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Authors: Robert Kroese

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BOOK: Mercury Shrugs
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They crested the hill and Lucas found himself looking down on a massive throng of people, several thousand at least, arranged in a rough circle around a low, flat plateau about thirty feet in diameter, which served as makeshift stage. Standing near the edge of the plateau nearest to Lucas was a man whose arms were raised over his head. Ringing the plateau were a dozen electric lanterns on poles, showering the assembly with a garish blue-white light. The man was speaking in assured, comforting tones, although Lucas couldn’t make out what he was saying from this distance. Reverend Jonas Bitters, he thought. Lucas had to admit he was impressed. It took balls to pull off something like this, fleecing a bunch of dipshits into following you into the middle of nowhere, employing nothing but charisma and an empty promise.

“Hurry!” his mother called, as he lagged behind, taking in the scene. After a moment, Lucas ran after his parents. He had nearly caught up to them when suddenly they both stopped in their tracks. As they were still a good fifty feet from the edge of the crowd, Lucas was at first confused. But as he came alongside his father, he saw the reason for their trepidation: something very strange was happening below.

A sort of aura had come over Reverend Jonas, a light that shone directly on his face but which lacked any discernible source. Jonas himself seemed oblivious to the effect, but an eerie hush had overcome the crowd, broken here and there by gasps and murmurs. As the aura brightened, the crowd’s agitation increased. Then, apparently prompted by their reaction, Reverend Jonas stopped speaking and held his hands in front of his face, observing the strange glow.

Reverend Jonas at first seemed startled by the effect, but then a smile came over his face. “Beloved!” he exclaimed. “It is happening! The time has come at last!”

“We made it!” Emily Jelonek gushed. “We made it in time!”

Justin Jelonek nodded silently, his mouth open.

Cheers and exultations went up from the crowd. Lucas and his parents stood in awe. Was it true? Lucas wondered. Had Reverend Jonas been right after all? Was this strange transfiguration a sign of the Messiah’s impending return?

Reverend Jonas spread his hands, his palms facing the crowd, and the audience fell silent. By now he was glowing so brightly that Lucas had to shield his eyes. “What you are witnessing,” Reverend Jonas went on, “is the manifestization... the manifestisizing... mandifizing...” The brilliant figure of Jonas Bitters staggered across the plateau as he tried to regain his train of thought.

“What is happening to him?” Justin Jelonek asked.

Emily Jelonek shook her head.

“What you are witlessing...” Reverend Jonas murmured, barely audible. Then he groaned and clutched his chest as if having a heart attack. Confused murmurs arose from the crowd, and Lucas’s parents exchanged frightened glances.

An unpleasant but not unfamiliar sense of disappointment came over Lucas. For a moment, he had allowed himself to believe in Reverend Jonas, to think that this man really did have some sort of mystical connection to an unseen spiritual realm. But it was becoming very clear that Reverend Jonas had not foreseen whatever was happening to him and was helpless to control it. Lucas’s momentary disappointment, however, soon gave way to excitement and then morbid fascination. For although the so-called First Prophet had obviously not foreseen what was happening,
something
was happening. Something terrifying—and, Lucas thought, wonderful.

Reverend Jonas was being torn in half.

Chapter Two

Somewhere in a dungeon far below the Celestial City of Heaven; July 10, 2015

 

“Just do it, you big pussy,” said Lucifer.


You
do it,” retorted Azrael. “Have you ever been run through with a flaming sword? It hurts like hell.”

The two demons were conversing in the bowels of Heaven’s most secure prison, which was located in a football stadium-sized cavern several hundred feet underground. The cavern, dimly lit by lanterns suspended on long chains from the ceiling, was mostly empty; the two demons were in a roughly fifty-foot-square alcove off the main cavern, which was separated from the main cavern by a wall of thick steel bars. Other than tunneling through three hundred feet of solid rock, the only way out of the prison was to open the man-sized sliding gate in the middle of the wall of bars, traverse the main cavern, open a heavy steel door, climb a steep, winding staircase to the surface, and then open a steel hatch on the surface. The three doors were, of course, locked and could theoretically only be opened from the outside.

These impediments were, however, mostly for show. The real barrier to escape was the coffee-cup-sized obsidian cube that rested on a pedestal twenty paces from the cage opening. Known as a Balderhaz Cube after its eccentric inventor, this device neutralized any attempts at harnessing interplanar energy to perform miraculous feats such as bending steel bars or supernaturally manipulating lock tumblers. So Lucifer and his faithful servant Azrael languished in a dank cave, counting the days of a ten-thousand-year sentence.

That fate was unpleasant enough, but to make matters worse, Lucifer and Azrael shared the cage with six other demons, who spent most of their time bickering, whining, and trying to kill each other.
[3]
One of these, a demon named Drekavac, was a newcomer, but the others were all long-time minions of Lucifer who had been there since Lucifer’s sentencing. Well, would-be minions. There wasn’t much in the way of diabolical scheming to be done in a cage inside a cave far underground, and lately Lucifer’s grip over his fellow inmates was starting to seem tenuous. Azrael’s insubordination was only the latest example.

“That’s not how this works,” said Lucifer to Azrael, glancing at the group of demons sitting in a circle behind him. “I’m the Prince of Darkness. You do what I say, not vice versa.” Lucifer was acutely aware that if he lost control of Azrael, it was only a matter of time before the others turned on him. Fortunately, the rest of the demons were preoccupied at present: they sat in a circle near the back wall, playing some sort of game involving a variety of oddly-shaped dice and an ungodly number of very thick rulebooks.

“I backstab Gurien,” announced one of the demons, who was named Pazusu.

“What?” gasped the one called Gurien, who sat across from Pazusu. He turned toward a demon named Drekavac, who was poring over one of the rulebooks. “Can he do that?”

Drekavac shrugged, his eyes still on the book. “You guys can do whatever you want, but Gurien comes first in the initiative order.”

“Then I backstab Pazusu,” said Gurien, with a grin.

“You can’t backstab Pazusu,” said Drekavac tiredly. “He’s behind you.”

“Then I regular stab him.”

“Wait!” cried Pazusu to Gurien. “Why are you stabbing
me
?”

“Because you tried to stab me!” Gurien yelled back.

“Yeah, but you don’t know that,” said Pazusu.

“You just told us, dummy,” said Gurien.

“No I didn’t,” Pazusu protested. He turned to Drekavac. “He’s only stabbing me because I was going to stab him, but he can’t know I was going to stab him because I haven’t had a chance to do anything yet, because it wasn’t my turn.”

“It’s your own fault for not waiting your turn!” shouted Gurien.

“Oh, so now I can do stuff out of initiative order whenever I feel like it?” said Pazusu. “Fine, then I backstab Gurien again.”

“You can’t backstab him
again
,” grumbled Drekavac. “You haven’t done anything yet. It isn’t your turn.”

“Exactly,” said Pazusu, with a smug smile on his face.

Lucifer sighed. On some level he knew it was his own fault he had been thrown in with this gang of idiots; his own paranoia prevented him from hiring any underlings with the intellect to mount a conspiracy against him. Azrael was the closest thing to a strategic thinker of the group.

“Looks to me like you’re Prince of Jack and Shit,” said Azrael, “and Shit left town.” He spoke quietly enough that the others didn’t overhear, but the threat was implicit in his words. Lucifer knew it was time to act.

“Watch it,” said Lucifer. “You can be replaced, you know.”

“Promise?” said Azrael.

“I meant when I get out,” said Lucifer through gritted teeth. “I’m going to need a second in command, and I won’t brook this sort of insubordination.”


If
you get out.”

“Oh, I’ll get out,” sniffed Lucifer. “I’ve got a plan. You think it’s just a coincidence the new guard showed up? It’s all part of my plan.”

Lucifer spoke of the angel who was slowly pacing the perimeter of the area outside the cage, swinging a fiery sword in lazy arcs in front of him. The guard, who went by the name Malcazar, was garbed in the uniform of the Heavenly Incarceration Corps. He had appeared that morning in place of another guard, an angel named Fornaeus. The scuttlebutt was that Fornaeus had gotten in some trouble and had been reassigned.

“What are you saying?” asked Azrael dubiously. “You were behind the change in guards? I don’t believe it.”

“I’ve still got spies in Heaven’s organization. It took some doing, but I was able to get a personnel change made.”

“So this new guy is one of yours?”

“No,” said Lucifer, frowning. “They vet these guards too carefully. I can get occasional favors by bribing them,
[4]
but there’s no way any of these guys would knowingly help us escape.”

“So what was the point of getting Malcazar appointed in Fornaeus’s place?”

“Malcazar is one of the Senate’s favorites,” Lucifer replied. “Big hero in the Battle of Eden II. They gave him that sword to reward him for his service. It doesn’t look familiar to you?”

“Should it?”

Malcazar reached the right wall of the cavern, turned on his heel and began walking toward them.

“That gem in the pommel is a shard of Ubiquium,” Lucifer said. “Our new guard is wielding the Sword of Eden.”

“You mean the one...?” Azrael began.

“Yes, the one used by the angel to guard the Garden of Eden after God kicked out Adam and Eve. That’s the story, anyway. It’s mostly rubbish. But the point is, that’s a very special sword. If I can get close to that sword, I can get us out of here.”

“If you need to get close to the sword, why don’t you make him stab
you
?”

“Because, you dolt, I need to be able to concentrate. I’m not going to be able to do that if I’m in excruciating pain from having my insides sliced open.” After a moment’s thought he added, “Not that, you know, it will be that bad.”

Azrael grimaced. “You really think you can get us out?”

“I
know
I can,” said Lucifer. “I’ve memorized an incantation to activate the Ubiquium. If I can get within a few inches of the sword, I can harness the power of the gem to temporarily neutralize the Balderhaz Cube. He gestured toward the black cube on the pedestal on the other side of the cage wall.

“Why does it have to be me?” asked Azrael. “Why not one of these jerks?” He motioned to the group of demons behind them. Lucifer’s eyes were drawn to one of the rulebooks in front of Drekavac, the cover of which depicted a motley group of adventurers with medieval weapons gathered around a huge statue of some kind of demonic entity. Two of the adventurers were trying to pry a massive ruby from the statue’s right eye. Lucifer vaguely remembered helping to co-author the game sometime in the late 1970s as part of his largely failed effort to corrupt American youth.

“I backstab Gurien and Pazusu while him and Gurien are arguing,” said the demon sitting to Drekavac’s right. His name was Amalech.

“You aren’t even in the same room as them, Amalech,” groaned Drekavac.

“I’m in the same room as Amalech, right?” asked the demon on the other side of Drekavac. He was called Salamar.

“Yes,” said Drekavac.

“Okay,” said Salamar. “I backstab Amalech.”

“What did
I
do?” Amalech protested.

“Nothing, said Amalech. But Pazusu backstabbing Gurien is making me suspicious.”

“He hasn’t done that yet. It’s not his turn. And you would have no way of knowing about it if he had. Also, you’re unconscious. And giant rats are eating your face,” said Drekavac.

“Oh yeah,” said Salamar. “Stupid giant rats.”

Drekavac turned back to Pazusu and Gurien. “You know, you guys could try attacking the owlbear that’s bearing down on you from across the room.”

“I don’t feel like attacking the owlbear would be true to Pongo the Magnificent’s motivations,” said Pazusu. “He’s chaotic evil.”

“You’re
all
chaotic evil,” Drekavac groaned. “Even chaotic evil characters occasionally have to cooperate. Like when there’s a rabid owlbear about to devour you all.”

Pazusu thought it over. “I’m not feeling it. I think Pongo would backstab Gurien.”

Drekavac began to pound his forehead with his fist.

As the bickering continued, Azrael turned to face Lucifer again. “All right, point taken,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to rely on these guys for a delicate operation.”

“Precisely,” said Lucifer. “It has to be you, Azrael.”

Azrael sighed, glancing at Malcazar, who was now halfway across the cavern and getting closer. “What do we do after we get past you-know-who? Even if we get out, we’re still stuck in Heaven. The planeport was destroyed.”

“I’ll find us a way off this plane,” said Lucifer. “Overcoming the Balderhaz Cube is the hard part. The rest is cake.”

“What about these guys?” said Azrael, indicating the demons behind them. “Do we have to take them with us?”

“Unfortunately,” said Lucifer, with a distasteful glance at the group of bickering demons, “we’re going to need them. Balderhaz has an old lab not far from here where we can hole up and work on getting off this plane. I don’t think the authorities know about it, but if they find us we’ll need some demons to play defense.”

Azrael nodded. Outside the Celestial City, the plane known as Heaven was largely uninhabited, and technically construction of anything larger than a thousand square cubits outside the city limits violated Heaven’s notoriously strict zoning ordinances. Some leeway had always been given to the eccentric genius Balderhaz, however, and it was rumored that centuries ago he had set up an underground laboratory in the hills a few miles away.

“How is it you know where this lab is, when the authorities never found it?” asked Azrael.

“I’ve got better intelligence than they do,” Lucifer replied. “Even in here. More foresight as well. I knew Balderhaz had built secret labs on dozens of planes, and some time ago I put some effort into locating as many of them as I could, in case the information ever became useful.”
[5]

“So your plan is to hide out in Balderhaz’s cave while we build a portal to escape Heaven,” said Azrael. “You know they’re going to send every angel they can find after us, right? You really think this gang of idiots can hold them off?”

“Not for long,” said Lucifer, “but they can buy us enough time to get off this plane. Balderhaz’s lab should have everything we need to build a portal generator. We just need a few days to put it together.” Lucifer glanced through the bars at Malcazar, who continued to approach, now whirling the flaming sword in front of him. Behind Lucifer, the demons continued to bicker.

“His name is Valbard the Destroyer!” Gurien snapped. “If you’re going to backstab my character, at least use his name.”

“Fine,” said Pazusu. “Pongo backstabs Valbard the Douchebag.”

Drekavac sighed. “Okay, but Pongo has to wait his turn. And while you’re waiting, Pazusu, you might want to reconsider your course of action, since Valbard is the only thing between you and an angry owlbear.” He turned to Gurien. “Okay, Gurien. Your turn. What does Valbard do?”

Gurien frowned, evidently uncertain whether he should attack his ersatz teammate or face down the rampaging owlbear. “I think,” he said at last, “it would be, um, true to Valbard’s motivizations to attack Pongo.”

“He can’t do that!” Pazusu shrieked. “I charge Valbard with stealing my character’s motivations!”

“That’s not a thing,” said Drekavac.

“Well, it should be,” said Pazusu. “I also charge him with acting on information obtained out of initiative order.”

“Also not a thing,” said Drekavac.

“This game is stupid,” Pazusu grumbled. “All the good rules are missing.”

“All right, Gurien,” sighed Drekavac. “Roll to see if you hit Pongo.”

“Wait!” cried Pazusu. “I’ve had a change of heart. I want to attack the owlbear.”

BOOK: Mercury Shrugs
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