“I’m going with you.”
“No way, Teenface. Too dangerous.”
“It’s dangerous for me everywhere. I’ll be safer with you,” said Virgil. “Are you leaving now?”
“Probably around midnight. I have to wait for my roommate to fall asleep first,” said Rona, climbing up to straddle the windowsill.
“How are you gonna’ get there?” asked Virgil.
“I’ll figure it out. You’ll be safe here. Lock the door and stay inside. I’ll see you tomorrow,” said Rona, before leaping out into the night.
Virgil dropped backwards onto his bed.
It took a few minutes after midnight for Brittany to finally talk herself to sleep. Rona leaped out of bed as quickly and quietly as she could. Just as Angelica had promised, her outfit had repaired and cleaned itself. The tears that had run along the top had vanished, along with all of the dirt and grime from the trash bag. It looked and smelled good as new. She donned the outfit and prepared to make her escape through the bedroom window.
“Going somewhere?” asked Ashley, standing in the open doorway, staring at Rona.
“Um…I was thinking about…going for a late night jog,” said Rona with a weak smile. Ashley looked unconvinced. “Girl’s gotta’ keep her figure.”
Ashley rolled her eyes. “Whatever,” she said before walking away.
Rona climbed out onto the roof, and in a swift noiseless motion she leaped onto the ground, landing in a crouched position, surveying the area before moving. She hadn’t figured out how she was going to get there or where “there” was for that matter. She had forgotten to get the address from Virgil. She clasped her palm to her forehead in frustration. Just then, a car that had been sitting across the street with its lights off, beeped a couple of times. Rona looked over and saw Virgil waving at her from the back seat. In the front seat was a very heavy man, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. He gave Rona a smile, framed by a grizzled goatee. The seediness of it all gave Rona some pause, but Virgil waved her on enthusiastically. She climbed into the cab next to him.
“Aren’t the cabs here yellow?” asked Rona, not taking her eyes off of the driver.
“This is an app in your phone. You put in a request and they show up wherever you are,” said Virgil with a shrug. “This is Lou. He’s from New Joisey.”
“No one talks like that,” said Lou in a heavy east coast accent. “It’s Jersey.”
“Chursey,” said Virgil, attempting to imitate the accent.
“There, you’re getting the hang of it,” said Lou with a proud nod.
“This guy is awesome! He’s been telling me some crazy stories while we were waiting for you. I figured you would need a ride.”
“Okay,” said Rona.
“Y’all ready?” asked Lou, starting the ignition.
“I guess,” said Rona.
Rona had never been to this part of town before. She gazed out of the window as the cab cruised down east Colfax. The streets were mostly empty. There were a few bars that they passed with a crowd of people outside of them, other than that, a few drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes, it was a pretty quiet night. The atmosphere of this part of town was much different than where she lived. It seemed darker, colder, more hostile. She sighed as the cab driver made a dirty joke and Virgil erupted with laughter. This cab driver was kind of a sleaze-ball, she thought. The cab slowed to a halt across the street from the Intrigue lounge. Rona could hear the loud techno music even though she hadn’t opened her door yet. The sign at the top read: “Intrigue” in bright red letters. At the end of the sign was the “S” shaped symbol that Rona knew all too well.
“I need you to wait here,” said Rona, handing the cab driver money. “I’ll give you more when I get back.”
“You got it,” said the cab driver, accepting the money.
“I want to come with you,” said Virgil.
“No. You wait here with the cab. I won’t be long,” said Rona, opening her door. “It could be dangerous.”
“It can’t be more dangerous than what we did earlier today,” moaned Virgil.
“Relax, my man. I know a great place to score some weed around here. Plus, I know some of the girls that, um, work on these streets. I could get some of them to come hang with us and kill time. You neva’ know what we could get ‘em to do,” said the cab driver, holding up the fistful of cash that Rona had just given him.
“Okay!” said Virgil.
“Come on!” she said, yanking Virgil by the arm.
The two of them began walking towards the club. The music boomed from a distance. It made Rona’s ears hurt. Virgil bobbed his head with the beat.
“What the hell are they wearing? Is it a costume party?” asked Rona, nodding towards the assortment of leather, spikes, dyed hair, and skintight clothes.
“Nah, it’s just a rave. You never been to one?” said Virgil. Rona didn’t say anything. “I take it you don’t roll.”
Rona turned to Virgil so that the two of them stood face-to-face. Virgil’s eyes widened as Rona grabbed him by the shoulders and stared into his eyes with a very serious look on her face. She shook Virgil as she spoke.
“Look, when we go in there I need you to do exactly as I say at all times, got it? Stay close to me and do as I do. It’s not safe here. Don’t touch anything. Don’t take anything that anyone offers you. Don’t look anyone in the eyes. If anything happens to me, you get as far away from here as possible, understand? It is very important that you do these things—or not do the things that I’m telling you not to do, okay?”
“Sure, I get it. You say ‘jump,’ I say ‘how high?’” said Virgil with a shrug.
“No. I say ‘jump,’ you don’t say anything you just start jumping until I tell you to stop. In fact, just don’t say anything from this point on. Just stay quiet and try not to draw any attention to yourself,” said Rona, releasing her grip on Virgil and walking away.
“You’re the one with the blue hair,” muttered Virgil.
“What was that?”
The techno beat pounded the walls of the club. Rona was convinced that most of the people standing outside were on some kind of drugs. They laughed and smoked and fell all over each other without a care in the world. She was also pretty sure that they had dressed themselves in the dark. Nothing matched, nothing fit properly—and then there was the hair! None of that seemed to matter to them. Whatever drugs they were on was making them feel incredibly happy.
“So, how are we supposed to get in?” asked Virgil, halting before reaching the door.
“What do you mean?” asked Rona, stopping and turning to face Virgil.
Virgil nodded toward an enormous man in a black suit, standing like a guard dog in the doorway to the club. “That bouncer is going to card us and I’m not old enough to get in and technically, neither are you.”
“You’re right. I’ll probably just have to hit him,” said Rona, matter-of-factly.
“Is that the first place you go with everything? I mean, maybe you could just try to convince him to let us in. You know, use your woman-ness,” said Virgil.
“My woman-ness? Would hitting him in the face be unladylike? I’m truly sorry if I’m not living up to your chauvinist expectations. What do you want me to do? Get down on my knees and–”
“Oh…never mind. Okay. Just think about it. You hit him, he calls the police, we go to jail, I get grounded, and you still don’t get into the club. All I’m saying is, you know—try a little tenderness,” sang Virgil doing his best Otis Redding interpretation.
Rona stared at him blankly before turning and walking away. “Not a bad singing voice you got there.”
The bouncer held out his hand, halting Rona and Virgil at the door.
“We have a dress code, ma’am.” he said in a deep base, motioning to Rona’s outfit.
“Are you kidding me?” asked Rona, eyeing the guy just behind the bouncer who appeared to her, to be dressed in a clown costume. “I would honestly like to know what that code is.”
Virgil cleared his throat.
“I mean, I just really want to get in the club tonight,” said Rona in her most sensual voice. She ran her hand through her hair and breathed in deep, audible breaths.
Virgil cringed at the sight of it.
“I would just be so, so grateful if you would let us in,” said Rona, running her hands down her neck, over her breasts and down her hips. “I would just be so…elated.”
The bouncer didn’t look impressed. “Do you have ID?”
“Oh, you just look so strong,” said Rona, falling forward into the bouncer’s arms. “Oooo, I just feel so safe here.”
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” said the bouncer.
“Fine,” said Rona in her normal voice. She took a step back and placed her hands on her hips. “I’m here to see my uncle.”
“Like I haven’t heard that one before,” said the bouncer with a smirk.
“I’m serious. His name is Belfagor,” said Rona. “He owns the place. I think you know him.”
The smirk left the bouncer’s face at the sound of that name. He narrowed his eyes at Rona and furrowed his brow. “I’m going to tell you one more time. Leave the premises or I’m going to call the police.”
Rona turned to Virgil. “I tried,” she said. “I guess it’s just not for me.” She turned back to the bouncer and before he could raise his walkie-talkie she punched him in the nose. He fell backwards onto the floor.
He rose back to his feet instantly. “You should not have done that.” he growled. And with that his clothes transformed into scales. His eyes turned the color of stoplights and his teeth grew into fangs. Wings sprouted from his back and his height nearly doubled.
Virgil attempted to run in the other direction, but Rona grabbed his arm and held him in place. “I know you.” said Rona smiling and pointing an accusing finger at the green dragon that now stood before her. The dragon let out a roar before lunging forward towards Rona and Virgil.
Virgil shut his eyes tight and braced for impending doom. After a long moment he opened his eyes and saw Rona holding the dragon tightly by the snout.
“Ow! Ow! Ow! Let go!” demanded the dragon, his voice muffled by Rona’s grip. His voice was a higher pitch now and it reminded Virgil of a cartoon character. Suddenly, before Virgil’s eyes, the giant dragon melted into a little, orange-colored fox. Virgil’s jaw dropped again as he surveyed the area to see if anyone else was seeing what he was seeing.
“You don’t remember me? I’m insulted. It’s me, Rona.”
The little fox’s eyes grew wide with terror. “Rona! Oh, no! Please don’t hurt me! I’ll do anything!”
“Hello Squeak. Long time, no see. Where’s Belfagor?” said Rona.
“My name is Naku—ow, don’t squeeze so hard—he’s not here.” said Naku.
“Will you take me to him, please?” said Rona. Naku gawked at her through wide disbelieving eyes. “Now!” snapped Rona.
“Okay, okay, okay.” squeaked Naku.
Rona held him by the nape of his neck as the little fox pointed toward the club entrance with his paw.
Virgil covered his ears, defending himself from the barrage of techno beats that attacked his eardrums. The smell of sweat and perfume invaded his nostrils as he tried to keep up with Rona and her captive. A task made all the more difficult by the crowd and the lighting. It was nearly dark in the club, save for the strobe lights and their colorful gels. Virgil followed the light that reflected off of Rona’s hair from time to time, as he bumped, squeezed and pushed his way through the crowd. Out of nowhere a young woman wrapped her arms around him and began grinding her pelvis on his. Virgil could only catch glimpses of her pretty face and welcoming smile in the club lighting. He traced her curves with his hands. She smiled wider, then stuck out her tongue, a large glowing ring in its center. She leaned in to kiss him when he felt an overwhelming force pull him away from the young woman.
“Come on.” said Rona.
The three of them walked down a flight of stairs and came to a solid brick wall at the end of it. “Open it.” said Rona. Naku said something in a language Virgil had never heard before and suddenly the wall began to move as if made of water. The three entered the wall and found themselves staring down a long corridor with a large metal door at the other end.
“So, how do we get in?” asked Rona as they walked up to the door.
“That right there is called a doorknob. You turn it and then walk in—Ow!” said Naku.
Don’t get fresh.” said Rona. She motioned her head to Virgil to open the door.
“Now?” asked Virgil, pointing at the door.
Rona nodded impatiently.
Virgil squinted as he entered the large room. It was well-lit, contrasting with the dark corridor from which he had just emerged. The smell of vanilla grabbed his nostrils and refused to let go. In the center of the room was a red, lip-shaped sofa. On the sofa sat a man in a pink bathrobe, surrounded by 15 or more beautiful women of all different colors. He was a handsome man, fit and fair-skinned, with long flowing white hair that two of the women had been combing when Virgil walked in. He was leaning back on the sofa, with one arm draped over the back of the couch and one slipper-clad foot, propped up on an expensive-looking, glass coffee table. All of the women were clad in revealing lingerie or pajamas, each one elegant and form-fitting. One of the women with blood-red hair was seated next to the man and feeding him grapes when Virgil walked in.
But now, they were all staring at Virgil.
“Um…” said Virgil. He turned to the doorway and ducked just in time as Naku came sailing over his head, bounced three times and came to a halt at the man’s feet.
“Hi everybody,” said Rona as she emerged from the doorway. “Hello, Belfagor.” She extended her arms as if expecting a hug.
Belfagor’s eyes widened. “Rona!” He leaped to his feet and pulled a giant broadsword from beneath the coffee table. He widened his stance and held the great sword as if preparing for an attack. His teeth clenched. His eyes gleamed hatred. Virgil wondered how someone so slim could even hold a sword that big.
Rona smiled. “You won’t be needing that.”
Belfagor’s grimace became a smile. “You’re right.” he said, his voice a smooth baritone. He stabbed the sword into the floor, leaving it to stand up on its own. He reached under the coffee table and pulled out an Uzi, cocked it and pointed it at Rona. At that point every woman in the room pulled out an assortment of automatic and semiautomatic weapons. Even Naku wrestled a tiny revolver from somewhere in his fur. Virgil ducked behind Rona, as she raised her arms in surrender.
“Where were they keeping those?” muttered Rona, almost to herself.
“Are you bullet proof?” whispered Virgil in a panicked voice.
“I don’t think so,” said Rona.
“She most certainly is not,” said Belfagor.
“Well, there ya’ go,” said Rona with a shrug. She turned back to Belfagor. “I didn’t come here to fight.”
“Then you should not have come here at all,” said Belfagor.
“I just want to talk.”
“I do not.”
“I need your help. I’m willing to pay.”
“I would much rather just kill you.”
“Not a good idea.”
“A most unconvincing argument.”
“Well how about this: I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to fire this many guns inside of city limits. It would bring unwelcome attention. And I’m sure the police would have some questions when they found the bodies of you and all of your pretty friends lying dead on the floor here in the morning,” said Rona with a smile.
Belfagor threw his head back and laughed. “How come no one has killed you yet?”
“You sound disappointed.”
“Mildly amused. But there’s a spell on these walls that blocks all sound to the outside. Basically, what happens inside of these walls stays inside of these walls. Try another! And mind the itch in my trigger finger,” snarled Belfagor.
“Fair enough. I’m sure you went through a lot of trouble in order to have this place declared neutral ground. You, a demon, killing me, an angel, will surly cause you to lose that status and all of its protections,” said Rona with a smile.
“You’re not an angel anymore, remember? You were cast out,” said Belfagor.
Virgil stood bolt upright upon hearing that, but when he saw the barrel of Belfagor’s gun still fixed in his direction, he slunk back down behind Rona.
“I got my job back,” said Rona, perkily.
“I don’t. Besides, this is neutral ground. I was invited here,” said Rona, pulling the VIP card from her pocket. “Is this not a VIP card, signed by you, inviting the owner of said card to be a VIP at your club? I came here unarmed and with no harmful intentions towards you or yours. And I was escorted here by your Threshold Guardian of his own volition.” said Rona.
Belfagor looked down at Naku who shook his head. “She made me do it!” he squeaked.
“I only asked politely, you could’ve said ‘no.’ This makes me your guest. And under the laws of The Aegis you are at my service. Or you could shoot me, kill an angel who was a peaceful guest at the time and lose everything you’ve worked so hard to build. But I know you don’t want to do that. So, as long as I’m here and I obey the rules that you set forth then you are obligated to acquiesce,” said Rona with a confident smile.
Belfagor scratched his head with the barrel of his Uzi and sighed in marked frustration. “Politics,” he murmured. He threw the gun down hard onto the coffee table. Rona moved to the side instinctively, taking Virgil with her. She shot Belfagor a look. Belfagor plopped down on the sofa, and with one unenthusiastic motion, ordered that the women lower their weapons. He stroked his forehead with his hand, clearly agitated. Virgil peeked out from behind Rona, to make sure the coast was clear before coming to stand beside her.
“What do you want?”
“Information,” said Rona. “And as I said, I’m willing to pay.” She pulled out a wad cash and placed it on the coffee table. Belfagor leaned forward, resting his chin on his interlocked fingers. He peered down at the money on the table.
“Not enough,” said Belfagor.
“What are you talking about? That’s plenty!” said Rona.
“According to the rules of the Aegis, I must accept your payment in order for the transaction to be completed. I am well within my rights to refuse an offering that I deem insufficient to the value of my time—of which you’ve already wasted! I hereby formally refuse this payment. Either come up with a more fitting payment or I shall bid you good night. You can peruse the club as you please, and charge everything to the house. You see, I can play this ridiculous political game as well, Rona,” spat Belfagor. “You should know by now that my price isn’t monetary.”
“What is it you want?” asked Rona through clenched teeth.
“I also want information. For every question you ask of me, I shall ask you one in return. If you lie to me then the deal will be broken and you will be asked to leave. I in turn, shall be truthful to you as well. This is what I deem to be fair. Do you accept these terms?” said Belfagor.
Rona took a thoughtful moment before answering. “You get to ask me one question for every two questions that I ask you. This is what I deem to be fair.”
A slow smile crossed Belfagor’s lips. “Deal,” he said, extending his hand, which Rona reluctantly shook. Rona reached for the money on the table, but Belfagor halted her with a hand.
“Not so fast. I’ll take the money as well,” said Belfagor. As if on cue, Naku darted over the coffee table, snatched the wad of cash before Rona could reach it, and then dashed back to his perch by Belfagor’s side. He licked his paw and began counting the dollar bills. “The light bill doesn’t pay itself,” added Belfagor with a smile.
“Always like a snake. You haven’t changed a bit,” said Rona as she glared at Belfagor.
“Oh, but you have,” said Belfagor. “You look fat; soft; out of shape. And I don’t see the same fire in you that once burned so brightly. Perhaps it’s been beaten out of you from a millennia of constant battle. Perhaps it’s been extinguished by watching everything and everyone you know die, and knowing that you were to blame. Or perhaps it’s been drained from finally realizing that there is no hope for you…”
“There’s going to be no hope for you either in about ten seconds,” said Rona in a low and dangerous tone.
“Is that a threat?” asked Belfagor with intrigue.
“Nope. It’s one possible scenario in a myriad of feasible outcomes that is contingent upon choices made in the present,” said Rona. Then she smirked at Belfagor. “Oh and it looks like you just asked your one question. Now I get two.”
“I hate you so much.”
“I can live with that.”
“Did you two used to have something going on?” asked Virgil looking from Rona to Belfagor.
The two of them turned and glared at him.
“Okay, I’m shutting up!” he said, making a zipper motion across his lips.
“First things first; I no longer go by the name Belfagor. My name is Carmine Adder, just as it is printed on my card. So long as you are in my presence you will use this this name. Or Mr. Adder will do just fine,” said Belfagor.
“Carmine Adder, huh? Clever,” said Rona. “So, Carmine, let’s begin.”
Carmine extended his hand, giving Rona the floor.
Rona gathered her thoughts, trying to figure out a way to structure her questions in a way that was as open-ended as possible.
“There has been an increase in demonic activity throughout the city, beginning within the last few months,” she began, pausing to gage Carmine’s reaction. His face and posture betrayed nothing. Rona continued. “Over the course of that time, six teenagers have gone missing, a building is going up on apparently evil grounds, and several of these demons have gathered together to form some type of group.”
“Pose your question,” demanded Carmine.
Rona took a moment to formulate the question in her head. “What can you tell me about The Infernal?”
Carmine perked up at the question. He pressed his hands together in front of his lips and leaned back on the sofa. “The Infernal were a cult that operated mostly in secret. They were small-time, not big players in the grand scheme of things. This is why very few knew they even existed. They were formed around a belief in a ‘deity’. A deity whose eyes could be seen in the dead of night, floating with no physical body around it.”
The hairs on the back of Virgil’s neck stood up as Carmine continued.
“They were believed to choose followers by appearing to them in their dreams or even in reality. Sometimes The Eyes would even speak to the ‘chosen’; command them to do its bidding. It is said that once the Eyes see you, they can always find you. The ultimate goal of The Infernal was to enthrall the entire world. To convert all humans to their, um, faith, if you will. For reasons unknown, the cult disappeared over ninety years ago, and they haven’t been heard from since.”
“Is it possible that they could have reformed and be operating here in Denver?” asked Rona.
“I find it unlikely. However, anything is possible. I take it you have reason to believe that they are,” said Carmine.
“Interesting,” said Carmine, pressing his fingertips together in front of his mouth.
“I guess it’s your turn, now,” said Rona.
“Oh, I’ll save my questions until the end,” said Carmine with a smile.
Rona stared at him.
“Don’t worry, I’m keeping track.”
“Who is this ‘deity’ known as The Eyes?” asked Rona.
“No one knows for sure,” said Carmine. “The more one knows about their deity, the less power said deity tends to have. They have to remain a mystery, remain in the shadows. Their power fed by the devotion of their followers. The more souls they can obtain, the more powerful they become. This is why enthralling as many souls as possible is of the utmost importance to Pitroth. But this is just a theory.”
“What do you mean by ‘enthrall’?” asked Rona.
“It could mean many things. Anything from converting people to their beliefs willingly or forcing them into servitude by some sort of large-scale spell. It would drain a massive amount of electricity from the city. I suppose a city like this one could sustain that, but a ritual like that would require a supernatural power source of unfathomable proportions.”
The Blood Gage, thought Rona.
“And a sorcerer of immense power and knowledge of dark forces,” added Carmine.
Pitroth, thought Rona.
“Pulling off an enthrallment spell like that should be next to impossible for a small, insignificant, over-reaching cult like The Infernal,” said Carmine.
Rona wasn’t so sure about that. The night she had went to the construction site she had heard Pitroth speaking to the Infernal about the whole world soon becoming one of them. And just a few hours ago they had gotten their hands on Ward, the one person who knew the location of the Blood Gage, meaning soon they would have it as well. Rona thought it best to keep those last tidbits of information to herself.
“What are the Infernal, exactly?” asked Rona.
“ ‘Infernal’ is a word from an ancient demon language. It means ‘foot soldier.’ Specifically one that’s had his or her soul burned.”
“Soul burned?” asked Rona.
“Yes. Literally. Their soul is marked by hellfire. It’s a ritual designed to turn humans into something more…demonic. Something in between, not quite human, not quite demon. It gives them power; strength, speed, endurance. It makes them nearly invulnerable; resistant to most mortal weapons. They are not easy to kill. Bones, cuts, severed limbs all regenerate. They are quite tough, but they should pose no problem for you—even in your…less than conditioned state,” said Carmine, with a scoff.
The girl at the hospital, thought Rona. That was what she’d meant when she told Rona she’d been marked on the inside. She’d had her soul burned. She was an Infernal.
“How do I kill them?” asked Rona.
“Decapitate them, burn them, blow them up. Anything that destroys the entire body at once, specifically the head,” said Carmine.
“Is that the only way? I mean, is there no way to undo the ritual once it’s been done?” asked Rona.
“Why do you ask?” said Carmine, arching an eyebrow.
“That isn’t important.”
“The more details you give me, the more specific an answer I can give you,” said Carmine.
“Okay,” said Rona, with a sigh. “There’s a girl in the hospital. She told me that she’d been marked. I take that to mean that she’s an Infernal now. She tried to commit suicide and wound up in a coma.”
“Interesting,” said Carmine. “The human is still somewhat vulnerable until the Infernal transformation is complete. If she has harmed herself, her wounds will heal once she fully becomes an Infernal. All it takes is time. She’ll rise, and kill everyone at the hospital until she finds her master.”
“So there is no way to change them back?” asked Virgil.
“Becoming an Infernal is a choice. They are not victims. They ask to have their souls burned. Some do it for power, others because they are bored. The returns are fast and the term is short lived. Unlike selling one’s soul, which in debts you to Hell for all eternity, having one’s soul burned is more like renting your soul out for a while. It doesn’t pack the eternal implications of selling your soul, but it’s enough for some just to grasp temporary power. It gives up the freewill of the participant, makes them live only to do their master’s bidding. I suppose if you kill the master, you could break the hold; cutting off the head of the proverbial snake, if you will. But keep in mind that an Infernal that burned their soul to seek power will only seek a new master once the old one is killed. It’s like a drug,” said Carmine.
“What is the soul burning ritual like?” asked Virgil. Rona shot him a look.
“It involves a lot of chanting. It takes a very powerful summoner or demon. The body can even be afflicted from the inside out,” said Carmine.
Rona pulled one of the pills that she had gotten from Virgil, from her pocket and tossed it to Carmine. He caught it and a slow smile formed on his face as if the touch of the pill warmed him to the bone.
“This could do it. It definitely has demonic properties. But it’s also synthetic. Possibly a hallucinogen. This could begin the process but it would take time. Enough of these in the water supply, a good power source, a powerful demon and a high enough place to commit the spell and you could definitely enthrall the entire city.”
Sudden realization hit Rona. All of the pieces were there. The Blood Gage was a power source. Pitroth was a powerful demon. And the construction site was already the tallest structure in Denver. A city that was, itself a mile high in altitude. That meant she didn’t have much time. Pitroth would be ready to take over the entire city in no time at all.
Crap, thought Rona.