Book 6 of The Zodiac!
I cannot believe it's time for another adventure with Zeke and the gang. It just seems like the other day that book five in the series, The Pride of Leo, came out.
With that 400-page tale, I thought I'd bought myself a few months. But it turns out, Zeke's fans tore through it and were asking when book six would come. Some even finished it in days (I think two days was the record)! Days!
Fortunately, for those wanting to dig their hands in to the next pat of Zeke's story, the wait is almost over.
I'm pleased to announce that the sixth book in the series (we're halfway there!), Virgo's Vigilantes, will release on October 26th, 2021! (Though you can grab the audiobook and the paperback now!)
So, I thought, hmmmm, what can I do to celebrate making it to the halfway point of the story? How about giving everyone the first chapter, in full? I mean, if you've made it this far, you're pretty much suckered into Zeke's twisted tale.
So, over the next few posts (because the chapter is long), why not give you an idea what is in store for our main man... err, demon? That's exactly what I'm going to do. Look away now if you don't want to get any spoilers that might detract from the earlier books in the series.
You've been warned.
Chapter one of Virgo's Vigilantes
1 - Underworld, Undisclosed
Seconds After Leo
Nothing says "welcome home" like having two spear points pressed at your neck the second you walk out of a rift. The self-contained flames of crackling Hellfire dancing over steel tips will get your attention. It definitely got mine.
I'm not saying Azazel had this planned all along—he didn't and wouldn't—I believe that, because I was in no position to distrust him after what he had done in Olympia just moments ago when he handed me the supposed coordinates to the missing Horn. Well, coordinates to an ancient, powerful artifact and a message of warning and empowerment. Enemies and friends awaited my return to Hell. With the spear points, I'd already met some of the enemies and was really looking forward to seeing the friends.
The problem was, I was in no position to request or demand much of anything. He knew that. Distrust of the elderly Founder wasn't something I needed to waste energy on. Now standing in the Council chamber, I had enough to go around with the other demons I was about to confront.
The rulers of Hell, Lucifer's Third Council, had called me home to answer for something I did to upset them. It would be outlandish. Trumped up. Laughable. Gross. Spurious. In other words, everything you'd expect of politicians.
This farce wasn't about crimes or not-crimes. This was about getting me back into the Underworld so they could force me in the direction they wanted me to march. A death march. Beyond any other evident truth there was this; Lucifer's Council wanted me dead.
One way or another, I was here to fill that destiny.
Dropping my bag at my feet, I raised my arms, showing the pair of unintelligent chamber guards I was no threat. They took synchronous steps back, spears raised back to vertical positions without a word. A statement of power, as if I needed to be reminded the Council ruled here.
The guards were not the only demons awaiting my return from Olympia. I wasn't surprised because Azazel had prepared me before leaving the apartment, but there was still an ounce of turmoil rocketing around inside my brain at seeing who the Council had gathered for this latest farce. My parents stood across the room, about as far away from me as possible. The other pair of demons were two I'd include on the invite list if the Council had asked.
"Wow, it's so good to see you," Bilba said as he approached, his arms outstretched long before he was close enough to embrace me. We hugged, only long enough to not lose any cool points, before separating. I turned to the tall, handsome demon with perfect jet black hair who stood next to him.
"Zeke, great to see you," Ralrek said with a sad smile.
"Ezekial," I corrected, pausing to ensure he flinched. I only allow my friends to call me by my nickname. For six thousand years, Ralrek hadn't been counted among those few. That changed only in the past few years, but toying with him was still a favorite pastime.
We clasped hands, bounced chests off each other, and separated as quickly as we joined.
"What are you guys doing here?" I asked.
Ralrek tipped his head toward the front of the chamber where a long jade table so dark it might as well have been black sat upon a riser, dominating it and the room. The table had to weigh more than ten chimera. "They told us we had to be here."
A group of ancient demons sat behind the extravagant table, leaning toward each other and speaking in low, conspiratorial voices throughout the seconds of my return to Hell.
Lucifer's Third Council. The five most powerful demons except for the big guy himself. Azazel was one of them, but not one of them. Not anymore. I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that he was actively, if not subversively, working against them. What that meant for me was unclear. Too much to ponder at the moment. Upon leaving my Olympia apartment, Azazel had warned me not to forget I had friends here, that over-reacting might be to my detriment. As we returned through the rift between the Overworld and Hell, I was not a lamb being led to slaughter. What I was, though, was unclear. I guess I might define that in the next few moments.
The presence of the five most powerful individuals in the demonic realm, only one on my side, was enough to temporarily unsettled my nerves. My angst remained untouched. Heavens, I was still sore from a fight to the death the night before, and missing the friends I left behind, including an angel who saved my ass.
Basically, I was trying to keep my shit together.
I faced Hell's rulers. Yahweh could torture them for eternity as far as I was concerned. Michael, Beelzebub, Seraph, and Apopis, dressed in their formal attire. The fact they had donned those robes meant this little get-together was not going to be fun for someone, and that someone was me.
"Before we begin," Azazel shambled over to stand between me and the table, "I must prepare."
Michael nodded. Beelzebub grunted.
"Hurry up," Apopis hissed, his tongue flicking at the corner of his mouth.
Seraph leaned forward over bent elbows planted to her side. "We would like to move these proceedings, Azazel. Be quick about it, please."
Azazel ambled toward his personal chambers. Never one of the quickest demons at his advanced age, his stride was shorter and wobblier than seconds ago in the Overworld. I couldn't help but smile. So nice of him to provide more time to commune with my friends to calm my nerves.
"Are you okay?" I whispered to the pair. Inside the Council chambers, the Founders could read thoughts of demons. Well, except for me. Not that I could claim any credit for it. My ability to block their mind reading came down to the fact that I possessed the most kick-ass halberd in creation. Creed blocked them from dabbing their claws inside my head. But Bilba and Ralrek didn't enjoy the same luxury.
"I've been better, to be honest," Bilba said, the tips of his protruding ears turning a darker pink. "They didn't tell us what this was about. We didn't even know you were coming back."
"Not until that rift opened. Once it did, it was pretty much a no-brainer. Especially since they are here," Ralrek said, casually tossing his hand in the direction of the older demons who stood nearby.
Next to one of the large pillars supporting the expansive ceiling painted with an image of the Hellfire stood my parents. Underneath the flame of annihilation the cruelty of the Council was proven once more. Bringing my parents in to witness my final demise was no surprise. I expected nothing less juvenile from Hell's rules. But still, a part of me twitched with anger and humiliation. Only a twitch this time, I swear. Old Zeke was still somewhere back in that Olympia apartment. The me who stood in the Council chamber now was a different demon altogether. My parents' presence felt more like a pathetic power play. Too bad the Council hadn't yet realized their extra player advantage wasn't going to sway me.
Mother clamped her hands at her waist, squeezing them tightly enough to meld into a single lump of flesh. Lilith Sunstone usually had deceptively hard eyes, but now they quivered when she looked at me. Her square chin, easily the most intimidating one in Hell, trembled. The incubus at her side was much taller, his gray hair slicked back. His cold eyes stared ahead, toward Hell's leaders.
Some things in life repel one another. Oil and water. Magnets. Succubi and incubi who aren't tall, dark, and handsome. Add to those examples this farce with the combination of the Council, my presence, and that of my parents and two best friends, and you've got yourself a party.
My parents' presence only reinforced my belief that Azazel was going to have to call on a miracle of Lucifer to get me out of what was going to be a bad day.
"Did they say why they were called?" I asked my friends.
Bilba shook his head.
Ralrek harrumphed. "Your father wouldn't even look at us."
"Your mom was friendly. She gave us hugs. But your father ignored us. I'm sorry, Zeke," Bilba said.
"There's nothing for you to be sorry for. You didn't do anything."
A door clunked closed from the back of the room, as loud as a hardback textbook dropped on cold tile in the middle of a library. With Azazel in his chambers, I was alone with my best friends, my parents, and the four powerful demons who were going to ruin my day.
My mother shifted on her feet, her hands still gripping each other. My father was stoic, lifting his chin as if aware I was examining him. I couldn't say I was surprised. During my entire Abandonment, I hadn't heard from him once. I wasn't bitter. It was what it was.
"I guess I should go say hi," I said begrudgingly.
"Good luck with that." Ralrek sniffed.
"She loves you, Zeke." Bilba shot Ralrek a sneer. "This is just a lot to deal with. Most demons never go through this once in their life. Your parents have been dragged through it over and over. Be patient. She misses you, and this is how she is reunited with you? So cruel. So unjust."
"Be careful," I said with a nod toward the four demons behind the jade table before tapping the side of my temple.
"I don't care what they think about me," Bilba said, his tone firm.
My friend's determination was encouraging, but his timing still sucked. Any other day, any other time, any other situation, I would have praised him for his display of fortitude. But not with the Council on a mission. They didn't need to be handed anymore victims.
"Do it for me then." He shot me a confused look, so I clarified. "They're on the warpath. They have something planned; I don't doubt that. Let's just keep their attention on me and away from the two of you. Whatever they're planning, I'm pretty sure I'm going to need you to get me out of trouble."
"Again?" Ralrek said, a faint smile playing on his lips.
"Just think how boring life would be if it wasn't for me constantly getting in trouble," I said before going to my parents. Four heads from behind the jade table moved to watch each of my steps. Their conversation continued while I crossed the room, but they made no secret they were more interested in watching me than they were in each other's words.
My father stiffened as soon as I stepped their way. My mother looked like she could have crumbled. But neither moved toward me.
I hugged my mother first. "Hi."
She pulled me against her, cupping the back of my head as if I was still an impling. "Oh, Ezekial. I never thought I would see you again. My boy. My precious boy." She pulled back, keeping contact but making enough room to look me up and down. "You've lost too much weight. I need to put food in you. No worries. The first chance I get, I'll cook something special. I promise."
I didn't want to bring up that I might not have the freedom for her to cook for me. Also, the last way I wanted to be welcomed home was with my mother's cooking. Culinary arts aren't much of an art for Lilith Sunstone. But I love my mother far more than my desire to be honest with her. If I made it out of this, I'd eat a thousand of her dinners.
I turned to Kanthor Sunstone. "Father." A single word. Nothing more. Yet so difficult to form.
His gaze remained forward. "Ezekial."
I waited, but he offered nothing else.
My mother wrapped her arm underneath mine. "I'm so glad you're home. After this is over, we need to catch up. I'll make tea. I've got a few boxes at the house from a new product line I'm testing. We can have that. I plan on hearing your stories long into the night. No early bed for me."
The click of a door handle brought my attention back to the corner where Azazel had disappeared, pulling me away from teasing my mother about her ever-deepening involvement in pyramid schemes. The ancient Founder stepped out, now wearing the official black robe. He ambled toward the jade table at a pace that would make a sloth look like a sprinter. Never once did he cast a glance my way.
Time crawled as he climbed onto the riser, shuffling to his position at the end of the jade table. Behind his chair, he paused, putting a finger to his lip and tapping it as if he'd forgotten something.
"Will you hurry up?" Beelzebub growled from the second chair. The demon, as big as a chimera and hard as brimstone, crossed his arms, flexing his biceps underneath his robe. His dark eyes fell on me, a satisfied grin on his face framed by the pork chop sideburns he bleached blond to contrast his dark skin. The jig was up.
The bad news train was barreling down, and I was tied to the railroad tracks.
Azazel patted his chest as if he had left his note-taking material inside his robe. "I seem to have forgotten where I set my quill and paper. Allow me a moment to return to my chambers."
"Just send the guard. We don't have an eternity," Apopis snarled, his eyes scanning the chamber guards. He pointed at the nearest one. "You, there. Go retrieve his quill and paper."
The guard snapped to attention and almost ran to Azazel's chamber.