Demon Ascendant – Preview

 
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Chapter 1

An angel…

Christine is an angel.

An angel!

Some part of Torval thought that he must’ve known, or at least suspected this, all along. She was so kind and helpful, so genuinely good…how could he ever expect to find a human with such overwhelming qualities?

And yet, he hadn’t known. The possibility never even occurred to him, at least not consciously. In an instant, everything he’d experienced during the last few days flashed before him, as though mocking his many failures.

He remembered witnessing his first Transcendence, when one of the tortured souls on his route finally escaped from Hell. In response, Torval made the mistake of asking what that meant and why things worked the way they did. That ill-timed conversation earned him this accursed holiday on Earth, where, in some kind of cruel cosmic joke, he arrived in the body of a freezing street bum during a bitter snowstorm. Somehow, he managed to claw his way out of that predicament, but only thanks to the kindness of others, or sheer blind luck. One misadventure followed another as he stumbled about the city, trying to find his way and improve his lot as best he could. Only when he’d finally secured employment, however pathetic it might seem, did he finally begin to understand what it meant to be human.

Throughout all that, Christine was there, helping him, offering advice or assistance, or just being in his thoughts, one way or another. For reasons he’d never fully understood, she’d intrigued him since the moment he first saw her in the soup kitchen. At first, he simply assumed his frail human shell was attracted to her in some inexplicable way, but he later came to realize it was more than that. Their attraction was more than simply physical. He liked her for who she was, not what she looked like, and he desperately wanted to get to know her better. Best of all, she seemed to feel the same way. Once he worked up the courage to ask her out, he’d dared to believe he might have a chance, however slim, of finding love.

Now, in a single, frozen instant, as he saw her true shape for the first time, all those hopes were dashed. Christine wasn’t human at all, but an angel in disguise. He’d never expected to meet an angel, but now that he had, their relationship would have to end. After all, angels were the Other Side, the Opposition. Demons and angels aren’t permitted to interact, at least not until Judgment Day, when the armies of Heaven and Hell would be loosed upon each other in the final Apocalypse that would cleanse the world and change Creation forever.

At least, that’s how Torval understood things, in his limited recollection of how that was all supposed to work. In fact, he was probably violating the Compact right now, just touching Christine like this.

With that final thought, he suddenly jerked his hands back. The faintly glowing, golden form before him reverted instantly to the human Christine Anderson, her lovely face now twisted into an expression of abject horror. She backed away, trembling, almost gasping for breath, staring at him with such intensity that it almost felt painful.

“You—you’re a demon!” she blurted, almost spitting the word. “Get away from me! Away!”

“Christine, I—” Torval began, but his voice caught in his throat. What could he possibly say? That he hadn’t known her true nature? That he didn’t know what to do now? That he was sorry? Nothing seemed to be enough, and so many words rushed to his lips that he couldn’t say any of them.

“Shut up!” she yelled, pointing a quivering finger at him. “You—you fiend! Creature from Hell! Whatever you were trying to do—whatever your mission is—just stay away!”

She moved sideways now, away from him and up the staircase, making for the door to her building without taking her eyes off Torval. She now wore an expression of mixed horror and fear.

“Please,” he managed to sputter. “I never intended to deceive you. I have no mission—I am only on vac—”

“I don’t care what you are, or why you’re here!” she spat, fumbling with the keys until the door finally opened. “Just keep away from me! I don’t ever want to see you again!”

“But, Christine, please—I just want to—” Torval sputtered, taking a few steps toward her.

It was too late. She retreated hastily inside, slamming the door in his face. He could hear her there, breath coming in ragged gasps, until finally her footsteps scuffled away. He also thought he might’ve heard, amidst those retreating sounds, a muffled sob.

But it could’ve been his imagination.

* * * * *

Torval didn’t know how long he stood there. He lost all track of time, mentally going over what just happened, repeating it over and over in his head.

The date went well—he was sure of that, from the end result. The kiss they shared was sheer perfection. For a single, enduring moment, he held a human woman in his arms, pressed his lips to hers, and understood so many things. For an instant, he thought he felt the first faint stirrings of love.

Then everything was gone, ripped away just like that. The woman he thought of as Christine wasn’t really a human at all, but an angel, an agent of Heaven, here on some mission for the Other Side. The heavenly equivalent of Prelz, perhaps, not a Tempter but—what? What missions did angels perform, anyway?

He knew nothing about angels. Nothing at all, except their appearance, and that from only this brief encounter. Doubtless they looked different depending on their tasks, just as demons did. And what did she see when she looked at him? Something foul, judging by her reaction—a horrible and disgusting creature, unbearable to even look upon. Well, that much he understood, at least. Of course his demonic form would be repulsive to something as lovely as herself.

Torval sighed heavily. He wished she wasn’t an angel. He wanted Christine to be human again, a woman that he could pursue, and fall in love with, and be a part of his life for the duration of his stay on Earth. Now that, like everything else, had been yanked away. She no longer wanted anything to do with him. All he’d sought to accomplish, with the date and everything else, was lost—nothing but a wasted effort, gone forever.

If only he’d known before this! If only they’d touched—but they hadn’t, he realized now, thinking back on their previous encounters. In the cab, at her apartment, even during the date tonight, they’d never actually made physical contact. On the few occasions that they came close, he recalled feeling a faint spark, the barest hint of something like electricity, but he dismissed that as some sort of natural physical attraction designed by nature to help human beings locate potential mates. Now he knew better. He wouldn’t be fooled like that again.

He could only press on, he finally decided. His efforts with Christine had failed. She had ordered him away, and even if he wanted to, they could never see each other again. The Compact prohibited it. Angels and demons weren’t permitted to interact. That was the way things were, and for good reason. He didn’t want to be the one to precipitate Armageddon, after all.

So he turned away at last, heading slowly down the windswept street in the direction of his waiting job. He still had that, at least. He had a place to go where he could be warm and comfortable, and perhaps put these miserable thoughts out of his mind. He would have to forget her somehow.

That wouldn’t be easy. He didn’t want to forget her. He had to, though. He had to at least try.

He felt cold now, bitterly cold in the early night wind, so he pushed his hands into his pockets and shuffled along, shivering. As he did, he glanced back over his shoulder once more, trying not to think about Christine, or the fact that several tears were even now turning into frozen droplets on his face.

High above, in one of the distant windows, a pair of curtains fluttered shut, but Torval didn’t notice as he shuffled his way slowly down the darkened street.

* * * * *

“There you are!” came a familiar voice out of the shadows, even as Torval finally reached the Roxton warehouse. “I was wondering how late you’d be!”

“I am not late,” protested Torval, looking longingly at the inviting door behind Prelz, its promise of warmth almost beckoning to him. Glancing again at his brand-new watch, Torval added, “I am five minutes early.”

“Then you’re late for sure, ’cause I’m gonna bug you at least that long,” chuckled the other demon. “Come on, fork over some details! I’ve been waiting here all evening for your sorry ass to show up—the least you can do is feed me a few juicy tidbits.”

“I do not wish to discuss it,” complained Torval. “I am cold and distraught and I wish only to work so I can forget all about Christine Anderson.”

“Oh, shit, no,” replied Prelz, shaking his head sadly. The look on his weathered face betrayed his disappointment. “You screwed it up, didn’t you? I’m so sorry, man, sorry to hear it. I should’ve told you more about what to do, or maybe what not to do, hmm?”

“It was not you,” Torval sighed, realizing he wasn’t going to get out of this conversation easily. He shifted position so that Prelz blocked the wind. “The date itself was not the problem. In fact, everything went extremely well. When it was over, we walked back to her apartment, and I could tell she had a good time.”

“Did you get lucky?” inquired Prelz curiously. “You seem to have a knack for that, y’know.”

“No, not this time,” replied Torval, too depressed to get irritated at the insinuation. “We did, however, exchange a kiss.”

“You did? Sweet!” Prelz looked pleased, even happy, as he clapped Torval on the back. “Well done! You got to first base!”

“First…base?” Torval raised his eyebrows.

“Never mind, never mind. What I mean is, she must’ve liked you, if she let you kiss her after the first date. Nice work. You’re on the right track, it sounds like.”

“Yes, I thought so too,” sighed Torval.

“Well, what happened? Did you slip her too much tongue, or what?”

“No, it was perfect.” Torval hung his head in disappointment. “It was exactly as I hoped it would be. For a moment I felt what it was to be truly human, Prelz! To truly understand it all. Attraction, intimacy, mortality…perhaps even love. All of that flashed before me when our lips touched, and I held her close to me…” His voice trailed off in a sad, forlorn sigh.

Prelz raised his bushy eyebrows. “My friend,” he said after a moment, “I do believe you have the heart of a true romantic! All of that sounds great and all, but you still haven’t told me what went wrong. What was the problem?”

“The problem was Christine,” explained Torval wearily. “After the kiss, the truth was revealed to me. She is an angel.”

“Oh, yeah, don’t I know it!” agreed Prelz at once, slapping one rag-covered knee in affirmation. “She’s so damn nice all the time, no matter what’s happening, and so gorgeous, too.” He paused for a moment, looking at Torval with head cocked sideways, before suddenly realizing what was going on.

“Wait a minute…! You don’t mean—you mean she’s really an angel?” He pointed a half-covered finger up at the sky. “An angel from Heaven?”

Torval nodded slowly. “Yes. That is exactly what I mean.”

Prelz looked stunned, and in fact settled to the ground, dropping roughly onto the hard concrete steps leading up to the side entrance to the warehouse. He rubbed his frayed and mismatched gloves together as much in contemplation as for warmth.

“An angel,” he muttered slowly. “You don’t say. A real, honest-to-God angel.”

“Yes, that’s what I said,” repeated Torval, sitting down beside his fellow demon and huddling next to him, keeping out of the wind as best he could. “We touched, and I saw her true form, and she saw mine. I thought that such revelations occur only between demons, but apparently it works for anyone who is not truly human.”

“I guess so,” Prelz agreed with a shrug. Quickly overcoming the initial surprise, he began to chuckle. “Hey, do you know what this means? You kissed an angel! A demon, kissing an angel! That’s great! Oh, how I would’ve liked to have seen her reaction! Too bad I wasn’t there. Damn, I missed a good one!”

“It was not,” Torval replied gruffly, “particularly pleasant.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make fun of you,” Prelz added after recovering from his sudden mirth. “So what happened then? I guess she didn’t invite you inside, huh?”

“No, she was upset. Very much so, in fact.”

“I bet she was. Well, she’ll get over it. When do you think you two will get together again? So I can hide in the bushes and watch, of course.”

“Never.” Torval shook his head sadly. “When she found out what I was, she ordered me away. We cannot see each other again. She is an angel, and I a demon. We are not permitted to interact. Our relationship is over.”

“Ah, what a load of horse hockey!” snapped Prelz. “Is that what’s got you down? Nothing’s over, my friend. She’s a woman and you’re a man, and that’s that. You’re both in human bodies here on Earth. You liked each other before you found out what you really were—so you have a connection. So keep at it! Love is blind, y’know, or at least that’s what they always say.”

“But the Compact—”

“—doesn’t mean jack shit!” interjected Prelz swiftly. “Do you know what that thing says, exactly? Have you ever actually read it?”

“No, I am afraid not,” replied Torval with a sad shake of his head. “Perhaps I should have, but it never seemed relevant to me.”

“You couldn’t have understood it anyway, not at your rank,” Prelz pointed out, “and besides, you’re absolutely right, it wasn’t relevant. Not to you, until you came here. I’m just surprised you weren’t forced to read it before Transitioning.”

“The subject never came up,” said Torval with a shrug.

“Whatever. Well, I’ve read it.” Prelz put out his right hand, wrapped in a black glove with two missing fingertips. He held up a trio of slightly shivering fingers. “There are only three things that are really important in all that steaming pile of dung they call a Compact. Do you want to know what those are?”

His friend nodded eagerly. “Yes. Definitely.”

“One,” said Prelz, holding up a single finger, “no angel or demon shall enter the Middle World in their true forms, nor shall they purposely reveal their true natures to a human.”

“But what about Father Michaels?” interrupted Torval. “He has seen both of our true forms. Is he not human?”

“He is, or at least I think he is.” Prelz shrugged. “He’s not a demon or angel, though, I’m sure of that. So if he’s human, I suppose technically we violated the Compact, didn’t we?” He grinned, gave a chuckle, and then coughed a few times. “I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but then, I didn’t exactly purposely reveal myself to him, did I? He saw me himself, not because of anything I did. Same with you. Assuming he is human, and I’m pretty sure he is, he must just have a gift that lets him see us as we are. Second sight, they call it. Still, I avoid talking about demons with him, or the nature of Hell, just to be sure I have plausible deniability.”

Torval nodded, not sure what to make of that, but then it probably didn’t matter. If the Compact had been broken, surely something would’ve happened by now, wouldn’t it?

“Anyway,” went on Prelz, holding up another finger, which looked slightly blue from the cold, “the second thing is that no magic or miracles shall be employed by angels or demons. Here in this world, everything works the way it’s supposed to, as can be explained through science and reason, using the natural laws that run the Universe—the laws the Creator set up when He made everything the way it is.”

Torval shrugged. “I cannot do magic,” he commented, “so that one does not matter. However, I do recall that when Father Michaels told us the stories of the Bible, there were miracles aplenty.”

“Hmm, well, I’m not sure if those were real, or just some strange events those primitive people couldn’t explain and just attributed to magic,” suggested Prelz. “Anyway, if all of that was to be believed, it was God who took the form of Jesus, not an angel or demon. Of course the Creator can do whatever He wants, as He isn’t bound by the Compact.”

“Of course,” agreed Torval, for the explanation sounded reasonable enough. “What is the third rule?”

“This is the one you want to listen to,” explained Prelz, with his third finger up now. “Angels and demons shall not come into conflict until the Day of Judgment, at which point open warfare will result and, at least as we demons see it, the world will be destroyed.”

“That is what I’m talking about, then,” Torval pointed out. “That is the rule that binds me. Angels and demons cannot interact.”

“Cannot conflict,” corrected Prelz. “That’s the key word, my friend. We can’t come into conflict with angels, but that doesn’t mean we can’t interact with them at all. Not that we usually have any desire to, of course, but at least now one of us has a reason.”

For the first time, Torval felt a faint stirring of hope. “Are you certain?” he asked firmly. “You are sure you aren’t misremembering the wording?”

“No, I’m not,” insisted the older demon. “I’m quite clear on this. They even gave us instructions on the subject, in case we ever ran into an angel down here. Presumably it happens on occasion. There aren’t many of us on either side, of course, but eventually some of us would have to meet, if only by pure chance. Hmm…what are the odds of that, I wonder?”

“What instructions did they give you?” demanded Torval, not at all interested in any other speculations.

“Well, if you must know, we’re supposed to avoid them at all costs,” said Prelz with a sigh, “but that’s because our goals on Earth would probably be polar opposites. You don’t have to worry about that, my friend, since you don’t have an assignment here. You can do whatever you want—you have the advantage of free will, right?”

“That is true,” agreed Torval, remembering what Geezon said just before the Transition. “I can do whatever I like, as long as I am not interfering with another demon’s work.”

“And Christine isn’t a demon, is she?” said Prelz with a sly wink.

“No,” Torval replied, allowing himself the very briefest of smiles. “No, she most definitely is not.”

* * * * *

When he finally managed to disengage from Prelz, Torval headed quickly inside, into the gloriously heated warehouse and its accompanying office. He stood there alone for a moment, enjoying the warmth and considering the ex-Tempter’s words carefully.

He and Christine could definitely continue to see each other, at least according to the Compact. That news at least brightened Torval’s mood somewhat. However, there was still the matter of the harsh manner in which she ordered him away, insisting that she never wanted to see him again. Was that because she, too, believed the Compact prevented their interaction? Or simply because he repulsed her physically? Or was there something more to it?

Did she think he had betrayed her trust by lying about his true nature? Torval considered that as he massaged his nearly frozen fingers, wishing he’d purchased better clothing for protection against the cold outside. If she did indeed hold him at fault for a deception, well, she’d done the same, had she not? She didn’t reveal her own true nature any more than he had, so they were both equally at fault. Not that they could’ve done otherwise—the Compact was clear on that. They were both required to keep their true natures secret, at least as long as they believed the other to be human.

So the problem had to be Torval’s status as a demon, and nothing more. He wanted to believe, as Prelz suggested, that their true natures wouldn’t be a barrier, but of course they would. Torval knew he didn’t want to forget Christine or end their relationship, simply because they weren’t human. He liked Christine, and they definitely had shared something in that brief instant when they kissed—or at least he thought they did. He wanted to experience that moment again, if at all possible. The only way he could do that was to convince her, somehow, that it would be all right to try.

Exactly how that would be accomplished, he had no idea. If the way she reacted to his demon form was any indication, he had a difficult challenge ahead of him.

He heard footsteps tromping up the stairs from the basement, and after a moment the tall and lanky form of Pete Roxton stepped into the room. “Ah, you’re here,” said Pete with an affable grin. “Sorry if I kept you waiting, but I was making sure you had the Internet running down there. Everything should be good, I think.”

Torval nodded, not really understanding what the other was talking about. “I only just arrived,” he replied.

“Oh, okay, well, come down here and I’ll let you play around with the computer before I head out. Gonna hit a few bars tonight and see if I can get lucky, y’know? Heh-heh.”

The demon shrugged and followed. Somehow Pete didn’t seem quite as charming, now that Torval knew how his boss had treated Christine during their brief date. Pete was still the same person, obviously, but there was now an air of tawdriness about him. He clearly intended to go out this evening, find some desperate woman, and have cheap and meaningless sex with her. If the female desired the same, thought the demon, then perhaps this wasn’t in and of itself a sin; but that couldn’t change the fact that it seemed at its core rather desperate and pathetic.

Torval thought about commenting as he followed Pete down the rickety stairs, but he didn’t really know enough about this subject. He’d only been human for a few days, after all, so he stayed silent.

“Okay, have a seat,” said his boss upon arriving in the now-open “secret” room in the basement. The computer waited, this time with its screen active, showing a scene of a barren hillside, azure sky above flecked with wispy white clouds. Several small images lined the left side of the view, while a tiny arrow floated in the middle of the scene.

Torval sat down, studying the display. The picture seemed quite serene, but he wondered what it had to do with anything. Was this something like television or the movies, where projected images were used to tell some sort of story?

“Okay, here’s your manual,” said Pete, slapping a hand on the book sitting to Torval’s right. “Computers for Dummies” read the title, which seemed vaguely insulting. “Everything you need is right here. Read and practice and play around all you want. I’ve got virus checkers installed, so if any windows pop up with warnings, make sure you deny everything.”

“Very well,” replied Torval with no small amount of confusion. “I will deny everything.”

“Anyway, I’m outta here,” Pete went on hurriedly. “Meeting some friends downtown. Have a good time!”

Torval stared at the computer for a moment, not really comprehending the strange machine and its odd attachments. “Wait,” he called out finally, “what exactly am I supposed to accomplish?”

There was no reply. Pete was already gone. The sound of the door slamming, followed by the turning of a lock, was all Torval heard.

He stood there, at a loss. Always, before, he’d had clear instructions on his goals for the night. Now all he had was a manual and the mysterious machine before him, with no specific task, other than to read and practice.

He did recall, when he last visited this place, that the Roxtons intended for him to somehow record their business transactions on this device. However, he had no idea how that might done. Perhaps the manual will explain, thought the demon. Might as well get started.

He began to read. The computer, it seemed, consisted of several component parts. The large, rectangular gray box contained all the inner workings, which the book actually avoided discussing. Apparently he had no need to know what the things inside did, at least not at this point. An advanced chapter dealt with taking off the case and fiddling around within, but Torval figured that was beyond the scope of his initial training.

Several other items were attached to the computer’s main body. The “monitor” and its “screen” produced the background image, and contained things called “icons” that somehow represented objects he could work with in some way. Then there was a “keyboard,” where he could type in requests or enter information, and a “mouse” which served as a kind of pointer and could activate mysterious items called “applications.” According to the book, there might also be other peripherals, such as printers, scanners, and speakers, but glancing around the otherwise empty room, Torval saw no such items. The Roxtons’ computer lacked anything other than the bare minimum of add-ons, apparently.

The mouse, it seemed, controlled the computer. He discovered very quickly that simply moving the pointer caused the arrow on the screen to slide about. The oval-shaped device also had several buttons, and when he pointed the arrow at an icon, he could press a switch (i.e., “click”) to activate its power. Following the instructions in the book, he could locate and use several tools, such as a calculator and notepad.

He played with these for a while, following Pete’s instructions to practice, until he felt fairly confident in his abilities. Then he moved on, activating an application called “Internet Explorer.” Immediately the hillside image on the screen vanished, replaced by a large white window containing a very large word that Torval didn’t recognize. The word was “Google.”

He consulted the book. Apparently the Internet Explorer application allowed one to “surf the Internet,” or move from site to site looking for information. Torval nodded, now beginning to understand. He could recall now from his initial trip to the library how the woman Karen had mentioned the Internet somewhat disdainfully. Apparently its presence caused people to avoid libraries. Did that mean the same things available there could also be found using the Internet?

Apparently so, as he found out quite readily. Using the text box in the middle of the screen, he could type in any word or phrase, and after a brief moment all sorts of relevant articles would appear. Each of these represented something called a “website,” where further information could be found. The act of moving from site to site was, apparently, referred to as “surfing.”

As an experiment, Torval tried a word, carefully locating the appropriate letters on the keyboard one at a time. He typed in “demon” and hit the Enter key, as the manual instructed. Instantly a page full of sites appeared, all with that particular word in their title. He clicked on one of the pages and began to read.

After a few minutes, he tried another word, and read another page, and another. There was so much information here, and so many images! No wonder people didn’t go to the library, if they had access to the Internet! They could find whatever they wanted, just by using a computer.

Torval closed the book and set it aside. For the moment, he had everything he needed. Perhaps he would return to the manual later, when he was done surfing the Internet, but for now he just wanted to explore and learn whatever he could. After all, he now had the entirety of all human knowledge at his fingertips.

And, at least for the rest of the night, he managed to forget about Christine.

 

* * *

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Demon Ascendant