I puffed as we ran through Hell. I wasn’t happy. The running was part of it. The destruction of the sled meant I had to run again, and frankly I was getting tired of the running. I momentarily considered ordering one of the Demon Princes to carry me, but none of them looked very comfortable to get close to.
The other part was what had just happened. Being beaten around by Beelzebub had been bad. But watching Nash lose it had been something else entirely.
It wasn’t frightening, precisely. He’d been violence itself, for a few moments. Terrible, and fierce, and nightmarish. But it was nothing I hadn’t seen, if never before from a human. It was even, from the perspective of his ally, inspiring.
It was the wail that bothered me. The sound that had bubbled up out of his throat, the pain in his cry, had been almost beyond bearing. Agony and suffering. The torn and bloody place where a soul was supposed to be. It was the kind of sound that drove me to poetic imagery, which disturbed the hell out of me. Humans weren’t supposed to feel things like that. The whole reason they felt pain was so that they could stop, so that they could heal. It was the voice of someone grinding himself into dust.
And I couldn’t help him.
I had a sudden, very painful realization of why Horace felt the way he did. Why he looked so tormented when I told him I didn’t want him to help. I wanted to help Nash, to be able to take some of the burden off of his shoulders. I’d been alone. It was miserable. He didn’t deserve to feel that misery. But I still didn’t know how to approach him when I felt this useless. If I had the power that came from being close to Horace, I could. But as it was…
The smell rose through the air. Different from Beelzebub’s rank odor, this was the stink of decay, of plant and animal matter slowly decomposing in water. We stepped onto the banks of a great swamp, and I stared out at it. Figures traded blows in the swampy waters, their skin pruned from the water, shouting and cursing at one another. I could see more in the distance, and below the water, figures moved occasionally, twisting, slapping and beating themselves. Here and there, dead trees rose from the swamp, strangled with vines.
“The River Styx,” murmured Eumaeus. “Not terribly attractive, is it? We won’t be able to make any kind of decent time by foot, the swamp is filled with the damned. We will need Phlegyas’ help.” He held his hands up to his mouth, and whistled sharply. The noise rose into the air, cutting through, and echoing off of the trees. I frowned nervously as several of the wrathful damned turned towards us. Then, they saw the demon princes, and began to edge away nervously. “Once, Phlegyas burned the temple of Apollo, for murdering his daughter after she cheated on him. He served as a warning to others to not take vengeance on the gods.”
“You don’t have to do the Virgil thing,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I mean, how important is knowing the mythological figures, really?”
The question went unanswered as a raft appeared out of the darkness. Two figures stood on it. One was Phlegyas, a Greek man with broad shoulders. The other was…
There’s no other way to put it. He was beautiful. Long, dark hair hung in curls around his head, his face fair, even feminine. He was quite naked, which gave me an eyeful as the barge approached. He lay with his arms under his head, supporting it, one leg crossed over the other, his lips soft and full. His appearance was androgynous in the extreme, but he had lean, hard muscles, like a swimmer or a gymnast, not bulging, but iron-hard. He lifted his head, and his eyes were the color of seafoam, blue-green and soft.
“Belphegor,” said Beelzebub, and there was anger in his voice.
Nash stepped forward, his fists lifting, and Eumaeus set a hand on his shoulder. “Look at him, Nash.”
“Do I have to?” Nash asked, but then paused, frowning. “He’s… human. Really human.”
“Yes,” murmured Ishtar. “Those who are wounded replace themselves with the meat of this place. They are twisted by it. Injury becomes scar, becomes horror.” She waved at herself. “Those who are weak bear the marks of this place on them. Those who are incautious bear the marks of this place on them.” She looked towards Nash. “No man has ever bested Belphegor in fair combat.”
“You make it sound so flashy,” murmured Belphegor, yawning. He looked up at Nash, then at Betty, and turned over onto his side. “I am simply dozing, today. I have no interest in leaving Hell. Phlegyas, take them wherever they want. I have no interest in a fight.” He slid an arm up, and over his head, covering his eyes. I noticed he had no body hair.
Nash, for his part, stepped lightly onto the boat, and nodded to Phlegyas as the rest of us joined. The ferryman looked distinctly nervous, and considering he had a majority of the Princes of Hell on his boat, I couldn’t blame him. Beelzebub leaned forward, and frowned at me. “What?” I asked, sitting back as Phlegyas began to paddle.
“You’re damn weak,” he said, lips quirked into an odd smile, broken mandible still oozing. “What’s wrong with you? I thought you were supposed to be a real badass.”
“Yes,” said Eumaeus, frowning. “From what I have heard, you are a guardian deity of overwhelming power. It is odd to see you struggling as you have.”
“I’m away from my worshiper.” I frowned sourly. “If my human were here, I’d kick your asses.”
“A single human?” asked Eumaeus, an eyebrow raised. “I don’t know of any gods that live on the faith of a single human.”
“Yeah, well, I’m great in all kinds of ways.” I leaned back, and frowned. “I’ve always been that way. One good human, that’s what I need. The faith of others is nice, it helps a little, but it’s the one who I’m close to who really makes me strong. What’s odd about that?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” said Asmodeus, shaking her head. “Power comes from sacrifice. It is always the way. What a man gives up is the source of our power. Gods harvest that. Heroes work off of that principle. The most powerful champions of humanity are those who have sacrificed what is dearest to them. And gods must have the sacrifice of many humans if they are to be strong.”
“Yeah, well, I always favored quality over quantity,” I said, and smiled. But I couldn’t help the slight tension in my words.
How long had I been this way? When had I begun making those singular connections? I’d always preferred it, but when had it begun to work in my favor?
“So, you’re not much good to anyone right now, are you?” said Beelzebub.
“I have three sandwiches in a cooler, back in my apartment,” I said. “My human made me for them. If I eat them, I will get much of my power back. At least for a short time.”
“You didn’t use them before now?” asked Nash, an eyebrow raised. “It sounds like they might have come in handy at some point.” There was no accusation in his voice, though. Just curiosity.
“I tried to get to them when Jack and Jill attacked me, but Jill cut me off. Good thing for them, too, or I would’ve thrashed them senseless. But I was never really much for all of that ‘rule of three’ nonsense you humans like in your stories. I figure, I’ll scarf them all down at once to do something really impressive.” I grinned cheerfully. Then I looked back.
The wrathful were following us. Many of them were rising up out of the muck, the fury in their eyes visible from here as they trudged along after us. In the distance, I could see more of the damned approaching us. My lips tightened slightly, pulled into a sharp line as I stared at them. “What’s supposed to be at the end of this trip we’re taking, again?”
“The way out,” said Eumaeus. “Beneath Lucifer himself lies a passage to the mountain of Purgatory, in the middle of the sea. The real world. I am afraid I do not know where, exactly. We will have to make our way past him, first.” He shook his head softly. “The morning star, Helel. I have never seen him, but he will be a terrible challenge. The only one who ever bested him was Michael, after all.”
“Plenty of time to worry about that once we’ve finished with all the other terrible challenges,” murmured Nash, narrowing his eyes. “There.” He pointed towards the distance.
These walls were larger than the walls that had domed hell had looked. They were massive, brick, towering over the swamp as we approached them. “The city of Dis,” murmured Eumaeus. “We should be at its gates, shortly.”
The gates themselves were forged of iron, red and black streaking its surface, making it look wounded, necrotic. The gates themselves hung open. Apparently, there were few people who wanted to enter the city. A slender figure stood there, her head covered in a veil, her body covered in a white cotton peplos that exposed her slender, pale arms. The veil moved slowly, as though something were writhing beneath it. “This-” began Eumaeus, but Nash held up a hand to cut him off.
“Medusa.” He nodded softly. “I know about her. Ovid, or Aeschylus?”
“That makes a difference?” I asked.
“There are different versions of the myth,” said Nash. “Aeschylus wrote of her as a monster from the start, one of the three Gorgons, the only mortal one. But Ovid thought she was a fair maiden, raped by Poseidon and transformed into a monster by Athena for the crime of defiling her temple.” Nash’s face hardened as the raft settled against the shore, before the great gate. “It was described as a fair punishment.”
“Wasn’t it?” asked the figure, her head lowered. Her hands were folded in front of her. “When we attract the attention of the Gods, our suffering is our own fault, not theirs. They are like a hurricane. To blame them for blowing is folly. Sometimes, you have to take responsibility for not getting out of the way soon enough.” Her head hung low, her shoulders hunched. I frowned. “I will not stop you. But they are not pleased.”
The three figures descended like owls, almost silent until their claws lashed out. Nash raised his arm in time to save his eyes, but let out a harsh grunt of pain as his arm was flayed open by the long talons. He swung at them, but the creatures pulled away.
“Betrayer!” shrieked one. “Thief!” shrieked a second. “Vandal!” shrieked the third. The three of them flapped around Nash, and darted at him, focused entirely on him. They were mostly human, save for their wings, and their great, long nails, on hands and feet. The moment he tried to reverse one blow, another would attack him from another angle. The cuts were shallow, but they tore at him constantly, and I could see him writhing under the blows. He’d taken strikes far more brutal than that before without being harmed, but his eyes seemed wide and hunted, now.
“The Eumenides! They prey on guilt! On shame!” said Eumaeus, stepping forward. That made it all make sense. Humans didn’t act the way Nash did unless they were guilty. Unless they felt they owed something to the world. Horace acted that way, sometimes. My blood boiled, and one of the Eumenides turned towards Eumaeus, and lashed a clawed hand out at his face.
I grabbed it, and twisted sharply. The Eumenides’s arm broke, and she fell shrieking to the ground, wings flapping without coordination. The other two turned towards me, shrieking madly.
A moment later, the two of them had joined their sister on the ground, huddling, shooting me ferocious looks. “Your companion is a traitor,” hissed one of the three, her eyes flashing with fury. “The man has taken power that was not meant for him, has refused to return it. He has made a prisoner of Wind through his actions. He binds gods and demons to him. He breaks cities. He is an abhorrent thing-”
My foot collided with her jaw, hard. I saw the way Nash stood, his expression blank, Pearl’s power holding everything back. The guilt in him. The reason he hadn’t really fought back against them. I bent low, and met the Eumenides’s eyes.
“No word can hold me back. No oath can bind me. I am not a being of justice, or duty, or promises, Furies. I do what I please. And I’m not going to let you hurt my friend. I don’t care what he thinks. He doesn’t deserve your scorn.”
Eumaeus stepped forward, and frowned. “The Eumenides… they were supposed to be better than this. They were given a place in Athens by Orestes and Athena, their fury turned to justice. They are meant to do what is right.” He frowned down at the three. “How did you three end up in Hell?”
They didn’t answer, merely staring bitterly at Eumaeus, and giving me nervous looks. I grinned, baring a great deal of very sharp teeth. “It doesn’t matter. We’ve got to keep moving.”
“Wait,” said Medusa, and stepped forward. She bent low, and ripped a strip of the white cotton garment off of the hem by her feet, carefully binding it around Nash’s arm where a particularly deep cut had brought forth a welter of blood. She rested a hand on it, frowning. “I am sorry about the Furies. They see crimes where there are none, sometimes.”
“It’s nice of you to say that.” Nash was quiet for a moment, and frowned. “You know, I never thought it was fair.”
“It was what it was. To complain about it isn’t helpful,” said Medusa.
“You could come with us.”
“I have made peace with what has been done to me, as much as I can. But I cannot leave this place. Here, there is no risk of hurting someone. Hell would not let my power end the suffering of those around me. But to be around humans again…” Medusa shook her head softly, as she crouched down besides the Eumenides. “I am a monster. I am cursed by Athena. And I am where I belong. Where I shall do no harm.”
Nash was quiet for a moment. Then his face turned very hard. “I’ll find a way to fix it,” he said softly, turning towards the city of Dis, and beginning to walk again.
The circle of Heresy wasn’t a lot more fun. We descended down a slope, into a great plain full of burning tombs. Eumaeus led the way through the tombs, the demon princes walking among us, Belphegor at our rear, taking a lazy pace. I noticed the way Eumaeus turned his head to study the pretty demon from time to time, and walked up next to him. “Like what you see?” I asked, smiling.
He frowned. “It’s not like that. Just odd. Seeing him like this. I’d heard descriptions of him, but this is the first time I’ve met him since…” His statement died off, and he frowned.
“What’s with the tombs?” I asked, as we kept moving. Nobody had emerged to attack us for some time, and I was feeling calmer now.
“These are the tombs of heretics. Those who defied God, or gods, those who claimed holiness falsely, whether they did it knowingly or not.”
“Do you ever get sick of it, Betty?” asked Nash, his voice soft, staring at the tombs as we walked among them, a few paces behind Eumaeus and I.
“Sick of what?”
“The Gods.” He was quiet for a moment. “The arrogance. The way they play with people’s lives. The superiority of them. Relying on their power to protect them from the consequences of their actions, and then having the arrogance to believe that they’re morally right for doing so, too. Doesn’t it bother you?”
I was silent for a moment. He sounded a lot like Randall Creed. A lot like Jack had, too. “I suppose that I never thought much about it,” I said softly. “I was there to stop the things that wanted to destroy it all. The monsters in the dark. I never really thought much about the tyrants or the things that seemed normal. I suppose I thought that I wasn’t the one who should decide those things. It’s one thing to preserve the status quo. When you change things, though…” I was silent for a moment.
“All change is, by its nature, destructive. You cannot create something without destroying something else,” said Eumaeus. “Or at least rendering it unrecognizable. Even the best changes cause destruction. Even the best intentions have hidden dark sides. When some are brought high, others are brought low.”
“I know,” said Nash. “That’s why people hate War. She makes the weak strong, and that can hurt everyone. She creates conflict by giving those who have nothing a way to fight.” He took a deep breath, and shook his head. “I don’t think that’s wrong. But I can see how it’s frightening. Those who are powerful don’t want to lose that power. Those who were weak want vengeance against those who abused them.”
“What do you think gives you the right to choose?” asked Mammon, a chuckle in his voice. At this, Nash’s shoulders slumped.
“I guess it’s only strength. That’s the only thing that really matters, when it comes down to it. Morals and ethics, righteousness… None of it means anything with power. I don’t mean…” He was quite for a second, and shook his head.
“Power without morality is a dark thing,” said Beelzebub, walking with its staff under one shoulder. “Power without understanding of the pain of others. You have to be able to suffer, to be kind, or else you would never care.” It waved one of its arms around. “Not that it helps much. The beings that locked us in here, that made this place, they suffer too, and it doesn’t make them better. It just makes them feel justified in their cruelties to others. Righteousness, the belief that you are a hero, is a terrible thing.” The fly chuckled, and there was less buzz in the voice than there had been the last time. “True goodness comes from doubt. From shame and guilt that goads you to be better. So what does that mean that the Furies couldn’t hurt you, Bastet?”
“I’m a cat,” I said. “The rules are different for us, obviously.” I was quiet as we descended down another steep slope. I turned my head back towards Belphegor, and considered him.
He walked with a slack expression as we descended down towards a great, burning lake. He did not seem particularly interested in what we were talking about, his eyes lidded, his expression tired and faintly bored, not seeming to take anything in. “Is your arm alright, Nash?” I asked softly. “That talk about healing has me a little nervous.”
“I think that if we’re here long enough for healing to be an issue, it’ll be the least of my worries,” he said, and sped up his pace a little bit. I looked back at Eumaeus.
When I’d fought Mammon, Eumaeus had proven a surprisingly capable combatant, fighting alongside me. The two of us had been a match for the golden demon prince. I’d noticed the man had not been effected by whatever illusions Mammon had used against him. And the Furies had seemed relatively content to leave him alone, until he’d interfered with their vengeance. I still didn’t know much about him, but I resolved to keep my eye on him. There were four demon princes still to be fought, after all. And he was not marked, either.
“What are you thinking, Bastet?” Eumaeus asked, smiling towards me.
“It’s impressive that you’ve never been scarred in this place, if you’ve spent so much time journeying through it.”
“Well, truth be told, I have been known from time to time as a bit of a coward.” Eumaeus smiled merrily. “That saying, cowards die a thousand death while heroes die only one? Bullshit. There are some things you don’t fight. Some things you can’t.” He looked over at Nash, and frowned.
The trip through the Circle of Violence was incongruous for its peacefulness. The damned had been slowed, by the river Styx and by the walls of Dis, their numbers forcing them to stream through slowly. It was giving us a greater lead.
The ring of fires burned ferociously, but the ford we crossed was only unbearable, rather than downright lethal, the seven of us crossing at a dead run, passing the centaurs. I frowned. “An awful lot of Greek creatures, down here.”
“Greece gave way to Rome, Rome birthed Christianity,” said Nash. “Stands to reason that they’d grab a lot of Greek imagery.” He frowned. “I wonder about that, sometimes. The different stories. If the gods, the monsters, if they were all actual things, would they have different stories? Is there a Medusa from Aeschylus’ stories out there, somewhere? A vile monster to contrast the tragic one?” It’s…” He shrugged. “It might be important.”
“I know what you mean,” said Eumaeus. “Sometimes I wonder if perhaps those here are mere shadows, those condemned by one story, while their true selves wait safely in another place.” He shook his head. “But they are still people. That much is certain. They suffer, and that is enough to make this a dark place.” He raised a hand. “There. The forest of suicides.”
We entered the long branches. Soft, moaning voices filled the air, branches shifting slightly. I looked down at the roots. “I don’t think these ones will be following us,” I said softly.
“In Dante’s poem,” Nash began, and his voice broke slightly on the last word. He swallowed, and continued, his eyes straight ahead, voice becoming even and emotionless. “In Dante’s poem, the suicides were truly doomed. They, alone, would not be given new bodies when they died. They would be punished, for their abuse of the gift they’d been given by God.” He was silent for another moment. “I never figured out where my mother’s soul went. Not even if she had a soul. I thought I’d heard it once, but it was just a trick.” He looked up. “I wonder if she’s here. She was never particularly Christian.” He shook his head. “Not as though we have time to look.”
I reached out, and rested a hand on Nash’s shoulder. He hunched them slightly, but I didn’t let go. “I’m sure that wherever she is, she’d be proud of you, Nash. However she raised you, whatever mistakes she made, whatever awful things happened… I think that you’re the kind of man that a mother could be proud of today.”
“Yeah,” he said, his eyes hollow.
“I mean it-”
“Betty.” He rested his hand on mine, and smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “I know how this is all going to end. There’s a reason I shy away from the good times, from the camaraderie and the feasts and all of the rest. You don’t have to worry about me. I’d be happier if you didn’t.”
I let my hand fall from his shoulder as he kept walking.
Soon, we exited the forest, the screams fading behind us as we set out onto the great plains. Flakes of fiery ash fell from the sky in a constant, burning deluge, sizzling. Mammon walked ahead of us, his arm raised, catching the flakes of fire on his skin, clearly undisturbed by the heat, and clearing a path. Belphegor walked behind, catching the occasional falling flake on his tongue like it was made of snow, appearing for all the world to be enjoying himself.
Eumaeus came to a stop. I did the same. Nash, too. We stared down, and I frowned. The plain ended in a massive shattered cliffside, leading down deep into the bowels of Malebolge. Ten deep ditches were visible, in a descending funnel towards the center, where another wall was visible, great giants filling the well within the walls. The Ninth Circle. “So. How we getting down there?”
There was a single, tremendous, earth-quaking roar. Something massive, bat-winged, vaguely wyvern-esque flew up, a grinning cheerful man’s face topping the inhuman assembly. It landed heavily on the cliff-side, shaking it, chunks of rock falling away to hammer the distant ditches below. It sank down on its haunches, and a man stood astride it.
Well, I say a man.
His hair stood out in wild, ferocious spikes, twisting and filling the air like the branches of a thorn bush, blood-red and matted. It grew around his head like a caricature of someone terrified, hanging in place, and pulsing with a low thrum that carried through the air. I realized after a moment that it was the demon prince’s heartbeat. Drops of blood coalesced at the tips of each spike of hair, falling from them in a slow rain. The man’s left eye was not visible, only a massive socket with a faint pinprick of red within. His other eye hung out, trailing down his cheek, hanging from the nerve, swiveling around madly. His neck was tight, every muscle and tendon standing out to absurd distances, dragging the skin with them, pulling his jaw muscles down into a maddened grimace.
He leapt from the inanely smiling monster, and landed hard. For a second, I thought he was digitigrade, cloven-footed, like a satyr. It took me a moment to realize that impression was wrong. His legs, from the knees down, were reversed inside of the skin. He balanced on the heel of his foot, the toes raised up behind him, flesh twisted almost to the point of breaking. He stared around, his eye rocking around nauseatingly, until it fixed on Belphegor. A look of disgust spread across his lips.
“YOU FUCKING PANSY!” Satan roared. “YOU COCK-GOBBLING ASS-SPREADING SISSY-BRITCHES! WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?!” I flicked an ear, which was ringing faintly. “THEY’RE RIGHT THE FUCK IN FRONT OF US! DID YOU GET GELDED, AS WELL AS BUGGERED, YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT?!”
“Be quiet,” grumbled Belphegor, frowning. “I’m not interested in fighting them.” But his teeth were tightening. Nash lifted his hands into a stance, his legs spreading. Getting ready for a fight.
“OH, YOU’RE NOT INTERESTED IN FIGHTING THEM, ARE YOU? PERHAPS YOU’D LIKE A ROUND OF TEA AND FUCKING SODOMY? MAYBE YOU’D LIKE YOUR MOTHER TO PUT YOU IN A PRETTY DRESS AGAIN? YOU FUCKING PANSY, FIGHT THE MOTHERFUCKERS!”
“I don’t FEEL like fighting!” shouted Belphegor.
Satan let out a howl of rage, and turned. “FINE, THEN! HOW ABOUT YOU, NASH?! I CAN SMELL THE BLOOD IN YOU! THE RAGE! THE RIASTRAD WAS STRONG IN YOU!” His teeth shone. “I WANT TO SEE YOUR FURY!”
“Fuck off,” said Nash, very softly.
Satan leapt forward at him, bare-handed. Nash moved carefully, and I was forced to step back by the sheer fury of the blows. Satan moved at an impossible speed, and each swing of his fists, clumsy and artless though they were, cracked the ground beneath their feet. Nash moved to grab one of his hands as he swept in, and then pulled back sharply, cursing, fingers clenched into fists.
“Nash!” I swept in from behind, and raked at Satan’s back. His skin parted under my claws, and he roared in pain. I hissed as I pulled back, my fingers covered in his blood. It boiled, stinging horribly. As the blood rained to the ground, it left little molten pools in the rock.
“He’s hot,” said Nash, his voice unnaturally calm, his eyes level as he kept dodging Satan’s blows, the mad demon prince apparently not particularly bothered by the open wound I’d torn across his back. “Don’t touch.”
“THAT’S RIGHT, YOU BLEEDING-HEARTED LILY-LIVERED YELLOW-BELLIED FUCK! NONE OF YOUR FUCKING SOFT-ASSED MARTIAL ARTS BULLSHIT! FUCKING PUNCH ME, IF YOU’RE A MAN!” Satan’s fist whipped forward, and struck Nash in the chest. He spun with the blow, deflecting the worst of it, but I could see the hole that had been burned in Nash’s tie and dress shirt, revealing the reddened skin beneath.
“I just have to outlast you,” Nash said, even as Satan took another swing. “Rage burns itself out.”
“NOT THIS RAGE! THIS IS FURY, NASH! THIS IS THE FORCE THAT DRIVES MEN TO BREAK PROPHECIES! THIS IS WHAT THE HUMAN SPIRIT IS ALL ABOUT! THE MOST ELEMENTAL FORCE, THE THING BENEATH ALL OF THE SISTERS!” Satan laughed wildly. “BUT THIS IS GETTING FUCKING BORING! COME ON, BELPHEGOR! DON’T YOU WANT TO SEE WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE HURT?”
I turned my head sharply. Belphegor was watching, his teeth shining in a wild grin. He leapt into the fight. I met him halfway, as he leapt at Nash’s back.
His blow was not like the others. It was not that he was impossibly strong. But as I caught one of his hands, his other struck me in the stomach. I moved to try to rake at him, and his first hand struck me again, this time in the shoulder, forcing me back. I felt an unpleasant twinge as I moved back, my back striking up against Nash’s.
“Nash!” I yelled, and ducked down as he did, kicking my leg out at Belphegor’s knees as one of Satan’s fists swung overhead. Belphegor slipped his knee around my blow, catching my leg between thigh and shin, and pulled, breaking my balance. I hit the ground, and his foot landed on my chest, a grin of triumph on his face. “Nash, this would be a great fucking time to get angry!”
“I can’t! Betty, I might hurt you!” he shouted, and took a blow.
“I don’t care!”
The momentary distraction left him open. Satan’s fist struck Nash, catching him on the jaw. He was lifted an inch and landed hard on his feet, barely upright, his fists up, his head swaying from side to side drunkenly.
“The ankle!” yelled Eumaeus. My eyes flicked up. Satan reeled back for a haymaker of a blow as Belphegor reached out for Nash’s back.
There was a small scar on Belphegor’s ankle. I sank my nails into it as Nash dropped to the ground in a movement that was only partially intentional. Belphegor let out a scream of pain, blood welling up around my claws. And Satan struck him across the chin with a blow that could have shattered a redwood. It snapped Belphegor’s head back, sending him stumbling back a couple of steps, shaking his head. He looked up slowly. Then he quite deliberately kicked Satan in the crotch. This only seemed to make the red-haired madman angrier.
I pulled myself to my feet as the two tussled and wrestled, screaming invectives against each other. Nash smiled. “Another victory for a level head,” he murmured, shakily.
“Nash.” I sank down to my knees as Satan struck Belphegor another ringing blow, and put him in a headlock. Belphegor tried to jab a thumb into Satan’s eye sockets, but found neither of them particularly good targets as Satan’s face turned redder. “You idiot, I know you’re not going to hurt me. You’ve got more control than that. I trust you.”
“I don’t,” he said softly, and his eyes closed. He slumped to the ground, looking exhausted. I stood up, and turned towards the two fighters, both of them on the verge of unconsciousness themselves, Belphegor’s fist slamming into Satan’s kidney again and again as the two wavered.
I watched the two of them until they collapsed. Belphegor lay, panting, his ankle still bleeding, and still the only apparent wound he had. Satan underwent a more dramatic change. The blood dripped out of his hair, leaving it loose, smooth, and auburn. It hung around his face, emphasizing a fair and gentle appearance, his eyes soft and a deeper, emerald green, only a few shades off from my own. His legs had returned to normal, and he lay groaning on the ground, his legs swiveling back into place. He looked up at me, his gaze diffuse. “fuck,” he groaned, his voice soft, lyrical, almost feminine. “what the fuck happened?”
“You two are going to surrender,” I said. “Don’t hurt anyone, try to help people. And you, give us a ride down to Malebolge. Any questions?” I let my nails glitter in the light of the falling flakes of fire behind us.
“One,” groaned Nash. He’d forced himself up to his feet, and was standing unsteadily. But he was standing. “What is your happy ending?”
Belphegor’s eyes dropped. “The one I loved is here. Somewhere. I… I wanted to find them, once. I…” He shook his head, and his teeth gritted. “I was looking for him, for so long, and…”
Satan’s eyes had become distant, his lovely features twisted by some deep pang of pain. “I came here. Looking for someone. Trying to find them. To rescue them.” His hand went to his forehead, touching it slowly. “It was… Connla.” He frowned. “I can remember his name again.”
Nash nodded once. Then he slumped down, falling onto his knees, his eyes closing, unconscious and still staying upright, though slumped. I carefully lifted him up, slinging his arm over my shoulder, aware of the eyes of the demon princes. The combination of predatory eagerness, and wariness. I smiled at them, my teeth shining sharp. “If I need to protect him,” I said, cheerfully, “I could kill every last one of you.”
We climbed onto Geryon in silence, and the great beast’s wings flapped as it charged off the edge, and down towards the well.