Authors: Joshua Ingle
Thorn had dissented as well, but over the centuries he had come to realize there was another, better reason for the Second Rule: if you tried possession, or revealed yourself to a human, you ran the risk of being overpowered by the human, and cast aside. Wrestling directly with a human will was extremely difficult; even the weak ones were remarkably strong.
They must not be allowed to realize how strong their own wills actually are, lest they start to use them
, Thorn had eventually understood.
No, let them think they’re slaves to their bodies, to their environment, to their past, to whatever temporary fancies pop into their heads.
Mere whispers were a far better means of control than outright possession.
“Well guess what, Your Honor?” the Judge said to his fellow justice. “I never agreed to chase down your sorry ass. So let’s call it even. You leave this Shane kid alone, and we’ll leave you alone.”
Thorn inched closer behind Shane’s back. While Vucion resided in the boy’s mind, he could see only through Shane’s eyes. He would not see Thorn’s approach.
“You just want him for yourself,” Shane accused.
The Judge raised his hands. “You caught me. I have a hundred and five charges: politicians, celebrities, religious leaders, and a few regular folks so challenging to control that someone like you couldn’t
to handle them. I’m the most important demon in Atlanta next to Thorn, but yeah, I thought it’d be a blast to come to the ghetto and fight the Cedartown Judge for a high school kid.”
“Shane is my favorite and you cannot have him. We’re close. How many humans have you been with long enough that you can possess them? Not one, I’d guess.”
“Nope, and I really don’t care.”
“So you couldn’t possess Shane even if you stole him from me. Not firmly, at least. And not for long.”
Thorn arrived at Shane’s body and reached for his head, but stopped short. Even if Vucion did deserve to die, Thorn had not killed another being—much less one of his own kind—since before the Christmas Eve shooting. The thought disturbed him.
The Judge stuttered and tried to stall. He must have been expecting the kill before he needed to respond to Vucion. “Uh, well, I don’t want to possess him. I just want another charge for, uh, whispering and stuff.” His gaze flickered between Shane and Thorn. Shane noticed, and turned.
The sudden piercing cry sent Thorn back a step, and before he was aware of Vucion’s attack, he’d fallen to just above the ground with Vucion on top of him, clawing and shrieking. Though Thorn raised his arms in defense, the enemy demon wounded him more than once. Vucion wore Shane’s face like a mask, and the drooling boy tried biting at the air where Thorn lay, hissing all the while.
Just as the pain grew serious, the Judge twisted Vucion’s head all the way around, then unceremoniously yanked his corpse out of Shane’s mind and tossed it into a stack of plastic pallets. Shane’s whole body jerked, fell, and convulsed violently, foamy spittle flying all around him. Thorn stood.
“What were you doing, dude? You had him. Why’d you hesitate?”
Thorn was wondering that himself. He shook his head. Secretly becoming
was proving to be a chaotic kaleidoscope of opposing morals blending and shifting, confusing Thorn to no end. Thorn still wasn’t sure if he even knew how to be good after his eons of vice.
Of course I know how
, he tried to reassure himself.
I just have to do the opposite of what I’ve always done.
Becoming a moral being was simply a matter of curbing his old habits. But that was not easily done.
“You okay?” the Judge asked.
“It hurts but I’ll be fine.”
The Judge nodded, then hovered over to Shane, who was starting to recover. The boy sat and glanced frightfully about, as if unsure how he’d come to be in this deserted foundry.
“What are you going to do with him?” Thorn asked.
The Judge sighed. “Remember back in the day when possession was chill? No screaming or self-mutilation? You’d just enter the guy’s mind and fuck around. Smooth-like.” He motioned to Vucion’s motionless body. “The crazies aren’t good enough for it. You know the Second Rule only exists for their sake. Sometimes I want to declare possession legal for demons like you and me, the badasses on top of the food chain.
wouldn’t go all apeshit with it.”
“The other Judges would depose you in a week.”
“Yeah, go ahead, ruin my fun.” The Judge lifted Vucion over his shoulders and made for the double doors at the building’s front. “I’ll sic some demons on Shane, make sure he’s dead within the month. On the bright side, if he tells anyone a demon possessed him, they’ll think he’s just as crazy as Vucion here was. God damn. That bottom feeders like this think they can get away with breaking the Second Rule after all this time… it blows my mind, Thorn. Blows my fucking mind.”
As they stepped out into the flat Atlanta sunlight, Thorn recalled his own recent breaking of the Second Rule. He had followed Amy, one of his charges, to a club in Midtown, and found Marcus waiting for them there. The powerful demon had just returned from a triumphant campaign in Africa and vowed vengeance on Thorn for the Constantine affair, so when Marcus and several of his cronies crowded around Amy, whispering ridicule to her, Thorn had needed to defend himself and reclaim his charge. “You’re beautiful,” he had said to her suddenly. And then, for a few brief moments, Amy had
him. Thorn had somehow entered physical space, and all the demons present had witnessed it. Fortunately, the event had no precedent, so the Judge hadn’t believed the witnesses when they told him the story. In the months since, Thorn had tried to repeat the event with no success. In private, he had whispered words of peace and love into the ears of various humans around the city, but on no occasion had he reentered the physical world. The lone event with Amy still perplexed him—and frightened him.
It was why he was here now. The Judge may have dismissed the story about Thorn entering physical space, but to satiate the other demons’ calls for blood, the Judge had been forced to nail Thorn on another allegation: the words he had said to Amy.
Though not technically one of the Rules, whispering anything
to a human was a gross taboo. So despite the prestige Thorn had reclaimed after the recent mass shooting, the Judge had sentenced Thorn to “community service,” in the Judge’s words. Thorn had helped the Judge track down a demon who’d killed one of his own after a feud, helped him discredit another demon who had proclaimed himself Demon Judge of Buckhead, and finally helped him slay Vucion, who’d been running around Georgia with a possessed human for the last few weeks.
“I must be nearing the end of my service now,” Thorn said, neither firmly nor cautiously. “I would like to return to my own business soon.”
“Easy there, homeboy. Still one more thing.” The Judge led him down the dilapidated street, past melting piles of dirty snow, over cracks in the asphalt where weeds grew in clumps, to a freight container. He hefted Vucion’s body above his head, then tossed it underneath the container, where no other demon would see it until it dissolved into the ether.
“Marcus is still loose in the city,” Thorn said. At least, Thorn assumed he was still loose. Marcus hadn’t been seen since the day of the shooting; he had likely gone to ground, aware that the city’s demons would side with the now-famous Thorn in any conflict between the two of them. Still, the possibility that Thorn’s greatest foe could be lurking around any corner filled him with constant apprehension. “I don’t like being alone with you like this, without my followers.” Even in the presence of his followers, Thorn no longer felt safe, since some of them had betrayed him to his enemy when Marcus had first arrived in Atlanta. These offending demons had been forced from the city at Thorn’s request, yet Thorn remained sharply aware that his followers would leave him in a heartbeat if the tide turned against him again.
“Thorn, baby, you don’t trust me?”
“There’s no way I’m gonna turn a celebrity like you over to Marcus, if it makes you feel better. Here.” He motioned for Thorn to follow him into a group of trees.
Thorn hesitantly obliged. “Have you heard anything? About Marcus?”
“A little. I think he’s lost interest in you. Rumor is he has a new project.”
“A serial killer.”
“How cliché of him.”
“Yeah, well, I think he wants to outdo you in the ‘American deaths’ category.”
“He’s welcome to try. You
make him leave the city, though, if he surfaces?”
“Sure thing, buddy. Here we are.”
In the small clearing ahead, several bamboo shoots had curiously sprung up amidst the leafless forest. Dull sunlight peered through the tall stems to fall on the squat demon who hovered under the bamboo.
Marcus’s right-hand demon.
Thorn tried to flee but the Judge restrained him. “Whoa there, Hoss, hold your horses.”
“You’ve betrayed me!”
“Chillax, Thorn. Chillax yourself, okay? Listen.”
Thorn pulled even harder. “I can have an army at your doorstep within a day. You will regret this!”
“Jesus, you sound like Vucion.” He smacked Thorn square in the face. “Mellow out!”
Thorn calmed himself a bit. “What is this?”
Rips and patches adorned Shenzuul’s tattered suit. Loose pieces of it flapped as he drifted out to meet Thorn.
Thorn noticed that his own transitioning morals had produced a change in his perception of Shenzuul: the once-imposing demon appeared thinner and less healthy than he’d been the last time Thorn had seen him. He approached low, keeping Thorn above him at all times. “I need learn,” he said gruffly.
The Judge removed his sunglasses so Thorn could see his eyes, and Thorn tried to decide if the gesture was meant to display honesty, or to better hide a lie. “Shenzuul has spent the last millennium in the deep jungles of the third world,” the Judge explained. “The dude was in the third world before there even was such a thing. So he missed a few important things, like say, the Renaissance. World War Two. Netflix.”
“This means nothing to me.”
“It should, because Shenzuul is the last part of your community service. He has a solid rep in the Congo, but his style is just a little too…” He contemplated Shenzuul’s dour, craggy features. “Too brutal. For the States. Whereas you or I might tempt a girl into a lifetime of self-doubt and substance abuse, forever questioning the verisimilitude of all her closest relationships and yadda yadda yadda, Shenzuul would just try to find someone to rape and kill her. Not cool. Well I mean, pretty cool, but not in vogue.” He reached an arm around Shenzuul’s shoulders and grinned at Thorn. “Shenzuul will be here for another month, and while he’s here, he’s agreed to teach us his ways if we teach him ours. We learn how to turn Georgia into an anarchy ruled by rival warlords, and Shenzuul learns the finer subtleties of the demonic arts. Congratulations, Thorn. You’re his new mentor.”
Shenzuul grunted his thanks. Thorn cringed. “You do realize who this is?”
The Judge squinted as if he didn’t understand the question. “It’s Shenzuul.”
Shenzuul. He’ll kill me.”
“Again, my friend, chillax. They have the First Rule in Africa too. No one is going to kill you.”
“I leave Marcus,” Shenzuul said. “He disgraced here in Atlanta. He alone now, and I with you.”
Thorn didn’t believe it for a second. Still, he studied Shenzuul’s face carefully.
What is he after?
When Thorn didn’t respond, the Judge playfully punched him in the shoulder. “Do I have to lock you in my mother’s basement and force you to listen to my Scorpions collection until you say yes?” Thorn furrowed his brow at another one of the Judge’s strange figures of speech.
Thorn met the Judge’s gaze, and saw his face grow as grave as his own. “You’ll do this, Thorn,” the Judge said. “For one month. Or I’ll have to give you a punishment that’s a tad bit… harsher.”
Even with Thorn’s prominent stature in demon society, going up against Atlanta’s Judge would be a grave mistake. So Thorn ground his teeth, shook his head, and reluctantly said, “Okay.”
“The fear of loss,” Thorn said to Shenzuul as they drifted down through the cloudless afternoon sky toward Joel Williams’s upscale house. “Repeat it.”
“The fear of loss.”
Tensions had run especially high at the Williams household ever since the couple had begun their nasty divorce, but Joel and Angela’s relationship had been strained ever since Thorn had met them. Thorn had needed a new celebrity charge as part of his cover, and had thankfully been given Joel and Angela as gifts meant to flatter him for the Christmas Eve shooting. He’d accepted the gifts in order to do some subtle good in the couple’s lives, and also out of pure curiosity. Later, when he’d read Joel’s unique story in the newspaper, Thorn had realized Joel wasn’t just any celebrity charge…
Thorn had taken to the couple at once, and spent much of his time at their house in Brookwood Hills. Previously managed by some lesser demons, the couple had everything they might need to be happy: good jobs, nice cars, a house with a literal white picket fence. Once upon a time, Thorn would have relished the chance to inflict them with the complacency so common in America’s wealthy, and would have been angry at their previous demons for already working as much evil as was possible in their relationship, leaving none of the fun for Thorn. These days Thorn had no interest in vice, but Joel and Angela’s marriage proved so dysfunctional that it was a perfect cover for Thorn’s newfound benevolence. In front of his many followers, he would whisper something harmless in their ears. (“You should eat potatoes for dinner.”) And he let them all assume he’d suggested some dastardly sin. He was confident that the same trick would work on Shenzuul.
“Humans are the same as us,” he said to his student, “in that the more they have, the more afraid they are of losing it. So the fear of loss is a useful tactic for the rich. You should suggest they obsess over fortifying, hedging, securing, reinforcing, until they’ve wasted not only their own time, but also usurped some opportunities from the less fortunate. That’s if you do it right. The real pros in D.C. have this down to an art, but we should remember it on the micro scale too.”