Pandemonium – Allison Epstein

metaphorosis_2016-11Belial sighed as the Brown Line clattered overhead, sending aftershock tremors through the tracks to the pavement. He kicked a stray chip of gravel ahead of him as he walked, his hands pressed deep in his pockets.

“I hate this city,” he muttered, mostly to fill the nearly deserted street with the sound of his own voice. “Too much fucking iron.”

The woman walking behind him slackened her pace, widening the distance between them. He smirked, sensing her apprehension. A six-foot slouch in a knee-length woolen coat, he turned heads with his dark skin, broad shoulders, and untrustworthy air—and that without his habit of talking to himself. No doubt she considered him a walking public service announcement against talking to strangers.

Belial looked over his shoulder and grinned at her, teeth flashing TV static–white. The woman flinched and quickly crossed to the other side of the road.

He chuckled to himself, kicking at the gravel chip again before he hung a left onto Damen. He hadn’t come to Chicago to frighten middle-class pedestrians, but if the shoe fit.

Belial paused in front of a mixed-use building sandwiched between two unremarkable freestanding homes. The usual array of businesses beneath: a used bookstore, a coffeeshop where the only thing more bitter than the espresso was the price, a Chinese restaurant called “Wok Like an Egyptian.” Above, four levels of red-brick condos, black-painted balconies overlooking the street. He raised an unimpressed eyebrow. He’d visited this condo in Ravenswood before, of course. But he’d never used the front door.

As if sensing his hesitation, the thin iron rings around Belial’s wrists seared white-hot, the pain brief as a blink. Lucifer, like a sharp elbow to the ribs, snapping at him to get on with it. Belial swore through gritted teeth, rubbing his wrists.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he said, though Lucifer could not hear. “I promised I’d serve.”

Had promised, centuries ago, before the Fall, with knee bent and head bowed. And continued to promise, as days became centuries and millennia stacked neatly one atop the next. Still, Lucifer embodied the damage a right-hand man with his own agenda could do. He knew how easily promises broke. There was more security in iron than in words.

Better a bound, broken shadow than a threat. At least Lucifer had retained enough grace to look apologetic, at the time.

Belial stepped into the foyer, leaving the background noise of the neighborhood behind. The sage-green carpet absorbed the sound of his footsteps. Almost like walking on grass. He almost smiled. But there was no time for small pleasures. He took the stairs two at a time, sparks of anxiety shivering through his palms.

Yes, this is beneath you. An errand for a third-class spirit, not for an archdemon, for Lucifer’s lieutenant at the Fall. But he asked you. And if you fail, you’ll lose his respect, his trust, his smile. And you’ll never get another chance to win them back.

No. Stop that.

He forced the thoughts aside, banishing the iron to the back of his mind. He did not need self-pity.

He needed this to work.

Belial paused on the landing and closed his eyes. An onlooker might have thought he prayed for strength, if that onlooker were devoid of any sense of irony.

You won’t get another chance.

Collecting himself, he knocked sharply on the door of number 319.

After a moment, a man’s voice came from the other side of the door. Nervous. Well enunciated. The repressed hint of a once-thick Southside accent.

“Who is it?”

“Open the door, Senator,” Belial said.

“You didn’t answer the question.” The man’s terror blazed clearly through the door.

The demon rolled his eyes. “You know who it is.”

The door opened just a crack, revealing a sliver of the silver-haired, navy-suited man standing inside—Senator Roger Gatwood (R-Chicago 7th). Eyes wide, he attempted to shut the door, but Belial shot one foot forward, wedging it open. He grinned, displaying the full dazzling whiteness of his teeth.

And to think I was worried.

“That’s not very nice, Senator,” he purred. “What about that famed Midwestern politeness?”

Belial swept into the condo, ignoring the senator’s obvious discomfort. He sprawled into a wing-backed armchair, a player king luxuriating on his throne. The senator sat rigid in another armchair opposite.

“I thought you couldn’t come until I summoned you,” Gatwood said, voice tight.

“Believe me”—Belial had a cigarette between two long fingers where moments before there had been nothing, and lit it with a vague gesture of his left hand—“I wish I could have left you alone until you did.”

“Then why are you here?”

It was a reasonable question, but not one conducive to a short answer. Belial took a long drag of his cigarette and closed his eyes. Saw the corner of the Archregent’s beautiful mouth curl into a sneer, his long fingers tapping against the arms of his throne, drumming out an impatient cadence. Felt Lucifer’s mistrust darken Hell’s shadows inch by inch, into something more complete than darkness, more final than eternity. The smoke from Belial’s cigarette seeped into the chair’s fabric. Stronger than nicotine, undertones of cloves and patchouli and the heat of a smelting-room floor. A scent that lingered.

“Collecting.” The word undulated from Belial’s lips on a wisp of smoke.

“Collecting?”

“Senator, you know who my master is,” Belial said, dripping condescension. “Why did you think I came? To borrow a cup of sugar?”

The cigarette was done for—he ground it out casually against the knee of his creased black pants. Gatwood stood, alarmed, but when the demon pulled his hand back again, there was no ash, and no scent of burning flesh.

“Twenty-five years,” Gatwood said, and closed his eyes, looking ill. He had paced to stand in front of the window, and seemed to be weighing the pros and cons of throwing himself out of it. The Southside accent grew stronger in proportion with his nerves. “I had twenty-five years with you first. That’s what you said.”

“Oh, I never forget anything I say,” Belial drawled. “I love hearing myself speak. My services are at your disposal for a certain duration, provided you cooperate with my master’s agenda. That was our deal. But your cooperation has scaled back, Senator. So, of course, the duration scales back, too.”

“How long?” Gatwood’s voice was a death rattle.

“Six weeks.”

The senator’s knees buckled. He caught himself heavily against the windowsill, breathing hard. “Six weeks?” he repeated.

Belial, without flinching, lit another cigarette. His eyes flickered toward the door, clearly implying this would be a two-cigarette conversation. “Time enough to set your house in order. As it were.”

“I’ll…I’ll cooperate.” By now, Gatwood’s accent was out full force. His vowels were stretched to the breaking point. “What do you want me to do?”

Belial smiled. Just like that. If everything hadn’t depended on his success, he might have mourned the lack of a challenge. “As soon as you return to Springfield after the holidays, you’ll introduce a new piece of legislation.”

“What kind of legislation?”

“Stop looking at me like that,” Belial said, with an impatient wave of his hand. “I’m not asking you to carpet bomb Lake Shore Drive. You’ll introduce a bill transferring management of urban water utilities to third-party corporations, which will perform the work at a fraction of the cost of a municipal department. Springfield will hail you as a hero. Maybe you’ll actually pass a budget before next summer.”

Gatwood’s suspicion did not lift. Neither did his death grip on the windowsill.

“What will happen because—”

“Senator, you’re a university man, right?” Belial asked.

Gatwood blinked at the non-sequitur. “Northwestern. MBA. ‘87.”

“Then don’t act like an imbecile. You know what will happen.”

Gatwood did, and Lucifer did too. The number of souls a bill like this could catch. Every lie and bribe, every cover-up and deflection. So many souls damning themselves as silent poison seeped from crumbling pipes. A rich addition to any kingdom. And a rich gift from a servant under suspicion.

“People will die,” Gatwood said at last.

“People die all the time.”

“I…I can’t, I, my constituents, they’ll never accept…”

“Looking for a third term?” Belial asked, with a laugh that was not a laugh. “Be careful, Senator. The longer you drag this out, the more I’ll start to feel like you’re using me.”

“I…I…”

Belial had every intention of twisting the knife further, but he was not given the chance. The rings around his wrists tightened their grip, as did the identical chains circling his ankles, waist, and the base of his throat. The pain punched the breath from his lungs, ripped sharp through his belly. He snarled a curse, fingers curling into unconscious fists.

Summoned both to Hell and from it. At least the Archregent kept his sense of humor.

“I’ll give you time to decide, Senator,” he said, rushing through the words as the summoning’s corrosive tug blurred his body’s borders, edging him out of being. “Give me a call tonight. Say, midnight. You know how to reach me.”

And before the stunned, horrified expression left the senator’s face, Belial flickered, and was gone.

#

Belial found himself at the doorway of a vast, underground chamber, two hundred yards long by seventy-five wide. The vaulted cathedral ceiling curved upward a hundred feet, meeting in gothic-pointed arches evoking the ribs of a sea monster. The demon straightened to his full height, a contrived air of unstudied confidence swirling from the set of his shoulders.

He’d done everything Lucifer had asked. He would simply tell the king what had happened, how faithfully he’d followed orders, and all would be well again.

Right. Because honesty has always served you so well in the past.

He crossed the hall, the military click of his polished shoes echoing through the empty room. With each step, the pain from the iron rings sharpened its focus.

The Archregent himself lounged across the throne at the far end of the hall. An utterly unsurprising state of affairs. Lucifer had a way of not so much occupying furniture as making it a part of himself. Belial doubted whether Lucifer even knew how to sit in a chair normally. The Archregent had assumed his workaday shape: a broad-shouldered man, pale and bright-eyed, memento mori cheekbones and a beard cut close as a shadow. He wore a narrowly pinstriped vest over a close-cut silk shirt, a dandified aesthetic Belial would have mocked in anyone but his master, whom it seemed to suit—as all things seemed to suit him. Even as a refraction of his former self, Lucifer commanded a room as only an angel could. Belial did not know whether to venerate him or curse him.

Beside Lucifer, in a low chair to his left, sat his wife. Persephone barely broke five foot four when standing, mousy-brown hair curled upward into a tidy bun, wearing a blue-gray wool sweater and loose, dark jeans. She watched Belial with an expression that did not connote worry precisely, more an apprehensive curiosity.

As Belial reached the throne, fighting to stand against the pain, Lucifer leaned to take Persephone’s right hand in his left. She squeezed it, not taking her eyes off Belial, and in that moment he knew he could expect no support here. Away from her husband, Persephone brought a breath of something as close to Heaven as Belial had known in years. Only last spring, she had felt grass. Smelled rain. Seen stars. But this was not Persephone. This was the Queen of Hell. And Lucifer would have his way.

Lucifer glanced sideways toward his tall servant and smiled.

“Well timed, silvertongue,” he remarked. “As if on cue.”

Belial bowed low. Another sharp flash of pain seared his body as Lucifer shifted to look at him directly. The iron rings contracted further, burning as they did. The demon gritted his teeth but refused to cry out.

“You know I come when you call.” Hell had taught Belial one thing to be proud of: how to keep your voice level, no matter what.

“True. Reliable as a dog. If not so obedient.”

With a flick of his wrist, Lucifer snapped his fingers. Instantly the ring around Belial’s neck flared hot and closed tighter, jerking him upright. He stood with the unnatural straightness of a hanged man, chin forty-five degrees up from the floor.

“What did the senator say?” Lucifer purred.

Belial paused, gathering his breath—not an easy task, as the iron tightened with Lucifer’s growing impatience.

“He is…considering his options.”

The pressure on Belial’s throat vanished, as though an invisible hand had flung him aside. Air rushed through his lungs, and he dropped to his hands and knees, trembling. He did not dare look up to judge Lucifer’s expression.

The tone was enough.

“Considering,” Lucifer repeated. He released Persephone’s hand and stood, pacing slowly to stand before Belial. When standing, the Archregent and his demon would be within an inch of one another’s height, but Belial did not dare rise. “I don’t recall sending you after the senator to win his consideration. Do you?”

Belial rose to one knee, keeping his gaze lowered. The demon spoke with the molasses-smooth rhythm of a master rhetorician. Persuasive. Making the simple words sing. If anyone could win the Archregent’s favor with words, Belial was the one.

“No. Of course not. But for the contract to remain intact, he must agree to the plan without my interference. Which he is minutes away from doing. When I visit him at midnight, he will be yours, as you commanded. I swear it.”

Lucifer smirked. Like a blackjack dealer who knew what card came next.
“You swear it? What would you swear by, old silvertongue, to make me take you at your word?”

Belial glanced up. Lucifer stood six inches away, arms folded loosely over his chest, a note of dry amusement in his impossibly bright eyes. Blink, and there he was again, Lucifer the angel, as he had been before the war. The trusted friend, with sage advice and seraph’s wings. The angelic politician, who could persuade a man to do anything at all with a smile, a word, a gesture. Blink again, and it had passed, but not without leaving its traces. Even now, even kneeling, fallen from grace and falling further by the second, Belial could not regret the moment of rebellion. Not when he followed a general like this.

“What do you want me to swear by?” he asked.

The corner of Lucifer’s mouth nudged toward a diagonal smile. Unfolding his arms, he reached his left hand forward and took Belial by the chin, tilting his head up, raising him to his feet. In that moment, Belial could see nothing but Lucifer’s face. The light in his eye. The uneven curve of his smile.

To be his again, entirely. What would I not give?

“Nothing at all,” Lucifer answered, in that voice still carrying echoes of spun gold and trumpets. “You are a liar.”

Persephone half-rose from her chair. “Darling, wait—”

“The best.” Lucifer ignored her. “That’s why I chose you for my lieutenant. But there are ways of keeping you honest.”

Belial screamed, bloody and raw. Pain like this did not exist between Heaven and Earth.

The iron rings contracted bone-crushingly small, their throttling grip searing with a white-hot flame. He crumpled to the floor, slender limbs writhing. Nerves flayed with pain, decomposed muscle unthreaded and tangled in a useless, agonizing knot. Though the demon’s flesh was made of pure spirit and suggestion, still the dark skin beneath the rings bubbled to a pink-yellow pustule, the bilious morass of third-degree burns. Burning, burning with the corrosive poisonous stink of iron. Charred, smoking remains. His body a scorch mark on stone. His fingers clawed the air, he could not silence the scream that echoed from the high vaulted ceiling like a cloud of Furies overhead—

And then it was over.

Belial curled into himself, motionless and trembling. The stone against his cheek brought cold relief to his burning skin. Though the rings cooled, he could still sense the latent, shadow pain. Each breath caught with a soft whimper at the back of his throat. The photo-negative of a scream hovered in the silence.

When Lucifer stood over him and drove his heel into the demon’s fingers, Belial barely felt it.

“I sent you with the expectation you would finish the business.” The Archregent’s words landed cool and level. “I get what I expect. Do you understand?”

Belial said nothing. It did not matter.

“Go when he summons you,” Lucifer said. “Show me you can deliver, silvertongue. Convince me.” He turned back toward the throne, to the chair where Persephone sat, her hands gripping the arms until her knucklebones shone lighthouse-bright. Lucifer trailed one hand along the side of her face with anachronistic tenderness.

“You know, Persephone,” he said, “when my kingdom was smaller, no one served me as well as he did. And yet I can’t remember the last time he delivered me a soul. How long has it been?”

“Centuries, I think,” she replied, breathless. “He smooth-talked the Athenian girl. Pandora. She was the last.”

“That long? From the leader of my army to a master of delegation. How the mighty fall. Of course…”

He paused, raised a hand. Belial cringed as if hit. A slow smile inched across Lucifer’s face.

“We never reach the lowest point, so long as we can still say ‘this is the lowest.’”

The Archregent turned his back on Belial, toward the set of high double doors behind the throne. His long legs made short work of the distance.

“I have business, Persephone,” he said, turning to grace her with a falling-star smile. “But I’ll come tonight, when I’m finished. If you’re asleep, I won’t wake you.”

“You can wake me,” she said, and smiled back. To all appearances, genuine. “Or delegate what you can to Hecate and come sooner. It’s been too long.”

“Agreed. Until tonight.”

The door closed behind him, echoing through the empty space. For a long moment, only the hitch in Belial’s breathing could be heard, a ragged metronome through the quiet. Somewhere far off, a dog barked.

Persephone rose, crossing to where Belial lay curled on the floor. Bending to a crouch, she took the trembling demon’s hand and helped him to sit up. Her cool palm sent a shiver through his burning skin.

“I thought the plan was to make him trust you,” she said. “Not make him angry.”

Belial tilted his head back and closed his eyes. His breathing still came too fast, but slowed by the second. “I didn’t plan to. Roads paved with good intentions. You know.”

“You ass.”

“Incorrigible.” Belial ran the back of his hand across his mouth, then turned to look at her. “Be honest. Can I…can I win him back, do you think?”

“Let’s not have this conversation here.” Persephone glanced at the door. “If it’s all the same to you.”

A fair point. Despite the empty room, the feeling that someone still listened from somewhere in the shadows persisted. Belial gave a grim nod.

“Lead the way.” He warily pushed himself to standing. His knees shook, but he waved off Persephone’s offer of help.

“My rooms?” she offered.

His laugh sounded like dirt striking a coffin lid. “Right. Because what I want right now is for Lucifer to find me alone with his wife in her rooms.”

She rolled her eyes—in Belial’s opinion, a disturbing show of naiveté. One did not thrive in Hell thanks to overly generous assessments of other people’s character.

“My apartment isn’t far,” he said.

“I’m not the one worried about distance.” Persephone sighed and slipped the tall demon’s arm around her shoulder, keeping him upright. His mouth narrowed in irritation, but he voiced no protest. “Come on. We’ll get some liquor in you, and you’ll be as good as new.”

Logically, Belial reasoned, pure spirit could not get drunk. But then, logically, pure spirit could not feel pain, either. Perhaps he’d never drunk enough to find out.

A science experiment, then, after a fashion.

#

He collapsed in the corduroy armchair in the corner, stretching his long legs in front of him. Centuries ago, when Lucifer would still visit Belial’s rooms, the Archregent would make gently cutting remarks about his lieutenant outfitting the apartment like a tweed-jacketed university professor. But Belial did not care. The wood paneling, the corduroy chairs, the low coffee table spread with maps and astronomical charts, it comforted the demon. He found it familiar, somehow. And in Belial’s opinion, a place in the Archregent’s inner circle earned him the right to a few eccentricities of interior design.

However tenuous that place now seemed.

At the credenza near the door, Persephone filled two glasses brim-full with scotch, passing one to Belial. He’d downed half of his by the time she sat down.

She curled her legs beneath her in the chair like a cat settling into a window seat. Her hair had begun to escape its bun. She balanced the glass on the arm of the chair, hand hovering nearby a moment to see if it would fall, then shook her hair loose and wound it atop her head again.

“Tell me the truth,” she said, taking up the glass. “Do you think you can get him the senator?”

“I told him I will, and I meant it,” Belial said. “And his pet project in the Senate, I’ll get him that too. Gatwood doesn’t have the balls to say no,” he added, grinning. “He almost pissed himself when he saw me.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t you think you’d finish the job quicker if you didn’t have quite so much fun?”

“I don’t, actually,” he replied. His voice was stronger now, using the scotch as a crutch. “Showmanship’s how I get through the day. Even your husband likes a little panache. The serpent’s fangs and the brimstone, it’s all window dressing.”

“He doesn’t use the fangs anymore,” Persephone said wearily.

“Lucky for you. Can’t imagine they were much fun in the bedroom.”

“They weren’t.”

He sighed, looking down into his glass. “Tell me,” he said, as if they’d spoken of nothing else all this time, “has he said anything to you?”

She raised her eyebrows. “He says a lot to me.”

“But if he said anything about what made him doubt me, you’d tell me.”

“Would I?”

He leaned forward, holding the scotch between his knees. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”

“Are we?”

He stared, black eyes wide. “When Lucifer first brought you here. You spent three months crying. Wouldn’t get out of bed. Who talked you around? Not your husband.”

Persephone looked down. Suddenly she appeared much younger.

“I think you remind him of the war,” she said. “He doesn’t like to think about it. He told me…”

Belial waited, regarding her like a complex math problem. She did not go on. His hands gripped the glass tighter.

“He told you what?”

She still would not meet his eye, but she couldn’t avoid finishing the sentence, not now. She took another sip of scotch.

“He says you talked him into it. That he would have apologized. Taken it back.”

The glass in Belial’s fist shattered into a thousand dagger fragments. He leapt to his feet, amber scotch dripping down his arm, staining the carpet.

“Shit,” he snarled, shaking his arm, raining droplets of scotch. “Fuck. Shit.”

Persephone started to rise, either to deal with the mess or get him another glass, but Belial began to pace, a tiger prowling a cage. She tightened her lips and stayed put.

“Apologized? He would have apologized. Do you hear yourself? I made him King of Hell. I gave him everything.” Belial’s mouth twitched slightly, restraining words he did not dare speak. A long moment passed. Finally, arriving at some conclusion, he shook his head and laughed, quietly, to himself. “I should’ve known.”

“Known what?”

Belial hopped up to perch on the credenza—high enough so his feet dangled a foot off the floor. He removed the stopper from the decanter of scotch, looked thoughtfully at the crystal glass beside it, then raised the decanter to his lips and drank deeply.

“That he’d outgrow me,” he said. “I wish you’d known him then. The way he was. The golden child.”

Persephone twisted the ring on her left hand, wringing it in a tight circle. White gold. Not iron. “I know him better than you think.”

“No. Fuck, he was beautiful then.”

“He’s beautiful now,” she protested.

Belial laughed, too loud for the room. “Not like that. Me, talk him into anything? He smiled at me and I turned my back on God.”

He drained the rest of the decanter, winced at the burn along the inside of his throat. When he set the decanter beside him on the credenza, his hand was perfectly steady. So far, this science experiment was proving an abject failure.

He arched his back, feeling the lack of wings like a toothache. Sometimes he still dreamed of them, the black-pinioned feathers unfurling from his back, shrouding his limbs in light-rippled darkness. Could see angelic Lucifer’s tawny falcon feathers silhouetted against the sun, more beautiful than any god. The wings, of course, had been the first to go. When he closed his eyes, he could still remember grasping for consciousness after the Fall, crumpled blood-slick and broken beside Lucifer in the darkness. The taste of Heaven still on their tongues, the raw wounds rotting their shoulder blades, as if their limbs had been ripped out at the roots. Which, in a way, they had.

“I’ll miss you, come spring,” Persephone said, breaking the silence.

He laughed and twisted his spine to one side, then the other. Useless—the dull ache would not release.

“Believe me, I’ll—shit,” he snarled, and slammed his fist against the credenza. “Goddamn fucking shit.”

He’d already begun to fade, blurred around the edges. He fought the summoning, but some forces were too powerful, some codes too unbreakable, even for an archdemon.

“He’s early,” Persephone said.

“Son of a bitch must have—”

And he winked out of view, like a firefly at dawn. The faint scent of burning iron lingered above the credenza.

#

Midnight, Belial thought, cursing himself ten kinds of idiot. Why did I say midnight? This was what he got for not thinking fast enough, for assuming nothing would go wrong.

After all this time, you’d think I’d learn.

He had just enough time to cast the faintest of glamours, smoothing the creases from his clothes and his forehead, masking the pink-sick burns across his skin. Nothing more elaborate. If the senator wanted fire and brimstone, he’d have to provide more warning.

The iron rings jerked him forward like a hooked fish, and he stood again inside the Ravenswood condo, within the chalk circle on the kitchen’s tiled floor. They stood facing each other silently. In one circle, the nervous senator, cracking his knuckles in anxious succession. In the other, the impassive demon, watching the senator like a wolf. Belial glanced over his shoulder toward the microwave, suspended over the smooth-top stove.

“Eleven fifteen,” he remarked. “You’re early.”

“Underpromise and overdeliver.” Gatwood had not changed clothes since their encounter earlier that afternoon.

“Not exactly the Politician’s Code, is it?” Belial watched the sad little man squirm.

Is that what I look like to Lucifer? A quivering insect crushed on the pavement?

No. A reminder, of the view from below someone’s heel.

Even so. He would never have apologized. He has a whole world now. He knows there’s no going back.

He doesn’t want Heaven, any more than I do. But a better kind of Hell…

If he would smile at me again.

“Well, Senator?” he prompted, when Gatwood’s continued search for words came up empty. “You called. I came. What can I do for you?”

What wouldn’t I do, to win his smile?

Nothing he hadn’t done before, or wouldn’t do again, for the right price.

The senator opened his mouth, closed it again, watched the demon watching him. He swallowed. Bit his lip. Nodded.

Belial’s smile broadened.

#

A thick snowfall swept up the steps outside, white on white against marble. On the desk, standing like an altar in front of the window, two sheets of paper, an absurd number of pens. Across the paper, the bold-faced title: “SB1764: Municipal Utilities Privatization Act, Sponsored by Sens. Harrison (D-Peoria) and Gatwood (R-Chicago).”

State lawmakers milled about, drunk on the afterglow of legislative victory. In the center, Roger Gatwood accepted praise, cracked barely funny jokes, shook an infinite number of hands. Paler now than in November. Thinner. A persistent cough, some kind of infection.

Unseen by the horde of public servants, Lucifer perched on the desk, one leg folded beneath him, sitting on his heel. Belial stood nearby, arms crossed over his suit jacket and one foot propped on the wall. Lucifer watched Gatwood, eyes narrowed in thought. Belial watched Lucifer.

Finally, Lucifer turned to Belial, head tilted slightly to the side.

“Do you feel that?” he asked.

Belial nodded. “Soon.”

And it would be soon. Belial knew how Lucifer’s mind worked, and had designed the legislation to match. Pipes exhaling clouds of crumbling dust. The blood-rust taint hanging in a desert reservoir, like the crimson shadow of sunrise over a black ocean. Poison spreading, luxuriating, expanding to fill the space available.

“Thousands of souls,” Lucifer said. The Archregent looked at the paper on the desk, not at his servant. He spoke so softly Belial had to lean forward to catch the words. “That’s what you’ve gotten me. Thousands. And every soul in this room.”

Pushing himself away from the wall, Belial took a step toward the desk. He paid no attention to the senators filling the room, nor to the way Roger Gatwood stared in mounting horror in their direction, as if he had suddenly noticed the Senate had company. Belial had eyes for nothing but Lucifer. Nothing but this.

Belial would have bowed, but no ready-made rules of etiquette existed for what he meant to accomplish. His black eyes locked on Lucifer’s. When he spoke, the words sounded uncharacteristically plain, direct.

“If I could give you ten thousand more, I would.”

Lucifer reached out to brush a hand against Belial’s cheek, long fingers trailing to the base of the demon’s throat. Belial shivered as the Archregent circled the pad of his thumb along the iron, slipping under the metal to caress the sensitive skin beneath.

Lucifer’s soft smile did not quite convey regret.

Belial’s clear gaze did not quite convey forgiveness.

“Well, old silvertongue?” Lucifer said. His hand lingered, before slowly returning to his side. “Shall we?”

Belial cleared his throat, brushing the dust off his words. “Shall we what?”

“Get back to work. The world is wide. And to make my way in it, I could use a good liar.”

Belial grinned. “You’ve come to the right place.”

Lucifer nodded. “I know.”

A better kind of Hell…

Lucifer snapped his fingers, and both the Archregent and his lieutenant were gone.

A balding, blue-eyed senator from La Salle glanced toward the desk and frowned. “Did you hear something?” he asked.

Gatwood shook his head. “No. Nothing.”

###

One Comment

  1. This is simply a perfect piece for our times. Ms Epstein is an amazing talent.

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