll excuse me but, by all accounts, Devils are rather evil.”

Lucifer sighed. “We do get such bad press. Let’s go back to the issue of Free Will. Everyone has it in Creation, you know, even Demons and Devils, with very few exceptions. Devils, despite our rebellion, play a vital role in the scheme of things. Look at things objectively, like God does by the way. What do we do? We punish the wicked and we tempt mortals. We do not forcibly drag mortals into Hell; we merely provide them with an outlet for the evil that already exists inside them. Those that give into temptation are culled and taught the errors of their ways in Hell. That is the official version of what we do, but there’s a flip side to that. What about the souls which come to us who are undeserving of their fates? Is Adultery worth an eternity of pain and torment? The theft of a loaf of bread when the thief is starving? Particularly when the rules are so ambiguous that they may or may not even exist, how can one make an informed moral choice if they haven’t been taught what morality is? Why would anyone act morally when to do so brings no reward? Survival is the key thought on every living being’s mind, survive and thrive is their only commandment. What do you think I do with those souls who are undeserving of their fate, like you?”

I didn’t have a clue. I think she read it on my face.

“Why, I make them into Demons, dear one,” Lucifer grinned, “and they are the best material for it as well. The tortured become the torturers. I love the sweet poetic irony of it. I empower those whom God has turned his back upon. Here, let me show you something.”

She hopped lightly to her feet and literally skipped over to my side, dragging me out of the chair and maneuvering me into another chamber, this one dominated by a crystal clear pool. Waving her hand, the pool shimmered and an image took the place of the surface.

The pool depicted a crowd of naked women running across a dark desert. I had to blink as the image zoomed into one woman in particular who kept looked back over her shoulder in terror. She was bald with a tattoo of a black sun on the back of her head.

“T-th-th-th-that’s…” I gasped. ‘He’ now sported immense breasts, easily a DD cup, and wide, child-bearing, hips. In fact, the whole crowd looked like they’d just stepped out of a porn film.

“Yep!” Lucifer snickered. “That’s Neil Ferguson, the rapist you interrupted before one of my Valkyries could get her hooks into him. That wasn’t his first rape by a long shot, he got sent straight into the breeding pens without so much as a single appeal.”

“Breeding pens, what do you…” I stopped when the thing that was chasing them came into the scene, and I knew exactly what she meant by breeding pens. The demon was an enormous, worm-like, penis that slithered and undulated across the ground. With a great lurch, it threw itself forward through the air faster than the crowd of girls could run and I watched as ‘Neil’ was knocked down underneath it, pinned. I couldn’t believe it when the thing started to nuzzle her crotch, it was three times her size, there was no way it could hope to penetrate! Then I noticed the tip starting to shrink, compacting itself to force its way inside her. I looked away when she started to scream as the enormous wang distended her beyond anything a normal woman could hope to accommodate.

“Please, turn it off,” I begged.

She didn’t. “She raped, brutalized and murdered twelve women, one of them only fourteen. Are you asking me to stop her torture?”

I shook my head. “No, he deserves it, I’m asking you to turn off the TV… er, the pool, whatever that thing is! I know logically that’s Neil whatever his name is and I know what he did but I can’t watch that, please.”

Smiling, she dismissed the image. “Maybe you need a change of pace. How about a little slice of Heaven, this should prove enlightening.”

As the image shimmered into view I collapsed to the floor and coughed up the majority of the bread that I’d managed to consume. “BLOODY HELL! That can’t be Heaven!”

“Oh, but it is,” Lucifer smiled, “rather beautiful, really. Pedophiles who resist their urges in life get to play with the Enfants Terrible, the precocious child Angels, for all eternity. When they’re not playing with their ‘mommies and daddies’, the Enfants hunt down all those who have ever harmed a child on Earth and send them down here for punishment. Like so…”

She waved her hand again and the scene changed to something similar yet far, far more grotesque. I fell back onto the floor again but I didn’t have anything left to regurgitate.

“I’ll give you three guesses which one’s the pedophile and the first two don’t count. For added spice, the Devil here, the one with the spiked member, was a molested child in life who allowed the experience to ruin his future as well.”

“TURN IT OFF!” I begged, unashamedly.

Lucifer tisked. “Maybe one day you’ll learn to love Justice the way I do. Ok, how about something more to your liking?”

Another wave of her hand brought fourth the image of a man being pleasured by seven exquisitely beautiful women at once. Lorilei and Lucifer were beautiful, but it was beauty of the dangerous variety. These women were gentle, safe and pliable. It wasn’t as bad as the scenes before, but they still made me want to gag. I’d never been able to stomach Marylyn Monroe as a starlet, no matter how reputedly intelligent she was off screen. Her on-screen persona had those dead, vacant, eyes that were frankly chilling. Give me a confident, competent, woman any time. These women had that same wide-eyed vacancy, doe’s eyes in more way than one. Gentle but stupid.

“This is Mohammed’s Heaven for the Martyrs,” Lucifer explained, “pleasured for eternity by seven celestial virgins. And yes, they stay virgins no matter how much they do that particular position. Regretting not signing up with the other side?”

I shook my head. “Look at them… they’re empty.”

Lucifer nodded. “Yes, Houris aren’t known as Angels of Intelligence. Actually, they’re completely useless outside the bedroom. But then, not every man in the world likes to be challenged by their lovers. In fact, the majority of men prefer nice, compliant, women who rely on them for a reason to live. Humans can make me sick.”

I had to agree with her there.

“All right, then, how about something more visceral?” She waved her hand and the calm, pastoral, scene was replaced by a field of blood and carnage far removed from the limited conflicts of modern times. “Valhalla, the Heaven of departed warriors who love battle the most. They get to have a big, bloody, brawl every day, then all the dead regenerate by dusk so they can carouse all night, then they march out into the wilderness once more to cut each other up into bloody chunks again. All rather pointless, really.”

I covered my mouth, on the verge of retching again. “And the big guy lets them get away with this?”

“Get away with it? He endorses it! Love of battle isn’t a sin, you know. ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is one of the most amended commandments in the entire constitution! Angels kill a lot, they kill Rogues, they kill demons, they kill inconvenient mortals, they kill monsters, they kill each other… that’s the point of this entire exercise, the Angels really aren’t better than us. Heck, we are Angels! I still have rank in Heaven, you know, God never rescinded it. And He’s ordered more than his fair share of genocides. Sodom and Gomorra? 90% of the Book of Genesis? All true. The Book of Job? He persecuted that poor man for being faithful to him.”

“Do as I say, not as I do. I’m familiar with that principle,” I nodded. “I have to ask, though, if you’re still welcome back up there, what keeps you down here? Something tells me that Byron didn’t hit the mark.”

Lucifer snorted. “Byron and Dante were toads. They’d have it that my Pride is what keeps me in Hell, but no, that’s not right. What keeps me down here is the Truth, and I can’t ignore my Truth. Which brings us to why you’re going to accept my offer.”

I blinked. “Oh?”

“You said it yourself,” she smiled, stroking my cheek, “you won’t be useless for anybody. As long as you’re still on the field, you still have a chance to stake a claim in the big game. If you retire and wash your hands of the whole lot of it then you will be useless to everyone. It’d really be a form of suicide, wouldn’t it?”

“You’re right,” I growled, “the truth is a lot more painful, isn’t it?” She waited as I sank to one knee, patient as ever. “I pledge my loyalty to you, Lady Lucifer. I am yours to do with as you see fit.”

“YAY! I win again!” She hopped into the air and clapped her hands girlishly. “Whatever I want? Ok, Sylvanna, throw him into the pits!”

“Yes, your Hellish Majesty!”

I spluttered as Sylvanna grasped me by the neck. “B-b-b-b-b-b-b…”

“Wait a minute, Syl.” Grinning, Lady Lucifer leered at me nose to nose. Stroking my cheek with one hand she took a deep breath…

“PSYKE!” She shouted, flicking my nose with her claw. “Sheesh, you really think I’d go through all that for THAT joke? Puh-leeeeze…”

She picked me up and hugged me, squeezing me so hard that I thought my head was going to pop like a pimple. “Can’t… breathe…”

She let go suddenly. “What are you talking about? You don’t have to breathe at all, silly! Its ok, Captain, you can go now. See if you can find that Lorilei for me, I want a personal report on these bloody Bathorians by tomorrow, before council reconvenes.”

“Yes, your Hellish Majesty!” Sylvanna snapped to attention, then summoned the golden door and departed.

“Best Captain I ever had,” Lucifer smiled, still clutching me around the shoulders (not that I was complaining), “ok, I think I know what I’m going to do with you now. Come on.”

She practically dragged me into one of the other chambers. I had to gape at the sheer size of it. The room was literally endless, with a horizon and everything. Stacked in haphazard lines were rows and rows of books seemingly without labels or any other form of order to them. Raising her hand and snapping her fingers, we waited for several minutes before an enormous leather-bound book flapped its way into her hand.

“Dear one, this book holds the names and a brief description of all the different types of Devils in Hell. From tomorrow morning, you’ll have two days to study this book and use the scrying pool to decide which sort of Devil you wish to become. Once your choice is made, I’ll transfigure you into a form that will be of better service to me than your current one, ok?”

“Um,” I cocked my head to one side, perplexed, “tomorrow? What are we going to be doing tonight?”

Grinning, she lent over to give me a burning kiss on the cheek. “Tonight, we’re going to bed.”

No, I did not have sex with Satan.

If you look at the facts, you’ll see how ludicrous the suggestion is. Look at it from Lucifer’s point of view, would you take a hamster to bed with you for sex? Look at it from my point of view, could you get it up sleeping with the second most perfect being in the universe? Or, alternatively, could you even consider sex when you’re scared shitless of your partner? Inadequate? You don’t know the meaning of the word, my friends.

No, I wasn’t Lucifer’s sex toy, I was a teddy bear. She dragged me into bed like she was a six year old kid and I was the stuffed toy and she promptly went to sleep hugging me from behind. I lay awake the whole night, wondering how long it’d be before she capriciously decided to rip my head off with her sweet little hands, or maybe gouge out an eye. Of course, those wandering digits didn’t help any exploring under my robes and probing my chest in her sleep, nor the slender leg that wrapped around my waist. The weird part was the tentacle-like thing that curled over my thigh, which sent me into a panic until I realized it was her tail.

The wait for that night to be over was interminable but it did end. Of course, she wasn’t about to let me know that without taking advantage. The night ended when she slipped her talon-tipped fingers down the front of my trousers and I leapt off the bed screaming.

She, in turn, got into a fit of giggles that caused her to fall off the other side. “Oh, you are too easy! Eternity with you is going to be SO much FUN!”

I kept my lips shut. See? I’m not totally stupid.

She left me with the book and the scrying pool to attend to the affairs of Hell and I launched into my research with all the gusto of a man with a time bomb strapped to his chest.

First, I established a set of criteria for my most desirable form. Handsome, strong and intelligent was at the top of the list, which cut out most of the competition, believe me. After that, I compared the different powers, ranks and status of each enclave, as will as their ‘Precinct’ or living environment.

Among the first casualties were the Progenators of the Breeding Pits, the giant penis demons I’d seen accosting former rapists in the scrying pool, formed from the souls of those who forced female circumcision on others and doomed to the search for sexual pleasure that can never be completely fulfilled because of their tendency towards pre-ejaculation.

That made me wince.

I noticed a pattern to being a Devil, it seemed to me that each and every specimen had some sort of punishment attached, either directly into their forms or maybe their lifestyle. If the demon was strong, they lacked intelligence. If they were fast and cunning, they were weak. If they could have sex, they’d never be fulfilled. If they couldn’t have sex, they craved it. If they were magically powerful, that magic was wild and hard to control. If they could control it, they couldn’t do much with it. Those that searched tirelessly for more knowledge were cursed to never know anything about one particular subject, and so on and so on.

I did, however, by the end of the day narrow down the choices into a small, if not exactly original, list which Lady Lucifer looked over at dinner.

“Number one, Malseraph,” She mused, “interesting choice. Why put that at number one?”

I held out my hand and waggled it about. “It was touch and go on that for number one, but the Malseraph is more powerful and their abilities work on both men and women.”

She nodded. “Number two, Incubi… why am I not surprised? Number three, Imp. Now THAT’s an interesting choice.”

“From what I’ve read and seen, Imps are much maligned in the hierarchy. There are a lot of them, sure, but they’re the glue that holds the rest of Hell together. AND it’s pretty shocking how much power the Imp Lords actually wield in the scheme of things.”

“That it is, at times. There’s just one problem with this list,” she held it up for me to look at, “where are the female demons here?”

I blinked. “Uh, well, um, you see…”

“You didn’t consider any of the female clans, did you?”

“Uh, no. No I didn’t. I mean, I am a man…”

“What has that got to do with it?” She interrupted. I clamped my mouth shut before it could do any more damage. “I’m halfway tempted to turn you into a woman for a while to show you what you’re missing out on but I don’t think a temporary solution will do the job here.”

I felt my gut tighten into knots.

“I’m altering our deal. You have one more day to find a FEMALE demon to choose as the form you’d like to wear for the rest of eternity.”

“That’s not fair!” I protested.

“Fair? Since when did I ever say I was fair?”

“Beautiful,” I grumbled, “but not fair.”

“I heard you! Just for that, none of the butch ultra-lesbian demons either!”

“Yes, Lady Lucifer.” I murmured, resigned to my fate.

I cheated slightly that night and hid the tome under the bed so I could read while Lady Lucifer slept. I think she let me get away with it, though, far be it from me to think I actually hoodwinked Satan.

It happened about halfway through the night, though that’s just a guess on my part. Lady Lucifer was wriggling in her sleep as if she were in the throes of a nightmare when light moans started to escape her lips. “Dominic,” she whispered. Only once but the word seemed to calm her dream. The word gave me pause.

I knew a Dominic, not personally of course, but from my readings. Dominic, Archangel of Justice. It seemed strange to me that she’d whisper the name of one of her arch enemies in her sleep the way one would a lover… yet hadn’t she said before that she loved Justice? Not knowing what to do about it, I filed the information into the back of my brain and went back to reading.

The next day was Hell, but should I have expected any less? Only half my problem was contemplating becoming female, the other half was the sort of female I wanted to become. Call me vain, but I didn’t want to be butt ugly. Demonic women tend to come in two flavors, ‘gorgeous beyond mortal comprehension’ and ‘so hideous you’ll die of fright’. The Gorgons were an excellent example. Beauteous to behold from the neck down, but if you look into their eyes a mortal may be turned to stone. Immortals, thankfully, are only paralyzed and there is a cure but… not for me. Hags? HA! You’re kidding, right? I’d rather join Neil in the breeding pit.

And so it was, at the end of that day, my list read so:

  1. Hell’s Valkyries.
  2. Succubus.
  3. Hell Maid.
  4. Sedu.

Hell’s Valkyries was at the top because, not only do they get some measure of physical ability, but also magic, so I wasn’t going to be expected to fuck around (literally) all the time. Succubus, however, rated over Hell Maid because I don’t really consider myself a front line fighter. The Sedu seemed interesting but there was precious little information on them in the book. All I really had was a sketch and a note that ‘these female demons of Lust are related to the Lilim (Succubae), have powers of possession and are afforded a special status in Hell by Lady Lucifer.’ The note was interesting, but a bit too vague for my liking, so they came fourth. The sketch certainly made them look desirable, long legs, red skin, little horns and a tail, sort of like the Succubae only without the wings or the stiletto hooves for feet.

Handing Lady Lucifer the piece of paper, I sealed myself for the pronouncement of my fate.

“Wow,” she whistled.

“Well, I figured if I was going to go the whole hog, I might as well go the whole hog…”

“Oh, no, sorry,” she giggled, “not what I meant. I just can’t believe the one I’d already picked out for you actually made it onto your list.”

I stared at her. The silence began to stretch out. Somewhere in the distance, a hellhound barked.

“You’ve… already… chosen?”

“Uh-huh,” she grinned.

“Then, prey might I ask, what was I doing for the last two days?”

“Heightening your own stress levels.”

“B-b-b-b-b-b…”

“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘but’.”

“BUT WHAT THE HELL WAS I DOING IT FOR?!? WHY’D I HAVE TO GO THROUGH ALL THAT IF YOU’D ALREADY PICKED???”

“Relax, dear one, you’ll give yourself an aneurism.”

“But you said I could chose…”

“Um, no, actually. If you recall, I said that you could pick out the one that you would like to be and then I’d make the decision. I never said that my decision would have anything to do with what you picked, did I?”

“B… ack… fniz… nupit… upt… ok, fine, that’s fine, no problem at all.” Trying desperately to remember who I was talking to, I forced myself to swallow my pride and ask the pertinent question. I mean, dagnabbit, she was right and I was a bloody fool.

“Lady Lucifer,” I continued calmly and concisely, “if you would be so kind, could you please tell me which demonoid species that I’m going to be spending the rest of eternity as?”

“Guess.”

My fists were balled so tight I thought my nails were going to draw blood. “Hell Maid?”

“Nope, not enough battle experience. As in, you’ve got NONE.”

“Hell’s Valkyrie?”

“Close but no cigar. Not enough violent tendencies.”

“Oh, well, if I have to become a Succubus…”

“Sorry, three strikes and you’re out, you’re not amoral enough to become a Succubus. A Succubus that balks at humping a married man? That’ll be the day.”

I blinked. “A Sedu? I’d never have picked that in a million years! There’s no information on them in the book, and when I checked for them in the scrying pool it just went blank.”

“Well, duh! A spy’s not much good if you can scry them out. Sheesh, they’d be dropping out of the sky like flies…”

I started rubbing my temples. “Ok, so no matter what I say or what I do, you’re going to turn me into a Sedu. Right, I’ll just accept that and move on. Now, what’s a Sedu and what will I be doing?”

“Well, now, I think it’s about time you found out,” She whispered huskily, moving in to slide her arms around my waist, pressing herself in against my body, “don’t worry, it’s like ripping off a band-aid, it doesn’t hurt if you do it… fast!”

She practically jumped forward to mash her lips against mine, spewing light and fire into my mouth. I can’t tell you much beyond that because I blacked out from pain a moment later.

Oh, one thing though, she tastes divine.

Chapter 3 — Halfway Indecent

I woke up numb, the sort of numb like you’ve just banged your wishbone only all over. The light from outside my head was so bright that I could see it through my eyelids but I bravely attempted to open them anyway. After several minutes of wincing from the stabbing pains shooting through my brain, I managed to look around. I was surrounded by whiteness in the same way that I’d been surrounded by greyness back in Purgatory. I couldn’t see anything, not even my own body, for the light; though I could feel my hands I couldn’t move them. Numb.

“Hello?” I called out but there was no answer other than a feint echo. “Lady Lucifer? Captain Sylvanna? Baroness Lorilei? Anybody?”

I blame my eroded sanity for what happened next. I didn’t scream, I didn’t laugh, I didn’t do any of those hysterical things you see on TV drama. Like a kid on the edge of a cliff, I yelled bad jokes into the emptiness, listening for my own echo. Personally, I think I just needed to hear something, even if it was my own voice.

“What did the leaning tower of Pisa say to Big Ben? If you’ve got the time, I’ve got the inclination! Everyone knows that you can get Aids from sex, but Bill Clinton gets sex from aides! What do cannibals do at a wedding? They toast the bride and groom! A horse walks into a bar…”

GOOD GODS, WOULD YOU KEEP IT DOWN, MORON? I’M TRYING TO THINK HERE!

My mouth snapped shut. The voice boomed from out of nowhere and, in the silence that followed, I thought that I had gone mad. Still, childhood training kicked in and I couldn’t help but apologize whilst I cringed in embarrassment. “Ah, sorry.”

LOOK, LIFE HERE IS HOLLOW ENOUGH WITHOUT LOST SOULS LIKE YOU YELLING PUNS INTO THE EDGE OF INFINITY. JUST SHUT UP AND WAIT YOUR TURN, I’M SURE THEY’LL GET TO YOU IN A MINUTE OR TWO.

“Er…”

OH, BUGGER. NOW I’VE GONE AND PROVOKED YOUR CURIOSITY. WHAT IS IT WITH YOU HUMANS, WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO QUESTION ME? WHAT ABOUT MY NEEDS, HMMM? DO YOU EVER JUST THINK THAT I MIGHT JUST WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE? THAT I MIGHT JUST WANT SOME QUIET ‘ME’ TIME TO PONDER ON ACHIEVING MY OWN DEATH RATHER THAN LISTEN TO YOU SELFISH PRIGS MOAN VACUOUSLY ABOUT YOUR OWN? JUST SIT THERE AND SHUT UP!

Not wanting to provoke whatever it was (I have a rule: Never argue with the voices in your head), I kept my mouth shut and started going over the words to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes.

Whatever it was, it was right about one thing. It didn’t take them long to get back to me. I felt the pull, at first, as a tug behind my navel. Then a wrenching feeling that spread up my torso, down my legs and finally thought the very tips of my fingers. The world seemed to twist slightly and then I was suddenly lying on the floor in utter darkness, exhausted. Slowly, voices started to come closer and finally I could make out words and syllables formed by a female voice.

“…ady Lucifer, it’s just that this is most unexpected. We haven’t had a new sister in… oh, a century? Two?”

“Pazuzu,” I felt HER voice again like a warm glow suffusing my weary limbs, “you and Azazel have been complaining about being short-staffed for several decades now. I hope you understand how much trouble it was to obtain a suitable candidate.”

“Lady Lucifer,” I heard Sylvanna’s voice over me, interrupting the speakers, “she’s awake… a little groggy but awake.”

“Thank-you, Syl,” Lady Lucifer smiled, “Lord Mephistopheles, our business is concluded, you are dismissed.”

I must have been all of three feet from Lord Mephistopheles when he stormed out of the room in a huff but I still can’t tell you to this day what he looked like back then.

“Your Hellish Majesty,” the first voice, Pazuzu I thought, continued the argument, “I fully understand and I am grateful beyond measure for this precious gift, but the resources I and my vocalist companion have been begging for were more in the nature of personnel seconded from other clans. I assure you that we have more than enough Sedu to perform our duties worldwide.”

I felt HER displeasure like someone rubbed ice up my spine. In all the times I’d basked in Lady Lucifer’s charisma before, it’d never felt so intense.

“Need I remind you, Pazuzu, that it is your unique skills that make you valuable to my cause? If you need help from the other clans, perhaps I would be better off entrusting more of your missions to the Lilim?”

“No! Er, no, your Majesty, I see your point…”

Something sharp and pointy poked me in the hip, which drew a groan out through my lips. It was a mistake that directly contributed to a second, harder, poke that caused me to flop over onto my back. That was what woke me up screaming; or rather it was the feeling of a lot of things on my body flopping where they shouldn’t have flopped, mainly because I’d never had anything that flopped there before. Not to mention one particular part that should, by all rights, have flopped but didn’t. Shooting up to my feet, whirling like a dervish, I grabbed my new breasts and flapped my arms like a chicken, consumed with such utter panic as I’d never felt before in my entire life or death. All of which ended abruptly when I tripped over my own ankle and tumbled through a chair, bouncing off the floor by my rounded butt. And when I say through, I don’t mean over, I mean STRAIGHT through, like a ghost. In fact it was the sight of my foot still half way inside the seemingly solid matter that stunned me into silence.

Crouching down next to me almost immediately was a petite blonde (a true yellow-blonde no less) with pinkish-red skin, lizard-like claws on her hands and feet, a bare tail lashing around behind her back, pure black eyes and tiny horns crowning her forehead. She took my face in her hands and shushed me like I was a small child, “Shhhhh, dear, it’s ok. You’re safe here, safe. Here, let me sing to you…”

“Azazel…” A second woman, who I was able to identify as Pazuzu from her voice, interrupted with a tinge of weary exasperation. She was a woman much like the blonde next to me, only tall, voluptuous and dark-haired.

“Oh, come on, just a little?” The blonde protested.

“No!”

Turning to me, Azazel rolled her eyes conspiratorially. “Ignore her; she hasn’t gotten laid today yet. Welcome to the Clan!”

She gave me a kiss on the cheek and helped me up onto my feet, setting those extra bits to wobbling again. Apart from Pazuzu and Azazel, Lady Lucifer occupied her throne of bones, though the council table was conspicuous in its absence, appearing amused. Standing next to her, an Amazonian Succubi with pale silver hair was trying very hard not to look amused while the gigantic Sylvanna appeared to have eaten something along the nature of freshly used sweatsocks dipped in turpentine and was trying very hard not to cough the mixture up. Last yet not least, a weird harlequin (complete with black and blue diamond pattern tights) lounged upside-down on the ceiling in one of the galleries, his painted smile a menacing frown upside-down. He had a long rod tipped with a miniature version of his own head jammed in between his legs while his hands worked at stitching something together, composed of vaguely rectangular pieces of metal that I couldn’t identify from that distance. I couldn’t help it, I stared at him for a while until he winked at me lewdly, and all of a sudden I wanted desperately to look at anything other than him.

“Pretty, pretty pure soul bloody in the tree; K-I-L-L-I-N-G…” the Harlequin whispered harshly, his voice on the edge of laugher.

“Lord Kobal,” Lady Lucifer admonished with a smile, “don’t tease our new daughter so.”

“Clan?” Was all I could manage to say, remembering someone saying something about it before and blinking dumbly at the small blonde in front of me (smaller than I was at least, though if I’d been in my right mind I’d have noticed that Sylvanna had gained a few inches on me).

Turning to Lady Lucifer, Azazel bowed. “If your Hellish Majesty pleases?”

“Please do,” Lady Lucifer smiled warmly.

“Dear,” Azazel took a deep breath, “Lady Lucifer has just completed making you one of us, that is like Pazuzu and myself; or, to be exact, collectively a Demon or Devil if you include our esteemed Hell Maids and Valkyries…”

Sylvanna and the silver-haired Succubi gave a small nod, respectively.

“…we, however, are the Sedu; or Clan Sedu if you want to get formal. The etymology of the word is quite interesting but let’s just stick to the basics for now. Sedu is the Ancient Hebrew word for a dark or evil spirit, referring to a malicious incorporeal being that haunted the night and generally made life miserable for mortals.”

“Pity they didn’t name you Clan Windbag,” Sylvanna coughed, “’t would have been more apt.”

“I’d vote for Clan Syllable,” silver-hair grinned.

Pazuzu rubbed her neck like she was trying to get an annoying crick out of her spine. “Why me?”

“Well, this is Hell, dear,” Lady Lucifer murmured.

Azazel stuck her tongue out at her peers (the last time I saw someone stick her tongue out at Lady Lucifer, she nailed it to a fence. Still attached). “Just ignore them, dear, the wonderful world of vocabulary generally escapes the meaner legions of Hell. They much prefer sticking sharp, pointy things in people. Like the Succubae or Clan Lilim, to whom we are related, we much prefer diplomatic solutions.”

I was feeling feint but I am proud to say that my manners didn’t escape me. “Your Hellish Majesty, may I have your permission to take a seat?”

“Permission granted.”

My knees gave way and only Azazel’s hand on my arm kept me from a nasty bump at the end. I had the devil of a time trying not to look at myself, fearful of losing my decorum and bursting out into another fit of screams or, worse, tears. I was painfully aware of the extra padding around my buttocks, as well as the fact that I was as naked a jay bird in front of all these illustrious personages. I felt the tears sloshing around on the other side of my eyeballs but I kept them in check and my voice as steady as possible. “A-Azazel, your Hellish Majesty, could I beg your indulgence and ask for a mirror?”

Silver-hair came to my rescue, seemingly pulling a large hand-mirror about two palms square out of nothingness. I inclined my head in thanks, shut my eyes, counted to three, and looked. The face in the mirror shocked me mute once more, my jaw working but nothing able to squirm its way out. I think if I’d been ugly, deformed and scaled it would have been easier to handle, but nothing could be further from the truth. The face that greeted me had high, well-defined, cheekbones, smoldering grey eyes, full ruby lips, triangular face and a delicate jaw line. Her ears were long and pointed, accentuated by her artfully disturbed, inch-long, jet-black hair. Two horns crowned the brow over slender eyebrows.

In fact, looking down at myself, slender was a good description of my entire form. My legs were much longer, almost out of proportion for my torso, and my hips curved smoothly out from my waist, forming a perfect teardrop shape before joining the line of my legs without argument from the bones that dwelt beneath. I was in no way ‘toned’ like Maid or Valkyrie, or even the voluptuous Lorelei. My bust was also nowhere near as large either… maybe a B+ if I was being generous. My first assessment of myself wasn’t that flattering.

“Great, I’m a toothpick,” I murmured.

Even now, the irony of this does not escape me. You see, when I was alive and male, I preferred my women with a little meat on their bones. The whole supermodel thing went straight over my head. Now I have that exact body type, I could squeeze through the crack between a door and its frame standing sideways. Ok, before you get all huffy thinking I’m on a ‘isn’t my beauty such a curse’ trip, I’m not. I’m well used to it now, I even enjoy it.

My comment did serve one good purpose, however, it made Syl laugh, which brightened my day considerably. I always enjoy making people crack and doing it to the iron maiden gave me back a little of my self-confidence.

Azazel ignored my comment and shrugged. “We all are, dear. Like I said, the Sedu aren’t about bashing heads together, we’re not built for that. Besides…”

Stepping over to one of the golden walls, she thrust her hand through it. Just like a ghost.

“…as you can see, we’re ill equipped to bust heads.”

Looking down at my left hand, I purposefully pushed it through the arm of the chair. Then I looked down at the seat my butt was resting on and tapped the floor with my feet. “Hang on, that doesn’t make any sense…”

“Au contraire,” Pazuzu knelt and thrust her hand through the floor, “the reason why you can sit and walk along the floor isn’t because you can’t just fall through it — though I don’t recommend that, it’ll startle people with large pointy things — it’s because of your unconscious telekinetic abilities. However, this isn’t the place to discuss your powers. The point that Azazel is trying to make is that we are incorporeal, or insubstantial if you will. We pass through solid objects and most of them pass through us. The only exceptions are certain powerful beings and magical weapons and armor. May I demonstrate, Lady Angelique?”

The silver-haired vixen gave a curt nod and allowed Pazuzu to rap her knuckles on her breastplate. “See?” Pazuzu sighed. “This is our curse, as beings of spirit we can only live vicariously through others. Fortunately we can still touch each other, since we’re in the same ‘phase’ of reality, or we would be entirely starved of personal contact.”

“Which brings us to your purpose, young one,” Lady Lucifer stood, descending from her throne to stand over me. “My Sedu are my eyes and ears on Earth and have been since very near to The Decent, just as my Hell Maids are my inspectors here in Hell. And, like the Hell Maids, you are answerable to ME, and only I, in the Hierarchy. You have no Lord or Lady other than me, and I will be the only Law thou shalt obey. Pledge thyself to me now and be named.”

I slid off the chair and sank to my knees, the sheer force of HER personality overriding my will and in that moment I loved her for it. Looking up into her face, exalting in the light of the Morning Star, I took her offered hand and kissed her palm to acknowledge her as my Mistress, a simple yet utterly profound gesture.

“Rise, Zizili, and join your sisters.”

My knees shook as I raised myself to my feet accompanied by several rounds of applause. Azazel hugged me impulsively, squashing our breasts together and forcing a squeak out of my throat with the fierceness of it. Still, I felt a warm, fuzzy, sensation in my gut that reminded me of curtains being drawn after a successful night and wreathes of flowers thrust into my hand by willing maidens.

All in all, a red letter day to my starry eyes.

“And now,” Lady Lucifer clapped her hands together, rubbing gleefully, “your training can begin.”

The stars in my eyes plummeted to Earth, evaporating in the furnace-heat of reentry.

linebreak shadow

And so began my tutelage under my torturers… er, teachers, ‘big sister’ Azazel and Lady Angelique; both occasionally overseen by Baroness Pazuzu. It was the sort of triple threat that would send grown men running for the hills, screaming. Azazel (who insisted that I call her ‘sis’ or ‘Az’ rather than wade through her tri-syllabic name every time) took me for a subject she called ‘Clan Powers and Politics’ while Lady Angelique took me for a subject which I named ‘beat three colors of snot out of the newbie and laugh’. Baroness Pazuzu flitted in and out of the lessons in between her busy schedule running the Clan for Lady Lucifer.

We got a whole, if small, tower to ourselves for my training, composed of three rooms: a classroom, a dojo and my tiny sleeping area at the top. Technically, no, I don’t need sleep anymore, but I do need a safe area to heal bruises and otherwise rest after exertion. And my teachers were doing their best to exert my mind, body and soul.

“Our organizational structure is a little different to the other clans,” Az explained to me during my first lesson in the classroom. “Nominally, Lady Lucifer is our Princess, though she’s a lot more than just a Princess. Because she’s so busy, she can’t run our clan personally, so Baroness Pazuzu is, in reality, the leader of our Clan. This works because, compared to other clans that have hundreds, thousands or millions of members, we only have a few score left. Only the Baroness and Lady Lucifer actually knows how many, since our numbers are a closely guarded secret. Even we aren’t told who’s actually in the network, in case we get captured.”

“Great,” I said, deadpan, “so, we’re what? Like 007? A lone operative armed with cool gadgets, our own wits and a rampant masculine sexuality that allows us to seduce all the bad girls over to our side? Oh, wait, hang on, that last part doesn’t work…”

“Gee, anyone would think you were bitter about losing the old bed snake,” Azazel twittered, “but really it’s a bit like that… only without the cool gadgets either. We gate into the material plane, or Earth as you know it, essentially naked. We then have to find a host before our fragile incorporeal body dissipates from exposure and we die…”

I blinked. “Ouch.”

“…but don’t worry about being seen, we’re invisible in our natural form on the material plane. After we possess a Host, we hop from body to body via prolonged physical contact. It takes a little while for the process to complete itself, though more intimate contact hastens the process. So, the best and easiest way is to pleasure the prospective host to the point of orgasm, that’s always a sure-fire method. Once we have possessed the target body, we can then proceed with our mission, depending on Lady Lucifer’s orders. We do everything from package drops to assassinations. Then, with our mission complete, we gate back to Hell leaving our host body to take the blame. If we’re lucky, we get to have a little fun in the process and live life like a mortal again.”

“You’ll have to forgive me, but that really sucks,” I grumbled. “That’s all we get for powers, body hopping? I mean, I didn’t expect to be throwing lightning bolts at my foes…”

“Cool your heels, sunshine, we get all sorts of nifty abilities. Well, at least a few. First up, body hopping isn’t all there is to it. While we’re in our host, we can do all kinds of nasty stuff! You’ll have complete and utter control of the body, enabling you to twist it every which way, manifest boils, spin the head around 360 degrees, spew green bile, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! You won’t be able to do true shapeshifting, but minor alterations and disguises? Yup! You can even leave the body in the state you left it if you wish, unless you get Exorcised. Of course, if that happens, you die the final death, no coming back. You could possess a little kid and beat up a whole street gang if you wanted… of course, that takes practice, which isn’t something you’ll get a whole lot of. We don’t have training exercises for possession since it only works on mortals and any trip to Earth could bring the Guardian Angels down on our heads.”

“There are actually Guardian Angels? What the Hell happened to mine?”

“Oh, no, not EVERYONE has a Guardian Angel. Heck, there’s not even a Guardian Angel for every man, woman and child on Earth, otherwise we’d be totally screwed. Guardian Angels are sort of like our opposites; Heaven and Hell are really into that whole Duality trip. The Lilim, for example, are opposed by the Bright Lilim.”

I winced. “Couldn’t they think up a better name?”

“They’re new, I hear the name’s still in the pipeline. But here’s the skinny. Guardians are more numerous than we are, that’s true, but WE are more powerful than they are. A Guardian’s powers are all about detection, enhancement and luck. They cotton onto a ‘Charge’, which is basically what we call a ‘Host’, and they give him discreet emotional nudges toward the correct and moral course. The Charge doesn’t have to obey the nudge, but sometimes that nudge is all they need. If they do obey, the Guardian is empowered by the good deed and he can pass that power onto his host as physical or mental prowess or so-called ‘good luck’. Thus the charge feels rewarded with every good deed he commits, and keeps on doing good deeds for the ‘high’ it generates.”

“Sneaky,” I acknowledged, scratching my chin in thought. Believe me; you’ve never had a proper scratch until you’ve grown claws. “So these guys are our opposites but they don’t sound so dangerous to me.”

“Oh, now comes the bad bit,” Az sighed, “their powers of detection. Since they are, at their core, sentinels looking over their charges, a Guardian can not only detect us, but once they’ve possessed a Charge they can prevent us from taking them as a Host. The only good news is that, despite all their enhancements and good luck, a Charge is far more vulnerable than one of our Hosts. We can heal our hosts, they can’t do jack for their Charges, so if it’s a duel we hand them their asses. And a Guardian who’s Charge dies while they’re in possession gets kicked right back to Heaven and won’t be back until they recover. The real danger is that the Guardians know this, so the first thing they do on spotting a Sedu is run to the nearest Elohim — they’re the big Angels with the fiery pointy things—, who all have standing orders to eviscerate any Host no matter who or what they are. Oh, and a top tip, most mortals on Heaven’s side get tagged with a Guardian. Penetrating Marc’s bastions of business is totally impossible. Now, the good news is that not only can they see you, you can see them. And they’re not omnisentient, they can’t see through walls or any of that crap, so you can hide from them. Your only problem is if they bring in a ‘sniffer’ Angel of some type, that’s an Angel that can literally smell evil. If you get wind of one of those, if you’ll pardon the expression, bug out fast. Standing orders for all Sedu is to keep yourself alive as the number one priority. As you can imagine, there aren’t too many of us left, which brings us to the really fun part of being a Sedu, our trump card and ace in the hole. Telekinesis!”

I wracked my brains trying to remember where I’d heard the word before. “Telekinesis. Like, as in psychic stuff? Moving things with the power of the mind?”

“Caught it in one! Sedu have a number of natural magical abilities which may be used in either our natural form or when inside a Host. We’re just a lot less vulnerable when we’re inside a Host; Exorcism is tough work, it regularly kills both the Exorcist and our Host. Our most powerful ability, however, is Telekinesis. You’ve seen the movie, right, with the beds levitating and flying power tools and killer cutlery? Think that, except crank it up to flying cars, train accidents, jumbo jets falling out of the sky… we kill a rather high percentage of celebrities that way, you know. Of course, we can’t cut loose like that too often or too obviously unless we want a platoon of Angels on our asses faster than you can say ‘What killed me?’, which is why we have several minor psychic abilities and some access to magic.”

“Minor abilities like what?”

“Oh, like, reading mortal’s thoughts, hypnotism, the ability to speak any language and our own brains. We Sedu are all rather smart; it’s our only real advantage when you put us up against some of the tougher denizens of Heaven and Hell. Where the Incubi are the strategists — even if they DO put most of their effort into hiding the one-eyed python—, we are the lone wolves. You’ll notice that we don’t actually have many powers that work on Immortals, well, that’s part of the problem with being a Sedu. We’re not as magically powerful as the Succubae, they’re Hell’s mages and mobile artillery, but we can learn a few tricks, which is part of what Lady Angelique will be teaching you.”

Of more interest to me, mainly because we did more talking about a Sedu’s powers than actually practicing them, were our lessons on politics and history.

“Clan Sedu is very, very old,” Az explained to me one morning, “as old, even, as Clan Lilim, though they get more press. It all goes back to the days after Lady Lillith got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, you’re familiar with the story, right?”

“Who isn’t?”

“Jose Kompaloff, but that’s neither here nor there. Well, back then she wasn’t a Princess of Hell, she was just a mortal with a gigantic chip on her shoulder, a lot of anger against the big guy and absolutely no morals thanks to not having eaten the Forbidden Fruit. Now, she was very, very lonely by this stage, considering that there weren’t any other humans around and she was more than a little addicted to sex. Lady Lucifer isn’t one to let an opportunity like this pass her by, so she sent one of her best and brightest… or should that be worst and darkest? Oh, whatever… anyway, she sent one of her most highly placed Princes into the earthly plane to seduce her. This was the founding father of Clan Sedu, Asmodai, Prince of Lust. Prince Asmodai didn’t have to work hard to seduce Lillith, she practically leapt into his bed. In turn, she produced the first ‘Lillin’, which is the collective term for all the clans that are descended from this original union. All Lillin are female, as it seems that Lillith was incapable of producing male heirs, not that this worried Asmodai in the least. The Lillin were all welcomed into Hell with open arms and, when Lillith died, Lady Lucifer gave her control of Clan Lilim, or the Succubae, her most favored daughters. Those children that cleaved more to their father, Asmodai, were given to him and he named them ‘Sedu’.”

I whistled. “Ok, so if we’re the daughters of Asmodeus…”

“Oh, no, you misunderstand. Asmodai isn’t Asmodeus, the two of them just have similar names. A lot of occultists make that mistake, between mistranslations and garbled texts, but they’re two totally different people… er, demons. The reason we no longer have a Prince of our own, to our eternal shame, is that Asmodai led an attempted coup against Lady Lucifer and she snapped him like a twig. The Sedu, however, were too powerful a clan to just sweep aside, so Lady Lucifer took us under her own wing. If there’s one thing Lady Lucifer knows how to do, solidifying her power base is it. She gives our Baroness a lot of leeway in the running of the clan in turn, but we are now her creatures.”

“Ok,” I started rubbing my temples again, “not that I wish to sound disrespectful, but it strikes me that the Sedu… we, I mean, would have been rather pissed at her. How the hell did she manage to put you all to heel without resorting to mass slaughter?”

Az sighed. “Well, a few of us were put on trial as object lessons for the rest but not all of us were in on Asmodai’s plot and the majority of us were loyal to Lady Lucifer above our Father. But the key point here is procreation. You see, when a soul is slated to become a demon, there’s a little ritual involved. A member of the clan usually performs it while their new Prince looks on and guides the process, with maybe a few other things added into the mix. Not so with clan Sedu. Our ‘template’ is a closely guarded secret, not even we are privy to it and we go through it! Back in the day, only two people knew how to create a Sedu: Father Asmodai and Lady Lucifer herself. Now that Father is truly dead, Lady Lucifer is the only being that can replenish our numbers, so in order for the clan to survive, we had to pledge our loyalty to Lady Lucifer. Not that she’s actually done much replenishing over the years. In the millennia since our Father’s demise, we’ve gone from a clan of thousands to a mere handful of agents. The War was not particularly kind to us.”

I blinked. “So, since Asmodai’s downfall, how many new Sedu has Lady Lucifer created?”

She held up a single finger. “Exactly one, including you, which was why Baroness Pazuzu and I were rather shocked at your sudden appearance.”

“You hid it well.”

“I’ve had lots of experience dealing with surprises. And I won’t have to cop the fallout from this like Pazuzu will. The Sedu aren’t the most popular clan in all of hell either. Never mind the Angels, some of our own side will be just as quick to kill you as an enraged Elohim. Not only does our clan have the reputation for being traitors, thanks to our Father’s misdeeds, but a big part of our jobs is spying on what the other demons are doing on Earth, poking our noses into places we don’t belong. Over the millennia, we’ve managed to piss off just about every member of the Hellish Nobility, and we’re talking people with loooooooong memories.”

“Now,” Az continued, her tone changing to a more serious vibe, “I’ve saved the most important piece of information until last, so listen up. If your host dies while you’re still in possession of them, you’re dead too. Most people will try to Exorcise you to try to save the host, but sometimes people take matters into their own hands. If they do, get out quick, because you won’t be coming back otherwise.”

I could feel myself sweating and vaguely wondered if it was incorporeal sweat or not. In fact, the nature of our weird form of etherealness formed a large part of our discussions.

“Once you learn to harness your power of telekinesis, you’ll be able to float,” Az informed me, demonstrating by picking her legs up off the floor without falling down, “and fly a little bit, but you won’t be very fast at all. The lucky part is that our telekinetic abilities come so natural that we use them reflexively without knowing it, which is the only reason you can do things like walk around and pick up solid objects. That being said, it doesn’t work for everything… like walls. It’s like our brains remember how we used to do things back when we were alive and it tries to simulate the important stuff, like walking and picking up objects, but it can’t remember how to do other things like touch people. Or you can look at it like it’s a limitation of the telekinesis, we can pick things up and throw them about with our hands and push up off the floor with our feet because those things are easy to simulate with the power, but touching someone like it’s real flesh-to-flesh contact is much, much more complicated and, in fact, we can’t do that.”

This discussion naturally devolved into ‘power finesse practice’. That is, I had to concentrate on picking up a feather without using my hands and controlling it in the air. The first part was easy once I got past the whole ‘not using my hands’ bit. It’s like reaching out with an invisible hand, really. You ‘reach out’ and enwrap the object you desire to move with the power and then move it… it’s hard to explain because it’s so instinctive, like trying to explain the difference between using hands or tentacles. After one feather, I moved on to multiple feathers, adding one more every time I’d mastered the group before. We then moved on to different, though still small, objects; feathers mixed with pencils for example. I got used to the different feels for different types of materials and soon we moved on to heavier objects such as plates and glassware.

When I complained that I wanted to try hurling larger, single, objects of greater mass, I was rebuked. Az explained to me that power was easily come by but finesse required real practice. I didn’t understand how hurling plates about was going to actually help me in combat against the millions of Angels and Devils who wanted my head for their mantelpiece, but I persevered with the training.

How can I describe my lessons with Lady Angelique? I guess I already have described them in fair detail with the ‘beat nine colors of snot out of me and laugh’ line, though I suppose I can expand on that description despite how embarrassing it was for me.

We’d start the session with armed combat drills and exercises. That’s fancy military talk for swinging a great honking sword about, snapping heels together and shouting a lot. At the very least, I learned a bit about how soldiers act and how not to stab myself with sharp objects. In order that I could learn how to wield a weapon properly, and with real danger to my person, we both used magical weapons and armor. This eliminated any advantage my incorporeal state could afford me and, as a result, I also learnt what real pain feels like.

Lady Angelique kicked, bashed, stabbed, clawed, bit, buffeted and otherwise stomped me into the dirt while I was very busy just trying to heft my blade and move in my chainmail. It wasn’t that the armor wasn’t particularly well designed, bad suits of armor don’t get enchanted, it was just that it was so heavy! Somewhere in my transformation, I’d lost most of my former strength (which, perhaps, wasn’t surprising). I’d done stage fighting with real swords, my blade was no bigger or heavier than anything I’d ever handled before and yet just trying to lift it off the floor was a titanic effort.

After my umpteenth defeat, I hurled the thing away and punched one of the padded walls with my gauntleted fist (which was quite satisfying and stress reducing) and chucked a hissy fit. Once I’d stopped swearing, Angelique sat me down and asked what was wrong.

“What’s wrong? WHAT’S WRONG? This whole thing is a damned farce! I can’t lift the bloody blade, let alone use it! I can’t move in this freekin’ metal sheath! I can’t even keep track of your six limbs, let alone read your moves, let alone move fast enough to defend myself! This whole exercise is pointless, the only thing I’m learning is that in a fight, fair or not, I’m going to lose. PERIOD.”

“Everyone has to learn this, Zizi,” she sighed patiently, “when I first came down here, I had to learn it. Even the Succubae do this much…”

I stood up to make a point, stripping out of the chainmail and letting it slide to the floor. The top of my head only came up to her chin and she was at least ten times more athletic. “Lady Angelique, look at me,” I felt very proud that I remembered her title in that moment, “I am a toothpick. That’s not meant to be a self-disparaging comment; it’s just a statement of fact. You are an Amazon, and I’m betting that you didn’t get those muscles through good healthy living and exercise. I. Cannot. Lift. This. Gear. And asking me to is an exercise in folly.”

“The Succubae…”

“I’m not a Succubus!” I protested. “Look at me; I’m not half the women they are! I am well aware that I need combat training, but this isn’t it. I can’t believe that this discipline is in the Sedu training manual as anything other than a footnote…”

“The what?” Lady Angelique blinked.

“The Sedu training manual… or whatever it is you’re referring to for my lessons.”

“Uh,” she scratched her head, “well, you see… there isn’t one.”

I blinked slowly, counting to ten. “There isn’t one?”

“Hey, there hasn’t been a new Sedu for a few thousand years, which is way before my time. It was so long ago, nobody remembers how to train a Sedu…”

“So,” I groaned, pointing an accusatory finger at her, “you… don’t know… what you’re doing… either?”

“Well, I figured that you could do THIS,” she sighed again, flipping her lustrous silver hair out of her face, “but I have to agree with you, this isn’t working. Not only don’t you have the strength, you don’t even have the instincts. At least the Succubae have the instinct.”

So we moved on to magic lessons while Lady Angelique assured me that she’d come up with better training next time. I was a lot better at magic, which means that I could actually do some. We learned very quickly that I wasn’t in the Succubae league for potency, but I picked up the small stuff very quickly. I wouldn’t ever be hurling balls of Hellfire about or tearing reality asunder but little tricks and surprises, oh yes. My first offensive spell was a simple ‘gutwrench’ incantation that could make an opponent violently nauseous for the duration. Angelique ‘volunteered’ a few Imps for target practice. I moved up from there to setting things aflame with a touch or within my line of sight, not that I could make an enemy spontaneously combust, but at least it was better than carrying around a box of matches. Last but not least, I learnt a last-ditch defense measure that allowed me to electrocute an enemy by touch, or what passed as a touch for me. Even incorporeal, it still worked. Last but not least, I learned a spell that would allow me to induce pleasure with skin-to-skin contact, no good until I got my hands on a Host but infinitely useful none the less.

We both left that lesson feeling happier for my achievement; it was, perhaps, the most exciting time of my life. The event was only marred by the fact that it had to end and with its ending, I was faced once more with come cold, harsh, realities.

As you may have gathered, I was doing everything I possibly could to avoid thinking on my transformation into a woman. The problem was that between lessons I had nothing to do but think upon it. And live it, and explore it. Worse was that Azazel had taken to living with me in my tower, even going so far as to sleep in the same bed. As you can imagine, this didn’t do much to take my mind off my situation. What was even worse was that even my own body wouldn’t let me forget myself, which does take some explanation.

The night after my second day of tutelage, Az and I were sleeping in my bed when I woke quite suddenly feeling a sensation I’d never felt before. Since turning into a demon, Hell hadn’t felt anywhere near so hot but now I felt like I was boiling. We slept without blankets (funnily, our powers remember how to lie down on a bed but not how to keep blankets aloft) and I was still sweating. To make matters worse, I was feeling wet ‘down there’, I couldn’t keep still and my nipples were painfully hard. To put it bluntly, I was horny as hell. I knew the symptoms, of course, but experiencing them first hand was something entirely new and unwelcome. Naturally, in my fragile state, I was in denial. I even started crying.

It didn’t take long for Az to notice with all my weeping and writhing all over the place. She hugged me from behind and whispered small, sweet, comments into my ear to help calm me down. “Shhhh, it’s ok, sis, we all go through this.”

“Az, what’s going on?” I weeped, half panicked, “I can’t control myself…”

“Shhhh, dear, shhhhhhh. Sedu are demons of lust, after all, our bodies crave satisfaction on a regular basis. Just relax and let me help you…”

I stiffened up like a board when she kissed me on the lips. “Oh, stop it little sister,” she teased, “if you don’t relax, you won’t enjoy this.”

With that, she kissed me deeper, slipping in the tongue. As Lorilei may have told you before, there’s nothing like kissing with a forked tongue. A kiss between two creatures with forked tongues is absolute magic. The only problem was, that first time, I was concentrating very hard on relaxing, which if you’ve ever tried to do that before, you’ll know it’s a pretty self defeating exercise.

My eyes were screwed tight as she kissed her way down my body and I was lying very still, afraid that I might screw things up by making an inappropriate motion and killing to mood. I’d used all the same techniques that she was now using on me before; being on the receiving end was at once exhilarating and terrifying. I moaned and ooohed when she kissed my breast, her hands fondling and exploring my new body. I’m sure it was less of a revelation for her as it was for me, but I was new territory after all. She slipped a finger or two between my legs to tantalize me before the main event, which made me freeze again at first, yet calmed me down and opened me wider to the new sensations.

Finally, she kissed my nether regions and I found out that there was something a forked tongue was better used for.

My first time as a woman, being pleasured by a woman, wasn’t that great truth be told. It wasn’t that I was unwilling, my body reacted and I wanted it, but I simply couldn’t relax. I was deadly still throughout the entire procedure with my eyes screwed shut, face turned away. I made noises, small little animal noises that I hated myself for. I felt weak and vulnerable as the passive partner and when she held me afterwards I trembled with self-hatred. Not that I hadn’t derived some enjoyment from the experience, but I felt disconnected from it as if my need of the moment before were a hazy dream and my afterglow the tired remains of a fitful sleep.

I didn’t like being the baby, I didn’t like being out of control, I didn’t like feeling powerless, I didn’t like submitting. Despite how much I was willing, how much I had craved her touch, I felt like Az had violated me somehow. She was so understanding and so open with me and so caring and she was blameless and yet…

I was an emotional mess. I cried silently that night so Az wouldn’t hear but I couldn’t sleep and in the morning, I got up and wiped away the congealed wetness on my face before she could see it and we continued training as usual.

The sex got better the more we did it, however. As the days rolled by and I got used to my cycle of cravings I learned to relax and enjoy the moment, if not Az’s body. It started to feel less mechanical and more sweet. Az showed me how to use my lips and tongue to full advantage, though I knew the basics I now had a few advantages I hadn’t possessed before. After lips, we moved on to fingers and after fingers we tried the tail. The tail was the best. Az rather enjoyed the fisting once she taught me how to do it right, but I shied away from it before we managed to get started. It was just too weird and uncomfortable for me, as was anal sex, though that was another of Az’s favorites. I guess after a few millennia, you learn to enjoy a few things the less jaded might not.

It was on the third day that something strange happened. Az was called away by Baroness Pazuzu on business and I’d finished my lessons for the day, which was incidentally the same day I’d finally spat the dummy at Lady Angelique (I had still been feeling sorry for myself because of my first sexual experience the night before, which probably contributed to my temper that afternoon), so I was alone in my quarters having some of that interminably painful ‘me time’ where the fact of my girlhood whizzed around my brain with little outlet other than tentative examinations of my new anatomy.

No, that’s not a euphemism for masturbation. I was different, I had a waistline and curves; heck, my whole body was so different I still had trouble recognizing myself in a mirror. I used the ‘me time’ to try to adjust to myself in a way that didn’t involve lesbian sex.

You’ll understand, however, that with myself in such a vulnerable and private position, and feeling it all the more after the events of the night before, the sudden upheaval of one of the brass sheets that composed my floor was more than a bit of a surprise. Out of the gaping hole popped a petite blonde with bat wings, tail and horns wearing a skimpy black bikini and lugging a package in her hands.

“Urgh, there you are,” the imp grunted as she lifted the package up onto the bed, “sorry, that thing’s heavy. Name’s Dimona, Baroness Lorilei told me to bring you this, secret-like, Lady Lucifer’s orders. That’s her seal if you want to check it out, it’ll disintegrate after it’s opened, so be sure that you make sure it’s legit before you crack it open.”

Staring at her, curled into a ball at the other end of the bed, I couldn’t help notice how pretty she was, if a bit on the small size. She was perfectly proportioned for her height. “Uh, ok… what is it?”

“I don’t know what it does, but I was ordered to tell you to drink the potion immediately. The book is to help you study your natural abilities, but Lady Lucifer said to be sure to hide it where Azazel won’t find it and don’t show it to her at all costs. That’s an exact quote, by the way.”

Curious, I checked the seal to see if it was authentic. A little note about Lucifer’s Seal, NOBODY can forge it… with the possible exception of the man upstairs. If you try, the magic of the Seal will fry your brain. It’s one of the first things Lady Angelique taught me. So I checked and it was authentic, which led to opening it. Dimona stayed within arms reach of me so either she was expendable or the thing was completely safe. I took the risk and fortunately, nothing happened.

The package contained a vial filled with an opaque white potion, the book was blank on the cover and bound in red leather. I flipped through it and it seemed like the real deal, so I took another gamble, opened the vial and downed the contents in one gulp. The potion actually made me feel a lot better for some reason that I couldn’t quite identify.

Dimona took the potion bottle and bade me a farewell. “I hope I don’t have to recommend that you don’t let on you’re learning anything outside your usual curricular activities?”

I shook my head. “No, you don’t have to do that. Say hello to Lorilei for me.”

“Will do,” she nodded before dropping back into the hole, pulling the brass sheet down on top of herself as she went.

I perused the book, which seemed to be an advanced guide to my power of possession, though strangely it had several pages ripped out. Most of the tome was couched in arcane phrases and formulae that I didn’t understand, sort of like a physics textbook that’s impossible to decipher if you don’t know what the symbols mean, though there was one section entitled ‘Bargaining’ that was entirely new to me and didn’t require advanced knowledge of thaumaturgy. It described an advanced possession technique whereby a Sedu would entreaty a mortal for permission to inhabit their body for a set period of time or until a goal had been completed in exchange for a return service. The Bargain would allow the Sedu to merge more completely with the willing Host than otherwise possible, granting greater powers over the mortal form and hiding the Sedu from detection by any method. Any ability or spell that would otherwise detect the Sedu’s presence would only detect the Host as if they were a regular mortal.

I hid the book under the mattress on my side of the bed. I’d already learned that Az, despite her protestations of spontaneity, was a creature of habit, particularly when it came to singing. She was mad for music, one of those people who knew every album and every song and every artist and every writer and every recording studio by date and video clip. While I was doing my mental exercises, she’d sing and dance to try and distract me. Sometimes it worked, but I got better at concentration the more I worked at it. The book remained hidden and it gave me something to do other than dwell on things during my ‘me time’.

The fourth day, Lady Angelique had a surprise and a guest lecturer for me. “I’ve changed the curriculum, such as it was, to something I think will be more suitable for your particular job and talents.”

I didn’t like her grin.

When she opened the door and revealed a very smug-looking Sylvanna sitting between two tables full of firearms and several boxes of what looked to me like junk and kitchenware, it took me a few minutes to think of something to say.

“Guns?” I gasped finally, incredulous.

“Yer have a problem with firearms?” Sylvanna inquired merrily.

“Nope,” I shrugged, “I did a course on gun safety for a part once. I just figured they wouldn’t be that effective against supernatural creatures.”

“Well, they’re not for the most part,” Angelique acknowledged, “you can’t enchant guns or bullets directly, too many moving parts and such with very little metaphysical connection. But, different loads can still inconvenience supernatural creatures vulnerable to particular types of damage. Take these puppies, dragonsbreath shells. Hollow point loaded with phosphorous, will usually set anything it hits alight, great for dealing with vampires and things that don’t like being burned. Hollow points will to a great job of eviscerating anything they hit. Believe me, if you want to lop off a limb or behead a target with one shot, these will do it.”

“Um, ok, question,” I played at being a schoolgirl for a moment, “if they’re not enchanted, how am I supposed to be able to pick them up?”

Sylvanna held up a pair of leather gloves embossed with glowing runes.

“Oh,” I blushed.

Sylvanna was very keen on me trying the Desert Eagle .50 Action Express, her favorite handgun. I declined, going for an easier weapon to handle that actually fit my grip, a .22 revolver. I squeezed off a few shots in the firing range my two teachers had managed to set up in the room, then Sylvanna demonstrated her firing technique and gave me a few pointers. I quickly learned that I was expected to learn how to disassemble, clean, maintain and reassemble each of the firearms they’d brought with them.

We were about to start on the rifles when someone coughed at the door. We turned to find Lord Ares, still encased in his heavy black armor, leaning rakishly against the doorjamb. “I heard gunshots and I thought ‘wherever there’s violence around this place, there are beautiful women’, so here I am.”

I bowed. “Lord Ares, you honor me with your presence.”

He smiled. “You can dispense with the pleasantries, commander; I’m here to put you back on schedule.”

“Oooh,” I giggled, “you wouldn’t happen to have a red lightsaber would you?”

“I’m sorry, fresh out this Thursday. Lady Angelique, you look as divine as your namesake.”

Angelique inclined her head politely at the comment.

“And Captain Sylvanna…”

“Save it, Ares,” the Captain brushed him off, “we’re busy.”

“Ahhhh,” Ares stepped up to the table, ignoring Sylvanna’s brusqueness, “my personal favorite, the AK-47. Though, personally, I’d prefer to actually use the AK-74, but the old classics are always the best. Zizili, this gun is the most widely produced and effective gun in the modern world, a masterpiece of functionality and simplicity in design copied by practically every arms manufacturer in the known world. Give me this gun over any of these so-called ‘next generation’ personal firearms. Grenade launchers with under-mounted rifles and arcane targeting scopes… PFUAGH! Nothing matters so much in battle as that the iron fires when you need it. That’s what this gun is all about, easy to clean, easy to maintain, never jams and above all, accurate.”

Picking the rifle up, he sighed lustily and nuzzled the wooden grip, rubbing his cheek against the oily barrel. Glancing at my companion’s reaction, not quite knowing how to handle this myself, I caught Angelique standing there with here eyebrow raised curiously, as if she couldn’t believe it either. Looking over to Sylvanna, I could see she was having an entirely different reaction. The Hell Maid was blushing furiously, her hand resting demurely over her heart.

Uh-oh.

“Hmmm,” I looked back down at the table, “if that gun’s so good, why do the western armies use that one?”

Ares looked down at the M-16 with a scowl. “Oh, I don’t know really. They’re good for checking for mines, holding up your laundry… see, you can even tie a string to the sights for that. Really a vastly improved version of the wooden stick.”

Sylvanna shrugged, trying to hide recover from her momentary lapse. “He’s right,” she growled, “the Kalashnikov is a better weapon. Of course, sometimes you’ve gotta take what you can get. Both the eastern and western bocks flood the market with used army surplus rifles at reduced cost, so depending on which side of the former Berlin wall you’re on is usually an indicator of the easiest weapon to obtain. Of course, for the most part, you won’t want one of these. They tend to attract a lot of attention in more civilized nations.”

And so I had three impromptu tutors that day, though Sylvanna and Ares spent most of the time arguing about guns and ammunition, leaving Angelique and I bewildered by all the technical language.

After the guns, we moved on to the boxes of junk.

“Not just junk,” Sylvanna explained to me with a devilish (what else?) grin, “explosives! These are just some of the parts you can use to create your own home-made incendiary devices. All you have to know is the right chemicals to mix together into their proper proportions and you have a supply of powerful weapons limited only by your imagination.”

It was then that I realized that I’d gone from the regular combat training program and into the espionage training program, which I have to say was a much more sensible proposal. From then on, my combat lessons centered around dirty fighting, martial arts, knives and short swords with guns, explosives and sabotage as additional courses. To be honest, the prospect of being a spy excited me, though I tried to remember that there’s a darker and much more mundane truth behind espionage than the Bond movies paint it to be.

No, I’m not going to tell you how to make bombs. There are two fields of study it’s best to keep right away from: explosives and toxicology. Knowing anything about either is too much of a temptation for the average mind to be expected to bear.

Ares was a gold mine for dirty tricks, from eye-gouging to pressure points to kicking an opponent when he’s down. “Don’t think of it like it has anything to do with honor,” he lectured me, “this is fighting, the real thing, no holds barred, anything goes. If you think an Angel is going to give you any quarter, think again. The point of all fighting is neutralizing your enemy in the quickest and most efficient way possible, and that goes double for you since you won’t last a minute in a real fight. The key is to stay alive no matter what; you’re no good to anyone dead. In the end, it comes down to a choice that you have to make. You have to choose if it’s going to be you standing at the end of it or the other guy. Pick yourself every time and go for the jugular, gouge the eye, throw mud in their face. There’s no room for ethics in murder, no matter how just your cause seems to be.”

I think Sylvanna was trying very hard to hide an orgasm at that point, just from the look on her face.

Angelique and I made some excuses at the end of the lesson and went to clean the dojo up, collecting all the scattered bits and bobs and locking away the guns, leaving Ares and Sylvanna outside by themselves. Coming back, I tapped my teacher on the shoulder, put a finger to my lips to silence her and cupped my ear to the door. Unable to hold in her own curiosity, Angelique did the same.

“For the last time, Ares, bugger off! I have my duties…”

Yup, that was Sylvanna.

“I’m only asking for a short holiday, Syl,” he interrupted, sounding very smug and self assured, “even Lady Lucifer wouldn’t begrudge you a little vacation with your boyfriend.”

“You. Are. Not. My. Boyfriend.” Syl enunciated each word very clearly but I doubted sword-boy would take the hint.

“Now, my dear, I’ve booked a lovely bunker for two on the Grey Wastes. Just you, me, unlimited ammo and a horde of Flesh-eating Berserker Ghouls…”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who could hear Syl wavering. “I-I…”

He moved in for the kill, whispering temptation into her ear. “They just got in those new Lead Storm supermachinegun emplacements… they fire more than ten thousand rounds a second… just think about all that screaming hot lead…”

Syl wavered for several long second before rallying. “Lord Ares, with all due respect, fuck off, Sir.”

We could hear his heavy footsteps stomping away as he gave her a manly chuckle. “Well, if you ever change your mind…”

“Syl, Syl, Syl,” Angelique threw open the door and groaned in exasperation the moment we heard him close the stairway door behind him.

“What, what, what?” Syl snapped. “T’ little bastard’s been hounding me day after day! Every time I turn around, there’s his creepy little face grinning at me… he’s driving me nuts! Actin’ like he’s all that, I could kick his arse with one hand tied behind my back!”

“Well, he was a god,” Angelique snorted, “don’t you think that gives him a teensy-weensy bit of justification?”

“All I’s know is that that smug grin makes my knuckles itch.” Syl cracked said knuckles to emphasize her point.

“Still,” I smiled, “he is sort of cute.”

Syl’s scowl turned into a sort of wistful smile as she stared off into space. “Yeah, he is cute…”

The next day, Angelique and I were on our own so we went back to practicing hand-to-hand combat, only with less armor and lighter weapons. She was still kicking my ass, but at least I was keeping up now. After building up a good sweat and getting my teeth kicked in once more, we took a break.

“You need to rely on your powers in a real fight,” Angelique reiterated to me once more, “and don’t engage at close range unless you absolutely have to. I also recommend ducking out of the way and running very fast… hmmm, maybe tomorrow, I’ll get us some bows and crossbows and you can try some archery. You can never be too prepared.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, practically falling onto the bench behind us.

Angelique stopped in mid stride and clicked her fingers to produce several towels from mid air. She handed me one, but it fell straight through my fingers.

“Oh, er, sorry, forgot.” She apologized. I searched her face for a hint of sarcasm, but there wasn’t any there. Sighing, I nodded. “That’s all right, I forget myself sometimes.”

She paused for a moment, her eyes roaming up from my feet to the top of my head and back again. If I wasn’t red already, I would have blushed.

“Problems?” She inquired, taking the seat next to me.

Ever the stoic Britain, my reply was a little unconvincing. “Oh, no, nothing really.”

She tried to touch my shoulder, but her hand slipped right through and, overbalancing, her face plunged through my thigh and slammed into the bench underneath.

My first reaction was panic. “OH! OW! Are you all right?”

To my credit, I tried pulling her up but my hands just passed straight through her once again. She picked herself up, clutching her head in pain. “Er, yeah, I’m ok, just a bit of a bump. If anyone asks, I got it during practice, ok? That way we can both save some face.”

I giggled at that, but her look of pain sobered me quickly. “I’m sorry. This insubstantial crap is a real nuisance. I can’t drink, I can’t eat… I haven’t really touched anything except my big sister since I joined the clan.”

She shrugged, her reply a little bitter. “At least you get to be human again.”

“Yeah, and I thought that bit about ‘living vicariously through others’ was just a pretty turn of phrase.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, think about it,” I sighed, “in my natural form, I’m about as useful as a screen door on a submarine in a fight. Even if I have a magic sword on me, I can hardly lift the bloody things, and my TK can only do so much. I’m not stupid, moving furniture about is impressive, but I might as well paint a target on my chest with a sign saying ‘stab here’. It’s no wonder there aren’t many of us left.”

“What does that have to do with anything? You’re not a frontline fighter like me; you’re not even a backline fighter like Lorilei. You’re a spy, if you ever get into a fight you’ve stuffed up big time.”

“Living vicariously through others, you see. I’ll sneak out, sniff out the information and report back to Lady Lucifer, and then you or someone like you will come in and fix the problem. And the only thing I’ll be able to do about it is watch while people get killed. And if they die because I fucked up, it’s doubly worse.”

“Then don’t fuck up,” she shrugged again, “and be thankful that you’re not the one taking that particular risk. You’ll have enough risk of your own to swallow without shouldering everyone else’s burdens as well.”

“Yes, but…”

“OH, for Lucifer’s sake!” Angelique stood up and twirled to face me, tapping her hoof angrily. “You get to hop back to Earth like you’d never left, get to be anyone you’d like to be, do practically anything you’d like to do, and you’re complaining to me? You get a chance at Eternal Bliss and turn it down, and you’re complaining to me?”

I scowled. “Eternal Bliss. What a fucking joke. Just lock your soul away in a cupboard full of hookers for all time… Eternal Bliss is bullshit. It’s a fucking salve for the big guy’s conscience. Its ok, we’re locking you in an oubliette, you’ve got your Playboy and your hash and your hookers, you’ll be perfectly happy being blind, deaf and dumb. You’re not good enough to be an Angel, so we’ll just sweep you under the carpet.”

Angelique blinked. “Don’t you think that some people deserve a rest? Isn’t life hard enough without making it worse in death?”

“I’m not useless,” I shook my head, “nobody is useless. Every soul, wherever they are, can make a difference if they have the chance. I was in theatre because I thought that the best thing anyone could do with their lives was make the people around you happy and myself at the same time if possible. I was an Atheist because I couldn’t believe in a higher being that predetermined all of our fates for the reason that it invalidates our choices. And now I’m here because I’m too arrogant to be a bystander anymore. And what do I find? Everyone else is going to be doing the real work and putting their existence on the line while the best thing I can do is run away when the going gets hot.”

She was glaring at me, eyes like black pits. “You get to be male again. You get to be human again. You don’t have to give a man a blowjob every night just to get by. Count your lucky stars.”

“This?” I grasped my breasts, giving them a pleasant jiggle (I was getting used to them by that time, and besides, far be it from me to refuse any angle in a debate just for the sake of embarrassment). “Oh, come on, this isn’t so bad. I’ve played women before, it’s no big deal. Who cares what the package is like, it’s what’s inside that really counts, believe me. Male, female… I admit that the change was a bit of a shock, but… I can’t really say I care either way. I mean, it’s not like it matters if I can’t touch anyone, does it? Envy me if you like, but we all have our crosses to bear.”

I laughed at that last one. It wasn’t a particularly nice laugh either.

Her eyes widened for a moment before she slumped back into her seat. “Sorry. I was rude.”

I sighed. If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a beautiful girl apologizing to me. “That’s alright, I was whining. We’ve both made our beds, now we get to sleep in them.”

She glanced at me and raised one eyebrow. “You know, it’s not as bad as all that, though, don’t you? Angels may be the ‘good guys’, but they’re really not that much different to us. They swear, they fornicate and they do a lot of bad things in the name of the big guy. Heck, read the Bible sometime, it’s the juiciest little novella you’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah, that’s what they keep telling me. Look, Lady Angelique, I know I’m only a lowly Sedu and you’re the mistress of a whole clan…”

“A whole Clan of two, including me,” she sighed, “don’t worry so much about my title, Zizili, call me Angelique. Well, outside formal occasions at least.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Angelique, call me Zee. Sedu names seem to be pretty complicated.”

And, somehow, I knew I’d just made a friend.

Chapter 4 — Damned in New York

“Wake up, sleepyhead!” Az shouted happily as she bounced into my bedroom. I didn’t remember seeing her leave.

“Garg,” I gurgled with feeling. The 24 hours beforehand had been rather vigorous. It was my 10th morning waking up as a Sedu and I was feeling much more content about my new lot in life. After day 4, I started to relax and enjoy being a girl more than I ever would have thought possible, and my new intellectual gifts finally kicked in. For three days I learned at such an incredible rate that my teachers were hard pressed to keep up with me. I cruised through explosives with Angelique and moved right along to security systems and stealth techniques. I even managed to get a few hits on her when we sparred. Then on the eighth night, Az skipped into my room to inform me that they’d given me the next day off; and so, on the 9th day I rested. Or, rather I would have rested if my big sister hadn’t had other ideas. So much for a relaxing day off… though I had to admit, it was enormous fun. Naturally, the next morning I ached more than a little bit and my eyes were ringed in black.

Having her call out ‘oh, sister’ right in the middle was more than a little disturbing, though.

“Come on, time to get up, little sis,” Az poked me until I rolled out of bed, “we’ve got a date to keep with Lady Lucifer. It’s your first real mission today!”

“Mission?” The word made my heartbeat kick up several notches but she wouldn’t say any more, grabbing me by the arm and literally dragging me all the way to Lady Lucifer’s audience chamber. I’m embarrassed to say that I showed my status as a total newbie by gawking at the other weird and wonderful demons that we passed by, but I plead the ignorance of youth on that charge.

Angelique was there when we arrived along with her only Valkyrie Clanswoman, a striking athletic redhead. Lady Lucifer was still dealing with a petition from Clan Oculus for something to do with eyeware and health coverage, so we were free to chat for a minute or two while we waited. The silver-haired Princess greeted me with a mimed kiss on the cheek. “Hey, Zee. How did yesterday go?”

I blushed in remembrance. “Um, it went ok, I guess.”

She smiled sympathetically. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re performing much better than any of us could have hoped and Lady Lucifer is suitably impressed with you. You’ll be fine, won’t she Azazel?”

Az nodded with a smile on her face that reached from ear to ear. “You’ll knock ’em dead, sis.” She even ruffled my hair like we were real family.

The next thing I knew, I was literally pounced upon by a familiar blue ball of limbs intent on squeezing the life out of me from behind. In other words, Baroness Lorilei hugged me from behind, impacting with such force that I was almost bowled over.

“Well, well, well, look at you! My, you have shrunk, haven’t you? Though not all over, I notice,” the Baroness gave me a quick peck on the cheek before pulling away.

Naturally, I was stunned, though I did have a goofy smile on my face. “You can touch me?”

“Just a little spell…”

“Lies,” the man with her sighed, a devilishly handsome Incubi (hey, the description fits, you get to wear it), “she’s been working on it since she heard you were drafted into the Sedu. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Richard and I would kiss your hand only my lovely companion refuses to share.”

He was turning on the charm, giving me the dark piercing stare that’s the male version of goo-goo eyes. My body reacted to him, his air of confidence, his deep masculine voice, the line of his body and a raw supernatural aura that literally screamed sex to the viewer. But you don’t try to play a player; I read the signals he was putting out like they were stamped on his face in cheap newsprint. To an untrained eye he may have seemed sincere but, since I could resist his otherwise compelling low-level charms with my own unearthly will and faculties, I could see right through his façade.

“Oh, what a pity,” I cooed, which he found most delightful as I stepped into his body while keeping at least an inch away with everything but my hand, which I slipped through the crotch of his pants, “what a shame. It’s soooo lonely being a ‘look but no touch item’, so very lonely…”

He couldn’t feel my touch at all but the power of suggestion alone caused a bulge to rise in his pants and a surprisingly large bulge at that. For a moment I had him panting before I stepped away, giving him a light telekinetic slap as we parted. “Can it, Dick, you’re not all that.”

My feminine companions had to try very hard to stifle their guffaws as I left Richard quite red in the face from something other than anger. Fortunately, the Dumiurge called on us to approach the throne at that moment, so nothing more could be said. The incident helped me steady myself but I was nervous. In fact, I hadn’t been in such a state since just after my death. We stepped forward once the Oculus demons had departed and bowed before Her Hellish Majesty.

“Zizili, it’s so nice to see you again,” Lady Lucifer smiled warmly, “and time for your first mission to Earth as well. Azazel and Pazuzu speak highly of your achievements and tell me that they believe you are ready for this challenge. In all honesty, however, I wonder if this task is within a fresh demon’s grasp, simple though it may be, as it does require you to navigate the battlefield that is New York.”

“New York, your Majesty?” Angelique asked, seemingly shocked. “New York is no place for an inexperienced demon.”

Pazuzu sighed and shook her head. “Unfortunately, Azazel and Zizili are the only two Sedu I can spare at the moment and even they will require back-up, which is why I asked you to assign Victoria. Azazel will provide the experience in field operations to the team, Zizili will assist her and Victoria will provide muscle only if it becomes necessary. The mission is as simple as picking up a parcel and delivering it to a certain person at a certain bar. Ordinarily I wouldn’t even consider giving the assignment to Zizili but, as the bar is in the newly minted neutral zone, no-one would dare try anything and risk Jade’s wrath.”

“I agree with Pazuzu,” Lady Lucifer nodded, “it’s a good job to cut our new girl’s teeth on. Azazel, you’ve already been briefed by Baroness Pazuzu and nominal control of this operation falls to you as the most experienced member of the team. Now, while you three are performing the assignment, Baroness Lorilei will be heading another team alongside Lady Angelique with Richard as their second in command. Several Angels will also be joining them in a joint strike at one of the Bathorian’s known hideouts, a storage warehouse in New Jersey. This will distract the Bathorians and should allow the trade to take place unhindered. Now go, and show me the skill of the Lilin Clans.”

“Yes, your Hellish Majesty,” we all said in unison before rising to our feet and walking out of the throne room.

Angelique, Lorilei and Richard left us with some fond farewells and Victoria, the red-haired Valkyrie. “Call me Vickie,” she grunted once we were alone before turning to Azazel, “so what’s the plan, boss?”

“Our first step is infiltrating the city, which is a little complicated. We’ll be gating in through a particular alleyway chosen for its proximity to objective one, the parcel pickup, as well as its relative privacy. There will be two sympathetic mortals waiting for us, a dark-haired man with a black briefcase and his wife, a blonde. Zizili will possess the man, I’ll possess the blonde, just look for the hair color to clue you in. Naturally, Vickie here can craft her own disguise. We’ll take the mortal’s car to the pickup point. Zee will discretely trade her briefcase for another from a man with bleached blonde hair, gold rimmed glasses and a red-and-gold tie with Superman’s emblem on it. Once that’s done, we move on to objective two, a private gentleman’s bar on the edge of the financial district. It’s a fancy place where men take their high-priced hookers and mistresses to have some fun, so Vickie and I will be playing your bits of stuff, Zee. You’ll trade briefcases again, this time for an empty one. And then we all come home. Questions?”

“Yeah,” Vickie nodded, “what’s in the package?”

“None of us need to know that,” Azazel rebuked, “it doesn’t matter what’s in the package. Lady Lucifer and Baroness Pazuzu want us to deliver a package, so we are delivering a package; it’s as simple as that. Welcome to the game of espionage. So, if that’s all then, we better be getting on. I’ll cast the gate spell, you two hold my hands. Vickie, these mortals may be alarmed by your current appearance; you need to take on a more acceptable form before we shift.”

Nodding, Vickie shifted into a human form that looked much like her demonic self, a tall, athletic, flame-haired bombshell in a tight black dress with matching purse and high heels. She looked familiar to me from somewhere I couldn’t quite place but, unfortunately, I didn’t have any time to consider my sense of deja vu. We held hands as Az chanted something under her breath. With the final syllable, the world seemed to turn grey for a moment before everything snapped back into focus.

We arrived in the dingiest, garbage-clogged, rat-infested piece of Hell on Earth that ever polluted existence. There was even a corpse half buried under a pile of trash. Spray painted on one wall was some sort of gang tag that read ‘SPAWN WAS HERE’, which was curious to say the least. The man and wife that were waiting for us couldn’t have been more out of place, dressed to the nines in the middle of what must be mugger central. If I didn’t know that they had infernal protection, I would have said they were crazy.

Remembering myself, I jumped at the male figure and trusted instinct to do the rest. It did, I felt myself literally pouring into his body and taking residence in his mind. In moments, I learned his name, his job, his wife’s name, where they lived, the names of their pets, literally everything about him. The number of times he’d cheated on his wife was also quite surprising. Despite the relative ease with which I passed into him, putting on his body took a short amount of time and, once the process was completed, felt rather awkward. It was like I was wearing a set of clothes that were at once too large and too tight in all the wrong places.

Blinking my new eyes, I held out my hand to Victoria, trying to block out the smells that assaulted me. “J-John Vasange,” I introduced my Host while trying not to gag, “nice to meet you, Vickie.”

Vickie took the hand and allowed me to kiss it. “Bloody Hell, that’s just freaky.”

“Ugh,” Azazel, or ‘Mary’ now, straightened her red dress, “this girl’s brain is so empty. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

I am so glad that our Hosts only have the memories we want them to have after we’re gone. That comment could have been embarrassing otherwise. Azazel’s Host may have been dumb (not that it made any real difference) but she was definitely attractive. Vickie still won out in the end, though more due to her supernatural allure than pure physicality. I decided it’d more depend on whether you liked your women soft or hard. Me, I couldn’t decide and neither could my new Mr. Winky.

As the man of the team, I was volunteered to drive by the womenfolk. Az looked after the briefcase riding shotgun while Vickie slipped gracefully into the back seat of our car, a Bentley no less. John had money. Az directed me to a coffee shop which had a few tables out in the open air, though I had to park the car around the corner.

“Ok,” Az began, handing me the briefcase, “the blonde man will be sitting out the front of the shop waiting for you. Sit down at his table with the briefcase in the hand which will let you place it down next to his one under the table. You say to him ‘Unusually chilly today’ and he’ll answer ‘not really for this time of year’. He’ll talk to you, probably about the weather or something equally trivial, you order a coffee and he’ll leave before it arrives. Drink your coffee and come back here with the new briefcase.”

“Isn’t that code phrase a little vague?” I asked, incredulous.

“What do you think the chances are that a blonde man with gold-rimmed glasses and a superman tie sitting in that coffee shop with that exact same briefcase under the table is going to answer in those exact words would be? One in a billion? Besides, if he’s not the one, he’ll take offense at you sitting down and even if he doesn’t, he’ll take his own briefcase with him. If all that still goes wrong, then it’s clearly a case of divine intervention and Lady Lucifer will be able to wring concessions out of the big guy for several centuries to come, so don’t sweat it. Now, what do you say?”

“Unusually chilly today; not really for this time of year. Yeah, I got it…” I hopped out of the car and closed the door before she could lecture me any more. With the daylight slowly fading over the city, I strolled around the corner avoiding the hussle and bussle where I could, blending in with the rest of the suits. I spotted my man immediately; he was the only person fitting his description on the entire street. I kept my briefcase in my right hand nearest to his briefcase as I approached him, greeting him with a warm smile.

“Unusually chilly today,” I said cheerfully as I sat down, shaking his hand.

“Not really for this time of year,” he replied curtly. He seemed nervous. “So, how about those Mets?”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow Baseball,” I answered as I beckoned the waitress over. I ordered my coffee and turned back to my companion.

“Uh, so, been in town long?” He asked, his eyes flicking strangely to one side without moving his head, like he was signaling something to me.

“Only just arrived,” I replied, trying to follow the direction of his eyes. He seemed to be glancing at a man who leaned against a building across the street wearing a tatty army surplus green jacket with a tiny digital camera hanging from his neck and a three-day-old growth of dark chin stubble. He kept his hair close cropped as well and wore casual blue jeans. He was also conspicuous in the fact that he stared continually at some point to his right, never directly at us yet within his field of vision.

I tried to read Mr. Blonde’s surface thoughts, as chaotic as they were, and kept flashing on the image of the same man following his taxi on the way here in a black sedan, the second most inconspicuous car in NY (first being the yellow taxi). Probing a little deeper, I couldn’t discern anything else about the man, it was doubtful that Mr. Blonde had any idea who his stalker was so I pulled out. Reading thoughts is like that, you can’t get anywhere unless you know the right questions to ask or if you’re willing to spend the time hunting for every neural pathway and traveling down it. Yeah, it’s not often I have several days to interrogate a subject… in fact, its never happened.

“Well, I better depart now, anyway,” my companion nodded, “goodbye.”

I said my goodbyes with another smile as he took away my briefcase and left me his in return. I couldn’t help but notice that a moment later, a female college student with a book bag over one shoulder hurried out of the coffee shop talking in rapid French into her cell phone. She went in the same direction as my contact, perhaps twenty paces behind him. The camera man across the road stayed put, so I put on a show of drinking my coffee for him. Finally finishing, forcing myself to take my time despite my nerves, I picked up the new, much heavier, briefcase and went back to the car.

Turning about as I opened the door, I couldn’t see anyone tailing me, so I got in and pulled the door shut, handing the case to Az.

“Took you long enough,” Vickie growled.

“Change of situation, someone was staking out the meet,” I informed them, “did you see a man in a green jacket, dark stubble, blue jeans with a camera around his neck? Or anyone that looked like they were tailing me?”

Az nodded, looking worried. “I saw the guy in the green jacket. He crossed the street coming towards us, then turned to our left, crossed the road again and disappeared around the corner just before you got in.”

“So that means we’ve been made,” Vickie scowled, “I guess we have to abort, then. Take that thing with us.”

“No,” Az said firmly, “this doesn’t change our mission. We’re heading into neutral territory; we don’t fight each other there.”

I looked at my big sister. She might have been wearing a new body, but I could tell her personality by her mannerisms; the look of concentration on her face was pure Az. “You think they’re Angels? I thought Angels eviscerated us on sight?”

“That’s been the basic policy for a few thousand years,” Az sighed, “but right now, neither side is ready for another War. Present reality is; if one side could prove that the other was violating the truce, we might even have the Apocalypse on our hands. Killing one of us would be a major breach of the peace treaty, particularly once we’re on neutral grounds. Our best bet is to stay on task; we’ll be much safer at the bar and we can call in more backup from there.”

Without further ado, I started the car and pulled away from the curb. Once again, Az gave me directions to the parking garage where a space had already been booked for us near the entrance to the bar. I kept one eye on the rear view mirror but it was impossible to see anything in New York traffic, let alone spot which of the umpteen millionth yellow taxis might be following you.

My curiosity piqued, I had to ask. “Az, what do you think the Apocalypse would be like?”

“Hmmm,” Az seemed to consider the question, voice empty and emotionless, “hard to say. I know what would probably happen if Apocalypse was declared, though. First, both sides would descend onto Earth en-masse and set about killing every man, woman and child. Angel or Demon, they’d slay every human without question or pause to bolster their own ranks as efficiently as possible. Then, when there were no humans left, they’d start on each other. The war would escalate and escalate until Lucifer faced the big guy himself for the ultimate title, and the winner would inherit the wasteland that was left. Michael may have kicked Lucifer out on her ear the first time but she’s way beyond his power now.”

I heard Vickie gulp. It occurred to me that this was the sort of information that humans really needed to know but, looking out of the car window at the passers by, I realized that it didn’t matter what they knew or thought or did. What matters is the choice they make with what they do know. In a meaningless life, that was the only thing that had meaning, which drove home the iron spike of my own situation. My choices in life had meant nothing, as good as I thought I was, I still ended up in Hell. Had I deserved it? Had Lorilei deserved it? Had the molested child deserved to become the molesting demon in Lucifer’s pool? What sort of God allows things like this?

“Thinking awful hard there,” Az mumbled, bringing me back to reality.

“It’s nothing,” I dismissed my melancholy thoughts for the practicality of the moment.

We were alone when we arrived that the parking space; well within, Az assured us, the boundaries of the Neutral Zone. The Bouncer at the front door knew ‘John’ by face and by name. I dredged his name out of John’s memories and palmed him a customary tip from the great steaming wad of hundred dollar bills that was burning a hole in John’s pocket before I walked inside with a beautiful woman on each arm. The club didn’t have a name over the door, it was just expected that everyone knew it, like the price of drinks or food off the menu. The place was packed with rich men spoiling beautiful women; gambling, smoking and drinking away fortunes without a care in the world.

We split up as per Az’s orders. Vickie slinked over to the bar and ordered a drink, Az mingled with the crowd and I searched the tables for my next contact. I didn’t think it’d take me long, the man’s signature item was supposed to be a neon purple leopard skin beret. I was right, he wasn’t hard to find but not because of his hat. Aside from the hat, he looked relatively normal. He wore a brown leather jacked over a cream colored shirt, open at the collar to show off his chest, with pants that matched his jacket. In fact, though the beret might have been a little tasteless on its own, in combination with his conservative attire, it gave him character that he mightn’t have had otherwise. He looked ordinary, though well groomed, with a well-trimmed patch of beard around his mouth and artfully controlled stubble running up to short sideburns and brown eyes to match his leathers.

What was out of place was the woman he was with. I didn’t know the man from Adam, but unless he had some sort of quality I wasn’t seeing, then he had to be paying just to breathe in close proximity, surcharged by cubic foot of gas exhaled. She was literally stunning; the sort of girl who’s looks hit a man between the eyes and leaves him reeling in confusion. And I should know; she hit me with the full blast. She wore a long silver-grey silk bib that tapered off into a point over her midriff; just enough to cover the breasts while the thin straps kept her back in full view. Her miniskirt was a belt with pretensions of being a loincloth, split to the hip as it were rather than to the thigh. Her panties were red, which everyone in the room knew. To top it off, dark green high-heeled sandals wound around her calves like vines, with tiny cloth roses dotted here and there like spots of blood. She tanned herself naked to a golden brown, seen for the complete lack of a bikini line around her back, and her skin was the sort of flawless ordinary mortals only get with make-up. Slicked back blonde hair completed the sleek and sexy look; she could have been a model who’d just stepped straight off the boardwalk. She saw me when I saw her, pinning me in place with ice-blue eyes that most would probably presume were colored contacts.

It was the state of the man she was snuggling against that tipped me off that not all was as it seemed. She had one hand on his shoulder, stroking his collarbone under the open shirt. Her other hand was at his crotch under the table, in a position that left me no doubt it was down his pants despite being obscured by the tabletop. That arm moved ever so slightly so that, unless you were close or particularly astute, you’d take her position as overly affectionate showing off rather than the sex act it actually was.

Of course, if it was sex that was on my contact’s mind, he had a funny way of showing it. He was sweating bullets, lips pursed in a tight frown, shivering from cold fear rather than arousal. I knew the difference from years of acting and human observation, despite her massage his shoulders were tight and his back rigid, his feet twitching involuntarily. Reaching out to his mind with my own, there was one overwhelming sensation dominating his thoughts, the feel of serrated teeth at the base of his partly erect penis.

I paused, assessing the situation. Obscenely beautiful, able to manifest snapping mouths anywhere on their bodies, she fit the textbook description of a Bathorian. On the other hand, if there was one, then there were probably many in the club. A quick glace told me that for every man of any stripe, there were two beautiful women waiting for their beck and call. All my neurons were screaming trap simultaneously, it took a second for my brain to go into high gear, a second I couldn’t really afford. Taking a deep breath, I bought some more time by sliding calmly into the seat opposite the couple.

My options were severely limited. If I ran, I was betting that her friends would open fire right in the middle of the crowd, not all of them could be Bathorians, so ‘innocent’ people would die. I could attack first, but then my contact was dead if not myself and the rest of my team. So I sat calmly as if I hadn’t noticed anything, though I kept hold of the briefcase.

“The sun is shining,” I said.

“B-but the ground is slippery,” he replied. It wasn’t the right code; he was trying to let me know that we were in big trouble.

I raised one eyebrow, still keeping hold of the briefcase as I glanced at the girl. “Maybe we should lose the broad before we conduct business.”

“I’m fine right where I am,” she purred, making him draw in a sharp breath with the teeth around his cock.

I glanced at them both. “So, what’s the deal here? What, he’s the submissive and you’re his dom? You attached at the hip, maybe? Oh, no, let me guess. You’re the ventriloquist and he’s the dummy.”

“Just put the case down and get out of here,” the blonde said without changing expression.

“I can’t do that,” I stated flatly. “The deal was: I give this case to a man with a purple hat sitting alone. You only fit two of my three criteria.”

“Then you’re screwed because I’m not moving, oh, and if you don’t do as I say, your friends are dead.” The blonde finally dropped all pretense.

“Great,” I smiled, “light up the barbeque, I’ll eat them with brown sauce.”

The blonde blinked and her captive drew in another sharp breath. “If you think I won’t do it…”

“Oh, no,” I interrupted, “I know you’ll do it without batting one pretty little eyelid. The problem is; I don’t care if you bite his dick off or not. You seem quite intent on starting this little dance, probably so intent that you haven’t noticed what my left hand is doing.”

She glanced down at the tabletop, my left hand atop the briefcase in my lap out of sight under the table. I noticed a droplet of sweat start to form on her brow.

“I’m sorry,” I continued, “but I can’t do anything as dramatic as cock the hammer on basic principle. I don’t have to pull the hammer back on an automatic to fire the first round, though, so you’ll just have to take it on faith that at this range I can remove a hefty chunk of your spine. But don’t worry; I’ll try not to get too much blood on your outfit.”

She smiled. “Guns won’t work on me.”

“So I hear, but I’m willing to bet it’ll slow you down. After that, head shots become much more convenient. Gunshots in a place like this would cause a massive panic so it might take a second or two for your friends to get here.”

The hand on his shoulder slid down behind his back. “You’ll die too,” she hissed.

So she does have friends with her, I thought, bugger.

She jerked my contact into the ‘firing line’, which was a nice waste of time since I was totally bluffing. What I didn’t expect was the magical dagger she had stashed behind his back. I managed, somehow, to get the briefcase up in front of my chest, absorbing most of her strike. The magic of the dagger, however, wasn’t so easily stopped. Supernaturally keen, it sliced straight through the steel reinforcements and left a burning arc of pain across my chest. In the same move, she surged forward, toppling the table over in her haste to drive the dagger into my heart.

Fearing gunfire from the crowd as much as her blade, I threw myself backward, rolling backward over my chair as the briefcase disintegrated, spilling its contents onto the floor. I discarded the broken pieces and grabbed the Bathorian’s wrists as she threw herself on top of me, one hand filled with a dagger, the other a bestial thing with claws and snapping teeth. Oh, I mean that, her palm had sprouted a maw like a cross between a cat’s and a shark’s, serrated rows of teeth and fangs that could ruin anyone’s day.

The shock of gunfire startled us both for a moment. The sheer noise of it in the confined space after the peaceful silence of moments before made John’s heart skip a beat. I shut it out of my mind, ignored everything else in the room and concentrated on the danger in front of me. I needed to get her off before she realized that she could just eat my hands, so I planted one boot onto her chest and thrust her away. I think she was surprised, probably not used to dealing with opponents who were just as fast and strong as she was.

I didn’t really look at what I was picking up, my subconscious brain just processed the glint of gold in the ruins of the briefcase and labeled it ‘heavy blunt instrument’ and left my hands to do the rest. I grabbed it and jumped to my feet just in time for her to bounce back off the wall, bringing the heavy blunt instrument down on her head with all the strength I could muster.

The results were disgustingly spectacular. The blunt object crushed in the left half of her cranium, causing a spray of blood before her brain started leaking out of the wound. She dropped like a stone, leaving me at a loss for the tragic waste I’d just committed.

A spattering of bullets ripped up the walls and furniture around me, reminding me to keep my mind on the business at hand. Self flagellation could wait ’til later.

I took cover by dropping to the ground lying flat behind the table, which was only good for cover because the gunmen (or gunwomen, I hadn’t bothered to check their gender) couldn’t see me to shoot. It seemed to me that their strategy was to destroy the table and deprive me of cover, which from where I was lying on my belly seemed like a damn good plan.

I had one of those moments of relative peace in the middle of all the chaos when I saw what was in my hand. I was holding, I jest you not, a blood-spattered golden dildo. The detail in the sculpture was so precise that there could be no confusions as to what the object was: a solid, shiny, gold wing-wong.

Then the war resumed and I felt the pain. I’d landed on top of the Bathorian and managed to sheathe her dagger in John’s stomach and, by mystical extension, my own.

“Woah,” I grimaced stupidly, “déjà vu.”

Looking up, ignoring the dagger for now, I couldn’t believe the scene that met my eyes. Bystanders running for exits, small groups of Bathorians in skimpy clothes blasting away almost at random with rifles that they couldn’t have possibly smuggled into the bar unnoticed, bodies littering the floor. One body I did recognize was Mary, brains leaking out onto the carpet. Vickie was nowhere to be seen in the chaos.

The spray of bullets around me stopped for a moment and I caught sight of my own personal Bathorian Death Squad reloading. I took the only chance I was likely to get, leaving my contact either dead or unconscious behind me while I charged for the kitchen door, bursting through as I put John’s shoulder to the task moments before the gunfire resumed, literally chewing up the wood around me. My flight was so raucous that I tripped and fell onto my back again, spinning from the impact with the door. Blood loss also probably had something to do with that, but I wasn’t really in my right head at the time.

“ZEE! GET IN HERE!”

I twisted my head around slowly toward the source of the sound. Dimona stood in an open doorway that had a glowing sign marked ‘EXIT’ over it, propping the spring-door open with her legs and back while holding what my fuzzy shell-shocked brain identified as a pineapple-style grenade in both hands. I slipped and skidded in my own blood, but I managed to wrangle John’s feet under me as I ran towards the escape, launching myself down the stairwell without losing a beat, though I did bash my right shoulder against the concrete wall on the turn.

I took the stairs so fast, dancing downward two steps at a time, that I couldn’t avoid another jarring bash against the opposite wall. Dimona swooped after me a moment before an explosion tore the exit door off its hinges, spewing fire into the stairwell.

“We’ve got to move! Now!” Dimona urged me on, but I hesitated.

“Hang on a sec,” I paused, ripping off my jacket before getting a good grip on the dagger. Clenching myself, I pulled it out, bundled it in my jacket with the dildo so that they’d be concealed, and wadded the entire thing against the wound. Damn it hurt, and there was nothing I could do about the gash on my chest either, but the stomach was the more serious of the two injuries.

Then we started running again, the stairwell empty. Dimona alighted at the base long before I managed to stumble down the last few steps. She pulled a white dress on which she seemed to have left at the base of the stairs, making herself look like any other pretty little girl once she had the tail tucked back away under the skirt and the wings properly folded around her trim waistline. A tight bra kept her breasts flat, and I certainly wasn’t going to envy her ability to breathe in that getup.

“I need a new body,” I gasped when I got to ground floor.

“It’s ok; I’ve got a contingency plan,” Dimona nodded, “just concentrate on moving.”

I did. She got the door and I stumbled through it, very aware of the trail of blood I was leaving behind us. There were blurry lights outside, flashing blue and red.

“HELP, HELP!” Dimona started crying out in a scared little girl voice. “MY DADDY’S BEEN HURT!”

I had to smile. It was a good plan; an ambulance could get us away in nothing flat. I was almost glad I’d been stabbed.

“Sir? Sir, can you hear me?”

I didn’t know how I’d gotten onto the ground, which probably wasn’t a good sign. “Yeah,” I replied, focusing on the faces that hovered over me, “I’ve lost a lot of blood, compressed the wound…”

“And you just keep right on doing that,” the paramedic replied, a woman with dark hair tied back, “I need you to stay awake, ok? We’re taking you to hospital.”

“My little girl…”

“I’m right here, Daddy,” Dimona squeezed my hand, “the other one’s gone to get a stretcher.”

I’ll give Dimona this: she knows how to get the right info across without being obvious. Without further ado, I grabbed the paramedic by the back of the head and drew her down into a passionate French kiss.

She never knew what hit her and John didn’t either, since I took all memory of the events away with me when I abandoned his body for hers. The shift in perspective was slower than the first and I had to hang onto the kiss for dear life itself, but finally I slid myself into place.

Blinking, I had to say it was nice not being in pain any more. Not to mention that the new female body actually felt like it fitted correctly. John, thankfully, passed out from his exertions. I’d have hated having to explain his amnesia.

“Doris,” my new body’s partner arrived with the stretcher, “no time to zone out now. We’ve gotta move him.”

I jumped to my feet and helped transfer John to the ambulance, keeping the shirt stuffed with priceless objects tightly pressed against the wound. I picked Dimona up in my arms in the middle of a street filled with crying people, smoke and policemen. I just prayed that none of them had Guardians or, if they did, they had better things to do with their time. “You drive,” I said to my partner, “I’ll ride in back.”

He nodded curtly, heading ‘round to the front while I hopped into the back with Dimona, closing the doors behind us and making sure John was strapped in properly. My next order of business was changing his bandage for something more suitable and less valuable, stashing the dildo and the dagger into a first aid kit that I handed to the imp for safe keeping. Then came the business of trying to keep John alive as best I could.

I failed.

Do I feel bad about that? Yep. Was there anything I could do about it? No. I had all of Doris’ medical training at my fingertips and I still couldn’t save him, he died in transit. Of course, I tried resuscitation and cardio and flappy electric pads and adrenaline but nothing helped. He just lost too much blood.

I might have thought more about it, been more devastated, if the notion of the looming Apocalypse wasn’t giving me worse things to worry about. With John dead and the window between the cabin and the driver’s seat closed, I turned to Dimona intent on a good heart-to-heart conversation that would involve an answer on exactly what the fuck she was doing there.

Besides, I knew John, he was an asshole.

“Before you even ask,” Dimona started before I had a chance to open my mouth, “Lady Lucifer sent me to pull your ass outta the fire if it looked like it was about to be burnt off. And a damn lucky thing she did.”

“Ok,” I sighed, uncomfortable in the eerie quiet sitting next to the corpse, “lets just take it as read that I believe you for now, since I don’t have much of a choice at the moment, and give you the benefit of the doubt for saving my life. Next question is: what the fuck is going on? Everyone keeps telling me, NOBODY breaks the peace in the Neutral Zone, but unless I’m mistaken, somebody just did.”

“No shit,” the little girl grunted, “even I wasn’t expecting it to go down like that. Bold move… stupid but bold. Truth is, Zee, we recently became aware that someone on our side’s gone Rogue… and it just happens that they haven’t bothered mentioning it to us yet. Lady Lucifer’s been whittling the suspects down to a handful of highly placed members of Hell’s Hierarchy for the last week. Your operation was designed to lure the mole out but it seems like he was a step ahead of us.”

“Hang on,” I rubbed my temples, “Lady Lucifer used me as bait?”

“No, you were the hook, this,” Dimona held up the first aid kit and shook it, “was the bait.”

“Ok, what is it?”

“I don’t know.” She noticed my look and scowled. “Hey, I’m just a grunt like you; I don’t need to know everything, so they don’t tell me everything. But I can surmise a few things. They teach you much about Artifacts in Sedu Academy?”

“It wasn’t on the curriculum.”

“Ok, exposition time then. The world wasn’t always like it is now, kid, where most people don’t believe in their own shadows. Nowadays you’ve only got a few people in the know, but back in the day there was more room for mages and vampires and such to roam about the world poking their noses into the way things tick. In addition, there was more room for Angels and Demons to wander about causing mischief without the violent repercussions that you’d get nowadays what with the mass media and all. Anyway, some of these supernatural creatures did a lot of things that didn’t make the bosses upstairs very happy, breeding with mortals and each other was one of them but of far more concern were the objects that they created. Some of them were harmless; others might just tip the balance of power if one side got a hold of something best left alone. So after the War, the treaty they drew up included the magical equivalent of arms limitations.”

I looked at the first aid kit. “Are you trying to tell me that I’ve been carrying around the metaphysical equivalent of a tactical nuke?”

“Something like that, or it could just be a fake. I’m hoping it’s a fake, but even so, it was destined to be locked up in a vault somewhere in the Neutral Zone. We can’t take it back to Hell and risk royally screwing the Treaty.”

“So we’re stuck here a while? With the Bathorians on our tails?”

“And their ringmaster, yup,” Dimona scratched her chin, “and any Ang… oh, crap.”

“What?”

“We’re heading for a hospital.”

“Yeah so?”

“A hospital,” Dimona growled at me, grabbing the front of my shirt, “ANGEL CENTRAL!”

The window between cabins slid open and the other paramedic’s eyes peered through the slot. “We’re here guys. Guys?”

Dimona was a quick thinker, she thrust her head into my breast and started balling her eyes out, rubbing her eyelids on my clothing to induce real tears. My arms wrapped around her naturally in response. I just looked at Doris’ partner and shook my head. He sighed and nodded. “You take the girl inside, I’ll finish up.”

Nodding, I opened the door and carried Dimona out into the night air. The Hospital entrance was packed with people, for which I was very grateful. I slipped by the reception desk and into a janitor’s closet unnoticed by anyone. It might have been tricky explaining why Dimona was carrying a first aid kit otherwise. There was a sink in one corner which the little Imp used to freshen up before we moved on; just me, a paramedic, taking a little girl to see her parents.

When we were ready, I stepped outside with the first aid kit in one hand and Dimona’s hand in the other. I wasn’t expecting to see Vickie in a nurse’s uniform hanging around the reception desk, trying to look like she was sorting through some papers. Turning without pause, I led Dimona away.

“Hey,” the Imp squeaked in a low voice, “that’s Vickie!”

“I saw her, I saw her,” I whispered back, the loud murmur of the crowd enough to conceal our voices, “lets not get distracted here. She could be one of them.”

“She’s not,” Dimona stated, sounding completely certain.

“Dimona,” I replied, “I’m not entirely certain that you aren’t one of them yet. Don’t push me.”

“You’re going to have to choose someone to trust.”

“I have. I trust Lady Lucifer.”

Dimona snorted. “You kidding? There are two types of people in Hell: Lady Lucifer and expendable pawns.”

I couldn’t argue with the voice of experience so I just kept my opinion that if all Lucifer wanted was a stalking horse, I was the most expensive one in history.

“So,” Dimona continued, “where we headed, kid?”

“Cancer ward,” I mumbled, stopping to look at the signs, “I need a better Host.”

“HEY! Hey, you!”

I stopped and turned around. A security guard with a weird blue glow around him was hailing me down. “Where you taking that little girl, miss?”

Bloody Guardians, not now, I thought, smiling my best smile. “Oh, sorry, I’m new, just taking her up to see her mother in J Block.”

He didn’t seem convinced. “Can I see your ID?”

Smiling, I handed the card to him. As he peered at the piece of laminated plastic, his blue glow seeped out of his back, forming into a tiny glowing blue figure that shook its little fist at me. “You’re dead, Sedu! You wait and see! I’ve got six Elohim in this building at the moment and ERK!”

The ‘erk’ was induced by Vickie stepping out of the crowd and casually grabbing the little blue thing in one fist. “What seems to be the problem, sir?” She asked the guard, who wasn’t quite sure what to make of me and hadn’t seemed to notice the little glowing blue thing in the least.

“You know this woman, nurse?” He asked, suddenly enthralled by the Valkyrie’s wiles.

“Oh, yes, she works here.”

Grunting, the guard handed my ID back. “Sorry, miss, can’t be too careful, you know?”

I smiled as I took back my card. “No problem, nice to know our security staff is so vigilant.”

He was vigilantly staring at Vickie’s breasts as I said it. I stiffened when the redhead took me by arm with the first aid kit. “Come on, Doris, I’ll show you and this charming little girl around…”

Once we were out of sight of the guard, Vickie’s grip on me tightened. “Don’t move. Where do you think you were going?”

“Cancer ward,” I replied.

She glanced at me out of the corner of her eyes. “What on Earth for?”

“HELLSPAWN!” The little glowing Angel in her fist managed to squeeze his head out. “HELP!”

Vickie shifted her claw-like red thumbnail under his throat. “One more sound and I’ll pop your head off like a bottlecap.”

He shut up.

“I need a new body, a better one.” I repeated.

She seemed to consider the problem. “Good idea. But why the cancer ward?”

“She wants to bargain for a mortal’s soul,” the guardian scowled, “you’ll rot in Hell forever for this!”

Vickie sighed. “Been there, done that. Ok, elevators are…”

I searched Doris’ memory and pointed. “Over there.”

We rode the elevators up and, since we were all trapped in the same confined space and Vickie could overpower either of us with only one hand, she let go of her grip and stuffed the Angel down her cleavage. “Dimona, what the fuck are you doing here? Where’s Lorilei?”

Dimona shrugged. “In Jersey, like Lady Lucifer ordered. I was a fifth wheel, so I got the job of looking over the three of you in case something went wrong.”

“Where the fuck were you Vickie?” I asked harshly.

“Fighting for my freekin’ life, that’s where,” Vickie scowled, “I’m sitting there, watching you sidle on up to the table and sit down, when all Hell broke loose! There must’ve been twenty of those bloody things!”

“TWENTY!” Dimona squeaked.

“Yeah, give or take one or two,” Vickie nodded, “so I jumped behind the bar, whipped a couple of Ingrams outta my purse and returned fire. Next time I popped my head up, I saw you barreling out the door bleeding like a stuck pig, so I hightailed it out the front door myself, leaving a few presents behind to keep the freaks busy. I figured you’d make it out the back and go looking for help, so I dodged the crowd and flew out of the parking garage in time to see you, er, John being stuffed into the ambulance, so I followed from there.”

I blinked. “Didn’t anyone see you?”

Vickie chuckled. “Oh, Hell no, mortals don’t see shit unless they want to.”

“Sheesh,” the guardian commented in a well-muffled voice, “she must be green.”

I ignored him. “And you couldn’t come up with a better disguise?”

Vickie’s scowl returned. “Hey, I wanted you to recognize me! Just like I want to find out what the fuck’s going on!”

I held up my hands. “Ok, ok, sorry. We don’t know yet either, we’ve just got to buy ourselves some time to figure things out. Think you can change into a different body? We really don’t want to chance being recognized.”

Nodding, Vickie concentrated. I watched enviously as her skin turned from a pale cream to light beige. Her hair darkened as she shrank, the nurse’s uniform shrinking to accommodate her form. Features shifted until her face became heart-shaped, with shallow Asian eye sockets even as her hair straightened into a silky black cascade. Finished, she looked herself over and nodded approvingly. “There we are…”

Looking at her ID tag, even her picture and name had changed to reflect the new form. I was impressed. “What do they need us Sedu for anyway?” I mumbled to myself.

“Oh, we can’t do specific people,” Vickie supplied, “mainly because we can’t do anything less than a perfect woman. Even if we could, we couldn’t duplicate their memories and skills.”

I looked at her. “You seem to be taking this all very lightly.”

Vickie shrugged. “What’s there to take seriously? We work out a new trade, deliver the goods and get back to Hell. No problem. Let the big wigs hammer out the details.”

Dimona and I looked at each other. “Uh,” Dimona started, “you don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

At that moment, the elevator arrived at our floor. Peering out, the hallway was empty. “Ok, no more time,” I said as we stepped out, “I promise we’ll bring you up to speed, Vickie, soon as we get out of here. Right now, I need a body…”

We walked down the hallways looking into the rooms as we passed. I handed Dimona off to Vickie to keep up appearances while I inspected the charts, looking for a suitable candidate. The rooms only held one guest apiece, for which I was very grateful, and the wards were quiet. Most of the patients were asleep, so I didn’t have to worry about explaining myself.

I found the perfect candidate in a corner suite, completely bald from her leukemia treatments, thin as a rail far beyond even the most anorexic of supermodels. Her chart said that she was Alison Dewinter, age 19, and she was dying.

In a word, perfect.

I knew what I was about to do was, in some ways, reprehensible, but I was desperate. When I was done, nobody would be able to connect this girl to the leukemia patient lying before me. A girl would have go missing, but description? Shrunken mass of flesh waiting do die, no hair, no possible means of locomotion. I was about to stake my life that nobody could track me based on that.

I shook her shoulder gently to wake her up. “Alison? Alison, I’ve got a deal for you.”

She groaned. “Wha? It’s still dark out… just leave me alone.”

She sounded as miserable as she should be. Sighing, I grabbed her face and pulled her head up so that she could look into my eyes. I put the power of my will into my eyes, trying to mesmerize her. Az had told me it was possible but this was my first attempt. “Alsion, I don’t have a lot of time, so you will believe everything I say to be true.”

I saw the blank look slide onto her face and I knew I had her. I couldn’t just order her to do a bargain with me though, I only commanded her to believe what I was about to say, because what I was about to say would sound fantastical even to me. “Pleased to meet you Alison, my name is Zizili and I’m a Demon from Hell. I have a deal to make with you,” I skipped over that bit fast so I could continue with the rest of it. “As you can probably infer, I’m a possessing demon…”

“Like in The Exorcist?” She squeaked.

“Sort of, I’m not that nasty or capricious,” I shrugged, “just don’t get the idea that I’m nice. What I am is desperate, or I wouldn’t be here, and as you probably know desperate times call for desperate measures. To make a long story short, Alison, I need your body. I could take it, but that won’t do me much good in my present situation. I said I had a deal for you and the deal is this. You submit to being my Host until I can return to Hell and I’ll not only cure your cancer, I’ll make you one of the most beautiful women on Earth, with the athleticism of an Olympic athlete and the grace of a Prima Donna. In return, I also promise not to make you do anything really evil, though I can’t guarantee you won’t be in some danger.”

She scooched down under her covers. “I believe you,” she murmured, little realizing that her belief had been coerced, “but I don’t know, it sounds too good to be true.”

I sighed. She was going to force me to be a bad guy. “Ok, there’s a flipside to this request, you know. If you don’t take my offer, I’m going to torment your family and believe me, torment is what we demons do best. And I’ll do it all before you die so you can watch them suffer. I’m sorry that I have to go to these lengths, but there’s this thing called situational ethics. Ever heard of it?”

She shook her head, close to tears.

“Basically, I’m about this close to death, understand?” I held up my hand with thumb and forefinger almost touching. “I know you do, it’s what made me think of coming here. You’re desperate, I’m desperate. I figure that you can help me if I help you; that’s the bargain. If we do this deal and I go back on my word, I’m dead, understand? If I don’t do this deal, I’m dead. I don’t want to die, I know you don’t want to die, I can read it in your mind. So if you screw me, you can be sure that I’m going to screw you. But if you help me, everything turns out like roses. You get yourself cured and can go on to lead a prosperous, healthy, life. I hate to rush you, but you need to decide in, like, the next thirty seconds.”

Alison turned away from me, looking over my two companions. She seemed to appraise them before coming back to me. “Oh, what the hell, desperate times. Shit. If you’re a hallucination, I’m going to kick myself in the morning.”

“Oh, no,” I leant in and stroked her cheek, “believe me, I’m very real. Let me show you.”

I kissed her, slipping in the tongue, which made her jump but eventually she relaxed into it. Then it got a little more serious. Hey, I was in a hurry, and that IS the quickest way to possess someone. Once I was in Alison’s body, nice and comfy, I came to a true understanding of what a wreck it was. But this possession was different from the other two; much, much different. I was like a big kid set into the middle of a playpen filled with smashed Lego blocks and it was my job to put them all back together.

My first job was getting rid of the cancer, which was easy; I just absorbed it back into her body tissue. Rebuilding muscle was my next priority and while I was at it I did a little genetic tinkering. I threw off the covers and looked down, letting Alison watch her body start to fill out once more, and casually noticed Doris collapsed unconscious on the floor. In the future, I discovered that my Hosts seem to do that whenever I take their memories of the possession with me; though leaving them behind usually reduces the poor things to gibbering insanity, at least for a time.

With complete control over Alison’s development, I made sure there were several visual improvements based on her ideal body image. I had to lengthen her legs a bit and clear up her skin. I grew out her hair into waves of gold that slowly crawled down her supple back. Her ass rounded slightly, but I made sure it became small and tight the way she preferred. Hey, who am I to criticize personal taste? Despite the hospital gown, Vickie gave us a low whistle when I was done.

“Nice,” Dimona nodded.

“Can I cook or can I cook?” I asked with a grin, not quite knowing where the expression came from. Putting that aside, I hopped gracefully out of bed and stretched my muscles. Alison nearly had an orgasm.

“What’s it like?” Vickie asked curiously.

I frowned. “Possesing people? Interesting. With John and Doris, it was like I was the pilot with a drugged passenger in the back seat. This feels more… natural. Alison’s still in the back seat but she’s awake and enjoying the ride. Speaking of which, we’ve gotta move.”

We put Doris in the bed and tucked her up so that no-one would notice Alison was gone until she woke up. With that done, Vickie tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the windows. “Come on, we can take the Demon Express.”

My eyebrow shot up. “Fly? I still don’t think it’s such a hot idea. Can you carry me?”

“Sure,” Vickie shrugged, “easy.”

I had to feel envious of my fellow Demon’s strength but at least I had other compensations. “Ok, we fly. But where to? I’m new in town; I don’t even know the layout. Either of you have friends here?”

It was Vickie and Dimona’s turn to look at each other. Dimona answered first. “We can’t go back to Hell yet. We don’t know the situation. I used to live out here way back; people owe me some favors if we can get to a call box that works.”

“Well, the one in the lobby’s not on,” I muttered, “ok, I’ll trust you both to get us to a phone of some sort, even if we have to indulge in a little B&E.”

Flying in someone’s arms is an experience. Both terrifying and exhilarating, I can’t say it’s a good experience or a bad experience definitively. To assuage my fear of being seen, Vickie cast an invisibility spell on the three of us in case we attracted any immortal notice. The hunt for a working telephone booth was one of those epics that is simply so boring in the telling that it kills any mood that strikes it. So, to make a long story short, we found one after much searching, shouting and gnashing of teeth in front of an all-night gas station that had enough bright lights and people to scare away any crazies looking to stir up trouble.

Magic, specifically Vickie’s, supplied me with a new wardrobe. After some more creative attempts, I went with the simple cargo pants, t-shirt and sheepskin jacket to keep out the cold, along with a set of sneakers. I thought the silver cross around my neck was an ironic touch.

Vickie leant against the door on the outside, keeping a lookout while we made the call. She’d changed the nurse costume for something more casual, though the glove leather pants weren’t exactly what I’d call less eye catching. Dimona had so sit on the bench on top of the telephone directory in the cramped booth with me while I dialed the number as she dictated from memory. Once I had a ring tone I handed the receiver to the Imp.

“Hey, Zesher, it’s me. Ze… Zesher, would you take a valium or something? I’m calling in a chip. Yeah, that’s right. I need to know about what’s going down in town tonight and I want everything you know on the table. Ok. No. No, Zesher, I won’t sleep with you. Yeah, if there’s action, I’ll remember you, don’t worry. Uh-huh. Yeah, that’s the one. They’ve what? A Lilim and a body-shifter shot up the bar?”

I gulped.

“So both sides want these creeps then,” Dimona held her hand out in apology. “Alive or dead? Ah, that makes it easier then. They got any leads yet? Hmmm, a hospital, huh? That’s pretty cheeky. What about the Bathorian/Vampire angle? Oh, come on, do they really think this isn’t connected? No, I don’t have anything, but think about it, a bar full of hookers and rich guys, it’s an obvious Vamp hangout, and this town’s been like a powder keg for the last month with this thing. IF I were a betting girl, I’d lay good money one side or the other is involved somehow. Yeah, well, I guess I’ll see how the hunch plays out. What about the deal in Jersey? Warehouse is still on fire, huh? Any casualties? None, huh? Still no Bathorian/Vamps? Oh really? Well, well, well. Thanks a bundle, Zesher, you’re a pal. Don’t worry, if it pans out, you’ll get your cut. Seeya.”

Vickie poked her head through the door before I had a chance to put the phone on the hook. “So what’s the word?”

“We’re screwed,” Dimona sighed. “The Bathorians really cleaned up the mess at the bar. Hell’s party line is that two rogue demons shot their superior and killed one of Jade’s representatives, possibly in order to defect to Heaven. Heaven is claiming that this is a Hellish plot to destabilize and already tumultuous situation and provoke the Vampires and Bathorians into all-out war. It seems that neither side is mentioning the dildo. Oh, and rumors are that Baroness Pazuzu is coming to NY personally to help track the culprits down. No mention of the Bathorians at the bar is being announced or even intimated, which means that they really cleared up their tracks. The bodies were all human; it’s the worst diplomatic incident since Shen-dai. Jade’s going nuts.”

“Jade?” I asked.

“The keeper of the Neutral Zone. She’s been hosting the Bathorian/Vampire peace delegations, so she was a little distracted when the shit hit the fan. Now she’s howling for the blood of those responsible so, no matter what, one side or the other is going to have to produce someone to blame within the next few days.”

I had an idea. “Do you know her number?”

Both Dimona and Vickie stared at me, blankly astonished.

“What? It’s a legitimate move. By morning, the Bathorians will have a spiel about themselves being the victims of a heinous attack on one of their warehouses while keeping their hands clean of the shootout at the bar. If Mammon wants to come to a concession with them, he and Pazuzu might just hang us out to dry rather than discredit the Bathorians and the Angels just might go along with it to avoid all out war in the streets. Heck, both sides want to avoid a new War in Heaven. We were right, we can’t just waltz on back to Hell, we’re the convenient scapegoats. The only person in the whole fiasco who has an interest in finding the real culprits is this Jade person, because if they get away with it once, they might get away with it again or someone else might get the idea that they can get away with it. And we are, as of this moment, the only people who can actually link the Bathorians to the bar.”

They both shifted uncomfortably.

“What? What is it that I don’t know?” I asked impatiently.

The two girls looked at each other. “We’re outside the Neutral Zone,” Dimona observed, “she can’t touch us here, even through the phone.”

Vickie winced. “I don’t like taking the risk.”

“Ok, I take it this Jade is one of the big bads?” I sighed.

“Only inside the Neutral Zone,” Dimona explained, “you don’t mess with the big guy in Heaven, you don’t mess with Lucifer in Hell and you don’t mess with Jade in the Neutral Zone. But I think it’s worth a shot. You want to talk to her or will I?”

“You get her on the phone,” I decided, “I’ll talk to her. I’ll be better able to describe what happened.”

The phone rang for a long while before someone answered. “Hello,” Dimona began, “I have some information for Mistress Jade. Tell her Dimon’s on the phone. Yeah, I’ll hold.”

We waited even longer before Jade came online.

“Mistress Jade, I have someone here who would like to talk to you privately, are you alone? Good, I’ll pass her over.”

Dimona held out the phone. I wiped my hands on my pants before taking it. “Hello, Mistress Jade? My name is Zizili.”

“Really?” A mature woman’s voice answered, the tone more than slightly miffed. “And what about, hmmm? Reparations and apologies for shooting up part of my town? Theft of my property? The likely destruction of the known universe? Exactly what do you have to offer that could pay for all that?”

“I’m not the one that owes you an apology and neither do my friends.”

“Oh? So you wish to plead your innocence?”

“If you don’t mind, I’m not that much into begging. I can tell you the story from our side and you can see how it fits into your world view. Whatever happens, we can take it from there.”

I told her the story, omitting very little that wasn’t about the internal workings of Hell.

“Hmmm” was all she said for a while afterwards. The long silence started to make me sweat. “If this is true, why do I have eyewitness reports from both the Angels and your own side pointing the finger at you?”

That little piece of information was like a hammer blow. “I don’t know. All I can think of is that we’re easy to set up as scapegoats. If the Bathorians can be proved to be implicated in the attack on Neutral Ground, then both sides will have to exterminate them, which could be bad for business. A bloodbath on that scale would cause a stir and operations would have to be scaled back for a while. Hanging us out to dry is just good business sense. On the other hand, Hell has been looking into the possibility of a rogue still within our own ranks. It may be possible that the Angels have their own rogue who’s in on the plot.”

“That is an awful lot of ‘possibles’.”

“Hey, I can only tell you the facts that I know, anything beyond that is speculation.”

“All right, then why should I be interested in what you have to say?”

“Because, right now, we’re possibly the only two sides in this affair that have a common purpose. If the peace deal goes through, then Mammon will sweep the whole affair under the carpet. We lose our chance to clear our names; you lose the chance to uphold your reputation as one with whom one does not fuck.”

She laughed. “All right, then what do you want?”

“If we work together, we have more options than if we remain enemies. You have contacts but are limited in scope by the boundaries of the Neutral Zone. We need a safe house and can operate anywhere we want without drawing suspicion. And, if you help us, you have us under your thumb in case it turns out we’re not dealing straight with you. I’m sure you realize that we’re taking an awful risk; personally if we were guilty I’d say it was a stupid move on our part. My other motive for this call is that you are the only person who can delay the peace process and give us more time in which to investigate. And that’s it, really, that’s all my cards laid out on the table.”

More silence. Finally, she spoke. “I don’t know whether you’re the most foolish new demon I’ve ever met or the most foolhardy. But innocent or not, I like the idea of having you under my thumb. If you can get to 227 Karnak Drive, you’ll find an alleyway on the left side. Go down that and you’ll find a short flight of stairs that leads to a brown metal door. Knock on that door and wait for an answer, he’ll be expecting you.”

She hung up.

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“This is a monumentally stupid idea,” Vickie growled as we stood outside the brown metal door waiting for an answer, shivering in the cold.

Dimona shrugged, also shivering. “I don’t know if this is brilliant or bone-headed.”

I had to rub Alison’s arms in order to stop shivering, even with the jacket on. The night air had certainly gained a chilly bite in the last hour. “Oh, shut up,” I scolded, “we need a place to stay for a bit. This is the safest thing we could have done. Nobody’s going to expect Jade to be sheltering us.”

There were finally several clicks and clacks from numerous locks before the door swung open. The man on the other side peered out at us for a moment, puffing on his cigarette. He was handsome but unkempt and unwashed, wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. “None of you are pregnant, so I guess you must be Jade’s friends. Come on in.”

Dimona stared at the man as we shuffled inside, mouth open.

“Get in, little girl,” he grunted, closing the door behind her, “you’ll catch flies.”

The basement was small and dank, the ceiling cluttered with pipes. I hadn’t seen worse living conditions since my visit to the underside of the City of Brass. But still, it was dry and warm. Alison cringed at the dirty plates and empty packets of potato chips strewn about the concrete floor. Beyond the main area, there was a hallway leading into the dark and several other rooms containing beds. One seemed to contain a doctor’s office, complete with a chair with stirrups.

“You’re Kasdaye!” Dimona pointed, both excited and unbelieving.

He sighed. “Yell it a little louder, why don’t you? I don’t think they heard you in Berlin.”

“He’s who?” Vickie asked. I was glad I wasn’t the only one who had no idea what she was talking about.

“Kasdaye,” Dimona said patiently, “the Angel of Abortions! The Angel the big guy took back after he sided with Lucifer! Come on, you’ve got to know the story!”

Vickie shook her head. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Kasdaye sighed, stalking towards the kitchen. “Take a seat. I’ll get some coffee.”

“Oh, of course he doesn’t like to talk about it,” Dimona winced, flopping into one of the cleaner chairs, “sorry, I got carried away.”

Rapt, Vickie and I sat down on another chair. “Well,” Vickie growled under her breath, “spill the goss, shrimp.”

Dimona leaned forward to whisper. “Ok, right back when Lucifer was recruiting, Kasdaye was an Angel of Death who specialized in small children and miscarriages. For some reason, he chose Lucifer’s side in the Descent…”

“Because she only tells the truth,” Kasdaye shouted out from the kitchen, “and God’s a right bastard.”

We all winced at the mention of his name, but Dimona continued. “Anyway, we all know what happened next. Michael kicks Lucifer out on her ear and she takes her legions with her. All except for Kasdaye, who preferred death to dishonor.”

“But not enough to kill meself,” he added.

“Right, there were a few who did that. But then the big guy comes down and gives him a full pardon, no questions asked.”

“I told him where he could stick it,” Kasdaye growled, “but ‘e gave it to me anyway!”

“You see, Heaven needed him where he was. As the only Angel of Abortions in history, it’s his purview to cull the number of half-breeds and monsters born to the world through Angelic or Demonic interference, or even just Mother Nature’s screw-ups. But the other Angels no longer trusted him and thought he got off too easy, so he became a pariah in the whole community. Then Dominic decided to pull out all the stops and call for his expulsion…”

“Dominic?” I interrupted, remembering Lady Lucifer’s bedtime slip.

“Yeah,” Kasdaye snarled, still out of sight, “bastard was a right mess after his lady love slipped down to Hell. I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and moved down here to Earth. That’s the story in a nutshell, and I’m damn sick of hearing it.”

He came out with four mugs of coffee and set them on the coffee table.

“Uh, you do clean the mugs, right?” I asked before taking one.

“Of course,” Kasdaye shrugged, “I got a dishwasher, just don’t use it much. So, now you know my story, what’s yours?”

I was rather getting sick of telling our story as well, but I gave him the gist of it.

“Man,” he snorted, “if it’s one thing I hate, it’s fucking inter-departmental politics. That shit really sticks it in and breaks it off.”

I looked at Dimona. “Do Angels always curse this much?”

“Oh, no, most of the time they actually blister the air,” she giggled.

“So,” he continued, “you girls need a place to stay. Me casa su casa. Now, which one of you do I get to sleep with?”

There was a heavy silence as we all stared at him.

“Hey, whatever works,” he shrugged, “the little ones aren’t usually to my taste, but I can see she’s all woman under there. You, blondie, you’re all types of fine and, hey, red you can suck my bus anytime.”

I looked at him flatly. “If you really want to get laid tonight, I suggest you paint your right hand pink and call it ‘Sue’.”

Vickie almost sprayed her coffee all over the room, barely managing to hit the cup.

“HA!” Kadsaye laughed slapping his thigh. “Good to see y’all lightening up. For a minute, I thought a funeral procession ‘ed hit me door. Right, well, the bedrooms are all there. Help yourselves to anything in the house, it’s not a problem.”

He stood up and headed for the dark corridor but stopped and turned back to us. “Oh, and my room’s just down the hall, if any of you would like to come and join me…”

He fled from a salvo of warm coffee cups.

Things may have been less complicated if I hadn’t screwed up that night. I would like to say that it was no fault of my own but maybe, just maybe, I could have prevented something unfortunate. It’s another of those things that tortures me on occasion. Maybe if I’d had a little more self control, maybe, maybe, maybe, if, if, if. Maybe I should just accept that some things are destined to happen, but I’ve never been that fond of predestination and I don’t want to start down that road now.

You see, I woke up that night with the itch. An interesting little fact that I learned that night was that Hosts who drive a Bargain with me seem to feel exactly what I feel at the time, so both Alison and I were aching to scratch that particular itch.

So that’s my excuse for sneaking out of my room at 2:30 in the morning, ok? The ache was burning us up from the inside! No amount of masturbation was going to calm the fever, so we both made a positive decision together to tip-toe down the hall to Kasdaye’s room. After all, he had offered, right? Even if it was just a joke…

When we saw him sleeping in his bed, several parts of us lit up like a Las Vegas Christmas tree. With his shirt off, wearing nothing but boxers, and his wings stretched out behind his back, he looked like every girl’s dream… when their dreams involve artfully scruffy rogues at least. We became painfully aware that all we were wearing was a t-shirt, in our haste we’d left everything below the waist back in our room.

Oh, well, we agreed, less to take off.

I slid my silky legs onto the bed and crawled up his body. It took a moment for him to realize that there was someone on top of him. I held back a giggle when he slowly pried his eyes open to see my face smiling down at him. He closed his eyes again, counted to ten and then opened them again.

“Either you’re real or I’m dreaming.” He said.

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m real,” I cooed.

He sighed. “Get off.”

“Hey, you offered.”

“I offer and I say a lot of things. Get off.”

I slid my hands up his sides. “Oh, come on, it’ll be fun.”

“You might want this, but I’m laying odds Alison don’t.”

“How do you know I’m not Alison?”

He seemed confused. I decided to press my advantage by grinding my hips into his. “We both want you, the poor, lonely, bad-boy Angel. How long has it been, Kas?”

“A number so big, it’d make your head explode.”

I pouted. “That’d be no fun. Then I couldn’t do this.” I kissed him, long and deep.

When I pulled back, he was trembling. “Dear God, I’m sorry, I can’t hold myself back any more…”

I took my hands in his cheeks and looked him in the eyes. “Maybe I’m a gift from him, Kasdaye. We both want this now…”

So, for the first time I made love as a woman. As I’ve said before, with Az, it was just fucking, something to do to pass the time. We made love to Kasdaye, we rode him and he rode us, we orgasmed so many times that I lost count. It felt beautiful and right. I still blame myself for getting that far out of control, but then I think back on that night as something wondrous. We were two people that needed healing and we healed each other all night long.

I woke up feeling better than I had in almost a week. My Angel was gone and I could smell the sweet scent of frying bacon wafting into the room from the kitchen. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I put on one of Kasdaye’s shirts and slinked out of the room, still basking in the afterglow.

I encountered Dimona in the hallway and flashed a goofy smile at her. Chuckling, the little Imp hopped into the air with her wings and hugged me. “You did good, kid, you’ve done some real good.”

I blinked. “Well, it felt good to me…”

Slightly stunned at the reception, I sauntered out into the lounge to find a wide-eyed Vickie staring into the kitchen. Even more shocking was the fact the lounge room was immaculate, not a single chip packet spared. “Hey, Vickie,” I greeted, “what’s u…”

The view of the kitchen caused me to freeze in mid stride. Kasdaye was there, cooking a mammoth breakfast that could have fed a dozen full grown men. The immaculateness had swept through his kitchen, but that wasn’t all. He stood there, his wings still unfurled, with a blazing halo glowing over his head. He also had a goofy grin on his face which simply magnified when he saw me. The grin made several things pull tight in our loins.

“Oh, we are in soooo much trouble!” Vickie broke, grabbing two handfuls of hair. “You’ve gone and screwed the Heaven back into him!”

I couldn’t help feeling anything but pleased with myself at that moment. He hopped lightly to my side and pulled me into a very long, deep, kiss that I heartily returned.

“Hey,” he said to me, looking deep into my eyes.

“Hey,” I said stupidly.

“You ok?”

“Tell the truth, I’m famished.”

“Good thing I laid on the bacon, then,” he grinned, “I went out and got a paper too. You need to take a look at it.”

I gave him a long look from head to toe. “Not looking like that, I hope.”

He shrugged. “I toned it down a wee bit.”

Giggling, I took a seat and snatched up the paper. The front headline made me gasp. Before long, Dimona and Vickie were reading over my shoulder. We’d made the front page news, or at least the bar incident had. It was an exclusive report by ‘Vanessa Goodkind’, which had pictures of the atrocity inside and blamed the devastation on ‘two lone female gunmen’.

Yes, if she hadn’t been talking about us, I would have laughed too.

The mass slaughter at the bar outshined the devastating New Jersey Warehouse Fire by thirteen pages but neither had anything new to report so I handed it off to Dimona, who gave it a more through read.

“How’d this Vanessa Goodkind get into the bar for those pictures? The photographer would have had to be in the room…”

Squinting, I remembered the man who had tailed me from the first meet but kept the idea to myself. After all, I had nothing to base even a theory on.

I was helping myself to eggs, bacon and French toast with maple syrup and butter-roasted mushrooms when our diminutive companion cried out in alarm. “HEY! Listen to this! Famous Smithsonian Contributor Buried. Today, Gerald Whitticker, the celebrated biblical archaeologist who committed suicide three days ago after returning from his latest dig in fabled Egypt was buried in a private cemetery this morning. Whispers of yet another ‘Mummy’s Curse’ are even now spreading around campus. It is said that Professor Whitticker had behaved very strangely since his return with several priceless artifacts including the controversial ancient golden sex toy of one of the by-gone queens of ancient Egypt! Sources say that this very object has disappeared from the collection and is now presumed stolen by the police. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has placed a reward for the return of the priceless historical object… oh, and look, they’ve blurred out the picture of it so that it doesn’t offend our pretty little eyeballs, how cute. Professor Whitticker’s assistant, Andrew Thomson, said at the funeral that science had lost one of the greatest minds of the age before his time.”

I snorted. “Good work, Sherlock, a real clue.”

Vickie was staring at my plate. I’d half finished what I had and was going back for seconds. “Ugh! How can you eat that stuff?”

I looked down at the great heaping pile of sticky protein on my plate. “What?”

Dimona glanced at my plate but ended up staring. “Whoa! Girl, that is so gross!”

I shrugged, getting back to the food. “Sorry, but I’m huuuuungry! Seriously, I could eat a dragon.”

Vickie sighed and gave Kas the evil eye. “You dog, you.”

“Seriously, all fun aside,” Dimona got back to the point, “what do we do now? Jade won’t be able to delay the peace talks forever, so our window’s going to be fairly short…”

“Try 24 hours,” Kasdaye interjected, “that’s what the grapevine says is how long Jade was able to pospone the talks. The Bathorians spent last night making concessions left and right, the Vampires were right pissed that Jade called off the signing while their irons were hot.”

“They know,” I sighed, “Mammon knows the Bathorians ruined the trade for the Dildo, trying to steal it so they could get some bargaining power against the Demons and he’s blackmailing them for the concessions. So, we’ve got a deadline… oooh, these mushrooms are just divine, Kas.”

He saluted me with his towel.

“Um, hello,” Vickie waved a hand in front of my face, “a little focus please?”

I sighed, putting the knife and fork down for the moment. My stomach emphasized my displeasure by grumbling. “Well, as I see it, we have two choices. Either we shake down one of the Bathorians for some answers or we track down Andrew Thomson and find out why everyone might want this thingy so much.”

Leaving them in a state of shock, I went back to eating my delicious mushrooms.

“Now I know you’ve gone mad,” Vickie scowled. “Shake down the Bathorians? The entire hierarchy of Hell has been tip-toeing around them for weeks!”

“What have we got to lose?” I shrugged. “They’re already trying to hunt us down, it’s not like they can expel us twice is it? And the other side won’t be expecting an attack on one of its members during the peace talks either, so if we pick on one that’s alone…”

“Don’t choke, girls,” Kasdaye nodded, “it’s a good plan. We’ll be able to get the real gossip right from the horse’s mouth.”

“What’s this we, Kasdaye?” Vickie glared at him.

“Hey, it’s not like you guys have a platoon of friends at the moment. I’d take what’s on offer if I were you.”

I couldn’t help but smile. My man was going to help us… the thought made me pause. Did I really think that? Was he my man now? My Angel? It seemed a little presumptuous but… I looked at him, and just looking at him I knew.

He was mine.

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Looking at the house across the street from Kasdaye’s car, the four of us considered the layout. It was a thin three-story house wedged in between two apartment blocks, perfect for the woman on-the-go. It had a garage, a front door and six front windows, heavily barred. If there was a back yard, it didn’t have access from the front of the building, such were the rigors of urban living.

“What makes you think Vanessa Goodkind is a Bathorian?” Vickie asked.

“If she isn’t, she knows some of them,” I replied, “whoever took those photos waited until after they took away their dead and injured and the Bathorians did nothing to impede the photographer. Would you want a guy with a camera around your ultra-secret crime scene? No way. I know she’s a link in the chain… oh, look, someone’s finally risen for a nice brunch.”

As I spoke, a woman on the top floor drew back her blinds and opened the window, letting fresh air into the house. She didn’t realize that wasn’t all she was about to let in. I tugged at the waistband of my jeans, which had felt a little tighter ever since this morning. I’d had more trouble with the clasp than I’d had the night before, though by large breakfast probably accounted for it. While I was there, I also checked by new boots where I’d tucked the magical knife for safe keeping. The golden dildo was still in Vickie’s extradimensional purse with her personal arsenal.

“Ready, Vickie?” I asked.

She nodded, casing the invisibility spell. I flew up using my own power this time, since it was only a short distance, and the more combative members of the group were better suited to clearing the house. Dimona’s job was scouting the rest of the house and keeping a lookout just in case.

When I alighted in the elegant bedroom, I could hear muffled screaming from the bathroom just over the noise of the running shower. Striding through the room, I found Vanessa literally stuck to the tiled floor inside a great glob of goo, several mouths with serrated teeth manifesting in various places on her body in an attempt to chew her way out, though the struggles were futile.

“Well, that’s one way to bind it,” I shrugged as Vickie and Kasdaye reappeared, the spell dismissed, “but how do we talk to her?”

“Guys,” Dimona’s voice interrupted from nowhere, “the coast is clear, house is empty. She’s alone.”

Looking about, I scowled. “This is too easy.”

Vickie shrugged. “I thought you said it was going to be easy.”

“I didn’t expect it to be this easy. What, is it so strange for me to presume that a supernatural creature would have some sort of magical defenses? Vickie, why don’t you check the house for magic while we deal with this?”

Nodding, the leggy redhead strode from the room with a purpose. I love military minds, they’re so bendable.

I took the magical dagger out of my boot and made sure the girl-in-the-goo could see the blade. “I know how to kill you things. Take the hands off and then behead you, right? Well, beheading you may take a bit of time with this thing. I’ll probably have to saw through the spine a bit. Still, not a pleasant way to go. Now, if you tell us what we want to know, you may just get out of this with a bit more of your life to spend. I’m going to pull your head out, if you so much as make a peep before we give you permission, I will start cutting pieces off that won’t kill you. Get me?”

She nodded as best she could, so I reached into the glob of goo and extricated her face. The stuff was a lot easier to navigate in when you had leverage, so I still had the advantage. She didn’t make a sound, as instructed.

“Good,” I encouraged her, “you’re a quick learner. I’m going to make a wild stab here, let me know if I hit the mark. You were at the bar last night, yes?”

She nodded, her chestnut hair waving slowly in the viscous fluid with the motion.

“So who took the pictures?”

“Eh-Ehnasor.”

Kasdaye whistled. “I know the guy. He’s an Angel, high priced photographer down here, does freelance jobs tailing people for the powers on either side. Not terribly powerful or bright but rumor is he does good work. What’s he getting mixed up with people like you for?”

She seemed to consider the answer for a moment. “Money.”

“Sorry, wrong answer,” I said, plunging the blade into her shoulder.

She grit her teeth and groaned piteously before I pulled the dagger out. The wound sealed up almost immediately.

“Let’s try that again,” I smiled.

“He works for money, I swear! He and… and the master have some sort of arrangement.” She was gulping down air, almost on the verge of hyperventilation.

“Ok, who’s the master?”

He hesitated again but cracked when I went to stab her again. “BELPHEGOR! Ok, his name’s Belphegor. He’s a Demon, we take our orders from him.”

I looked at Kasdaye, who shrugged. “I’ve heard of him,” he admitted, “the old guardian demon of Paris, he’s been missing for a few hundred years now, presumed dead. Highly unlikely, but possible.”

“I-I swear,” Vanessa gasped, “that’s what he called himself. He and his p-pet wizard, some French businessman named Cheveau or something like that. Claims the Hall kicked him out f-for being too extremist.”

Kasdaye snorted. “The Hall has standards now? Since when?”

“Uh, guys,” Vickie stumbled into the doorway, looking slightly pale. “I think you should come and look at this… kitchen…”

Concerned, Kasdaye pulled her into the bathroom. “I’ll check it out, you watch her.”

I followed the Angel down the stairs, leaving Vickie to guard the prisoner. Entering the kitchen, everything seemed normal except for the door. The house was equipped with a walk-in fridge, the big metal door slightly ajar. Kasdaye opened it a crack and peeked inside. “Holy Mary mother of Christ…”

I winced. “Um, could we keep the holiness out of the swearing?”

He looked at me and I could see that his face had gone pale. “We can’t let them live.”

I felt the frown form over my entire face, one of those deep frowns that seems to sink into your skin. I stepped forward to take a look inside but he stopped me with one hand. I took a deep breath. “Kas, I’ve seen Hell. I doubt there’s anything in there worse than that.”

He shook his head and stepped aside. “The evil that mortals do to each other can be far worse than anything Hell spews up. But if you wish to look, I won’t stop you.”

My mouth went dry as I stepped past him; my pulse thudding under my tongue. I smelt what was inside the fridge long before I saw it. Even on ice, corpses stink. It was impossible to count how many, they were in pieces all heaped together haphazardly. Dried blood covered a rack of butcher’s knives.

A wave of nausea hit me and I turned to vomit into the sink. Kasdaye closed the door solidly shut, “I did warn you. You ok?”

I nodded. “This isn’t like me,” I gasped, “I have seen worse.”

“Maybe bonding with your Host is affecting you. I’ve heard of it happening before,” he informed me, handing me a box of tissues and helping me clean myself up. “So, if I heard right, we have to remove her hands before we behead her?”

Nodding, I looked up into his eyes. Without a word, he hugged me tight. It was a nice feeling. “I still have questions for her, though.”

“Go ahead,” he nodded, letting me go, “but when the time comes, let me do it. I’m an Angel of Death, it’s my job.”

I promised him before walking back up to the bathroom, what little pity I had for the creature was gone. When I looked down at her, trapped and helpless, I felt nothing. Kneeling next to her, I shoved the dagger into her stomach. “This changes things,” I said calmly as she squealed in pain, “new deal. Tell me what I want to know and I’ll take out the dagger. What do you things want with the package?”

“B-Belphegor o-o-ordered us to… we have to… obey…”

“Or he withholds his unholy baptism, right? Don’t answer that one, it’s rhetorical. Why does he want it?”

“R-ritual… he invented… harness the… power… didn’t tell us anything more.”

“Ok, now for the million dollar question. Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

I twisted the knife.

“I DON’T KNOW! He moves around… all over the city… he tells us where to meet and we go.”

“Ok, last question. How many of you are there?”

She squirmed but answered all the same. “Fifty or so Bathorians, give or take. Cheveau has some half-blood cultists he uses as servants. That’s all I know about.”

I swore, pulling the dagger out. “Come on,” I nodded to Vickie, “time to go.” Stepping out of the room, I saw Kasdaye in the hallway, holding a meat cleaver loosely in his right hand. I nodded to him as I walked past. We collected Dimona and went back to the car to wait. My Angel emerged from the building clean, but I could feel his deed weighing heavily on his shoulders. He was still slightly pale when he got into the car.

“They don’t bleed like mortals,” he informed us, “not dead but not really alive any more. The cops will probably find the ashes in the bathtub rather puzzling. So, where to next?”

“Just drive,” I said, “we need some time to work things out.”

He nodded and stepped on the gas. A few minutes later we were cruising the highways, not exactly intent on any destination.

“This Belphegor knows his shit,” I began, “he runs his organization like a spy network. One point of contact in no set, specified, location. All information given on a need to know basis. The Bathorians are the perfect lackeys; they get beauty, fame and fortune in return for absolute obedience without question. He gathers around him only those that are beholden to him in some way and the rest he binds with his pet Mage. Nobody is trusted, nobody is negotiated with. No reason for Belphegor to ever reveal himself.”

“Please tell me that wasn’t a complete waste of our time,” Vickie growled.

“It wasn’t,” I reassured her, “we know some names now. Maybe we can start asking the right questions.”

“Then what do we do?” Dimona asked from the back seat. “The ball’s still in our court.”

“The only way is to draw Belphegor out,” I pondered, “make him come to us. For that, we need to know how to get in touch with him… Kasdaye, you know a good internet café around here?”

He nodded, taking the next turn off. Five minutes later, we found ourselves crowded around a PC sipping coffee while I typed. “Ok, lets see what the mortals have to say about Belphegor… wow, nine hits on demonic porn sites, one Wiki entry. Guess we’ll try wiki… hmmm… Guardian Demon of Paris, demon of invention under the Lord of Sloth, yadda, yadda, yadda…”

“Invention’s under Sloth?” Vickie asked, perplexed.

Dimona shrugged. “Most inventions are all about saving humans time and effort. Sheer laziness drives humanity onward an upward on the technological scale so invention comes under both Lady Meserach and Lord Vapula.”

“Nothing really new there,” Kasdaye sighed, “try the other guy, Cheveau.”

“Not much to go on, but worth a shot… I… oh, wow.”

“Click the Forbes link,” Kasdaye pointed it out to me, “she said he was a business man and you don’t create this sort of network in the moral realms without money to grease the wheels.”

“Impressive,” I whistled, “Forbes number 92 and main stock holder in Sundyne Limited. Hang on let’s see if my hunch is right…”

Going back to Google, I entered the search phrase ‘Sundyne + Archaeology + Egypt’. The first hit at the top of the page read ‘Archaeologist unearths sex toys of the Pharaohs!’ I clicked on it for the full article.

“The embarrassing truth in archaeology is that sometimes one unearths items of great importance that impinges on the puritan views of our ancestors,” I read aloud, “the nature of which often causes us to sweep such findings away from the public eye. There is no hiding the latest discovery of Prof. Gerald Whitticker, however, as he holds aloft in triumph a solid gold dildo that he believes was actually used by several Queens of Egypt and perhaps in the religious deflowering ceremonies of the priesthood of Hathor. The base, apparently, bears an inscription that has yet to be translated but the Professor is hopeful that the artifact will prove to be a link between the priesthoods of Isis, Nephthys and Hathor. He is also effusive in his thanks to the Sundyne Corporation, whose generous donation to his project is currently the largest corporate grant on record.”

Kasdaye pointed at the picture, or rather the caption under it. “Photographer: Derek Clay. That’s one of Ehnasor’s aliases.”

Leaning back in my chair, I pinched the bridge of my nose, trying to sort out the mess in my head. “So, it all links back to this dig. Belphegor thinks this Professor is onto something, so he orders his pet wizard to fund him generously. The Doc was actually on the money, and he drags his prize back here when… something goes wrong. Heaven and Hell get involved before the Bathorians can steal it, so he learns the details of the handover mission from his mole, then sets us up at the meeting point but the Bathorians screw up again, so he…”

I paused, hitting a sudden mental blank.

“He what?” Dimona encouraged, tapping me impatiently on the arm.

“It doesn’t make sense. Either he’s stalling for time to find us, which would be almost impossible, or… or he’s trying to force us to make a deal with him. If the Bathorians capitulate and give Mammon what he wants, then they’ll leave us twisting in the wind. Our only hope for survival would be to side with him and hand over the dildo, but we got clever and called Jade, which bought us time. He won’t tip his hand until he’s got the full house, so he won’t put the word out for us until the peace deal goes through.”

“We could just give it back to Jade, right?” Vickie suggested. “Just waltz into the Neutral Zone and…”

Dimona and Kasdaye were shaking their heads. “It’d be your word against theirs,” Kasdaye sighed, “you don’t have any hard proof that the Bathorians are the bad guys here and Mammon will support them since, as things stand, he has quite a bit to gain from the alliance. Zizili’s right, he’ll throw you to the wolves in a heartbeat and the Angels will view it as the lesser of two evils rather than spark off a war.”

“Great,” the redhead sighed, “so we get back to the big question, what do we do?”

“The dildo’s the key,” I said, thinking very hard, “everything links back to it. Belphegor wanted it a long time before the Bathorians even came into the big picture, it can take years for a dig to come to fruition. Maybe this is something more than just a bargaining chip in the game; maybe it’s something more specific, more personal.”

“Right,” Kasdaye nodded, “so if we can find that out, we may be able to throw a spanner in the works of his plan. He’ll have to come out and face us directly, on our terms.”

“Great,” Vickie smiled evilly, “and the guy most likely to know is the Professor’s assistant, what was his name, Di?”

“Andrew Thomson,” Dimona supplied.

I smiled. “You know he’s probably a trap, right?”

Vickie blinked. “Huh?”

“Belphegor’s proved that he’s not an idiot. He might not have been able to predict that we’d check our facts by interrogating one of his Bathorians, or if he did he might not care, but he will foresee our move on Andrew Thomson. If I were him, I’d set up one big old trap for us in a place of my choosing, probably Thomson’s home.”

Vickie nodded, grinning down at Dimona. “Right, then we spring the trap. I have a plan.”

“Is it a cunning plan?”

“Shut up.”

Chapter 5 — Endgame

So it was that Vickie and I found ourselves on Andrew Thomson’s doorstep, waiting for him to answer his doorbell. The house was a simple two-story suburban with a bagged and painted façade the color of peaches and cream. Very ‘sunset in Tuscany’, almost sickeningly so. A small group of children played handball in the opposite driveway, blissfully unaware that they stood not twenty feet away from a couple of demons.

The woman who answered the door, finally, made my jaw fall open. It wasn’t her face, though it was beautiful, it was her body language, the way she moved, the tiny tilt of her head to one side, the crazy self-important smile.

“You’re late,” she grinned devilishly at me, “little sister.”

“Azazel!” I hissed in surprise.

“What the fuck!” Vickie went for her purse but I grabbed her elbow before she could finish drawing her axe. “Don’t,” I cautioned in a low whisper, “we’ve been made.”

Still smiling, Azazel nodded behind us. Glancing back, I saw the kids staring at us, still smiling, their ball rolling forgotten down the street.

“You’ve possessed the children,” I stated, trying very hard to keep my voice level.

“Oh no, well, not me personally. However…”

Doors up and down the street slammed open all at once as men, woman and children marched out onto the street. Black, white, Asian, rich, poor, male and female walked in perfect unison as they converged on the house.

“…I think it’s time, Zee, that you meet your family.”

“Vickie, drop the purse,” I snapped at my companion.

“What? Possessed or not, they’re only norms!”

One of the children happily produced a switchblade from his pocket and placed the blade against his own throat.

“Vickie, she lied to us,” I squeezed her wrist, trying to get her to listen to reason, “if a host dies, they just go back to Hell. They’re not our opponents, they’re hostages.”

“Yes, it’s distasteful, I’ll admit,” Azazel sighed, “one slice and this pretty little thing goes straight to Heaven as a martyr. So go on, slaughter everyone. I’m sure the Elohim won’t get here for, oh, five minutes after first blood is spilt.”

“You’ll kill us anyway,” Vickie spat.

“Vickie,” I snapped, “all you can do now is get a bunch of innocent people killed.”

“Gimme one good reason…”

“Buy us some time. If we’re patient, maybe they’ll make a mistake. You go off half-cocked now and we’re all just dead.”

“Bravo, little sister,” Azazel clapped, “she’s got a point there, you know.”

“Shut the fuck up, Az.”

“Shit,” Vickie sighed, dropping the purse.

“Bind them,” Azazel ordered, letting the crowd mob us over.

We were chained with magical manacles and hoods bound around our necks. They put us in a car, probably a limo as Azazel slid onto the facing seats in her purloined body. I could tell it was her just from the stench of her perfume. Someone else got into the car as well, a male someone from the way they moved. I recognized the second presence as well through a more psychic medium.

“Baroness Pazuzu,” I smiled under the hood, “you here to execute us for the glory of Mother Lucifer?”

A bare-handed slap that left my bells ringing was my first answer. “We have no mother.” The voice was masculine but I could hear Pazuzu’s rather formal intonations behind it.

“Ah,” I replied after a minute, working our jaw as the blood rushed into our cheek, “so Linda Blair’s nightmare has a daddy complex. What, you really think you can beat lady Lucifer at her own game?”

“We’ve done well so far, don’t you think?”

“Oh, come on. You don’t think Lady Lucifer hasn’t seen all this coming? Made plans and contingencies?”

“Certainly, but what can she do? We know where her skeletons are buried, young one. If se destroys us, all her dirty laundry will be aired, right in the middle of neutral ground. Besides, it’ll all be moot once Father returns.”

“Asmodai’s dead.”

Azazel chuckled. “Dear me, Little Sister, haven’t you figured that part out yet? Who do you think is trapped in that little bauble you’ve been waving about so cavalierly?”

“Azazel was under orders not to make this very clear to you, so allow me to spell it out,” Pazuzu began smugly, “several millennia ago, Father made his bid for the throne of Hell with the support of his loyal clan, the Sedu.”

“But he was betrayed by Lord Kobal, one of his closest allies,” Azazel added.

“And exiled to Earth,” Pazuzu continued, “since, as I have said, he knew too many of Lucifer’s secrets to be killed outright. Back then, the humans were far less numerous so there was a place in it for a lusty and murderous monster of the night to feed. Still, Father was a being of sophistication and the savage pastimes of similar earthly monsters didn’t appeal to him. He took to selecting women that caught his eye and stalking them for sport, eventually seducing them in order to sire more monstrous children that he may be able to leverage into an empire of sorts.”

“Yeah, a real patron saint of serial killers and rapists,” I snarled.

“Of course, we kept his movements secret out of loyalty but his depravations couldn’t have gone on forever… he was out of control and unsubtle in his methods. For centuries, he worked on rituals that could make him something greater, a power to rival even the Creator himself. Eventually, he succeeded, gaining to power to consume a soul then inhabit the remaining body time after time without leaving a previous host. He renounced his old names and called himself Legion, then set about replacing humanity.”

“You’re fuckin’ insane!” Vickie gasped.

“Maybe… but it’s what Father wanted. He watched the new universal order form after Lucifer’s Fall, and he saw it was bad. All he wants is a chance to undo the Creator’s mistakes and return us all to our natural states. Together we can all be the new Creator by becoming one with Legion. That is his goal, the mission that we must carry out as his loyal daughters. Self-determination is a fantasy, free will is squandered. Only those with a true vision and a firm hand are qualified to lead humanity to paradise. Legion has these qualities as well as the ability to carry out his plans in the face of the ultimate adversaries…”

“But something went wrong,” I interrupted, “your precious leader got himself trapped inside a golden tommyknocker.”

Azazel sniffed. “He chose a peasant girl, Sarah, as a host for one of his children. She was already married, so he murdered her husband. The murder drew the attention of Raphael, the Throne of Mercy. She imprisoned him in the dildo then buried the thing in the most remote and forsaken mountain range in Egypt. It took us a very, very long time to figure out exactly where.”

“Then you funded a well-known Archaeologist to find it and drove the man to suicide to get the thing. Why let it out of your hands?”

“The Angels got to it first. Aside from that, we would have preferred a modicum of plausible deniability. We had the trade all set up when Lucifer dumped you into our laps. We couldn’t let you in on our operations, you never knew Father and you are the only Sedu who is truly Lucifer’s daughter. We needed to discredit you before killing you, so we faked your training, even so much as foregoing your trial run on Earth, then dropped you into the shit. Who knew you’d actually survive?”

“The dagger, you gave it to that Bathorian.”

“Of course, the Bathorians are on our side, though that greedy idiot Mammon remains blissfully unaware of our involvement. Even if he was, he may not care. Anything for a profit, you know, the fool.”

Pazuzu chuckled. “You’ve managed to give us quite the chase, you two have, which is why our partner wishes to talk to you in person. Simply killing you would be a waste of your talents. You have been most impressive, but that is to be expected from one of our own.”

“Bullshit, you need us to tell you where the dildo is.”

“My dear girl, if you no longer have the dildo then you are entirely useless to us, not a good position to be in if you value your life or the life of your companion. You would be well advised not to play games with us.”

I shrugged. “Worth a try. So, what now? If you want to pat me down, Az knows all the good spots.”

Az giggled, leaning forward until she could kiss me through the hood. “You were the best damn fuck I’ve had in centuries.”

“Really? You were bloody awful.” She was so close I felt her flinch away from me. I decided to press the attack while I had an advantage. “You know, Az, I’d have had a better time alone with the golden wang. Sex with you is like lying with an inflatable doll, if you want to get anywhere, you’ve gotta do all the work. Your hands are cold and clammy like dead fish. But I am glad I did fuck you, the only way I can go from there is up.”

That earned me another punch but it was worth it.

We stopped about a half hour later and they dragged us out of the car without a word. I guess I’d managed to piss them off, bully for me. They pushed us through a set of double doors and down a long hallway until I could hear a gaggle of voices over the sound of our footsteps. The voices got louder until we entered the room that had to be our destination. It was large from the way the noise echoed from the walls. They were everywhere, all around us.

“Watch them,” I could barely hear Pazuzu’s voice over the noise, “they’re feisty.”

Our hoods were pulled off, revealing the enormous room. It was composed of rough, unfinished, concrete, like a building site before the decorators and painters get to it. The place was obviously an auditorium, though the stained glass windows gave away it’s intended purpose as a house of worship. A great colored glass dome above our heads depicted the crucifixion of Christ. Behind us were several ledges that would hold pews once the room was finished, reaching upward at least three stories, occupied by a mixture of Bathorians and possessed hosts of the Sedu. In front of us was a stage currently occupied by an enormous, dog-headed humanoid with coarse black fur, bat-like wings, burning red eyes and a spiked tail that could double as a vicious weapon in a pinch. Next to him, leaning against the throne on his right hand, was a normal-looking man with close-cropped black hair wearing a grey Armani suit. Above him on the wall behind the throne, I noticed that someone had mounted the plain wooden cross upside down.

“Well, isn’t this a bit cheeky, holding an audience in a church, Belphegor?” I asked, chuckling.

The boar-headed thing spread his taloned fingers. “Who would think to look for me here in a future house of the Lord? I am pleased to finally meet you, Zizili, though you have caused me a lot of trouble… release their bindings; they are powerless against all of us.”

I had to disagree with him but again, I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Now all I had to work out was how not to get into positions where I was forced to rely on the arrogance of the enemy, then I’d be all set for the rest of eternity as a demonic superspy.

“Now,” Belphegor reached out with one of his large hands, “give me the object.”

I looked at Vickie. “I think he means the Dildo.”

The redhead shrugged back at me. “He doesn’t look like the type does he?”

Belphegor nodded to Azazel, who took great delight in kicking Vickie in the stomach. It was a good kick, she folded very neatly in half. I looked into Azazel’s eyes as she did it and saw nothing. In that moment, all the pieces of the puzzle slid into place. She was a pure sociopath.

Sex with her had felt mechanical because she was entirely incapable of feeling anything for another being, so making love or, more accurately, fucking was reduced to a simple art of pushing the right buttons in the right order. She could endure any sexual position as just another technique, no matter how painful, because it was just another means to an end. Despite the long hours she’d spent tutoring me in my tower, I’d felt disconnected from her because we really were a world apart. I’d shared my bed with her and yet we simply couldn’t do more than feign the fact that we liked each other. I knew she could stare down the barrel of a gun pointed at my forehead and pull the trigger without a moment’s hesitation because she could feel nothing. She was empty.

Looking into her eyes, I came to the realization that I could kill her without batting an eye. Not because I was like her but because she was an animal that needed to be put down.

“I am not in the mood to play games,” Belphegor growled, “give me the object now or I will kill her.”

“It’s taped to the hem of my coat, ok? Don’t get nervous…” I reached slowly behind my back, probing for where I’d taped it. Glancing to my right, I noted Vickie still coughing on the floor, Azazel between us and Pazuzu on the other side. Beyond them was an exit. I didn’t think it was the way we came in but we had a shot at getting out of here and I was going to take it. I had to use both hands to peel away the tape from the Dildo, but as my left hand raised it up for all to see, my right hand came to rest on the dagger. The crowd murmured in excitement as their eyes caught the glitter of gold. “You want this?” I asked. “Go fetch.”

Dipping our arm, I threw the Dildo back into the crowd without looking. Simultaneously, I drew the dagger and turned on Azazel, everyone in the room too distracted to notice what I had in my hand as I thrust the magical blade under Az’s ribs and into her heart. She didn’t scream and there was no fountain of blood like there would have been in the movies. Her mouth opened into an ‘O’ of surprise as she stared into my eyes, sentience fading along with her life. Vickie launched herself up on her stiletto hooves, returning to her natural form as the impact of her wings launched Pazuzu into the air. As one, we ran for the door.

“NO!”

The one word echoed through the chamber. Runes of lightning flared to life around the door, arcs of power and light thrusting us both away from escape. Yeah, it hurt but I didn’t have time to reflect on it. For a moment, all I could see was white and the only sound I could hear was a high-pitched buzz. My senses came back fast enough to feel the dagger being kicked out of our hand. Then I heard someone yelling.

“AZAZEL! AZAZEL!”

Looking up, I saw Pazuzu leaning over the body that had once been occupied by my ‘big sister’. She saw me staring and her face twisted into an animalistic mask of rage, teeth sharpening into fangs right before my eyes as she reached for me, my dagger in her fist. “I’LL KILL YOU! I’LL KILL YOU!”

“PAZUZU!”

Pulled up short, as if someone had suddenly pulled her leash tight, the Baroness stopped dead in her tracks but seemed to strain against some invisible force. Behind her, Belphegor’s pet mage looked down on us from the stage holding the golden dildo in his right hand. “HOLD, SLAVE,” he commanded in a booming voice, “there is no need to cry over spilt milk. I still have use for those two, you shall not touch them.”

The Baroness screamed helplessly before collapsing onto the floor. Looking about, I noted the crowd was standing, staring down on us along with their master. Belphegor twitched in his seat nervously as he chewed his lip.

“May I have the honor of introducing myself,” the mage bowed toward me, though his eyes never lowered, “though I am now known as Cheveau, you may know me by other names. For a time, I was known to the French as Cardinal Richelieu though I owe nothing to Dumas for his wicked assassination of my character. But, perhaps more famously in present company, I was born with the name Johann Georgi Faustus and I am the true master here.”

I shook my head. “But the Bathorians…”

“Ah, yes,” the mage smiled, “unfortunately, I have bled my favored pet dry over the last few years creating these fine henchwomen. Belphegor owns their souls, yet I own Belphegor, so everything he has belongs to me. His genius at invention has given me many advantages over the years, hasn’t it Bel?”

“Yes, Master,” Belphegor grumbled, looking away. He seemed to notice Vickie giving him the evil eye. “Don’t look at me like that, he knows my true name! What else was I supposed to do?”

I looked down at Pazuzu. “And the Sedu?”

“Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of the Nuns at Louviers? I caught Pazuzu, Azazel and a few of her sisters having a spot of fun corrupting the Nuns there back in 1647, I’d tracked them there across half of France while they conducted their business, even going so far as to fake my own death and stepping down as the de facto ruler of the entire nation to obtain them. Yet I have gained so much from their secret employ since that I do not regret my choice. And when they informed me of their self-appointed quest to free their Father, our goals aligned perfectly… of course, I couldn’t allow them an equal share in my power.” He smiled, hefting the dildo. “Quite amusing, isn’t it? Who would think of such an object as a prison? Certainly, I balked at the suggestion, but now that I have it in my hands I can see that it is true.”

Scowling, I pulled my host to our feet. “All right, you’ve got it, yay for you. Now what, you gonna try and bore us to death?”

He laughed. “And waste two willing servants? Oh, no, I don’t think you realize the potential this simple object holds. With the power of Legion, I will finally obtain the title of Ipissimus, a theoretical grade of sorcerer higher than God himself and together we will create a new Eden here on Earth. No more poverty, no more death or disease or hardship, just never-ending bliss for all eternity. And the two of you will be a part of it, willing or no.”

“Fuck you,” Vickie snapped.

He shook his head, looking up at the glass dome in the ceiling. “Nobody can defy the will of a true God. If HE were stronger, a truly perfect being, I’d never be able to succeed. But if he is unwilling to take on the mantle, I will happily supplant HIM. Bring her up here.”

We were mobbed, literally overwhelmed by a wave of supernaturally strong and resilient bodies, crushed and manhandled up onto the stage while Faust changed into a set of black robes with the help of some malformed acolytes that appeared from the wings of the stage bearing a black altar coated in blood. Belphegor turned his snout away from us in shame, seemingly unable to move from his false throne. “Madness,” the black boar-demon growled, “Faust, you don’t know what you’re doing!”

“I know all too well, slave,” Faust replied without looking back, “whether I control Legion’s power or am absorbed into his collective matters not, for either way he will be reborn within me.”

Vickie glared at Pazuzu, who in turn glared at me over Azazel’s lifeless host. “Why him, you bitch, why not just do it yourself?”

“It has to be done willingly,” she replied, “by a pure human. No other being can perform the ritual of release and bring Father back to us.”

“Do wha — ”

Vickie stopped in mid sentence as Faust drew a long sacrificial knife from under his new robes. Rather than have one of them dragged over as expected, he placed the golden dildo on the altar then reaching into his pants to fish out his member and flop it onto the cold stone slab.

Vickie winced. “Oh, HELL no… I am not watching this!”

The sorcerer grit his teeth together hard, growling like a wolf, working himself up into a frenzy mad enough to go through with it. The tip of the dagger clinked against the stonework as the acolytes began to chant. Soon, the crowd took up the chanting, rousing and whipping themselves into what could only be described as religious ecstasy. Screaming at the top of his lungs, Faust raised the blade over his head and brought it down in a strong, hard, blow that buried the tip several millimeters into the resilient stone.

“SHIT!” He bellowed. “I missed.”

There was a long moment of silence as everyone stared in disbelief. Belphegor snorted.

“FOR FUCK’S SAKE! I’LL DO IT!” Pazuzu growled, floating up onto the stage and ripping the knife out of Faust’s hand.

“Hey, you try cutting your own dick off! I…”

Pazuzu didn’t waste time, she just chopped downward like she was bisecting a salami. Well, a small salami, you understand.

Faust’s next scream was a lot less dramatic and quite a bit higher pitched the next time around. He literally hopped around in circles, spraying blood all over the floor, waving his arms about and looking much like a chicken with its head cut off from the waist down.

“HOLD HIM!” Pazuzu commanded as she anointed the dildo in blood squeezed from the severed member. “Hold him down, for Father’s sake!”

The Acolytes wrestled Faust down onto the altar and spread his legs while Pazuzu tried to mash the end of the dildo against the wound. And yes, it looked like some sort of sick porno/comedy flick gone horribly wrong.

“THERE!” Pazuzu shouted. “I’VE GOT IT!”

Her elation was short lived as everyone on the stage was bowled over by a flash of hellish fire. The upside-down cross burst into flame and began to bleed in torrents. Looking about, I saw more blood weeping from the eyes of those depicted in the stained glass windows and a small waterfall of the living red liquid spewed onto the floor from where Jesus’ side had been pierced with Longinus’ spear in the dome above. Where the blood touched concrete or wood, the caustic stuff began to eat through, forming pools and rivulets of foulness that corrupted reality itself.

“YESSSSSSS!” Faust bellowed as he rose from the fire, tendons dancing and muscles bulging under his fragile mortal shell. Flesh tore as his skin melted from his body, revealing red scales underneath as horny black spikes sprouted from his back, shoulders and arms. His hair burst into flames as a black halo coalesced over his scalp and his frame bulked out into a towering figure of demonic perfection. Every now and then, I thought I saw the a screaming face from on his skin, as if something small was trying to escape from his flesh. The gold around his penis flaked away as the throbbing red member tripled in size. His legs snapped as two more joints formed over clawed bird’s feet, completing the image.

Awed and afraid, the crowd cowered from the Demon Lord, unsure of themselves. Pazuzu broke the mood by hurling herself at his feet. “Father! Father, you’re back at last!”

“Father!” The sedu among the crowd whispered, falling to their knees in reverence.

I scowled at Vickie. “Hereway ethay ellhay isay Orileilay?”

“Uckedfay ifay iay nowkay,” she replied.

“Oodgay lanpay!”

“Itebay emay.”

“BOW DOWN TO ME!” Legion boomed, his voice a choir of a thousand speaking as one. “FOR I AM LEGION, EMPEROR AND GOD!”

As if waiting for his queue, the walls and floor began to pulse as if it had a life of its own, veins of some sort creeping through the material just below the surface, emanating from the pools of blood. Ropy tendons distorted the stone until it resembled corded muscle, overtaking the building like a cancerous growth. Behind Legion, the upside-down cross wailed and warped into a baroque arch, arcs of red power flashing between the two downward ‘prongs’ unleashing a furnace-like heat as a portal to some strange nether-realm of red light and hard shadows opened in between.

“My sweet,” Legion reached down to caress Pazuzu’s face. For a moment I forgot that it was a woman inside her Host, which sent a slight shiver up my spine (yes, poor little prejudiced me). “I have a hankering for fresh meat. Bring me the new girl.”

Pazuzu flinched; the line of her mouth twisting like someone had just forced her to taste dog dirt. But she swallowed it. “Your wish is our command, Father.”

With a curt nod of her head, the Bathorians began dragging me forward towards the altar but the look on Legion’s face had nothing to do with food. I put up a token struggle, but I was outnumbered six to one so all my efforts were largely futile. I let out a derisive snort as Legion began pulling down his pants. “Oh, great! The wannabe new God’s worst punishment in the whole universe is a spot of rape. Maybe you could find a little old lady and rip off her purse; or perhaps get a few frat boys together for a bit of cow tipping. Oh, yeah, God’s quaking in his boots, I’m sure.”

“Oh, please let me tell her, Father,” Pazuzu begged, her face brightening, if one can use such an expression to describe the blooming of an evil thought. While her face was cheerful, her eyes held a dark secret that she obviously delighted in.

“Make it quick, daughter, I grow impatient,” Legion growled.

“Wow,” I scoffed, “redneck demons, well, I guess that’s not such a surprise. Don’t tell me you haven’t been laid in a few millennia; no wonder you’re such a tight ass.”

Pazuzu smiled. “Well, once you’ve had Dad, you’ll never go back… ever, my dear. Angels have fallen begging for another night in his bed; Lady Lillith herself can find solace only in the bed of Lord Lucifer after his touch. Believe me, after this you’ll do anything, absolutely anything he asks just for the promise of another fuck.” She leaned in very close to my face so she could whisper. “We didn’t want him back, we needed him back.”

She tried to kiss me but I bit her hard on the cheek. It was petty but if it was the last act of defiance I was ever going to give at least I’d have that memory to sustain me.

“AAARGH! DAMN IT!” Pazuzu growled, giving me a backhanded slap for my trouble that left me stunned and blinking for a moment.

For that reason I didn’t really notice the lead light dome shattering overhead when Kasdaye literally dived through it, a blazing sword of black fire clutched in his left fist. “LEEEEGION!!!” He cried out in challenge as all Hell broke out in the rest of the room.

Literally. Well, ok, technically all Hell broke IN but that’s just semantics.

The Hell Maids, led by Sylvanna, supported by Lady Angelique, Baroness Lorilei, one Hellhound and Dimona decided to use that particular moment to enter the huge room through every door, window, wall, floor and roof, guns blazing. Concrete rained down even as floors disintegrated, pulling amazed Bathorians down with them. Bullets chewed through almost every object in the room, animal or mineral, except for one. Legion stood, looking on at the proceedings with contempt, while everyone else who wasn’t torn to pieces and possessed a whit of sense hit the floor. Fortunately, his attention was focused on Kasdaye… and me.

“UPSTART TRAITOR,” Legion scoffed at the black-winged angel, “YOU THINK YOUR PALTRY DISPLAY OF FORCE DOES ANY MORE THAN INCONVENIENCE ME NOW?”

“Come on,” Kasdaye beckoned, “or are you afraid to face me one-on-one?”

Legion spat. “THIS SCENE IS BENEATH ME.” With a motion so fast I couldn’t see him move, the enormous red devil grabbed me by the neck and hauled my body between him and the angel. “I HAVE WHAT I WANT, ULTIMATE POWER IS MINE. YOU CAN WASTE YOUR TIME WITH THESE PETTY UNDERLINGS FOR ALL I CARE, THEY MEAN NOTHING… BUT I WILL HAVE THIS ONE JUST TO DEPRIVE YOU OF HER, UPSTART.”

He started pulling me back towards the portal behind us, kicking Belphegor’s throne out of the way, his pet demon scuttling along in an attempt to keep behind it. I reached out for Kasdaye to save me, helpless under Legion’s sheer strength. One squeeze would have made my head pop like bubblegum and I wasn’t entirely sure I’d survive the experience. Alison certainly wouldn’t have anyway.

Looking past Kasdaye, the Hell Maids were busy turning the Bathorians into Swiss cheese over and over and over as the hellish things reformed and regenerated, even after being torn to pieces. While the majority of the Hell Maids kept the mob at bay with massed firepower, small groups of two or three demons dragged single, isolated, monsters down with swords and knives. Lorilei and Angelique had their hands full binding the rogue Sedu into their hosts. Even still, a hundred or so demon-spawn can get rather pesky; they all had their hands full.

“Father,” Pazuzu stepped up beside her master, “we have to go now, for your safety.”

The distraction was all Kasdaye needed. Rather than lunge for Legion with the sword, however, he grabbed for my hand. The moment our flesh touched I saw my angel’s eyes widen with alarm but his grip never failed. Legion jerked me back reflexively and I found myself in a tug of war. Actually, I felt like a wishbone caught between the pinkies of two quarrelsome children wondering which of them would get the better half.

I can only describe what happened next as excruciatingly painful, even though that really doesn’t to it justice. I’d learn a lot later about the differences between flesh made in Heaven, Hell and Earth, phases of reality and such. With a Demon yanking me in one direction holding my real body and an Angel pulling in the other attached to my Host, Alison and I separated. I was literally pulled out of her body with such force that Legion was thrown backward through the portal by his own might, taking Pazuzu and I with him yet leaving Alison behind.

“ZIZILI!” Kasdaye screamed as the portal snapped shut. Several more Sedu who had managed to remain loose dived through before it closed, though one moved too late and was cut in half in the attempt.

The sudden silence was strange after the gunfire, screams and explosions. The red light in the strange realm I found myself in was strong and hard, casting deep shadows under everything. Lightless fire roared occasionally from small cracks in the walls, floor and ceiling but other than that there were no real entrances and exits. It was one large domed room dominated by a central dais upon which stood a plain black marble stone and altar. Pillars rose in a circle around the edge of the room like great ribs of ivory, tapering off into points before meeting the roof. The only sounds were the groans of the rogue Sedu as they pulled themselves back to their feet.

“Were in Hell is this?” I gasped in askance, my throat still sore from the rough treatment at Legion’s hands.

He growled, grabbing my hair before stalking toward the altar, dragging me along behind him without pause. “NOT HELL,” Legion explained, ignoring my screams, “DAGGISGARD, MY OWN GODLY REALM SUCH AS IT IS. WHEN MORTALS BEGIN TO LEARN OF THE ALTERNATIVE I BRING RATHER THAN SLAVISH DEVOTION TO AN UNCARING GOD OR A MALEVOLENT SATAN, DAGGISGARD WILL GROW AND BLOAT WITH THE SOULS OF THOSE WHO CHOOSE TO WORSHIP ME, AS YOU SHALL NOW BECOME!”

“NO!” I screeched as he threw me onto the altar, slamming my back against the hard stone and knocking the wind out of me.

“Yessss…” Pazuzu hissed as she grabbed my arms, following her Father like an obedient dog. With a nod from her, several other Sedu grabbed my arms, pinning me down. “For Azazel, bitch.”

Legion grinned at me, a fierce bearing of fangs through peeled-back lips, as he pulled my legs apart by the knees. The claws of this thumbs dug into my inner thigh, black blood dribbling onto the altar as I screamed in horror. He took me with a single thrust, piercing not only my body, but my very soul as well. It was nothing less than the ultimate violation.

I was dry as a desert between my legs when he entered me, it couldn’t have hurt more if he’d used a sandpaper condom. Every successive thrust breached the barrier of pain, literally hurting so bad it felt good. Each movement brought me, tipping me over the edge into full-blown, back-snapping, full body orgasm as he pumped his dark seed into my belly. We came together over and over; it was as if he were filling a void inside me that I’d never realized was there.

After the first few strokes, my conscious mind recoiled and pure animal instinct took over. I remember hearing Pazuzu and the other Sedu laugh as my struggles weakened, then ceased. My only imperative at that moment was to ride the waves of pleasure washing though me, milking him for every drop of ejaculate. I wrapped my legs around his waist, locking my ankles tight over his buttocks, moving my hips to thrust back against his. By this time I was wet but, rubbed raw as I was inside, it still hurt. The pain still felt good, a bitter contrast to the supreme bliss of my orgasm in a similar way that sweet and sour foods can sometimes contrast and enhance each other in the same dish.

I heard myself screaming, moaning and sighing as if from far away, like I was a spectator rather than a participant. His grin faded slowly as we rutted, grunting like a pig with each stroke. He must have poured gallons of his demonic seed into my womb and yet I never felt bloated or full, as if I had a bottomless maw in my stomach he had no hope of ever satisfying.

It took a while for the Sedu to figure out something was wrong, though how long exactly I couldn’t say. Time no longer meant anything to me.

“Father,” I heard Pazuzu’s voice echo somewhere far away, “Father, that’s enough.”

“NO… MORE!”

With a groan, one of the Sedu collapsed, feinting dead away as Legion drew on his minion’s power to continue, absorbing their souls to sustain him. One by one, they fell, groaning and screaming as they were torn away from themselves, ripped to pieces by the force of their master’s will. Pazuzu was the last to fall, wailing like a lost child.

It wasn’t enough. Legion’s grunts turned to groans of pain as I continued to milk him, determined to take every last drop of him inside me. I was hungry and I never wanted the pleasure to stop, the animal in control of my body knew only the need to feed and Legion was the buffet.

He started to shrink as I filled up on his power, stripping him soul by soul. It felt like my skeleton was starting to burn, the heat spreading out through my flesh and radiating from my skin so that the air itself seemed to warp and twist. My muscles twisted and rippled as if in sympathy, raw strength surging through my veins. When Legion’s knees buckled, I rolled us over so that our roles were revered. I was, however, still instinct’s slave and I wasn’t about to let him go.

Even as he shrank, I was changing. My hair lightened into a bright fire-yellow as it grew, writhing down by back like thousands of miniature snakes. My horns grew even as more sprouted from my temples, curling into a black ram-like crest. But the most shocking change happened to my back. As I was gyrating my hips, I felt something trying to reach out from behind my shoulder blades, the urgency to stretch muscles that I didn’t have sneaking past my mating instinct. As I stretched these phantom muscles, two new limbs pushed out of my back, appearing as two arms with a thick membrane stretched between each finger. In short, I grew large bat-like wings.

I was aware with great disappointment that Legion was shrinking inside me as well as without. At the same time, however, something was growing in my abdomen, snaking toward my entrance slowly but surely. Just when I thought it was over as Legion fell out of me, the snake wiggled its way out of me and into him…

Looking down, I realized that Legion was no longer a ‘him’. She was still adult-sized but his chest and body were sculpted like a girl who was just beginning puberty. We switched roles from active to passive and vise versa seamlessly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Fucking her was still a familiar enough sensation that I fell into the rhythm easily, squeezing orgasm after orgasm from her body, each spasm causing her new attributes to bloom in spurts.

It still hurt, however, but for a different reason. I was starting to get full. The energy reached some form of critical mass as I sucked the last drops from legion’s body. I felt like a husk of skin filled with napalm, light and fire leaking from my eyes and mouth. I screamed, throwing myself away from Legion’s still form, writhing on the ground as I thought I would burst.

My world went white as the pain blurred my senses.

I became aware that the whiteness wasn’t some form of senseless oblivion slowly, but that there was a space to it, though how I knew that I can’t tell you. Looking down, I had my body. I was female but my skin had normal coloration, maybe slightly pale for some reason unknown to me. My hair was still long but dark rather than blonde. It felt strange being human again, or maybe just something like it.

“Hi!”

Blinking, I looked down to where the voice came from. I found myself staring into the large, wide, eyes of a little girl no older than six. She was wearing a cute little school uniform and was dragging a small stuffed white tiger behind her by one leg. “Uh,” I stuttered, “hi.”

“I’m Metatron,” she introduced herself with a smile that could have brought dawn to midnight and rotted teeth from sixty paces, “pick me up please?”

She held out her arms in askance, so I reached down and tucked her in close to my body. “Pleased to meet you, Metatron… uh… is that really your name?”

She sighed. “Yeah. I sound like something out of an anime, don’t I? Five lions and sixteen cars combine to transform into… METATRON! The six-winged Voice of God and protector of the universe! Well, ok, I don’t do too much of that, Michael and Laurence have that part taken care of, I’m sorta ill-equipped.”

I shook my head. “The Voice of G-ah!” I stopped myself before I said it.

“It’s ok, you’re not a Devil in HIS domain. You can say it if you want.”

“G-God?” I stuttered.

“That’s the spirit! The big guy has a message for me to give you, well two actually. One’s business and one’s personal between you and him. Do you like my tiger? He’s so cute and fluffy, isn’t he?”

I absently petted the stuffed toy but hardly noticed it all the same. “It’s lovely. Please, what’s the message?”

“First message is: Thank-you for dealing with Legion and don’t feel guilty about what you did to her. She still needs to learn some hard lessons, until she went against Lucifer and God, she’d never before been defeated in any way. It made her cocksure of herself. It was needful for him to use you to remove Legion from the board at this time and he apologizes for the harm that the traitor has done to you. He hopes that your short time with Kasdaye will in some way make up for it but is also imperative that Alison’s baby is allowed to be born.”

I almost dropped her. “BABY!!! What?”

She giggled. “Oh, yes. If the other Angels learn that Kasdaye has sired a new Nephilim with a human, he and Alison will be hunted down and killed. This can’t happen for the future of the Plan, Alison’s baby must survive. She’ll be born in the next few days but her rearing will take quite a bit longer before she’s ready for her part in the great scheme of things. He prays you’ll watch out for her, since you are partly her mother yourself after a fashion.”

“I… ok. I’ll try,” I sighed, overwhelmed. “What was the other message?”

She smiled as the whiteness began to fill my vision once more. “He says he’s sorry for everything and hopes that one day, you’ll forgive him.”

“Holy God!”

I didn’t recognize the new voice but it was sweet and feminine, innocent yet somehow adult.

“Please! Some of us spontaneously combust when people throw that word around!” This voice was more lascivious. I recognized Lorilei’s sarcastic purr immediately. “Quickly, if we don’t bleed some of this energy off, she’ll die!”

“Uh,” the other voice wavered, hesitating, “you really want to put THAT thing inside you? It has to be two feet long… and it’s on FIRE!”

“Hello? Demon?”

I heard someone stamp their dainty little foot. “Oh, poo, some of us aren’t made of asbestos you know!”

“Oh, will you two shut up already?” Vickie’s voice interrupted. “I’LL go first! Sheesh!”

To my eternal curiosity, I can’t tell you what it’s like the lie with Vickie as a man (well, ok, as a hermaphrodite strictly speaking). The only sensation I felt was a thousand red-hot pokers trying to wriggle out of my skin from the inside. I simply wasn’t cognizant of anything else until my third lover. One after another, Succubi, Valkyries and even Bright Lilim fed from my over-powered and exhausted body.

By the time I was sensible from the pain, I was insensible from the sex (hey, I’ll take that trade-off any time). When I finally came around, I was buried under a pile of groaning winged women of every shape and size, not to mention loose feathers, all of them clutching their slightly distended stomachs in pain. I recognized Lorilei, Angelique and Vickie but there were three others who I couldn’t place. Two were obviously angels, one black the other white. The third was a Succubi with, of all things, a halo over her head.

I tried to move but a sharp pain from my stomach made me forget the idea. I sank back down to the floor and joined in with the groaning.

“Great, you’re awake,” Lorilei sighed heavily, trying to ignore the pain, “Zizili, I’d like you to meet some of our angelic partners, Rebecca, Joy and Comfort.”

The three unknowns waved once each in turn so I knew who was who. Joy snuggled with a small furry thing that whimpered in sympathy for her mistress’ pain.

“Ugh,” I grunted, speaking being a bit of a chore, “nice to meet you guys… uh, girls.” With that reminder, I couldn’t resist checking myself. I still had the wings and my skin was now red rather than pink. My hair had bleached to a vibrant orange-blonde though my horns had shrunk back to a more manageable size. Thankfully, I hadn’t grown a set of stiletto hooves like the Succubae or Valkyries… what can I say? I’ve always liked feet.

“Where am I?” A sweet, high, voice gasped from out of sight.

Scowling, I rolled onto my knees. I’d forgotten about Legion. Moving was hard but I guess I was in the best shape to deal with it. Legion had the body of a pornstar or stripper. For a moment, I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to have hips that wide or breasts quite that large, particularly for how short she was. She was a hair’s breadth from being a caricature of a human being; heck the blonde would’ve given Jessica Rabbit a run for her money.

She looked up at me with pale blue eyes that seemed empty from where she knelt behind the black altar. “Hello. Do you know who I am?”

Sighing, I shook my head. “Sorry, girl, that’s something you’re gonna have to figure out for yourself.”

“Ah,” I turned around to find another angel stepping through the re-opened portal as she addressed us, her demeanor one of a person used to power despite her apparent youth, “there you all are. Sorry it took me so long, it’s a real mess out there… Comfort! Joy! Enough lollygagging! You’ll catch your death down there!”

Grumbling, the two angels said “yes, Mother Raphael” in resigned unison before attempting to move.

“If you don’t mind,” Lorilei moaned, “I think the more demonic of us will indulge in a bit of sloth for a few more minutes.”

Vickie and Angelique heartily agreed.

“My, my,” another newcomer clucked as he stepped through the portal as well, “you girls do make such a mess don’t you?” Lord Kobal snickered, reaching into the inside pocket of his colorful longcoat to produce a sign that read ‘Slippery When Wet’ and placed it on the floor near the scene of the recent orgy.

Rebecca flipped him the bird.

“Oooh, snappy comeback!” He chuckled, picking his way through the prone bodies. “Well, well, well, I see you’ve managed to put the ass back in Asmodai, chickadee,” he winked at me. Reaching into his jacket again, he bowed and, with a courtly flourish, produced a metal rose that appeared to be sculpted entirely from razor blades. “For you, mademoiselle, in honor of your beauty.”

I blushed, being very careful of both the petals and thorns as I accepted the gift. Being all red is good for one thing, it’s hard to see when I’m blushing. “Words cannot express my gratitude, Lord Kobal.” In my shock, I regressed back into my old persona, drawing on years of Shakespearian training for a proper reply.

Raphael rolled her eyes. “Spare us, Kobal. Come on, dear,” she smiled lovingly down at the former Legion, “you’re coming with me. I’ve got a lovely man to introduce you to by the name of Mohammad, I’m sure you’ll get along famously.” With a quick flick of her wrists, a fluffy pink blanket unfurled from her hands which she laid about the new girl’s shoulders.

Kobal stepped between Legion and I, blocking my view. “Good work, Zizili. Lady Lucifer sends her commendations for all your splendid work but I’m afraid that what remains of Legion is being traded to Heaven, mores the pity.”

I shook myself, trying to clear my head. “What the Hell happened to me? What on Earth is going on? Who…”

“Well, you know the where and the why already,” Kobal grinned, pulling me away from Raphael as she led Legion out through the portal, “as for what just happened, Lady Lucifer wishes to debrief you in person on your return to Hell. However, I am at liberty to explain a few points. Raphael and I have been watching the latest movements of the Egyptian Dildo with great interest for the last few weeks… mainly because we knew what was trapped inside…”

“How?” I interrupted.

“They put Legion in it,” Angelique moaned from the floor, “who else has a sense of humor that sick but the Lord of Black Humor?”

“Quite right,” Kobal nodded enthusiastically, “Pazuzu, however, used your training as an excuse to butt in on the operation to get it to Jade once it was found. Of course, as it turns out, we were all Lucifer’s pawns as always. Zizili, congratulations, you are the first and only successful Sedu/Succubi cross-template pollination…”

I closed my eyes. I was getting a migrane. “Lady Lucifer knew that the Sedu were traitors. And that Legion wouldn’t be able to resist raping me.”

“Hey, he’d been bottled up for a couple ‘o millennia!” The harlequin demon lord chuckled. “He was bound to be more than a mite rampant… besides, Asmodai never could keep it in his pants. It’s what got him kicked out of Heaven. But if you could suck away all of that power…”

“…Lady Lucifer wouldn’t even have to lift a finger to stop him.” I finished for him.

“And as an added bonus, I got to pay Mammon back for stiffing me in that poker game back in 1467.”

I raised my eyebrow, looking him up and down. “Let me guess, strip poker?”

He shook his head, still grinning from ear to ear. “Red hot poker.”

Vickie groaned. “Somebody please kill me now…”

Just then, Dimona popped her head in the door. “Hey, didn’t ya know, red? Pain’s what Hell’s all about. Hey, boss,” she hopped over to Lorilei, producing a vial of something greenish-brown, “got ya some pepto-bismol, enough for everyone not to worry.”

“Boss?!?” I almost shouted. I might have if not for my migrane.

“Ah, guilty as charged,” Lorilei raised her clawed hand, “Dimona’s been keeping an eye on you for me.”

It didn’t take much to put two and two together. I pouted, crossing my arms over my breasts. “You’ve been in on this since day one.”

She had the decency to blush, even if she did spoil it by almost spitting Dimona’s medicinal back into the vial. “By the seven deadly sins, what the Hell is that stuff?”

“Don’t ask,” Dimona warned.

“Oh, by the way,” Joy tapped me on the shoulder, finally well enough to stagger, “you wouldn’t happen to have come across a Guardian Angel at the hospital did you? He’s been missing for a few days now.”

It took me a moment to remember. “Oh, yeah! Vickie, you’ve still got him right?”

Vickie had to think for a moment. “Oh, right! I had him in here somewhere…” Searching her pockets for a few moments, she finally reached down her cleavage to dig around. Her sudden squeak made all of us jump. “OUCH! He bit me! Get out here, you little bastard!”

Vickie had to drag him out delicately, one foot between her two fingers as he clutched himself against her soft flesh. When his head finally emerged, his desperate screams echoed through the chamber. “NO! NO! LET ME GO BACK! LET ME GO BACK! I HAVE SEEN THE PROMISED LAND!”

Kobal slapped himself on the head. “Oy gavalt.”

linebreak shadow

Kasdaye and Alison were nowhere to be found. Somehow, they’d managed to slip away unnoticed. I was glad, I hoped they were safe. The strange thing was when I thought about Kasdaye, I didn’t get the same glow of love in my soul as I once had. It made me sad for a while that it had all been a lie; Alison had been the one in love, not me. In the end, I reconciled myself to it but never has the whole ‘living vicariously through others’ thing been more bitter.

Lord Nybbas pulled some strings to declare the site of the Bathorian’s slaughter a toxic waste spill which gave the combined forces of Heaven and Hell enough time to clean up the mess. And what a mess, Bathorians don’t die easy. Belphegor was reassigned to Hell under Lady Malphas. I hear he spends his days cleaning her linen… a rather ignominious job when you remember that she hardly moves unless someone moves her. Still, Lady Lucifer was merciful since he had acted under geas rather than of his own free will.

Sylvanna was rewarded with an enforced vacation for two in an intimate bunker on the Grey Wastes. Lady Lucifer then ordered Ares on a week-long bunker inspection tour. Syl has seemed quite relaxed ever since.

The Sedu were dead, every single one destroyed by Legion himself as he called upon their souls to bolster his power. Nobody mourned their loss. A few of their hosts were caught in the crossfire but those souls lost were immediately routed to their eternal reward, wherever that may be, while their deaths were explained away with a staged car accident. Those who survived had their memories of their harrowing possession erased. Legion himself is now a Houri in Mohammad’s Paradise. I find the punishment more than fitting for his crimes against me alone.

Lorilei, Vickie, Angelique, Demona and I ended up sitting around a table on our return to Hell waiting for Lady Lucifer’s pleasure. She didn’t keep us waiting. Skipping lightly over to me as I stood, Mother Lucifer hugged me tight for a long moment.

“Welcome home, daughter. Welcome back all of you,” Satan smiled warmly for us all. “Baroness Lorilei, you have performed in the spirit of true Hellish Nobility once again.”

Lor and Dimona bowed gracefully.

“Valkyries,” Lucifer continued, “you have performed beyond all expectations. Lady Angelique, I give you free reign in recruitment for your clan as well as priority at the gates for a span no longer than ten years. Use your time well; I expect regular reports on your progress.”

“Yes, Lady Lucifer.” Angelique bowed, followed closely by Vickie.

“Vickie,” Lady Lucifer singled the redhead out, “thank you for looking after my daughter. Perhaps it is a pairing that it wouldn’t be wise to separate… I will consider the matter, but know that you have my favor when Lady Angelique is ready to gift the title of Baroness.”

Vickie bowed deeper, trying to hide her shock.

“And you, my loyal daughter,” Lady Lucifer turned to me, taking my hands, “you have proved yourself to us many times over. But, your position in the Heirarchy has become rather… strange. There will be more Sedu one day but you are not a Sedu anymore. You have some of the powers of both a Sedu and a Succubi along with a vast measure of power gained from Legion that may, perhaps, place you on the same level as the Baroness… who herself is rather impressive for such a young demon. Your resourcefulness and bravery must be rewarded… but the question of how is rather difficult. Come and sit; everyone.”

We sat as ordered. I couldn’t help feeling nervous as Lady Lucifer placed me at her left hand.

“Legion was, perhaps, one of my most dangerous rivals ever to rear his face in challenge,” she mused, “his destroyer gains a commensurate level of fame… not to mention enemies irked at their success.”

I took a deep breath. I was betting Mammon was out for my blood, though I felt safe enough in Lucifer’s Palace, the center of my Lady’s power. Since my return, I’d been jumping at shadows. A hero’s welcome in Hell involves a knife in the back. It occurred to me that Lucifer might feel best served sacrificing her new daughter to appease Mammon’s ego.

Lucifer continued. “Also, the loss of the Sedu creates a rather large gap in the power structure of Hell. Therefore, I have decided…”

I held my breath.

“…to grant her the unique title of Lucifer’s Herald!” The most perfect blonde in the universe grinned. “I need an extra set of hands these days, and who better than my own loyal daughter?”

Wide-eyed, I stared at her. “Uh… what will this involve? Lady Lucifer?” I added the last in a hurry, forgetting myself.

She acted as if she hadn’t noticed. “Oh, you know, odd jobs and errands. Delivering messages; investigating things; spying on people; maybe a little assassination; wonton acts of apocalypse, that sort of thing.”

I banged my head into the table. “I am so dead.”

Grinning along with the others, Lorilei gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Welcome to the club.”

Ende

Comments   

+1 # Malady 2016-03-17 17:01
This was good.
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0 # Bad Idea 2016-04-04 01:41
This had a different flavour from the stories by Maggie, Bek and Ernie and though those three authors weren't identical in their styles they were much closer that this.

I did enjoy this offering. Thank you for sharing your hard work with us all. (I do not remember ever reading of the character "Comfort" before?)
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