"Don't give me that malarkey, Lucifer. Prime zero zero four five is still in Hell. You are going to immediately halt any attempts at retroengineering and hand it over. I want it back," Michael said.
So this was about those tinker-toys that they kept throwing down into his demesne. It'd been a stern shock when the first of them, rattling and clanking as they were, kicked down his little girl's second birthday party. And Heaven had not sat on their laurels when it came to their design. They were getting steadily harder and harder to kill, and better at wiping out his populace.
At first, he'd welcomed a good Purge. Before Purgatory fell, Purges only came about every other decade and gave the Ars Goetia a chance to punch the shit out of some of the less impressive members of the Heavenly Host. Now they were an annual event fulfilled by robots, and nobody in Hell had it in living memory that Angels once personally spilled blood, except for his followers and that living fossil in Wrath. It was almost as though God were growing afraid of what Lucifer could do with eleven billion dead pissed-off assholes at his beck, and was certainly cowardly enough to send toys to do what angels could not. But with the Purges keeping Pride's population at a reasonable level, it meant that now the bulk of Lucifer's army had its first loyalty to Satan, not him. And that burned. The entire reason he propped up Baphomet as the Deadly Sin of Pride was so that Lucifer would have seven kings that bowed to him, instead of just six. And with his own vanity as his witness, he would not settle for six now. Which meant that he had to be diplomatic with that fucking Elder Devil.
"Really? You lost one of your sex-toys? I didn't think you had that kind of spark in you, Michael," Lucifer said.
"Do I have permission to smite him?" Raguel asked.
"Denied," Michael answered. "Just hand it over and we'll leave you to wallow in the pit of iniquity that you've so carefully cultivated over the last eon. I don't want to be here either."
"What makes you think I would give you one single goddamned thing?" Lucifer asked, leaning across his desk at them on his splayed fingertips. "This is my kingdom, one I forged with mine own hand. You aren't even guests here. You're uninvited intruders. I am within my rights to have you tossed out on your ears."
"Try," Raguel said, as the room blossomed with light and his wings manifested, spreading from his back and bleaching the mahogany panels that they came too close to. Lucifer let his grin grow wider and more cruel.
"I see you still haven't forgotten what happened last time you and I crossed swords, Raguel. Tell me, do they still tell stories in Heaven about how I made you run away like a little bitch? How the mighty Godfriend lost a fair fight against the Morningstar?"
Michael, though, crossed his arm ahead of Raguel when the Justice of God tried to take a step toward Lucifer. Michael's brow was furrowed, his eyes locked on Lucifer's own. "Don't, brother," Michael said. "You know why you lost last time."
Raguel did not speak, but did back down. The blazing brilliance of the light from his wings died down, leaving the room paler for its absence. Lilith, who had been taking shelter in Lucifer's shadow, emerged and returned to her seat.
"I will not give you what you want. You may instead kindly take this complimentary voucher to have somebody pull that stick out of your ass," Lucifer said, manifesting the device betwixt his fingers with the slightest curl of his Song, and handing it toward them, "and you may thereafter expeditiously go fuck yourselves."
Michael did something quite unexpected, then. He chuckled. "I told you he didn't know a thing," Michael said.
"He is completely in the dark," Raguel agreed. Lucifer kept his smile in place, but tilted his head.
"You have no idea where Prime zero zero four five is. Which means that you didn't tell your daughter about it. Which also means that she probably brought it down on her own," Michael said.
"I know exactly..." Lucifer attempted.
"A number of days ago, Raguel," Michael ignored him and motioned toward his brother, "was overseeing Exorcist Control and Command, when they got a signal from a Lost Sheep. When he connected, he sensed a nearby angelic presence, followed immediately by the device getting decommissioned. And here I was worried that you had gotten ahold of it. Instead, you have no idea what it is, where it is, or how it died. Lovely."
"Angelic presence?" Lilith asked, quietly. That had Lucifer worried, too. With their wings clipped, the Ars Goetia didn't register as Angels anymore. The only one in all of Hell who still had his wings was Lucifer Himself. So who killed it?
It couldn't have been...
"We came to you as a courtesy," Michael continued. "But since you are incapable of courtesy, be it known that we are going to your daughter's location and we are taking back that prototype. Any attempts to forestall us or prevent us will result in mobilization. Are we clear."
It wasn't a question. It was a demand. "If you harm a hair on her head," Lucifer swore.
"Don't make us have to, brother," Michael said.
"You lost the right to call me brother when you carved the wings off of the backs of my followers," Lucifer pointed out.
"Their folly required punishment. And only our Father's direct intervention kept it from happening to you as well. I oft wonder what He was thinking when He made that decision," Michael said. "I hope we won't need to see each other again. But somehow, I doubt it."
And with that, the two angels turned and left, leaving the King of All Hell to fume behind his desk. When the doors slammed shut, only then did Lucifer allow himself to sigh.
"Things are in motion beyond our sight. This was only a tiny part of it," Lilith said.
"Why? Why did it have to be Charlie who found that thing?" he asked. "She's... she's not..."
"I had thought you would be proud," Lilith said, moving to his back and twining her arms around his waist. She whispered directly into his ear. "She killed an Exorcist all on her own."
"A century-out-of-date Exorcist that likely had no weapons and no Angel running it," Lucifer clarified. He sighed, luxuriating in the fact that the hottest woman in hell was currently draped over him. It was small comfort to his now worried mind. "She's not strong enough to take the throne. I don't know if she ever will be."
"Are you planning on going somewhere?" Lilith whispered, before chomping lightly on his earlobe.
"When I start the next war for Heaven, everybody's going to know I'm not paying attention to her. And they'll use her to hurt what I've built here. She's... she's too..." Lucifer sighed again. "She's too much like I was, before I saw how things really are. Back when I was stupid and weak."
"She. Killed. An Exorcist," Lilith repeated.
"I should have just killed God when I had the chance," Lucifer snarled, pulling himself from Lilith's embrace and storming to and fro across his office. "I should have just taken the Greatspear of Ruin and put it through His fucking skull. Or better yet, shoved it straight up God's asshole! I should have emptied that throne at any cost when I had the chance to, and now I'm down here, with those dickless fairies up there making a mockery of everything I FOUGHT FOR! I swear that the only human worth a single god damn is you, and that's because you had the courage to tell God to go fuck himself to His face!"
"Lucie, Lucie," Lilith said, intercepting his pacing and dragging him to a halt. She towered over him, even now. But even with the height difference not in his favor, she seemed demure to him. "Don't play 'Shoulda'. You wouldn't have taken the Greatspear. Stop beating yourself up for something which would never have happened."
"I could have," he repeated.
"And you would have lost any chance to sit the Throne of God. Does that sound like something you'd give up?" she prompted.
"No, it doesn't," he admitted. He turned to the doors. A faint smile returned to his face. "And they don't even know about the dead man walking the Human World. Fucking morons."
Lilith's smile raised certain parts of him. "Most angels aren't gifted with an abundance of brains."
"Do you think I should warn Charlotte that those glowing morons are coming?" he asked, as he pulled her close.
"And ruin the learning opportunity?" she asked.
"We're awful parents," Lucifer said, his grin growing wide.
"Simply dreadful," Lilith answered him. And then they started to rut on the office floor.
The Dead Shall Not Walk The Earth
"So let me get this straight," the cop said, where she was standing beside Moxie and leading Blitz toward a warehouse district that stank of brine and spilled motor oil. "Even if I die, there's a good chance I'm still going to need a job?"
"It depends if you go to Hell or not. I don't actually know anything about the economy of Heaven," Mox admitted. "But otherwise... yeah, you do. That's how we pay our bills. People like you getting revenge on the people who did them wrong."
"So even Hell has a more coherent justice system than this fucking city," the cop seemed singularly disgusted. She then perked up and turned to Blitz. "Say, would you accept my money to kill a few people in at the Precinct?"
"I like this bitch. She's gonna be in Hell before you know it," Blitz said to his employee, then turned to the law-woman. "Sorry, tits, your money's no good in hell. Unless you got something we don't got down there, and I better warn ya, we've got everything. You'll have to hire us after you die like everybody else."
"Shame. I can think of at least four people who the world wouldn't miss if they 'mysteriously disappeared' tonight," she said. She then came to a halt next to the back gate of a particular warehouse. "This is where he's most likely to be. Inside there in the foreman's office, up to his nostrils in cocaine and meth. He'll have a lot of coked-out guys with guns 'guarding' him, so... uh... good luck."
"You're taking this whole situation far better than I thought one of yours would," Moxie said.
"I've just learned that Hell is real, and it's less corrupt than the HRP," she said, and pulled out a pack of smokes. She offered one toward Blitz.
"Naw, bitch, I only smoke after I fuck. Unless you're offering?" he cracked a grin. She just stared at him with the flattest expression.
"I'm legitimately afraid to ask," she said, and then started to smoke on her own. "I'm going to go home, and take a long hard look at whether I want to go back to work tomorrow. Shoot Casper in the nuts once for me."
"That I can do," Blitz said. He snapped his fingers and flicked a business card between them. "Gimme a call when you die and want your killer axed. Or if you want a foot of imp in ya'." She just stared at him for a moment, a conflicted look on her face. Then the cop grabbed his card and walked away, shaking her head. Yeah. She wanted his dick. Still, she seemed like good people. She'll be right at home after she dies. Blitz pulled his Convertible Rifle from his back and pulled its mag. No good having sniper rounds in what was going to be a rock-and-roll fight. Those bitches took time and effort to load. "You're not gonna be a little bitch about killin' a bunch of nobodies, are ya?" Blitz asked.
"If they're in the way of the target, they're targets as well," Moxie said with a tone of resignation. Sooner or later, Blitz would beat a proper way of thinking into the kid. A wide, sharp grin came to Blitz's face as he walked up to the back door of the big, brown, uninspired premises, and with a full heave of his hip, he drove his boot into the door.
And then immediately fell backward onto his tail. He popped back up to his feet, switching his rifle to Full Auto and aiming it at the door. Moxie, on the other hand, took the door handle, and pulled. The door swung outwardly without the slightest complaint. Blitz had more than enough complaint to make up for its lack, however. "Where the FUCK is Casper Marquis?" Blitz shouted as he entered the warehouse. A pair of humans wearing pants that were most of the way down their thighs turned in shock and confusion at him, until he brandished his rifle. That got them swearing and pulling guns from various places. Blitz instantly snapped his sights onto the skull of one, then aimed just left and pulled the trigger. Like a pool-shot, the tiny change in trajectory made it so that the skull burst into the eyes of the guy beside him. He panicked, and pulled the trigger before getting it out of the waistband of his underpants, immediately lodging a bullet into his own leg. His gun going off was the first noticable noise, though; turned out that magical noise-flash suppressors were actually incredibly fucking effective up here in the Living World.
Moxie came into the building in Blitz's wake, pulling his side-arm and putting two into the screaming man's face. Blitz, though, was already looking at the battleground he picked. The walls were stacked high with shelves toward the front, but the back section had a bunch of tables with very tough looking bastards dividing and weighing shit. They had paused in their job at the sound of one of their own screaming, and some of them rose up to go check on them when they suddenly stopped. Blitz didn't even give them a chance to see who killed them. With a couple of surgical two-round bursts, he hit the goons in their necks and teeth, blowing a big fuckin' hole through a part of their body they really needed in order to not be dead.
That got people screaming.
The people at the tables pulled a bunch of rifles, one of which Blitz actually had some experience with; that old Russian bastard that used a chunky ass bolt, which meant when they fired, Blitz had all the time in the world to dive out of the way, line up his own shot, and empty the guy's fucking skull. Another had a weapon he knew from his Hellish upbringing, but hadn't been invented by the time he got back home. It emitted the distinctive pop-pop-pop and the equally distinctive 7.62x39 cracking as it whizzed by his head. The guy didn't get too many bullets out before his head, too, suffered a bad case of lead interception, via an assist from the other imp in the room. These guys weren't like those dorks from D.H.O.R.K.S. These people had actual weapons and were so keyed up on methamphetamine that they could probably snipe a housefly in mid-air. So Blitz was actually going to have to work for his kills.
Blitz rolled to a halt behind a big fucking crate that stank of cocaine. It shuddered as bullets hit it, and white sprays plumed out of it as expensive drugs caught and stopped lead. As the humans wasted time and ammunition peppering his cover, Blitz elbowed the crate next to him hard enough to snap a board, then pulled out a brick of white. A wistful smile came to his face, then he tucked it away in a back pocket. No reason he couldn't take some of his work home with him.
The first stream of fearful cursing informed Blitz that they'd run out of ammo. And unlike him, they hadn't prepared themselves for a long firefight. He hurled himself out of his hiding spot, putting a guy who was at least ninety percent muscle onto the ground by pounding his heart out of the back of his chest. Even as Blitz scrambled to close distance to that foreman's office, the guy next to meat-man had his jaw blown off and he went down, bubbling and dying in an unpleasant manner. Come on, Mox, get your aim together. Up one inch, two inches back; you could have decapitated him. Skill honed fighting a bunch of well dressed fuckheads in Poland triggered the reflex in Blitz to heft his gun up and in front of him, blocking the down-coming knife of a guy who had hurled himself at the imp in their midst. The instant it was deflected, Blitz twisted hard and flicked with his tail, the blade clenched in its spade driving hard into the human's neck. With a twist of Blitz's ass, the knife popped free, and the man began to die in a pool of red. An impact slammed into the back of Blitz's shoulders, but that too had been prepared for. It hurt like a bastard and threw Blitz onto the table. The padding under his suit had kept the worst of that baseball bat hit from causing damage, but it was still inconvenient. And his rifle was currently under him.
As the guy with the bat advanced, he didn't get far, before his face erupted and he fell down dead. Blitz only saw Mox for an instant before the little imp vanished back into the warzone. Another human was hurling himself at Blitz, to try to keep him from shooting. Blitz transferred the knife from his tail to his off hand, and let the human kill himself on it. Blitz then rolled aside, and found his hand on a bag of pills. Ohh, neat.
After pocketing them as well, Blitz rolled off the table and ducked through it. A bunch of people who hadn't grabbed guns instead grabbed bricks, be they white or green, and fled the warehouse. Blitz saw no reason to deny them their fun, and killing them didn't exactly help him get to Marquis. He pulled his rifle up to his shoulder as the foreman's office door burst open, and somebody barged out. There was the satisfying crack and thump of the gun against his arm, but then a displeasing snap sound, as the thing promptly jammed. "The fuck is this?" Blitz demanded of his gun, incensed at the temerity of the weapon to jam on him at a time like this. The guy in front died, obviously, but the one behind him pulled out a shotgun, which Blitz knew not to get in the way of.
White filled the air as buckshot obliterated the table Blitz had been standing in front of. And a moment later, splinters of wood and plastic flew around him. He needed harder cover than this against that kind of boomstick. The weave in his coat wasn't gonna do shit against double aught buckshot. He launched himself onto the floor next to the jawless guy, and the blast of shot hit that poor son of a bitch instead of Blitz. Blitz then laced his tail around the AK that one of the others had dropped in dying. Another blast of shot hit the body he was posted up against, showering him with a spray of blood. He didn't even flinch. He just reached through his pockets until he found a mag that held 7.62x39 and slotted that bitch into place, and let his own Convertible Rifle return to its place hanging off of his back.
A third blast, blowing off the corpse's leg, and Blitz offered a glance. The man with the shotgun flinched, taking a bullet to the chest, but he was wearing armor that caught it. His big fuck-off helmet had a couple of scrapes on it. It was obvious Mox was trying to rectify his mistake with jaw-guy, but that helmet wasn't letting pistol rounds through. Blitz knew better than to send rounds at a steel plate. He aimed lower, and fired a burst through the fucker's knee.
Shotgun man let out a scream of pain and immediately fell right the fuck off of the gantry, a twenty foot plummet to the concrete. He landed quite satisfyingly with a heavy metal clank and splut, as his head went from solid to liquid inside that helmet. In the moment of silence, the almost muffled sound of Mox's gun going off, at a target Blitz couldn't see, followed immediately by a scream of shock and pain. Another nearly silent shot, and the screaming stopped.
Then the door was kicked open again, by a 'roided-out looking fucker who had his moustache smeared white with Bolivian Marching Powder, and a goddamned grenade launcher in his hands. "Oh fuck me, what is this?" Blitz muttered, and quickly ran the fuck away from the now mercifully dead guy with no jaw that he'd been using as cover.
"You think you can just come in here and shake down what I built?" Marquis bellowed, followed by a bloop noise. The explosion resulting from it picked Blitz up and hurled him hard into a tank of something, denting in and careening him off to one side while covering him in a mist of dead jawless guy. Blitz took a moment to shake some sense back into his head. "You think that you can kill my boys, steal my money? Well fuck you! Fuck all of you! I run this city!"
"What a dickbag," Blitz muttered, and then started to dart through the shelves of less obviously illegal goods that this warehouse used as their 'front'. He knew he'd done good because the next grenade that was launched hit in the drug processing facility, not anywhere near Blitz himself.
"I own the mayor! I own the Premier! I got the chief sucking my dick and saying thank you!" Marquis continued to bellow, letting the grenade launcher dangle from a strap, and taking out a rifle and spraying rounds recklessly into his own operation. What a moron. "I own you too! You probably don't even know it! So come out here and lick my feet and I might only pull your fucking fingernails out!"
"Sir, this man is insane," Moxie said in Blitz's ear.
"So you finally show up again. Having fun over there? Why the FUCK haven't you shot him yet?"
"I've tried, sir! Something deflected the bullet!"
Well that was fuckin' weird, Blitz thought. He then leaned out and fired exactly one round at the guy. He knew how to aim this gun. Marquis was less than forty yards away. It should have popped both lungs in turn. Instead, there was a flash, and the bullet seemed to veer off and hit the gantry support nearby, a nearly 180 degree bounce. The fuck was this?
"Keep tryin' assholes! I am FUCKING IMMORTAL!" Marquis screamed. "Nobody on Earth can kill me! NO WEAPON CAN PIERCE MY FUCKING SKIN!"
"Sir, he's got Protection," Moxie said.
"Obviously, I can't shoot him," Blitz said, having to duck back into cover as Marquis sprayed bullets in his general direction.
"No, sir, I mean he's got Patronage. There's magic protecting him from bullets! He's sworn allegiance to a demon!"
"Well don't that just tickle my dick with sandpaper," Blitz complained. Looks like mister Kalashnikov was going to have to sit this one out. He slipped through the darkness of the ill-lit warehouse, letting the target rant and rave about how he was going to skull fuck everybody who committed this 'insult' to him. Weirdly enough, listening to this guy flap his lips actually made him look forward to his next visit to Stolas. Put Marquis' words into Stolas' beak, and suddenly Blitz was being threatened with a good time.
"There you are you little shit!" Marquis laughed, and went full-auto on the warehouse. Moxie let out a shriek of alarm in Blitz's ear. Twelve years and/or two months ago, Blitz would have just laughed at the little man's panic and plight. New Blitz knew that Mox was actually really fucking good with guns, and really bad when he was pinned down. And New Blitz also knew that Marquis was standing facing the wrong way.
Blitz was off like a shot, not even moving from cover to cover anymore, because there was that big, meaty back which faced him. So the shit-hawker was immune to bullets, eh? Well, let's see him deflect something a bit more substantial.
He launched himself the last two yards at Marquis, knife in hand, and slammed it hard into the man, only to have the knife rebound away and out of Blitz's hand. Oh you flake of pisshole dandruff. A beefy hand reached back and grabbed Blitz by his neck, and the guy turned bloodshot eyes to face him. He was sweating like a virgin in Asmodeus's Karaoke Bar, his face twitching. "Well I'll be fucked. You actually are real," he said.
"Is that as hard as you can squeeze? My slam piece gives better while SUCKING ME OFF!" Blitz shouted at him. And Marquis did start to squeeze more. Blitz could see Mox scarpering for all he was worth, getting to a position where he wasn't about to die. Blitz, though, took advantage of Marquis's target-fixation, and slipped his tail down past his legs, then jammed the spade right into the human's bloodshot eyes.
That released Blitz enough that he had a chance to grab from his back pocket, and slam that same fist through Casper Marquis' briefly open mouth and into his neck. There, Blitz twisted and pulled, retracting his arm before Marquis could meaningfully bite it. Didn't even vomit. This guy had less of a gag-reflex than Stolas! Blitz then kicked off and landed atop a crate, as Marquis staggered back, pawing at his neck, and leveled his unloaded grenade launcher at Blitz.
"Got a bit of heartburn, buddy?" Blitz asked.
Marquis stared for a moment. And then the thick black smoke began to emit from his nose and mouth, as the road-flare Blitz ignited inside his esophagus started to burn him to death from the inside out.
"Yeah, your deal with whoever the fuck probs' said that nobody and no weapon on Earth could kill ya. I'm from Hell, zasranets. And that ain't a weapon. Have a nice death!" Blitz said. Marquis tried to scream, tried to cough up the flare, but Blitz had made nice and certain to bend it enough that it burned through the tube and started to cook his fucking heart. The human clutched at his chest, at his neck. His teeth grit so hard that one of the cracked and broke, black smoke surging past it. One of his eyes went blood-red as all the capillaries burst in it.
Finally, he collapsed onto his back, his skin at the point where his neck met his muscle-corded shoulders catching fire as a new hole manifested and shock dragged him into unconsciousness. Blitz walked over to his knife, grabbed it, and did a few experimental stabs. The first few failed to connect. The last one went straight into his heart. Good. Blitz paused a moment, then remembered his promise. He shot Casper's dick off with two shots from his Luger. Never let it be said he disappointed a lady. Okay, he did disappoint ladies, but NOT LIKE THAT. "Well, that's my job done. Mox! You still alive over there?"
"I got shot!" Moxie complained.
"Lemme see," Blitz said, as the smaller imp came out of his hiding spot. It was a hole going through his forearm. Not great, but not too terrible. "Stop being a baby. You'll be fine. Now grab as much of this shit as you can carry and let's get out of here. I don't want to be around when these fuckers come to clean up the mess we made."
"Why did you have a road flare, sir?" Moxie asked.
Blitz just shrugged. Moxie let their side of the job end with a moan of furious confusion.
"I guess you have a lot of questions," Sam said, sitting next to the door to his apartment. There was no other furniture other than his ratty chair, and he wasn't going to plunk himself down and leave her to squat.
"More than you would believe," Lulu said. As usual, she never looked him in the eye for long. Despite a decade in and out of doctors' offices and psychiatric hospitals, they still didn't have a proper diagnosis for her. Only that it was some shade of psychotic disorder that left her at the mercy of delusions and hallucinations, one that schizophrenia medications did exactly nothing to help. "I found your body."
"Yeah. So... yeah. I'm dead," he said.
"Obviously," she said.
"Yeah. Sorry about that. Being dead, I mean," Sam said, feeling kinda lame even putting the words out there.
"And yet you're in your apartment, reading your phone. Ow, by the way," she said.
"You hit me in the head with a baseball bat. You could have... well, not killed me, because that doesn't work like that anymore, but still," Sam said.
"Was it JP? It was JP who did it, wasn't it?" she asked, a hard look coming to her face.
"Yup, it was Dufresne," Sam said.
"Imma kill him," she promised.
"Don't you worry about Dufresne," Sam said. "He's not going to be a danger to anybody else for very much longer."
"So you came back for unfinished business. Like a ghost. Are you a ghost?" she asked.
"Typically one cannot touch ghosts," Sam said, lightly elbowing her in the side as he did.
"Then what are you? You don't look like you, but you're still you," she said.
"How did you even recognize me? I don't look like I did when I was alive. New face, new hair, new body... new everything."
"I just... know," Lulu flicked a glance at him, then nodded and looked away. "You're Sam. There's nobody else you could be. Even if you do look like an angel."
"Demon, actually," Sam said. He tapped the horns that made his hair resemble a sconce. "Don't exactly have a halo, do I?"
"Don't lie to me. There's no way you ended up in Hell," Lulu said.
"I did. It turns out Heaven's a lot more exclusive than Scripture led us to believe," Sam said. "Maybe one in a hundred gets in. I didn't make the cut."
"Then God was wrong," she said.
Sam chuckled and shook his head. "I'm pretty sure God had little to do with my Judgment. And for the record, I am on a quest to kill Him and empty the throne of Heaven. Angels don't do that kind of thing."
"If God or any of his people looked you in the eye and decided that you needed to go to Hell, then Heaven is not a place I have any interest in going," she said.
"Lulu, by the metrics I figured out, I kinda... no, scratch that, I definitely do deserve Hell. I let Vanderkleuw do horrible things to you and I never fought for you. I never stood up to Marquis. I never stabbed Dufresne in the neck like he deserved. I allowed evil to flourish in the world around me and I did nothing to stop it," Sam said.
"Please, stop doing that," Lulu said.
"Stop doing what?"
"Taking the blame of all the world's evil onto your shoulders. If there was any need for proof that you're you, that's it right there," she said, giving him a shove back. "You always set yourself against a standard so impossibly high that nobody alive could reach it. Whoever you're comparing yourself against, whoever set that standard, it isn't fair to you. You're not being fair to you."
"I..." Sam began, but then stopped. She was being dead honest, that was obvious. She was an open book. And she was telling him exactly the same thing he'd told Wendy not too long ago. Just like he could see into Lulu, it seemed Lulu could do the same for him.
He didn't even need to look too deeply to see the core of her. Fear. Fear that her world would wink out of being at any moment. And it was a justified fear, because worlds had ended for her before. No less than twice since Sam first met her, he'd had to lead her out of a fantasy which had consumed her thinking and action. She was afraid even now that she would blink, and he would be gone. That he'd never been here at all. That she had never known a Sam, let alone who who returned in Demon form.
"The fact that I went to Hell is evidence to the contrary," Sam muttered. "But we're not going to go anywhere if we keep third-grading this against each other. It is what it is."
"It is what it is," she said, as a litany against chaos.
"How long did it take? Before people found me?"
"Three days," she said. "I'm sorry. I didn't find you sooner."
"Only three days? I thought I'd be there until I stank," Sam said.
"Yeah. Um. I kinda... picked the lock on your door," she said. She swallowed. "And I found you. There. In the blood. I left. Didn't think it was real. So I took a cold bath, had a meal... and I looked again. You were still there. Still dead," she sighed, rubbing at her eyes. They were red and puffy for the tears she'd shed. "I didn't want to believe it. I wanted it to be fake. An illusion. But it wasn't. You were dead."
"Thank you. For not letting me rot," Sam said.
"Your sister came to our memorial a week ago," she said. "A lot of people did. A lot a lot."
"What?" Sam sat straighter. "Jessica's alive?"
"She was supposed to be dead?" Lulu asked, her confusion obvious.
"No, I haven't seen her in almost a decade. I thought... why did she come...?"
"Your brother was in rehab, and couldn't come. Your sister – Jessica – she came because he couldn't. I met Alle. Don't know why you never let me meet them before."
"Because you didn't know who Alle used to be. It was kinder," Sam said. "Are you okay? I mean... really?"
"No," she said. "I haven't been since forever. I'm probably hallucinating you. But in terms of things my broken mind can come up with, you being here right now is one of the better ones."
"That's the nicest thing anybody's ever said about me," Sam said. He pushed off of the wall and got to his feet, pulling Lulu up next to him. "I'm going to kill Benny. It's why I came here. You don't have to..."
"Oh, I absolutely do," she said. There was a spike of bilious anger in her, puncturing through the fear and giving her strength. "I want to see him as I saw you."
"Well, you'll get a chance soon enough," Sam said. He opened the door to his apartment, to find two men with crowbars standing outside it, looking like they were keying themselves up to burst in. They both flinched at seeing a demon emerge from the apartment, backing away with their hands tightening on their blunt hooks of hardened steel. Lulu coming out a moment after him made them even more alarmed.
"Uh... Lu? What the fuck is..." one of the said, the one who was his neighbor from across the hall. Sam had never learned his name, because the guy worked really weird hours.
"Don't be afraid," Sam said. "I am here to kill Vanderkleuw."
"Jesus fucking Christ!" the other said, and began to sprint away. The doors in the hall cracked open, people peeking out to see what was breaking up their precious sleeping time. The neighbor shook, eyes locked on Sam. He was disbelief from hair to toenails. As Sam turned away, he quickly crossed himself.
Sam didn't bother speaking to the others. To them, he would be an inexplicable walking nightmare, something they would deny and try to forget. Just as well. He moved through the building, to the stairwell that went up, with his hair painting the dimly lit walls with a harsh electric blue. The stairwell was of course blocked off between the second and third floors, three steps fallen through and never repaired. Why had he even expected that to be different? So he did as all people who lived on the top floor did, and moved toward the emergency exit, which was permanently wedged open. As he moved, more and more people kept peeking at him through cracked doors. Behind him, at the edge of his light, more people gathered.
The top floor was like the lower two, only this one had working lights, so his electric blue was less prominent. One door varied from its laminate kin, being substantial and ornate, with a mail-slot where you were expected to put your money each month. Any deviations would result in 'correction', which could mean a lot of things. If you were a man, it usually meant that Vanderkleuw called in Marquis to beat your ass to within an inch of your life. If you were a woman, he'd drag you inside and extract his value from your flesh. The thought of it made a spark of incredible rage burn in Sam's guts, searing and painful but oh so very clear. As Sam slammed his fist against Vanderkleuw's door, most of the building's inhabitants were standing as witness.
"Come out, Vanderkleuw! You have made these people suffer enough!" he bellowed, the words causing the wall to crack and dust to rain from the ceiling. He slammed his fist into the wood again, barely noting how it cracked. "You cannot hide behind Marquis anymore!"
Sam turned a glare to one of the people who lived on this floor. A glance told him that Vanderkleuw was in, as far as these people knew. One of them had a burgeoning bonfire of fury, of reckoning; a girl who knew her mother was inside that room, right now. If there were a need to further stoke Samuel's righteous rage, that would have done it. Instead of pounding on the door again, he thrust his hand through the mail slot, grabbed ahold, and ripped.
The door, solid oak thought it was, burst into flinders at his grasp. He threw the splinters of that door away and behind him, ignoring how they smoldered on the faded, worn-to-the-root carpet. He took one step into the apartment, buffeted by a woman's scream, only to hear and feel the thunderous blast of a shotgun going off and hitting him in the chest. The impact knocked him back two steps, pain grinding against rage, but failing to win out. Sam's shirt started to redden, but not where he'd been shot. Instead, his unhealing wound opened again, whereas the buckshot in his lung melted and began to burn.
Vanderkleuw took a step back, shock clear on his lumpy face. He had the look of a Russian farmer, but with none of the virtue of actually producing something of worth to the world. He scrambled to breach his shotgun, to pull the shell from it. Sam didn't give him the chance. A shotgun blast would have killed him were he human. But he wasn't human anymore, so it barely slowed him down. In the back of his mind, he still asked the question why. Why was he powering through a shotgun blast right now, when a few bullets had put him on his ass only weeks ago? He was, at the moment, too angry to think about it.
The Slumlord backpeddled into his gaudy dining room, clawing at the shell stuck in the shotgun's barrel to get it out. That was a gun for bird-hunting, single shot, breech loaded. And that was his doom. Sam barged past the woman who was trying to pull her clothing back into place on herself at the door to Benny's torture chamber – his bedroom – and grabbed that shotgun, wrenching it from Vanderkleuw's grasp. With a flex of his arms, Sam tore it in half at the breech point, throwing the shattered weapon away. Then, he reached through the flailing punches that Vanderkleuw hurled at him to grab him by the neck, and lift him.
"It's over," Sam said. With a whip well fitting to a softball pitch, he hurled Vanderkleuw out of his apartment as easily as said softball, causing him to crash against the wall opposite his door. Stunned, he could do nothing as Sam emerged from the apartment, his light overwhelming the pot-lights that ran down the middle of the hallway, giving the hall a clinical, cold illumination. The light of a court about to pass sentence. The others who lived here surged back as he reappeared, making a perimeter that only Lulu dared breach. She stood closer than most. She had been harmed more than most.
"What the fuck are you?" Vanderkleuw stammered.
"Defiance against the unjust," Sam said. He grabbed the man, who was naked but for his tighty-whities, and hefted him against the wall he'd cratered into. "You have victimized every person here with your debased urges. You have brought pain and misery to each man and woman who lived under your roof. As did the cruel masses of Sodom, you have too long exploited those that were under your care. That ends today. Today, you are judged. I intend to kill this man. Is there a single one of you who will ask me to stop?"
Silence in the halls.
"If a single one of you can give me reason to not slay this man, I will let him free," Sam said. "Even if you have no reason at all. Speak a word, and he will live."
Silence in the halls.
"Kill him!" the woman emerging in tatters from Vanderkleuw's apartment screamed.
"No mercy for the monster!"
"Rip his fucking balls off!"
Sam shook his head. "You have been judged by your peers, Benjamin Vanderkleuw. Not a single one of them has seen any reason for you to live."
"Wait! I can... I have..." Vanderkleuw attempted.
"You have nothing by which I may be bribed. Nothing to threaten me with. 'You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but in righteousness shall ye judge thy neighbor'. And your neighbors have judged you. Suffer the first fire, the last of your life. And when Hell swallows you, may you never know peace," Sam said.
Then, the pain of the spark in his guts mobilized through his arms, racing blue-hot flames into Benjamin Vanderkleuw. He screamed only briefly, as he was consumed by Sam's furious flame, the only Elemental power he had that actually made sense. He continued to pound that fiery wrath into the slumlord, until the scream died. Until his body crumbled and collapsed as burnt bone and ash. Until Vanderkleuw was sent to his Judgment, where he would no doubt be found severely wanting.
He didn't feel joy, or even really satisfaction. This was a job that he should have done a long time ago. That anybody should have done a long time ago, but Sam took it on himself to perform for everybody's benefit. He turned to them. "This is not the world that you deserve," he said unto them. "The mighty think to own you, mind, body, and soul. Don't prove them right. You are better than this. You deserve better than this. All of you do."
He turned from the people surround them, who now parted to allow him access to the fire exit. Lulu fell in beside him. The anger was still in his stomach, burning and painful. One act of justice did not right a flailing world. But even a single grain of sand off of one side of a balance scale was an improvement. "That was... biblical," Lulu said.
"It seemed appropriate," Sam said. It felt like he was shrugging off a cloak, now. Even as he walked away, it was like trying to recall the thought process behind a decision he'd made last night while drunk. Why had he chosen to be so blatant? He wasn't sure. That hadn't been the plan. But it didn't matter. The Slumlord was dead.
"Unless I imagined everybody seeing you kill Benny... I think this actually happened," Lulu said.
"So it seems," Sam said. He paused at the landing, rubbing at his side which now bled into his shirt, below the spot where buckshot had plowed holes through it.
"Will I ever see you again?" she asked.
"I hope not, Lulu. I hope that you have a better ending than I did," he said. It seemed cruel, to tell the woman who had such tenuous grasp of reality that he hoped he would never see her again, but it was in truth a kindness. The only way Sam would see Lulu again is if she went to Hell. And he would not wish that on any friend of his. Lulu nevertheless took him into a hug. And Sam sighed, feeling the warmth of her. And as he did, he tried to give her a bit of strength, a parting gift to bear her forward. Don't die for the sake of it. Don't off yourself so you can see me again. Be as strong as you've had to be all this time. Stronger, even.
But the moment passed, and Sam had to leave, walking back into the darkness and the rain.
It was almost a month later when the Roman Catholic Church's Council of Albany sent its Inquisitors to examine the evidence of a possible miracle. When they came, most of the people who had lived there during the event had already moved on, either to other, better housing, or to other cities. Those that stayed had vastly improved their state of living, with new employment, improved health, and better relationships. They spoke of an avenging angel, who burned away the foul and wicked slumlord who had kept his boot on their necks for years. The Inquisitors found this utterly ridiculous, however, because every scrap of evidence they discovered – and there was a great deal of evidence – said that whatever came to this building was unmistakably and irrefutably a demon. It was a matter of some confusion, when Louisa Voss claimed to have known the identity of the 'Angel of Defiance', that they had died and she knew them in life. Angels did not walk the world of Men, after all. Demons, though, could. And did.
When the Inquisitors returned to ask further questions of her, a few days later, Louisa 'Lulu' Voss disappeared. Not just gone from her housing: every file held by every agency in the nation had been erased. As far as the Council of Albany could ascertain, Louisa Voss had never been born.
Loona stared at Dufresne, who was grinning like he had just won. She casually reached back, plucking the syringe from the back of her arm and holding it to where her snout ended under the glamour. She gave it a couple sniffs, then licked it. "Ketamine? Seriously?" she said.
Dufresne's shit-eating grin started to curdle when she didn't pass out.
"Millie? Go for it," Loona said with a gesture. Dufresne then let out a scream of pain and confusion as he flopped to the rain-driven concrete, his hamstrings slashed in a clinical strike. He immediately grabbed for his gun, but Loona stomped hard on his hand, crushing his wrist and causing it to scatter out and land amidst garbage-bins. She then took a step back, pulling the grimoire from its place, hovering near her back. "Gotta give you credit for picking the one thing that actually has any affect on hellhounds. But you needed to use, like, five times as much to get anywhere."
"WHAT THE FUCK IS–?" Dufresne began, lashing out now with a knife in his unshattered hand. Millie wove through his web of with such fluidity that it seemed she could have danced between raindrops. When at last she had the right position, she hooked her blade over his wrist and heaved back, severing his hand and causing the knife to clatter wetly away.
Feeling a slightly warm feeling in her, not just from the uselessly indoctrinated tequila she'd drunk but also from a sub-clinical amount of ketamine in her system, Loona idly flipped through the pages, until she found the one she needed. She backed up a step to avoid a flailing kick, which was aborted by Millie hacking the tendons in the back of his knees. He still raved, ranted, and called her everything under the sun except for a nice girl, but she didn't care. She had him. Intraplanar, to-token. The indigo energy spread, and the client came through, steam rolling off of him in waves. He looked at Dufresne, and a distant, wistful smile came to his lips. "You're as good as your word," the client said.
"Yeah, I'm awesome," Loona said. She then made a new portal, one which opened to reveal Blitz and Moxie. Both of them arduously dragged garbage-bags full of something through that portal.
"Loonie! Did everything go okay? He didn't hurt you did he? 'Cause if he did, client or not I WILL RIP HIS FUCKING BALLS OFF!" Blitz shouted.
"I'm fine, chill," Loona said.
"You may yet get a chance," the client said.
"Moxie? Are you hurt?" Millie asked.
"It's okay, just a little gunshot. Nothing wrong. Heh. Heh," he attempted. Loona rolled his eyes. Whatever reason he gave for not bitching about the hurt, that was on him. Loona flipped most of the way back to the front of the book, and opened a new portal, one that blasted them with hot, dry air as the heat-wave continued in Pride. The client even picked up Moxie's trash bag and threw it through, before he grabbed the now ineffectually flailing target and hurling him through after them.
They emerged in the parking lot of I.M.P's office, right next to that deeply inconvenient parking spot near the back corner of the lot, about as far from the doors as you could possibly be, which Verosika Mayday had been relegated to.
"What the fuck is going on? Where am I?" Dufresne asked.
"Hell," the client said. "Millie? Cut his shirt off."
Millie turned a confused look to him, then did as he'd asked, ripping open his shirt to show his bony, acne-riddled chest. Dufresne tried to lash out at the client as he leaned down, but Sam stomped hard on his neck, causing him to gasp and wheeze, contracting to protect himself despite having no usable hands and his legs only functioning between hip and knee. With a thick felt pen that stank of acrid substances, he drew some sort of sigil on Dufresne's chest. It quickly sizzled and raised hives and blisters where the marks were set in. "What the fuck are you doing?" Loona asked.
"Why are you drawing a lodestone rune on him?" Moxie then offered.
"The same reason I'm drawing this one. Please turn him over."
"I will eat your fucking guts! Do you know who my father is? I will fucking destroy everything you love!" Dufresne ranted.
"Don't know who your daddy is, and honestly I can not give a fuck," Blitz said. "This guy always such a little bitch about things?"
"Bigger. Only he had the backing of the local police and somebody who kept the media from getting involved. Probably Daddy was rich and powerful. If I had enough money, I'd go after him next, if only for being such a godawful parent as to produce this one," he gave Dufresne's leg a kick as he finished making another rune, very similar but not identical to the first, on his back. "Alright, flip him back."
Dufresne tried to spit at Sam, but he just leaned aside, letting it land on somebody else's back window. "Whoever you are, you're fucked. I am going to rip your fucking heart out!"
"With what? A broken hand? Or a missing one?" Sam asked. "Do you know who I am, Dufresne?"
"Some flame-headed motherfucker who..." Dufresne's face was now solidly red, as was much of his torso. He'd worked himself into a frenzy. Well, that didn't matter to anybody here. Dude was plated for dinner. The client leaned down as Moxie put a literal sock in him and gagged him.
"Thank you, Moxie. My name is Samuel Scailes. You destroyed my friends' lives. Now I'm going to ensure that the cancer that you are is excised to the cell," he said. "To ensure that your foul taint is removed, I'm killing you here. In Hell. Where nobody will try to prolong your life. And then, well... You'll end up in Hell again, considering the things you've done, so... Millie? Would you please open his belly? Gently, so he won't die from it."
"Ummm boss?" Millie asked with a nervous glance.
"Oh I wanna see where this is going!" Blitz said, popping a couple of assorted pills as though they were popcorn. Entire garbage bags full of drugs? Why did Blitz get the fun place and she had to deal with date-rape-man? Whatever the case, the client then pulled out a cylindrical grenade that seemed to gleam in the afternoon light. "Well fuck me, is that a solid Seraphic Steel grenade?"
"What? No. Do you think I'm made of money? It's just plated three millimeters thick," he said. Moxie leaned in, scrutinizing it, as Millie took her knife and began the slow cut, against which the target screamed and flailed. With Loona standing hard on his chest, he got exactly nowhere.
"Why is there the same binding rune on his back as on..." Moxie began, shaking his head, then he seemed to clue into something. "Wait... will that work?"
"M-hm," Sam hummed.
"You're going to send him through his Judgment with..." Moxie continued.
"M-hm," Sam hummed again.
"And that's why there's no rune on the latch or pin, so when he hits the ground... on the lodestone rune..."
Sam simply smiled, and then with an unkind thrust, shoved the entire grenade into the wound that Milly cut in Dufresne's abdomen. "Could you staple that shut, please?"
"Oh gladly," Blitz said, pulling the industrial stapler he'd ordered in to cinch the wound closed. "You've got a sadistic streak to ya, bud. I like it. If I ever start to bend my 'no Sinners or Fiends' rule for employees, I might hunt you down and hire ya'."
"No thanks. I've already got enough employment on my plate, and you couldn't pay me enough to get me away from the Goat of the Apocalypse," he said.
"Your loss. So, are you gonna off this creep or what?"
"Loona? He probably annoyed you the hardest. Do you want the honors?" the client asked. Loona smirked, moved her foot to his neck, and then with a mighty twist, snapped it like a fucking stick. His mumbling and weak thrashing ceased. She'd say that the light left his eyes, but there was never anything in there to begin with. The bulge in his belly then flattened. Then, Sam extended a hand toward Millie. "May I borrow that for just a moment?"
She handed him her other knife, since she definitely played favorites. Sam started to scratch the same rune as on the target's chest onto the pavement. "If that does what I think it does, I will pay you two hundred Souls to put it directly onto that bitch's car!" Blitz offered.
"Done," Sam said with a shrug, disrupting his first rune and then digging through the hot pink paint of the convertible's trunk door. Wait. Since when did Blitz know anything about…?
"We may want to take a few steps back, sir. For somebody like that, his Judgment won't take very long," Moxie said.
"Well, how 'bout we have a parking lot party to celebrate another job well done?" Blitz reached into a bag and pulled out two plastic bottles full of vodka, from the smell of it.
"Sir, I got shot," Moxie complained.
"And now you're gettin' paid, so stop your bitchin'," Blitz said. Dixie-cups of vodka were passed around, with only the client not partaking. He was watching the haloed orb that sat forever directly overhead, uninterested in revelry and using vodka to wash the blood from his hand. They'd gotten into their third cup and caught each other up on what bullshit they'd faced in this particular spate of employment when Moxie felt a need to sidle up to Sam.
"So who did you learn that magic from? I never knew that you could bring something through your Judgment."
"Alastor says he brought everything he needed for life in Hell through with him as he Fell," the client said, still staring upward.
"Alastor... the Radio Demon?" Moxie gawped, as was prudent, because what the hell?
"The very same," he said.
"You're the guy from the hotel!" Loona finally recognized him.
"M-hm. Your boss held me at gunpoint for my phone," he said.
"Bitch, I hold a lot of people at gunpoint," Blitz clarified.
"You learned magic from the Radio Demon?" Moxie pressed, making knife-hand motions when he did.
"Yeah. He's really good at it," Sam said.
"He has to be lying, sir. The Radio Demon's never taken on a protege. Why would he now?" Moxie said to Blitz, who was busy drinking.
"Elementals gotta stick together," Sam said.
"Next you'll tell me you've got a cure for syphilis," Loona muttered.
"Penicillin," Sam said.
"What about dicks was that?" Blitz asked.
"Penicillin. Broad spectrum antibiotics," Sam said, eyes still on the sky. "Curing syphilis is a big part of what kicked off the Sexual Revolution back in the sixties."
"Is that some sort of human medicine?" Moxie asked.
"Yeah. We keep stockpiles of it in every pharmacy. Why? Does Hell just not do medicine?"
"Sinners can't die of disease. The things Fiends get can't transmit to anybody else. And nobody cares about Imps or Hounds to bother. You either tough it out, or die from it," Moxie said. "So you humans... cure... diseases?"
"There he comes," he said, pointing upward and not bothering to answer the question. Loona knew from her twenty odd years in Hell that when a soul Fell, it always fell straight down. This one, however, was falling at an angle. Streaking down like a meteorite, drawn inexorably to the rune that had been scraped into a convertible's bonnet. They were all nearly a hundred feet away, nearer the doors than the impact point. What landed looked very much a mangy otter, its skin showing through its fur dotted with sores and otherwise red. The new Sinner, the next part in the story of Jean-Pierre Dufresne, looked up about three seconds after cratering into the car, flattening the back half of it.
"You! You did this to m–" Dufresne's Sinner form said.
And then was cut off when he exploded.
The high explosive grenade launched Seraphic Steel shrapnel through him, blowing from the inside out, and obliterated the convertible, spraying nearby cars with gore, bone, and guts. By grace of fate, Dufresne's head landed in the cluster of garbage pails nearby. Fitting. Blitz let out a yell of joy at the spectacle.
A moment later, a window high in the building opened up, and famed succubus pop-star and by some twist of insanity Blitz's less-than-amiable ex-girlfriend Verosika Mayday stuck her head out. Her eyes were wide, locked on the ruins of her custom ride. "WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED TO MY CAR?" she shrieked, clutching her hair next to her ears.
And Blitz just laughed his ass off.
Those who are damned shall dwell upon your realm, and you shall take them unto yourself, from now until the day of Great Judgment. For the Nine Rings of Hell have been designated by God Almighty as a place of punishment and penance. Upon my word and honor, and upon my position as the Voice of God, I charge you, Kings of Hell, with the containment of the dead. Upon your thrones, you shall ensure that the dead shall not walk the earth, from now until that day of Great Judgment. Upon the Song of Creation, you will destroy all forces and beings that encroach upon Hell, and we shall bring ruin upon those same who intrude upon both Heaven and Earth. Do these things, and there shall be peace and good spirit between Heaven and Hell forevermore.
- Metatron to the Old Kings, on the day Cain is sent to Hell.