Words. Meaning. Pain. What was... It?
Concepts faded here, clouds in the distance at nearly eye-level. An edge that it was backed up against. It felt pain. He felt pain. With pain came memory, and memory, pain. Blood, pooling under him, a hole ripped into him by something violent and cruel.
He clenched his hand. He had a hand. It was red, slick. A memory of trying to hold blood in, of it rilling out past his fingers. A memory of a ruined limb, trying to hold his guts inside.
There were two others with him, one staring at a tablet in its – his? – lap. The other, standing facing away. It was that last one who spoke. He knew that back, somehow, even though is vision were lanced by the setting sun that hovered just above the cloud-line.
Death. The concept of ending. He had died. Laying in a pool of his own blood. In the same moment, there was cold, a sensation of being forgotten in the moment of his demise, to not be discovered for weeks, until the stink caused complaint. And another, there was warmth. People panicking. Holding his wounds with all their might. Screaming his name in despair.
"All life..." he shook his head slowly. Sadly.
"All life is what?" he asked. Name. He had a name. Sam. Samuel. Samuel what? In the end, that didn't matter. The one who spoke did not turn to him.
"Nothing," the one with the tablet said. Was that disappointment? Or was it disgust?
"All life is nothing?" Sam asked. The one facing away shifted, minutely. Could they hear him?
"Speak up; you're muttering," the bearded one said.
"All life," the one facing the sunset in the distance said more clearly, "is fundamentally fire."
"Sam! Sam can you hear me? You have to hold on!" Charlie shouted, as she pressed the towel hard against the wound that traveled through his ribs. He was bleeding ferociously, and the amount was tailing off not because of a clot, but because he was running out. How could this happen? How could she have let this craziness play out?
How in Dad's Name was there an Exorcist in the Hotel, all of the sudden? And not just an Exorcist, but a Type 3, which stopped being made when she was a teenager!
"This ain't good," Husk said, peeling back an eyelid and looking into the nearly black that looked back. His hair wasn't red or yellow, or even blue. It was almost black, like the nearly ended cinders of a bonfire, and his eyes followed suit with it. "I don't know if there's anything we can do here."
"We have to do something!" Charlie pointed out, as Razzle ran up and gave her another towel, one she slid under him so he wouldn't make the floor hazardous to walk on.
"There is very little that can be done," Alastor said. "His flesh was carved by the weapons of Angels. You know what comes next."
"And that wouldn't'a happened if your dumb bitch of a girlfriend hadn't'a give'd it a spear!" Angel Dust railed, sitting up against the wall, where Wendy was trying to bind his severed arms into the appropriate spot so they'd reattach instead of have to regrow.
"Angel Dust, that is inappropriate!" Charlie snapped.
"No, he's right," Vaggie said, her one eye bloodshot and squinting to see anything. "I panicked and I made everything worse."
"It was a good instinct," Husk said, as he continued heating a slender tine of one of the newly ruined chandeliers until it was glowing hot in a nearby fireplace. "Get your best weapon the instant that a major fight kicks off. Only reason it didn't work was 'cause this time, it was an Exorcist."
"If she hadn't'a..." Angel began.
"It would have gotten us anyway. As soon as it fired up its Purgators..." Vaggie's voice had a hopeless quality to it.
"It's okay, Vaggie. There's some way to fix this, I know it!" Charlie put words to a desperate lie.
"Purgators weren't working," Husk said.
"Yeah, the old bitch ran out of charge. I didn't even know they could do that!" Angel Dust pointed out.
"The worst it could have done to us is pound us into paste. We'd've come back eventually," Husk said.
"That sounds fairly awful," Wendy muttered quietly.
"You're tellin' me, toots," Angel agreed. "Who knows if I'm gonna pop back into my usual stunnin' self? I think he bent my nose!"
"Get over yourself. Most people can't even see your nose," Husk muttered.
"And how in the ever-flyin' fuck did you manage to get out of that without so much as a goddamned scratch?" Angel Dust demanded.
"That's wasn't my first ambush. Shit, it wasn't even my twelveth," Husk said. "Unlike you, I've actually been in a war."
"Yeah, which one?"
"The big one," Husk answered, as he finished putting the scattered weapons and ordnance into a basket and returned to the now orange glowing tine.
"How many of those things have you put in this hotel?" Vaggie asked.
"I have done almost nothing since I started here but hide weapons in the Hotel," Husk said flatly.
"Why?" Vaggie demanded.
Husk just idly gestured to the slowly quieting mayhem of the lobby, and to the Exorcist that lay on the carpet with a ruptured skull.
"There's no way you could have known that there'd be an Exorcist attack!" Vaggie pointed out.
"Didn't think there would be. But I knew that at some point, we'd need to fight something nasty, and I didn't want to have to do it with sticks and beer-bottles," Husk said. "You're welcome."
"After all the damage you did..." Vaggie began.
"This isn't the time for blame!" Charlie cut in. Husk approached, and she leaned away from the towel, allowing the wound to see the air again. Husk jabbed the cauterizing tine into the wound, searing shut an artery, she hoped. Anything to keep those last critical liters of blood from leaving him. It wasn't just that the Hotel's reputation hinged on his survival, though it did: If anybody heard that one of her guests had a True Death under her roof and her protection, the Hotel concept was dead along with him. What mattered more was that if he died, then she failed to protect him. She failed to give him the chance to be better.
She was just as useless as Dad said behind her back.
The knocking on the door echoed through the hotel, which snapped Charlie's gaze away from the dying man, and toward the doors, one of which had been blasted off of its hinge by the various explosions the Hotel had been subjected to. "Ooooh Chaaarlie~!" a voice came, that immediately set Charlie's teeth to a grind. And true to her expectation, there was a savagely grinning bitch standing on the sidewalk outside Charlie's hotel, a cigarette in hand, and her tidal-wave of white hair shepherded by a broad black hat. Helsa. "I just thought I'd pop by, see how your little passion project was going."
"This is not a good time, Helsa," Charlie managed to keep a relatively civil tone, as she rose and stormed toward the doors. As usual, Helsa Von Eldritch kept her cloud of lackeys, sycophants, and hangers-on lingering in her orbit like a bad fart on a windless day. They were all the young and hyperprivileged scions of the Goetia, the Deadly Sins, and the lesser aristrocrats of Hell, people who would never know what a hard day's work felt like, and would fail upward until eventually they replaced the one who spawned them. It was one of the very, very few opinions – and disdains – she had which she shared with her Father.
"Really? I would like to think my timing is immaculate. What have you been doing to the place? I was given to understand that your... ahem... patients... would be living in safety and comfort while they reached toward 'betterment' and 'goodness'," She even literally threw up air-quotes for the last part. Helsa flashed her high-priced smile, one that looked like it belonged on a magazine cover, but Charlie knew required twenty years of metal headgear and yearly bleachings to cover up for the Beelzejuice stains that she would rack up.
"We've just had a bit of an incident, which is no business of yours," Charlie said.
"Charlie! He's still bleedin' bad!" Angel shouted from the back of the lobby.
"So very safe," Helsa said with the most patronizing look on her face. "And do my eyes deceive me or is that blood on your hands? My my, Charlie. What have you been doing with your time?"
"If you want a tour," Charlie said forcefully, moving to block Helsa before she took a step forward, "we can arrange something. But right now, there are..."
"What do you think, Brutus? Do you think she's luring fools here to split them open?" Helsa opined.
"Naw. She couldn't split open a bag of crisps," Brutus said with a practiced scoff. Charlie turned a glare to Von Eldritch's most senior lackey. She was fairly certain that the only reason Frederick allowed Brutus to linger in his daughter's circle was because he was the last survivor of the nearly extinct Von Brutte family, and as such by Most Ancient Law rendered sacrosanct until he had at least five descendants. She was also fairly sure he immediately got a vasectomy at hearing that.
"Fuck me he's dyin!" Angel shouted.
"Keep pressing on the wound until it staunches!" Charlie shouted back.
"'Staunches'?" Helsa asked. Her grin grew more cruel as she took the one step into the Hotel she had available to her, putting her directly in Charlie's face. "How embarrassing for you. To promise safety and only have someone on the edge of True Death under your roof. Shall we bid him farewell for you? Since it's obvious you don't care enough to shuffle him off yourself. Or is it her? Because I don't see that raging quim that you slum around with."
"Her name... is Vagatha," Charlie bit out. Helsa shifted her weight onto her other foot, putting on the airs of somebody being incredibly indulgent. "And you know her name."
"Who she is is utterly unimportant. She's mortal-born trash, doomed to ruin like all of their kind. They have no right to Hell like we do. And no matter what you claim, she will always be lower than you. An insect that you have convinced yourself is shiny and interesting. How long until you get bored of her, like you got bored of Seviathan?" Helsa tapped her cheek in faux thoughtfulness.
"Your brother has nothing to do with my Hotel, or my girlfriend," Charlie said. "Leave."
Helsa grinned wide. "Make me."
"Charlie, we need to call your father!" Vaggie shouted. Charlie glanced back; both the Exorcist and Sam were out of sight around the corner, but she knew that Vaggie was right. She had no way to help Sam with what she had on hand. But Dad might.
Charlie turned back to the dilettante and her swarm of idiots, and glared. "Get the fuck out of my Hotel," she said, involuntarily channeling a bit of her Father's legendary anger.
"Oh, she's a spicy one today," Helsa fanned her face with a hand. "Please. We both know you're too soft to ever do anything but talk and talk and t–"
Charlie cut her off by channeling the rest of her Father's legendary anger, and driving a haymaker punch into the green-grey fleshed socialite's jaw, sending her rocketing out of the building and embedding her a half a meter into the side of her limousine. Instantly, her goons turned on her, their bodies shifting and warping as they moved into more monstrous forms. And heedless, Charlies did likewise. She heard her shirt rip for the second time today, as she suddenly rivaled her mother's stature, and her horns erupted from her hair. Some of the people arrayed against her flinched. They were the smartest ones. "B̶͕̙̥̑̽̋͑Ĕ̸̟̿̂̔̂͒͒͝ ̵̢͔͓͛̅̊̈́̇̓G̶̛̞̘͒͛̇̊͆̄̅͛͑͘Ớ̸̧̦̫̪̠͇̬̩̈́͋̓͗̒̚N̷͕͓̲͍̊̈́̐̉E̶͓̳̟͆̿̅͆̒̏̓͒̚," Charlotte Magne demanded. "Ḇ̶̃̄Ė̷͙̟͛F̴̗̂̔Ó̴̬̙R̸̞̫̈́Ę̵͇̀ ̴̨̛̜I̷̲̊͛ ̵̫͔̃L̸̩̙͊O̴̭͗́S̵̛͉̲͝E̴̢͈̾ ̷̠̾́M̸̢͉̊̋Ý̸̬͐ ̵͍͔̓T̷̼͆̔Ê̶̢͉͑M̸̞͆̃P̷̟̄Ę̵̓̔R̸͖̄̍.̶̥̂"
Helsa pulled herself out of her limousine crater, and tapped her mouth with a white-gloved thumb. Not only did a spot of black blood smut her glove, she could feel how two of her teeth now overlapped. Just like when she had been a child. "How DARE you!" Helsa began. "When my father hears of this..."
"T̴̢̫̈́̇H̷̯̾Ë̷̲̩͓́N̷͖̘̹̎͒̇͝ ̸̙͎̹͐͆Ḯ̶̞̯͋͑́ͅͅ ̷̫̞̺̈́͐̀́W̷̰̮̗̔͂͘͝I̷̛̥̥̠̐̑̂L̵̛̻L̴̨̨͛̓̉̄ ̴̭͚͊̐Ḇ̴̇̓̈̕R̶̺̻̀Ĕ̶͎̭͙͌À̶̧̼͚́K̴̡̳͕͔̈́ ̷̭̞͉̀͠H̶̰͙̼́Í̸̦̟̱͝S̷̘͓͘͝ ̵̯̥͘T̷̬̰͍̿E̷̟̔͆̀E̷̛͎̣̫͚͋̈́T̶͔̽H̸̱͉͋ ̶̩̺̈̓T̸͙͋͑̄O̷̫͒̎͝Ò̸̱̩!̸̨͇̼͈̒̉͝" Charlie roared, her words shaking the street and cracking windows all the way down the block.
"So what's this all about, then?" a new voice cut in on Charlie's burgeoning rage. All turned, to find the Goat of the Apocalypse standing at the fringe of their conflict, in his trademark fine suit and with a satchel hanging from his fist. "You all wouldn't be causing problems for Miss Magne, would you?"
"What business is that of yours, Goat?" Brutus asked.
"You would be surprised," the Goat answered glibly. He turned to Charlie. "Is Sam available? I'm here to collect him."
Sam. Charlie took a purging breath, and she felt her muscles writhe, begging for violent release. "H̸̡̄ę̷̾'̴̱͛s̸͉̏.̶̨͋.̵̗͝.̷̖̍" she began, but couldn't get the words out.
"Fuck off, goat! Go make a promise or something," Brutus demanded.
The goat blinked at him, then reached into his satchel and removed a contract. And from the look of it, an OLD one. "Brutus Von Brutte, punch yourself in the face."
"What?" Brutus demanded.
"Punch yourself in the face right now as hard as you can," he said. He then started to minutely tear at the edge of that contact. The instant he did, Brutus hauled back and smashed his fist into his own face, and then did it again for good measure. "That's what I thought. Most of you owe debts, or have debts owed on behalf of your families. You have no idea which ones I hold. If you would like to find out, then stay. How angry do you think your fathers will be if they learn you started a war on their behalf? That's what I thought. Get back into your limo and go away."
There was a pregnant silence on the street, punctuated by Brutus opening the limo door and pulling himself inside. "What are you doing?" Helsa demanded, as her cadre turned tail and fled in the most dignified manner available to them. "You... You will live to regret this! You will rue the day you thought to stand in the way of House Von Eldritch!"
"I am quaking in my nonexistent boots. The door is there," the goat said, tucking the contract back into his satchel. Helsa glared daggers first at the goat, and then a fiendishly furious glare back at Charlie, before she flicked her hair over her shoulder and got into the limousine With a grinding noise of metal working against bent metal, the vehicle ponderously edged into traffic. The goat moved closer. "I apologize for having to be so uncouth."
"T̶̫̱̏͝h̵͕̄̐͗a̵̱͒̈́t̴̢̖̯͒ ̵͇̀ẃ̸̥â̷̗͖s̵̪̐ t̷h̴e̵ most couth thing I've ever seen," Charlie said, her voice returning to its normal as her body contracted on itself and returned her to her usual stature.
"You're too kind. Now, as I was saying, could you go get Sam for me? We have business to attend to," the goat said.
"There was an... incident," she said, trying to keep the grief and despair off of her face, and by the way the goat tilted his head she knew she failed utterly at it.
"An incident. Show me," the goat said, already taking a step forward.
"Wait, the hotel is..." Charlie tried to head him off but he sidestepped her effortlessly.
"...lacking a front door and the lobby has scorch and blast marks," the goat said. He paused at the door. "May I go in?"
Charlie sighed and nodded. "Sure, it's all cool," her voice came out defeated. The goat headed in, hooves clacking against the floorboards, as he reached the point where the triage was being worked. He didn't show any expression at a spider-demon having two of his arms tied into place, nor at Vaggie – who now glared with wild, bloodshot suspicion, but instead at exactly two things. The disabled Exorcist, and Sam.
"...This is bad," the goat said.
Stick To Your Kind, Stay In Your Lane
The instant she saw the goat, she wished that her harpoon wasn't still embedded in a stone pillar in the lobby. Because she'd have thrown it at him. "What is he doing here, Charlie?"
"How long ago did this happen?" the goat spoke over her, ignoring her question.
"Only a few minutes, but..." Charlie said.
"When did his hair go black?" the goat asked.
"Just now," Husk answered, plying apart the strands to show that at the base of the root, there was still a hint of red. "Major penetrating injury, soulbound, and he's running out of blood."
"Are there any soul-surgeons amongst you?" the goat asked.
"This is a hotel," Charlie pointed out.
"Hotels have diverse clientele; are there any soul-surgeons amongst them?" the goat stressed, glaring at her.
"Her 'clientele' is what you got before ya, bud," Angel Dust said, gesturing to the group of them here. Alastor watched the whole affair with a different kind of smile on his face than he'd shown before. Until now, it was almost like somebody putting on a brave face. Now, it looked like the grin he'd had when Ser Pentious tried to blow up the hotel.
"That's a no, then," the goat said. "I will take him."
"What?" Vaggie demanded.
"The best you can offer him is a comfortable death. I can offer him a chance at survival," the goat said.
"But how?" Charlie asked.
"Charlie, don't," Vaggie said. "You have no idea what he's asking!"
"He's giving Sam a chance to live!" Charlie offered. Bless her heart, but sometimes Vaggie wondered how someone like her could grow up in hell and still be... well, like her.
"He's a Dealmaker. If he does this, then Sam will never come back. Or if he does, he'll have the Goat of the goddamned Apocalypse pulling his strings until Judgment Day!"
"Does it so boggle your mind that I might be doing this not to create a thrall, but because I genuinely want Sam to survive? That I value his company? His friendship?" the goat demanded, voice low and quiet.
"Yes! Because I know what you are. You are just another kingmaker in the neverending shitstorm with is Hell's black-market!" Vagatha said, moving to loom over the goat when she did. Though he had to lean back to look her in her eye, he was not in the least cowed.
"And therefor it is impossible for me to have attachments to people. Vagatha, you see me as well as you do everything else, albeit doing so out of your left eye," the goat said smoothly. Vaggie's one remaining and notably right eye twitched at that. "Charlie, I can get him to the best soul-surgeon in Pride Ring, at Our Lady of Perpetual Ruin Hospital. He will have a better chance there than he stands anywhere else, let alone bleeding to death on your lobby floor."
"Charlie..." Vaggie tried to rein in her girlfriend's heedless hope, but the look she gave was heartbreaking.
"I have to try," Charlie said.
"No, you don't," Vaggie said. "Not from him. Alastor, I can't believe I'm asking you this, but do you know any soul-surgeons?"
"Given the choice, you would ask the greater of two evils? I'd say that's progress for you, my dear," Alastor's grin grew patronizing. Vaggie was fairly certain her blood was simmering on the edge of boiling.
"What have I ever done to you to inspire such disbelief and outrage?" the goat asked. "Is it because of what I do? Because of who my clients are? What is it that makes me so abhorrent to you?"
"I learned in my first week here that you never trust a Dealmaker. NEVER," Vaggie said.
"And yet you just went to Alastor for help, even though he's nearly as renowned as I am for making Deals," the goat said. And at that, Vaggie was silent. Because she had just done that. The goat turned to Charlie "Charlotte Magne, Princess of All Hell, Song of Dawn, Final Nephilim in All Creation, I hereby offer you a pact, between you, and myself."
Vaggie's words of caution were swallowed by the thundercrash that made all in the lobby lean away, the pulsing of otherworldly green, punctuated by arcs of white lightning that marked the edge of a circle just behind the heels of its two participants.
"I hereby stipulate a Pledge of Responsibility Of The Father And Mother, with target being the Sinner Samuel, called in life Samuel Scailes, located hence," he gestured to Sam, and he, too was bathed in that strange green light. Husk had to lean away before the lightning started to outline him too. "I mandate that the Pledge shall last seventy two hours, to be concluded with the Sinner Samuel being returned in improved health to this Hotel without bindings, fetters, or constraints, physical or otherwise. I mandate that should I violate this Pledge, I shall be bound to the Second Legion of the Damned, under the Legate-Defacto Vagatha, where I will remain in her service until my manumission by the Legate-Defacto, by the order of the Holder-of-the-Debt Charlotte Magne, or by the individual order of King Of All Hell Lucifer Magne."
There was a long pause, with Charlie standing stunned by the oath, and the howling of Hellish winds beginning at his extended hand. Vaggie thought through what he said for all she was worth, but couldn't find a way that this would benefit the goat in any way. All he was saying was 'I will help Sam, or be bound to your will for all time.'
"You have a legion?" Vaggie asked the question which lingered through all her ponderings.
"Dad has the First. My sweet-sixteen present was The Unholy Second. It, uh... its kinda under-strength, now."
"She only has two beings left in it," Alastor opined. "That would make the goat the third."
"Charlie he's..." Vaggie began, but fell silent. She swallowed the bile in her throat, and looked at her better half. "I... think... he's telling the truth."
"Why would you do this?" Charlie asked him.
"Because it's the only way to save my friend," the goat said, hand still extended.
"Put that away," Charlie said, wafting away his hand. "Save Sam."
"No. Take my hand. I want this to be official. Success on my part or an eternity of service. Make this clean, Princess," the goat said. "Sam is owed that much."
She looked at the others. Husk, squatted just outside the outline around Sam, offered a shrug. "Don't know if it's worth a shit... but I'd take that deal," he said. "The Goat ain't most Dealmakers."
There was an angle the goat was working, Vaggie could see it, but not what it was. Finally, with one last worried look down to Sam, she turned and took the goat's hand. There was a thunderclap in the room, and the green light settled onto the two of them. The goat flexed his hands for a moment, then nodded, and immediately reached into his satchel, pulling out two contracts. One, he ripped the corner of, turning away as the pane of fire came up. "Bathin? This is the goat. Pickup. Happy Hotel, Immediate. I will discuss the price of this later."
"Don't let me stand in your way, then," the androgenous voice of Bathin answered. "They should be there in a minute or so."
The pane dissolved and the goat pointed to Husk. "Bind his legs at the knees and ankles, bind what's left of his arm to his side. And make sure nobody stands between him and the doors."
Husk tilted his head, then his eyes widened as though he knew what was coming. It was a matter of less than a minute to cinch Sam's limbs together and give him the profile of a mummy. When the screech of tires came, the goat started toward the door, only to have broad-armed Furies storm in. The fiends from Wrath glared everybody away from the body, then one of them picked Sam up and bridal carried him in her arms toward the doors.
"Seventy two hours. The clock has started," the goat said, and followed after the hulking women as they left the hotel.
Then it was over, and the Hotel was quiet again.
"What do we do now?" Vaggie asked.
Charlie sighed, looking so very, very tired. "Now we have to clean up."
"You've known me for on two millennia now," the west-facing man said. It all felt so dream-like. The pain was distant, old, and attenuated.
"Aye, I have," the bearded man with the tablet in his lap answered.
"Would you call me a blasphemer if I told you I'm starting to understand why he did it?"
"You would have to be a great deal more specific about that, my friend," the bearded one said. Again, they ignored Sam as though he weren't there, hunched on his knees clutching a wound that felt like it was still trying to bleed.
"Don't be mistaken," the west-facing man said, turning somewhat toward the bearded one. "He was a fool and a heresiarch, who caused untold ruin throughout Heaven and Earth alike. But... But I'm starting to understand why. I don't agree with it. Not in the slightest. But I fear I now understand it."
"Understanding of a blasphemy doesn't make you a blasphemer. I thought you would be the one to tell me of this, not th'other way 'round," the bearded one said.
"You had a mortal life. You know mortal time," the west-facing man finally turned. And he looked so much like Sam's father that it gave him pause. Same golden hair, grey eyes. Same weariness. Same despair. The only thing the two didn't share was their jawline and nose, and the fact that his back wasn't hunched under decades of labor and poor self-maintenance. "How long as it been now, since the silence?"
"Three hundred fifty six years," the bearded man said, still staring at the tablet in his lap.
The other man sighed, his eyes drifting shut and he kneaded his brow with both hands. "Three centuries without Miracles. Three centuries I've stood this vigil. Three centuries without another of my kind Sung into Being. How much longer do you think he will just... sit there?"
"As long as he pleases, I imagine," the bearded one answered.
"I'm not asking for platitudes and validation, Peter. I'm asking for an answer," the other said.
Peter looked up and stared at the other man. Even from his pained, locked vantage, Sam could tell that there was a whole conversation told at a glance, and not at all a happy one. "He will sit, until he does not."
"And until then, we just have to keep the cosmos spinning," the other muttered, reaching for a nail file and tapping it nervously against his fingertips. "We weren't built for this, Peter. We are warriors, made of light and song. Not administrators, and certainly not technicians. Powers From Outside are flourishing in untold numbers, because it seems like I'm the only one who recognizes the threat they pose. The Greatspear of Ruin sits UNGUARDED in the Plaza Beyond. I'm tired, Peter... I'm so... fucking tired. And I'm not even supposed to be able to be tired."
"You come here asking if you are a blasphemer, and then point to all of the failings of the administration," Peter said. "Are you making a case for becoming the next Heresiarch? Like the one you worked so hard to cast down?"
"No, don't be foolish," the tired man said, running fingertips along his nail-file in an odd way. "I'm just... There is a great irony in me, Peter. You lived in the world. You earned your place here. I just... have it. And you have more faith in your smallest finger than I have in my entire body. We're running out of options, and thus running out of time. And if he learns of this... of what now sits the throne..."
"Worry will not turn away another war," Peter pointed out, and looked to the tablet in his lap once more.
"But it may help me prepare for it," the tired one said. He turned only then and looked at Sam. "So what's this one looking like?"
"Nothing," Peter said.
"What? How?" the tired one said. "Audiel and Lutherus are proof it works."
"And still, nothing," Peter said.
"He had the gift of..."
"Nothing," Peter cut the other one off, shaking his head as he stared at his lap. The tired man held a crestfallen look.
"...disappointing," he said.
The atmosphere was not one would have expected from a get-together of the most intimidating members of the lowest rung of Hell. Hound Parties had pretty much two settings; fights and orgies on one end, and loud music and copious drinking on the other. And Vortex's parties apparently cleaved more toward the latter than the former. That was fine. While she wasn't into the music, at least people didn't try to lay hands on her, for one purpose or another.
Honestly, Loona didn't want to be here. She'd rather be somewhere she could plant her shoulders against two perpendicular walls, stick her tail into the corner, and just sit. But she promised Tex that she'd make up for missing the first one he'd hosted. Apparently in her honor, even. But Blitz learned she'd made plans before that disastrous Arrow Breaking incident, and despite her telling him in no uncertain terms she'd rather be at home, he dropped her ass off at a party. And Vortex wasn't even here today. So she knew absolutely fucking nobody.
She wished she could fold in on herself and disappear. It was a sensation that was uncomfortably familiar. Her earliest memories were about hiding. And here she was, a grown-ass-adult, doing the same fucking thing.
"You smell like a scab," a startlingly deep woman's voice came from Loona's immediate left. She outright flinched away from the source of that voice, who was a gargantuan hellhound with a mane of rust-colored hair. She would have stood head and shoulders over Vortex, and thus utterly dwarfed Loona. And despite being the size of a shed she still moved so quietly that Loona hadn't noticed her sidle up.
"I... what?" Loona asked. The massive woman leaned in, sniffing the air in Loona's bubble and nodding.
"Dry blood. You get into a fight on the way here, Miller?" she said.
"No. I mean, not today. I mean, I got into a bad fight a week ago, but... Who's Miller?" she stammered exactly as badly as she feared she would.
"No shit?" the huge woman said. She leaned in a bit. "May I see?"
"My... wound?" Loona asked.
"Yeah. I smell a lot of blood. Might need to take you to a clinic. Speaking of which, if you've got that much blood on you why aren't you in a clinic?" her voice taking on a particularly motherly tone.
"I'm fine," Loona said, unable to moderate her defensive tone toward the woman who looked like she could break Loona like a twig without even trying. "And who the hell are you?"
"This is my apartment," the woman said. "Me and Tex, anyway."
"You and... you're Vortex's girlfriend?" Loona asked. The woman offered a grin with very, very large teeth. "You're... huge."
"Yeah, I get that," she said. "Name's Theophania. Most just call me Tiffany, or Tiff," Loona stared, agape, at the cognitive dissonance of having the most intimidating Hellhound she'd ever met bear the name Tiffany. "And you must be Loona. Vortex told me about you. Said you're working with a bunch of freelance assassins."
"I'm... Uh..." Loona wasn't sure what to say, and the room suddenly seemed entirely too small for her. "My Dad – FUCK – My Blitz... godDAMNit, Blitz, he's my boss. I just work the portal. They do all the killing."
Tiff gave a nod at that, and squatted back against the wall. Even with her backside on the carpet, she was still eye-to-eye with Loona. "And they trust you to do something other than rip and tear. Must be nice."
"What? Working for a dumbass, a fatass, and... Millie's honestly okay, that sounds good to you?" Loona asked.
"Do you know how many Hounds have jobs that don't involve mauling people?" Tiff asked. Loona just stared. "Not fucking many. Hell, almost half of all Hounds don't know how to read. And of those, one in ten of them couldn't learn to read if you tried to teach them. We're at a low-point for our species. Only Millers like you end up coming out on top."
"Why do you keep calling me Miller? I grew up in an orphanage," she said.
Tiff turned a surprised look at her. "And nobody called you... Waaait, was it in Imp City?" Loona gave a wary assent. "That explains that. Miller isn't who you are. It's what you are. You're a Mill Pup."
"A what?" Loona asked.
"Me? I'm a Half-blood. Half Hellhound, half Bloodwolf. Had a die thrown to see whether I'd be a feral, sterile beast, or something that could wear clothes and hold down a job. I got lucky. All the rest of my littermates didn't. Most of 'em are dead now," Loona stared, aghast. "All so my 'breeder' could have somebody the size of a barn with my particular hair. I'm so glad I killed that bitch. Tex is only marginally better. He's a Pedigree. Most are more inbred than a sandwich. And like me, Tex got lucky. Got a working brain. Doesn't lose himself to the Red."
"Wait... his parents weren't... married?" Loona asked.
"At what point did you assume that Hellhounds get to choose to have kids?" Tiff asked."Most of 'em are bred and owned by fiends. I was, too. The people at this party are some of the few truly free Hounds in Hell. I was in their shoes, too: somebody's property. Until I killed the bitch. I had to fucking buy Vortex. You know what that feels like? Purchasing someone?" Loona could only shake her head, and she let Tiff keep on rolling. "If I was a strong as my breeder tried to make me, I'd tear this entire fucking society down. Shit on the rubble, let something better grow from the dust. But I can't. You though? You've got every advantage."
"Advantage? You could step on me and I'd die!" Loona pointed out.
"Really? So a wound that big," Loona glanced and saw that Tiff was staring down the back of Loona's shirt, "and you're not even complaining? And somehow that makes you weak?"
"Are you trying to make fun of me?" Loona asked.
"Miller, you have a wound on your back that would cripple anybody at this party, including and especially me." she cast her hand to all the hounds who were now engaged in drunken karaoke – as if there were any other kind. "Most of us would be healing on the couch for weeks after a hit like that, if not months. And that's presuming we survived it at all. And you go to a party, drink quietly, and say nothing. You heal like a Sinner, Miller."
"I didn't ask to be this," Loona said.
"Vortex didn't ask to be the child of a grandmother and grandson. I didn't ask to be the product of bestiality. We don't get to choose how we begin. But we do get to choose who we become. You were a Mill Pup. Born because some bastard wanted to sell some Hounds for quick cash. And because of that, you're a mix of whatever blood they can get their hands on. A mongrel. The toughest, healthiest Hounds in all of Hell. Tex and I might look impressive, but it's bitches like you that are the future of the species," Tiff said. She gave Loona a very light slug in the arm, then reached with her understandably long arms and grabbed a large bottle of beer and handed it to Loona. "So have a drink. Shit, have twelve. And when whatever you're afraid of is drowning in alcohol, we can talk some more. Enjoy the party."
And with that, Tiffany got up and plunged back into the karaoke, hip-checking the singer into a a wall and starting to belt out a power-metal ballad. Loona suddenly understood why the ceilings were so high in this apartment. And why all the people in the orphanage were so weird to her growing up. She was a Miller. What she was had a name. She twisted the cap off of the bottle, and took a deep, deep drink. Fuck it, she should have come to this party last time they'd invited her. She needed a time like this.
"Nobody's ever going to come here again," Charlie said quietly, as she stared at the ruin that was her lobby. Niffty had already cleaned up the blood, but the annihilated pillars and the ripped-up and burnt floorboards were a clear sign of the donnybrook that she'd only caught the very tail of. In fact, she was just bracing herself for Angel Dust and Wendy to say 'we're going, it's not safe here'.
"It'll be okay, Charlie. We'll find a way to get this ship righted," Vaggie promised.
"That would presume the ship had capsized," Alastor cut in, leaning into view from somewhere hard to see. "It could be said that the hotel has done exactly what it was intended to."
"Lure people to their deaths?" Charlie asked.
"Of course. Why else would you light a beacon except to attract people?" Alastor gave a wink and a laugh.
"What about lighthouses?" Wendy asked. That caused Alastor's brow to furrow, though his smile remained. "That's a beacon you use to warn people away."
"Well this is a development. The quiet one actually has a voice after all," Alastor said.
"Guys? You gotta see what Sam was into up there!" Angel said as he came through the splintered door that apparently began the great melee in the lobby. Husk was at his side, hefting an armload of muskets, a black cutlass, two revolvers, and a couple rolled tubes of paper.
"There's a White Point Bunker inside the hotel," Husk said.
"A what now?" Angel asked at his side.
"That thing you just stood in, idiot," Husk said. White Point Bunkers were all the rage a century ago, made of Weepstone, which was almost as tough as concrete but with the added strength that it could regrow itself, prioritizing major damage first. Unless you were the Radio Demon, the only surefire way in was to arduously grind your way through them, one millimeter at a time. They were also inherently magical; you could compress them into tiny spaces, move them with a basic teleportation spell, or even put them out of sync with time so nobody could enter or leave them.
"A Weepstone Citadel in the hotel? Fascinating," Alastor said, grin ratcheting up. As far as Charlie was aware, the White Point Company was driven out of business by Alastor essentially single-handedly, as he cracked open so many of their 'impervious' bolt-holes that people just stopped buying them. And then, they stopped making them, and the proprietary mix for Weepstone was lost. "I may have to take look. If only for the nostalgia."
"Be my guest. I already got the best stuff," Husk motioned past him. Humming a ragtime tune under his breath, Alastor departed the lobby, to take a stride through history. Husk looked her in the eye. "I'm gonna hide these throughout the hotel. You can't stop me."
"After what just happened, I'm not sure I even want to," Charlie admitted.
"Smart girl," Husk said with a nod, and he took the doors into the inner hotel. That left just the girls, with Niffty trying to scrub out a burn mark, Vaggie trying to pry her harpoon out of a solid black-marble pillar, Wendy experimentally prodding at the Exorcist, and Angel Dust standing with two of his arms in slings.
"Never thought I'd get a chance to take a look at one of these suckers up close. Don't these things tend to burn when you fuck 'em up enough?" Angel asked, bending at the waist as he did to take in the old Exorcist. "And where are its horns? Don't these things have horns?"
"It's a Type 3. The earliest ones with horns were the Type Sixes," Charlie said, remembering the look of them well. Today hadn't been the first time she'd fought an Exorcist. It was just the first time she beat one. He was right, though. Why hadn't it burned itself up?
Angel turned to her. "Yeah, that's gonna need a bit of explanation, boss."
"Type Ones were clockwork," Vaggie actually said, taking a break from the hopeless task of unseating her weapon. "Apparently pretty indestructible, but they could only hold a wind up of about two hours. Type Twos used some sort of gas to power them."
"Phlogiston," Charlie said. "They carried glass tanks of it on their backs. Which made them vulnerable to being blown-up. The Type Three was electric, the first one to have an Aethirite Battery. They still use Aethirite Batteries to this day. Just make them smaller and lighter. This must be a transition unit between Three and Four. It's battery is entirely internal, but its halo is just a plasma ring, not a Relay. And it definitely had a Wyrding Engine. But those were debuted in the Fours. Weird."
"So what number are we up to nowadays?" Angel asked.
"Type Sixteens showed up last Purge," Charlie said. And the mess they made was legendary even for a Purge. "But I still don't understand why it was in the Hotel so far away from the Purge?"
"It was inside the bunker," Angel said. "Must'a got carried with it when its mooks tried to bug out, and couldn't punch its way out. Fuck me, that makes this a bigger museum piece than Smiles back there."
"On the plus side," Vaggie said. "You could probably wear its dress."
Charlie just stared at her girlfriend for a moment.
Then she started to laugh.
She laughed, and laughed, at the absurdity of it all, feeling how despair fell before the weight of the weird. Vaggie took Charlie into her arms and gave her a huge hug as the giggling died down. She was right, of course. If they could get that dress off of the Exorcist, it would look pretty good on her. And an entire dress made of Virgin Angel Satin – which not even Stella Goetia could honestly claim – would definitely wipe the smirk off of Helsa's smug, stupid face.
"How could somebody given that big of a gift have done nothing with it?" the tired man asked.
"That is not for me to question," Peter said, scrutinizing the tablet in his lap. "Mine is to make a judgment as to the supplicant's nature. The Words of the Dying say that he has done no great and virtuous deed, sparked no movements. Just lived a small and petty life, and died a small and petty death."
"So he's... just... nothing?" the tired man said, actually looking at Sam. "How incredibly disappointing."
"It seems Lutherus, Audiel and Borlaugim will have to wait to gain another brother from their corner of the world," Peter said. "What shall we do with him? By the Words of the Dying, he would be bound for Purgatory. But that is no option in these days. He has not earned Heaven, not by a half."
"Then Hell it will be," the tired man said.
Wait. He was going there because... he wasn't actively good enough? How was that possible? How was that fair?
"You should remove it from him before you cast him down. Leave no weapons for the old Heresiarch to wield," Peter said, seeming to put Sam fully out of mind. The tired man nodded, and moved to where Sam had knelt, hunched over a wound that bled, frozen in time. With a thrust of his arm, the tired man plunged his fist into Sam's chest, ripping out Sam's heart to a burst of blood and gore that stopped moving once the tired man was a minute distance away from it. He held the heart in his hand, heedless of the pained scream that Sam let out, scrutinizing the organ. Then, he sawed the heart open with that nail-file, revealing a tiny, cold, dry white flame in its ventricles. That, he plucked out, palming in one hand, as he shoved the butchered heart back into Sam's body.
"So disappointing," the tired man said, and then shoved Sam straight back via a kick to the chest. And Sam began to fall. As he fell, he felt his body burning away, all that he was searing as he plummeted, and he howled in pain, in indignation. In rage. Even as he fell, the outrage that he had spent his entire lifetime tamping down, curtailing, and trying to ignore, it was painfully close to the surface now. He had tried. He tried his best in a world that didn't want him and apparently that wasn't enough. How dare they?
"Why didn't you check your angle!" a foreign voice cut in on Sam's plummeting.
"He was clear! We should have gotten him, and we would have if YOU hadn't screwed up!"
"I did exactly what you asked!" the voices were so indistinct. Talking over each other. Blurring together.
"Don't talk to him with that tone!"
"Don't you talk to me about tone! That moron has doomed us all! And I've had enough. No more. I'm done. We... are done."
"Don't walk away from me!"
"You aren't leaving until we find some way to get back into–"
A meaty thock.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
"Don't. Ever. Stand in my way again. We've lost. We might as well admit it. I will. I'll see you both in hell."
Sam's eyes snapped open, to a sensation of incredible nausea. He tilted to a side, spitting out a throat's worth of bile. He couldn't see. There was something over his eyes.
"Easy there," Apoc's voice came, muffled, to Sam's ears. "You took a bad hit. But you're going to be alright.
"I..." Sam tried to speak, but his mouth felt desert-dry.
"Got into a fight with an Exorcist, and lost. And survived," Apoc said. He felt a hand on his shoulder for a moment. "Rest. Get some sleep. You need your strength. Tomorrow we can talk."
Sam wanted to argue with him, but he felt that hundredweight of fatigue dragging him down, pulling him back into the black pits of horrible sleep. He said no more, and did nothing but shift an arm slightly under what felt like a heavy blanket. When he dreamed, he dreamt of disappointment, and a long, long fall.
You wanna go far in Hell, kid? Simple as anythin'. You just pick your spot, and you gat any muthafucka who comes at you. Find your clan, and have their backs, no matta' what. Everybody's got a 'kind' out there, so you betta' find yours. Stick to your kind. Stay in your lane. And we might just survive this.
-Angel Dust, during the Twenty Second Siege of North Pentagram City