The pounding on the door pulled Charlie's attention from the mirror in her bedroom, where she was grinning like a kid at the gorgeous dress that calamity had dropped into her lap. It was so frilly! And fluffy! And so very very comfortable! And she felt like she looked as glamorous as Mom while wearing it! It covered her from neck to ankles, its arms dissolving into lace about half way down the forearm to the hands. The Exorcist had also worn elbow-length white gloves with it, but they were just run-of-the-mill leather, so Charlie didn't bother with them. Well, whatever glee she felt was somewhat clipped by the people demanding her attention. She only wished she had more of her old earrings to accentuate the brilliant white, and graduations of gentle, subtle gray. Too much of her stuff from when she was younger was still in Dad's palace. And that was an endeavor and a half to go back into. Maybe when she could prove to him that Redemption was possible, she'd be able to walk in there with her head held high. Maybe then.
Another pound at the door, one that seemed to shake the building. Whoever that was, really, really wanted in. So Charlie sighed, smoothed the pleats of the dress, delighting at the feel of the satin loomed in Heaven, and began to walk to the doors. The lobby, when she reached it, barely looked like it had been briefly a warzone. Only the crumbled pillar gave away the trick. She had only entered the lobby when Vaggie exited the elevators, an expression of consternation on her face. "Are we expecting anybody?" she asked.
"No. Not really," Charlie answered her. Vaggie growled under her breath in that delightful language she'd imported when she died, and stormed to the doors, outstripping Charlie with ground-eating strides. She threw the door to the hotel open, revealing two figures wearing drab, jute robes.
"No solicitors," she said, and then slammed the door.
The entire building definitely shook with the next pounding on the door, which drew a worried look on the dead girl's face. But the worry faded when Vaggie looked at Charlie in her fancy dress. She took in a breath, squared her shoulders, and turned to the door again. She threw it open.
"We're not interested in donating to the Church of Satan. Please go to someone else," Vaggie's tone brooked no complaint.
"K̵͚̠̤̇N̷̛̖͚͋͜Ë̴̡̄Ȅ̵̦̋̋L̸̦͈͂̾.̵͈̈͒" the foremost figure spoke. Collapsing like her knees stopped working, Vaggie flopped to the floor, genuflected in front of the figure. That instantly got Charlie's blood to a simmer.
"Now just wait a minute there, mister. This is..." Charlie began.
"Ṣ̵͍͐́͌Í̵̳̼L̷̠̎̄̈́Ẽ̸̟N̶͎̫̽C̴̠͒E̶͉̳͒.̶̤̔̌̈" the figure demanded, the shadowed hood swinging toward her. And there was a brief, queer sort of pressure on her, which she wafted away as though driving off a stinky burp.
"I will do no such thing. This building and all the people in it are under my protection. You can go back to where you came from and tell them that the Princess of Hell is having none of your aggression," Charlie said, storming up to the point where she was able to lean down and take a closer look at Vaggie. She was almost still, only shaking slightly. The way her remaining eye flit about told Charlie of the panic she was feeling. She stood and faced the robed figures. "Now you can either go in peace, or be made to leave. But either way, you are not harming my people."
"K̵͚̠̤̇N̷̛̖͚͋͜Ë̴̡̄Ȅ̵̦̋̋L̸̦͈͂̾.̵͈̈͒" the one in front said again after a somewhat suspicious looking tilt of his head. And she did not feel any reason to comply.
"Wait..." the second gently moved the first aside. He came to the edge of the door, and she could feel that whoever was under that hood was scrutinizing her utterly. "Could it be?" he said, voice pitched low.
"I believe that it is, Brother," the first answered him. Why did he look at her like he knew her, though?
"She does not kneel, because of all hell, she does not need to," the second said. There was a moment, as though in hesitation, then the second reached up and flipped his hood back. Charlie took an involuntary step back, because for just an instant, she thought that Dad had come a-calling, knocking on her door. But that moment was only that, because she instantly reminded herself that Dad would never wear something so humble, nor travel with so small a retinue. The only time he didn't travel with his Heralds was when he and Mom went out on the town alone. And the other figure absolutely was not Mom.
As that moment disappeared into shocked memory, she could see this man more clearly. In every way she could think of, it was like somebody took Dad, and scraped the gold and glory off of him. He was like a penny that got stuck in a dryer for a few weeks, all of his sharp points ground down, all of the things which made him wondrous, muted. But his eyes? Those eyes were what set him immeasurably apart from Dad. Even though they were tired to the point of exhaustion, there was still a flame of unashamed kindness in them, a kindness that she had only seen on so very rare occasion from Lucifer Magne that each time she had, it was a most cherished memory. This man offered that look freely, at no cost, and requiring no triumph.
"Hello, Charlotte," he said, quietly. He looked her up and down. "That dress looks lovely on you."
"This is her," the other said, not asked.
"Rise, Agata Vialpando. There is no ceremony to stand on here," he said. "Please forgive my brother's zeal. We are deeply uncomfortable being in this place."
"Are you... my uncles?" she asked. The tired man's face twitched into a smile even despite himself.
"I... I suppose we are," he said, offering a hand toward Vaggie. She rose without it, staying close at Charlie's side. Almost huddled behind her, but still refusing to outright cower and flee. "May I come in?"
If You Can Take It, It's Yours
"You may," Charlie said to the angels on the street. As her uncles entered, their robes burned away, revealing what lay under them. The kindly one wore a slightly threadbare suit-jacket, his pants starting to fray at the hems, and his bow untied and loose around his neck. The other one who had been less than polite this entire time showcased a shell of heavy ballistic armor that was supplemented by great plates of Seraphic Steel embossed with ornamental hexagons. She could only see the flash of his eyes through the featureless mask he wore. The rest of him was covered in protection from all angles.
The man in the suit took a few steps into the room, then his face crinkled as though he scented something foul. A flare of anger that called instantly to mind Dad's fits of outrage ignited in those kind eyes, and then there was blazing white light. A pair of great, white wings bloomed from his back, and emerging from his hand came a sword of golden fire. He pointed it to a spot off to the side, and when he did, Alastor appeared there with a mildly alarmed smile on his face, leaning back slightly to keep that sword-tip from cutting his nose.
"Whoopsie! I..." Alastor said.
"You have already spoken two more words in my presence than I would ordinarily allow, Demon," the angel declared. "In the spirit of Charlotte's offer of protection, I will not slay you where you stand. Provided that you not be standing there ere long. Take a walk around the block. Don't return until we leave."
The Radio Demon looked at the two Archangels in front of him, both replete in their panoplies, and then down to the blazing sword that was one thrust from unmaking him. He turned that gauging smile to Charlie, who shook her head subtly, silently begging him not to do something rash. As though she had any power to do such a thing. Then, he deliberately straightened his bowtie, and cleared his throat. "Toodles," he said with his grin returning, and then began to walk for the exit.
"That... was so cool," Vaggie said quietly from Charlie's side.
"You could do with better company than that one," the angel said. "I would not even speak his living name, because for all I know he has some trick of magic or blasphemy attached to it. And besides that, he does not deserve to have anybody remember him. He should be forgotten, as all evil things ought," his heated glare softened, then, as it swung back toward Charlie. "But I forget my decorum. I am Michael. This is my brother, Raguel."
Raguel was looking around, scrutinizing the room. "Something is amiss here."
"Of course it is. This is Hell," Michael said. "May we sit? It has been a trying day."
"The Happy Hotel is happy to have you," she said. She moved to the partially rebuilt bar, and Michael uncomfortably took his place on a stool. Raguel continued to stand, idly opening a refrigerator and extracting a Popsie. "Sooo, what brings you to Hell? I can't imagine this is a sight-seeing tour. And now that I think about it, Dad would probably try to kill you if he knew you were here... oh no, does Dad not know you're here?"
Michael stared into her eyes for a moment. "You are an unusual specimen, Charlotte. The rumor mills of Heaven have been churning brightly since whispers began of the existence of a new Nephilim. And yet despite the many things estimated of you, I still find myself perplexed. You are not as I imagined you would be."
"Thank you! That means a lot," Charlie said with a mild blush. "I've been working so hard to get this off the ground that I was worried that people were just ignoring me. If Heaven knows about my Redemption Project, then I must be on the right track?"
"Excuse me? Redemption Project?" Michael's brow drew down. She wasn't sure if it was suspicion or disbelief. She chose the latter, because that was something she would live with.
"Yes, every year billions of souls are subjected to horrible slaughter here in Hell. These are my people, Uncle Mike. I need to care for them. And there has to be a way to save them from slaughter and keep the population of Hell from growing too large at the same time. So I decided that I'd find a way to Redeem them!"
"You are attempting to find a way to redeem those that are Damned by the will of God and the judgment of Saint Peter," Michael said. She was a bit taken aback at the way he said that. Raguel simply stared, that Popsie somehow half eaten despite the fact that he hadn't moved his mask in the slightest. "God created Purgatory for the exact purpose you are purporting to follow. There is infrastructure there that cannot be replicated anywhere else. In fact, dogma would dictate I name you a blasphemer for trying to circumvent God's will," Charlie felt herself wilting under his words. But then he raised a finger. "However. God does not will that all follow his design mindlessly. If he had, He'd not have created Free Will to begin with. And it was your will that brought you to this project. I could no more damn you for doing what God put in your heart – metaphorically speaking – than I could shatter my own halo."
"So is it possible? To Redeem the Sinners without the Stone of Farewell?" she asked.
"I don't know, Charlotte," Michael said. "I've never seen it done before. But in my long existence, I have seen a great many things. Wondrous things, terrible things. I saw your father in the days when he was the brightest of us. I saw the ruins he left behind in his wake. And I have now seen something kind, growing from the ashes of a monstrous vanity. Thank you for that kindness, daughter-of-my-brother."
"Something smells off," Raguel said, burning the cleaned-off Popsie stick between his fingertips. "Like maple-sap and apology."
"Your nose must be off. Canadians don't come here," Michael said.
"I thought that people would have heard about my hotel. Up there, I mean," Charlie said.
"The rumors we hear of the goings-on of Hell are distorted at best. I had expected a ten-billion-strong army camp, awaiting the muster for a new war against Heaven. Raguel," he gestured to the other, who was staring at the spot on the floor where Charlie had killed the Exorcist, "believed it would be a heedless bacchanalia of self-destructive hedonism, a re-creation of Sodom and Gomorrah writ large. The truth is neither of those things, and not even truly at a place between them. What we know of your world is limited. So tell me, child. Why a hotel?"
"Because it's for travelers. You know? Just passing through... on their way to Redemption... you know?" she felt herself wilting under his gaze.
"Appropriate," Raguel said, not bothering to turn to them.
"That's what I thought when I came up with the idea!" she found herself blossoming again. "See, a lot of people who are stuck in hell are stuck in bad habits. Bad habits that desperation makes worse. So if I can take care of them, if I can get them out of a state of constant panic for their basic needs, the rest will come more easily. It's easier to confront your worst angels when you don't need to worry about somebody stabbing you in the back."
"I enjoy that show," Raguel said.
"You get My Worst Angels in Heaven?" she asked.
"It is banned from public viewing, and possessing recordings is a crime," Raguel said.
"But you like it?" she confirmed, despite what he'd just said.
"It is a delightfully Hellish interpretation of some things I hold in contempt," Raguel said. "It is my duty to uphold laws and interpret them, not to create them. And not all laws need to be upheld with the same vigor."
"And I presume you have a full house, with such methods as yours," Michael said to Charlie.
"Um... well..." she glanced aside, just as the elevator dinged and three of the other people living here emerged from it. They each made it one step before they recognized that there were two people in the lobby that were new to them. And Husk immediately turned on his heel and moved back to the elevator, only to have its door slam oddly vigorously in his face. "Speak of the angels and they shall appear. Michael, this is Angel Dust, Wendy Wasted, and Husk!"
"Nice to meetcha, bub. Who is this guy again?" Angel said, sauntering over and extending a hand. Michael stared at it but did not take it.
"Buddy, you might wanna take a biiiig step back," Husk said, his back flat against the wall.
"You look so familiar, somehow," Wendy said.
"Girl..." Husk said, beckoning toward himself.
"As if he were..." she then twitched her great eye toward the portraits on the wall, then back to the angel in the room. "Oh fuck me it's Lucifer."
That drew an immediate look of fury onto Michael's face. She immediately started to retreat, her color fading and her shoulders quaking. Charlie got between the two of them, with Vaggie standing as though a shadow cast by the angels' presence. "No, this isn't Dad, you don't need to go... bleaching. Guests, employees this is my uncle! Uncle Mike!"
"Mike?" Husk said with the most disbelieving look on his face. "As in the Archangel fuckin' Michael. You brought a fuckin' ARCHANGEL into the hotel?"
"Why are you here?" Raguel asked, glaring at the winged cat. "Your sins were not so weighty by a half as to bring you to Hell."
"The fuck you talkin' about?" Husk asked.
"You know why he is in Hell, brother," Michael said, his expression letting the rage drain away. Wendy had obviously hit a nerve. Raguel continued to stare at Husk for a moment, then swept his eyes across each of them in turn. Wendy flinched as it passed over her. Angel started as though somebody prodded him in a sensitive place when he wasn't wanting it – a rare event, but still – and when it passed over Charlie, she could swear she had just been measured for a coffin.
"So it goes," Raguel offered no explanation of what he was looking for. He simply crossed his hands before him, a sword appearing, point in the floor, for him to lean on.
"You have only these wretches – no specific offense intended – taking cover under your roof? Strange," Michael said.
"Well, there's two more. Niffty's... usually... around somewhere. And Sam's out at work. Pity you'll miss him."
"I really wish I was missin' this right now, dame," Husk said, where he was trying to sidle to the nearest exit.
"I presume this is more experiment than process," Michael said.
"It is, actually. But I know that if I can inspire somebody to Redemption, even somebody like this, then it can happen for anyone," she said.
"Astute, and very brave," Michael said. "You are aware of the firestorm that will come when you succeed, then? What have you taken into account to protect your work?"
"The what now?" Charlie asked.
"Upon the revelation that you can remove people from hell without Our Steel to the heart, the powerful will try to take that gift away from you. To monopolize it. Or simply to deny it to somebody they hold in contempt. How will you protect it?"
"I... uh... hadn't thought that far ahead, actually," she admitted. "I still need to know how to do it."
"Then be careful when you do. Many are the envious and prideful in this Durance Vile," Micheal said. "Perhaps I should give you my number. I think it would do my heart well to be able to talk to you without having to be in this seething pit of festering rot," he said.
"I'd love that," she said.
"Now as for the actual reason for my appearance," Michael said. "It has come to my attention that a few scant days ago," Raguel cleared his throat. Michael paused. "Or perhaps weeks. Time, it is a hard thing to track for those like ourselves. Regardless, some short time ago an Exorcist was decommissioned within Hell, and likely within these premises, if Raguel's glaring can be believed."
"The signal's end is right... there," the armored archangel pointed.
"Um, yeah, there was a bit of an incident," Charlie said.
"I'm sure," Michael said flatly. He rose from his stool. "Raguel, make sure nobody tries to kill us as we return."
"Of course, Brother," Raguel said with a minute nod, before returning to his vigil over the lobby area. Michael motioned her forward, and she started into the building, leaving Vaggie at the desk. Just seeing Vaggie that terrified made Charlie physically ache. But the fact was, the sooner all of this was squared away and put behind them, the sooner she could start kissing boo-boos and making everything better. Figuratively speaking. Heh. Heh.
"Tell me what happened," Michael said as they headed toward the cargo elevator that lead to the larders, the massive washing machines, the boilers and water heaters and furnaces, and everything else a hotel needed to be a hotel. "With the Exorcist, I mean."
"Well, I don't know much of what happened. I only got there at the very end," Charlie said.
"You were here the day it was decommissioned. That makes you a primary source on its demise," Michael said. "How was a low-forties prototype even still active? Why did it take so long to reconnect with us? You must know something."
"Well, it's actually kinda embarrassing," she said, scratching at the back of her head. "You see... I got this hotel a little while ago, and one of the first things I did was make sure there weren't booby-traps, squatters, or Revenants. And there were. A lot of all three, actually."
"Revenants should not be able to come to Hell. They are by their nature bound to the Earth," Michael said.
"I know! But we keep getting them down here! Anyway! When I thought everything was cleared out, I opened the Happy Hotel!" she said with a flourish of her hands. "And we... ah... didn't get any guests for a while. But then we got Angel Dust! And not long after that, we got Wendy and Sam! You haven't met Sam yet. I think you'd like him. But to make a long story short..."
"Too late," Michael said.
Charlie turned a pout to him, then continued as the lift rattled to a stop at the lower floor and began to open its shutters. Down here, the lighting was fairly horror-movie and it smelled faintly of rust and mold. Typical basement smell, really. "Sam was helping fix up the parts of the hotel I didn't have the know-how to handle, and he found a whole chunk of the hotel that I never even noticed when I was cleaning it out. A Weepstone Citadel, made so people like me can't see it. I mean, I still sometimes forget it's there, and I've stood inside the thing!"
"Weepstone?" Michael said. "The amalgam of granite gravel and Demon Bone Ash set with Phosphor of Abharrhim?"
"I... guess?" she said.
"We don't call that 'Weepstone' in Heaven, but we use such a thing, whenever Demon Bone becomes available to us. It is not my way to extract your citizens to build my cities. Go on."
"Well, tucked inside the citadel was the Exorcist I... eeergh," she cut off as she couldn't get the door to open. She could have if she wanted to shift forms, but she liked this dress and she didn't want to ruin it. "Could you give me a hand?"
Michael took the door and with a meager tug pulled it off of its hinges. He blinked at it, as though surprised at his own strength, then gently set it down leaning against the wall next to the aperture. Propped up, sitting in an otherwise unused chair was the Exorcist, now benuded and still showcasing its cleft skull.
"So Sam found it. And it attacked him. And it made a mess," she said.
"So it did," Michael answered her.
Vaggie was almost as uncomfortable with merely one archangel in her presence as she had been with two. Raguel, though, did nothing aggressive. He simply watched.
"Gotta say, this was not how I expected today to turn out," Angel Dust said. Either he wasn't nearly so intimidated by the literal right-hands of God standing under the roof with them, or else was, and was really damned good at not showing it. "You can peel yourself off the wall, kitty cat. He ain't gonna bite. Unless I bite him first."
"You may attempt so at your peril," Raguel said idly.
"See? I knew he was a kinky one," Angel Dust said.
"One day, your pleasures will either lead you to ruin, or something far more painful," Raguel said.
Angel Dust nodded. "He wants me," he said.
"Uhhh, so... you're not gonna kill us, are ya?" Husk asked.
"It is not my current intention. That may change," Raguel said. He then looked to Vaggie, those eyes barely visible through his mask nailing her to the floor. "You know my niece well. In a biblical sense, as the saying goes. There is much I would like to know of her."
"What... do you mean?" Vaggie asked.
"You know her nature better than most," Raguel said. "If you had to describe it with a single word, what would it be?"
Vaggie stared at him, swallowing against the dry of her throat. There was no point lying to him. She could tell that, somehow, he'd know. "Kind," she finally said.
Raguel nodded, probably having expected that answer. "I am proud of her."
"Really?" Angel Dust said. "You're proud of somethin' what grew up in Hell?"
Raguel turned a look at him, and while Angel Dust did flinch, he didn't run away as one might have expected. "I was the first of my brothers to know of her existence. I first saw her centuries ago, when she was a girl."
"I'm pretty sure there ain't been actual angels in Hell back then. Or people woulda' said something 'bout it," Husk said, taking a step away from the wall.
"I did not come in person," Raguel's gaze drifted, as though seeing something far, far away. "I was behind the eyes of an Exorcist. It was four score years and a century ago, perhaps more. Years, they are as sand between my fingers. But I saw her. I was not there for her. I was there for another hell-born filth, one abomination-blooded fiend who topped the echelons of this realm's fetid aristocracy. A monster in the making named Seviathan Von Eldritch. I found him, celebrating a party believing themselves immune to the bedlam of the Purge. And I was about to strike at him, when a girl stood in my path."
Raguel nodded. Up, down, stop. "I struck her aside, so that I could pursue my target. But when I tried to strike at him once more, she threw herself in front of the blow. She took a strike meant to kill a Demon, and she withstood it with nary a whit of harm. She rose, and pushed me back, and told me 'to stay away from her boyfriend'."
Vaggie was well aware of Charlie's background when it came to her relationships. She had a big heart, and a lot of different people, men and women both, tried to get a little piece of it. Vaggie had a long distant worry that she would not be the last that Charlie held close. Either because she died, or because Charlie... might get bored of her.
"When I look into the souls of man and woman, I can see within them their virtue," Raguel continued, unabated. "When I look at you, spider thing, I see a faltering spark, something so unlikely to ever birth a flame that I feel a pity for you, and a desire to save you from your own iniquity by the blade. In you, cat thing, it is a dead ember. Agata's alone smolders and catches. By my reckoning, her virtue dwarfs all of yours combined, with one exception."
"What about me?" Wendy asked.
"You?" Raguel said. "You slew yourself against God's will," he then turned to the others. "The virtue I see within you is so paltry as to vanish into darkness against what I saw in Charlie that day. She was not a spark. She was a bonfire, set within a beacon, lined with panels of polished gold. Were she born a human, she would have died a saint, and been welcomed eagerly into the Angelic Host. It is the greatest of pities and foulest of circumstances that she had to be who she is: child of the Great Enemy."
He took a moment to adjust his stance, and emit a sigh.
"When I saw her, in that moment, standing before hellborn filth and declaring 'not one step closer', I lost my will to fight her. I learned her name, from the great banner that flew overhead. Charlie. Not Charlotte Magne, daughter of the Morningstar, Heir to the Throne of All Hell. Just. Charlie. Then I left, killing one of the filth on my way out to preserve appearances. And but a few days ago, I happened to oversee a reconnection to a model we presumed had fallen into the Abyss. And through it... I saw her again. And though I tried to send a missive through the machine to her, I fear it did not arrive. She... lingers in my mind."
"She has that effect on people," Vaggie said. "She makes you want to be better."
"Michael fears to say it, fears that putting breath to air will give him an impossible hope, but I do not. If there is a single being in all the Cosmos, Under God, that can bring forth one of you wretched curs back to the fold of Heaven, it will be her," Raguel said.
"You should tell her that," Vaggie said.
"I trust you will," Raguel said. "The words have struck the air. I cannot take them back. And I need not be their messenger anymore."
"See? This guy's a big pussy-cat," Angel Dust said.
"I have seen many a cat devour a hapless spider," Raguel said.
"So... ah... what's your favorite episode of My Worst Angels?" Wendy asked, if only to fill the uncomfortable void of conversation.
"Series two, season four, episode nineteen," Raguel said without hesitation. The episode where Harut is finally found out, but has already corrupted Jegudiel, and set her up to be the new lead.
"Yeah, that's a good one," she said.
The scream had a particular quality to it, one that stood out from the almost constant background wailing of the damned that only occasionally had the basic decency to shut the fuck up. It fell into an area that was less over-populated than most in the ring of Pride, well away from the usual spots where the souls Fell from their damnation at the word of Saint Peter and the will of whatever winged patsy he had on hand to do the kicking. He plummeted, streaking downward at a slight angle from true vertical, until he impacted with a muted, meaty splat onto an intricately carved stone that lay in the heart of a manor's back yard.
The moment the Sinner landed, a figure rose from where he was bound to a chain in the back of the building. Well, not bound, so much as symbolically looped with the chain. But that symbol was more than enough. The hellhound got unevenly to his feet, ignoring the draconian Sinner, who was once an Overlord of Hell's criminal underbelly, who was likewise 'bound' to the length of chain. The hound was stick-thin, his ribs pressing against his hide and obvious through his short, velvet-like fur, fur that had sores at his knees and side from where he wasn't allowed to rise, or to move, for hours or days at a time. His entire body ached from long time stuck in an awkward position, not permitted to move. He could only minutely adjust the loincloth which was the only clothing he was permitted to wear. He flicked a glance to the battered dragon sharing his chain, but then carefully shrugged it off. Let her rest, he thought. She needed sleep after what their owner made her do yesterday.
The instant the chain wasn't on him, its weight no longer pinning him to the dirt, he felt a knife of anxiety in him. He knew that he had explicit instructions to do this from his owner, but still, every moment away from the chain invited disaster and ruin. So he grabbed the Sinner who was still trying to recover from a terminal-velocity introduction with the ground, and started to drag him toward the manor house. The Sinner's flesh twisted under the hound's grasp, still trying to settle on its final form. Some Damned landed in hell complete, in their forms ready to serve out their endless penance for the evils they wrought in life. Some took some time to settle on their visage. This seemed one of the latter. Since he was still insensate, the hound was able to bear him through the back door, past the kitchen, and into the dining area. Where his owner was sitting at the head of an otherwise empty long-table, picking away at a meal fit for an emperor and his entire court.
"He has landed," the hound said.
Nathan Birch turned a look at him, a scowl on his face. "I am not an idiot. I can see that he has landed. Put the fool in a chair and get down."
The hound flinched as though struck with a switch, but did exactly what Birch demanded, propping the stunned Sinner in a chair, as the damned's body twisted and bulged, trying to decide who this person would be here in Hell. Then, he fell to his knees, which hurt dreadfully where the sores were ground into the marble of the floors. He hoped they didn't crack and bleed. He'd be punished if they did.
"So I," Birch said, wiping at his mouth with a napkin, "gave you," he set his utensils aside, "every advantage a man could possibly ask for in the Living World. I gave you power. I gave you immunity to harm, to consequence. And still, at so young an age, you find yourself here. Had I known you were such a fool, I would have taken a different man to be my road-agent."
"I didn't," the words were slurred, understandable given his mouth was only now settling on a fang-filled form, and the rest of him seeming to harden into the visage of a gargoyle, stone wings sprouting from his back.
"You will not speak unless I allow it," Birch said. The Sinner was silent again. "I demanded two thousand lives brought to ruin. Two thousand lives unmade through circumstances which you were to put into motion. Two thousand sacrifices that you would make on my behalf. And where are they? Where are my two thousand broken souls? You gave me scarcely nine hundred! If I wanted nine hundred, I would have demanded nine hundred! Your incompetent flailings mean that I now have to pick a new cats-paw in the Living World. But you? You, my chosen idiot, your duties have only just begun."
Birch stood, standing behind the gargoyle in his chair. By any sensible measure, the apparent-human would have cowered and fled at the presence of a being made of living stone. But this was not a sensible place. Birch grabbed the gargoyle's head and slammed it back against the spine of the chair, leaning around it to look his victim in one of his eyes.
"For your failures, you are bound to me, now and for all time. You shall not raise a hand to harm me, nor allow a hand to be raised against me. You shall not allow me to be brought to ruin by any means, whether you are aware of it or not, and you may not allow ruin to come to me by inaction. Your name is stripped of you, 'Casper Marquis' – for this will be the last time in your long existence that anybody ever says it. You are now Wretch. You will answer to Wretch as though you were born to it. You will introduce yourself as Wretch. And you will fulfill any order I give to you as though your life depended on it. Because, Wretch, I promise you... it does."
Then with a cast of his hand, Marquis shoved the now renamed Wretch from his chair, spilling him to lay on the floor. He turned to the hound, but talked to the gargoyle on the floor. "Wretch, whenever I tell you to go to the chain, you will lay under it until I call you again, and may make no effort to leave it. Dog, put him on the chain."
The hound flinched a bit. Which caused Birch's scowl to deepen.
"What is it, dog?" he asked.
"The chain is only long enough for Dog and Whore, Master," the hound said. He knew not to use the name he'd been given by his breeder. Until something changed, until anything changed, he was Dog.
Birch waved the issue aside, "Then drive a new spike, and lay a new chain."
Dog nodded, rising to go and do his owner's bidding. If nothing else, it was a mercy to get out of the room. He didn't know what Birch was going to do next. Honestly, it was better for what was left of his sanity if he didn't find out.
Michael only gave the device a cursory once-over before draping it over his shoulder and starting back toward her. "I'm surprised you didn't tear it apart. I doubt your father would have told you that doing so was against The Covenant of Armistice, and would gladly let you suffer for its breach."
"Well, I didn't see any need to, really," Charlie admitted. "I'm not a techie kinda girl. I mean... I don't even think we have anybody in the Hotel who has the kind of knowledge to do something like that."
"And you didn't reach out to anybody who might?" Michael asked. She turned a querulous look at him. He let out a sigh, then a chuckle. "I apologize. I am so very used to thinking the worst of people in your position. Did it not even occur to you that you ought?"
"I, uh, guess not," Charlie said.
"When given a weapon of the Angels, your first thought is not to turn it against its creators," He said.
"I was too busy worrying about Sam, and about the Hotel, to even think about that thing until, like, days later. And even then, it was always the back-most of my burners," she said.
Michael nodded, and headed for the elevator. "It is good that you didn't attempt retroengineering. I would be forced to destroy any files you had on them, and then kill whomever did the work. Such weapons as these are not to leave the hands of Heaven," he said.
"Why, though?" she asked.
"Why do you send these things, considering how much pain they cause? So many of the Sinners down here didn't even do anything that bad. Maybe they stole because they were hungry. Maybe they did some drugs because their lives were awful. Or lashed out because they were backed into a corner. That doesn't mean they deserve to be subjected to this kind of slaughter," she pointed at the benuded, cleft-skulled Exorcist that draped the archangel's shoulder. "I think a lot of Damned revel in their circumstances precisely because they believe that they've only got a couple of months before they're expunged. And what about those people who land the day of the Purge? What chance do they get to be better, before their existences are snuffed out?"
"I'm afraid I cannot answer to your questions," Michael said. "If it seems cruel, it is. I will not argue for it. Had I the say in the matter, I would end this pogrom against Hell's populace. But that would require concession from Lucifer, that he renounce his law binding the Sinners solely to the ring of Pride. And Pride Incarnate will not bend to such a demand."
"Baphomet is Pride Incarnate," she said.
"Baphomet is a cardboard cutout sitting on a paper-mache throne," Michael said. "Your father may have propped Baphomet up as ruler of Pride, all with eyes know who the true Pride Incarnate is. And I know you are not fool enough to miss it." Charlie could only nod, sadly. The elevator rattled up, clanking to a halt at ground level, and disgorging them into the hallways. "I hope that your gambit towards redemption is a successful one, Charlotte. If you had sat the throne of Hell, it would be a far better place. A place that I would not dread to visit."
"I don't think Dad is going to give up his seat any time soon," she said.
"No. No he will not," Michael said, as they emerged into the lobby. Raguel gave him a nod as he emerged amidst the sinners.
"Well what about Armaros?" Wendy asked the angel standing vigil.
"Mark my words, by the end of his series, he will abandon Heaven for his lusts and be cast into Hell as the Grigori are wont," Raguel said.
"Still talking about that insipid show?" Michael asked.
"Insipid, perhaps, but entertaining," Raguel said. He raised up his hands from the pommel of the sword, and the blade disappeared back whereever it came from. "All is in order?"
"It is," he said. Michael then turned to Charlie. "It has been an unexpected pleasure to meet you in person. I hope we will speak again ere long. It does my heart well to know that there is some virtue at all in this place."
"You're too kind," Charlie said with a minor blush.
"No. You are," Michael said, and then turned to the doors. He moved to the mouth of the lobby with Raguel matching pace with him, pausing for a fair while at the doors themselves. Vaggie, though, moved to her side.
"They... aren't what I expected them to be," Vaggie said.
"They believe in me," Charlie said with a sublime smile. "They think I can do it."
"And if the Archangel Michael says you can do it, then it's pretty much in the bag," Vaggie said, pulling Charlie into an embrace.
"Ain't that sweet?" Angel Dust said nearby. "Well, I'm hungry. Who's cookin'?"
"You are," Wendy answered him.
"Aw come-on!" he said. "Husk, help me out here. Take a shift!"
"It's your fault for being a decent cook," Husk said. Angel hung his head for a moment, then drifted into the kitchen to make today's dinner.
Raguel pulled Michael to a halt before the two of them left the building itself, his blazing eyes burning past the mask over his face and demanding The Taxiarch to a moment of conversation. "What we have seen here today must remain an absolute secret," Raguel said.
"I think it would do our brothers well to know that the Daughter of the Great Enemy is not following her father's path," Michael said.
"No. Think," Raguel said. "If we reveal that the rumor's of Lucifer's child with a human are not figment but fact, then what will result?"
Michael stared at his brother for a moment, then turned it over in his mind. It took not long at all for him to understand Raguel's concern. "The Father's pogrom against the Nephilim is still in effect," he said.
"And if Gabriel hears that there is a Nephilim in Hell, the one place that he cannot simply reach out and smite it, he will raise a heavenly host and plunge down into this festering wound. Lucifer, Pride Incarnate, will not abide such an insult upon his bloodline. It will be war. And the moment that first brand is thrown, what will the Grigori do? How many of the Secondborn have lost their beloved children, and even now burn with resentment against us? We would in an instant be embroiled in a war not just in Hell, but in Heaven as well. And this time, the Father will do nothing to help us."
"Then she will remain a secret to us, for as long as we can keep her," Michael said. He sighed. "It is sad. I can think of many of our brethren who could use this piece of good news."
"The laws are what they are. I have no power to change them," Raguel said. "Why God feared the Nephilim is lost to history, since He will not answer us now. But given a choice between following an unjust law and doing an illegal good, I would choose the latter. You, though, are still pincered. Were you any but you, I would cut you down so that you did not betray this confidence," he gestured behind them, at the girl being embraced by a Sinner even as they spoke.
"Do you think me so hidebound as to condemn a sweet girl for an archaic law?" Michael's mouth twisted in distaste.
Raguel glared. "I know many who would. You at least are unlike them in that you can recognize a law as worthless, even if you feel you must abide by it. One day, perhaps, you will finally make a decision for yourself. I would like to see the day when that occurs," Raguel's last words were a grumble.
"You weren't always so unkind towards us, Brother," Michael said.
"The last few centuries have brought out bad habits in me," Raguel answered, as they made for the door.
Sam's stride was light when he walked the streets of Pentagram City, heading back toward the hotel where he hung his metaphorical hat. Dufresne was dead. Better, he was double dead, and if there was any justice in creation he was on his way to double-Hell. Nobody else would die at a lunatic man-child's hands. Vanderkleuw was dead, and nobody else would suffer his wrath or his lusts – and of the two, the latter was probably far more traumatic. Marquis was dead, and all the brutality he enabled from the previous two would finally come to an end.
There was still a lot on his mind. He had killed a man with his bare hands. But at the same time, he didn't... feel... like he killed somebody. He didn't feel guilt, which was worrying to him. Sam had never killed a person in his life. Hell, he'd gone out of his way to even avoid harming anybody. But now, he just consumed a man in hellfire, and felt nothing but grim satisfaction. As if there needed to be more proof that, at the end of the day, he deserved Hell, then there it was.
Still. Three less monsters in a position to hurt the innocent. A job well done by any measure. His spritely pace was interrupted, however, when he smelt something burnt.
Sam paused, taking another experimental sniff, finding the locus of that smell somewhere behind him. He followed it into a back alley, past a line of dumpsters, and to a spot that flickered with gasoline-like fire where pools lingered in the pocked tarmac. Most of the petroleum must have burned away, because all that remained was a great black patch, centered around a blackened, twisted form of whomever it was they wanted set on fire. Sam stooped down, running a finger along the soot. It was slick, like graphite, and didn't have the lingering petroleum smell.
He knew that quite a few things in Hell – including some Sinners – were utterly immune to mundane flame. You could chuck them into a burn-barrel and they'd be snug as a bug on drugs the entire duration. But from his conversations with both Husk and Alastor, he knew that there were things which burned even the most immune of the hell-bound. Even a being of living flame could be immolated if you used something like Thaumetic Sulphite, or worse yet Infernal Talc. This guy, though, he seemed to have been subjected to a much lesser combustion. Stygian Naphta, if Husk's description of its feel was right. The kind of stuff that stuck and burned no matter what you did to it. The kind of thing that once ignited, would burn until it was spent, with no way of snuffing it.
Sam started when he heard a ragged breath from the burned carcass in front of him. He was alive? Then Sam rolled his eyes. Of course he was alive. Infernal Talc could, under the right circumstances, kill a Sinner, but anything else was just being especially awful to somebody on a temporary basis. "You still with us, bub?" Sam asked.
The burned man could only raspingly breathe, twitching burned limbs that crumbled as he did so. Come to think of it, Sam wasn't exactly sure if this was a guy or a woman. He moved around to the 'head' of the yet-living carcass, gently turning it until he could see the empty eye-sockets – quite a few of them, in fact – and to Look Within.
Sam felt deeply uncomfortable inside this man's mind, more so than most, because all that he could find in there was a repeating imperative. Not even a message nor a need, it was a drive that drove him despite his – and Sam now felt confident it was a 'he' – body's ruined state.
I have to warn him.
It looped through the poor bastard's mind, over and over, unrelenting, unceasing. Either a litany against madness or a surrender to it. Sam tried to go deeper, but at the moment, it was that drive to 'warn him', and then the naked circuit board which was his self-hood. "Can you hear me? I'll warn him if you tell me who to warn!" Sam tried, but likely the poor bastard's eardrums were as burnt up as the rest of his soft-tissues. He was deaf, blind, and barely able to feel anything. With a grumble under his breath at the needless cruelty of Hell, Sam gently picked as much of the man up off of the alleyway concrete as he could, and carried him out into the streets, bearing him toward the only safe harbor in all of Hell. "Don't worry, bub. I'll get you somewhere you can heal."
"Hey, buddy, you're s'posed to stop cooking them when they go black!" a large, reptilian Sinner guffawed at seeing them. Sam felt the light he cast shift from gold and into blueish hues. But while he wanted to let his rage explode, he had a bigger fish to fry than an idiot Sinner.
"I like them extra crispy," Sam said flatly. The lizard laughed and kept walking. Sam ground his teeth, and continued his walk toward the Happy Hotel, having to ward smart-ass comments on his cannibal-cookery the entire way.
What the fuck are you talking about? Why should the strong have to pay the weak for anything? Their strength is their currency. I don't know what kind of hugs-and-kisses operation you're running down here, but if you honestly believe that 'reciprocity' bullshit that you constantly spout on about, then I honestly have to question how you ever became king of anything other than a portable toilet. You seriously believe you have a responsibility to these teeming vermin, who were so incapable of fighting that two of my followers were able to rout an entire fucking army of them, AND YOU at the same time?
Face it; if you can take it, it's yours. And claiming otherwise is making a mockery of what Hell is supposed to stand for.
-Lucifer, upon hearing one of Satan's sermons.