Dark Day Bright Hour

A hitman and the innocent woman he tried to rescue from drowning find themselves in Hell—him, because he belongs there and she because of a clerical error. Lucifer gives them a sporting chance to escape eternal damnation, but they only have a guardian angel and a crossroads demon as an escort—and those two have an unfortunate history.

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Derek’s been secretly storing up power for millennia, because he wants revenge on everyone on his list—and it’s a very long list.

But as a low-level crossroads demon, his chances of success are pretty much zero. Now he’s stuck escorting three idiots through Hell: a condemned hitman, a choir girl cast into the Pit by a clerical error, and her guardian angel—with whom Derek has a history, thanks very much.

With an infernal rebellion looming, along with a premature Armageddon, the black and withered thing Derek used to call a conscience rears its stupid head. Now he has a choice…

Rescue friends he never thought he’d have from a boss he never thought he’d defy. Or let it all burn and dance in the ashes.

Hitmen rarely die of old age, and I was no exception. The universe, however, has senses of both humor and irony, and the job didn’t kill me. I cashed in my chips committing a selfless act of attempted heroism.

No, really.

The little silver sedan careened out of control down the street, almost running me over in a crosswalk. Horns honked, people screamed, and it headed heedlessly right for the bridge railing. The driver lolled unconscious in her seatbelt, and I had time to think “oh, shit” before the car smashed through the barrier and down into the river raging below.

Peeling out of my jacket and stripping off my tie, I chased it down and dove in. I missed the rocks, which I’d forgotten about, but the river didn’t care that I was trying to save a life and bounced me off a few anyway. I clenched my teeth and held my breath and kicked toward the car. It lay on its side, driver’s door facing up. The airbag had inflated, but the woman was still out cold–or dead. I couldn’t tell the difference at that point.

I grabbed the side mirror, but the river still tried to tear me away, so I braced a foot in the downstream wheel well. The door wouldn’t yield to my yank on the handle; the locks had held, much to my consternation. I pulled my Colt 1911 out of its shoulder holster and banged on the window until it broke. The river swept the shards away–

Which was when the tire turned, taking my leg with it and pinning my foot between the rim and the inner wheel well.

I nearly gasped before I remembered what a lousy decision that would be. The lady still lay unconscious, and I shook her shoulder, hard, before turning back to my own dilemma as my air busily ran out. I aimed my gun at the wheel, surprised when it fired and the tire deflated a little.

It didn’t actually help. Instead, the current now had enough leverage to shove my foot further into the suspension, so I was stuck worse than before. Cursing inwardly, lungs screeching for oxygen, I tried and failed to pull out of my shoe. Next time, I thought wildly, I’ll kick them off first.

Mocking laughter filled my head. I needed to breathe, needed it in the worst way, but if I did that I’d drow–

Autonomic functions were a bitch.

✽✽✽

Honestly, I didn’t expect to wake up. Or, at least, if I did wake up, it would be in a nice comfy hospital bed with tubes and IVs and beeping machines.

Instead, I found myself at the end of a line of terrified people standing over broken and bubbling obsidian that stretched from here to eternity. Lava glowed red-hot through the cracks, and the stench of death and rotting eggs permeated the air while black stormclouds roiled overhead. Huge horned entities armed with pitchforks made sure we moved right along. They sported bat wings and needle teeth and looked exactly like you’d expect demons to look–goat legs and all.

I had to be dreaming. Or nightmaring. This couldn’t be real. It was way too Dante.

“Seriously?” The voice came from behind me, and the woman from the car popped into being.

Neither of us appeared to have just drowned. My black suit pants and white dress shirt were both pressed and dry, shoulder holster still strapped across my chest. The gun was missing, however, along with my jacket and tie.

Her hair fell in dark auburn waves down her back, and her hazel eyes were wide but not frightened. A dusting of freckles decorated a straight, no-nonsense nose, and her makeup was so understated as to be more of a touch-up job than anything else. She wore a pair of faded jeans and a blue checkered button-down, with a pair of multicolored running shoes protecting her feet from the lava boiling under us. No wedding band, but a Celtic knot ring on her right middle finger, a bracelet watch, and a pair of… were those pig earrings? They were, pink with googly eyes, nearly incongruous dangling from her ears in this place.

The voice wasn’t hers, however.

It belonged to the angel beside her. He, too, looked almost exactly like you’d expect, except for his clothing and the lack of a halo. He wore a tight-fitting black t-shirt that did nothing to hide impressive muscles, chocolate-chip fatigue pants, and desert combat boots. His gold-tipped white wings spread and bristled in an obvious threat display. A sword shone in his right hand, and a leather cord tied his long black hair back. Clear brown eyes surveyed the landscape and found it wanting.

“This is a mistake,” he said.

A demon loped over to us, and the angel put himself between the creature and the woman. “Why, Zeeviel,” the demon leered, brandishing a pitchfork. “What is one of the Host doing down here amongst the wicked?”

“Protecting my Charge from what appears to be a rather egregious clerical error, Babur,” the angel replied. His unwavering blade pointed at the demon’s throat. I had to admire his guts; he was surrounded by enemies and sassing them anyway. His head turned, and his gaze made me feel about two inches tall when it speared me.

“I remember you. You tried to save her.”

“I’m not sure it did me much good in the long run,” I said, cringing away from both him and the demon.

Zeeviel’s mouth twisted. “Well, Anthony, a decade and a half of unrepented murder will do that to a soul.”

“Those were business.” My default defense whenever anyone brought up how I made my living. It seemed pitifully inadequate in the face of… this.

“That doesn’t actually make it better.” He nodded at my hands, and I recoiled, realizing they were covered in dripping blood. The woman let out a little yelp and stepped back. Zeeviel tilted his head and frowned. “Well. How curious.”

“What?” I frantically wiped them on my pants, but all that did was smear it.

He waved his hand, and the blood disappeared. “None of that was innocent blood.”

“Well, no.” Color me relieved to have it gone. “I’m a hitman, not a monster. Was. A hitman. I had my principles.”

“And what were those, exactly?” the woman asked.

“No families. No women or kids. And they knew better than to ask me.” Not that it seemed to have helped, because here I was. Babur grinned and snapped his teeth at me.

But Zeeviel assumed a stance and glared. “I’m feeling protective toward this one. He did try to save Winifred.”

“I don’t remember,” she said.

“You were unconscious.” He sighed. “It was a particularly bad time for a diabetic coma. That being said, you are of the Redeemed and do not belong in this place.”

“We’ll see about that,” the demon said, and reached for her–

Only to yank his hand back as if she’d burned it. Zeeviel smiled, a malicious expression somewhat out of place on his angelic features. “You cannot touch her, Hellspawn. Even here.”

Babur growled. “Then I suppose you ought to go to the head of the line and get her gone. I can only imagine what sorts of shenanigans she’d get up to were she to stay.”

“Indeed. I’m glad we’re of one accord. Come, Winifred.”

She flinched, minutely. “Could you not call me that? My friends call me Freddi.”

“As you wish.” He turned an assessing gaze to me. “Anthony should accompany us as well.”

Babur lifted his pitchfork. “This one is ours, little brother, and well do you know it.”

Zeeviel made a thoughtful noise, tilting his head. “You are not wrong. And yet I want him along. He attempted to save my Charge and I’m kindly disposed toward him.” His chin came up, just a fraction. So did his sword. “Do you wish to dispute me?”

The demon snorted. “I will enjoy seeing your expression when you must leave him here in torment anyway.”

“I’m sure. Where do we go?”

“Lucifer’s Tower.” Babur pointed. “Beyond admissions in the center of the city.” He let out a shrill whistle that burned my bones. “You will require an escort to keep you from trouble. Or to keep trouble from you, as the case may be.”

He hadn’t been there, and then he was–a very human-looking being whom I knew instinctively was a demon, even though he was carefully coiffed and dressed in an Armani suit that cost as much as what I got paid in two months. His hair was slicked back, and a diamond gleamed in his left earlobe. Two tiny yellow horns stuck out of his forehead, and a calculated scruff decorated his chin. He offered us a smirk that combined used-car salesman with shark. All predator.

“Well, well, well. Not often one of the feathered set graces us with his presence.” His voice was bitter, astringent, and mocking. “Down slumming among the damned, Zeeviel?”

A blink-and-you’d-miss-it expression of deep pain crossed Zeeviel’s face before he glowered. “Just caring for my Charge, Derek, something you know nothing about and yet should.”

Breezy and insolent. “Once I sew them up at a crossroads, they’re not my responsibility anymore. That’s your problem, Zeevi, you get too attached for your own good and then end up, well, here.” He eyed Freddi up and down in a frankly filthy manner, and I bristled. “But I can see why you like this one. She’s a cutie.”

Freddi’s lip curled. “You can try to touch me and see how cute you think I am afterwards,” she said.

“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you. But I’m not dumb enough to try. Yet.” The word was imbued with promise, and I scowled.

“And you,” Derek continued, turning his attention to me. “Thinking you can actually do anything to harm me. It’s adorable.”

“Escort them to Lucifer’s tower, Derek,” Babur said. “Make sure they arrive relatively unscathed.”

Derek waved a theatrical arm at me. “Are you kidding? This one clearly wants to punch me. He turns that look on any of our less-tolerant brothers, and they will eat him. Slowly.”

“Well, then.” The other demon’s smile wasn’t one. “Give him a weapon. Allow him to defend himself.”

“Give a weapon. To the meatsack,” Derek said flatly. “One that will work down here. You don’t ask much, do you, bro.”

Babur lifted an eyebrow. “Everyone knows you collect all manner of things, little brother. Crossroads demons are inveterate packrats. I’m sure you have something suitable.”

Derek rolled his eyes, and an enormous .45 revolver fashioned of antique brass and dark wood appeared in the flat of his hand. Engraved filigree decorated the barrel, and an esoteric symbol had been burned into the grips.

Reluctantly, Derek offered it to me. “Never needs reloading, with enough stopping power for anything short of one of the Princes of the Seven Deadlies.” He raised a finger. “Don’t lose it, because I’ll want it back at the end of this stupid adventure. I assume you know how to use it.”

The gun fit my hand like it was made for me, and tucked right into my shoulder holster. “Yes. I know how to use it,” I said, blinking. “Thank you.”

“Don’t–!” Zeeviel rubbed his forehead. Could an angel get a headache? He looked like he was developing one. “Now you owe him, Anthony. One of the currencies of Hell is favors.”

Derek’s smile was sharp and feral and not at all friendly. “Well, he’s stuck down here anyway. Bound to happen sooner or later.”

“And you will no doubt pick the most inconvenient time possible to collect.”

Derek spread his hands, and the smile stretched to a grin. “Yes, and? Demon, hello.”

“Don’t make me hit you again,” Zeeviel said between his teeth. “Because I will.”

“You might not like the results this time, Zeevi.” Derek had to know his smile was infuriating. “You’re on our ground now, and it’s best to tread lightly on it.”

“Maybe we should start,” Freddi said quickly. “How long will this take, anyway?”

“An eternity encompassed in the blink of an eye,” Derek answered. Off her exasperated look, he continued, “Time is meaningless down here. It takes as long as it takes. Not like you have to eat or sleep, and you wouldn’t like the food anyway. It’s terrible.” He turned and set off down the line, and we trailed behind him like ducklings while the rest of the people watched with varying degrees of envy.

A bald and liver-spotted old man with his mouth pulled into a permanent frown stepped out of the line. “Hey! How come they get to go ahead of us? We were here first.”

He barely got out the last word when Babur–without hesitation–speared him through the chest with the pitchfork and lifted him into the air while he let out a high-pitched scream of abrupt agony and terror. A roasting pit materialized on the cracked obsidian, complete with a spit. While we all watched, frozen to the spot, the demon rammed the spit all the way through the old man from mouth to tailbone and set him across the coals, yanking his pitchfork out with no regard for the fact that it was barbed.

The old man’s screams became inarticulate animal sounds as Babur casually turned the spit over the flames, poking him with the pitchfork to make him bleed. A few moments later, he sliced into the man’s abdomen and came out with his liver, which he ate in just a few bites, with much satisfaction.

“Anyone else want to complain about how we do things down here?” There was general and frantic headshaking all around.

My stomach tied itself in a knot. Freddi turned green. Zeeviel’s lips tightened, and his knuckles whitened around his sword.

Derek made a face. “Like I said. The food is terrible. Let’s go.”

We started on our way again, and I asked Zeeviel, “Why didn’t you stop him?”

The angel frowned, and his wings slumped. “This is not my place. The people here chose their fate, and it’s not for me to step in and mitigate their just recompense.”

“You’re saying he deserved that?” I swallowed hard and wondered exactly what I deserved.

“That or something very like it.”

“Hey, at least he got to skip the line,” Derek piped up.

Freddi was still green. “Is he going to spend eternity that way?”

“Eh, probably not. Babur’s just having his brand of fun.”

“Oh, good,” she said, relieved.

“His eternal fate is probably much worse.”

Her face fell, and he let us chew on that as we walked with him in silence. The reek of the place was nearly overpowering, a miasma of spoiled meat and rotting eggs and burning hair. I decided it was a good thing we didn’t need to eat, because otherwise my appetite would be nonexistent. Freddi stayed closer to Zeeviel than she strictly needed to, and I unholstered the gun. Every sound put me on more of an edge as we approached the beginning of the line, which culminated in an enormous desk in front of a gate fashioned from human bones.

The single demon seated behind it wore a green visor and wire-rimmed glasses, and he turned from a giant stack of paper to scrutinize our group over the bridge of his nose. “Keep them out of trouble, Derek.”

I tilted my head. “You already know about us?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, “of course I got the lowdown on this little jaunt of yours. Hell is meticulous about our paperwork.” A snort. “More meticulous than Heaven, if she’s any indication.”

Zeeviel glowered. “Don’t you mock the Lord, Hellspawn.”

“I would never.” He tried for an innocent look and failed utterly. “The paper-pushers and bureaucrats, however, deserve my full and unstinting scorn.”

“And what of you?” Zeeviel said.

“I’m actually good at my job and don’t lose people.” He made a shooing motion, like we were annoying insects he wanted to be rid of. “The gate will open for you. Tower’s in the middle of the city. Don’t get lost. You won’t like it if you get lost.” He turned back to the line and hollered, “Next!”

I didn’t like anything about this place, but it seemed impolitic to say so. Derek led us through the enormous gate that guarded the city. A shiver passed through me as we crossed the threshold into Hell itself, and the enormity of my situation hit home.

Living with the Mob, you learned to cover your emotions. “Why does Hell need a wall?” I asked, deflecting.

“To keep the riffraff out,” Derek said. It should have come across as flippant, but somehow didn’t. “There are worse things in Heaven and Earth and even Hell, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Great, a demon that spouted Shakespeare. Freddi moved closer to Zeeviel. “Worse than demons?” she asked.

“Oh, honey, you have no idea. Sometimes a sucker in the line makes a run for it. We let them. They don’t get far, and no one ever sees them again. We hear them, though. For a long, long time.”

She grimaced. “This place sucks.”

“Well, yes.” Derek rolled his eyes. “That’s kind of the point. Our loving Father–” he practically spat the word, imbuing it with all the venom of a large and pissed-off cobra. “–made sure it would be this way. If Hell was a vacation on the beach, why would anyone want to go Upstairs?”

I craned my neck like a tourist. This close to the gate, Hell was an inner-city slum, filled with enormous rats and ominous shadows. Things stirred within the shadows, or maybe they stirred the shadows. It was hard to tell. The sidewalks and streets were crumpled and empty of life, other than the rats, and dust devils swirled detritus between the buildings.

Doors hung open, and most of the windows were broken out. “Does anyone live here?” Freddi’s voice was hushed, like she was afraid someone would hear her.

She was answered with a scream, as a naked man bolted from one of the buildings and ran down the street like his ass was on fire. On a second look, it was. A demon followed him, in a leisurely fashion, armed with a crossbow. It fired, and the bolt thudded between the man’s shoulder blades, trailing a rope that the demon used to reel him in like a large and struggling trout.

My gorge rose again. “How is he still moving?” I asked. “Shouldn’t that have severed his spine?”

“What, and make it so he couldn’t feel his torment?” Derek said. “You don’t have a physical body anymore, Anthony. The pain inflicted here is on the spirit.”

Zeeviel’s knuckles were white on his sword. “And yet, some are punished more than their sins warrant.” The man writhed on the ground while the laughing demon beat him with a thorny branch. Chittering rats gathered and licked at the blood spatter.

Derek snorted bitterly. “And why should Heaven care? They’ve been given over to Hell to do as we will, Zeevi. That their suffering is more than some arbitrary deity not involved in the process warrants? Is of little concern to those of us who were tossed out of the Presence. It’s not like He can rebuke us more.”

“Maybe He can’t.” My arm rose, nearly of its own volition, and aimed the gun at the demon torturing the wretch, whose screams had been reduced to snuffling whimpers. “But I can.”

“Anthony, what are you–”

I didn’t wait for Derek to finish. The trigger had a nice smooth action, and the gun kicked much less than I expected for such a large weapon. It made a satisfyingly loud BOOM, however, and blew a satisfyingly enormous hole in the demon’s chest. The creature staggered and stared at the wound in shock, dropping the branch and falling to his knees before dissolving into a puddle of black goo.

Freddi blinked. Derek facepalmed. And Zeeviel grinned, possibly for the first time since we’d shown up here.

“Did you kill him?” Freddi asked.

I didn’t actually know, and we looked to Derek. “No,” he said into his hand. “I said stopping power, not killing power. But you smited him pretty good and he’ll be pissed when he makes it out of the Lake.”

Zeeviel’s chin came up. “He will not find us sleeping.”

“I’ll shoot him again if he comes after us.” I jerked my chin at the poor guy on the ground, who hardly seemed human at this point. Maybe he wasn’t anymore. “What about him?”

Derek made a show of looking around. “Stunningly enough, still in Hell.”

A different demon–I was beginning to be able to tell them apart, and wasn’t sure how I felt about that–skulked out of the building. He threw a startled glance at Zeeviel and picked the moaning man up like he didn’t weigh anything, tucking him under one arm and tossing a sloppy salute our way before going back inside.

Derek made a pensive noise while I holstered the gun. “At least Carrabius will mete out fair punishment, unlike Aziguth. So I suppose you did a good thing here, Anthony.” One eyebrow lowered. “You probably shouldn’t make a habit of it.”

I wondered what “fair” punishment would entail and decided not to ask. “I’m not sure you’re the boss of me, and you don’t look to be in the torment business.”

“I’m not, on either count.” He shrugged. “Just some friendly advice. On your head be it.”

Freddi snorted. “Friendly advice. From a demon.”

“Hey, I have to live down here too. If it gets around that I’m with a guy who’s messing with the natural order of things, my life, such as it is, will get difficult.” He bared his teeth, which were sharp and pointy, and all the more disturbing for being in an ostensibly human mouth. “If my life gets difficult, I will take it out on the person making it so.”

“Your natural order of things is appalling, for the record,” I said.

“Well, yes, Anthony. We. Are. In. Hell. In case you missed the memo.”

“But you said yourself that the guy was being punished more than he deserved. So I put the order of things back where they belonged. Theoretically.”

“You think Earth politics are bad? You should see the jostling for position we go through.” He shook his head. “There’s a reason I spend most of my time in crossroads instead of here.”

“You mean, other than your own bitterness making you wish to corrupt as many of Father’s people as possible?” Zeeviel said, with a certain amount of bite.

“He’s the one who tossed me out on my ass, brother. You can’t blame me for wanting to get some of my own back.”

“I most certainly can. No one Falls by accident, and you knew what you were getting into when you decided to follow the preposterous rantings of an utter fool.”

Derek flinched. “For Dad’s sake, Zeevi, would you keep your voice down? Lucifer has ears everywhere, and he would love to have your wings as a trophy for his wall. If you don’t trust anything else I say, trust me when I say he wouldn’t hesitate.”

“Well do I know the Morningstar’s proclivities, Derek.” Zeeviel looked tired. “I wish–” He stopped. “Well. Wishes change nothing. We must deal with what is.” The tired expression turned a little belligerent. “And what is, is that I love you still because you are my brother and always will be.”

“Daddy didn’t see fit to love me enough to–” Derek snorted and grimaced, shaking his head. “Tell Him that. Or is that something you’re permitted to say aloud Upstairs?”

“We are not forbidden to love, even to love those who have rejected Heaven and all it stands for. Father created us to do so, after all. That you have turned your back on it makes me love you no less, for that would be its own form of disobedience.”

“Pretty words. We’ll see how much weight they hold when this little shoving contest between Principalities and Powers down here becomes all-out war, and you’re stuck in the middle of it with your Charge.”

“War?” Freddi said. “Will it really come to that? Before I leave?”

“There are rumblings. Divisions into factions. That bastard Anthony smited is on one side. The one who took over from him is on the other.” Derek shrugged. “Nothing overt yet, because no one wants their own liver eaten, but mutterings of discontent.”

“Which side are you on?” she asked.

He scoffed. “My own, of course.”

As we walked, the neighborhood became more upscale, the buildings less crumbled, and demons more in evidence. Many of them had leashed and whimpering humans in tow, yanking them along by collars that were spiked on the inside. The rats were replaced by packs of enormous black… dogs, for want of a better word, many of which were more the size of ponies and weighed a good four hundred pounds or more. Their fur was matted, their eyes glowed malevolent red, and rather than four fangs like a normal dog, their mouths were filled with them, dripping saliva that smoked when it hit the ground. Some of them had three heads.

One aimed a vicious snap at a human, who fell to the sidewalk, thrashing and screaming with a burning chunk taken out of his leg. The demon holding his leash laughed and kicked the man with an enormous cloven hoof–I heard ribs crunch even from where I was standing–and then dragged him along the street.

None of the other humans reacted at all, which I found odd. “Oh, they can’t see each other,” Derek said. “Once they get through the line and come through the gate, all they experience is us.”

“But,” I sputtered. “Freddi and I can see each other. And them.”

“You have a special dispensation and are accompanied by my not-Fallen brother. She is Redeemed, so the rules are different for her.”

My mouth twisted. “So, what happens to me when Zeeviel leaves with Freddi?”

Derek huffed. “I would imagine that you lose your nice clothes and end up like, well, the rest of the damned. More or less.”

I shuddered. To be utterly alone, isolated forever, with only demons for dubious company, was a nightmare scenario come to life. “And there’s no chance–”

“Anthony.” Zeeviel’s voice was filled with both impatience and pity. “You grew up Catholic. You’ve known practically since the cradle that murder is wrong, and you continued on your way regardless. What did you think would happen when you died? You’ve read your Dante, have you not? He wasn’t so far off, at least in the spirit of the matter.”

“I only killed bad people,” I muttered. He’d said it himself; none of the blood I’d shed was innocent. I guessed I was damned anyway.

“We haven’t even gotten to the awful parts yet,” Derek said helpfully, and waved a dramatic arm. “Behold, Lucifer’s Tower.”

We were still a couple of miles away from the building, but it was easy to see. It stuck up, a straight black obelisk, at least twice as tall as the surrounding buildings. I squinted and frowned, because something just seemed… off, about it. It wasn’t as straight as it appeared at first glance. The angles where the corners met didn’t quite square, the window frames skewed, and the physics of the thing were subtly out of whack. My eyes tried to make sense of the architecture, but without success. The more I looked, the wronger it got.

The peaked roof sucked light into itself–not that Hell had a lot of ambient light to begin with, and most of that was tinted red or a sickly greenish-yellow. A shiver started at the back of my neck and trickled down my back to my toes and out my fingertips.

“Okay, ew,” Freddi said, giving voice to what I was thinking. “Creepy. That thing is just creepy.”

“Oh, good, then its work here is done.” Derek set off down the street again, leading us toward it. “You might want to put your sword away, Zeevi. Lucifer doesn’t allow overt weaponry in his Tower.”

Zeeviel shook his head. “We’re not in the Tower yet, so I think I’ll hang on to it.”

The gun was in my hand without me being conscious of how it got there. Derek snapped his teeth. “Feeling a little threatened, Anthony? You’ll have to leave that outside as well, once we arrive. The no-weapons policy applies to humans too.”

“How often do humans even go there?” Freddi asked.

“The Morningstar doesn’t usually hold personal audiences with new arrivals, nor does he keep old ones around for amusement. But you, and by extension Anthony, are a special case, so he’s making an exception. I would very much appreciate it if you three don’t get my liver eaten.”

“There you go again with the liver bit,” Freddi said. “You’re a demon. Do you even have a liver?”

“I have a figurative liver, which will hurt me just as much, if Lucifer decides to skewer it and cook it in front of me, as it would you.” He started walking again.

I stuffed the gun back in the holster. My feet dragged a little, not particularly wanting to take me to meet the Prince of Darkness face-to-face.

Derek stopped and gave me a look. “You should be honored by the opportunity to meet him, Anthony. Not many humans actually get up close and personal with the Morningstar.”

“What about all that ‘sell your soul to the devil’ stuff? Don’t people meet him then?”

Derek laughed. “That’s ‘sell your soul to a devil,’ and it’s generally someone like me. Lucifer is the Sovereign of Hell. He delegates.” A sigh. “That being said, I don’t particularly like spending time down here myself, and if you’re going to be this slow, maybe I should expedite the process. I can move us there without all this tiresome walking.”

“Well, why didn’t you just do that to begin with?” Zeeviel retorted. “I mislike my Charge staying one moment longer than she must, and I cannot move about Below as I’m used to on Earth.”

“Because I can’t touch her, and I figured an angel of the Lord wouldn’t want to sully himself by touching the likes of me in order to be a conduit between us.” Derek’s lips tightened. “And demonic transport is hard on humans.”

“How hard?” I asked suspiciously.

“There might be some vomiting and vertigo involved, but nothing serious. It’s just unpleasant, not, ha, fatal.” He eyed Freddi sideways. “Chickie-poo here might not even feel it, being all Redeemed and shit.”

“What about me? I mean, I’m in no hurry.” I wasn’t sanguine about what would happen to me after Zeeviel and Freddi left, and I wanted to delay it as long as possible.

Derek had other ideas. “Oh, you’d feel it, no doubt, but I don’t think anyone here is too worried about that. Zeevi and Freddi want out, and I’m a demon.”

A pair of gigantic bat wings sprouted from his back, unfurling over our heads in a hideous display of purplish black leather. The joint was clawed, along with the tip, and the claws dripped venom. I took a startled stumble back and yelped, and Freddi stepped closer to Zeeviel, whose own wings bristled in response.

The angel pointed at Derek. With his sword. “If you even try to injure my Charge–”

“Yes, yes, impalement, smiting, Lake of Fire, blah blah blah.” Derek grabbed me, and I might have yelped again. “Are we doing this or what?”

“Don’t I get a vote?” I protested.

Zeeviel wrapped a wing around Freddi and took Derek’s hand. “I’m afraid not.”

Derek’s wings swept forward. A nauseating sense of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time, along with ghostly, mocking laughter and an increase in Hell’s unique stench assaulted my senses. It lasted an eternity of an instant, and when we came back into the world, I fell to my hands and knees and threw up into the gutter in front of Lucifer’s Tower.

When my outraged stomach finished turning itself inside out, I knelt there for a few moments, catching my breath. Freddi crouched beside me and brushed my hair out of my face, and I shot her a grateful look and leaned into the touch. The move hadn’t affected her at all, or Zeeviel either.

I raised my head to find Derek’s wings vanished. “My Sovereign awaits us,” he said, with a grand gesture at the building, which wasn’t any better up close than it had been from miles away.

Worse, in fact. Designs were etched into the stone facing that no human should ever have looked upon, images devised to drive men mad. Mind-bending abstracts comprised the bulk, but wrong in the same fundamental way the building itself was. I tore my gaze away from them before I started drooling.

The front doors were a glass version of the gate to the city, carved and polished to resemble clear bones. I expected them to creak eerily, but they opened without a sound at Derek’s mere touch, which was somehow more unnerving than if they’d screeched at us.

A demon sat behind a high desk in the lobby, filing his talons with a rasp and sneering. “If it isn’t Derek the Cockroach and his merry band of misfits. You are expected. Leave your weapons and go on up.”

“Charming as always, Valafax. Do you practice that in the mirror every morning?” Derek held his hand out for my gun, and I reluctantly gave it to him. Zeeviel’s sword vanished, and his wings bristled and fluttered with obvious discomfort. He was outsized and outmuscled here, however, and no doubt thought it best to pick his battles. Derek set the gun ostentatiously on the desk, and we walked past dark-paneled walls across an echoing white marble floor. Chandeliers of bone graced the high ceiling, and the artwork on the walls, if you could call it that, depicted acts of graphic and bloody depravity. Freddi kept her eyes firmly downcast.

I wasn’t sure that helped, because the floor was patterned too, the same not-quite-abstracts as the outer wall of the building. The entire place was clearly designed to be as unsettling as possible to humans, none of whom besides us were in evidence. The doors on the elevator bank were disturbingly disproportionate to the dimensions of the rest of the building, too tall, too narrow, and with not-quite-square corners.

A unmelodic chime told us the elevator arrived. The doors opened on an interior that was almost too normal by the standards of the rest of the building, right down to the “music” playing over the hidden speaker. Derek pushed a button not numbered in any language I was familiar with, and the elevator began a smooth ascent.

Zeeviel twitched uncomfortably. “I truly dislike being trapped in an enclosed space, unarmed, in enemy territory,” he said. “It is the perfect place for an ambush.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it on the way up,” Derek answered. “Lucifer wants to see you, so you’re safe until he’s done. No one would dare countermand his orders in his own lair.”

“So you say. You will pardon me if I’m less than sanguine, I hope.”

“What does Lucifer look like?” Freddi asked.

Derek gave her that unpleasant smile. “Wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.”

“Which is to say he looks however he wishes to look for whatever audience he’s playing to,” Zeeviel said. “None of us are locked into our forms; such would be counterproductive for the work we’re tasked.”

Derek looked him up and down. “Your current form is very… stalwart, Zeevi. It smacks of overcompensation.”

Zeeviel crossed his arms and gave him a slow eyebrow lift. “Don’t push me, Derek. That has never gone well for you.”

“You’re on our ground now.” Derek bared his teeth. “And I’m tougher than I look, as well you know.”

“Can we not?” Freddi said. “I get that you two are caught in the ugliest family feud in history, but I don’t want to be stuck in an elevator with it, if it’s all the same to everyone.” She glared. “Stand down, both of you.”

“Oooh, she’s fiery, Zeevi, I see why you like her.”

“Don’t make me hit you,” she said. “I have the feeling you wouldn’t like it if I do.”

“No, ma’am, I wouldn’t. But then the Morningstar would have to send a cleanup crew to the elevator, and he’d be cranky about that.” Derek tilted his head. “You wouldn’t like him when he’s cranky. I don’t know if he can touch you. But he can certainly touch Anthony and Zeevi, if you care.”

“So how about we all stand down and try to get along?” I said. “None of us wants to be here. There’s solidarity in that, at least. And maybe, if we’re going to meet the friggin’ Prince of Darkness, we should have a semi-united front.”

The elevator chose that opportune moment for another discordant ding and opened its doors. The anteroom confronting us was opulent, with red and white velvet-chased wallpaper, plush crimson carpeting we sank into at every step, and hand-painted wainscoting that was beautiful until I looked too closely and ended up recoiling in horror instead. The frescos up here were far worse than the ones in the lobby. Looking at the wallpaper brought no relief, because the same eye- and mind-bending patterns on the outside walls had followed us in.

The ceiling had a scene painted on it too, and I barely glanced at it before tearing my gaze away to look at the carpet instead. What was it, I wondered, about Hell’s penchant for wallowing in gruesome scenes? Didn’t they get tired of being surrounded by work-related art all the time? I sure would.

The door into what was no doubt Lucifer’s Inner Sanctum–ha–was dark, thick, and heavy, with antique brass strapping and fittings. The demon guarding it had an attitude that matched his downstairs compatriot. He crossed heavy-muscled arms across a broad chest and regarded us acidly, but Derek didn’t turn a hair. “Hi, Moleshior. We’re supposed to see Lucifer, so be a good minion and let us in.”

Moleshior’s lip curled, but he didn’t say anything. He opened the door and stood aside with a mocking bow.

Freddi and Zeeviel marched in like they owned the place, Derek gave him a wide berth, and I sort of scuttled after them and tried not to be noticed. When the door shut with a solid and final boom behind us, I flinched.

If the anteroom was opulent, the throne room was palatial. The crimson carpeting continued inside, but it shared a checkerboard pattern with the marble from downstairs. The ceiling was four stories high, and a window overlooking all of Hell comprised three entire walls. Lucifer’s seat of power rested upon a raised platform up half a dozen curved steps. The throne itself was carved of bone-inlaid mahogany and other rare woods, with a pair of grinning human skulls decorating the uprights. Luxurious padding covered in snow leopard fur graced the thing where padding would be most appropriate, and Lucifer himself…

I involuntarily hit my knees. Derek was already on his beside me, his forehead pressed to the floor, though Freddi and Zeeviel stood straight and tall. The Morningstar was the most inhumanly beautiful and horrifically splendid being I’d ever seen, and my eyes kept sliding away like they couldn’t look upon him for long. I think I squeaked. Amusement quirked his lips as he gazed down at me before turning his attention to the others.

“What an interesting development,” he said. “Little brother, you really should kneel to your betters.”

“When I see one of my betters in this place, then will I kneel,” Zeeviel answered. His voice was steady, his chin up, and his attitude held no deference at all to a being whom I was sure could snuff him out, casually, with a snap of his fingers.

Lucifer sniffed and turned his attention to Freddi. “And you.”

“Get thee behind me,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Because suddenly, there he was, behind her, closer than I ever wanted a demon to be to me. His wings snapped open and unfurled, and they belonged to no mere bat; they were dragony and hideous and positively dwarfed Zeeviel’s. Lucifer reached a clawed hand for Freddi’s arm–

And pulled back, hissing, as the odor of burnt flesh filled the air.

She smiled sweetly at him. “Yes. I’m sure.”

So even he couldn’t touch her. I found that knowledge heartening, but Lucifer seemed annoyed. He strode up the stairs to his throne and flumped down on it, hooking his leg over the arm and drumming his fingers on his thigh. “You do realize that no one has ever escaped Hell.”

“I’m not surprised,” she said. “But I also realize I’m not supposed to be here, and the bare fact of me messes up some kind of balance for you. So it’s in your best interests to get me gone as soon as possible.”

“I’ll decide what my best interests are, little miss.” He smiled at her, all predator. “The longer you remain, the more chance there is to corrupt you and get you to renounce that so-fragile faith you humans have. Since you’re here, it’s not too late, even now.”

Zeeviel’s lips tightened, and Lucifer turned that smile to him. “Oh, you don’t like that, do you, little brother, but you know it’s true. Your Charge may be Redeemed, but we can change that, yes we can. As for you,” he said to me, and I gulped audibly.

“I’ve taken him under my protection, Lucifer,” Zeeviel said. “I’ll thank you to leave him there.”

“How amusing. He is mine and will always be mine, no matter what happens to this one.” A gesture at Freddi. “His fate is decided and he is exactly where he belongs.” His face hardened. “And your ‘protection’ means exactly diddly and squat in this place.”

Zeeviel didn’t waver, and I was grateful. “Nevertheless.”

“Well, then. Let him accompany you on your journey to the bank of the River Cocytus. If you reach it, you are free to go with her while he stays. Watching you leave with the knowledge that he is trapped here, alone and bereft, for all eternity.” He bared his teeth. They did that a lot in Hell, I noticed. “I can think of no more fitting punishment for a man who sent many of his compatriots screaming to this very place.”

It wasn’t an instant handing me off to be tortured. I’d take it. The longer we could delay that particular bit of awfulness, the happier I’d be.

“Derek.” Lucifer sat forward and steepled his fingers. “You were assigned this duty for a reason and will continue to escort them. I am fairly certain that your job on this jaunt goes without saying.”

“Yes, Great One.” Derek’s forehead was still on the floor; he hadn’t looked up. It made me feel a little icky, to be honest, and I forced myself to my feet. Maybe I did belong here, but I didn’t have to bow down. Lucifer wasn’t the boss of me.

At least not yet.

“What happens if we don’t make it?” Freddi asked. “Is there a time limit on this?”

An malevolent smile curled Lucifer’s lips. “Assuming you remain Redeemed, then the boundary between Heaven, Hell, and Earth will thin. Humans will get a glimpse of the unseen world they’re surrounded by, and many of them will be driven mad by the sight. And that will help usher in the End of Days, sooner than planned. No one will like that. Except perhaps me. Because we will be prepared, while Heaven will not. Just keep in mind that the longer you stay, the better the chance is that we can corrupt you, and the more the boundary thins. So, please do take your time.” He flicked a hand impatiently. “Begone.”

I didn’t particularly want to turn my back on him, but Zeeviel spun on his heel and marched out, spine straight and wings bristling, so I followed with Freddi. The angel plucked Derek up by the back of his shirt and hauled him along, and those enormous doors closed behind us with another boom of finality.

My breath whooshed out with relief. “Where’s this river?”

“On the other side of the city.” Derek grimaced. “Getting there is not half the fun, trust me.”

“I trust you as far as Anthony can throw the Morningstar’s throne,” Zeeviel said. “But we appear to be stuck with one another for the nonce.” The elevator welcomed us with a gaping maw, and I stepped in with some trepidation, because Lucifer was the Prince of Lies, right, and who was to say he’d give us safe passage out of his building?

The music was even worse on the way down. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop from Lucifer’s cloven hoof.

But it didn’t, and I was the first one out of the elevator when the doors opened to disgorge us in the lobby. The others followed at a more sedate pace. Maybe this whole situation was wigging me out more than I wanted to admit. None of them seemed affected, and Derek held his hand out. “Valafax, I’ll have my gun back now, please and thank you.”

The demon handed it over with a certain amount of disgruntled reluctance, and Derek gave it to me. I holstered it with a nod of thanks and stumbled toward the front door. Just a few more steps, and I was outside heaving in huge gulps of air.

“Be eased, Anthony.” That was a hand on my back and feathered wings over my head, as Zeeviel gave me what comfort he could.

“Lucifer’s a psychopath,” I managed. Oh, God, I did not want to stay here.

“Well, yes.” That was a new voice. “Falling will do that to an archangel.”

Zeeviel sighed. “Mephistopheles. Must you?”

“It seemed an opportune moment.” The demon’s voice lowered. “Not everyone is pleased with how the Morningstar is running things. Some say the time is ripe for revolution.”

Zeeviel’s palm didn’t quite hit his face, but he rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “So the first rebels are rebelling yet again, and, oh, look, the second in command is leading the charge. Why am I not surprised.” It was a statement, not a question.

Mephistopheles ignored the sarcasm. “I hear you’re heading to the River Cocytus. If you could sound people out along the way, it might go better for the one you’ve taken as your Charge once you leave him.”

“Think we’ll make it, do you?” Zeeviel asked. “Lucifer seemed to think otherwise.”

“Yes, well. If Lucifer would spend more time down here among the rank and file and less time up in his Tower lording it over the rest of us, he might get a better feel for the way things actually operate. For example–” He nodded to Derek. “No one bets against a crossroader unless they’re remarkably stupid. Demons like our Derek have an unerring sense for which way the wind blows, and they wager accordingly. Derek seems to have thrown his lot in with you, so the less foolish among us are lining up for some of that action.” Flexing his wings, he eyed Freddi. “Especially with her flinging all kinds of monkey wrenches into the works.”

“Smart money’s on us?” Zeeviel rubbed his chin.

I wasn’t sure that the smart money was taking the fact that Lucifer had assigned the task to Derek into consideration. I decided not to mention it.

The angel continued, “I suppose that’s encouraging.”

“Only if you play your cards right. The Seven Princes are taking an interest. If you can get them to come over to my side, then cooler heads might prevail at the End–and we can, perhaps, be more reasonable about the whole thing.” Mephistopheles glared around at nothing in particular. “I, for one, would like to avoid a bloodbath.”

“That would be ideal, yes.” Zeeviel pinched the bridge of his nose. “Lucifer is Michael’s meat, but if we can de-fang him before the shooting starts, it’d be better for everyone.”

“Keep it in mind, little brother. That’s all I ask.”

✽✽✽

The direct teleport to Lucifer’s Tower meant that we’d missed a lot of ambience we’d’ve picked up had we walked. I counted that as a blessing in a place that had few of those lying around, because we couldn’t take a shortcut to the river and the full effect was…

Well. Hellish.

 

 

 

Our first encounter with a Prince of the Seven Deadlies was at what resembled, for want of a better description, a sidewalk café, in a neighborhood filled with bars and restaurants–some “upscale” or what passed for such in Hell, and some, well, less so, all with a distinctly orange tinge. A demon so enormously fat I wondered how he walked sat at a table while lesser demons scurried around serving him. Pigs rooted through litter on the street, and flies buzzed everywhere.

I squinted, and shuddered. “Is he eating what I think he’s eating?”

Even as I spoke, he picked a naked woman up by her heel, opened his maw impossibly wide, and dropped her in headfirst and screaming. The screams continued, audible but muffled, while she kicked her way down his throat. A few seconds later, his stomach bulged farther, and took on the appearance of a balloon with a struggling person trapped inside. Impressions of hands, feet, elbows, and finally a face, mouth and eyes wide with terror and pain, pressed against it. He licked his fingers off one by one, and when he finished with the tenth, his belly was smooth again. I swallowed hard.

“Meet Beelzebub, Prince of Gluttony,” Derek said. “While most of us use human souls as currency, he’d rather consume them. On the one hand, it’s a waste. On the other, it gives him more strength than you’d think, at first blush. None of us have decided if it’s a mercy or not, because we haven’t figured out what happens to those souls after he devours them.”

“Any idea which side he’s on in this rebellion?” Freddi asked.

“He’s not much for rocking the boat. He likes things as they are, but it won’t hurt to ask.” Derek paused, then added, “Probably.”

Beelzebub noticed us and laughed. “So the rumors are true. I hardly credited them.”

“Hell is full of incorrigible gossips,” Derek said, “but this time they’re right.”

The Prince of Gluttony beckoned us closer. “Let me have a look at you. Hm.” He shook his head and his smile disappeared. “This bodes ill. She upsets the balance. And you–” He turned the full force of his stare on me. “You should have been given over to one of us right from the start. Little brother,” he said to Zeeviel, “I like not your interference with our affairs.”

“Lucifer himself has given me leave to take my Charges to the River Cocytus.” Zeeviel’s tone was even. “If you have an issue, take it up with him. Unless, of course, you’re thinking of defying the Morningstar.”

“Why, Zeeviel, what a dreadful fibber you are. I did not realize it was given angels to lie.” Beelzebub tsked. “Lucifer has given you leave to try to take your Charges to the river, if I read the memo aright. I misdoubt he will be very upset if all three of you perish in the going.” He rose ponderously from his seat, and I gulped, because he really was enormous, in both height and girth. “And perhaps we should nip this foolishness in the bud before it fairly begins.”

Zeeviel’s chin came up, and his sword appeared in his hand, shining like the sun and driving the darkness before it. Freddi took on a glow of her own and stepped up beside him. Not to be outdone, I pulled the gun from its holster and held it down beside my leg, finger on the trigger instead of beside it, because safety be damned in Hell.

Derek looked from us to Beelzebub and back, heaved a put-upon sigh, and summoned a sword of his own, a curved black blade with a wicked point and a fearsome edge. “You couldn’t have started by pissing off smaller people, Zeevi?” he asked between his teeth.

“My mere presence seems upsetting to s–oof.” This as Zeeviel was tackled from behind by one of Beelzebub’s screeching hangers-on. We’d been surrounded before I realized what was happening, and I berated myself for not paying better attention. I’d have thought that Beelzebub was impressive enough all by himself, but his followers didn’t hesitate to make their displeasure known.

My gun came up and a minion went down, an enormous hole blown in his chest from point-blank range. I shifted aim and fired again, catching other action out of the corner of my eye. Zeeviel rotated as he fell, landing on his back rather than his front, and skewered his attacker on his sword. All Freddi needed to do was touch them to send them writhing to the ground, smoking. Derek didn’t seem all that impressive while he walked along with us, but he was poetry in motion as black blood spattered through the air and imps fell beneath his blade.

Zeeviel rolled to his feet, and the four of us ranged ourselves in a circle, guarding each other’s backs like we’d been doing it all our lives. Only a few other demons were foolish enough to throw themselves against that, and those quickly dissolved into screaming puddles of tar–shot, stabbed, or touched. The smarter ones backed off and let Beelzebub wade in.

Wade he did. His belly hung below his knees, but his legs were like tree trunks and his arms like anacondas. A pair of hideous soot-colored wings sprouted from his back and sent cyclones of air swirling down the street as he flapped them and rose above us. The physics on that shouldn’t have worked–nothing should have been enough to carry his bulk into the air–but things like physics clearly didn’t hold sway in Hell.

He roared and dove, and we scattered out of his way before he had a chance to land in the middle of us. He seemed to be aiming mostly at Zeeviel, who used his sword to counter several dark orange bolts of power flung from taloned hands. He couldn’t stop them all, however, and one slammed into his shoulder, spinning him around; another hit him in the middle of the back, driving him to his hands and knees on the sidewalk. His sword spun away, and I frantically fired round after round at Beelzebub, to no great effect. Then I had my own problems as a trio of pitchfork tines pierced me through my chest from back to front, and a demon yanked me toward him to wrap his arm around my throat from behind.

My legs kicked, and I scrabbled at the arm with one hand as my air was cut off, but quickly realized how useless that was. Instead I aimed over my shoulder with the gun and fired at what I hoped was his face. He let out a shrill shriek and abruptly let go, but I still had a pitchfork problem and dropped to my knees, bleeding and gasping. The other demons had grown new respect for my weapon, and they gave me a wide berth, instead concentrating their efforts on Derek and Zeeviel.

Derek held his own surprisingly well, but Zeeviel was in trouble. Beelzebub flapped higher and continued to hurl bolts from the air, which meant he was out of Freddi’s reach. Zeeviel’s sword had reappeared in his hand, and he was sprawled on his back doing his best to counter them, but I could see his struggles weakening. More than one bolt hammered past his defenses.

Sprouting his wings, Derek let out a battle cry and launched himself into the air toward Beelzebub to hound him like a large and angry sparrow. The Prince of Gluttony swatted him away several times, but he always came back, and they spiraled lower–

Low enough for Freddi to grab Beelzebub by the ankle and yank.

He tumbled to the ground in a flurry of leather and fat, and she straddled his chest, wrapping her hands around his throat under the multiple chins and squeezing. “You think you can just attack my Guardian like that?” she shouted at him. His face turned purple, his body bucked, and then he disappeared, along with his minions, leaving nothing behind but a bad smell and squeaking, fly-ridden pigs.

The rest of us sat there and gasped in various states of “injured.” Derek dropped down beside me and grasped the pitchfork. “Hold still. Let me move this out of you.” It disappeared from my body and reappeared in his hand, and he tossed it away.

The wounds burned and bled, and I was pretty sure at least one of them had punctured a lung. “I can’t believe I can still brea–” The penny dropped. “Oh.”

Derek did an obnoxious little snap-and-point. “Ding ding ding! You’re already dead. You don’t need to breathe. You just have to remember that.”

I glanced up to see lightning flickering through the clouds, which it hadn’t done before, and I frowned. “Does that mean something?” I asked.

Derek looked at the new weather pattern. His mouth pulled to one side. “That veil Lu mentioned. We really need to get Freddi out of here. I for one am not looking forward to a premature Armageddon. Just because it catches Heaven flat-footed doesn’t mean Hell will automatically win.”

Freddi knelt beside Zeeviel, who laid his head back and closed his eyes with a groan that sounded more annoyed than anything. His shirt was burnt through in three places, along with the skin underneath, and his wings hadn’t escaped unscathed either. One set of flight feathers had been completely charred away.

“Then why did it work when I strangled Fat Boy?” Freddi brushed Zeevi’s hair back from his forehead, which seemed to ease his pain.

“Because you are Redeemed and had hold of his True Essence. We can’t touch you without agony.” Derek shrugged. “And if you touch us, it hurts.”

Slow applause sounded from the direction of the café, and we turned to see a new demon slouched at one of the tables sipping an obscenely large glass of wine. She–for she was very obviously female–was blue-skinned and naked from the tips of her curly horns all the way to the soles of her feet, which were propped, ankles crossed, on the table in front of her. Her hair stood out a wild blonde rat’s nest that still somehow managed to be attractive, and it trailed down to not-quite cover her enormous centerfold breasts. Indolence rolled off her in waves, and I almost fell asleep right there on the sidewalk. A billy goat chewed his cud beside her.

“I hardly credited it, but the rumors and memos are true,” she said. “This is rich.”

We scrambled to our feet as best we could. The punctures through me had mostly healed. Zeeviel looked battered, but better.

“Belphegor,” he said. “I should have known that where Gluttony laid his head, Sloth would soon follow. Here to nibble Beelzebub’s scraps?”

Belphegor waved a languid hand. “Pfeh. I have far better things to do with my time than mix it up with heroes like you lot. Much more entertaining to watch you flail uselessly about and ultimately fail.” She eyed Freddi over the rim of her wineglass. “So she’s what all the fuss is about, eh? Doesn’t seem like much.”

“Try and touch me and see what happens,” Freddi said, crossing her arms.

“Oh, dearie, no. I’m lazy, not stupid.”

“Which side are you on, Belph?” Derek asked. “Because it looks like we’re in the middle of a power play whether we like it or not.”

“You don’t know me very well if you expect me to choose a side, little brother. I don’t get involved in Hell’s reindeer games. I just watch the festivities and snigger on the sidelines.”

“Then you haven’t changed at all since you Fell,” Zeeviel snapped.

“Why would I? I am as Father made me.” There was a certain amount of rancor in a word that should have been an endearment, but not much. She pointed. “The river is that way. You should probably get going before one of the other, less congenial, Princes comes along to mop up after Beelzebub.”

“She’s not wrong,” Zeeviel said with a huff. “I hate when the Other Side has a point. Shall we?”

“I think that’s a super idea,” Freddi said. Her lips thinned. “She couldn’t even be bothered to steer us in the wrong direction.”

“Too easy,” Belphegor said airily. “I’m sure you’ll be getting in your own brand of unique trouble very soon. Toodles.”

We left her there, sipping her wine, and continued on our way. The neighborhood devolved to banks and pawn shops. Freddi touched my arm, and I immediately felt better.

Zeeviel still limped. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “I don’t have access to the same Grace I do when I’m on Earth, so it takes longer to restore me to full health.”

“Something we’ll all be sure to take full advantage of.” This demon wore a suit that put Derek’s to absolute shame, but he was over-hairy and wolfish around his face and hands. A bushy tail sprouted from his well-tailored pants rather than the whip-like barbed appendage I’d grown used to seeing, and a fat red frog sat on his shoulder, snatching leftover flies from the air with its tongue.

“Five minutes. Is it too much to ask to go five minutes without the Princes getting all up in our business,” Derek said. He didn’t inflect it like a question. “Come on, boss, cut us some slack.”

“Well, we’re all interested.” The demon walked around us, and we stayed facing him in case of accidents. “Our biggest big brother has painted a target on your foreheads, and it’s just a matter of time before someone collects on that particular bounty.”

Zeeviel’s sword was back in his hand. “Someone like you, Mammon?”

The demon continued to circle us like a large and hungry shark. “Perhaps. Perhaps.” He tilted his head at Derek, an unreadable glance passing between them. “Smart money doesn’t bet against a crossroader, though, and since Derek’s with you, might be best to see which way the chips fall before committing. Or.” A group of smaller demons appeared in his wake, remoras to his hammerhead. “Make something happen. That’s always profitable.”

One of the remoras leaped at Freddi, but a touch from her sent it shrieking to the ground in agony. She gave Mammon an entirely mirthless smile. “Are you sure about that?”

His head tilted the other way. “So it’s true. Curious.” A sloppy salute. “I think I’ll just wait, then. Who knows, someone might save me the trouble.” He disappeared in a swirl of sulfur stench, and his minions blipped out as well.

“Hoo.” Derek’s shoulders slumped with relief. “Man, am I glad he decided to do that. No offense, Zeevi, but with you not at a hundred percent, I don’t like our chances of going up against two of the Princes in a row. Especially when one’s my boss-man. I can’t defy him without it getting… awkward.”

“Neither do I,” said Zeeviel dryly, flexing his wings and wincing. The scorched-off flight feathers were half-sprouted now.

“Can’t we just teleport to the river like we did the tower?” Freddi asked.

“Ha, I wish,” Derek answered. “The Morningstar has blocked me from doing that. Apparently he wants you to get the full effect.” He eyed Zeeviel, who was still limping and bruised. “Maybe we should find shelter for a little while. You’re not looking so hot, bro.”

Zeeviel raised a weary and sardonic eyebrow. “Shelter. In this place. Is there such a thing for such as us?”

“If you know where to look and how to ward it. And I do. Come on.” He led us into one of the crumbling buildings, up a flight of untrustworthy stairs, and into an apartment far more upscale than I’d’ve thought from the outward appearance of the structure. A set of three leather sofas surrounded a fireplace, and our feet sank into the plush carpet.

“One of my many bases of operations,” Derek explained, waving us into the couches while he headed to the sideboard.

Zeeviel collapsed into one and spread his wings, stretching his legs out in front of him, leaning his head back, and closing his eyes. I took my cue from him and relaxed as much as possible on one end of another, while Freddi curled up on the opposite side.

“Is it all a city?” I asked. Derek brought over a tray of glasses filled with–I sniffed at the one he gave me and took a cautious sip of damned fine scotch–various libations. “I mean, I guess you don’t have meadows with bouncing bunny rabbits and stuff, but I haven’t seen a single tree.”

“There’s a forest,” Derek said, handing the others around. He waved his hand, and a  blaze sprang up in the fireplace. He had a seat on the open couch and downed about half his drink. “We can detour through it if you want, but it looks about how you’d expect. Sinister, leaf-less, angry trees. Thorns. Carnivores. You don’t want to meet the rabbits. Harvey they ain’t. Some of my brothers enjoy a hunt.”

I didn’t have to ask what they hunted. A permanent crawly feeling had taken occupation of the back of my neck.

Freddi frowned at her glass, filled with a deep red wine. “I’m not sure I should drink this.”

Derek scoffed. “You’re in Hell. It won’t actually affect you, sweetheart, more’s the pity. Not that I would take advantage.” No one was fooled by the innocent look he tried on, and he rolled his eyes. “You guys are no fun at all.”

“Well, no.” Zeeviel didn’t open his eyes as he sipped his drink. “We are, as you keep reminding us, in Hell. Fun does not obtain here, unless you’re a demon.” He cracked an eyelid open and cast his gaze in Derek’s direction. “And sometimes even then it’s not all it’s advertised to be.”

Derek pointed at him. “Don’t start with me, Zeevi. You and I both know what happened to drive me out of Heaven, and that reason still exists.”

“What did happen?” Freddi finally took a drink.

“Daddy is Daddy, Lucifer was right, and angels are assholes who don’t have your back,” Derek said, shooting a glare at Zeeviel, who fidgeted and dropped his eyes. “And that’s all I’ll say on the subject.”

It was Freddi’s turn to scoff. “From what I’ve seen, it’s not the angels who are assholes.”

“You’ve met one.” Derek shrugged with one shoulder. “Even I’ll admit that Zeevi’s one of the halfway decent ones, no matter our past, but I can name several who smite first and ask questions never.”

“Whereas demons wouldn’t harm a hair on anyone’s head.” The rest of her wine disappeared down Freddi’s throat, and she set her glass down with more emphasis than she needed to.

“We are as Father made us. All part of His vaunted Plan, no doubt. You’d think an omniscient, omnipotent Being would prep better, but it’s not for us to question Him, merely to do His Will.”

Zeeviel leaned his head back against the couch and covered his face with his hand. His sigh was long-suffering. “Do you truly think you are following the Will, Derek? Deluding the mortals is clearly something you enjoy. Deluding yourself is just sad.”

“I suppose we shall see who the delusional one is in the fullness of time. Considering the fact that your Charge is down here, perhaps you should hedge your bets, Zeevi.”

“Perhaps you should be hedging yours, brother, if the line between Above and Below is so easily breached, where it was not before.” Zeeviel cracked an eyelid open, and a corner of his mouth curled up in an expression that was in no way a smile. “It’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that shattering the Morningstar’s power is part of Father’s plan. Michael will defeat Lu in the end, but all to the good if he can be a shadow of his former self when the battle commences.”

“Hell’s in a sorry state if I can break it,” Freddi said. “I’m not a great warrior. I’m not powerful at all. I’m nobody.”

Zeeviel straightened. “You are a child of my Father and arguably the most powerful personage here and now. Do not sell yourself short, Freddi.”

“What did you do for a living, anyway?” I asked her.

“I was a parole officer. And I taught women’s self-defense classes a couple of nights a week.” She shrugged. “Nothing special, really.”

“You did good in the world,” Zeeviel said. “There are women living and not dead, and men who turned their lives around, because of your care for them.”

The best that could be said for me was that I’d made the world a better place by taking bad guys out of it. On the whole, that wasn’t much to recommend my life. The noblest thing I’d ever done had been completely on impulse, and it had ended up killing me.

Somehow, my glass was full again, and I sent a sharp glance toward Derek. “You’re welcome,” he said.

“How do you even get to be a hitman?” Freddi asked. “I mean, if I wanted to, I’d have no idea how to actually go about getting a job like that.”

I shrugged roughly. “Family business. My dad did it, and passed the mantle on to me when he was killed.”

Derek raised his glass in a salute. “No wonder Belph seems to have taken an interest–inertia, basically, and not because you couldn’t find anything else to do with your very expensive Ivy League education.”

I gave him another sharp glance. “How did you–?”

“We all know all about you, Anthony,” he said. “Hell is full of incorrigible gossips, as has been said, and your Tempter’s been giving us the lowdown on the down-low.”

I directed my next question at Zeeviel. “Did I get a Guardian too?”

“Of course you did,” he said. “The fact that you barely listened to him no matter how loudly he implored you to do better is a matter of great sorrow to him.”

“Why the Heavenlies even try with someone like him is a question for the ages, Zeevi.” Derek rolled his eyes. “It’s not like you were ever going to succeed.”

“Everyone deserves the chance to choose, Derek.” It sounded like an old argument. “And sometimes they surprise you.”

“Like when they jump into a river trying to save a total stranger?” Freddi quirked her brow in my direction.

“That single act of redemption is why you are with us now, Anthony,” Zeevi said, “rather than back in line with the rest of the wretched damned.”

“Won’t help with his eternal fate, though, because Daddy isn’t quite that forgiving,” Derek sniped, taking a giant swallow of his drink. “He’s still stuck down here.”

Zeeviel looked discontent. “That is so. But perhaps his final lot will be better, somehow.”

It was the only hope I had.

 

God’s Wolf.

Considering the fact that the Word has not a single complimentary thing to say about wolves, I’d often wondered why Father had Named me such. I even asked Him once. He’d smiled enigmatically and said, “You will know in the fullness of time, Zeeviel. But consider well the issues of love and loyalty, and take them to heart.” I decided He knew better than I how I should be called, and He who created the lamb also created the wolf. So I let be, and didn’t allow it to bother me overmuch.

Except when my erstwhile Fallen brothers were being absolute brats. Or, anyway, one brother in particular. Derek walked backward down the sidewalk, blatantly not looking where he was going, while the rest of us scanned the surrounding area for the dangers which seemed bent on besetting us from every side.

“What are you doing?” I finally asked Derek, allowing no small amount of exasperation to tinge my voice.

“Watching your back, big brother,” he said, with a nasty grin.

I crashed to a dead stop. “That is water under a bridge burned long ago. But if you’d like to hash it out again, then by all means.”

“At least then your pet humans will stop wondering what happened.” His smile was sharp, toothy, and infuriating. “They will know the depths of your failure and realize what a ruinous idea it is to count on you for, well, anything.”

Freddi’s worried gaze drifted back and forth between us. “What did happen? Clearly this is more than just angel and demon animosity. It’s personal.”

Derek gestured magnanimously. “Go ahead and let her hear it from you, Zeevi. I’m sure it will be instructional for us all.”

My wings slumped. “You know the story of Lucifer’s Fall, I’m assuming. Battles broke out. Vicious ones, brother against brother. Sometimes Father’s side was outnumbered. Sometimes Lucifer’s. Depending on who caught who and where.” I took a breath I didn’t need as a pang pierced my heart, sorrow for what we’d all lost during that war. “Derek was known as Hasadiel, back then.”

Derek’s brow lowered. “That name is as dead as the angel I once was. I’d prefer not to hear it again.”

“As you wish.” I kept my sigh inward. “He and I walked into an ambush. Ten of them. Two of us.” I still bore the scars from that encounter, both in and out. “We sent three back to the Lake, but paid a heavy price. I collapsed. Derek stood above me.” I stole a glance at him. “Bleeding wings spread wide. Sword shining. He was magnificent.”

“It didn’t help me, though.” I held Derek blameless for the bitterness in his voice. My own failure was the cause of it, after all. When I didn’t continue, he took up the narrative. “I managed to send one more howling back to the Lake, but the others descended en masse. They were strong, and I was wounded, and they brought me–” He stopped, scowled, and made a rude gesture at our surroundings. “Here. And no one came after me. No one.”

“I make no excuses for my part in that fiasco,” I said. “I only reiterate that I am sorry for it.”

“Well, your sorrow changes nothing, does it,” Derek snapped. “Everyone has a breaking point. I hit mine before Father saw fit to send anybody. So here we–”

I felt it before I saw it, a cloak of dark power heading straight at his back. My wings launched me into the air without conscious thought, my sword already in my hand. It swept a scimitar aside, and my follow-through disarmed the demon who’d attacked Derek without warning. Aziguth, the demon Anthony had smited first. Because of course.

My sword tip pointed at Aziguth’s throat. “Do not.”

“My, how… protective.” Hellions had elevated toothy grins to an art, and this one was no exception.

“You have no idea.” I’d failed Derek once. Probably more than that. I would not do it again.

“Your care for him makes you vulnerable. And all of Hell is now on the outlook for the four of you.”

My chin lifted. “They will not find us asleep.”

“So you say.” The scimitar appeared back in his hand, which was already in motion. Before I could react, it skewered me through the middle and pinned me to a wall, two stories above the ground. Aziguth held me there, grin widening as blood ran down the blade. He had deliberately missed the nucleus of Grace at my heart, no doubt planning to toy with me.

But my own blade was not idle. In immense agony, I thrust forward through the throat directly in front of me. Aziguth had time to look surprised before he dissolved in black tar, taking the sword with him.

I slid down the wall to a sitting position on the sidewalk, letting my wings fade out. “Ow.”

Derek blinked. His lips tightened, and he crossed his arms. “Well. That was foolish, big brother.”

I huffed. “I will not see you hurt where I can prevent it.”

Freddi knelt beside me and put a hand against the wound. “Oh, Zeeviel.”

“Your Grace soothes me, even here.” I closed my eyes and laid my head back against the cracked brickwork. “This place is wearisome, Derek. How do you stand it?”

“Why do you think I spend most of my time on Earth, roaming crossroads? Hell’s not meant to be restful, even for demons.” He paused. “Maybe especially for demons. After all, it was created as a punishment for us first.”

I winced at the reminder and hauled myself to my feet. “The sooner we reach the river, the sooner we can escape, I suppose.”

It was Anthony’s turn to wince. He wouldn’t be escaping. But his chin came up, and he nodded. “This is no place for people like you and Freddi.”

“And yet, here they are. Why is that, do you think?” The new voice was wholly unwelcome and accompanied by a wholly-unpleasant skunk-musk odor.

I groaned with impatience. “Mephistopheles. What do you want now.” It wasn’t really a question.

“Things should be more unsettled than they are, so I wandered by to see what sort of progress you’re making with my rebellion.” He crossed his arms and took a stance, one cloven hoof forward, black and white goatee bristling. “Precious little, it seems.”

Freddi crossed her arms right back. “We don’t work for you. Beelzebub says ‘no thanks,’ by the way.”

His lip curled, baring a long fang. “I can make things more difficult for you than they already are, if I don’t start seeing results.”

My wings unfurled from my back. “And we can whistle up Lucifer and tell him that his right-hand demon is angling for his job.” The feathers bristled. “Your decision, really. But I don’t think that would go well for you.”

“Why, little brother, I had no idea you could play hardball this well. Very well, you’ve got me at check for now.” He fixed Freddi with a nasty leer. “But best see that you don’t out-maneuver yourself and lose your queen.”

Which is when she stepped forward and punched him full in the face with no warning or ceremony whatsoever. The odor of burning flesh smote the air, and Meph stumbled backward, howling and holding his broken nose. Great gouts of black blood poured from under his hand. He landed on his rear and stared up at her in mingled surprise and outrage.

She stood over him, fist still clenched. “And you’d best watch yourself. I’m a queen, not your pawn, and definitely not a damsel in distress, mister.” She pointed at him. “And don’t you forget it.”

“Freddi,” I said mildly. This wasn’t the first time I’d had to remind her to keep her temper on a leash. In this place, I was sure it wouldn’t be the last.

She leaned down into the demon’s face. “I do not like being threatened. You probably shouldn’t make a habit of it.” She’d taken on a distinct glow.

Meph scrambled away from her. “Fine,” he said nasally through the hand still covering his face. “Just remember that the weaker Lucifer is when it all goes down at the end, the better off everyone will be. Including the feathered twit trying to talk you into reason. Assuming he survives this jaunt to the river.”

She followed, looming over his cringing form. The glow intensified, a bright golden nimbus in a dark place. True Faith was demons’ Achilles heel, and she used it to remarkable effect.

“I also don’t like when people insult and threaten my Guardian. You might want to see to that.”

Meph shielded his eyes and looked down. She could–and might, at this point–smite him where he crouched, and that realization had finally penetrated. “Fine, fine.” He eyed me from between his fingers. “You’ve got a feisty one, there, Zeevi. I wouldn’t have credited it. I think I like her.”

“Anyone who mistakes my Charge for a shrinking violet will soon be disabused of that very silly notion,” I said, letting a bit of amusement creep into my voice. “Freddi, let the nice demon up, please, there’s a good girl.”

She stalked over to stand beside me, arms crossed. “He’d better start being nice, if he knows what’s good for him.”

Meph heaved himself to his hooves. He tugged the bones of his nose to a semblance of straightness, but it still leaked, albeit more slowly. “Do think on what I’ve said.” He clapped his wings together and disappeared in a swirl of ill-smelling smoke accompanied by a muted lightning flash.

I glanced at Anthony and Derek, who watched the proceedings with raised eyebrows and mouths firmly shut until Meph vanished. Derek turned a speculative gaze to Freddi, and a slow smile curled his lips. “We might survive this after all.”

“They keep forgetting they can’t touch me,” Freddi said, still testy. “And I’ll teach that lesson over and over until they learn, if I have to, but I’d rather not. Be easier on everyone if they’d just let us get to the river and leave in peace.”

“In case you missed the memo, it’s not too peaceful down here,” Derek said. “But in the interests of that, we’d best be on our way.”

I fell into step beside Freddi. “I wish you could settle a bit. I know Hell is difficult–”

Difficult?” She waved an arm at the array of demons and suffering human souls around us. “I keep thinking we’re going to run into my big brother down here. ‘Difficult’ doesn’t even start to describe how I feel about this place. It’s one thing to believe in it when it’s all pie in the sky by and by, Lord. It’s quite another to be smacked in the face with it.”

Ah, there was the rub. Her elder brother Wes was her greatest failure, or so she thought. He’d been shot to death in a drug deal gone bad, and she’d never forgiven herself for not saving him. Not that it was her fault, because he made his own choices at the end of every day just like anyone else. But Freddi couldn’t help but blame herself, and she’d made it her mission in life to save everyone. Whether they could be saved or not.

She glanced between Derek and Anthony, and her brow knit. “Do you think…?”

I shook my head. “By every rule I know, their condition is permanent.” A slight shrug. “That being said, it’s possible that I don’t know all the rules, and Father’s mercies are new every day. Anthony yet has his freedom here, and Derek–” I sighed. “I think he might have some forgiving to do himself before anything changes for him.”

“Oh, stop it, Zeevi,” Derek said. “You and I both know that Father’s dubious mercies don’t extend that far. Don’t give them false hope.”

“Oh, but false hope is the best hope, darlings.” Belphegor materialized already walking with us. Still naked, female, and languorous. “But I’ve always found it best to just surrender to the inevitable.”

“Don’t you have some lazing around to do somewhere?” Derek grumped at her. “Somewhere else, I mean.”

“Not really.” She waved an airy arm in Anthony’s direction. “Just waiting for this one to come to me. I do wish you would get on with it a bit faster.”

“We keep getting interrupted,” Derek said. “Plus there’s the whole recruiting-the-Seven job Meph has us doing.”

“That’s going a bit slow, too, isn’t it,” she mused. “Well, have fun, kids. Freddi, dear, try not to be too disappointed when Anthony must stay behind. He’s been mine for a long, long time.” She disappeared.

Anthony cast his gaze downward, and Freddi touched his arm. “Might be that a demon doesn’t know any more than an angel does when it comes to these things,” she said.

Derek scoffed. “Oh, trust me, when someone arrives who belongs to one of the Seven like this, they know.”

“Oh? And who did I belong to?” Freddi asked.

The Prince of Wrath chose that moment to pop into being. His hair was on fire, and he grinned horribly down at my Charge even as I placed myself firmly between them. My sword was in my hand without me quite knowing how it got there. He towered above us with enormous fists clenched and coiled power emanating from his being.

“Why, me.” His voice sounded as if he’d been gargling boulders.

“Shaitan,” Derek said, “do you mind? We’re working here.”

“So I’ve heard.” Shaitan tilted his head. “Working for Mephistopheles, not Lucifer. Fascinating.”

“Meph thinks we’ll all be better off if Lu’s weakened when the final battle comes down. He says he’s going to try to mitigate the damage. Might be we could live through it, if a hothead like the Morningstar isn’t in charge, you know?”

Shaitan laughed. “I know all about hotheads, yes. This one, for instance.” He pointed at Freddi. “Such amazing anger roiling about inside. You hide it well, Winifred, but I’ve always enjoyed that about you.”

“Shaitan.” I lifted my blade. “You should probably leave her alone.”

The flames on his head leaped higher. “Or you’ll what, little brother? You hold no power here.”

“That may be.” Freddi stepped forward. “But I do. And you should probably think twice–or maybe more–before you lay a hand on any of us.” She was glowing again, mainly around her fists.

He laughed again. “Oh, I do like you, my dear. And I’ve heard all about what happens to my brethren who are foolish enough to touch you, or allow themselves to be touched by you. Blood, screaming, burning. I like to think, at the end of the day, that I am not a fool.”

“Foolish enough to Fall,” she said.

“Everyone makes mistakes. All we can do is live with them.”

A crease appeared between her eyebrows. “Do you think it was? A mistake?”

He shrugged. “Whether I think so or not, it isn’t one I come back from. Daddy doesn’t love us that much.”

“What if He does, though?” she said earnestly. “Just because it’s never happened doesn’t mean it never will.”

“Little girl, are you trying to… save me?” Shaitan blinked several times.

“Maybe. Maybe I think no one’s irredeemable. Maybe I think there’s a better way of winning this war than turning people to Mephistopheles’s side instead of Lucifer’s. At the end of the day, they’re both demons. But if you and the others could repent, and go Home? That… that would shift the balance of power in ways I can’t even imagine.”

He laughed. “Your faith is touching, Winifred. She’s spunky, Zeevi, and as I say, I like her. Always have.”

“And even if you don’t repent, you should still come over to Meph’s side. He’s not wrong,” she said. “Or, at least, as not-wrong as a demon can get.”

“You’ve given me something to think on, Winifred.” The flames on his head died down. “I can’t say that happens too often between me and a human. I’ll see you again before you leave–if you leave.” And on that ominous note, he vanished.

“That was different.” Anthony frowned at the spot where Shaitan had stood. “I expected a real fight out of him, not… whatever that was.” He looked up, and his frown deepened. “Also, is it my imagination, or is the sky not as dark as it was when we first started?”

Freddi rubbed her arms as if trying to scrub off something nasty. “He said he likes me. Gross.”

I wrapped a wing around her shoulders. “Don’t let him get to you. It’s their stock in trade, keeping you off balance.”

“You really think that? That there’s hope for them?” Anthony asked.

“All I know is that what we think the rules are, as opposed to what they really might be, could be two different things.” She set off down the sidewalk again. “If Zeeviel doesn’t know for sure, well. Best to keep our options open, right, and look for possibilities we might miss if we get hidebound.”

Anthony stopped short as a demon with gigantic genitals passed in front of us, yanking a human along by a leash. The human was decked out in what looked like exquisitely painful bondage gear, arms lashed tightly behind his back, a ball gag cutting into his face, and a cage encasing his own genitals. Whip marks decorated him all over, and blood leaked down his legs from an anus that had clearly been violated far more than once by something far too large. He blubbered from under a blindfold.

“Wait a minute,” Anthony said. “I know that guy.”

Derek gave him his patented grin, all teeth and no humor. “Do you?”

“Yeah! I–” He stopped and stared at the ground. “I killed him.” His brow creased, and his shoulders squared. “And you know what, I’m not sorry. He needed killing.”

“Anthony.” I sighed. “That judgment is not given to you.”

“No?” He rounded on me. “Then who? Do you know what that guy did? He ran an underage prostitution ring. Little kids. Some as young as seven, and he partook of his wares. Often. Human authority wouldn’t do anything about him, because he had so much blackmail material on people in high places they’d be cutting their own throats. So you know what? I took him out. He had failsafes in place in case someone did just that, and a bunch of those assholes landed in prison.”

“He would suffer the torments of Hell regardless, as he now is,” I said. “Human authority might be slow, but Father’s judgment does unto them in the end.”

“Yeah, you know what? I improved the world by taking him out of it. Sooner was better. There are children not being abused, and monsters behind bars, because he’s dead. No one even put a hit on him; I did it on my own time. I’m supposed to be sorry for that?” He bared his teeth as his gaze followed the man down the street. “Looks like he’s getting his just recompense too.”

“Thou shalt not murder, Anthony.”

“I always understood that ‘murder’ in that context meant first-degree murder the way we understand it. Killing in self-defense, or the defense of others, isn’t the same.” He refused to drop his eyes. “Little kids, Zeevi. Seems to me there’s something about children and necks and millstones in there somewhere too. Maybe I was God’s hand on Earth at that particular point.”

He had an argument I wasn’t sure I could refute. “Perhaps. Perhaps that one was justified. It is not for me to say. Or you. But the others? All of them?”

“None of those guys were good people. And I probably wasn’t either, at the end of the day. But sometimes it takes a bad man to take out other bad men. And I guess if I’m going to burn here because of it, well. I’ll take comfort in knowing they’re burning right beside me.”

“Oh, Anthony.” My heart swelled. These humans that Father gave us were so complicated. Loving them was easier than breathing, since I didn’t need to breathe, but I sorrowed, too, because all the justifications in the world couldn’t blot out what he’d done.

Or, at least, that’s what I understood. Humans weren’t the only ones who saw through a glass darkly. Father didn’t tell us everything.

“Oh for–” Derek said. “Stop it, both of you. Anthony’s in Hell because he belongs here. Ditto me. Just stop.”

“And why am I here?” Freddi said. “Besides a clerical error, that is.”

“I got no idea, honey,” he answered. “Maybe to take some of my more arrogant big brothers down a notch. Maybe it’s part of Daddy’s vaunted Plan. Or maybe you belong down here too and none of us knows it.” He raised his hands. “Granted, no human has ever wielded the kind of power you do in this place, but that might just be because no one knows better. No human’s ever shown up with their big strapping Guardian before, either.”

“Behold, He does a new thing,” I said.

“Nah, bro. He’s still pulling strings and playing Dance Puppet Dance with all of us. Free Will aside.” He snorted. “Still not sure I believe in that.”

I did. I knew down in my bones what would happen to me if I forced a human to do anything, even if it were for their own good. That was a Falling offense. Try to convince a demon of that though–especially one whose stock in trade was persuading people to give their souls away for material gain. Demons didn’t labor under the same strictures as angels; they didn’t have to worry about Falling again, after all, and so possessing a human wasn’t off the table for them. Hopefully Derek had never violated that particular rule, especially since possession wasn’t as easy as human pop culture made it out to be.

“I wish–” I started, and stopped. I wished he could forgive me. I wished I could forgive myself. I wished I knew how we were going to get to the river with our skin intact.

Derek’s lips compressed into a flat line. “Doesn’t change anything, does it? Wishing?”

“Not particularly, no.” I bristled my wings. “But there are things I don’t have to wish. I don’t have to wish that Father has all in His hand, because He does. I don’t have to wish for His love. And I don’t have to wish I love you, or Anthony, or Freddi.”

“Can you not, with that?” Derek said. “It makes me uncomfortable.”

“Facts don’t care about your feelings, brother.”

“The fact is that you all left me down here to be tortured after they captured me.” His bitterness knifed me like a blade. “So your love, and Daddy’s, doesn’t actually mean anything at the end of the day.”

“I would give anything to go back and fix it. You know this, right?” Nothing in my very long life, other than Lucifer’s initial rebellion, had hurt me more deeply than Derek’s Fall. I still blamed myself for failing him at that critical moment. Every day. I wasn’t sure I deserved his forgiveness, though I craved it.

His irises turned red, and he opened his mouth to say something hot and injudicious–then deflated. “You’re a good egg, Zeevi. Better than Heaven deserves. Better than I deserve. I really hope you come out of this with that big heart of yours still intact.”

I slowly tilted my head and looked him up and down. “Maybe Freddi is right and you’re not beyond saving. Wouldn’t that be something.”

“Oh, for–You know what, detour time. I need to show you something.”

“Show us what?” Freddi asked warily.

“Oh, you’ll see. And then you’ll understand why this project you have of redeeming me–” He practically spat the words. “Is stupid.”

Derek took off at a fast walk, and after glancing at one another, we had little choice but to follow. He led us on a circuitous route through dank alleys and smelly back roads. On the outskirts of the city, unfortunately nowhere near the river, he stopped beside a shack, shoved the door open, and invited us in.

“This,” he said. “This shit is what happens when one of us tries to repent in front of Lu’s face.” We stood frozen.

The poor demon wretch was staked through his wrists to a table. Spiked chains bound his ankles, and his wings had been irreparably shredded. At least fifty rats gnawed on him, while other demons took turns whipping him, burning him with hot pokers, cutting him. Laughing while they did it, taunting him. His eyes were missing, and his tongue. He couldn’t even scream anymore, which made it worse.

“You see any feathers on him?” Derek demanded. “You see any sign whatsoever that Daddy honored his desire to repent? Or do you see him suffering worse torments than any human soul in this place?”

Freddi and Anthony backed away, turned around, and vomited. I spread my wings above them, trying and failing to be a shelter.

Derek slammed the door shut and crossed his arms. “So let’s not have any more idiocy about repenting demons, all right? It makes me tired.” He spun on the heel of his Italian leather loafer and strode away, expecting us to follow and firing “We call him the Prince of Darkness for a reason, you know,” over his shoulder.

We trailed after him. It wasn’t like we knew our way around, and the geography of Hell was, rumor had it, ever-changing. Even if I flew aloft to spy out the way, avenues shifted and the path would be altogether unreliable once I returned to the ground–assuming our nastier brothers would even allow me to take flight without smacking me down. I shivered to think what would happen to us if we lost Derek.

And then I shivered again when I remembered that I’d already lost him once. A lump formed in my throat. I wanted to weep, but showing weakness in Hell was an invitation to disaster. All I could do was love him. It wasn’t enough, but it was what I had.

Anthony counted on his fingers, musing silently before speaking. “Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony. We’re missing Lust, Pride, and Envy. And we only got a definite ‘no’ out of Beelzebub. Mammon and Shaitan are still deciding, and Belphegor can’t be bothered. Huh. I don’t think we’re as bad off as it might look at first blush.”

“Could be, could be,” Derek said. “Or maybe they’re marshaling against us and they’ll ambush our little gang of rebels all together. Upsetting the status quo around here is dangerous.”

“You could stop being a ray of sunshine for just a little while,” Anthony said to him dryly. “It wouldn’t hurt you.”

“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that? I get my kicks where I can.” Derek eyed Freddi. “So you got any more bright ideas about saving my sorry ass now that you’re done throwing up?”

Her chin lifted. “I may or may not have wheels turning. And you may or may not find out when the time comes.”

He stopped short, squeezed his eyes shut, and rubbed the spot between them. “I’d rather not, honestly. I Fell, I’m stuck, I live with it. I’ve lived with it for thousands of years. You’ve only known me for a blip of time. Deal.”

She crossed her arms. “Make me.”

“Well, and I can’t make you, can I?” He set off again. “But I could take you back there and let you get another look at poor Arnonis. Shame about him, really, he was less of an asshole than a lot of people down here. Probably why he tried to un-Fall.”

I decided to put a word in with Father when I returned Home. It couldn’t hurt, and Arnonis was still my brother at the end of the day. But I didn’t say anything to Derek; he’d only scoff. It hurt my heart to see how cynical he’d become.

Hirsute and dressed to the nines, Mammon chose that moment to shimmer into being, already walking beside us. “How goes the recruitment?”

“Not as bad as you’d expect, boss,” Derek said. “So far the only definite ‘no’ we’ve gotten was Beelzebub, and that’s not really unexpected. Shaitan apparently took a liking to Freddi here quite some time ago, and he’s still on the fence.”

“And how are you getting on with these?” Mammon gestured at us.

“I can see why Shaitan likes Freddi.” Derek cast a glance at her that didn’t have as much animosity as I would’ve thought, considering the previous conversation. “She’s a spunky one.” He laughed, but didn’t sound amused. “And she thinks she can save me.”

“Does she.” Mammon’s brow lowered. “I hope you realize that sort of nonsense will go horribly for you. Don’t do him any favors, missy.”

Derek bared all his teeth. “I took them to see Arnonis. It was instructive.”

“Ah, good.”

“Have you given any more thought as to our project?” I asked. “Hell’s hierarchy would be shaken up by a success. I would imagine you’d move up in the ranks.”

“I’m watching odds shift, little brother. Don’t be impatient.” He made a considering noise. “Shaitan would definitely shift them more in Meph’s favor, however. Keep me apprised, Derek.”

He disappeared, and Derek frowned after him. “You’re the boss,” he said to empty air.

“Derek?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Odds,” he muttered, and set off again. “I guess we’ll see.”

We rounded a corner to find Belphegor lounging indolently at a sidewalk table. “Hell is abuzz with your antics,” she said. “What a lively mob of miscreants you are.”

A frisson of unease skittered up my spine. “Has it got back to Lucifer?”

“He keeps his own counsel up in that tower. Getting in to see him, even to tattle on you lot, wouldn’t be easy.” She popped a sliver of something disgusting into her mouth. “You’re probably safe. For now.”

“And how about you?” Anthony asked. “I mean, you’re my patron demon, or something. Shouldn’t you be on my side?”

“Oh, darling, you are adorable. People like us don’t make waves. And if we take it into our heads to do so, look what happens.” She waved a languid hand at him. “You get in trouble.”

He looked around at the naked, damned souls on the street, suffering eternal torment, and then down at himself, clothed and sound. “Not a whole lot of trouble.”

“That’s because she’s messing up your punishment. You’ll come to me in the end, dear boy. And then what fun I’ll have.”

Anthony quirked a brow. “Won’t you be too lazy to torment me? I notice that the Seven don’t tend to keep pet humans.”

“I’m between souls right now. I traded the last one to Asmodeus for getting tiresome.”

My face twisted with distaste as I imagined what the Prince of Lust did with the souls under his dubious care. It was an eye-opening look at the workings of a place I never thought I’d visit, and I vehemently hoped I’d never return.

“What’d you get for it?” Derek asked with morbid curiosity.

“A favor owed to be cashed in at a later date. I haven’t decided yet.” Her lips curled slowly up. “Maybe something to do with you.”

He just snorted. “Asmodeus isn’t the boss of me, and I work too hard to fit in with your bunch.”

“But why, though?” Belphegor asked. “It’s pointless. We’ll all be destroyed in the end no matter what, so why bother?”

“Daddy left me down here to rot. If I can take some of his precious souls with me when it all goes boom, so much the better. Because fuck Him.”

I flinched. “Derek.”

“What? It’s not like he can damn me more, is it?”

“I just remember–” I shook my head minutely. “I remember when you were better than this.”

He shook out his misshapen bat wings. “Yeah, well, I had feathers back then, didn’t I.”

That made me flinch again, which in turn made him tighten his lips and put the wings away. Belphegor just laughed.

“Oh, shut up, Belph,” Derek snapped.

She straightened and fixed him with a stern look. “Don’t you forget yourself, salesman. Slothful I may be, but I am perfectly capable of bestirring myself to action if I deem it necessary.”

His jaw muscles bunched, and he turned and strode away, leaving us to catch up. Freddi caught him first. She nearly laid a consoling hand on his shoulder before remembering what would happen to him if she did, and snatched it back instead, huffing out a frustrated sigh.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He rounded on her. “Don’t. Don’t do that. You did nothing wrong. We all did–” He waved an arm that managed to encompass me, Anthony, all of Hell, and Heaven while he was at it, along with himself. “But you didn’t. None of this is your fault, and it’s also not your fault that you can’t fix it. So just stop.”

“I did plenty wrong. I just… repented, and got forgiven for it.”

“Well, the Son died for you, not for me. His holy Blood doesn’t cover my multitudinous sins. And that’s the way things are, and ‘sorry’ doesn’t change anything.”

Freddi cast a glance upward from under a lowered brow. “Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t.” Stubborn girl, but it was that stubbornness that had won hard-bitten men into new and better lives. She believed in them, expecting them to be good, and many of them couldn’t bring themselves to disappoint her.

Derek would be a harder nut to crack. He’d turned his heart to stone, probably so it wasn’t at risk of breaking anymore, and I couldn’t exactly blame him. I just hoped Freddi wouldn’t break her own heart trying to save him.

✽✽✽

We continued walking in awkward silence for a bit, each sunk in our own particular brand of misery. The atmosphere did nothing to lighten our spirits. Ambient red light shrouded Hell in oppressive shadows, and the screams of the damned were nothing to happily march by, not to mention the demonic laughter.

A miasma of rot hung over everything; I could taste it on the back of my tongue. Uneven sidewalks caused us to stumble if we didn’t closely watch our steps, and the wildlife was nothing to write Home about. An occasional bolt of lightning cracked against the top of the buildings. I wasn’t sure they’d done that when we started, and it worried me.

Most of the demons gave us a wide berth and no grief. Freddi’s reputation preceded us, for which I was grateful. The less I needed to fight down here, the better off I was.

But there was always one jerk. Or a group, hoping to gain prestige and station by winning a fight others deemed too risky. Eight of them descended upon us, roaring, blades swinging. Derek leapt aloft with his scimitar to the fore.

His back was unprotected.

My own sword appeared in my hand, already alight with divine fire. Pinions pumping, I put myself between Derek and a broadsword that would have removed his wings at their roots, my blade clanging against the demon’s like a discordant bell.

Anthony’s pistol boomed, and a demon above me fell shrieking to the ground. That was all I had time to note before I was beset by a pair acting in concert. One worked high, the other low, and I couldn’t counter one without leaving myself vulnerable to the other. A broadsword sliced through the meat of my wing near the center, ripping downward and scattering feathers.

I faltered in the air, managing to counter a swipe that tried to take my arm off–and utterly failing to dodge a stab that took me all the way through my midsection.

The air rushed out of my lungs as fiery pain radiated from the wound. Freddi shouted my name, but I only heard it dimly as roaring filled my ears.

The demon yanked his sword free, cackling at the bright gout of blood and light that followed. “You’re on our ground now, Tweety.” Two-handed, he readied himself for a death-blow targeted at my throat. “Batter up!”

His head exploded. An instant later, the rest of him did too. A shot of Grace infused me with new strength, and I glanced down to see Anthony’s gun smoking and Freddi aiming glowing hands in my direction.

Well, then. They were all right.

I countered another strike. A cry of pain made me jerk my head up. Black blood spattered through the air from the battle above me, and I couldn’t tell whose was whose. Derek’s clothing was stained with it, and his left arm hung limp at his side.

Only four of our foes remained. A pair engaged Derek. One pursued me. The last fired alternating bolts of dark power at Anthony and Freddi.

Two impulses warred within me. Protect my Charge, or help my brother. I hesitated for a heartbeat…

And flew to Derek’s defense.

The demon facing me didn’t expect that, and he was caught flat-footed when I turned upward and removed his head from his shoulders in the same motion. Hard charging, I impacted a demon bodily just before he swung at Derek. It threw off his aim and got his attention, which probably wasn’t a good thing, because he was twice my size and three times as mean.

His sword met mine in a shower of sparks. I backwinged away from Derek, drawing the demon with me. Pretending a lack of skill, with desperation writ on my face.

He grinned, thinking he had me. I blipped out of existence and reappeared behind him, spearing my sword forward even before I materialized. It slammed home between his wings, and he dissolved with a surprised sound.

I made a surprised sound of my own when Freddi appeared in midair with her hands wrapped around the throat of the last demon standing. He vanished with a pained train-whistle shriek. Anthony had apparently taken out the other demon with that gun, though I’d been too busy with my own worries to see what he was up to.

I wrapped Freddi in my wings and floated us to the ground, though once I found myself on solid earth I collapsed a bit more inelegantly than I meant to. Derek alighted beside me with a groan.

“We need to get to a safe house,” he said. “Before anyone else decides we’re easy meat in this state.”

“Is there any such thing as safe, here?” Freddi said, glaring about.

“Might be, if you would all deign to grab onto me. Or each other. As the case may be.”

I gripped his shoulder, while Freddi, with a frown, gripped mine. Anthony snatched at Derek’s free hand, and Derek swept his wings forward. I helped as best I could, but it wasn’t much. Derek had time to shout, “Not on the carpet!” before we found ourselves in a different apartment than before.

Anthony, fortunately, came into being right beside a trash can. He proceeded to be copiously sick into it. Freddi was unaffected by the demonic move and stroked his back with her free hand. I braced myself on my knees and one palm, letting my sword disappear.

Derek flumped into an armchair. “Well. That was certainly a thing you all did there. Good aim, Anthony.”

Anthony wiped his mouth off on his sleeve and made his way to a reclining sofa. “Used to be my trade, right? The gun shoots what I point it at.”

“What the hell were you thinking, Zeevi?” Derek demanded. “You have one job here, and it’s not saving my sorry ass.” He conjured an amber liquid in a pilsner glass from somewhere and took several long swallows.

“I failed you once.” I wouldn’t look at him, or Freddi. “More than once. I’ll not do it again.”

“Oh, for–” He put the glass down and thumped his chest. “Demon here. They’re not after me except inasmuch as I’m with you. Once all this is over, I’m back to doing what I do.”

“It’s not over yet, is it?” Freddi said. She hadn’t let go of me, and her Grace infused me with strength. “So they are after you.”

“And then there’s you,” Derek said, picking up his glass again and pointing at her with that hand. The left arm still hung limp. “Since when can you move around like that?”

“You said yourself that human physics don’t obtain here,” she answered, raising her chin. “No reason I shouldn’t be able to, right?”

“That’s the kind of creative thinking that might get us to the river in one piece.” Derek lifted his glass in a toast.

“Which of the Seven did they belong to?” Anthony said. He’d found a decanter of something and poured a drink. “Because I think I’ve sort of figured out how things work down here.”

“Beelzebub’s still not awfully happy with us. Four of them were his,” Derek said. “The other four…” He frowned and looked over at me. “Belial’s?”

“We haven’t even talked to him yet,” I said. “But it seems right. They were pretty arrogant. Maybe he’s testing us.”

“Pride,” Derek clarified for the humans.

“The reason Lucifer fell in the first place, right?” Anthony said. “He thought he was better than God.”

“I’m under no illusions for myself, of course,” Derek said, “but most of them fell because they were deluded fools following a grandiose line of bullshit they refuse to give up on. Not because they were…” He flexed the fingers on his left arm, which seemed to be healing. “Weak.” The rest of his drink disappeared down his throat.

I straightened, frowning. “I don’t know what else you could have done, brother.”

“Died, probably.” His glass refilled itself. “It was a test. I failed. Game over. Such is life.”

“Didn’t they make it clear that your death wasn’t on the table, though?” Anthony said. “I’m not sure it was a fair test.”

Derek shrugged, and winced. “Daddy says He won’t test us beyond our endurance. Demons aren’t quite so scrupulous. I’ve come to terms with it.”

I hadn’t. I probably never would. And I wasn’t sure Derek had, either, but demons were champion liars, especially when they lied to themselves.

My wounds knit to the point where I could move without too much pain, and I hauled myself onto a sofa, deciding to change the subject. “Are we any closer to the river?”

Derek closed his eyes and made finger motions, as if he were doing mental math. “Little bit. Geography here is somewhat fluid. We should probably recuperate more before we get started again, though. Our humans are unscathed, but we got kinda scuffed, bro.”

“Tell me about it.” I brushed at the blood on my shirt with my fingertips. It disappeared after a few more passes than usual. My powers were severely limited; being cut off from Heaven felt like I was missing a limb. “I hate this place.”

“Don’t we all,” Derek muttered. “Sooner I’m done with this job, the happier I’ll be. I am so sick of the political maneuvering down here.”

And yet we stood firmly in the middle of that political maneuvering, whether we liked it or not. If angels got headaches, I’d have one from all this. I wanted to bang Lu’s and Meph’s heads together and make them see sense.

That probably wouldn’t end well for me, were I daft enough to try.

“How are you, Derek?” I asked. My own wounds hadn’t completely healed, but I thought they might take longer to do so than I wanted to wait.

He wiggled his left hand, flexed the elbow, and rotated the shoulder. “Not as good as new, but it’ll do. As long as we aren’t beset like that again. Which is a forlorn hope, under the circumstances, but we might get a little farther down the road before it happens.”

Anthony held up a hand. “Can we take the stairs, or an elevator, or something? That teleportation thing is horrible.”

“If you insist,” Derek said. “Not like we have a deadline, except inasmuch as the whole thinning-of-the-barriers thing goes.” A glance at Freddi. “And more time to corrupt you, but I don’t think a couple of extra minutes will make that much of a difference.”

“Hey, the longer we take, the better I like it.” Anthony shivered. “No offense, Freddi, but I’d like to put the torment off as long as possible.”

She flinched. “I’m sorry, Anthony.”

“Yeah. Me too.” He stood up and squared his shoulders. “But you didn’t make my choices for me, and I knew in my heart what I was getting into, and that it was wrong. Murder is murder, even if you’re killing bad guys who would’ve gotten the death penalty anyway, if the authorities caught them instead of me.”

Still justifying himself. I started to say something, but closed my mouth and shook my head. The time for remonstration was over. He’d made his bed.

We trooped down thirteen flights of stairs after Derek told us the elevator wasn’t too reliable and had, in fact, been known to eat people. Back on the street among the tormented, we did our best to ignore the ugliness around us.

It wasn’t easy. Anthony stalked slightly ahead, the gun in his hand and his back stiff. He looked like he wanted to start firing indiscriminately.

“Anthony,” I said. “You cannot do anything about this. In fact, you might make it worse on the poor wretches.”

“Might make me feel better. I’d like to think that if I was being tortured, someone might step up and try to put a stop to it.”

“The only reason someone would put a stop to a human soul’s torment would be so they could steal that soul for themselves and inflict worse,” Derek said.

“They’re all worthless anyway.” The new voice belonged to a demon wearing the persona of a dissolute young man in an open-collared shirt, dress slacks, and a stained sport jacket that had seen better days. Antelope horns decorated his forehead, and a bedraggled peacock pecked the sidewalk beside him.

“I beg your pardon, Belial,” Derek said. He stopped, and perforce so did we. “But they manifestly are not. They’re currency.”

“Bah. It’ll all end in fire, and then no one will care.”

“You cared enough to send four of your minions after us,” I pointed out.

“It was a test, which you passed, by the way, and doesn’t change the whole fire and brimstone at Armageddon Valley outcome.”

“We might be able to change it, though,” Derek said. “If we can unseat Lucifer, cooler heads may prevail. And you could have your station back.”

“Station?” Freddi asked.

Belial took a little bow. “I was the one who talked the Morningstar into rebellion in the first place–then he stole the credit, the story got mangled, and I got relegated to a mere Prince of Pride rather than the Emperor I should have been, because belief has power and most people don’t even know who I am.”

I was impressed by him getting that all out in one sentence, but angels and demons didn’t need to breathe, so he had an advantage. “Have you heard about what Mephistopheles has planned?” I said.

“Rumors and lies, the place is full of them, and I’ve no truck with any of it,” Belial answered.

“No lie, not this time,” Derek said. “He’s got us on a recruitment mission.”

Belial crossed his arms and tilted his head. “And what’s in it for those of us who join him in this mad enterprise, because the last one didn’t go too well.”

“He doesn’t like how Lu’s running things, or, you know, not running things. And Meph doesn’t want to die any more than the rest of us, so maybe if our Blowhard in Chief is taken down a few notches and replaced with someone who’d rather talk than fight, it won’t come to us all being wiped out at Armageddon.”

“Intriguing, depending on who else is on board with this.”

“Shaitan seems interested. Beelzebub said no. Mammon’s on the fence. We haven’t seen Asmodeus or Leviathan yet.” Derek put on his best salesman smile. “If you were the first of the Princes to actually say yes, I bet Meph would raise you higher in the ranks.”

“Replace the self-aggrandizing punk and take my rightful place.” Belial snapped his fingers. “I’m in. Have Meph’s people call my people.” An enormous set of bat wings flapped into being, and he took off, flipping us all a wave. The clouds lightened to steel gray rather than the black they had been before. Was that a sign that the veil between the dimensions was thinning? I kept that worry to myself, but it weighed on me.

“Huh,” Derek said. “That was easier than I thought it would be.”

“That was some smooth talking,” Anthony said. “You didn’t even really promise him anything.”

“Beli’s always been bitter about how the rebellion ended. He thinks Lu bungled it, and then of course there’s the whole ‘some people don’t even realize he’s an actual demon and give him the credit he deserves’ issue. Lu allocated him Pride as a sop to his ego, but it didn’t really work.”

“Credit,” I snorted. “Blame, more like. He doesn’t think anyone actually likes Lucifer, does he?”

“‘Likes’ is a strong word. ‘Respect’ is the one he wants. He’ll settle for ‘fear.’ ”

“He could have had love,” I said, shaking my head. “All of you could have had that.” I waved an arm at the misery surrounding us. “Was Heaven so dreadful that they thought they could do better? Look what they unleashed.”

“Yes, well.” Derek’s voice was heavy with irony. “If ‘love’ lets me languish down here to be tortured until I Fall, maybe love’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“The place is wholly separated from Heaven. It’s not that any were unwilling, brother, but unable.” My heart twisted. “But I still love you, even after everything. I wish you could see that.”

Derek shook his head. “Oh, I do. Surprisingly, brother, it doesn’t actually make me feel any better.”

He turned and walked away, heading toward the river. All I could do was follow, sick in my spirit over what we’d all lost.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Well, the evidence had slapped me right in the face, and I was having trouble with the substance of it.

Believing in a loving Heavenly Father who wanted the best for us was relatively easy, on Earth. I could put the suffering there down to a fallen world, and human beings with Free Will choosing evil, and the consequences thereof. I’d seen that kind of misery firsthand–and believed that the perpetrators would get their deserved comeuppance in due time.

Seeing that comeuppance firsthand in living technicolor made my gorge rise.

Especially since my big brother Wes was probably down here, absent a miracle. I tried not to look at the faces of the damned too closely, afraid of who I’d see. I was more determined than ever to try to save Anthony and Derek.

So I looked at the buildings instead, just in time to see a cornice crumble and drop to the sidewalk when Belphegor fell into step beside us. “Well done, you lot.” I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. “That’s one, anyway. Now you’re even.”

“If you’d come over, we’d have the advantage,” Anthony said.

“Oh, dearie, no.” She scoffed. “Asked and answered, and you of all people know very well why. But keep on keeping on. We’re all laying sideline wagers.”

“Which way did you bet?” Derek wondered.

“That would be telling. You’ll find out in due course, I’m sure. Ah, Asmodeus. That’s my cue to go.” She didn’t even bother popping wings, she just disappeared.

This is when I noticed we’d headed into an area filled with sex shops, adult video stores, bordellos, and strip clubs, garishly lit with blinking neon in all the colors of the rainbow. It should have been cheerful, but only managed sordid. That meant one thing, and I groaned.

The demon in front of us was an inhumanly beautiful man with a sculpted body that screamed sex appeal. A tiny pair of blue horns sprouted from his forehead, and his ears were pointed, giving him an exotic air. A python coiled around his shoulders, flicking its tongue. He turned a dazzling smile on me. “Well, hello, peaches.” A British accent, even.

I crossed my arms. “Why. Why do you all walk around naked.” It wasn’t a question. “I am not buying what you’re selling, so put it in your pants, mister.”

“Are you sure? I could make you feel wonderful for eternity.”

I waved at the human misery surrounding us, trying to avert my eyes from the open sex acts. “Oh, yes. They all look thrilled to be here.”

He circled me and licked his lips. “I’ll make an exception just for you. Such delights for your virginal body.”

How did he know that? Never mind, demon of lust. Of course he knew. Whatever. “Just try to touch me and see how that goes for you.” I noticed that Zeeviel had his sword in hand, and worried. He shouldn’t take on a Prince in his condition, which was still more battered than I liked.

“Oh, sweetie, no,” Asmodeus purred. “You have to give yourself willingly to me first.”

“Well, that’s a non-starter. Thanks for playing.”

“Aren’t you the least bit curious as to what you’ve been missing?”

Of course I was. That didn’t mean I wanted a demon showing me the ropes. Especially since it’d be literal ropes if the scenes playing out right on the sidewalk were any indication. I shuddered to think what was happening behind closed doors. “I don’t see a ring, a preacher, or a cake around here.”

Derek piped up. “I have plenty of rings, all kinds of styles, and there’s lots of preachers around.” He made a face. “Probably shouldn’t eat any cake in Hell, though. It wouldn’t taste very good. The food here is, as I’ve said, generally terrible.”

“You are not helping,” Zeeviel said.

“Helping, other than getting you people to the river, isn’t my job.” He shrugged. “Sue me, I get my kicks where I can.”

“Big fat nope from me, demon,” I said to Asmodeus.

“Ah well.” And just like that, he was a she, a generously-proportioned woman with a cartoonishly-tiny waist, wearing heels and garters and nothing else but the snake. “Hellooo, handsome,” she said, turning her attention to Anthony.

His expression was akin to that of a man who’d just been hit over the head with a brick. “Um. Hi.”

She circled him now, grinning like a hungry shark. “I’m not picky. Belph’s last gift to me was a tasty morsel. I’m sure you’ll go down just as well.” A snicker. “Get it? Go down?”

“Uh.”

“Anthony.” I poked him. “Close your mouth. Stop drooling. Snap out of it.”

“But–”

“You are in Hell, and that’s the demon in charge of lust. Do you really think you’ll enjoy it if you give yourself to her?” A whip cracked on the back of some poor unfortunate, who shrieked in pain. “Really?”

He blinked a few times and took a good look around. His face paled. “No. I suppose not.”

Asmodeus pouted. “You two, no fun at all.” She gave Anthony a push toward me. “But maybe you’d like one last hurrah before you’re damned for eternity and she goes to her Heavenly reward. You’d make her first time good, right, Anthony? I like to watch, too.”

“Wait, I don’t–” He took a step back. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like you, Freddi, but we haven’t known each other for that long and…” His babble trailed off awkwardly.

I rolled my eyes. “Remember what I said about a ring, a preacher, and a cake? That goes for anyone, not just a demon trying to seduce me.”

“Oh. Oh, good.” Clearly relieved, Anthony turned to Asmodeus. “But we’ve got a proposition for you.”

“Oooh, I like propositions. Do tell, sugar lips.”

“Word is that Mephistopheles is unhappy with the way Lucifer is running things down here–or, more properly, not running them. He thinks that if he can overthrow him, cooler heads might even prevail at Armageddon, and we might all survive it instead of being immolated.”

“But he needs help,” I said. “Something like this is huge, and he can’t do it by himself.”

“Mmm, lust for power. Not my usual, but I can see where he’s coming from,” Asmodeus mused. “What do you think, Zeeviel?”

He hadn’t put his sword away, but he wasn’t quite aiming it at Asmodeus, and it wasn’t on fire. “I think Meph might have a point, and I’d just as soon no one else die in this stupid war. You’re all my brothers and I love you still.” He glanced at Derek, and a flash of pain crossed his face.

“Oh, do you.” Asmodeus glided toward him. “How far does that love extend? Feathers aren’t my thing, but I could make an exception for you.”

Zeeviel’s lips compressed. “Not quite so far, Asmodeus. Get thee behind me if you’re going to be like that.”

“Well, if you like it from behind, far be it from me–”

Zeeviel’s sword came up, glowing. “I think not.”

“Is that your final answer?” Asmodeus raised her chin. “All of you? Derek? Et tu?”

Derek shrugged. “As much as I might enjoy myself, Asmo, I’ve got three bosses breathing down my neck to get a job done. I gotta say no, at least for now. Rain check?”

I took it as a bad sign when Asmodeus’s face darkened with anger. “Rejection irks me.”

Her skin turned navy blue and scaly, and a huge bullwhip appeared in her hand. Her muscles swelled, and she grew in stature as dragon wings sprouted from her back and enormous male genitalia sprouted from her front. The python expanded too, its own wings furling outward while it hissed with a wide-open mouthful of pointy teeth dripping with venom. Asmodeus kept the breasts and high heels, however.

Anthony backpedaled, reaching for his gun. “Okay, that’s just disturbing.”

“We’re in Hell. Everything here is disturbing,” I answered. My hands glowed of their own volition. “Asmodeus, you should just leave. I’ve heard this place is full of gossips, so I’m sure my reputation precedes me.”

The demon scoffed. “A crossroading cockroach, a tiny, wounded Guardian, a damned soul, and you. I doubt your combined might could make a dent in a Prince of the Deadlies, but you’re welcome to try.”

I glanced at Zeeviel, bruised and torn and still not recovered from our last encounter, ready to throw his life away in my defense. Well, I didn’t need defending, not down here. I stepped forward, while Anthony pulled his gun from its holster, and Zeeviel’s sword burst into flame. Derek heaved a put-upon sigh, and he conjured a…

Big glass vial? Of something? From thin air.

“The four of us aren’t much by ourselves,” Derek pointed out. “But together, you might have an actual fight on your hands, Asmodeus, even if you are a Prince. Walk away, and you won’t get hurt.”

“I don’t handle rejection well, Derek,” Asmodeus growled. “You know this.”

“Get used to disappointment,” I said. The orange glow on my hands intensified to red. “We can all walk away from this as long as no one decides to be stupid today.” “No one,” of course, meant Asmodeus in particular.

But Asmodeus didn’t seem to care. With a roar, he stepped forward, and just like that my hands darted in the direction of the demon’s tempting neck. I heard a BOOM as Anthony’s gun fired, and Derek threw his vial, which shattered against that ample chest. Zeeviel took to the air, and his sword slashed against Asmodeus’s ribs. Several things happened at once.

My fingers wrapped around the demon’s throat, nearly of their own accord. Anthony’s gun blew a giant hole in the ribcage in front of me. The contents of Derek’s vial flowed across Asmodeus’s entire skin, then disappeared like it was absorbed. Zeeviel’s sword drew a path of fire across the demon’s chest.

But Asmodeus wasn’t idle. Bolts of dark power flew from his fingertips as he howled in rage and pain. My fingers had hold of the demon’s True Self, and Derek’s vial had done… something. I wasn’t sure what. That didn’t stop Asmodeus from hurling a world of hurt at my Guardian, and Zeeviel blasted backward as one of those dark bolts impacted his chest. Another bolt slammed into Derek’s midsection and sent him hurtling through the plate-glass window of a sex shop amid showering glass.

Before I could capitalize on my grip, Asmodeus shrank and vanished. Derek crawled through the window and collapsed to the sidewalk with a wheeze of pain. I couldn’t touch him, but Zeeviel could.

“Brother?” the angel asked, draping a wing across his shoulders.

“Don’t. Don’t make a fuss.” Derek panted for a few seconds before straightening with a wince. “I guess Raphael wasn’t wrong about the saltpeter.”

“An anti-libido against the Prince of Lust,” Zeeviel said. “I thought the packrat tendencies of crossroaders was overplayed, but that was well done.”

“He wanted to slaughter me as much as you.” Derek flexed his fingers. “It was sheer self-defense at that point.” He frowned. “You’re hurt, too, Zeevi.”

Zeeviel shrugged. “I will heal.”

A hunk of brick splattered on the sidewalk beside us. “And yet you defended yourself so well, Derek,” Belphegor said.

Derek’s eyes rolled the sky, and he tilted his head at it. “Freddi’s mere presence skews the odds in our direction, Belph. You should know that by now.”

“Oh, I do,” Belphegor answered. “But I’m, shall we say, surprised at how enthusiastic you yourself are in getting the Seven on board with Meph’s mad plan.”

“Self. Defense.” Derek enunciated the words carefully. “I don’t want to die in this crazy war, and when they’re coming at me with intent to immolate, well. The packrat thing isn’t really exaggerated.”

“We’re taking notes,” Belphegor said. “It’s edifying.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Anthony asked, which was a question I also had.

“Oh, dearie, everyone who’s watching on the sidelines is laying odds.” Belphegor winked at Derek. “Some of us are even hedging our bets.”

“What are you betting on?” I asked.

“Everything. Whether you make it to the river. Whether you succeed or fail in Meph’s quest. Whether Luci drags you back to his tower for some fun and games after letting you think you’ve won. So many possibilities.”

I snorted. “If you guys could do math, you wouldn’t have Fallen. Instead you threw everything away, for what?” I waved an arm. “Paradise, clearly.”

“It’s what you make of it, Freddi darling.” She shrugged. “But now you’re down two to one. Might want to consider evening those odds before Meph catches up with you again.” She glanced over her shoulder and disappeared. “And you might want to get out of this neighborhood,” said her disembodied voice.

I eyed Derek and Anthony as we walked. If there was a way to save them…

Derek thought it was impossible. I still wasn’t so sure. He’d said that Arnonis defied Lucifer to his face. What if he repented out of Lucifer’s sight? Up on Earth, maybe. Lucifer, powerful as he was, couldn’t be in two places at once. I’d seen more than one “irredeemable reprobate” have a come-to-Jesus moment on my watch, where they’d realized their life could be more than unrelenting misery for themselves and suffering inflicted on others.

But Derek would have to do more than repent. He’d have to forgive. And that was probably the real difficulty. The hard, bitter edge he showed the world hid a hurt that might never be healed all the way. The expression he turned to Zeeviel, thinking none of us were watching, was equal parts puzzlement, pain, and rage. I wasn’t sure how to break through that maelstrom of emotion. Maybe I could team up with Zeeviel.

Anthony was a thornier problem. The rules as we knew them meant he was stuck down here, and only my presence kept him out of Belphegor’s clutches. “Show me a way, Lord,” I muttered. “I can’t do this on my own.”

No answers were forthcoming, however, at least not yet. Frustrated, I wanted to kick something. Zeeviel wrapped a wing around my shoulders.

“Peace, Freddi. All things in their time.”

“How did you– never mind.”

“It wasn’t difficult, child. You tend to get broody with the more, hn, challenging cases. I’ve been with you since you were born, and a certain amount of mind-reading goes with the job.”

“How do you bear it? ‘All the sons of God shouted for joy’–all of them. And then a third of them turned into…” I gesticulated. “This.”

Zeeviel shook his head, face drawn with sorrow. “Father gave us Free Will before he bestowed it upon mankind. He did not wish to surround Himself with robots, forced to love Him. He must have known it would end badly, and yet…”

“And yet here we are, brother.” Derek’s voice bit hard. “Surely if He actually cared for His creation, He would have done something by now.”

“Don’t wish for the timing of Armageddon to speed up,” Zeeviel said with a glance at the sky. “None of us will enjoy the final battle, and I would imagine that those outnumbered two to one will enjoy it far less.”

“Which is, I suppose, why we’re on this mission from Mephistopheles.” Derek cast his gaze around. “Though what good it will do in the end, when He makes all things new, is a question I’m not sure I want the answer to. Surely when He perfects His creation, He won’t want Hell sullying it. We’ll be wiped out regardless, and maybe whether it’s slow or fast is the ultimate question.”

“I don’t have the answers, Derek.”

“Of course you don’t. You’re just a lowly foot soldier. Cannon fodder, in the end. Waves of you will crash upon Hell’s shores, tumbling and dying, for what?” Derek scoffed. “Maybe I’ll make my own faction: the faction of sitting this out until the damned dust settles. I’m not real fond of either side.”

I couldn’t blame him for that, but Zeeviel shook his head. “Everyone must choose. Even not choosing is a choice.”

“The side that failed me spectacularly, or the side that tortured me into submission.” Derek spat on the sidewalk. “Fuck them both very much.”

“Hell is complete separation from Heaven, Derek. You know this. Do you think I didn’t try to come? Do you think I was the only one who tried, and failed, because of that separation?” Zeeviel squeezed his eyes shut. “It wasn’t lack of will. The thing was just… impossible.”

“But with God, all things are possible. All things.” Derek shrugged roughly. “And I was without Him for too long, and help never came, and I gave in because I valued living like this more than I valued dying for Someone who couldn’t be bothered, or being tortured any more. That’s my sin.” He stared directly at me. “And that’s what I have to live with, Freddi. Forever.”

My chin came up. “You’ll excuse me if I think that might not be set in stone.”

“Your faith is touching,” Derek said in a tone that implied just the opposite. “But you’d better hope for your own sake that it doesn’t get broken against the anvil of cold, hard facts. It happened to me. Pray it doesn’t happen to you.”

“I haven’t stopped praying since I got down here.”

“No wonder my shoulder blades itch. You’re painting a target on us and should probably stop that.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so. But, Derek, you really ought try to find it in your heart to forgive Zeeviel, at least.”

As a first step, it was a doozy, but if Derek didn’t forgive, I had no doubt his bitterness would continue to consume him. I’d seen it before, parolees and probationers who couldn’t let it go, blaming everyone but themselves, ending up on the wrong side of the law again and again until they found themselves behind bars for good, or dead.

Derek’s lips compressed. “We’re not big on forgiveness in Hell.”

“I’ve noticed. But you’re hurting yourself more than anyone else, at this point. Thousands of years of unrelenting bitterness isn’t good for your soul, Derek.”

“Neither is a decade of unrelenting torture at the hands of absolute experts.”

I flinched. I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t break after ten hours. Zeeviel stared at the ground and muttered something I didn’t catch, but almost sounded like swearing. Derek gave him a savage grin with no humor whatsoever in it. The place was getting to all of us.

“So if Hell is total separation from Heaven, how are you two here now?” Anthony asked. “By the rules we know, this shouldn’t be possible.”

“Oh, they’re exactly where they’re supposed to be,” Derek said. “Daddy sent them down as a test, and don’t any of you forget that.”

“Well, sure, but a test for who?” I tilted my head at him. “I’m not budging. I know my Redeemer lives. What about you, though, Derek? He made you. He still loves you.”

“He’s sure got a funny way of showing it.” Derek turned that humorless grin to me. “And you’re not budging yet.”

“I haven’t seen anything so far that shakes my faith. I certainly haven’t seen anything that makes me want to stay down here for any longer than I have to. The atmosphere is abysmal.”

Derek barked out a laugh. “Which is why I don’t spend a lot of time rubbing shoulders with these assholes. I’ve been tortured. I’m not big on inflicting it on someone else.”

“So you just trick them into selling themselves to be tortured,” Anthony said, grimacing at the demons walking around with human souls on leashes. We’d wandered out of Asmodeus’s neighborhood into one filled with bear demons, of all things. “That’s messed up, man.”

“No more messed up than a loving Father who doesn’t care enough for His creatures to give them a hand up when they need it. People only come to me when they’re at the end of their ropes.”

“Isn’t there a joke about that?” Anthony said. “Guy on his rooftop in a flood, and people keep coming by and trying to save him, and he refuses and tells them that God will provide? And then he drowns and asks God why He didn’t come save him, and God points out all the people He sent and asks what he expected. Sometimes we can’t see our salvation when it’s right in front of us.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I have a degree in finance. I could have walked away from killing people, and I walked away from God instead. Even if I only killed bad men.”

A tornado of smelly cinders spun down the block toward us, and resolved itself into Shaitan. “You know, Anthony, Belphegor and I had a long debate as to who you belong to. So much anger at losing your father. You made them pay, didn’t you.”

I lifted an eyebrow at Anthony, and he shrugged. “My dad was good at what he did, and they took him out for it. And then I took them out.”

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” I said. “Oh, Anthony.”

“And then there’s you, dear Freddi.” Shaitan turned to me. “So much wrath boiling under your surface, I’m surprised your skin’s not red with it. Your brother’s death affected you badly. And at such a tender age, too.” I’d been fifteen when Wes got himself killed.

Zeeviel squared his shoulders. “And she responded by channeling that wrath into something constructive, rather than stoking it to her own destruction and the destruction of those around her. We could all–” He glanced at Derek, very briefly. “Take a lesson from that.”

“I can’t help how I feel,” I said, “but I can help how I react to it. Hurting myself or someone else would be dumb, and I’ve seen it bite too many people on the butt to want to give in to the momentary satisfaction.”

“Consider, though,” Shaitan said. “You were a nobody on Earth. You will continue to be a nobody in Heaven. Down here? You are most assuredly somebody. Stay and be my queen and consort.”

I looked pointedly around. Four bears grabbed a limb each of some poor unfortunate and ripped him into five pieces that lay twitching on the sidewalk, then reattached so the bears could do it again. “As appealing as the offer is, I think I’ll have to turn it down.”

“Consider this: as the queen of Wrath, you would get a say in how people are treated. Like, for instance… your brother.”

He snapped his fingers. Wes appeared in front of us, with a bear’s jaws latched around his throat while he gurgled and thrashed.

“Addicts and dealers generally go to Beelzebub, but I traded for him,” Shaitan said. “I figured you’d want to be together if you landed here.”

“Wes!” I dropped to my knees and slapped the bear-demon across the nose. It let go with a pained grunt and backed up a few paces after looking at Shaitan questioningly and getting a nod.

Wes was as naked as everyone else in Hell. Suppurating wounds covered his torso and limbs, and the stench was horrific. I reached a hesitant hand out–I hadn’t touched any of the damned and wondered if it would have the same effect as touching a demon.

But he was my brother. I had to try. I brushed my fingers up his arm. He shivered, blinked…

And saw me.

“F-Freddi?” His voice was hoarse, like he’d spent a lot of time screaming. I did some mental math. Thirteen years he’d been down here. He was in for an eternity longer. My heart broke more.

“Oh, Wes.” Tears streamed unheeded down my cheeks. I cradled him in my arms and pushed his hair out of his face. “Look what they’ve done to you.”

“You shouldn’t be here.” He curled into me. “You were the good one, what are you doing here, you have to get out…”

I pressed my fingers to his lips to stop the frenzied babble. “It’s just for a little while. Someone said it was a clerical error. I’m all right, Wes, they can’t hurt me.” Except by hurting people I cared about.

He nodded against me. “You were right. I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry, but it’s too late, and now, and now–” He broke off. “What about Charlie? Mom and Dad?”

“They’re fine. Charlie goes… went to church with me. Got a degree in bioengineering and a great job. He’s a good kid.”

Wes huffed out a sob. “You died, though. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”

“Diabetic coma and a car crash. Someone tried to help. It didn’t work.” Could he see Anthony and the others, or was I his whole world right now? I didn’t know and was afraid to ask.

“You have to go, Freddi. You shouldn’t endure this.”

“I can’t leave you.” A sob tore its way out of my throat.

“You gotta, little sis. I deserve this, I was bad, I belong here.”

“He isn’t wrong,” said Shaitan, looming above. “But you could mitigate his torment.”

Anguish wrenched my heart, and I grasped Wes closer and looked up at Zeeviel. “How can I leave him? He’s my brother.”

“The same way I must leave my brothers when our time here is done,” he answered softly.

“Here’s the test, Freddi,” Derek said. “Now what?”

Do your duty or follow your heart? My duty had never crushed me like this before. It had always been a joy, not a burden, to serve the Lord. But now, confronted with the battered body of my own flesh and blood, smashed in the face with his punishment, no matter how just, knowing he’d suffer like this for eternity–

“If I’m your queen,” I said to Shaitan. “This stops.”

“He will get a personal dispensation from me. From us.”

“And there’s no chance of him getting into Heaven. Ever?”

Zeeviel’s expression told me all I needed to know on that front. Deep sorrow etched his features. Mirroring mine, no doubt.

“I see.” I took a breath. Two. Wheels turning. “Derek. What will that gun do to a human soul?”

“Human souls are eternal, Freddi,” Zeeviel said. “I understand the urge, but I’m afraid it will avail you little.”

“I wasn’t asking you, Zeeviel.” I kept my tone level. “You’ve admitted you don’t know all the rules. Of course souls are eternal in Heaven where it’s a streets-of-gold paradise and has a gate made of a pearl instead of human bones. I think the rules might be murkier down here where they trade souls as currency and Beelzebub consumes them like candy. Derek. Answer my question.”

“I don’t actually know if it’s ever been used on a human soul,” Derek said. “Are you sure you want your brother to be the guinea pig here?”

Wes’s hair had fallen into his eyes again. I brushed it away with one hand while holding the other out to Anthony. “Hand it over.”

He froze. “Uh. Derek? Zeeviel?”

“Perhaps you should be looking to me,” Shaitan rumbled.

“Or maybe you need to stop dithering and just give it here,” I said, steely-voiced.

Anthony glanced back and forth between the demons and the angel. He grabbed the gun, handing it to me and letting go like it was hot, taking three steps back and holding his hands out to his sides, practically all in the same motion.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” I said to Wes, pressing a kiss to his forehead and standing up. “I love you, big bro. Always have. Always will.”

Derek was right about one thing. I didn’t want to use Wes as a guinea pig. I aimed the gun at some poor guy who’d just had his guts ripped out–

And fired.

He didn’t even scream. His body shrank into a pinpoint and disappeared with a wet pop.

I figured the demons would know more than Zeeviel, and I fixed Derek and Shaitan with a challenging stare. “So. What happened.” I didn’t inflect it like a question. Daring them to lie to me.

Both of them appeared nonplussed. Derek was the first to get his tongue unstuck. “That’s not something you see every day.”

Shaitan gazed at the gun with new respect. “I’m not sure you should let a human handle that weapon, Derek. Not if she can do that with it.”

“What did it do.” I didn’t inflect that like a question either.

“You annihilated him,” Derek said. “He’s gone. Like, nonexistent.”

“Oh.”

I didn’t hesitate. I pointed the gun at Wes’s head and pulled the trigger just as Zeeviel said, “Freddi, don’t–”

Wes shrank to a pinpoint and popped out of being. His suffering was done. I wasn’t sure he even knew what hit him.

I dropped the gun, collapsed to the sidewalk on my knees, and burst into tears.

Zeeviel knelt beside me with a wing over my shoulders. “Easy, Freddi. We don’t condone mercy killing, but I understand why you did it.”

“Not a mercy killing.” I hiccupped. “If he was already dead. My poor big brother. All these poor wretches. How do you bear this, Zeeviel?”

“I rest on Father.”

“That’s the most fatuous–” Derek started.

My head whipped up, and he actually took a step back when I glared at him through eyesight bleary with tears. “Shut up. You could have stopped all this misery long ago with that thing, and didn’t. Maybe the demon you are now doesn’t care, but the angel you used to be should.” I shoved myself to my feet. “And you.” Right in Shaitan’s face. “Prince of Wrath. Offering for me to be your queen like it’s a gift, some kind of honor.” I waved a wild arm. “Rule over this? That would make me responsible for it.” I pointed a finger in his face. Only a sheer act of will prevented it from being my middle one. “Fuck you.”

“Freddi,” Zeeviel said. His sword blazed in his hand, in case of accidents, I assumed, since we were surrounded by demons. “Remember to Whom you belong.”

Shaitan grinned like he’d won the lottery. “I was right about you, Winifred. You would make a fine queen. So hot-blooded. You would strike terror into the hearts of my underlings.”

My hand darted forward and wrapped around his throat, and I yanked his face down into mine. “Let’s start with you.”

Shaitan let out a strangled urk, and his eyes widened. He tried to push away with his hands on my shoulders, but that only set his fingers on fire.

I pulled him closer, nose to nose. His eyebrows smoked. “Still think I’d make a good queen?”

“Perhaps not…?” he managed to wheeze.

I shoved him away, and he landed on his butt on the sidewalk. He frantically slapped his hands against his thighs to put the flames out.

“Am I clear,” I asked, leaning over him, “or do I need to start over and use smaller words?”

“Quite clear. Crystal.” A sudden grin wreathed his features, and he leaned back on his hands. “I still like you, Winifred. And in honor of your fiery spirit, I will stand at the side of Mephistopheles in his fight against Lucifer.”

I hadn’t expected that. “Really?”

“Really.” He clambered to his cloven-hoofed feet. “I’d shake on it, but my hands have been set alight once today, and that is once too many. Give Meph my regards.”

He clapped his wings forward and disappeared with a whoosh of displaced air. A bolt of lightning struck the ground where he’d stood.

Anthony blinked a few times. “What just happened?”

Derek scrubbed a hand over his face. “We dodged a bullet fired by Miss Temper Tantrum. Lucky for us, Shai was amused instead of offended by her costing him two souls.”

I looked around for the gun, but it was gone. “Oh, no,” Derek said wagging a finger at me. “Neither of you gets that back now that we know what it can really do. Just imagine the havoc you’d wreak with the thing, dispensing mercy in a place not built for it.”

“He was my brother. I couldn’t just leave him here.” Tears welled up again, and I squeezed my eyes shut. “And he may not be in a better place, but at least he’s not in this one anymore.” I took a deep, shuddering breath, locking back my rage and sorrow at the whole untenable situation.

Zeeviel wrapped a wing around me. It was still singed, and I combed my fingers through the feathers. “I don’t want to be here anymore, Zeeviel,” I whispered. Not that I’d ever wanted to be in Hell, but the events of the past few minutes had blown through my coping mechanisms.

“I know.” He placed a grace-filled kiss on top of my head. It didn’t quite make me feel better, but I appreciated the gesture. “Let’s go, Derek, yes?”

Anthony looked stricken. “I don’t much like the idea of walking around in this place unarmed.”

“No, I suppose you wouldn’t,” Derek said sourly. “Give me a minute.” He closed his eyes, looking for all the world like he was tallying on his fingers. “Aha. This should do.” A matte-black .40-cal semi-auto appeared in his hand. “Same principle, but not quite as much oomph. You might need to shoot someone two or three times instead of just the once.”

Anthony eyed the thing dubiously, checked that there was a round in the chamber, and holstered it. “So that was fun,” he said. “Hell is full of delightful surprises.”

“Wait until you meet Leviathan,” Derek said with a toothy grin. Anthony and I gave him puzzled looks, and he clarified. “Prince of Envy. I’m not sure anything’s prepared you for that.”

“We’re at two Princes apiece now,” Anthony mused. “That’s got to count for something, right?”

“Depends on what we’re counting,” Derek said. “And how badly Freddi’s faith was shaken by that encounter.”

I lifted my chin, pushing my grief into a place demons wouldn’t be privy to it. “Not at all.” It was mostly true, but my private doubts were mine alone. “So what does that do for the case of bitter you carry around like a crate of rotting lemons? You could cast that off and be free for the first time in thousands of years.”

Derek’s mouth compressed into a line so tight it whitened his lips before he spat, “This again. You think it would be that easy? I could just waltz up to the Pearly Gates and they’d let me in with open arms? Instead of immolating me on the spot for my insolence, thinking I was fit to stand in front of Daddy’s throne again?” He huffed, turned his back, and strode down the street. “Keep dreaming.”

“Isn’t the Bible full of stories about prodigal sons and lost sheep and found coins?” I called to his retreating back.

“The Son told those stories for you meatsacks, not for us,” he said without turning around. “We stood before the Throne and knew the fullness of our fault when we transgressed. Humans are born without the innate knowledge we had. You have to be taught.”

“Are you sure, though? I mean, surely there were demons following Him around too, if only as hangers-on to humans.”

“Mostly egging on the Pharisees. And we all know how that turned out.”

“I’m just saying that as the Son of God, He must have known about the demons. And maybe those stories were directed at them just as much as the people. Just because they didn’t realize it–”

Derek stopped dead and put his face in his hand. “You are making me very tired, Freddi.”

“Yeah, well, imagine what Hell is doing to me. I didn’t ask for this.”

He snorted and set off again. “Neither did I. And yet here we both are. Why is that, do you think?”

I was beginning to have my doubts about the “egregious clerical error” line. Maybe, a vicious internal voice said, you’re just a fraud who’s always belonged here and haven’t caught up to that fact yet. Your doubt damns you.

I shoved it back. “Maybe we both have more lessons to learn. Maybe me being here skews the balance of power just enough.”

“Balance of power into what, though?” Derek asked. “Is Meph really better than Lu in the end? They’re both demons lusting after power and prestige. Neither is picky about how they get those things. And demons lie. Could be Meph is just telling us what we want to hear so we’ll do his dirty work.”

“Two apiece, with Belphegor sitting it out,” Zeeviel mused. “Mammon hasn’t made up his mind, and we’ve yet to beard Leviathan.”

His odor preceding him, Mephistopheles fell into step beside us from thin air. “Maybe you should try convincing Belphegor that teaming up with me is the easy way out,” he said. “This should be obvious. Do I have to do all the work around here?”

“From what I’ve seen, you’re not doing any of it,” I said tartly. “Are you just hiding in the background while we run around doing your recruiting for you? Shouldn’t you be talking to these Princes yourself?”

“If he did that, he couldn’t blame someone else if it failed,” Zeeviel pointed out. “This way he doesn’t get his hands dirty, and the only way Lucifer traces it back to him is if people blab.” He lowered one eyebrow at Meph. “And you realize that people will blab, right? There’s so much jockeying for position down here that you should be running daily horse races just to keep track of who’s up and who’s down.”

“Don’t give him any ideas,” I said. “Why would you inflict Hell on horses? I like horses.”

“Hellhound races, maybe, then,” Zeeviel conceded.

“Oh, but we have those already,” Meph said. “They chase damned souls instead of mechanical rabbits. Very entertaining when they manage to catch one. Which is often.”

“Could you get any more disgusting?” I asked. “Because ew.”

“Demons,” Derek pointed out. “Are you really surprised at what they do for fun, Freddi?”

“No, not really.” I hoped I’d be forgiven for being grouchy about it. “I would like to be, though. Just once.”

Huh. He’d said “they.” Not “we.”

I elected not to say anything about that in front of Mephistopheles. Or anyone else in the demon set, for that matter. Maybe not even in front of Zeeviel and Anthony. It might be easier for him to not walk it back if it was just me.

“You’re getting closer to the river and Leviathan,” Meph said. “Derek, you’ve got Mammon’s ear. Which way do you think he’s leaning?”

“Boss-man’s hard to read sometimes.” Derek shrugged. “He plays his cards close to his vest. Something this big, I won’t know until he tells me. And he’s been known to bluff.”

“I will be most unhappy if you fail me in this. You won’t like me when I’m unhappy.”

We wouldn’t like Lucifer if he was unhappy either, I decided not to point out. And surely discovering that his second-in-command was sneakily angling for his job would make him unhappy. I wondered how he’d react. What he would do to the Princes who rebelled against him.

What he would do to Derek. And Anthony. Maybe even Zeeviel.

I didn’t care about the Princes. They could go spit, as far as I was concerned. However, I cared very much what happened to my fellow sojourners on this mad quest. Was I painting a target on them by recruiting for Meph? Lucifer couldn’t touch me, but he could and would hurt the others if he got wind of this.

And maybe he’d already heard and just bided his time, waiting for an opportune moment to strike.

The politics of Hell made my head ache. Why couldn’t all these idiots see reason?

I looked around and had my answer. Thousands of years of lust, sloth, gluttony, greed, pride, wrath, and envy. Those were the basic sins that wove themselves into your core, and if you fed on them instead of giving them up daily, Hell was what happened to you. Eternal separation from God and everyone else. Shaitan didn’t have a hold on me because I knew wrath was my weakness, and I always spent the first and last minutes of every day praying that the Lord would remove it from my heart, rather than wallowing in it.

I had to get Derek and Anthony out of here. Had to. No matter what happened with Meph’s plan, because even if he succeeded, it was still Hell. If he failed…

I shivered. It didn’t bear thinking about.

They’d told me over and over that I was the most powerful person in the place. Time to test that, maybe. Because if I couldn’t save the people closest to me, then that made me a nobody here, just as much as I was a nobody on Earth and worse than being a nobody in Heaven. At least in Heaven, I’d still know I was loved. On Earth, I’d managed to do some good with my short life, according to Zeeviel. He was an angel; he couldn’t lie.

If I couldn’t do good in Hell, then why was I even here? God clearly had a plan in all this. I just had to figure out what it was.

“So what’s your strategy if you succeed in overthrowing Lucifer?” I asked Meph.

“Hopefully making cooler heads prevail at Armageddon, like I said.”

I spun in a slow circle and stopped when I faced him again. “And what about in the meantime? Armageddon might not be for thousands of years.” My arm waved at the suffering surrounding us. “What about all this?”

He frowned, puzzled. “All this? What’s wrong with all this?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just… everything?” A piglet ran past me, surrounded by buzzing flies. “I get that we’re in Hell and it’s not supposed to be a pleasure jaunt, but just because you all Fell doesn’t mean you have to make the damned souls under your dubious care more miserable than you are.”

“That’s actually rather the point, my dear,” Meph said.

“Is it? Isn’t eternal separation from God and everyone else awful enough without adding torture to the mix? To be alone in the dark, forever, unable to interact with anybody at all?” I stopped short on the sidewalk, because Beelzebub was back. Apparently we’d wandered into his neighborhood again.

He sat at a café table with a basket of souls in front of him, and he flicked his fingers as if shooing us away. “Don’t mind me. I learned my lesson.” He tossed a screaming man into the air like popcorn, and the unfortunate landed in his mouth and disappeared as the shrieks muffled and then faded out completely.

“That. That right there. Is what I’m talking about. What are you going to do about that?” I demanded.

“Hell was originally meant as a punishment for demons, not a playground,” Zeeviel said. “You’ve managed to turn it into your own private amusement park.”

“Lemons, lemonade. Father can’t cast us out and then complain when we make the best of a bad situation.” Meph shrugged. “And I can’t really run on a platform of ‘get behind me and I’ll make your lives miserable again!’ now, can I?”

“Spreading the misery doesn’t make you personally any less miserable, though,” Zeeviel pointed out. “These souls chose separation from Father. While I doubt they apprehended completely what they were getting themselves into by making that choice, this strikes me as over the top.”

So it was even getting to Zeeviel.

“Well, it’s not like we’re going to make friends with them, little brother,” Meph said. “What do you suggest we do?”

“Leave them alone. Once they realize the enormity of that fate, surely it’s enough.”

Anthony flinched. “I don’t know what would be worse, honestly. Being completely alone for eternity, or being tortured for that same eternity. At least with the torture, there’s interaction. You’re not alone in the dark, stuck in your own head. I did a sensory deprivation tank once on a dare in college.” He shuddered. “Never again. It was the worst.”

That was an interesting perspective. Just like demons to twist the purpose of a place for their own entertainment, but what if the alternative meant the souls suffered more? There were no easy answers. Life was messy. Apparently the afterlife was messy too, at least in Hell.

“All things work together for good,” I muttered.

“Can you not do that?” Meph said.

“Why?” I planted my fists on my hips. “Even the devil can quote scripture if it suits him.”

“Just because we can doesn’t mean we like to, and we only do it when we’re slanting it our way. It’s not like we mean it.” He grinned. It was an unpleasant expression. “Besides, the end of that scripture is ‘for those who love God,’ and folks of that ilk are thin on the ground around here. In fact, I count two in the entirety of Hell, and we’re working on them.”

I smiled back with a few more teeth than I needed. “I’d wish you luck, but not so much, actually.”

“It’s not over yet, little miss.”

“I hear some of you are hedging your bets. Might want to hedge yours too, Skunky.”

“You’re a sassy little minx. No wonder Shaitan likes you so much.”

“The fact that he likes me means he’s on your side now. You’re welcome. Now, do you mind? I’ve got a river to cross.” I stepped around him. “In the meantime, think about what I’ve said.”

“I’m taking all factors into consideration.” He moved aside with a little bow. “Everything should be turned upside down on occasion. It lets in air and light. And while we’re not big on light in Hell, you’ve certainly stirred things up. Please continue to do so.”

“I’m pretty sure my mere existence stirs things up, but I’ll keep on keepin’ on. Again, you’re welcome, but only because I hope it’ll mitigate that final battle everyone’s worried about. I also hope that it might change things for the better down here.” Speaking of light, the iron-gray clouds were now shot through with red streaks, and I worried that this meant the veil between worlds Lucifer had talked about was thinning.

Meph gave me a sloppy salute, and we headed back down the sidewalk, dodging swine and waving flies away. “Beelzebub should really clean this place up,” Anthony said, after nearly tripping over a herd of tiny red-striped piglets. “What’s with all the wildlife?”

“You may have noticed the different neighborhoods?” Derek said. “The Princes have animals associated with them. Beelzebub got pigs.”

The pigs were smelly and annoying, but why should they be any different than anything else? I would be so friggin’ glad when we got to the river. Then we could talk to Leviathan and I’d be able to lay any remaining doubts I had to rest, going to my Heavenly reward.

The fact that I’d have to leave Anthony and Derek behind weighed on me. Derek’s situation seemed inherently unfair, and I shuddered inwardly as I imagined years of unrelenting torment. I wondered if I’d be strong enough to endure what he had without breaking far sooner. Maybe I was only strong because they couldn’t touch me.

When it came down to it, I’d never really suffered for my faith. Name-calling here and there, snickers when my back was turned, but I shrugged that off. No one had ever physically threatened me because of it. No one had ever said “renounce your faith or die, or worse, we torture you forever.” I wondered what it would be like to pray for help that never came, and then break so hard I couldn’t forgive my own family for failing to do something physically impossible.

“You’re getting broody again,” Zeeviel said. I’d fallen behind.

“We’re almost done.” I took a breath. “I don’t want to leave them here, Zeeviel. It hurts. It hurts to think of Anthony being in torment for eternity and it hurts to think of Derek being stuck like that.”

Zeeviel’s wings slumped. “You cannot save them all, Freddi.”

“I don’t want to save them all.” I wasn’t an angel, so I could lie. Was it a lie if Zeeviel knew it was a lie? Of course I wanted to save them all. “I’ll settle for those two.” The two in my immediate sphere, the two I might have some influence over. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. All things, Zeeviel. Not just some things, or easy things.”

He sighed. “They both made choices. They both reap the consequences.”

“What happened to Derek was monstrous,” I said furiously. “Are you telling me there’s no coming back from something like that? He didn’t want to Fall or he would have done it when Lucifer rebelled. Everyone’s got a breaking point, and there’s no shame in hitting it.”

“Perhaps not. But when they permitted him to leave, he didn’t even try to come Home, Freddi. He set up at a crossroads and started bilking people out of their souls.”

“Well, look at it from his point of view. No one came to save him. He Fell. They spent how long telling him that was it, that he was irredeemably stuck for eternity? He made the best he could out of an awful situation. He externalized his inward fury at his failure, and turned it around on not just you, but also your brothers, and God. I’m not sure I blame him at the end of the day.” I held up a hand. “Not that I think it’s anyone’s actual fault but the demons who tortured him, and especially not yours.”

“There is blame enough to go around, I think,” Zeeviel said. “I just wish he’d come Home immediately after they allowed him out. We would have taken him in and healed his hurts, inward and out.”

An audible snort sounded from ahead of us. Derek turned around to walk backward, and those huge misshapen bat wings burst from his back and fanned overhead. “Because presenting myself at Heaven’s gate with these things wouldn’t be a sure ticket to Beheading City.”

“You didn’t even try, brother.”

“Why would I? I’d already been rejected the once, and that was more than enough. Do you know what it’s like to Fall, Zeeviel? Has anyone described that particular sensation to you?”

Zeeviel shivered. I wasn’t sure I’d seen him do that before. “No,” he said, his voice so low I hardly heard.

“Well, let me educate you, big brother.” Derek’s face was a mask of fury. “Imagine being set afire while dull and rusty razorblades slice you to the bone and acid unravels you cell by cell. And then your wings–” He choked. “The feathers take an age to fall out, and there’s no way to stop the drift of down as you realize just how much you’ve lost. When the last one drops, a freezing icepick stabs the wing roots–but it doesn’t numb them, because that would be too easy. Meanwhile, something you can’t even see tears them apart, shredding the flesh and snapping the bones before ripping them bodily off your back. These things–” He flapped the bat wings, just once. “Slam home into the empty sockets. And they burn.”

He slumped against a lamppost, sliding down to sit on the filthy sidewalk with his elbows on his bent knees and his head resting in the crooks. The wings wrapped around his body. His voice sank to a whisper. “They burn forever.”

Anguish crushed my heart. Anthony stood stricken. In three fast strides, Zeeviel was beside Derek, kneeling and embracing him with arms and wings, enveloping him in feathers. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry, little brother. You didn’t deserve that. You didn’t. It was grotesquely unjust. If I’d known…” He shook his head, barely able to speak through tears. “We couldn’t find you, and we finally thought you dead. Not.” He choked on a sob. “Not here.”

I stumbled over to stand beside Zeeviel, resting a hand on his shoulder and sending out a trickle of Grace. It wasn’t much, but it was what I could do, since I couldn’t touch Derek. Anthony came and wrapped an arm around me, solid and comforting.

“Well, isn’t this a pretty picture.”

“Belphegor,” I said, without looking around. “This isn’t the time for your unique brand of heckling.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, sweetheart. It’s always the time for my unique brand of heckling, especially when Derek has bared his broken heart for all of you. Well done with Shaitan.” She gave us a slow golf clap. “But he’s always had a soft spot for Freddi, so I’m not sure he was ever in question if she threw her support behind Meph.”

“You should get onboard too,” Anthony said. “It’ll be easier in the long run.”

“Right. Because fighting a lopsided war is far less laborious than sitting on the sidelines with a daiquiri and watching the match play out.”

“Lopsided?”

“You’re two and two. Leviathan will be a tough nut to crack, and Mammon is still calculating odds. I’m not sure you’ll get either one of them.”

“All we can do is try,” I said. “How it shakes out in the end down here isn’t really our battle.”

“Maybe not yours, Freddi. Obviously not Zeeviel’s.” Belphegor studied Anthony. “And probably not his either, since he’s mine and we’re not playing. Derek, on the other hand, considering his involvement, will be right in the thick of it.”

Derek gave Zeeviel a feeble shove and clambered to his feet, scrubbing a hand over his face. “We’ll see. In the meantime, I guess it’s time for that final push to the river.” He sketched off a sloppy salute. “Belphegor. Pleasure as always.”

“Think on all this, Derek,” she called after us.

“That’s all I’m doing,” he muttered, stalking away with stiff shoulders and clenched fists.

I exchanged glances with Zeeviel and Anthony, and we girded our loins and followed after.

“Final push?” I asked as I caught up to Derek.

“It’s close. Not sure how close, because geography in Hell is iffy at the best of times, which these are not. But we’re going the right way and I can feel the damned thing. Along with Leviathan’s rage. If he decides he doesn’t like us, the previous battles will seem like a schoolyard fight.”

“I thought Leviathan was envy,” Anthony said. “What does rage have to do with it? Isn’t that Shaitan’s bailiwick?”

“Understand we all have aspects of all the Seven Deadlies,” Derek said. “The Princes concentrate on one, and usually that one is so overpowering it dwarfs the others. Leviathan has gotten real single-minded with the envy bit, but he’s also exceedingly wrathful at how that whole thing transpired with him and his mate. And then there’s the lust aspect. He’s mated once in his entire life, so he’s sexually frustrated too.”

I didn’t know the story. “So what happened?”

“Word has it that Daddy created Leviathan’s species, male and female, but He done fouled up the proportions. He realized that if they were allowed to procreate, they’d destroy the Earth. So He killed off the female, who was pregnant–being so large, the species had a long gestation period–leaving Leviathan as the only creature alone on the planet. Envious of all the other creatures who had a mate, Lev used that to ascend as the Prince of that particular sin, even though there were demons lined up who wanted it. He fought them all and was the last one standing. In a manner of speaking. Since he’s a sea monster. He’s the only mortal who’s actually succeeded in becoming a real demon.”

“You said ‘word has it,’“ I said. “What’s the real story? Because God doesn’t strike me as the kind of Person who creates something and then goes ‘oopsie.’ ”

“You learn quick, don’t you.” He shot me that grin, apparently regaining his emotional equilibrium. “Between the time Lev’s mate got pregnant and the time she was killed, the Rebellion happened. So word also has it that Lu killed the mate and set Dad up to take the blame. People see what they expect to see, and why would Lucifer want the biggest sea creature of all time down in Hell with him? Wouldn’t that skew the balance of power?”

“If Leviathan was on his side,” I said, sussing it out, “I’d imagine that Lucifer would want him down here. A skewed power balance is fine with him as long as it’s skewed in his direction, right?”

“Ding ding ding!”

“But why hasn’t anyone told Leviathan the truth?” Anthony asked.

“They have. Or they’ve tried. Because power plays, as you may have realized, are a thing down here. Lev doesn’t believe them. He’d rather go on irrationally hating Daddy Dearest. Old habits, I guess. It’s easier to believe a lie than it is to think you’ve been duped the entire–”

He stopped abruptly. “Son of a bitch.”

Before he could elaborate, Mammon popped into being in front of us. “Hello, Derek,” he said, slowly tilting his head and lifting a lip over his fangs. “Do you have something you wish to share with the rest of the class?”

“Here and now? No, sir, I do not.”

“Good.” An unreadable glance passed between them.

Derek’s mouth tightened and turned down at the corners. “That’s how it is?”

“Careful, cockroach.” Mammon bristled, and his wolflike aspect intensified, voice turning to a growl. “You serve at my pleasure. Do not forget that.”

“How can I when I’m constantly reminded? Can we go and talk to Lev, now, boss?”

“You may. So long as you remain loyal to those to whom you’re beholden. Which should be me at the top of that list.”

“Yeah, yeah. Be seeing you around.”

Mammon disappeared without a goodbye, and Derek resumed walking, muttering. I fell into stride beside him.

“You seemed to come to some sort of realization there,” I said gently. “Want to talk about it?”

“With you, down here, and ears everywhere? Oh holy fuck no.”

“Might be the last chance we get.” A new odor drifted around us. I’m the only one I know who has successfully managed to burn water while attempting to cook, and that’s what this smelled like, with an underlying hint of rotting fish and ozone. “It feels like we’re close.”

“That’s because we are. Leviathan isn’t a land critter, so he lives in the river. Once we get there, we’ve reached both your goal and the last of the Seven we need to talk to.”

Derek’s faith had been broken by torture long ago. He’d found a new balance, and I wondered if I was only strong because I knew they couldn’t touch me, and what would happen if they managed to find a way around that handicap. Would I be able to endure as long as he had? I didn’t know, and I was afraid to find out. I needed to get out of here. And I had to take him and Anthony with me.

“There’s a promise,” I said softly. “That if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive them, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Derek inhaled slowly, and let the breath out just as slowly. Rage smoldered behind his eyes for a brief instant, and then it went out and he just looked tired. “If He’d been faithful and just in the first place, I wouldn’t be here. Maybe He ought to confess His sins to me first.”

And there wasn’t anything I could really say to that.