Steve Jackson Games In Nomine

Burning Feather

A Story of Lucifer

As Told By Nergal, He Who Does Not Return Phone Calls

No matter which Demon Prince says he's top of the heap today, no matter what strange malevolent force sweeps through Hell claiming victims tomorrow, the vacuum will only have one master – Lucifer, bringer of light, son of the morning, Esq.

Although he led our initial explorations through the bowels of the Metatron, and negotiated our alliance with the Nephallim, he doesn't take any part in the day-to-day running of Hell, particularly since he allowed the Demon Princes to rise in the absence of his direct authority.

Well, perhaps absence isn't the word for it. After all, he certainly is around, it's just that he's not an imposing presence in any sense. He's more of a mythical presence than a physical one. Supposedly, he walks through the corridors in his understated robes (when he wears clothes at all), hands clasped behind his back, never saying a word to anyone. Occasionally he'll respond to a direct question, but generally all the inquisitive demon will get is a cold stare for his trouble, and the feeling that it might be impossible to have asked such an incredible being a less intelligent question.

It's strange, because he's certainly a powerful influence, but . . . well, here's a story that illustrates it best.

There's this little company on Earth, in America. We, the Diabolicals, decided at our winter synod many years back that it would be in our best interest to have some people in it, controlling our interests. It was a fairly minor company, but it could do some wonderful collateral damage to society at large. This was during the 1980s, when some demons were discovering subtlety for the first time.

We planted a few of our best people there, Impudites with a lot of time in the field and supernaturally-heightened perceptions to better appreciate the scope of the job they were doing. Well, most of the Imps began to notice that a good deal of their influencings were having little or no effect. The company was charging right along in its former path.

A little chagrined, the Impudites began crawling their way up the chain of command until they discovered the holding corporation that really owned the company. "Fine," they said, and wrangled themselves onto the board of directors.

Only to discover that the holding company's orders came from even higher up. "Fine," said the demons involved, as they rolled up their sleeves and got to work at sorting out exactly who owned what, and where the real control lay. They suspected they were walking into an angelic trap, but frustration continued their research with the level of caution one would expect from a chimpanzee bomb squad.

After a few months, true ownership was traced (in a similarly baroque fashion) to a beach house in Massachusetts where seven socially-inept ivy-league graduates lounged around in t-shirts and shorts, controlling a grand financial empire from behind the scenes.

"We've been waiting for you," their spokesman said from a wooden deck overlooking the Atlantic, yawning and stirring his Mai Tai. "We're young still – most of us in our late twenties – and after constructing our financial empire on top of the computer companies we started in our respective youths, we've grown bored." He narrowed his eyes at us and steepled his hands over his face. "We're looking to make a deal with the devil," he said.

"It must have taken you quite a while to work your way up through our corporations," their spokesman continued, "so we assume you can fully appreciate the scope of our investments and the resources we control."

The demons, hesitantly, nodded.

"Then you are the ones who could best set a price on what we have to offer," he said, pushing back his cuticles with the fancy wooden umbrella from his drink, and chuckled quietly. "We don't want eternal life," he said, "we're all finely educated people and know better than to fall into that trap. We don't want to lose our souls – those are the things we will not give you. We don't want riches or fame, we have all of that we could ever want.

"In fact," he said, "we don't know what we want. But we're reasonably sure that you have something we haven't even imagined, that perhaps no human has ever imagined or experienced, that you would give us in exchange for our fantastic power, our incredible wealth and our vast resources." He motioned behind them to a stack of paper, easily five reams worth.

"Here is our agreement. We will give you everything, all of our resources, except for ourselves and our loved ones. All that remains is for you to fill in your method of payment and for both parties to sign it."

The demons retreated into the beach home's living room, where there was a great deal of discussion. Demons were used to coming to people and cutting deals, but it was rare – almost unheard of – that someone would set such elaborate bait merely to attract our attentions, much less prepare the deal in advance. The nerve! How evil! The demons smiled at each other. Truly, how diabolical.

Stalling for time, the head Impudite asked the humans' spokesman for a chance to review their offer. The humans agreed.

"Of course," said the demon, licking his lips and darting his eyes about the wooden deck, "we would want to insert our own ... clauses and ... securities."

"Of course," the spokesman said, "of course."

Thus did the toil of thousands of demons begin, copying by hand the original manuscript into leather-bound books, one set of copies in English and Demonic for each human involved and another set of copies in both languages for every Demon Prince currently in court – for it was the general opinion that with such an incredible jewel dropped into the infernal crown, everyone should have the chance to benefit equally – even crazy Vephar, Prince of the Oceans, got some hatchery holdings from the deal.

It was in the scribery sweat house, where the demons slaved day and night to recopy the books and insert our own legal remarks, that Lucifer was observed.

When he came in, no one looked up from their work. He wasn't likely to deign to notice any of them, and a delay in production would mean a penalty they didn't want to think about, so the hordes of scribes scribbled on.

Lucifer walked quietly behind his servants at their raised desks, occasionally stopping to look over a shoulder or tap on an ink well with a pink finger. He stopped along the back row, where a line of more patient demons were inscribing the master sets from which all the copies were to be made. Lucifer, bringer of light, moved the demon's lamp to shine over one particular passage and pursed his lips together. Carefully, he pulled the quill from the frightened scribe's hand and made a quiet scritch, a tiny mark on the page, then proceeded on about his rounds and eventually left the room.

Upon his exit, unable to restrain their curiosity, a hundred demons ran over to the scribe's desk, almost toppling it, and scanned the page for the mark. I don't know what page it was or what the mark could have been, but apparently it changed everything. That one little note shifted things around in the most diabolical fashion. The demons collectively smiled, and went back to copying pages into leather-bound books with an increased fervor.

Finally the day came, and the demons materialized on the wooden deck of the beach home bearing the fruits of their work. Their spokesman took one of the fresh volumes from an overburdened imp and flipped the fleshy parchment pages to the payment section and smiled. I don't know what they offered him, but evidently it was enough. He nodded to the others and they smiled, too.

The humans asked to read over the contracts – a request easily granted – and they then spent the next week, with little sleep, pouring over the voluminous work. Even today it remains the most complicated legal document ever created. Their house smelled of fresh leather, the musk of human sweat and furniture polish.

In they end, they agreed. The first human started signing copies of the contract, and then passed them down to the second one. There was an almost perfect silence as the books were passed from person to person, already heavy with the signatures, sigils, wax stamps and ribbons of the various Demon Princes.

It was the last human who paused before signing, holding the tip of the pen in the corner of his mouth. His brow furrowed for a moment, then cleared. Taking the pen out of his mouth, he went to sign the first massive tome in front of him but paused again, as though some nagging thought was still crawling through his sleep-deprived brain.

Slowly, then more rapidly, he began to flip back through the book, further and further back, mumbling the legal words of our agreement under his breath . . . and then he saw it.

He stood slowly, without meeting the eyes of his comrades, then turned and bolted, running as fast as he could out of the house and down the beach. Soon he disappeared behind the calm New England dunes, and the only noise in the room was the quiet tsk, tsking of the head demon.

The other humans walked over to the open book on the desk with what could perhaps be described as great trepidation. Their original spokesman's eyes grew wide and he threw his copy of the agreement across the room as though it had suddenly grown teeth. One of the others turned completely white, another fainted. One wept slowly in the corner, calling quietly for his wife. Another, his hands shaking, reached into a desk for a gun, then stopped, realizing that killing himself would only accelerate the inevitable.

The spokesman looked up at his comrades and saw all their dark futures spread out before them, knowing that the last of them ran free down the white beach. That one lucky human retains charge of his soul to this day, and perhaps, when we catch him, he will make a fine servant for the diabolical hordes.

And it was Lucifer's doing. I can't conceive of what he did but . . . well, he always taught us this: it's the little things that really make the difference. Even though we almost never see our dark lord, and we don't know what he's doing, every demon in Hell has a nice warm feeling that he's out there, somewhere, and he's taking care of the all the little things.

– As faithfully narrated to Exael,
whose name means "Taught Men How",
by Nergal, Chief of Police.

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