Authors: Joshua Ingle
—adulation which ceased when Constantine abruptly stood. Balthior froze in place. Less than a minute had passed since the emperor fell, but surely the blood had drained out of him. Constantine’s flesh was pale as death, and his head darted to and fro, as if those around him were strangers. He appeared frightened, uncomfortable in his own body.
“Take me to the doctors’ wagon,” he said, his usually crisp voice reduced to a thick mumble. He continued murmuring as his officers escorted him, one man under each of his arms. His words wavered between Greek and Latin, but at one point Balthior was sure the Augustus’s mutterings lapsed into a strange, foreign tongue that Balthior did not know. As feeble-minded as other demons imagined Balthior to be, he knew almost every language in Europe, so this new speech unsettled him.
As Constantine’s men helped him into the wagon, he continued bleeding past the point at which the loss of blood should have killed him. The demons who had gathered were speechless at the sight of something so impossible, so out of their control.
Could it be a miracle? A sign from the Enemy that He has not forgotten His war against us?
Dumbfounded, Balthior sank back down to earth and contemplated the wagon and the emperor struggling to get inside.
What has happened just now? What did we just see?
Despite the apparent resurrection, the demons stayed with Constantine, whispering to him, willing his body and mind toward death, each hoping to be the one to push him over into the abyss. Balthior stayed behind. He could not hope to compete with such a multitude of spirits. He had been the one with a human slave—a presence in the physical world—and he had had his chance.
And I took it. I killed him, or near enough. What brought him back?
It was no demon nor angel; the demon horde would have seen such an action and ended it.
Balthior learned later that Constantine had bled still more when the thorn had been removed from his chest, yet he had ordered all attendants away from his presence. His staff had left him alone for hours in the covered wagon as he mixed medicines and tended his own wound. Were it not for occasional talk in unusual tongues emanating from inside, Constantine’s men would not have known whether he was alive or dead. When he finally emerged, sickly but alive, he commanded that knowledge of his wound be contained.
Balthior also learned about the demons who had been left on watch duty at both armies’ encampments while the main host of demons had met at the nest before the battle. These demons had been slain in the night, the remnants of their spirits set adrift near the river, floating in the air above the dead men. More demons had mysteriously perished during the chaos of the humans’ battle. Om was among the deceased. Some unknown force had not wanted the demons to intervene in the battle—perhaps the same force which now kept Constantine alive in spite of his grave injury. Yet no angels had been seen in the area, nor even in nearby Rome.
Maxentius was dead now, drowned in the river trying to escape. His pontoon bridge had collapsed under the weight of his fleeing soldiers, trapping the greater part of his army on Constantine’s side of the Tiber. The downtrodden demons took what pleasure they could as Constantine’s men defiled their foes’ bodies in various grotesque displays, an effort which culminated the next day when Maxentius’s disembodied head was paraded on a spear through the streets of Rome. Replete in stunning purple, underneath armor chased with gold, Constantine appeared the image of health as he rode past the cheering crowds. Balthior noticed the occasional grimace fighting Constantine’s curt smile for control of his face, but the emperor hid his pain as well as his clothing hid his wound. While the humans lauded him, the demon host plotted his demise—Xeres most of all, lest the emperor turn to the Christian God in thanks for his swift victory at the bridge. The lesser demons feigned celebration at the previous day’s deaths, their confusion and their uncertainty about the future thinly veiled.
Their thoughts mattered not, though, for their thoughts were not on Balthior. His efforts had been in vain, his only reward for his troubles the pain from the wounds Marcus had inflicted.
I should have stayed in the city. Better to be a successful beggar than a failed lord.
But he resolved again to find his own way to greatness. One day.
Once the parade ran its course and Constantine reached the Forum, the entire demon army descended to hear Xeres’s final decree regarding Marcus’s treachery. After finding Marcus in the tent, Balthior had thought him mad, for what else but madness would have caused him to entrance Constantine with a hopeful vision of the Enemy? But given the slain demon sentries from the camps, and Constantine’s impossible return from death’s door, Balthior wondered now if Marcus was not so mad after all. Was he merely making a common power play, as Xeres seemed to think? Or was he involved with the strange events of yesterday, and the elusive power that had caused them?
When I walked into that tent with Marcus and his vision, what else did I walk into?
To the chagrin of the demons who called for Marcus’s execution, Xeres declared the Rule to be paramount—far more important than petty bloodlust. Marcus would live, but he was to be exiled to the Far East, beyond Persia. “If you are ever seen in the West again,” Xeres warned him with his booming voice, “whether a day from now or at the end of time, your death will mean glory for any spirit who kills you. Do not pass this way again.”
The crowd sneered at Marcus as he drifted through them, toward the nearest city gate. Several of Balthior’s familiars from Rome’s streets took it upon themselves to see Marcus away. These base demons saw glory in it; they could later boast that they had been the ones who ran the betrayer out of the city. Balthior had been one of them a few days ago. Now he was not sure who he was.
Distracted by these vagrants, Balthior was unaware of Marcus’s approach until he was nearly on him. “Rat,” Marcus called. Balthior tried to shrink into the crowd, but Marcus caught up with him. Then they were face to face, the two demons who had once been angelic brothers. The throng cursed and mocked and jeered at the disgraced demon, so none heard when Marcus leaned close and whispered to Balthior.
“I will remember this.”
Marcus held his chill gaze on Balthior for a moment, then paced away, his entourage of outcasts trailing behind. As Marcus departed, Balthior noticed Constantine riding with his company across the street, and though no other demon seemed to see it, Balthior would have bet his life that he saw the emperor look directly at Marcus—the invisible, exiled demon—then wave his thanks and smile. Marcus did not seem to notice.
In the years following, it was not Balthior whom the masses called Great, but Constantine. History recorded his divine greatness at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge—even that he’d led the first charge himself. Twelve years after claiming Rome, he defeated Licinius and became the sole emperor of both Western and Eastern Roman Empires, making him one of the most powerful rulers who had ever lived.
Fortunately, Constantine was no true Christian. Despite his Edict of Milan, his lack of conviction soon became apparent. He merely used the Faith to bolster his power and extend his empire. Nevertheless, demonkind’s work was devastated, for Christianity spread wherever Constantine’s power did. And strangely, all demonic attempts to kill Constantine failed. Xeres became convinced that the man truly had God on his side, though Balthior never saw an angel around him. Xeres became distraught over his failure, and often raved that if Christianity hadn’t seized the world’s psyche, something else could have—”would have!”—as other religions had done in the past. “For the human mind craves structure and answers, even if flimsy structure and incorrect answers.” Xeres came close to dominating Christianity with Emperor Julian and his Hellenism, but failed in that attempt as well.
For Balthior’s part in the deciding battle, he became known as Thorn, the demon who had almost saved the world from Christianity. Xeres was appreciative of Thorn’s help, and so allowed Thorn to aid him with famines and wars and other campaigns to regain his former glory, which took centuries. During that time, Thorn’s own conquests and achievements made him
again, though he never became a demon lord himself. The demon world slowly stopped caring how Thorn had earned his name, and who he had been before.
All stopped caring but two. On dark nights when Thorn traveled alone, or had no human to torment, the memory of Marcus’s voice haunted him like a waking nightmare. “I will remember this.”
Demons have long memories.
Thorn leaped from the broken window to the huge loading dock door, placing himself between Shane and the exit Shane was eyeing. Thorn and the Judge had discovered to their dismay that the abandoned foundry had many exits. From outside, its towering brick walls lent it the appearance of a fortress, but once they’d cornered Shane inside, they found the foundry replete with back windows, back doors, staircases, overhead walkways, and even a cellar. The chase had lasted half an hour, and now they had him cornered by a pile of old sand molds. Shane was spry even for a teenager, bouncing from one foot to the other, ready to bolt as soon as Thorn or the Judge let his guard down.
“Little—” Shane began, then stopped. Sweat drizzled down his temples and mixed with the tears flowing from his bloodshot eyes. “Little puny demons! I could kill you right now if I—if I wanted to. I could, you know. Because I’m evil!” He hissed at them for added effect.
Thorn threw a sidelong glance at the Judge, whose gelled head of hair was perfectly combed and whose V-neck suit fit just a little too tightly. His absurd sunglasses did little to hide his fear of Shane. Shane himself was no threat to two spirits, of course. He was just a sixteen-year-old boy. But Vucion, the demon possessing Shane, existed in the spiritual realm with Thorn and the Judge, and in his current crazed state, the aggressive demon was a force to be reckoned with.
“I come straight from the bottom pit of Hell,” Shane continued. Thorn chuckled. He couldn’t guess how Vucion hoped to scare them with the human myth that demons came from Hell, since Thorn still remembered the fall from Heaven like it was yesterday. “I have escaped from the darkest depths of the eternal abyss, an endless inferno of everlasting anguish and gnashing of teeth.”
“Can we shut him up already?” the Judge asked in his soft, peevish voice, his posture defensive against Shane’s constant movement.
“If you want to make the first move, I won’t stop you,” Thorn said.
“I’m in charge, dude. You do it.”
“You’re a Judge, he’s a Judge. Keep it in the family.”
“I’m the Demon Judge of Atlanta. This poser is the Judge of Cedartown. That’s like comparing you to a fruit fly.”
“Where is Cedartown?”
“Fuck if I know. Go kill him. Goddammit this is embarrassing.”
“God?” Vucion seized on the word and screeched through Shane’s vocal cords. “God has no say here, fool! This is my domain!”
The Judge briefly hung his head. “Sorry. Slip of the tongue.”
no tongue, spirit!” Half the muscles in his torso twitching, Shane stepped boldly forward. “But I… I am taster of blood! Raper of dogs! Defiler of… people!”
“You’re batshit crazy is what you are.” Thorn had known some lowlifes in demon society would lose their minds and possess a human every now and then, but finding a possession in the U.S. was surprising. Almost all modern possessions occurred in Italy and the former Eastern Bloc—the exile sites for the world’s most deranged demons. Most “possession” cases in America were actually mental illness misdiagnosed by religious nuts.
“Sunglasses demon!” Vucion called. “Why have you and Thorn dared to enter my presence?”
“Uh, well, you broke the Second Rule, motherfucker.”
“I have not!”
Thorn chimed in. “Possession is outlawed. By possessing this human, you have alerted him to our existence.” Although Thorn had once found terrorizing humans quite enjoyable, keeping demonkind’s existence a secret from them also kept the Enemy’s existence a secret, which was absolutely necessary to prevent humanity from siding with the Enemy. Besides, no humans could be made into hedonists or consumerists if they knew that literal devils were whispering in their ears.
As Shane continued to rant, the Judge stepped sideways toward Thorn and whispered to him. “You go left, I’ll go right?”
“We could just distract him with a dog to rape.”
“Hilarious. How about you go up, I’ll go down?”
“You cannot hope to conquer us!” Shane interrupted loudly. “We are Legion!”
“Somebody’s seen too many exorcism movies,” the Judge chided as he cautiously rounded to Shane’s right.
“I am the inspiration for every exorcism movie,” Vucion said through Shane.
“Wow that’s a lot of exorcisms. Must have hurt like a bitch.” The Judge was successfully distracting him, Thorn realized. He prepared to move, and strained to see Vucion inside his human host. Dimwitted demons like Vucion sometimes viewed humans as safe places to hide, since spirits could not easily see another of their kind while he possessed a human. Some demons had hidden in humans for decades before they were discovered, outed, and executed.
In truth, humans were unable to exorcise demons from other humans. Only the victim himself or another spirit could remove the possessing devil—an act which Thorn and the Judge were about to attempt.
Demons really are the best exorcists. Better than angels, even. We know how to manipulate each other.
“I remember when they made the Second Rule,” Shane said as his eyes followed the Judge. “Fifth century, remember? Christianity was spreading, and we were taking over bodies, freaking people out, too busy with our infighting to care what the Enemy was doing. Those were the good times, you fool! So what, if humans were so afraid of demons like me that they fled to Him? Better that we—Better that we all disappear, you leaders said. Better to keep the humans ignorant of the Enemy than to keep them afraid of us.” Shane clawed through his shirt with his fingernails, drawing his own blood. “Well
never agreed to hide myself for the cause. Something had to be done, yes, but I—I never personally agreed to the Second Rule.”