There be a reason I cleave not with the Sinner, beyond the obvious that they cannot be sworn upon mine Altar; what humans come to this place have been judged and found wanting. Their natures are frail and they are weak at their foundation. What have they to offer me? Regeneration? An inability to die? Sinners offer nothing but tenacity, not brain, not guile, not strength, not courage, not courtesy, not magic nor craft nor any other redeeming feature. Sinners are doomed to ruin. Thou be free to keep thine cannon fodder. I shall build mine armies of truer stones than thine crumbling sand.
-Satan, in response to the first Exorcist Purge
"And then he's holdin' his guts in with half an arm, healin' so goddamned quick I could almost watch those bitches get pulled back into place, and the fuckin' Radio Demon says..." Angel Dust continued to ramble, as he entered the hotel.
"Honestly, if I hadn't seen your injury and the damage, I would have called you a liar for even being in the same room as an Exorcist," Cherri said. "Even I know enough to give those things a wiii~de berth."
"Didn't exactly give us much of an option at the time," Angel Dust said.
"Well speak of the coke-head and he shall arrive," a very familiar voice came from the other side of the lobby. As Angel passed the pillars, he could see Sam standing there, a bemused look on his mug. And Angel Dust didn't have to wait long to see why he was bemused. With a 'hup' of somebody leaving a comfortable seat, another entered Angel Dust's visual field.
"Yup, that's a spider dick," Cherri rolled her eye.
"That's him. That's the guy what they was after," Arackniss said, motioning at Angel Dust to Sam.
"Hey Sam?" Angel Dust said.
"Whats my goon of a brudda doin' here with his dick hangin' out?" he asked.
"Brother? Since when do you have a brother?" Sam asked.
"You don't tell 'em about family, Angel? I'm hurt, bro, I really am," Arackniss said.
"Yeah, Angie, why didn't you tell them about your brother?" Cherri asked.
"Oh don't you get on me too, sugar-tits. He just neva' came up!" Angel said.
"Then you should make 'em come up. Much as you're a prancing queer of the highest order, you's still family goddamn it," Arackniss pointed out, standing so cocksure with his cock out.
"I'm havin' trouble takin' you serious with your Little Italy danglin' down," Angel pointed out.
"Getta load'a this bender, and the one dick in all 'a Hell he ain't interested in," Arackniss said to Sam.
"Fuck you!" Angel Dust shouted.
"Oh, is you addin' incest to yer laundry list of buggerin's that you done over the years?" Arackniss had a big, shit-eating grin on his face.
"At least one of us got some use outta his dick. Yours been shrivelin' up like a grape in the sun for what? The last seventy years? When's the last time you got a piece of sly, bro? I can honestly say it was less than a week ago for me."
"Well pardon me," Arackniss put on a bad dixie accent, fanning his face with one of his hands. "I'm solidly shocked that I didn't wake up to find you wit' some mook so deep inside ya that they'd need a rescue team to get 'im out!"
"Keep bitchin', you little crumb! You wouldn't know how to have fun if fun walked up and sucked you off!" Angel retorted.
"Uh, what's going on?" the hotel's green-thumb asked, where she'd sidled in on the conversation at Sam's side.
"Sibling rivalry. Ooh, popcorn," Sam answered, and took some of the exploded fluff that she offered him.
"Your fun is why Pa don't ever include you no more," Arackniss pointed out. "When you landed here, you was a fuckin' terror! You laid the groundwork for everythin' Don Henroin Veloce built. But what d'you do after that? You start blowin' it all on man-hookers and cocaine. Fer Fuck's Sake, Angel! You was one of us! But then you had to go and open yer ass wider than the Stanton Island Ferry and shit all over our reputation. We could'a been legends! But you just had to suck dicks and snort lines for forty goddamned years."
"What I'm hearin' is that yous should be a bit more appreciative for the work I put in 'fore you nitwits got down here," Angel thrust a pointing finger at his much shorter brother. "Startin' somethin's always the hardest part a' doin' something, and I did all the fuckin' starting! So how about you get Pa to get off my fuckin' back and admit that maybe he owes somethin' to me as much as I do to him!"
Arackniss rolled many of his eyes. "Oh come on. You know as well as I do that nobody can convince Pa of thing-fuckin'-one. You want to look our old man in the eye, how about you do it without a mouth fulla' cock for once!"
"Like I even need to. I don't give a fuck what that old dust-magnet think's a' me. I slaved under his thumb for my entire life. Fuck havin' to slave under him for my entire afterlife, too! Even you ain't dumb enough to be that stuck on 'im to think he's owed that kinda loyalty."
"Maybe you don't know what family is as much as we thought you did," Arackniss said with a sneer. "If Molly could see you now..."
"You don't FUCKIN BRING MOLLY into this!" Angel exploded, his anger finally actually set off.
"Really? That's what it took to light a fire under your danglers? Well fuck me maybe I should just give her a call right now, show her the spectacle you made a' yerself!" Arackniss said, motioning to the Hellphone in his hand. Sam scowled and reached out to pluck it from his grasp, only to not be able to. And when Arackniss gestured again, the twitch of movement was enough to hurl Sam away and into the back wall. The fight kinda stalled at that, seeing Sam embedded half way into the wall into the dining area, his feet dangling. "...what the fuck just happened?"
"Angie?" Cherri Bomb said, pulling Angel Dust's attention away from the currently wall-mounted Sinner, and to the other one, who was staring not at Sam, but at her with confusion.
"Yeah, babe?" he asked.
Cherri pointed her finger at Wendy. "Why does that chick look so much like me?" Angel Dust didn't have an answer for that, so he turned to his brother.
"What the fuck, bro? How the fuck did you just turn Sam into modern art!" Angel Dust had no answer for her, so turned and demanded of his brother.
"I... don't know," Arackniss said. He frowned at his hands for a moment, then walked over to the wall. With a faint tug, displaying barely as much effort as yoinking a loose thread, he ripped Sam out of the wall, leaving him stunned on the floor. "Somethin's... fucky."
"No, you're gonna tell me why you look so goddamned much like me!" Cherri said, getting into the other cyclops woman's face. And now that Angel Dust had it paraded in front of him, yeah, the two of them were practically identical, excepting for the obvious palette swap towards reds and oranges in Cherri's case, and greens and golds in Wendy's, and that Wendy had much shorter hair.
"Okay. I fucked up a bit," Sam said from the floor.
"Oh you did?" Wendy asked.
"Why is there a hole in the dining room wall?" Charlie's voice came from the room beyond.
"I think I gave the Sinner a bit too much zip," he said, unsteadily getting to his feet.
"Too much zip? Too much zip?" Arackniss said. "What did you do to me?"
"I gave you the power of the Bull with Three Testicles so that you'd heal faster," Sam said.
There was a moment of silence. Then, Arackniss reached down to The Old Country and gave a tug. Eight eyes opened wide, and his mouth was slightly open. "I have three bawls. WHY THE FUCK DO I HAVE THREE BAWLS!"
"This is delightful," Alastor's voice came from Angel Dust's side. His grin was wide, looking at the bedlam which had erupted in the hotel without so much as a hint of shame for his voyeurism. "And here I thought today was going to be boring."
"Sweet baby Jesus could you stop doin' that!" Angel said as he flinched away from the Radio Demon.
"No," he promised, then turned to the others. "This is what happens when you play with magic without understanding the full consequences of your actions, Samuel. Your attempt toward compassion has just crow-barred a glut of power into this loathsome mobster. Congratulations on upending the power structure of organized crime in Pentagram City."
"I didn't do anything like that," Sam said.
"The Taureau-Trois-Graines is not something that can be lassoed quite so simply as you no doubt did," Alastor strode toward the flame-headed Sinner, ignoring how Cherri Bomb was shaking Wendy trying to jostle answers that she obviously didn't have out of her, and how Arackniss was now standing shellshocked at the prospect of having an extra quarter in his coin-purse.
"Well what can I do to turn it back?" Sam asked.
"That's the neat part of it; you can't," Alastor said. "He will forever be gifted with a power beyond his status, all because of you."
"No, I mean it can't be permanent, otherwise people would be hiring sorcerers and thaumaturges to do this kind of thing all the time," Sam said.
"You're a student of history, are you not?" Alastor chided. "What was the clan Cruac's claim to fame?"
"They were a bunch of imps who... were the most knowledgeable thaumaturges in all of Hell. Powerful enough that until you came along, they owned a third of Pride," Sam said. "Oh fuck me."
"SaM? A bIt Of HeLp?" Wendy asked unevenly. Sam snapped his gaze off of Alastor and to where Cherri was now shaking her and sending popcorn flying everywhere without asking questions, red in the face. Sam growled and moved to start separating the two. Angel Dust, after that moment of confusion, did likewise, pulling Cherri back and holding her more or less at bay.
"There's only one sonnuvabitch in Hell who looks like me! HOW DO YOU KNOW HIM?" Cherri shouted.
"I have no idea who you're talking about!" Wendy said.
"I think I might," Sam said, interposing himself between the two of them. "Hey, Angel Dust. What's her deadname?"
"What's it to ya?" Angel asked.
"Please," he said. Angel sighed and turned a look to Cherri, who was not close to calming down.
"Cherie Isabella Monday," he said. Wendy's back straightened at that, her one big, green eye darting from Cherri Bomb to Sam, then to Cherri again.
"I can't believe it," Wendy said.
"What?" Angel asked. Cherri's eye narrowed.
"You're my grandmother," Wendy said.
Sinners Are Doomed To Ruin
Honestly, this was weird.
Now that the arguing parties had split off, and Charlie started giving Sam a fairly gentle dressing down for letting things get so far out of hand, Wendy retreated to the conservatory, which now was in full bloom under the light of day. She could finally let out a breath of strain that she'd been holding in the entire time that half-naked mafioso was strutting around. She didn't know that one in particular, but people like him were the source of a great many bad memories, if not outright nightmares, in Wendy.
"I didn't have kids," a voice very much like her own said from the doors to the conservatory.
"My existence begs to differ," Wendy said, turning to face her grandmother.
"I got knocked up, yeah, but I didn't have a kid. Shit, I died before I could," her grandmother said. It was so weird, that her grandmother actually looked younger here in Hell than Wendy did. But that was the way that Hell worked. You were anchored to the part of life where you were the most... you... to put it incredibly vaguely. There is always a time in somebody's life where they are closest to their lifetime's average self. For less-evil people, it's toward the end of their life, because a life has a way of showcasing to you where you've gone wrong, and people with functioning moral compasses endeavored to make a better version of themselves.
That was the ultimate cruelty of Hell. Wendy knew that the best version of herself that she could ever have was the one who decided to give up a few decades' worth of food, water, and space to somebody better able to use them. Only because of some dipshit law outlawing suicide under any circumstances did she end up down here. Her grandmother seemed to have gone the opposite route. She looked young as hell. Barely out of her teens. And her demeanor was as much 1980's punk as her outfit was.
"Y'uh-huh," Wendy said. "Mom never wanted to talk about her mother, and I had to find out on my own why," she said, kneading some lime into the potting soil so she could grow what seemed to be a hellish version of Frankenia salina, from the shape of their seed-pods. "So I had to do some research when I was in Uni. And oh what I found. That Cherie Monday, my mother's mother, was hanging out with a bunch of dyed-in-the-wool Communists!"
"Don't start with that bullshit. Communist ain't even close to what I was; I'd shove a hand-grenade up Stalin's ass if I got the chance, just like anybody else," she said.
"I know. You were associated with some Communists out of Chicago, but you didn't seem to share their beliefs. Just their armory. If I were to put a name on your leaning... I'd guess radical anti-capitalist anarchist? Trying to be Tyler Durden before Tyler Durden?" she asked.
"How about you shut the fuck up about shit you don't understand," Cherie said.
"Don't get me wrong. I wish you succeeded back in the 80's, made 'being a billionaire' an existential hazard. If you had, I wouldn't have lived in a world in the process of collapse," Wendy said.
"If I wanted somebody who looks like me to kiss my ass, I'd make a Special Request from Velvet," Cherie said.
"Doesn't matter to me if you believe me or not," Wendy said. "The facts are the facts. And the fact is you got shot in the head while four months pregnant, and carried my mother to term while in a vegetative state. The fact is that you died without realizing you had a daughter. The fact is that the world you left behind slowly ended up becoming worse than the one you landed in. I am a scientist, Cherie. I am very much in the business of facts," Wendy said.
"When people spin that kind of line of bullshit around me, it's because they want something. Which means you want something. And because what you just told me is bullshit, that leaves one reasonable explanation. That you're one of his. And..." Cherie said.
Wendy turned to her, the most flat expression on her face. "I don't even know who 'he' is. And it's none of my business to begin with. I'm here, because in this building, in this Hotel, there's a chance, there's a tiny fucking chance, that I won't have to spend the rest of my existence flinching every time I hear a man's voice shouting," Wendy said. "Go ahead. Tell me I'm lying about that."
Cherie glared at her, one scarlet eye boring into Wendy's emerald one. And for the first time in decades, even under such withering scrutiny, Wendy did not flinch. "Fine. Maybe you're not full 'a shit on that front. But still. I would have known if I had a kid in Hell."
"My existence is a living paradox," Wendy said. "I was born forty years after your death, and landed in Hell at around the same time as you did. Nothing about my afterlife makes sense. Here, though? Under this roof? Under this roof, I've got friends again. I'm safe. I don't want anything from you. I could have merrily gone the rest of my damnation without knowing you existed. But you know what? I'm happy that I got to meet you. Seeing the trunk of the family tree helps explain the branch I'm at the end of."
"Really," Cherie said. "So you just happened to live under the roof my best friend huddles under to avoid some of the most dangerous Overlords in Hell."
"Maybe," Wendy said. "I was at the end of my rope, and Charlie gave me an alternative to jumping off the edge into the Abyss. If you think I'm lying, ask the Princess of All Hell," Wendy gestured vaguely while gently pressing the seeds into the soil. "And I've heard plenty about the V Triarchy. They're nothing compared to the Ars Goetia or Nathan Birch. Don't think I'll be intimidated by them. I have no skin in that game, no reason to stick my neck out. Angel Dust is a decent guy, if a bit crude. I'm not going to hurt him. But unless he gives me a good reason, I'm not going to run the risk of helping either."
Cherie tapped her fingernails against her ripped sleeves. "Alright; let's say that I do believe your line. Let's say you're not a plant by that Fuckhead sent here to cause my friend pain. What would you say you'd do if you needed to get out of Pride Ring?"
"Ask Lucifer for a day pass. Beyond that, there's nothing that can be done," Wendy said.
"Very funny, bitch," Cherie said.
"I'd ask if you kissed my mother with that mouth, but I know you never got a chance to," Wendy said. Yes, it was cruel, but honestly, she was in Hell, and 'Cherri Bomb' was being a shit, so she deserved some flak. "Nobody leaves Pride. That's just the way it is."
"So you don't know shit. Figures," Cherie said.
"About a Sinner leaving Pride? Trust me, that'd be news too big even for people like me to overlook," Wendy pointed out the obvious. She lived under the roof of the Heir to the Throne. Charlie doubtless knew more than most people could believe, and kept a lot of things to herself.
"Somebody did," the anarchist said. "Somebody made it out. I need to find out how," her eye narrowed on Wendy, her hands rolling grenades along her knuckles like they were coins. "I owe it to Angie to see him somewhere safe. I'll eat God Only Knows how much shit to see that happen. But it will happen."
"Why are you fixating on impossible fantasies when you could just go after what is targeting Angel Dust in the first place? Much as I have no skin in the game, even I know that if Valentino were to give up, for whatever reason, all this 'get a Sinner out of Pride' nonsense wouldn't even be needed."
"You think I haven't thought about that?" Cherie said, her expression showing an uncharacteristic hopelessness to it. "You think I haven't thought at it, like, five fuckin' ways how to kill that rapist son of a whore? It can't be done. Not by what I can bring to bear. I'd need an army like back in the Old Days to do it. And while I've got my way with semtex... I ain't that kind of a leader. I don't think anybody down here is, anymore."
Wendy merely nodded. "Then you're going to have to learn," she said.
Cherie glared at Wendy for a few more seconds, then bit out a frustrated "Fuck you," before turning and storming away. While Wendy hadn't made a friend, at least she probably didn't make an enemy. Catching the door that banged against its frame was Sam, who ducked into the conservatory in Cherie's wake.
"Anything I need to know about?" he asked, his eyes darting behind him to the departing pyromaniac.
"Family reunions are never fun," she said.
"I wouldn't know. I never got to have one," Sam said. He came closer. "I picked something up for you while I was working."
"Hrm?" she asked. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a tiny plastic bag, which in Hell was usually entirely used for containing small amounts of drugs, but inside were a scattering of tiny seeds. She let her spade rest in the soil, moving and holding the baggy up to her eye. One of the unadvertised perks of being a cyclops was that she was actually able to 'zoom in' on things very well. Elongated ovoid, almost cylindrical in profile, with one end ridged slightly. Tiny, maybe one by one half by three millimeters. But the obvious characterizing mark was the parachute, ending in fine white fluff that sprouted from the end of each one. "Dandelion seeds?"
"You asked me what my favorite flower was, a while back. Well, I got Apoc to ask one of the Ars Goetia, and they just... had these sitting around," he said.
"These are seeds from Earth?" she asked. "...how?"
"Friends in high places, like I just said," Sam repeated. "I figured, they'd probably be right at home."
Wendy could only knuckle down a chuckle so much. "Of course you'd find a weed to be your favorite flower."
"You call it a weed, I call it the most tenacious bastard that lawns have ever seen," Sam said, leaning back against a pot that showed a great orchid yet-to-bloom that towered over both of their heads. "Where the most popular plants wither if the pH is too high or too low, or if there's a whisper of salt, or if there's too much sun, or not enough, the dandelion just doesn't care. It'll grow out of a crack in the sidewalk without an uttered complaint, and breaks up the grey of the world with a tiny little blip of yellow when it does."
"And again, I'm not surprised by your reasoning," she said. "Ordinarily, I'd do a bunch of reading and find the optimum pot to put these things in. But I'm pretty sure if I left them in my shoe long enough they'd sprout. And God only knows if Hell can survive an infestation of dandelions."
"Who cares if it can or can't? It's Hell," Sam pointed out. "Up in the world, people profit on things getting worse. Down here, the Big Guy In Charge wants to stay king, and the only way to do that is to keep things running well. This isn't kudzu, Wendy. Dandelions are not going to tear down the Fundament."
"It'd be hilarious if you were wrong," Wendy pointed out.
"It would. Still, I'd like to see those old weeds bloom again. And I know you want to know what happens to seeds from Earth when exposed to Hell energy," he said, lightly thumping her arm with his fist.
"You know me too well," she said. A smirk came to her face. "With all that magic you're learning, you're still claiming you didn't figure out a way to read a lady's mind?"
"I promise you, none of my magic allows for telepathy," Sam said, with a warding gesture. But then there was a look of consternation that came to him. "But admittedly, I thought I knew more about magic than it turned out that I did. I need to talk to Alastor. Make sure what happened today doesn't happen again."
"You're going to stop," she said. She offered a chuckle at that, too. "Sam, you could become the richest Sinner in Hell, by offering to sell doing what you did to that charcoal-brick out there to anybody willing to pay. You could..."
"This isn't about money, Wendy," Sam said, face growing stern. "I fucked up, and I might have created a monster that I don't have the power to put down. There is no amount of cash you can offer me to make that same mistake again."
"So you're turning down safety and comfort on principle," she said.
"I have to," Sam said.
"Why?" she asked.
"Because if I don't, I'm just proving to Saint Peter that I deserve to be down here every bit as much as he says I do," Sam said. He puffed out a breath. "Anyway. Show me some dandelions blossoming. I've gotta have a chat with Alastor."
Honestly, this was getting a bit out of hand.
Even with a bullet wound still healing in his arm, Moxie nevertheless found himself in the bowels of the holdfast of one of the Ars Goetia. The Private Library of Purson was the definitive. If knowledge did not exist within its halls, then it existed nowhere in Hell. It was said that only the Gregori Penemue had a greater storehouse of information to their name, but Penemue was an angel, and would likely have responded to intellectual overtures from his impish self with divine retribution.
Getting into the library was simple. He just started talking about opera, and eventually the guard outside got so bored that he outright abandoned his post, leaving the way in as clear as a walk in the park, once you got past the perverts rutting in the bushes. And Millie was her usual delightful self, managing to procure livery appropriate to somebody working in the building – he did not ask how, for that was a lady's secret and likely involved knifework – which meant that once they got past the outermost doors, they essentially had the run of the place.
"I'm surprised this place doesn't just collapse on itself," Milly whispered, beholding library shelves that held up the vaulted ceilings.
"Magic, honey," Moxie said. The place was so blatantly magical that even Wrath imps could feel it. It was said that there were no fiends of Hell that could stand the presence of this library, so powerful and conflicting were the magical auras that the tomes possessed. "We need... There. Wards and blessings."
"I don't know what you're pointing at," Millie admitted, which was understandable, considering there weren't exactly placards denoting what each mountain of books was dedicated to. For all he knew, somewhere buried in that mountain of texts was the identity of Yaldabaoth. If not a nook where they were currently living.
"They... it's complicated," he said. He almost pulled her along, before he remembered the garb he was wearing and the appearance it would have if two of the impish conservators of this trove of information were to be seen hand-in-hand. Purson was a very particular master. There was to be no hanky-panky amidst the shelves.
So strange, that two months ago, he would have just outright quit if he'd been put onto this suicidal of a course. Of course, two months ago, his cart wasn't yolked to the oxen of Blitz and Loona such that now those two's fate was now his and Millie's as well. For Blitz, this might be about revenge and to assuage a battered ego. For Moxie, this was about saving his and his wife's life. And he would stoop to any low, ignore no avenue, and commit any blasphemy required to ensure that when the fight against Nathan Birch happened, he and Millie would be okay. That meant protecting Loona and Blitz too, incidentally.
As he passed through a termination shock of one kind of aura butting against one dissonant to it, he gave a thought that he was coming to be something that he wouldn't have even recognized. Yes, he was a killer, but everybody in Wrath had to get some blood on their hands by the time they grew up. Millie had practically bathed in it by the time he met her, and he loved her for it. What shocked him, though, was that he... well, frankly, he was terrified, but he kept going anyway. Moxie had never been one to call himself brave, because he knew himself. But he'd never known how much discipline made up for, well, everything that everybody never failed to point out that he lacked.
He wasn't strong. He wasn't even particularly fast. While he was smart, he wasn't smart enough to make something out of himself until Blitz came along. And he wasn't smart enough to find another job besides the one that Blitz saddled him with. So what was Moxie? In the end, why was he doing this?
Because he had to. Because he had no other choice.
Maybe that was the acme of an imp. Doing what they had to do because they had no option not to? If it was, then it was a cruel fate that God had meted out for them.
Then again, God hadn't made Imps. The Abyss did, spontaneously. Whatever plan God had for imps, therefore, was probably worth less than garbage.
The symbols adorning these shelves were ones that spoke to keeping things away, or for restoring things to their rightful way. In a way, the two being in the same metaphysical pile made sense to Moxie. The easiest way to keep things whole was to not let them bang into one another. And failing that, a very effective glue. And the magic which provided both effects sprang from the same mystic source, one that was foreign to Hell but apparently was available everywhere, even in the Human World.
"Why does this have a human with a buncha' swords stickin' out of him on the cover?" Millie asked quietly, as she was arrested by a old, dusty tome.
"That's a woundman," Moxie said. "People used to be stupid when it came to medicine."
"Neither of us knew that penis-illing was a thing until yesterday," Millie pointed out.
"That's human medicine. It probably won't even work on a hellhound," Moxie said, but then puffed out a cleansing breath. "That's not the point. We need to start looking. Millie, you start looking for any book that has any conjugate of the words 'sound', 'silence', 'meme', 'obedience', or 'command'. I'll start looking for the others."
"What happens if we get made?" Millie asked.
"You'll do what you have to," Moxie said with utter confidence. Millie's gap toothed grin made his heart swell, and she moved in to give him a peck, but he quickly got his hand up in the way, urgently shaking his head.
"Oh, right. Sorry. Kinda lost my head there fer'a minute."
"I know, honey," he told her. And now, he had a mountain of books to climb.
The evening was on the edge of dusk, a cool breeze breaking the heat of Hell's unpredictable summer. All told, the scenery was actually somewhat lovely. It almost made up for the fact that this was Hell. Sam nodded to himself as he found the Sinner he was looking for. Alastor was sitting at the edge of a promenade, here where the West Side dissolved into suburbs that stretched most of the way to Imp City. The towering megaliths of Hell's commerce and industry were behind them now. And Alastor, for a wonder, was feeding tiny dinosaurs.
That had been a bit of a head-scratcher when Sam first saw them. Tiny dinosaurs, like raptors writ small, were the primary carnivorous scavenger down here. That could mean a lot of things, from Sam's perspective. Maybe those crackpots saying that the dinosaurs weren't allowed onto Noah's Ark weren't as crackpot as he'd thought? Or maybe, just like most boys between the ages of six and twelve, God just thought dinosaurs were neat and thus put them everywhere. He just stood there, at the spot where he first noticed the red-suited demon, who was throwing scraps of raw meat out to the scrabbling, fighting little blighters, pointedly picking fights between them by landing that meat right where two of them would immediately launch into contention with one another.
One of them got brave, came close to where Alastor was sitting. Sniffed at his boot. Alastor, without even breaking his sight on the ones fighting further away, raised up that boot and with a lightning strike snapped the creature's spine under his heel.
Sam ambled closer, coming to a halt at the arm of the bench, keeping most of its length between himself and the Radio Demon. "I fucked up," Sam said.
"That you did, Samuel, that you did," Alastor said. "In more ways that you might imagine, even."
"What do you mean?" Sam asked, having already come here expecting to eat crow for doing reckless magic without knowing the consequences.
"Remember how I said that I had no idea what you are?" Alastor asked.
"Just another doomed asshole in hell," Sam said.
"You can say that to yourself until you fall over and crumble to dust, Samuel. It won't make it true," Alastor said. He struck the remaining bag of tripe onto the grass, and watched as the tiny raptors began an all-out feeding frenzy, with more and more racing in from points unseen to join in. "You see, I have seen a great many things. Things which beggar the imagination of most. I have broken bread with the Sharp Men who sail the subterranean seas at the behest of an undying queen. I have eaten the flesh of the Heterax, and spat out the feathers infesting it. I have rafted up the Steel-Eating River, looked upon the Mountain where the Old Men of the South mete out immortality at too high a price, and learned the name of the Traveler Returning. And yet, despite all of that, despite my many adventures in my life before my demise, I had not seen such as the like of you. So I have had to do something which my life has been sorely lacking of late. I have had to think."
"I don't follow," Sam said.
Alastor looked at him, an indulgent smile across his face. "Under ordinary circumstances, I would simply allow assumptions to stand. But you, Samuel? You defy them as a matter of course. Take, for example, this."
Alastor snapped his fingers, and a symbol appeared scarlet in the air. Two flags and two serpents, crisscrossing the weather vane. The mark of Damballah, the Snake That That Seeded Erzuli, a Power From Outside dedicated to fecundity, fertility, and fatherhood. Sam flinched and yelped, as it felt as though somebody just jabbed him in one of his testicles with a fine pin.
"What did you..."
"This, Samuel, is something that should not be possible, and certainly should not be in your possession," Alastor said, having that minute dot of white hovering between the tips of his index finger and thumb. "You know the old saw about Sinners. That the first brick of their damnation is to know that nothing they ever build e're more would stand, and that no seed should ever spring from them. And yet, despite God's First Punishment... this."
"Is that my sperm?" Sam asked, confusion warring with alarm. "Why did you..."
"Notice the color? Notice the heat of it? Notice that its odor is less sweet, more musky? And the Weight of it; this is no mere bodily emission. There is potency to this. There is the Innate Power of Making in it, as there is in the fluids of the living." Alastor expounded, holding that droplet close to his scarlet monocle. "Why, it's almost as though this were being produced by a living organ. I would hazard a guess... and say that of all Sinners in Hell, you alone... are fertile."
Sam stared at him, then to the droplet which he held now at his side. Then to him again. "What would be the point of that, then? Ever since I came to Hell, I've had just as little of a sex drive as you do," he said.
"Do you? Do you really?" Alastor asked, rising from the bench and looming over Sam. "Or is there something that is purposefully curbing it? Is there some sort of mechanism that is preventing you from making a useful tool of what makes you unique? Because this is the first issue of your seed that has seen the light of day in Hell. If it were not, I would have heard of something like it within hours, perhaps a day or so of your arrival. And others would have too. People who would do far worse to you than a monster such as I. I know you've been asking around, Samuel. Performing experiments. Sweet little Niffty shouldn't have been keyed up like that, Samuel. She has a habit of not handling rejection or neglect well. I would be cautious not to wake up with a knife amidst your organs. Or worse, a frenzied woman atop them."
"Niffty's a horny freak, noted," Sam said. "What does this have to do with my fluids?"
"Because, Samuel, I may not have been a conventional man of science, I was nevertheless quite abreast of the theory behind it. Observation, hypothesis, experimentation, repeat," he recited. He started to pace back and forth, the raptors fleeing any time his boots came close to them. "Observation: Samuel is not infertile, as all Sinners are. Observation: Samuel is able to look inside the souls of other Sinners. And not just Sinners, I presume? You have seen into the minds and hearts of imps and fiends, have you not? Of course you have. Observation: Samuel is able to learn magic at a rate that has never been equalled. Hypothesis! Samuel is not an Elemental Sinner!" he said, leaning in very wide with a very wide grin.
"I'm..." Sam began.
"Experiment," Alastor cut him off, raising a finger and continuing to pace, "Exposure to an Exorcist. Results? Behavior displayed perfectly expected for when an unpiloted Exorcist has two targets. My initial hypothesis is incorrect, or at the very least, incomplete."
"Wait, did you know there was an Exorcist in there the whole time?"
"Of course," Alastor said. "I'm likely the reason it was there at all. Why do you think I never told Charlotte about that bunker, when I knew about it from my first day here? Because I knew what was surely inside of it. And that it would eventually be fantastically entertaining."
"So you almost got everybody killed, because of a fucking experiment?" Sam demanded, barely aware that the light he was casting shifted into electric blues.
"I had to know. And there was never any real danger, until the girl failed to contain the calamity which was her mammaries, and gave it a weapon worth wielding," Alastor said. His grin ratcheted up as he leaned down toward Sam. "Oh, I see your ire is raising. Are you going to blame me for what happened that fateful day? And if you do… what are you going to do about it?"
"You played god with innocent people's lives," Sam said.
"There is nobody innocent in Hell, Samuel! Get over yourself!" Alastor laughed harshly. "What happened that day was always going to happen. The only difference between what occurred, and what may have, was that you were put in a uniquely perfect situation to survive your assault. I will have to give thanks to your employer for his speedy arrival. While he seems a bit tightly wound, he did do me a service. He kept the enigma which is you from being something that would haunt me, forever unanswered."
"I knew you were a monster. I guess I should have known that you would absolutely stoop that low, throwing people into a woodchipper for the sake of a goddamned answer," Sam said.
"Indeed," Alastor said, raising up to his full height. "And because of that, I managed to refine my hypothesis. Would you like to hear it, Samuel?"
"I don't think I care to," Sam said.
"Too bad," Alastor said. "Given that an Exorcist, with the best sensors a Heaven of a century past could give it, believed you are an Elemental Demon, then that means there is only a few other options. And the one which I have the most faith in, is that you are–"
There was a loud bang.
And then Sam's world went white.
Striker fired again, before even letting the Elemental's body hit the ground. It took the dude in the back of the head; between the two bullets, he'd utterly decapitated the Sinner. He spun the gun around his finger, as the Radio Demon's gaze flicked over to him. The body hit the ground, faint grey smoke wafting up from the unhealing crater that used to be the man's head.
"You have impeccably awful timing, imp," the Radio Demon said to him. Striker was about to shrug, but he felt something grab and constrict him. He tried to pull his carmine and moonsilver revolver to bear against the Radio Demon, but after the first jerk didn't even get him close, he thought better of it. They probably wouldn't even hit Alastor anyway. "I was about to perform the grand reveal. And now you've gone and shot him. It'll be hours before I get a chance again."
"More like never," Striker said, from amidst the beyond-black tendrils which held him aloft and in front of the Radio Demon. "Take a closer look at those wounds. Stygian Moonsilver rounds, blessing-etched, hollow-point containing the blood of Cherubs. He ain't getting up." The only thing that could have kept him down harder was if he'd made the rounds out of Seraphic Steel. But even Striker wasn't going to piss money away that badly.
"Then you have just upgraded yourself from an irritant, to an outrage," Alastor said. And the smile on his face was unsettlingly close to to a scowl, his eyes back-lit by the anger welling behind them. "He was something unique. Something special. Something I could learn from."
"Doesn't matter. The job is done," Striker said.
"And what do you mean by that?" Alastor's words, cruel though their intonation, were goading.
"I am a Gun of Satan, and I've just done my duty to Wrath Incarnate," Striker said.
"Yes, you destroyed something I cannot replace," Alastor said.
"So let me go. You know the law," Striker said.
"Oh, which law would that be?" Alastor rubbed at his chin.
"The Law of Proxy," Striker provided. This wasn't turning out right. Something was going very wrong. And though he didn't show it, he could feel this turning against him really, really fast.
"Oh, the one which says that I can't punish you because your master wanted you to do something on his behalf," Alastor said. Then, his grin returned, a hundred percent cruelty. "Do you think I care about the rules?"
"Lucifer will not abide…"
"Do you think I fear Lucifer?" Alastor asked. "He might come for me, and mightgive me a good thrashing, true. But you? You, my short sighted little fool, you will still be dead."
"Wait…" he said. Because he knew, deep down, that Alastor was being stone honest with him.
"So what was itthat was so important as to deprive me of my answers and my entertainment?" Alastor demanded.
"I ain't telling you anything," Striker said. A strange yellow light bathed him for a moment.
"Satan wants to make sure you can't leave Pride anymore," was what came out of his mouth, instead of the previous. Wait, what?
"Leave Pride? Leave Pride?" he leaned in, his eyes locking and gaining the semblance of radio dials. "You hot-headed fool. Since my arrival, I have never been anywhere BUT Pride. In fact, until you put those words into the air, just now… I hadn't even considered that it could be possible."
Striker stared at him, and then thought back. Thought over everything he'd learned, thought over everything he saw. And in that panicked moment of revelation, he understood. "Birch, you motherfucker," Striker said.
"Your next words better be poignant ones, because they'll be carved into your tombstone," Alastor said.
"Nathan Birch said you were the one who got out of Pride. And he set me after you like a goddamned missile knowing he was wrong. I will fucking kill him!"
"Well, cosmic irony has a certain humor to it. Declaring you'll kill somebody posthumously. Very droll," Alastor said. And behind him, the decapitated Sinner stood up.
"What the fuck," Striker said, no longer paying any attention to the Radio Demon, and instead to what should have been a Intoxinated cadaver… only it stood up, steady, despite having nothing north of its lower jaw. Its arms flexed and popped, joints cracking as the shirt on his chest first smoldered, then burst into flame. With a howl that could only come from the most baleful of hellfire, a fountain of white, blazingly hot flame blasted up from the stump, and the entire body radiated the heat of a Wrath Star.
Alastor turned, casually, to it, then turned a glance back to Striker. His grin had turned to one of abject confusion. The sinner's back arched, and the geyser of flame pulled in, growing so hot that it was some color beyond white, forming a head-like structure that let out a bestial roar that cracked the windows of the buildings in the distance, and caused the water of the lake to ripple away, or burst into steam.
"This is new," Alastor said.
Striker then found himself dropped to the ground. With reflexes born of desperation and a lot of training, Striker sent another round into the Sinner, hitting him right in the shoulder and blowing off his right arm. Instantly, a limb made of solid white flame took its place.
"Satan's Throne…" Striker said, involuntarily making the mark of the beast on himself. "Do you know how to fight something like that?"
"Not really," Alastor admitted. "And I'm terribly rusty."
"Rusty?" Striker shouted, as the thing turned its lack of eyes on them, and Striker felt that this thing could see straight through him, could read his mind and his soul and knew every inch of him. Alastor simply stretched his arms above his head.
"Yes, I need a few days to get ready for a scrap the likes of this one," he said, as red runes began to fill the space around him, and static started to overtake reality.
"A few days? WE DON'T GOT A FEW DAYS!" Striker shouted.
"Of course we do," Alastor said patronizingly. "I'll have plenty of time between now and when the next chapter comes out."
"Next chapter?" Striker asked. "What the fuck are you ta