Posted by: lordkyler | April 17, 2016

Devil’s Advocate – Short Story Week 2016

“He’s on the third floor! We need backup stat! Officer down, I repeat, we have an officer down!” Agent Callahan listened to the frantic chatter on the police line and shook his head slowly. Local law enforcement – even SWAT – was never very effective against targets like these. To be fair, very few people besides Agent Callahan were, which was the point of this whole operation.

“What is this thing?” cried the voice on the radio. “Did you see that? My God…” A burst of screams dissolving into static. God isn’t coming here tonight, the agent thought, preparing his weapons. This was his cue, when the target was overconfident and the bloodlust had been sated for a moment.

It was a cold autumn night, with frost tinging the few leaves that clung to their place on barren branches. More crunched underfoot as Agent Callahan stepped out of his old Buick, and abandoned piles whispered as they brushed against his long coat, both stirring restlessly in the cold wind. Callahan worked the cricks out of his neck as he crossed the abandoned parking lot, unhurried but not idling. Careful but not fearful. A predator’s pace.

From here, he could almost hear the screams carried by the wind, and his keen gray eyes detected movement through the frosted glass of the school’s windows, flickers of shadow from running men and flashes of light from fired weapons. Poor bastards.

As was his habit, Agent Callahan performed a quick check of his equipment. A tap to the forehead first, to remind him to stay focused, a touch to the emblem hanging in front of his heart, cold iron knife at his left shoulder, and radio on his right, should he need to call in. The weight in his pockets told him the other implements were accounted for – gun, lighter, and two flasks. Callahan took a swig from one flask, and after a moment, took a long swallow from the other, grimacing as he did.

He stopped at the door. They’d been torn from their hinges, glass shattered and frames twisted like pretzels. As always, Callahan felt the urge to say a prayer before he entered the darkness. He snuffed out the impulse like a candle, but he savored the warmth as he stifled it. Prayers would do him no good. A clear head and a quick hand were his only allies.

The trail of destruction continued as he crossed the threshold into the dark corridors of the elementary school, his coat sweeping bits of glass and plaster behind him. If he remembered his file correctly, the target had worked here until recently. Not surprising. In the initial madness, most victims struck out against familiar places and former loved ones. It made things messy though, especially when it was public. This incident would have to wrapped up by morning, one way or another.

Emergency lights flickered, doing more to highlight the darkness than to alleviate it. Warped lockers and rent linoleum caught the light in warped reflections, seeming to distort reality itself in unsettling ways. Agent Callahan drew his gun from the holster. It was practically useless against things such as this, but it was powerful enough to knock them down for a few seconds.

A SWAT officer stumbled from a room at the far end of the corridor, missing an arm. He tried to drag himself away, retching wretchedly and breathing in short shallow gasps, but it was too late. A dark shape lunged from the shadows, letting loose a tortured cry just feral enough to chill the blood and just human enough to arouse a terrible pity. It fell upon the hapless officer with inhuman fury, moving so fast that the eye seemed to record the idea of movement without actually being able to see anything. The thing tore through Kevlar and body armor like tissue paper, tearing with tooth and nail until it ripped bloody furrows in the lifeless flesh.

Callahan shot the thing in the face. It was thrown free of the officer with a startled hiss, but twisted in the air to land on all fours, poised like a spider, ready to lash out against whatever had stung it. Two fiery eyes found Agent Callahan and narrowed in anger. The eyes of a demon shining in the twisted pale face of a former schoolteacher. A man quite literally possessed.

His target.

The demon howled, a raw alien sound that profaned the very air it travelled through, threatening to burst Agent Callahan’s eardrums. The agent didn’t flinch, only waited for the thing to move, gun hand steady as steel.

He didn’t have to wait long. The demon leapt with uncanny speed, bounding from wall to wall like a ricocheting bullet, twisting and bending in ways that would make a contortionist wince, impossible to track.

Almost impossible.

Agent Callahan fired off three shots as fast as the gun would allow, moving with mechanical precision. The first two missed, throwing up sprays of sparks where they struck the lockers, but the last connected, taking the demon in the chest at the moment of its final leap. The shot sent the demon tumbling like a rag doll, but more importantly, it retarded the distance of the final pounce just far enough for him to step out of range.

The demon roared as it crashed into the tiles, but it was already recovering, clambering to its feet like a marionette with tangled strings, lunging with twisted fingers and snapping with fractured and bloodstained teeth.

Too late. Agent Callahan had a fraction of a second with the demon in arm’s reach, and he took it. The agent took one of his flasks and whipped a spray of clear liquid across the face and hands of the possessed, then tossed the container to one side. The flesh of the stolen body began to bubble and blister where the holy water had splashed, and the demon recoiled in agony, writhing and screaming in registers beyond human hearing.

Moving with brutal efficiency, Callahan stepped in to even closer range, hands flying in well-practiced motions. He head-butted the demon with savage force and a holy word, driving it to the ground with a flash of light. Then, while the thing lay stunned, he pulled the crucifix from his chest with one hand and pressed it against the demon’s heart to hold it immobile. With the other hand, he drew the cold-iron knife and made a series of precise cuts, carving the sign of the cross into each of the creatures limbs like a more devout version of Zorro. Oily black smoke billowed from the cuts in place of blood. The demon stopped screaming, depleted of strength and virility like a balloon drained of air.

When Callahan was sure the demon was secure, he sheathed the knife and stood up carefully, feeling his joints pop and muscles cramp. He had been too old for this when he started, and the years hadn’t been kind since. He could still call on the powers when he needed to, but they took a hell of a toll. He wouldn’t have come at all if the other agents hadn’t been so busy with the Vatican affair.

Wearily, the agent reached for his radio and gave a couple of squawks. “Target down. Prepare for extraction.” There was no confirmation, but he knew they were listening.

The demon struggled, grunting and breathing heavily, but it was in vain. Callahan watched patiently, pulling out his second flask – vodka that burned nearly as much as the holy water – and a blowtorch-style lighter. He stared impassively at the demon, waiting for it to give up. The host he’d taken was short, sickly and scrawny, but that didn’t mean much when you had a devil in you.

At last the demon stopped its struggles and lay still, eyes smoldering. After a second of hateful silence, it spoke, its voice like tearing metal and festering decay. “What now, mortal? You can kill this man or drive me from him, but I will only return to take another.” The demon laughed, and it was a sound as cruel as cancer. “You may as well kill this one. I believe you God-fearers find his kind particularly offensive.”

Callahan took a drink from his flask and lit a cigarette. “Wrong on two counts,” he growled. “First, I’m not what you’d call a God-fearing man.” He paused and stared at the ceiling tile for a moment.

“And the second?” asked the demon, curious despite himself. Curiosity had been the first step in their fall from heaven, after all.

Callahan sighed and flicked his cigarette away. “I’m not here to stop you.”

Before the demon could question further, Callahan turned and walked away, passing through a crowd of cross-covered men with cold-iron restraints.

The night was still cold, but not as cold as Agent Callahan’s stare.

•••

Agent Callahan settled into his chair slowly, twirling a crucifix between his fingers. The demon sat across the table from him, wrapped in chains of cold iron. By themselves, they wouldn’t be enough to stop a determined demon, but there were two guards waiting in the corners, one wielding a flamethrower and the other with a high-pressure holy water sprayer.

The agent and the demon stared at each other for a moment, each pretending they had all the time in the world, even though Agent Callahan knew that was far from being true. Still, it was a part of the script, and so he waited, studying this latest subject.

The room’s harsh single light exaggerated the features on the demon’s stolen body, making the gaunt face look almost skeletal. He didn’t look like the sort of man that was accustomed to happiness, with a sour mouth, thinning hair, and sunken, haunted eyes that burned like branding irons.

Callahan straitened his tie and laced his fingers together. “Why don’t we start with your name?” he said. His voice was gravelly but perfectly calm, like a Zen rock garden.

“Howard Cooper.”

Your name.”

The demon paused, considering. “You could not pronounce it.”

“You’d be surprised,” Agent Callahan said. “But to save my throat from herniating, why don’t you tell me what name humans usually call you?”

The demon straightened his slouch a little, thrusting his chin forward proudly. “I am Velaxifor, ninth master of the seventh circle, stoker of hunger and flames, the laughter in the dark, the dreamer of agonies.”

“Impressive,” Agent Callahan said. “How’d you screw up?”

“I– what?”

“That’s why you’re slumming around inside this sorry bastard, isn’t it? Maybe you slacked off on torturing some folks, maybe you entertained a merciful thought. Hell, if you’re as big a deal as you claim to be, you might have pissed off the Dark One himself to end up banished from the underworld.”

“You do not know what you speak of, mortal,” the demon said, looking almost sullen.

Agent Callahan laughed. Humorless and cynical, but laughter nonetheless. The demon looked at him, puzzled. “I know exactly how it works, Vel.” the agent said, and though he grinned with his mouth, his eyes were two pits as cold as any in Hell’s Ninth Circle. “Have you ever heard the name of Asmodeus?”

Callahan would have thought it was impossible for Cooper’s pallid face to pale further without turning invisible, but somehow it did. The inferno in the demon’s eyes died down to embers, revealing some of the host’s terror lurking underneath. “Prince Asmodeus? Surely you don’t mean he was banished into…”

The demon trailed off, somehow knowing it was true. A grin twisted Callahan’s mouth strangely, and he leaned forward, voice dangerously quiet. “Expelled from hell, a demon seeks a suitable host to live out its probation. Someone far from heaven’s path, preferably aligned with their own interests, so that there is little chance of resistance or expulsion. Asmodeus found such a soul in me.”

“That’s impossible,” the demon protested, straining against its bonds to lean in closer. “How could you be his and fight me?”

Callahan continued as though he hadn’t heard the objection. “I was a Catholic priest. One of those priests. I’ve learned restraint since those days, but I won’t pretend to be a better man. So when Asmodeus came to me… I accepted him. I submitted to his reign willingly. I worshipped the bastard. Knew I deserved it.

“Then I found out why he’d been sent to me. How he’d been entertaining merciful thoughts. Feeling compassion for his victims. And how he was banished to the mortal realm until he remembered why humanity deserved to be punished. A story similar to your own, I imagine. Do you remember Asmodeus’s return?”

Velaxifor shrunk like a whipped dog, and the almost imperceptible shadow around him thickened, leaving only the unsteady flickering in his eyes to show his fear. He said nothing.

Agent Callahan leaned forward and let his own darkness show, a transformation less impressive to the eye but terribly effective nonetheless. “I taught him that,” he growled. “schooled a prince of hell in the ways of evil.” Velaxifor began to quake visibly, and Agent Callahan leaned back, hiding his fearsome side again. He could sense the two guards behind him shifting uncomfortably.

“You demons think you understand evil.” he continued conversationally. “You breathe evil. You wield it. You revel in it. But you do not understand it, not truly.”

“I was born of evil,” the demon said, eyes blazing brighter.

“Exactly. You’ve known no other thing, since you were stripped of your memories after being cast out of heaven. But do you know why Lucifer is the cruelest and most terrible of you all?” Velaxifor did not answer. “He remembers.”

The agent set his crucifix down on the table, though he was careful to keep contact with it. “You see, it’s the contrast that you’re missing. You cannot truly comprehend a thing without understanding its opposite. Your Enemy is good, but he had to face and conquer hell before he could save others. Your master is evil, but the memory of light within him drives him constantly to greater darkness. Humans… well, we’re stuck in between. Good and evil within each of us. We lack the power of angels and demons, but we are wiser than either, and given the chance, we will surpass them.”

There was a pause as the demon considered this. “Why are you telling me this? To taunt me?”

Agent Callahan grunted in frustration. “I’m offering you a job, moron. A chance at redemption… or whatever you call the demonic equivalent.”

Velaxifor leaned forward, reasserting his control over the body. He was interested, but cautious. “Why? Even with all the wickedness in the world, there are not many humans willing to make a literal deal with devils.”

“Not many,” Callahan agreed, “but there are a great number of humans interested in results, and many of them willing to overlook what is done to achieve them. I work for some such humans. As you are aware, a possessed human is a powerful force to be reckoned with. Even after the demon retreats, the hosts often hold residual powers, as I do.”

“I thought something seemed familiar about you,” the demon grunted.

“In any case, these powers are too valuable to ignore. Therefore, I offer you a proposition. You will work for me during the duration of your stay on the mortal plane, following whatever orders I give. Your work may be good or evil, but the results of the work will be the continuation of the human race, which benefits both us. In exchange for your services, I will teach you evils enough to ensure not only your return to the underworld, but your eventual promotion. Do we have a deal?”

Velaxifor hesitated, and his body jerked and twitched as the host tried to break free during the demon’s musing. Agent Callahan waited. This, too, was part of the script. Demons were nothing if not predictable, and no demon was eager to perform acts that could be seen as positive. No devil trusted easily. But in the end, they all agreed.

“How long?” the demon asked.

“Not nearly as long as you will be on your own.”

“Very well,” said the demon. Flames licked at his fingertips as he began to summon something from the demonic realm. “We shall sign the contract–”

“Actually, you’ll sign my contract,” said the agent, waving his cross to stop the summoning and pulling a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. “Already signed in my blood and with the requisite blasphemous seals. Either that or we’ll exorcise you right now and start over. I’m told the process is both painful and diminishing, so I think we’d both prefer to avoid that.”

The demon reached for the sheet of paper, but was stopped by the cuffs. Agent Callahan held the paper just out of reach for a moment, reinforcing his position of power. Besides, tempting and torturing a demon was always amusing.

After a second he relented, and the demon scanned the contract quickly, each eye reading independently. Callahan knew what he would find: ironclad conditions with no room for tricks or manipulation, except for the loopholes they’d deliberately left for the demon to exploit.

Those loopholes would later turn out to be nooses, but that portion of the play came later. For now, the demon had to think there was a way to gain control of the situation. By now, Callahan could nearly predict the exact moment Velaxifor would notice the twist in the wording. There. The bait was taken. The trap was set. The demon was caught.

Velaxifor smiled, adding his signature with a fiery flourish. Agent Callahan returned the smile and slipped the warm contract into his asbestos-lined pocket.

“Welcome to the team. Men, you can remove his restraints. It’s about time Agent Velaxifor met his new partner.”

“Partner?” Velaxifor demanded. “I thought I’d be working with you!”

“Oh, my time is far too valuable for that,” Agent Callahan said, standing up and heading for the door. “Places to be, beings to recruit, wars to prevent. But I think you and Agent Ambriel will learn a lot from each other.”

“Ambriel? That’s an angel’s name!” the demon roared, outraged. The two guards raised their weapons, ready to fire if the thing snapped, but Agent Callahan was perfectly calm.

“A fallen angel, actually, at least for the time being. I don’t work much with the heavenly side of things, but I don’t imagine he’ll be too thrilled either. Such is life.”

The demon howled in outrage, only to shriek as the guard gave him a short blast of holy water. Agent Callahan didn’t bother to look back, instead lighting a cigarette as he left the room. The earth was dying, and he would wrest both heaven and hell to save it from Armageddon.

He was a vile, wicked, unforgivable man, but he could do some good in this world yet.

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