First ~ Second ~ Third
It took less than a day for the entire infernal underground to hear about the death of Maquasuel. Nobody had even known who he was, but the death of an Archdemon, especially such an apparently elusive and high ranked one such as him, was big news. It was all anyone would talk about that night at the commissary.
"Dudes, I hear Shemsiel's got, like, hell hounds looking out for the killer," said Charamas.
"I hear all the generals are upping their security," said Tolumnus
"I hear it was a human who broke into hell, and now they've gone back to Earth," said Charybda
"I hear that Lucifer is going to come up and sort it out himself," said Dakar
Everyone at the table oohed and ahhed.
"Yeah?" said The lesser fiend at the end of the table. Some newbie whose name Geno didn't catch. "Well I heard they think another Archdemon did it to take his place. Some kinda internal promotion gone wrong."
"That makes sense," said Charybda slowly. "Didn't they used to do that, back in the old days?"
"I dunno" Charamas said. "I guess? I mean, like, it kinda figures? Only an Archdemon can, like, kill another Archdemon."
Genowrath stared into his gruel and felt the dagger in its hilt itching at his side.
"What if it was an imp?" he said. "Or a lesser demon? Someone from the lower quarter?"
The table was silent for a brief moment. Then, as one, they all burst into laughter.
"As if!" said Tolumnus. "Like any one of us could be tough enough to take on an Archdemon."
"How could anyone even think it?" said Dakar, bewildered. "That's going against nature."
Charamas snickered. "Jeez, Geno, you come up with some crazy stuff sometimes."
"Haha, yeah," Genowrath said halfheartedly. "Right. S'cuse me, I just remembered a thing I gotta do."
He left the table, dumping his tray and stacking it up on bin on the way out.
* * * * *
It wasn't much of a plan.
Two days after his meeting with Bezaliel found Genowrath approached the Solar Palace carrying a long, skinny package wrapped tightly in what had started that morning as the only clean bed sheet he had left.
Tolumnus, at least, had been correct: the first time Genowrath had gone to the Solar Palace, there had been only one bored guard at the door for propriety's sake. Nobody really expected the palace of a General, inhabited by powerful Archdemons to need a guard. But now the guard from last time was nowhere in sight, and three massive fiends in ornate golden armor were at the front gate. They each had sheaths at their sides that looked to hold wicked swords. Genowrath wondered if the old guard had gotten fired after Maquasuel died. He wondered if these new ones had been told to look out for him.
He took a deep breath, then headed towards the gate. Either he'd die, they'd die, or nobody died, so there was no use worrying.
Genowrath squinted as he approached, the light shining from the fiends' armor catching him in the eye. The General Shemsiel really liked shiny things. He could just barely make out swirly sun patterns and what looked like encrusted gems in the plate through the glare.
The larger fiend scowled at him.
"What do you want, shrimp?" he rumbled.
"Delivery," Genowrath said, hoping he sounded bored.
"No dice," said the smaller-but-still-large guard. "Nobody gets in or out without permission from the boss."
"But I gotta get in there," he said.
The smaller guard shrugged. "Sorry, little dude. Nobody gets in without say-so from the boss."
"Look, guys," Genowrath said, making a show of looking around conspiratorially. "Don't spread it around, but I've got a very special delivery to make. Shemsiel himself gave me the orders before Maquasuel passed. Look." He unwrapped part of the cloth and revealed the sword beneath.
All three guards' jaws dropped. The light from the sword cast shadows on their faces, brighter than their armor.
"Is that--?" said the third guard.
"Yep," said Genowrath, rewrapping the sword. "An Archdemon's sword. Original celestial material. Specially made specifically for Maquasuel. Maquasuel sent me on a very important errand with it, and now the General's gonna want it since Maquasuel's gone. Do you wanna be the guy who tells Shemsiel that the sword of his dearly departed favored Archdemon was turned away because I forgot to bring a freaking receipt?"
The first guard shook his head. "No, dude. Go on in."
Genowrath nodded, like someone used to being let in to places, and walked confidently towards the door. He stopped after a few paces.
"Remind me," he said. "Where's General Shemsiel at right now?"
"He's in his study," said one guard. "Been there all morning. He said he didn't want to be disturbed, so you better hope you know what you're doing."
"Right. Thanks." Genowrath strode importantly through the double doors of the Solar Palace.
* * * * *
The palace was just as dazzlingly garish as he remembered, every surface plated with gold or covered in sparkling cloth, magically tiled walls emblazoned with solar imagery, furniture covered with shiny things that were begging Genowrath to steal them. The style would have been reminiscent of the rococo style, except that the rococo style had more self control. The difference between this visit and last time was that this time the palace wasn't empty. Last time, he'd wandered around for ages before running into someone. Now, the place seemed to be packed with higher order demons and archfiends and, yes, even an Archdemon or two. A dozen of them milled around the room, lounging on the embroidered sofas and leaning against the walls, looking bored and disinterested in their golden armor.
He almost turned back then and there, but his body pressed on, walking up to the biggest fiend in the room.
"Excuse me," Genowrath said to one. "Where's Shemsiel's office? I've got to make a delivery--"
"I'll do it!" said a demon across the room, leaping up from his seat. Genowrath instinctively clung tighter to the wrapped sword.
"No, me!" said a fiend to the left.
"Shut up, the two of yeh!" barked the fiend Genowrath had asked. "If I'm stuck on standin' duty, so are the rest of you lot."
"But we're so bored, Sarge!"
"There's nothing to watch! How can we be 'on watch' if we're just in here watching ourselves be bored?"
"You'll be watching for double-shifts if I hear any more complaining, yeh hear me?!"
The room filled with disappointed groans. To Genowrath, the sergeant said, "He's upstairs. All the way up, near the top of the tower. Been there all morning, so you'd better have a good reason for bugging him. Take the stairs down the hall and keep going until they run out. You'll figure it out."
Genowrath saluted. It felt like the right thing to do. "Yes, sir," he said.
The fiend nodded and said, "Get outta here now. Yer distracting us from duty."
The room again filled with groans.
"Hush up, you clods!"
Genowrath hurried out of the room, his mind racing.
There were guards now. Lots of them. But none of them had recognized him. Nobody was looking for him. They might be looking for Maquasuel's murderer, but nobody was looking for him. None of the guards back there had even been suspicious, or had wondered what he was delivering. He went down the hall, following the sergeant fiend's directions. The stairs were behind a gossamer looking gold-ish curtain, the steps pearly white and spiraling up like those of a tower. Genowrath took a deep breath, then huffed his way up.
Genowrath had killed over a half dozen demons and an Archdemon, and nobody knew. Nobody was looking for him. Nobody even noticed him returning to the scene of the crime.
Was he really that inconsequential? For a split second, he was reminded of Dave. Dave used to think he was great. Dave had liked him until--
And then he had to shut that train of thought down.
Focus, he told himself, turning up another flight of stairs. The sooner it was done, the sooner he could leave.
The spiraling stairs led upwards for what seemed like eternity before spitting him out in a red carpeted hall. The hall, with red-velvet walls that had floor-molding and crown-molding, but no other decoration save for the golden candelabras regularly placed every few feet. It was the most subdued area Genowrath had seen through the entire glittering palace.
There was only one door at the end.
Once it was clear he wasn't going to need the alibi it gave him any more, Genowrath unwrapped Maquasuel's sword. The hilt felt comfortingly warm in his hand, even though he hadn't been touching it, and when he held it, it seemed to give off a calming sense of peace. It was, he thought, a little odd for a sword that had seen bloodshed since before the dawn of time to make him feel calm, but it did. He held the sword out, upright, and closed his eyes.
Go away, now, he thought at it. I don't need you right now. He might, later, if his first idea didn't work, but that was later, and now he needed to not be encumbered.
The sword vanished. He felt it disintegrate in his hand as if it were made of sand. When he opened his eyes, the sword was gone.
He sighed, relieved. It had taken a lot of practice to get that to work right. It was something Archdemons could do without thinking, but something Genowrath was only just getting the hang of.
With no other excuses to hold back, Genowrath made his way to the end of the hall, feeling heavier and heavier with every step. He stopped at the door and took a deep breath. There was probably only one shot at this, but if he could take Shemsiel by surprise, then maybe, just maybe, he'd have a chance.
For a brief moment, he wondered if it was worth it. If he got caught, there was no way Shemsiel would make it a fast death. Maquasuel might've been willing to kill him quickly for the low city murders, but an imp killing an Archdemon? An imp trying to kill a General? They'd want to make an example of that. They'd want to discourage that kind of behavior the most visible way possible.
Was he really going to do this?
All those thoughts clamored in his head for only half a second, if not less. Because then he remembered Dave, who was probably sitting at home drinking himself to death and looking up new demons to summon, and his resolve steeled.
Yeah, it was worth it.
With no more hesitation, he the open the door. Blindly, he tossed in the several vials of holy water he had wrapped beneath the sword, hoping the splash would be enough to wound anyone inside. Then he ran down the hall, around the corner, and listened. He waited for screams of pain or shouts of indignation. He waited for angry footsteps running after him, for blasts of hellfire to follow him down the hall, for the sizzling sound of a General's blade being drawn. But none came.
Oh lord, oh infernal blazes, oh hell, did I actually do it?
Slowly, every inch of him screaming in fear, he peered from behind the corner. Across the hall, he could see Shemsiel's door ajar, as though nobody had touched it after he'd run away. After another eternity of waiting, he got to his feet. Against every instinct, he approached the door, took a shaky breath, and pushed it in.
Immediately, he was welcomed by the smell of simmering holy water, smoke, charcoal, magic, and the rotten stench of brimstone. For a split second, he panicked. He dodged to the side out in the hall before it had opened all the way, convinced that Shemsiel was throwing magic at him.
After a moment, when it became clear that the door wasn't about to be blasted open in a burst of hellfire or solar magic, he peered properly into the room.
It was empty.
That is, it was empty of people. While Maquasuel's study had been one of quiet elegance, dark wood, and antique books, Shemsiel's was every bit as garish as the rest of the Solar Palace. Orange and yellow and gold and red and gemstones and everything polished to a shine and magicked to gleam and glow, even the sun-patterned carpets and wall-covering tapestries, a lot of which was splattered with holy water from the vials.
The only thing that looked unusual about the room, aside from the steaming splotches of holy water, was that the wooden desk chair was toppled over.
Tentatively, every nerve on edge and ready to run, Genowrath crept into the room to investigate, picking carefully over the carpets so as not to step in any of the holy water puddles.
Most of the room was presumably normal, but there were scorch marks on the floor in front of the desk. The center of the blackened area looked like any normal burned place, but the edges of the scorched wood were burned into thin, curved lines and fine sigils that could have been professionally branded into the carpet. It looked like there had been a perfect summoning circle on the ground, then someone set fire to the middle. Genowrath frowned examined the handful of visible sigils carefully. These weren't any kind of summoning he knew; it would have looked almost familiar in parts, but some of the spell seemed. . . upside down? Reversed? And why would Shemsiel have a summoning circle here, in the place where his chair would be? It didn't make sense.
Genowrath's stomach sank. No. It had to have happened the other way around. Someone had summoned Shemsiel, and he had resisted it. That's why the inside was burned; the circle and signs had been burned into the floor by the power of his struggle, but he hadn't been able stop it.
Bezaliel's words ran through his mind. The solar eclipse! Shemsiel was weaker, now. Weak enough to fall prey to a run of the mill wizard summoning.
Genowrath rubbed his head and tried to think.
Did he wait for the General to come back? Surprise him once he popped into the room? But he'd used up all the holy water he'd brought. And maybe the wizard wouldn't be done with him until morning, after the eclipse was over.
He ground his teeth. He needed this done now. If he messed this up, there was no telling if he'd get another chance. Bezaliel could try arranging another plan, or he could scrap the whole thing and have Genowrath killed to cover his tracks.
The burned summoning spell on the ground hummed with quiet, staining magic. Genowrath knelt down by it and lightly touched the charred edges of the carpet.
The summoning wasn't made for him, but he could still follow Shemsiel's trail through it. In the weeks since he and Dave separated, he'd become somewhat of an expert at sniffing out other demons' summonings and popping into their targets. Granted, he'd gotten good at doing that specifically with Dave's method of summoning, and with winding up in specifically Dave's kitchen, but the process should be the same for everyone, right?
If Shemsiel asks, he thought, then I'll tell him I came to save him. He'd be a concerned citizen wondering where the General went. Given that none of the guards had been on the lookout for him, he doubted Shemsiel even knew what he looked like. He was just a lesser demon, after all. Nobody paid attention to them.
Genowrath placed his clawed hand on the charred spot in the center of the circle and allowed himself to come apart, disintegrating into an amalgam of grungy light, spirit, and magic.
* * * * *
Summonings were always an odd experience. Latching onto someone else's summoning was doubly so. It meant transforming from sorta-physical-spirity-stuff into definitely-physical-more-solid-spirity-stuff, in the span of a few seconds, while also warping from a spiritual realm to a physical one, and then at the end of it all you were crashing someone else's party to boot.
When he opened his eyes, after they'd manifested, he found himself lost in blue cloth. It flowed around him, covering his face. He scrambled back, only to bump into what felt like a solid wall. When he jumped forward, he bumped into a less-solid, but still pretty solid, pair of goat legs.
"Excuse me!" said a tall, indignant voice somewhere above him. The legs kicked him, and a massive hand reached into the cloth to grab him. The stranger pulled him out of the mess of blue and, in a blur of cloth and feathers, turned him around until he could see properly.
He was in a summoning circle. It wasn't a large circle, which was why he and his annoyed companion were squashed next to each other. The blue cloth turned out to have been layers of embroidered blue robe, which the stranger was wearing. His companion was huge. Twice Genowrath's height at least, and there were wings somewhere in the mix because Genowrath was practically spitting out feathers, and when he managed to look upwards, he saw a silver-eyed, silver-haired Archdemon glowering down at him.
He was about to speak, and one of the hands clapped over his mouth.
"Silence!" the owner hissed. He glared at Genowrath and jerked his head toward whatever was behind him. Then, when he was apparently satisfied Genowrath wasn't going to say anything, the General Shemsiel grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him around to see where the hell they were.
It took Genowrath a moment to process what he was seeing.
The first thing he noticed was the summoning set up. It was the usual big-summoning sort of scene; candles everywhere illuminating an otherwise very dark, very large room. Massive symbols painted on the floor. A decapitated goat a little ways away on a cloth-covered alter, its blood seeped into the covering and dripping to the floor in a puddle.
The second thing that hit Genowrath's senses like a hammer was the stench of death hanging in the air. Genowrath inhaled deeply, and frowned. The goat was fresh, but there was more to it than that. The air was steeped in the smell of old death, in years and years worth of blood and fear.
Then he noticed the concrete floor beneath the candles, and how the alter with the goat was not the only source of blood around, it was just the freshest. The concrete was stained all over with dry patches of blood hat seemed to make a weird sort of trail around the room. Above, the ceiling was high and angular, with pipes and . . chains? Chains that ended in long hooks that were up high now, but had winches and looked like they could come down later if someone set them off to. The places where the chains were matched the pattern of blood on the ground. There were assembly-line type structures made of steel that wound around parts of the enormous room. Though these are harder to see due to piles of dusty crates everywhere, they also looked to be stained with blood and rust, and they lead in and out of metal chutes in the walls.
"Is this a slaughterhouse?" Genowrath said too-loudly.
Shemsiel cuffed him in the back of the head, thumping him against the barrier of the circle.
"Be silent!" the General hissed. Then, Shemsiel grabbed Genowrath's entire head in one of his hands and twisted Geno around to the other side of the circle while still keeping him mostly hidden with his wings and robe. Genowrath almost spoke again, asking what the deal was, but stopped himself.
There were summoners. A handful of them standing in a semicircle partways across the room. They were humans, probably. It was a little hard to tell because they were all wearing hooded and veiled black robes that obscured their faces, but through the stink of death and magic, Genowrath could barely make out AXE body spray, and no self respecting demon of any standing would wear that. They were apparently arguing, with two of the berobed figures gesturing agitatedly at one another.
"What's their deal?" Genowrath whispered.
"They are arguing," Shemsiel hissed, ice in his voice. He shuffled slightly so that Genowrath was behind him. "They cannot decide as to which inconsequential dirt monkey of their acquaintance that I should slaughter first."
"They want you to murder people for them?" said Genowrath.
"It. Appears. So." Shemsiel's voice and face were full of quiet fury.
"That's so. . . wasteful."
"I am personally offended."
Genowrath peered through the feathers and cloth at the coven of summoners. They could complicate things. At worst, they might try to stop him from killing Shemsiel, or even try binding him. At best, they were loose ends, which Bezaliel had been expressly clear in not wanting to have.
"Want me to kill them for you?" Genowrath said.
Shemsiel's silver eyes glinted. "I would reward you, servitor."
Genowrath gave a little two-finger salute, then turned and pressed against the barrier of the circle.
The magic in the circle was strong, but not very strong. It was the kind of haphazard-stone-wall strong that came from a handful of barely-gifted amateurs doing their best, as opposed to the solid concrete-and-rebar strength of a single experienced wizard who knew what they were doing. There were spells and signs in it meant for holding in spirits, but none of it had been made for him.
Genowrath pushed against the barrier like he was pushing himself through a barricaded door. The sensation was not unlike trying to run under water. He shoved and shoved, kicking against the other side of the barrier to give himself leverage. Then, when he was about elbow deep into it, the barrier suddenly gave, and he went tumbling out of the circle.
Shemsiel touched the barrier, testing its strength, and scowled.
"Be quick," he said quietly.
Genowrath nodded and headed for the summoners.
The yellowed ceiling lights were dim, and Genowrath hid in the shadows along the edges of the room, deepening shadows that were too weak to hide him with soft magic. He crept around the crates and assembly line, willing himself to be less noticeable, less tangible. He didn't know how well it was working; his minor shapeshifting abilities didn't really account for things like becoming invisible, but he made it close enough to the coven of summoners to be able to hear them. Carefully, Genowrath peered from behind some crates and tried to get a read on them all.
There were seven summoners total, all decked out in robes and cowls, and now that he was close enough, Genowrath could tell that only one of them had any magical talent worth writing home about. It was tall one in the middle who was being accosted by a slightly shorter one who was getting into his face. All the others there might've had enough power to light a match, or cheat at cards, but nothing really worth anything.
No wonder there needed to be seven of them to make a half-decent binding circle, he thought. Even Dave can manage to--
The thought made him wince a little, and he tried to pay attention to what was being said.
"Dan, you promised!" the shorter summoner was saying to the sorcerer.
"I know, Paul," said the sorcerer. Dan, apparently. "But we all agreed that Shelly would go first--"
"My court date's tomorrow!" said Paul. "If Sarah's not dead by then, they're gonna kick me out of my own house!"
"Oh boo-freaking-hoo," said a female summoner to the right. "Some of us have actual problems?"
Paul whirled on her. "Don't act so high and mighty, you're just trying to get out of alimony!"
"Paul," said another lady summoner. "There's no need to be so upset. You knew we were going in turns--"
"And Dan said I'd be first in line!"
"I said we'd take care of Sarah, I never said she'd be first."
"Then who's second?" demanded Paul.
"I am," said the second woman. "Or rather, my dad is. I have debts to pay off, and Danny said he'd speed up the inheritance--"
"So it's sexism!" said Paul.
"It's not sexism," said a deep voiced summoner a little ways away from the group. "Just politeness. We're all getting a turn, Paul."
"Cuck," said Paul. "I'm not going to be lectured by a man who's going to off his own kid."
"What," said the big man. "And killing your wife is any better?"
The sorcerer held up his hands. "Look, can we all just calm down? We don't have a lot of time, and there's a lot of work to be done, so if we could just--"
Paul did not want to calm down, and the other summoners weren't any better. They started yelling at each other, letting accusations of discrimination, adultery, inheritance fraud, murder, and general nastiness fly, and it was all Genowrath could do not to shake his head. Really? They had the power of a General of Hell, and they were squabbling over who got to kill their ex first? Dave would never be so petty--
He slammed the brakes on that thought and grit his pointed teeth hard enough to make his jaw hurt. He couldn't go on like this--
"Wait," said Dan. "Something's wrong."
"What do you mean?" said Paul.
The sorcerer walked slowly towards the crates where Genowrath was crouching.
Welp. It was show time. This group was pretty non-threatening, and it was time to hide or own it, and lately Genowrath had been a little better about owning things.
Genowrath sprung up and climbed on top of the crate nearest him.
"Okay, punks!" he hollered. "This is your one shot to clear out before I kill every one of--"
The sorcerer made a quick gesture, and a small bolt of electricity few from his hand and smacked Genowrath squarely in the chest. He toppled backwards off the crate with a yelp. Then, before anyone could hit him again, he scurried off to the side, using the assembly line for cover.
"What was that?" said one of the summoners.
"It's a demon," said Dan.
"How did it get in there?" said Shelly. She sounded more irritated than surprised.
Dan sighed. "We left the door open, apparently."
"But the doors are all closed--" said the big guy who wanted to murder his son.
"Not literally said Dan. He waved a hand. "Metaphorically. The summoning circle is like a door--"
"How do we get rid of it?" said the woman who wanted her father dead.
"I'll have to dispel it. Jason!" he heard the wizard snap. "Did you copy down the sigils exactly as I wrote them when you did the circle?"
"Yeah, Dan," said son-murder-guy. "I mean, I think I did?"
There was a sigh. Probably from the wizard.
"Is this going to be a problem?" said the woman who was worried about alimony. She sounded irritated, which, based on the short time Genowrath had known her, appeared to be her natural state of being.
"Not if we settle this quick. Paul, we'll kill Sarah after we deal with Chris. Angela, we'll have it deal with your dad after, then we'll deal with Jason's boss, and then we'll do a second go around, okay? That'll be when we get Tom and Andrew and Jason's kid and everyone else that needs doing, okay? It's only fair that everybody get at least one done before people get doubles."
There was some grumbling, but everyone eventually agreed.
"What about that other demon?" Angela said.
"Doesn't matter," said Dan. "It looked like a little shrimpy one. So long as we stay together, it'll be fine."
"What," he said.
"Did you hear that?" said a summoner. They sounded far away.
"Are you fucking serious?" Genowrath screeched through clenched teeth. He found himself turning on his heel back towards the summoners.
The was it. The absolute last straw. Was nobody going to take him seriously?
An unfamiliar anger that had been quietly smoldering in the bottom of his stomach suddenly flared and burned its way up to his chest. The anger scorched his throat, until he was choking on it. He'd killed Maquasuel. He'd murdered an Archdemon. He was working for a General. He was going to murder another General. He'd stabbed and slashed his way through dozens of lesser demons, and nobody noticed him. Not here, not below, not anywhere.
He hadn't realized he'd grabbed Bezaliel's dagger until he was already up and striding towards the nearest summoner.
Murdering humans was surprisingly easy. He'd forgotten how easy it was.
Genowrath hadn't intentionally killed a human in a few centuries; he'd been a generic-summonable servitor for the past several hundred years, and the last time he'd gotten to see any real Earthly bloodshed was back in the Medieval Ages when he and a couple dozen others been summoned by some insane necromancer. While almost everyone else had gotten to form a Hellish army and lay waste to the countryside, Geno had been stuck spreading a plague, and while that might've actually given him the high score in terms of body count, it wasn't an up-front fight and had none of the glory or fun.
Compared the all the demons he'd been killing lately, humans were about as difficult to tear apart as damp paper towels.
The first three fell in a spray of blood beneath the blade of Bezaliel's dagger. Some distant part of him noted that it was Paul, the patricidal woman, and some other one that hadn't spoken during the earlier exchange. Paul was too surprised to even run, he kept backing away as Genowrath approached, as if that would dissuade him. Genowrath hurled the dagger and the man collapsed to the ground, the blade lodged hilt-deep in his chest. The woman and other tried running, but Genowrath was faster and tore their throats apart with his claws alone.
The fourth one just barely had enough time to scream before Genowrath's shoved the dagger into his eye.
The fifth and six, Shelly and Jason, were more memorable. Shelly had the wherewithal to try conjuring a shield of magic. It did him no good; the shield was about as defensive as a paper plate, and it dissolved before the dagger's blade even properly touched it. She fell screaming, her belly slashed open and her entrails spilling out. Genowrath didn't notice, he was already darting towards the next target.
Jason tried another angle; his hood fell back and he held out a religious cross pendant from around his neck and tried to ward Genowrath off with that.
"Stay back!" he said.
Genowrath did. In his free hand, the one not holding the dagger, he summoned a blazing mote of hellfire. The summoner's eyes widened, and just as he was turning to run, Genowrath hurled the fire at him. he was engulfed instantly, and fell to the ground screaming and spasming.
Then, shockingly fast, it was just him and the sorcerer.
He came down on the sorcerer, both hands around the sword, ready to slice him stem to stern. The human whirled on him, barking a word of power, and Genowrath found himself falling farther than he should have been. The world blurred for a split second, and instead of landing with his blade sheathed in human flesh, he found himself back in Shemsiel's study, dagger embedded in the dresser.
The bastard had dispelled him.
With a growl, Genowrath leapt up and once again followed the trail of ambient magic from the summoning circle back to slaughterhouse. He appeared back inside Shemsiel's circle, and before the Archdemon could say anything, he'd already pushed his way through the barrier and was again prowling around the shadows.
The sorcerer was braced against the back wall, in a patch clear of boxes or machinery. Genowrath could hear his heavy breathing and the pounding sound of his heartbeat. Fuming silently, Genowrath melted into the shadows and appeared beside the beam near where the wizard was resting. He readied the knife and darted out, aiming for the wizard's throat.
He was a foot away when the floor around them began to glow a bright blue, and Genowrath had just enough time to make a startled choking noise before he was whisked away, back to the study.
"Dick!" he said, teleporting back through the magic trail, back to the slaughterhouse.
"Having trouble?" said Shemsiel dryly when Genowrath materialized next to him again.
"No!" snarled Genowrath, already halfway out of the circle.
He found where the Sorcerer was, and this time he tried to attack the sorcerer from above. He had just enough time to notice Shemsiel scowling at him from the circle before he was sent flying back into the study, slamming full-force into the table and sending the vase shattering to the floor.
Almost instantly, he teleported back, and he was equally as quickly dispelled again the second he left Shemsiel's circle. This this time he hit the study's floor hard enough to crack the wood.
"Dick!" Genowrath said again, appearing beside the sorcerer. He'd abandoned the knife and was trying to kill the man with his claws alone.
"Doing that?" Genowrath snarled.
After the tenth or eleventh time he was dispelled, Genowrath stopped himself. Every irritated bone in his body wanted him to try going through the circle again and tear apart the sorcerer with his bare hands, but this wasn't getting him anywhere.
Genowrath growled and scanned the room, looking for something to scry on.
Shemsiel's a General, he thought, looking through the desk drawers. There had to be something to spy with. The way Bezaliel went on, those guys were apparently always spying on each other.
It took a bit of looking, and by the end there were several drawers open with their contents upturned, but he found a small pocket mirror that fit perfectly in his palm. He mumbled a familiar spell, only instead of thinking about Dave, he thought about the sorcerer.
The image in the mirror shifted from Genowrath's reflection to the scene inside the temple. The sorcerer was crouched, and only then did Genowrath see the sigils painted onto the pillars around the place; signs of warning, signs repelling demons, signs for altering time. He squinted and moved his face closer to the image in the glass, as if that would make it clearer. Those were signs for Stasis, but there wasn't enough power in them to actually freeze time. The best they could do was---
Genowrath almost slapped his forehead. It clicked; the sorcerer hadn't been insanely fast, Geno had just been artificially slowed down.
Cheater! he thought. It was adding insult to injury; how dare that human be a better cheater than him?
Well, two could play at that game. There was a pen in Shemsiel's desk, some fancy fountain kind with a refillable nib. Genowrath took it and immediately managed to stain his fingers with orange ink.
He even writes in orange, Genowrath thought. He had to hand it to Shemsiel; the guy had an aesthetic.
The ink was a little runny, but after a few moments, Genowrath's arms were covered in crude signs of magic. When he was satisfied, he went back to the circle, again and materialized in the warehouse.
"I tire of this game," Shemsiel said when he returned.
"You and me both, buddy," said Genowrath, hopping out of the binding and making his way to the summoner's hidey-hole.
This time Genowrath didn't run to the circle, full of idiotic gusto. He walked calmly until he was a few feet away, out of the range of the stasis spell, and sat.
"What are you doing?" said the sorcerer. He sat with his back against the wall, hands up and glowing, either because he was prepared to fight, or because he was powering the spell around him.
"Waiting. You have to come out some time," said Geno.
The sorcerer hurled another bolt of lightning. This time Genowrath was prepared; the lightning met invisible resistance of the shield spell written on his arm and flickered uselessly into nothing.
"Get away!" yelled the sorcerer.
"Look," said Genowrath. "Dan. That's you're name, right? Dan? Maybe we can be reasonable about this."
"You murdered my coven!"
"And they were gonna murder other people. It's the circle of life. But you're alive now, and I'm guessing you'd like to stay that way, am I right?"
The sorcerer was silent for a while before eventually saying, "yes."
"So it seems to me we both have something we want to get done today. All your buddies wanted to use the demon you've got trapped over there to murder someone, right? What did you want done?"
"My landlord," he said quietly.
"No shame in that," said Genowrath, trying to channel Bezaliel's cheerful mannerisms. "So, Dan, let me let you in on a little secret, yeah? I myself am feeling compelled to kill somebody-- not you! Not you. Calm down, dude. No, I'm actually tasked with dispatching our little friend in the circle over there. Infernal infighting, you know how it is. You and your little buddies just had the worst possible timing. So here's the deal; how about I kill your landlord for you, and you get the fuck outta here so I can finish my job. What do you say?"
The sorcerer's jaw dropped. "You'd. . . you'd let me go?"
"You're not my target," Genowrath said with a shrug. "And, to be honest, I actually don't want to kill you. You're what's keeping Mr. Feathers back there inside the circle. If I kill you, the spell breaks, am I right?"
"Y-yeah," said the sorcerer, sitting up. "That's true. If you kill me, he'll be free and kill you!"
Genowrath gave him the finger guns. "Now you're getting it. So how about it? You get out of here, promise not to tell anyone what happened or who's-killing-who, and I'll repay the favor later."
"You swear it?" the sorcerer's voice was as shaky as the rest of him. "You promise to let me live?"
Genowrath straightened up a little and held up one hand, scouts-honor style. "I solemnly swear by His Infernal Majesty that I will not kill you. Not right now, not later. In return, you promise not to tell another soul, living or dead, Earthly or infernal, about what happened here and what will happen here. Agreed?"
The sorcerer stank of desperation. The smell of fear and sweat mingled with the blood, rust, and dust already in the air. He cast his eyes to the corpses of the other coven members, then closed his eyes, like he was preparing to be struck.
"Yes," he said. "I promise. It's a deal."
"Excellent!" said Genowrath, clapping his hands. "Pact: sealed. Get out of there and get out of here so I can do my job."
The sorcerer nodded. Still trembling, he got to his feet and stepped out of the confines of the spell.
Genowrath was on him instantly. Before the sorcerer could do or say anything, Genowrath had the human's head clutched between his hands and was forcing open his mouth with a talon-like claw.
"Stop wriggling," Genowrath muttered. "You'll just make it worse."
The sorcerer clenched down, refusing to open his mouth even to scream. "Relax!" Genowrath snapped. "I'm not going to kill you! I just. . need you. . .to open up. . ."
The sorcerer thrashed wildly, and in the end Genowrath had to break couple of teeth before he could pry open the man's jaw. He shoved his hand down the human's throat, the sharp edges of his claws and scaled knuckles inadvertently shredding the soft flesh inside of the sorcerer's cheeks. After a brief struggle, a small amount of effort, and a loud schriiip sound, Genowrath removed his hand and took with it the human's tongue.
"There," Genowrath said. "Yeesh. You didn't have to make that so difficult. I was just making sure you keep your end of the bargain."
He let the weeping sorcerer drop to the ground. Blood was spilling from his mouth, smearing his face and chest as he writhed on the floor. Genowrath shook off the excess blood on his hand, then tossed the tongue across the room. It landed out of sight with an echoing squelch, hitting something metal in the distance.
"Okay, buddy," Genowrath said, grabbing the sorcerer's ankle. "Come on."
The sorcerer struggled weakly, but not enough to make a difference, and not enough to stop what was happening. It was still a little annoying, though, and Genowrath was in a hurry. He sighed and squeezed the man's ankle tighter and tighter until there was a satisfying crunch.
The sorcerer screamed, but he stopped kicking, and Genowrath dragged him back towards Shemsiel's circle.
"What are you doing?" demanded the General. "Finish it. Kill him and release me."
Genowrath glanced at him, then back to the cowering sorcerer.
"Nah," he said. He released the sorcerer's leg, and the man started to crawl slowly away, whimpering with every movement. "That's right, buddy," Genowrath said fondly. "You go head out. Do your best."
"What are you doing?" Shemsiel almost shouted.
"Hang on a second," said Genowrath. He pulled the dagger out of its sheath. He inspected it for a moment-- yep, still covered in summoner blood- then, after a little thought, tucked it back in its sheath.
"What are you doing?" Shemsiel said again. He sounded so imperial, so sure of himself.
"People keep saying I'm getting stronger," Genowrath said, making his way over. "And maybe it's true, but I think some of that juice has gotta be going to the dagger. It's just a hunch, I might be totally off base, but I think there's a reason Hebdekial was given this. I think there's a reason I was given it. So I'm gonna try something else first."
"Explain yourself!" the General said.
"Weren't you listening?" said Genowrath, standing before the circle. "I just did."
Genowrath put his fist to his chest and imagined he was pulling something out. He imagined a hilt protruding where his heart would be. He imagined the feeling of a celestial blade, made from condensed starlight and magic, sliding out of his flesh. In his mind, it didn't sting, it didn't hurt, but there was definitely a pressure he was still unused to. He imagined the comforting feel the sword gave him when he led it, and how right it had felt the first time he'd picked it up off Maquasuel's dead body, and how the sword had deemed him its rightful owner, won by trial.
Then he opened his eyes and saw that he was pulling a sword from his chest. He tore his eyes away from the sight and looked at Shemsiel. The General was watching him with a look of mingled disgust and fascination.
"You cannot," he said. "It's impossible. That is an Archdemon's blade, only an Archdemon can wield it--"
For the briefest second, Genowrath considered saying something snappy, something like "if you say so," or maybe "not anymore," but it occured to him that he'd been dragging the moment out long enough, and that every second wasted was a second further away from Dave's soul, so instead he simply stabbed Shemsiel in the gut. The General collapsed, clutching at his belly, gurgling and gasping for breath. Genowrath brought the sword down again and neatly parted Shemsiel's head from his shoulders in a spray of golden blood. The General's head landed with a thud on the concrete floor and rolled away from his body, out of the circle.
Breathing heavily despite how easy it had been, Genowrath stood there for a moment, waiting for something to happen. It couldn't have been this easy, could it? Something had to happen.
He didn't have to wait long.
Killing Maquasuel hadn't made Genowrath feel different, just relieved at having survived. Killing Hebdekial hadn't made him feel different, either. Not really. He'd felt glad, a little more confident, maybe, but not different. Same for the others-- Marannas, Ziggurath, Locheva, Tantarous-- and more whose names he hadn't even done the courtesy of remembering. He'd felt like he'd gotten work done, like he'd successfully spellblocked Dave, but he hadn't felt noticeably personally different.
Shemsiel wasn't like that.
Shemsiel's death burned.
Genowrath gasped and crumpled to the ground, hugging himself in the fetal position as Shemsiel's power flooded his veins. He screamed. he screamed and screamed until his throat was raw and made no sound, and still he screamed as every inch of his physical being was torn apart, then torn again and again, into smaller and smaller shards, each shard shrieking in pain, trapped in a burning, broken cyclone. Then, at the apex, when he was certain it couldn't possibly get any worse, when he was certain he was going to die, all the broken pieces started to contract. They merged back together, restitching in a way that was even more agonizing that the breaking had been.
Eventually, it stopped.
For a long while, he did nothing but breathe. When it seemed as though the pain wouldn't return, he groaned and rolled onto his side, his eyes closed so hard it was giving him a headache. He didn't so much hurt-hurt now, more like muscle aches from working out. With a grunt and a groan, he pushed himself, squinting, up off the floor, trying to get his feet beneath him. It was oddly difficult; for some reason, he couldn't balance properly. Slowly he peeled open one eye and tried to get his bearings.
When he finally stood, the ground was farther away than it should have been, as though he were standing on the edge of a tall platform. His skin was itchy. He scratched his arms, and found that his scales were gone.
His jaw dropped.
His arms had skin. Skin-skin. Not overlapping scales, not patched of bumpy lizard skin, actual mostly-smooth skin. It was pale gray skin, and had what looked like darker gray cracks, like stone, but were actually just odd patterns that felt smooth to the touch. His hands were hands. He'd had hands before, but they were stubby and lizard-like, slightly scaled in places, unevenly jointed, with respectable claws at the end. Now they were the elegant, slim hands of a pianist, free of calluses and with clean, trim nails.
Genowrath began to scream.
He held his hands out in front of them as though they held vipers, backing up as though he could get away from them, and fell backwards. An unfamiliar pain shot up his spine, and the act of falling itself seemed more complex, with more moving pieces than there should have been. He yelped and rolled onto his hands-- Hands! Not claws, hands!-- and knees and tried to think. It was impossible; thoughts tumbled and whirled and repeated and ran in an amorphous cyclone.
Hands. What happened to my skin? My Claws! HANDS?!
His back felt odd. Like he was wearing a weighted pack. He stretched, arching his back and flexing his shoulders and arms. Then, instinctively, he flexed something else. Some foreign muscles, some foreign limbs out of sight.
Hardly daring to breathe, hardly daring to move at all, Genowrath felt his back, and met solid matter. It felt bony. It felt leathery. It felt like it was growing out of his back, out near the shoulder blades. His hands followed the new appendage and tugged it towards his front so he could see.
Wings. Two of them. They weren't feathered, like Shemsiel's or Maquasuel's or Bezaliel's had been; they were leathery like a bat's, near-black and veined with light grey.
He screamed again.
Even his voice was different.
"I can't look like this," he said. He brushed his hair out of the way-- hair?! He had hair?! What about his mane? Then he noticed the color of it and almost choked.
"Fuck me," he said. "I'm a goddamned blond. Fuck. Fuck! FUCK!" he shouted.
Okay, think, he thought. Think. Think, dammit!
Shemsiel's power. Clearly it was making him look more arch-demon-like. Which meant, he thought with a pang in his stomach, more angelic. Archdemons were Archdemons because they kept more of their old juice. Generals were the strongest of them all, and so had even more of it. Clearly this still happened when someone else stole the aforementioned juice.
"I can't walk around like this," he said aloud again, like he was hoping the universe would hear him and correct the problem.
There was no way he'd be able to get back to the dorm looking like this. There would be questions. Even Charamas, who was about as observant as wet concrete, would notice. And Dave wouldn't even recognize him--
The thought of Dave threatened to send him into a full blown panic attack. Genowrath shut the thought down immediately and tried counting his breaths. One. Two. Three. Exhale. One. Two. Three. Inhale. . .
After a few moments of this, he sighed.
Okay. This was manageable. This was doable. He shapeshifted all the time. Adding ears, adding eyeballs, making his horns longer -- oh no, his horns were gone! That was a blow to the ego-- but but but! That meant this wasn't that big a problem.
But you've never shapeshifted all of you said a treacherous little thought. Just bits a pieces.
Genowrath wanted to tell the little thought to shut up, but that would mean he'd be talking to himself, really-really talking to himself, and today was crazy enough without throwing that into the mix. So he ignored the thought and tried to focus on making himself look like himself.
It took effort. Far more effort than it usually did. This new form of his did not want to go away. The wings were the hardest to get rid of; every time he'd get one gone, he'd start on the other, and the first wing would spring back into existence. And then, while he was wrestling with the wings, his properly scaly skin would start smoothing out, and his horns would shrink while that awful yellow hair would start growing out again--
It was a mess. It was horrible. It took forever.
But he did it. After what felt like hours and probably was, he was back to being himself. Shortish, for a demon. Stocky. Properly maned and clawed and fanged and scaled; entirely back to normal.
Stiffly, terrified that the slightest distraction would send him springing back into his new form, Genowrath went to the summoning circle where Shemsiel's ashes rested. There was no sign of the human, and Genowrath couldn't bring himself to care. Let Bezaliel handle it; he just wanted to be gone.
He felt the last bit of magic in the circle and willed himself back to Hell.
* * * * *
The Archdemons and fiends were still downstairs when he got back. They were taking a smoke break with some rancid smelling cigars.
None of them paid him any attention when he left, even has he bumped into them and had to squeeze past them on the way out. Even when he was certain his shape-shifted form was bursting at the seams, and that they'd see his wings-- they'd have to see them, there's no way the couldn't--
But they didn't.
Nobody noticed him.
On the way back to the dorms, nobody noticed him.
Passing down the crowded halls, nobody noticed him.
He went to his room, locked the door, and nobody noticed his absence.