Author: Guede Mazaka
Once upon a time, three kings saw a new star burst into the night heavens with such brilliance that the rent it made was visible for hundreds of miles. They were men wise in more than the lore of the human heart and the human lust, and so they knew that the star signaled the arrival of a far, far greater king than they. And so they gathered up offerings fit for such a ruler, and they journeyed past the fountains of their cities and over the fields, crossing moor and mountain. The star led them to a humble stable, so humble that they could scarcely believe the great King whom they sought could be residing within it. But indeed, the star lay directly overhead, and so the three kings went in and presented their tribute.
Tribute. Now there’s a clue if Balthazar has ever heard one. Of course, his holy namesake and his two colleagues were sadly mistaken as to the nature of the rule of the king to whom they offered their gifts. They’d have been less hasty about bribing the puling little brat, he thinks, if they had known that his rule was to be the ethereal, soaring rule of heaven and that he was going to keep his hands strictly clean of their petty little tyrannies.
Demons know their Bible stories better than most Catholics nowadays, so in the beginning Balthazar received more than his share of jibes for the earthly name he took. But those have been repaid nine times over, for Lucifer did not open his gates wide to the unlucky half-breeds caught on the earthly place. Balthazar has visited all that had mocked him before, as part of the myriad little concessions he has garnered as a favored of Mammon, and made sure they’d regretted it, even if Lucifer apparently does not. The three Magi rendered unto the son of God ahead of time and were remembered kindly for it, and so he has likewise rendered unto the son of the Morningstar.
Mammon rules earth. Heaven has abandoned humanity to him, and hell seethes but is unable to do more than snap at the edges. The two-way stalemate hasn’t changed except to lose the whole reason over which they were fighting: human souls. Because his father cared about what happened to them, Mammon does not. When he slays, he destroys spirit as well in order to deny its power to either side.
He wants to best his father, he’d like to be his father only he’d like to be different as well, and so earth has become a parody of Hell. Balthazar didn’t even realize such a thing was possible. The perfect double-cross, setting up the Adversary for betrayal by his own blood, and the result is not paradise raped through the looking glass, not even a gloriously brutal war, but merely the twisted dream of an insecure child. If there were any psychologists left sane on the world, they’d certainly appreciate the irony. It’s a tale straight out of the movies. It’s pathetic.
It’s trapped Balthazar.
* * *
Hell was fiery wreckage, so L. A. is burning ruins. Scavengers stalk the heaps of rubble and squabble pettishly over whatever scraps they find. They are string-limbed and deformed like their counterparts in Hell, but instead of missing half their heads, they’re all mouth. More flap overhead, and again they are like but not quite the ones in Hell. They’re Mammon’s own creation. Once he’d finished the first breeding pairs, he called his court together to lick his shiny boots in approval. Someone mentioned the likeness to the originals.
Right now Balthazar is standing before what remains of that demon. No body, but etched half-an-inch deep in the wrenched steel girder is its outline. Someone has hacked and pounded at it so it looks wholly human, as that is one of Mammon’s decrees.
He looks like a skeleton broken in parts and rejointed with rubber bands, and his subjects differ from his father’s in that they are human, so he insists that all be human in his presence. Not so long ago, Balthazar lost his temper without realizing that Mammon was near and snapped his canines in the air. The gory holes they’d left behind after being wrenched out still hurt when he probes at them with his tongue. He presses harder anyway, feeling around till his tongue-tip grazes the very edge of the new tooth growing in.
“Balthazar. You’re early,” comes the soft susurration of a voice. When he turns, Mammon is standing there with a few of his other advisors, fleshy ridges over his eyes lowering in an attempt to narrow his sockets. He is dressed in the finest suit that human imagination has to offer, cut as clever as the living damned can manage with permanently shaking hands, and he still looks like a stillborn cripple.
Everyone else is required to either wear much less clothing or to wear clothing so subdued that they fade into the shadows. Generally the shadows are the least safe place to be around Mammon. “I wanted to ensure that it was secure for the meeting, my lord,” Balthazar says.
Mammon stares at him. Today Mammon has small balls of onyx slashed with ruby in his sockets. They don’t roll like normal eyes would, but instead spin slowly in place, with just enough speed for visions to flash across their surface but to be indiscernible except for the vague feeling that they concern the looker-on in a hideous way.
Apparently Balthazar can still convince, for Mammon finally dismisses him. No thanks offered, obviously.
One of the lesser hangers-on rushes out to slit their throat, and as their blood splashes the ground it cracks open. Clouds of sulfur whoosh upward and two more demons make a great show of waving it away from Mammon. He still twists off one’s ear when they come within an inch of scuffing his shoes.
Balthazar wanders around the edge of the mist, carefully stepping over the jagged mix of concrete chunks, glass and bone. He watches as the fog is abruptly pulled out of existence by the appearance of Lucifer.
“So, Father. You have a favor to ask of me,” Mammon begins.
The hall is a shell of a skyscraper, open on five sides, but it still fills with darkness. In the middle of it, Lucifer’s rage provides a dull red light. “I’m here to demand the return of what’s mine, you insolent little shit.”
The details don’t concern Balthazar. Whether anyone wills it or no, Hell and earth are inextricably interconnected and border conflicts are inevitable. This scenario plays out once a month—or more often, depending on Mammon’s temper. The danger it entails has been around so long it resembles the giant, loose-jaw grinning hellhound that Balthazar’s interest is patting.
John Constantine had died just in time to escape Mammon’s claws, though rumor says that that had been the worst mistake of his entire life. It’s debatable, since rumor also cannot agree on whether being in Lucifer’s train is a blessing or a curse. Most likely both.
“Long time no see, asshole.” Constantine has his cigarettes back, or a very like facsimile of them, and he drags on one while his eyes coolly measure Balthazar’s approach. Before them, Lucifer and Mammon have finished with the insults and have drifted towards the center to exchange the threats, drawing the rest away from them. The hellhound by John briefly hesitates, but he waves it off with the rest.
“I see you’ve landed on your feet.” And then Balthazar is close enough to smell the fresh pain and fear beneath the pervading sulfur. He looks over John again, noting that Lucifer’s kept him in the same clothing as when he was alive, and this time he also spots the faded bruises, the dark rings peeking from beneath John’s cuffs and collar. “Or perhaps that should be your back.”
The pitiful smoke ring John blows towards him dissolves long before Balthazar could ever smell it. John shifts uncomfortably, wincing around the long white cylinder, but then he takes the cigarette from his mouth with as much grace as when he was in his prime. His eyes are dark, but Balthazar glimpses a hard spark in them. Something is deeply amiss here.
He isn’t inclined to tell anyone about it. He finds it—he tucks that thought away with the other and pretends nonchalance when John flicks ash his way. Those turn into stinging pests that Balthazar is forced to swat away; the burst of power, minute as it is, attracts attention. Heads go up. Lucifer whispers to Mammon, who gives Balthazar a smile too thin to hold any emotion.
“I’d watch your step, if I were you,” John says. He hooks his hand in his pocket, looking around with indifferent eyes and tense limbs. Given the chance, he’d run. This is still earth, even if it’s not precisely the version Balthazar had imagined.
He delicately worries at a nail till John happens to glance back at him, and then he lewdly flicks his tongue around it. “Because I might upset the current fucktoy of my master’s greatest enemy?”
“You know, you say ‘master’ like you were born for it.” John scans the place again, smoking quickly now. His feet idly tip over rocks. The muscle in his cheek beats hard, as if it were a vein, through his worn-out, sickly skin. “I’d say I’m more like his favorite rape-victim. He likes a fight, unlike your wannabe dickhead of a leader.”
“You should watch your step,” Balthazar says, a beat late and an intonation hinting. It wasn’t his intention, but Constantine brings out the worst in him. He glances back towards the others, who seem to be concluding the meeting.
Laughing, John throws his butt in Balthazar’s face. The sound is loud, dissonant, pointedly uncontrolled. “You stupid, stupid son of a bitch,” he says, shaking his head. “And I thought all demons were only out for themselves, when you’re really all sla—”
“Much as I like seeing you embarrass Mammon’s pets, I don’t care for this plane anymore.” Lucifer strides up with his coat flapping angrily over his stomach and takes John by the arm. When John yanks back, he shows no surprise and no mercy. The second John has dropped to his knees, Lucifer is jerking him back up by the neck, grip so tight that the flesh beneath it is white.
They vanish along with the rest of Lucifer’s retinue. The last glimpse Balthazar remembers, after he’s had a moment to retrieve it, was of John’s furious eyes over his choking mouth. All this time and Lucifer still hasn’t broken him.
“That was auspicious timing.” Mammon’s voice slithers up behind Balthazar before cracking like a whip at the end.
He turns with an excuse on his lips, but it’s smashed back into his mouth. Balthazar staggers backward from the blow, goes to one knee and clutches at his bleeding, throbbing jaw. The bone is broken and he can feel the ends grating against each other.
“You rattled my father to my benefit. For that I’ll mitigate your punishment for upstanding me at my own negotiations,” Mammon hisses. He turns on his heel and Balthazar begins to breathe again, but then Mammon crooks a finger.
Not to him, but to the slavering hulks lounging to either side. They step forward just as a perfect red bubble forms over Balthazar’s mouth. That isn’t the only thing they break.
But at the end he’s still alive. Mammon’s chief difficulty is that he can’t kill anyone unless he’s prepared to let his enemies accept them. It doesn’t matter so much with the humans, but with someone like Balthazar, to whom he owes a great debt, he can’t afford it. He can only break and twist and stomp, and eventually even demons get tired of that.
* * *
A fraction of an inch. A fraction of an inch that has been soaked and dried in blood, laced with pain so exquisite that it numbs the center of Balthazar’s breast and inserts needles of fire beneath his eyelids. He breathes raggedly out, trading that pain for the greater but more diffuse pain of forcing lungs against shattered ribs. Then he straightens his hand on the ground, palm-down and flat except for the sharp bend in one finger.
He rests a shaking hand on top of it, positioning the fleshy base of his thumb, and then he smashes everything down.
The world is white. Red—yellow. White again. Then it’s the world.
Balthazar takes another breath. Still more bones to go. And then it was about time he paid some calls. He’s lingered here far too long. The next time, Mammon will show no mercy. He hates debts unless he himself is the holder, and aside from one other, Balthazar is the last remaining creditor to whom he owes his return.
In between lapses of consciousness, Balthazar wonders about that laugh of John’s.
* * *
It’s an interesting cage. The bones are often mistaken for human ones, but no human ever had bones light as feathers, with no massy concentration of minerals in their center, but instead a froth of little bony cross-struts. They’re from angel wings. Balthazar knows because he helped debone those himself after Mammon had ripped them off.
Behind them, Gabriel is a bloodied mess. She always is since she lacks even the will to groom herself now, but the dark stains in her curls are fresh, and the ground around the cage reeks so strongly of Mammon that Balthazar flinches. He takes another look around, but no one is near for miles, so he carefully eases himself down beside the bars. His body is more or less healed in the sense that everything has knit together, but the pain remains. It keeps his simmering frustration and disgust company.
“Gabriel. Gabriel. I’d like a word.” He scratches on a bone and the lump moans, but fails to turn. A tap wrings something like a sob from her, but no other acknowledgment. Balthazar would like to put his fist through the bars and toss her against a boulder, see if that earned her attention, but that would bring Mammon running and he most decidedly does not want that. “Gabriel.”
“What do you want?” she finally whimpers, turning over. Her face is nearly unrecognizable beneath the massive bruising, the crusted blood. The shattered cheekbone sticking out of her mangled skin. The only tatters of divinity that remain are those that keep her alive and perpetually half-healed, and Balthazar has no doubt that she now curses them with her every breath.
It briefly cheers him up to see her like that, but then he remembers why he is here. Even now, with his back against the wall and his cracked ribs crippling his every breath, bile rises in his throat at the thought of what he is about to ask. But he’s done this before, and then he comforted himself with the thought that it was to the greater glory of a demon, not to that of God or the weak, craven humans. Of course, all that had garnered him was a place beneath the grinding hand of a posturing fool of a leader. John had been right on that account.
Right now Balthazar tells himself this is for the greater good of himself, the highest cause any demon can have. “Gabriel. I know Mammon still hasn’t pried out of you the secret of what you did with the Spear.”
She stares vacantly at him, one hand absently picking at the great scabby wounds on the backs of her shoulders. Her knees tuck closer into her chest as behind that pain-dimmed mask, she thinks. “Yes…and the oceans still roll, but now their waves crest scarlet in the boiling sun so the clouds fill with rukhs and—”
“Oh, don’t pass that off on me,” Balthazar irritably hisses. In the distance something cries out, a thin scream that wavers like vapors from tarry pavement, and they both freeze. But it’s nothing—Balthazar hopes it’s nothing—and he crawls closer to the cage, fixing Gabriel’s eyes with his own. “You’re not mad. You wish you were, you haughty little whore, but you’re not.”
Her eyes roll back to show the whites, as if a faint is about to take her, but suddenly Gabriel snaps her head forward and laughs. Laughs, hoarse and malicious with her lips drawn back to show the bloody holes where her teeth have been knocked out. Balthazar’s own jaw twinges.
“So you’ve finally come to understand the true nature of this war, this great glorious fuss over nothing at all, as even the more perceptive humans do—did acknowledge.” Gabriel lurches up against the bars, contorting to accommodate her injuries, and smiles wide so the blood clots sliding slowly down her face will fall into her mouth. Her tongue is the only part of her left that still looks healthy, its warm pink a shock in the middle of the rot-red and hate-black wreck that is her face. “What did you want? The Spear? That which gives life can take life—I see where your precious little idea heads.”
The sense of fear has centered itself in Balthazar’s shoulders, hunching them against the cold prickles on the back of his neck. His instinct says to look about, scan for possible eavesdroppers or approaching guards, but time is short and he forces himself not to. “The same place yours does, I’d wager. Unless you’ve suddenly developed a taste for this? You’ve decided you like being held down while Mammon lets demon filth take you in every hole that’s—”
“Silence,” she hisses, throwing herself against the bars so hard that the bones rattle. The sound echoes for miles and then Balthazar cannot help but take a glance about, but Gabriel is still talking. “Fools, all of you. But then, I can hardly expect you to fathom the larger plan.”
And before Balthazar can reply, Gabriel raises the twisted stumps of her right hand and rakes off her few scraps of clothing. She continues to scratch and claw even after they’ve all fallen, and soon she levers herself backward so she can gouge deeper into her stomach. Her head goes back, her teeth grinding out a scream, and suddenly she plunges her hand into her own body. Blood and gore fly up amidst a brilliant, scorching beam of light that arcs towards the sky. Some of it splatters Balthazar’s face as he curses and shakes the bars of the cage, trying with all his strength to break the bones. He thinks she’s killing herself. She’s trying to leave and he won’t let her, because he will not be the only one and he will—an angel-rib cracks violently, jagged ends slashing through Balthazar’s palms and he wrenches it out—not allow this to come under Gabriel’s control. It never was hers in the beginning and now that he’s renounced Mammon, he does not intend to allow anyone else it.
He breaks another bar, and finally that is enough space to let his arm into the cage. By now Gabriel is nothing but a scream writhing in light, light that burns so Balthazar smells his own flesh smoking, but he pushes forward and forward till he touches—not her. He touches metal, and in the second before the Spear smites him, he thinks that hiding it inside of herself was actually quite clever for her.
* * *
“Wake up or—” crunch of bone beneath fisted flesh, further words mashed out between pain and fury “—never mind, you sorry—”
“John, do shut up before you spoil my fun,” says the oily, grasping voice that seizes Balthazar’s broken body, shaking it like a cat with a mouse.
Every muscle screams. Every bone rattles in agony, every tendon shrivels up in the excruciating wave of pain that comes. And there is no slow numbing shock that would promise some mitigation, no sudden distancing of mind from body that would cushion the pain ripping through him—nothing but an exquisitely dreadful consciousness of every hurt. That is how Balthazar knows he’s fallen to Hell.
His back arches as his arms are twisted behind it, forced up so high he hears the sucking pop of one joint giving away. And then the searing agony from that begins to crest in him, only to collide with the pain of being ripped open from the inside. There are points on it, he thinks. Struggles to think. The massive, sharp thing forcing his legs apart as it wriggles into his body is fracturing more than his flesh. Its spikes lance the tender internal tissue, raise the bitter reek of his own blood in the air, and his mind wants to fall apart. He pulls frantically at his wrists, but is only jerked up to dangle bent-over, knees barely scraping the ground, as someone tears through his mind as assuredly as they are tearing out his anus. Every thrust widens the hole till he can feel but does not want to recognize the little flapping things that patter against his buttocks, he does not--
--“Have to say, haven’t played around with a demon’s denial in a while. Got bored with them—so straightforwardly selfish and blind, nothing like the illusions people come up with. Like honor. Or your favorite, Johnny: vengeance.”
So much of his blood is on the ground that it has seeped up to Balthazar’s head and he can see his reflection in it. He might break his jaw if his screaming opens it any wider, and his eyes are about to explode. It would be more merciful if they did.
“They aren’t, sonny. Would be very not me if I let that happen, wouldn’t it?” And then claws come round to clutch at Balthazar’s scrotum, squeezing so the tips puncture his skin and then abruptly elongate, needle-thin and so long that they stab all the way through. This scream ruins his throat so the only sound he can make after that is a kind of gasping, the sound of a dying thing flayed long past its appointed time to end. “This one’s interesting, though. You knew him pretty well, didn’t you?”
“He got me killed.” Dry, tight, curt.
Claws in Balthazar’s hair, digging in so he sees drops of blood flying from his head when it is yanked backwards. By all rights he should be dead by now—except he is dead. His shoulders make a convulsive shake and Lucifer rips him off that brutal thing that was mashing his guts so instead he soundlessly shrieks. His nose breaks when he hits the ground, and on top of all the other pain it should be nothing, but this is Hell and so the hurt is clear and distinct as a church bell ringing over an empty countryside. “Then why aren’t you looking? Thought it’d cheer you up to see the little shit gutted.”
“I had a look. What you want to know is why I’m not jumping up to slaver all over that hellacious dick of yours in gratitude. Well, Lou…I guess I must still not like you very much,” John drawls. It’s scathing, disgusted—familiar, and it is enough for Balthazar to hold onto his sanity.
“Then we’ll have to do something about that,” comes the dangerous purr from above Balthazar. A finger traces so gently from Balthazar’s shoulder to his hip that it is the most painful trick of all. “I’ll finish with you later.”
Then Lucifer jerks Balthazar back up and rapes him a second time, cock now smooth but for the tip that is viciously hooked. One thrust that catches something in his gut and rips it down, and Balthazar writhes so hard he cracks a vertebrae in his back. A second and he cannot scream because the blood is pouring too thickly from his mouth and nose. A third sees acid spurting inside of him, eating hungrily at the open rents.
Lucifer drops him into a gasping heap, and finally the black of unconsciousness finds Balthazar. His head cracks on the ground, lolls sideways as he attempts to clutch himself together, and he watches with rapidly dimming eyes as Lucifer drags John to his feet. Constantine gets in one swing before Lucifer is choking him back to his knees, already leaning over to lick at his cheek.
* * *
The bed is sumptuous in a way that has died out in modern times. Plump, yielding mattress that cradles every shell-shocked limb, dozens of soft pillows and an exuberance of carved scrollwork decorating the frame and canopy. The ornamentation nearly disguises the razor-thin—razor-sharp, Balthazar discovers when he touches a fingertip to them—bars that line every side.
“Most of it’s from Louis XIV.” John is naked, sprawled on his back with a crystal ashtray on his chest and a cigarette dangling so low from the corner of his mouth that it’s singing the sheets. His eyes are closed, neck stretched and knees down so Balthazar can see the unbroken line of welts stretching from John’s temple to his ankle. “Don’t look at me like that. Lou told me. He hates for people to not be able to guess his references.”
Balthazar says nothing, still taking in his surroundings. He is bare beneath the sheet thrown over his legs, and a swift peek shows no obvious injuries, but it would be an easy illusion to show him a whole body when in reality, one move would tell him differently. So he is careful, starting out by twitching one toe and then slowly moving every part of himself. When there is still nothing, he carefully reaches between his legs and gingerly feels over himself.
Smoke blows over his head, and when he looks up, John has turned his head to smile humorlessly at him. “You’re all in one piece. Lou knows I don’t do cripples. Well, ones crippled in body, anyway.”
“Do?” Balthazar asks. He studies John again, and this time he sees the fine shake in the hands, the dulled look of the eyes. Perhaps the mouth is in working order, but the rest is broken. Even humanity is a disappointment, Balthazar thinks with sudden viciousness.
“You showed up with the Spear of Destiny. Lou has a theory that you’re some assassin Mammon sent.” A bitter chuckle heaves itself out from between John’s lips. He taps off his cigarette in the ashtray, then flings both at the bars with a surprisingly heartfelt snarl.
They vanish an instant before they would have made contact, which does not surprise John. He merely gives the bars a half-hearted finger before rolling over, and then over again until he lies with his head next to Balthazar’s.
“And he thinks you might be able to charm Mammon’s plan out of me. I see Lucifer is getting senile in his old age.” Says Balthazar’s tongue before his sense of—then again, his instinct for self-preservation seems to have also lost its touch. He is flinching almost before the words leave his mouth.
“You’re twitchy already? I had a side-bet that you’d last at least till the third round,” John tells him, contempt twisting his mouth. Then he shrugs, closes his eyes again. “Ah, well. The win from the bet that you were trying to make your own play and kill Mammon should just about cover the losses from that one.”
A minute passes, or the semblance of a minute passes—time functions differently in Hell and Balthazar has forgotten how. No wrath comes down to wrench apart his trembling muscles, flog the skin from his bones. No insidious grasp seizes his mind. As incredible as it seems, Lucifer apparently has left this all up to John.
Balthazar sinks back down to the bed and relaxes as much as he can, given that his idea has died a bitter, choking death in the back of his throat. He still lives in some form, the Spear is still within reach, and he can still win if he plays carefully. “Your bookie must be extraordinarily gullible, in that case. Why, exactly, would I try to kill Mammon when I helped raise him in the first place?”
“Don’t fuck with me.” John’s eyes suddenly snap open and they are shockingly black, all hard black without a sliver of white or even a wet gleam on their surface to relieve the darkness. It is what Balthazar always imagined despair must look like to human beings. “I might be here, but that doesn’t mean I don’t keep up to date on above. This didn’t turn out exactly how you thought it would, did it? Oh, poor baby—so much for your heaven on earth.”
“So much for your entire life. You deported all those half-breeds, saved all those souls, and what is that worth? Nothing,” Balthazar hisses back, pushing up and away from John. Frustration bellies up from inside of him to seethe just beneath his skin, flicking tendrils of acid hatred around his throat to tighten it till the words have to squeeze out. He feels helpless—he is helpless, a pawn on the board, and for once in his life, he doesn’t think he can do anything but move according to the orders of others. There are no loopholes, no blurry areas where he can work his own deals, no way to behave as if he has any—any free will.
He used to influence. Now he does nothing, and everyone else influences—no, works him. It’s more than maddening; it’s…it’s crushing.
John is saying something, but Balthazar fails to listen because he is looking at the consequences and they are black and endless as John’s eyes were. He watches his hand rise to touch the bars, sees the blood well up at the slightest graze.
“Jesus Christ!” A hand jerks Balthazar back, another one punches him, and when his vision resettles, he sees John staring at him as if he’s lost his mind. For once, Constantine might be right. “Jesus Christ,” John says again, and the irony is so absurd that Balthazar starts to laugh.
His shoulders shake so his head drops. It stays down as John swears and takes him by the shoulders, rattling him till finally his teeth snap on his tongue and the pain briefly silences him. Then the twisting, unwelcome new feeling of futility fills him and he lashes out at the only target he is permitted. “And are you any better? Still fighting, still thinking you can get the better of anyone—don’t you ever know when you’re beaten? You humans, you’re all so arrogant and self-delusional that it’s a wonder you ever live long enough for your souls to be harvested.”
“Well, yeah.” John gives Balthazar a last shake, then picks up Balthazar’s hand. He runs a nail along the cuts till Balthazar finally deigns to wince, grinning to himself as if he could still have his own secrets. “That’s why we’re the humans and you’re the half-breed idiots. Pandora’s Box.”
His head bends over and he licks softly at the largest cut, tracing it all the way from fingertip to wrist. His tongue is warm, gentle, and its touch makes something curl up inside Balthazar’s gut till it crushes itself. Everything has turned upside down and back to take little ragged pieces from him, and this is the last, the most painful cut of all. Balthazar cracks open beneath it, reduced to less than nothing and finally unable to close his eyes to it.
At least it’s Constantine. Somehow there’s a comfort in knowing that the one who took it is not some great and merciless power, but someone who has been manipulated as Balthazar has, used up and thrown to the dogs afterward. Someone whom he has fought and jeered at and has come to personally hate, for reasons that are entirely his own instead of ones that were shaped by forces far, far beyond his control. Someone that, Balthazar belatedly understands, would bet in his favor and still want to gut him afterward.
John’s gone down, Balthazar’s been slashed out of his world, and finally they’ve come to the same mangled level.
* * *
Wrists pinned to the bed, knees around John’s waist as John pushes deep into him, prick pressing hard through Balthazar’s barely-healed passage. John’s hot mouth on his throat, his lips chewing and sucking up and down John’s shoulder. Balthazar moans, pulls John closer, and makes no pretenses about trying to lose this preternatural awareness he has here in the rough slip-slide of their bodies against each other. He can feel every minute move John’s lips, tongue, hands make, their impressions searing into his skin, and for a moment it is almost, almost enough. But then, without warning, something seizes Balthazar’s mind and he finds himself crying out like a whore, jerking and writhing till his climax whips out of him too soon, too little to give him the kind of escapist delirium he wishes. He falls back against the bed, out of breath and hollow and impotently furious.
“Fucker. I really hate when he does that,” John rasps. He drags himself out of Balthazar, crawls up to straddle Balthazar’s waist and lifts Balthazar’s cock. His fingers idly toy with it, running lightly over its length and teasing the slit in its head till it reddens and swells. He tilts his head, eyes speculatively wandering over Balthazar’s body. Then he lifts up and sits down, his tight flesh suddenly, beautifully clutching Balthazar’s prick.
He grimaces, hisses and rocks his hips to adjust himself, head slowly going back so the white curve of his throat offers itself up. And though the frisson of having Lucifer rape his mind has not trembled its way out of Balthazar’s body, he eagerly pushes himself up to bite at that elegant line, taste the sweetness of John’s flesh. “He’s in your mind and you still think you can plan against him?” he murmurs. “What kind of idiot are you?”
John’s nails dig into Balthazar’s waist till they leave bruises on the inside of Balthazar’s skin. “Shut up and fuck me before he comes back.”
And then they are, feverish and desperate and lost. Balthazar rakes over and over John’s body, crisscrossing the older welts, in some pathetic effort to leave something of himself somewhere as proof that he exists on his own, and John twines around him, kissing and caressing and groaning as if they’re lovers, as if anything that soft could still survive here. It’s all for nothing, but they try anyway, and between their last screams Balthazar sees the shadow of something he almost recognizes from before. He’s almost tempted to hold onto it, but it flees long before he has to make that choice.
* * *
“Got to say, Johnny, it was a good idea to keep him around even if he’s just another little worm with an itty-bitty speck of a lousy plan.” Lucifer sits on the edge of the bed, all hearty voice and malicious smile and falsely kind touches. He laughs whenever John’s bloodied and torn body tries to inch away from him, and then he yanks John back to run his claws harder over the ragged edges of a wound. “Makes you livelier than I’ve seen in a while, and pisses off my son like nothing in centuries. Damn, does he hate not getting to torture somebody first.”
Balthazar is listening—barely, having to force himself to concentrate on every word instead of simply curling around himself and whimpering. His legs are broken and he can feel great soft, wet clumps sliding down between his thighs, and he cannot close his jaw completely because one side of it has been pulled from the hinge-joint. Through one bruise-slitted eye, he can see the Spear hanging in the air in a sheath of demon-skin so fresh it still drips blood; Lucifer notices and lovingly runs his hand over it.
“And thank you for this. Should be just the thing to deal with Mammon,” he chortles.
“About time. Should’ve given that shit a good beating years ago, but fuck, you never thought he’d been a problem, did you? Pride, your perpetual problem.” John’s words are slurring and full of pain, half-muffled because he’s too exhausted to lift his head from the bed. He screams when Lucifer rips a new cut down his back, so deep the white of bone gleams from it in several places, but when he finally has the breath to speak again, his voice has lost none of its vitriol. “Think after so long messing with people that you would’ve learned something about how not to parent a kid.”
Lucifer slides his fingers slowly into John’s hair, lovingly caressing him. The more John tries to edge away, the gentler Lucifer becomes. He leans over John till he is whispering in John’s ear, tongue licking about the curves of it. “Don’t worry, Johnny. I’ll give you and your pretty half-breed a front-row seat. Think it’d be fun to fuck you in my offspring’s blood, hmm? It should eat the flesh off your bones.”
Then he is up and on his feet in a blur of motion, only his hand has remained in John’s hair. There is a loud snap, and then Lucifer contemptuously tosses John back onto the bed, not looking to see how John falls so his head twists at an unnatural angle and his eyes stare blankly to the side. He is clean and dressed in a thought, but before he goes he reaches over to scrape a handful of gobbets and blood clots off of Balthazar, smiling when Balthazar can’t help whining. Lucifer walks off popping each bit into his mouth as if they were fruit.
Eventually the pain diminishes enough for Balthazar to drag his arm around to John. He nudges John’s head back, back, back till something clicks and suddenly John is blinking, mouth twisted so hard in agony that his flesh is nearly ripping off his face. He draws a hissing breath and slowly turns himself onto his back so he can stare at the ceiling, blood running away from his eyes like tears.
“Shit…” he whispers. And then: “So, discover it’s better to have me than no company at all?”
Balthazar’s jaw is still dislocated so he can’t reply. He’s oddly grateful for that.
After a moment, John has pulled enough of himself to turn again and do something about setting Balthazar’s bones. He has done Balthazar’s jaw and has just finished one of Balthazar’s legs when he suddenly stops, presses his forehead into Balthazar’s belly and simply lies there. Balthazar could say something now if he wanted to, but he refrains.
* * *
They’re standing on a heap of rocks, as far back from Lucifer as the hellhounds surrounding them will allow. Balthazar is pressing the bones of his wrist back into place, and John has just spit out two bloody teeth. He smokes anyway, blood dribbling down one side of his mouth.
“I thought you would’ve preferred the company of your friends. There are plenty of them in Hell,” Balthazar says.
John grins bitterly and pulls out his cigarette to hawk up bloody spit. “Low blow. But I’m seen them already—gone insane, every last one. I want somebody that remembers. You aren’t that fucked up yet. Still nasty as you were before, anyway.”
It’s on the tip of Balthazar’s tongue to ask what John wants remembered when suddenly there is a surge of fire all around, and then they’re on the earthly plane, in Mammon’s court. And Balthazar’s eyes are locked with Mammon’s before he can think to avoid them, and his nerves are suddenly exploding. He grabs at himself, doubling over.
An inch before he hits the ground, the pain abruptly ceases and his mind is clear enough for him to break his fall with his hands.
“Leave be, kid,” Lucifer drawls. “He died, he’s mine now.”
Mammon is across the space and snarling at Lucifer before either one’s retinue can react. The sky boils and the wind rises, howling till a tornado has caged them. “He died without my permission. You will return him.”
Earthly plane or not, Lucifer still has power. The winds freeze, time snaps apart and Hell bellies through the gap, filling this area with the reek of sulfur and the slow rising heat of a different kind of fire. When Lucifer speaks again, his voice booms from the sky, rumbles from the earth, hisses in the bones. “Boy, I’ve had enough of you.”
“This should be interesting,” John whispers, squatting down besides Balthazar. Alone of them all, he isn’t tensing up for the battle that is about to come. Instead he looks coolly over the field, a hint of his old cockiness easing around his mouth.
Perhaps he is finally breaking. Because Mammon is swelling up and the earth swells with him, and Lucifer is gathering so much power to him that Balthazar’s body rings with it, and between them they’re going to destroy both planes. They’re going to rip it all apart, and—
--no time for thought. Mammon has leaped and Lucifer slides back before it, one hand reaching into his coat. His son mistakes this for a retreat and is already shrieking victory, claws out to rend his father that merely spins around to reveal the Spear. Lucifer howls and thrusts it forward before Mammon can stop himself, and in the split second before they collide the look on Mammon’s face goes from wild triumph to naked fear to unthinking fury.
Light and darkness crash violently together, hiding the two from view. The earth splits open in all directions so demons fall shrieking off the edges, then surges back together so the screaming turns to the wet sound of flesh pulping. One fracture nearly swallows up John, but at the last moment he jumps free, catching Balthazar by the arm as he does. They scramble to safety just as time unfreezes and the tornado whirls violently about them, sides coiling tighter and tighter so they’re forced towards the battle in the center. The sky seems to rip apart to show a chaos of brilliant flashes, the hungry maws of destruction opening wide to swallow the world. It’s all going to end, and Constantine is a suicidal fool, and Balthazar wishes so much that he’d never listened to—it—red—crack—all—nothing—
* * *
“Wake up,” John says, and this second time, Balthazar does what he says.
They’re still sitting on the same pile of rocks, in the same ruins, but they are alone and the land has a strange cast to it. It takes a moment for Balthazar to realize that the world now has the colors nature gave it instead of what Mammon dictated: the rocks are gray, the rot is brown and black instead of red, and the sky is a blue so bright his eyes hurt to see it.
“I had this wild guess—the Spear kills Mammon, but Mammon is Lucifer’s blood so anything that happens to him gets sent back to Lucifer.” John’s clothes are shredded in a thousand places, and a cut over his right eye has matted his eyebrow with blood, but he’s laughing to himself and he sounds jubilant. He kicks at a rock, then falls backward to lie against a slab of concrete, grinning. “I was right. Fucking brilliant.”
“You—you were—you planned--” Balthazar stammers. He reaches out for Lucifer, for Mammon, for any sign of Hell, and at first he is fearfully tentative but as he realizes nothing is there, he can’t help feeling exhilaration. There’s nothing. No one. He’s…
Still laughing, John shoots him a contemptuous look. “Don’t go paying me compliments now, Balthazar. Of course I didn’t. I was in Hell—how was I supposed to know that you were going to drop in with the Spear?” He turns away and stares at the sky, suddenly solemn. “Shit. I didn’t even know if I was going to be alive if Lucifer kicked it—I did die.”
“How very noble of you.” The edges of shock are beginning to curl away and Balthazar is adjusting to the idea that it’s over. That Hell is, somehow, gone.
“Oh, fuck that. I did it out of fucking spite,” John snorts, and he sounds so offhand about it that he must be telling the truth. “Gabriel didn’t have the slightest clue about us—people are assholes. I’m an asshole. I died and I wanted revenge, wanted Lou and Mammon dead. And I was hoping that things would swing my way. Just waited for a chance, and when one came, I took it…that’s what humanity’s about. Petty grudges and stupid hopes when we should know better.”
“And near-sightedness.” Balthazar stands up and looks around again, and then he sits down hard. He stares at the ground with a strange quivering in his gut, and it takes him a long while to understand that this is uncertainty. For a brief, insane moment he almost misses the chains. “Your world’s still a mess. What are you going to do now?”
His words startle John into giving him a long, considering look. When John finally turns away, he hunches into a sitting position and works his fingers around each other, looking more vulnerable than Balthazar ever remembers. Not even Lucifer’s treatment had managed to crack him this deeply.
“Jesus,” John finally says. “I don’t know. I don’t even know—I’m not really human now, I don’t think. And what happened to Hell…a place like that doesn’t just drop out of sight…”
Right now, Balthazar could kill him. Simply reach over, snap John’s neck, and somehow he knows that this time, John won’t be able to sit up again from that. He’s a demon, no matter what’s happened. He doesn’t feel gratitude.
He shouldn’t. And, Balthazar thinks, ‘should’ and ‘should not’ are rules that they’ve accidentally shattered, which in itself is rather demonic. At least, he considers them to be, and finally he does not have to follow anyone else’s interpretations of them. He turns half-way towards John, pauses, and then twists around and yanks John towards him. Somehow he isn’t surprised at the fervor with which John takes his mouth, nor at the way he freely gives it.
* * *
“There’s got to be cigarettes left somewhere,” John mutters later, lazy against Balthazar’s neck.
Balthazar closes his eyes, then opens them. “I cannot believe how small-minded you still are.”
“Oh, shut up. You know you’d be the same way if we found a nice suit buried in the rubble.” John stretches against Balthazar, then raises his head to bite hard at Balthazar’s jaw. He deftly avoids the blow Balthazar aims in retaliation and sits up. “Come on. You have anything better to do?”
Yes, but none of them is something that Balthazar particularly wants to do. And now, he doesn’t have to do anything except what he wishes.
He gets up.