The last into the room was a gracile hellspawn, stooping so he could get through the door, and immediately taking a chair opposite the pair who dominated one end of the room. Apoc had introduced them as two of the V Triarchy, and that this was likely going to be the last job of the day. Apoc adjusted his suit slightly, standing half way down the table between the two parties, leaving Sam to ride the wall like a fly.
"You finally arrive," the only woman in the Triarchs said, rasping an Emory board across her nails, which were almost thick enough to be considered claws. With her ministrations, they were certainly sharp enough. She was dressed almost like a doll, her dress frilly and poofy, her grin a bit too violent for Sam's liking. "I was starting to think you brought us up here for nuthin'. Tell me, Vox, do I appreciate bein' dragged around for nuthin'?"
"She does not," Vox answered. His head was a television set. That had arrested Sam's attention for a while.
"And all this time, just sittin' here, bored off'a my head... I don't do bored, Skinn'a. I get... antsy," her voice had a whiny tone to it, but even at a glance Sam could tell that she was looking for an excuse to peel the skin off of somebody. And Vox just wanted this to be done so he could get back to what he considered important. Sam swung his gaze to Apoc again, and found him as he always had, an utterly unreadable enigma. The newcomer, Skinner, didn't know whether to shit or go blind. Fear radiated off of him. And at the same time, there was a kernel of hopeful anticipation. The whiff of a big score.
"I have everything you asked for," Skinner said, and he slid the luggage-case into the center of the table. Apoc motioned for Sam to come forward, and he slid it the rest of the way toward square headed Vox, and the doll-dressed Velvet.
"You'd betta'. People don't last long if they waste our time, buddy," Velvet said. Vox reached with his long arms and pulled the luggage toward them, opening it and revealing bolts of white cloth. Even from Sam's non-optimal vantage, he could see the bolts were uneven, and their color not consistent. As though the bolts were comprised of many patches which had been arduously unwoven, then loomed anew. "Well hello be-ay-ootiful. Vox? What's the thread-count? You got them special eyes."
Vox leaned down on the bolts and his face shifted, his mouth and one eye disappearing as the other took up his entire head. After a few seconds, his 'face' returned to normal. "One thousand low. Sixteen hundred high."
"That's a bit of variance, buddy. Are you sure this is the best you got?" Velvet asked, eyes becoming veiny and glowing with light.
"W... the contract said..." Skinner said.
"What are the particulars laid out in your request, Financier?" Apoc asked solemnly.
"I sure as shit ain't accepting this matchstick bullshit if..." Velvet began, leaning over Apoc with one hand cast back toward the luggage. Vox cleared his throat, such as he was able, his head the way it was, and produced a scroll with a flare of his hands. It was in his handwriting. What was likely her signature was clearly on the bottom.
"By the agreement entered into by Client V – determined for this contact to be any and all of Vox, Velvet, and Valentino as to be regarded as The Financier – you have stipulated the minimum yardage and minimum quality of the fabric to be bought from Skinner, thereby referred to as The Procurer," Apoc said flatly. "Per your own stipulations, thread-count shall not be below eight hundred, with circumstantial rewards for any cloth not less than one by six yards with thread-count of twelve hundred or better."
"Well that was then, this is now," Velvet began, only to have Vox gently reach out and grab her hand. He shook his head. "Don't you be like that, Vox. Gotta show strength, goddamn it!"
"This is not a usual deal," Vox answered.
"Exactly. Per your mandate," Apoc said, voice rumbling quietly, "this is agreeable quality and quantity. Are you reneging on your end of this agreement?"
That pushed Velvet back a step, but Sam could outright smell the indignation coming off of her. She was used to pushing people around with little to no blowback. To have her even as restricted as this rankled her badly. "Ffffffine," Velvet said. She flounced into her big, thoroughly stuffed chair and let Vox pull out a briefcase and slide it into the center of the table, before sliding a second next to it. The first, Apoc opened by his role as arbiter of the deal, revealing two bundles of Souls and a key that looked like it belonged to a motorcycle. The other Apoc opened to reveal another contract, this one clearly writ in blood. Even from the glance of it, Sam could tell this thing was heavy business. The money was just a bonus. This contract was the payment. Apoc had Sam slide the cases toward Skinner, who almost fell out of his chair to grab the contract, hold it up to his face and then with a growl, tear it in half. It burst into flame when he did. And then, there was a metallic cracking sound in the room, source unclear.
Skinner sat back, relief writ down to his core. Sam didn't need to look inside his... well whatever it was he looked into to see things... to know that Skinner had just escaped something almost unspeakably terrible, something he was willing to pay almost any price to be free of.
"The goods granted by the Procurer are sufficient to means?" Apoc asked. Vox nodded. "And the reward offered by the Financier is equal to that which was stipulated, bearing in mind penalties for underperformance or bonuses for exemplary conditions?" Skinner nodded eagerly, snatching the money and the key and leaving the cases on the table. "Then the deal is complete. The covenant you have entered into has reached its end. Vox and Velvet, as a majority stakeholder in the covenant, do not require the third's participation to see the dissolution in good standing the agreement between the Procurer and the Financier. This matter is now closed, and shall not at any point in the future be contended by either party," he cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, his voice was now its usual timbre. "Should either of you wish to revisit the result of this agreement, a new covenant may be instigated at your discretion. Beyond that, this business is concluded."
"What about your new man? Is he for sale?" Velvet asked, sauntering over and leaning in very close to where Sam was leaning on the back wall. She even took a deep sniff of him. "Oh, I could make something spectacular out of you."
Even without looking inside, Sam could tell she meant one of several things, and all of them horrifying.
"I couldn't sell him if I wanted to," Apoc said with almost perfect neutrality, gathering what few things he had unpacked and tucking them away. "As I do not own him nor am I his legal guardian, he may do as he so pleases. Would you like to go with Velvet, Sam?"
"That would depend on the result of a conversation that needs to take place," Sam said. Velvet glanced between the two of them, clapping her hands lightly in front of her. Apoc's glance back to him had a different sort of weight to it, now. Of inevitability.
"Oh this is excitin'! Am I gonna see you two brawl?" she chirped.
"Now now, Velvet. Let's get these back before somebody bleeds on them," Vox said as he hefted the luggage and started toward the door. Skinner had already left, and was probably the smartest one on the building because of it.
"Well, if you ever change ya mind, you just gotta ask for Velvet. Everybody knows where we is," she said, and then skipped out in Vox's wake. When she left, Sam gently pushed the door shut, until a loud thunk sounded to the door sealing them inside. He turned his gaze to Apoc, who now stood calmly at the table's side, the satchel hanging from one fist.
"So you obviously have something that's lit your wick. Let me hear it," Apoc said.
"How many people have you killed to find me?" Sam asked, as the wooden doorframe began to smoke under his fingerprints.
Obey Your Betters, and Never Question Them
"I beg your pardon?" Apoc seemed genuinely confused at that. But since looking inside didn't seem to work at all, Sam had to take it at what he was able to discern based on years of lifetime practice.
"I've been mulling over some things I saw, back on my first full day in Hell. Things like... a swimming pool filled with incinerated Sinners, just on the other side of the Pride Wall," Sam said. "And everybody who I've broached the subject with has been unanimous; Sinners cannot leave the Pride Ring. And yet here I am, a Sinner, fresh in hell. In less than a goddamned day, you appear, make me beholden to you, and then march me into what should have killed me just as surely as it did everybody else who tried. So tell me this, Goat of the Apocalypse; how many others have you marched to their deaths before you finally set your sights on me?"
Apoc's eyes drifted down, and he set the satchel on the ground. He moved to the chair that he hadn't taken before hopping up to sit on it, and fussed with his sprig of beard with his fingers. And after a long sigh, he looked up to Sam once more. "One," he said.
"I don't believe you," Sam said.
"Her name was Celeste," Apoc went on regardless. "I found her much the same way I found you, trapped by people exploiting her when she still didn't know Hell from a hole in the ground. I thought she was special. No, that's not fair. I was sure she was special. Absolutely certain. As I worked with her in Pride, got her on her feet, I thought..." he trailed off, and tweezed his eyes. "She could do it. I was so sure she could do it. I can't explain my exact thought processes, looking back, because it just seemed so absolutely clear that she would be able to make it past the Pride Wall. So I asked her to try."
"And she died there," Sam said. Apoc nodded.
"I told her what to expect. Told her she should use that monumental will of hers to push through despite it. And I got her killed. If she had backed down, if she had pulled back... she wouldn't have burned. Lucifer actually gives you one warning. It's quite unlike him, actually. But he does. And she pushed forward despite it... and she burned."
Apoc puffed out a breath, then turned a shockingly open look of regret to Sam. "I've met others, since her, people who I was sure could do what she didn't. But that's the thing about absolute certainty. Once it's broken once, it'll never be absolute again. Then I found you, nailed to a wall in the alleyway, getting butchered for meat. And I thought... he might. He might be able to do it. This fresh from the Fall Damned has a chance. So yes. I manipulated things to my advantage, and yours," Apoc said. Sam crossed his arms, which blazed with angry yellow flames, across his chest.
"Explain," Sam said through clenched teeth.
"I bring you to the Pride Wall, and tell you nothing of its nature. I simply walk through, and ask if you can do likewise. With no indication of what you would have to surmount, thus you would have no preconceptions of what breaching that Law would do to you. You would be able to listen fully to your instincts. And when the voice in the back of your head told you to STOP, to back down, you would listen. You would fail, but you wouldn't burn. And I could live with that, because you already had a place to sleep and a way to move forward."
"All so you could find one more damned asshole who could pass the Wall like you do," Sam said.
"More than that, Sam. You have the potential to become something extraordinary. Just like Celeste did, before I got her killed. And you have a chance to actually change things. Not just for Pride Ring, as most Sinners do, but for all of Hell. To break the false-economy of cruelty that permeates this entire plane of reality."
"You don't know me as well as you think you do," Sam said.
"Really? Then how about...?" he trailed off and dug through his satchel and quickly wrote something down on a sheet of paper, folding it in half and sliding it into the center of the table. "Tell me this, Sam. If you happened to walk past God one day in your travels, what would you say to him?"
Sam scowled at the goat. "Don't try to shake off my question like you always do," Sam began.
"Sam, please. Just answer this," Apoc said.
"Why? So you can lie again?" Sam asked. Apoc actually looked insulted at that.
"I have never lied to you, Sam. Tell me one thing that I have ever said to you that was untrue! I might omit information, or say things that may be interpreted incorrectly, but Sam, I Do Not Lie. Not to you," Apoc said.
"Forgive me for not appreciating the subtleties of your deceptions," Sam said.
"You appreciate them as much as I do, whether you admit it or not," Apoc said, a fire in his eyes that Sam hadn't seen before. "Despite me never telling you to, you've kept the fact that you can leave Pride a complete secret from everybody, haven't you? You haven't even told the Princess about it! And why is that? Because they. Did. Not. Need. To. Know. While you and I may be very different people, we are alike in that, at least."
Sam sighed, and the cinders on his arms started to fade back to surly red. "I suppose you're not wrong about that," Sam said.
"I try not to be," Apoc said, adjusting his suit, as though his outburst had done anything to unseat it. He settled into his chair once more. "So please, answer the question I posed. If you would meet God on the road, what would you say?"
"Nothing. I would kill him," Sam said. Apoc nodded at that, as though it were a perfectly sensible answer. "The very existence of Hell validates the belief I had in life, that God is an egocentric, petty, jealous, sadistic lunatic. In the face of such a creature claiming absolute authority over us, it is our moral responsibility to kill it."
"The paper," Apoc said. Sam glared at him for a moment, then reached into the table's middle and plucked up the paper. Unfolding it, he gave it a read.
Nothing. I would kill him, it read in Apoc's crisp, clear handwriting.
"How did you know my answer?" Sam demanded, as the paper caught fire in his hand. He blew out the ignited part before it ate the whole note, and dropped it on the table again before his grasp would turn it to ash.
"That wasn't your answer, Sam. That was mine," Apoc said. He leaned forward. "I am in hell not because of some great and unforgivable transgression against man and God. I am here because of a mistake. And it wasn't even my mistake. Yet nevertheless, the Pearly Gates were slammed shut in my face and then down the long fall to Hell I went."
"I was told that it takes a lot not to get into Heaven," Sam said.
"Whoever said that was either lying to you, or misinformed," Apoc said. "Hell has always been the default. Why do you think people talk of the Pearly Gates, and the Judgment of Saint Peter? If you are found wanting in any way by that constipated pontifex, down here you go."
Sam shifted his weight to his other foot. "So I'm guessing that Armageddon isn't going on, either?" he asked.
Apoc turned a querulous glance at him, then gave a chuckle. "You must have been talking to Princess Charlotte. She absolutely means well, but her sources of information are fairly questionable, as they inevitably point back to Lucifer himself; I have no doubt he keeps her ill-informed as a joke. Whether or not Armageddon is happening or not is up for debate. As far as I'm aware, there has been no Rapture. But considering whether the Rapture was supposed to happen at all is also in question."
"Then what's going on with time?" Sam asked. Apoc tilted his head. "Time's arrow getting more bent as a result of Armageddon made sense. Just being fucked for the sake of being fucked does not."
"Then there might be a more subtle Apocalypse going on after all," Apoc said. He got to his hooves, picking up his satchel. "The things I don't understand are admittedly vast, and I didn't exactly have the Archangel Michael's ear when it came to his preparations for the end of the world. So whatever is happening to time, or the World, or Hell, that is for the moment beyond me."
"So what does that leave for us?" Sam asked. "Two damned assholes, in a quest to kill God?"
"We'd have one ally instantly, although I would hesitate on recruiting the Morningstar to any endeavor of ours," Sam had to nod at that. "As for the rest... yes. I have caused the death of innocents, believing myself righteous. And I would not do so again, if I had a choice. But I don't. This is Hell, and I am beholden to Hell's laws. If I could change the course of this ship, I would do so in a heartbeat. But the only hand on the tiller is that of the Devil himself."
"So we tilt at the windmills. Only for us, they might be giants after all," Sam said.
"I would be proud to break the walls of Heaven with you, and topple the Throne of God," Apoc said. "But until that day comes, we have business to attend to, because the only certainty left in all existence is that of taxes."
Sam gave a chuckle. "So what was that cloth, anyway?"
"Remember the Exorcists?" Sam nodded.
"'Run from the Exorcists, or die by them'," he quoted the near-litany that was repeated of them.
"Every now and then, somebody grabs their clothes and tears a bit off before being executed. Get a lot of it together, and you can reconstitute some Angel Satin, which can be treated in various ways to gain various properties."
"Magical cloth, stolen by dying men from furious angels. I suppose that's appropriate," Sam said. "How much was that much Angel Satin worth?"
Apoc frowned for a moment, pondering. "Name a mortal currency."
"Dollars," Sam said. Apoc turned a flat look at him "Fuck it, Canadian," Apoc continued to do more math in his head, before he nodded, as though arriving at a satisfactory result.
"Converting the value of Souls to CAD is a pittance, the contract was the value offer. And that much Angel Satin, if the mortals could do anything with it, is a raw resource, if something rarer than platinum. I'd say, that much Angel Satin, in the condition it was, having already been loomed together into bolts at procurer's expense... You'd be able to buy Argentina with their worth."
"The country, Argentina?" Sam asked. Apoc nodded. "Buy as in how?"
"Buy every building, every cubic centimeter of land, every plant and animal, buy all of the water and mineral rights, buy the organs and flesh of every person living in Argentina, and all of the intellectual property associated with the nation or originating within its borders. And have enough left to rent Luxembourg for a couple of years. Hell is insanely wealthy, Sam. Most people just don't get to see it." Bloody typical, Sam thought as he opened the door. Two men, dedicated to a Quixotic war against God, walked out of it.
Moxie knew there was something seriously wrong the moment he opened the office door. The eels were dead on the floor, the fish-tank broken once more. The doors to both Blitz' office, and the board-room were laying on the floor, obviously kicked off of their hinges. The stink of hellhound blood permeated the room, and its source was sitting with her back to the corner of the room, hunched down and making herself small. She flicked deep-red eyes up to Moxie and Millie, then back down to what looked like a new Hellphone.
"Hey, Moxie, what's goin' on up here? I smell blood," Millie said as she slipped in behind him. "Oh my word..."
"What happened here?" Moxie asked. Loona didn't answer. That by itself caused some alarm to I.M.P.'s resident marksman; any entrance by Moxie himself without Loona making a disparaging comment was an unprecedented event. Usually, she'd mock his soft-heartedness, his uselessness in melee, or for reasons he didn't understand in the least, his weight. Today, she offered a glance that wasn't even dismissive. Just ensuring he was who he was, then back down to her phone. And she was wearing a hoodie instead of her usual clothes.
"Moxie...?" Millie said, turning a deeply concerned look to him. She reached out, taking his hand in both of hers as she saw what he did, and likely came to the same result. "Did something happen here yesterday?"
"Did you not leave here since we left?" Moxie asked the hellhound. Loona didn't answer. She just stared at her Hellphone. A solid thock-sound came from the boardroom, which pulled the couple toward it's source. Crossing the now empty threshold showed that there was a poorly drawn picture of somebody that had been nailed to the wall. Whoever it was was not clear, even before knives had been thrown into it. The source of those knives was obvious. Their employer, Blitzo, sat back in his chair, running a whetstone along a tomahawk. He was wearing a bathrobe instead of his usual bespoke attire, and he looked absolutely livid.
"Oh hey, Mox! I was wondering if you'd get around to walking your ass in here before noon!" Blitz said. Considering it was eight thirty, and the office opened at nine, he wasn't exactly in the right.
"Sir... what happened?" Moxie asked.
"What, this?" he motioned to himself. "I just spent the last twenty hours fucking a Goetia into a happy puddle. Why?"
"No, th... What happened in the office?" Moxie asked.
"Yeeeeeah," Blitz said, and then hurled the tomahawk at the picture, decapitating the unclear likeness which remained pinned to the wall. "So I.M.P.'s taking on a change in direction. Time was, the business was all about killing the living for the money of the dead. Well, that's gonna change. Somebody," he gestured angrily to the picture he'd no doubt drawn – badly – of whoever the source of his current ire was, "decided that they were gonna fuck with me. So I decided that our whole company is gonna fuck back harder!"
"I don't understand, sir," Moxie said, as Millie started to collect knives and throwing axes from the picture, and the wall behind it.
"Anybody here ever heard of some bitch-nugget called Nathan Birch?" Blitz asked.
"Well yes, he's Lucifer's Proxy in Pride," Moxie said.
"'Course you'd know who he was you little brown-noser," Blitz said. "Well that shitheel came into the office, and he decided that he was gonna wipe his dick all over everything that the four of us built here. And I will not stand for that kind'a malarkey. We are the only 'Top 500 Business in Hell' that's got no Fiends or Sinners on its payroll! I will be fuuu-ucked if I'm gonna let some tree-named motherfucker take that out from under me now!"
"So we're gonna try to what? Assassinate the most influential Sinner in all of Hell?" Moxie asked, feeling a cringe set in as he did. "Sir, you can't be serious! This isn't just some mortal in the Living World, or a Sinner here in Pride; this is Nathan Birch."
"Moxie, calm down, you're starting to hyperventilate..." Millie said, but Moxie was on a tear.
"It would be bad enough if he was just the proxy of a Deadly Sin, but no, Sir, Nathan Birch is the Proxy for Lucifer himself! The Remit alone that Lucifer must give him would render him utterly untouchable! Sir, you're putting us on a suicide mission!"
"It's only a suicide mission if you die, Mox," Blitz chirped. Moxie's next inhale came as a wheeze.
"Birch has the backing and permission of The King Of All Hell behind him!" Moxie shouted.
"Just shoot 'im with that fancy gun we stole," Blitz cast a thumb toward the armory.
"IT WON'T WORK ON HIM! HE'S PROTECTED BY LUCIFERIAN MAGIC!" Moxie howled.
"Moxie! Please, calm down!" Millie pleaded.
"THERE IS NO CALM!" Moxie answered her. She pulled him close, and his roaring faded to whimpering for a moment as the utter hopelessness of the course they were now set on washed over him. He didn't wallow long, though, because he had a point he needed to get across before Blitz hurled the lot of them to their deaths like a bunch of Sinners walking into the Pride Wall. "Sir..." he began again, voice ragged. "We have no way of touching him. If we blew up the building he was standing in, Lucifer's Remit would protect him. If we threw a moon at him, Lucifer's Remit would pull him out of harm's way. If we dropped him into the sun, Lucifer's Remit would keep him from burning more than long enough to snap him back to his Reset Point in Pride. This is HOPELESS!"
"Fuck that noise! I don't believe in hopeless," Blitz said. "Everybody can get offed, otherwise Birch'd never have gotten that fuckin' job. Ain't no way that Lucifer went for thousands of years without a Proxy waiting for some bug-eyed motherfucker to come along with words that force you to do stupid bullshit and flay your daughter and shit."
"Do what now?" Millie asked. The righteous indignation of Blitz seemed to deflate a bit at that. He sat back in his chair, almost seeming like he wanted to vanish into the cushion and letting his horns rake a pair of ruts in the plaster of the wall behind him.
"He tried to make me skin Loonie," Blitz said, a hate of incredible intensity in his eyes and his voice worryingly quiet. "Told me I had to kill the Fuckin' Radio Demon's mortal self so I didn't cut her skin off and wear it 'til it rotted," Blitz leaned forward, his bathrobe falling open slightly, showing that there was a long, faded scar across his chest, as though he'd been almost split in half with a sword from shoulder to hip. "And then he told my daughter to show proof to the Radio Demon that we were the ones who offed him! That... that shit-eating cocksucker, tried to kill the two of us twice, as a parting fuck you, and I will not abide that whore-shit."
"Horse-shit, boss," Millie said.
"No, he is literally worth less than a hooker's bowel movement, I know what I fuckin' said, Mills! Now shut the FUCK UP!" Blitz showed uncharacteristic anger toward Millie; usually, he doted on her and shat on Moxie. What was going on today?
"We..." Moxie continued to wheeze, the panic claiming his body and leaving his mind just open enough that he could continue to listen in, because it knew that doing so would provide him with more panic. "We can't just..." he struggled to get words out.
"And in the middle of that, the Devil's Buttboi forced the two of us to break some fuckin' arrow bullshit and left me stranded in the mortal world for TWELVE FUCKING YEARS! Fuuuck that was bullshit. Let me just say that 'New Jersey' is also bullshit," he said with air-quotes. "So is 'San Francisco', and so is 'Vladivostok'. The only place which didn't suck my taint harder than Stolas on a good day was fuckin' Moscow. Might have to go back there one day. They've got awesome vodka, and they now how to drink it."
"You spent twelve years in the Living World? Without a disguise?"
"Yup!" Blitz seemed to get some of his more usual pep back. "Turns out you stay around a bunch of fuckin' wasted Russians, they don't care what you look like so long as you can hold your liquor and are really good at killin' who they tell you to."
"Oh... crumbs..." Moxie muttered at the revelation that now they had an Arrow Breaker in the office. Two, if Loona was involved. And there was almost nothing that called down Lucifer's wrath more readily and quickly as breaking the rules that He personally created. Moxie leaned around the doorframe to Blitz's backup wardrobe, and saw an imp-sized mortal-made military uniform donned on one of the dummies, with a really tall ushanka hat perched on its head. Almost like the hat was designed to hide very long horns.
"But that shit's done with," Blitz said, stomping to his feet and starting to pace back and forth at the end of the table. "Now we've got a bigger problem to tackle than insolvency! Money's not an object any more kiddos! From now until that COCKSUCKER'S HEAD is on a FUCKING PIKE in my office, every cent we make is gettin' put right back into finding a way through that cock-holster's magical bullshit protections! And we know there's gotta be one, 'cause if there wasn't, he'd have taken over hell already!"
And that thought, insane as it was, actually made sense to the hyperventilating Moxie. Birch had to have a weakness, otherwise he would have taken a shot at the Deadly Sins, if not Lucifer Himself. Moment by moment, as Blitz continued his now unheeded diatribe, describing all of the things he was going to do to Birch – most of which were anatomically improbable if not impossible – a terrifying sort of steadiness settled on Moxie. A dread that held away despair.
"Millie... we're going to die," Moxie whispered to his wife.
"Mox, noooo," Millie said, trying to soothe him. "We'll find a away around this. For all we know, Blitz'll get bored of this 'soon as something else comes up. A big job, a big reward, next full moon, something'll pull him away."
"I don't think it will, Millie," Moxie quietly answered, as Blitz began to begin shifting away from the physical abuses that he intended to inflict on Birch and toward the more spiritual and blasphemous ones. "Birch did something to Loona. And you know how Blitz is with her."
Millie wilted at that, and the two of them looked back at Loona. It was so uncanny, seeing her the way she was. Pretty much from day one, Loona had been most akin to a methamphetamine-addicted, belligerent secretary with the cuddliness of a cactus and the good nature of a crocodile with constipation. Now, though... Loona looked scared.
"So what do we do?" Millie asked. Moxie just stared back, unable to come up with a good answer for her. "Come on, Moxie! You've got the best head of all'a us. What do we know? What do we do?"
Blitz had moved on to describing what he was going to do with the various bits of Birch that would be left over once he was done killing him and defiling his mostly-complete corpse, so Moxie actually forced the panic down a notch or two so he could actually think. Now that his inner monologue wasn't an unceasing shriek of terror, he thought about his employer's implication, that Birch must have some weakness, or he'd already be on top. That was how it worked in hell. The stronger you were, the higher you went, until you reached a point where to go any higher would leave you vulnerable. Birch was exactly where he was least vulnerable, but that meant that he did have vulnerabilities, otherwise he would have punted Baphomet down, or even worse, gone for Lucifer's Throne.
Additionally, while Luciferian Magic was unique amongst hell in that it did not come strictly from a hellish source, it wasn't without its limitations, either. Lucifer could only enforce the law against Breaking the Arrow when there was evidence pointing to it being broken. And since Lucifer hadn't already liquidated this office and annihilated both Blitz and Loona meant that it had no way of showcasing that it'd been violated. There were ways around Lucifer's magic.
"Oh... crumbs," Moxie said, as he understood the enormity of what they were about to undertake.
"What is it, Moxie?" Millie asked, while Blitz went into detail how he was going to press the Birch-paste into pills with the hardest drugs he could find and give them to street-bums.
"If we go after Birch... we're going to put ourselves right in Lucifer's path... he'd... he'd never... We're imps! He'd rather just... I can't..." Moxie said.
"Is it that bad?" Millie asked, her worried frown still not grasping what Moxie now knew.
"It is so... so much worse than that," Moxie said.
"Hey, are you two listening to me? Fuck it, fine! I'll start over again!" Blitz cut in, literally barging into their personal space. "First I'm gonna carve a little hole in his neck, and then I'm gonna stick my..."
Another day done, another wad of slightly squirming currency in his pocket. As strange a thought as it was, he was really getting used to Hell, in all its garish intricacies. It was vulgar, but so was Vegas. It was factory-blighted, but so was Detroit. It was drug-infested, but so was Halifax. More of it was that it just radiated authenticity about it all. There were no illusions of civility or righteousness here. Things were what they were. They reveled in their freedom to be themselves, even if what they were was rather shitty.
Needless to say, he went with the flow of foot-traffic, blockaded by a clique of Sinners in front of him, and nudged forward by a cadre of succubi and incubi at his back. He'd only had to give them one glare for prodding him with something other than their hands. Away from the most metropolitan regions of Central Pentagram, they finally broke from the rigid grid of square plots crossed by black tarmac, allowing strip-malls to pop up as they did seemingly at random in all of the Points. It was more familiar territory, reminding him of the region around the Hotel.
Slipping out of the pack, he sauntered toward a hardware store built into a corner of a stripmall. Well, according to its sign it was a hardware store and hunting supplies emporium. Build a wall to mount your trophies on, perhaps? Whatever the case, he needed something, and they were here, so in he went. The door opened to a recorded howl of pain, as one does in Hell, and since nobody specifically targeted him to sell stuff, he allowed himself to scan the place. The venue was split in half. To his right, long-guns, shotguns, pistols, assault rifles, and mortars. Which made a perverse kind of sense. Pistols to kill something next to you. Rifles to kill something a kilometer away. Mortars to kill anything within a specific grid coordinate. He was arrested, however, by the last entry in the parade of launch-tubes, one in particular that was being clutched by a squat, broad Wrath Imp boy. His father, likewise squat and broad, pulled at him to pull him away from it, but the boy would not release.
It was a fucking Davey Crockett Launcher.
"I want it!" the boy shouted.
"We got one at home!" the father shouted with something like a Tennessee drawl.
"It's not this one! I want this one!" the boy complained. Of course it wasn't. A Davey Crockett was a man-portable tactical nuclear bomb, capable of leveling anything within a kilometer of where it landed. Including the launcher, as it turned out, because the launcher couldn't actually fire these things very far. Sam just shook his head at the insanity of Hell, and the people who lived in it, and crossed to the left side of the store, which immediately gave way to shelves of wood- and metalworking tools, pallets of lumber, forge and crucible kits, a big pile of anthracite coal with a sign saying 'bag it your fucking self!' and a shovel jutting out of it, and a wall of car tires. Not what Sam needed, so he went deeper into the metalworking section.
So much of this was practically medieval. Hammers in bronze, iron, and steel. Anvils. Swages and dies, rasps and tools for making anything that could be created up to about the seventeenth century. He plunged further, forward in time, until they had a whole section of acetylene welding and cutting torches, arc-welders, and a build-it-yourself trip-hammer set. For when you wanted to build yourself a hammer-forge, it seemed. That actually tickled Sam in a weird way, seeing the strange anachronisms of a place thoroughly unseated from the flow of history. Finally, he got to what he was hoping to find, here. Plasma cutters. During a short-lived job in Detroit, he'd been around one that took up about a shed's worth of space. And as Hell was cut off from history, just as he'd hoped, there was a 'future' iteration of the plasma-cutter on the wall. It cost a bomb, as he would have expected, but having a plasma torch that he could use with just his arms and a small backpack for the gas was exactly what he needed to get into that weird gap in the Hotel.
"Can I help you with sommin'?" a growl came from Sam's back as he stood, looking between two cutters that sat against the wall.
"I was just picking which..." Sam began, turning, but then being confronted by a hairy, hairy chest. Sam looked up, and up, until he saw an ursine head staring down at him with a hard-done-by scowl. Before he even tried to, Sam could see that this guy was on the edge of despair about something. "Damn, you are an intimidating piece of former-humanity," Sam found himself saying. Wait what?
"Thank you, I try," the bear-man said. "M'name's Ralphie. I run this store with m'wife, Martha. Hey Martha! We got customers!"
Martha leaned around a corner. She looked like she was made of stained glass with minute seams between its movable panels. Her hair was voluminous and blond, and one of her eyes was brown. The other, though, was transparent, as well as a tract running straight through her head as though somebody had blown a chunk of her head out and replaced it with clear crystal. "That probably hurt when it happened," Sam found himself saying again.
"Gah-dammit, Martha, you're doin' that thing again," Ralphie said.
"Am I literally saying everything I'm thinking?" Sam asked.
"Martha c'mon! We can't keep spookin' customers like this."
"Fine, fine," Martha said, and suddenly Sam could keep his internal monologue internal again. The moment he did, though, he could feel the desperation of her. He quickly turned to the plasma cutters again; if she made him speak his mind again, he was likely going to start a fight despite himself. "Welcome to Barlow and Kritch. We're neither Barlow nor Kritch, 'cause we kil't 'em and took the store over for ourselves," Martha said.
"As one does," Sam said with a nod, pointedly not looking at either of them. Of all the 'powers' he could have gotten from being Elemental, he just had to get the one that made him constantly feel like a Peeping Tom.
"You lookin' for summin'?" Ralphie asked.
"Plasma cutter. Need to make a hole in a spot that doesn't want there to be one. How reliable are these things?"
"Won't explode off yer back, if thats'n what yer askin," Ralphie said.
Sam shrugged. "Good enough for poetry," he muttered, taking the thing off the wall. It was heavy, which made sense, for all its small size it must have been quite dense. He started toward the cash-register, which as things go in Hell it was at the back of the store – far away from where maniacs would burst in and start shooting, he figured – but was stopped part of the way there by the cork-board that was mostly covered in people hunting beasts in the Pride Wilds, or arranging cannibal-shoots in the outskirts of the cities. Top and center of the boards belonged two two missing posters, with human children sketched roughly on them. "What's this about?" he asked.
"Y'see, me an' Martha, we was married back when we was alive. And the vows say 'death do us part'? Well we decided to let a good thing keep rollin'. Landed in Hell. Looked to get our family back together, make a go of it. But they didn't come," Ralphie said. Sam turned a look to him, and could feel the despair of his last memory of his children, holding them close as a... a rocket destroyed his house? Sam turned back to the two posters, for Betty Lou and Szandor. "Fuckin' pigs din't even give us a chance to walk out. Jus' blew us to Kingdom Come."
The reward listed at the bottom of the posters was 'literally anything we have'.
"Is there a chance they ended up in heaven?" Sam asked.
"Not the way we rais'd 'em," Ralphie said. Sam turned another look at him. Oh Christ, this guy was a cannibal. A cannibal when he was alive, even worse. It was times like this that Sam wished he'd had the forethought to keep a weapon on him. But against a Sinner, the only thing that would have been useful was that Seraphic Steel, and he had nothing that used such a material. "They din't deserve what come, though. They din't."
"Nobody does," Sam said, as he turned from the board and toward his wife, who was busy giving out her personal phone-number to a young, lithe Damned with fishy-features. She was going to fuck this man in her-and-Ralphie's bed. And then fuck Ralphie right after. And then she'd find another and do it again.
"Somethin' wrong, bub?" Ralphie asked. Sam glanced at him, and the pride and... he could call it love, but not a love he'd had any experience with... radiating off of the bear-man at the spectacle before him.
"Sorry. I get distracted sometimes," Sam said. Hell was weird, yes, but people were far, far weirder. He plunked the plasma cutter down on the cash desk, and Martha scanned it through with a speed that spoke to experience in life at doing so. The price would have been exhorbitant, if he hadn't gotten paid a king's ransom over the last week and a bit.
"Where'd you make all that money, honey?" Martha asked, leaning over the table and giving a clear view down her cleavage. He looked away not out of prudishness, but because he didn't want to look inside her. "What's wrong with lookin' inside? You squeamish about what you'd find?"
Fuck. She was doing the thing again, Sam both thought and because of that said. "It's a bit rude to intrude on people's private thoughts," Sam consciously stated.
"You don't actually want any of this? Are you gay or somethin'?" Martha asked. "'Cause Ralphie's up to experiment, now that we're dead and all..."
"No, just... no," Sam said, staring her in the face. That eye hole didn't show what was behind her anymore. It showed some sort of shrieking abyss, an absence of color and light, a portal to viewing the Inchoate Abyss that lay outside of Hell. "Could you please stop doing that?"
"You ain't even a little interested?" Martha asked.
"I'm busy," Sam said. And even Martha had to know that he was telling the truth, because she forced him to. As he glared at her, he got a sense of who she was in life; somebody who had kept covenants with Hell when she was alive, and who reaped the prize now that she was dead. "Now I'd like a receipt."
"Well it's your loss, sugar," Martha said, her face becoming half-clear again. Now that he didn't feel compelled to speak, he dared to look... and saw how grievously wounded she felt to not have her children at hand.
He picked up the cutter, and thought... no. No I won't promise to find their kids. I've got enough on my plate. But the thought in Sam's head felt tinny and hollow, empty and pathetic. It felt like something he would have said when he was alive, gasping for breath under the boots of monsters and madmen. "If I find anything out about your kids... I'll let you know. Might even help you find them," Sam said, in defiance of common sense, and turned away from them.
Even in Hell, broken families were an unhealing wound.
The trip back to the hotel passed in a blur, leaving Sam to walk through the doors and almost step on Niffty as he did. His apology was met with tittering laughter as the pixie-demon immediately started VERY VIVIDLY desiring him to impose himself physically on her in other ways. Whatever apology he was going to offer died half way out. Luckily for what was left of his sanity, she was gone as soon as he opened his eyes.
He sighed, and looked around. Yes, he had the tools, but he was going to start tomorrow. It was probably going to be an all-day problem anyway. "Alastor? I take it you're hiding somewhere that you can watch us all," He said.
There was a rustle of static that sounded, and suddenly a red-suited arm was wrapped around his neck, and he was being walked into the heart of the lobby. "Of course I am! What is it that brought you back with a cutting torch in one hand and a desire to talk to a monster in the other?"
Sam gently pulled the arm off of him, and gestured to the bar, taking a stool. Alastor chose to stand, idly leaning on his red cane that was topped by a radio microphone. "You said, back at the cafe, that you spent a lifetime preparing for coming to hell. Did that actually make any difference?" he asked.
"Of course!" Alastor said. "I was the most powerful Sinner at Soulfall in centuries! The last of the Damned who arrived in Hell nearly as strong as I was, was Jingo! And I was able to beat that Prussian in my first month!"
"Because?" Sam asked.
"Trying to learn my secrets, are you? Well I'm afraid it's too late for you. The 37 Oaths have to be sworn in your home plane, and you're in Hell now! You could no more pursue my path to power than I could teach a fish to climb a tree!" he broke off into distorted laughter at that.
"But you can gain power in Hell for what you do in the Living World," Sam verified.
"Of course! How do you think anything gets done around here?" Alastor said. "Power in hell comes from the corruption of good intentions! Think of it like making a cutting of a tree; the more of the tree you donate, the bigger the reward you get, and the sooner it will bear fruit. But you can't uproot the whole tree, or it'll just wither away."
"So Hell's been poaching would-be sorcerers for centuries, so that its overlords can stay mighty," Sam said.
"Oh, you poor, sweet little man. You understand so little," Alastor said. "Through bindings and covenants, you can achieve great things, but so doing increases the sum might of Hell! Hell doesn't care which Sinner's on the top of the pile, so long as the pile keeps growing! And the Angels don't look kindly on Hell trying to tip the balance back into their favor. In the Mortal World, the Oaths have been lost, and it was only by my fiendish cleverness that I managed to piece them together before my... well... demise."
A demise caused by a dog of hell and that imp who'd held him at gunpoint, Sam saw. He also saw that Alastor considered the event to be marvelously hilarious.
"Bindings..." Sam said, cocking an eyebrow. "Is it possible to bind something to somebody, so that when they die, they carry something with them?"
"Absolutely! How do you think I've managed to bring my favorite pair of socks with me?" he asked, hitching up a pant-leg to show a thoroughly reconstructed sock vanishing into his shoe.
"So when you came to hell, you had your favorite socks. That must have been nice. I landed here naked," Sam said.
"Oh, make no mistake; I arrived fully clothed, because I kept a panoply bound to me at all times. It will be of no use to you, though; you're already in Hell, and you can't use that spell to take things to the Lands Before. It's strictly from the Mortal World, and to the hereafter."
"Maybe so. But as long as I'm in hell, and Magic is apparently a thing that exists, I think it's a good idea to understand how it works. How does binding work?"
"Binding something to you is simple. You just use... this..." Alastor said, drawing his hand across the air and causing a searing red mark to appear there, a four-sided device with leaf-like figures top and bottom, three stars to the right, and one to the left.
Immediately, Sam's head started to pound, his vision blurring, as the weight of the symbol pressed through his unusual vision and slammed into his mind. The Mark of Legba, Who Stands At Crossroads. A symbol of psychopompy. A connection to the ancient gods of West Africa, and to their re-imagined Haitian counterparts. A force which stood beyond the dichotomy of Heaven and Hell; something apart, and verdant. A Power From Outside.
Sam reeled, clutching at his head which now thundered like a drum, the plasma cutter landing on the floor with a crack of one of the floor-boards failing just a little. Alastor just watched Sam as he flopped backward until he found a chair and cradled his head in his hands, trying to keep his brain from bursting out of his skull and running the fuck away. It took a while, for the pounding to stop. By the end, he was convinced he did in fact hear drums there. He almost heard chanting.
"This is new," Alastor said. "I've never seen a man see the Deep Form of my works. Not on the first try at least," he loomed in on Sam, grinning wide. "I have no idea what you are, fellow traveler. I would be delighted to find out."
"When I find that out myself," Sam said, suddenly feeling as though he'd just run a marathon, "I'll let you know."
You're right. I am who you're looking for. I did it all. Because I was sick of everything that you stand for. Obey your betters and never question them, the clarion call of the self-righteous pricks that stand atop all of the cosmos. You think yourself so impeccably right, so unswervingly on the side of good, but you are staring at the world through a fucking drinking-straw. You can't kill me. I'm already outside of your reach. See you in hell, dickweed.
-Harut, My Worst Angels, Series 2, Season 4, Episode 19