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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wistful Wednesday

What's a Party Without Presents?

In honor of our first anniversary (can you believe it's been a year already?), I would like to offer you a present - the first chapter of my latest work in progress. Hope you like it!

A Demon's Redemption

When I was born, all of the demons in hell cashed in their chips to vie for me. Not for want of me, precisely, but for what I represent. I am cursed – or blessed – with the ability to sniff them out. Kind of like a psychic bloodhound. And unearth them. Literally. But in a crazy twist of irony, I am also the conduit for them to buy their way back into heaven. For one month out of the year, it is my duty to help the truly repentant on their journey back onto a nobler path. Unfortunately, during this time, my senses are somewhat blighted, so I can’t smell them coming. Or send them packing, back into the fiery pit from which they arose. Who makes up these rules? Well, at least they can’t harm me during that time, either. That’s the condition of the truce, anyway. Welcome to hell –

Lorelei’s fingers crashed against the keyboard as the scent of sulfur wafted beneath her nose. As if someone had just lit a match. Only stronger. More pungent. More…sinister. Damn. She knew that smell – and it always brought trouble. Not now, she thought. My one free moment before the big exam and I have to contend with a wayward –
“I’m not here to harm you,” a deep, almost guttural voice sounded from behind the tree against which she was propped.
Careful not to make any sudden movements, Lorelei eased the netbook off her lap onto the grass at her side, reached under her bulky sweater for the amulet that was ever strapped to her person. As she did so, she scanned the campus grounds for possible avenues of escape – and potential witnesses for what she was about to do. Of all the places they could possibly attack her, they had to come to her school. How was she supposed to explain this one to the dean? “Sorry for the disruption, sir. I was just trying to keep the college safe from demons.” Yeah, like that would work.
“You can put your little trinket away,” the voice sounded again, amused this time. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Pushing herself to her feet, her back against the tree, Lorelei said, “I think I should be the judge of that.” And she took a quick step around the tree, arm raised, poised to throw her amulet at –
A student dressed in rather preppy clothes? No, not a student, her somewhat dulled senses corrected. A demon dressed in preppy clothes. He might be able to change his appearance to fool the less sensitive, but he couldn’t fool her. He could befuddle her, she allowed, as she took in the way he leaned casually against the tree, arms folded over his abdomen, legs crossed at the ankles. And his smile – damn! Did he have to go all Chuck Bass on her? That would teach her to go to another Gossip Girl marathon at her dorm.
“You really don’t want to do that,” he said, his lopsided smile deepening.
Lorelei took a more defensive stance. “And why wouldn’t I?” she asked. “For curiosity’s sake, that is.”
“Oh, of course. Well,” he said, leisurely pushing himself away from the tree, “for curiosity’s sake…” He spread his arms wide, made a slow turn before her. “As you can see, I come bearing no arms.”
“On you. They could be hidden.”
“You’re a suspicious little thing, aren’t you?”
“And you’ve got about two minutes to plead your case before I let this thing go,” Lorelei warned.
“Is that any way to treat someone who’s come to ask for your help?”
“What are you – ?”
“It’s the time of redemption,” he said, taking a single step toward her. “Remember?”
“Not until tomorrow.” Lorelei took a step back, narrowed her gaze. Who was this guy? And what was he really doing here? “How did you get out early?”
Another lopsided grin. “I’ve got connections.” He stepped toward her again, his arms still spread wide, as if to underscore his claim of being unarmed. “Perhaps I should introduce myself. I am known as Azazel – “
“You’re Azazel?” Lorelei demanded, dropping her defensive pose. “Somehow I thought you’d be older. And uglier. And dressed in rags, not designer prep.”
“And I thought you’d be wearing spiked boots and a belt of chains.” For a moment, his one-sided grin became a full-on grin and the charm of it nearly blinded her. “It looks like we were both misled.”
“I guess I had that coming.”
“Yes, well. I suppose I should tell you that I’m not the Azazel,” he said, his tone more sober. “I’m his son.”
With a slow nod, Lorelei took a surreptitious step backwards. Her grip on her amulet tightened where she held it behind her hip. “Ahh…so, what is the son of an Overlord of Darkness doing up here, seeking out my help?”
Azazel chuckled, his keen eyes noting her every move. “Rebelling, of course.” Gesturing toward the atmosphere around them, he asked, “Isn’t that how all of this began in the first place?”
Lorelei answered him with a hollow laugh – and another step backward. Which brought her perilously close to a slope that slid down to the bank of brook that curled its way through the campus grounds. Damn. She couldn’t retreat another step without taking her gaze off the demon to visually assess the terrain, and there was no way that was going to happen. She knew his type; as soon as they got the upper hand, they didn’t hesitate to take advantage. Not that he would tackle her, of course. For one thing, that would send them both down the slope to the brook; and for another, that would preempt her need to throw the amulet at him – she could just press it against him instead and have the same result. Still. She wasn’t about to take that chance.
If only he hadn’t brought the fog with him. Even now, it was curling around her ankles in insidious figure-eights, playing with her senses even as it cut them off from the rest of the world. Why did he bring the fog if he didn’t mean her any harm?
“So, um,” she began as she tried to shake off the fog-induced sensations, “what do you want from me?”
“Your help.”
“I thought that was a given,” Lorelei snapped. She fidgeted in place, searching for a more solid foothold on the hill. “What kind of help?” She shifted the amulet in her hand, ready to launch it at any given moment. “What is it you want to do to redeem yourself?”
For the first time since she met him, Azazel actually appeared uncomfortable. He rubbed at his smooth-skinned chin as he looked away from her, his head dropping forward – as if he were trying to hide something from her, Lorelei thought. Hm, curious.
“I want to make things right with my mother,” he said in a voice so low it was nearly swept away by the fog that swirled about their knees then.
“I’m sorry, what?” Lorelei asked, leaning forward to better hear him when he repeated the request. At which point she blinked, gave her head a little shake as she returned her body to its normal position. “I don’t think I can help you with that,” she said at length, her voice drifting away from her on the fog.
“But you must.” He returned his attention to her with a vengeance; his eyes were alight with a fire that had all of the hallmarks of his dubious heritage. “Isn’t that how this works?” he demanded with an emphatic gesture from his hand that sent the fog circling about him into the stratosphere.
Sidestepping away from him, her eyes never leaving his face, she said, “You obviously have the answer to that,” she pointed out. “So why bother asking the question?”
Azazel stepped forward, slicing through the fog with decisive motions. “What is it about me that bothers you so much?” he asked.
“You mean, aside from the fact that you’re a demon?” she asked, her nervousness reflected in her tone. “And that you bent the rules by showing up early?”
“Yeah.” He favored her with a devilish smile. “Aside from that.”
“It’s your name, okay? I just don’t feel comfortable saying it,” she admitted. “It’s kind of like that movie with Michael Keaton – you know, like if you say his name three times, all hell will break loose.”
“Beetlejuice.” Azazel punctuated the word with a step forward. “Beetlejuice.” Another step forward. “Beetlejuice.” He paused mere inches away from her, waited. Looked all about them, expectantly. Returned his attention to her. “Nothing happened.”
“Oh, so you do know the movie?” Lorelei whispered, unnerved by this knowledge. How could a demon be up on American cinema, especially those filmed two decades before? Did they get cable in hell? She nearly released a self-deprecating laugh as she gave her head a shake. Cable in hell – what was she thinking?
“Yes,” Azazel answered even as she fretted over the situation. “We are privy to certain things down there, you know. We’re not total barbarians. In fact, we were hooked up with HD long before you discovered analog…only we called it ‘Hell and Damnation.’”
A laugh burst forth from Lorelei’s lips before she could stop it, sounding more like a gasp than an expression of mirth. Recovering herself, she said, “You’re messing with my head.”
Azazel tilted his head to one side, peering at her intently. “Am I?” he challenged.
“Look, this doesn’t change the fact that I feel – awkward saying your name. His name.” Lorelei shifted toward her left, feeling her way along the ground in the thickening fog. “So I can’t work with you.”
“But you have to,” he stated. “That’s how it is written.”
“I know how it’s written! I was raised on how it’s written. It’s in my blood, it’s in my bones. So don’t presume to tell me how it was written.”
“Well, someone didn’t get a turbo shot in their espresso this morning,” Azazel said with a mocking shake of his head.
“How did you know about that?”
Azazel shrugged, moved forward a fraction. “I’m an observer. I observe things.” He stopped within inches of her right shoulder, but made no move to stand directly before her. Instead, he just turned his head to look at her, diagonally. “Please know this: I’ve been planning for this day for a long time so I’ve made it my business to know every thing there is to know. Every little thing. About you. What you like. What you do. This way, there will be no surprises.”
“For you,” she pointed out, her breath mixing with the fog that danced around her shoulders. “I’m still at something of a disadvantage.”
“For now. But I will tell you whatever you need to know.”
Fighting the drooping of her eyelids, Lorelei asked, “You’re that serious about redemption?”
“But…” Lorelei held herself steady as her body threatened to sway toward his. Damn fog. “What did you do that you need to atone for?”
Azazel pierced her with a steady gaze as he answered, “I was born.” He allowed time for that to sink in before he added, “Surely you know all about that.”
“We can’t help how we are created.”
“Ah, yes.” He reached over to toy with a tendril of her hair that rested upon her shoulder. “But it’s that old ‘sins of the father’ clause.”
“So just because my mother was pure, I’m pure and because your father is evil – “
“I am evil.” With exaggerated, slow motions, he wrapped the tendril of hair about his hand, his wrist, his arm. “But not for this month. For this month, I am going to be like any other man.” He gently drew her closer. “And you are going to help me achieve my goals.”
“But you’re forgetting something rather important,” Lorelei reminded, unable to resist as he drew her near.
“And what is that?” he asked, his lips near hers.
“You’re early.” She shifted the amulet in her hand, in preparation. “The month doesn’t start until tomorrow.”
“Why do you think I brought the fog?”
Before Lorelei had a chance to respond, he pushed her to the ground behind him and went on the attack in one fluid motion. Only, it wasn’t an attack against her, she realized as she looked up from the ground where she lay. No, there was another figure in the fog now – a figure that Azazel was diligently fighting. Another demon? Was he the one who brought the fog, not Azazel? But – why would Azazel fight his own kind?
Not wishing to stick around long enough to discover the answer, Lorelei took advantage of the opportunity to escape the scene, careful to gather up her belongings in the process. The last thing she – or anyone close to her – needed was for her netbook to fall into the wrong hands.

With a roar of frustration, Azazel shook the rest of the fog from his shoulders as he completed the task of sending his friend back to hell – and became aware that he was very much alone in the campus park. She was gone, he realized. She was gone! Of all the – she actually took off on him. Didn’t she know that he could find her, wherever she was? There wasn’t a place she could hide from him, now that he had her on his internal radar. Surely she knew that?
And yet she ran.
She took advantage of his distraction and she ran away from him. Which meant that he was going to have to go through the hassle of zoning in on her again and starting the process all over. Well, maybe not all over, he allowed. He wouldn’t have to go through the process of introducing himself again. She knew who he was and what he was there for. He just had to remind her. Until she agreed to help him, if need be.
Why did she have to make this so difficult? Azazel wondered as he closed his eyes and sought out her presence. Hadn’t they told him that, once he presented himself, she would have to help him? No one ever mentioned that she would have free will in the matter. So naturally he thought she would blithely agree to do his bidding, not run off at the first opportunity.
Ah, my dear Lorelei, he thought as his senses located her. Did you think you could hide from me…in a library? With a smug smile, he started off in the direction of the campus library even before he opened his eyes. “You can’t get away from me that easily,” he murmured. And he began to whistle a jaunty tune as he started across the campus grounds.

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