“Thank you, so very much, for that mental image,” Ryan said, pinching the bridge of his nose. Arachne moved forward to speak again, and Dianmu intercepted her. Ryan couldn’t hear what was said in those hushed whispers, but it seemed like it at least got through to her. “Arthur, I’m sorry if I was rude initially. But I thought this matter was settled. I restored Uriel after what Moloch did to her.”
Uriel stepped forward smoothly. “And I said I was in your debt. That is a debt that will be repaid, but it remains between you and me. Your debt with Arthur is a different matter.”
“You said you’d convince him,” Ryan said, growling the words.
“Yes. I was in error.”
Ryan wanted to ground his teeth together and turned towards Arthur. “I don’t know what you heard, but we have a week left before the sun explodes. I can possibly extend that deadline some, but not by much.”
Now on to the part. And if you get a chance, I’d appreciate a review for Strange Cosmology!
Arachne sat back down in her chair and sighed. “Well…he’s a prick.”
“He’s not though,” Athena said with a sigh, settling into her chair. “He’s been as helpful as the constraints of his position allow. Being the King of Hell carries…limitations.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t honor the earlier favor,” Dianmu said, her forehead creased with thought.
“I’m not,” Anansi said. Ryan looked at him in confusion, and Anansi leaned forward. “Ryan. You have a fallen angel in your debt now. Arthur and Uriel just handed you a very powerful weapon and gave you almost free reign to point it however you want. Thus far, everything they’ve done – as obnoxious as it has been – has been for a reason. Do you honestly think they didn’t do that intentionally?”
Ryan chewed his cheek. “I see your point,” he said after he had considered for a few seconds. “I could just ask her to take out Kali and we’d be clear, right?”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Crystal interjected. “You, at best, are going to get a life for a life. Kali goes down that leaves the psycho princesses and their super soldier puppets running around without her influence. Kali is incredibly dangerous, but she’s sane and reasonable. We want influence to gather around her. And before you say it, I wouldn’t have her get the bloody staff of Ra back. As much as I would love to have that out of Kali’s hands, there’s a better use for Uriel – something that no other being could match.”
“I’m listening,” Ryan said.
“Wormhole transportation, love. We’ve been talking about sticking them in various gods’ staging areas and sending them all to take them to another world, but no one has a clear plan how to get enough gods to do that. Each staging area could handle maybe, what, five wormholes? We need hundreds to pull this off. Maybe thousands if we want to avoid people trampling each other trying to get to them. Uriel can just bloody tow all of them through space and distributed them across the world – and probably do it quicker than even a staging area travels.” Crystal’s eyes were alight with the possibilities. “The biggest flaw to this whole plan was getting them into place. With Uriel, that problem gets solved.”
Ryan sat there in silence. “Did he think of that?” he asked, mostly to himself.
“Probably not,” Dianmu said, “although he’ll likely pretend he did. He likely figured out that you could use her power for something. Or perhaps Uriel did, and deliberately made that deal knowing that something like this would happen.”
“Okay,” Ryan said, feeling a bit relieved. Then he really thought through what Crystal had said, and started to smile. “That’s great, then. We’ve got one huge hole plugged. But…tell me what I’m overlooking with giving Arthur’s followers their own wormholes. It sounds like there’s nothing wrong with it, especially since Uriel will mean we don’t have less portals for everyone else.”
“The moment it’s leaked that you’re giving preferential treatment to them, you’ll have riots on your hands,” Athena said promptly.
Arachne nodded, although the sour turn to her lip made it clear she was less than pleased about agreeing with her former mentor. “It will be pandemonium. You’ll have people thinking you’re leading them into a trap, or that you’re sending his followers somewhere else.”
“You already have been accused of being the Antichrist,” Crystal added. “It’s going to make trusting you hard enough, love. People will start claiming that going through the wormholes is basically the same as getting the mark of the bloody Beast. I mean, they’re probably going to do that anyway, but it’ll be even stronger.”
Ryan stood up and began to pace. “So, what do I do? What happens if I refuse the bargain?”
“If you refuse it,” Athena said, obviously picking her words with great care, “Arthur will undo the bargain. He’ll have to.”
“So Isabel loses her soulstone?”
“That’s not all,” Athena said. “He’ll be required to undo everything that happened because of the soulstone that he can. He can’t change the past, but when he takes away Isabel’s soulstone…she’ll suffer all the injuries that she already healed.”
Ryan froze on the spot. “Crystal…could she survive that?”
“I’m sorry,” Crystal said. It wasn’t a direct answer, but it wasn’t hard for Ryan to divine its meaning.
“Then I have to. I can’t…I’m not sacrificing my sister.”
“I don’t think you get to make that call for me,” said a voice from the doorway. Isabel had walked over and was leaning against the frame.
“Isabel…” Ryan started to say.
“Nope. I don’t know what we’re even talking about, but you don’t get to decide for me, jerk. Now, tell me why we might need to sacrifice me.”
Ryan pursed his lips and broke it down in simple, curt terms.
Isabel shook her head. “If it’s me or millions of people, that’s an easy call. I’m just one person.”
“You’re my sister,” Ryan said.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I should get to survive over all those-”
“Wait,” Arachne interjected, cutting in the argument. “Let’s not look at this as a simple ‘one or the other’ situation. Think for a moment. If you all say Arthur’s reasonable, then he might be willing to flex the terms of the bargain some.”
Everyone went silent to think. Finally, Anansi’s face broke into a grin. “I think I know exactly how we can do it.”
He explained. They debated.
And, after some discussion, Ryan walked out to where Arthur and Uriel were waiting. Arthur was leaning back, smoking a cigarette. Uriel was next to him, one wing extended behind him, wrapped around his shoulders and half his body. It was a surprisingly intimate stance – Ryan felt like he’d walked in on them curled up on a couch. At his approach, Arthur flicked out the cigarette and Uriel withdrew her wing. “So, decided?” Arthur asked.
“I did. I’ll do it – but there’s a condition.”
“Oh, this should be good,” Arthur said.
Ryan grimaced at his tone but forged ahead. “Amy Preston. She goes through one of the public portals. No preferential treatment.”
Arthur’s eyebrows furrowed. “You want me to put my first convert, most loyal church member, and Heresiarch of my faith in with the masses?”
“Yes,” Ryan said. “Publicly. On camera. If word gets out that we’re giving you your own portals, I’d like some defense against the claims this is some kind of weird Satanic trap.”
“I’m not putting her in danger,” Arthur said. Ryan was surprised at the heat in his voice. As far as he’d ever seen, Arthur only cared about two people – himself and Uriel. Only he was negotiating to save his followers. Is it something other than his ego?
“I’ll make sure she isn’t. I’ll personally see her safely through.”
Arthur glared at Ryan for a second, and finally gave him a curt nod. “I’ll hold you to that. We done here?”
“Not yet,” Ryan said, turning towards Uriel, “there’s the small matter of the unsettled debt between us.”
Uriel nodded and, after Ryan explained, agreed.
And with that, the nobility of Hell was gone.
Apologies for the paperback delay – I hope to have it out soon, but Amazon’s been giving me pushback on the cover I’m working to fix.