Covenant, Light, and Oath

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Authors’ Note: Asher has appeared in numerous stories in The Arbitratus Universe, and remains, even to us, something of a figure of mystery. He was inspired by the myth of Ashor, the Black Knight, a story that continues to intrigue us. In this instance, our Asher, works to usher in a new age, important to the Balance he serves.

Covenant, Light, and Oath

Mithra paced. 

Then he paced some more, tugging on the hem of his robes. 

His followers were growing quiet in their devotions.

With the Solstice fast approaching, the opposite should be true. 

He stopped to chew his thumbnail for a moment. Perhaps he should perform some sort of miracle, send some sign … Or a plague. That ought to get them in line again. 

He started pacing again. 

“Tough day?”

He jumped at the sound and turned to interloper behind him.

An unassuming man, dressed in black offered a sympathetic half smile. “Want to talk about it?”

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, furious at the interruption of his contemplations. “I was clear in my command to be left in peace!”

Another half smile. “Don’t take it out on your servants. I let myself in.”

One fist slammed into the opposite palm. “Who are you and what are you doing here?!?” Mithra roared.

“Calm yourself, Mithra. Your anger is misplaced.”

Without another word, Mithra closed the distance between himself and his uninvited guest, drawing a blade from within his robes. The man in black took a graceful step to the side, grabbing the god’s wrist, and effortlessly flipped the furious deity onto his back. “Keep this up, and it won’t end well for you.” Mithra continued to struggle. The man in black twisted the god’s wrist. “Calm yourself. We need to talk.”

“Fine,” the god bit out angrily. The man in black released him and he leapt to his feet, knife held in front of him. “I’ll have your head for this!”

“Doubtful.” The man’s smile became a shade less sympathetic. “If you’re done with all this needless bravado, I am ready to forget these aggressive acts and talk.”

Mithra’s face went red, but he held himself in check, unnerved by this intruder and how easily he’d been physically subdued by him. “Who are you?”

“I am Asher,” he said simply.

Mithra snorted. “You can do better than that. Asher is a myth.”

“And yet, here I stand.” The man’s lips quirked in a wry smirk. “The man, the myth, the legend.” 

Moving faster than any mortal’s eye could follow, Mithra again lashed out with his knife.

And he once again found himself on his back.

“Really, old boy, I can do this all day. But I’d much rather have the talk I came here for before you hurt yourself.” 

He released the god’s wrist, and took a step away, hoping Mithra would use the space to rise with dignity and be reasonable. Mithra climbed to his feet, eyeing the man with apprehension and continued anger. He looked at his knife longingly, but put it away. “Fine. We will talk. But only because I wish it.”

“As you say,” the man agreed with a polite nod.

“First I will have your name and title.”

The man in black shrugged. “I’m still Asher. But if the title will help, Keeper and Humble Servant of the Balance.”

“More mythological nonsense.”

“Said a minor god who is bleeding followers as we speak.” Mithra reached for his knife again, but Asher made a gesture that said if the god did so, he would draw his own. “I am who I say,” he affirmed calmly. “But if it makes it easier for you, you can call me Bob.”

“Bob? That sounds ridiculous!” Mithra scoffed.

The man in black smiled. “Then let’s just stick with Asher, shall we?”

The god shook his head. “Fine. I will call you Asher. But I don’t believe in you.”

“Fortunately, you belief is not required. Shall we begin?”

Mithra scowled. “Speak your piece, then leave me.”

“Very well. Why don’t we sit down?” Asher inclined his head to the large, nearby table taking up much of the room.

“I prefer to stand,” Mithra said, the sullen note unmistakable.

“As you like,” Asher said with a shrug. Then he paused, considering his next words. This wasn’t a particularly pleasant task, and Mithra’s response so far didn’t bode well for its outcome.

Mithra didn’t care for being toyed with and the silence felt intentionally unsettling. “Don’t play coy, Creature Who Cannot Possibly Be Asher. This is a busy time for me. The Solstice approaches.”

Asher shook his head. “As you may have noticed, the time isn’t as busy as you’d expect, is it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mithra took up pacing again.

“I thought perhaps you’d already come to the appropriate conclusion.” Asher paused. When Mithra darted a murderous look his way, he sighed, and went on. “That the time is no longer yours.”

Mithra stopped pacing suddenly and faced Asher fully. He looked angry, but the glint of fear was now in his eyes. “Explain yourself.”

“I thought I was quite clear. Your time has passed, Mithra. You’re being replaced.”

Mithra let out a boisterous laugh. “Replaced by whom? Odin with his sad little bag of gifts. Ridiculous!”

Asher shook his head. “No, not Odin, I’m afraid. The news I have for him is no more auspicious for him and his line than that which I bring to you. This time is being claimed by Jesus of Nazareth.”

Mithra started to laugh, more genuinely this time. He made several attempts to speak, but couldn’t get his mirth under control. He gave up and sat down, trying to get enough breath to respond. Part of him was convinced this man in black was here to play some ridiculous prank. Maybe Odin’s adopted brat was trying to be funny again. Finally he managed, through tear-soaked laughter, “So, you mean to tell me, the Cult of Christ is usurping my day? Oh, oh that’s too funny.”

Asher grew serious. “They are hardly a cult at this point. His words will come to dominate your world. Your people especially are primed to accept Him. As I said, your time has passed.”

The expression on the so-called Asher’s face brought Mithra’s laughter to a halt. “That’s not possible. I … I was here first.”

The sympathetic smile was back. “That’s certainly true…”

Mithra interrupted. “I was born on the Solstice … I … I was slain, but I rose again on the Spring Equinox. I … It’s my day.”

Asher shrugged again. “All that’s true. But it’s true for Christ as well. Or at least it’s what his followers believe. Your followers don’t seem to believe much anymore. And that’s the important point, you see.”

“So … he copied me and I’m just supposed to … what? March off into oblivion because …”

“Not necessarily oblivion. Many of your fellows have chosen rather pleasant retirements.”

Mithra shook his head in utter disbelief. “I’m supposed to just accept that?”

“How you choose to proceed is up to you. But I’d recommend taking the retirement package.”

Mithra pushed away from the table, his face reddening. “Retire from being a GOD! Outrageous!”

Asher rose as well, sensing this was not going to play out amicably. “I get it. Change is hard. But you had a good run.”

“A good run?” Mithra sputtered.

“Yeah, but let’s face it, your faithful have been going over to Jesus for a while now. Even the Romans are getting on board these days. As goes Rome, so goes the world, at the moment anyway. Their leaders are starting to embrace this new faith.”

“Baaa! It’s not a new faith. It’s just repackaged.” Asher sighed, but let Mithra rail for a bit. “A savior, born of a virgin on the Solstice, grows up to be killed as a sacrifice, to rest in his tomb three days, and be resurrected to least his people … It’s been done. By me!”

 “And my others before you, Mithra. Surely you remember Horus.”

“Horus had no sense of style.”

“Perhaps, but his story was no less compelling than yours.”

“So people are just going to swallow this Jesus’s story because … what? It’s comforting and familiar?”

“That’s the beauty of it. It resonates with people. Say what you like about Jehovah, love Him or hate Him, but he’s the master of the long game.”

Mithra sighed and came back over to the table. He sat down heavily, and placed his head in his hands. He could see the truth in Asher’s words. Each year he had noted fewer and fewer of his faithful attending to his worship. And many who still did, did so halfheartedly and without zeal. “So … What now?”

“Now you step aside, go experience the universe. When’s the last time you took a vacation? And I don’t mean lurking in some grove somewhere to get a minutes peace from the petitions of your followers. When’s the last time you left Earth and had some fun?”

Mithra shook his head. “Not since the Dawn Wars, I suppose.” He sighed again. “And to think I fought on his side. This is the thanks I get.”

“Don’t look at it like that.”

“And exactly how should I look at it?”

“As an opportunity! Go enjoy yourself. Explore. You’re not being stripped of your powers, just being asked to make way. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find another planet, one that needs a god. If you play your cards right, that god could be you.”

Mithra’s brow furrowed. “No … You don’t think … That’s not possible. Earth is the only place where man exists.”

Asher shrugged. “Well, sure. Humans are Earthbound. But it’s a great big universe, Mithra. And believe me, it’s populated. Earth is but a speck in the grand tapestry of existence. There’s room out there for plenty of gods. Just not here.”

He seemed to think about that for a while. He sighed again. “Why can’t things just remain as they are?”

“Because a time of prophecy has arrived. Actually I’ve been working out some things to make way for it for a while. Making sure certain other players are in place. This prophecy is important to the Balance, which I serve and maintain above all else in the universe. Therefore that prophecy is of utmost importance to me. And it requires a dominant religion.”

“But why Christianity?”

Asher smiled almost sadly. “Because from the fruit of that faith will rise the instrument of prophecy. My purpose here is to clear the way.”

Mithra nodded, thinking. “But what of the other gods?”

“I will visit them each in turn, just as I came to you. I will offer them a choice as well. Support the Balance or don’t.”

“What if I refuse to go?”

Asher’s jaw hardened and his shoulders squared. “Well, then … Things may become unpleasant.” His eyes were hard as flint. “You may doubt my identity, but trust me when I say, do not test me.”

Mithra considered his words carefully, then he rose and faced the man in black. “I have no interest in leaving. And I … I will not accept … I don’t believe you have the power to make me leave.”

“You’re right. I don’t have the power to make you leave.” Asher shook his head, almost imperceptibly. A shining sword materialised in his hand. “But I do possess the power to end you.” Mithra eyed the blade, but stayed silent. “I ask you not to demand that of me. You can have an existence far beyond what you’ve ever imagined on this tiny backwater planet. Believe me when I say your death will bring me no pleasure.”

Mithra’s eyes narrowed. Images of Solstice past came unbidden into his mind. The feasts. The sacrifices in his name. The sweet, heady scent of burnt offerings. The pleasures of the flesh taken in his name. The bodies offered up for him to enter so he could partake himself. “No. I won’t do it. My faith will rise again. I refuse to cede my place.” He drew his dagger from the folds of his robes. “I am prepared to fight.”

“As you wish.” Asher stepped forward, raising his sword. The movement was so swift, no one but a god could have seen it. And no one but a very powerful god, in the full flower of his faithful’s attention could have countered the blow. Asher shook his head and wiped the blood from his blade. “Such a waste.”

He turned to go, mumbling to himself. “I hope things go better in the North.” He left Mithra’s home by the front doors, noting the god’s servants already trickling out themselves, sensing the god’s absence and looking for a place to go. “Thank the Balance I don’t have to work my way through the Hindu pantheon.”

He headed out for his next stop. His work was in the West, making room for this new faith, so that one day a girl would be born, and upon her shoulders would rest the fate of all mankind. And, more importantly to Asher, the fate of the Balance itself. 

 

It’s a Celebration!

“It was strange being surrounded by the glory of Heaven, knowing you had nothing, but trying to hang onto it anyway.” ~ From Always Darkest

Feathers

It’s a special day for Demons Run Lit.

Always Darkest is having a birthday!

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If you want to celebrate with us here, we thought an excerpt from the sequel would be a fun way to do that.

From Before the Dawn (Coming Soon) …

Teddy made his shuffling slippered way down the hall, rubbing his eyes. It wasn’t so much sleep stickiness now; they were beginning to burn. Awful smells started to overpower his mom’s good cooking. One smelled mechanical like when Mal’s catalytic converter went on the fritz a while ago, one smelled kind of like the stink of the grill on the patio the morning after a cookout, and the other was a sickly metallic smell that made Teddy feel as though he’d eaten ten pennies.

He was stopped cold by the tableau he witnessed as he entered the dining room, and fell to his knees retching and weeping, remembering all at once that this couldn’t be real, remembering what had happened, and realizing that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t real, he was really here.

Spread out over the dining room table was his father’s dismembered and smoking corpse. It was arranged carefully on various platters, as though this was some kind of nightmare holiday. In serving bowls tucked neatly in between the plates were dishes with big spoons and ladles containing what could only be blood, brains, and ugh, Teddy didn’t even know, but probably other inside parts. Teddy saw that Kelly’s highchair was empty but there was a split down the middle of its back and a long, curved blade rested in the wood of it, blood pooled in the seat, turning black and sticky as he looked on.

In front of the empty chair was a large platter covered with a silver dome, a gleaming carving knife resting on its edge. Teddy prayed under his breath that no one would open it. Then he thought about what would be there if they did and he immediately threw up all over his mom’s favorite cream-colored carpet. This was all terrible enough, he didn’t want any of that all over him. He struggled to his feet, using the door frame for leverage to compensate for his shaking legs and he leaned against it heavily, pretty sure he was going to pass out any second.

He glanced to the side and out on the terrace, the smoking wreckage of the waterfront as its backdrop, Teddy saw his friends, dangling by their ankles from the balcony of the apartment above like some sort of perverse wind chime. It looked like they were dead, but in the silence of the dining room he could hear whimpering and weeping. One of the voices he could hear was distinctly Mal’s. His knees nearly buckled again.

As he started sliding back down the door frame into the stinking mess he’d made, he saw an even greater horror at the head of the table. His legs froze, and he straightened almost against his will. At the head of the table sat the monster from Petra’s, the monster from his dreams.

The Handsome Man, for that was how Teddy thought of him in the long hours he spent thinking of him every day, was sitting in Teddy’s father’s chair comfortably, his beautiful monstrous face split into a wicked grin, a newspaper he was clearly not reading held up in front of him as a prop for the scene he had created.

Behind the Handsome Man stood Teddy’s mom, his no-nonsense heart surgeon mom, dressed like someone out of a 1950’s TV show and looking down at The Handsome Man with blank affection while calmly rubbing his shoulders. Teddy tried not to let it happen, but he bent over at the waist, throwing up again, more violently this time. His stomach muscles were starting to feel a little sprung already. Maybe they’d just let him stand here and throw up until he was so dehydrated that he’d die. That sounded pretty good.

The Handsome Man folded the paper and put it down on the table next to Teddy’s father’s head and looked at him reproachfully. “Come now, Theodore, is that anyway to greet your new daddy?” …

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?”