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I landed back home with a crash. A crash accompanied by a smash, a crunch, the splintering of wood, the shattering of glass, and final, resounding thunk.
Huh, I thought, looking up at the hole in the ceiling I’d just made. That didn’t hurt nearly as much as it should have.
“Thanks Chaz,” I wheezed. “Thanks a million.”
Somewhere downstairs, something made a loud thumping noise.
“Will you keep it down up there? Some people are trying to work!”
A door promptly slammed shut.
Oh good, I thought. Bossman’s home.
I creaked to my feet and leaned against the post for support. Bossman would help. He had to help. I’d nag him into an early grave if he didn’t.
The window behind me rattled. So like a schmuck, I turned around to look. Something that was behind me now tapped my shoulder.
"Hello," someone breathed into my ear.
"Son of a-!"
I spun around and got caught up in a feral heap of laundry. With a noise that was most definitely not a scream, I stumbled backwards, tried to catch myself on the bedside table, then wound up dragging some books and a lamp behind me when I hit the floor.
The speaker loomed approximately seven feet above me, hands clasped behind his back, and giving off the air of mild interest. He was basked in a white glow, and his eyes were solid, reflective silver, missing both irises and sclera. They looked down at me somberly.
"Hiya Leigh. Get the fuck out of my house."
He didn't move. "I’ve been sent here on business.”
I scrambled to my feet. “You’re not going to try and kill my boss again, are you? ‘Cause he’s been pretty quiet for the past week and-“
“No. We are not concerned with him.”
I relaxed slightly. “The royal we, ehy? Fine. What’s up?”
He casually lifted up both of his hands and a clipboard appeared in one, a pen in the other. He poised to write, eyes on the paper, and said,
“What were you doing?”
"Well, I’d just finished falling through the roof when you got here, but I was getting kind of bored of that and was going to go get some lunch-"
He looked up from the clipboard and scowled. "No. When you left. Where did you go?"
"How did you know I -? Wait, what business is it of your-? No, wait-" The gears in my head clicked into place. "Dammit! Leigh, have you been spying on me?"
"Of course not," he said with a sniff. "Unlike some others I could name-"
"Me," I said. "It's me, isn’t it?"
"I am still a member of the celestial order and am above such base, tasteless things." Apparently, though, being in the celestial order didn't mean he was above poking through other people's things. He tucked the clipboard under one arm and went over to the dresser to look through the knick-knacks on top.
"Then what do you call it?"
"You're on parole?!"
"No," he said, inspecting a vial of something smelly that hadn't been touched in years. "You are."
"You never told me about any parole!"
"I didn't? Must have slipped my mind." He set the vial down and carefully lifted up a picture frame. "Who's that?" he said, holding the picture for me to see.
"My pet human and a selkie he had a thing for. What're you doing here, Leigh?"
"Do you know that Lucifer's declared war on Faerie?"
My face went carefully blank. "Oh?"
"Yes. Acts of aggression on his part. When he claimed to have nothing to do with it, Titania accused him of incompetence. She insists there were at least a dozen lesser imps and a pack of hell hounds set loose in her territory. If it wasn't on purpose, then it was through negligence."
Twelve? I thought, feeling a little pleased. Still had the touch, then. Managed to instigate a war without even trying!
"She's really declaring war over that?"
"No. He did. He didn't take kindly to being insulted at a public function. She crashed Beleth's tercentennial anniversary working in the British Parliament."
I winced. "Ouch."
"Yes. Satan was furious. I've heard Mab is going to get in on the action soon under the banner of sisterly obligation." He peered at me. "And it all happened around the first time I managed to lose track of you."
"Oh hey now, you're not suggesting I started a friggin war, are you? I resent that. I resent that most thoroughly!"
He held up his hands in mock surrender. "Easy now. No. I'm not accusing you of anything. But I am here to tell you that you can't go dashing out of the country if you don't want to draw unwarranted suspicion upon yourself. We're trying to keep better watch on everyone now, and it would save both of us a lot of trouble and some paperwork if you told me why you went to China just now."
I was in China? Huh. And here I'd thought the place had a very Thai feel to it. Shows what I know.
"Visiting an old friend," I said. "He found religion. I wanted to see if I could talk him out of it."
Leigh nodded. "That's all I needed from you." Suddenly, he beamed in a way that made my fists itch with the urge to wipe it off his face for him. "See how easy things are when you listen to me?"
I was about to give a clever retort when the dog trotted in. He caught sight of Leigh and immediately ran over.
Leigh took a few steps back. The dog didn’t care and catapulted into his legs hard enough that he had to grab onto the bedpost for balance. The dog danced around the hem of his robe, making excited yippings and the kind of whimpering I’d come to know as his ‘want’ noise.
"Bri," said Leigh sweetly. "What is this?"
The dog yapped and nosed Leigh’s sandals.
"Why Leigh, I do believe that's a hell hound."
"You're given a chance at redemption and you choose to adopt a four legged personification of damnation?" The dog wagged his tail so hard, his entire body wiggled with it.
"Aww, he likes you."
"It's a hell hound. It’s a physical manifestation of the inescapable nature of hell."
"He also knows how to roll over. Go on, dog, roll over. Show the angel your belly."
The dog continued to sniff the hem of Leighriel's robe, thoroughly ignoring me.
"Bri, this won't look good on your file. Consorting with the legion's of hell-"
"Was pretty much my job for the last few millennia, ehy? Is that what you were going to say?"
He exhaled loudly enough for me to hear, but not undignified enough for it to be considered a sigh.
"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?"
I thought about Shemyaza and Tamiel and the list still in my pocket.
"You're lying to me, aren't you?"
Just then, the dog, having decided he approved of Leighriel (or at least his legs) lifted his leg and did what dogs tended to do.
Leigh kicked him away and tried to put out the flames. The dog ran straight back to him, tail waving like a tiny, fluffy flag.
"Control your animal!"
"No," I said flatly. "Don't. Stop. Bad dog."
He glared at me like it was my fault he was so piss-on-able and kicked the dog away again.
"Well, Leigh," I said. "It was nice having you here and all, but if that's all you needed, I'd really appreciate it if you got the fuck off out of my house."
He managed to put out the flames and gave me a look. Like he had a weird taste in his mouth and wasn't sure what had caused it.
"Believe it or not, Bri-"
"I don't. Whatever it is, I don't."
He sighed. "I thought as much. Goodbye, Bri. Try to keep your nose clean."
He opened his wings slightly, ruffled his feathers with a slight shiver, and vanished.
"Show off," I muttered. The dog sniffed the spot where he'd been standing and whined. "Stop it," I said. "You're not even supposed to like angels. You're a disgrace to the entirety of hell."
The dog didn't listen and continued dancing around the spot and whining. I left him to it and went downstairs to go check on Bossman.
* * * * *
He was holed up in his study again- as was the natural order.
I peeked in the doorway and saw him, back to me, standing hunched over the table. The room looked about as well as it had earlier- furniture piled in one corner, giant heap of mud in the other. I hopped down the steps and went to poke him in the side.
"Hey boss. You reek."
"I'm busy," he said, not looking up. I peeked over the edge of the table. He was writing on some fancy looking parchment with a fancy looking calligraphy pen and creating some fancy looking script.
“I didn’t know you knew Hebrew,” I said.
“I’m busy,” he growled.
"Okay, okay. I'll make this quick. I want to go visit a friend, and I don't want to have to take the bus back, so I'll need some of the tele-snapper-return charm thingumies that you use."
"You know. The doohickies. They're charmed. You break them and they take you home. Those things. Got any spares?"
He stopped writing and, for a moment, leaned his elbows on the table and held his head in his hands, allowing his fingers to run through his hair. "Get out of my office."
"Aww come on, boss, don't be like that." I went over to the clay pile and started poking it.
He slammed his fists onto the table. "Will you please stop that?"
I quit poking the clay. "Damn, what's wrong with you?"
"You! You are what’s wrong! I'm trying to work and you just barge in here unannounced and uninvited and you incessantly chatter-"
"You've been cooped up in your little lair for most of the past week, playing with your toys. The real world sent me to remind you it exists and demands your attention. What could you possibly be working on that’s more important than-"
He whirled on me. Sparks of red lightning pulsed around his fingertips. I leapt backwards.
"What?" he hissed. No, not hissed. Rasped. He looked terrible. Like he'd been put through the wash, hung out to dry, and then forgotten for a few months.
"You- uh. You're not lookin' so hot, boss."
The left side of his face twitched slightly. The then got up, strode over to the pile of furniture, and snapped his fingers. Somewhere inside the pile, wood splintered and a palm-sized box flew into his hand.
He thrust the box into my hands. "Here.," he said, going back to his desk.
I peeked inside the box and saw a few dozen sticks. They were mostly black, save for a few red markings all over them, and they smelled a little like spice and a little like magic.
"You're giving them to me? Just like that?"
"If it will get you out of my hair? Yes." He started his writing again.
This. . . didn't parse. Here I was, ready to spend the next few hours arguing with him, and then winding up having to steal the charms anyway. I hadn't even realized it until just then, but I hadn't expected him to actually give me the charms at all. He hated it when I went out. This could only mean he was up to something.
Which means he's dicking with me.
"But what if I go out and wreak havoc on the unsuspecting masses?"
"So long as you do it away from me."
I stared. "You really want me to go out. You are telling me to leave."
"But you hate it when I go out! It's a cornerstone of our relationship! Where's the fun in sneaking out when you're just going to let me go anyways?"
He turned around just long enough to give me a look.
"Get out." An invisible hand grabbed the back of my shirt collar and pulled me backwards towards the exit, my heels dragging across the floor and thumping on the stairs on the way up. Once I was out in the hall, the door slammed shut.
I stared at the door for a long second. This was wrong. This was wrong wrong wrong. Something possibly horrible had happened to Bossman and had jacked up his head. Whatever Chaz had caught, it was spreading. Some horrible disease that gave people the delusion that I was not the most important thing in the world. It had made him think whatever he was doing in there was more important that me! This was wrong.
I looked at the box of snappers in my hands. This was also incredibly convenient.
I bolted back upstairs before Bossman could come to his senses. I'd figure out what was wrong with him later.
Upstairs, back in the guest room I’d more or less adopted as my own lab, I found a new patch of floor and redid the spell. This time making sure to consult the book and add in a few extra safety measures. This time, I would land in a clear place, somewhere flat, open, and not in a thicket of thorns.
That done, I checked the list.
Chaz would have to go on the back shelf for now- I'd talk some sense into him later. Pen- not touchin' that with a ten foot pole.
Ruroi, I thought. You could handle Ruroi. Ruroi's your friend.
So was Chaz.
I pretended not to hear that thought and skipped to the next one anyways.
Bezaliel. Nnnnope, nothing. After, Armaros. Nothing on that one, either. Huh. Must've been some little grunts or something for me not to notice them.
Next one on the list was Dechriel. Vague memories of someone uninteresting doing uninteresting things in the background while I dicked around flickered past. It seemed like a safe option.
I scribbled Dech’s namesign in the appropriate spot, started up the spell and this time when the universe snapped, and spat me half-way across the world, I was ready.
* * * * *
The landing hurt. I was getting used to that.
I crawled to my knees before I opened my eyes, acting on the theory that things hurt less if you didn't see them. That done, I tentatively peeled open an eye.
"Oh come on!"
I'd landed in a flat place, all right. Smack dab in the middle of two long, empty, intersecting roads, which were in turn smack dab in the middle of field. Lots and lots of field.
I scowled around at the world in general. This was somebody's fault, and I couldn't shake the sneaking suspicion that it was mine. Something small and furry bumped against my leg.
"I’m not even surprised by that anymore," I said, bending down to scratch the hell hound behind the ears. "You wouldn't happen to know which way to go, would you?"
The dog didn't answer. Instead, figuring I was in a petting mood, it flopped down onto the road and presented its belly for scratchies. "Figured as much."
If anyone asks, I did not waste the next couple minutes petting the dog. I did not squeal when something cold, wet, and breathing lightly touched the back of my neck. I did not run forward, trip on the dog, and land face-first into the road. Actually, while we're at it, I'm also ten feet tall, very wealthy, and look great in my presidential uniform.
The cold wet thing turned out to be a very large, very dog-like nose. It was attached to the snout of a monster that was trying to pass itself off as a member of man's best friend, but far too wild to be anything other than something wolfy.
It drew back its lips, giving me a good view of teeth longer than my fingers and thicker around than my wrists.
Who are you? He stuck his nose right up to my face and inhaled. After a second, he let the breath go, exhaling strongly enough to blow my hair back.
You smell like fire. Like darkness and sulfur and burning flesh. He drew back his lips, revealing jagged, dog-like teeth. It is a pleasant smell.
I scrambled backwards. The dog -my dog- yipped madly. The black dog unceremoniously batted him, sending him tumbling to a stop halfway down the road.
Quiet, small one. Come back when you have teeth worth baring.
"So," I said. "I suppose I have the honor of speaking to, ah, Mr. Shuck?"
He sniffed and made a small grunt that could have been something like a laugh.
"So that means I'm in England."
I didn't think it was possible, but he managed to show off even more teeth. Yes. He moved closer. I closed my eyes and waited for the feeling of my throat forcibly leaving the rest of me behind.
I wonder where I'll go? I thought. Used to be if I died on the job, I just returned below to fill out paperwork, then try again. Now, I didn't work for them anymore. What did that mean?
Shuck gave off that raspy- almost laugh again.
Send Shemyazza my regards.
I opened my eyes.
"What? You know Shem?"
He was already leaving, trotting heavily down the road. The hellhound gave off a brave yip as he passed before rolling pathetically back onto his belly.
"Wait!" I hurried after him. "You know Shem? You're in on this?" How far did this thing go? Was everyone in on it?
Black mist the same shade he was gathered a few feet in front of us. He stepped through it as though it were nothing, and I followed, trying to keep up with his solid outline.
He kept on walking. No matter how hard I ran, he always managed to lumber a few feet ahead of me.
"Can you at least tell me where the nearest town is? Hey!"
The mist grew into a thick fog that permeated every inch of me and left me feeling damp, slightly sticky, and steeped in that weird feeling you get when you feel hot, despite physically being cold. Shuck had pretty much vanished in the murk. If he was there, he blended in too well for me to see him.
"I'm doing this for Shem," I said, in case he cared. "He asked me to find someone. I'd really appreciate your help-"
The mist ended abruptly. One second my world was a pitch-black blur, the next, I stepped out of the fog and found myself standing amidst falling snow and what looked like a Hallmark Christmas card.
Gone was the expanse of flatness, field and more field. In their place was a small, narrow street lined with brightly lit shops and the occasional streetlamp that all screamed town square! The windows were all full of festive displays and strung with colored lights. Even the streetlamps had wreathes on them. A clock on the roof of the building across the street from me declared it to be almost one AM.
The street was quiet. Eerily so. That isn't to say it was empty; there were cars bustling in the street and people bustling on the walks. Couples holding hands, parents walking with their kids, showing them the lights, regular people just walking along- all of them decked out in winter attire that immediately reminded me of how I was not wearing winter clothes, and that it was indeed starting to snow. But there wasn't much actual noise. They were laughing and chatting- either with each other or into their phones- but it was all muted. The cars that should've been rumbling and roaring were instead emitting faint growls that could barely be heard at all.
I quickly darted under the awning of a bakery and tried to think. So either Shuck had dropped me off here to help me, or to dick with me. I wasn't sure which, and wouldn't have put either past him.
A man and a woman were coming up the walk near me. They both had arms wrapped around the others shoulders, their free hands holding on to half a dozen of shopping bags each. Though I couldn't hear it, I saw that they were giggly and probably annoying, so either they were in love, or they were stupid.
"Hey," I said as they passed. It didn't surprise me that it had come out barely above a whisper. "Where am I?"
The couple gave me an odd look, then smiled, first at each other, then me. "Let me guess," she said, disengaging her arm from his neck. "You're a tourist?"
"Just passing through," I said. They seemed to find this hilarious and started giggling at each other again.
Who the hell gets stoned before going shopping? I thought.
A bunch of gradeschool kids ran between us and off down the street. "Listen, I said. "I'm actually looking for someone. Do you happen to know anyone named Deck or Dechriel or something like that?"
He grinned stupidly and shook his head. "Nnnnope. Oh!" He suddenly turned to the girl. "We should go get tacos tonight!"
She hopped up and down like a child. "Ohmygosh yes! Totally!"
There was another brief gigglefit and before I could say another word, they'd both run off, laughing and acting like idiots.
"Okeedokee then," I said to nobody in particular. I went off to look for somebody who made sense.
* * * * *
Nobody in that fucking town made any sense.
"Sir," I said to the eighth or ninth person. "I was wondering if you could direct me-"
The man keeled over with laughter, dropping his shopping bags so he could try to muffle the sound with his hands. After a long moment, he calmed down and straightened up again. "Sorry," he said. "I remembered something funny."
"Ah. Okay. I was wondering-"
"It werfs flammens!"
He immediately slapped both hands over his mouth and laughed, and kept on laughing hard enough for tears to start streaming down from his eyes.
I slowly backed away. "Alright, and I will leave you to that." He didn't notice, as he'd fallen to the floor and was clutching his sides, still laughing.
"Madam!" I said to another passing shopper. "I-"
"What do you want?" she snapped.
"I was trying to say, that I was-"
"Hurry up, get on with it."
"I was wondering if you-"
"No." She picked up the pace and walked away.
Another woman passed by, trudging sluggishly in the now inch-thick snow. "Madam?" I said.
"Mhh?" she barely moved her head towards me.
"I was wondering if you could tell me what the flying fuck is wrong with you people?"
"Mhhmhh." She gave a lazy shrug and yawned. Her eyes, I noticed, were bloodshot and rung with dark circles. A group of screaming kids ran past us just then. It might've been the same group as before, but hell if I can tell them apart. The woman, apparently bored with me, moved on in the rush.
"Monster!" a few of kids shouted. "It's after us!" they squealed, not sounding particularly upset about this. A few others were calling for their moms and dads to come look.
"Hey." I grabbed one at random and tried to talk to it. "Monster?" I said.
The girl nodded, looking one part terrified and three parts excited. Her eyes, like that of the woman, were also bloodshot. "A big one! Like a wolf! With red eyes!" She giggled and broke loose, then ran to catch up with the rest of the horde.
I cursed and ran the direction they'd just come from, wondering how much trouble the dog was getting into.
* * * * *
I found him in the park, past a bunch of decorative hedges and trees strung with lights and in a little plaza ringed with benches and decorative fencing. In the center was a big statue on a concrete base, which the dog was mostly blocking from sight.
See, the hellhound has been known to, on occasion, transform from a football sized bundle of fur into a Volkswagen sized monstrosity from the bowels of hell and the loins of Cerberus. He only seems to do this, however, when it's either incredibly inconvenient, or when I'm alone and nobody will believe me when I tell them later.
Today- tonight. Whatever- he was his giant self, and he was sitting down in front of the statue. Sticking out from beneath him was the splintered remains of what had started out life as another park bench.
"Come on, dog," I said, tugging at his tail. "Get down."
The dog whined and wagged its tail- not because it was happy, but just to shake me off.
"Bad," I said, holding on anyways. "Bad hell hound-" The dog moved off to the side a little bit, trying to knock me off. He succeeded, and I hit the ground rump first.
I was about to say something classy when I caught sight of the statue that had got him worked up.
"Well fuck," I said. I picked myself up and went for a closer look. "Just fucking perfect."
The statue was of an angel. Of course it was. It was bent down on one knee, one hand holding a spear standing beside it, the other resting on its lap. I crawled onto the base and inspected the face. It didn't look familiar, but that didn't mean much. The wings were mostly folded and were a different consistency than the rest of the statue. They'd obviously been added later, after the statue was built.
There was a plaque. It was shiny metal and looked new, but it was dated 1364. Written on it, in really sloppy dog-Enochian were the words:
PROTECT FROM SLEEP
Followed by Dech's namesign wrapped up in half a dozen binding spells and topped off with a chi rho, just for luck.
Well. . . fuck.
I closed my eyes and let my mind wander, just so I could get a better look. Inside the stone, way deep down in the middle, was a flicker of light.
I came back to myself and tried knocking on the angel's head. "Yo. Dechs. Can you hear me? Yoo-hoo, hello?" I knocked harder. "I know you're in there. Come on, wakey-wakey."
There was no answer. I figured there wouldn't be. Whoever had set he spell had crammed a boatload of power and the sort of sticky stubbornness human wizards were so good at. I sighed and hopped down. The dog stood beside me, front paws on the base, nose wuffling on the spear.
"Come on, dog," I said, taking Bossman's box out of my pocket. "Leave him."
The dog snorted and whined and kept sniffing.
"Fine," I said. "You can stay if you want, but I'm leaving."
I picked out one of the sticks and took one last look around. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, and through the empty space in the hedges, I could see people still moving around doing people-ish things. I wondered if any of them had slept at all. Not just that night, but any night.
Ah well I thought, breaking the stick in half. Not my problem.
The universe dissolved quietly around me, and I tried to ignored the small uncomfortable niggling in the back of my mind.
Well, I thought. Two down.
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