Strange Cosmology Part 105

Note: Today’s part contains an important retcon for an earlier scene. The earlier scene will be changed later. For more details about the retcon and why, Click Here

“Hey Ryan. We won.” Isabel frowned in thought. “Or I think we’re winning?”

From the ground, Ryan raised his hand and gave Isabel a thumbs up. “You turned into animals,” he said, not wanting to risk pushing himself into a sitting position.

“Yeah, Arthur made me a stone full of animal souls. I can channel them to shapeshift, which is great. I can also burn a soul to prolong my life.” She leaned over Ryan. “Apparently this fulfills a deal you made with him on my behalf without asking me about it?”

“Yup,” Ryan said, ignoring the accusation in her tone. “How about the others?”

Isabel sighed. “Crystal’s alive and making her way over, Artemis – oh, Artemis showed up at the last second, by the way – is over with Athena, and Anansi and Dianmu are getting back to their feet. Everyone’s as beat to hell as you are.” Isabel put her hands on her hips and glowered at Ryan. “Although none of them can be killed as easily as you. Why the hell do you go into these fights? Why would anyone?”

Ryan shook his head. “I can’t ask them to fight for me.”

“Bullshit, Ryan. You totally could. Even ignoring worry about your own life, you still should worry what happens to the world if you died.”

Ryan smiled. “I was worried about you too, Izzy.” Isabel let out a huff of air, wincing as soon as she did. Ryan sat up. “What’s wrong?”

“Asshole cracked my sternum with that strong arm. And before you say something, yes, I apparently know exactly what bone he broke. Side effect or something.” Isabel offered a hand to help him up as Crystal strode into view.

“Hey,” Ryan said to Crystal, “you doing alright?”

“Love, I found out that my old mentor was a monster that had been powering himself on human sacrifice for years. I’m beat to hell, my sodding Hungers are in full force, and we’re still in the middle of a battlefield surrounded by angry Olympians and monsters, and I’m not sure which group wants me dead more. I’m not even on the same planet as alright.” She gave Ryan and Isabel a small smile. “Though I’ll admit getting all that out there does help with it, yeah?”

“Fair,” Ryan said.

“If you need anything,” Isabel started, and Crystal shook her head.

“Thanks, love, but right now we need to finish this battle.”

“Like hell we do,” Dianmu snapped, approaching with Anansi.

Anansi nodded in agreement with Dianmu, “the Olympians can take it from here. Moloch is dealt with, they’ll be able to handle his armies.”

“And there’s no point to any of us risking even a temporary death at this point,” Dianmu continued. She pointed at Ryan and Isabel. “Especially those two, since it wouldn’t be temporary. Besides, we have something else to take care of.” Dianmu glanced behind her. “Uriel survived.”

Ryan pushed past the others to walk over to the twice fallen angel. Uriel was struggling to her feet, her eyes wide with pain.

“God Almighty,” she gasped to Ryan as he approached, “He…he made me mortal.”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “Glad you survived it. Besides – you kidnapped my sister. You could have gotten her killed.”

“She wasn’t in any danger, Ryan,” Uriel said. “I was there, and the deal with Moloch let me get involved directly in the fight. If not for that, I couldn’t have-”

“So what was your plan for protecting her if you got turned mortal?”

Uriel sighed. “There was no way to foresee-”

“Yeah, of course not.”

“Quit being an asswipe, Ryan,” Isabel said from behind him. “She’s hurt, you’re hurt, and she was trying to help. She knew Moloch was King, knew you’d need backup. I’m mortal so she could tell me. Why do you think I agreed to go along with it?”

Ryan frowned. “Agreed?”

“Yeah,” Isabel said, “you think she just whisked me away?”

Ryan looked at Uriel, who nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell us, then?” he demanded of the angel.

“Me again,” Isabel interrupted. “Ryan, you have a terrible poker face. No way could we risk Moloch figuring out what we were up to.”

Ryan glowered at Isabel, then at Uriel, and then at the world in general. “Fine. I’m going to fulfill my debt to your boss, then.”

“You didn’t agree to choose the method of filling it,” Uriel said, carefully.

“Nope. But I saw what Moloch did to you. I can’t just undo it – I’m not him – but I definitely know a way to help. Think he’ll accept that?”

“I’ll persuade him if needs be,” Uriel said quickly.

“Great. I have you word on that?” Uriel nodded, and Ryan offered her a hand. “Come on, then. Athena is waving for us to follow, and it looks like we have a couple Olympians to escort us back to the Rest.”

Uriel took the hand, and Ryan helped her to her feet.

“Ryan, Isabel” Athena said as they approached, “I’d like you to meet Nike,” Athena gestured to a woman lounging with a massive shield and a spear nearly three times as long as Ryan was tall, “and Kratos,” she indicated the other god, a thin but muscular man leaning against a sword that was longer than he was tall.

Ryan’s eyes bulged at the two of them. “Nike and Kratos? You both are famous!”

“Come again?” Nike asked, frowning.

“You got chosen to represent a line of shoes. And Kratos, you’re in video games as the god of war.”

Kratos’ forehead furrowed. “That’s stupid. Ares is God of War. And what is a video game?”

“It’s…” Ryan stared at him, and at Nike, who looked equally perplexed. “Nevermind, it’d be hard to explain.”

“We’re famous,” Nike said, grinning at Kratos. “It may be for strange things, but we’re famous.”

“Never been famous before. Think I’ll get to replace Ares if he doesn’t resurrect?”

Athena frowned. “Why wouldn’t he resurrect?”

“Don’t know.” Kratos shrugged. “It’s been an odd few days.”

Isabel started tugging on Ryan’s sleeve. “Ryan, what is going on? Can you understand them?”

“Of course I can. Why…” Ryan replayed the last few minutes in his head and realized what he’d heard didn’t jive with what his brain had interpreted. “Holy crap, I understood Greek.”

Athena smiled. “Glossolalia. One step closer to Apotheosis.”

“But not there yet?” Ryan asked.

“Not yet.”

“Damn.”

“Enough chatter,” Kratos growled. “We have to get you all to safety, and I don’t want to miss the entire battle.”

“Neither do I,” Nike added.

Athena nodded, and they headed to the Elysian Rest.

Strange Cosmology Part 99

“They’re fighting for their lives – and ours – right now. And you want to do nothing?” Artemis had to fight the urge to scream those last words, hissing them through clenched teeth instead. The megaron was in chaos. Everyone was clamoring to shout over each other. It was less a congress of the gods and more of an ill tamed mob.

“-tore Hermes apart, and you-“

“-don’t know what he wants, an agreement could be-“

“-fighting Athena, he can’t be that bad in-“

“-what about the human sacrifice, we can’t ignore-“

Poseidon sat in on the throne, watching and listening, although his attention was focused on Artemis.  “I didn’t say I wanted to do nothing. I just said that we should consider all options.”

“Our defenses won’t hold forever, Poseidon. You know that as well as I do.” Hearing the sea god over the din was hard enough. “And we have traitors in our midst. Moloch will get through, be it brute force or treachery. “

“I find your evidence for other traitors…lukewarm, at best. Hera was misguided, and by your own admittance, Ares only said he ‘talked to other gods.’ Assuming he was telling the truth, that doesn’t mean they agreed with him, or that they’ll go ahead with their plan absent Ares.”

“Fine!” Artemis couldn’t prevent herself from  snapping. Poseidon sounded so reasonable, so logical, so calm. He also sounded completely wrong. “He will still wear us down, Poseidon. Even if there aren’t traitors, which I disagree with, you can’t deny that. We don’t have the fields, our Hungers will claim us before Moloch wears out.”

Poseidon nodded. “Which is why I’m not suggesting we sit inactive. However, we cannot just blindly rush out to join in the fight.”

The general clamor behind them was getting louder. Artemis glanced over. Apollo was shouting directly in Heracles face. Demeter was gesticulating firmly as she tried to make her points to Hephaestus, whatever they were. Aphrodite was in a huddled conversation with Dionysus, being relatively quiet – which just meant they weren’t shouting.

“We aren’t blind,” Artemis growled. “There’s an army of horrors on our doorstep. We’re the opposite of blind, we can see them through the damn window! Why won’t you act?”

Poseidon frowned, and Thalassa leaned in, putting a hand on Poseidon’s shoulder.  “Artemis, we are not convinced we should be aiding Moloch’s adversaries. They are the ones with a stated goal of ending the world.”

Artemis took a deep breath. “One group brought an army to our doorstep. The other is fighting against that army. And you think we should be more worried about the latter?”

“There is the matter of Earth,” Poseidon began, but before he could continue Artemis cut in.

“Earth? You pretend we suddenly care about what happens on Earth? None of us have set foot upon our home in hundreds of years. We abandoned Olympus, we abandoned Earth. Only Hades and Athene remained free! Now you claim you care about Earth? It’s an excuse, Poseidon, and you know it.”

Poseidon sighed and looking over at Thalassa, who was frowning. Snippets of conversation began to reach Artemis’ ears in the silence.

“-die if we try-“

“-he’s crushing nanoverses out there-“

“-just felled an angel, how strong is-“

Artemis’ eyes narrowed as Poseidon and Thalassa sat there. “The do something. Anything! Just stop sitting there. Restore order!”

Poseidon nodded and stood up. “Silence!” he bellowed, his voice echoing through the megaron.

One by one, like the last drops of a passing rainstorm, the gods fell silent.

When Poseidon continued, his tone was calmer, more level. “I understand how hard this is. It’s a situation we’ve never faced before – we’ve never faced a foe where we could not be sure of victory. Even when we warred against the Aesir, we believed our victory was assured. Artemis and I both agree we cannot remain behind our defenses indefinitely.  Can all present agree with us on that?”

Artemis scanned the crowd as they hesitantly nodded. Now that they weren’t shouting at each other, Athena could see the looks on their faces. The furrowed brows, the clasped hands.

Moloch had managed to strike fear into the hearts of the gods of Olympus.

“Excellent,” Poseidon continued, stepping forward magnanimously. “Artemis believes that we should go out and aid Moloch’s aggressors. Athena. Ishtar. A man calling himself Eschaton, a man who willingly names himself the End Times, and others.” Artemis noted he had glossed over Dianmu, who had little to do with the gods of Olympus, and Anansi, who most of them at least liked. “It is a heroic goal. A noble goal. A goal worthy of Achilles.”

Poseidon paused for effect, and Artemis was sure she was beaten. Everyone remembered the death of Achilles. Poseidon was calm, rational, and eloquent. Everything the Olympians loved in a god. I can’t out orate him, Athena thought, searching the crowd for anyone seeing they were being played.

None showed it on their faces.

“I commend Artemis for her heroism. Especially since Artemis has long said she does not want glory. That she does not want power. Artemis has told you all how much she only wants to protect those who need it. It is noble for one whose goals are so altruistic to be willing to lead such a glorious charge.”

Artemis bit back the urge to roll her eyes. Surely the other gods could see though what he was doing. And yet…she noticed Hercules looking at her with narrowed eyes. Aphrodite tapping her chin. I know you all saw Shakespeare! We haven’t been gone for that long. Don’t tell me you’re falling for this!”

Poseidon evidently felt he’d made his point, and changed tactics. “Is it that hard to believe that those who come to fight the monster at our gates are here as friends? Even when they keep such distasteful company?” Poseidon nodded to himself. “And yet…I wonder. I wonder why Moloch has come to our gates. I wonder why he felt driven to attack us. I disagree with Artemis on one point. I do not believe that because we have withdrawn from the world, we should stop concerning ourselves over its fate.”

Mutters through the crowd, and all Artemis could do was clench her hands. That’s not what I meant. That’s not even close to what I meant! But if she tried to explain it away, it would just confuse matters.

“We all received the Curators messages, from both Enki and Ishtar – though she called herself Crystal. Both spoke of the end of the world. In this, both sides are agreed. We decided to sit here, to wait, and to see what happened. We dismissed the warning as mere folly. So why, then, would Moloch turn aside from his course? Why would Moloch come all this way to attack us?”

Poseidon leaned forward. “I posit that Moloch misunderstood our withdrawal. I believe that Moloch took umbrage at us believing we could sit out the end of the world.  I think that the monster at our gate is not the one that attacked us who heard of the end of the world and did nothing, but that the monster is those that would seek to end the world! I posit that our best course of action is to treat with Moloch, and aid him against his foes.”

The mass of gods were nodding, and Artemis felt her heart sink. Poseidon’s points were flawed. Artemis knew that. But they were presented well, they were logically reasoned, and more importantly they took away that fear.

Poseidon stepped aside to allow Artemis to make her counterpoint.

Bastard. Artemis stepped forward. She couldn’t match him for wits. She definitely wasn’t his equal with words.

So she reached for the weapon she had always been best at and drew her bow. The Olympians gasped as she knocked an arrow and fired it at a statue at the back of the room, striking it in the neck. It stuck into the marble, quivering. “One arrow does nothing,” she said quietly into the silence that followed. In quick succession, Artemis drew and fired four more. Each one hummed to their target, quivering in the stone when they impacted. “Four arrows do nothing.”

Then Artemis began to empty her quiver, shooting as fast as she ever had before, each arrow striking the neck of the marble statue or driving another of the arrows deeper. All of Olympus watched in absolute silence as Artemis emptied her bow until finally, with her last arrow, the statue’s head was severed. They all held their breaths as it began to shake on the statues shoulder, a breath that was not released until the head fell to the ground and shattered.

We don’t even need to breathe, but old habits die hard. Artemis waited until the statue finished ringing. “With an entire quiver, even arrows can break marble. And we are not mere arrows. We are gods! We have not acted as one against a threat this great.”

“We shut ourselves away from the world. We do not know what is happening, why Moloch is attacking. In this, Poseidon is right. But you do not believe him because he speaks rationality. He speaks to your fear. He thinks you cowards, and wishes to prey upon that cowardice.”

“I am afraid too. I swear it by any and every oath you may wish me to swear. I. Am. Afraid. And yet if we go out there to fight the obvious evil, to fight the man who brought an army to our doors – ” Artemis gestured with her bow towards the headless statue, “we will have him by the throat.”

Artemis turned to Posiedon, and found it in herself to smirk, “And if you think I do this for glory, I do not expect to find any. After all,” she dropped her bow to the floor, “I’m out of arrows.”

Artemis waited for a few more seconds of silence, taking deep breaths as she did, an old habit that still calmed her nerves. I’ve done what I could. Before someone else could break the silence, she bowed to Posiedon. “I do believe it’s time for a vote, don’t you?”

This time, the hall remained silent.


Small Worlds Book 1: Weird Theology is now available for preorder. More information here.

Strange Cosmology part 98

Small Worlds Book 1: Weird Theology is now available for preorder. More information here.


 

I really should have expected this, Moloch thought with a snarl as he reached out to grip reality and twist it to his whims.

Angels were able to manipulate the fabric of reality with an ease no god could match. That lead lesser gods to believe that angels were unbeatable. The problem was, they were thinking in terms of raw power.

Moloch had plenty of raw power, but never ascribed to the believe it was the most important part of things. Not even back in the old days.

The world stopped besides Uriel and Moloch.

The problem with angels was that they were billions of years old. And that meant that if you studied them long enough, they became predictable. Uriel always opened by accelerating her temporal reference frame. If you weren’t prepared for it, you’d be diced to ribbons before you could react. It was how she had killed the first born of Egypt in a single night.  If you did the same thing at the same time, it just meant you had an uninterrupted fight.

Moloch grinned as Uriel’s eyes widened, their swords meeting mid air. “Impossible,” the angel whispered.

“Obviously not.” Moloch whirled under Uriel’s blade and thrust his sword towards her chest. With a flap of her immense wings, Uriel  launched herself away from him. The angel was glancing around. Moloch decided to take advantage of that uncertainty. Three bolts of dark green lightning raced from his fingers. Uriel’s sword sung through the air. She moved so fast she was able to catch two of the bolts, but the third struck home.

Moloch applied pressure onto those surges of power now racing from his fingertip to Uriel. “You angels think you’re so much better than us,” he hissed. “So holy, so righteous. You’re a bunch of hypocrites. Where were you when they burned, Uriel? Where were you?

Uriel screamed in pain.

Around them, the battle was still mostly frozen, everything moving like it was swimming through amber. A lightning bolt was starting to form above Moloch at a glacial pace, a twist of reality from that upstart Eschaton. Beside him, his sister’s form started to blur again. An Eschaton and a Protean. What are the odds? He could see Dianmu, raising a glaive to meet a lunging draconic head. Anansi and Athena were hidden by the chaos of the melee.

Worst of all, Crystal was nowhere to be seen.

“You speak of your creator,” Moloch spat at Uriel. “You speak of his plan. You preach his Glory. Your creator is gone, Uriel. Your creator has abandoned us! The only gods that matter are us. The only truth that matters is ours. The only world that matters is the one I’m going to see burn in the sun.”

Then Uriel flapped her wings, breaking herself free of the green lightning.

“Electricity made of mortal souls,” she gasped, her form smouldering. “You play in forces beyond you, godling.”

Moloch lashed out again. “Nothing is beyond me!” he screamed.

This time, Uriel was prepared for the bolts of lighting. She dodged all three with a deft sweep of her wings that carried her above the battlefield.  With a quick flick, her ascent turned into a dive straight for Moloch, her sword elongating to a hooked halberd. She swung the weapon below herself as she passed over Moloch.

Moloch parried the blow, but Uriel was now a whirlwind, rising and diving too quickly for Moloch to do anything but defend himself. No. Not after everything I lost. Not after everything that’s happened. I will not be beaten by an angel!

Uriel’s blade slipped past Moloch’s defenses, biting into his shoulder. His sword arm fell limp by his side. “Little god!” she said, her eyes burning with divine wrath, “you twist the powers of creation, the fabric of reality. “ She swooped down again, and Moloch had to duck this attack. He was already moving as fast as time would allow, he couldn’t heal. “Your powers are limited but your Hungers. I have no Hungers.” Uriel’s next strike sliced a line in Moloch’s thigh. “You manipulate laws, but those laws were put in place by my Creator.” Another dive, and Moloch screamed in pain as the fingers on his left hand were severed. “You forget that I. Am. Those. Laws.” Uriel landed and ran Moloch through.

Moloch slumped forward on the halberd. Oh. You are, aren’t you? Uriel was panting from the effort.

She dropped the halberd as Moloch started laughing, sliding forward on the weapon that was impaled through his chest. “You…you’re laughing. You’re going to die, Moloch. You’ve lost. What on Earth is possibly fun-uphg.”

Moloch’s hand shot up to cover her face. “Because, Uriel. You are made of the Laws.” Uriel started to struggle against the grasp, but Moloch was already twisting reality as he did. “You are woven into the fabric of reality as firmly as gravity. As firmly as light. And as I am their master…so I am able to master you.”

Moloch removed his hand.Time’s normal flow resumed. Ryan’s lightning bolt struck the ground where Moloch had been standing, and Isabel melted into the form of a wolf. A quick twist to reality allowed Moloch’s wounds to heal.

Uriel stood there, staring at her hands, backing away from him and gasping. Repeatly. “What did…you do to me.”

Moloch smiled. “Welcome to mortality, Uriel. You’re a living, breathing creature now. And do you know that means you can do?” Moloch gestured, forming the air into spikes of titanium he shot to punch holes in Uriel’s thighs, arms, and wings. “Bleed.”

Uriel went down. Moloch wondered if she’d ever experienced pain before, or if this was an entirely new sensation. I should finish her off now. End this all for good. 

Moloch shook his head. Crystal wasn’t here. He’d waited for so very, very long for this moment. Don’t rush it. Savor every moment. Let Uriel witness. 

It’s almost over. 

Moloch turned towards Isabel and Ryan. “I do love killing siblings,” he said, grinning on the pair. “The way you scream when one dies gives me chill. So…who do I get to hear scream today?”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 44

They came to a stop once they’d pushed the horses to the limit. The beast that had carried Ossman and Armin seemed the closest to dropping from exhaustion. Astray was breathing heavily, but of their mounts was the most alert.

Tythel had enough time to push through the horror of what she had done, or at least push it down into a corner of her mind where she could face it later. There was too much danger, and they needed to rest the horses. Eupheme was injured, Armin was fading. I can fall to pieces on my own time.

Haradeth slid off the the horse, offering Tythel a hand to help her off. She took it, which was all that spared her from landing flat on her face as she indelicately flopped off the horse.

“Thank you,” she said, and then turned back to Astray, “and you as well.”

The horse chuffed and turned away. Without Haradeth’s constant touch to calm it, it was no longer comfortable with the smell of dragon that lingered on her.

Nicandros and Haradeth led the horses away as Ossman and Tythel tended to Eupheme. The injury on her leg was not showing any signs of rot, but it would not support her weight right now. “I’m fine,” Eupheme  muttered to Ossman, “Her highness got sliced to ribbons, you broke a dozen bones, and Armin attuned himself to a shadow-forsaken lumwell tainted with unlight. Both of you can stop fussing over me.”

Ossman just looked at Tythel helplessly. Tythel crouched down next to her injured friend. “Eupheme. You seem to be the only person here who really cares that I’m a princess. So, as your princess, I order you to accept some mothering.”

Eupheme frowned at Tythel. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how that works,” she muttered, adding a belated, “your highness.”

Tythel cocked her head. “You might be right. So, lets try yourself. As a dragon, if you don’t accept some mothering, I’ll sit on you until you do.”

That at least got a grin out of Eupheme. “As the Dragon Princess wishes, then.”

Tythel nodded. Ossman motioned towards her. “I’ll take care of Eupheme,” he muttered. “You need to go check on Armin. He stopped talking about halfway, and I couldn’t get him to respond. Go. I’ll take care of her.”

Tythel looked around for Armin, finding him sitting where they had placed him, staring blankly down the path they had just run though. She strode towards him as Ossman helped Eupheme onto a bedroll to check her bandage.

Tythel moved to sit next to Armin. “You look terrible,” she said.

No witty retort, no barb. Armin just grunted.

Tythel bared her teeth, the way Karjon always had when he was frustrated, though she fought back the hiss that usually accompanied the expression. “Did we get far enough to a lumwell for you to attune to another one?”

The silence stretched so long, Tythel began to worry he had drifted too far away to even understand the question. Just as fear was really settling in, Armin shook his head.

Don’t give into fear, Tythel. He needs you right now. “Well, are we at least far enough away from the tainted one where it’ll get better for you?”

Again, Armin did no respond right away, but his forehead furrowed. She saw his lips moving slowly, as if he was repeating the question to himself. Finally, he managed a faint shrug. “Light,” he murmured. “Need light.”

Tythel patted his shoulder. “I know, Armin. We’re headed back towards base. There’s a lumwell there. You’ll…you’ll be able to last that long.” Tythel studied his face. Right? The question died on her lips as Armin’s lips began to move again.

“Need. Light.” Armin lifted one hand. Tythel watched the motion happen at a glacial pace until finally, he was pointing to their packs.

Tythel looked at the packs, then back to Armin. His arm was shaking as he muttered again. “Need. Light.”

What does he mean? Tythel tilted her head at Armin as he began to repeat the two words again, his arm falling back to his side. Every other response he’d made been at least coherent. Not a lumwell. Light. He keeps saying he needs Light.

Tythel stared at their equipment, baring her teeth again. This time she did let herself hiss. Letting herself expression frustration helped clear her head, although it didn’t give her an answer.

“Are you hissing?”

Haradeth moved so quietly, Tythel hadn’t even heard him approach. She jumped where she sat and glowed back at the demigod. “Yes. I hiss. Dragons hiss. Light and Shadow, Haradeth. Are you starting this up again?”

Haradeth flushed, although Tythel couldn’t tell if it was shame or frustration. “No, I didn’t…flath. Not what I meant, Tythel. Shadow, it’s not even why I came over here.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “And I shouldn’t have snapped. I’m worried about Armin.”

“What’s wrong with him? Eupheme mentioned he was in a bad way, but not what was wrong.”

Tythel considered his words. He did sound genuinely concerned. “The lumwell he was attuned to. It was corrupted by Unlight. The corruption seeped through to him.”

“I…” Haradeth frowned. “I don’t think there’s anything I can do to help with that. I can ease the pain from physical injuries, but this…”

“We can’t risk it,” Tythel said, shaking her head. “If Unlight can corrupt a Lumwell, what could it do to a godling?”

Haradeth sighed. “I don’t know. What’s he saying?”

“You can’t hear it?” Tythel tilted her head.

“We don’t all have dragon ears.” Haradeth said mildly. “Although…do dragons even have ears?”

“They’re internal, under a membrane,” Tythel said absently. “And he’s saying ‘Need Light.’ Was pointing at our equipment.”

“Oh! Right, the equipment!” Haradeth snapped his fingers and got up.

Tythel felt hope soar. “You know how to help him?” she asked.

Hope came crashing back down as Haradeth winced. “No. Light and Shadow, I should have realized how that sounded. But I do have something. I found it when I was looking for Lorathor, and I remembered how important it seemed to you, so…” Haradeth lifted something out of the pile of packs that he and Nicandros had unloaded from the horses.

Tythel let out an audible gasp that turned into a delighted squeal. In Haradeth’s hand was her missing packed. She practically tackled him with the hug. “You found my pack. Oh Light, thank you, thank you so much!”

Haradeth stiffened a the contact, then awkwardly patted her back. “I’m…er, glad I could help.”

The embrace ended, and Tythel tore open the top of her pack. She began to dig into it. Where is it? Where is it?

The joy of the pack being returned started to fade. She looked up at Haradeth, her eyes wide. “Haradeth…did you – I’m sorry, I know you got this for me, but did you…open my pack? Take anything out?”

Haradeth frowned. “No. I closed it when I found it, but I didn’t even peek in. I swear.” He looked at Tythel’s face and bent down. “Tythel. I swear on my mother’s name, everything that was in the pack when I found it is still inside, and that I didn’t see anything near it when I found it.”

Tythel nodded, fighting back despair.

The egg was gone.

“Thank you, Haradeth,” she managed again, forcing herself to smile. “It’s still…it’s still wonderful.” You have your father’s notes back. You have your childhood book back. You have the dagger, you have the Sun Tears, you have your clothes. Let that be enough. You can fall apart on your own time. Armin still needs you.

Tythel frowned, not even aware the expression was coming naturally. Well, no, he needs Light.

Light. Tythel looked at the content of the package, which had been emptied in the frantic search for the egg.

The notes, the book, the dagger, the clothes…and peaking out from under a blouse, one of the three remaining Sun Tears.

“He needs Light. Of course!” Tythel snatched the Sun Tear and tore away from Haradeth.

“What…Tythel?” Haradeth chased after her, but Tythel ignored him. Ossman was rushing over as well, drawn by her exclamation.

Armin had stopped muttering. His head was drooping. “No, no, no.” Tythel whispered, grabbing his hands and forcing them around the Sun Tear. “I’m not losing anyone else, Armin. Don’t you dare go anywhere. I figured it out. Light. There’s a crystal made of pure Light in your hand, Armin. Take it!”

It seemed she’d been too late. Armin was slumping to the ground. His breathing was coming quick and shallow now, his heartbeats a slow rhythm Tythel could barely hear. His murmurs had grown wordless. I spent so long on my own sorrows, Tythel thought. I could have saved him, but I was too self-absorbed to…to…

Haradeth grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back as the Sun Tear flared to life. Light poured out between Armin’s fingers. He jerked up like he’d been struck by lightning. His mouth opened in a soundless scream and Light poured from his eyes and mouth into the the heavens.

Everyone had to look away as, for a moment, Armin glowed as bright as the sun, casting their hiding spot into pure daylight.

When her vision cleared and Tythel looked back, Armin was sitting there, still clutching the Sun Tear. His eyes still glowed, looking like the sun during an eclipse. He no longer looked withered or frayed. If anything, he looked even healthier than before.

“Armin?” Tythel asked, hesitantly.

He looked over at her and smiled. “Took you long enough to figure it out, your highness. Should I always plan on nearly dying to get a point across?”

Tythel tackled him with a hug, and Ossman clapped with excitement. From her spot near the bedroll, Eupheme let out an excited woop. Even Haradeth chuckled in appreciation.

Nicandros burst back into the clearing, looking around, and glancing at Armin. “Was that flathing light your doing?”

Armin laughed. “Terribly sorry for giving away our position, sir. Was trying not to die.”

Nicandros stared at Armin, and Tythel could see realization of how much better Armin looked settle in. “Well, if you do it again, boy, try to get into a cave before coming back from the dead,” he said gruffly.

“Yes sir, Nicandros the Mighty, Sir!” Armin snapped a sloppy salute as Tythel finally let go of him. “Permission to sleep off my near death, sir? Reviving tires you like you wouldn’t believe.”

Nicandros didn’t bother fighting the grin. “Granted, soldier. Haradeth, Tythel. You two go scouting – Haradeth take North, Tythel take South. We need to figure out if that little display alerted the Alohym. Ossman, you’re with me standing guard.

They all nodded and headed out, Tythel making sure her pack was securely on her back before she did. It hadn’t contained the Egg, but it had given her Armin back.

She could live with that trade.

Strange Cosmology Part 87

Ryan pulled his sword out of the last of the Helhests, sucking in a pained breath as he did. Blood ran from a dozen shallow cuts, and his shirt had been burned away, revealing flesh marked with blisters from their burning breath. He tried not to think about how bad the injuries would have been if not for Athena’s reinforcements. He looked over to Crystal, who gave him her best smile, but the circles under her eyes and unsteady gait would have showed she was feeling the fight as badly as he was, if that hadn’t been given away by how matted her hair was, or her skin burned raw by the earlier steam. “Well, that’s the first round done and gone, yeah? Guess we came out alright in the end.”

Ryan shook his head. “The others still fighting?”

Crystal wove a quick lens in the air and peered into it, and Ryan noticed that she put her sword into the ground, resting on the pommel as she did for balance. “Looks like they just wrapped up too. Bit of a hike to get back, love. May need to catch their breaths, they’re as badly banged up as we are.”

“Damnit,” Ryan muttered, getting a raised eyebrow out of Crystal for the curse. “We’re outmatched, Crystal. That was just an exploratory force, the Lindworm and twenty riders. Moloch’s got a few more dragons and dozens more riders than that, not counting whatever other monsters he’s called up, and we barely won against this! And the Olympians are completely holed up in there. I don’t…I’m worried they won’t come out.”

Crystal motioned for him to walk away from the battlefield with her, which Ryan appreciated. It helped to get even just a bit of distance between the stench of death. “I don’t think they will, love. I think we have to assume we’re on our own here.”

Ryan reached up to rub his temple, where a headache was forming. “If we don’t get help, we’re going to lose!”

“You’re not wrong, love. We’re completely, utterly buggered, no two ways about it.”

Silence fell, and Ryan looked at her for a couple moments, his face full of expectation. “Uh, Crystal. This is usually the part where you give me something we can work with, some kind of reassurance?”

Crystal shrugged, but her smile didn’t waiver. “Here’s the thing. I don’t have anything like that for you. Wish I could say I did.” Ryan’s face began to fall, but she continued, “Then again, I didn’t have any idea how we were supposed to be Enki when he was juiced up. Looking at that fight, I would have said the same thing if you’d asked.”

Ryan felt his mouth fall open in shock. “You…I mean, you seemed so calm during that fight. Like we had it the entire time.”

“And am I acting any differently now?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow as she did. Ryan shook his head. “There you go then.”

“Then why’s this feel so much worse, Crystal? I was worried then, scared out of my damn mind, but it didn’t feel anywhere near this hopeless.”

Crystal reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, carefully placing it on unburned skin. “Because, love, this time you know more. You know your strength and the rest of our strength. You know what you can and can’t do, and right know everything you know is telling you that you can’t beat this. It’s telling you that we’re facing against impossible odds, and that at the end of the day we’re going to fail, yeah?” Ryan grimaced as he nodded. “Well, bollocks to that. We’ve done the impossible before, and you barely knew what you were doing! Not only that, we did it with grace and style and some cheeky jokes about the whole thing. So stop thinking it’s impossible, because we’ve already dealt with that word before, and we will pull it off again, yeah?”

Ryan felt a smile form on his face. “Okay, yeah. We’ve got this.”

“Good lad.” She took her hand off his shoulder and swung the lens to survey Moloch’s army. After a couple minutes of surveying it, she let out a hiss of air in surprise. “Oh, and here’s some good news, love! Well, also some bad news. I found your sister.”

She stepped aside as Ryan rushed over to look. Isabel was on her knees, in chains. Moloch was talking to her, and nearby Uriel stood with her arms crossed, her face impassive. “Oh that son of a bitch. Arthur sold us out.”

Crystal’s voice was still casual, “Seems like it. Explains how she vanished so utterly, yeah? Angels can go places our staging areas don’t reach. Just whisked her away.”

“Damnit. Doesn’t this violate our agreement?” Ryan asked, clenching and unclenching his fists. “How can he possibly give her a nanoverse now?”

“You made a deal with the King of Hell?” Crystal asked, and Ryan turned to face her.

“Yeah. To find Isabel a nanoverse. Wanted to make sure – I mean, had to make sure she survived all this.”

Crystal gave him an understanding nod. “Then she’s probably semi-safe right now. I mean, did anything in the agreement specify that you had to still be alive when he gave it to her? Or that she had to retain her freedom after getting one?”

If Ryan had been less exhausted, he might have lashed out with a bolt of lightning or something similar out of sheer frustration. “No. Nothing…damnit, he could probably technically fulfill it by having Uriel put it in her hand and then cutting her head off.” Nausea that had nothing to do with his injuries was washing over him. “I gave him the knife, turned my back to him, and said ‘oh no I hope you don’t stab me with that knife.’”

“Hey, Ryan.” Crystal motioned in his face to draw his attention away from his fears. “Pulling off the impossible again, right? Stop bloody wallowing in what could go wrong, focus on how we’re going to get it to go right.”

Ryan took a few deep breaths. “Okay,” he said, rubbing his face as he did. “Yeah, you’re right. We’re going to beat Moloch, we’re going to save my sister, and then we’re going to pop over to Hell and kick Arthur’s ass.”

“That’s the spirit.” At that moment, the others crested the hill. Athena and Anansi were leaning on each other for support, and Dianmu was using her glaive as a walking stick.

“You all alright?” Ryan asked. Nods of affirmation replied, although Athena’s seemed more sincere than the other two’s.

“We need rest,” Dianmu added, pointing back at the fortress Crystal and her had constructed. “We should fortify that as strongly as possible, and then take care of our Hungers.”

“Agreed,” Ryan said, tearing himself away from the lens completely. You’re no good to Isabel if you get yourself killed, he reminded himself.  “But there’s still a risk while we’re resting.”

“I can keep watch.” Ryan jumped at the voice coming from one of the drones. With everything going on, he’d forgotten that Resheph had been watching the whole thing from behind the screens. “I think I’ve gotten the controls for these things down, and I’ve got plenty of energy to spare.”

“Thank you,” Ryan said. Knowing they had someone covering them was the final shove to push him over the edge as his legs started to sag, and he used his sword to support his weight the way Crystal had as the weight of his injuries and exhaustion began to settle into his bone. There were other Hungers to tend to, but right now what he needed sleep. “Everyone able to make the walk?”

Weary nods all around. They headed back to the fortress to sleep, Ryan’s tired brain turning over and over as they did, trying to find some solution to the impossible fight ahead.

Exercise the Demons Part 21

When she got there, the twenty-two demons she taught were already assembled.

Chemosh was not present. “Damnit,” she snarled, turning towards Belphegor. “Where’s your boss?”

“Hmmm. Well, I’m not overly-” the demon began, his gaping stomach maw slurping with every word.

“Belphegor. Is Chemosh coming?” Kelly was not having this, not right now. She needed to get moving, she needed to save her brother.

“No,” Belphegor slurped.

Kelly sat back on her desk, feeling tears of frustration welling up in her eyes, wanting to just punch something with building rage. Without Chemosh, she and Shannon couldn’t face the Sarombies and win. They’d need…

Uh, hello, Kelly?

The thought was like a spear to the head with how quickly it cleared her thoughts. She looked around. Belphegor, the corpulent mass that, while thinner, was still an immense bulk of demon flesh. Eisheth, whose withered flesh was covering muscles thicker than when she had arrived, and with fangs that had lost none of their potency. Haagenti, a human torso that was showing some definition on top of a mass of tentacles with a head like a hyena. Orobas, a four-horned being that walked on his hands to let his raptor-like foot talons serve as weapons, and all of them leaner and more vicious than when he had arrived.

Nearly two dozen demons, all of them made of weaponized Sin and technically required to do whatever she said for the next two hours.

“Okay, everyone, we’re doing something different today!” Kelly said, clapping her hands for attention and giving them a manic grin. “Take on human form, and head to your cars. It’s time for this class to get into practical application!”

She’d call Shannon on the way. But nothing in Kelly’s contract said classes had to happen there, and nothing had insured the safety of her students.

If Chemosh didn’t want her to lead a small army of demons in an attack against the Seraphim holding her brother hostage, he should have said so.

The crew of demons arrived in a motly collection of vehicles. Some beat up sedans from the early 90’s, dark SUVs that looked like they had rolled out of a movie sequence about a shady government organization, one pickup truck with an American flag painted across the hood. If Kelly hadn’t been heading the convoy, riding next to Belphegor in a Chevy Impala, she never would have believed that they were together.

Shannon had met them on the way. She road in the backseat, her eyes white so she could watch what was going on within. “I still think I should go in with you.”

“My dear,” Belphegor slobbered, “I think that, hmmmm, the intelligence you could provide is far, far more valuable than your, hmmmm, newfound occult skills.”

Kelly had confirmed with Belphegor. The contract was clear that discretion was required as to the exercise classes. As long as no one told Shannon how Kelly knew them and stuck to the story that Chemosh had allowed her to conjure up a horde of demons, they were fine.

“He’s right,” Kelly said, fitting in the bluetooth they had picked up along the way. Every demon that would keep ears when they went in would be wearing one, and with Shannon’s aid be able to coordinate. “Don’t worry, Shannon. We’ll get him back.”

Shannon nodded tersley as the convoy drew closer. “Alright everyone,” Kelly said into the bluetooth, “Sariel has watchers on the balcony. They’re going to open fire as soon as they see us. We’re going with the plan, so everyone else, get ready to bolt. Eisheth, take point.”

Eisheth, who drove a pickup with a snowplow on the front, pulled out of the convoy and pulled it to the head of the line.

“Once we’re in there,” Kelly continued, “only speak if you need to relay information. Otherwise, listen to Shannon and me. Remember we’re calling the people Sariel has possessed Sarombies for short, and that if we find anyone who hasn’t caved to him, we want them alive and unharmed. Now then, sound off. Everyone ready?”

Kelly waited for everyone to report in. One by one, all vehicles’ occupants informed her they were good to go.

“Alright, it’s up ahead. And…one and two and three and four-” Kelly’s countdown of the time to impact was cut short when she saw Mabel, standing on the balcony. The older woman’s glowing eyes grew wide with shock and she reached for her shotgun.

The convoy screeched to a halt, and the demons began to pour out. Everyone except for Eisheth, who pushed down on the accelerator and slammed her truck through the front door in an explosion of glass.

Sarombie Mabel opened fire, but was also screaming for the others. An important detail Kelly had almost missed last time around – if she needed to speak, the Sarombies weren’t a true hivemind. They had precious seconds before the entire complex came down on them.

“Go go go!” Kelly shouted, shedding her human form to charge in. Orobas, as they had planned, overtook her to lead the charge, bowling over the few Sarombies in the lobby that were still standing after the car impact.

Kelly called up her trident and threw it through a Sarombie that was raising a pistol, and his eyes flashed even brighter yellow before his body went limp, all light and life gone from them. Kelly felt a pang of guilt, but he had already been dead, and besides, there was a war to fight.

Belphegor waddled over to the stairwell, throwing the door open and shoving his stomach mouth into the gap. Anyone trying to come through would have to try and get past that slavering maw, and until a gun came along it was unlikely. Orobas finished disembowling the Sarombie he was crouched over and joined a few other demons in waiting for the elevator to come down.

When the doors opened, it was like a blender had been set off. Fangs and claws and and bladed tendrils lanced in and began tugging Sarombies out, and they didn’t even have time to scream as they died in flashes of light and viscera.

“Oh, damn, that shit is messed up!” The speaker came from the hallway, and Kelly whirled to face that direction, realizing it wasn’t the deep and resonating voice of Sariel. The crowd of Sarombies parted to show Sean standing there, holding a gun against Clifford’s head. Clifford looked like hell, beaten and bloody. “Alright Kelly. Call off your demons or your little brother dies.”

“Wait!” Kelly shouted, for the demons and for Sean. The battle stopped and everyone turned to face the two of them. “Sean, you don’t have to do this.”

Shannon whispered in Kelly’s ear as Sean laughed, and she almost couldn’t hear her friend as Sean started to rant. “Seriously? Bitch, you’re crazy, you know that. You went psycho on our date, you turned into a demon, you possessed me, and now you’re slaughtering people and telling me I don’t have to do this?

“They’re already dead, Sean. Sariel killed them when he possessed them, there’s-”

“Shut up with your lies!” Sean screamed, flecks of spittle flying from his lips as he did. “Enough! I’m so sick of you, you stupid whore! Send out your demons or your little brother gets a hole in his head!”

Kelly sighed. “I tried to reason with you Sean, I really did. Multiple times. You just had to stay out of it.” She took a step forward.

Sean pulled the trigger, and as Shannon had promised, the gun clicked down on a dead round. Sean looked at it, an expression of stupid shock on his face, right before Kelly drove her trident through his gut. Even the Sarombies stared at her in shock.

Eisheth looked at her and hissed. “I thought we were sparing anyone Sariel hadn’t possessed.”

“He was a douche” Kelly said, grabbed Clifford and pulling him away from the Sarombies.

“Oh my god, oh holy shit, oh fuck oh damn,” Clifford was just repeating various swears, and Kelly slapped him gently across the cheek to get his attention.

“Cliff. Look at me.” He did, his eyes wide with panic. “Shannon is outside. Go to Shannon. And stop freaking out about the bloody murders and focus on the fact that I am going to kill you for not telling me you two were dating.

As she hoped, that much more normal fear gave some anchor of sanity for Clifford to grab onto. He nodded and ran.

Well, demon. You have what you came for. I suppose our business is concluded?” The voice coming out from the dozens of mouths was fairly conversational.

Kelly tapped her chin thoughtfully, then gave the nearest Sarombie a grin. “I mean, I want to say yes. I want to be done with this. On the other hand…you kidnapped my brother. Everyone, let’s kill a Seraphim, yeah?”

As one, Kelly’s horde of demons charged forward. As soon as they did, the light went out of the eyes of of the Sarombies, and they fell to the floor.

Sariel was gone. But he hadn’t gotten a truce, he’d fled in terror.

Kelly decided that it counted as a win.

“Great!” Kelly clapped her hands in time with her instructions with the music. “Now left! Now right! Now left! Now right! Now point your fingers up and give me some hellfire!” She basked in the the heat from dozens of jets of infernal flames shooting upwards.

“Alright everyone, great work. See you tomorrow!” It was the day after her horde had saved her brother, helped her kill Sean, and driven Sariel away. Chemosh was sitting at her desk, as he had been the entire class, his features unreadable.

Shannon had taken Clifford home with her, and had locked away the memories of what happened in his mind, last Kelly had heard. When he was ready ready to deal with them, he would be able to, but he’d been a complete wreck.

Kelly thought that was probably best for everyone. One less thing to worry about, unlike the demon glowering at her from her desk. Not wanting to waste any more time, Kelly walked over to him, her face a wide grin. “Hey Chemosh. Happy with-”

Chemosh held up a finger to interrupt her, then reached into his jacked and unlocked his phone. He showed her what he had pulled up. A newswoman, looking directly into the camera. “Right now, no terrorist groups had come forward to claim credit for the attack. It is now believed by authorities that the truck used in the attack, registered to a Carol Penders who died in 1987, was driven by a Sean McAlister, and was laced with a nerve agent that caused the apartments inhabitants to turn on each other before -”

He closed the app. “Discretion, Ms. Schmitt?”

Kelly shrugged. “Told you it was a typo. I didn’t violate the contract.”

“No, you did not.” Chemosh tapped his chin in thought. “Ms. Schmitt, if I’m being honest, I’m impressed. What you did was perfectly within the restrictions I’d given you. I really do think you’d make an excellent demon.”

Kelly’s smile widened. “I agree. Why don’t we formalize that?”

Chemosh’s face took that carefully blank negotiating gaze. “I would be amenable to that. Have you decided what rank you want?”

“Oh yes. At least, assuming I understand how things work. Tell me, Chemosh, is Archdemon a rank?”

That broke through Chemosh’s facade, and his eyes widened. “It is, yes, but it requires you have followers.”

Kelly gestured to the room of demons, who were shifting into their human forms. “And they are?”

Chemosh looked at them, looked at her, and he dropped the blank expression entirely to let a smile grow across his lips. “Well then. Welcome to Hell, Archdemon Kelly Schmitt.”

Kelly smiled and felt herself shudder. Her human form slipped. Her wings sprouted in full, and she stretched them experimentally. They were the color of her hair, like flames of feathers, and she could not wait to stretch them. “Thank you, Archdemon Chemosh. So…where do we begin?”

Chemosh smiled, and moved out from behind her desk so he could take a seat.

It was only fitting. After all, he was now in her domain.

Exercise the Demons Part 20

“What the hell!” Shannon shouted as they pulled away from the apartment.

“Sariel. He-”

“Kelly, I was remote viewing you. I know why you went in! That’s how I know Cliff’s fine, he’s just tied up. I meant what the hell, why did you go without me?”

Kelly breathed deeply, and started to tear strips off her shirt to make improvised bandages. “I wasn’t thinking. I knew he was in trouble, so I just charged.”

Shannon grimaced. “Okay, I get that. I do. But it was stupid. And now you’re bleeding all over my car!”

“Sorry about that,” Kelly muttered. She was starting feel dizzy. “Hey, you didn’t happen to get healing powers from Chemosh, did you?”

“No.” Shannon tensed her jaw. “Kelly, how much blood have you lost?”

Kelly’s hands were starting to grow numb, and trying to wrap the bandages was like trying to type with your hands asleep. “Um…lots.”

“How…how bad a shape are you in?”

Kelly felt her head getting fuzzy. Something in what Shannon had said. “Bad? Shape?” Yes, that was it. Shape. Something about shapes.

“Oh my god we need to get you to a hospital. Can a hospital help you? I don’t even-”

“Shape!” Kelly shouted, so suddenly Shannon swerved the car in surprise. Kelly grabbed Shannon’s arm, ignoring the sound of horns honking. “Shannon, I can shapeshift!”

Shannon looked at her with wide eyes. “Then stop talking about it it and do it!”

Kelly took a few deep breaths. Finding the strength to close the wounds was hard, and focusing enough to do it was a nightmare. By the time she had, her vision was growing black, and her head was in a full on spin. “All…done,” she muttered, before passing out in the seat next to Shannon.

When she woke up, it was in Shannon’s apartment. Booger was sitting on her chest, and had been pawing at her nose while she slept, his tongue hanging slightly out of his mouth in a permanent, derp infused blep. As soon as he saw she was awake, he meowed and rolled over to be pet on his belly, in the process falling off her chest and onto the bed beside her. He decided that was the best place to be and started purring as Shannon came in.

“Here, drink this.” Shannon said, handing her some green drink. Kelly took a sip from it slowly. It tasted like grass and herbs and worst of all, kale.

“Some kind of potion?” Kelly asked.

Shannon gave her a strained smile. “Just some high iron food. I wish it was a potion. I could have made one, but I have no idea where to get a newt’s eye at this hour.” Kelly stared at her, and Shannon shook her head. “Not kidding. And before you ask,” she said, as soon as Kelly opened her mouth again, “Cliff is still fine. Sariel was badgering him about signing up, but Cliff just recited the Green Lantern oath over and over instead of answering until Sariel wandered away. He can’t hurt Cliff, not unless Cliff lets him in.”

That thought got a smile out of Kelly. “Sariel is not expecting how stubborn Cliff can be,” she said, then the smile faded as she considered further. “We have to go get him, Shannon. He’s going to eventually crack.”

Shannon shook her head. “You’re about as strong as Booger right now, and half as threatening. Most of the Sarombies are asleep right now, we can wait. Talk to Chemosh when you have the strength to call him. All that.”

Kelly tried to argue, but Booger crawled over to lay on one of her hands. When she tried to lift it, the weight of the cat was too much. She glared at Shannon. “Did you tell him to do that?”

“It’s Booger, you think he figured it out on his own?” Shannon smiled. “Rest, Kelly. I’ll keep an eye on Cliff, and if anything changes i’ll let you know. But right now, rest.”

Kelly nodded. “Thanks, by the way, for saving my life.”

Shannon’s smile widened. “Of course. After all, you saved mine. Glad I got to return the favor.”

Before Kelly could ask her what the hell that meant, Shannon had left the room, and true sleep claimed Kelly.

When dawn broke, Booger was idly chewing on Kelly’s fingers. He meowed when she woke up, and again – more urgently – when she sat up. Shannon came in, giving her a frown. “You’re already up?”

Kelly nodded, flexing her hand and putting her hooves on the floor. “Yeah, I feel…actually pretty alright. Guess I can shift to heal myself up.” And recover from massive bloodloss faster, although I shouldn’t point that out to her.

“It almost killed you yesterday. You realize that, right?”

Kelly rubbed the back of her neck and stretched her shoulders, shifting her body back to it’s fully human appearance. “Yeah, I know. I was there, remember?”

Shannon shook her head. “You were there, but you weren’t exactly with it. I’ve got breakfast cooking, come on.”

Booger tried to follow them into the kitchen, but had gotten himself tangled in the sheets. Kelly chuckled and helped free him before going after Shannon. “You’re still not the brightest, are you?” she said to the cat.

Booger’s tongue stuck out further, and Kelly found herself wondering how smart the cat really was. She scooped him up and carried him into the kitchen. “So I’m going to need to run home, then I can go meet Chemosh. Once I’ve done that, I can go deal with Sariel and save Cliff.”

Bacon was scraped out of the pan and put onto a plate. “You mean we can,” Shannon said, her voice firm.

“Maybe. Shannon-”

“No, Kelly. Nope, nada, zilch, not going to happen. You’re bringing me, and unless you promise to, I’m just going to remote view you the entire time you’re gone and make sure I get to Cliff’s apartment when you do.”

“You can’t heal the way I can,” Kelly countered, planting her feet on the floor like Shannon might try to physically bowl her over. In the back of her mind was the knowledge that Shannon couldn’t monitor her when she went to the studio or Chemosh would probably be very unhappy with them both. And Kelly needed him happy. “And besides – wait, hold on.” Kelly’s eyes narrowed. “If you were just watching me, how were you so close to Cliff’s place?”

Shannon blanched. “Now, really, Kelly, that’s hardly the most import-”

“You weren’t watching me at first, were you?” Kelly pressed, her eyes narrowing. “You were watching my brother!”

“I…” Shannon stared at Kelly in a perfect imitation of a deer in headlights.

“And you told Cliff about my hair and eyes. You…” Kelly reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose. “How long have you and my brother been a thing?”

Shannon deflated. “About a month now. We were going to tell you, but we wanted to make sure it was going to work before we stressed you out.”

“Damnit, Shannon,” Kelly said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Why didn’t you…you know what, it’s not important right now.” How the hell did I miss this?

“You’re right about that.” Shannon had found her spine again, and quickly. “But there’s no way I’m going to let you go in there alone. I’m not losing either of you, and I’m definitely not losing both of you.”

“Fine,” Kelly snapped. Kelly didn’t want Shannon there, didn’t like the idea of Shannon there, but this changed things in ways that didn’t bear thinking about. “I’m going to talk to Chemosh. You get ready, I’ll call you when I’m going in. Don’t watch me. I don’t think Chemosh will like it.”

Shannon nodded. “Promise?”

“I promise,” Kelly said with a growl, then whirled to leave before she changed her mind. It was a short jog to the studio from Shannon’s apartment, and class started soon. Chemosh would be there, and they had much to discuss.

Exercise the Demons part 19

It was storming by the time Kelly got to Clifford’s apartment complex, great sheets of rain coming down to the point of being near-blinding. She pulled up and put the car into park, a peal of thunder echoing through the air as soon as she did with a timing so perfect, she wondered if it wasn’t some kind of side effect of whatever Sariel had done.

The whole building thrummed with energy, some kind of force that Kelly could feel all the way out in the car. She shivered at the sensation, a goose walking over her grave. It felt like an empty church late at night, and just as Kelly was trying to put her finger on what about it was so disturbing, her train of thought was interrupted by a shotgun slug putting a hole in her window.

Either the shooter couldn’t aim well, or Kelly had the devil’s own luck. The blast shattered the window and the slug as well as the shards of glass missed her head by a narrow margin.

She ducked down behind the dashboard, heart pounding. Kelly had expected some kind of crazy angel powers or flaming swords or, well, literally anything then a twelve gague. “Begone, demon!” a decidedly human voice shouted from the balcony above, and another shot rang out. This one punched through the hood of her car and the engine, still running from coming to a stop earlier, died.

A small part of Kelly took absurd annoyance at the loss of her car. She only needed it every couple of weeks, but it was still her car!

She pushed her way out of the car before the shooter could reload, diving towards the doorway. She got a brief flash of who was shooting and tripped in surprise, grabbing herself out of the puddle and scurring the rest of the way to the door.

It was Mabel, the kind grandmotherly woman from the end of Clifford’s hall. She had made Clifford chocolate chip cookies when he moved in! She couldn’t harm a fly, let alone Kelly.

Granted, last time Kelly had seen her, Kelly hadn’t been a demon, and Mabel’s eyes hadn’t been glowing with some kind of golden light. Kelly managed to duck into the door just as a second shot from the elderly woman hit the concrete she had just been occupying. “The demon has breached the peremiter!” Mabel shouted.

Kelly realized she had no weapon, no plan, and didn’t even know what demonic powers she currently possessed. If it was possession, she didn’t like her chances on trying to leap into the body of someone glowing with that holy light.

Taking a deep breath as footsteps began to pound in the hallways, Kelly reached to draw a hellfire sword out of the air. Instead of a sword of hellfire, what came out into her hands was a pitchfork, woven of some kind of black iron and with a skull design sitting at the point where the prongs joined. Remember, Kelly, none of these people are in control of themselves. Or are they? Shit, this kind of stupid rush is exactly what Sariel wanted.

The elevator was approaching the lobby. Kelly threw the pitchfork into the door, where its prongs did an excellent job of holding the door shut once they were buried in the thin metal. Footsteps were already coming down the stairs, so Kelly dashed into the hallway where at least she could meet her attackers with more freedom to move.

As she ran, she shed her human form. Shoes were ripped apart by hooves, the claws popped out of her fingers, and a pair of horns she was certain hadn’t been there before sprouted from a brow.

Time to contemplate this development was limited. In the hallway was a horde of apartment dwellers with glowing eyes, armed with whatever was the most dangerous weapon they could find in their homes. Most of them weilded a terrifying variety of kitchen implements, cleavers and knives. An overweight man with a shirt that said “NANI?” was handing out Katanas to people who ran past, and in the back Kelly could see a couple of people with guns that at least weren’t trying to shoot through the mass of bodies.

It was like a zombie horde, but moving with purpose and intellect and eyes that shone like holy lamps, all converging on Kelly.

“Sariel! Face me yourself, coward!” she shouted, knowing that soon the horde would be upon her.

That at least got the horde to stop, coming to a halt in a single motion. Behind her the group from the stairs removed the pitchfork from the elevator, and it clattered to the ground.

I do face you, demon.” The voice came from every throat that was facing her, as perfectly in unison as if they had rehearsed it.

“Let go of these people. Possession’s more our trick, isn’t it?”

“They have let me in, so that they might receive rewards everlasting once I am done with their flesh.”

“Oh.” Kelly blinked at that, trying to figure how a giant mass of eyes and wings convinced everyone in this building to let him possess them as a group, especially if it meant they would die afterwards, but it had to wait. She’d bought herself time, but she was surrounded now. “Well…give me back my brother, and no one needs to get hurt.”

Every single person, in the same moment, threw their heads back in laughter, each individual laugh timed together, then snapped their heads back forwards. “You are an abomination, a monster, a twisting of God’s plan. You will be cleansed from this world, and with these servants of God I will be able to do so.”

“And just to be clear, once you leave, these people are all dead?”

“Yes,” the dozen of voices said, “Their bodies will break, and they will be welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

No point negotiating. He wasn’t interested. No point trying to reason, he was beyond that. Nothing to do but fight her way through and try to find her brother.

Kelly held out her hand to draw another pitchfork. Instead, the existing one lifted of the ground and flew into her grasp. She focused on it, and this time managed to wreath it in hellfire. You only get one chance at this, Kelly. Don’t screw it up.

She held the pitchfork straight out, directly at the mass of former humanity looking at her.

“Groovy,” she said, her face twisting into a half-mad grin.

Sariel shouted in rage with dozens of mouths, and Kelly screamed with a single voice.

She charged as the horde began to close in.

Chaos. That was Kelly’s biggest takeaway from the frantic melee she entered, lashing out with the flat and handle of the pitchfork like it was an axe. Every time she struck one member of the horde, the entire thing reeled back as if she had struck them all. If she managed to hit multiple, the effect was more pronounced.

At one point she got a bit deeper into the surge by leaping higher than she knew was possible, having to bend over to not smash her horns against the ceiling. She landed on a couple members of the mass as she did, driving them to the ground, and with a sweep of the pitchfork she was able to create a circle for herself.

For a moment. The problem was, every time the horde surged in, she found herself victim of at least a couple cuts and scratches. Already she was bleeding from her arms, her legs, one cut along her side, and there were still the gunmen in the back to worry about.

One of the people armed with a katana courtesy of Mr. Nani in the back managed to break through. Kelly caugh the blade in the prongs of the pitchfork and twisted. It seemed the owner cared more about aestetics than practicality, and the blade snapped from the hilt and went falling to the ground.

That momentary victory was earned at the cost of a butcher cleaver being buried into her thigh by one member of the mass, and Kelly howled in pain. She managed to hit its weilder in the face with the butt of the pitchfork, and heard a satsifying crunch of bone as his nose broke under her blow. Every single hand there went flying towards their faces for a moment, giving her enough of an opening to bowl through them with her horns down, knocking people out of the way to get her closer to the guns.

She managed to disarm one of them before they had fully recovered, but their were more of them, and more of them were armed, and Kelly realized she was overwhelmed.

“Your brother will accept me. You will be removed. The Kingdom is Nigh!” they shouted, and one of them brought a baseball bat down on her skull, sendings stars flittering across her vision. This is it. This is how I die, Kelly thought dully as she fell to one knee. She’d be another body among what would likely be considered a mass suicide.

Then the window at the end of the hall tore open, shards of glass flying in and cutting into the mob of humanity that was pressing down on her. Kelly looked up and saw Shannon there, one hand extended. “Move!” she shouted, and it was the sweetest word Kelly had ever heard.

With a surge of strength she didn’t know she had, Kelly leapt out the window and towards Shannon. Her friend gestured again, and the wind that had blown the glass in surged again, a solid wall of air that pushed its way into the building and sent the screaming mass that was Sariel tumbling down. “Clifford,” Kelly managed to gasp.

“He’s fine! Come on, my car. We have to go!”

A gunshot punctuated Shannon’s point, and Kelly limped towards Shannon’s car before they were both murdered by an angelic host.

Exercise the Demons Part 18

She got a call from Shannon later that night. “Oh my God, you won’t believe what happened!” she gushed before Kelly could speak. “Or I guess you would because you arranged it, didn’t you? Oh wait, should I even be saying oh my God anymore? Is that wrong?”

Kelly laughed into the phone. “Deep breath, Shannon. I take it my friend showed up.”

“Uh huh. Gives whole new meaning to the phrase handsome devil, huh? Anyway, we signed some contracts, and then the deal was struck and now…oh Kelly, it’s amazing. I made Booger my familiar! He can talk to me now, kind of.”

“Wait, your challenged cat? The one that gets lost on his way to the litterbox? The one that traps himself in your cabinet weekly? Booger, the windowlicker, is your familiar?” Kelly loved that little idiot, but Booger had the critical thinking skills of the carboard boxes he’d occasionally get trapped in.

“I know, I know, but he’ll live as long as me now! And he’s a bit smarter now” Shannon laughed. “I think he’s almost at normal cat levels. He can’t talk, talk, but I can feel his emotions and see through his eyes.”

“Okay, that sounds pretty cool. What’s it like?”

“Mostly staring at whatever he’s confused by. But still!”

They both shared a laugh. “And I’m already figuring out basic spellcraft. I’m working on my remote viewing right now – I can see you.”

Kelly was glad she was wearing a robe out of the shower. “How do I look?”

“A lot more normal! What’d you do?”

“I figured out how to hide the hooves and wings and fangs and all that. Chemosh said it would probably accelerate my actual transformation but on the whole, I can blend in better.”

Shannon let out an excited cheer. “That’s awesome, Kelly! We should celebrate. Hit up the club, get down with our fiendish selves.”

Shannon had always been vivacious, excited, and energetic. But never in the time Kelly had known her had she been this full of energy. It might have worried Kelly, if it wasn’t for the fact that her friend just seemed so happy. “If you want to. But I figured you’d want to practice with the magic some more?”

Shannon did a raspberry into her phone. “Part of the deal was I’d learn by doing, not by sitting around studying and all that boring stuff. Not much point to selling your soul if you have to spend the next thousand hours learning how to use it. I’m sure I can find some douchebag that needs a good hexing while we’re there, let’s go!”

“Well, I can’t argue with that logic,” Kelly said, laughing. “Give me thirty to get ready and we’ll head out.”

“Sure thing! Meet you there?”

“Absolutely. See you soon.” Kelly ended the call and hurried to get dressed, wondering if Shannon was still peeping and not particularly caring. They’d been roommates, after all.

Thirty-five minutes later Kelly was in her slinkiest black dress and boots that were made for walking and dancing and being noticed, makeup done and hair perfectly straightened. Kelly was glad that shifting her feet allowed her to wear the boots normally again, and was even gladder that she didn’t clop when she walked like a damn horse.

Running late and excited to see her friend, not to mention excited to get out for a fun time for the first time since her ill-fated date, Kelly didn’t notice her phone’s charge was only at ten percent. By the time she had gotten to the club, texting Shannon to let her know she was there, it was down to 7. Kelly noticed then but it was too late to do anything about it, so she put it on power saver and stuck it in her purse.

It sat there for the evening, untouched after the initial photos were taken to post to Instagram and share on Snapchat. With the power saver enabled, it didn’t even light up to notify her of the likes she was getting on Instagram, or the responses she was getting from thirsty guys on Snapchat.

It didn’t light up when Shannon started tagging her in the other photos they took that night, including one with a man who called himself Eduardo but was actually named Steve, a man Shannon would catch trying to slip a roofie in Kelly’s drink. She put her first ever hex on a man on him. He would become a magnet for ghosts, and the rest of his life would be plagued by creepy dolls, random hauntings, and terrifying apperations until finally drawing attention of a poltergiest that would ultimately end his life.

It didn’t light up when it started ringing, as it was approaching 4%, a call from Kelly’s brother that went to voicemail. Or the second call. Or the third, or the fourth, or any of the twelve frantic calls he made before the phone went completely dead, around the time Kelly flopped onto her bed, too exhausted and drunk to remember to charge it.

It didn’t light up until the next morning, when it turned on after Kelly plugged it in on her way to the shower. It sat, unnoticed, as she ate a bacon breakfast to celebrate her cheat day, and it didn’t get noticed until she had gotten dressed and gone for her first hoofless jog in days. It was a relief to get the jogging in, to actually run using her real feet and not needing to worry about who might see her clopping along.

Getting back meant another shower, and when that was done, some time after noon, she finally grabbed her now fully charged phone to check the notifications.

“Kelly…please check the phone.” Clifford’s voice was ragged and he sobbed. It didn’t sound like pain, not to Kelly’s ears. It sounded like fear. She put the phone on speaker before her furious grip crushed the device. “There’s something here, something huge and…so many wings, Kelly. I think it’s-”

Whatever Clifford thought it was got cut off. She could only hear a terrified scream, then a squelch that conjured horrible images, then silence before the voicemail ended from silence.

He’d said so many wings. That was all Kelly needed. Sariel. She was already grabbing her keys and heading to her car.

Sariel can’t hurt Cliff. He can’t hurt mortals. For a moment that thought calmed her, until another one crept up on its heels. Then what can he do to him?

She started running to the car, begging the universe to not be too late.

Exercise the Demons Part 17

The training was only an hour. Hardly any time at all, really. By the end of it, she could pull her hooves back into feet, and the wings back into her shoulder blades. The red hair and eyes would take a great deal of practice, but at least she could go back to blending in normal society. She was also exhausted by the end of it, feeling her own sulfurous sweat running down her back. (At least that, Chemosh had assured her, mortals wouldn’t notice – their noses couldn’t pick up demon musk.”

She wrapped a towel around her shoulder and wiped her face. The training hadn’t been physically demanding, not in the way Kelly thought of the term. No running, no jumping, no lifting. It had just been simply telling her body it was in the wrong shape and forcing it into the one she had in mind. Oh, is that all? Kelly thought, grinning at her own logic. I can’t imagine why that would be demanding.

“So, storytime.”

Chemosh chuckled and sat down across from her. “As you wish. So the story you know, the one in the bible – how do you recall it?”

Kelly thought for a moment. “God made the world in seven days. During the creation, Lucifer rebelled against heaven because he was jealous, took a third of the angels with him. They lost the fight because, well, omnipotence, and were cast down into hell. Lucifer leaves, heads up to the Garden of Eden, pretends to be a snake, tempts Eve and through her Adam into eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Humanity now knows how to sin, Lucifer goes back to rule in hell, and that’s that.”

“Well, that story is true in the broad strokes, but many of the details are outright lies.”

Kelly blinked. “I mean, I kind of figured that a lot of that was at least allegorical. The universe is like ten billion years old, right? But outright lies?”

“You know what they say. The victors write the history books.”

“Okay.” Kelly crossed her legs up onto the chair and rested her elbows on her knees with her head in her palms. “So, what really happened?”

“The Creator, Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, whatever you want to call him – God works well enough, I suppose – created the cosmos. It wasn’t a week between creation and mankind, like you said. Fourteen billions years would be more accurate. Although it also was a week. Time doesn’t flow for the Divine the way it does for mankind. To care for the details, He created us, His first children.”

“Right, angels,” Kelly said.

“No.” Chemosh made sure he had her attention fully. “Demons. We were things that saw to the physical, the brutish, and the crass. The fires that burned in the hearts of stars, the order that governed chemicals bubbling in the primordial soup of a hundred thousand thousand worlds, the gravity that pulled together matter, and more. The laws that created physics. Angels came later. Their domain was the spiritual, the holy, the ephemeral. Art, music, philosophy, hope, love – that was what they saw in reality.”

He paused to take a drink from a water bottle. “For the most part, the Angels were above us, and we were content with that. The universe was nice and ordered. Then the unthinkable happened. An angel and demon fell in love. Ba’al, the greatest of us, and Kerubiel, queen of the Cherubim. Many feared God would smite them for their violation of the order, but he favored them. He even elevated us demons to allow for their love to be one of equals. In time, they begat a son. Lucifer, the Morningstar.”

He looked to see if Kelly had any questions, but she was far too focused on his words. Chemosh smiled and continued. “Lucifer was favored by God, being His first grandson. He was elevated to be above both angel and demon, the greatest being in His creation. For a time, he was second only to God, and for billions of years He saw it was good.”

“Then came the great Experiment. Mortal life, mankind. The creation of physical beings that would only rule one world. They were placed within the Garden of Eden to be watched and cared for, and being God’s youngest children, they were also his new favorites. Lucifer tried to love you all, but mostly he was concerned.”

Kelly coughed in surprise. “Concerned? For what?”

“Your lack of Sin. He felt that without it, you would never reach your full potential.”

Kelly rolled her eyes at that. “How convenient for him.”

Chemosh’s grin widened. “Tell me, Ms. Schmitt. What human is without sin?”

“Infants,” Kelly answered without hesitation. “I guess by the time they’re older, everyone’s committed some sin, even if that sin is mostly being an obnoxious little shit.”

He chuckled, but did not contradict her. “Now imagine an adult human without sin. Do your best. What is that person like?”

This took more thought on Kelly’s part. After several minutes, she answered. “Sweet, nieve, innocent. Doesn’t get to far because to push themselves would be Pride. Stays in shape to avoid Gluttony, but doesn’t do anything with their appearance because Vanity. They’d be calm at all times because Wrath, but never lazy so they won’t fall prey to Sloth. Friendly to everyone because they lack Envy, generous because no Greed, and if they’ve ever had sex, it would only be called making love to avoid Lust.”

“Yes. Now tell me, Ms. Schmitt. Can you see such a person ever accomplishing a great thing? Discovering some unheard of science, propelling mankind to new heights? Or does it require sin to do those things? Some combination of Pride and Vanity to believe you can achieve greatness. Maybe they’d need an insatiable hunger for something, be it knowledge or power or wealth in a form of both Gluttony and Greed. Perhaps they would require motivation through spite or to win affection, the combination of Wrath and Lust. Or, if all else fails, a unique form of Sloth where you create tools to be lazy later?”

Kelly had to think about that even more, her frown deepening. “I mean, innovation doesn’t seem like it should be called sinful. I can see the virtues motivating someone – Charity to improve the life of your fellow man, Courage to push yourself ahead, Hope that you’ll succeed, etcetera”

Chemosh nodded in agreement, to Kelly’s surprise. “They can push mankind to new heights too, yes. But those aren’t traits you ascribed to your sinless individual. Virtues are obtained in part through resisting the temptation of Sin – the two are mirrors of each other, yes? If you lack Sin, can you truly be Virtuous? Or are you just a machine doing what it is designed to do?”

“I guess I can see both sides of the argument there,” Kelly said.

“So could Lucifer. He argued that you should be given Knowledge, even though that would lead to Sin, because it would also lead to Virtue.”

Kelly held up a hand. “Wait, hold on, that’s a contradiction. You said he was worried we lacked Sin.”

“He believed that progress required Sin. God disagreed. His proposal was to grant Knowledge to let you all decide for yourselves.”

“Ah, okay.” Kelly motioned for Chemosh to continue.

“When he was refused, he decided that was too much. That you must be given Knowledge. First there was the war in heaven over that. We lost, not because of God’s omnipotence – it’s not as all-encompassing as it’s been made out to be – but because we were outnumbered two to you. Then there was the temptation of Eve, and for those two things those who followed Lucifer – all of the demons and a smattering of angels – were cast into Hell. Our punishment was, for the rest of eternity, to only interact with the worst of Humanity, those of you most steeped in Sin.”

“That…” Kelly swallowed, “that makes an uncomfortable amount of sense. So heaven is objectively better than Hell?”

Chemosh shook his head. “What do you need to be free of to go into Heaven?”

“Sin,” Kelly said promptly.

“And what do they call eating the fruit in the Garden?”

“Sin?” Kelly half said, half asked, wondering where he was going with this.

“Exactly,” Chemosh nodded. “And we know that fruit conferred Knowledge upon Humanity. Now tell me. You have the rest of eternity ahead of you. Would you rather do it without Knowledge?”

Kelly considered what it would be like for a moment. Literal ignorance is bliss, for the rest of eternity. It made her want to vomit. “No, I suppose not.”

“And that’s why we tempt people to sin,” Chemosh said. “To spare them that destruction of the Self.”

“So,” Kelly turned over his words in her head. “We’re not the good guys or the bad guys, we just disagree about how to best spend Eternity?”

“I suppose you could see it that way, Ms. Schmitt,” Chemosh said with another chuckle. “I suppose you could.”

Kelly needed a couple more minutes to mull it over. “Do souls that end up in hell get torture? That seems rather excessive.”

“They get punished for the crimes the committed in life, but the punishment fits the crime. Petty thieves do not get boiled alive, liars do not have their tongues cut out. We’re wardens, not sadists.”

Kelly smiled. “Well, at least I feel better about helping Shannon get a one way trip there. I’ll bring her buy Monday, an hour before class? She’s dying to meet you.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Chemosh said, standing up as he did. “Oh, you did promise to tell me why you didn’t feel all that guilty about condemning her when you thought it was all torture and fire and brimstone.”

“That’s easy.” Kelly also stood up, ready to start cleaning the place up before enjoying getting to go to the store without needing to worry about her damn hooves. “She wanted to do it, so badly she nearly cried when it occurred to her I was joking. It was her deepest, darkest desire. And even though being tied to you guys has kinda been hell, if you’ll forgive the pun, it has been the most interesting weeks of my whole damn life.”

Chemosh regarded her closely. “And?”

Kelly sighed. “You all really don’t go for allowing people to have their illusions, do you?”

“No.” Chemosh grinned. “I just told you we were all about shedding them, after all.”

“Yeah, fair enough.” Kelly shrugged. “And I want someone I can talk to about this who isn’t my judgemental brother or, well, you.” She saw Chemosh’s face and rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to break confidentality, Chemosh, and I already get I can’t tell her any of what you just told me. But I can talk to her about my own transformation and demonkind and all that.”

“Good. As long as we understand each other.”

“Perfectly.” Kelly rubbed her temples. “I’ve got to clean up. Thanks for clearing that up, Chemosh.”

“Happy to finally be able to. One more piece of advice, free of charge?” Kelly nodded. “Have a care. Sariel may not be able to directly harm you, but he can make your life a living hell if he sets out to.”

“Thanks. See you Monday, Chemosh.”

“Of course.” With that, the demon was gone, and Kelly was left to fumigate her studio and wonder what new powers she’d gain at midnight this time.