Balnovalis had died first, strengthening Dark Humor in the face of the degradation of the Words granted by Lucifer. She had been caught and soul-killed, though she took six Malakim with her, they said, and made another five cry. No doubt the tears had been more satisfying to her before her death. Baleli had been next. He had attempted to stage a massive, multi-city satirical project mocking the failed attempts to rescue a group of schoolchildren lost in a forest fire -- itself started by Belial's Servitors in an effort to bolster their Prince's Word. However, the public had been outraged instead of darkly amused -- in these days of disaster and triumph, people weren't ready to laugh at the efforts of firemen and forest rangers dying trying to save children. That had actually hurt Baleli's Word even more than the degradation, and Baleli had souldied four days before, helpless and weak.
So ironically, of the three most powerful Word-bound of Kobal, Prince of Dark Humor, Irony himself was the one to survive the longest. His Word had lost almost all its power within him, and his thoughts, his form, his very soul had been wasting away, tethered inexorably to a concept that was losing focus on the world in the wake of Lucifer's passing.
He had sacrificed the last of his corporeality earlier that day. Sacrificed because he had to sacrifice something to keep his Word from failing entirely, and he needed his mind and what was left of his Soul. Now, he was weaker than most demons sent to Earth.
Baljean was normally as cynical as any demon of Dark Humor, but he still held out hope. There was every chance that failures on the parts of other Luciferian Princes or their Servitors would fuel the Word of Irony. Even the Angels were doing everything in their power to keep Baljean's Word strong. They positively delighted in ironic endings to Infernal schemes. So, he had been lying low. No need to call too much attention to himself. Not when he had no Corporeal Forces left, and frighteningly few Celestial ones. Not when he had no abilities associated with his Word, and all too many enemies....
Baljean shivered, and closed his eyes. Even now... even today, when Kobal spoke, he had to obey.
She leaned over the basin and threw up, the mottled green skin of her forearms trembling as the muscles underneath tried to hold her steady. After the heaves passed, she found herself staring at the intricate tattoos that had not yet faded on that arm. They looked like letters. The angry scrawls one made in their diary after seeing their boyfriend kissing some slut Freshman near the gym door. They were also green, but darker green than her skin, so they showed up. Vathek, she thought. All that is left of Vathek. But that was a lie. The moment she thought it, a cascade of half-remembered images and nightmares coursed through her brain... what Vathek had managed to retain until the end. What Vathek held close.
She fell back onto the low bed. She had to get control. She wouldn't be useful to the Director if she couldn't keep control, and the moment she stopped being useful she would become grist for some other mill. She rubbed her stomach through her grey dress, using her left hand. Her long, jagged nails scratched as she rubbed. She wasn't used to those either. Those reflected what was left of Mot. Under her hand, she felt something... fur, maybe? Slowly sinking into her skin, with some kind of Shedite ooze still playing there.
She shuddered. Thinking of the shedim was a mistake -- that called up too many memories born of those abominations... Jurgin's self-indulgent orgies of consumption intermingled with the alien horrors that had roiled through its thoughts....
She rolled back to the basin, vomiting once more. As her entire body tried to expel its guts through her mouth, she caught sight of her coat... the black chesspiece on it. The tall tower, with the feminine crown....
She shivered again, and threw up more. And as she did, she felt what was left of her Word tremble, another Luciferian Force primed to fail. She focused, and forced one of the corporeals to go. One of the grafts? One of her own precious Forces? She no longer had any idea.
He made his way out of the bunker, and started along the broken path on Gehenna's blasted plain. It was humiliating for Dark Humor to be relegated to this pestilent crucible, but Shal Mari was now firmly in the hands of the Lilithian Court and Hades was a battleground, so they went where they could survive, for now.
"Why... I spy with my little eye someone who begins with I," he heard off to the side, as he walking along the fetid shores of Lake Phlegyas. Baljean glanced and grimaced. A small pack of Jesters were standing close to the boiling blood of the lake, fishing. Of course they were fishing. Fishing Lake Phlegyas was funny... the first thousand times Baljean had seen it. Now it was just sad. These were nobodies. Nothings on the ladder to Kobal. Not even important enough to be sent as cannon fodder in attempts to bolster Kobal's Word or fight on the lines in Hell's civil war. Baljean barely recognized them.
But they recognized him. Oh yes. One of the Council of Seven of Kobal -- four Dukes, Mockery, Satire and Irony. A council of five, now.... and Baljean himself was hardly a member. He was no longer of Hell's Elite. He was no longer of any use.
"Good eye," Baljean said. "Really good eye. I should mention that up the line. Why, a man like you? You're going places. Say, to the forward observation posts. You can put those eyes to good use scouting out Destruction Servitors as they cross over from Sheol. Right out front. Wouldn't that be fun?"
"Someone think's he's still hot shit," another of the Jesters -- a burly Djinn who looked like a cross between an oversized spider monkey and a plucked rooster -- snorted. "Someone thinks we're gonna be scared of the big bad Word-bound."
"Here's irony," the first -- a Balseraph -- said, slithering up, the others following. "We get a chance to beat the shit out of one of Kobal's Inner Circle."
"Ah ah ah," Baljean said, backing slowly away, hands before him. "That's Prince Kobal. You never know when he might be standing right behind you, after all."
"That'd put him in the boiling lake," a third -- a Calabite -- laughed. "You think anyone'd be standing in there if they didn't have to?"
"S'like raiiin... on your wedding day," the Djinn began intoning, in rhythm and tune without inflection. "S'like a free lunch... when you've already paid...."
"Don't fucking tell me I have to listen to that song while you kill me, guys," Baljean said, a smile still playing on his lips.
"Ironic, isn't it?" the Balseraph asked, cocking back his tail, ready to strike--
A jagged whip, steaming with still boiling blood, sliced through the air and tore across the Balseraph's wings, tearing gaps in them. By the time the Calabite turned, the whip had torn into her own wings and across her skin, the figure standing in the lake up to her naked thighs grinning savagely. Her skin was an overlay of jumbles of letters and numbers, otherwise naked, aggressively sexual as she swung the whip back and tore into two demons at once with it.
Baljean pulled his own knife and leapt forward, driving it down into one of the Balseraph's six eyes. "No," he hissed. "It's not ironic. If you're gonna use the fucking word, learn the fucking word!"
The Habbalite strode forward. She whipped the whip around and back, entangling the Djinn and yanking, causing the demon to be thrown screaming into the boiling lake. She ripped the whip free of him and struck at another, bristling with a power the jester pack couldn't begin to compete with. "What's the matter, boys" she hissed. "Don't you think it's funny?"
Baljean ripped his knife free from the Balseraph's eye, and slashed to the other side, catching the Calabite in the arm as she tried to flee the Habbalite. "Oh, come on," he said with a grin. "Is that any way to treat the Duchess Panera?"
"Pandara" the Habbalite hissed, swinging the barbed whip around and snapping it into the Calabite, just in front of Baljean's face.
"No bread tonight," Baljean muttered, even as Pandara reached the torn and bleeding Jesters. She took a few moments to hurl them, one at a time, into Lake Phlegyas. Their screams filled the air like a twisted chorus.
Baljean lifted a hand to stop Pandara, before she threw the Balseraph. "Hang on a sec," he said.
"Make it quick, Irony," Pandara hissed, eyes as sharp as the barbs on her whip.
"I will. Go... I dunno. Slip into something skimpy with spikes on it." He knelt, next to where the Balseraph lay, bleeding and torn. "Hey, buddy. Word of advice, from me to you?"
The Balseraph looked up, shuddering. "I was on your side," he croaked, and Baljean had to steel himself against the Balseraph's resonance. "I was luring the others into--"
"Save it. The advice is this." He leaned close. "When a Kobalite of experience warns you there's something behind you? That means there actually is something behind you. The joke is to convince you there isn't while telling you the truth."
The Balseraph stared with five good eyes, all burning with hatred.
"And for the record, you getting torn up and thrown into a lake of boiling blood when you were going to kick my ass? That's irony." He stood, and nodded to Pandara, who yanked the Balseraph up, then pushed him hard, down into the churning cruor.
"So what the Hell were you doing swimming in Lake Phlegyas?" Baljean asked quietly, with a slight grin.
Pandara smiled slightly herself. "Driving the Warfucks nuts. They throw their bad troops in there, to punish them. I find it... refreshing to show those pathetic wormlings that a Dark Humor angel can willingly endure what they would do anything to avoid." She looked back at Baljean. "It makes me laugh."
"And you're telling me you just happened to be taking a swim right now?"
"I was sent to make sure you survived to reach Command. Clearly, Lord Kobal is wise, because you wouldn't have."
Baljean shrugged, what he hoped was an endearing smile on his face. "I've always been more of a talker--"
His breath was choked off as Pandara's fist shot out, closing around his throat and lifting him into the air. "Don't," she hissed. "You're weak, Irony. Once upon a time you were worthy to stand in my presence. That time has ended. You couldn't even cow that pack of worthless smegma. I have to bring you to our Prince. Don't make me rethink how many pieces you'll be in when we get there."
Baljean coughed, and nodded. She was right. He was literally less than nothing in her hand. His impotent Word didn't do anything but make him more of a target. As an un-WordBound Duke, still at the height of her power, Pandara could kill him in seconds, now.
Pandara threw him to the side, causing him to skid next to the shore. He could feel the heat from the gore in front of him, and managed to push back before he got burnt. Quite a ways deeper into it, he saw his erstwhile attackers writhing and struggling to swim forward, out of it. That was made harder by the boiling blood searing their eyes, of course.
Baljean pushed himself to his feet. He saw Pandara striding away, and he took to the air for a short hop -- without any Corporeal Forces, he didn't have the endurance for more -- until he was somewhat behind her on the trail. Keeping back a bit. Obsequious. It had been several centuries, but he still knew the drill.
He remembered, once they were lovers. He was significantly stronger than she was, then -- nearly the same power in raw Forces, bolstered by his Word. He forced her to knuckle under, and she loved it.
Which meant this was all ironic. Funny how Baljean's own situation kept ending up that way these days.
At least Kobal still wanted to see him. At least he still had that going for him.
Hades was 'contested,' as the Lilithian Demons of Intelligence and Fate worked their way into the byzantine city. The Palace had been compromised early, and Director Asmodeus had relocated himself and select records to Gehenna. The Halls of Loyalty were still firmly in the hands of the Game, however, and the Soul Yards were a place of truce, as the Game, Fate and Intelligence -- none too happily -- divided newly processed souls as efficiently as the civil war would allow. The multiple flights of Malakim waiting poised outside the Gates alone meant a truce would have to hold.
The Halls of Loyalty were her domain, as they always had been She wore a much more concealing grey dress than usual, with a high waisted, long sleeved grey uniform coat, and higher boots. And black gloves -- the same black leather as the black queen symbol on her coat's sleeve. Grey and black chesspieces were the symbols of the public face of the secret police.
Her domain. Her face was impassive, and showed no marks. She always made sure of that, with the appropriate applications of Song.
"Good morning," she said, though there was no morning or night in Hell. "My apologies for the delay. The tunnel traffic between the Hall and Gehenna were significantly clogged today."
There were several murmurs and greetings through the room. She sat in the high backed chair in front of the Primary Board. "Report," she said crisply, looking at how the pieces had been moved since the previous night. The rules of movement, of placement, and of correspondence were developed over centuries of refinement. This one small section of the Game operated at a high level of efficiency, even now.
"We have begun to get more reliable indicators from Shal Mari and Tartarus, Countess," one of her lieutenants, who wore a black rook, said. He was a solid and dispassionate Djinn, resembling an insect and a shark, in ways. He was one of the few not to have been recently promoted to his position -- he had been lucky enough not to have his Word sponsorship go through before the death of Lucifer.
Lucky not to have been given a Word, she thought, suddenly. The Haves and Have Nots divided. She felt the flush of pleasure from somewhere -- the twisting, delicious taste of factionalization turned upside down. That Habbalite? Or the Balseraph? Or....
"Countess?" the Djinn asked, mildly. "Are you well?"
She shuddered, visibly, but then dropped her mask into place. "None of us are well, Baron," she replied. "The nature of Word-loss ensures that." That was it -- distract him with an unusual admission of weakness, without letting him see what the real concern was. That was puzzling, almost. Could that be some Secrets Servitor within her now? Worked into the patchwork Lilim, echoing the joy of half-truth he once felt, before he was captured before he could Cross the River Styx, as they say."
The Djinn showed no reaction. He played the Game well, naturally. "Of course, he said."
"Before we move on with reports, there is a new directive," she said, leaning forward and asserting control once more. "The directive to refer to the opposition as the Pretenders and the ban on using the adjective Luciferian has been lifted. The opposition is now to be officially called Lilithian, and we Luciferian."
"Countess?" a Shedite she had known for years asked. It was a bishop, called Stthex. Just seeing it was an echo of Shedite thoughts in her head, and she forced herself to stay relaxed. "May I ask...."
"You may. This is part of an effort to bolster the Word of Factions. We are to be the disseminators of several efforts to bolster major Words in Hell." She didn't add that the secret police was being used to those ends to bolster not only the Game but Intrigue. "In fact, I want you to move into the field, Stthex -- there are a number of secret directives we need moved into Shal Mari itself, and to my knowledge you are our best operative for contacting our cells there."
Stthex paused. "You want me to travel to Shal Mari?" it asked. "Would that not place operational status at some risk? I am not as adept at stealth as--"
"You have the authority to convince, and the presence to inspire some... wavering... operatives that it is in their best interests to remain loyal." She removed a packet of papers from her portfolio and handed it to the Shedite. "I look forward to debriefing you when you return, Captain."
"Of course, Countess," Stthex said, slightly sibilantly. Its roiling mass was pale grey today, and seemed to consist mostly of tongue and teeth, so it was lisping slightly. "By your leave?"
"Granted. Safe hunting."
The assembled secret police watched Stthex leave, the door closing and the seals returning afterward.
"Countess," her rook said. "I believe we have some area of concern. Stthex...."
"Stthex will be attempting to cross the River Styx and join Intelligence or Fate," she said, smoothly. "Yes."
The Djinn arched an eyebrow.
"We want the information it is carrying to be leaked to the Lilithians," she said smoothly. I'm afraid Stthex will prove to be too much of a danger to them, and will be destroyed. We have made certain arrangements that will ensure it does not enter a trustworthy stat among the Lilithians."
"But, Countess..." one of the aides -- still a pawn -- said, curious. "He was a bishop. Surely..."
"Sometimes, one must sacrifice bishops if one is to control the outcome of the Game," she said, smoothly. She felt a moment's revulsion at waste -- the taste of some Impudite, perhaps? An echo of some now-dead spymaster? It was harder to distinguish them. She told herself she was simply assimilating the disparate pieces. She told herself the reverse wasn't true.
The chambers of Command -- what had once been Lord General Baal's Fortress, and now served as the headquarters for both the civil war in Hell and the continued efforts to strengthen and bolster the Luciferian Princes and what Word-bound they had left -- were dark and foreboding. The dull glint of steel and chain. The flat grey and black of marble and basalt. The flicker of torchlight. Baljean entered from the back on one audience chamber, having been led there and left there by Pandara.
He stepped inside. The audience chamber was darker than normal. To one side, he saw implements of torture, freshly used. To another he saw a long table, with few chairs. He looked around, peering in the gloom. "M'lord Kobal?" he asked, searching.
The voice in answer was a resonant baritone, singing not in Helltongue but in English. The song was perfectly controlled, with the precision of a ticking watch or the sliding of a tin soldier on a mat. "And now... at last... we see each other plain..." the voice said, it's owner stepping around one of the high backed chairs. "Monsieur L'Ironie... you'll wear a different chain...."
Baljean blinked, shocked. He swiftly bowed. "Lord Asmodeus," he half-whispered. "A thousand pardons, Lord. I was told that my Lord Kobal would be waiting here for me. My intrusion--"
"You were told correctly, Irony," Asmodeus said, slowly walking forward. He was deceptively small -- less than an inch taller than Baljean, who wasn't that tall for a demon to begin with. "Baljean," he said, as if tasting the name. He spoke it as a human might, with the n silent. "Jean Baljean. I don't believe I've mentioned how much I appreciate the pun, Kobal."
"You're kind, Azzie," Lord Kobal himself answered, stepping out of the gloom. Baljean felt a sudden rush of hope. He was supposed to be here. Perhaps they had some plan... "Entirely too kind. Hello, Bal-jeannie. You're looking a bit gaunt. Insubstantial, even."
"I... lost my last Corporeal Force today," Baljean said, carefully. "I felt it more important to preserve my Ethereal and Celestial Forces, given the erudite nature of--"
"Save the big words for your host, here, son." He walked over, clapping Baljean on the back lightly, just off the wing. The glancing strike on the wing hurt, and Baljean couldn't help but wince. "He has a plan for you."
"For... me?" he asked.
"Yeah. You're going to help him out."
"How, Lord Kobal?"
Asmodeus's smile didn't change even slightly. "You're going to die," he said.
She received the message about mid-day. The Director wanted to see her, in the Eastern Chambers. Again.
She managed not to shiver until she was in the tunnel, walking for Gehenna once more. Even then, no one who saw her would believe she was shivering.
Baljean was chained to the table with care. He found himself... curiously detatched. "You need me to die," he said. His first words after the begging he had done some twenty minutes before.
"That's correct," Asmodeus said, tightening the manacle. "Stars... in your multitudes," he sang lightly, as he worked. "Scare to be counted.... filling the darkness... with order and light...."
"I haven't done anything wrong. Have I?" Baljean's voice was oddly calm.
"Mm? No. You have been loyal. 'You are the sentinels... silent and sure... keeping watch in the night... keeping watch in the night...'" Asmodeus finished affixing the chains, and stepped back to look.
"It's my Forces," Baljean said, quietly. "You know I have only a week left at the most before my Word drags me into soul death."
"Yes. You are no longer an asset," Asmodeus said, in that same light tone. "However, you could have your remaining Forces removed from you, divorcing them from your Word, and applied to a more valuable asset. In that way, we conserve some of our Word-bound and make the loss of others more meaningful." Asmodeus drew a small, hooked knife out of his robes, and began cutting away Baljean's clothing. Baljean breathed in sharply, watching.
"Why not me?" Baljean asked, looking at Kobal. "Why not preserve me? Why kill me to preserve someone else?"
Kobal shrugged, slipping out a cigarette. "Look, kid, I like you. I always did. You did good work. But it'd take too much to save you, and your strategic worth is limited. I mean, honestly. Irony? Worked great for the long haul and for the minutes in between the firefights, but we're in the firefight now." He lit the cigarette and took a long drag, then blew the smoke out. "Want a puff?"
"Yeah," Baljean said. And despite himself, he began to laugh.
Asmodeus, still cutting away Baljean's pants like he were filleting meat, arched an eyebrow. "Something's funny, Baljean?"
"Yeah." Baljean paused to suck on the offered cigarette. "Yeah. See, when I got the call from Kobal--"
"Just 'Kobal?'" Asmodeus asked, just as mildly as before. The voice of inquisition to the last.
"Hell yeah, just Kobal. No sense being obsequent now. I'm gonna die either way. Anyway, when I got the call from Kobal to come here, I got excited. Even now, I was still useful. He wanted *me.* And then he sent Pandara to make sure I made it, and I knew I was useful. I had confidence." He smiled a bit more.
"But Baljean -- you *are* useful," Kobal said, smiling a bit. He got the joke.
"Yeah -- dead." Baljean looked up at Asmodeus. "Don't you see? It's ironic."
Asmodeus's face quirked into a slightly larger smile. "So it is," he said, and leaned down and began to cut.
The guards let her in through the tunnel gate. Djinn of the War, both of them. Traditionally, this tunnel had been guarded by the Game, since traditionally the War didn't even know about it.
Many traditions had recently changed.
She climbed the low stairs into the back hall, then stepped out onto the basalt field, looking over to the dull metal fortress that was now Command for the Luciferian Princes. Hot air blew through her hair, the ever-present roof of Hell glowing a dull orange-red over Gehenna's plains. It always seemed odd to her, given the shadow-greyness of the roof over Hades.
She made her way along the path, slowly. Echoes of other walks, in other skins played themselves through her head. Bits and pieces and fragments -- not only what they saw, but what they knew, what they believed. And she with her own thoughts subsuming the others, or being subsumed...
I am become Intrigue itself, she thought, stepping up the iron stairs to the Hind Gate.
The pain was horrific, but oddly, Baljean didn't focus first on it. He focused on memory. On the memory of a human. Her name was Jennifer, and she had loved him. He cultivated her and drank her Essence for months and years, and shaded and shaped her. She gave and gave to him, and when she died, it was both funny and ironic, so he wasn't dissonant. Baljean remembered her, he held that memory close...
The knife cut into his celestial flesh... into his being... and neatly sliced with a blinding, searing pain, and Baljean watched as Asmodeus stood, cradling something in his hand, and did not remember the name of the human he once... had.... No. No, it was gone. It was gone and left him with so much less, so much fewer... and Asmodeus cut again... his youth, his Fall, his slow climb, his sense of black humor... each left with a slice of the knife, Baljean's very mind sinking into hideous pain, into hideous darkness... slice after slice after slice...
And then there was one more touching of the knife to the Impudite's skin. I am Baljean, he thought, terrified. He did not know the Superior standing over him. He did not know why these horrible things were happening to him. He did not know Lucifer, much less that he was dead. He did not know anything except that he was Baljean... and he was Irony.
And then Asmodeus sliced, and the beast left on the table knew nothing at all. He perceived the blinding pain and so clearly saw the hooked knife, but he could not vocalize his rage or pain beyond a howl of anger. Asmodeus leaned down and took the first of the two celestial forces... putting out the beast's eye and terrifying it... and then he cut one more time, and there was nothing left to cut.
"Jesus, that's creepy," Kobal said, still puffing on his cigarette. "Why not just disassemble him all at once? It'd be faster."
"I need the forces easy to graft," Asmodeus said, still lightly, placing the steaming celestial meat that had once been the Demon of Irony into an iron box. "Would you care to come along?'
"No thanks. I'll wait in the Hall. I prefer to think of Staciel unblemished, thank you."
Asmodeus snorted. "Sentimental garbage."
"Yeah, well, don't forget -- it was my aide-de-camp you just sliced up to preserve your aide-de-camp," Kobal said, following. "So I'm feeling pretty sentimental myself, right now."
"It made sense. There are few Word-bound left, and they're dying. And you have four Dukes to act as your muscle and advisors. That should be enough for anyone." He walked along the hallway.
"Bullshit. You needed to keep the Word of Intrigue as healthy as possible. So Staciel sacrifices her own Forces and gets grafts from other demons. You're out of the crappy Word-bound no one gives a shit about, so now you have to deal. That's the way this game is played, right?"
"I didn't know you cared," Asmodeus said, his voice just as light.
"Hey, he was my high priest. My spiritual advisor. Mockery was my attack dog. Satire was my secular side. But Irony was my raison d'etre. The creamy center in my soul of souls. My high priest."
Asmodeus half-smiled. "You'll just have to be your own bishop now. Though if you need a confessor, I'm sure I could make the time. You won't mind if I take notes, I trust?"
"Do what you like." Kobal stopped as they reached the room. Inside, he could see Staciel lying on a table. She had undressed, and was stoically staring at the ceiling. Her green skin was lined with stitches and the physical remnants of demons now soul-dead -- the tattoos of Habbalah and the leathery skin of Calabim and Balseraphs shifting with the fluidity of Shedim and the sheerly alien bits of Djinn here and there. He stared a moment, not caring if the Demon of Intrigue saw him staring or not. "Hey, a little Impudite's just what she needed to spiff her back up. Or is she going for a kind of personal fung shui?"
"Her appearance is not relevant to the task at hand, Dark Humor. Is there anything else, or can I get to work?"
"Nah, go ahead. Only...."
Kobal leaned closer. "In a few days -- a few days -- we're going to be out of any Word-bound we didn't patch up like this. To keep them around, we'll have to start cutting up our regular Servitors. And then we'll have to start cutting them all up to add to ourselves. There are fucking Malakim at our gates just waiting for a collapse and fewer troops to keep Lilith away. There's no way can win. How long do we keep playing this game?"
Asmodeus's slight smile never wavered at all. "Until we finish this hand and a new one is dealt, Kobal." He stepped into the room. Kobal saw Staciel stiffen despite herself.
Kobal dropped his cigarette on the floor and crushed it, then slipped another one out and lit it. "I'm gonna have that fucking song in my head all day now," he muttered, and headed down the hall.