Authors: Joshua Ingle
“If you show face near Thorn again, I kill you!” Shenzuul shouted at Marcus. The crowd murmured at the threat—an incredibly bold one, since the punishment for killing another demon was death.
Marcus looked beyond Shenzuul, at Thorn. He nodded and… Was that a smirk? “I’ll be back for you,” he said. Then he swept off down Underground Atlanta’s main walkway. A few demons chased him, but even if they caught him, he’d done nothing wrong by any Judge’s standards. At least they could keep watch over him and report his whereabouts to Thorn, so the Judge could locate Marcus and exile him.
How long had he been here before I noticed him? I’ve been careful to conceal myself while alone, but still, why choose to attack when I’m surrounded by allies?
Several of Thorn’s followers asked if he was okay, then Shenzuul approached. “You did your duty and you have my recognition,” Thorn reluctantly said to him.
“No need. I defend you because I respect you. Marcus gone crazy. Care ’bout nothing but revenge.”
“Hopefully he will stay away after this. He must know he destroys his reputation even further every extra day he stays in the city.” Then Thorn remembered his trap for Shenzuul. His voice grew sour. “What did you whisper to Amy? You fool. You just ruined years of my work.” He raised his head to address his followers. “Of
Shenzuul gazed down at his feet and swayed uncomfortably. “I whisper normal things to make her scared. Nothing crazy. I am sorry. I win her back for you. I promise.”
“That’s not good enough.” Thorn met the gazes of several of his followers. They looked… bored. More interested in chasing Marcus than in punishing the demon who had just saved their leader.
Shenzuul grew bolder when no one took up Thorn’s cause. “I stay with Amy all night, all week, all month or year. I do nothing else until she hurt and scared again.”
Amy rested in a booth with Shelley now. Thorn could hear her reassuring Shelley that she would indeed return Lexa’s money, when she had it. Her voice soothed him, and for a moment he longed to confide in her, to whisper all of his secrets. “Leave me,” he said to his followers. “I wish to be alone.”
Marcus’s interruption had wrecked Thorn’s trap, but given Shenzuul’s quick action and alarming loyalty, perhaps his usefulness outweighed the trouble he caused.
Have I really become so concerned with the search for answers that I’ve forgotten the fight for my life?
Perhaps he should try to continue his ruse indefinitely after all. Hiding his goodness from his followers was just another lie, after all, and it had worked out well so far. Lying was Thorn’s bread and butter. And if his lies caused collateral damage—like educating Shenzuul—despite Thorn’s best attempts to avoid it, then perhaps that damage was unavoidable and could not be blamed on Thorn.
Who would accuse him anyway? He was already pure evil in the eyes of the Enemy and His angels. And Thorn’s fellow demons would welcome any damage he caused to humanity. No one was left to blame Thorn but Thorn himself.
The stars were out tonight. In spite of Atlanta’s light pollution, the Milky Way turned in the still sky overhead, enticing Thorn away from the inner city to venture out among the cosmos. Demons would occasionally leave Earth to do just that, in search of answers, or perhaps solitude, or in vain attempts to reenter the impenetrable Heavenly Realm. Some never returned. Thorn could no longer find solace in isolation, though.
So he swept between the heavens and the earth, above skyscrapers and helicopters, the city’s lights shining up at him. Then he eased lower over bridges and rivers and late-night pedestrians, until he found Amy’s small, ramshackle apartment complex beneath the downtown freeway. Thorn descended past rushing cars and streetlights, toward the second-story window of the bedroom of the girl whose life he’d influenced so intimately but whom he’d never been able to touch.
Except the once…
What would she think of him now, if she could see him? A thin man in a funeral suit floating longingly in the air outside her window? She’d be terrified of him; even more so if she knew of the destruction he’d caused, of the monster inside him. She would not love him. She could never love a creature such as Thorn.
She paced to her mirror, examining her appearance as she’d done so many times before, but this time she smiled. Then she lay on her bed and stared thoughtfully up at the ceiling. Tonight she had found herself—but Thorn felt more lost than ever. He went to her and whispered thoughts of peace, of hope, of joy. He whispered all the exultant thoughts he’d kept from her over the years, all the positive ideas demons fought so hard to keep out of humans’ minds. “See?” he said. “You have control over your own life. And you can have friends.
friends who will be there for you. You have a future. Treasure these things, Amy. I can have none of them, so you need to cherish them for both of us.”
Cherish your humanity
, he almost said.
Cherish that you can feel, smell, and taste. That you can have sex and have children and grow old. That you can love.
But if demons could not love, as common wisdom suggested, then what was this here? Was Amy like a lover to him? Or was this the love between close friends? Or the love a parent felt for a child? “Cherish your mother, Amy.” Thorn deeply wanted, and sometimes needed, a parent, but his Father had cast him aside long ago. “Cherish every authentic relationship you have. Every single person you care about.”
He couldn’t remember why he’d once denied to himself that he cared for Amy. If not for his experience with Flying Owl, would he have lied to himself about her for so long?
“I want to be your friend,” he told Amy, longing for her to hear him. “I want to go with you to school, to the gym, to work. I want to keep you company when you’re lonely. I want to hold you in my arms.”
Amy’s eyes remained focused on the ceiling. Where her thoughts were, Thorn did not know.
He gazed into the bedside mirror. On his side of the mirror he drifted beside Amy on her bed, but on the other side—the side that reflected reality—Amy lay by herself.
Because I am invisible, immaterial. Inconsequential.
In the late morning, Thorn met with one of the Judge’s assistants and petitioned for a meeting. He was told the Judge would find him that night.
In the afternoon, Thorn found himself with Shenzuul again, instructing him as he had done for the last three days. As they floated past the fountain at Woodruff Park, Thorn spotted Darnell, an idealistic street sermonizer who had forsaken a promising career for a life of poverty and a shack in the Old Fourth Ward, all so he could preach his opinions on the sidewalks of his home city. As an outspoken intellectual and moralist, Darnell was the bane of every demon in Atlanta, and also a prime target for temptation. As soon as the local Five Points demons noticed him, they rushed to crowd around him and launch whispered attempts to corrupt him. He didn’t yield, though—he never did—and proceeded to set down his wooden box by the fountain. At the tables and pavilions nearby, tourists studied maps, businesspeople enjoyed lunch hour, and a group of teenage boys scarfed down some hot dogs, skateboards leaning against their benches. At least thirty people were present, many of them bundled against the morning chill. No one noticed Darnell setting a cryptic sign reading “I am the next generation” in front of his box. But
noticed when he stood on the box and spoke in his impelling orator’s voice.
“I am a product,” Darnell said. “I observe. I consume. I exist to be entertained. To take. My wants are more important than your needs.” Obviously familiar with Darnell, the employee at the nearby concession stand dialed the police. Several of the park’s patrons took their food and walked elsewhere. Most stayed.
“War. Poverty. Disease. These are other people’s problems. You see, the profit motive is my morality. Ethics are obstacles. The only reason I learn is so I can get paid.” The rationale behind Darnell’s “I am the next generation” sign began to hit the crowd. A few more of them departed, but a few nodded agreement. And then Darnell said something that must have cut through the heart of every demon there.
“I deserve success. I deserve happiness. At any cost, even yours.”
Thorn was flabbergasted: Darnell had just stated the core precept of demonic temptation! Could he have intuited it from all the whispers he’d heard over the years? Thorn doubted it. What a powerful moral conscience this man must have to have guessed the exact cause only by observing the assorted effects. Other demons around the park exchanged nervous glances with each other.
Darnell locked eyes with each human observer, one person at a time. “Because you owe me. Dad. Mom. Professor. Senator. Pastor. Celebrity. You owe me because I’m smart. Because I’m good-looking. Because I’m charismatic. Because I’m the only person on earth who matters. Because I’m exactly who you taught me to be.”
A short distance away, two policemen rounded the corner of Peachtree on their bicycles. Darnell remained steadfast. “I hear you on the radio. I watch your videos online. I’m your reader, your student, your child. I always have been, and always will be… your future. Thank you.” Three or four audience members clapped; the rest returned to their afternoon business. The police arrived just as Darnell stepped off of his box.
As they reprimanded him, Shenzuul turned to Thorn. “Why people not listen? In Bangui or many other of my old cities, people maybe listen to man like this.”
Thorn shrugged. “It’s just how we’ve trained people in the West. Let each person think they’re smarter than everyone else, aware of special information that makes them enlightened and all others dumb. Especially others who dress in rags.”
Shenzuul laughed. “That no training. That just bleed over from us. Demons all think we smarter too.”
An intriguing comparison.
Thorn pondered this. At the beginning of time, angels and demons had assumed their roles as the arbiters of morality. Every single angel and demon thought the Enemy was the ultimate source of knowledge about what was right and what was wrong. But did any of them really know?
Moreover, how can I be sure I’m working for good now, rather than just another version of depravity?
Was his internal compass new, or had it been hidden there all along? Was it leading him as astray now as it had for millennia?
“If one of these people did listen to Darnell,” Shenzuul asked, “what then?”
Thorn barely heard Shenzuul as his mind conjured up a disturbing thought: what if morality had nothing to do with demons,
with their Enemy? Thorn had always taken for granted that the Enemy represented morality (though certainly not justice, nor love) and demons’ duty was to fight against that. With both God’s and demons’ claims to moral authority under question in Thorn’s eyes, he wondered… what if true morality was dictated from within instead of from without?
No, that’s nonsense. What would I base my ethics on? My own passing fancies?
Still, the thought lingered in Thorn’s mind as the police escorted Darnell out of the park.
I’ll have to continue thinking on this.
“They clap, Shenzuul, but no one ever listens to him. He’s an impoverished street performer. What could he possibly know about right and wrong?”
Joel’s restaurant was an upscale Italian place recently renovated from the remains of an older establishment. Thorn found the place quite beautiful. Chic colored lights beamed across the faux-wooden walls and illuminated the expansive liquor selection behind the bar. When Joel finished entertaining his opening-night guests and the kitchen seemed to be running smoothly, he retired to the huge arched windows upstairs and absorbed their brilliant view of Midtown. A few patrons had also stolen away onto the unopened second floor—for the view—but Joel left them alone, and they him. There was ample space for everyone. All the other demons roistered downstairs for now, so Thorn relaxed at a dusty table with Joel, enjoying a brief respite from his recent flurry of activity.
“Nice view,” a woman behind them said. Thorn’s thoughts were still on Darnell’s speech, his eyes transfixed by the lights of Midtown.
“It’s why I bought the place,” Joel said.
The woman laughed. “Yeah right.” Behind Thorn, Joel must have made some smug gesture, because the woman said, “You’re seriously the owner?”
“Yes indeedy. Here, have a seat.”
The old chair creaked as she obliged, still laughing. “Just my luck. The one guy I pick to flirt with is the one guy I don’t have a chance with.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Aren’t you a busy guy on opening night?”
“Not too busy to come up here for a breather.”
A dozen standard demonic suggestions rushed through Thorn’s mind. Decades of acquired knowledge of human temptation begged for Thorn to use it, and he swatted it aside, one platitude at a time.
Turn hopes into expectations. They’ll both expect to hook up tonight, then some crisis at the restaurant will disappoint them.
“No,” Thorn said to himself. “That’s not me anymore.”
The best way to make someone miserable is to make them try too hard to be happy. Let them put all their dreams into tonight’s fling and be dissatisfied come morning.
“I will not hurt them. They are innocents.”
Hardly. The doctor destroyed his family, alienated his co-workers, and lied to the thousands who have read his book. Even your new morality knows this man has earned punishment. Take your frustration out on him, Thorn. You deserve it.
“I meant that they are innocents compared to me,” Thorn told himself.
You’ve put too much thought into this. Thinking is the worst virtue.
“Only if you value ignorance.” That seemed to silence his inner corruption. He realized he needed to create a new philosophy, one of honorable proverbs to replace these useless adages by which he’d lived in the dark past.
Since Shenzuul was downstairs and no demons were in sight, Thorn let Joel and his newfound companion speak without interference. Thorn had no need of whispers where there was no need for his charade of malevolence. Joel bragged about his book, his credentials, his imaginary trip to Heaven, and the woman sounded impressed. They babbled about the surface details of their personal lives, and the evening seemed to be leading back to Joel’s new house until the woman asked an oddly intimate question.