|Alliance Prologue: Felon
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Well, well, fancy meeting you here.” Balthazar didn’t bother looking up, but instead went on calmly cutting up his steak. Kobe beef, seared and dressed by the finest chef L. A. had to offer, and so it wasn’t to be lightly wasted. He always took his sins seriously and even more so when entertaining company of the sort inviting itself to his table right now. “Take a seat.”
“I will stand.” Gabriel was dressed impeccably, his suit a shade higher in quality. He leaned against the wall and folded his fingers between each other, the usual opaque expression on his face.
Nevertheless Balthazar had no problem guessing what had brought Gabriel here. A few months ago, they’d sat down and had a very interesting conversation in the same private room in the same restaurant as they were in now. When it had ended, Gabriel had strutted back to his cathedral to look snobbishly down on Johnny-boy, and Balthazar had been left sitting with a cooperative proposal on his lap. He’d agreed to it, but in such a way as to leave himself a loophole for backing out later, if necessary. Once he’d done his own research, since even if demons were supposed to be ambitious and unscrupulous to the extreme, he wasn’t stupid. One didn’t consider double-crossing one’s superiors over a single glass of pinot noir.
It’d been an interesting idea. At one point he’d been half-convinced to go along with it, but further thought had pointed out that one, Mammon was an unknown quantity, whereas Lucifer was autocratic when it came to final decisions but otherwise gave demons a good deal of leeway; two, if Gabriel was willing to contravene his angelic nature to the point of unleashing as great an evil as Mammon, then he might also have discovered the concept of breaking his promises. He certainly didn’t have any problems with morality as long as he could persuade himself that it was to the greater good of God. So Balthazar had ultimately decided no, but not before he’d taken the liberty of turning a few parts of Gabriel’s plan to his own advantage. After all, it was in his nature.
“Balthazar,” Gabriel suddenly said, soft as down feathers.
The juices sloshing over Balthazar’s plate suddenly congealed. Sighing, he looked up. “Yes?”
“Balthazar, I asked you to prepare the woman to receive Mammon.” The wings silently snapped out, shrouding Gabriel in an ominous shadow. His voice perceptibly hardened. “If she failed, you were supposed to use the sister. But instead they killed each other.”
Not bad for a day’s work, Balthazar thought. A visit gone terribly wrong, with one sister suddenly unable to bottle up her resentment at the other’s deliberate denial of their shared Sight. A handy water-glass, broken, and a cop already edgy from coming in straight from the street where she’d just shot a murderer dead. Two powerful psychics dropped straight into Lucifer’s appreciative hands.
“Well, I’d apologize, but they were terribly flawed material. You should have noticed how…breakable they were when you picked them,” he calmly replied. He lowered his knife, watching Gabriel for any changes in expression, and when he saw none, he resumed cutting. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ll just take their souls as my fee and we’ll consider the matter balanced.”
As demons went, Balthazar was young—only a century—and Gabriel was quite old. But the balance forbid direct contact between angel and demon as well as between either and man, so Balthazar wasn’t especially worried about the consequences of refusing Gabriel’s offer. The best human pawn Gabriel had to offer was John Constantine, and only if it was made worth his while; Balthazar also had certain personal reasons for believing that Constantine would be reluctant to come near him in any manner. Reasons that, frankly, had been occupying a good deal of his thought lately, not including how much that annoyed him. And Johnny himself seemed distracted now—perhaps Dwight—and hadn’t been responding as sharply whenever they did meet, which aggravated Balthazar’s ire.
So it more or less was Constantine’s fault that Balthazar wasn’t paying attention.
He had a glimpse of the tablecloth charring—his head jerked up and he slammed back in his chair, but Gabriel’s blast was already eating into his flesh, superheating his nerves so they fried and popped in cascading bursts of agony. Fabric charred and melted into his skin. His own power lashed out, but uncontrolled and unaimed, and only by luck did he flip up the table into Gabriel’s face.
It lasted a mere second before it was ash, but that was long once for Balthazar to lunge wildly for the door. His legs had been beneath the table so they’d escaped the initial strike and were still mostly working, but he couldn’t see and his arms—his arms were just dangling. He didn’t have feeling in them past the elbows. His second layer of skin was a raw scream underpinned with white streaks of pain that broke up his consciousness. Stumble smack flare, and when things cleared the evening breeze was an all-encompassing torture on his body; he’d gotten outside but had no idea where since his memory ended when he’d knocked against the wall. Never mind, had to keep moving--wings. Too muffled—feathered wings.
Him. No one else would listen, let alone believe.
* * *
John had just dragged himself back to his apartment. Bad exorcism in the morning, lung cancer diagnosis around lunch, and to top off his evening, Gabriel hadn’t been in. Now that he’d had time to think, he’d figured out that that had been a bad idea anyway—Gabriel had never helped much before and wasn’t likely to now. Actually, the bastard seemed to get a kick out of watching John flail around, and John would be damned if he begged from him.
He hadn’t seen Dwight in nearly a month. For a while they’d had a once-weekly arrangement, but Dwight had gradually backed out of it. Something about Wallenquist and an escalation back in Basin City, and since he remained steadfastly opposed to John going up there, John had had to shut up and take it. But maybe Dwight would stop being paranoid for a moment if John was—was fucking dying, for Christ’s sake. Once in a while, Dwight would glance sideways at John or almost touch him in a way that wasn’t just about getting off, and so John was pretty sure Dwight would give a shit.
He still hadn’t quite figured out what was the deal with Basin City’s odd brand of magic, but it could do things he couldn’t, so maybe that included cancer. And he could, he’d found out through careful probing, do things Dwight couldn’t, so there was the trade if Dwight didn’t want to do it only for sentimentality.
He felt like shit. John walked heavily over to the couch and dropped himself on it. His breath crammed up into the top of his throat and stuck, and for a couple seconds he was clutching at his chest. But no, not—fucking—coughing.
After a minute, he could take away his hand without feeling like it was the only thing keeping his ribs from crushing in on themselves. He dejectedly shook out a cigarette and snapped the flame across the tip. “Maybe after I get some sleep…”
It was only ten, anyway. Dwight never seemed to be in his place till four or five in the mor—
John held very still, straining his hearing. He heard it again: a kind of soft scuffling on the fire escape. And there was something…he stabbed out his cigarette, silently mourning the waste, and waved away the smoke till he could have a fresh whiff.
Sulfur, plus a few other things. Burnt blood, burnt feathers.
He got up and palmed a holy-water grenade while he was at it. Walked as quietly as he could over to the wall beside the window where he stood, carefully peering around the sill. It took several seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dark, and then a few more to put together what he was seeing.
John slid in front of the window and yanked up the sash, staring. The holy-water grenade went back in his pocket, since it definitely wasn’t going to be necessary. “Balthazar?”
The blackened lump flopped over the edge and collapsed on the floor. It was a good thing John wore black, or else his clothes would’ve been hopelessly ruined. As it was, he ended up squatting in a small pile of flaky…bits by the time he got down to pull Balthazar off. More fell to reveal bloody patches when he flopped Balthazar around to face him.
“Christ.” It looked as if all the skin had been flayed off of Balthazar’s face, and that took some doing since there were two separate layers to go through. The eyes were hard and white, like calcined chunks of coal, and John was working hard not to notice the nose and mouth. “Damn, did you fuck up. What’d you do, offer to get that stick out of Gabriel’s ass?”
Lipless teeth lengthened into fangs. Balthazar hissed, but it came out sounding ragged and pained. A blackened thing abruptly shot out to seize John’s knee in a grip so hard that John dropped back onto his ass, swearing.
Very weak, thready impression of the word in John’s head. Telepathy wasn’t a universal gift even for demons, and it felt like Balthazar sucked at it in the best of times. Right now, the effort was making Balthazar shake violently, but no matter what John did, Balthazar wouldn’t let go of John’s knee.
Gabriel—Spear of Destiny—bring forth Mammon.
“What?” John had heard of all three of those, but he had no idea how they were connected.
And this came very distinctly into John’s head, like a mental punch to the solar plexus: Get me out of here, you thickheaded shit.
“Excuse me? I’m not a charity here, and even if I were, I wouldn’t just drop everything and help you. Not after what you’ve—Balthazar? Bal—shit!”
Because of course Balthazar would pitch face-forward after that last comment and leave John to grapple with his unconscious body. Some of the burned specks floated into John’s nose and mouth, making him wheeze and cough and fuck, he should just dump the bastard back on the fire escape. No, the alley, because then he wouldn’t stink up the place.
John wrestled off his coat and wrapped Balthazar in it, then got his arms under the limp bundle. He was just staggering upright when another visitor landed on his fire escape. “Gabriel. What a nice surprise.”
“John.” He crouched lightly on the steel grid, looking serene as always. “The demon is my concern.”
“No kidding.” And here was a prime opportunity to kill two birds with one stone—ingratiate himself with Gabriel and get rid of Balthazar—and yet John was slowly scooting backwards. Angels and demons weren’t supposed to openly attack each other. Not to mention the sinister things Balthazar had said before he’d passed out, whatever the hell that had meant. “Must have been a hell of a transgression against the balance.”
Gabriel smiled, which was never a good sign. “You needn’t involve yourself in this, John. I will see to it.”
Balthazar was too damned heavy; John’s knee suddenly gave out and he sat hard on the floor, Balthazar flopping over his legs. “See to what?”
That beatific smile gained an edge. Gabriel smoothly slid forward in a way that put John in mind of a cat preparing to pounce. “John, John, don’t tell me you’ve become fond of him.”
And then Gabriel lunged.
Damned if John knew how to fight off an angel, but he wasn’t about to sit there. He threw himself sideways, spilling Balthazar onto the floor, but a loud zinging, like a wire shorting out, brought his head up. Gabriel was in the process tumbling back from the window, discomfited and furious, as if he’d abruptly run up against a glass pane. Only the window was open, and now John was smelling the acrid stink of magic. Worse than ozone: he didn’t recognize it as one of his wards.
“You will suffer for this,” Gabriel hissed. Then his face smoothed out into intense thought. A moment later, he suddenly smiled at John, back to peaceful arrogance. “And I thank you, Constantine, for your help.”
A single beat of wings, and he was gone. John yanked his leg out from under Balthazar and rushed to the window, but saw nothing in the night. He snarled and turned to the windowsill, running his palms over it so they were barely grazing the wood. Someone had been fucking with his wards, and even if that’d ended up saving his ass, he still…he bent down and squinted at the wood. No smell, only a slight discoloration, but that was all he needed to know who.
Bloodwork. Only one person he knew of who might be strong enough to do that, and--shit.
John threw himself at his phone and dialed fast. “Beeman? Pack up a bag for me. I’m going out of town for a while.”
He slammed down the phone and moved rapidly about his apartment, feverishly packing. Once he had to stop and cough, and then he looked at Balthazar again. The bastard was still out, damn him.
“Soon as we get there, I’ll see if I can toss you to that Miho girl, you fucking son of a bitch. What the hell did you just get me into?”
* * *
Dwight nearly flung himself out of bed, gasping and thrashing. Metal scraped from the direction of his window and he jumped again, but his blurry sight showed a familiar figure. He blinked and it resolved into Miho. “Shit. Can you not do that?”
She tossed him a contemptuous look and stalked through his bedroom and on into the kitchen. After a moment of staring at the wall, Dwight threw on his pants and shut the window. Then he followed her.
His head was ringing like it was New Year’s Eve and he wasn’t even drunk, or still coming down off a fight, which was pretty amazing considering the past week. Wallenquist had been working them hard, probing constantly for soft spots, and even though his source of extraordinary hassles had dried up thanks to Dwight’s trips to L. A., his ordinary henchmen were more than enough to keep them backed to the wall. They were all worn down.
But for the past two nights, Dwight thought as he made himself coffee, it’d been quiet. Too quiet. Now it looked like Wallenquist might have found himself a new ally. And Dwight was making coffee for a crowd instead of the single cup he usually had. “The hell…?”
He looked over at Miho. Usually when she dropped in, it was for a break so she’d curl up on his couch, or fix herself something out of his fridge, but tonight she’d taken up a perch on the counter to face the front door. She had her swords laid across her lap.
Dwight winced as he realized, finally, what was going on. “Shit.”
She grinned at him, then held out a hand.
He poured her a cup and shoved it a little more roughly than he had to into her hand. “Yeah, very funny that this time it’s me and not one of the girls that needs protection. Very, very fucking funny, Miho.”
She just gave him another sly, closed-lipped smile. Dwight sloshed himself a cup and then reluctantly picked up the phone to call Gail. The last thing he needed was to referee a fight between the girls and John and Balthazar before those two had even gotten into Old Town.