Blood drops on roses and ransom notes written. Pustules and bruises and flesh that is bitten. Body bags all wrapped up with rotten gut strings.
These are a few of my favorite things.
Well, not really, but when you’re the Morning Star, Satan, the eternal thorn in the Almighty’s side, there are certain expectations of a guy. Kill a few folks and you’re a murderer. Kill millions and they call you God.
Guess we know who won the PR battle.
But all that’s water under the ark, these days. I’m just another cog in the war machine. Never thought I’d find myself here, though, slipping the yoke over my shoulders again, but it was that or stare down the rogue’s gallery of God’s past on my own. Turns out, I’m not the only devil He’s pissed off. Not even close.
The blade slid nicely through the angel’s throat, the spray of blood warming my fingers. The sentry twitched and jerked as his final breath hissed from the wound, and then went still. His weight slumped against my hold, and I let him drop. He collapsed with a sullen thump, the sound mirroring my disappointed sigh.
Crimson dribbled from the dagger, drip, drip, drip, the woeful leak a sad metaphor for the mission God had sent me on. Unable to call upon my magic lest my target sense me coming, I was forced to do things the hard way; stealth and steel. A chuckle welled at the thought. It’d been a long, long time since I’d had to take matters into my own hands so literally. Can’t say I liked it.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a little dirt under the nails, but I didn’t wage war against Heaven so I could do grunt work. Better to reign in Hell and all that. I was only here because ol’ Yahweh needed the sharpest knife in the rack, and that’s me. It didn’t make me feel any better about it, though. I was still traipsing through an alien encampment, billions and billions of miles from home, all so I could kill someone who could have been me a couple thousand years back. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me, nor was the danger. I spill a little blood today and tilt the odds, who’s to say it’s not me catching a blade in the liver the next time a point needed to be made?
I shook off an uncomfortable chill and stared out across the white sea of tents that glistened in the darkness, a pair of larger, more majestic ones visible near the rear of the camp. General Ilfaar had brought his forces to the stony shelf of the planet Kurikal in anticipation of his mystics cleaving a hole through the very fabric of the universe. Trapped after God set the locks on the Shal Ko’ra—the nexus of worlds—to slow the advance of the Aliterean Consortium, the enemy had become quite industrious with their tactics. Again and again, they poked holes through frayed dimensional walls so their legions could spill into our space without warning. It was effective.
We’d lost four planets and hundreds of thousands of soldiers to these surprise attacks before we even realized what the Alitereans were doing. Worse still, their success only fueled their ambition. We barely finished washing the blood from our boots from the previous assault when the next began. They were wearing us thin while God played his pawns at defense. He’d given in to my pleas to take the fight to them at last.
I kicked dirt over the fallen angel’s wound, quelling the coppery stink that tickled my nose. He was the first to die tonight, but he wouldn’t be the last. Yahweh had unleashed me as an abject lesson in pre-emptive violence. It was a role I was happy to play after so many defeats.
Shadows danced in the breeze as I slipped between the rows of fluttering tents, only the sounds of an army confident in its advantage stirred beneath the gentle bluster. Angels slept in clusters behind their canopied walls, their whispered breaths and soft rustles an open invitation to this wolf among sheep, but it was not their blood I hungered for. No, I had come for the shepherd. It was his heart I wanted to feel beat within my clenched fist, the last of his life oozing through my fingers. Only when Ilfaar was dead, and the legion of masters at his back joined him, would I be free to leave God behind with His blessing.
The sooner, the better.
A second sentry slid lifeless beneath my blade as I crept through the darkness, weaving a silent course through the gathered army who’d no clue their final moments were upon them. A smile warmed my cheeks at the thought. Perhaps I doth protest too much. The sticky warmth that glued my hand to hilt brought back memories I’d long repressed. To my surprise, they were not unwelcome.
I swallowed back a chuckle and continued on, circling through the corridors of white until I came across the first of the more ornate tents near the rear of the camp, mystical symbols woven into the seams. My eyes traced their lines as I drew closer, marveling at the intricacy of the work that had gone into the wards that shielded the occupants inside. The magic hummed so low as to be felt deep within the marrow of my bones. These mystics knew their craft, no doubt, and they were smart, careful. Unlike the rest of the camp, the wizards hadn’t placed their lives solely in the hands of lackadaisical guards. Too bad the wards were just as useless.
A wave set the gold thread to sparking. There was the vaguest of flickers as the seams sizzled and turned black, lines of ash swept away at the wind’s caress, barely a wisp of char scenting the air. I inched my head alongside the canvas wall and listened, picking out the murmured exhalations just the other side. They hadn’t noticed the failing of their protective spells. It seemed not all of my skills had atrophied in my eons away from the battlefield.
A quick thrust slid the point of my sword through the tent wall. There was a muffled crunch on the other side as cartilage gave way, then bone behind it, and I felt my blade slink into a sheath of welcoming meat. There was a sudden spasm at the tip, a fish squirming on the hook, and then all went still. A sigh slipped from deflating lungs and silence returned.
I waited a moment to ensure I hadn’t been heard before drawing my sword back, letting its weight and razored edge cleave through the wall until the weapon slid free at the dirt and opened the way ahead. A delicate push moved the flap of canvas aside, and I slipped into the gloomy tent.
The first of the mystics sagged in his cot, crimson seeping into the feathered mattress and pooling beneath him, the ruin of his ear apparent even in the darkness. Another wizard slept just yards away. Her breasts rose and fell with an easy rhythm beneath the thin sheet that covered her. Blonde-red hair made a halo about her head, but there was no mistaking the alien cast to her features.
Oversized round eyes were sealed behind great, shaded lids, the slope of her nose jutting from her face with feline grace. Her upper lip was swollen above a mouth of fangs, which just peeked out white between the darker lines of the mystic’s mouth. Long white whiskers fluttered at her every breath. I stared at her a moment while I hovered above.
God’s other creations—both angelic and demonic—always amazed me no matter how long I spent in the trenches against them. There’d been no limit to His imagination as He sowed His seed across the vast universes, searching for some magical ingredient for peace while choking on the bitter poison of free will. He’d yet to find the right combination for His master plan, whatever it was, but I had to give Him credit for persistence. Discarding worlds like a snake sheds its skin, God left behind a thousand universes lost in the madness of never understanding their creator.
I put my hand over the mystic’s mouth and slid my sword into the crook behind her chin. Muscles went rigid at my touch. She hissed into my palm, eyes exploding into wideness only to roll into their sockets as steel punctured brain. Her resistance fell away, and she eased back onto the cot without a sound, her alien physiology denying me even the barest hint of pleasure through a soul transfer.
The angel stared blindly, pathetic in her death, but I couldn’t scrape together two moist shits to care. While I understood her desire to lash out at the God who abandoned her and her people so long ago, the decision to make an enemy of me was never the right choice.
I turned from the corpse and scanned the bunks on the other side of the tent. Both were empty, sheets in disarray. I bit back a curse and made my way toward the front tent flap, feet fluttering across the thick carpets the mystics had spread across the ground. The plan had been to bring the wizards to heel before I set Ilfaar’s head upon a stake, but that clearly was not in the cards. This late at night, it was likely they were seeing to their master or preparing the dimensional wall for its eventual dissolution. Neither endeavor overly concerned me, but I’d hoped to rattle the dear general’s cage first, make a grand entrance, if you will. Wars are more often won by impression than steel.
Seemed I would be made to do things the hard way.
As I passed the center pole that held the tent’s roof aloft, the barest of mystical touches tickled my senses. Reined in as they were, I was surprised I’d felt anything at all with as muted as the ping was. I turned to look at the pole, spying a tiny, wooden shelf set just above eye level and hidden in shadow. Whispers of energy spoke to me as I listened. My fingers slid across the protruding ledge and settled on a small, smooth stone. Embers of mystical energy radiated from its core at my touch, sending pulses tingling down my arm. I slipped it from the shelf and took a look.
The stone was a cipher, and my stomach soured at seeing it. The pulses of energy it gave off dredged up familiar energies I hadn’t expected to feel again so soon. Why would—?
The scrape of feet snapped my attention back to the tent flap as it was yanked open.
“Who are—?” was all the entering mystic got out before my sword sunk into his throat, the thrown blade severing his tenuous grasp on life. The second wizard shrieked and darted off as her companion crumpled.
“Damn it,” I cursed, making no effort to muffle my voice. What difference did it make now? The mystic’s shouts wailed in the night, a wave of others joining in. The flock knew a predator was among them. I might as well be Triggaltheron for all my flailing about.
Stealth cast to the wayside, it was time to do what I’d come here to do. I slipped the cipher into a pouch at my belt, and then retrieved my sword, tugging it loose of the mystic’s neck before stepping through the tent flap to meet the enemy. Content to sow uncertainty, I held tightly to the leash of my magic.
Soldiers swirled between the tents, struggling with their armor and armaments while I strode into their midst. Wide eyes met my casual stare. I turned my back on their frantic efforts and spun about to meet Ilfaar, his mystical signature signaling his approach from the largest tent just a short distance away. He walked toward me with undisguised arrogance, his robes fluttering, a hand encrusted in golden rings held up to stay his troops.
“Welcome, servant of God.” A smile graced his blue-black lips, the centipede of his mustache crawling over his upper lip, its ends wiggling well past mid chest. The red dots of his eyes locked on mine, his shaven scalp a moon of darkness against the backdrop of white tents. His cheeks bubbled alongside his grin. The naked steel clutched in his hand, however, was the lie to his confidence.
“Ilfaar,” I answered. “You know well enough why I’m here.”
He nodded, casting an amused glance at his mystic before looking back to me. “I do, of course, but do you, demon?”
As had been the case with the other supernatural beings I’d faced down during Yahweh’s war, there’d been no lack of hubris in our confrontations. I almost felt sorry for God having to reign over such sycophants.
“Come now, Ilfaar, let us not play games.” I drew in a deep breath and steadied my gaze on the general. “Your options are simple: Surrender and I take command of your forces when I’m done with you or consign them to death by your foolishness. Which is it to be?”
“There’s another option you’ve overlooked, demon.”
This would, of course, be the moment when he spouted some nonsense about killing me.
“You can die.”
I laughed and shook my head. I’d hoped for something more poetic, more imaginative perhaps, but I’d long ago learned to lower my expectations. It was time to set an example. I spread my arms and returned Ilfaar’s leering grin. His fell from his lips as I called my magic to bear.
Clouds welled overhead before even the first of the soldiers came at my back, deeper shades of black amidst the gray. The sky rumbled, and the ground trembled in reply, vibrations skittering beneath the surface.
“Kill him!” Ilfaar screamed. His bluster was drowned in the fury of the growing storm.
A flash of brilliance exploded above, stealing the color from the world for just an instant, a cold drizzle falling in its wake, raining down over the gathered troops.
“Master!” his wizard shouted, pointing upward as she cowered at the general’s side, but Ilfaar didn’t need her warning to realize what I had in store. The first of the screams were sufficient. My smile broadened as Ilfaar stared past my shoulder to see the inevitable ruin of his forces.
The silver dots whistled as they fell to earth, their passage hastened by the lash of my will. Angels shrieked as the heavens spilled forth murder. Steel clanged on steel, the sound only slightly louder than the dull slap of wet meat as the makeshift artillery peeled through flesh and bone. Gurgled shouts joined the cacophony accompanied by the fwip of canvas tents giving way beneath the hail of mercurial death and stumbling corpses. Somewhere, Dante rolled in his grave at having missed such a display.
Ilfaar’s pet mystic fled his side as the abattoir ran red at my back. The downpour continued until there was nothing but the clanging patter of my judgment to be heard and the whimpered moans of the vanquished. Those faded a moment later, wisps of steam rising to swirl about my legs, a penitent disciple groveling at the feet of its lord. The tang of death filled the air.
The general wavered as though he might collapse, a shudder rattling his heavy frame, visible even beneath the silken fall of his robes. At last, he peeled his gaze from the carnage of his legion and turned his bulbous eyes to me.
“God sends his regards, general,” I told him as I darted forward. The surviving mystic would tell the tale of Ilfaar’s downfall so there was nothing left to do but rid Kurikal of the parasite that had infested it.
Ilfaar whipped his blade up in a clumsy parry, its efforts just enough to turn aside the killing blow. He cursed as steel collided, and I cut a shallow trough between his lower ribs. The general stumbled back while I pressed on. Yellowed teeth flared as he clenched them against the onslaught of silvered trails. He was quicker than I’d given him credit for, but it was like calling one donkey’s ass prettier than another.
I sidestepped a feeble counter and severed Ilfaar’s sword hand. A volcano of crimson spewed from his wrist, his rings reflecting the dim light as they spun toward the dirt. He roared his agony, and I added to it by slicing away a piece of his knee. The general stumbled into me and clasped his remaining hand on my belt to keep from falling. All about being helpful, I thrust my sword into his gut to hold him aloft. He grunted as the hilt thudded against his belly.
“Alitere will have your head!” Dots of spittle peppered my face, each word a phlegmy curse.
“Do not fret, Ilfaar, your master will have his opportunity.” I stared down at the general, gracing him with the sincerest of smiles. “But alas, you will not be there to see—”
His eyes narrowed with serpentine quickness, his gaze shifting to my belt. Before I could stop him, his remaining hand burrowed into the pouch where I’d placed the cipher, snatching the stone from within. He fell to the ground clutching at the cipher while calling out in a wild, distorted voice, the language alien yet familiar. My heart battered my chest as I realized what he intended.
Mystical energy erupted at my back, and there was no mistaking the telltale seep of merging realities. He’d torn the dimensional wall open. A presence loomed in the rift as Ilfaar continued his chant, giving me but seconds to react as I felt a being bearing down on me.
I ducked aside and reached out to grasp the general’s leaking stump, spinning him so his bulk was between me and the beast that crept from the other world. Ilfaar’s measured mantra shifted into a stutter as the squid-like tendrils that had been reaching for me seized him instead. He squirmed against their grasping thickness, losing another two fingers as they slipped across one of the dozens of mouths that lined the purplish limbs.
I moved further from the portal as its energies waned and the edges of the rift began to stitch together. Ilfaar screamed while the tendrils wrestled him through the closing gate. There was a wretched snap as he was twisted sideways against the grain of his spine. A flutter of white drifted to the ground just before the general’s head was yanked into the portal, silencing the last of his howling defiance. His booted feet kicked with futile abandon until they, too, slid into the breach and were gone. The remnant tendrils followed after as the wavering gate fluttered, and then failed, closing in on itself. The portal vanished with a hiss, all trace of its energies gone.
It was only then that the true gravity of what happened settled over me.
I grabbed the weathered scroll that had fallen from Ilfaar, and unrolled it with trembling hands. Before the alien words and symbols resolved in my head, I knew what I held and the truth of how the enemy had invaded the worlds so deep within our territory. It hadn’t been entirely the mystics’ work as we’d presumed. My wide-eyed gaze snapped to the empty space where the portal had just been, a sour understanding settling over me.
“You pompous fool,” I shouted, the words spit out with no ears but my own to hear.
I had imagined myself the singular witness to God’s museum of abject failures, but the scroll I clasped in my hand told me otherwise. The Alitereans had been using His prison dimension to reach the worlds cut off by the sealing of the Shal Ko’ra. My heart quickened its pace as the pieces fell together.
Trapped in a pocket out of time and space, the prison could be aligned with any dimension by the cipher to give the Consortium access. If they learned the way of it, there would be even more surprise attacks with no way to determine where they might strike next. It would only be a matter of time until they reached Earth and…
The last of that thought withered in my skull, its ashes brushed aside by another: Triggaltheron.