Authors: Elliott Kay
“I have no subjects, worm,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Not…not as such, no,” conceded the little demon in the big man’s body. “And yet you do. The realm needs you, mistress. The fighting goes on without end. They rend and burn and crush and kill and still it goes on and on. The fighting does not stop! Chaos. So much chaos. The walls crumble. The Damned escape their cages and their pits. No one can build, nothing is done. No one can hold Baal’s crown, mistress. No one but you.”
“I pity none of you,” Lorelei seethed. “If none of Baal’s take the crown, sooner or later one of the other princes will step in. Suffer until then, and suffer under your next ruler, too.”
She meant to move past him, even shove him into the shelves of expensive wine if he refused to move, but his wide eyes stopped her. She saw no threat there. No blackmail or leverage. Only supplication and despair.
“They do not,” he hissed. “They do not come. Only Abaddon marched. He lost many captains and fell within the chaos. I tell you truly, Abaddon himself fell! Now none of the others will take the risk. Even Belial will not intervene. They fear what the battle will cost. None can claim the crown. None but
“Baal’s legions know you are his conqueror. His killer. The crown is yours, mistress. They fight for the crown, but only you can bring them to heel!”
“This conversation is over.”
Bralk fell to his knees. “Please, mistress. Will you come?”
“You consider yourself my subject?”
“Yes! I will obey! I will serve!”
“Then get up and walk out of here. I don’t care how, but not through the front,” she said, pointing to the registers. “And never speak my name or come near me again.”
“Go back to Hell. Find another liege. Maybe whoever gave you that—” She stopped herself. “Who gave you that body?”
He opened his mouth to answer, but hesitated. “There is a right answer and a wrong answer to this, yes?”
Her eyes narrowed. “There are several degrees of wrong.”
“It was…Sammael?” he ventured.
Fury twisted up within her. She brought her free hand back, extending talons from her fingers to shred his face. Bralk did not flee, or raise his hands to block, or even cry out. He merely cringed in anticipation.
The blow never came. Lorelei lowered her hand again. The talons vanished. “Go back to Hell, Bralk,” Lorelei repeated. “Tell the others: Never speak to me again. Do not seek me out.
Leave me alone
* * *
He didn’t know what to do.
He couldn’t disobey. He couldn’t let her go, either. Not with so much at stake. Not when every other alternative was so dire. Yet how could his disobedience inspire her to lead?
Shaking with worry and fear, Bralk obeyed. He didn’t follow her to the front of the store. He didn’t watch her join with the others at the front—not after his first look, anyway. Not when he saw the lady’s mortal companion and the terrifying angel who’d helped murder his former liege.
The angel walked among the mortals. She dressed as they did: blue jeans, a white sweater, a coat and wool cap. She walked and laughed as they did, too. The mortals did not see her halo or her wings. Bralk did not know that angels ever walked among mortals, but then, he had heard that the angel who stood with Lady Lorelei was a strange one.
Strange or not, the sight of an angel frightened Bralk as much as his lady’s displeasure, though Bralk’s mortal husk would hide him from her eyes. It had hidden him from the sight of angels since he came into the mortal world. That was the point. But he did not take unnecessary risks, nor did he deny his fear. Bralk walked away quickly, wandering the store until he found another way out.
The exit put him out on the street. Bralk didn’t like it. Lady Lorelei might see him and think he was following her. He needed to follow, of course, but that meant disobeying her. Wringing his hands—so much bigger in this body than they should be—Bralk looked for some way to salvage the situation.
He had to follow her. He had to disobey. Too much relied upon it.
With his decision made, Bralk hustled around the building and then down the dark, narrow alley between the store and the office building beside it. As before, when he first chased after the lady’s car, he had to stop himself from dropping to all fours. The husk still didn’t feel natural, didn’t work the same way as his true shape. Still, after these two weeks of practice, he was finally getting used to it.
Pain exploded through his chest, telling him he was out of time. It halted his rush down the alleyway. The weapon that protruded from his torso looked to be at once bone and shadow, with spiny ridges leading to a sharp point covered in his blood.
Bralk didn’t need the blood. His husk no longer functioned as a living mortal. The bonding process made the body far stronger than it was when it held a mortal soul, but Bralk could still feel pain. He felt a great deal of it as the bones of shadow running through his chest lifted him up off the ground.
The demon clinging to the side of the building wore no human husk. It had a faintly human shape, in that it had arms and legs and a head, but it bent in strange ways and seemed made of oil and shadow. If the bones of its wings had ever held flesh, they had since been shorn of it all in favor of sharpened bones that could be used as weapons. The demon’s long tail acted as another such natural weapon. Bralk was impaled upon that tail now.
His attacker had friends, too. Bralk’s unwilling ascent brought him past the gaze of two more shadowy monsters much like the first. He recognized none of them. Surely they weren’t former vassals of Baal, but beyond that, who could they serve?
“Did you succeed, little fetch?” asked the one with its tail through his chest. It drew Bralk in face to face, staring at him intently with inky black eyes. “Did you chase the whore here?”
“Nuh…no,” Bralk managed.
“No time for questions, Ryzeth,” said another of the stalkers. “We must be quick.”
“As you wish, Voxrel,” replied Bralk’s captor. Bralk watched in terror as the bones of its wings curved upward—and then snapped forward to plant their sharp tips in an arc around the top of his skull.
He didn’t cry out. His lungs couldn’t draw air. Inky black eyes stared into his as the bones in his brain rummaged around for what they wanted.
“As pathetic as we thought,” growled Ryzeth. “An obsequious minion, nothing more…but a lucky minion. The whore is here with the mortal. The angel walks among them.” The demon’s head turned to its other companion. “Sylyd—a white car. The license plate is ANT3132.”
“What is a license plate?” asked Sylyd.
Bralk felt one of the bony tips squish through his brains again for the answer. “It’s the plate with the numbers and letters on the front and back!” Ryzeth hissed. “That’s how they tell one car from another!”
“Ah,” muttered Sylyd. “I thought I’d have to look for the one with the angel in it.”
“This makes sense,” observed Voxrel. “I wondered how they can tell the cars apart. They all look alike.” He paused. “But how can they recognize each car from the side?”
“Hsst!” warned Sylyd, clinging to the wall at the edge of the alley. “They are about to leave!”
“What do we do?” asked Ryzeth. “Together they defeated Baal. These odds aren’t good.”
“Only the whore matters,” decided Voxrel. “We follow and wait for a chance to take her alone. Does he know anything else?”
Again, the spikes ruffled through Bralk’s brain. The sensation scrambled his thoughts: where was he? Why was he here? Why did his chest hurt so much?
“No,” said Ryzeth.
The bony tail withdrew from Bralk’s chest as roughly as it had entered, only for it to thrust back through him yet again. Another tail tore through his neck.
The damage severed the last bonds between the husk and Bralk’s essence. Already, he knew he could not salvage this body, but such brutal treatment made for a much faster and less willing trip back to Hell than he’d wanted.
Someday he would reemerge in the Pit as plain old Bralk once again: small, unobtrusive, wicked but inconsequential. He hoped by then this whole mess would be resolved one way or another, be it by Lorelei or some other lord. He’d suffered enough pain for the cause already.
* * *
“You want me to carry anything else?” asked Rachel.
“Nah, I’ve got it.” Alex pulled the last shopping bag full of presents from the trunk of the car. He released a tense breath after closing the Lexus up again. The rain had let up shortly before they parked on the street. He wished he could say the same for his nerves.
Though his worries didn’t outwardly show, Alex knew he couldn’t hide anything from either of his partners. “Babe, it’s gonna be fine,” said Rachel.
“Hey, I want this, right?” he said. “It’s not just you. We all want this. Bad enough there’s all the otherworldly bullshit we
tell anyone. I don’t want to hide you, too.”
Lorelei stood by Rachel on the curbside. “You already did the hard part,” she said.
“That’s what you think,” huffed Alex. “You’ve only met less than half of the family.” He shook his head. “Guess that’s the point, though, right? Like I said. Don’t wanna hide. Or cut either of you out of a big part of my life. You mean the world to me.” He stepped up to the sidewalk. “So let’s do this.”
Rachel slipped her arm around his with an adoring smile. “I’ve been looking forward to this night for months,” she said.
“Y’know how I told you that when you touch me everything feels okay again? Like I don’t worry about anything anymore and all my stress goes away?”
Alex chuckled in spite of himself. “It’s not working this time. Totally isn’t happening.”
They let him lead the way. The path still felt a little alien to Alex. He’d grown up in a two-story, two-bedroom apartment; this was a small stand-alone house in a new neighborhood. He’d helped with the move, of course, but made only a few visits since then.
Until now, he’d always thought of Christmas as an event with a few set family habits. He didn’t think of them as traditions before this. Then again, he reminded himself, “tradition” wasn’t an important label to him. If it was, he wouldn’t be in this sort of relationship—or in this position.
He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t look back. He walked up to his mother’s new doorstep and knocked.
Michelle opened the door with a smile. “Silly, I left it unlocked. And you have a key, anyway.”
“Seemed like the thing to do,” he replied.
“Lorelei, hi,” his mother greeted the woman on his left.
“Michelle. Good to see you again. You look well.”
“Leaving the office early has that effect on me,” Michelle joked.
“Mom, this is Rachel,” said Alex, turning a little to his right.
“It’s wonderful to finally meet you,” said Rachel, shyly holding out her hand.
“Likewise.” Michelle accepted the greeting with both hands. “I want to say Alex has told me a lot about you, but it was all in one conversation over the phone.”
“Yeah. It’s a little weird, I know.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it.” Michelle held up her hands. “If everyone’s happy, that’s all that matters. You’re completely welcome here. Come on in.”
She pulled back from the door to let her guests through. Alex stepped aside to let Rachel in first. He caught a quick glance from Lorelei before she moved in. Her arched brow and pursed lips seemed to say, “I told you so.”
He didn’t reply. He knew better than to worry about what Michelle might say to either of his lovers, particularly at a gathering with other people. She wasn’t one to make a scene.
Telling her about his polyamorous relationship over the phone had naturally involved some awkward questions:
Is everyone being safe? Are you really okay with it? Are you sure you aren’t just a fifth wheel in all this, or maybe this other girl is? Are they seeing other people, too? What happens if one leg of this breaks up but not the others? Does everyone pay the bills?
Thankfully, aside from the question about safety, she didn’t pry about his—or their—sex life.
Two lines of questioning stood out. “Did Lorelei come up with this?” reminded him Michelle had to actively smother her skepticism about the one relationship she’d already known about. Frustrating as that was, he couldn’t hold it against her—not when the differences between Lorelei and Alex were so plain from the start. She had another question, too: “You’ve all known each other for three months, so how committed can you be?” which suggested Michelle could easily rationalize it all by telling herself this was only a phase.
Michelle displayed none of her doubts as she brought the two women inside and started the introductions. Ever since he was a child, Alex and his mother had shared Christmas Eve with another family. The youngest member of that family had long been Alex’s best friend.
“Whussup, fool?” Drew said, slipping through the small crowd in the entryway to give Alex a quick hug.