* * *
* * *
This was a bad place to die.
Of course, thought Hastur, any place was a bad place to die.
But he wasn't going to die. He could run, he could evade Zirah, there were ways. And hiding places were never a problem for those of Hastur's kind.
The problem, thought Hastur, was finding the right one.
He'd found several in quick succession, after Ligur -- after Zirah had -- well, after. But none of them had been the right one. Hastur knew, because Zirah had thought of them too. If only he had some time to think about where he was going. If only he had some time he could make a plan, figure out how he could bash that bastard's head in without actually going anywhere near him . . . .
But he didn't have any time. He couldn't stop. Ligur had stopped, if only for the tiniest fraction of a second, and look what had happened to him.
Hastur couldn't forget the smile on Zirah's face. Every time he felt like slowing down, the image bobbed up in his mind like a corpse in a swamp, and he put on a new burst of speed.
He didn't even know where he was, or what was going on around him, or even if he was still at molecular level. His whole being was concentrated in the act of flight.
Almost his whole being. A tiny part of Hastur's mind -- very tiny, considering the present size of the rest of him -- ranted at him, told him he should've known, stupid son-of-a-bitch, did he really think a few thousand years on Earth could have changed Zirah?
He'd forgotten. Hell knew, he'd never been close to Zirah even at the beginning. They were barely acquaintances. Sure, he'd heard the rumours, but believing them was something else. And after Zirah had spent all that time on Earth, who could blame Hastur for thinking he'd grown soft? He'd certainly looked it. Tea-pots with fucking flowers, books and babies and that horrible coat he'd taken to wearing. He'd gone native. Hastur couldn't be blamed for thinking he'd be a soft touch.
It had been a golden opportunity. Ask Zirah a few nasty questions, smack him around, put a bullet in his head, job over. And oblique promises of what came afterwards. Hastur had never been one to let a chance to scale the social strata of Hell go by.
He had ignored the instincts that screamed at him not to volunteer. It had sounded so easy. And sure, Zirah was weird, but Hastur managed to convince himself that Zirah's weirdness was nothing compared to his own old-fashioned nastiness.
That was his first mistake.
He'd thought the fact that Zirah had been so long out of Hell would make the demon easier to handle. That was his second mistake.
He'd never thought to remember that they had kicked Zirah out of Hell because they hadn't wanted him there. Because everybody was scared of him. Hastur had nearly forgotten all about how it'd been, before, but during his terrified flight the memories had started popping out, as if they'd been lying in wait for this very moment.
The way Zirah's face, oddly angelic even after the Fall, had looked in the light of the flames. How he'd curl his lip whenever there was a particularly juicy bit of torture going on, and then absent-mindedly tear out some sufferer's voicebox because its screaming was getting on his nerves. Beelzebub, saying, "Fuck, make Zzzzirah go up. Bloke givezzz me the williezz."
Hastur had been too caught up in dreams of advancement to notice that no-one else had offered to do the job.
That was his third mistake.
"Next time they offer you a golden opportunity," shrieked the tiny part of Hastur that was still thinking to the rest of him, "ask 'em who you've got to opportune. And run."
If there had been any other part of Hastur capable of replying, it would have pointed out that there was no need for such injunctions at the time. Just the thought of Zirah's face --
he could feel Zirah's presence, ever closer --
And he put on speed he didn't know he still had, electrons going past him in a blur.
He could outrun Zirah. He was smart. He was nasty, even for a demon. Even Zirah couldn't chase him forever, Hastur thought.
That was his last mistake.
* * *
Once, when Newt was twelve, his mother had taken him to visit his Aunt Madeleine, who drank.
Every family has an Aunt Madeleine. Sometimes it's an Uncle Roger, sometimes Sean's Julia plays the role; but there's always at least one in the family -- the one everybody politely avoids mentioning at gatherings, the one the older cousins whisper about, the one no child resembles unless his mum is quarrelling with an outspoken great-aunt.
Aunt Madeleine's house had been pathetically neat. There had been tiny photographs on the wall, of herself, her ex-husband and her children, beaming nervously out of the past. Newt and his mother had stared woodenly at these photographs, sitting in burning silence as Aunt Madeleine weaved past the coffee tables and knocked vases over, giggling and apologising nervously.
"My medication, you know, it makes me a bit woozy -- whoops! Sit down, sit down. I can handle it. I never liked this porce -- porcel -- knick-knack anyway, ha ha. Are you sure you don't want some biscuits?"
Later Aunt Madeleine had broken a cup, then broken down on the couch, screaming at Newt's mother when she gingerly tried to comfort her.
That day had always rated as the most embarrassing Newt had ever experienced.
It was all the fault of the mysterious client, whose real name Newt was certain wasn't even close to "uhmumbleSmith". It wasn't that he was ineffably cool and incalculably loathsome -- that Newt could forgive. But he was also absolutely insane.
He'd seemed all right at first -- glum, but Newt was beginning to understand that this was the client's normal state. At least it meant Newt didn't have to talk to him; talk, Newt was morally certain, would only reveal more traits in the client for Newt to hate, like a classy, high-paid job, or an unsuspected knack for computers. The client seemed to prefer silence, hunching in his seat and fiddling with that ridiculous walking stick he'd insisted on bringing along.
That part was all right. It was bearable. Newt could just concentrate on the road, and the client could fidget unhappily, and all was, if not well, a pretty good substitute for it. It was the part that came after that shook Newt.
It started just as they were getting deeper into the countryside.
And what countryside it was -- green fields and trees and friendly-looking cows and illimitable stretches of glorious blue sky. Newt hadn't known you got countryside like this anywhere but in pictures. He was beginning to think he'd driven right out of England, into some bizarre alternate universe where everything was exactly the same except that it was completely different, and -- more importantly -- much prettier.
It couldn't be said that he'd started suspecting then. The little pricklings of doubt in his head weren't distinct enough to be called suspicion. But they had been there. Newt was learning to recognise phenomena when he saw them, and while he was pretty sure you wouldn't find a single nipple where it wasn't supposed to be in this place, there was a vague cloud of distrust at the back of his mind. Countryside wasn't supposed to look like this. Nowhere looked like this. There was something . . . .
This was when the client distracted him from the strangeness of the scenery by upping the weirdness quotient himself.
If Newt had paid attention in the past few minutes, he'd have noticed that the usual look of doomed despair that graced Caphriel's face had slowly lifted. An odd mixture of perplexity and unbelieving bliss had dimmed his eyes; eventually even the perplexity left, overpowered by the bliss. Caphriel's spine had melted, and he'd slid down the seat bonelessly.
Newt had noticed none of this. But he did notice the groan that followed.
Newt started, looked over, and found his passenger sprawled in his seat, looking like he'd just experienced ecstasy of a most illegal kind.
"Mr., uh, Smith?" said Newt.
A pause. Then --
"Yes?" said Caphriel dreamily.
"Are you all right?" said Newt nervously, although, come to think of it, that wasn't the right question at all. The man was obviously all right; in fact, he was a little too right. The right question was, "Why are you all right?", but Newt doubted he would get an answer that made sense.
"Hmm?" said Caphriel. "Oh."
And as if that weren't enough:
Newt glared at the client in desperate incomprehension. He could feel a hot embarrassed flush begin to climb his neck at the sounds the man was making. They were positively obscene.
What could have kicked this off? Newt wondered. He'd been perfectly all right just a minute ago -- well, not all right, but normal enough, and now he was happy and limp in his seat, making sounds generally reserved for privacy.
It probably wouldn't have comforted Newt to know that it wasn't his fault he didn't understand Caphriel's bizarre behaviour. He lacked the essential information: namely, that Caphriel was an angel, and that there are certain things about angels very few people know.
There is much dissension over the reason why angels were created, mostly among the angels themselves, as the thought of Creation has bad associations for demons, and humans are generally too terrified to think, "why angels?" when one actually descends upon them. Everyone agrees that purpose of angels is to glorify the Lord, but no-one can agree on precisely what this means. Some are of the opinion that it means they should aid all living creatures, as God's creations, and hope for the best. Some think this gives them the right to prance around with a flaming sword, acting like a prat. Many believe in just standing around and adoring the Lord by hitting high C's.
Whatever the reason they were created, most angels come equipped with a special capacity for love -- the sensing, giving and receiving thereof.
As angels go, Caphriel was not terribly special. But he did have one special trait. He was, as Zirah had so often disapprovingly pointed out, susceptible.
It's an angel's job to be sensitive. Caphriel was very, very good at his job. And a countryside's worth of free love had just been dumped directly into his head.
"Wow," said Caphriel.
"What? -- Sorry, what did you say?"
Newt was glaring at Caphriel with an aggrieved expression, as if his sudden inexplicable happiness were a personal affront. His indignation died down under the glare of his own reflection in Caphriel's sunglasses.
"Are you all right?" he said lamely.
"Yeah? Hmm? Oh, yeah. Yeah, fine. Great." Caphriel grinned and stretched lazily. The car swerved.
When Caphriel looked over, Newt had gone a shade of red reminiscent of a well-cooked lobster, and was staring at the road with furious concentration. A trace of sanity crept back into Caphriel's brain and suggested that perhaps everything was not quite as all right as it felt.
Caphriel tried to sort out his thoughts. They seemed to have got lost in a happy pink cloud several miles ago, and now they were a lot fuzzier and softer around the edges.
"It's this place," he explained. (Was he drunk? Nah, he hadn't drunk anything since -- since last night, yeah? Wow. He couldn't remember ever feeling this great except in Heaven.) "It's got -- good vibes. Yeah, that's it. Good vibes. I mean, you can really -- don't you really feel the love here?"
He didn't giggle, but it was a close shave.
"Mr. Smith," said Newt sternly, keeping his eyes on the road, "if you don't tell me exactly what it is that you have inhaled or ingested or injected into yourself, I will be forced to--"
What are you going to be forced to do, said an annoying voice in the back of Newt's head, wave your firelighters at him?
Fortunately, Newt didn't have to come up with a smart answer to the annoying voice, because just then he ran over a girl on a bicycle.
It might have comforted him a little to know that in one possible future, she was going to cast this incident up at him in every argument they would have in the next fifty years. Of course, in every other possible future, the world ended the next day and they all died in agony. So either way, the accident didn't really matter, in the great scheme of things.
It was a shame Newt didn't think in terms of the great scheme of things, really.