|Grave Measures I: The Usurper
Author: Guede Mazaka
Gabriel’s other friend, as it turned out, was still alive and well when they pulled up behind a discreet bookshop. John silently breathed a sigh of relief for that, because Gabriel had been nothing but seething fury since he’d found out about Ariel. It’d been a blessing in that Balthazar had kept his fucking mouth shut and had just sulked in the backseat, but it’d also given off the kind of vibe that really worked on John’s nerves. The fact that Gabriel smelled slightly like Virginian tobacco didn’t help.
Ariel. If John remembered right, he was one of the less unpleasant lords of hell. Interesting company Gabriel kept. “So…you left.”
“Contrary to popular belief, it is not a two-sided war.” The place was upscale so the parking was tight, and whatever Gabriel currently was, he still had manners. He spent an extra two minutes reparking so the doors wouldn’t scrape the cars on either side when opened. “At least, not until and unless Judgment Day arrives. Until then, if you tire of it, you can…walk off.”
Balthazar snorted. “Pardon me if I find that a little hard to believe…oh, sorry, have we been introduced?”
“Gabriel Van Helsing,” Gabriel told him, which was slightly more than John had gotten. That was a little insulting, considering that at least John wasn’t a piece of scum scraped off Lucifer’s boot. “Please shut up before I have to speculate about what Ariel was doing with you.”
John didn’t even bother making a comment. He just watched in the rearview mirror while Balthazar went and pushed his luck, leaning forward to hiss at Gabriel’s ear. His tongue flicked out longer than any tongue had a right to be, curling and coiling in the air like a whore crooking a finger. “Were you two friends? An angel and a demon? How utterly—”
In one smooth motion, Gabriel smacked the car into ‘park’ and turned to wrap his hand in Balthazar’s tongue. He yanked and Balthazar squealed…just like a stuck pig, John reckoned. Then Balthazar came awkwardly forward, since his wrists were taped behind his back like John’s were, and teetered while his tongue-tip frantically slapped at Gabriel. “As a matter of fact, Ariel and I were,” Gabriel said in a low, toneless voice.
He released Balthazar’s tongue with a flick of the wrist and Balthazar slammed back into the seat, pushing himself as far from Gabriel as he could get. Strands of his hair fell in his face and John’s coat flopped open to bare Balthazar to the waist. He hunched his shoulders, trying to get it to close again.
It was satisfying as hell to see him brought low, but John was surprised to find it a little disturbing as well. Actually, something overall was off with Balthazar…something with how he was registering on John’s senses.
“I was simplifying. But essentially, you do drop out of the fight. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it can and has been done by members of both sides.” Gabriel was also simplifying that a lot, but he didn’t seem inclined to elaborate on what would prompt an angel or a demon to that kind of crisis of faith. He got out of the car and waved to a man who’d come out of the bookshop’s back entrance.
And him being a full angel too, John was beginning to suspect—not the half-breeds that he met. Not the other Gabriel, God knew where she was now. But there had to be a catch somewhere, otherwise they’d violate the balance. As shitty as that agreement was, it did exist and was enforced.
“Nice to see you again, Johnny-boy,” came a hiss right behind John’s neck. Something skinny and slimy squirmed at the back of his neck, making him jerk forward. “Got to say, while going home has its perks, I did miss watching your pathetic scramblings.”
John closed his eyes and quietly scuffed his feet back till he hit a metal bar. He ran one heel along it, making sure it was what he thought it was. Then he slowly pushed down on it, careful not to make any noise. “Yeah, I’m sure they gave you a real good welcome. Half-breed that plotted against Lucifer. Well, welcome back. And news flash—I’m still mad you killed my friends.”
He rammed his foot into the ground and shoved back with all his force, holding the lever down with his other foot. His chair skidded backwards and John was rewarded with an agonized cry and a thump.
“You know something else?” John said. “I’m beginning to think you came back a little less demonic than when you left.”
Balthazar suddenly rocked back up to hang his head over the seat; he laughed when John jerked completely off the seat in order to get away from him. Blood trickled from his nose and his newly-split lower lip. “I did miss our little fights. Especially how you always slipped up at the end.”
Then he actually tried to fling himself over the seat, his jaw unhinging to show fangs as long as John’s finger. John threw himself back again, but only hit the window. He saw the red of Balthazar’s mouth—
--and then he saw Balthazar get dragged out by his collar…by the collar of John’s coat, which he was going to burn if Gabriel ever gave it back to him. John gasped for air he hadn’t known he’d been missing and slumped against the window. After he’d recovered a bit, he started to lever himself up, only to nearly crack his head on the pavement when Gabriel suddenly opened the door. He tumbled out, saw the world blur into a whoosh and panicked, kicking out.
Something caught him under the arm, and then Gabriel yanked him up and onto his feet. The slimy fuck dangling from Gabriel’s other hand swung around, hissing, but John only had enough time to get in one head-butt before Gabriel threw them against the side of the car. “Stop that,” Gabriel snapped. “Whatever the grudge is—”
“He killed my friends, tried to kill me and almost got Mammon unleashed on earth,” John spat. He pressed his hands against the cool steel of the car and scooted his feet wide for balance, then bent over. Maybe the cancer was out of his lungs, but there had to be scarring left behind. Nearly a month later and he was still feeling like shit. “Excuse me if I just can’t help trying to break his goddamned neck.”
That shut up Gabriel for a moment. Just long enough for his friend to walk up and coolly look over Balthazar as if he were a side of meat, not even batting an eye when Balthazar snapped at him. “Did he and the other one come with the car?”
“The car’s not mine,” Gabriel said. He added an unidentifiable something to his voice that made the hair on the back of John’s neck rise, and Balthazar abruptly go limp.
“I know. You showed up driving it,” the other man said. He was about average height, dark brown hair going grey at the temples, neat goatee and moustache. Nice understated suit, wire rim glasses, and a face that reminded John of a handsome rat. “Don’t tell me about them. Just get them inside. And put some pants on the half-demon, would you? I moved to a nicer district to avoid that sort of thing.”
* * *
Dean was in a good mood, which meant he was doing his best to put everyone else in a bad one. Once he’d found a spare suit for Balthazar, they all settled in the room where he kept the more select volumes. He idled in front of his desk with a snifter of brandy and the manuscript while John and Balthazar warily eyed each other from opposite corners and while Gabriel tried for the umpteenth time to fathom Dean’s cataloging system. “Where is your damned copy of the Necronomicon?”
“First tell me what this is. Aside from being a badly-written thesis that just happens to have editorial notes written by Ariel, former earl of Hell.” The magnifying glass came out and Dean forewent the brandy for peering more closely at the sigils marked on the last few pages. “So he’s been masquerading as a college professor?”
When John wasn’t trying to rip out Balthazar’s throat with his eyes, he did a decent job of pretending he wasn’t trying to read every book title he could see. His eyes followed one row, then paused. Gabriel tracked his glance on a whim and found that the man had spotted the Necronomicon. He muttered the obligatory thanks, to which John muttered that his hands were going numb and could use a little less restraint. Ignoring him, Gabriel pulled down the volume and flipped through for his reference. “Yes. Taught Religions. He took on a brilliant student named Carlos Gallardo—so brilliant that Ariel couldn’t stand him and gave him what he considered an impossible task: write a thesis on a plausible way to dethrone Lucifer.”
“Not conquer heaven, or rule the earth?” Dean asked. His browsing had slowed, and he now appeared to be actually reading the manuscript. Little furrows began to appear between his eyebrows.
“No, just dethrone Lucifer and take over hell. What one did with it afterward was optional, apparently.” The line in the book was just as Gabriel had remembered it. Damn. He shoved it back and ran his fingers along the shelves till he bumped into Balthazar, who stiffened and hissed beneath his breath. Gabriel gave him a look, then plucked a book from just behind Balthazar’s shoulder. “I don’t know you and I don’t care to, other than what you have to do with this,” he quietly told him.
Hopefully that should convince him that Gabriel wasn’t trying to replace Ariel. The last thing Gabriel wanted at the moment was company he couldn’t get rid of.
“And so this Gallardo wrote an actual thesis on his proposal. Dear God. I wonder what he put in his coffee to produce this.” Dean let out a little chuckle, then looked at Gabriel. When Gabriel didn’t respond, the merriment on the other man’s withered. “Gabe, you’re not laughing.”
“Because Ariel read it, and he summed up the main points for me, and the upshot’s that it could actually work. There’s a loophole.” And that book didn’t provide any help for Gabriel either. He worked off a little frustration by slamming it shut and back onto the shelf. The little wince Dean made was a guilty but delicious extra benefit. “Lucifer is a fallen angel. So he’s still, technically, an angel of sorts, and angels were created with the intent to obey. Rebellion and free will don’t come naturally. But a human being—”
Constantine shifted from leaning against a shelf to slouching into a chair. He looked thoughtfully up at Gabriel. “We’re born with free will. So what are you saying? That there’s some kind of latent desire to obey still left in good old Lou? Come on. He’s a bastard, but he’s by no means a repressed one.”
“He’s still tangled up in a stalemated war with God. I would say that constitutes a deep attachment of some kind,” Balthazar purred. He ran his tongue over his lip, mocking Constantine’s disgusted sneer. “You’re never so blind as you are to your own faults.”
“I think I might have to side with Constantine here,” Dean said. He adjusted his glasses and squinted at the manuscript in his hand, then flipped it closed to peer at the stiff blue paper that served as its cover. “In all the eons that this battle has been going on, no one’s ever thought about how to keep someone from taking over Hell?”
John raised his chin to stare inquiringly at Gabriel, while Balthazar stopped reeking of fear and rage long enough to meet Gabriel’s eyes.
It was times like these that Gabriel missed being able to rely on divine infallibility, or even the blind faith that resulted from knowing without remembering. At the very least, it reduced embarrassment. “There are measures to keep others from doing it. Other angels, other demons. But…I think it was assumed that no human would ever be interested in taking over Hell.”
“Oh. Well. That’s great. That’s really great. You’re depending on our judgment to keep us from doing something that monumentally stupid and pointless? Have you checked the news lately?” John flopped deeper into the chair, letting his head rest on the back so he was staring at the ceiling. After a moment, he turned his head and started to jiggle his knee. If Gabriel turned the man over, he suspected he’d find John rubbing his fingers together.
A little click and the fwish of a lighter signaled that Dean had noticed as well. He smoked without looking at how John’s head came slowly up so he could stare hungrily at the cigarette, but the slight smiling quirk of Dean’s lips said he knew exactly what he was doing. The manuscript flapped in his hand. “And if it wasn't tied up in keeping souls in perpetual torment or thwarting God’s plan, then the power of hell would be something to worry about.” Sigh. “I hate giving up an example of Ariel’s writing, but I suppose we’ll have to burn this.”
Gabriel swallowed the urge to hit Dean for speaking so lightly of Ariel. There were more important matters at hand, and anyway, it wouldn’t bring back Ariel. “It wouldn’t do any good. That’s Gallardo’s copy.”
The manuscript stopped flapping. Dean went very still, eyes perfectly icy. “Copy.”
“There were two. Ariel had one—the working draft. Gallardo was still working on fine-tuning the practical section,” Gabriel grimly said. “We’ve got what should be the final version, but the draft will still have enough information for someone to make an attempt.”
“Well, hello, Gabe. I see you’ve just gotten to the part where you ruin everyone’s day,” floated a voice from the doorway.
Saying her real name on this plane would trigger unpleasantries such as earthquakes and plagues of locusts, so Gabriel simply greeted her with the name Dean had given her. “Nicki. This is John Constantine and Bal—”
“I know who that one is.” She swung her backpack off her shoulder and gave Balthazar a contemptuous look-over. He reacted by withdrawing further into his corner, teeth half-bared—much to John’s amusement—and as she walked over to Dean, Balthazar looked at her like he wanted to slowly peel the skin from her body, in a way that didn’t qualify as foreplay among demons. “I generaled besides his father for a bit. So did you miss me? How was Tibet?”
“Cold and out of the way. I’m starting to miss it, yeti aside. Let me see that.” Gabriel took the manuscript from Dean just as the man welcomed Nicki back with a prolonged kiss. He turned his back on those two and flipped to the section of the thesis where Gallardo began outlining the spells and rituals needed to reach what little residue there was of Heaven in Lucifer.
“Sounds like my last girlfriend,” Constantine muttered. It was a minor shock to find that Gabriel had wandered over in his direction, but only to Gabriel. John smiled briefly when Gabriel shook off the charm John had set on his feet, but didn’t look up from the manuscript. “So…you know, I do this kind of thing for a living. Take care of it, make it better. If you’d let me help.”
“He’s precious, isn’t he? Up for the highest bidder. Though I should warn you, he’s a bit…damaged.” Balthazar tossed his head to get his hair out of his face and snaked his tongue at Constantine, who’d abruptly pushed up against Gabriel’s shoulder in a futile effort to get at the half-demon. His eyes wandered speculatively around the room from Gabriel to Nicki and then back to Gabriel. Then they dropped mockingly to the floor. “Persona non grata in hell, so if you want someone who actually knows people…”
“Maybe I’d like to boot the both of you out that door,” Gabriel snarled. He let a little of the dark ripple out with his voice so Balthazar would genuinely cringe. It had the bonus of distracting Constantine so Gabriel could push him away. The man smelled a little like addiction, and Gabriel had already resorted to his blacker aspects more times today than he usually did in a month. He didn’t need to give it any encouragement. “I don’t need them, do I? I was checking to see if they’re connected, but—”
Nicki laughed. She pulled Dean’s glasses off and began to clean them with the tail of her shirt. “Gabe, honestly. Balthazar has ‘familiar’ written all over him. He’s the last one who saw Ariel—”
“—and I didn’t see a thing,” Balthazar hastily said. He hitched himself up the shelf, jaw working in rising panic. “I went out to play with the suicides—” sidelong glance at a stiff-shouldered John “—and got back right when you pulled me through.”
“—and no matter what he did or didn’t see, there’s still the point of why Ariel would bother yanking a half-breed free of eternal torture. There’s easier ways to get messenger-boys. And that one’s John Constantine.” Nicki jabbed Dean’s glasses at John, then carefully set them back on Dean. She took a moment to smooth back the gray streak at Dean’s right temple. “I know you avoid knowing anything about current power politics, but he’s important. Also, he now knows that it’s possible for someone like him to kick Lucifer out of Hell.”
John raised his eyebrows. “And why would I want to do that? I’ve been there, didn’t like the coffee.”
“You also need leverage with Lucifer.” She dismissed him and turned to Gabriel, her insouciance melting into a brisker, colder determination. “Speaking for myself, I like the status quo. God and Morningstar fighting means most of the power is locked up in the war. Make Hell a third-party player instead of the Adversary, and we’d have to go back to work.”
“Luckily for us, the procedure’s sufficiently complicated to rule out most suspects.” Gabriel reburied his nose in the manuscript and tried to make sense of the steps outlined there. Though it was written in English, he would have almost preferred that it had been in something like Syriac. Gallardo’s talents clearly hadn’t been in composition, and he’d crossed out and added in and scribbled over so many of the lines that deciphering it was like trying to breed a hippogriff. “Everything is obtainable…except the blood of an angel.”
Surprise suddenly tinged John’s scent, but when Gabriel glanced over, the man hadn’t seemed to react at all. Then Dean asked a question, distracting Gabriel. “Why not that one? You bleed a lot. Granted, you’re closer to a crossbreed than--”
“Angels don’t bleed,” Gabriel interrupted, not wanting to get into that in front of John and Balthazar. “Not unless they’ve lost their divinity. Before that…it’s not blood.”
“So it’d have to be a fallen one. Only not many go mortal instead of ending up demons…there’s you, but your blood is tainted—sorry, mutated.” Nicki flashed her dimples at Gabriel, as if that would make it better. In their respective corners, both John and Balthazar were eagerly listening, their heads up like hunting dogs on the track. “I think the last one was during World War Two…what was her name…anyway, she died.”
John coughed. When they looked over, he didn’t meet their eyes. Instead he pushed himself up in his seat and stretched his legs, one after the other. Rolled his shoulders.
Gabriel gritted his teeth. “Yes?”
“Gabriel.” Then John winced and shook his head. “I mean the other one—hey, if your name’s actually a title, then what does it mean that you didn’t pick your own when you left? I’m assuming you didn’t like the job, since you quit and all.”
“It means Gabe’s special,” Nicki said. She folded her arms over her breasts and shot Constantine a narrow-eyed look. “What about that one? I heard Lucifer killed her, and good riddance. Righteous bitch.”
Balthazar bridled, though not at her or, shockingly enough, at Constantine. He spoke as if he wished his words could macerate someone. “Oh, no. I went looking for her so we could discuss her double-cross, but she’s not in Hell. And she wouldn’t go to heaven.”
“God, that’s adorable. A demon wants payback for a little treachery,” John said, visibly savoring every word. “No, Lou just burnt off her wings. I figured it would be poetic if she ended up living in a cardboard box, so I didn’t bother killing her.”
“Well, she was on your side, so you can go find her. Dean and I need to start packing, since he’s got to move shop again—well, you would show up and I’d like for my lover to not end up as collateral damage.” Nicki pushed away from Dean’s desk and strolled towards the door. She bundled up her hair as she went, which she only did if she was going into a serious battle. “Oh, and Gabe, I suppose you can borrow the backroom for those two. It shouldn’t take that long to track her down.”
Damnation. Foolish as it was, Gabriel had been hoping she’d forgotten about that so he could discreetly shove Constantine and Balthazar into the nearest alley. He didn’t need the inconvenience, and obviously the two of them had issues between them that needed working out. Given Gabriel’s track record, he didn’t think it was wise to try mediating. But if Nicki said they had to stay, then they had to. Her choice of Dean Corso might not have been understandable, but she knew what she was doing more often than Gabriel did. She’d never forgotten who she had been.
* * *
Maybe Gabriel could growl Balthazar into paralytic shock and haul him into that damned room, but that trick wasn’t going to work on John. He locked his fingers around the stairway railing and put all his weight on that, kicking and kneeing at whatever parts of Gabriel that he could reach. “I…am not…going in there.”
His last blow hit Gabriel in the stomach and winded him long enough for John to stumble down the steps. But then John’s foot slipped, and he had to rush to get his other foot down so it didn’t go down where he’d wanted it to. His next frantic step hit air, and there was the sudden, sickening sensation of being airborne that came only before a big crash.
But that didn’t happen. Instead his tie snapped tight around his neck and he choked, twisting and snarling even as his feet and ass landed on solid wood. “Goddamn—”
Gabriel hit him. John rocked backward and cracked his head against the railing, bruised his elbows on the wall. He heard the sharp sound of the wood first, and then he felt the pain. Fuck. A hiss writhed out of his throat and he writhed weakly with it, only to be brought up short by a hand pinching his jaw.
“You are going in there. If everything goes well, you’ll be out and on the street before dinner.” Gabriel lifted a hand towards John’s face and John flinched. No surprise there given his experiences, but Gabriel seemed to take it to heart. Not that it stopped him for longer than a second; he dropped his hand to John’s collar and loosened it so it didn’t feel like John was breathing through a searing-hot pipe anymore. “This is for your benefit as well as mine. Whoever attacked you still thinks you have the book.”
“All the more reason for me not to be a sitting duck,” John muttered. A whiff of strong tobacco rose out of Gabriel’s sleeves and John’s body whined. He told it to shut the fuck up and pressed as far from Gabriel as he could, slightly turning his head so he could breathe…more stale but less painful air.
The other—man, angel…man, since John got a lot of power coming off him but no hint of wings—man twitched again. Something that looked like guilt flashed in his eyes before he went back to being stonefaced, and it suddenly occurred to John what this must look like, with him shoved up against the wall. Well, to hell with Gabriel’s tender feelings. If he was thinking that John found him repellant, then all the better. Things would’ve been a lot easier for John if that’d actually been the truth: Gabriel threw him, and not just into big solid objects.
“Up on your feet.” A heave, and then Gabriel was dragging John towards the door again.
John dug in with his heels. It didn’t stop him, but it slowed him down enough for him to think of a few stalling tactics. “What the hell are you? You aren’t like anything I’ve ever run up against before, and that’s saying a lot.”
Gabriel paused, then turned around and looked over John. His expression said he was nearly at the end of his tether, but that he was striving to be a good boy nonetheless. Perfect. “I’m an angel that spent a few weeks as a werewolf, then was cured. Along the way, I also…I killed Vladislaus Valerious, whom you’d know better as Vlad Tepes.”
Actually, John would’ve recognized the first name, but he was saving up all his irritation at Gabriel for the right moment. Plus there’d been a little scraping sound from inside the room, as if someone had jerked a chair over the floor, and John always found evidence that Balthazar was just a scumbag trying to backstab his way up the food chain endlessly amusing. “After he was made a vampire by Lucifer himself, I take it.”
“I swallowed a lot of his blood. And the werewolf cure was meant for humans, not angels.” The air was slowing around Gabriel, John suddenly noticed. It was the dust—all the dust from the books floating around so John could see, a little, how the air flow was being squeezed around Gabriel. “It didn’t change me completely back to how I was.”
“No kidding.” John’s mouth was dry as bone, and all the hairs on his body were stabbing straight out. He could feel chills running along his spine, and he’d thought he’d lost that reflex by now.
The only one he’d ever seen stop time was Lucifer. He guessed that God could do it too, but God never bothered and he didn’t let his heavenly foot-soldiers in on that trick. Granted, time hadn’t completely stopped…but Jesus. What the hell was Gabriel, with all that in his blood?
Gabriel shrugged one shoulder and everything went back to normal. He was still holding John’s arm and now he pulled on it. “Come on.”
“Have you ever considered that I might be useful? I know this town. I know Gabriel—the other one. You’ve been where—Tibet, right, and for how long?” John quickly said. All he got in response was a rough shake and another six inches towards the door, but he kept on with it. “Look, if you put me in there with that son of a bitch, I will kill him.”
“No, you won’t,” Gabriel replied. He sounded tired, the way John had back when the cancer had been snipping off pieces of his energy. Tired but dead certain.
Though you couldn’t tell it from how he banged John around, getting him into that room and then taped to a chair. Balthazar was already bound to a second one, the only other thing in the room, which was all concrete and steel and claustrophobia. And he was still wearing John’s coat.
John spat out a few more curses and jerked at the tape, but it held without giving an inch. “Bastard.”
And then Gabriel spun the chairs around so John and Balthazar were back-to-back. Their hands were smashed together and that fuck Balthazar instantly sunk his nails into John’s wrist. He drew blood before Gabriel figured out that John had changed the target of his cursing. Not that John had been waiting for Gabriel to do anything about it; he’d craned his own hand around and gotten his thumb right over the tendons in Balthazar’s wrist. Normally that wouldn’t do much to a half-breed, but if John had been right about why Balthazar felt…less threatening…
He wasn’t. When Balthazar’s fingers spasmed off of John’s wrist, it was because Gabriel had leaned down and…bit him, maybe. The chair plus Gabriel’s shoulder wasn’t letting him see all that much, but he could hear plenty. And what he heard was Balthazar’s breath suddenly ceasing.
It started up a moment later, but now it was shaky and thin and shallow, whistling through teeth so it moaned a little as well. Against John’s hands, Balthazar had gone stiff as a corpse, his fingers frozen wide apart. Then, so suddenly that John jumped and swore, Balthazar’s hand snapped around his wrist. And squeezed, for fuck’s sake, like the hellish bastard was looking for comfort from him.
In the same moment, Gabriel abruptly ripped himself off Balthazar. He staggered away a few steps, bent over so his hair and coat swung to hide his face. One of his hands groped at the air for support, and when it didn’t find any, flipped around to savagely rake at nothing.
Balthazar was wheezing like…well, like a terminal lung-cancer patient. He’d rocked sideways when Gabriel had thrown himself back and hadn’t yet pulled himself straight. He stayed that way while Gabriel stumbled out the door, while Gabriel shut the damned door with a brutal clang.
John discovered that he’d been holding his breath and did something about it. He sucked in air and slouched back as comfortably as he could, given the circumstances. All right, so much for trying to cooperate with Gabriel. Time to figure out how to go it alone.
But first, he needed to indulge his curiosity. So he twisted around to check out the side that Balthazar was apparently trying to hide.
Gabriel hadn’t broken the skin, but he’d done pretty much everything else. The teeth marks stood out as a livid white in the middle of a huge pressure bruise that was slowly going from scarlet to blue-purple, and they didn’t look like they’d be fading any time soon. “So…fresh meat, huh.”
“Constantine?” Very slowly, Balthazar lifted his head and pulled his shoulders straight. His hair was a lot longer than it’d looked when he’d kept it slicked back, and it kept falling into his eyes. Didn’t do much to obscure the seething rage there. “Shut up.”
“So how was the homecoming? Tell me something, Balthazar—what did you think Nicki meant by you having ‘familiar’ written all over you?” No, this wasn’t really a plan to get free unless pissing off Balthazar enough actually got the chairs broken, but John wasn’t exactly all roses himself.
Three weeks. Three fucking weeks and nothing had changed. He was still alive, and he’d beaten the goddamned Devil, and it hadn’t altered anything. Angela had hidden the Spear of Destiny for him, but as soon as her sister’s funeral had been over, she had gone straight back to sticking her head in the ground. Maybe he couldn’t blame her for that, but he damn well could feel a little annoyed at her ungratefulness. He’d put his neck on the line for her, and she couldn’t even look him in the eye anymore.
And then there was Chaz and Beeman and Hennessey all dead, and John trying to rebuild his life for the umpteenth time, only…this time he was still exhausted. Still picking at the old scabs, not quite able to pull off his old trick of moving on to the next booth once the curtain on this one had come down. It’d been different. It’d been too close, and no one seemed to be feeling that edge except him.
* * *
Balthazar opened his mouth, then closed it. There really was no point in giving Constantine the satisfaction. Any response, no matter how carefully crafted and withering, would only feed the bastard more encouragement, and the tape was going to hold. If he couldn’t break Constantine’s neck immediately afterward, he wasn’t going to spur the man on. He wished Gabriel had slapped a strip of tape over Constantine’s mouth while he was at it.
He wished he hadn’t ripped at John’s wrists, come to think of it. To be able to smell the man’s blood and even feel drops of it slicking his hands was a torture worthy of Hell.
“So what was Ariel like? Do you miss him? Or did you prefer the way I used to grind your face in the dirt?”
It seemed John was getting frustrated by the lack of response. Normally he didn’t mix sex and fighting, which set him apart from just about every other would-be Crusader. Even Gabriel, no matter what he said, couldn’t help indulging in his…well, they would be demonic, wouldn’t they? Neutral or not, he still had a trace of Lucifer’s blood in him via Vlad Dracul. Enough for Balthazar’s instinctive reaction to him to be roll over and show belly and throat, and damn it. If Ariel hadn’t been splattered all over one corner of hell, Balthazar would have found a way to have him eternally shredded.
“You know,” John was conversationally saying, “I remember on my trip down there—”
“Good. So you know.” The words came out before Balthazar come help himself. He clamped down on his lips immediately afterward.
His neck hurt. Gabriel had fangs. And it might have been easier if he’d just pierced the skin, because the bruising he’d left was just far enough below Balthazar’s pain threshold that it wouldn’t numb. Instead it ached and itched and generally told him he wanted Gabriel to come back and finish it. Which he didn’t. It was merely Ariel’s meddling.
John was temporarily taken aback, but he recovered soon enough. Once upon a time, Balthazar had secretly admired that about him, but now he wished Constantine would break his mouth.
“That bad? And I always thought you half-breeds were just dying to go home.” The sarcasm in John’s voice was so rich it could have been licked off. He tugged and twisted till he’d craned around enough to whisper in Balthazar’s ear. “Dying to go mash on the souls of the damned, get fucked raw by your Archdukes and Earls like the slimy little begging shits you are.”
Blocking spells had been poured into the concrete so Balthazar couldn’t even send himself out, or distract himself by tracking what Nicki was doing. Or perhaps figuring out how she and Ariel, though being full demons, had managed to carve lives on the earthly plane. All he could do was listen to John’s idiotic, clumsy verbal stabs. And the worst part was that they were working. “You may have seen a lot, Constantine, but your knowledge has gaping holes in it. No one wants to be in Hell. That’s why it’s Hell.”
“Well, don’t expect pity from me. You got what was coming to you,” John snorted, turning back around. He was still for a moment, and then he threw himself forward so hard that they nearly toppled over. Even after Balthazar had hastily rebalanced them, John continued to twist and fight at his bonds.
“They’re not going to give,” Balthazar told him. “Gabriel knows what he’s doing. And incidentally, what were you expecting me to do? Pat you on the back and give you a leg up to Heaven? I’m a demon. Even if I didn’t have a personal desire to see your guts strung over the pits of the traitors, I’d still want to kill you.”
“Really? Then how do you explain Gabriel if everything’s down to nature? Or Nicki, or your sugar-daddy Ariel?” John finally sank back, breathing heavily with nothing to show for his effort except a little bit of twisting in the tape.
That…actually was a good question, and Balthazar desperately wanted to know the answer to it. His gambit to win free of Hell had failed, and unless he came up with a new one very soon, he’d be taken back. And he did not want to go. If it was possible, he’d rather obliterate himself than go back and submit to that.
“Hey.” Apparently John was tired enough to be slightly less hostile as well. “Do you have any idea what he is?”
Balthazar started to tell John to save his friendliness for someone that wouldn’t rip out his spine given half a chance. Then a thought occurred to him and since it gave him an opportunity to ignore John, he took it.
Dean. Of course. Nicki and he were obviously lovers, and he still felt mortal. But he didn’t smell like it. Ariel had occasionally taunted Balthazar with hints about making him free of Hell, but Balthazar hadn’t put much stock in it. Out of the fighting or not, Ariel had still had a demonic mindset, and so Balthazar had fully expected to be tossed out when he was of no further use. But apparently there was a way.
And it would involve forming some kind of attachment with Gabriel, or at least tricking Gabriel into forming an attachment to him. Wonderful. Add on the handicap that Gabriel seemed to be unconsciously fascinated with Constantine, and Balthazar might as well do his hair in plaits and call himself Pollyanna. He needed a new plan. Maybe something with that manuscript…he might be able to barter a new deal with Lucifer—
“Shit.” John sat straight up the same moment Balthazar felt the wall-spells ripple. “Oh, shit. Shit. For my benefit, hell…those are for us, aren’t they?”
Something suddenly slammed into the door. Even though the door was steel and soaked in warding spells, it warped to show the vague outline of two clawed hands pressing into it. Balthazar nervously started to scratch at the tape around his wrists. “Gabriel took the manuscript with him. And we’re upstairs—”
“And I got the feeling that Nicki would cut and run with her boy-toy if things got really rough. What about you? Trust her any more than you did Gabriel—I mean the blonde one that—goddamn it.” John had started to jerk at the chair again, only now he was yanking and struggling so hard that the metal frames were actually bending. If he pulled hard enough, he might break them so they could twist free. “I’m—not—dying—again—because of--”
“Can you waste your breath afterward?” Balthazar snapped, wrenching at his arms and wrists as hard as he could. They weren’t going to have time at this rate; the door was starting to glow red and the smell of sulfur was creeping into the room.
The walls rippled. They moved like water from a hand thrust into it…and then the ripples came slamming back down. It jarred the whole room and skewed the chairs, then sent them over. Balthazar splayed his legs and slammed out with his heel, just barely stopped his chair from going over. But John’s kept going. It hung at a forty-five degree angle for a split second, then fell with a loud ripping clatter. A strip of silver tape flapped about in front of Balthazar.
He stared at it. Then he twisted around to see: John was on the floor, half-sprawling and half on one knee, mostly free of the chair. Cursing and panting, he heaved himself up onto his feet, twisting to let the chair slip out from between his arms as he did. His wrist were still bound to Balthazar’s and so that wrenched painfully at both of them. “Goddamned know-it-all angels. Almost dislocated my shoulder…”
“Whine later, you pathetic excuse for an exorcist.” Balthazar turned back to look at the door, which now had smoking molten steel running down its front. He felt frantically at their wrists, searching for some kind of weakening, something that he could use to get himself free.
He did find one, but his luck was still out: it was a rip in John’s bindings, not his. And the chances that John would be grateful were slimmer than a camel capable of passing through a needle’s eye. But whoever was on the other side of the door wasn’t about to spare Balthazar, and the tape was what was keeping John from retaliating just by spitting out incantations…
“Just so you know, Balthazar—fuck you,” John shakily said. His eyes had also fixed themselves on the door, which had melted so thin that they could make out shadowy forms behind it. “And I’ll not be seeing you—”
Because I’m still tracked for heaven, Balthazar filled in. He bit down on his tongue and tasted blood. And then he was suddenly fed up. With the stupid stalemate between Heaven and Hell, with his fate, with John’s goddamn mouth--
--he heard instead of felt his claws forcing out past the binding spells. He did feel the tape shredding and shoving up beneath his claws, but after that it was all pain. Agonizing pain as the magic in the tape recoiled on him and slashed at his tendons, broke his bones. Knocked over his chair so he only saw John leaping to his feet, hands spread wide as his voice poured spells between them.
It was actually quite beautiful, even if it was him.
* * *
Nicki walked Gabriel out to the car, her usual smile gone. A line of worry had grooved itself between her eyebrows, and she kept looking back at the bookshop as if she expected it to go up in flames at any moment. Sadly, it wasn’t a groundless worry.
“If someone succeeds, they’ll throw Hell into an uproar. You know half the reason demons stay in Hell is because Lucifer keeps them there,” she said.
“I know that. At least there’s only a handful of mortals that have these kinds of resources.” Gabriel leaned against the car and rolled up his sleeves. He’d rather have done this sort of thing inside, where he couldn’t accidentally be spotted, but Nicki was firm about not letting anyone but her work spells around Dean. “I’m beginning to think there must be an Archduke behind this as well, or else Lucifer should’ve caught wind of it by now.”
She rolled her eyes. “Maybe not. He’s gotten petty and personal lately. Which you should know, given that you’ve got enough of his blood to qualify as a threat. They really don’t do parting gifts like they used to…nowadays your exes just give you STDs.”
Once upon a time, Gabriel would have taken her head and strung it up with her tail for speaking that way about Vlad. But now he simply ignored her and took out the dagger from his boot.
“Constantine reminds me a little of Vladislaus, come to think of it.” Nicki didn’t seem to be joking, but then, she’d long since perfected the art of acting. She nibbled on a fingertip while she watched Gabriel make a shallow cut in his wrist. Her nostrils flared at the smell, but otherwise her interests seemed to lie elsewhere.
He raised his eyebrow as he turned his wrist over, letting the blood drip into the cup of his other hand.
“Just the coloring. Vlad was stockier, of course—more like Balthazar’s build. This Constantine’s the lankiest thing I’ve ever seen. Though very pretty,” she thoughtfully said. Her fingertip flicked in and out of her mouth, and her eyes glanced up at him in perfectly false innocence.
“Whatever you’re planning, please don’t. I like you, Nicki. I’d rather not fight you if I don’t have to.” When he had a pool a little bigger than a half-dollar in his palm, Gabriel lifted his arm to his mouth and licked the cut to seal it. Then he pulled his sleeves down with his teeth.
She shrugged and pretended to stare across the parking lot as if she weren’t interested in his reaction. “And oddly enough, I like you, too. I like you enough to not want you to end up on my side—or what was my side.”
The blood in Gabriel’s hand had been red at first, but now it turned clear as he blew over it. He watched cloudy swirls start to reform, letting his eyes relax so it’d go faster. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you spending too much time in the wilderness, winding yourself tighter and tighter. You dropped out of heaven because you thought God was being unfair, and you stayed out of hell because you loved humanity.” Nicki suddenly touched the side of Gabriel’s face, tucking a strand of hair back into his ponytail. “You’re starting to forget that.”
“I am—” he started to say, but she was already halfway across the lot. Gabriel gave her words a little thought, then decided that could wait. He looked back at his scrying pool.
His successor was easy enough to find: a haggard face plastered over with filthy curls appeared in a hazy pile of newspapers and rubbish. Then it swiftly retreated and so did the vision, pulling outward so Gabriel could see the highway overpass. He recognized it as one only ten minutes’ driving away.
The picture faded, leaving him with a clotting puddle of blackish blood in his hand. If he wanted to, he could have used that to try and see if he could determine who was behind this, but Gabriel abruptly found himself wanting a shower at the very mention of employing the other part of his blood. Nicki was right, as usual. He needed to ease off on relying on his more demonic gifts. The scene alone in the room, and how he’d reacted to Balthazar lashing out at Constantine, should have told him that.
Gabriel got in the car and pulled into the street, still chewing over that reaction. Though Ariel had been a friend, he’d definitely kept his old habits no matter how much Gabriel had argued with him. And those, it seemed, included taking lesser demons as familiars and servants. It made a black sort of sense; Hell was large enough for Ariel to find himself a little niche of it to which he could occasionally retreat without Lucifer finding out, but if he wanted to do anything in Hell, he had to use others.
That of course begged the question of why he had picked up Balthazar, who was rather young, as half-breeds went, and who didn’t appear to have any outstanding talents. But he had been involved in this business with Mammon and the Spear of Destiny…and wherever the Spear went, trouble followed. Or perhaps it was his connection to Constantine. Or maybe Gabriel was drawing connections at nothing to explain away why his pulse beat hard and the blacker elements of his blood moaned their cravings around either of the two. Balthazar was somewhat understandable: Ariel had made him into some sort of familiar, but not exactly like any Gabriel had ever felt, and it was possible that Ariel had left the job half-done. The claim wanted to be completed and it was pulling at anyone it felt was suitable—Nicki had picked up on it.
Constantine was less explainable, unless Gabriel wanted to fall back on the old gossip that the Constantine family tree included a sizable dollop of divine but tainted blood. The favorite candidate being Sammael, fallen Angel of Death. Though Gabriel didn’t think Sammael had been lying about not being the one.
His thoughts were interrupted by the rise of a chain-link fence before him—he’d arrived. Gabriel parked the car and looked casually about for bystanders while he lighted himself a cigarette. There was one homeless man in the distance, but he wandered off before Gabriel had finished his smoke; Gabriel put out his butt and lightly hopped over the fence.
The area beneath the overpass seemed to have become an informal junkyard. He had to pick his way past a mountain of used baby diapers and an old car that was a popular devirginizing site before he finally spotted the pile of newspapers he’d seen. It was rustling, and the nearer he came, the more it shook.
He stopped ten yards short. “Gabriel?” he called, keeping his voice as soft and low as possible. “I’m not here to hurt. I know I feel like…but I used to be one of your kind as well.”
The rustling abruptly ceased, and he had the impression of someone coiling tightly up on themselves. Gabriel shook his hands free of his coat’s sleeves to show that they were empty and slowly began to crouch down. “I’d just like you to listen for a moment…”
A sudden breeze sprang up, and whoever was under there snatched at the newspapers, but it was too late. He smelled the sulfur and he leaped backward, hand going for his rifle.
It roared out teeth-first, nothing but great red mouth and rows and rows of snapping fangs that smashed a hole out of the concrete wall. Having barely ducked in time, Gabriel kept running. He turned once when he felt burning drops of its acid saliva hit his cheek, only to almost lose his face to it. A bashing with his rifle-butt held it off for a moment, but then the enormous worm reared up and smashed into the top of the overpass so dust and chunks of concrete rained down. It blinded Gabriel.
A hunk smashed into his hand and knocked his rifle from him. Gabriel reflexively stumbled back. He tried to leap as well, but his foot caught on something and he fell to his hands and knees. Something slashed his palm and he hissed at the pain.
The wind whistled over his back. He whipped his head up just in time to see the worm’s gaping maw smashing down on him; Gabriel howled and threw up his hands. An arc of blood lashed out from one, a fragile red line that just grazed the demon.
Time slowed. The demon suddenly stopped six inches from Gabriel, so close he could see the grain of its scales. And then it was flung backward into a shower of steaming, reeking rot.
Gabriel fell back on his hands and knees and took a deep, deep breath. His sight was tinged with red and he had a growl clawing at the back of his throat that wanted more. Wanted to take those piles of shit and feed them back to whoever had sent the demon, had blurred his sight, wanted to rend flesh and drink blood and—
He willed it down, shoulders shaking with the effort. Slowly the tremors disappeared from his arms, his legs, and he could stagger drunkenly over to retrieve his rifle from a heap of dirty clothes. And then he turned towards the car, and he broke into a dead run. Because if the mortal Gabriel was not here, and someone had expected him to go looking for her…
…then afterward, he needed to sit down with the manuscript and determine exactly where Constantine and Balthazar fit into the puzzle. After he’d killed whoever had gone after them.
* * *
John fell so bonelessly that he didn’t even feel it when his knees cracked on the ground. His head was swimming and he could hear himself breathing, but couldn’t sense the air going into his lungs. He willed himself not to panic, telling himself it wasn’t the cancer coming back, it would pass in a moment.
It did. His sight cleared to see the door fused shut again. Someone was still banging on it, but at least they’d been set back so he could think.
“That’s the best you could do? I thought you were John Constantine, asshole.” Balthazar’s chair had broken when he’d fallen over, and he’d wriggled free. Now he was pulling his wrists under his legs to get them in front of him, only he seemed to be having a problem. Namely, he seemed to be in a hell of a lot of pain.
“Well, do you see me with anything on me? Gabriel frisked me before we picked you up. And don’t tell me you could do better. I mean, look—you can barely peel the tape off of yourself.” Whatever was outside was hellish, but somehow John had a feeling that the usual exorcisms wouldn’t work on them. Maybe it was the fact that he was muttering a snatch of the Bible beneath his breath and they were laughing.
A last ripping sound, and Balthazar had finished tearing the tape off with his teeth. His face was pale and sweaty, and when he was done, he fell onto his elbow to simply pant for a few moments. “You broke my wrists.”
“Oh.” Well, John couldn’t really say he was sorry about that, though he belatedly realized that put a crimp in the idea that they try beating their way out with the pieces of the chair. Annoying as it was, he could’ve used Balthazar’s supernatural strength. “Come on. That’s not that bad for one of your kind. Hell, you aren’t bleeding on my coat, are you?”
“Shut up,” Balthazar gritted out. He got up into a squat, but kept his hands tucked close to his chest. Maybe he was too proud to point it out, but it was obvious anyway that he’d come back more…delicate. “They’re phenex.”
John blinked. Then he nearly fell over when something rammed the door so hard a screw dropped from the top hinge. Shit. No time to fuck around. “Later we’ll take up why the fuck you couldn’t say so earlier. How do you get rid of them?”
When he didn’t get an answer, he turned to yell at Balthazar, but instead froze in sheer surprise. Balthazar really didn’t look well; he’d gone glassy-eyed and he was swaying on his feet as if his sense of balance was off.
After a moment, John figured out that Balthazar had gone into shock. “Fuck.”
He scrambled over and smacked at Balthazar’s face, but then had to grab at him when he started to fall over. That snapped Balthazar out of it, a little, and the stupid bastard actually tried to shove at him. Of course, then the broken wrists kicked in and Balthazar snarled, burying his teeth in John’s shoulder and pressing his hands to John’s chest.
“Get—off!” John hissed, yanking at Balthazar’s hair. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You just came from Hell!”
“Yes, and pain works differently there! They want you conscious for all of it, so there isn’t this—this—” Balthazar started to gesture, but crumpled again. This time he at least had the grace to do so away from John.
John rolled his eyes and pushed up his sleeves. “It’s called passing out. And welcome to mortality.”
“Don’t do that. Phenex—fire—light isn’t going to do anything but make them stronger,” Balthazar snapped. He curled around behind John’s feet, a lot like a snake. With a mouth that John was going to kick in, as soon as he had a free moment.
There wasn’t time to tell the asshole that that hadn’t been what John had been planning, anyway. No point in wheedling summoning tattoos out of Midnite if they only ever did one trick.
He spread his feet far enough to brace himself, then put his forearms together. The power rushed around him in two great circles, then slammed into his face so he could barely get out the words. “Into the waters of heaven I command thee. Into the waters I command thee--into the waters I command thee--”
The forces bent him over till his forehead was nearly banging his knees, but he could hear the demons behind the door start to scream. He went through another triple repetition, voice growing hoarser so he had to shout louder, and he started to feel them push away. A third triple sent him to one knee and ground his teeth together so hard he thought they’d crack, but he squeezed out the last word. All the power crested in him, then suddenly flooded towards the door.
He broke it open. John toppled back on his ass, then grappled for a strut from the chair, but nothing leaped out at him. With a sigh of relief, he slumped to the floor. Balthazar was groaning up against him, but John couldn’t even muster up the energy to shove the bastard’s face away from his ear. “You know, even demons usually say thank you when I bother saving them.”
“I’m thanking you by not thanking you,” Balthazar muttered, obviously having some gory show of gratitude in mind. He slowly pushed himself into a sitting position, then twisted out of John’s coat.
While Balthazar was looking at his wrists, John took the liberty of taking back his coat and putting it on. “So what was Ariel doing with you?” He grinned nastily at Balthazar’s glower. “Gabriel doesn’t know you. I do. You did hear something, or see something—anyway, you know something.”
“What difference would it make to—what are you—” Balthazar tried to pull away, but John was quicker. The bones snapped in place as John yanked and Balthazar twisted, and then John had a half-fainted demon lying over his legs again. The bastard took a bite at John’s knee. Snickered when John smashed that knee into his face.
Great. Hopefully Balthazar still healed quickly, because John wasn’t in the mood. He jerked Balthazar up by the hair, then splinted that wrist with pieces of the chair and strips from Balthazar’s shirt. Then he grabbed the other wrist just as Balthazar was starting to come out of his daze and pulled hard. Screaming, Balthazar toppled back over and stared up at the ceiling, mouth half-open as he took great gulps of air. A fresh trickle of blood decorated his swollen lip.
“Excuse me if I can’t help enjoying this a little,” John told him. He did the other wrist, then shoved Balthazar off of himself and stood up. “Now, what do you know? And don’t make me explain why it’s in your best inter—”
John whipped around, but not in time to keep from getting slammed to the floor. He got up his arms to block the snapping, slavering thing on top of him from tearing out his throat; the beast got a bit of his coat, but mostly missed his arm. Still, the pain from that tooth nicking him wasn’t exactly small, and his head was ringing from where it’d hit the floor, and his back and hips were not going to forget today any time soon.
He lashed out with his foot and caught it in the side, but that only jerked its head loose of his sleeve. Then the thing reared up for another go at him, all white teeth and stinking fur. Claws slammed into John’s shoulder as he flailed for something with which to hit it. “Balthazar, you—”
Something else hit John. Hit the monster on top of him, actually, but for a second it was double the weight crushing him. Then they went off to the side and someone was jerking him out of the way—Balthazar, chewing on his lip. The moment John was clear, Balthazar curled up around his wrists, grinding his teeth. Under that sound, John could hear the clicking of bones being reset. “You have no idea how much I detested doing that.”
“I love you too. Same way I love my job,” John coughed. He could feel a bit of blood soaking through his sleeve, but when he pulled it up, he was relieved to see it’d missed his tats. Needed disinfecting, but it wouldn’t take more than a couple stitches.
Then he decided to look over at whoever had saved his ass, and thought dropped right out of John’s head.
Gabriel sat up from the corpse, body shifting slightly so he looked all human again. Blood was splattered over his face and smeared all down his front as far as John could see, and he had gobbets of flesh dangling from his hands. Someone made a sound and he turned his head; his eyes were solid black.
Balthazar whined. A glance over showed that he’d gone glassy-eyed again, but not from pain or…anger. Figures. Demons were so predictable about what got them off.
“Gabe, did you—oh.” Nicki leaned against the door, hot speculation flashing over her face. Then she apparently remembered she was already taken and snapped her fingers. Which were also thickly coated in blood, and so was the rest of her. She’d been busy after all, which made John feel a little bad about what he’d said earlier. Not much, because there’d been no way he could have known.
Gabriel slowly blinked. Then he shook himself like a dog and spat out a chunk of flesh. He leaned over further, starting to hack, and threw up some purplish blood. “Did you take care of the rest?”
“Yeah. By the way, I think you’re on your own now. I need to get Dean out of here.” She looked apologetic, but it was fifty-fifty she was faking it.
Well, Gabriel was taking her at face value, for he just waved her off. “Do what you have to do.”
John waited a couple minutes, but Gabriel was worrying about the mess he’d made and Balthazar still looked like he was torn between running like hell and jumping Gabriel. “Hey. I think this proves my point that it’s a bad idea to keep me out of the loop. I’m in this too damn deep to not be able to defend myself, and you’re not exactly great at it.”
Gabriel stared at the corpse before him, then wiped at his mouth. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, shoulders relaxing. Then he got up and started dealing with the bloodstains on his clothes. “True.”
And then he pulled out a five-foot shotgun from his coat. From his coat.
He caught John staring, and while he didn’t quite smile, he definitely looked amused. “Trick I picked up from a Scot. Though he liked broadswords. Here, you can borrow this for now.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t find Gabby,” John said, taking it. The damn thing must have been blessed by a pope, considering how it made his palms tingle. He absently swung it towards Balthazar and Balthazar flinched out of his stupor—yeah, very good stuff. “I know a guy that knows everything that goes on in this city. Though first I think we should get washed up. He’s kind of particular.”
“I don’t know about that. Midnite let you in,” Balthazar muttered.
John ignored him and watched Gabriel. After a long, long moment, Gabriel nodded. But when John held out his hands for the car keys, Gabriel turned and walked out the door. Controlling asshole.