The Purge didn't end like all the other ones that Blitz had encountered. Instead of all of them turning and fucking back off to Heaven at the stroke of the bell, they peeled off and departed as they felt like, leaving the whole affair feeling like somebody'd tickled his dick 95% of the way, and then just stopped. To put it bluntly, his violence-boner was roaring to go, and didn't get enough good old fashioned brutality to finish him.

Which put him in a bad mood.

He could hear Moxxie and Millie talking excitedly as they made for the doors, having done the impossible and managed to kill an Exorcist with nothing but two imps and a Hellhound. The old saw was that the only things that could gang-bang an Exorcist to death were Ars Goetia. But then, the happy couple seemed to be getting stronger with every mission. Every kill made them better. And Blitz was starting to feel like he was getting left behind.

He didn't fear that they'd abandon him. Not anymore. If there was a single thing that Birch's bitch-ass life had ever amounted to, he was the common target that all of I.M.P. needed to actually get their shit together and become impressive. He made a company into a family. A family dedicated to fucking Birch to death with extreme rage and prejudice. And that family wasn't splintering apart immediately after, as things that Blitz touched tended to. For most in his place, it would have left them walking on eggshells. Blitz just stomped those bastards flat; maybe it was the middle-age talking, or maybe it was just that things were in a place he could stand them, but he was about at the point where he could accept that things were as they were, and they would remain so until they didn't. Maybe trying so goddamned hard to hold them together was why they always fell apart?

Blitz didn't get much time to contemplate that point. When he finally locked the armory with all his fancy ass guns inside, Sinope had already departed back to either Wrath or Lust, whichever she felt more pull to, and Blitz was left standing before the old poster of him and Barb. He looked so goddamned young in that poster. He didn't even have the massive scar on his face, yet. And Barb didn't have the glazed look in her eye that years of exceptional alcoholism would give her. Still, he could see the expression on his once-self; the pain in it. That had been taken days after Mom had died. Sure, Tilla had been brought back, but even still she was a wound in his heart that he didn't know how to stitch shut.

With a grumble in his throat, Blitz turned from the past and started walking around in the present. And the present frankly sucked. But still it was what he had to navigate to get around, so he made do. The path out led to the elevator, which was still shut down, to his dismay. Every fuckin' Purge they shut that bitch off and made people use the stairs like peasants. Well, cover Blitz in shit and call him illiterate, cause he was heading down the stairs with 'em. He only managed to open the stairwell door when he immediately had another groan come to his voice, this one he didn't even try to hide.

"Well of course my luck would suck this bad. What're you whores doing here?" Blitz asked, of the knot of concubi that descended from the 'Succteenth' floor.

"Fuck you, Blitzø," an incubus that Blitz didn't bother ever learning the name of said.

"You couldn't pay me enough, skank!" Blitz declared, flipping him off as he moved past and down the cycle of downward steps.

"Oh, you'd be beggin' for it when I'm done with you!" that incubus said with an aggressive pelvic thrust at Blitz, before continuing out of sight.

"Didn't know you had a problem with Dom, Blitzø," a succubus little taller than Blitz said as she walked past.

"Hey, fuck you too!" Blitz promised.

"I try to avoid imps. They've got diseases," the succubus chided, blowing him a kiss as she went. Blitz's face twisted as though he'd deep-throated a lemon-dick, and he didn't have a viable answer to that, because he wasn't smart enough to know that imp diseases couldn't affect fiends like these succubitches.

"Oh fuck me, what are you doing here right now?" Verosika's exasperated voice was at the back of the pack of them, the last descending toward the ground floor and exodus to wherever it was that their wailing whore-asses could fuck off to.

"I fuckin' work here! What's your excuse, miss 'pop-superstar'? Shouldn't you be top-side giving all of Arkansas gonorrhea right now?" Blitz snapped.

"I don't know if you remember, prick, but I've got a recording studio upstairs," she said, giving her very long hair a flick.

"So what happened to your 'infinitely more successful' partners, huh? Don't they got a big old business in Pentagram City?"

"Not... anymore," Verosika looked legitimately off-balance. There was an uncomfortable quiet between them for a moment, as he stood there, fists on his hips, while she was apparently doing the dumb thing and thinking about shit that made her sad. Finally, her eyes flicked up toward his, and she regained her stature. "What's your game, Blitzø?" she demanded.

"The fuck are you talkin' about?" Blitz demanded.

"That call you sent me. What the fuck was that about?" she demanded, barging into his space, but he refused to back down to the likes of anybody that he'd nutted in as extensively as he had with this bitch. It was part of why he was so pushy with Stolas, these days. Blitz, though, had a moment's confusion. What call?

Oh, and then he remembered.

And his own embarrassment flared.

"Yeah... about that..." Blitz said, rubbing the back of his neck.

"What kind of bullshit are you trying to pull with that?" Verosika demanded. "Are you rubbing in my face that you've got your fancy book and now you're under the big man himself? Are you really that petty? Oh wait, I know that you are!"

"What are you talking about?" he asked.

"You just wanted to make me feel small. Beneath notice. Beneath contempt," she snarled at him, leaning down to his level with her pink skin turned nearly as crimson as Blitz's own by the weight of her fury.

"Bitch, I did that 'cause of Stolas, get off my ass!" he snapped at her.

"What's that birdbrain got to do with anything?" she asked, returning to her own superior height and staring down at him. That usually bothered the shit out of Blitz, but at the moment, he was too keyed to care, and this whole thing felt like that time he fell through the roof of that class in Community College while greased up and naked.

"He said I was gettin' tied up in knots about old bullshit, and that I should 'do what I could', to 'put it in the past'," he said throwing airquotes as he did. She tilted her head at him. "Don't gimme that look, we were both wasted, which was why I thought it might be a good idea. Don't flatter yourself. You ain't the only bitch I apologized to that night!"

"Wh..." she said, as though her mind short-circuited for a moment.

"Fuck me, I still got my balls in a vice waitin' for Barb to actually call back. You know I ain't talked to her in either twenty or eight years, d'pending on how you count it? Fuck... I actually kinda miss my sister. Shit. Now I'm sad," Blitz said.

"Are you being serious right now?" Verosika asked.

"'Bout what?" he asked, trying to shake the doldrums that thinking about trying to rebuilt a bridge he'd burned with thermite a long time ago.

"That drunk dial..."

"Oh... yeah," Blitz said. He leaned against the wall for a moment. In his brief spurt of melancholy, he actually disregarded a chance to be petty, opting to follow through on what both Mom and Stolas seemed to independently be pushing him toward. "What I said... wasn't the best way of saying it, but... yeah, I think I actually did mean it."

"That you're sorry you stole my money and ditched me in a sleazy motel?" she said, leaning down again, but this time not nearly so scarlet of hue.

"Fuck, I'm sorry about a lot of things," Blitz muttered. "I mean... I don't even know why I did half the shit that you put up with, let alone the other half you didn't. I think there's something broken in me. Something I don't even know what it looks like and don't know how to fix. And it wasn't fair to do the shit I did to you. There. You happy? You got all that? 'Cause that's about as much apology as I can get out in one day with this low of a Blood Alcohol Content," Blitz finally ended snippily.

Verosika stared at him for a moment longer, then sighed, shook her head, and started walking down the stairs. "You are so fucking weird," she said.

"Yeah and fuck you too!" he shouted as she rounded the corner out of sight.

"Fuck you too, Blitzø," she said, trailing a middle finger around the bend as she descended. And she didn't seem nearly as acidic in her tone when she said so.

Well, that put things back in the proper order. The entire building had pretty much emptied out at this point, leaving Blitz the last one out the door. But those doors swung one final time, and a mildly unexpected presence made himself known at Blitz's place of work.

"Stolas, what are you doin' here? I thought you'd be busy with all that Angel bullshit what okay why are you hurgh," he said, having been cut off by Stolas rushing the distance in the way that his legs actually made more awkward due to the comparably low ceiling and the scale of the actors involved. Blitz had his last words muffled as he was pulled into a desperate embrace by the owl-demon, pushed hard and held tight against the bird's breast. Blitz tried to squirm his way free, but for a moment, his metal ear was pressed against Stolas' sternum, and in that moment he could hear Stolas' heart hammering as though it were fit to explode.

What the fuck was going on?

"Stolah? Wha dah fahk'th goong ong?" he finally freed enough of his mouth to ask.

"Just be quiet. For a little while. Let me have this," Stolas said, his words creaking and broken, a weight to them that Blitz had never heard before. Airy dismissal? Stolas had that on lock. Betrayal, hurt? He could wield those like a scalpel. Even outrage was an old companion in Blitz's experience. But this?

For just a moment, Blitz felt an overwhelming deja vu, of this same scene playing out not so very long ago.

Only that time it had been Blitz falling apart, clinging to Tilla like the child he was.

"There... there?" he attempted, rubbing his hand on Stolas' long back. The owl-demon shuddered, and Blitz didn't know what that meant. Only that he could still hear Stolas' heart hammering in his chest using his augmetic ear, and that he could as easily extract himself as cuck the Devil Himself.

"Just... stay with me right now," Stolas asked, his voice quivering with emotion that Blitz didn't know how to classify, let alone help with.

Fitting. Because Stolas himself would admit later that even he didn't know what he was feeling in that moment.

Chapter 13

Enough! Or Too Much!

There were still Exorcists in Pride Ring.

A day later, a few of them were still skulking about, causing mayhem everywhere they went. Lucifer had put the word out, that Heaven had finally broken their treaty with Hell to only use those things one day a year, and was just letting them come down whenever they so pleased. It drove a bitter, hot anger into Husk's chest. Fuckin' hypocrites, the lot of them.

He'd waited for Rachel to Regenerate, for the brutal wounds that had been done to her to close and heal, for her body to jerk with a desperate intake of breath as Hell returned her to life to prolong her torment. He waited for hours. And nothing happened. When Charlie tried to pull him away, he damned near slapped her. He honestly felt a bit bad that he'd flown off the handle that bad, but she didn't demand apology, so he felt no need to give it.

Hours became a day. A day, he sat in Rachel's room with her carcass on the bed. Waiting for her to start to come back. To heal. Hell always healed the Damned. He didn't even sleep, lest he miss the critical moment of her return to demand what the fuck she thought she was doing, getting into a fight with an Exorcist. But she didn't heal. She didn't Regenerate.

And after a day, she started to rot.

That was a smell that he had been down her a long time without smelling; a body after its first day on a slab. Sinners didn't decompose the way that living people did. They stank of ash and burnt motor oil – or something similarly pungent – where the mortal man had the sickly sweet aroma of fat going bad. And the smell of that rose in the room, when he finally stopped demanding a chance to say 'I told you so'... forced him to accepted reality for what it was.

It was dawn of the next day when he wrapped Rachel up in the blankets that had been on her bed, as close to a shroud as he had means to give her, and carried her down the elevator. She didn't weigh much of anything, practically light as air, despite being literal dead weight. When the doors opened, it was to Vaggie and Cain. Both of them took him in, holding the corpse, and offered no words. Vaggie looked like she had a distracted sadness to her, as though she wished she knew Rachel well enough to be pained by her death – the Scarlet Fucker had filled Husk in on the bullshit that had happened here over the last couple weeks. Cain, on the other hand, looked at the corpse in his arms, and then back up at him with a look that didn't offer any platitudes or consolations. Just a cold, heavy sensation of undiluted empathy. That he looked upon Husk and without words said 'I know. I know'.

He didn't know how the hotel got it in its collective mind to turn his next walk into a funeral march, gathering up the people who worked here, gathering up Charlie, gathering up soldiers and even a few stragglers who had taken refuge in the hotel during the madness of the False Purge, as he brought her through the back of the Hotel, past the conservatory, and set her down just outside.

And then he got a shovel.

"Husk... I'm sorry. I..." Charlie tried to say.

"Could you have brought her back to life?" Husk cut her off, as he stomped the spade's head through the bed of dandelions that surrounded the conservatory, shifting snow and sod and digging a grave.

"N... no. I just..."

"Then shut the fuck up and let me dig," Husk said. He knew his words were harsh, that they probably hurt Charlie. But at the moment, he was in a mood to let her hurt. Let her hurt like he hurt. And he didn't even know why this hurt. He'd had plenty of people die on him since he came down here. And usually, he just shrugged it off, poured a drink out for them, and went on with his day. For some reason, Rachel was stuck on him. And he couldn't tell you why.

The hole didn't take long to dig, Husk being a fairly robust Sinner as he was. Six feet by three by five, a gaping wound in the green and yellow and white around it, the dandelions refusing to die quite yet even with snow on them. Fortunate that it wasn't later in the winter. If it had been, he'd have had to cut this grave with a pickaxe.

He would have. He wasn't going to send Rachel to the Meat Wagons. She was worth better than that.

Without real ceremony, he moved back to the corpse, the crowd of others parting before him, and took her up. Fuck it hurt. It hurt him in ways he barely remembered. As though a severed limb had been restored to him, and he only realized it because he had a splinter in its skin. He didn't like the feeling. He moved to the grave, and hopped down, laying Rachel in repose, before a flap of his wings pulled him out of the grave, landing him on dandelions, mud, and slush. And then, he started burying her.

"Okay, what's this then?" an impossible voice interrupted Husk's process. He was still for a moment, as though he were concerned that he'd just suddenly gone insane and started to hallucinate. But unfortunately for him, there was one thing he'd not been able to lose in all his time down here, and that thing was his mind. So when he turned back, it was to a rising hubbub amongst those who had gathered.

"What...?" Vaggie was the first to speak.

Rachel was standing at the doors to to the conservatory, wrapped in the Recovery Blanket of the Recovery Sofa, bare foot and apparently naked under it.

"How... what..." Charlie stammered. "We just..."

"Is this a funeral?" Rachel asked, taking a step forward before landing on snow and recoiling, retreating back to the door. She craned her neck aside. "Who died? Niffty, I'm guessing."

"Nope! I'm right here, miss Rachel!" Niffty's voice came from somewhere in the hotel.

"Rachel? What the fuck are you doing there?" Husk said, abandoning spade and storming up to her.

"Okay, different again," Rachel said, briefly looking at him and not seeming to care that he was indeed storming up to her. She turned to the others gathered, who were staring at her in confusion and, in some cases, glee. "Ohhh, that was my funeral wasn't it? Could you dig me back up? I'm curious to know if I left a corpse."

"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?" Husk said, grabbing her by the shoulders.

"Rude," she said flatly. He seethed for a moment. "Did you not remember that Gabriel tortured me to death several times? Innocent can come back. It's something we do," she said in an off hand way. "I'm just curious what becomes of the corpse. In Heaven when we die, it dissolves away into dust pretty soon after, which is handy for avoiding widespread cannibalism, but..."

"What the fuck is going on?" Charlie asked, her expression trapped between fading sadness, utter confusion, and bone-deep relief. In all, she seemed a high-tension mess right now.

"...I told you that this was how it worked. Did you not believe me?" Rachel asked.

"What's the last thing you remember?" Charlie asked.

"...honestly, I'm having a hard time remembering. I was about to go into Fiona's room. Hello Fi – where's your tail?"

"What?" Fiona asked, where she stood in a bathrobe holding herself up on crutches.

"That long spikey thing which came out of your back above your anus that you usually used to hold yourself in your chair," Rachel said.

"I... wait, why don't I have a tail?" Fiona seemed just as surprised at that revelation as Rachel was. And frankly, Husk was ashamed of himself that he hadn't noticed it either. In fact, it looked for all of Hell like she'd never had one to begin with.

"What the fuck's this about?" Angel Dust asked from the extreme back of the pack.

"Funeral," Rachel answered, as the spider-demon emerged at her side.

"What, whose? Yours?"

"Yup," Rachel said.

"Wait wait wait wait... did these jag-offs not know you could pop back like this?" Angel Dust asked.

"Apparently they didn't," Rachel asked.

"The fuck is wrong wit' you guys? She explained this shit to all 'a yous. Even I get it!" Angel Dust said, throwing up a pair of arms in the air.

"I know. I'm disappointed in them as much as you are," Rachel said in a very motherly way.

"Well fuck me... wait a second does that mean you gots a corpse over there?"

"I'd like to know that myself, actually," Rachel said. She frowned at him. "What happened on your end? I haven't seen you since a while before I apparently died."

"Yeah... I gotta talk to some folk 'bout that. Family stuff, ya know?" Angel Dust said.

Vaggie, who until about this point had been gawking in confusion had surrendered to the absurd and was now laughing. "Alright, people. Funeral's cancelled for obvious reasons. Back to work."

The people spoke animatedly as they began to file past the corpse of the hour and the whore. And even Husk found himself having to crush a chuckle. God damn it, Rachel. Ain't no cause to make him worry like that.

"You're really alright..." Charlie asked once she reached Rachel's side, and actually poked her to ensure she was real.

"Stop that," Rachel said, leaning away from any further prods. She then turned to Husk. "Seriously though, dig my carcass up. I want to know what the rules are down here."

"Yer outta yer fuckin' head, woman," Husk said, but did turn to undo one of the unhappier actions of the last few decades.

"Um, Miss Charlie?" Niffty's voice came from the building, but Husk didn't turn to look at it.

"Rachel's okay, Niffty. All's well," Charlie said.

"Really? I didn't know she was in a pickle," Niffty said. She then hemmed for a moment before continuing. "Could you ask the rude guests up on 29 to leave? I don't like them."

"Twenty nine? We don't have any guests on 29," Charlie said.

"Better look at it before it gets worse," Husk said, as he started shifting earth all over again.

"...shhhhit," Charlie muttered. And just like that, the normal madness of Hell returned to the Hazbin Hotel.

Lucifer was unspeakably furious on the one hand. Gabriel had to go and be an unmitigated cunt, and launch his Exorcists weeks ahead of schedule, and then let them linger in his fucking kingdom. This shit was against their own fucking rules! And while that anger should have blinded him and left him to take out his wrath on others, he had another thing on his mind.

He stood, in the only partially lit environs of the bunker that had been won for him on Cloud One. His feet were touching the Clouds of Heaven. His home. His birthright. And even as the people working in here toiled to make it into more than just a shell of salvaged stone held in place by the rendered corpses of the Damned, Lucifer could not help but smile.

"Luci, are you alright?" Lilith asked in a calculated, off-hand tone. One that nobody outside their dynamic would be able to tell was genuine, and instead believe was sarcastic and not caring for a real answer. But she meant it.

Lucifer continued to smile, breathing in the air as the entire bunker shuddered, an immense blow dealt to it and unable to send it crashing down. "I," Lucifer said, as workers continued without pause through whatever the fuck that had been, "am in fucking agony right now."

Every minute part of Lucifer's body felt like it was being torn apart, burned, frozen, or crushed, all at the same time, as the power of Heaven continued to blow away that which God had deemed unfit from its halcyon shores. He'd long decided to say fuck that to all of God's design and his punishment, but for the first time in an eon he was standing on his home, and he found the agony to be exquisite, just for his mere presence.

But it should have been so much worse. He knew as well as anybody that The Highest Censure should have in its rippling aftershocks made it physically incapable of him to even stand here without dissolving into flesh-soup. So the Demiurge had been right about God after all. The only way that the Highest Censure could have degraded to the point that Lucifer now sensed that it was, was if God Almighty had stopped reinforcing it, and let it rot and wither for centuries.

Still, he wasn't about to wait the extra hundred years or so for the Highest Censure to fade away completely. He wanted Heaven now.

"This will do for today," Lucifer said, and turned back, his bride taking his arm as he strode through the portal and returned to his kingdom. On the other side, there was blessed relief from anguish, and also two of the Ars Goetia waiting for him. One of them was the visage of man, as though rendered in living ink, his expression oddly animated for who it was. Purson, the Ars Goetia of Lore and Secrets, was a typically stone-faced individual. Today he seemed to be containing elation. The other, her face bruised and swollen as though she'd been through a hell of a fight, was Stella, the Duchess of Iron.

But no longer.

"Purson, I want you to deputize your mages, to appoint a Hexbreaker General, and to find a way to destroy the Highest Censure in a degraded form," Lucifer said.

"That is a difficult thing you ask. The Highest Censure from God his leagues greater of a problem than that arrayed by Archangels, and..." Purson began.

"I don't care. Find some wizards, and get it done," Lucifer said, even as he felt his body start to heal from the damage he'd taken just by standing in Heaven again. He then turned to the other. "And as for you, you performed adequately. Because of this, I rescind my anger from you. In fact, for going above and beyond as you have and actually fucking fortifying the foothold that we now have, I'll give you an extra boon."

"Yes, my king?" Stella asked, still on bended knee.

"Well, how about two things? I'm feeling generous," Lucifer gave a laugh. "First of all, upon my throne, Under Heaven, and upon my own recognizance, I recognize the dissolution of the marriage between Stella Goetia and Stolas Goetia. You get a third of his shit, figure it the fuck out on your own," he said with a dismissing gesture.

"I... thank you, my liege," Stella said.

"Fucking right you do. And second," he said, turning to the space of ground abutted up against The Edge, "I grant you this land we stand on as yours for the duration of your service to me, for the purposes of creating fortress and palace both. And to that end I grant you the title of Petty Princess, and the right to raise sixteen more Legions in my name. Arise, Princess Stella of Iron, Mistress of the Iron Hold."

"Thank you, my liege," Stella repeated.

"Yeah, I'm wonderful," Lucifer said. He patted a hand on Lilith's, where she had her arm laced through his, and turned his attention to Purson. "And I'm told you just managed to knock up your woman. Considering how long it took those two," he gestured rather dismissively toward Stella, "to pop one out, you must have been fucking like your plane was going down."

"There is a saying amongst the humans; distance makes the heart grow fonder," Purson said evenly.

"And abstinence makes the dick grow harder. Not that you'd know about problems with that, you strange black milk-bag," Lucifer said, around a chuckle that left Purson looking a bit off his ease. "Oh, but congratulations anyway. Yet more proof that God is impotent and Angels are greater than even He knew. After all, I'm pretty fucking sure that God didn't intend for his children to have children of their own, that asskisser Paimon notwithstanding. Not everybody can have my thunderous sex-drive..."

"If I may?" Purson asked, cutting him off which annoyed Lucifer. However, Purson waited for Lucifer to finish glaring at the interruption and give his assent. "I must see to the choice of the Hexbreaker General and attend to the construction of a Paradox Engine. I may be indisposed for several months, if not years."

"You're starting to underpromise, Purson. Make sure you don't make a habit of that. You wouldn't want your gestating sprat to be half-an-orphan before he's even born, now would you?" Lucifer asked. Purson stared at him, his face as stony as a visage of living ink could be. "Go and do your job. Lily? Do you think we should go get Szechuan?"

"I was thinking Italian," she said.

"What century?" he asked, as he turned her away from his angels and toward the rest of Hell.

"Ohhh, something before the discovery of tomatoes. They make everything so very bland and samey; it's as though people forget about all of the other sauces," she said.

"I know just the place to go visit, then," Lucifer said, and then spread his wings. With a shift of his will, there hit the air a fluttering of wings, and the two of them vanished from the edge of Pride.

"Have you slept in the last two days?" Mother asked, as she leaned into Krieg's room, which was actually a repurposed closet. It had enough room for her to sleep curled up on the floor, to host a lamp and a shelf that she could read from, and she could bar the door so people wouldn't bother her, so it may as well be a room in truth. That she couldn't store much in here was a problem for other people.

"That depends. What is today's date?" Krieg asked, as she stifled a yawn and rose. She felt her various joints softly pop as she finally abandoned an awkward position that she'd held for an unreasonable amount of time. If she'd been much older than she was, it probably would have been debilitatingly painful – a form of torture, even – to do as she'd done voluntarily. But she was young, her body was still supple like new shoots, and her mind didn't let her sleep when there were secrets in the offing.

"The only reason I didn't bother you yesterday is because I knew exactly where you were, and exactly where he is," Tilla said, glancing toward the bathroom which had been converted into something of a prison cell. That Uller complained as little as he did explained a lot about his standards of living down there in Envy. "And given what happened yesterday, I decided to just take the fact I knew where pretty much of all my children were, and called that a win."

"And has Uller given us any trouble?" she asked, as she unplugged her Hellphone from the cord and tucked it into a pocket. She didn't have Moxxie's unique mind, so she had to use the app he'd built while in the process of assassinating somebody to decode the pages for her and translate them into something she could read. And they had been illuminating in the extreme.

"None. He knows not to fuck around with the Millers," Mother said.

"Did Victoria bite him again?" Krieg asked.

"She wants to," Mother answered. And from her place gnawing on the bone of a pork-chop, Victoria raised two thumbs up, agreeing whole heartedly with her mother. "And the book?"

"Yes, yes, the book. Come with me, I must discuss this in the proxima of mages," she said, beckoning with her toward the bathroom. The most of the room was as it always was, but there was a frightening black smoke that pooled around the shower, one that struck fear into the minds of the stupid to even look at. Krieg reached out and wafted it a section of it away, quickly dispelling the lot. And within, she saw Uller curled up on the shower floor, snoring lightly with his wings wrapped 'round him. "Awaken! You are needed!" she said, giving him a nudge.

He gave a snort and started upward, blinking blearily and grabbing for a weapon that he'd not had in the entire time that he'd been involved with the Miller family. "What is it?" he asked, finally knuckling the sleep out of his eyes.

"You are aware of the practices of Clan Cruac, yes? Of forceable breeding and rampant, flagrant enforced incest?"

"That's fairly famous amongst people who actually know who Clan Cruac are, yes," Uller said.

Krieg nodded, sitting on the toilet because that kept her at head height for this conversation. "And you are aware that I was subjected to that same lunacy."

"You were... shit... Man... I'm sorry y–" Uller began.

"Were you the crone who bade a similarly powerless man to mount me?" Krieg cut him off.

"Obviously not," Uller said.

"Then do not apologize for that which you have no responsibility," Krieg snapped. Those were not happy memories. But she was very adept at keeping them firmly in the past. "I have had thoughts and confusions of late, when I considered the breeding and lines that Ruut Nuckelavee has been following in the last few generations. You know the practice yes?"

"Breeding lines of thaumaturges together to make more thaumaturges when nature seems to want to dilute the blood instead of fortify it. I can grasp that much. What's your point?" Uller said.

"So why am I the sole Thaumaturge of my mother's children?" she asked.

Tilla gave a hrm sound in her throat, and Uller frowned.

"I thought that your siblings were... well... like you," Uller said.

"Quite the contrary. I am the result of a practical dull-blood coupling with another practical dull-blood, no offense intended Mother," Krieg said. Mother shrugged, so she continued. "Blitz and Barb, my 'uncle and aunt', were similarly dull, as are my younger two – perhaps three – siblings. And There are fair enough more other Nuckelavees with my gift if not perhaps my purity descended from Ruut, her sister, and her nephew, all of whom were coupled with the first partner which fit their criterion and then left to spit out spawn. Why, then, was such meticulous and extremely pointed care given to Mother's partners?"

"What are you talking about, Krieg?" Tilla asked.

"Think on this: You were engaged sexually with this Bartolomayo fellow for nearly a decade, AFTER producing a dull-blooded spawn by him. Does it not puzzle you that Ruut did not simply cast him aside the moment that his 'investiture' did not bear fruit?" Krieg asked.

"That does seem odd," Tilla said, rubbing at her chin.

"Unless she allowed it..." Uller said, kneading that broad white scar on his forehead in what seemed to be a reflex for him when he was in thought. "Unless she wasn't trying to create Thaumaturges."

Krieg's eyes narrowed on him. "So you knew!" she said, giving him an off-hand shove.

"What? He knew what?" Tilla asked.

"You know exactly what Ruut was doing. How? How did you know?" Krieg demanded.

"It's a legend in Envy," Uller said, flatting his back against the wall of the shower. "That there will come in time an imp which will bend roads to all places around himself as the spindle winds the thread. They will bridge the paths to all places, bridge the age to all times. They shall be a Maker of the Ways, and the imp itself shall be changed as they walk in their footsteps," Uller recited.

"Messianic garbage," Tilla seemed unimpressed by the recital.

"'Until such days as the walls that hold shall crumble'," Krieg then quoted, adding to what Uller had said. "'and the Song Of Ruin is sung, whence the God Of Submission is Named and the Heavens and Hells shall know the passage of a titan, whence the lies die and the truth killeth dreams, shall come amongst the lowest a Maker Of The Ways. And all will be unmade by their passage'. Direct quote from the Codex Cruac In Alabaster. To you it is legend. But to the once-imps of my bloodline? To them it was intent."

"They were trying to use you to breed... a Psychopomp," Uller said. He gave a nervous laugh. "I guess that you've got enough trouble without me... so I'll just..."

"You will stay right there," Krieg said. "I've already decided that I will teach you the ways of Thaumaturgy. Don't flee now that you are standing in victory."

"Wait, why?" Tilla asked.

"Because there are rituals that I had not even been aware of – powerful ones indeed – that require more than one caster. Resurrection is one such; if I were to attempt it in solitude, I would be all but doomed to inevitable failure and the destruction of the 'soul' I was trying to recover. Do you not remember staring up at many faces when you returned from that far harbor, mother?"

"I do, now that you mention it," Tilla said. She still shuddered at the recollection of her Resurrection, because it was obviously not something that one could just 'put behind them' so easily. To traverse the boundary between the living and the dead was a transgression fit for fable for good reason, after all.

"So you're going to teach me purely for your benefit," Uller clarified.

"Exactly so. Did you take me for some sort of bleeding-heart philanthropist? No, you fool, I am going to stand atop the highest peak of magical power. And if I need to drag somebody one step behind me the entire way in order to do it, I will do so!" Krieg said.

"...You know what, I can work with this," Uller said.

"We begin as soon as I awaken," Krieg said, as she strode out of the bathroom. With Uller no longer caged, he followed after her.

"What do you mean 'when you awaken'?" Uller asked.

Krieg answered him by throwing herself face first onto the sofa, and promptly falling asleep.

The crowds of the Taxiopolis were roaring, such that conversation was an impossible dream. The Michelines and the Gabrielites roared accusations, threats, condemnations, and taunts at each other across the floor of the chamber. Raphael and Raguel were not present between them to serve as a buffer, so their teeming masses had only their own restraint to prevent them from brawling in the higher seats. And that restraint was fraying thin.

"Order! I WILL HAVE ORDER IN MY HOUSE!" Michael roared as best he was able as he approached the chamber, looking every bit as terrible as he had the last time that Hepsut had seen him. With Michael came another Angel, with short black hair, and very striking blue eyes. He seemed an iteration of Hepsut himself, if writ small. It took Hepsut a moment to recognize the one at Michael's side. That would have to be Audiel, one of the Thirdborn. He was an odd one, as all Thirdborn were. He spent most of his time around the humans. Until today, Hepsut had never seen this fellow even come up to Cloud Nine.

"Be seated or be expelled," came the baritone call that finally got people to settle themselves. Its source carefully made his slow way through the crowd, visible at first only by the eddy that he made, before finally he emerged, and all eyes had to dip to see him.

Cherubs were a particular sort. To describe them, one typically had to use adjectives such as 'cute', or 'adorable', or 'infantile'. But this one, who moved without haste despite his short legs, could only be meaningfully described using such words as 'regal', 'dignified,' and 'stately'. Mattias The Greater Part gave a single flap of his wings – wings which were sized more appropriate to an Angel instead of the Cherub that he was – and settled himself in the chair which Raphael had neglected this day. "Very well Mattias. We'll play nice. Gentlemen, we can be civil," Gabriel said as Mattias settled himself, his hands clasped before him. "We are calling this emergency session to deal with what was discovered on the edge of Cloud One."

"I'm aware of that redoubt, Gabriel. We don't have time for your grandstanding, we need to act," Michael pounded his table with a fist.

"Oh, I'm not talking about that pustule on the border. That'll pop in due time," Gabriel said. "I'm talking about the thing which had snuck in while we weren't paying attention."

"What are you talking about?" Michael asked.

"I would like to call my first witness," Gabriel said.

"The House calls for the presence of Birah the Spellbinder," Mattias said, his dark, shrewd eyes locked on Hepsut. And with that, Hepsut gently pressured Birah to step forward. Birah had a look that he didn't need much encouragement. Hepsut wasn't even sure why Gabriel demanded that the Secondborn be 'escorted' here. Nor why he himself had been selected to do it. But duty was duty, and he was glad to be free of this one. He just hoped that this wasn't some trick or trap. He'd already played witness to one grisly punishment amongst Angels. "Do you swear upon God's Name and upon your own Song that you shall speak truth to this chamber?" Mattias asked.

"I so swear," Birah said, as he stood where Sahaquiel had been stripped of flesh and damned to mortal existence.

"Explain again, that being which you witnessed yesterday when Hell gained its foothold in Heaven," Gabriel said, leaning back in his chair with a superior smile on his face.

"...I saw Audiel in battle against Stella, The Angel Of Iron," Birah said. "And he was not able to end Stella before she broke one of the Rat Towers and fled in the confusion."

"And is this the Angel who was fighting against Stella?" Gabriel asked, gesturing broadly toward Audiel.

"It is," Birah said, with a resolute nod.

"That's a lie," Gabriel answered breezily. There was a burst of hubbub from the gallery, people confused at how he could make that claim against an Angel who had sworn-in and then received no rebuke. "Because that is not Audiel. Not anymore, at least."

"I beg your pardon?" Michael asked, a suspicious bent to his eye.

"May I make a proffer to this hearing?" Gabriel asked, rising from his chair and walking up to where Birah was in the middle of the floor, idly cycling a strap of leather around in circles with one hand.

"What is the nature of the proffer?" Mattias asked.

"A proof in flesh of this so-called Audiel's duplicity," Gabriel said with a grin. Birah took a step back, while Mattias gave a moment, rubbing his clean-shaven chin.

"Very well. Within reason you may–" Mattias said.

And between the word 'may' and whatever was intended to come after it, there was a super-sonic snap as what turned out to be a sling, spinning in Gabriel's hand, instantly disgorged a bullet of Angel Steel directly into the chest of Audiel, and the unspeakable force of it caused it to burst straight through him, then shatter the marble pillar behind him before it came out the other side merely fast enough to break an unfortunate Angel's nose.

Instantly, Michael rose up with a surge of his wings, a blazing sword appearing in his hand as a helmet swept up to cover his visage. "YOU GO TOO FAR!" Michael bellowed. The Gabrielites and Michelines close enough to each other began to brawl. Mattias pulled himself to stand on his tabletop, and raised one hand above his head. There was a finger-snap that sounded like a cannon-shot, and all of the Angels engaged in a donnybrook disappeared as they were forceably Transited somewhere else. He then pointed a finger at each of Michael and Gabriel, and despite Michael's charge, when Mattias swept his finger to point it back at the two desks whence they'd begun, the two were yanked back as though by an unbreaking cord attached directly to their spines. Michael tried to surge for a moment against the force holding him back, but when he turned a glance to Mattias, and saw that The Greater Part was the one holding him at bay, he finally settled.

"You are already entirely out of order, Gabriel. You are perilously close to summary punishment," Mattias declared. "Explain yourself. Now."

"Birah? Could you turn the so-called Angel over? Prop him up a bit?" Gabriel asked, sitting casually as you please on the floor with his back against the table. Birah looked alarmed – as was prudent – but did as Gabriel ordered. When he shifted Audiel, Hepsut could see that the wound, that should have been crippling, if not instantly fatal even to an Angel... was closing.

The wound was closing in a way that Angel physiology and Magic did not allow.

Audiel was Regenerating a wound by Angel Steel.

"I rest my case," Gabriel said, cupping his hands behind his head and smirking for all he was worth. When the wound closed completely, and Audiel gave a desperate breath, there was a shuddering, as though as he exhaled, some strange, colorful smoke pouring out of him.

And when it snapped into being, there was another presence in the room with them.

This had the look of a human, of a woman, but that was like calling a horse a table because both had a flat top and four legs. She opened her three eyes, and looked with dismissal at Gabriel, then turned to The Greater Part. "If you had wanted to see me, you could have simply asked," the intruder said. Even Gabriel's grin grew brittle at that. He had expected the display with Audiel. He had not expected this.

"Identify yourself for this session," Mattias said, continuing to hold Michael and Gabriel at far sides of the chamber with his fingertips. She tilted her head. "This is no time for niceties. You are permitted only at my patience."

"No magic words, then," she said. She turned to the others, the Angels recoiling at the sight of her, because when she turned there seemed to be three after-images of her that followed in that turn before syncing up with her and she started to turn green eyes amongst their number. "You may call me Gloria Mundi. And contrary to your fears, I'm not here as your enemy, nor a parasite to your realm. Let me do my job. I will let you do yours."

"You're in no position to dictate terms, Outsider," Michael announced.

"She's... not from Outside," Birah said, blinking in confusion and alarm at her. Audiel, now recovered, stood up beside Michael. Gloria gave the Thirdborn a final examination, before granting him a nod and then returning her attention to the First and Secondborn.

"Explain," Mattias said, releasing Gabriel and Michael, but still standing on the tabletop. It was a clear reminder delivered silently that any more dramatics between factions of angels would not be tolerated today.

"I mean she's not from Outside. There's no Line Leading Out. As far as I can see... she's from here. Like us."

"That's impossible," Michael said.

"Far be it for me to agree with the whelp," Strigoi said, sashaying up to the railing that separated the proceedings from the mob. "But the boy is right in this. Whatever that is... it's not an Outsider."

"I am here as a courtesy and as a kindness," Gloria said. "A courtesy because I was witnessed by those who could not keep confidence," she turned a disappointed look to Birah, "and a kindness because Audie deserved neither death at Stella's hand nor at yours, Gabriel. As long as you allow me to continue offering kindness, I intend to do so. But don't expect me to show much to the likes of you."

"What do you want in this realm, strange thing?" Mattias asked.

"That's a good point. I'm not even sure what to call what I am," Gloria pondered for a moment. Then, she snapped her fingers, which echoed oddly though the room, her afterimages still lagging behind her movement in a most disorienting way. "I've got it. Redemptor."

"I don't like your implication, Mundi," Mattias said.

"I don't care," Gloria said. Hepsut tried to see what made Mattias unhappy, but didn't grasp it. Was there some meaning to that word that he didn't know? Well, it was apparent he was going to have to ask Birah about it, because the Spellbinder was looking at her as though she'd just slapped him in the face. "I don't care what games you're playing up here in your seclusion and divorced from consequence as you've allowed yourself to be. Now that most of the other underworlds are gone, there are sixty billion souls spread through the bottom three layers of Heaven, with no place for them to dwell, no food for them to eat, and no chance for their lives to become better. That failure – and it is a failure – is on you. It is on all of you!"

"Don't think you can walk in here from wherever it is you've crawled from under and claim you can dictate our business!" Gabriel said, stalking toward her, his muscles tensing and cording under his fine, smooth skin.

"If I could dictate your business, I would. Because it's clear that somebody has to," Gloria Mundi said. She gestured vaguely toward Michael, who stood in his panoply and with burning sword in hand. "It's obvious this one is too much of a follower to actually lead, and you don't care enough about the wellbeing of anybody to do likewise. So yes, I would tell you to do your fucking duty to the virtuous dead that struggled their entire lives trying to live up to the standards that you set for them, and that by your own admission deserve passage here. Do. Your. Fucking. Jobs."

"I've had enough of this," Gabriel said, his hand lashing out to grab Mundi by the throat and lift her from the floor. "And don't give me that, Mattias. She wasn't summoned here. I can do with her as I please."

"Gabriel, hold," Mattias said. Gabriel scowled deeply, but did that, holding Mundi off of the floor by her neck. "What are you actually doing, 'Redemptor'?"

"Feeding hungry humans. You're going to have to solve that problem, because you're either going to end with a demographic collapse, or a bolshevik-style revolution on your hands if you don't," Gloria's voice came from somewhere near her since it was obvious she couldn't speak with a pressed-shut windpipe. "And for the record, it's adorable that you think you can stop me from leaving anytime I please. Deuces, bitch," she said, making a 'V' shape with her fingers before her chest, before her body burst away, colorful smoke flying in every direction until it was so dissipated that it became invisible.

Michael then surged to the center point, where Gabriel and once-Gloria had stood, he looked around, head swinging in every direction. Finally, he pointed to Hepsut. "You, get Forfax here at once. I want this thing found before it can escape us entirely."

"It's too late," Birah said.

"I'm sorry, what was that, little Secondborn?" Gabriel asked.

"She's... it's hard to explain. Discorporated. Even if we could find her, she's as intangible as a Penitent," he said. He turned a conflicted look to the two faction-masters of the Host, then a glance to Hepsut. "I don't think we're going to find her unless she wants to be found."

"...Don't think this is over, Thirdborn," Gabriel promised, pointing past Michael to Audiel. "I have many questions about your little agreement with that thing."

"You can ask them some other time," Audiel said. He turned to Mattias. "Am I free to go?"

"...yes," Mattias said, giving his wings a flap and settling himself back down in his chair. He had a pensive look on his face. "There is much I must consider. Including how Gabriel enacted the expulsion of Sahaquiel without my input," he levelled those sharp, dark eyes at Gabriel. "We are adjourned."

The Recovery Sofa had lived up to its name once again. And true to form, now that Rachel was dressed again, Charlie had Razzle and Dazzle actually start putting more stuff near it, including a first-aid kit, a robe, and a towel. If that was where Rachel was going to keep coming back every time she... well... died... then Charlie could at least make things more comfortable for her when she did.

Although it was actually kind of funny. She didn't even last a month before her first near-death experience. Sam lasted almost thrice that before the Exorcist incident.

Niffty refused to join her on her way to the 29th floor, which was inconvenient, but Niffty was a force of nature more than she was a Sinner. She did as she willed, no matter if it was sensible or not. It was fortunate Charlie's sanity that Niffty wasn't stronger than she was. Barring bursts of lunatic strength – equal to lifting the likes of Charlie in the air if even for a moment – Niffty was weaker even than Vaggie. And her admitted nuttiness made that an asset in Charlie's books.

She could clean, and she wasn't beefy enough to cause problems.

Wow, she was really starting to get cold-blooded in her assessment of people. Seemed like Rachel's icy pragmatism was starting to rub off on her. Charlie felt somewhat off balance for a moment in the lift, a strange foreboding sinking into her, as she tweezed her brow and groaned. "Show yourself, Alastor," she said. The Radio Demon stepped out of the shadowed corner of the lift that was too small to hide him, grinning as he did. "Where the hell were you?"

"I beg your pardon?" Alastor asked, primping his bow-tie as he did.

"When the Exorcists came down from Heaven ahead of when they should have... where were you?" she demanded.

"Do you recall that promise I made back on chapter 2 of The Gi–" Alastor began.

"DON'T START WITH YOUR BULLSHIT, TODAY," Charlie snapped at him, her finger thrust up under his nose. "Just... don't."

Alastor stared at her for a moment, then puffed out a long-suffering sigh. "Very well, if you're not going to go back and read it for yourself, I promised, and I quote: 'I was going to do you the favor of taking a day out in the country when the next Purge came, but if you're going to let another Elemental stay here, I think I'll cool my heels,' et cetera, et cetera. And if you'll pay very close attention, when the Purge came, there were not two Elementals dwelling within your premises."

"So what, you just... left?" she asked, gesturing broadly out of the elevator and by proxy out of the Hotel.

"It's what I promised. After all, our association, our business together... it is held together by promises," Alastor said, leaning slightly in on her, his grin growing superior. "You yourself were the one who forbade there be any oaths or deals between us. All that is holding either of us to this arrangement is the weight of our own promises. Have I, or have I not, kept that promise that I made?"

" have," she admitted. She then straightened her back. "But you still could have helped. Rachel almost got killed because you weren't there to help us!"

"Rachel cannot die to anything less than the tender ministrations of a Shard of Ruin. Even Angel Steel is impotent against the Innocent, which speaks to the nature of the innocent, doesn't it, my dear?" Alastor let out a rich laugh. "Oh, I think I might need to run a few experiments on our little goodie-two-shoes. They would be most illuminating."

"I forbid it," she said.

"It would be voluntary on her part, of course," Alastor hedged.

"I don't care, I still forbid it. Because I know you'd find some way to sneaky-snake your way into making her agree to it even if it was going to be terrible for her!" she countered.

"Where is your sense of scientific curiousity? Don't you even care why she could have her brain-pan inverted by the weapons of Angels and be none the worse for it? Surely you can't..."

"I absolutely can, and I am not going to allow you to use her as your mad-science test-subject," Charlie said. "I. Forbid. It. No wiggle room. No caveats. No exceptions or exemptions. I. Forbid. It."

Alastor sighed, shaking his head lightly. "You're really starting to take the fun out of this, my dear," Alastor said, as the lift dinged and revealed the hallway of the 29th floor. Charlie shot the Radio Demon a stink-eye, but stormed forward to the room nearest the elevator, trying to open it with her master key only to have it already unlocked. Oh, right. She pushed the door open and sawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

She blinked, recoiling from the sensation of looking at the beyond black, vaguely man-like shapes. They were not merely static. They were outside of time. This was time magic that nobody in Hell could match. It was one thing to slow the bubble of time around a subject to the point where it seemed to stop. But this? This was something else. Unmooring a location and a subject from time itself. And now that she wasn't trying to 'see' things as she had blundered into, she felt a strange familiarity to what she now stood before. One that was uncanny.

She walked up to the figures. It seemed to be three of them, one holding the hand of another, while another had their hand on the first's shoulder. She couldn't tell which way they were facing because of the featureless and contourless black that was their shape. So she picked the side she thought was the front of them, daring to carefully exammiinnee tthhee bbuubbbbllee aaggaaiinn, having to give her head a shake when she felt her perceptions being dragged along again.

"The Grand Seal," Alastor piped up from behind her. She wasn't even aware of when – or why – he'd entered the room, but there he was. "It is the handiwork of only a handful of Angels, or so Purson tells me. But this is a rather unique variant of it. The Grand Seal, of ejecting a region of space outside of time... it is supposed to be a sphere."

"This is Sam's doing, isn't it?" she asked.

"Either Samuel, or Michael himself," Alastor said. "Now what do you plan on doing with this little side-show?"

She reached out, and touched the surface of the black. She knew that it was probably a bad idea, but her curiousity won, and when her finger touched, she recoiled as though it burned.

And then the black popped, letting out a blast of white light and a pop of heat that made the room grow about ten degrees hotter. Charlie blinked away the light for a moment, to clear her vision.

"What is this?" a woman's voice asked.

"Mother... where are we?" a man followed up.

When Charlie's vision cleared, there were three people in front of her. A human woman, and two human men.

And all three of them had Gapped Halos.

"Well... this is fascinating," Alastor said.

"What... where are we?" the humans asked.

"Wut," Charlie muttered.

"Welcome, travelers, to the foremost in accommodations for the damned, the betrayed, and the dim-witted!" Alastor picked up the slack that the maul-brained Charlie left. "We offer such services as a fully stocked bar, in house laundry, and military quarantine, as well as a radio station manned by yours truly. Would you mind terribly if I had a lock of your hair?"

"What? No!" the woman said, recoiling away from him.

"So it is true. This is Hell?" the man holding her hand said. He, like the other humans, had the same appearance of starvation's-edge that Rachel'd had when she appeared. "We are out of the sight of Gabriel and the other Angels, correct?"

"That is correct," Charlie said, not getting his point.

"We're safe, An," he said, pulling her close to his chest. "We're safe."

Charlie could only blink in confusion at the scene before her. The other man, who looked somewhat a mixture of the two of them in adult form, sauntered over. "I don't mean to be a rude guest, but... your name is 'Charlie', yes?"

"It is," she said.

"I was told to tell you that 'it's worse than I thought. I may have to tear it up, root and stem'," he related.

"From who? Who told you that?"

"An Archangel with a serpent-scale armor, helm like a lion," he said.

"Sam," she whispered.

"I suppose. Also, could I bother you for something to eat? I believe it's been months since we have had the luxury of food," he asked.

"And what is your name, my hitherto unforeseen fellow?" Alastor asked.

"I was warned not to give you anything, least of all my name," the man said with flat tone.

"Samuel is being a kill-joy, as per usual," Alastor said, snapping his finger theatrically in annoyance. "Oh well, I'm sure you'll warm to me in time. We have nothing but time, these days."

And just like that, another day ended in Hell.

Azazel looked upon the device that had been built in this nook of the Rat Towers that dominated Cloud One. Ordinarily, he would have called its location 'random', but he knew better and had more insight than that. If he were to lay out the map of the fabric of the real over the First Cloud, he would find that this spot was perfectly opposite – a reflection – of where the fabric of Cloud One had been worn away into the Unhallow. And befitting its place as the reflection of the Unhallow, this spot was more real than most any that could be found in this layer of Heaven.

"What is this thing you've made?" Azazel asked. And it was a rare question to pass from his lips, as he was one of the foremost engineers of Heaven. Sure, Sahaquiel could devise even more fantastical gadgets and devices, but it was to Azazel to keep the infrastructure working. And that meant that there could be no 'magic', in the cognitive sense, in their manufacture and utilization. If there was any point where sense and logic broke down in their make and use, they were to be replaced by one where logic did not. And this thing, made of various bits of metal and stone, seemed to be firmly in the realm of non-sense.

"What, would you say, is the most true thing in Existence?" the Demiurge asked, kneeling before the strange monolith of ancient tools, ceramic jars, clay tablets and other such detritus.

"God, of course," Azazel said.

"And what are the Layers of God?" the Demiurge asked.

"...Oh, I think I see," Azazel said. The Layers of God were not literal, but instead a model to understand how reality 'trickled down' from the top of Creation. God was Most Real. If he ever ceased to be, all reality would follow after as it unravelled without him. What God touched was next most real. What God Said, next most. The Seraphim, the Virtues, the Thrones, the Cherubim, the Principalities, the Powers, and the Dominions, they had been crafted by God's Hand, more real than any other. But by that same token, they were more alien, some not even able to 'think' in the same way that, to use an example, Azazel could. Angels and Archangels were born of God's Word. Not nearly as reality-quakingly powerful, but more robust in other ways, such as having functioning minds, and wills of their own.

Strange how Archangels were considered by God's Word to be the second lowest level of the Intended Canon. And how the Cherubs were not even supposed to exist; they were the byproduct of The Division Of The Cherubim.

But back to the matter at hand, God's Word was a powerful thing, something that resounded with reality and power, yes, but also something else; agency. To have the Word of God in you was to be empowered to do something, rather than merely be something. And all of these various bric-a-brac were centuries old, dug up from old places lost to the Rat Towers and the relentless march of time. The were made, either by forge or potter's wheel or administrator's stylus, when God's Word still resounded through Heaven. They contained an echo, a resonance of its power. Of God's power.

Azazel grew nervous, looking now to the Demiurge. "What are you doing with this thing?" he asked, trying to keep his face stony and for the most part succeeding.

"I need to speak to someone. This is the only way to get their attention," the Demiurge said, as he pulled from the bag the last of the devices, and when he set it in place and welded it to its position, Azazel could see that the device had the dimensions of a tuning fork, not for sound per se, but for something more fundamental. Azazel felt an instant of panic, one that he took a step toward the thing despite himself, as his very nature demanded this be destroyed before it could be primed for whatever end it was intended. But he stopped himself before that first step became a second. Let's see how this ends, he said to himself.

The Demiurge finally reached into a back pocket, pulling out a small hammer usually used for jewelry crafting, one he daintily tapped against the metal of the device. When he did, a resonance began in it, one that started outside the scope of hearing but descended with repeated taps until it droned in the air, before deepening still and descending into a gut-shaking rumble.

Azazel found himself falling to the floor, his body quivering and his muscles weak, his flesh feeling like it was starting to sluice from his bones. And oddly, despite the strange and frightening precarity, he didn't feel pain, exactly. It wasn't painful because it wasn't destroying him. It was changing him in other ways, as though unweaving the tapestry that was his life thread by thread, careful with every extraction to keep each thread separate and catalogued such that it was not truly lost.

Even as his bones grew soft and the light of Azazel's being began to seep through his skin, the Demiurge, ignoring such strange tide of power and force, stood tall, staring upward as though at something hovering in the medium distance. And then he spoke.

"P̶͚̈́̂̊͘R̶͖̲̳̝̥̩̾͋̈́̔̏̆O̸͓͂̂B̸̮͕͓̥̱̳̜̙̽͌̈́̆̈́͛́Ḭ̸͕̲̬̙͚̰̆̀͜͠Ț̸̻̥̖͊̓̀͂͆́̑͐͜Ą̴̡͓̦̙̯͒͋͜͜͠͝S̶̛̜̥̪̈̿̾̔," spake the Demiurge, and all of Heaven shifted, twisted, moved.

Then there was a crisp crack sound, which to Azazel's unwinding mind sounded like somebody forcing open a door that had been long painted shut.

And then all was normal again. Azazel turned his hands, finding them normal once more, and retook his feet, striking the dust from his side where he'd fallen. "What have you just done?"

"I had some words with the Throne upon which Cloud Probity has been built," he said. "One down. Seven to go."

"...You can enter Cloud Two, now," Azazel grasped his meeting.

"I will need you again in the future. But until then, do as you must. It's all any of us can at this point," the Demiurge said. Then, with a metal snap, he, and the strange device he'd built, was gone.

The building in Cloud Three used to be a public house, where after a day of doing whatever the denizens of Heaven saw fit they could come and carouse in good spirits before the end of the day. But there had been no alcohol brewed in Heaven in decades, and no food to accompany it, so what once was a place of good-natured revelry had become something angrier, something sharper. Something altogether more flammable.

It didn't help that a cluster of Thirdborn were sitting there, sparks-in-being, discontent and anger on their faces as they metaphorically hovered over the dry, dry tinder.

"Gabriel will move against us," Martin said, pounding his dark hand against the bar top with anger. In life, Martin had been a man of great patience and forebearance. Considering the travails of the Civil Rights movement, and the indignities that were levied against his people, he'd had to be. But in Heaven, after all of that was done, to find himself once again put into a second-class of citizen seemed to have broken him. Audie had only outlived Martin by a few years, but even he knew that Martin had been the high-minded one, compared to his militant comrade Malcolm X.

Now, Martin sat in both seats. He could speak to the power of common dream, but he backed it with bone-deep anger. His halo was the color of fresh spilled blood.

"Of course he will," Norman said, shaking his head as he did. His halo looked to be woven of glowing wheat-straw. "Gabriel doesn't believe in the Thirdborn, because none of his own ever Apotheosized. I wouldn't be surprised if he believes that our existence is some ploy by the other Angels to make him look foolish or weak."

"He has a great weight of the Firstborn on his side. There is massive support amongst the Angels for anybody claiming to be a conservative. As though they had anything worth conserving at this point," Anne said. Despite being alive and active at the same time as Audie, he'd never even heard of Anne Mary Mbeke before meeting her up here as a Thirdborn. But then, there were a lot of Thirdborn from the Third-world who made the jump. More than made it from the First- or Second-world, by and large. It seemed that terrible conditions were a fertile breeding ground for exceptional lives. Her own halo looked like a stripped power line, crackling with her earned power. "We're going to have to avoid his faction and band together. They outnumber us, but we can hide places they don't even think to look."

"Damn that man for making us do this," Martin muttered. "We are all in Heaven, and now we have to fight against extinction and why? Because one man refuses to accept what he cannot understand? How god-damned typical."

"It was my fault," Gloria's voice said, where she sat on the sidelines. "If I had just left Audie after the fight..."

"I would have died on the floor of the session in the Taxiopolis," Audie said. "I'm not going to complain for you saving my life."

"I just put a target on your backs. There had to have been something smarter I could have done," she said, tweezing her three eyes.

"There is an interesting thing about targets," a new voice said, causing all of the Thirdborn to turn toward the newcomer. He was a gaunt human of modest height, but there was something about him that made it seem like he was long accustomed to being slender so that Heaven could do him little ill by starvation. "They often call to foe and friend alike."

"Who the hell are you?" Martin demanded, rising from his stool.

"Calm down, Martin," Audie said, putting a hand on the spot where Martin's wings sprouted from his back. "I know this man."

"How?" Gloria asked.

"I've read his book," Audie said. The stranger sighed and rubbed at his face with his hands. "...Machiavelli."

"Please tell me the book you read wasn't The Prince. There are so many philistines who think that was my magnum opus despite spending my entire life stating the exact opposite."

"I was talking about that book about Livy," Audie said. Machiavelli brightened noticeably at that.

"Finally, a proper scholar," he said, and then extended his arms in a showman's pose. "I am Niccolo Machiavelli. Most people in the modern age call me Niccolo, Nico, or simply Nick."

"What do you want, Machiavelli?" Audie asked.

"An end to the blindness of the Firstborn," Machiavelli said. "You've seen it as clearly as I have. Hell is using powered armor developed to counter the Exorcist. And Heaven hasn't changed its battle tactics in longer than I've been dead. If we don't change with the war that Hell is waging, we'll be overrun in months."

"So what do you want us to do?" Martin asked.

"Help me save Heaven," Machiavelli said. "Not just from Hell, though definitely from them; I want you to help me save Heaven from the stagnant whims of its ossified caretakers, before the whole thing crumbles away entirely. And to prove that I won't make this an entirely one-sided ask, I can offer you exactly what you now need; concealment."

"You would hide us amongst the Choral Auxilia?" Audie asked.

"Until such time as Gabriel stops being a shit, absolutely. What do you say?" Machiavelli asked.

"Look, sweetie, t'ings weren't exactly sunshine an' rainbows up top, neither. I lived on Cloud Three since I cacked it back in the 40's, an' lemme tell ya, it got pretty rough. And it weren't even the hunger what got to me the worst. I mean, that was bad, but I was used to bein' hungry, on account 'a my desire for a svelte figure. Nah, what got to me was the isolation.

Y'see, all'a my family got pitched down, whereas I got to come up there all by my lonesome. Imagine that, goyle like me so used to havin' daddy and her brudders always at her back, now all by her onesie up here wit' a bunch a mooks and nonsense. An' it didn't help that I didn't look like 'em. Most Innocent don't get no Aspects, so just look like a bunch a goombas but their halos. Me? Well, I got legs f'r days! What was I talkin' about? Oh, right. The Phone.

Do'ya know how many phones there are that can call Hell from up in Heaven? Not friggin' many is how many! I was really friggin' lucky that Daddy managed to get his hands on on'a 'em down there in the Pit, so I at least got to talk to him from time to time. And Arackniss – oh you know about my brudda? I heard about that too! I never thought he'd ever be tough like that neith'a! But my point is this, Killjoy; half'a what I said up there din't get down to the bottom. Even an illegal phone got all censored and shiii wait I can swear here can't I? I can? Fuck! He he he he: anyway. I never knew why Heaven went and gagged half'a what I said. Not until the end a' that war. When people startin' dumpin' out of Heaven on mass.

Color me shocked when Hell was a betta' place to live than Heaven. Gotta say, them Angels let Heaven turn into a propa' shit-hole."

- Molly Ragnie, Betrayed, Princess of the Veloce Crime Family

End of Act 1