The stench of Hell burned Salseph’s nostrils. Lost Souls¸ how he hated to return home. For all his trials on Earth, he preferred the human realm to this insufferable place. In the mortal plane, he could, with considerable effort and pain, divest himself of his wings, and feel as if he belonged-at least for a time.
Evolerzzal, a slimy glob of green flesh, grabbed Seph’s shoulder as he passed into the gloom of the Demon Realm. "Well, if it isn’t Salseph the Beautiful. What are you doing here amongst us humble creatures?" A clawed hand beckoned Charzzel, a demon of the Second Order. "Look who’s come home."
Seph shrugged free, vaulting his wings skyward. The dim, smoky light refracted on his feathers, and the movement immediately drew the attention of every demon in sight. His jaw tightened, a muscle twitching. He yearned to drive his fist into the grotesque face and take to the air, but it wasn’t Evolz’s fault the demons hated Seph. Paimon had insured that Salseph was an oddity, a freak. His appearance and the majestic wings set him apart from the others of his kind. Hell, there were no others of his kind. In all of Perdition, he was the only demon who looked like an angel. His face was handsome, his body lean and muscled-the body of a man, not a monstrosity-his blond hair thick and silky.
"I smell angel," a low-ranking atrocity shouted, his high-pitched voice rasping on Seph’s nerves.
The demons stank of brimstone and ash. Salseph’s Creator had only missed one detail in replicating a celestial being. Like an angel, Seph possessed an individual, mysterious scent, the airy fragrance part of his allure. Unlike an angel, Salseph had no sigil. A sigil, the angel’s name in Malachim script, was branded in his palm at his creation. Paimon did not have the ability to bequeath a sigil to his demon son. The fallen angel had, however, created Seph with an irresistible sexual magnetism.
A disgustingly ugly brute bared his fangs. A laugh rumbled from the creature’s slavering maw. He stumbled into Seph, crushing one of the long white feathers trailing the ash-gray ground. "Hello, Salseph." Two taloned fingers drifted down the feathered arch. "Wish I had pretty wings."
Seph flinched from the malicious caress, folding his wings in a tighter arch. The creature chuckled, and anger ground Salseph’s good intentions to dust. When he landed, he’d planned to hurry to his cave, avoiding another senseless confrontation with his brethren. The fiends detested him as much as he abhorred them. It was an effort of will to resist a scathing retort.
"I think he’s hideous," a demon in the shadows called. "Angels are our enemies. Every time I look at Paimon’s favorite, I want to draw sword."
Jealousy and envy gleamed in Evolz’s yellow eyes. The demon reeked of the Pit. Sulfur wasn’t an enticing perfume. "Now, who would want to spit our lovely Salseph on a sword?"
"Let me pass." Seph would have shouldered by Evolz, but touching the creature repulsed him.
"Coming home from another assignment?" Evolz smirked.
Seph refused to give the other demon the satisfaction of a reply. He was returning from another demeaning mission with his stomach in a knot and his heart bleeding for a poor human woman whose only sin was falling in love with him.
"Did you eat her baby or pump a little half-demon into her womb?" Evolz leered, his glob of a head tilted to the side, his hairy ears wagging.
"I don’t consume human flesh. Now, step aside."
"Or you’ll do what? Report me to Paimon?"
Seph flared his wings, striking the demon and sweeping Evolerzzal into a stumbling retreat. "Sorry, Evolz." He drove his wings down hard, rising straight into the sultry, close air. Voice dripping sarcasm, he said, "I forget how powerful I really am."
He hovered above the gross blob, his condescending smile goading Evolz to react. The demon glared at him but said nothing, a quick comeback beyond his limited mental capacity. Why were they all so fiendish? One of the monsters tried to capture his ankle. Laughing, he flew higher and, still chuckling, soared toward home. The place I hide. He’d never thought of the dim stone cavern as home. His heart stuttered over a painful beat. He had no home and belonged nowhere.
On a sulfurous breeze, Seph glided to the rocky shelf at the mouth of the cave. The other demons remained together, the Realm their only habitat. He’d discovered a large cave where he could imitate real life, transporting human furniture to Hell and, modifying the chairs to accommodate wings. Stone walls overcame the heat, the cavern cool and dim. Mica sparkled in the floor. He unbelted his travel pack from his waist, tossed the leather satchel on a polished cherry table and sighed. In a gold mirror, his reflection mocked him. Sometimes, life didn’t seem worth the living, but there was damned all he could do about it. He was immortal. No friends among his own kind, no contact with men in the human realm, only women whom he must reduce to begging and tears.
Often, late at night, loneliness broke through Salseph’s stone defenses, forcing him to admit that he craved love. Women loved him, not knowing his true identity. If the victims he seduced knew he was a demon, created by fallen angel... ah, well, he’d never win free of Paimon’s dominance and the painful missions. As a fucking machine, it was better to keep his heart at a distance.
He sank into a gold brocade chair, spread his wings over a scarlet-and-navy silk rug, and closed his eyes. If he’d possessed a soul, that spirit would have been weary. How long before Paimon summoned him to his chambers and assigned him another emotional slaughter?
A silver-voiced trumpet threaded the gloom. The other demons enjoyed the stench of Hell, but when home, Seph always felt a bit nauseated. The escapes into the mortal world, with clean air, food, and affection, were a relief, though a chore.
The trumpet called again, summoning the demon hordes to converge. Premonition crawled over Seph on a shiver. Rarely did Paimon assemble the hosts in the late evening. The fallen angel devoted nights to pleasure. Once, Salseph had been the favored guest at these lavish parties. Until I made my preferences known. He missed the opulent surroundings and the company of the other angels who’d joined Lucifer in exile, but not Paimon’s lusty overtures.
On a heavy sigh, he climbed to his feet, ducking through the cave’s mouth into the world he hated. Reluctantly, he flew to the gathering on a stretching charcoal plain. Lighter gray, a sluggish river wound through the dry, cracked ground. The demons’ collective consciousness focused on the regal figure pacing a silver-and-gold draped dais. A mass of hideous faces tilted to worship the General of Hell. No one turned as Seph drifted down on the balls of his feet at the rear of the crowd and folded his wings, a luminescent dome against the bruised sky.
Paimon scanned his subjects, and his gaze captured Seph. He flung his arms above his head, a prophet summoning the faithful. Pristine white robes fluttered as if they, too, were under his command. "We, the Fallen, have raised our standard against Heaven once more. The loyal angels are disheartened. Some are even deserting. The ones who remain question whether they’ve made the right choice. This time, I tell you, we shall triumph. Prepare yourselves for war. I shall form you into squadrons and assign a commander to lead you."
Paimon spread his peacock wings. The demons waved their appendages and cheered. With an aristocratic gesture, the General ordered them silent.
"Salseph, come forward," his Creator demanded. "You look like our celestial foes and may deceive them. You, my son, will lead the entire demon army."
As one, the assembly spun to glare at him. A low angry grumbling swept the demons.
Nausea gripped Seph. Dismay settled like a weight on his shoulders. He closed his eyes, wished he could fly to his last conquest’s arms. "Here, General."
Seph flared his wings above his head to avoid the creatures grudgingly parting for him. Head high, he approached his maker. Balanced on his forearm, Paimon extended an exquisite sword. Black and white diamonds studded the hilt, glittering in the hoary light. The sharp blade, fashioned of black iron, would destroy any supernatural being.
Paimon’s eyes gleamed deep purple, harder than amethyst, the stone of healing. He aimed a cold, mocking smile at Salseph. "Kneel."
Reluctance slowed his surrender. Seph stared at his father then obeyed. Ashes powdered his arched wings, graying the white feathers, and clung to his hair. Paimon tapped the blade to his right shoulder then to his left, knighting his rebellious creation-and sealing his fate amongst the other demons. A sour rope of dread knotted in Seph’s guts. Bile stung his throat. The honor of commanding the demon forces was a two-edged blade. Under favorable circumstances, he was certain he could succeed, but Paimon was well aware of the deadly challenge he’d set for his prodigal son. The demons would never obey Salseph and the angels were keen to destroy him as an outrage to their sanctimonious selves.
He rose, accepted a weapon fashioned for a king and bowed his head in salute. Paimon stroked Seph’s hair, but the gentle and adoring caress felt like a warning. Sifting blond strands through his fingers, the General laughed softly. The sound whispered over Seph’s rigid body, his feathers rustling. Maybe this was it, and the fallen angel had enjoyed all he could stand of his errant creation.
Menacing evil, his brothers crowded around him, peering at the sword. Their disgusting odor burned his nose, the press of their bodies repulsive. Paimon motioned them back.
Seph raised his sword. "We shall march into battle against our foe with a single, unified intent. To win."
If he’d expected cheers, the silence bespoke his fate. In the damnable heat, he shivered. Seph would be the target of every angel and every demon, survival unlikely. He tested the balance of the weapon. At least, Paimon had taught him swordsmanship, and he could handle the beautiful blade with skill.
The fallen angel clapped him on the shoulder. "Your sword, my Salseph, is Mafteah Shelomoh. The Key of Solomon. I have given you this weapon to protect you against both angels and demons alike. Remember what I taught you of swordplay."
"Paimon, don’t march. This war is hopeless. They outnumber us ten to one."
"Not your decision, Salseph." His purple gaze swept the troops. "Not even mine."
Paimon bent to kiss Seph’s cheek and whisper, "You carry my heart. Bring Mafteah Shelomoh, and yourself, back to me in victory, and there will be no more assignments."
Salseph’s heart shrank. The likelihood that Paimon would honor the bargain was remote. The probability of success as distant as Heaven, but he’d risk his life for a chance at freedom.