Arbitratus Short Fiction

Opening Gambit

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Author’s Note – The challenge in my writing group today was “An encounter with a deity.” That’s so close to what we write for the series, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to give readers a little preview of Before the Dawn, Book II in The Arbitratus. We are very close to finishing and I’m excited for you to get a sneak peek. This is Chapter 2. It hasn’t been through an editor yet, so apologies if there’s anything untidy about it.

For those who don’t know, it fits into the challenge because Ba’al is an ancient Canaanite deity or one of the seven princes of Hell in traditional mythology, depending on who you ask. In our world he’s an Old god, Lucifer’s second in command, and Hell’s Chief inquisitor. He’s also not a fan of our Ben.

If you don’t want spoilers for the end of Always Darkest, this is not the post for you. If you’ve been dying to know what comes next, then read on. ~ J

~~~~~

Lucifer’s anger weakened the spells that created this space and the room grew uncomfortably warm. Ba’al met his eyes boldly, while Castor and his attendants tried to find places to look other than his burning gaze. Failure again!” Lucifer said from between clenched teeth. “Scores of Fallen. Lahash and Lilith slain!”

A deep sadness tempered his anger. Lilith and he had a history. She had been the first to answer his call after the war. And Lahash, well, she had been a special favorite of his, and she had come so close to securing the girl. Castor made the grievous error of interjecting. “I lost hundreds of demons. Not to mention the countless I lost to that old magic, so you could have a handful that can see through wards …” his voice trailed off with the hiss of Lucifer’s blade separating his head from his body in one smooth motion.

“As though demons matter.”

His expression dismissed the king’s people and they scurried from the room.

Ba’al cleared his throat. “My Lord, the survivors have arrived.”

His voice revealed an anticipatory relish. Ronoven had always gotten under his skin; he was so sure of himself, and whenever he opened his mouth seemed able to convince a fire it didn’t burn. Ba’al would like to see him talk his way out of this situation. The only way any of Hell’s people could have survived was simple cowardice, or more likely, betrayal.

Lucifer glared at him, as the Agent Aife and Lord Ronoven, looking composed and dressed for a formal audience, were escorted into the room. Lucifer’s voice rumbled from deep in his chest, dripping menace. “You have failed me and …”

“Disagree,” Ben interrupted pleasantly, waving a dismissive hand, as he strolled over to a side table. “May I?”

He casually poured himself a glass of wine without waiting for an answer. He moved with deliberate unhurried calm to the table in the center of the room, sat down, and put his feet up on the nearest chair.

“Bit of a rough day. I’m sure you don’t mind.”

Aife stood looking anywhere but at the other beings in the room. Lucifer’s eyes flashed burgundy fire, and Ba’al moved off to a safe distance. Lucifer closed the distance between them without seeming to move, his blade drawn. He spoke with icy composure that could not conceal the rage in his eyes. “Explain yourself.”

Ben looked up at him steadily, took a sip of his wine. “I told you where to be looking more than two years ago.”

His tone was not quite a challenge, but only just.

“I’ve been doing my job since the beginning, and I accomplished it per your instructions.”

Lucifer’s eyes narrowed.

“I risked my immortal being to test dangerous old magic to overcome the protections on the half-breed. I found her, confirmed her identity, and was following the procedure you expect of demons. I had just reached our Agent to summon Lahash. I certainly didn’t anticipate a bunch of angels showing up.” He let his eyes flash just a bit. “Like a freaking Arch. I’ve never seen anything like what Metatron … And her Guardian came calling, wielding a sword and tossing around holy fire like paper airplanes … And then Uriel showed up.”

He paused and took another longer drink.

“That gal knows her smiting.”

Lucifer placed his blade against Ben’s neck and asked in a low voice, “Then how is it you survived?”

Ben didn’t flinch, didn’t even move his eyes away from Lucifer’s face, but it took all his will. He still felt heavy with his flesh. In fact, when he’d dressed for his audience with Lucifer, that bothersome scar was on his chest underneath the sun tattoo, as though he were still in his human form.

Worse, the scar on his palm from consecrating the dark blades was highly visible, looking almost fresh again. He was holding the glass of wine more to conceal it than because he wanted to force any liquid past the tightness in his throat. Perhaps as the result of the old magic or perhaps because he’d been back in a body longer than he’d spent in it when he was alive, he didn’t feel like he expected. But he was determined.

“Lahash revealed that we weren’t to murder the girl; that you believe the prophecy is real, that you wanted her brought before you. When it was clear that the operation wasn’t going as planned, the Agent and I attempted to complete the mission. We managed to grab her and then … I’m not certain what happened.”

The pressure of the blade on his neck increased fractionally, tilting his chin up slightly.

“We touched her and there was a flash, a burning like fire, and we were back in Hell. Of course, we collected ourselves to report to you immediately.”

“I see,” Lucifer said tightly, but he lowered his blade to rest on Ben’s shoulder.

“It must have been the wards, My Lord,” Ba’al interjected.

“Perhaps.” Lucifer was not convinced. “But what of your kind’s magic now supposedly part of our friend here?”

Ba’al strode over to the table and grabbed Ben’s exposed wrist. The mark burned mercilessly, and his jaw tightened almost against his will, but he gazed at Ba’al, unblinking. What he wouldn’t like to do to this washed up god after the things he said to Mal when he’d possessed their friend, the things he had done to Teddy for that matter. Mentally, Ben recoiled from this creature, but his face remained almost expressionless.

“The mark is there, Lord Lucifer. There must be another explanation.” He enjoyed the momentary discomfort that had crossed the demon’s face; impressed at Ronoven’s self-control, and wondering, not for the first time, what it might take to finally break it. He had never seen even a crack in his steely resistance and was curious. Fascinated was perhaps a better word.

Out of nowhere Aife interjected, “Begging your pardon, my Lords,” Lucifer and Ba’al turned as she dipped into a low bow, “There was other magic involved. As you know, I also bear the mark, and a strong repellent force made it difficult to even approach the girl.”

Sensing that Aife’s contribution was at least a chance for some fast talking, and impressed at how convincingly she lied, Ben jumped in, “My Lord, the city was half destroyed. No one else from Hell survived. I have no doubt that, if not for whatever magic was protecting the girl that thrust us through the veil, we would have perished as well. That cannot be part of their plan, my Lord. Had we not been cast back, you would not have this new opportunity.”

Lucifer lowered his sword, considered Ronoven for a moment, and re-sheathed the blade. “Opportunity?”

“Word around Hell is the girl survived whatever happened after we got thrown out of the party, and I know what she looks like, as well as her companions. I believe I could track her.” He glanced at Aife and gave an almost imperceptible nod.

“As do I, my Lord,” Aife added, bowing deeply again.

Lucifer smiled, went and poured himself a glass of wine, and joined Ronoven at the table. “It is no wonder you have been favored by several Kings of Hell. Perhaps you will please the next one as well if you serve me in this matter.” Ben glanced over at Castor’s smoldering body, wondering briefly where his head had gotten to, and gave an appreciative dip of his head. “You will go and hunt this girl. You may take the Agent as your second.”

He paused significantly.

“But know this: Failure will not be tolerated.”

Ben raised and drained his glass, placed it on the table, and rose. He inclined his head to the seated Lucifer by way of a bow. “We will prepare to depart immediately.”

He turned and walked toward the exit with purposeful measured strides, ignoring Ba’al and concealing a smile when he saw that the god felt his slight. He didn’t think Aife was going to be able to move but when he got near her she bowed again and followed Ben silently out the door.

When it closed behind them, Ba’al joined Lucifer, sitting almost primly, hands folded on the table top. “You trust that smooth talking slippery little demon, do you?”

“I’m not a fool.” He sighed. “He knows who destroyed the city. If he’d been that close, he should be dead, the final death since Uriel was involved. I never had cause to doubt the Agent before now, and Ronoven is not one I would have guessed to play dice with his own skin, but I’m sure you noticed there wasn’t so much as a scrape on either of them, and given the nature of the battle and the presence of a Guardian and more than one Archangel, I can’t believe that’s possible. Wounds inflicted by angelic weapons travel with a body between realms, down to the base matter of our existence, not unlike the mark of the shielding spell. Someone powerful helped them. And it wasn’t one of us. I can’t imagine what he’s up to and I mean to find out.” Lucifer shrugged with an appreciative smile, “I must admit though, I admire his style.”

“What are your plans then?”

“Summon Abaddon, Belial, and Samael.”

Ba’al gave a derisive snort. “Honestly, Lucifer, the bold play didn’t work out particularly well the only two times you’ve tried it. What makes you think it has a chance now when all are alerted to your desire? Besides, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Ronoven seems to keep evading your efforts to keep proper track of him. And even if the only thing he’s lying about is hiding instead of fighting during that battle, he’s not terribly likely to find the girl in a land that large. Today’s events are sure to have sent her back on the run. Without Lahash your options are extremely limited. While I welcome you to try, even to trust that Ronoven will be trying for you, I’d prefer you also looked at some fresh ideas that have some chance of success.”

Lucifer’s eyes flashed, and he was about to let loose a diatribe about Ba’al’s subordinate position when Ba’al continued, “Please.” He was dismissive. “We both have too much to lose. Taking her isn’t enough. She is a woman now. You will have to win her cooperation. I offer you a true opportunity to do so, if only through building fear and then offering escape.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Her little friend. I’ve still got a thread of connection. He thinks obsessively of our time together. I’d be happy to try to work in the background; see if I can break through.”

“And if he’s nowhere near her?”

“How would he have survived if he weren’t rescued with the girl? The devastation there is total.”

Lucifer nodded, seeing the possibilities. “What do you want in return?”

“Only things you already hold in no regard, old friend.” He smiled coldly.

~~~~~

Down the hall, Ben and Aife proceeded to his home, with Ben greeting and accepting congratulations on a battle well fought and accolades that he survived the day from various demons they passed. He saw no reason not to confirm those rumors and thought it might shore up his story with Lucifer if everyone talked about it. Aife walked beside him, face as still as stone. When they were what she deemed a safe distance away and found themselves alone, she grabbed his arm.

“Were you trying to get us killed?”

She tried to drag him to a stop, but he continued, determined to be done with this as quickly as possible, pulling her along.

“He likes that; has a weakness for it. It made him question killing us on sight … or turning us over to the interrogation squad.” He paused. “There was a time when that wouldn’t have worried me, but now that Ba’al has taken over they’re much more creative and determined. I know from experience …” He felt Aife tense beside him, so he pressed on, his voice purposely more casual. “I’ve at least bought us a moment to breathe. But we need to leave as soon as possible.” Ben shrugged. “Fortune favors the bold.”

He stopped and looked at her steadily.

“Let go. Please.”

When she did, Ben kept walking. She paused for a moment and then ran a few steps to catch up. “But you can’t possibly trust him!”

“Of course not. He’s not foolish enough to have bought the story about wards that magic from the old gods’ bag of tricks can’t deal with.”

“All you’ve done is delay the inevitable, Lord Ronoven.” It had been so long since she’d addressed him in that way, Ben stopped again and turned to face her fully.

“You don’t have to do this, you know.” He spoke with a grim shake of his head. “No matter how I play this out in my head, it doesn’t end well, and I already gave up any chance at …” He trailed off. The way Chris looked at him sometimes when he didn’t think Ben noticed made his stomach flip. He couldn’t tolerate Aife looking at him like that, too. Some things were best left forgotten.

She frowned but didn’t say anything. Whatever was going on inside his head to make him look so lost … She didn’t think she wanted to know.

“I’ll understand if you go right back and spill everything. I don’t want you to feel obligated to me. You have a choice.” His eyes searched hers, very serious.

She put her hand on his arm, almost smiling, and shook her head. “I don’t believe I do.” She was sure that he hadn’t meant her to see the relief that passed over his face, so she stepped away from him and said in a businesslike manner, “What are we going to do now?”

Ben started walking again. “We’re going back to Earth to find Mal and help her, whatever that means. We’ll find a way to stay there as soon as we can.”

“Let’s just get out of here before Lucifer changes his mind!”

“I’d like to check on my souls, if you don’t mind.” Ben shrugged, “Besides, I know what I’m doing. If we take off in a rush it will only bring them down on us. We need to do what demons do when they’re ordered out on a mission. We can use the time they think we’re preparing and see my servant Gareth. If Ciara found her way here after that angelic nuke he can get her clear of the worst of it.”

Aife gasped, having not even spared Ciara a thought since before the Battle. Then she admitted in a rush, “I tore up her contract and freed her before I left to meet Chris. I don’t know what made me do it. Seems suicidal in retrospect.”

Ben chuckled from deep in his throat, shaking his head. She was as rash and impulsive as he was sometimes. Small wonder they were friends. Then he was serious, “Still, you never know which direction they’ll travel, do you? And there are other things we might need.”

“Like what?”

“I’ve got some rare books and spell ingredients.”

“Why would we want to go to all that trouble? The spell is ridiculously complicated.”

Ben opened the door to his apartments with an exasperated sigh. “Well, I can’t exactly call you anymore, can I?”

She followed him in, the reality of their situation beginning to sink in. “What about the other offices? We can just …”

Ben cut her off, “He knows; you know he does. Letting us go is some kind of ruse. He’ll be trying to track us as soon as he can, and someone’s bound to notice what you did with that contract sooner or later.” She tried to interrupt but he continued, “We’re burned.”

Her eyes were wide as she watched Ben see to his souls, pack the things he mentioned, and say goodbye. The reality of seeing him set his affairs in order, ensuring things could work without him, that the right mechanisms were in place to shelter his people, to keep souls continually being added to his retinue and thus protected, brought home to Aife more than anything else that Ben knew if he came back it would not be to a position of privilege. She knew he meant it when he said he would understand her deciding to give him up.

“Ben.”

He looked up from the trunk he was sifting through, surprised to hear what he thought of as his proper name spoken in this place.

“What can I carry, love?”

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