Chapter 22.

"By Rule of Combat."


I - 'On that first day.'

While I was growing up, I was a regular kid. Sure, there was this feeling inside me that I was not like those around me, and maybe my moral compass pointed in a certain direction too unwaveringly for someone my age, but physically and athletically I was even below the average standards set by my classmates.

I was skinny, all elbows, knees, and a head too big for my body, like one of those wobbly dolls you put in the dashboard of your car. My eye-to-hand coordination was glitchy at best, working sometimes excellently—like when playing Pac-Man—while being atrociously bad when it implied the throwing or catching of anything remotely spherical in shape.

I wasn't any good at sports, and I wasn't any good at fighting, which really was a problem because that unwavering moral compass I just mentioned wouldn't stop pointing the opposite direction of 'keep your mouth shut and mind your own business'-ville.

It really drove Mom crazy, whenever I came back from school with a black eye or a busted lip because I had again gotten in the way of some bully. Dad would take me out for a walk and a guy-to-guy talk, although in reality we would just go sit on a bench in the park, drink Dr. Pepper, and watch the ducks swim in the pond without saying a word.

But then came the day of the cafeteria massacre, and everything changed.

To this day, I'm not sure what Ariel exactly did to me, what faulty connection did she fix, or what containing dam did she broke. All I remember is being on the backseat of that double-cab pickup, with Cass at the wheel doing maybe one-fifty in the highway and a line of police cars behind us so long that it seemed to go on forever, my friends' blood still all over me, drenching my clothes and my hair, dry on my skin and metallic in my mouth, my thoughts jumbled beyond confusion and panic, long gone into the realm of disassociation, thinking 'maybe we shouldn't be going this fast in a vehicle with such high suspension, and, oh my god this lady's white dress is really, really short,' when the lady in white in question, Ariel, forced me onto my back, straddled me and said, "I'm sorry I have to do this to you, lad. I really do, but there's no other way. Brace yourself, because this will hurt you like a bloody hurricane."

And then, she sunk her whole hand into my chest, and freed the angel inside me.

She was right, you know, it did hurt like a bloody hurricane.


II - 'Cast your vote.'

Once again, I sit at the Lord of the Abyss's right, which causes more than one raised eyebrow as the rest of the Archdemons arrive and take their respective places around the table.

It's only Astaroth who openly objects to my presence, however. As he arrives with his brother in tow, he sneers in disgust and, before taking seat, says to his boss, "A choice in very poor taste, Lucifer, to have that feathered mongrel sit on the chair of the very man he murdered!"

With a frown, I look up and over my shoulder. Atop the backrest of the chair I'm on, there's indeed the crest of the long-horned bull. Moloch's insignia. Oops.

"Aw, c'mon, Roth, don't play the outraged virgin, alright?" Abaddon grunts while putting a cigarette to his lips and lighting it up. "None of us liked Molly that much anyway."

"It's a matter of principle." The snake demon slits his eyes at the younger-looking one. "Moloch might have been insufferable, but he was one of us." He turns to me. "We shouldn't be looking the other way while his killer sits among us."

As Asmodeus takes a seat on my free side, under the crest of the bird of prey, I lean forward and place my hands on the table on a supplicating gesture. "Astaroth, I'm really sorry. Seriously, I didn't mean to be disrespectful or anything. For what it's worth, let me tell you that having to kill Moloch was really hard for me too. I mean, I will never forget his deep and wise last words." I twist my features in a mocking parody of pain, and scream, "'Oh, shit! My neck! Argh! Sonofabitch, that hurts!'"

I stare deadpan at the boiling Lord of Disobedience, while Abaddon dissolves into laughter and Lucifer facepalms at my side.

I might lament a lot of the things I did during the war. Killing Moloch is not one of them.

Nostrils flaring in anger, Astaroth finally takes a sit while pinning me with his eyes. At his side, with the crest of the sick fly over his head, Beelzebub rocks his chair back and forth while sucking on a glass of tomato juice with a bendable straw. At the same time, I grab Ash's wrist, take her hand off my lap, and place it on the table.

'No?' she raises a surprised eyebrow.

'No,' I shake my head, my lips a tight line.

'You're no fun,' she pouts.

"You can keep your hands warm on my lap if they're cold, Ash," Beelzebub, who is sitting at her other side, tells her innocently.

Asmodeus gives him a disdainful stare, but her answer is prevented by the arrival of Belial, who sitting down at Abaddon's free side says, "They're always cold, son. Just like her heart."

"As if you were ever to find out, old man," the blonde Bird of Lust smirks. "Oh, I forgot I'm missing the one thing you're interested in."

"Are we done with the usual exchange of barbs and put-down's?" Mammon sighs while elegantly sliding onto the last vacant chair, between the Spider and Lucifer. "I can go for a walk if you all want to continue acting like spoiled children for a little while longer."

"They're done," Lucifer says ice cold. Abaddon opens his mouth to add something—no doubt smart and disrespectful—but a hard look from the Lord of the Abyss keeps him silent.

He shrugs and throws the butt of his cigarette inside his finished can of beer. Whaddya believe, a minimum amount of decorum.

I notice that most of the guests of the party are leaving, and only a few aides and advisors stick around, silently waiting behind their masters' chairs. Abaddon is the only one on his own, although I don't know if that's because he doesn't need or want assistance from anybody, or because not even the guys in his own clan can stand the idea of being around him for too long.

The glass of whiskey still sits in front of me, the ice long melted but still tempting all the same.

"Azazel, if you will, please," Lucifer requests, straightening on his chair. There's still blood on his face and clothes, but nobody seems to find this a problem.

The Devil's right hand man pulls a leather-bound book seemingly out of nowhere and, opening it, reads in a baritone tone, "On this day, the Dark Council gathers to rule and decide the fate of the Kingdom of Hell. May the minds and hearts of—"

"Erm, I have a question before we go on," Abaddon interrupts the protocol, much to Azazel's obvious annoyance. The Goat points at me. "No offense, bro, you know I love you and all, but what are you exactly doing here? This is kind of strictly Hell business, and last time I checked, we weren't selling rings like the one hanging from your neck at our gift shop."

There's a chorus of muttering and mumbling from the small crowd of aides. Of the Archdemons, only Astaroth and Belial seem to be openly in agreement with the question, the first with a nodding frown, the second with a cool smile. All of them turn to me with interest, though.

"Well, I—"

"My nephew is here on social business and as a private guest of mine," Lucifer prevents me from answering, which comes as a relief. "I've invited him to this meeting because I thought he might find the proceedings interesting."

"So we're supposed to believe that the son of the King of the Dead and the head of Heaven's diplomacy, and nephew of the King of Heaven, is here merely for tea?" Astaroth's smile is as sarcastic as it can be. "Pardon me if I find that unlikely, Lucifer."

The Lord of the Abyss directs his lieutenant his own sardonic grin. "Don't worry, Astaroth, you are pardoned. In any case, the last time I checked, I didn't have to justify my decisions to anyone, most certainly not to you. Nicholas stays for as long as he wants, and he's always welcome in my house, understood?"

This is not really about me, I'm smart enough to realize that. Cass already told me that the Archdemons were emboldened and that their testing of Lucifer's power was getting more and more aggressive, but I didn't expect it to be this unsubtle.

"Hey, hey, I got no problem with that," Abaddon shakes his hands. "Just wanted to know how much I had to watch my tongue. You're not gonna run to mommy if we start talking trash about upstairs, right, bro?"

I slowly run my tongue over my teeth, eyes straight onto the smiling Lord of Destruction. "I guess that depends on the kind of trash, Abe."

"Like, if I say that your mom is a hot piece?" he provides with a naughty-boy smirk. "'Cause I happen to think Gabrielle is way hot, dude."

"Nah, I wouldn't tell you on that, bro." I calmly shake my head. "I would just wipe the floor with your face myself."

"Zing!" he laughs out loud.

Sighing with impatience, Lucifer motions at Azazel and the man reads from his book again. "On this day, the Dark Council gathers—"

"Can we skip the usual legal mumbo-jumbo?" Abaddon cuts him off again. "C'mon, we all have better stuff to do with our time, am I right? Places to be, souls to torture, and all that. I have a hot date with that waitress, and I bet even old Belial here would rather be anywhere else, like bending over in front of some horse-dicked hunk."

"You're disgusting!" the Spider snaps at him, both angered and offended.

"Says the man with freaking insects crawling outta his beard. Ever heard of a comb, Belial?"

Still engrossed in his bendable straw, Beelzebub helpfully provides, "Insects have six legs. Spiders have eight, they're arachnids."

Abaddon snorts. "Thanks for the clarification, Rain Man."

Before Astaroth can come in defense of his brother, Lucifer slams his hand flat on the table so hard that the glass surface cracks into a web-like pattern from the point of impact of his golden seal.

"Enough!" he roars, making me jump a little on my chair. Breathing hard to control his tested temper, Lucifer hisses, "Very well, Abaddon, we will dispense with the usual preliminaries and go straight for the meat, but I swear that if I hear anything else that I deem irrelevant coming from your lips today, I will have your skin used to make me a doormat. Now, am I understood?"

Malice pouring out of every pore of his skin, the Lord of Destruction mimics zipping his mouth close, locking it, and tossing the key over his shoulder. I lean slightly to the side and whisper at Asmodeus, "Is it always this bad?"

She gives me an amused sideways look. "Bad? Darling, please, this is just foreplay."

Lucifer gives the lapels of his jacket a small tug as he straightens on his chair again, nothing playful or seductive about his demeanor. In fact, I'd say he's precariously balancing between angry and homicidal at the moment.

"So, the main and only point in today's agenda is, again, the appointment of a new name to the position of Archdemon of Sector Two," the Devil announces, eyes moving from one figure across the table to the next as he speaks. "This situation has been left unattended for far too long and it's starting to fester. Sector Two is in absolute disarray, the Bull clan is lost to infighting and lack of direction, souls are going unpunished, and I've just been informed that the DLF is camping around the place as if it belonged to them. This cannot continue!"

Azazel leans over and whispers in my ear, "Mr. Bene Elohim, you don't need to raise your hand if you want to ask a question. This is not a school."

Feeling a little bit embarrassed, I lower my hand and whisper back, "Ah, what's the DLF?"

"The Djinn Liberation Front," he informs me. "A bunch of lunatics using violent tactics with the deranged goal of obtaining a free Djinn state. Unbelievable, I know."

"Is there a terrorist group in Hell!?" The incredulity in my voice is way louder than I intended and I find all stares directed at me. "I mean, uh, kinda ironic, right?"

"They don't terrorize anybody," Mammon offers coolly. "They're just a nuisance."

"Regardless, it's a problem that needs to be dealt with in the most expeditious manner," Belial remarks, looking straight at me. "Especially if it's true that the flames of their movement are being fanned by Heaven's interests."

"Here we go again," I hear Asmodeus sighing in boredom and frustration. "The old 'Heaven is behind it'. For all things unholy, old man, the wall already fell down, alright? They won, and until you all start accepting the truth of the new situation, we will never—"

"All that is inconsequential!" Lucifer rages. "Do not deviate from the problem at hand. There will be a time and a place to deal with the DLF, our relationship with Heaven, and all the rest, but if we can't focus even in the simple task of running our own kingdom by ourselves, then all that will be a moot point!"

He takes a deep breath in, once again examining each of his ministers one by one. I'm not using to see Lucifer playing the statesman. It's, well, interesting.

"Once again, I ask of you—no, I demand of you to look past your own interests and have what is best for this kingdom in mind when you cast your vote." He makes a pause, seemingly growing to his full infernal majesty on his seat. "I propose Cassiel Saturnine to be appointed as ruler of Sector Two."

I shoot a look at Cass. Standing by Lucifer's throne, however, she seems made of marble. Emotionless and unreadable.

The chorus of aides renews their hushed exchange of opinions, even though none of them seem interested in passing said thoughts to their masters. These just look at each other as if trying to decipher their respective thoughts.

"What do you think, Nick?" Beelzebub asks all of a sudden, placing the straw onto the table. He smiles pleasantly as I realize he has skillfully knotted the plastic tube into an origami-like figurine. "It's a giraffe. I like giraffes, they are yellow, and have funny long necks."

"Well, ah, it's a very nice giraffe, Beely-boy." I frown a little, taken by surprise.

"No, silly!" he laughs. "I mean, what do you think of Cassiel's appointment. She's your friend, isn't she?" He turns around to the people behind his chair. "Hey, can anybody bring me another straw, please? My giraffe is lonely and wants a friend to play with."

I have no intention of answering, but I notice that once again all eyes are on me, even Lucifer's. I lick my lips and try my most diplomatic expression, hoping that somehow Gabrielle's diplomatic DNA becomes active at this very moment.

"Well, I obviously have my, uh, utmost trust in Cassiel's ability to do any job she gets charged with to the highest standard, I mean, she's, y'know, an…ace." I feel my ears becoming red. I hate to talk in public.

I dart a glance towards my friend, and find her pinching the bridge of her nose and shaking her head slowly. I sigh. "Look, this might not be my place to say anything, but you all know I would put my life in Cass' hands without a second of doubt. That might not mean a lot for you, but it sure means a lot to me. If you give her the job, and if she wants it, I'm one hundred percent sure you will be all the better for it."

"If she wants it?" Mammon asks with intent.

I open and close my mouth. Both Lucifer and Cass are looking at me so intensely that they seem to want to open holes through my body. "Well, sure, I mean, isn't the idea of this place that you want freedom of will and all that? Has anyone of you asked her what she thinks of the whole caboodle?"

As one, all the heads turn to Cass, whose eyes open wide like saucers. It's Abaddon who, slumping down on his seat and putting his hands behind his head, asks with a wide grin, "C'mon, don't be shy, girl. What do you think of the proposal? Are you ready to step out of the shadows and into the limelight?"

Cass sends me a single dagger with her green eyes before standing as straight as she can and firmly saying, "I am dedicated to the welfare of this kingdom, and I will do what's best for it, like I've always done."

"Kinda ambiguous, ain't it?" The Goat makes a face. "And I'm not convinced your skills go much further than stabbing people in the back. Sorry, babe, but Abaddon Darkstar votes a solid 'no'."

Cass seems to deflate a little, although I'm not sure if it's with disappointment or relief. I notice Lucifer's hand turning into a fist on the table. I'm pretty sure that my big mouth hasn't affected Abaddon's decision in the slightest, but I can't help feeling a bit responsible.

"One negative vote," Azazel announces, sounding official. "Five others left to be cast."

Astaroth smiles snidely. "I'm not gonna let you plant a captive vote in the council, Lucifer. Your candidate gets a 'no' from Astaroth Scalesworth."

Even though he doesn't raise his eyes from the manipulation of the new drinking straw he's been given, Beelzebub seems to notice all stares being turned to him. He shrugs. "Whatever my brother says. He's the smart one."

"Three negative votes."

"You should have come up with a consensus candidate, Lucifer," Belial argues. "Belial Arachnos says 'no'."

Asmodeus, staring at her manicure with apparent disinterest, snorts. "Pfft, no way."

Mammon trades a look with Lucifer. I think I see frustration there, like she is being forced to act against her own desires by the situation. "Mammon Steppenwolf votes 'no'."

"The council has cast its vote," Azazel sighs with dismay. "The proposal has been rejected."

Astaroth immediately stands up, preventing Lucifer's obvious angered observation. "The Snake clan proposes Sector Two to be divided amongst its neighboring areas. You're right, Lucifer, this situation can't be prolonged any more. Let's take the only sensible decision." Tapping on the table with one finger as if making a point, he looks around. "My brother and I will bring order back to the sector and strengthen this kingdom the way it deserves."

He sounds like he's on campaign. Belial sends me a look like saying 'see how I was right?'.

"I second the motion," Beelzebub quickly says as his brother sits down. He puts a second figurine on the table and his face suddenly seems horrified. "No! It's a lion! He will eat my giraffe! Who gave me this? Who? I will kill you, you hear me? I will eat your entrails!"

His brother puts an arm on his shoulder, quieting him down, but the troubled Archdemon remains staring aghast at the figurines, as if expecting the new one to leap onto the other and to start devouring it at any given time.

Azazel says, "Astaroth's motion goes forth. The rest of the council shall vote now for approval or refusal."

"Belial Arachnos says 'no'."

"Mammon Steppenwolf says 'no'."

"Two positive votes, and two negative ones." Azazel sounds a bit tired, like this has happened way too many times before and he'd rather be doing something more useful.

Asmodeus crosses her arms under her ample bosom and rolls her eyes. "So this is déjà vu, uh? Asmodeus Featherlove passes, thank you very much."

So Belial was right. Well, this has been an hour of my life I'll never get back. I could have used it to have a nap, or maybe—

"Abaddon Darkstar votes 'yes'."

—I could have had a nice real lunch instead of those canapés. Wait, what?

It's hard to say who is more shocked around the table. Certainly not Abaddon himself, who smiles smugly with his hands still behind his head, or Astaroth, who just looks like the cat that are the canary, or Beelzebub, who still seems more preoccupied with the fate of his straw figurines. Belial, on the other hand, looks like he was just kicked in the crotch, while Asmodeus is doing a great impression of somebody who was just told 'no, it's not a bad case of indigestion, congratulations, it's a boy'. Even Mammon's usual cool façade cracks into bewilderment. I don't want to think what my own face looks like right now.

Nothing compares to the expression of the three people at the virtual head of the table, though. Cass is as flabbergasted as I've ever seen her before, which is like saying never. Lucifer looks like the living toad he's trying to swallow is not cooperating at all.

And Azazel, well, he is so shocked that he stammers in disbelief as he recollects, "Three—three positives votes to-to two negative ones and one abstention. The pro—proposal is a—accepted."

The frickin' bastards! They had planned this beforehand, which means that unlikely as it sounds, there's an alliance going on between the Lords of Disobedience, Sloth, and Destruction. What does this mean? What are the consequences?

I lack the necessary knowledge of Hell's intricate politics to fully flesh out an answer for that, but just looking at Cass' face, I know it won't be good.

I half expect Lucifer to explode into nuclear mode, but instead, he relaxes back onto his throne, suddenly looking thoughtful. He taps his chin with a finger, the gears in his head spinning so fast that I get motion sick just by observing him.

After just a couple of seconds of enduring his rivals' smirks, he softly but clearly says, "I veto the proposal."

To my surprise, this only seems to make Astaroth and Abaddon even more self-satisfied.

"Can you do that?" I frown. Then move my eyes to Azazel. "Can he?"

The advisor's expression is not a delighted one. He clears his throat. "Only by rule of combat."

I shoot my eyebrows up, then direct my question at the Devil. "Are you going to fight these bozos?"

"The proposal will be fought by proxy, as it is tradition," Azazel answers for his boss again. Lucifer seems not to have even heard me, still concentrated in his adversaries, still plotting, still machinating in his head. "As defender of the proposal, Astaroth Scalesworth will be the first to select his champion."

Leave it to Hell to fight without getting its hands dirty. Who says you can't eat the cake and have it too?

Astaroth's smile only grows larger by the second. "The proposal will be defended by Abaddon Darkstar."

It's like they're following a script, like they have anticipated every single step of what was going to happen beforehand. At the other side of the table, however, it's like everybody is being thrown a bucket of cold water after another. Obviously, judging by everyone's faces, no one expected old Abe to be the fighter of choice.

What now? I imagine that Lucifer's choice will be Cass. She's his enforcer, and one of the top fighters in the realm, so it makes sense for him to appoint her as his champion. But, can Cass defeat the Lord of Destruction?

I've seen her doing incredible things over the years, but Abaddon's fighting prowess is legendary. They say he once fought Michael himself to a standstill during the Rebellion War and that no one can beat him in one-on-one combat without the intervention of God Himself.

My heart gets clenched by a cold fist. I look at Cass once again and the sensation gets increased by what I see in her eyes. Doubt.

Abaddon winks and sends her a kiss. It seems that I'm not the only one arriving at the same conclusion.

"Sire, if you will…" Azazel tentatively requests of his Lord.

Lucifer raises a hand and beckons for his right-hand man to get closer. Azazel does so and the Devil whispers something to him that not even my sharp ears get. The aide's reaction is one of surprise, though.

"Are…are you sure?"

Lucifer Morningstar, Lord of the Abyss, Godking of Hell, simply nods and then smiles, his dark blue eyes fixed on his enemies.

"Beware when the Devil smiles," says a voice in my head that sounds a lot like Anthony Hopkins', "for his plans are about to come to fruition."

Azazel stands tall, opens and closes his eyes with a perplexed expression, and announces, "Opposed to the proposal, as is his right, Lucifer Morningstar chooses his champion to be Nicholas Bene Elohim."

Wait, WHAT!?


III - 'On that first year.'

Imagine that all through your life you had seen the world in black and white and that, all of a sudden, somebody pulled a switch in your head and all was filled with more colors than there are in the rainbow, in the artist's palette, or even in the paint catalogue of the Home Depot.

That's what happened to me when Ariel freed the angel inside me.

Well, that might be a little misleading, for there is no difference between the Archangel and myself. We're not separate entities sharing the same body—or two bodies, as it happens—but one and the same. But I can't help thinking about it in those terms, nevertheless.

There was a part of me that had been captive for fifteen years, and now was suddenly free. My perceptions, my understanding of the world, everything that I was, it was intrinsically changed. I often wonder nowadays if it was actually for the better, but accept that there's no coming back from it.

And to be honest, in those very days and in spite of the tragedy that I had experienced at my school, it was a blast.

Hey, I was fifteen and all of a sudden I had superpowers, what do you want me to say?

It didn't happen in a single overnight, but roughly in the span of a year my body changed as it adapted to my new inner self. I grew up five inches taller, filled up with well-defined muscles, my senses sharpened, and my reflexes became so fast I could have excelled at all those sports that had been anathema before.

'Growth spurt' and 'overdriven puberty hormones' was the explanation that my poor puzzled Mom could only come up with to justify both my physical changes and the ones of my behavior.

That hurt the most, you know. Having to keep things secret from her, being unable to fully explain why I was suddenly skipping school, getting into trouble, and so clearly not trusting in her anymore. Puberty, yes, PTSD associated to the school massacre, and remnant feelings of abandonment because of the loss of Dad. That I used to lie to her, to mask a secret identity that was quickly becoming my real one.

It sounds cool in the panels of a comic-book, that whole putting on and taking off your glasses and ripping your shirt open, but there's nothing funny about arriving home at three a.m., smelling of smoke and god-knows-what, and having to hide your blood-stained hands in your pockets because your mother is waiting for you in the living room with unshed tears in her eyes, so worried that you were dead or something, and yet, when she looks at you, the both of you realize that she doesn't recognize you anymore, that you're a stranger, and so you quietly climb up the stairs to your room without ever crossing a word with her.

No, it's not funny at all.

Anyway, that first year was my training year, my learning year, my this-is-what-you-can-do year. Guns, and knives, and blowing stuff up. Swords, and flying with my own wings, and using my angelic abilities to become the warrior I was born to be. That was the blast I was talking about.

All angels—and demons by derivation—are warrior-born. I don't know why God decided to create an entire race like that when the world He had created for them to live in was as peaceful as you can imagine it to be, but it doesn't change the fact that we all have war and combat in our veins like we have red and white cells.

Our fighting skills are instinctive and natural. A martial artist trains all his life to become a Grandmaster of his chosen art, and the best ones will tell you that they never really become perfect at it, for perfection is unattainable, and that they are just little more than adept students.

I mastered Tae Kwon Do in three days, Hapkido and Aikido in two, and Savate in a single afternoon. No, I'm not trying to sound self-aggrandizing, Batman's the one doing so when he says he's a master of one-hundred-and-twenty-seven forms of combat, because he's just a human being and, no matter how driven you are, there are not enough years in a human lifespan to learn all that crap.

I'm not a human being, and I just can't stress that point hard enough.

One-hundred and twenty-seven? You're adorable, Bruce.

How many styles of martial arts do I master?

The whole frickin' lot of them.


IV - 'Prophecy Boy.'

"Have you lost your goddamn mind, Lucifer!?"

The words could have come out of my mouth, but it's actually Cass the one voicing them. We're no longer in the ballroom, but in my uncle's private office, a surprisingly small and Spartan room with little more than the bare necessities for your everyday ruling of Hell.

"Beware your tone, Lady of Shadows," Azrael admonishes her. "You're talking to your King."

"Ah, shut your piehole, Azazel!" She literally gives him the 'talk to the hand' gesture. "This is no time for your stupid protocol!"

While his two trusted seconds argue, Lucifer is sitting at his desk, calmly answering emails on his top-notch computer. I'm casually leaning against the window behind him, hands in my pockets while I watch over his shoulder.

"I still don't understand how you get internet in here," I frown, puzzled.

He shrugs. "I own twenty-percent of Microsoft."

I open my mouth to object that's not really an answer, but promptly close it as something dawns on me. "Oh my gosh, so many people procrastinating while hooked on XBOX Live, that was you, wasn't it?"

Lucifer looks at me over his shoulder and gives me an ambiguous smile.

"Will you two stop talking like buffoons and deal with this?" Cass seems really upset, like that time when she caught me smoking because I was trying to look cool. "And why aren't you worried, Nick? It's the goddamn Abaddon we're talking about!"

"Oh, I'm not worried because I'm not gonna fight him." I shrug.

"Oh yes, you are." Lucifer makes his chair swivel to face me.

"Oh, no, I'm not," I insist. "Look, man, I don't know what do you pretend with this charade, but there's no way in, well, in Hell that I'm gonna get inside a battle ring with that a-hole."

"Are you scared of him?" He cocks an eyebrow, mildly curious.

"Heck, yeah!" I half-snort, half-laugh. "He's a psycho and a frickin' Archdemon!"

"So was Moloch. How did that one go?" he observes.

I stare at him wide-eyed, the fact that he's actually being serious about all this finally sinking into my stomach with the same pleasantness of an ounce of strychnine.

"Holy crap, you really want me to fight Abaddon," I say in disbelief. "Cass, he wants me to fight Abaddon!"

My old partner spreads her arms and makes a 'finally!' face at me.

"Have you gone insane?" I push myself away from the window and start to nervously pace back and forth the small office, which is not that big to begin with. "And what place is this?"

"It's just where I come to be alone, check my personal emails, do some reading, you know, that kind of quiet stuff," he hand-waves the matter off, returning his attention to the computer screen. "Oh, Raphael has a new boyfriend. Mmm, pictures of their vacation in Aruba…de-lete!"

"He'll kill me!" I try to drive the point into his head.

"Not necessarily," Azazel argues. "The rules of the fight stipulate that victory can be achieved by submission or incapacitation."

"So it's not a fight to the death?" I ask, hopeful.

Azazel sinks his hands in his pockets and looks up, making a face that seems to say 'weeeell…'. "He doesn't need to kill you, but nothing stops him from actually doing so."

"Oh, great, that's great. I'm gonna die and it'll be completely unnecessary and just because why not. Thanks, but no thanks, I pass."

"I still don't see where the problem is!" Lucifer protests. "Come on, Nick, you've done this before!"

I wave from Cass to him. "Care to explain him?"

"He's outta practice. Like, way outta practice," she points out.

The Devil doesn't seem taken aback by that. "It's like riding a bicycle. Two minutes in the ring and it'll come back to him."

"Two minutes? He won't last two seconds!" Cass insists. "It's Abaddon, Lucifer! The Goat! Do I have to remind you what he did to the Samarrans? And that was just because he was bored!"

"Do I want to know who the Samarrans were?" I ask Azazel with a hush.

"First human civilization proper," he provides in the same tone. "You won't have heard of them because he left almost no trace of their people, their buildings, or their culture."

Yeah, I didn't really need to know that.

"Nick's not a Neolithic half-monkey, Cassiel," Lucifer insists. "I'm confident he can best Abaddon."

"No. No, Lucifer, he can't." Cassiel is adamant. "You're sending him to the butcher's house."

The Devil leans back on his chair, crosses his hands over his lap. There's a fire in his eyes, anger at being refused, but he does an effort to keep it in check. "You know as well as I do what this is. It's the start of a coup, if we don't cut it right now, there'll be no stopping it afterwards. Do you want Astaroth on the Ebony Throne? Do you think he'll do a better job than I?"

"I don't argue the situation," Cass offers, raising a placating hand, and lowering her defiant tone. "It's the choice of your proxy that I think inadequate. Call it off, select me instead. You know it's the sensible option."

Lucifer cocks an eyebrow. "Is it? Can you best Abaddon?"

The Lady of Shadows opens and closes her mouth. "I have a bigger chance than him."

"You have jack shit, girl, and I'm going to tell you why." His Infernal Majesty stands up and leans on his desk. "They have been planning this for a long time; they have anticipated my reactions and counteracted them in kind. Do you know why I selected Nick? Because he was the one thing they couldn't be prepared for, and I needed to throw a wrench in their plans. If you go in that battle ring, Cassiel, you will be the one turned to minced meat, because you were the one they were expecting me to choose."

"Not to mention the loss of face that we will suffer if Lucifer changes his mind," Azazel adds. "The Godking of Hell can't afford his decisions to be perceived as feeble and subject to whim."

"That's all very interesting and everything, but I still fail to see why I should agree to this crazy idea," I protest. "And don't give me the 'Astaroth is truly evil and I'm just a poor misunderstood boy with daddy issues' line, Lucifer, because I'm not putting my neck on the line for it. We all know that from my perspective the difference between you all is tenuous at best."

"'Tenuous', that's a good word," he remarks with an approving expression as he moves from behind his desk.

"Thank you, I read a page of the dictionary every day while having breakfast," I dryly shoot back.

On one side of the small office there's a well-stacked library, of the kind you might see in a lawyer's office, full of thick leather-bound books. Lucifer moves to one of its ends, and shows the books—or at least a few of them—to be nothing more than a fake front for a bar cabinet in disguise.

"You can refuse, of course. I've never in my life forced anyone to do anything against their will, after all," he says while serving himself a glass of bourbon. "But if you do so, my only other option will be to go the Cassiel route, and make no mistake about that, Abaddon will do his worst to kill her."

Hands on my hips, I consider the Devil's blue eyes as he turns and offers me the drink. We stare at each other for a couple of seconds until I finally let my shoulders sag in defeat and turn the glass down. "I shouldn't drink when I have a fight around the corner."

"Nick!" Cass shouts at me, angered.

"What?" I turn to her, equally frustrated. "Can you defeat him, Cass? Can you look me in the eye and tell me with positive sureness that you have a fighting chance against the Lord of Destruction?"

"I don't need you to save me, child," she growls. "I'm not a damsel in distress."

I hold her raging stare. "I said it before and I'll say it again, Saturnine: you're my friend and you'll always be. I won't quit on you."

She grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me slightly aside from the other two, hissing at me. "Don't let him do this to you, Nick. Don't let Satan manipulate you."

I can only offer her a 'whaddaya gonna do' face. "You were right about something, though. Neither of us can help what we are."

"You've all lost your goddamn minds." She turns away from me. "We're in a sinking ship and you're all gone mad."

"So much like the Titanic." Lucifer chuckles, leaning his back on the library and sipping from the glass. "'Oh, don't worry, no need to spend more money in making the compartments completely flood proof, the ship's perfectly safe as it is'. Heh, heh, that was so easy."

"Wait, there's something else." I run a hand through my hair. "My angel side is kinda out of commission at the moment."

"How so?" He tilts his head a little. "Is it really bad?"

"Bad enough that I swapped bodies while out cold." I test that tender part at the back of my mind. It's like having a sore at the very back of your throat, where you can't properly reach it, but you still try to rub it with your tongue over and over. "I've a broken wing, and I'm pretty sure that all my limbs are in no better shape."

Lucifer rubs his face tiredly. "Azazel, ideas?"

The aide ponders for a few moments before answering. "It shouldn't be a problem. As challenger, it's within your right to establish certain parameters of the challenge. We can limit it to human forms."

"No weapons either, then." Cass quickly suggests, seemingly accepting the inevitability of the situation. "Let's try to make it as hard as possible for that bastard to kill you, at least."

I cross my arms and look at her. "Darn, you really think I can't pull this one off, don't you?"

Cass gives me a neutral look. I feel like there's something she wants to say but at the same time she'd rather keep it to herself, and it puzzles me, because I have no idea what it is.

"I like that we're starting to think positively." Lucifer claps his hands after leaving the glass aside. "Azazel, you go and tell those asshats about the conditions of the fight, and, oh, take care of that other thing as well."

"Immediately, Sire." He nods with a sly smile that makes me feel uneasy.

The Devil's aide quickly leaves, however, and before I can inquire about 'that other thing', Lucifer moves to the center of the room.

"Alright now, let's continue on this trend," he says, way more optimistic that I think he should be. "Nick, I'll be happy if you just beat Abey, but really, giving him a sound whopping would be ideal."

I shake my head, utterly confused. "Hold on, aren't we missing a step here? Like the one where I'm grateful if I just survive?"

"Ah-ah, I won't have any more of that defeatist mindset, it's nonsense. You're the guy that killed the Father-of-all-Dragons, beheaded the Bull of Idolatry, and even executed that traitorous bitch Raguel. This should be a walk in the park for you, Prophecy Boy!"

I rotate my lower jaw, my face a portrait of disgust. "I'm aware of my own legend, Lucifer, like I'm aware you're the main reason why it's been aggrandized without my knowledge or consent."

Yes, I did pretty amazing stuff during wartime, but not everything's as nice and simple as the story of the boy with the flaming blue sword and the shiny silver armor that goes back and forth in Heaven and Hell.

I did kill that dragon, but I just didn't do it on my own, and many good people died so I could deliver the killing blow and claim alpha dominance I over the monsters of Purgatory and use them in the assault to free Heaven from Moloch.

I did kill Moloch himself, but I was able to do so because I was in such a state of rage that to be honest, I barely can remember how I did it. Only once afterwards I've given in to that terrible side of me and unleashed the full power of the Archangel, when I tore down the Cherubim that murdered Mom with my bare hands, after finding him over her dead body.

And I did kill Raguel. My sword ran her through and she cried to the final sleep on the blood-stained grass of the Elysium Fields, but she…she…

"Please, Nick, I might have embellished the tale a little bit here and there." Lucifer derails my train of thought and, for once, I'm grateful. "It was useful to have you as an icon to be admired, and feared, when the war was over and we sat at the negotiation table, I'll admit to that. But the core of the story remains the same: you're the Chosen One."

I roll my eyes so hard that my corneas hurt. Don't get me started on the whole prophecy thing. The boy that, having been rejected by Heaven, would return to save it in its direst hour, redeem Hell itself, and bring all the realms together.

"Do you know what's the funny part about that prophecy, Lucifer? I already fulfilled it, remember?" My smile is as forced as it can be. "So nothing prevents me from dying at any moment in the future."

Well, to be honest, there's also Uriel's precognition that I will somehow be the downfall of all angels, but that might just be her paranoia talking and, in any case, it's really, really vague and open to interpretation.

My chips are still on Abaddon snapping my neck sometime in the next few hours, sadly.

"Blah, blah, yadda, yadda. Again with the pessimism, just like your father. All gloom and doom." Lucifer shakes his head. "Look, it's very simple when you get to it. Nick, I do sincerely believe you can take Abaddon down. You have the skills, the technique, the ability to improvise. I've seen you, nephew, you know how to adapt and think outside the box, not many of our kind can do that. The only thing that you're missing is that you're always capping yourself."

"What are you talking about?" I frown, sincerely not having a clue.

Cass sighs. "He's saying that you're too human."

"Excuse me? Too human?" I arch my eyebrows at her. "What is that even supposed to mean?"

My old friend observes me for a couple of seconds before answering. She doesn't seem pleased. "Nick, you're…different than the rest of us. Special." She raises a hand to prevent my obvious joke. "You were raised as a human, and that's something nobody either in Heaven or in here can relate to, and in many ways that makes you something more than we are, but in others something less. You restrain yourself. You've always done so, and I don't know if it's because you're scared of that side of yourself, or because you're simply unable to get over your upbringing, but it's the reason why Abaddon will crush you."

I'm speechless, for once in my life.

"So you see, nephew. The only thing you really need to beat down that arrogant prick is to believe in yourself." He smiles in that way only the Devil can. "Just like Dumbo."


V – 'The Letter.'

Dear Mom,

By the time you read these lines, I'll be gone. Please, don't try to find me. It'll be better for both you and me that you don't tell the police or anyone, at least for a while.

I'm sorry I can't tell you where I'll be going or what I'll be doing, but that'll be safer for the both of us too. People might come looking for me in the future, asking questions, and you will be better not having any answers for them. Don't lie to them when they do, however, don't try to protect me, don't put yourself in danger for me.

I know these words will scare you, and I wish with all my heart that I wouldn't have to do this, but sometimes life doesn't give you any more choices than bad and worse. I won't tell you not to worry about me, because I know you will anyhow, because you love me as much as I love you.

The last few years haven't been easy for either of us. Since Dad died, you've been everything to me, not just my mother, but my best friend. It hurts me like you can't imagine to know that I haven't corresponded you in kind. I wish I could go back and change things, but once again, that's an option life has taken away from me.

Know this, though: I'm off to do something incredible, something great, something good. I will return to you one day, this I promise, and when I do, I will tell you all the truth, and the truth will make us free.

I am nothing but what you and Dad made of me with you love and your care, and I will make the both of you proud of me, I swear.

Until my return, please remember that I love you more than life, and never forget that, wherever I am, I will be thinking of you.

Your son,

Nick

I wrote that letter one year after the angel in me was awakened. I left it on the kitchen counter, inside an envelope labeled 'For Mom', and then I left like a thief in the night.

I told myself it was the right thing to do, not a cowardice on my part, not a betrayal of all that she had done for me since her and Dad opened their lives to me. I convinced myself I was doing it out of love.

I went to war, to be a hero, to save the world, and all I left her to remember me by was a note and a promise that I never fulfilled.

When a human being dies and he's deemed worthy, he goes to join all the other saved souls in the grace of God in Paradise, or so they say. No one knows what Paradise is like, for that's the only part of all Creation that angels are not allowed to enter.

No one knows if these souls exist with their consciousness and memories intact, if they are living lives of perfect happiness and harmony, if they are just deep in a peaceful slumber from which there will be no waking up, or if they have transcended existence to become something we can't even dream about. Nobody knows if they can see us.

All I know is that my parents are there, together. And that I'll never be able to be with them again, that I'll never know if they are proud of me, and that I'll never be able to tell them how much I'll always love them.

There will never be a Paradise for a being without a soul such as I am, but every time I think of this, every time I remember of what I lost and will never recover, that's indeed a living Hell.


VI - 'Versus.'

By the time we return to the ballroom, I'm still not convinced of Lucifer's theory that I just need to boost my self confidence in order to beat Abaddon.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a good fighter and I know it. I've fought for my life from the deepest pits of Hell to the highest minarets in Heaven and survived to tell the tale. I've defeated angels, demons, and creatures barely ten years ago I thought to be just myth and legend.

But that's the key; ten years ago I was just a kid worried about my pimples, while Abaddon has been a God-created warrior since the very Dawn of time itself. How can I compete to that?

Yes, I know—the whole Moloch and Raguel thing again.

This is something I've never told anyone before. I killed Raguel, but in reality it was what Dad would have called 'suicide by cop'. I had her cornered and I told her it was all over, and rather than face the shame of defeat and the family's punishment for what she had done, rather than to admit she had been fooled by Moloch and that the love she felt for him had been nothing but an illusion and a lie, she threw herself at my sword.

She died in my arms, and I could see the regret in her eyes, the fear of the dark unknown, the shame, and the pain. It was the trigger that blew my bloody doors off.

Three years of war. Running away from home and leaving Mom. All the things I had seen and done. My own regret, my own fear, shame, and pain came crashing down on me in a tidal wave of rage.

I let myself loose and went straight for Moloch blind with wrath and a pure desire for retribution. I fell on him from the sky, angel of vengeance with black wings and flaming sword, and I destroyed him not by skill and technique, but by unadulterated righteous anger.

Cass's right. I was not human at that moment. There was no trace of the son of Kevin and Alex Dempsey when Final Judgment cleaved Moloch's axe in two, no childhood memories of Queens as I pounded him to a grinded pulp with sword and armored fists, no recollection of years of joy and innocence, of growing up loved and cherished as I forced him to his knees and, holding him by one of his horns, hacked at his massive neck until his body fell off the parapet at the Pearly Gates and I raised his severed head with a roar of victory.

I was all Archangel. I was the ire of God made flesh. A monster of my own.

I don't want to be like that ever again. I don't want to wear a mask of humanity around my heart like do around my winged body. I don't want to be Bene Elohim.

My name is Nick Dempsey, and I don't want to ever forget that.

Yet here I am, walking with the Devil at my side, while he tells me that's exactly what I need to do if I want to live to see tomorrow.

"One second, Nick." Lucifer stops me as soon as we walk into the ballroom. Cass stays as well, but he motions for her to leave us alone and, although reluctant, she does so. "I realize you're doing me a big favor here, nephew, and it won't be said that the Morningstar is not a grateful man. You can consider this an incentive too, if you want to. Win this fight, and I'll answer any questions you might have about that subject you were curious about."

"Aesir?" I frown. "Y'know, I was planning to ask anyway, and I wasn't going to accept a 'not your business' as an answer."

"Cute." He smiles softly. "Now go and bitchslap that little jerk, will you? Remember that the fate of this kingdom is in your hands, and maybe the future of the other realms as well."

"Hey, no pressure," I hiss under my breath, following him as he resumes his way back to the Council's table.

Everyone else is still there, although the only ones that remain sitting down are Beelzebub, playing with his straw figurines, and Abaddon himself, feet on the table and languidly blowing rings of blue smoke from a new cigarette.

I can't believe I ever thought that smoking would make me look cool. I'm actually glad that Cass made me smoke that whole pack in one go, although I still get sick in the stomach when I think about it. The gun to my head wasn't much fun, either.

"Nicky, my boy!" he cheerfully greets our arrival, eyes gleaming with excited malice. "Are you ready for this? Are you? Dammit, I'm stoked, man!"

I give him the silent treatment as Lucifer sits down. Azazel is nowhere to be seen, so rather than sitting down and betray my nervousness with a jerky knee or something like that, I stand at the throne's right side, while Cass takes her usual position at its left. If we're going to play this game, might as well play it right.

The rest of the Archdemons are around, but they seem busy in heated talks with their respective advisors. Mammon is dead serious as a tall redhead with close-cropped hair explains her something, she makes eye contact with me and doesn't seem to be in a happy mood.

Asmodeus, on the other hand, is the one doing the talking in her group, if by 'talking' you understand a lot of screaming and slapping her aides around. 'How you idiots didn't see this coming' seems to be the theme of the conversation.

Belial and his groupies, all of them with the same musty look as him, are formed into a circle, heads bowed low and almost touching. They seem to be immersed in some form of exchange, although it's hard to say of what kind. All my ears perceive is a cacophony of clicks and clacks as they all 'speak' at once. Insectoid weirdos. Pardon me, arachnid weirdos.

And finally, Astaroth is just gloating. Surrounded by a crowd of yes-men that obsequiously nod at him and tell him how smart, handsome, and a sharp dresser he is, he seems to be about to explode with his own overinflated ego.

He should be careful with that; this little species of ours doesn't have a good track record with that kind of thing.

"Lucifer!" he addresses the head honcho. "We've been informed of your request for the conditions to the fight, and we graciously concede to them. However, I would like to give you the opportunity to change your mind about your choice of a champion. No one here wants to get you in trouble if it happens that we have to return that mongrel of yours back to Heaven in a casket. Believe me that none here will think any less of you if you decide to change your mind to a more sensible choice."

"That's indeed incredibly thoughtful and gracious of you, Astaroth. Thank you so very much for having the consideration." Lucifer smiles pleasantly, leaning his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands. "But nopes. You see, my nephew here needs the exercise. He's been out of the game for far too long, and I think that wiping the floor with Abey's pretty face will serve him as a good reminder of what he can do." His smile drops as if it had never existed. "Both to himself, and to any idiot that thinks that he can challenge the Lord of the Abyss without consequences."

"I thought it was the fighters who had to do the trash talk, not the managers," I observe.

"Hah!" Abaddon smacks his thigh. "See? That's why I love you, bro! Always laughing in the face of danger. Classy as hell, yo!"

"Do you know when I'm gonna be laughing the hardest, Abe?" I give him my own version of a fake smile. "When I'm cleaning your blood off my shoes. That's gonna be a riot."

Dempsey's rule #21: Never let them see you're scared shitless. Half the battle is won by the mind, the other half by beating them to death with the nearest blunt object.

Abaddon points a finger at me, mouth full of perfect white teeth. "You're the best, bro."

I point back at him. "Nah, bro, you're the best."

Frickin' douchebag.

"Very well then." Lucifer pulls a small leather bound agenda from the inside pocket of his jacket and, to my WTF shock, puts on a set of gold-rimmed reading spectacles to check it. "Now, if we can agree on a date and place for the fight to take place—"

'How about the twelfth of never?' crosses my mind, but Abaddon beats me to the punchline by straightening on his chair and protesting. "Hey, hey, who wants to wait? Let's do it now, man! Right here, right now!"

"Quiet now, Abaddon," Astaroth admonishes him. "That's not what we agreed upon."

I cock an eyebrow. It looks like this wasn't in their plans. I look at Cass questioningly over the throne and she provides, "You should fight down at the coliseum, for everyone to see."

"Publicity, uh?"

She nods, and I begin to get the grasp of it. Astaroth wants everyone to see Lucifer failing even if it's just by proxy, but Abaddon is just too excited to wait for the arrangements to take place. He wants my blood now.

Looks like Lucifer's wrench has already started to make the wheels get off track. Fine with me, I don't want to spend a second longer in this place if I can help it.

"I'm up for it if you are, Abe," I prod the Lord of Destruction with a half smile. "I have better stuff to do than waste my time with your petty demon politics, y'know."

He stands up in a flash, taking off his jacket. "Oh boy, that's what I love to hear. Don't worry, Nick, I won't be too harsh on you. I don't want your momma calling me all hysteric 'cause you need facial reconstruction surgery."

I take my jacket off as well, followed by my shirt, shoes, and socks. All the way as Abaddon does the same, we keep eyes locked. He smiles his bratty smile, and I do my best for my fear not to show.

Astaroth is being whispered something in the ear by one of his men, and he stops the Goat from moving along with me to the open area of the ballroom.

"Wait!" he commands, grabbing him by the elbow.

"You wait yourself, snake." He angrily pulls himself free. "Do all the talking and the plotting that you want, but this is the moment for action, not words. My moment."

"You hot-headed imbecile, I said wait! You need to hear this!"

For a second, I see Abaddon's eyes turn blazing gold, and his forehead twist with sprouting curled horns. I'm sure he's going to jump at Astaroth's throat, but when the Lord of Disobedience begins to whisper something in his ear, his whole expression changes from one of rage to a shocked one, and then to pure delight. He looks at me, and his smile is as joyous as the one of a kid who was told 'we're going to Disneyland instead of Grandma's for holidays'.

I don't have the chance to watch them any longer, as Cass approaches me with a very serious expression. I sigh when she's finally next to me. "Look, I know what you're gonna say, and you're probably right. This is not a good idea, it's stupid and all sorts of crazy, but I don't see any way around it. I know you're worried about me, and believe me that it means the world to me, Cass, but I won't step back."

My old friend just stares deadpan at me. "I just came for the watch."

"The what?"

"The watch." She points at my wrist and the TAG Heuer chronograph. "I don't want you to break it during the fight."

"Oh." I smack my lips together and, feeling a bit stupid, take the darn thing off to give it to her. She doesn't leave immediately, however, and continues looking at me with the same neutral expression. "What, do you want my trousers too? 'Cause I'm not gonna fight in my underwear."

"You're an idiot," she remarks calmly, but with smoldering eyes. "If you get yourself killed today I swear by all that's unholy that I will find a way to bring you back to life. And then I will kill you again myself, just for making me go through all this shit. Now go kick that jerk's ass."

I arch my eyebrows. "Nice pep talk, coach."

"Anytime." She nods and then leaves to join Lucifer.

While I do a little stretching and loosening of my joints, I notice Azazel finally making an appearance. He goes straight for Lucifer and quietly whispers something to him, which causes the Lord of the Abyss to smile and nod in approval. Looks like it's 'whispering in the ear' day, or something. Maybe I should look for somebody to hush secrets to so I don't feel this left out. I wonder what I could tell them, though. Maybe I could confess that I actually enjoy Katy Perry's songs. No seriously, have you ever listened to 'Firework', like properly listened to it? Such an awesome—

Crap, I'm going crazy. What is that a-hole waiting for? For me to die of old age?

It comes as an actual relief when Abaddon finally leaves his co-conspirator's side and comes to stand in front of me at the center of the room. Like me, he's barefoot and bare-chested. Unlike me, he's still smiling like a moron.

"Ready for some fun, bro?"

I don't answer him. I'm past quips and verbal darts. I'm finding my calm center, my stable center, my unmovable center.

Fear is the real enemy; I will not bow to its threat. I will conquer my fear and bend it to my will. I will be washed by a sea of calm waters, I will let wind carry me on its wings, I will walk through fire, and the earth itself will rumble with my steps. I am victorious already, for I'm free of fear.

"I'm ready."

Azazel comes closer as the rest of the present demons form a large circle around us. "Gentlemen, you know the rules established for this fight. Victory shall be granted by incapacitation of your opponent. Any of you can tap out at any given time and such decision will be respected by the other. No transmogrification and no weapons. Violation of any of the rules will be considered forfeiting of the fight."

"Oh, and no hits below the belt line, OK?" Abaddon grins and winks at me. "I plan to visit your mommy tonight and I need my equipment in order."

"Seriously? You wanna go that route, Abe?" I raise an incredulous eyebrow. "You're going down, bitch."

"Oh, that's what she'll be doing on me!"

Crap, I served him that one on a silver tray.

"Gentlemen, at your will…"—Azazel raises both hands—"fight!"

The Devil's aide hurries away from us, and Abaddon and I take a couple steps away from each other.

Ever smiling, the Goat performs a quick routine of movements and forms, powerfully stomping on the floor with his bare feet, slashing at the air with fingers turned into claws, and screaming deep-lunged kiai roars. Kung Fu, the Black Tiger Fist style to be precise.

I stand sideways to him, tug at the legs of my pants slightly and wiggle my feet away from each other until they are well-separated and my knees bended into a semi-crouch. I silently lift my hands to face level, elbows bent, thumb, fore, and middle fingers extended.

"Pencak Silat?" He correctly identifies the Indonesian martial art my stance belongs to. He begins to bounce on his feet with mirth. "Someone has The Raid on his Netflix queue, uh?"

For all answer, I flick my hand at him. Come get it, bro.

He does, and the time for talking is over.

Abaddon's on me in the blink of an eye, roaring and attacking with a lightning-fast chain of left-and-right slashes of his clawed hands aimed at my face and torso. I don't try to block, knowing that any of those strikes carries enough brute force to break the bones of my arms, or that he could turn the block into a grapple that would render me helpless to a devastating follow up blow.

I dodge side to side, retreating and keeping my distance, my eyes fixed not on his flying hands, but on the real source if his movements, his shoulders and hips.

Fast, fluid, and powerful, he combines a right-hand slash with a roundhouse two-time kick to my hip—which I barely see, but notice on impact—and face, which I manage to dodge by ducking and letting it pass over my head.

I use the split second I have in between his missing of target and his recovery to try a low sweep of his supporting leg, but he changes styles in mid-stride, leaning his hands on the floor and using the very momentum of the failed kick to turn it into a Capoeira spin kick. My foot misses his leg as it becomes airborne and he spins like a human top, hitting me with it in the side of the head.

It's a glancing blow, and yet I see stars.

Standing upside down on his hands, his back to me, Abaddon thrusts with both legs at once, scorpion-like. I cross my arms in front of my face barely in time to block, and he uses me as a launchpad to flip himself back into a standing position.

I'm on him as fast as I can, trying to cut his space for recovery short, not wanting to concede him all the initiative. Low kick to his knee, but he blocks with his shin. Right hook, blocked by his left forearm, he grabs my wrist with his right, and I sneak under his arm for a low lefty to his ribs. It's a solid hit on concrete.

His hand still taking hold of my wrist, I lean back, raising and hooking my leg on our extended arms to whip two fast kicks to his face. Abaddon is dazed for a heartbeat, and I take the chance to turn his hold around, capturing his own arm and using him for support to jump and wrap both my legs around his neck.

We both fall down, him to his knees and me on my shoulder blades. My breath gets cut short by the impact, but I manage to maintain my catch, now hooking my legs behind his head and squeezing his neck as hard as I can with my thighs. If I can hold on long enough, I will render him unconscious with lack of blood flow to his brain and this will be over.

However, all I get from him if another smile as he looks down on me. "Dude, you're mashing your crotch to my face. Gross," he says while taking a solid grip of my arms. He stands up, carrying me up along with him, and then smashes me down onto the hard marble floor.

I can't hold back a grunt of pain as my shoulders and head hit the floor. He does it again, and again, seemingly with little effort. My chokehold weakens as my legs become slack. Abaddon lifts me up one last time and then begins to spin around like a merry-go-round. We're the weirdest Fred and Ginger impersonators ever.

The Lord of Destruction releases me and, dizzy as I am by the fast spinning having driven all my blood to my head, I can do nothing to hold onto him. I fly wingless and crash down hard, rolling and tumbling on the floor to a face-down position.

He's on me again while I'm still trying to make the world stop spinning. He tries to stomp my head, I dodge by rolling towards him. He leaps forward to avoid me making him fall, rolls on his shoulder to turn around and face me. I scramble, clumsily, to do the same.

I'm panting, he's grinning, the crowd is cheering.

"Not bad as a warm up, uh?" he chuckles from his crouched-down position. "Are you having fun, bro?"

"Yeah," I gasp. "Having the time of my frickin' life, man."

Abaddon barks a laugh and attacks again. He's not even sweating.

His arms and fists become flashes of movement, too fast to be properly followed by the naked eye. I fall back again, blocking and deviating most of his strikes, trying to flank him but unable to avoid all his hits. His footwork is as complex as it's quick, alternating zig-zagging steps to keep me in his sights with low kicks and sweeps that I almost can't countermove.

I have the impression that he's just toying with me like a cat with a mouse, tiring me down, and stripping me bare of my resources. He's good. He's damn good.

Driven back to the circle created by our demonic audience, I feel suddenly trapped. I need to gain more distance, recalculate my options, devise a viable strategy. I need space and time. I dodge a fast right, sidestep to his flank, and try a Tae Kwon Do roundhouse kick. It's a mistake.

Abaddon swaps styles again, apparently as easy for him as changing socks. He slides back, lets my kick fall on empty air so I destabilize myself, then Jeet Kune Do's the crap out of me with a fast chain of lefts to my rib cage before completing with a high kick so hard that it exposes my feeble attempt at blocking it for the desperate move it is.

I fly back again, my feet leaving the cold marble floor until I crash against the line of spectators. Laughter erupts from the audience as they push me back into the makeshift ring, but I'm starting to be in too much real pain for the one of my wounded ego to be noticeable.

"C'mon, bro, you're starting to slip!" Abaddon taunts me. He motions for the crowd of cheering demons, playfully bows to a female that is recoding the eve with her phone. "That's no good, Nick, these nice people deserve a show! Get back into the game, man!"

Holding my hurting side, I taste blood. Damn, cracked ribs are no fun to fight with.

We circle each other, him bouncing on his feet full of aggressive energy, me deliberately dragging mine in a slow sliding pattern. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of Lucifer and Cass. Both their expressions are guarded and unreadable. I could use some cheering right now, guys.

Keeping my distance, I continue circling Abaddon. He gets closer and closer with each step, bouncing, changing sides, snapping fast strikes not really intent on hitting me but rather shepherding me in a certain direction. He's, once again, trying to trap me against the crowd.

I let him, biding my time.

The Goat finally makes his move, and I'm as ready as I've ever going to be. Cross left, and I dodge to the side, high right follow-up and I repeat to the opposite side, Muay Thai knee strike and I break, intercepting it by bringing my elbow hard against it. He recovers with another left aimed to my chin, I lower my head and intercept again, this time with my forehead. His arm recoils in unexpected pain, opening a path for me.

I'm on him, close and personal. One arm around his neck, the other under his armpit, I bear-hug him and use his own attempt at freeing himself to spin us around. I use my hold as a supporting point and leap.

Give me a fulcrum and I shall move the world. I doubt old Archimedes had this in mind.

Holding onto Abaddon's neck for leverage, I turn my body sideways in the air and then, literally, run on the line of spectators as if they formed a solid wall. Their cheers and hoots turn cries and protests, it's like killing two birds with a stone. I move too fast for the Destructor to compensate, and the both of us go down on our backs. I let go of his neck, but elbow him hard on the face, making him bang his head on the floor.

I spin on my butt and again trap his arm between my legs, pulling at it like at a crank. Abaddon roars in both pain and rage, struggling to get free, but lying on his back as he is, he has neither the position nor the leverage to regain his advantage.

"Hey, Abe, you want a show, bro?" I scream at him, grabbing his hand with both of mine. "How about 'America's Stupidest Cretins'? Do you think you could appear in that one?"

I grab his fore and middle fingers with one hand, and his pinky and ring one with the other. Then, I pull hard, hard as I can, hard until he begins screaming when his flesh gives in and rips.

It's not a killing wound, although I manage to tear his hand almost in two, but it's surely an incapacitating one. I give him another elbow to the face and roll away from him, breathing hard. "Are we done?" I gasp out, my body hurting all over. "'Cause I think we are."

At first, I think that Abaddon is weeping as he holds his destroyed hand. I'm too exhausted to really pay his wimpy-ass that much attention, if I'm honest. But then, as I get more air into my lungs and my head clears up a little, I realize with horror that he's not crying. He's laughing.

"You think this is gonna make me stop, Nicky?" As we stand up face to face, he raises his hand and looks at me through the bleeding open wound. Clear as day, fast as shifting sands, I see his torn-up flesh knitting itself back together until it completely heals up. "Think better, bro, and think fast."

I'm too astounded to react, too tired to be on time, too weak to stop him.

The Lord of Destruction laughs while he falls on me, ramming through my block with a brutal front kick that brings me down as if I had done nothing to try stopping it. I swallow my blood and try to do the same with my pain, rush to get back up again, but only manage to make it to my hands and knees before he strikes me down again with a downwards Tae Kwon Do axe kick to my face.

My blood sprays the white marble floor, my ears ring with my shaking brain and Abaddon's laugher.

"This is it, man? This is all?" He dances around my fallen body, cheerful and taunting. "C'mon, bro, I was expecting a lot more from the Savior of Heaven! Liberator of the Golden Throne, Slayer of the Bull! Ain't that what they call you?"

He kicks me in the side, flipping me around and making me crash on my back.

"Hell, I gotta tell you this, man. When Astaroth came to me with this idea, I almost turned him down, because really, who wants to ally with those slimy legless lizards? Not to mention the flies! You've seen how they leave everything covered in pus?" Another kick, so hard that my body slides away from him on the floor. "But then he said 'look at it this way, Abe, you'll have the chance to kill that bitch Cassiel, isn't that worth your time and effort?'"

Don't listen to him. Pay no attention to his words. Find your calm center. You are the water, the air, the fire and the earth. Fear holds no dominion over you. Pain is just fuel for your engine.

I rise, although I'm pretty sure it's only because he allows me to do so. Feint to my right, I see it, move to block his real strike to my left, but it's a double-trap and his leg hooks behind mine while his hand captured the back of my head and forces me in place for a brutal head butt that makes my nose explode.

I fall down, again, at his feet.

"So, I told myself 'damn yes, can't miss this opportunity!' because you know, I really, really like killing pretty girls." I'm on my knees at his feet, I try to go for a sneak attack but I'm too punch-drunk to really deliver. Abaddon chuckles as he sidesteps me and grabs my wrist, twisting it behind my neck in a submission hold. "But here I am, surprise, surprise, and it's you whom I get to play with. You know, bro, I don't really swing that way, so I'm kinda disappointed."

He's behind me, knees on my calves keeping me trapped. I desperately reach behind me with my only free hand, trying to find his face, gouge one of his eyes with my thumb, pull at his hair or one of his ears, anything.

"Hey, not so touchy-feely, man," he laughs, hard-punching me in my exposed side again and again until my ribs collapse and I'm breathing bubbles of blood. "What was I saying? Oh yeah, disappointed. I mean, it's not like I wouldn't enjoy killing you, you know? I love you and all that, but killing an Archangel? That's wow, man, just wow. Still, I was really looking forward to tearing a pretty face like Cassiel's today, so I'm afraid yours just won't do."

"You try to go after her, I'd like to see that," I groan, muscles tense with all the strength that I have left as I unsuccessfully try to break his hold. "She'll make you eat your own balls."

"Oh, no, no, no," he laughs, amused. "Didn't you hear me at the very beginning of the fight, bro? I'm gonna go and fuck up your mom."

Abaddon starts pulling down at my arm, the one he has pinned behind my neck, trying to snap my shoulder joint. I'm done if he succeeds, so I resist with all my might, with every ounce of strength I have left, and every grain of will I can gather.

Yet, my arm moves down, a fraction of an inch at a time.

"You are…even more stupid…than I thought…if you think…you can touch…Gabrielle…" I hiss through tight clenched teeth, each tendon and muscle of my body stretched tight.

The Goat stands up from my legs, wanting to gain a higher leverage point so he can apply more pressure on my already yielding arm. He laughs at my words, like he's been laughing at me all the while during this stupid fight I could have never won.

"No, bro, not that mom. I mean the other, the filthy human whore that raised you," he whispers in my ear, privately, closely. "Didn't you know? She's here in Hell with us."

I gasp.

"Oh yes, I know it must come as such a surprise for you, but it turns out that she is one of our guests! Funny, uh? Well, don't feel bad with yourself, bro. I mean, who does really know their parents? Look at me, I was sure that my own father loved me and one day he came home and told me and all my brothers and sisters that he had found something new and better, and pfft, I was a thing of the past, brushed to the side like I never meant a thing."

My eyes burn.

My heart aches.

"Oh, but I know, I know, bro. It must be so hard for you finding it out like this. And all those secrets too, like Azrael not telling you where he sent her when he judged her, or Lucifer hiding from you that he was keeping her here. But don't you worry, it's all in the open now. The truth shall make you free, Nicky. I will make you free, and then I will go find your mommy dearest...and show her why they call me...the Destroyer, and…nggh… How come your freaking arm…doesn't go any…lower?"

It doesn't go any lower. It resists. It holds.

I gasp, as unlimited rage begins to choke me.

My eyes burn, with cold pale blue fire.

My heart aches, as the Archangel takes over.

I push back, inch by inch.

I look at Abaddon over my shoulder, my eyes blazing angelic blue. My voice comes out deep and reverberating, a star going nova. "You filthy demon scum."

My arm now over my head, I spin hard on my knees and deliver a brutal lateral punch to the side of the Goat's ones that flips his legs off the floor.

I stand up with a roar loud enough to make the foundations of Hell shake, grabbing him mid air and tossing him down to the floor with enough force to make him rebound off the marble.

There is no calm in my center, only a fierce tempest. I am a roaring tsunami, an unstoppable hurricane, a violent earthquake, a raging inferno. I am fear.

I jump and fall like a meteor, Abaddon rolls away and my punch strikes the floor with enough force to crack the white marble. I feel no pain.

The Goat scrambles away and to his feet, his eyes solid gold and elongated black irises. "Now you're talking! C'mon, bring it on!"

I'm onto him faster than a speeding bullet, tearing through his block like it's not even there, surging upwards like a rocket as I capture his head in my hands. Muay Thai one-two knee strike to his face in the same jump, then lean my foot on his chest and propel myself in a backflip, hit his chin on my way out and cushion my landing on bent knees.

He fights to stay on his feet, I give no quarter. Capoeira forward somersault, his head between my ankles, barrel-roll my whole body and force him to go along with the movement so his neck doesn't snap. He cartwheels sideways, lands on his feet as I do, tries to counter with a double spin-kick from the same art, but I bend forward, let both his legs fly over me and scorpion-kick him in the head as he lands.

I am the water that drowns, the wind that chills, the earth that buries, the fire that burns. I am vengeance made flesh.

"Ngh, bro, don't tell me that I got you upset or something." He smiles, showing blood-stained teeth.

His words are gibberish. They mean nothing to me. The Lord is my Master, I shall bring His just punishment upon the wicked.

Abaddon goes for a powerful left straight. I block by raising my arm in a perfect square angle and letting his fist collide with my elbow. His hand bones explode on impact, he screams, goes for a left. Same block, same result.

I'm on his face. My fists become a blur of Wing Chun short-stroke piston punches to his centerline. He shakes like being hit with machine-gun fire. I pulverize his insides, his ribs, his breastbone, then front kick him and send him flying backwards through the line of shell-shocked spectators, who get thrown away like bowling pins.

I advance on him, resolute, adamant, unmoving and uncaring.

He's done for the counting, trying to stay on one knee but waving like wheat under a gale.

There shall be no reprieve for my enemies. No mercy given when no mercy offered.

I prop my foot onto his supporting knee and spin-climb onto his shoulders, sitting atop them like a child would do onto his father's.

There's a moment of stillness, of quietness. Not a breath from the crowd. Not a cheer, a cry, or a scream. Perfect silence.

Then my arm goes up and my elbow strikes down on the top of Abaddon's head with all the might of my Archangel power. His skull shatters like an eggshell against the edge of a saucepan. He grunts, only once, and then becomes boneless under me.

We fall forward. I roll on my shoulder upon landing and turn around to face him. The Goat remains still, blood pouring from his mouth, and bubbling on his nostrils. Still breathing, but immobile.

I begin pacing back and forth, like a caged beast, my eyes still fixated on his limp form, the rage within me unabated.

Clapping. The sound of hands clapping.

I lift my head to the origin of the sound, and see the Devil walking towards me. "Oh, my boy! That was absolutely—"

Final Judgment materializes in my hand, its blade breathing blue fire in the presence of so many demons. Lucifer stops dead on his feet, his lips losing the smile, his eyes hardening.

"Nick?" Another voice. Soft, worried. I turn on my heels. Cassiel. Demon. My friend. "It's OK, kiddo. You can stand down. It's over."

I growl at her, my voice the one of the volcano, of the typhoon and the maelstrom. "It's over?"

She nods. I smile. Cruelly. "No rules, then."

I move back onto Abaddon before anyone can do anything to stop me, grabbing him by the hair and pulling his torso off the floor. He's neither here nor there, half way into unconsciousness and wakefulness.

"This is so you always remember the day that you dared to insult my mother," I hiss at him, full of the purest hatred.

And then I cut his face.

Final Judgment bites deep and long, from the corner of his lips to the corner of his eye. He screams, the pain bringing him back. Heavensteel in demonic flesh, it'll never heal all the way. He'll wear the scar of his defeat on his no longer handsome face for all eternity. And he shall remember my name.

"Hark me, infernal filth, wherever you are!" I roar after releasing him to a crying bundle at my feet.

Turning in a slow circle, I aim with my sword at the gathered demons with its blade. I see through the veil, through their lies and theirs masks. The grey wolves, the blue birds, the yellow flies, the green snakes, and the multi-colored spiders. My voice is thunder, the voice of my birth mother, heard all over the kingdom, from the deepest cave to the filthiest alley.

"I am Nicholas Bene Elohim, son of Death, son of the Messenger, nephew to the kings of Heaven and Hell! I am Blackwings! Let it be known what happened here today, and that the same fate awaits to those that dare defy the rule of the Morningstar! There will be no escape from my wrath and no hiding from my vengeance, for I am the arm of Retribution and I shall not be denied!"

I complete the circle upon Satan. He stands in front of me, ten feet tall, skin red as blood and fighting bull's horns black as sin, dragon wings, backwards hoofed feet, and the glory and misery of Hell itself made flesh.

Slowly, I lower my sword and let it go.

The Devil doesn't smile at me. Neither do I back at him as I walk past him. We don't look at each other.

My bare feet leave prints on the white marble with the blood of my fallen enemy as I walk towards the elevator. The demons stand back on my way, their fear and hatred palpable and heady.

Somewhere, deep inside of me, a boy from Queens cries himself to sleep.


End of Chapter 22.