by GR "Maya" Cogman
"It's going to be bad," the Calabite said.
I eyed the cast of the dice. "How bad?"
He resettled himself on his folded legs, the clear light gleaming on the dark iron collar round his throat. "Real bad. Look at how that one's lying." He pointed a stubby finger.
I snorted. "And how precisely is this different from the pack of cards that you had last week which said that you were going to get promoted?"
He bristled. "I got these in this place in Shal-Mari. Besides, if they don't work, I'm going to go back and tear that bastard's feet off and stick them down his throat."
I shrugged, and shifted on the iron bench that I was balancing on. "Sounds good to me. When we've got the free time."
There was a call from the announcer, and we all looked up, then relaxed again as he began giving instructions to the imp that had scurried over. Bader sighed. "Yeah. When we've got the free time."
The priority whistle tore through the air, and we all snapped upright, every lounger scattered around the room coming to a near-attention position. Metal catches clicked, weapons jarred against each other, muscles protested. A set of small packets tumbled down the dispatch channel, coming to rest in an untidy pile, and a sheet of paper drifted down to settle on top of them. The announcer adjusted both his pairs of glasses, then glowered at it.
I sighed, and took my time wandering over. "What is it this time? New set of medals for the outlying sections?"
His grin was far too confident. "Not this time, sweetie. Looks like Prince Baal's little pet got herself a fun run today."
I flinched somewhere inside. Their calling me that never gets any better, never. I am not his pet. I am one of the Punishers of God. And I did wrong that time, so I deserve to be punished. Damned if I'd show him it, though. My chin went up and I said, "Sounds like exercise."
"Yeah, yeah." He began shoving the packets into a satchel. "You got yourself an allcall, sweetie. Enjoy the fresh air."
I know I lost colour at that, and I could feel the ripple going through the others in the room. Allcall meant that Prince Baal wanted a message hand-delivered to all the other Princes, or the nearest subordinate, and that he wanted it done now.
He leered at me, offering the satchel, a thin trickle of drool running out over one fang. "Wish I got fun assignments like that, sweetie. Tell you what, say you get back from this one alive and in one piece, how about you and I find ourselves a nice little shellhole, and you can show me what it is the Prince likes under all those tattoos?"
I didn't say a word. I just gave him a case of depression that would have him snivelling all over the next half-dozen urgent dispatches. After all, the odds were that I wasn't going to be in any shape to care about a reprimand later.
The door slammed behind me, and I started running.
At the back of my mind, I began ticking over the Princes, trying to work out what order to run this in. I'd better take the messages by Prince Baal's definite allies first: not that it would make matters any easier on me, but at least it would avoid risking insult to them. Primus, Belial in Sheol, and if I slipped the border to the Marches then I could manage Beleth, then through Hades and drop it off to Asmodeus there as fast as possible, stop by Abaddon and hand over Saminga's, then cut through the Archive with Kronos, and get to Tartarus, and leave Vapula's packet: slip down the passage to Perdition and leave the one for Nybbas, then through Stygia for Malphas and Valefor, hit Shal-Mari running and dump the ones for Andrealphus and Lilith and Kobal and Haagenti, then home to Gehenna. Wonderful, a whole plan of action. Now I just had to survive it.
The mind drifts when one is running. I felt the sand burning hot under my feet, and with the same shift of mind that let me ignore it I found myself remembering that last morning among the humans. I had been sitting at a corner cafe, watching the entrance to a bookshop where we were fairly sure a Cherub of Yves was giving sanctuary to a couple of Malakites we wanted a word with. People swirled round me, French drifting in my ears; as close to Notre Dame as we were, I felt a frisson of dread. This was running the edge with a vengeance. If we didn't take them down in the first strike, then we would be able to count the atoms of our Celestial forms with such senses as remained to us.
Yet it was such a lovely morning. One could almost believe that humans deserved happiness. I sipped a tiny cup of coffee, and crossed the legs of my Vessel, and excited the odd flare of desire or yearning in the humans that streamed by. Weaklings. I was glad when I saw Lacahe coming up to my table: it stopped me wasting my thoughts on them.
He smiled, perfectly, and took a seat, the fragile metal chair somehow supporting him without rattling. His voice was that of a lover as he murmured, "Ready?"
The cup tilted slightly in my hand. "Of course."
He glanced towards the bookshop. "We go in together. You befuddle the Cherub while Harris takes him down quietly, then we all go up together and deal with the Malakites. You'll need to immobilise them so that we can question them."
I let the cup tilt a little more. "That's risky."
"You," he breathed, "aren't in charge. Are you?"
My Vessel curved her lips in a smile. "I'm obeying our Prince, and pointing out the flaws in your plan."
He shrugged. A waiter refilled my cup of coffee, soundlessly. Humans drifted past us, living to a Symphony that they would never hear, far less understand. "Five minutes, then we go in."
I sipped my coffee, then blotted my lips with a napkin. "Very well."
And now, flecks of dust a halo around me as I ran beside a river of lava that flowed towards the great volcano of Sheol, Belial's golden fortress atop it. Screams writhed in the air like the smoke, and figures twisted in the lava, holding out their arms towards me. Soot dappled my skin, streaked with sweat. I didn't stop.
There was a bubbling scream from the widening rush of lava to my left, and three Djinn rose out of it in a knot of serpentine coils and cat-limbs. I ducked, rolling, as they crashed onto the path ahead of me, drops of lava sizzling in the air. I brushed one off the back of my hand, running harder for the base of the volcano and the gold-sheathed gates that were in sight. The pumice shuddered beneath my feet, cracks shivering in it as the violence of the lava tore at it. Sweat was in my eyes, and I pulled a hand across my forehead, not slackening the pace. A Calabite to the right was thrusting the souls around him back into the pits of liquid fire, and turned to look towards me, growling a challenge. I spat three syllables back at him, turning so that he could see the marks tattooed across my back and sides.
Painted skin, but not my choice, so it isn't enough of a wall, it doesn't keep anybody out. They look at me and see Baal's pet, the Habbalite he was merciful to. I should have been punished harder. I might have kept a little more of myself then. Sometimes I lose track of Caliah.
The Keepers at the Gate were Balseraphs, two winged serpents. Their eyes shone like madness in the reflected fires, their scales were burning jewels. I showed the symbols on my flesh, and they let me pass, hissing like furnaces. The corridor inside was obsidian, and my feet left momentary sweatmarks on it, dried within the second. Hearts glowed from time to time behind the dark crystal of the walls, like lost stars. Two Djinns emerged from an archway to "escort" me, looming and dark as though the heat had charred their fur to ashes. I walked between them, tasting their urge to take me in their hands and hold me and then to let the heat run free and *twist*...
I didn't show it. You can't let them know that you see their weaknesses, their nooks and crannies. I just moved on between them, their fires a burning in my throat and stomach. The arch ahead was higher, and a Shedite was writhing about it, trying to imitate the serpents and eyes that formed its carving. I bowed my head as I walked through, in what might have been taken as respect, or fear, or whatever. It was only disgust.
Inside the heat struck like a hammer. There was a pool of superheated magma at the centre, raising the obsidian of the floor to the point where my feet were nearly blistering. Belial was standing beside it, giving low-voiced instructions to a Balseraph coiled at his feet, its wings spread to cover its eyes. He looked up towards us, flame a near-visible aura round him, like a heat haze that warped the air.
I dread a Demon Prince looking at me. They see too clearly, and Baal most of all. The painted skin won't keep them out, nor will the storms of emotion I weave inside myself. I feel their gazes on me, and I want to curl up and scream, and scream, and keep on screaming.
I fell on my knees, bowing my head to the floor, and extended his packet with both hands. My eyes were slitted against the heat and dryness, but I could feel his approach, feel the perspiration vanishing from my skin in the waves of inferno that wrapped round him. Something or someone took the packet from my cupped hands, and blisters prickled across my palms as they did. I listened to the hissing of the lava, and kept my eyes down, and prayed.
There was a pause, and then a patent-leather shoe set itself down neatly by my face, and he said, "What else? Do _not_ look up." I could hear the roaring of forest fires in his voice, barely trammeled.
My throat was desperately dry. "Nothing, most Dread Prince." I watched the shoe-tip shift, as he took a pace back.
"I expected.. more." The lava in the stream beside us rippled, swallowing bubbles in an ugly sound. I imagined his head tilting to regard the Djinn that still stood above me, then down again. "Are you quite sure that there is nothing else?"
I repeated, numbly, "Nothing, most Dread Prince." I could feel every bone in my back as his heat ran over them.
There was a motion above me, behind me, and both the Djinn grabbed me at the same moment, by upper arm and shoulder on each side, lifting me up so that I was dangling off the floor and trying not to kick like a helpless puppy. As my angle of vision swung, I saw Belial directly in front of me. He was considering a flame that played over the fingers of his right hand, licking across his palm, the blue of an open gas flame.
He stepped towards me, cupping the flame in his hand. He was taller than the Djinn, taller than I was as I dangled. The flame filled my left field of vision as he brought his hand towards my cheek, a burning blue light that rippled in a veil between myself and him. I could feel my hair scorching, smell it.
"Is there anything else?" The fire jumped with his words, licking against my cheek for a moment of bright agony.
"No. No, most Dread Prince." There would be nothing left of me, not even charred bones.
For a moment longer the blue veil burned between us, then he let his hand fall, turning away. Through the haze of heat, I heard him say to the Djinn, "Leave her by the Gate. She has work to be about."
The two Balseraphs at the Gate coiled about each other as they watched me pull myself to my feet, dancing in the heat. Everything was moving, trembling with the pressure of the lava and the heat that wanted to burn it all away, destroy it all, incineration, conflagration, the heat of destruction. I began to walk, then run. There was a kind of stability to the movement, and I ran from the heat, into cooler air. Towards nightmares and borders and edges. Towards the Marches.
Cold light fell across the gates ahead, and corpse-fires played on the dark involuted carvings. They twisted into serpents and apples, men and women, wings and horns: the eye followed them till they became incomprehensible curves that hinted at something vile. Above the gates rose the tower of the Demon Princess of Fear, the lady Beleth, Queen of Nightmares. No sane person would come here, but then this was not a sane place.
The mists above the gate coalesced into the writhing wet limbs and eyes of a Shedite, pulsing slowly as it seethed down towards me. Mouths drifted to the surface of a tentacle, and they whispered, multiply voiced, "State your errand, Hound of Baal."
I straightened my back. "I come on my Prince's business, and bear a message for your Princess. In his name do I ask entrance."
Within the cloud of eyes and less nameable things, I could see a thousand tiny shrieking faces. The mouths on the tentacle shivered, then muttered in sequence, "Advance." It withdrew like fog from a slaughter, and the gates swung open, whispering in the mist.
Lank tendrils fell from the Shedite to brush against me as I walked beneath, trailing over my shoulders and neck like knowing hands. I bit my lip till it nearly bled, and concentrated on the pain from my burnt cheek, the sensation of the damp marble against my feet, the movement of one foot after another. If you show any fear here, the place focuses on it and it becomes worse. One mouth kissed its way along the tattoo on my right shoulder blade, and my fingernails drew blood from my palm. I could feel its desiring of bodies, movement, touch, pain, my pain and its self-definition. I held my mind away from the Corruptor's turmoil.
The passageway stretched in front of me like a backbone, ridged and uneven. In niches in the walls, Hearts burned like obscene prayer lamps. I set my eyes on the stairway at the side, trying to ignore the things that moved just out of eyeshot. They had dark wings, and they came down like hawks on me - no. That was another time and another place. Another place, where there were spires like the steps I had begun to climb. My skin was pale and unmarked, then. A shadow followed behind me, and I knew that if I turned I would see a clear-skinned creature that I had once been. The tattoos crawled on my arms and body, snakes of colour that seemed to turn and bite. I climbed the stairs towards the empty sky, and my shadow followed me. Turn and look, it seemed to say. See what you killed.
My mouth formed words silently. "I am a Punisher of God. I am still an angel."
The stairs opened onto a wide chamber, all empty floor and curving balcony. She stood facing outwards on the balcony, wrapped in shadows that draped like cobwebs or velvet. She neither turned nor made any acknowledgement of my presence.
I fell to my knees, feeling the emptiness of the stairs behind me like a gaping mouth paused to inhale. "Most Dread Princess, I bear a message from my Prince."
There was no reply, no sound, no stir.
I waited, holding the packet in my cupped hands, but still she made no answer. At my shoulders loomed presences like the Djinn of Belial, like intolerant-eyed Malakim, like.. something closed up in my throat and I could not, _would_ not name him. I could feel his eyes, burning through my skin and bone, and seeing what a small and pitiful thing was Caliah.
The packet was gone from my hands. I blinked, closing them slowly, touching the fresh nailmarks on my palms. Behind me the presences were held in abeyance by her will, restrained by fragile chains that would be gone in a second did she desire it. I lived by her sufferance, the silence said. Go. Go now.
I bowed my head, and stumbled down the stairs, so nearly running, my legs shaking beneath me. Every careful step was a victory. The presences stayed a step behind, their footsteps nearly audible, just below the threshold of hearing.
At the gate, the Shedite seethed upon itself, pulsing to my heartbeat with a terrible glee that knew my fear. "Look back," the mouths whispered. "Don't you want to see them?"
I let my terror take me at last, giving me speed as I ran across the wastes beneath the Tower of Nightmares, running towards the high Gates of Hell.
Throngs of souls stumbled through the Gates of Hell, crying out in fear and despair. Above rose the two great angels of Dominic that pluck the souls of the innocent from the masses of the damned. For the moment they did not reach down, merely watching with distant eyes. I ignored them, as much as one ever can, feeling instead the dance of emotion in the crowds around me. Fear, terror, panic, hopelessness, despair, agony, longing, yearning, anger, hatred - how could there be any doubt that these creatures were worthless and deserved their fate? (And you no more than they, something whispered in me, and you no more than they.)
A woman on my left stumbled, and I drove an elbow into her, letting her fall to be trampled. Her hair fanned out like a pale wave in the mud, and feet stamped it into the mud, ran across her, let her lie there screaming. Sooner or later she would enter the Gates and be judged. Punishment comes to all.
My markings cleared me some space, and the demons who directed the souls to the various holding pens passed me with barely a wave. Entering the House of the Game would be easier still, and far more dangerous.
There is a constant stream of people passing through the gates of that House, though none are ever obvious about it. They are near a door one moment, and through it the next, but the movement itself is unobvious. Who would willingly go near the Game, other than its Servitors? I didn't count myself: I wasn't willing. I was merely following orders.
I was directed by another Habbalite, soft-spoken and with lowered eyes, to take a seat in a waiting room. There was already a couple there, a hulking Djinn and a Geas-rattling Lilim with scars interlaced down her back. The Djinn was neutral enough, but I could feel the Lilim's hostility like knives in my guts. She watched me unabashedly, murder in her eyes, quite deliberately projecting at me: I couldn't hear the actual thoughts, but I could taste her lust for blood in my mouth. She dreamed of murdering me and tearing me apart, and I felt her wishes in my bones.
The door opened slightly. "Prince Asmodeus will see Prince Baal's messenger," the secretary announced. I rose, and walked across the room, feeling her eyes again at the back of my neck. You hate me, yes, sweet Geas-laden Lilim, all your bracelets jingling as you dance to your master's whims, but you don't know me. So you can never hurt me truly.
I took that little piece of courage with me as the door closed behind me. The room that I had stepped into was brightly lit, with file cabinets against the walls, and a desk in the corner. Asmodeus was sitting behind it, with a document folder open in front of him. He studied it for a moment longer before looking up at me, eyes as edged as swords and as hot as Belial's fires.
"Put it on the desk," he said, each word paid out. "Then stand still."
I kept my movements minimal, laying his packet on the desk. The floor felt like real carpet beneath my feet, the desk looked like wood, his form was human, but there was the constant terror that at any moment things could become darker, slip to a truth that I did not want to see.
He moved a finger down the file, eyes still on me. "Your name is Caliah. You were an Elohite of War. Three hundred years ago you chose to serve Prince Baal. Correct?"
My hands gripped each other behind my back. "Yes, most Dread Prince."
"Tell me why," he said.
Words jerked out of my mouth. "The humans didn't deserve what Michael wanted for them, most Dread Prince. They were weak. They deserved punishment."
"What happened," he said, the words like stones falling through blood.
"I had been assigned to work with a regiment. There was a war." My words were awkward, both from memory and from the knowledge that a single wrong word could make a traitor of me. "I was to keep up the courage of the soldiers, to help them understand that they were risking death and could do so despite their fear." All those eyes, asking me for help. Weaklings. "I couldn't believe that they deserved help. Ashekai..."
He made a single notation on the paper.
"... saw what I felt. He was a Balseraph in service to my Prince." I felt the words clogging in my throat, remembering how he had been able to express my feelings, name them, understand them. How he had gone through it too. "I realised that he was right. He made supplication to Prince Baal on my behalf, and he took me into his service."
His eyes looked at me - not through me, I could have borne it better if they had looked through me - but at me. I could feel him noticing me, marking down my details. There is no place to hide in Hell, not now, not ever.
He closed the file. "You have leave to go."
I had felt nothing from him throughout. His emotions might have existed, but they were so locked away and controlled that only his eyes burned. As I let the door shut behind me, I could breathe again, away from that dreadful scrutiny. The Lilim's dreams of murder were almost welcome now, as she flung them at me, because they were there: something to hold on to. Something to punish, some day.
You will pay, scarred tempter, some day, I thought. And may I never, never come beneath the eyes of Asmodeus again. I walked down the stairs, my mind turning already to the bones and stench of Abbadon. Never again.
A Citadel of bone rises in Abbadon, slick with corpse-fat and pale as carrion. The grey plains slope around it, and the Servitors of Saminga drag screaming souls into that Citadel, there to have their Essence stripped away. The valley that I ran across was populated by one of the tribes of lost souls: they scurried from their holes to surround me, hair lank and skin blanched. One, the leader by the look of it, raised a spear.
"You aren't a Servitor of Death," he snarled.
I was paused on the balls of my feet. If I had to, I could fight my way out, but it would slow me and I might take damage. Any sort of wound was bad here. I let my lips curl back, showing teeth. "I'm not. I serve the War."
The ring of people around me rippled. The leader hefted his spear. "You might be enough to satisfy the Servitors of Death for a few days, then. You'd last longer than us."
Damn. I began calling what Songs I had been left to my mind, and shifted my balance, letting my satchel slip to the small of my back so my hands were free. "I serve Prince Baal, manling. Think about it. Is it really worth it to die so messily?" My Resonance rang in me, a private Symphony, and I let the fear flow towards him, reminders of pain and loss, and watched his eyes widen, his face lose colour, the trembling take his hands.
He stepped back, and I stepped forward. The rest of the group had moved back when he did, following their leader. I slipped into motion, treading the mud and grubs underfoot as I slashed him across the face with a clawed hand. He fell to lie there in the grey dirt, hands shielding his bleeding face. I had laid his cheek open to the bone.
Blood was warm and wet on my claws, and I waited a moment to let the tribe flinch further back, smiling as I licked it away. The man at my feet was sobbing dryly, his blood seeping into the mud that he lay in.
I walked past him and on towards the Citadel. Nobody followed me.
At the gate of the Citadel hulked two Calabites, leaning on pitchforks. Trust Saminga to be traditional in the worst way. I showed my symbols, and they waved me past, clicking heels in an attempt to look military and not simply bored. I schooled my face to rapt admiration and subservience as a zombie lurched ahead of me through the slick corridors: I'd been here before, and I knew what Saminga expected.
The passageways were far too long. The whole place is grossly overdone, too big for adequate management, and full of those squirming grubs that were once souls. My feet were wet with them. I absently touched the palms of my hands, but those cuts were sealed by now: good, I had no wish to risk infection. The zombie in front of me had been branded on the shoulder while it was still alive, and my eyes kept on returning to the blackened skin, rather than the rotting flesh around it. Hopeless cries drifted up as we passed corridors and cellars, with that dreadful finality that comes of knowing you have lost something which cannot be returned, some part of your essential self.
The corridor opened into a vast hall, and we had several minutes of walking across the floor before I could duly fall to my knees before the throne of bone and sinew. Servitors were sprawled around the room, in gross tableaux with rotting corpses and silently screaming souls. Here an Impudite was locked in an embrace with a decaying body, and I watched it fall to dust as I passed, drained: there a Balseraph locked serpentine coils about a living form whose mouth was open in horror. The chamber resonated, as though from a long way away, with cries of pain.
I knelt before the great throne, the packet in my hands. The massive being on the throne inclined towards me slowly, its composite flesh writhing as the separate bodies which had been sculpted into one corpse tried to break free in idiot slowness. A boned hand closed round the packet, slime running down the channels of the sinews, and I felt the acid burn as it dripped onto my palm. I clenched my teeth, and did not move or speak, a tiny statuette among the living and undead.
The worms crawled among the interlaced bones of the floor, and I watched them with bowed head, conscious of the movement of the great thing above me. I could feel its attention turn away from me, divert elsewhere: the zombie fumbled with my shoulder to gesture that I should rise. I did so, following its slow steps out. The screaming had not stopped.
Beyond the gate, no winds moved on the surface of the plains. The only air that moved was the speed of my running, as my feet left tracks in the mud, and as the mud became the rock of a pavement. Bone showed in my palm where the acid had seared it, but it would mend: and it was a small price, a very small price.
The stone grew dryer under my feet as I crossed the borders into the Archives. I could feel eyes on my back, and hear the scuttling of watchers behind the growing shelves, but I ignored them. If they had business with me, then I would be the first to know about it.
The Archives are strange, even for Hell. I carefully stepped along a metal walkway between stacks of crystals that were flawed with shadows, then turned to the left along a stone pavement that was scorched and colonnaded: up a flight of wooden steps, and beneath a lintel marked _Finis Africae_, where the books were stained at their corners: down a ladder wrapped with green cables that glowed faintly in the near-dark, and along a passage with whispering things on the ceiling above me that I could never quite see.
There were cobwebs strung along the higher racks of books and computer disks, all jumbled higgledy-piggledy together. Several corridors down I came across a Djinn that was watching the intersection ahead of him nervously.
"What is it?" I whispered. He reeked of fixation.
He rolled an eye back at me. "There are some Impudites up there. They want to take my books away."
Oh dear, another of those cases. I nodded understandingly. "Do you know a way I can avoid them? I'm trying to reach Prince Kronos, but I don't want to risk them catching me."
The doglike head nodded, but with an edge that asked what was in it for him. I added, thoughtfully, "Of course, I could always try and frighten them off before they came down this way, if you like..."
Five minutes later, several nervous Impudites were looking for another source of data after I explained that there was a pack of Djinn in this section who were fanatical about gutting all intruders, and I was following a helpful set of directions, up, down, and round about.
The floor beneath my feet became well-kept sanded pine, and the shelves simple book-shelves. My senses were all running on wary, as I turned the last corner. Not just because of Kronos, but something else: there was a familiar feeling here, and one that frightened me.
The juncture of bookcases formed a tiny room as I paused in the imagined doorway, and there was a splattered stain across the floor, and I suddenly knew where and when I was.
... Lacahe bending over the form of the Cherub, the paperweight bloody in his hand. I was trying to get the words through a mouthful of Dissonance and jangling emotion. "I had him, you fool! Why did you have to kill him?" A rattling of feet on the stairs, coming down...
I could not move. I felt the hand open my satchel, remove a packet, and I felt the presence beside me, warping the lines of reality. Truth slipped into lies slipped into history. My eyes followed the outlines of the stain on the floor.
...Harris barely managed a choked cry as the Malakite's knife took him in the chest: he was lifted off his feet by the force of the thrust, turned and flung away, crashing into one of the shelves, a slow ripple of motion that ended in a dead Vessel with sightless eyes. I could see one of them turn his attention to me, his face blank of anything except the knowledge that I was a demon and had never been anything else, could never be anything else...
The room was empty, and the packet was gone from my satchel. The bloodstain was still there on the floor.
Back at the further junction, the Djinn was still guarding his books. He sniffed at me as I passed.
"You've been bleeding," he said.
"Nothing new," I replied, as I left him behind.
I found the section of the Archives that shaded more definitely towards technology, and cautiously moved towards Tartarus. This was not a place for speed, unless one fancied running into a new vocation as an experimental subject. There were a great many safety guidelines bandied about by visitors such as myself, but they basically came down to "Don't Touch Anything."
The gateway ahead of me was manned by two nervous-looking Impudites. It was large, metallic, and covered with free-form wiring. Sparks shot off it at regular intervals.
The first Impudite raised his head from the console that was beeping at him. "Are you carrying anything metal, ceramic, or based on technology imported from Jean's Halls of Progress?"
I raised my arms so that he could observe: one loincloth, one satchel, one thin body with a lot of tattoos.
He looked down again, as the console emitted a particularly shrill tone. "Are you carrying any item bearing the seal of a Prince of Hell?"
I tapped the satchel.
The second Impudite blinked. "Hot damn. The thing actually works."
I didn't try going through the gate. "Are you telling me this "thing" hasn't been tested yet?"
The first Impudite shot the second a glare, then tried grinning at me. "We're just on the beta-version now. It's been approved by the Prince of Technology himself."
"So was that thing with all the knobs that got issued to those people in Hong Kong," I said, dryly. I folded my arms and waited.
They exchanged glances again. Eventually, the first muttered, "We're not sure how to turn it off."
I checked the diameter of the passage. No way to squeeze past or fly over. "Has anyone else got through it alive yet?"
There was a pause. A long one. Eventually, the senior one said, "Nobody's actually gone through it yet. They keep on deciding to go round different routes. Then again, the theory is sound. It ought to be fine. It just scans you a bit."
I leaned against the wall, and began to play with his confidence. You can do it, big boy. Be a hero. "Suppose you just prove to me it works. Come through to me. Then I'll come through it this way. I'll certify it worked, you can send in the approval sheets and get a job someplace else in Tartarus."
His chest began to swell with technological pride. "Sure thing." The second Impudite grabbed his arm, but he shook him off. "No problem." He sauntered towards the gate, and stepped through. Something minor in the console blew up. "There you go." The second Impudite was frantically throwing switches and turning dials.
I smiled at the first one, and stepped through the gate rapidly. Electricity tingled round me and set my hair on end and my teeth on edge. He followed, just as something caught on fire and began to smoke violently.
"Where are the forms?" I enquired helpfully.
Gritting his teeth, the second Impudite handed them to me, then took his superior firmly by the shoulder to stop him sauntering through the gate a few more times. I rapidly signed my opinion that the gate was reliable, convenient, and thoroughly effective and safe.
Then I got on the path again before the damned thing blew up and took me with it.
Tartarus buzzed, clicked, and wailed with the din of untested technology. One of the most popular fashion accessories seemed to be earmuffs. Shedim, of course, simply demanifested all their ears and floated around in comparative bliss. I walked along a covered hallway between two ranks of testing booths, and dodged at regular intervals.
Three Balseraphs had pinned down one soul, and were strapping him to face a computer, whistling something about autonomic pulse control with reference to multi-user dungeons. I saw his eyes go blank as I sidled by. Ahead of me, a group of souls were being yanked along in chains by two Djinn with whips. The sign that they were walking under was printed "CONVERSIBLE REASSIGNATION OF ESSENCE". Definitely not that way for me.
It generally isn't hard to track down Vapula in Tartarus. One simply heads for the newest laboratories, the most advanced theories, and the loudest explosions. The problem with this, of course, was that one was then heading for the newest laboratories, most advanced theories, and loudest explosions. Oh well, at least one couldn't get lured into a false sense of security round here.
I avoided several packs of wire-collared souls with an insane look to their eyes, and managed to get directions in the right direction. "It's either the Carob Project or the Nybbas Ray," said the harassed-looking Impudite in spectacles. "Probably the Carob Project. That's been going badly of late."
The signs to the Carob Project were all new-looking, not too defaced or smoke-dirtied as yet. I opened the final door, and looked up to see a large, shuddering vat of something dark and indescribably bad-smelling - it wasn't that it obviously stank, it smelt more like chocolate, but there was an undertone to it of rotting plastic - with a high metal walkway above it, and a ladder up the side of the vat. I gritted my teeth, and began to climb.
The vat hummed as I climbed up it, making irregular shaking noises. The ladder was damp, with odd brown and green stains on it. I could feel the bones in my right hand grating against the rungs, however much I tried to spare them, and I was gasping by the time that I reached the top. There wasn't time for pain, though. There never is.
Winds whistled round the walkway, and the sour/sweet smell of the bubbling brown mass was thick in the air. I made my way towards the cluster of Habbalah, falling to my knees at a sensible distance with the packet in my hands. I carefully put my left hand uppermost. A future as an experimental subject for skin restructuring, should he take an interest in my right hand, was not what I wanted.
Footsteps approached me, and a mild voice said, "Look up, child."
I did, and as I did, I called all of my Resonance back into myself and tied it down with the tightest shields that I could imagine. Vapula is a Habbalite, as am I, and the pulse of emotion around him is staggering. I could feel his curiosity in my own flesh, and I held onto myself desperately lest I lose myself.
"Hm." He took the packet from my hand, tearing it open, and scrutinised the contents. "Mhm. Hm." Behind him, the other Habbalah, all in lab-coats over their adorned flesh, stood silently waiting for orders. One scribbled frantically on a clipboard. "Mmm. Did he make any, ah, specifications to you about this?"
"No, most Dread Prince." The words were automatic. Swirls of emotion round him were almost visible in the air. I was nearly choking on them. He was too much there, and it eroded my sense of self.
He tapped the paper against his fingers, then scrumpled it into a ball, tossing it over the edge of the walkway into the churning brown substance. It disappeared in a wave of goo. "Run along now, child. Don't worry, I'm sure it will be all right." A pulse of his emotions rose inside me, curiosity mingled with disinterest mingled with a flash of lightning. I tried to keep my balance.
The other Habbalah reformed their cluster round him as I rose and made my way backwards. Emotions frayed, thinning, as I drew further away. A little farther, just a little farther, I repeated silently to myself. Down the ladder again. It was longer this time, or seemed it, the machines below grunting and swirling.
When I reached the ground, I looked up at the walkway. They were in postures of discussion, and the Habbalah with the clipboard was tapping on it. I passed two Djinn dragging a struggling group of souls through the door. Better you than me, I thought, as I looked for the road to Perdition.
The passage between Tartarus and Perdition was patrolled by huge machines of Vapula's that belched steam and spat sparks. One soul that had tried to make a break for it was being dangled at the end of huge pincers as the tank-like engine ground back to the Tartarus gate. Fortunately, the machines were usually programmed to recognise the markings of Servitors on business. Usually.
Time slipped perception again as I began to run. After a while, it felt as though I had been running forever down a wide passage of dark rock, always with the smell of oil and burning insulation in my nostrils: that my muscles had always ached, my eyes always burned, that there was nothing else. Perception shrinks, time expands.
I remembered Lacahe's voice, heard coming down the corridor. "Dread Prince, both Harris and I managed our parts of the task. If she had distracted the Cherub, as she had been ordered to do.." I was sitting on the stone bench, staring at the wall, realising that I was focusing on a glowing sphere of crystal. My Heart. The door began to open.
Ahead of me, now, the glass and steel towers of Perdition. People bustled around the walkways, tiny blobs on high. A Balseraph was manning the gate ahead of me, form human enough to brandish a microphone and camera in hands and coils at me.
"Smile!" he ranted. "You're on Principality-wide broadcast. Congratulations, you and you alone have been chosen to give us _your_ thoughts on the War. So now, miss Habbalite, how do you feel we're doing? What have you to say to our viewers?"
I drew myself up, and bared my teeth at the camera. "Fight."
He signalled to a Calabite, who came slouching out of the gatehouse with a clipboard, then turned back to me. "Come on, sweetie, you can do better than that. How about a "Fight, fight, fight!" and some deep breathing?"
I leaned on the gatepost, stifling a sigh, and began to work on his feelings of insecurity. Lousy little Liar, useless interviewer, so worthless he was stuck out here at the gatepost. I growled, deep in my throat, "Fight for Lucifer. Now let me past, I've got a job to do."
The Calabite perked up, and began scribbling on the clipboard. The Balseraph sagged. "Well. Okay. Road's that way. Next time, how about, I don't know, trying.."
I tuned him out, and waved to the Calabite as I got into my pace again, heading for the city.
At the base of the towers, as I drew closer, I could see some sort of entourage drawn up, buzzing with video cameras and microphones. I slowed my pace, not wanting to get caught up in it, till one damned bright-eyed Lilim pointed right at me and squealed, "It's her! She's the one!"
I was too slow to react, and the crowd managed to close round me. Two Impudites cut straight for me, waving notebooks. "Excuse me, miss. Personal request from Prince Nybbas. Your speech earlier was extremely moving. Wouldn't mind letting us take a few shots for publicity purposes, would you?"
The words on my tongue would have blistered the body paint off their wings. Unfortunately, this looked like a good way to get the package to Nybbas quickly. "Certainly. As long as I can do my Prince's Errand first, you understand."
They both nodded cheerfully. "Surely, miss, surely. We'll have the shots of you handing it over to him. Dispatches from the forefront of the War. Wonderful material."
I shrugged, and nodded. I found myself being hustled, in some barely visible way, towards a makeup tent. The Djinn there was in a halfway-fluffy form. I tried not to stare.
It waved a powder-brush at me, and growled, "More eyeliner. Smaller loincloth. Can we alter the tattoos?"
Well, it had asked, so I had to answer. The words were like gravel in my mouth. "I wear these tattoos at Prince Baal's personal wish. I am not permitted to change them."
It shrugged a few limbs. "Guerilla chic's the fashion. We can work with it. Come over and sit down."
There was a constant bristle of emotion from it, a nagging wish for the kind of celebrity that others had, the devotion that the mobs gave them, mingled with the knowledge that it would never have it and that it _shouldn't_ care. But it did. Limes and salt on the tongue. I took my place, chafing silently, and let it add eyeliner and lipstick and mascara, give me a smaller loincloth, and add some artistic daubs of dust and blood. It muttered over my right hand and the burn on my cheek, but had to leave them be.
"What's your name?" I asked idly.
"Estvan," it growled, running a brush through my hair. Fairly pointless, as my hair was already razor-cut to minimum length. "You're done. Get on out there."
I edged out of the tent, and straightened. A carpet led towards a small soundstage, where several technicians were performing frantic sound and light checks while Nybbas watched with folded arms. Cameras flashed, and a rapidly assembled crowd seethed. A firm shove in the small of the back sent me staggering towards the soundstage: I quickly converted it into a run, arriving on stage with a suitable air of haste and falling to my knees in front of the Prince.
I had never realised before how closely his grin resembled a shark's, full on. I bowed my head, offering the packet. "Urgent dispatches from the Prince of the War, most Dread Prince."
He struck a pose. "All Hell seethes! But you can be there to help." He grabbed the packet from my hands, tore it open, and stared at it. "Yes! At last, the word, the word we have all been waiting for! You too can serve in the War, whether you're a lean mean Habbalite or a hard-working Prince like myself. Call 001-44-55-666 today for your chance to sign up. Hell _needs_ you!"
The crowd exploded in wild, frantic cheering. I began to get a headache.
He stuffed the paper into a pocket. "Okay, strike the set." He glanced down at me. "Not bad, cutie, but you want to work on the delivery. Now give the props back to Wardrobe, we've got places to be, people to see." He wandered off to find another microphone and begin an interview on the vital role of trade in peace.
I got my old loincloth back, and hit the road for Stygia.
It was a toss-up whether to try and reach Malphas or Valefor first. Neither were in any particular favour with my Prince, and Malphas he outright despised publicly. However, the problem with Stygia was that it was a maze, and I couldn't be sure whose territory I would be walking into, let alone which way to go. I'd have to corral a guide.
A dark entryway led ahead of me, plunging down into encircling caves. I paced down carefully, the dim lights of torches flickering at intervals on my skin and laying the smell of smoke in the air: gangs would be roaming these tunnels, and it was a quite conceivable thing that they might end up sending back a flayed set of tattoos to Baal with a polite apology.
Cold air touched my left wrist like the echo of a kiss, and I slipped close against the wall; a draught meant a side-passage, and the fact that it was unlit suggested an ambush. I was probably in Malphas' territory, then. Small comfort to know that much.
I drew further back into the shadows, and called out, "Envoy from the Prince of the War to your Prince! Guide required." Then I slid several paces to my right. Just because I was having to be public didn't mean that I had to be stupid.
There was a faint rustle from ahead of me, proving that I'd been right. A voice called back through the darkness, shifting position as it did, "You can prove it?"
"I bear my Prince's markings," I replied. "Important dispatches from Prince Baal. Keyed to my hand." Just in case they got any clever thoughts about knifing me and taking the dispatches along themselves.
There was a whispered mutter, then a Calabite stepped out into the dim light, raising both hands to show they were empty. "We guide you and make sure you get there safely, and you give a personal report that we did so to the Prince?"
"You got it," I replied, still in the darkness.
He nodded, and gestured to the shadows beside him. Half a dozen souls followed him out into the torchlight, carrying clubs and knives. "Okay, War-servant. You up for a run?"
I stepped out of my shadows, balanced. I could feel their eyes on me, trying to see beneath the skin, beneath the surface of the eyes. Distrust was in the air I breathed, suspicion in the marrow of their bones. "You're the guide. Let's get moving."
People watched us as we passed, poking their heads from side passages or crannies, or lurking at the ends of corridors to snarl as we walked by. As I came further into the maze, I saw that the walls were daubed with slogans and symbols. "Keep Hell Pure!" "Serve Malphas truly!" "The Bloody Hand Rules These Corridors!"
One of the souls with me spat on the Bloody Hand slogan. "Think they've got an in with the Prince. We'll show them! They don't know that the Prince _likes_ our leader."
My voice was neutral. "He does?"
Several nods. "You bet your wings he does, lady. Just you wait and see. We stick together. Can't trust those other bastards."
The Cabalite drew to a halt, and pointed to a door ahead. Faint tendrils of mist wafted round it. "Through there. He'll be waiting."
I gave him a fist-to-chest salute. It's the sort of thing people expect of the War. He mirrored it back at me, then settled to lounge with his set of souls. I turned and pushed open the door, walking into the mist.
Tendrils of fog swirled round me, not quite touching, seeming to form a luminous cocoon. I couldn't make out the walls of the room, or the ceiling: or, when I fell to my knees, the exact detail of the floor. It was smooth and faintly slippery. I took the packet from the satchel, holding it as I had all the others. "Most Dread Prince, I bear a dispatch from the Prince of the War."
The mist rippled like a sheet of silk, and a face formed out of it: an elderly man, wry but half smiling. "Place it on the floor before you, Servitor."
I did. I could feel myself relaxing somewhere deep inside, knowing that I was safe, that at least here was one Prince who wouldn't be trying to harm me. Ghostly eddies of fog rippled over the packet, and it was gone, the floor empty again.
"You have no need to worry, Servitor." And I realised that I didn't. I was safe here. "I can offer you refuge, for the moment," and his voice, his presence, promised longer safety, a permanent refuge, "and an ear for your troubles."
I looked at my hands again, and saw Baal's sigils tattooed across them, disfiguring swirls of colour that ran across the lines of bone and vein. I remembered the feeling of bones breaking, the words ringing in my ears, the hatred along my skin like a cold wind. Nobody had tried to protect me. They had wanted to see me fail, had put the blame on me. I couldn't trust any of them, not the mightiest, not the least, not even my fellow Punishers, nobody, nobody at all. I deserved better than this. They might scorn me, but I deserved vengeance. Perhaps I could have it. See them writhe, hear their screams, see them brought low. They deserved it.
The words were so hard to say. "Most Dread Prince, I am humbly grateful for the audience, but I must complete my mission for my Prince." They stuck in my throat like sand, as I felt myself giving up this friendship, this closeness. I could have everything. Images shifted in the fog, a hundred faces saying something just out of hearing. I could have the ear of Malphas, have power, be _wanted_.
I jerked to my feet, stumbling backwards to the door. It was open behind me. Nothing stopped me leaving, except that I had so much wanted to stay.
"Finished?" asked the Calabite?" The door was still part-open, swirls of mist wreathing it. I knew that I could go back. He would be there, waiting for me. He would listen to me, forgive my leaving, understand it.
My voice was raw. "Which way to Valefor's court?"
I was escorted by the helpful gang to the edge of Valefor's territory, and taken from there by a couple of Habbalites to what was apparently their Prince's latest hideout. We made shop talk along the way, mostly about other people. Sometimes it helps to be able to talk to another angel. The tunnels were very like Malphas', though slightly drier. The odd sparkle flashed from the walls where something had been hung or discarded. My escorts kept me moving at a brisk pace, turning as many corners as they could in order to keep the maze a maze.
At one point we ended up going round the long way in order to avoid a fight that had started. It was a large-scale brawl, fists and teeth and knives and horns and whatever.
"What's it about?" I asked.
My male escort shrugged. "Working out who gets the biggest share of a run they made on Saminga's people three nights ago. They got an interesting reliquary, and both the gangs there figure it should be in their share."
My brows rose. "They cooperated?"
He looked faintly uncomfortable. "Hey, we can work together if we have to, you know? Especially if it pays better."
I glanced back at the brawl as we turned a corner. Howling followed us. "So who's got it at the moment?"
My female escort snickered in her throat. "Neither. Matthieu of the Ringed Noses picked it off them yesterday. Nobody's realised yet."
"So how do you know?" I asked.
They exchanged glances, and she shrugged. "I took it off Matthieu."
We circled back round to our vaguely original heading, and had to duck past a low crack into the wall to get into a snug little den. The walls were hung with some rather nice rugs, and the floor was stacked with velvet cushions. My nostrils flared, and so did my escorts', at the general feeling of relaxation from the demons sprawled around the place. Two Impudites were consorting with a Lilim in the corner, behind a inefficient curtain, adding a patina of lust to what was really a rather comfortable atmosphere.
"He's in the study next door," my male escort explained, pointing out the door in question. "See you round." He and the female vanished at a rate of knots.
A Balseraph near my feet reached its tail in my direction, coiling it tentatively at my ankle. "You don't want to get mixed up with them, dear. Strictly second-raters. Care to discuss whatever you're planning with me?"
I shook my head. "Prince's business. Sorry." I stepped over the bodies among the cushions, wincing again at all this comfortable indolence, and knocked on the door.
A voice from inside called, "Come in!"
I opened the door, and a wave of ozone hit me, making me cough. The others in the room behind me began to cough by degrees as well, spluttering.
Valefor had his back to me, and was fiddling with a gadget that was covered in twinkling lights and had two big sliders on it. He mutered something about, "...last time I try borrowing stuff from the Halls of Progress without a label..." and turned to face me. He looked much like a normal Calabite, but with a certain air of presence, and a great deal more silk to his clothing. "Come in, come in. Coffee?"
I edged in, letting the door drift closed, and fell to my knees, offering his packet. "Most Dread Prince, I bear a message from the Prince of the War."
His tongue clicked as I felt him take the packet from my hands. "Very well, we've got that out of the way. Now how do you take your coffee?"
Well, if he wanted to be like that... "Black, most Dread Prince."
I heard him open the door, and call, "Coffee!" It snicked shut again, and his feet returned. "Well, stand up, do. See if you can find a place to sit down."
I looked around. Somebody had piled thirteen volumes of some set called the Revelations of G- on the only spare chair, and dropped a long knitted striped scarf on top of it all. A bowl of fresh tomatoes jostled for position on his desk with a fortune in jewellery, two psalters, and three wooden flutes. The walls were jammed with pictures and hangings, one painting of a screaming head being prominently placed.
Valefor gave up on his device, shoving all the sliders closed, and dropped it into a silver urn full of ashes. I perched on the edge of the chair next to the thirteen volumes of Revelations. A head poked around the door. "Most high Prince, someone took the coffee."
He tapped a finger on his desk. "Get some more." The head vanished.
My eyes tracked around the room. Framed opposite the picture of the screaming head was a library card from somewhere, countersigned Beth. On the floor directly below it was a stack of library reminders that had nearly risen to touch the card.
"So," he said, blithely, "hope nobody gave you any problems. We like to feel we're cooperative here, working together for a more prosperous future. Perhaps you'd care to see my collection of military cap badges?"
The coffee was brought in, with a mismatched set of cups and spoons. I got a five-minute lecture on the art of removing cap badges while the cap was being worn. I couldn't help my eyes straying to a pile of sunglasses that had been deposited on top of a tome about the Dynamics of an Asteroid. One pair looked awfully like the pair from my satchel. I squeezed my satchel surreptitiously. Due number of message packets. No sunglasses.
Valefor gave me a concerned look. I winced inwardly.
"Coffee all right?"
"Yes, yes, most Dread Prince. Wonderful." It was, too.
He cogitated. "If you're going past the Guildhall in Shal-Mari, you're going to need some sunglasses. All those Lilims. Wonderful workers, but so .. pressing." He smiled knowingly.
I gritted my teeth, and smiled. "I thank you for your kindness, most Dread Prince."
He leaned back. "Pish. Likewise tush. Think nothing of it. Pick a pair that suits you from the pile. Least I can do to help the War. Give my regards to Baal, there's a good girl."
I left, with sunglasses, stepping over the cushions and bodies outside.
Shal-Mari lay spread out before me like a pulsating sore, a pile of squirming maggots. Music drifted into the mouth of the corridor where I stood, throbbing like the beat of a deranged heart, and lights flashed in every colour of a manic neon rainbow. I slipped the sunglasses from my satchel, and snapped them on. Time to go and mingle with the Corporeal-loving grubs.
Common sense suggested that I start with the Prince who would probably be easiest to find - or Princess, rather. I had a packet for Lilith, and her secretary at the Lilim Guildhall should be able to reach her. I'd been to the Guildhall before, which was why the sunglasses. Few things more annoying than a Lilim leaning into your face and telling you that she knew what you Needed.
The streets were boiling with party-goers, and there was a desperate, frenetic sense of hunger in the air. Not precisely Haagenti's hunger - more a need, but not a Djinn's need either - more the knowledge in every damned soul here that they could be happy if only they could find a way. Adults danced an idiotic circle dance as I ran by, children used whips and hooks on each other, women and men knelt to demons and tried every concoction in the restaurants, every position in the brothels, just in that hope of a moment's joy. The air was almost screaming with desperation as I breathed it in.
I felt repulsed by it. The movement all around me was too close, the people too near, their eyes too intent and hungry. My speed made them keep their distance, and my markings kept off most of the predators. The air was clammy on my skin, reminding me of yearnings and despair. I slapped one man away as he tried to grab at me, snarling something wordless.
The Guildhall rose in front of me, an office block in a sea of swirling neon. Demons crowded around it, packing the entrance as they forced their way in or out. I set my shoulders, pushing with the worst of them, and managed to get into the main hall.
The noise, if anything, escalated. Princes and major Word-Bound had stalls on every side, trying to attract Lilim with the skills that they wanted. Green skin flowed like seaweed as Lilims insinuated themselves to left, right, and centre, casting wide-eyed glances at their opponents as they negotiated. I was grateful for my sunglasses. A few approached me, but backed off when I shook my head. Perhaps I scared them - no, unlikely. A pity.
I knew better than to ask for anything here. Fortunately, we message-runners cooperate enough to share vital information, such as the rough location of the private stairway here. It was where I'd been told it would be, curling up behind the toilets, the stairs creaking wood, the paint on the walls peeling, and the odd note or advertisement tacked up and faded.
At the top of the stairs, a corridor led round a corner, and a queue of people lounged against the wall: three Balseraphs, a Calabite, a couple of my own Choir, some Impudites, half a dozen Lilims, two squatting surly-looking Djinn. Quite the crowd. I considered the options: take the time to queue and wait who knows how long, or try and queue-jump and risk all kinds of trouble.
The one at the head of the queue was a Balseraph, looking vaguely unconcerned, and curled around a complicated piece of leather: probably here looking for a bargain. I strolled up to him, and he opened a pair of eyes.
"Can I help you?" he murmured.
"Possibly. I'd appreciate it if you mention when you go in there - after you've had your business - that there's a Habbalite of the War out here with a personal dispatch for the Princess of Freedom from the Prince of the War."
I felt the gazes of the others on me, and the muscles of my back stiffened. I had to remind myself that the tattoos kept them out.
The Balseraph inclined its swaying head. "I take your meaning. Don't worry: I shouldn't be long."
I nodded in return, and wandered to the back of the queue, settling cross-legged beside a hulking Djinn. It salivated faintly as it daydreamed, muscles rippling unsettlingly. There was a faint taste of bloodlust on it, and bloody tears of regret.
People moved, at the head of the queue. I took the brief rest, letting muscles unknot and the body recover a little.
Green feet approached where I was sitting, and I looked up. An attractive Lilim was standing before me, only a few light Geas-bands on her wrists, and with a certain air of confidence. "Prince Baal's messenger? I am personal secretary to my Mother. If you would come this way?"
I rose, nodded, and followed her. Gazes from the rest of the queue glanced off my back like thrown knives. The door to the study closed behind us.
Inside it was laid out like a study from Earth. A computer whirred faintly on the desk, trays were stacked with memorandums and papers, a notice board had various pieces of coloured paper pinned to it, and several chairs were set out enticingly, near the drinks cabinet.
"Something to drink?" she asked.
"Sorry, no favours. Not on duty." My response was as polite as I could make it.
She nodded, unshaken. "You're to give it to Mother personally?"
I nodded. "If possible. Those were my orders. Unless she can't be reached."
She nodded in turn, and moved to sit behind the desk. Her fingers rattled over the keys. I folded my hands behind my back, standing at ease. The computer was behaving surprisingly well: one would hardly have thought that it was Vapula's work. The screen began to ripple in odd colours as the Lilim hit a final keystroke, flickering across her face and breasts.
A cold flash filled the room, and then Lilith herself stood there, one hand touching the computer screen. Her hair was pulled back into a perfect chignon, the horns peeping out at the temples, and her cream silk business suit was impeccable. She smiled, faintly.
I fell to my knees, holding the packet out, and murmured, "Most Dread Princess, a message for you from the Prince of the War." The room seemed to stifle my voice, muting it to a whisper: or perhaps it was her presence. I could feel nothing from her at all.
She said, "Look up."
I did so, and watched her take the packet from my hand, her nails immaculate, hand cold and smooth and never stained. Her eyes were on mine, even through the sunglasses, and I could feel the weight of her gaze. She continued to watch me, even as she broke open the packet and unfolded it.
When she looked at the paper, it was like the removal of a weight of clear water. I tried to breathe silently.
She regarded the paper, then chuckled faintly to herself. "Dear Baal, always so..." She cut off, turning to her Daughter. "See Caliah out, and get someone to give her directions to the other Princes. Nothing else that she needs is in my domain."
Her Daughter nodded. Lilith turned to touch the screen again, and was gone in a sparkle of colour.
The Lilim turned to me. "We'd better be getting to it, then." There was something sad in her eyes, but I could not recognise what it was. It echoed something that had been in Lilith's gaze as she regarded me, and equally incomprehensible then.
Still, I do not need the pity of demons. I am an angel.
At least I now had directions to the whereabouts of the other three Princes of Shal-Mari: I decided to try Andrealphus first, as he would probably be the hardest to trail once I lost track of him. The Lilim had informed me that he was staying at one of his main brothels, and expected to be there at least another few hours. The crowds roiled round me as I shouldered my way through the streets, hoping I'd reach it before his interest in the place - or its inhabitants - waned.
When I got there, I found entry surprisingly easy. Shameful. I could have been anyone, an assassin or spy, and the doors were wide open.I pigeonholed a couple of disapproving thoughts about Shal-Mari to join all the others, and carefully stepped inside, avoiding frenzied multiples of bodies as I explored the place, looking for the private areas.
A door opened to my hand, in the more expensive area of the brothel, and I could hear the moaning coming from behind the heaped desk. I peered over cautiously. One never knows what to expect in the private rooms of the Prince of Lust. Though I admit that I hadn't expected a suited Lilim with glasses and her head in her hands. Either truly perverse, or truly weird.
She raised her head half an inch. "He's busy. He hasn't got any appointments free for the next six months. He's very busy. Do you know where I can find four virgins twenty years old with black hair?"
"Afraid not." The waves of desperation coming off her were things of beauty. "I take it you don't qualify?"
She sniffed. "If I didn't, I'd be asking for five. Seriously. This sounded like a cushy desk job at the Guildhall." Her eyes widened appealingly behind the glasses. "I'll _owe_ you."
I eyed the desk, piled high with love-notes, assignations, favours, and several devices that I couldn't figure out. "He's got you sorting his personal diary? You poor thing."
She sifted papers between her fingers, and repeated, like a mantra, "It sounded like a cushy desk job. No hassle. No paranoids. No big guns. No weird tech."
I carefully let the sheer depression deepen, tasting it in my mouth, before saying, "Perhaps I can help."
"Sure." I shrugged. "But I want a Geas from you that you won't tell anyone who gave you the idea. And I want to see your Prince, right after."
She gnawed her lip with daintily pearly fangs, then shrugged. "I've got nothing to lose. You've got a deal. What do I do?"
I smirked. "Call the Game. Ask for their help."
She sat bolt upright. "Are you out of your tiny little mind?"
Papers fluttered in scented heaps to the ground as I claimed a corner of desk. "Let them think you're a ditzy bimbo, and they'll grab the chance to send in a few spies. Then you tell your Prince that they're sending in spies, but you've got it under control, and this is a chance to give them some misinformation. You win both ways, and the Game gets royally," I grinned, "screwed."
She blinked, twice, then offered her hand to shake. "Your name's a secret with me. And he's in the corridor back there, third door on the right, the mud bath."
I shook it, still grinning, and sauntered for the corridor.
The third door was some way along: I knocked, and a voice called, "Come in!" The tone was faintly impatient.
The polished oak door opened onto a darkened room, scented candles burning in the corners. A mud bath oozed slowly in the corner of it, and a dark-haired form was faintly visible in the mud, half-submerged. Clean white towels hung on a rail by the door.
I fell to my knees where I stood. "Most Dread Prince, I bear a message from the Prince of the War."
A pale arm stretched out of the dark mud-bath. "Pass me a towel, would you, sweet?"
I carefully kept my eyes lowered as I passed the towel. Sure, I knew that the stories about his naked body striking you blind with desire were just that. Stories. But it didn't hurt to be careful. Even if it meant that I'd lose that bet about whether he had tattoos or not.
He leaned partway out of the bath to take the towel, and rose to his feet in a smooth motion, wiping the mud from his limbs in long strokes. I fell to my knees again, carefully not looking at anything. There was a kind of pulse in the air that raised the hair on the back of my neck. Danger, it whispered, danger.
I felt the packet being lifted from my hands, and the brush of cool fingers. The towel fell in a mud-stained pile next to me as I listened to paper being unfolded, then crumpled and dropped atop the towel.
"Sit down, sweet." His voice was a caress; I set my teeth without even thinking about it. "I want to see your markings. Sit with your back to me, if it makes you feel better."
I curled up on myself, folding my legs beneath me as I settled with my back to him on the floor. Behind me, I could hear a whisper of sound as he settled on the edge of the mud bath. The door faced me mockingly like a promise of safety, and the candleflames danced in a momentary breath of air, rippling golden shadows over my skin.
"Lovely." His voice was very close as he traced his fingers down the pattern on my right shoulder. I could feel the edge of fingernails. "The brutal lines combined with the softness of flesh. Perhaps you should consider longer hair..."
It was getting harder to breathe. His hand moved up to cup the back of my neck, and it was cool against the heat of my flesh, and it felt so good. I leaned back into it without even thinking, and he stroked down my spine. Weakness painted itself into my muscles, and I arched my back at his touch.
"... but the razor-cut is striking, sweet, very effective. You're all thin bone, like one of those Erte sketches..."
The candles danced at the edge of my vision, and I felt myself leaning forward as he brought his other hand round to touch my shoulder. I wanted to turn and kiss his hand. My mind began to paint pictures of his body, so cool, and I wanted to turn and touch him.
"... a kind of savage elegance. So much alive..."
Darkness gathered at the edge of my vision, and this time I was collapsing forward. His hand on my shoulder held me upright while he traced the tattoo on my cheek, the motion slow and hungry. I could feel my breath thin in my throat, and choked on it as he gently lowered me to the ground. I had no strength left to move: my body was burning with need, and the floor was cold against my cheek as I watched him rise, coming into view. His body was a mortal sin, and I tried to follow it with my eyes, yearning.
"...I think I might enjoy you. Some day."
He passed out of my line of sight, and the door opened to throw a triangle of light across the floor, then closed again.
After a while, I managed to sit upright, then to stand. The candles had burned down to stubs in their sockets.
Chocolate, cinnamon, and coffee on the air. Fresh cream and honey. Cloves and nutmeg and raisins, a sweetness that makes one hungry for more. Damned souls sprawled in the streets, jamming bread or cakes or clothing or flesh into their mouths, trying to fill their bellies against the gnawing hunger. I could feel it myself, though not as strongly: for me it was the memory of a croissant at a table in Paris, and the separate sensation as each flake of pastry fell apart, the taste of jam, the bite of black coffee.
Flavour: an aspect of sensation. I remembered the tastes of Earth. The final taste, the copper-salt of blood in my mouth as I tried to move my hand. The Symphony was shaking around me like a harp that was being pulled in all directions, and the colours in front of my eyes seemed too bright. The Malakite had one knee on my chest, as he thrust the knife in and up, ripping into my lungs. The last thing that I remembered had been the taste of mortal blood.
And then the door had opened, and his shadow fallen across me...
Shouts and cheers came from ahead. The scents began to change, mozarella cheese, sharper cheddar, onions and bacon, ham, tomatoes. People called out from the shops as I ran past - it seemed a thousand pizza parlours - begging me to come in, taste _their_ stuff, eat, eat, eat! A woman grovelling in the street near me, empty of all Essence, was gnawing at her wrist, her eyes empty of everything except famine. The mob grew thicker, and I had to force my way through, Singing claws out to drag a few out of my way. There was a steady roaring, growing louder.
A Djinn loomed in front of me, looking down from yellow slitted wolf-eyes, and snarled, "You want to disturb the Prince, bitch, be my guest: I'll throw you down his throat myself."
I squinted up at him. "I'm a messenger from Prince Baal. If you're Prince Haagenti's accredited representative, and you're prepared to take all responsibility for the message packet that I have for him..."
He growled nastily, but backed down, using his weight to shoulder a path through the crowd for the two of us. The mass closed in behind like a tumescent lump of jelly. I could smell mozarella more strongly now, and salami, pepperoni, butter, anchovies all mingling in my throat.
We stumbled to the edge of the crowd, and the Djinn grabbed my arm in a punishing grip to stop me being shoved into the centre space. Haagenti was squatting there in a great hairy multi-limbed mass, blocking the street with his girth: at his centre, his mouth opened and closed constantly, inward-pointing spines shovelling down the pizzas that were being cast into it by chained souls. I saw one slip, and teeter on the edge: a tentacle reached out and yanked him into the chewing mouth, and his screams faded in the sounds of slurping food.
The Djinn grunted, one claw still fixed round my arm. "Go on, then, messenger of Baal. Present your message."
I could almost taste the saltiness of anchovy, the sensations of chewing and swallowing, the gnawing of hunger. More of the crowd were gnawing on themselves, or on each other. Taking a deep breath, I called out, "Most Dread Prince! This humble messenger of the Prince of the War bears a message for your eyes!"
The grinding chewing stopped. Several of Haagenti's eyes swivelled to face me. The Djinn still held my arm in his claw, but I bowed my head, fishing the packet out of my satchel and holding it out deferentially.
A rumbling voice emerged from the great mouth. "Cast it in."
The Djinn extended another clawed arm, and grasped the packet. It judged height, beady eyes glinting and swivelling, then tossed it overhand: the wrappings and seal glinted as the packet tumbled through the air into Haagenti's mouth.
There was a chomp, then silence.
Haagenti finally spoke again, "Pizza! More pizza!" The chained souls began casting pizza into his mouth, shovelling and sweating.
I tapped a claw against the Djinn's clasp on my arm, and coughed politely. He scowled, letting me go with a final squeeze.
The only problem then was getting back through the crowd.
I was beginning to lose my temper, and projected a particularly vivid wash of rage onto the arguing couple by the wall: it eased my anger a little to watch them tearing at each other with fingers and teeth. It was proving the very devil of a job to find Kobal, here among the tangled streets of theatres and cinemas and revues. So far I'd tried the location that the Lilim had given me, the main areas of his operation here, his "offices", and struck a blank at all of them.
The street stretched ahead of me, full of frenetic souls, looking for some easing of their own pain in the pain of others. Jeering laughter drifted from windows and open doors. It was humid, and I could feel the sheen of sweat on my face and shoulders.
A hand caught my wrist, snagging it in a gentle yet unbreakable hold. I spun, baring my teeth in a snarl, to look into the eyes of a Prince. Kobal had found me.
I fell to my knees, his hand still round my wrist, and lowered my head, forcing blankness on my face. "Most Dread Prince..."
"Yes, yes, I know," he cut in. "You have a message for me from your Prince. Come in here while I look at it." His grip didn't loosen, and I found myself having to rise and follow along with him, at a slightly faster pace than is comfortable, into the dark lobby of a cinema. Some sort of film involving a zoo was showing: the audience was heckling and laughing at the plot. Kobal picked a couple of seats in the back row, and waited for me to seat myself before he released my wrist and sat down beside me, at the end of the row.
"It's almost over," he said companionably, "but I feel that this one had real style. Have you seen it?"
I had no idea what the film was, and hadn't seen any for thirty years or so. "I don't think so, most Dread Prince."
"Pity." He reached a hand across. "The message?"
I plucked the last message-packet from my satchel, and placed it obediently in his hand. On stage, the character who was presumably the hero drew out a gun.
Kobal's hand closed around the packet, but he didn't try to open it. "Oh, this is a good bit. Do watch. It's the culmination of a whole sequence of..."
The hero shot himself.
"...irony. Now _that's_ comedy."
It didn't seem that funny to me, but perhaps I lack perspective.
Kobal stuffed the packet into a pocket, still unopened, and got up, nodding to me. "Things to do, jokes to listen to. I like the attitude, by the way. Very ironic. Do stay and watch the cartoons." He turned, sauntering to the exit without waiting for any reply from me.
The audience yelled and cheered on all the way through the cartoons, till several Calabites came out with pitchforks to clear the place for the next showing. I got turfed out with the others, blinking as I came out into the Shal-Mari street.
I'd made it. I had actually made it all the way round. I blinked, as I began to lurch into a run again. Now _that_ was ironic.
Gehenna's stench of mud and blood was sweet; it was homecoming, the safety of known things. I skirted battlegrounds, heading back towards the Palace on the standard routes, and giving the passwords to the sentries as I passed them.They flipped salutes as I ran through. The steel gates were opened for me to stumble in, and the Calabites gave me the usual search and check: standard operating procedure.
Duly checked upon, I was allowed to drag myself to the runners collection point. The duty clerk had changed: it was a female Impudite now, who was amusing herself by sucking her pens meaningfully and watching the effect on the bored, waiting demons. I tapped a knuckle on her desk.
She looked up, removing the pen from her mouth. "Yes?"
I leaned both hands on the edge of her desk. "Caliah, Habbalite of the War, mission completed, reporting back on duty. Can you remember that, or would you rather be assigned to Shal-Mari?"
My temper was not at its best, and I was tired.
She sniffed, giving the movement full value. "Well, if you've completed your mission, _Caliah_, you're to report to Prince Baal."
I nodded, pushing off her desk, feeling the blood draining away from my heart. Damned if I'd let her see it.
She stuck the pen back in her mouth, casting eyes at a large Djinn who was polishing his revolver. I stalked for the door that led to Baal's suite of offices, each pace more and more difficult. He had not troubled to speak to me since my failure in Paris. But surely I had completed my mission successfully?
The sentries at his door regarded me with their multiple Balseraphic eyes, cold and serpentine. I could feel their dedication, their belief. Oh, and I believed as well, believed with all my heart.
Memory opened another door behind my eyes.
The glowing Heart before me, as I rose and turned to fall to my knees. Baal's shadow falling across me like a stain, across the colours that I had chosen to decorate my form. His voice had been so measured, counting out my guilt, and I knew that guilt in my bones and blood as he spoke.
"Punisher, Caliah, you have failed me."
I could feel the stain of his shadow eating into my flesh like acid. Beneath it, I was pale and trembling, as white as the Elohite I had once been. I forced myself to remain where I was, bit my lip so as not to scream.
"I trusted you with responsibility."
I could feel his eyes on me, burning through the white skin. He knew me, knew how little I was worth. Layers of myself flaked into ashes and burned away in shame. I had failed him, failed the War, failed my companions. Tears of blood began to gather in my eyes, flawing my vision with scarlet.
His steps were precise, like the ticking of a clock. I could feel him standing above me. "Henceforth you will serve as one of the lowliest of my soldiers. I strip from you the Knighthood of the Black Order."
My body arched, and I could not help but cry out in pain as I felt something ripped from the fabric of my soul. Part of me gone in a raw flash of violation, torn away and leaving me bleeding. Red drops spattered on the stone floor beneath me.
"You will bear the marks that I give you now, and no others."
My skin began to burn again, tattoos arcing themselves into me like needles of fire. I saw the designs blossoming in my flesh, and wept again, knowing that even that small control was lost to me now. The pain became roses of fire, tearing at me, and I screamed more than once before it was done.
His shadow was a blanket of ice. "You will know that you live in my displeasure."
His steps left the room.
One of the sentries touched the door, and it opened. There was ice in my heart as I entered the room, falling to my knees as the door snicked shut behind me, the lock closing. For a moment before I bowed my head, I had seen Baal sitting behind his desk, regarding me, nothing visible in his face.
He rose. Footsteps ticked across the floor, as they had done before. I closed my eyes, watching the veins of light that run through the darkness of the eyelids, tasting my blood in my mouth again.
His hand came down to touch my head, approvingly, as one might a pet dog. "Caliah. You have done well."
I felt the bloody tears began to trickle down my cheeks: tears of gratitude, of joy that I had pleased him. I could sense calm approval from him now, a mercy that I did not deserve and would never have asked for.
"Return to your duties, my Servitor."
His presence rested on me for a moment, piercing through the wall of my skin and spirit, then was gone. He was no longer in the room, translated to some other place in Hell or Earth. I made my way out, saluting the sentries as I left.
They look at me, Princes and Demons and Souls alike, and I hate it, feeling their eyes on me, knowing too much of me. But I am an angel still, and I serve the War even here in the depths of Hell. I bear Baal's markings, and I am his servant, until the blood dries in the fields of Gehenna and the flames die in Sheol.
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