Authors: Joshua Ingle
Wanderer quickly turned his head to scan the room. Too late, Thorn realized he had carelessly ventured into forbidden conversation, skirting the outer edge of the unofficial Third Rule. Thorn glanced around too, but the shop’s other demons appeared to be minding their own business, oblivious to Thorn’s near brush with blasphemy. Wanderer leaned in again and spoke in a whisper. “Make no mistake, Thorn. God is the Enemy. He is a confusing Enemy, and solving His Great Puzzle is a worthy pastime, but He opposes us nonetheless, and He deserves an excruciating death for what He did to us.”
Thorn whispered as well. “But how can we ever hope to defeat an omnipotent being? And must the humans suffer the collateral damage from our endless war? True, He created them, but practically, they’re an innocent third party. He created us too, but we don’t spend all our time trying to corrupt each other.”
“Because we’re already corrupted. Angels can only choose once.”
“Because the Bible tells me so. Look, Thorn. God wrote all His regulations in a book. According to this book, humans are very important. They’re the whole point of everything. So are you really saying that we should stop assaulting them? Stop poisoning their minds and let God win?”
“It’s a proxy war.”
“But a necessary one! And a winnable one. You asked how we can defeat an untouchable enemy? We hit Him where it hurts. We attack what He cares about, which happens to be the humans.”
Thorn spoke his next words so quietly, they were barely audible. He couldn’t risk another demon hearing. “We will lose.”
Wanderer’s eyes widened, and he leaned back at the unthinkable statement. Thorn studied his own thoughts.
Am I this desperate for kinship, that I would risk treason to convince another demon of my viewpoints?
Even if Wanderer became openly hostile, he had no evidence of this conversation, so the Judge would side with Thorn, as would Thorn’s followers. Long ago, Wanderer himself had questioned the status quo—he had been the first. For the possibility of obtaining such an intelligent demon as a new ally, Thorn was willing to risk alienating him. Still, Thorn would not divulge everything, and certainly not his recent benevolence toward humans. Or his attempted defection.
He continued cautiously. “Demons can do all the terrible things we want to humans, yet humanity keeps progressing. For every war we start, two peace treaties are signed. For every rape or injury we cause, a thousand other people live healthy days. For every soul we lull into apathy, a dozen more take action and change the world. We whisper and whisper and whisper, but the humans keep building bridges, helping the less fortunate, passing equality laws, creating breathtaking art, advancing toward a better future. Every generation is better educated than the last. They’re launching goddamn spaceships now. Look around you, Wanderer. It’s all over the world. We can ruin a single life, but we will never conquer humanity as a whole. They will overcome and outlast us—even the ones who don’t serve the Enemy. It may take a century, it may take a hundred million centuries, but eventually, we are going to lose.”
Wanderer wore his disgust proudly. He stood up straight, still a head below Thorn. “The Devil is a serpent, and humanity will crush his head, and blah blah blah. I’ve heard it a few times before. But I’ve lived long, even longer than you. I know things…” Wanderer’s eyes grew distant for a moment, but he soon shook his head in exaggerated disappointment. “Perhaps you’re not as intelligent as I thought.”
“So I’m wrong? We’ll keep going like we are, and take down as many humans as we can before the end? What kind of a plan is that?”
Wanderer smugly tightened his tie. “That, Thorn, is not the plan.”
Thorn chewed on this for a moment. Was Wanderer referring to his own worldwide connivances? “What
the plan?” Thorn asked.
“The plan to corrupt humanity and take down God? Oh, I’m just a humble demon. I don’t pull many strings anymore, but I hold enough of them to know it’s a plan at which we’re succeeding.”
“And where can I get ahold of one of these strings?”
“I hear the guy who used to own Central Africa is in town. He might know a thing or two. Ask him.”
Thorn scowled. His patience was wearing thin. “I doubt Marcus is in a mood to talk to me about your conspiracies. How about you just tell me?”
When Wanderer chuckled, his eerie smile returned. “An ambitious guy, that Marcus. But if he’s been a power in Africa for more than a year, I’m sadly misinformed. I was talking about the big boss, what’s-his-name. Little fellow. Shenzuul, I think.”
Now what kind of game is this?
“Muscles, ugly, old shabby clothes? That Shenzuul?”
“That’s the one.”
“You’re mistaken. Shenzuul was Marcus’s right hand, then he left Marcus to follow me.”
“Ha, no. Trust me. I came to Atlanta by way of New York, but before that I was in Gabon. Shenzuul was leader in that part of the world for a century. He was very violent, very sick. Extremely popular with the region’s demons—so much so that no one tried to depose him during the whole hundred years. Then Marcus came in about ten months ago with an army of thugs, took over the whole territory. I heard Shenzuul fled to the States.”
“He came here with Marcus,” Thorn said. “I saw them together shortly after they arrived.”
Wanderer’s wrinkles furrowed. He looked as confused as Thorn felt. “That can’t be right. They’re enemies. Always have been.”
Thorn’s mind abandoned the conversation and jumped into high gear, trying to discern the meaning of this new information. Wanderer had no reason to lie; he was uninvolved in Thorn’s current circumstances. And because news in the demon world traveled at a snail’s pace, and demons were prone to exaggeration, inaccurate knowledge from Africa could plausibly reach the States. But Marcus had a famous reputation for heading the Second Congo War. If this reputation was a lie, the scale of the lie would have to be massive, spoken from the lips of thousands of Marcus’s agents in the U.S. Historically, such large-scale lies were not unheard of. But the possibility that Marcus might have the resources to execute such a thing troubled Thorn greatly. And if these presumptions were all true, they meant that Marcus’s recent madness and destitution had likely been feigned.
But why? Was it for my sake? So I would think him weak?
Furthermore, if Shenzuul once presided over Central Africa and had been displaced, why had he been helping Marcus fight Thorn only two and a half months ago? Feuding demons never united unless faced with a common foe, but Shenzuul had had no prior grievance with Thorn. Before Marcus introduced them, they’d never met.
Was Marcus holding something over Shenzuul’s head? Something valuable in Africa that Shenzuul craved enough that he’d come to America as Marcus’s henchman? Thorn could think of no other reason for the alliance, but if Shenzuul had been acting under duress… was he still? Had Marcus
Shenzuul to leave his side and get close to Thorn? Thorn grimaced at the thought that his initial appraisal of the situation might have been correct.
“Hey, look.” Wanderer motioned to a wall-mounted television. The Roadside Killer graced the news again, and was still at large.
Roadside Killer. The one who killed teenage girls. “Have you been following this? This is some great work.”
Four girls dead. Wanderer’s words clanged through Thorn’s mind.
How do you defeat an untouchable enemy? You hit him where it hurts. You attack what he cares about.
Due to the First Rule, Thorn was untouchable to Marcus. And after spending a week with Thorn, Shenzuul would have a good guess what Thorn cared about.
All at once, Thorn knew who the fifth girl would be.
“Where are you off to in such a rush?” Wanderer asked when Thorn left the table.
“A matter of great importance has come to my attention. Goodbye for now. I look forward to our next conversation.”
Satan nodded congenially, and granted Thorn one last twitchy, unsettling grin. His hands once more imitated the gesture of holding a cup, which he raised to his lips for an invisible sip.
Amy’s apartment was empty of humans and crowded with demons—nearly a hundred of Thorn’s followers. “I have reason to believe Shenzuul will try to end Amy’s life today,” Thorn announced to them. That she and her mother were nowhere to be found was a grave sign. Thorn had checked all the usual spots: the school, its gym, Max’s Sports Bar, and more, but Amy had vanished. Now the sun was setting, and in Thorn’s desperation, he had called together as many of his followers as would come on short notice. “This must not be allowed. I mean to end Amy’s life on my own terms, in my own time.” It went unspoken that a demon killing another’s charge was tantamount to stealing that charge. “So if you find Shenzuul, bring him to me, and if you find Amy, bring me to her. Now go.” They went. Hopefully the glory they could win by finding Amy would spur a relentless search, and hopefully none of them realized that Thorn cared deeply for Amy, and wanted to save a human life.
Marcus saw me smiling at her.
Every minute that Amy’s whereabouts remained unknown, Thorn grew more sure that Marcus confronting him in the sports bar had been a ruse to prove Shenzuul’s loyalty to Thorn.
All that just so they could be sure of my attachment to Amy?
He felt like he was missing an important part of their motive.
Assured that his followers had I-285 covered, Thorn meandered over the Downtown Connector for an hour, hovering mere feet above the congestion, searching for Amy or Garrett in the traffic. At one point he saw a demon in a pickup truck who looked like Shenzuul, but when he entered the vehicle, he found he was mistaken. If only he knew what car Garrett drove. If only he knew where to find a picture of Garrett to show to his followers. Searching the tech repair shop had proven fruitless.
When headlights and streetlights turned on and visibility dimmed, Thorn swept away from the interstate and toward the dorms at Georgia State. Shelley’s room was empty, so he floated down the street to Lexa’s apartment.
Dirty clothes and empty cans cluttered her unlit room. She lay prone on her bed, possibly passed out from drinking too much, though Thorn couldn’t guess why so early in the evening. “Wake up!” Thorn called to her. “Lexa, where is Amy? Do you know where she is? Say it. Write it. Type it.” Lexa snored a bit. She was out cold. “I need you to find Amy, Lexa. Wake up! Where is she?” Thorn’s shouting was attracting the attention of some local demons, who rose through the floor and melted through the walls. They glared at him with territorial defensiveness. “Where is Amy?” he yelled at the strange demons. “I am Thorn, the power in Atlanta, and I require knowledge of the location of Lexa’s friend Amy.” The menacing demons just stared at him in the darkness. Thorn realized he was unwelcome here, so he left through the window and dove four stories to the street.
Two policemen stood in front of the apartment, unaware that somewhere nearby, a murder was about to take place, if it hadn’t already. The car in front of theirs had a taillight out.
Oh, to be able to speak…
The wind picked up, gusting through pine trees, maple leaves, and magnificent oaks. Thorn was grateful he could not feel the cold of early spring.
By shortly after nine o’clock, Thorn had made his way to northwest Atlanta. He hastily sneaked beneath the ground, past the small army of demons guarding the quarantine zone, and entered the angels’ warehouse complex. “Help!” he called to the first angel he saw. “Please. I’m desperate. There’s a girl who is missing, and she might die tonight if I don’t find her. Can you help me?” Disgusted, the angel flung him away. Thorn persevered, swinging through the hallways and storage rooms, hailing any white robe he could find. They all fled at his approach. When he rounded a corner into an immense room full of crates stacked nearly to the roof—the same room where he had recently seen Xeres—Thorn was met by a cluster of two dozen angels blocking his way. Thilial stepped out in front of the group.
Thorn fell to his knees in midair, imitating the human posture of submission. “Thilial,” he said. “I know you dislike me. I know I have wronged you. But this is not about me, or you. It’s about a missing girl whose life is in danger. Surely God and His angels would want to save the life of an innocent.”
Thilial drifted forward until she loomed over him. Her white robes appeared dark gray when silhouetted against the incandescent ceiling lights. “Burn in Hell, Thorn,” she said.
Well, they can all burn in Hell
, Thorn thought as he flew over Piedmont Park an hour later.
The angels, the demons. Obstructionists, the lot of them.
When this was all over, when Marcus was gone and Amy was either safe or dead, Thorn resolved to make some changes in his city. It
his city, after all, and playing this facade of depravity while secretly trying to protect his charges
trying to find answers to why things were the way they were… it was all too much. Thorn was spread thin even without Marcus to worry about. Marcus had to go. Tonight.
The park’s mid-lake gazebo shone like a gem below him, the walkway beside it lit well at night while the rest of the park slept in darkness. Amy had once escorted her drunken mother from that very gazebo after one of her mom’s wild nights out with her current boyfriend. After phoning for a pickup, the drunk woman had left her boyfriend’s house, wandered the park and fallen asleep in the gazebo. The boyfriend’s house was just down a nearby side street…
… and Thorn hadn’t looked there yet. He cursed himself for not remembering it earlier and rushed to the two-story stucco house, which the boyfriend shared with two roommates; all three were part of some biker gang. The street was dark, the house darker, and unkempt due to poor upkeep by its grubby owners. The sparse grass was losing a war against the weeds, which were themselves losing a war against the broken beer bottles strewn about the yard.
Engine off, Amy’s car sat by the curb. Thorn darted up to it to find Amy in the driver’s seat, speaking glumly with Shelley in the passenger’s.
So they’re alive.
Thorn kept an eye on the shadows surrounding them. A breeze ruffled leaves, but save for the girls, no human or demon was in sight.