This is Part 2 of the first chapter. If you haven't started at the beginning, click here.
Let's pick up where we left off (REMINDER THAT THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS).
"Quickly," Apopis shouted after the guard, who sped into an actual run.
"Mr. Sunstone, step forward," Michael, the leader of Lucifer's Third Council, said from the left side of the table. The first chair. He still wore the neatly trimmed beard and mustache he always did. His light brown eyes fell on me unflinchingly.
I moved in front of the table. Creed hung in collapsed form from the loop at my side, warming at Michael's attention. I ignored it for now.
"Unfair, but necessary," a voice whispered. From where, I couldn't tell. I snapped my head to the side, not expecting someone to sneak up on me in such a serious situation.
No one was there. Bilba and Ralrek were a few feet away. After a moment, Bilba squinted as if confused. I scrunched my eyes. The smartest demon I knew, he could be thickheaded, especially when it came to defending me. The confused glance he and Ralrek shared at my examination hinted it might not have either of them who'd made the comment.
Deciding to ignore the voice and move on to the Council's latest screw job, I faced the jade table.
"We won't spend long on this hearing, Mr. Sunstone. Understand, it is of utmost importance that we dispense with this as soon as possible," Michael said.
"Which shouldn't be difficult considering the gnat's actions in the Overworld," Beelzebub said. A deep chuckle rumbled somewhere in his chest.
Creed thumped against my hip. "What actions are you talking about?" I asked, my eyes sliding across the members behind the table.
"Your actions that upset the Balance," Apopis spat, his close-set eyes narrowed to slits.
Unlike the past, his half–tattooed faced no longer bothered me, though I was still curious to discover what the stupid inscriptions said. I imagined it was a dare from his college days.
Creed warmed a few more degrees. He didn't like Apopis either.
I answered the thin Founder, but my eyes were firmly on the only succubus on Lucifer's Third Council. "And what actions were those?"
"Would you like us to read the entire list of infractions, Mr. Sunstone?" Seraph asked, her voice raised in a haughtiness undeserved for someone so despicable. Until recently, I found the slim Founder stunning. Now her cheekbones were too bony. Her long, blond locks, too stringy. The slivers of wrinkles that hinted of the possibility of mature seduction looked more like cracked porcelain.
My mouth moved before my brain engaged. "I would be honored. In fact, I would be happy if, for once, just once, this blessed Council was forthcoming about something."
So much for playing it cool.
Behind me, my mother gasped. Ralrek groaned, and Bilba made a noise like a trilling ember cat. And those were the funny reactions. Not so funny were the Council member's reactions.
Azazel, whether fabricated or not, blubbered something to his chest. His long goatee, gray but tipped with orange, poked his stomach. Beelzebub actually had the audacity to make a fist and pound it into the open palm of his other hand. Apopis pulled his lips back and hissed. Seraph's icy blue eyes flashed. Only Michael remained composed, which I would expect.
He leaned forward, tapping the jade table with his finger. "Mr. Sunstone, you have worked for the Council for years. You understand the duties and responsibilities we hold, and, despite your recent actions, I had hoped you would be civil enough in these proceedings that we could address the challenges before us without antagonizing one another. This is not pleasurable for any of us. But it is something we must do."
"It is necessary," Apopis said.
"Again, I'm at a loss over what I've done that is so bad to be called back from Abandonment. I didn't even think that was a thing."
"It has happened before, though not for many ages. Not common, definitely a unique situation," Azazel said.
"A situation that, nonetheless, must be addressed," Michael said, sitting straighter. He held the air of authority with his posture and his position, and he knew it. "Azazel is correct. Calling someone back is rare, indeed. But there are times when it must be done to preserve the Balance."
"Still not sure how I affected the Balance," I said, eyeing each of them before tapping the halberd on my hip. I swear they flinched. Even Beelzebub. "Unless you're talking about me using this, which of course, I wouldn't have had to use if you hadn't sent your assassins and your nephew, Seraph, to kill me."
Lucifer, it felt good to name her. Petty? Maybe, but I was past caring about pettiness, especially toward the pettiest demons in creation.
"You think too highly of yourself, boy," Beelzebub laughed, crossing his arms. "You were Abandoned. We would have no reason to bother with you, never mind sending someone to kill you."
"Yet, you did," I pressed.
"We did no such thing," Michael interrupted as Beelzebub's arms flexed.
"True enough. We didn't. Yet we cannot explain why Chax Vicu, Seraph's nephew, was in the Overworld," Azazel said, bringing his goblet to his lips, looking straight ahead as he sipped and waited for a response.
"I have my reasons." Seraph's head snapped in his direction. "None of which is any of your business."
"They may not be, but it provides cause for young Ezekial's actions," Azazel replied.
"You dare justify the murder of a demon by an Abandoned?" Seraph shot to her feet, her knuckled hands clenched. "That demon was my nephew. My family. And he was killed in cold blood by that criminal."
Azazel slowly set his goblet on the table. Even from thirty feet away, his hand shook noticeably.
Heat rose up my neck. My pulse galloped. "Chax Vicu has been after me since I wanted him to halt a curse on an innocent demon. The demon you knew about and did nothing to help. Because you supported your family's vendetta."
"This is highly unconventional," Azazel blurted in a wobbly voice.
"Insolence," Apopis spat.
"Michael, do something about the boy, or I will," Beelzebub boomed, tipping forward.
Behind me, my mother whimpered, infuriating me. How dare they put her through this?
"What will you do?" I challenged.
We were in Hell; the Founder could do nothing to me here any worse than what the Council already had done. Without permission from Lucifer, they were powerless to kill me. Besides the big guy Himself, no demon could kill another in Hell. Well, except one.
If Beelzebub wanted to dance, I was ready to tango. I had Creed and two left feet. My day might not be enjoyable, but I would walk, or crawl, off the dance floor. Beelzebub lacked that same guarantee.
"Enough!" The command from Michael boomed across the chamber. "Enough," he repeated, softer this time. "I will not allow this to be reduced to a juvenile squabble. Seraph, sit down."
All attention in the chamber moved to the succubus standing at the fourth spot. She was still half-facing Azazel, about to protest.
"Sit," Michael repeated.
Her eyes flashed once again before she whirled to her chair, yanking it back. The chair legs cracked against the riser. Sitting in a huff and scooting forward, she waved her hand in a few rolls. "Well, then, let's get on with this business before we completely capitulate to this imp."
"I don't believe that's what we're—" Azazel started.
"There will be no capitulation," Apopis said. "Regardless of his desires, thoughts, or opinions on the matter, we should be done with this discussion and move on to the punishment."
"So I'm to be punished for defending myself."
"You murdered a demon in the Overworld," Michael said as if it settled the argument. "And that is not the worst of the matter."
"The heaven it isn't," Seraph said.
"Seraph," Michael tilted to see around Beelzebub, rotating his head in her direction and basically cutting off everyone in the room who wasn't in his line of sight. "You will get your say in the matter. I'm going to ask you… again… to stay true to our purpose."
"What purpose is that?" I asked.
"To determine the punishment for your crimes," Beelzebub snarled from behind his crossed arms.
"It's not a crime to defend yourself against someone trying to kill you," I argued. "You'll need to do better than that."
"And consorting with an angel?" Apopis retorted. "What would you say to that, Sunstone?"
Beelzebub barked a laugh. "The boy thought we didn't know."
Honestly, I didn't care if they knew as long as that knowledge didn't put Cassie in danger. She proved she could handle herself against someone like Chax and his crew. She could deliver pain and death in a sneak attack when the rest of the Underworld didn't suspect her presence. The same way she did as part of the angel crew that attacked the First Circle at Gemini's attempted execution. But I doubted she had the same chances when it came to facing down a Founder or two. Even if she could stand up against them, that didn't mean I wanted to poke that blazebull. Cassie would have enough troubles back in the Overworld. Best to keep her out of the matter.
"I'd say your spies need to get better at their jobs," I said, hoping to plant doubt. "Either that or you are imagining things. Angels? That's ridiculous."
"Our reports say that Angelfire was used in your attack on Chax," Seraph said.
"Again. Defending myself, not attacking him. Though, I guess you're not going to listen. He didn't listen to me either, and look where that got him."
She shot to her feet.
Creed burned against my side.
I concentrated and projected my senses outward. If someone was tapping into their Ability, I'd know it the instance they touched it. In the past, I only felt when a spell was being prepared. As my Creed-gifted senses improved, I was even more sensitive to magic, and honestly, I'd take any advantage I had. Pricking at the fabric of the room, I reached, my Sensing coming back empty.
But one wrong movement from her, or any of the Founders not named Azazel, and I'd have Creed in my hands, ready to do to the Founder what I did to Taurus. And the assassin. And Chax. This list was getting long.
Before returning to Hell, Azazel asked me to not rush into any situation, to trust I was not alone in what was to follow. Maybe he should have begged.
The last thing I felt was the comfort of company. Even if Azazel suddenly reversed the aging process and became a more youthful, powerful version of himself, even if Bilba and Ralrek made the bad decision to fight on my side, I doubted it would end well for the good guys. Someone I cared about, someone who was on my side, would pay a heavy price. No one needed that.
"Trust," someone whispered, the voice wispy and ambiguous.
I risked a glance away from Seraph, half-worried I had just made a mistake. The succubus was conniving enough to use the diversion, but she didn't. Whoever spoke gave away no sign. Disguised in ambiguity, the voice gave no hints to the speaker.
Trust what? Trust who? Was I just hearing things? Had something happened inside the rift on my way back through to the Underworld? Rifts could be dangerous, even to experienced travelers. Though I had crossed between realms numerous times since working for the Council and never experienced any severe reactions, there was always the chance I would. A matter of when rather than if, I guessed. Maybe I was hearing remnants of traveling through the magical device.
Great. A convenient bout of delusion to go along with whatever the Council was readying to serve up.
"Murder. Consorting with angels. The death of Cancer Nijal," Michael said, his voice steady. "That is why you are here, Ezekial. To face the charges and, if found guilty, be sentenced. Stop with this other folly if you want to preserve what few rights you have left."
"Wait. What? Cancer?" I said, shocked and stumbling through broken thoughts.
"She's dead, boy," Beelzebub taunted.
"Abolished, Sunstone," Apopis said.
"How?" The word creaked out of my throat.
Apopis's laugh sounded like a rattle. "As if you don't already know."
I hadn't heard from her since she flew to the other side of the Overworld to return to the war zone to serve humankind. Abandoned along with me, she was decaying—dying, as mortals said. Everything dies. Humans. Demons. Planets, suns, and their solar systems. Nothing is free of death's touch. A natural process for immortals and mortals, it happened much more quickly for us when we were cast to the Overworld. Her desire was to leave a positive mark on the world with the time she had left. I had figured I would hear from her when the time was right. Now…
"I… I…" Forming a response was impossible. Somewhere behind me I heard Bilba say he was sorry. A disembodied comfort.
I felt detached. Cancer, gone.
"There's nothing to hide, boy." Beelzebub's deep voice shook me out of my thought-tornado.
Seraph said nothing, just bore holes into me with her gaze.
"But… I haven't seen Cancer since—" I cut myself off out of instinct to protect her. Whatever this was, I knew I was innocent. If something had happened to her, it wasn't at my hand. The guilty party was likely sitting in front of me.
"So unfortunate," Apopis said, shaking his head.
I swore he was smiling, but my eyes were blurring with tears.
Something ruffled to the side of the room, but I was too busy mourning the loss of my friend. I drew a breath and lifted my head, readying myself to ask the Council's favor for a moment. I needed to collect my swirling thoughts tucked behind the image of Cancer's face. But Michael wasn't paying attention to me. Instead, he gave a slow blink and head nod to a guard at the side of the room. It was only then I realized that the ruffling was from a guard going through my personal items.
Dizzy, I couldn't think straight. Any momentum I had gained by coming out swinging at the Council was lost.
A thick incubus with brown skin that never met a razor, he straddled my bag, which gaped open. In one hand, he held my copy of The Histories of the Balance, the most important book in Hell, gifted to me by my ex-boss, Dialphio Tywald. The Council feared the book so greatly they had my original copy burned, by Apopis's own admission. Now, they had their filthy hands on the last copy. The guard also pulled out the only demonic notebook I brought home, leaving a bundle in my apartment in hopes Cassie would find them.
"A demonic notebook?" Seraph asked. "How does an Abandoned book stocker afford one of those?"
I shrugged, hoping I looked more nonchalant than I felt. "You paid me well to do your dirty work."
"Hmmmm," was all she said in response.
"Doesn't matter. Bring the book here. Leave the notebook," Michael ordered the guard, who complied.
Numb, I watched as the incubus delivered my book to the leader of the Third Council. His black armor rattled as he stretched to set the tome in front of Michael, who didn't touch it until the guard departed. Beelzebub looked at it as if it were a coiled snake. One corner of Apopis's lips pulled back, spreading his smile half across his face.
"Is that what I think it is? The heretical writing?" Azazel asked.
Michael nodded. "It is." He tipped the book so that it stood on its end.
"Where did you come by this, Sunstone?" Apopis said, his head rolling to the side, jutting in my direction.