Through the haze created by smoke and the lack of proper ventilation, Malthus stared hatefully at the half-empty bottle of vodka in front of him, one hand wrapped tightly around the neck. Five more bottles lay on and around the small dirty table, yet the alcohol was only now starting to kick in. He cursed his demon's constitution for that. Alcohol did not come cheap, not even in a seedy underground dive like this, and he needed a lot of it. Daily. He needed it to dull his senses and help him pass the torturous days and the even more torturous nights in this world that he had ended up in. It was the only thing that offered some measure of reprieve from the shame and the rage.
Unfortunately, unlike many of his kind, Malthus did not have the luxury of money. He did not have a cult of mortals to worship him and place heaps of money at his feet. No, he was all alone in a world he had never really grown used to – or even liked for that matter. Many of his brethren favored the realm of humans, finding pleasures in it that Hell could not provide. Not Malthus. He was no stranger to the material world, of course. Through the course of eons he had ventured into it many a time, accompanied by his squad and his hounds, but it was always to carry out his King's command; steal an artifact, sabotage a ritual, bring back a renegade demon. In other words, the humans' world had always been a mission to him. Once the task bestowed upon him by his King was accomplished, he would return to Hell at once. And the task had always been accomplished. Apart from the last one, the one that had proved his undoing. The one that had disgraced him and led him to his current predicament.
Hunched over the small table, the demon grunted drunkenly. If he could still remember, it meant that the alcohol had not done its job yet. Ignoring the glass, he quickly downed the rest of the vodka until the bottle ran empty, then discarded it. It rolled on the filthy floor by his feet, joining the others.
Though the bar was nearly empty, he was sitting in a corner, hidden in the shadows. It had to be early morning by now, but Malthus didn't mean to leave the place still sober. He lifted one arm to get the bartender's attention while searching his pockets with the other hand. After some fumbling, he pulled out the last of his money and tossed it on the table; a few crumpled up bills and a handful of coins. It took him several moments to successfully add them up, but the result he came to pleased him. It was just enough for one last bottle of the cheapest, shittiest vodka money could buy in this dump. When the human came over with a fresh bottle, the demon pushed the money towards him without saying a word and waited until the man had collected it and left.
Alone again with his poison, Malthus poured his glass full, spilling some in the process. Before he had time to drink, his mind returned to his last mission and the demon scowled. Millennia of dutiful service, of being his King's most trusted soldier, had gone down the drain because of that one failure. And a monumental failure it was.
Lucifer did not take kindly to failure. Upon Malthus' return to Hell, the King of demons had scorned and shunned him, rejecting his services. Thus for the first time since the Fall, Malthus had found himself without a purpose. If he wasn't his King's most trusted servant, then what was he? His brethren had never liked him, that much he knew. They envied and resented him for he enjoyed their leader's favor. Moreover, following his King's command, he had occasionally foiled the plans of the most ambitious of them. Malthus was well aware of the names the others had for him; lackey, mutt, errand boy… and the list went on. However, with the exception of the most powerful Demon Lords, most wouldn't dare utter those derogatory terms to his face. He was one of the Dukes of Hell, after all, and Satan's right hand. Only behind his back would anyone dare badmouth or mock him.
All that, however, had changed once it became known that Malthus had lost Satan's favor. After that, everywhere he went within Hell, he was met with sarcastic looks, mocking snickers and jibes. He felt like a laughing stock, relentlessly mocked, derided and shunned, until he could bear it no longer. Thus, he had escaped to the mortal world, trying to find some solace away from his hateful kind.
Things had not been easy on Earth either, though. Lacking connections with other demons currently in this realm or human Satanists, he had found himself utterly alone. Alone for the first time, with no master to obey, no underlings to command, no hounds to keep him company. Desolate and dishonored, he wandered aimlessly for a while, tormented every second of his wretched existence by guilt and shame, until he discovered the fleeting comfort of alcohol. If he could, he would spend every waking moment in a drunken stupor. That was the only time he couldn't remember the look of contempt and disgust Lucifer had cast in his direction while Malthus tried to apologize for his failure. Then his King had bid him out of his sight. Malthus' soul crashed under the weight of his shame, he had obeyed that last command. Since that moment he was lost. What was he worth now that he had no purpose?
He emptied his glass in a single big gulp, in an attempt to alleviate his existential crisis. He was growing desperate, fearing that the remainder of the drink would not be enough to knock him into a blissful, dreamless coma for the next couple of days and that filled him with dread. Cursing again and again under his breath, he refilled the glass with shaky hands.
How in the nine circles of Hell had he ended up like this? He felt despicable and wretched, lower still than the few miserable mortals surrounding him. He was a Lord of Hell, he should be able to slay all of them within seconds, then drink to his heart's content until he dropped unconscious. But he couldn't. He had to obey the rules of the Covenant and that included not harming humans. He still stole every now and then in order to sustain his mortal form with food, but primarily to try to keep his mind numb with copious amounts of vodka, his poison of choice, but there was little more than that he could do. He had to lay low and not attract the unwanted attention of either the angels or the Order. Should he commit a serious enough crime, the angels would not hesitate to cast him back to Hell, where he would be forced to endure the ridicule and rejection of his peers for who knows how many eons to come. No, he couldn't risk that outcome. At least here he could bear his shame alone.
Pouring himself yet another glass, he wondered again how he had ended up in this state. He had asked himself that question over and over, trying to figure out who was to blame. And each time, most of his hatred was directed towards three creatures: a demon, an angel and a mortal. The demon was Abaddon, the one Malthus' last mission had revolved around. Not only had the Demon Lord managed to escape Malthus' grasp time and time again, but Abaddon was now currently still on Earth, having somehow managed to strike some kind of bargain with Satan – Malthus was still fuzzy over the details – and escape punishment. The Lord of the Pit had started out as a fugitive, hunted down by demons and angles alike, and yet somehow he had been pardon by both. Meanwhile Malthus had been stripped of his rank and his privileges and become a pariah. Malthus had mulled over Abaddon's scheme over and over, but given the fact that he was most of the time intoxicated, had failed to reach a conclusion. How the demon had managed to placate both Lucifer and Metatron would probably always elude him.
And that brought him to the next object of his hate; the archangel. That bitch had bossed him around and then left him out of the loop, even though they were supposed to work together towards the capture of Abaddon. Somehow she was involved in what had transpired, of that Malthus was convinced. But he would probably never find out how or why and that fueled his rage. Metatron had humiliated him, treated him like a dog. He still cringed inwardly when he remembered the time when – he chugged another glassful of vodka – she and Qaphsiel had caught him half naked and in the act of chasing that girl around the Order's hideout.
That girl… There was a special place in his hate-filled heart for that particular mortal. He met her during that accursed mission. She was a member of the Order, a young demon-huntress that he clashed repeatedly with. The little bitch had managed to humiliate him and get away with it on more than one occasion. During the first few months of his aimless roaming on Earth, he had been tempted to search for her and take out on her all of his frustration and rage. He never worked up the nerve though, knowing fully well that the risk was too great. If he killed her or did any of the other unspeakable things he wanted to do to her, the angels would surely blast his ass back to Hell. Therefore, he had settled for the much less fulfilling fantasies of torture and rape and murder that he couldn't actually commit. He brooded over those fantasies as he continued going through his last bottle.
He had almost finished it when something pierced through his foggy, muddled senses and he felt the presence of someone other than the mortal scum that frequented places like this. He reared up his head in time to see a woman step into the bar. His brow furrowed. No, not a woman…
Scylla stood by the entrance and scanned the small musty room until she spotted him. A smile carved her full, red-painted lips as she sauntered over to his table. Without saying a word, she took a seat across from him, crossed her legs and leaned back comfortably.
Malthus sighed, the sound coming as a grunt before lowering his eyes back to his glass.
"You are a hard demon to find," Scylla spoke after a few long moments of silence. "One would assume you don't want to be found."
"Apparently you didn't get the hint," he snarled.
"Oh, I did. I just didn't care," she said with her typical audacity and flicked a strand of satiny black hair behind her shoulder.
Annoyed, Malthus finished his last glass and made to leave, but standing proved too much of a hassle. His legs, wobbly and weak, dropped him back onto the squeaky chair. Before he had time for one more attempt at getting up, the demoness raised a hand.
"Stay," she barked before grabbing the bottle and waving it at the direction of the bartender.
At the prospect of a free drink, Malthus begrudgingly obeyed. A moment later, the human was placing a full bottle of vodka on the table. Before departing, he collected the empty ones that were on the table, but ignored the couple of them that lay under the table.
Without sparing Scylla a look, Malthus immediately helped himself to the vodka. She let him drink for a time, all the while watching him intently, studying him with her gleaming dark eyes.
"Is this how you spend your days on Earth?" she asked at length, her tone condescending and disdainful. She glanced around the stuffy bar, a curl of contempt on her lip. "Pitiful…"
Malthus peered up at her from the rim of his glass. In her mortal form, Scylla was petite, barely 5'2, and quite young-looking. That illusively harmless exterior, however, hosted an unexpected amount of malice, cunning and aggression. Malthus had always liked her for those very attributes, even though he knew that behind his back she mocked him for his unshaken loyalty to their King. Right now he wished she would fuck off and let him complete his descent into a much desired stupor. He hated her for seeing him at his lowest.
"What do you want?" he grumbled, his words slurred.
Scylla thrummed her fingers on the table, her long crimson nails scratching the chipped wood. Her calculating eyes dead set on him, she returned the question. "What do you want?"
So she had come to mock him. To remind him of what a failure he was. He scoffed, not in the mood for her mind games. "I want you to get the hell out of my face."
She tutted. "So that you can drink yourself stupid, like you have been doing for the past two years?" she challenged. "Fill your body with this shit until you drop senseless? You are pathetic, Malthus. A husk of a demon. Even by human standards this is miserable."
The scorn and bile in her voice pierced him deeply, wounded his already shattered ego. He hated her for the contempt and disgust written all over her face. But even more he hated her because her words rang true. For a few moments he entertained the thought of lunging at her from across the table, wrapping his fingers around her slender throat and squeezing the life out of her. The angels would likely not care terribly about a brawl between demons if no mortal was hurt in the process. But even though in his prime he could probably subdue her easily, in his current state, slow and heavy from the relentless drinking, the demoness might end up kicking his ass. And that would just be another failure he would have the shame to live with. A glower full of despise was all he could safely spare her.
Irritated by his lack of backbone, Scylla shook her head. "How long do you intend to go on like this? Wallowing in your misery… Getting liquored up and passing out…" Her voice brimmed with indignation. "What are you waiting for? Satan to snap his fingers at you again? If he ever does…"
"There's nothing else I can do, you stupid bitch!" the demon growled. His outburst attracted the curious looks of the few other patrons, so Malthus lowered his voice to an angry but powerless hiss. "There's nothing else I can do in this shithole of a world. You think I like this? I'm trapped!"
Appearing rather content with his outburst, Scylla crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes. "Trapped?" she echoed. "You are a powerful demon in a world of weak, pathetic mortals. You could be a god among them."
The demon scoffed. "Unlike you, I don't have followers to worship me and do my bidding", he rasped bitterly.
"Whose fault is that? You never built a following. You were too preoccupied carrying out someone else's bidding."
Malthus avoided her stare, preferring to focus on his glass. But there he saw himself, reflected in the clear liquid. His face was gaunt and pasty, his hair matted and greasy.
"For the first time in your miserable life you don't have someone giving you orders," Scylla continued. "And this is the result. Left to your own devices, you end up in this mess." She sounded frustrated, but there was no judgment or derision in her tone anymore. She leaned over the table. "When there's no one ordering you around, you are lost. So I ask you again, Malthus. What do you want?"
He shuttered his eyes, the last remnants of pride and dignity crushed under the weight of her words. He despaired, for no amount of vodka would be able to drown the feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy threatening to swallow him. He gritted his teeth against the urge to cry for the first time in his millennia-long existence.
His eyes shot open sharply at the soft touch on his arm. Stunned, he stared at the demoness.
"I can imagine how lonely and desperate you must feel, all alone in a world you never fully discovered." Her voice was mellow and soothing now, her youthful features soft as she stared deep into his eyes. "It doesn't have to be this way. This is your chance to finally be your own master. Your chance to discover what you really want and take it. Enjoy a life of freedom and choice. The mortal realm is full of opportunities, full of pleasures for our kind. Most of us already know it." She squeezed his wrist. "Like Belial. He is here, on Earth. He has a massive following and very ambitious plans for this world. I joined him. You can too."
"Join him?" he repeated, sounding lost and distant even to his own ears.
"Even if you don't break any rules, sooner or later the angels will come up with a reason to cast your ass back to Hell," Scylla said grimly. "There is safety in Belial's court," she reassured him. "And a lot more of that," she nodded towards the now empty bottle.
Malthus stared at her hand mutely as though his mind had screeched to a halt. He was dazed.
Eventually, Scylla withdrew her hand and stood. "Think about it," she said as she placed a calling card on the table. "This is your chance to finally live for yourself for once."
With those parting words, she took her leave. Malthus watched her go, his eyes wide and glazed, until she disappeared up the stairs. His stare lowered, still wide, still glazed, to the card she had left with him and stayed there for the next several hours.
Hazel eyes stared at the white marble cross emerging from the ground. Long fingers, once delicate and soft, now strong and calloused from working the crossbow and the blade, squeezed the small bouquet of peonies, before she squatted low to place it gently on the still freshly dug soil. As she rose again, she blinked the gathering tears away and let her gaze wonder about her surroundings. Most of the tombstones were grey and mossy, sheltered under great willows, whose curtain-like foliage danced hypnotically at the slightest breath of wind. Marble angels prayed silently under the overcast sky, guardians of the old cemetery. Everything was so serene and quiet, so peaceful.
'So dead…' she thought bleakly.
Duncan had wanted to be buried here, among his ancestors. He would be the last of his family to rest here. Coming from an old family of priests and members of the Order, the man had never married or produced offspring.
Patricia signed. No, he had no biological children, however she had been in all other accounts like a daughter to him and he the only father she had ever known. He took her under his wing when she was merely fourteen and completely clueless to the world, having been raised by Catholic nuns since infancy. He had taught her everything she knew. Harsh and perhaps a little brutish at times, but always just and caring, he had shaped her into a woman who was afraid of little and capable of a lot. Together they had travelled the world, battled evil in its purest form and protected people from a danger most were blithely unaware of. And now… now she was alone, the only family she'd ever had gone forever. Duncan had done everything to prepare her for life on her own. Yet nothing had prepared her for the pain, the loss and the giant void that his sudden passing had left her with. Or the rage. The soul-wrenching thirst for revenge against the one responsible for her mentor's death.
Sensing that she was not alone anymore, she glanced over her shoulder, muscles tensing. The next moment she relaxed when she saw Qaphsiel land next to the small chapel. The angel walked over to her, gathering his long wings behind his back.
"You visit him every day," he spoke softly. His face was as stoic and serene as the statues' surrounding them.
Patricia cleared her throat to make sure her voice wouldn't crack.
"Did you speak with Raphael?"
The angel nodded.
"Patricia, you know the rules…" the angel began, but she cut him off.
"The rules?!" she snapped. "He killed Duncan!" She pointed to the grave before her. "Belial murdered him!"
"It was not him."
"His followers! Same difference!" She lowered her voice, trying to control her temper. "You and I both know that they were acting under his orders, they always do!"
"But we have no proof of that," the angel tried to reason with her. "Demons are not allowed to hurt mortals directly, but they are free to influence them, just like angels can influence humans for good. As long as he does not violate those terms, the angels cannot confront him or expel him from this world."
The woman scoffed, but tried to keep calm. "The Order, then. We are allowed to fight demons regardless of what they do."
The angel's eyes shifted away to hide a hint of guilt. "Raphael and Haniel have advised the Order to hold their ground for now. The bishop has agreed that that would be wise."
She stared at him in disbelief. "So, we're supposed to do nothing… I'm supposed to do nothing?"
"No, not nothing. We are going to keep a close eye on him, monitor his followers' every move until it's the right time."
"The right time…"
"You have to remember who we are dealing with, Patricia. Belial is powerful as he is cunning. He knows how to cover his tracks. We cannot act recklessly."
Patricia shook her head, her lips a thin, tight line. Qaphsiel, like always, was the voice of reason. If the circumstances were different, if it wasn't Duncan who lay six feet under right now, she would have accepted, albeit begrudgingly, the Order's decision and abide by it. But not this time. She simply couldn't let it go or wait.
Feeling new tears welling up in her eyes, she averted her gaze and tried her best to stifle them. Duncan hadn't raised her to cry like a scared little girl, he had raised her to fight. And that's exactly what she was going to do.
"So neither the angels nor the Order will go against Belial," she reiterated.
"Not for the time being," confirmed the angel.
The young woman nodded, tight-jawed and steely-eyed. "Then I will."
On the other side of the city, Belial stood up from behind his desk and turned around to peer down on the city that sprawled beneath him. From his twenty-sixth floor office, everything appeared so small and insignificant. A smile played at his lips. This was his chessboard. The humans scurrying around like ants, most of them too preoccupied with their own trivial business to ever notice the spiritual war that raged in the shadows next to them, were his pawns.
The first stray raindrops splashed on the spotless glass of his window. He raised his gaze skywards, where grey clouds had been brewing a storm since dawn. They were finally about to unleash their watery torrent on the mortals' world. This world that Belial had so many plans for. A world that had captured his attention since its humble beginnings, since man was no more than a blubbering idiot, wandering about aimlessly. How far had humans come. Belial had watched the evolution of their feeble civilization with intrigue throughout the millennia.
He wasn't the only one of his kind, of course, to take a keen interest in the material realm. Many of his brothers and sisters saw Earth as their playground. Very few preferred Hell, their original home after the Fall. No demon would openly admit it, but Hell was more of a prison rather than a home. It was a place of punishment and lamentation for his kind almost as much as it was for the mortal sinners. A realm created by their king, Satan, as a sanctuary when they had been eternally banished from Heaven. Perhaps the reason why so many demons favored Earth was because it reminded them of their original home. Heaven was out of reach, but Earth was fair-game as long as they abided by the rules of the Covenant.
Even among the demons who frequented Earth, Belial believed himself to be unique in his approach. Unlike most, who stayed on Earth merely to enjoy the many pleasures it provided – the money, the luxury, the worship and the torment of mortals – Belial's plans were much more far-reaching. Quite a few Demon Lords coveted the mortal realm for themselves. Some of them had tried a handful of times in the past to conquer it, the most recent attempt committed seven or so years ago by none other than Abaddon. But those attempts were coarse and unrefined, brutish – and thus doomed to fail. Most demons were brutes, slaves to their bloodlust and their impatience. Lacking the necessary finesse and self-control. They could not begin to understand the long-term strategy that world-conquering required.
Not him. Belial prided himself in his intellect and his self-discipline. Human sacrifices were certainly sweet, but what was sweeter was the slow but steady corruption of human nature itself. That was what would ultimately make the material world bow to his feet. The manipulation of mortals was his favorite pastime. He fancied himself a master puppeteer and human his little unsuspecting puppets.
A knock on the door interrupted his musings. He answered without taking his eyes from the view below.
"Sir, the mayor's office called," his secretary informed. "The mayor would like to push tomorrow's meeting to six."
The Demon Lord smirked. The mayor… Another one of his puppets, oblivious to his strings, just like all the others.
"Very well," he replied briskly. "Adjust the rest of my schedule."
Most demons found human politics tedious, but not him. He enjoyed them greatly, for each meeting he attended, each talk, each social event, it all brought him closer and closer to total control. He was going to mold this world to his liking and he didn't mind how long it would take; one decade, two, three, a dozen. He was patient. After all, he was immortal.
The road to success was not paved with rose petals, of course. However naïve and gullible most mortals were, the angels were ever-present, dedicated guardians of mankind. Belial knew well that Qaphsiel had been tasked with monitoring his moves. That didn't deter him in the least – Qaphsiel was after all possibly the most harmless and least intimidating of the angels. What troubled him was the Order, the secret society of mortals sworn to fight off demons that ventured into their world. The angels kept an eye on him, waiting eagerly for him to give them an excuse to cast him to Hell. The Order didn't need an excuse. Angels were bound by the Covenant, mortals were not. They could attack a demon even if said demon hadn't broken the rules. That was why he had to be careful about his every move.
Belial did not like feeling restricted. No matter how underhanded and insidious he was, after all, he still needed to be able to get away with illegitimate activities every now and then. Recently the Order had become a thorn in his side, thwarting his plans on more than one occasion. In the end, his followers had been forced to dispose of one of their members. That would surely bring upon him some sort of retaliation. Belial had to divert their attention to something – or someone – else.
That's where his demon allies came to play. He always had lesser demons in his court, whom he didn't hesitate to sacrifice to achieve his goals. Right now Scylla was his right hand. At his behest, the demoness had departed a fortnight ago, in search of a certain demon that Belial had recently learnt was on Earth. A demon who could be of great use to his plans. Scylla herself was useful, but had certain flaws. Though neither a great thinker nor an accomplished strategist – she was too rash and hot-blooded for that – she was too clever to be used as a useful idiot. She was however rather eager to receive tasks from him and impressively competent at executing them. She had a way of getting her way every time. With her by her his side and the addition of Malthus to his team, Belial had no lack of confidence that nothing could stand in his way.
This is the beginning of a new story in my demon universe. Hope you'll like it. I'd love to read your comments and suggestions in the reviews.