Authors: Joshua Ingle
Afraid he might let his new views slip in any response he gave Shenzuul, Thorn let Shenzuul win the argument. When the ex-couple was done, Angela tried to cuddle with Joel, but he got out of bed and walked away, so she picked up a book and started reading, possibly for escapism’s sake. The two demons and the followers around them trailed Joel to his study, where Shenzuul started whispering to him. “Go whack to porn. After crappy sex, you deserve.” Joel switched on his laptop, eager to oblige.
, Thorn thought. Joel was so sure that good sex would make him happy—the lack of it was part of the reason for his divorce. He was in for a disappointment now that he was able to sleep with whomever he wanted.
Joel locked the doors, pulled off his pants, sat down, and opened some of his favorite sites. “Every woman should look like this,” Shenzuul whispered. “Why your wife never look like this? Glad you have more variety now.”
Unacknowledged by Shenzuul, Thorn stood at the door behind them. Joel got busy, and Shenzuul prattled on. “You deserve. You deserve. You deserve.”
“We have an award-winning homebrew if you folks would like to try that tonight, or there’s Long Island Iced Teas at half price. What can I start you out with?” The young waiter glanced at the men around the table, who ceased their conversation to stare at his pants, where he had mistakenly tucked in his shirt underneath his boxer shorts, the top of which were now showing prodigiously. Thorn felt sorry for him.
“Well, uh, I’d like a Hot Irish Nut,” Joel said, and smirked at his friends, who laughed.
“Is that a real drink?” Dean asked him.
“Real drink, buddy. I’m not gay or anything, but I think our ginger friend here is an expert on the Irish Nut.” The men laughed again, and the waiter finally checked himself. He hastily shoved his underwear back into his pants, and the group chortled.
“I—uh, crap. I’m sorry.”
“I want a free drink for that.” Joel was joking, but the waiter apparently couldn’t tell, so he stammered for a few seconds. “Relax,” Joel said harshly.
“Sorry, sir. I should have checked that before I came here.”
“Yeah, well, that’s why you work in a restaurant and I have a real job. We’ll take the homebrew, please. Two for each of us. It’s on me, guys.”
“Sure thing. I’ll be right back with those.”
“And wash your hands before you touch our food!” The waiter turned back, tripped, then scampered away. Joel’s companions guffawed again.
The demons had followed Joel to an upscale club called “D” right across from the restaurant he had recently bought (and right down the street from the club where Amy had once seen Thorn). Joel was entertaining three of his new “friends”—younger men drawn to Joel because of his wealth and charisma. Under the purple lights, he regaled them with a jet skiing story from his vacation in Florida. A scantily clad woman Thorn had never seen before rested under Joel’s arm, laughing at every joke he told.
Shenzuul seemed at home in this environment full of alcohol and sexual conquest. He fluttered among the men, whispering fantasies and malicious thoughts and who knew what else. Two dozen of Thorn’s followers were arrayed in a semicircle around him as he observed his student.
Two days down, twenty-nine to go.
Shenzuul wasn’t as dumb as Thorn had assumed, but Thorn would be glad to get rid of him. Thorn had accumulated an immense quantity of knowledge regarding human temptation in his lifetime, and he hated to impart any more of it to Shenzuul. But it was necessary for his masquerade.
Shenzuul and Joel seem little removed from each other
, Thorn observed as Shenzuul flitted about and Joel took a deep gulp of his drink. He imagined them both as little children, showing their friends a new toy or skill, wanting people to think they were cool. Both of them thought myopically. Why delay gratification when you could satiate yourself now?
Because of the cycle of power, Shenzuul. Like money, power is fickle. The more you use it the sooner you lose it, and the more waste you leave in your wake.
Thorn had fallen and risen again countless times before he had learned the benefits of thinking long-term. Perhaps that very lesson had led to his recent change of heart.
Thorn saw himself in Joel as well. The doctor wanted success so badly, and demons had warped his definition of success so much that this, a night at a club blowing loads of money on shallow friends, seemed like success to him. Was he happy? Thorn doubted it. Thorn had never been happy with his own success. All he had ever wanted was
. Even now.
“Your readers.” Shenzuul’s loud words to Joel interrupted Thorn’s musings. “Brag your friends all the readers you have.”
“Be careful,” Thorn said to maintain his cover. “Don’t let him see what society did to enable him to earn his wealth. Let him think he earned it himself. Joel’s readers didn’t give him the money, nor the father who paid for his education nor the family who supported him emotionally nor the publishing company that took a chance on his book. Joel deserves that money, and has no responsibilities with it except to satisfy the whims of his own pleasure and ambition.”
A fight was breaking out nearby, apparently over a woman. A thin, balding man was pushing a younger, muscular man, who was removing his jacket for a fight. The woman was trying to hold the bald man back while calling for a bouncer. Shenzuul seemed distracted by the action as he replied to Thorn. “But I making Joel brag. I subtle.”
“Just be careful is all. Remember what I told you about shortsighted thinking.”
Shenzuul abruptly swung over Joel and toward the fight, which was apparently too exhilarating to resist. Some other demons had already joined the ruckus to egg the men on, but Shenzuul darted to the center of them. Only after Shenzuul had whispered in the thin man’s ear did Thorn see that he was armed. “Shoot him!” Shenzuul yelled loud enough for the whole room to hear.
The thin man drew and fired. Every patron jumped behind the nearest counter or table, or ran for an exit. Joel hit the floor. A bouncer tackled the thin man, bones cracking as they hit the ground. The muscular man checked himself. He appeared unharmed.
Then a woman screamed. Near the back of the club, Joel’s fair-skinned waiter had taken the bullet meant for the muscular man. He lay on the ground, precious blood seeping out of his neck so fast that Thorn knew he wouldn’t survive. Thorn was surprised to see color leaving Joel’s face as he stared at the dying man. Joel appeared even more stupefied than the situation warranted. Traumatized, even.
As the lights went up and the music died and humans attended to the expiring waiter, Shenzuul smugly meandered back to Thorn. “Subtle not always better,” Shenzuul said, making sure Thorn’s followers could hear. “You say, think long-term. You say, ruin man’s life. Well long-term, that man dead. His life ruined.”
The casualness with which Shenzuul had caused the young man’s death appalled Thorn and struck him with a sudden wave of reflection. This apprenticeship the Judge had prescribed would augment Shenzuul’s brutality with Thorn’s cunning, lending a sharp edge to a previously blunt weapon.
This is not just something harmless to endure
, Thorn now saw. Shenzuul had great potential for destruction, and to use him as part of Thorn’s cover would make Thorn complicit in that destruction.
How did I not see this before? What kind of monster am I creating?
Ever the proud student, Shenzuul grinned widely when Thorn did not respond. He had stumped the teacher.
Rays of sunset shone through a break in the oak branches onto the group of old burial sites on the forest floor. Centuries of weathering had all but destroyed some of the cairns, but the one Thorn cared about—the one directly underneath the break in the canopy—had remained strangely unaffected, as if the spirits of the plants and animals had protected it. Flying Owl’s family would have liked that thought. Thorn paced briskly around the boy’s final resting place.
He had come here to avoid Shenzuul, had avoided him all day, but now his refuge in the woods held little peace. Whereas this place usually soothed Thorn’s mind with thoughts of better times, today it reminded him of past mistakes and warned him not to repeat them.
He found himself wishing he could use his powers of persuasion on another demon. One soft whisper in the Judge’s ear as Thorn might whisper to Amy or Joel, and his punishment with Shenzuul would be withdrawn. A pleasant fantasy.
But now that Thorn saw the road to ridding himself of Shenzuul, he knew how uneven it would be. Shenzuul would have to meet disgrace in the Judge’s eyes. Thorn could try convincing the Judge that Shenzuul had nothing valuable to teach him, that their deal would not be profitable for him… or perhaps it’d be easier to convince him that Shenzuul was too thick to learn subtlety, and by extension too thick to teach the Judge what he wanted to learn. Thorn knew the Judge had eyes and ears among Thorn’s own followers, and would be kept up to date on Shenzuul’s progress, or lack thereof…
If only I could relive my life and stay on good terms with Marcus from the beginning. Then I would still be safely unaware, and none of this would have happened.
“No,” Thorn told himself. “I refuse ignorance. No longer will I trade the pursuit of knowledge for the maintaining of safety.”
His inner voice seemed to silence, but soon nagged him with an old, troubling question.
What was Marcus doing in that tent, anyway? Marcus has never been an innovative thinker, but if he was really trying to depose Xeres, he would still have taken a more reliable approach. Something else was going on.
The demons who’d been present that night avoided all talk of Constantine’s battle at the Milvian Bridge. Thorn speculated that they wanted to forget the strange events surrounding it—namely Constantine’s sudden return from death’s doorstep and the murder of the demon sentries before they could warn the others that the battle had begun. As much as Thorn valued knowledge, he had long since abandoned his attempts at puzzling out this particular mystery. It couldn’t be done, at least not with the limited information Thorn had had to work with. So he’d been content to stay in the West, where he’d been safe from Marcus’s vengeance until Xeres’s supposed death. Even then, news of Xeres’s demise had spread at a pleasant snail’s pace, since demons had none of the instant-communication technology humans did. Thorn had known the news would adopt the ring of a tall tale by the time it had crossed the Atlantic, and that therefore decades, possibly centuries would pass before Marcus learned that Xeres was actually dead and came after Thorn. He’d hoped Marcus had forgotten the whole ordeal.
Was my guard down because I grew lazy, or because I grew prideful? Prideful, certainly.
Thorn remembered how desperately he’d once craved the now-obsolete title of “demon lord.” He supposed that if demons still called themselves lords, he would be one now.
The setting sun passed below the horizon. Colors faded into gloom and the buzzing insects of dusk emerged with their sullen songs. The Cherokee had built their graves facing eastward—a sacred, spiritual direction to them, and ironically the direction from which their end had come, across the sea. Only the darkness of approaching night lay in the east now. Thorn knelt to the cairn of the boy he had loved and reached out a hand to touch it. As always, his hand passed right through. The cairn would remain untouched, save by the wind and the rain.
Never let it happen again
, Thorn reminded himself.
Never let yourself get attached to a human. It never ends well.
He found himself thinking of Amy.
“I’ll just grab my ball and be right back,” Joel said from the back seat as he donned his coat. Dean and Michael nodded from the front seat as Thorn, Shenzuul, and Thorn’s followers looked on. Joel almost opened the back door to exit, then noticed his ex-wife standing in the driveway of their old house, her arms crossed. “Oh shit.”
“What’s the problem? I thought you guys were divorced?”
“Yeah, sorry guys, should’ve moved my shit out sooner. Bowling might have to wait a few minutes. I’ll be back.”
Dean mocked him with a “whip crack” vocalization, and Michael chuckled.
“Yeah, yeah,” Joel said. “I put up with her.”
“You really could have done better for yourself, dude,” Michael said. “She’s not bad for her age, but…”
“That blonde from the other day?” Dean said. He whistled, wide-eyed.
“Yeah, well, when you get married and divorced you’ll understand,” Joel said.
“Ha! Married? No.”
“You know, Joel, marriage is the number one cause of divorce. Also kills ninety-five percent of any woman’s sex drive.”
“Legalized slavery for men.”
“At least you got out of it before she got fat.”
Joel laughed at their jokes then left the car, his mood visibly souring. He paced up the long driveway toward Angela. Shenzuul took the lead and whispered something in his ear that Thorn couldn’t hear.
“Why are you here?” Angela said.
“I don’t want to hear it now. I just need to grab my bowling ball and—”
“Where’s your car?” she said.
“At the restaurant. Look, you and me? We’re finished. I’m not gonna explain myself to you anymore.” He strode past her toward the front door, and she spun to follow.
“You never wanted us to be happy together, did you?” Angela said, jumping right to the point. “Even before the book sold and your ego exploded?”
Thorn grew uncomfortably aware of his followers’ gazes. “Why has Shenzuul been doing all the whispering and Thorn doing none?” he imagined them asking each other. He positioned himself behind Angela as the couple entered the house.
“Haven’t we fucking been through this?” Joel said. “What do you want from me, Angie?”
“I want us to get back together, more than just hook-ups, and I want us to be happy.” There was that phrase again:
. It was something humans had made up and demons had run with, for “being” anything was an unnatural passive state, and passive was exactly how demons liked to keep humans. Humans were not created to
. So Thorn countered by softly whispering, “Volunteer, Angela. Something social, out in the community. You’ll find someone else.” One demon in the crowd furrowed his eyebrows at Thorn, who worried that his whisper had been overheard.