I wanted to smile. They thought they had the upper hand, but the book was something I didn't need any more. I understood enough about the nature of Hell's history, the magical halberd I held, and how astray Lucifer's Third Council had gone from its original intent. Let them keep the blessed thing. Plus, knowing Dialphio, she'd probably made another hundred copies by now.
"I found it in a bookstore in the Overworld. It's the most popular book up there. All the mortals are reading it," I teased.
Apopis's brows drew together. "You treacherous, little bastard."
Bringing my height into the discussion was a low blow.
"Possession of heretical items, murder of my nephew and of another Abandoned, and consorting with an angel." Seraph tipped her fingers down to the table, pressing them so hard against the dark jade that the tips turned white. "Is there anything more to discuss, Michael? Or can we finally dispense justice? It's obvious Mr. Sunstone has committed a number of egregious crimes. We have too many things to accomplish to spend any more time debating his future."
Michael watched me, stoic. Not a hair in his well–groomed beard twitched.
Beelzebub slapped the table. My mother yelped. "I agree with Seraph. Let's be done with this."
"It would be appropriate to take a vote," Azazel said.
Michael slowly set The Histories down, his hand lingering on it. When he spoke, it was as if he were addressing the book. "Agreed. It is time for us to deal with this permanently." He looked me in the eye. "Mr. Sunstone, you've been given many opportunities to change your course, yet you continue to take the wrong path. It is unfortunate, but our attempts to help you see the light have failed. We have done all we could. Now, we determine your fate."
"I say we Abandon him. This time we choose where he spends the last of his days, rotting away. Some particularly grim locations come to mind," Beelzebub said, sitting back, extending his arms. The balls of his biceps twitched.
Was he seriously flexing?
Seraph snorted. "How many times do we send him to the Overworld where he can cause problems? Plus, if we Abandon him again, he will just reach out to the angel. Do we want to give him that chance?"
Apopis's tongue flicked to the corner of his mouth. "We can't take chances with this one. I vote that we keep him closer, here in the Underworld."
"But if he remains in the Underworld, he remains immortal," Michael countered.
"We have to do something. Something permanent, and something now, Michael," Seraph said, swatting one hand at him. "His consequences must be as grim as his actions. We need to make a statement."
There was silence behind me, both from my parents and my friends. I was grateful for that. I didn't want any of them to make a comment. This chimera wagon was rolling, gathering speed, and anyone who cared about me would get run over.
"Then are we ready for a vote? Because it doesn't sound as if we are," Michael pointed out. "We can discuss the terms and conditions later. First, we need to determine if he will be Abandoned or imprisoned. Once we set that, then we can decide how he will spend his remaining days."
"There's always another option," Apopis sneered.
"Would we be willing to discuss that?" Michael asked.
Seraph turned to take in the slender, half–tattooed Council member. "Get approval for an execution? Do you really want to go through the process? Public trials, where he'd have witnesses and could appeal. The time it takes. Time I would rather spend on other things than seeing Mr. Sunstone for one more day."
"Seraph is right," Beelzebub chimed in. "I'd rather not spend another day on this issue. Heavens, I don't want to spend another hour dealing with this gnat. Let's choose. Abandonment or imprisonment? Let's be done with it. If we go with Abandonment, I will take care of the logistics."
Azazel slowly raised his hand, a finger extended.
Michael acknowledged him. "What do you have?"
The oldest Council member chimed in, his voice weak and wavering. "There is yet another option besides imprisonment, Abandonment, or wading through an execution trial."
"Such as?" Apopis sneered.
Azazel spread his hands. "We know nothing we've tried has worked. We have already imprisoned Mr. Sunstone. We have already Abandoned him. Yet he continues. We want swift action, which is why we are here. Past Abandoned were always adjudicated at lower levels. So there is a way that we can swiftly address this."
"What way is that?" Beelzebub grumbled. "Out with it."
"A trial by combat," Azazel said.
My mother gasped. My eyes shot open. Ralrek scoffed. But the wheels were turning in the minds of the Founders. They were entertaining Azazel's proposal.
"Interesting. Definitely interesting," Michael said, tapping his finger absentmindedly on The Histories of the Balance.
Beelzebub rolled his bottom lip out of his mouth, sitting back and crossing his arms. "I would be okay with that. We could take him to the fighting pit in the Seventh. I haven't been back in ages and would love to visit my old stomping grounds to watch Sunstone being torn apart, limb by limb."
Seraph watched me as if I had already found the unlocked door and was waiting to dash to freedom.
"Interesting proposition," Apopis said. "Do you have an opponent in mind? Someone carrying the criminal guilt equal to Sunstone?"
"I have a few candidates. There's a demon in San Jose who offered to spy for the Upperworld," Beelzebub offered.
Michael tilted his head, his eyebrows raising. "We do have the Jordanian politician. It would be difficult, of course. But he needs to be brought to justice as well."
"Hardly an opponent worthy of young Ezekial," Azazel said.
With that, Apopis agreed. "That is true. Sunstone would walk free a minute after combat started. No, he needs a more dangerous opponent."
"There is the former Third Circle Administrator—" Seraph said.
"I don't want him back in the Underworld," Beelzebub barked.
"We have to choose someone, or go with another option," Michael said before another verbal battle kicked off.
"Do I get a say in the matter?" I risked asking.
Beelzebub lunged forward, his finger shooting out in my direction. "No! And say another word and we will cast a Silencing spell on you. I promise, it will be a permanent one. You won't even be able to say goodbye to your loved ones. Keep your mouth shut."
Michael pushed his hand to the floor as if he were trying to subdue a faerie. "Let's keep this moving." The leader of the Council looked down the table at the opposite end where the oldest among them sat. "Azazel, this was your idea. Do you have anyone in mind?"
Just above his long, pointed goatee, Azazel's lips rolled in and out. "Actually, I do. Another demon who has gone… wayward. Someone I believe can be more than a match for young Ezekial."
"Good then," Michael said. "Who is this demon?"
"I'd… rather discuss that in private. Young Ezekial should not be privy to this information out of… security concerns." Azazel wagged a finger at me.
Heads turned to Michael. Including mine. Had I not been completely thrown off my game learning about Cancer's death, I might have confronted Azazel's apparent setup with a dose of Creed for the Founders. Right now, I could barely remember to allow my automatic biological processes to do their thing.
The leader of the Council nodded. "We'll talk about the specifics later. I think—"
"We're going to take the word of this senile bastard?" The shout cut Michael off. Seraph was on her feet again. "Enough of this. I'm not just going to roll with whatever is thrown out, without thought. We need to be deliberate and we need to do this right. I'm not willing to take a chance on Sunstone escaping justice again. Beelzebub?"
"I am of no mind to give Sunstone any breaks. Whoever we choose, it needs to be done quickly, and with the right opponent. Like Seraph, I am no longer willing to take chances."
"Are we all comfortable with a trial by combat? Can we take a vote on that, at least?" Michael asked his peers.
The Founders voted in favor of a trial by combat in less time than it took my mother to burn dinner. Apparently, my fighting days were no longer behind me. Though I had done nothing wrong, I was now going to have to fight for my life. And by the speed at which everything was moving, it was going to happen soon.
"Now, the matter of Sunstone's opponent," Seraph said, finally re-taking her seat.
"If you will just give me time, in private, I'll explain my—" Azazel tried to speak but Michael cut him off.
"This is a matter we will continually circle around," Apopis said.
Beelzebub grunted. "I'll fight the gnat myself if I have to."
I welcomed that proposition.
Seraph closed her eyes, breathing in slowly through her nose. Her agitation was palpable. "Let's call on Him. A quick conversation and all will be settled. Let's not waste any more time."
Beelzebub leaned forward without unlocking his arms. "Are you sure? You know how He can be. The vote needs to be unanimous."
"Highly unconventional. Highly unconventional," Azazel complained.
Her top lip peeling back, baring her teeth, Seraph said, "Again. We need to move forward. Invoking Him will be faster than making the allowance for an execution trial. We agree a trial by combat is the way. Let's make this next decision even simpler. I invoke Lucifer."
What in the heaven did that mean?
"I second the motion," Beelzebub said, slapping the table.
Michael's hand slid to his side to where he kept the gavel. He picked it up, raising it at a slight angle. "All in favor?"
"Aye," Apopis said.
"Well, I have already stated that I believe this is highly unconventional. I believe that we can make the decision ourselves without invoking Him," Azazel argued, his cheeks wobbling in frustration. "If you but listen to my justification for—"
Beelzebub leaned back in his chair, tipped on its hind legs. His massive hand gripped the jade table so he didn't tip over. I imagined those thick fingers around my neck. "Yes or no? It's that simple."
Azazel blinked a few times before answering, looking at the others for help. None came. "Then… yes."
"Aye," Michael said. "We will invoke Lucifer and return to this matter. We're done here." He tapped the jade table with the gavel.
Accused of murder and consorting with demonkind's eternal enemies, facing a trial by combat against an unknown opponent selected by the Lord of the Underworld Himself. Talk about an epic homecoming.