Takes place at least thirty-five years before the current story arc.
The office was, unlike most of the places I'd seen in down here, big and luxurious. It smelled like brimstone and smoke, but also of cinnamon because misguided soul had thought to place a few tea light candles on the desk. Probably not the owner, as he didn't strike me as the candly sort. Maybe somebody trying to butter him up.
The desk itself was black wood veined with faint red and, if you listened really carefully, was screaming ever so softly. Rumor had it that it was the owner's last P.A.
I sat on the opposite side of the desk while I waited for him to finish reading my file. Outside, people were screaming and laughing insanely and making all kinds of hectic, hellish noise. But the screaming wasn't mine, the laughter wasn't directed towards me, and I actually kinda liked the noise, so I didn't mind too much.
"Bri," said my reviewer, not looking up from the file. "You're fidgeting."
"Am not," I said automatically.
"The newly exposed spot on the underside of my desk where you have just scratched away the varnish begs to differ."
And, on cue, the screaming of the desk got ten times louder, and it wailed,
I kicked the nearest table leg. "They shoulda turned you into a chair."
"GO SUCK LEMONS."
"Please refrain from arguing with the furniture," drawled the reviewer. "So. Bri." A severe, unamused, half-squint look my way here. "That's what it It appears that, in your file, someone has crossed out your proper name with very dark ink and scribbled 'Bri' in beside it."
"Really now?" I said mildly.
"Must've been some mistake in filing."
He gave me a Look. "Mistake. I'm so sure. And I suppose you wouldn't mind giving me the accurate information so that I may send in the correction?"
I straightened up a bit. "You'd be supposing wrong, yes."
"I thought as much. So. Bri. Tell me about yourself."
He had the file right there in front of him. I just spent the last agonizing fifteen minutes watching him pour over every single fucking word of it. Why the hell-
"I know what you're thinking," he said.
No you don't, I thought. Cacodaemon's can't read minds.
"You're wondering why I would have you speak when I've just finished reading over your file-"
Shitty fuck fuck shit hell damn crap-
Relax! I told myself. He can't hear your thoughts, you're just really easy to read. That wasn't nearly as comforting as it was meant to be, but I'd take it.
"And I'd just like to get a little insight. Tell me."
I shuffled In my chair and wondered briefly if it, too, had been some unfortunate PA. "Uh. Name's Bri or Bric, I-uh, am an imp. High imp. Third tier. And I -uh."
I felt myself starting to burn up. "I failed my last corruption gig."
"It was your first corruption assignment, is that correct?"
"Yeah. Technically. I mean, I played the shoulder game before, but it was always a once off: 'steal that candy', 'kick that dog' sort of thing, and I never had competition before. So-uh. I guess, yeah, first real gig. . ."
I trailed off and hoped the floor would swallow me up. He kept looking at me with those orange eyes and I just wanted to either curl up into a little ball of shame or set some stuff on fire. One or the other, both good options.
"I see," he drawled. Hitting him in the face suddenly became another option on the 'things I want to do right now' list. "And before that you were-?"
"Servitor," I said.
"And before that?"
"Servitor in a different branch. Odd jobs. Part of the howling masses of the choir of chaos." I shrugged, not sure what else to say.
"And what were you before?"
"Uh, I think I was a courier-"
"No." He leaned forward ever so slightly. "Before you came here."
Fuck, I thought. Should've figured. "Well, I was- I mean. You know. I was a. . . I was part of the-"
"You were part of THE ENEMY!" He beat his fists against the table.
Dammit all. I knew Screwtape was one of those loyalist loonies, but I hadn't thought it would come up now. It's been, what? Forty thousand years? Fifty? Something like that.
"Yes, well" I said, straightening up in my seat. "That was a long time ago."
"Not long enough."
He glowered at me. I kept my face blank.
He handed over a manilla folder containing the specs of my new assignment.
"Take this. Study it. Learn from it."
"Get out of my sight," he said. He started rummaging around through a drawer in his desk. "You make me sick, maggot."
"Yessir," I said, rising from my seat. Before I left, I quickly spat out my gum and stuck it to the underside of the table.
Screwtape, apparently having missed the gum, smacked the desk. "Shutup," he said.
I hightailed out of there, managing to hold off snickering until I was back out in the hall.
Khoress was outside waiting for me. I kept on walking, and she fell into step beside me. "So?" she said. "How'd it go?"
She cackled. "Called it. Old man Screwtape?"
"His ass is harder than ever.”
"So whatcha got?"
"Dirtside job." I may have puffed up my chest a bit here. "Corrupter."
She grabbed the file out of my hands and quickly skimmed through. "A priest? Dayum, lucky!"
She pouted and handed the file back. "I never get to corrupt anybody interesting. All my clientele come pre-corrupted."
"If I get this right, I might be able to get to fifth tier."
"And I hope once you've clawed your way up the corporate ladder, you remember the little people who failed to stab you in the back on your way up."
"Daww, thanks, Kho."
I elbowed her, she elbowed me. It was the closest thing to a hug we were contractually allowed to do that wouldn't result in a violent, messy orgy.
Most of the public buildings in Pandemonium are carved into the stone walls of Hell, giving the higher class places a stone-temple kind of feel, but leaving the public service sectors looking all cave-y. We turned down the hall, towards the cafeteria. The official way was blocked off by the leftovers of a rockslide that happened a bajillion years ago that nobody's bothered to fix, but off to the side next to it is an illegal slit-portal someone set up a while back. It looks like a thin black line on the wall to those not in the know, but us regulars usually used it to cut across troublesome geography. Kho and I walked towards the black line and passed through as though the rock wall wasn't there.
I don't know where, technically, the slit portal takes us, other than it's a hallway made out of cleanly cut and carved obsidian rather than the red-brown rock in Pandemonium, and that there's another slit portal at the end. None of the bosses knew about it, nor any of the other ones set up around the rat's nest we call home. This one led right next to the cafeteria, and as such was always full of garbage people were too lazy to throw away properly.
We were almost out when Kho suddenly stopped. Her bat-like ears flicked around. "Huh."
“What?” I said.
She pointed to a pile of trash. It took a second for me to see it; a little light-gray lump of lump half buried under a pile of wrappers.
"Well, Kho," I said. "That there is a pile of trash."
The gray lump wiggled, knocking the pile off balance and causing the trash to tumble and resettle above it. We went over to investigate. I dragged the lump out of the trash- still leaving it on the floor- and then said,
"What is it?" said Khoress, fascinated.
"It's a baby," I said.
It was indeed a baby.
Khoress nudged it with her foot.
"Stop that," I said automatically. I went to pick the baby up.
It looked like the average human baby. Wrinkly. Wiggly. Bald. This one was a bit on the pink side, and it was swaddled up in an adult's gray sweater. It was also unquestionably alive, with a physical body and a bit of soul flickering around inside.
"Why is there a living infant in Hell?" I said.
"I dunno. Must've been one bad baby."
"But it can't be down here," I said.
She shrugged. "So somebody dicked up, then. What are you going to do? Tell Screwtape?"
I wrinkled my nose. "Nah, he'd probably just leave it to rot in a drawer or something."
"Can I see it?" she said. I tossed it to her. She held it up by its foot and held it up so she could look at it's face. "Weeeeird. I don't think I've ever seen one this little before."
The kid didn't like this much, as it immediately started waving its arms around and crying.
"Don't hold it like that." I took the kid from her and turned it back right-side-up. It didn't stop thrashing, and it had killer-sharp little nails that caught on the scales on my arm.
"How do you know? What if I was holding it right and you were doing it wrong?"
I scowled and pointed to myself. "Grigori." I pointed at her. "Succubus. Trust me, I know this much, at least." I held the sprog up and it cooed. "I babysat once. And I've seen human women do this sort of thing all the time." Granted, most of the babies I'd run across were bound one day to become giant man-eating monsters, but that still gave me better credentials than her.
"Whatcha got there?" said an oily voice behind us. We turned around and saw Hastofur slinking towards us.
Hastofur is a mystery wrapped in enigma crammed into a Rubik's cube. He was a cacodaemon, which meant by all rights that I outranked him, but through finagling, wheeling, and dealing I wasn't privy too, he'd somehow managed to stick his fingers into every aspect of Hell. I heard Belial goes to him for political advice. I heard Azazel offered to promote him to duke, but he turned down the offer on the grounds that it would cramp his style. I heard Lucifer owed him one, and that he beat Beelzebub in a drinking contest.
And now he was looking at us and smiling in a way that sharks smiled right before they tore something's face off. Khoress, who had a sharky smile herself, was smiling right back at him.
"Hey, Hastofur. We got kind of a problem here."
"And problems are what I deal with best. What is it?"
I held up the baby. "Found this in the hallway."
The baby gurgled in what I figured was agreement.
Hastofur blinked and moved in for a closer look. "Oh, that thing."
"You know it?" The baby wriggled, so I tried getting a better handle on it.
"How long has it been down here?" said Kho.
"A week," said Hastofur. "I remember passing it last week." The sprog decided that my ears were absolutely fascinating and tried climbing onto my head to get them.
"A week and nobody bothered to pick it up? The janitors are getting shoddier every day."
"Let's take it with us!" said Kho. "I've always wanted a pet." She tickled it under its chin, running her claw along its skin.
"No way," I said. "Who's gonna clean up the shit?"
"It won't shit if we don't feed it."
"You're really better off leaving it here," said Hastofur.
"What, where I could possibly trip over it? No way."
"Then what do you intend to do?"
The sprog, tired of Kho's attention, wiggled around in such a way so that its face was over my shoulder, away from her. "Is there a way to send it to Heaven? Airmail it or something?"
"Seriously!" I said.
"Maybe if you were a duke or archfiend. Something with weight that would get their attention. As it is, I'm afraid divine intervention may be out of your league."
"There's gotta be something."
"Hey," said Kho. "You were a featherhead. You've gotta have some contacts that'll still talk to you."
"None I want to talk back to," I grumbled. The sprog frowned at me with those disapproving brown eyes. I sighed. One of those agitated sighs. "Hastofur, I know you've got a line topside. Can you get me a message through?"
"What makes you think that?"
"Because you've got a line everywhere."
"What's in it for me?"
Khoress immediately turned on the charm. Literally. It's a succubus thing. She slunk over to Hastofur, all pouty, and said, "Hasty, look at the thing. It's so little. Help us get it out of here. For me?"
Hastofur held up brilliantly; Kho is good at her job and as a fellow cacodaemon, he was probably about as susceptible to that trick as a human was. "I'll need something more than that."
Kho winked. "Fine by me."
"So howbout it?" I said, in case they'd forgotten me and the sprog were still in the room.
"I'll do it," he said.
I handed the sprog off to Hastofur (who instantly foisted it off on Kho who then insisted on holding it upside down) and then quickly sketched Leighriel's namesign on a corner of the manilla folder holding my new target's file. Then I tore off the part with the sign and gave it to Hastofur.
"Just tell him I found a baby down here. If he's not being too big of an asshole, he should have a return message."
Hastofur examined the sign, nodded, and then flicked his fingers. The paper went up in smoke. "Done," he said.
"Just like that?" Kho said.
Hastofur winked. "It doesn't pay to underestimate me."
"What about the reply-"
As I said it, a small white envelope fell from the ceiling, meandering lazily on the way down like it was a feather. The seal on the front was Leigh's. When I tore the top open, white light leaked out of the slot and very faint music could be heard.
"Show off," I muttered, taking the note and crumpling up the envelope.
"What's it say?" said Kho, trying to read over my shoulder. It didn't do her any good: the script was Enochian and cacodaemons don't know how to read that without special training. Hastofur came around and peered over my other shoulder.
"It says he'll meet Bri on the mountaintop just outside Pandemonium's south gate in an hour."
I crumpled up the note and burned both it and the envelope with a little spurt of handy dandy hellfire. No sense leaving evidence around for anyone to find. "Figures he'd have me go climb a mountain for this. I'm half tempted to leave the brat here."
Hastofur shoved the kid into my arms. "Well, have fun you too. I expect to hear about the results later."
"Will do, Has," said Kho far too cheerfully. "Come on, Bri. If we get to the south gate now, I think we can beat the rush."
I sighed and re-swaddled the kid so that it wouldn't be immediately apparent to anybody on the outside that there was, in fact, a kid at all inside the sweater, and then we were off.
* * * * *
Pandemonium's kinda a big place.
The city is circular because Lou thought circles were classy and surrounded by mountains along the north, west, and east, and plains to the south. It is also in a near constant state of jam fucking packed. Things might've been simpler back in the old days when Lucifer basically pulled a couple castles out of his ass and called it home, but since then the population has gone from a couple hundred fallen angels with ego problems to several-thousand-plus-and-growing population of various breeds cacodaemons, more angels who were late to the party, and warped man-made monsters. Damned souls aren't allowed in Pandemonium because, frankly, they'd just bring the quality of the place down. That's what the pits are for.
So now what started as just one big classy-as-fuck neighborhood to serve as an angry and stylish middle finger to dad has given way to urban sprawl and general decay. One of the things keeping out the riffraff is the gates- bigass black things that look like wrought iron but were grown from the muck in the pits and is semi-sentient- and after that is the River Styx that surrounds the whole place, and thusly the river's watchman, stationed at the main bridge.
He was a hulking mish-mash monster, probably ten feet tall or so, mostly made out of muscle. He had six legs, six arms, a scorpion tail, and a bunch of leathery wings that were too small and cramped to actually let him fly. He was wearing old fashioned Roman style armor (because it had already been tailored specially for him and Infernal Affairs wasn't going to spring for new show armor when his old stuff was still working).
We approached the gate where he was sitting back in a lawn chair, gnawing thoughtfully on the end of a pen and contemplating the Sudoku pad on his lap.
"Uh, hi, Geryon," I said not at all suspiciously. "We were just going to-"
"No you weren't."
Welp, that was that. Guess we'd have to find another way-
"Please Gery?" said Kho, turning on the charm again. "We just need to make a quick little teensy tiny delivery."
"Do you have papers?" he said. "I need to see your authorization."
"It's kind of unauthorized business," I said.
He set the Sudoku pad and pen down and sat up. "What have you got?"
I untangled the sweater enough to show the kid's grumpy face.
"Odd," he said, poking the sprog's belly. "I'm afraid I can't let you pass without proper authorization, though."
"Right. Kho? A word?"
We moved to a distance hopefully out of earshot. "Hey," I said. "Kho? You wanna. . . ?" I tilted my head towards Geryon.
She rolled her eyes and turned on the heat again. it's like standing to close to an oven when she does that. "Fine," she said. "But you can't solve all your problems this way."
"Just distract him until I'm across," I said.
"Yeah yeah yeah. . . " She slunk over to where Geryon was back to Sudoku and leaned over to talk to him. He started talking back. I've no idea what leaps their conversation must've taken to allow it, but thirty seconds later and they were sucking face.
It's good to have backup. While Khoress was working her feminine wiles of Geryon, I turned my back to them, sucked in a lungful of air, and jumped into the Styx.
Freezing. Biting. Screaming, blinding, terribly, horribly, quite-literally-ungodly cold. Against all logic, the water felt like it burned- that's how cold it was. I locked up. I couldn't move. I think I made it to the bottom f the river, but by the time I did, I was too numb to notice.
I hate the cold.
I probably would have wallowed pathetically in the cold until Kho or someone fished me out if the kid hadn't started squirming. He kicked and wiggled and tried his best to break out of my arms. I wasn't too worried about him; he had been in the hell pit for at least a week already. I doubted a little cold water would do any permanent damage.
Must've hurt like hell, though.
I got a move on, trying to swim with the current without going too far downstream. Unfortunately, one of the things about the Styx is that it's full of dead people. Wispy souls who are practically intangible that can waft around in the water for centuries before finally falling to the bottom of the river and getting buried in the mud.
The dead down here are nothing to write home about. The oldest ones are about as tangible as fog on a good day, completely unnoticeable the rest of the time. The newer ones are a little more on the solid side as their memories of themselves are fresher, but eventually they'll end up mist like the rest of them. Most of the dead stay the hell away from us. Partly because any spirit hassling one of us is asking for a fireball to the face (and bodies or no, that shit still hurts), but mostly because we simply aren't that interesting to them. We don't have anything to offer them except pain. Most of them can't even communicate with us, and if they did, we'd only torch them to get them to shut up.
But the kid was still alive. Purely, unquestionably alive. And if there's one thing the dead want more than anything, it's life.
Spectral arms sprouted from the mud like seaweed and lunged for us. They stretched and strained and tore at us both. Most were too intangible to do anything than to obscure my vision, but a few were on the more solid side and raked their claws across my legs and back.
Hands grabbed the sweater and tore it away. I grabbed the kid's arm and pulled him back. The spirits, stupid slow things they were, didn't catch on and fought over the sweater, apparently thinking the kid was still in there.
With a kick and a muffled scream I shot to the other side of the river and, with a move that would have made Flipper squeak enviously at me, leapt onto the shore. We landed with a splash and a splat. In the waters, ghostly arms tried to follow us, but quickly sank back down, unable to keep up the effort required to keep themselves up without the Styx.
I stood up and glanced over at the bridge. Kho and Geryon were rolling around on the floor, all legs, arms, and tails.
"I can't take her anywhere," I said.
The sprog shivered. Even when he was frozen blue and soaked, he still managed to muster up enough energy to glare at me with disdain.
"Hey, don't look at me," I said, getting a better hold on him. It would be such a shame to go through all this trouble only to accidentally drop him and smash him on some rocks or something. "Not my fault you're down here."
I sighed and headed to go meet Leigh.
* * * * *
I met Leighriel on the jagged mountain-like hill overlooking the plains of Asphodel. He was there, leaning against a rocky outcrop and looking bored.
"You're late," he said when he saw me.
"And you're an ass. But tomorrow, I won't be late anymore."
He must've seen the kind of mood I was in, because he didn't respond to that. Instead he said, "What happened to your shoe?"
"Wet ghosts stole it." I adjusted the kid, who was now sort of saddled on my hip, meaning I had to kind of lean sideways in a way that made my back ache. The things I do.
"Mhmm. Why are you all singed?"
"Had an incident with the river Phlegethon. I was wet, I wanted to be dry." I held the kid out, making my burned skin crack and crumble in places and causing a few blisters to burst. The kid was completely fine, as the river hadn't touched him. "Here. All yours."
"A moment, I've got to make sure everything's in order." He flicked his hand and a clipboard appeared. I waited while he made some "mmmhmm" noises and checked some things off, occasionally looking at the baby and nodding. "Well, there's some good news and bad news."
"The good news is, that is most definitely a living human infant and is therefore not the property of Hell."
"Well I could have told you that-"
"The bad news is, as a living human, he's not Heaven's either. We can only take the pre-posthumus in special circumstances."
"So drop him off back on Earth then. Let them deal with the it."
"Can't," he said. "His file's been lost for almost twenty years. It's been marked as defunct and he's been completely eradicated from the record."
"So taking him directly to Earth now would interfere with some delicate plans already in motion-" he cut off suddenly. Probably afraid of giving anything about those delicate plans away.
"Then dump it somewhere else. I don't care. If you don't, I'm gonna just dump it in the lost and found bin to rot for the rest of eternity."
"I think. . . I think I may have a place arranged, actually." He finally took the kid from me. The baby kicked and wriggled and started making upset whining noises, demonstrating that he was indeed smarter than the average human larva.
Leigh started bobbing the kid up and down, trying to calm him down. "It's alright," he said, "it's okay."
"Try holding him upside down," I said. "He seems to like that."
"AHZAHABUP HUP HUP!" I did the umpire's cross-armed "out" sign and Leigh shut up.
"You didn't have to do this," he said. "There was no reason for you to do this."
"Sure there was. I didn't want to trip over it and get baby guts all over my feet."
He smiled and I wanted to brain him with a rock. "Goodbye, Bri." And he vanished in a white light, as he was wont to do.
"Nuts to you, too!" I shouted.
With nothing else left to do, I turned around and started the trek down the mountain, wondering if Kho had finished with Geryon yet and what it would cost to have Hastofur do something about these burns.