Authors: Joshua Ingle
Thorn braced himself to speak, hoping the Judge would hear him out and agree to send Shenzuul away. His argument was well prepared: the incident with Amy last night, plus Shenzuul’s general disposition toward rebellion and his counterproductive violence, plus the fact that Thorn had already taught him the most important bullet points of demonic subtlety in the four days they’d spent together.
But Shenzuul spoke first. “It going well. So well that I think I am done. I know all I need to know.”
The Judge froze in place for a moment, then admiringly shook his head at Thorn. “Well holy diver. You speedy son of a gun. You’re finished three weeks early?”
Unsure how to proceed, Thorn locked eyes with Shenzuul. He decided to play along with whatever game this was.
Or perhaps it’s not a game. Perhaps it never has been.
“Yes, I think we’ve covered everything there is to cover. Whatever deal you had with Shenzuul to learn each other’s methods, your side of the bargain has been fulfilled.”
“And so has yours. You’re a free demon, baby. Sentence served. Go have fun. I’ve gotta ask first, though, Shenzuul. Are you sure you’re done? This is Thorn. He’s a badass. I’m sure he still has stuff to teach you. Hell,
could probably learn a thing or two from him.”
You have no idea
, thought Thorn.
“I sure,” said Shenzuul. “Thorn, you been good teacher.”
“You’re welcome,” Thorn said cautiously as Shenzuul shook his hand. The shake was forceful but sensationless; Thorn felt vague pressure but nothing that humans would call a sense of touch.
A twisted punishment from our Creator, that the only objects we can interact with are each other’s bodies, that the only feeling we can sense is pain when hurt.
The Judge followed Shenzuul’s lead and shook Thorn’s hand next. “What can I say but ‘thank you’? I’m genuinely grateful.”
Those were odd words for a demon to say to a peer. The Judge smiled at him, then reached in for an embrace. “Bear hug!”
As the unusual experience of being hugged washed over him, Thorn realized that despite their differences, the Judge was the closest thing Thorn had known to a friend in the demon world—ever since Xeres’s alleged death, at least. Would the Judge ever consider joining him in his quest for answers, for a way out of demonhood? Or might the Judge at least aid him? Thorn hoped so. But now was not the time to ask.
The old-time twang of a country song bounded across the streets of Midtown, through traffic jams, into the lobbies of high-rises and banks, college lawns and museum antechambers. Thorn, who’d spent the night on top of One Atlantic Center, recognized the piece as “Snake River Reel,” a lively song he remembered from his time in St. Louis in the ’70s. The music drew him downward to find its source.
On the front patio of a coffee shop on West Peachtree, two musicians had erected a speaker to project their up-tempo tune to the city. The violinist fiddled away while his partner eagerly plucked his mandolin, a grin on his bearded face as he tapped his boot to the music. A small crowd had gathered around them, and soon began clapping along with the song. The vibrant tune promised Thorn a new day.
When the music finished, some of the audience dispersed while others waited for the next melody. As the violinist whispered to the mandolin player, a winged creature emerged from the dark glass of the coffee shop behind them. Thorn was taken aback, but the crowd paid it no mind, so the being was obviously a spiritual entity. Thorn had seen nothing like it in ages though. It bore the wings of an angel—immense white billows curved ten feet out from either side of the body—but the ubiquitous white robes of the angels were absent. In their place, the creature wore a striped suit and matching fedora. His face appeared as that of a wrinkled old man, his tall back slightly hunched and his hair as white as his wings. He whispered into the violinist’s ear and lumbered back through the glass. Thorn followed him.
Inside, the coffee shop appeared normal. Baristas mixed beverages behind the counter while a dozen or so demons hovered near their charges’ ears. A few of the demons took note of the winged creature as it settled by one of the shop’s round tables, but then seemed to ignore it. On the other side of the front window, raucous, chaotic music drew a round of applause from the crowd. The musicians had begun “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Thorn examined the creature’s face. It was not the face he remembered, but Thorn had changed considerably since the ancient days in Heaven, and Wanderer had probably changed as well. Thorn—Balthior—had had his own pair of wings back then. The circumstances under which Lucifer had kept his were the stuff of the demons’ urban legends.
Wanderer caught Thorn staring. “Can I order you a coffee?” asked the old winged man. He grabbed at the used cup left on his table, and though his fingers passed right through it, he raised them to his mouth and feigned a sip. He threw Thorn a refreshed smile.
That smile. That smile, I recognize.
Thorn laughed. Here was Beelzebub, the Great Deceiver, the Father of Lies, the Prince of Darkness himself, and he’d just asked Thorn to sit for coffee. “Yes, please.” Thorn approached him. For all the fame Wanderer had won in Heaven, he was just another demon in actuality. Marcus was more fearsome, Shenzuul crueler, Thorn more cunning. Thorn had been avoiding social contact save with his followers, lest he be discovered as a would-be defector, but he had little to fear from Satan, especially since Thorn had not seen him since the dawn of time. He wouldn’t remember Thorn now.
Thorn’s interest in him was not based entirely in curiosity, though. Wanderer may not have been the greatest demon, but many considered him one of the most knowledgeable. He had once been close to Marcus, and perhaps knew something Thorn could use against him.
“Alas, if I whisper to the server girl a thousand times to bring us java, someone will probably have her committed sooner than we get our coffee. Here, have a seat.”
A seat? Is that a joke?
Thorn smiled civilly and stood inside of a chair, its seat bisecting him at the waist. Speaking to the world’s most famous demon didn’t intimidate him, but he thought it best to pretend that it did. “I, uh—I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but the thing with the apple on the tree. Was that true? I’ve always been curious.” He had indeed.
Wanderer’s grin took on the veneer of dismissive politeness. “Yes, of course,” he said, and Thorn was no closer to learning the truth of it.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Wanderer. I’m a great admirer of your work.”
Wanderer shrugged at the flattery. “Isn’t everyone?”
So he does take pride in his own celebrity.
Or at least he wanted Thorn to think so. Thorn decided to continue playing the fan. He stammered, as if unsure how to respond.
Wanderer saved him. “Relax, Balthior. We’ve met before, if you remember. When we first marched on God, you ran to warn us that He’d started killing angels. If not for you, we would have walked right in there, and I would be dead. I never got a chance to thank you. You’re called Thorn now, right?”
My reputation precedes me. Or he’s done his research.
“And you’re pretty much the king around these parts, or so I’ve been told.”
“For now, yes. I wish I had known you were coming to my city. I would have prepared a welcome.”
“Like the welcome you prepared for Marcus? No thanks. I’m only passing through, as always.”
“Where are your followers?”
Wanderer spread his toothy simper again, and Thorn noticed that one edge of his mouth kept quivering in some kind of tic, as if it was a frown that was forced to smile. “Here, there. Scattered across the globe. You have Atlanta and Gorhrum has New York, but I have a little bit of everywhere.”
“Indeed. I remember when they started calling you Wanderer during the Neolithic Revolution. You were all over the place.” Thorn envied how Wanderer had always known more about science and technology than other demons, and for that matter, even more than humans. Although Wanderer’s inability to physically touch objects handicapped him, he made educated guesses based on observing the material world, and thus remained decades or even centuries ahead of all others in medicine, biology, ecology, physics. Most demons—Thorn included—had always been too interested in the visceral goals of harming humans and defeating rival demons to care about gathering knowledge unrelated to their everyday tasks. Having gotten the naïve notion that he could locate a path back up to Heaven (for the purpose of war), Thorn had once undertaken a brief stint learning at the MIT Astrophysics Division by eavesdropping on classes and peering over students’ shoulders as they read their textbooks. After a few months, he’d grown even more knowledgeable than the professors, yet restless for violence, so he left, sure that any demon who craved knowledge would have to sacrifice his own sanity to obtain it. But Wanderer’s intelligence and acumen were legendary. Rumor had it that he lurked behind several large-scale conspiracies to keep humans ignorant and to ruin their world. He himself had coined the proverb, “Thinking is the worst virtue.” Strange that he was such a thinker himself.
Wanderer grinned smugly. “Some demons don’t believe me,” he said, “but I practically invented agriculture, and kept humans from it for millennia. If not for me, they might have discovered farming back in the Cro-Magnon days. All these brains up here… I could have used them to give God a race of supermen, but if He’d rather screw me over and have me use my smarts against Him, fine by me.”
“Still mad about all that?”
“I’m always mad. I’m the Devil.” Wanderer adjusted his tie, black over his lilac silk undershirt. Outside, Johnny dueled madly to win his golden fiddle while the audience clapped along again. Wanderer saw Thorn’s attention shift briefly toward the window. “I love this song,” he said amusedly.
“But you lose at the end.”
“But I got a song written about me.” Like a window curtain of wrinkled flesh drawing upward to reveal the night’s darkness, Wanderer’s thin lips parted again. Thorn found the famous grin disconcerting, especially the peculiar twitching at its corner.
On the sidewalk, two men hooked arms and began to dance in a circle in front of the musicians. The crowd cheered them on.
“How do you still have wings? I’ve always wondered that too.”
“Well you see, God made the profound mistake of challenging me to a fiddle-playin’ match.”
Thorn ignored the joke.
Does that grin ever leave his face?
“The popular story is that you fled to Earth early, before He cast the rest of us out.”
Wanderer’s hand made a patting motion on top of the table. “Home sweet home.”
“Some demons call you a coward for that.”
The tease had been meant as a friendly jest, but Wanderer suddenly frowned. “Well I have my wings and they don’t. So they can stuff it.”
“Sorry. I meant no offense.”
And I’m more comfortable when you’re not smiling.
“You know how handy wings are nowadays? The angels have forgotten that I have them, so I can sneak behind their lines sometimes. By this point, I probably have a higher angel body count than any demon in history.”
Now that they’d spoken for a few minutes, Thorn found himself disappointed in this vain creature.
He’s just like everyone else. Arrogant and petty.
Thorn wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but a remnant of his old self—the vile part that he was trying to forget—envied the renown that someone as ordinary as Wanderer had earned by accident. “Angels can still be a dangerous threat,” Thorn agreed.
Wanderer scoffed at the neutral response. “More than any of you realize. You know, there are times when I regret that God made me the most intelligent angel of all.”
Thorn took note that Wanderer referred to their blessed Heavenly Father as “God” instead of using the popular demonic moniker “The Enemy.” Legend said that Lucifer considered himself God’s equal…
I must tread lightly around such hubris.
“It is ironic that His most intelligent creation became His greatest foe,” Thorn said.
Wanderer seemed to like that sentiment. His frown subsided and he leaned in close, lowering his voice to a whisper. “You seem like a smart one too, Thorn. Would you say so?”
“Yes, I’d say I’m intelligent,” Thorn answered, playing along. “It’s a tragedy that most of us are so… base.”
The song outside ended and the musicians began anew; another brisk song in a minor key that Thorn didn’t recognize. “It’s ’cause God made us stupid,” Wanderer said. “He didn’t want us to be individuals. He wanted us to be slaves. So He clipped the intellect of all but a few of us—the ones He needed to supervise the rest.”
“He’s God. He’s omnipotent. He shouldn’t have needed subordinate beings to run things for Him. Some would argue that He
to not run things Himself, but why choose that?”
Wanderer raised his eyebrows pleasantly at this, as if he hadn’t expected such insight from Thorn. “You
a smart one, aren’t you? Yes, it’s absurd. If you create a being capable of making independent decisions based on rational observations and its own sense of self, you’re a moron if you fly into a rage when that creature asserts its God-given individuality.”
Thorn found himself thrilled to be actually connecting with this creature, as arrogant as he was. Perhaps Wanderer was more malevolent than Thorn, but his thoughts ran as deep as Thorn’s. He was open to discussing matters which other demons only whispered to themselves in the dead of night. “It certainly is a puzzle,” Thorn said. “But I think individuals are important to the Enemy. He claims to have destinies for every human, and they have the choice of whether to pursue them.”
Wanderer raised a finger in objection. “Therein lies the problem. God grants the illusion of free will, yet punishes those who assert that right. Humans and angels alike. If the choice is between God or hellfire, is there really a choice at all?”
“We chose the hellfire, so there
a choice. What I don’t understand is the false dichotomy. We are either for Him or against Him, with no middle ground, and no third, fourth, or fifth options.”