The scent of torment wafted on the breeze like delicious barbecue, briefly overpowering the ever-present odor of pumpkin and decay. My stomach rumbled, and I idly wondered what my parents were making for dinner.
Leaves skittered along the sidewalk, filling the air with a dry rustling sound, which alternated with tapping as some of the leaves sprouted legs and scurried across the ground. I kicked one out of the way before it could untie my shoelaces, and watched as it ran to hide in the moving shadows cast by the flames flickering beyond the wrought iron fence.
In other words it was a perfect afternoon, and with our much needed week of vacation before we started a new school year, I had an extra bounce in my already jaunty step.
“There he is,” Aleister exclaimed with obvious exasperation. “You walked?”
“It’s a nice day,” I said, and grinned wickedly at my friends. When you had wings like we did, walking was something you saved for inconveniently tight spaces or short distances, but some days, when I wanted to be in the moment, there was something nice about putting one foot in front of the other.
“Dork.” Lilith rolled her eyes, but I didn’t take it personally. I knew she loved me. (Tolerated me, whatever, same thing.) “Are we playing or what?”
“We’re playing,” I confirmed, without picking up my pace at all.
I had no desire to rush that sense of perfect freedom before break. You only get that feeling for an afternoon, and I was determined to enjoy it. Sure, vacation would be for relaxing and adventures, maybe a little mischief and a lot of fun, perhaps even an existential crisis or three, but that first sensation of nothing to do? Oh yeah. That’s what I was talking about.
I dropped my unusually light backpack onto the nearest park bench, stretched my black-feathered wings, and launched myself into the air to join my friends, who were already airborne. The game was King of the Cage, but Aleister sometimes called it Super Smashy-Smash.
We had not agreed on that.
The game had taken years to perfect, and I was quite proud of the result. A combination of the very worst parts of dodgeball and keep-away, with just a touch of trash talk and one-upmanship, it was a game born in Hell.
And that was something worth celebrating. When living in one of the great hereafters, birth of any kind wasn’t a common occurrence. We were more in the death-and-forever-stagnant variety of business.
The ball whistled through the air, randomly punctuated by the sound of rubber hitting flesh as one particularly hard throw or another was caught or missed. Aleister plummeted a few feet before rising above us all with flaps of his huge wings. Laughs and taunts filled the air, almost drowning out the sounds of agony beyond the fence.
Not that I paid much attention to the wailing of the passed-on anyway. It was like the hum of a refrigerator, always there and just as meaningless.
“I think you’re losing it, Mal,” Aleister shouted. “That was—”
But whatever insult Aleister had been going to throw my way was drowned out by the clanging of bells, which was probably for the best. Maybe it was just that Aleister was relentlessly positive, and insults, clever or not, didn’t come easy to him. As much as I tried, my wit never seemed to rub off on him.
The neighborhood flames grew higher in a sudden burst of light and warmth, and my feathers ruffled as the wave of heat slammed over us. The already enormous fence that surrounded our neighborhood expanded and rose, building upon itself with a mechanical clanking, until the black sky was separated from us by bars, and my gated community became a cage.
Escape drill. Sigh.
We dove to the ground but pulled up at the last second so that we touched down lightly on our feet. Then we grabbed our backpacks and jogged to the nearest shelter. Jogging less because of the drill and more because the closest shelter happened to be in the basement of the local café: Faust’s.
With the approach of Samhain, the street outside Faust’s smelled of rosemary and apples as new holiday treats were baked up. The changing recipes were always a sign that time was passing, since the weather here was always the same. The leaves were always a display of oranges, yellows, and reds, and the air always smelled like pumpkins and cinnamon, but outside Faust’s, rosemary and apples were for Samhain just like chocolate and honey were for Beltane.
We squeezed our way through the traffic jam of loitering bodies at the doorway. They were no doubt moving slowly on purpose. Most were probably hoping they wouldn’t have to reach the shelter at all before the drill stopped. Cecily, barista extraordinaire and resident bast, held the door to the basement open with a bored expression. No one was in any rush, including Cecily, who snapped her gum as Aleister shoulder-bumped me into the wall.
“Jerk,” I said, punching Aleister in the stomach. He laughed and threw an arm over my shoulder. Lilith pushed us both through the door and onto the stairs down to the shelter. The stairwell was too narrow for flight, so I tucked my wings tight as I clomped my way down.
“Let’s go, let’s go.” Faust, as translucent as ever, waved us on from the bottom of the stairs. He flickered in irritation as Aleister made his way past, tripping over Faust’s shoe in the process.
“You don’t even need to touch the ground. Why are you touching my feet?” grumbled Faust. “Corporeal existence doesn’t just happen, you know!”
“If the stairwell was wider, I could have flown right over you,” Aleister said. “I’m just saying.”
“Sorry, Faust,” I said. “You’re the best!”
“No one does it better,” Lilith said, planting a kiss on Faust’s cheek. His cheeks blushed red while the rest of his body tried to disappear completely.
We turned before our smirks were too obvious.
As a former human in the hereafter, Faust didn’t so much have a body as project one. It was short and round and perfectly solid and usable under most conditions, but staying solid required actual concentration. When he was stressed, he flickered and blurred. Some of the less honorable among us thought it was funny to startle him as he was mixing drinks, not that I would ever do that. Except that one time. With the whipped cream.
The basement wasn’t empty. Faust’s was an officially designated shelter, after all, and this was a busy street. Some of those taking refuge had obviously been customers when the alarm had sounded and still sipped on coffee or munched on apple cider donuts.
I eyed them enviously. Faust’s apple cider donuts were worth selling your soul for, and Faust had, sort of.
Even though the owner of the café was a former human, Faust hadn’t been evil like the other souls contained in the Pit. He had made a deal. All worldly knowledge in exchange for eternal servitude, and all that knowledge just so happened to include recipes for the best donuts ever.
I wasn’t sure his deal was worth it, but if it kept me in killer baked goods for all eternity, I was not going to complain.
“Should we snag a couch?” Aleister asked.
“Nah,” I said. “It’ll stop in a minute.”
It did not stop in a minute.
After five minutes Lilith led us to a ripped blue velvet couch that had been removed from the café upstairs. Five minutes after that, adults carrying bags from two of my favorite nearby shops, Burn This Book and Choirs of Hell Music, booted us off the couch.
I made a mental note to check out the COH concert schedule, since I had missed the last show. The shop hosted concerts in the alley out back, and I had spent hours talking to the siren who owned the store about the bands she pulled in. During boring classes I daydreamed about doing that, discovering musicians and launching them to success. Schmoozing and mingling, with people falling all over themselves to say, “You have the coolest club ever, Malachi!”
Aleister shifted next to me, and the feel of one of my long flight feathers being tugged reminded me why those fantasies would never be anything more than fantasies. I didn’t need to look around the room to see that me and my squad were the only ones there with black-feathered wings. Our kind were special, with celestial destinies or whatever.
If I’d had horns or a tail or even leathery wings, I could have been an ordinary resident of Hell, like most of the people who just lived here without worrying about how it all fit into the Big Picture. I’d have something the mortals called “free will” and an entire future of possibilities in front of me, almost all of which were closed to me and my friends. Our sleek black feathers separated us from everyone else and were a clear signal that our futures were locked down by destiny.
“Yo,” Crowley said as he flopped himself down next to us. His too-dark sunglasses slid to the end of his nose, and he let the comic that he had been holding fall into his lap. Crowley was the missing member of our squad, and it wasn’t overly surprising that he had skipped out on our game, even though he had helped create it. Getting unnecessarily sweaty was Crowley’s least-favorite activity.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“Over there,” he said, gesturing to the other side of the shelter. “I was waiting to see if there were going to be better options.”
“Nice,” scoffed Lilith.
“There weren’t,” Crowley said, as if this should make us feel better. And it kinda did, because standing by himself was a totally Crowley option to choose.
“Is that the new Storm Born?” Aleister asked.
“Yeah, number six hundred and sixty-six.” Crowley puffed out his chest. “Just finished production. Can’t even get it yet, but I know people.”
He meant Tony, of course, and my heart jolted, but Crowley wasn’t even looking at me. I let out a slow breath as subtly as I could. It had been months since I had visited Alighieri’s. There was no reason to think he knew my secret. Crowley was just gloating, as usual.
We examined the comic over Crowley’s shoulder, marveling at a new character while he swatted our hands away whenever we tried to point something out, until the act of touching the comic became the goal itself.
“You guys are such jerks!” Crowley snapped as we laughed.
I was lucky. We would be together until the end of time, whether we liked it or not. The Fates didn’t care if you had fun with your squad; that was just a nice perk we had managed.
Many minutes later we were still there in the basement, away from all the amazing donuts upstairs, and our comic-book-territory slap fight had become… a bit aggressive.
“Hey, Cecily. When’s the drill going to be over?” Aleister whined loudly, rubbing his hand gingerly. Cecily ignored him, but her eyes flicked to the clock on a nearby table.
Most of the time during a drill we barely made it down the stairs before the bells stopped, the flames receded, and the fence retracted back to its normal suburban size. What could possibly cause a drill to go on for so long?
An oni in the corner held a newspaper awkwardly in one red-clawed hand. His head was cocked sideways to read the crooked print, and he held a steaming cup of something in the other hand. Behind him his spiked tail swished between the flaps of his velvet tailcoat while his hooved feet shifted uncomfortably
Near him a daemon I recognized named Furfur *snicker* sat on the edge of a chair, idly scratching his elk horns against the wall. I couldn’t help noticing that his eyes were flicking between the clock and Faust.
In fact, as I looked around, I realized that almost everyone was starting to get fidgety. They probably had places to be, after all. We were the lucky ones heading into a school vacation, not them.
Lilith settled more comfortably against the wall, reading Crowley’s abandoned comic, now that the slap fight had stopped. Aleister had flopped onto his back and was throwing a crumpled piece of paper into the air over and over, and catching it each time before it could land on his face. I slid down the wall on the other side of Lilith, getting as close as I dared and using the comic book as an excuse.
It was a balance. If I was too clumsy and obvious, Lilith would annihilate me, but I wanted to be on her radar, so I was close enough that I could feel the heat of her leg. I didn’t look at her; I looked at the comic book she was holding. Close but not annoying. It was a dance.
“Did you guys hear about Belial?” I asked, hoping to impress Lilith with my insider information. “The guy in Abaddon’s class?”
“Fifty years submerged in the Styx,” Lilith said, with a knowing look.
“What did he do?” Crowley asked, finally lowering another comic he had pulled out of his bag.
“He went after Azael,” I said.
“So?” said Aleister. “He’s been gunning for Azael since Azael started hanging out with that girl Belial’s got a thing for.”
“He waited until Azael’s wing was broken,” I said significantly. Everyone groaned.
“And I suppose Belial’s parents aren’t going to ask for leniency,” said Crowley.
“For waiting to attack the weak?” I scoffed. “No way.”
Belial should have known better. If he didn’t want to spend fifty years gurgling swamp water, he should have confronted Azael when it was an even match. Or better yet, trusted the girl to know her own mind, and not gotten into a stupid fight like it was going to impress anyone.
“Thank you for your patience,” Faust announced to the room at large, tugging at his pointy little beard and shimmering way more than usual. “I’m sure the alarm bells will stop soon.”
“Maybe they’re broken?” Aleister wondered out loud, sounding completely unconcerned with that possibility.
“Get real,” Lilith scoffed. “Hell’s Bells? I don’t even think that’s possible.”
“Hmm,” the oni muttered in his gravelly voice, clearly overhearing us. Rude. He set his newspaper and mug down on a nearby crate filled with coffee stirrers or some other café supply. (But definitely not donuts, because I had already checked.) His slitted red eyes peered suspiciously into the distance. “Odd.”
“You don’t think it’s for real, do you?” Cecily asked, her fuzzy feline tail lashing out with nervous energy, while her pointed ears twisted on her head. Her golden eyes, which were normally half-lidded in boredom, were wide with anxiety.
“It’s happened before,” said Furfur.
“Yeah, but…,” said Cecily, her voice wavering.
“No,” said Faust. “Definitely not. For that to happen it would take an extraordinary breach of security.”
The noise level increased exponentially as everyone began to speak excitedly.
“No way,” I breathed. I had assumed a glitch or some stupid procedural thing that was taking too long, but there was always the remotest possibility of the alarm being real. Could there have been an actual escape?
“Whoa,” Lilith murmured. Aleister and Crowley exchanged looks with bright, excited eyes. Smirks and gleeful grins tugged at our mouths.
“There hasn’t been a breakout in a century. Jeez, Malachi,” Crowley tutted. “Your high-and-mighty parents not up to snuff? Did I hear… ‘demotion’?”
“They were probably too busy covering for your dad’s screwups,” I replied. “I heard his spell work went haywire the other day and the L-man let him have it.”
“?‘L-man’?” Lilith said. “Please. Dare you to say that to his face.”
I blushed, momentarily embarrassed at being called out by Lilith. Of course, I would never call Lucifer that to his face. He was an archangel, after all, and the first of us, but if you couldn’t talk smack to your friends, who could you talk smack to?
“And you haven’t heard anything, neither one of you,” continued Lilith. “So maybe we could try not making up stuff just to irritate each other, because if this is legit, this is bad, guys.”
Crowley and I mumbled apologies, while Aleister grinned.
“Why is it bad?” he asked. “Some dinky soul escapes? They’ll get it back in no time. Besides, Lilith, souls are weak. I only brushed Faust’s foot, and he went insubstantial, and he’s special. The regular ones can’t even do that. They’re all wispy nothings.”
“Then why do they look so worried?” Lilith countered, gesturing with a nod.
Cecily, Faust, and the oni had huddled together and were deep in conversation with other staff members and several customers. Leathery red wings mingled with horns and tails—but noticeably not black-feathered wings—as the regular residents of Hell discussed the still clanging bells and the possibility of a real jailbreak.
“Eh, relax.” Aleister shrugged. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
I shot him a glare.
Though the devilish part of me was thrilled at the possibilities.