The mechanical whine of planes, in the distant darkness as they taxied about Birmingham airport, mixed with the smell of jet fuel leant an eerie and somehow metallic aspect to the skeleton of what had once been a stronghold for humanity: The ARC hangar and base of operations in the Southern United States. They did not know it, but mankind relied on this shadowy organization. Not only to protect them from his kind, but also to keep the secrets buried, the masses ignorant of what existed beneath their feet, beyond the limits of their tiny minds. If they could comprehend the horrors spawning from their mere existence, they would wish they had never been born.
Asmodeus considered this as he stewed in frustration over the events of recent months. The plan had been ambitious, and never subtle, not by his standards. He had hoped it would end with the portal, meaning he could get back home and save what remained of his caste. No doubt, the others would have decimated his numbers in his absence. Abaddon, Mammon, Lucifer, Leviathan. All had the advantage while he worked to save them, but he had no illusions that the first thing they would do when they arrived would be to end him.
He took a moment to observe the figure at his side. One of his most bitter rivals, Belphegor had become his only ally in a world cut off from all they knew. When Satan had descended from Heaven, their alliance had endured beyond ages. Now it threatened to leave him alone, isolated.
In response to his gaze, Belphegor shivered, clutching with her one good arm at the other, almost completely frozen. She received the wound ignorantly making contact with one of the Nameless, the force Satan had kept in check over the millennia. Now, the wound threatened to destroy her if they could not return to their own realm in time. Even in the dark, her long blonde hair shimmered. To the mortals of this realm she was a beauty, a facet perpetuated by Asmodeus to instil lust in the easily influenced. To demonkind, she was a force to be feared: remorseless, calculating, and utterly without mercy. Asmodeus hoped she would become so again.
“Can we get on with this?” Belphegor’s hiss came through teeth clenched in a grimace to prevent chattering.
“Hold out your arm,” Asmodeus instructed.
Unclasping her frozen limb, Belphegor reached out with her good right arm. Carefully, Asmodeus folded the sleeve of her blouse back. Smiling, he avoided the steely-eyed gaze that reminded him above all, Belphegor admired fashion. Even in her dilapidated state, woe unto the being, mortal or otherwise, who ruined her favorite garment.
Since the collapse of the portals, inclement weather had ravaged the entire state of Alabama. From within the trench coat he had favored since then he produced a knife. About a foot in length, from tip to hilt, the blade glittered as it caught the light in the near-darkness. The knife was legendary.
Belphegor stepped away. “The Well of Souls,” she said in part reverence, part horror.
Asmodeus laughed. “You need not fear for your existence my dear. The blade is corrupt. Iuvart saw to that in his lust for advancement, for which, I suspect, we have you to thank. There is nothing left on this mortal plane for us to fear. Not now the blade is stained with her blood.”
Asmodeus turned the dagger, regarding it. There were dark stains amidst the conchoidal perfection of the blade. Dried blood. Her blood. “The only act the blade is good for on this side of the void is the very act they sought to prevent.”
Trembling, Belphegor stretched her arm out. “You have a faith I am rapidly losing.”
Saying no more, Asmodeus ran the razor-sharp edge of the blade along the inside of her forearm. Raising the knife, he regarded it for a moment before running it across his right palm.
“The blood of the most unholy, mixed with that of the sacrifice on the blade of the Well calls forth at will, not by chance,” he intoned. “Return to us, born anew.”
Asmodeus touched the dagger to the tarmac of the runway, a place still bearing the scars of a violent explosion. There was a brief flash, and a body materialized in mid-air, dropping to the ground with a thud. Asmodeus felt a rush of power through his body, filling him with ecstasy. By the look on her face, the same had happened to Belphegor.
The answering look of lust on her face had nothing to do with his demonic force. “I feel stronger.”
“And so you shall. For each of Hell’s minions returning, with your life used on the blade, you shall grow stronger. As I said before, there is nothing here for our kind to fear.”
Belphegor gazed down to the body lying inert at their feet. “I want another.”
“All in good time. There are many places we can raise you an army. We have a long road before us, though the destination is known. This is the first of a new breed. He has been called at will, by our blood and by that of the sacrifice. They may come as before now the way is open, but those we choose are ours without question.”
Asmodeus drew his right foot back and kicked the body square in the ribs, causing the man to emit a groan. “You. Up.”
Drawing deep breaths, the man stood. He was taller than both of them by a good six inches, with a barrel chest wrapped in a plaid shirt. Denim clung to legs under the swelling of his growing gut. He clenched his fists and glared at Asmodeus, his shoulders heaving. Teeth gnashed and his face began to distend, the proportions inhuman in nature.
“Enough,” Asmodeus decided, and waved his hand. “You will only revert to your true form if and when I decide it, and not a moment sooner.”
At the command, the man subsided, his face returning to normal. “Where am I?”
“You are at the place of your death, the site of your ascension, and rebirth. You have been brought back to serve us, and you shall do so with every fiber of your being.”
The man clenched his fists. “I feel strong. I feel really strong. It worked as Lord Iuvart predicted.” He raised his hands, punching the air, and roaring into the darkness. Then he paused and looked around. “The explosion. The plane. How long?”
“Five, maybe six months. What else do you feel?”
He closed his eyes, and pointed east. “There. I feel something tugging at me. What is it?”
“It works,” Belphegor breathed in wonder.
Asmodeus could not suppress a satisfied smile. “It's a homing beacon of sorts. You are feeling the blood kindred to those the dagger’s blade resurrected.”
He stared at first Belphegor and then at Asmodeus. “I can feel you as well.”
“There is more: you will feel when we call you, guide you. The first of a new breed you are; an army of demons meant to open the true gates of Hell.”
“What do I do now?”
“You follow your instinct,” Belphegor purred. “That other pulling, the insistent calling, it will lead you to your former wife and her lover. You should know she is with child. His child. We want you to hunt them down. Them, and all those with them.”
Brian Ross rubbed his hands together, his eyes betraying the element of insanity dwelling deep within any demon constrained in mortal form.
Eva Scott winced as Madden led her around the dance floor of the small inn doubling as the town hall for the residents of Unnaryd, in southern Sweden. A crowd of relative strangers cheered on in approval while a local elder played his nyckelharpa with gusto. Eva had asked for a traditional Swedish wedding and she had gotten it.
Madden leaned in, concerned. She smiled to indicate she was fine. Having him this close, Eva marvelled at the fact he was her husband. He was nothing less than dashing, dressed in a white tuxedo, with his long brown hair tied back. He was so tall she had to crane her neck to see his face. He was her personal hero. That he had been reborn not once but twice was an afterthought. Forgetting herself, she winced once more.
Eva let her hand drop to her middle. The borrowed dress had been adjusted to cope with her swollen middle. It was unheard of in the village for anyone to be pregnant before the wedding, but these were special circumstances for a unique couple. The baby kicked her hand away in response to the motherly inquiry.
“No, she is fine. It’s these damned coins they made me wear in my shoes. It's the smell of the food. It's all making me nauseous, but I'll survive.”
Madden chuckled. “Well, you did ask for tradition. The gold and silver coins in shoes are a traditional wealth blessing.”
“Invented no doubt by a torture merchant.”
Madden twirled her slowly with hands still bandaged and slightly clawed from his ordeal on the mountain in Afghanistan now widely known as ‘Mount Gehenna’, after the biblical destination for those who were wicked. It had certainly earned its reputation with what had been dubbed 'The demon incursion' by all at Anges de la Résurrection des Chevaliers, or ARC.
Eva still woke up sweating many nights, the flames and boundless hordes of Hell's legions almost within touching distance, the demon Behemoth rising above her. She had crossed countries, endured numerous attempts on her life to find Madden, and ultimately they had witnessed the failure of their enemy by a miscalculation that cost them their victory. The demon in Madden had been ripped from within, he had been slow to recover, but recover he had, and now they belonged to each other.
Eva caught the eye of Swanson Guyomard as she completed a slow twirl, and invited him onto the floor. The descendant of the ARC founder, Jerome, and current council member grinned and stepped closer to them.
“If I may interrupt, I believe your wife wants to cut the rug with a fellow who can actually dance.”
Madden laughed and handed her over. The tune changed and others joined them.
“You be careful, twinkle toes. She's delicate property. Besides, I will be in perfectly good hands.”
“Without doubt,” said his new dance partner as Swanson led Eva off in the opposite direction.
Dr Gila Ciranoush, ARC researcher and artifact expert of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, was an adept dancer. She would keep Madden safe. Eva trusted her with her life and certainly with her husband. Caught off guard by Swanson’s skill, she groaned once more.
“Are you unwell?”
Eva threw out a look of mock ferocity. “I am heavily pregnant with the child of a man who used to be part demon, I am wearing coins in my shoes, and I have sore feet. Go figure.”
Swanson laughed aloud. “Reap what you sew, tough lady. Suck it up!”
Eva couldn't help but smile. Since she could not contact her parents, he and Gila had acted as surrogate 'parents' for the coin-giving tradition.
All too quickly, the song ended to much cheering, bawdy comments in Swedish, and the raising of glasses containing what Eva had been told was a brand of local vodka. Eva threw her arms around Swanson's neck and hugged him as much as she was able. Leaving him to the tender mercies of one of the many beautiful young women who had seemingly materialized from the village for the party, Eva made her way to the table set for the wedding party.
Only one person sat there. Elaine Millet was Eva’s friend, confidante, and bodyguard. In this world so readily ruled by men, it was a rare woman who could become all three. With her long red hair and matching temper, she appeared severe, but had a wicked sense of humour and a face that lilluminated when she smiled; she was a joy to be around.
“Not dancing?” Eva asked, letting out a long sigh of satisfaction as she leaned back into the heavily cushioned chair which had been provided for her.
“Not my thing. Besides, I can’t take my focus away from you.”
Unassuming and practical described Elaine perfectly. A former member of the assault squad housed at Mount Gehenna known as Legion, Eva had found her and struck up a conversation as they were returning from the near-cataclysm above. With Madden unconscious, both Gila and Swanson otherwise occupied, she had been very much left alone. Legion had sworn, to a man, to defend her, but Eva had chosen to keep Elaine close. Madden had a burly redhead named Rick Larrion, who lounged across the room from them earning a stare of disapproval from Elaine, he had chosen as his bodyguard.
Madden approached, and instantly Elaine sat straighter, a smile touching the corners of her mouth. He spared a grin for Elaine, oblivious to the fact she had taken a shine to him.
“My parents are leaving. Want to come see them off?”
“I would love to,” she replied, holding her hand out and allowing him to help her stand.
“Coming, coppertop?” Madden added to Elaine, offering her his other hand.
“I don’t need your help standing up, thank you very much,” she replied, bristling at the comment.
Outside, it was a pleasant May afternoon. The sun was dipping behind a horizon of spruce and pine, the dark green of both creating the illusion of an impenetrable wall of green. There was a hint of a chill in the air, but Eva had Madden to keep her warm. Next to a range rover, an older but clearly active couple waited patiently. Christopher and Jana Scott were guests because they were ARC affiliates. They could be trusted to keep a secret, having been part of the organization for decades. They also worked for an American Senator.
Upon seeing her son, Jana let out a noise of pure delight and hugged them both. “Don’t you two look like a picture. The perfect couple, and what a place for it.”
“One could almost forget it’s a glorified safe house,” Christopher Scott said as he leaned on the car. “You kids stay safe.” He got into the back of the car and waited.
The hurt on Madden’s face was plain. “I understand,” he said to his mother.