The descent hadn’t been pleasant. Not that going back to Hades had ever been a fun experience, but travelling through a portal carved into an angel’s flesh wasn’t something Raph would recommend, having tried it. It had been warm, for one thing, and eerily dark. And it had taken time.
He had fallen through the place between places for…he didn’t know how long. Longer than he had expected. Longer than he ever would have wanted. It couldn’t have been longer than a few moments, though, as the Solstice celebrations were still in full swing when he landed suddenly on his feet in an unlit alleyway, feeling the crack of the pavement below him as it shattered. The impact shuddered up his legs, rattling his bones and clicking his teeth together.
Shaking his head briskly, he chanced a look around. If he didn’t know better, he would say that he hadn’t left Earth after all. He did know better, though, knew this particular part of Hell like the back of his own hand. The decrepit buildings with their crumbling foundations, the rank smell of searing brimstone and sweat, the smoke in the air so thick he could nearly taste it; this was no mortal city. He was in Hades alright, on the far side of the Styx.
He inhaled, taking in a nostalgic lungful of the putrid air. He was home. He hurried through the alley, ignoring the ache in his legs, and rounded the corner onto a familiar street. This was his old neighbourhood; good, his aim hadn’t been entirely off. That was lucky, he guessed. Truth be told, he had had almost no idea how the spell worked in the first place, so landing had been tricky at best. Now that he was there, he knew what he had to do.
He walked down the honeycombed streets as fast as he could without breaking into a run, dodging groups of drunken revellers and slipping through alleyways when he could. He did not want to be recognized. He didn’t have time for the dungeons--not yet, anyway.
Skirting around gathering of petite imps, their big dark eyes set in their pointy faces fully ignoring him in favour of some drinking game, Raph scanned the street. He could smell the hot, bubbling blood of the damned rising up from the riverbed; it wasn’t far, now. The bar was just around the bend and across the street, nestled safely under the bridge over the River Styx.
He walked by a lone woman, her tall, skeletally thin body swaying from side to side as she lurched tipsily away from the bar on too-high heels. She leered down at him as he passed, giving him a wide smile that revealed each of her double rows of gleaming, needle-sharp teeth and her long black tongue.
He forced himself to slow his pace, keeping it steady and even despite his instinctive revulsion. The last thing he needed tonight was a Wendigo on his ass, even a drunken one who hadn’t figured out her shoes yet. If he activated her prey drive, she would probably tear him to bits and have his guts for a midnight snack, wasted or not. He made his way carefully around the corner, and, thankfully, the woman continued on her all-too-merry way.
Finally the Riverside Inn stood before him in all its rundown, ramshackle glory, bright firelight and cheery music spilling out from the cracks in the wooden door and between the crumbling bricks of the old façade. He let out a shallow breath that he felt like he had been holding onto forever; he was finally, finally home.
Pulling open the door with a familiar creaking that was nearly inaudible over the din of drunken partying, Raph stepped inside of his mother’s pub. It was hot and crowded, every corner packed with lesser demons, with the occasional high-class demon mixed in and slumming for kicks. He began to weave his way through the room, keeping an eye out for his family.
He narrowly avoided the clawing grasp of a smashed, amorous incubus who dealt him a sultry wink and blew him a kiss when he danced out of reach, and the fiery mane of a wildly gyrating ifrit nearly caught the sleeve of his jacket on fire when he backed into her. Snatching his arm away quickly, his eyes darted around the room. They had to be here somewhere, they were always home for the holidays.
He took another step forward, more carefully this time, and was nearly pulled off balance as he was pulled back by two arms winding around him, turning him around and crushing him into a very buxom embrace. “’ello, mom,” he managed, struggling to breathe against her tight hug. “Hard to…breathe!” His mom didn’t say anything, squeezing him to her for another moment.
Suddenly, she thrust him away from her, holding him by his shoulders at arm’s length, those sparkling sapphire eyes that had lured so many men to their downfall roving over every inch of him. His mother’s dark, curly hair was swept back in a simple bun, as it always was when she was working, though a few strands had escaped and hung down, hastily tucked behind one ear.
“What’s wrong with you? What happened?” she demanded, her gaze boring into his as if she could uncover the truth in his eyes.
Raph shrugged and averted his gaze with a half-hearted laugh; what was he supposed to say? How could he explain to her, of all people, that he had fallen in love with the soul he had been sent to retrieve, and was now a fugitive on a mission to rescue her angelic boyfriend? Actually, with it all summed up like that, he felt like it was stupid. Like he was an idiot for even attempting something so crazy for a girl who despised him. Rightfully so, but still.
And then he pictured the look on Abby’s face when she had arrived at the hospital, bloody and barefoot, caught in the midst of a battle between Heaven and Hell, and he remembered why he was doing this. He had done that to her. This was the least he could do to atone, even a little. But he would need help.
“Mom,” His voice came out a little more cracked and broken than he would have liked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Mom, where are my brothers?”
He watched as her hands turned to fists and she planted them on her generously curved hips, her shapely legs widening in a solid stance as she drew herself up to her full height, towering over him a good six inches. Her face, still beautiful after all of her many aeons in Hades, twisted visibly in suspicion. “Why?”
“It’s important--I need their help.” He gave her his most pitiful look; truthfully, it wasn’t a difficult expression to pull at this point. “I need your help, mom. Please.”
She stared at him for a few more seconds, and Raph could almost see her resolve vanishing as shook her head and sighed. “Fine! Fine. They’re in the kitchen. Raph, I don’t know exactly what you’ve gotten yourself into. But I’ve heard things…bad things. At least promise me that you won’t get hurt.”
He didn’t say anything, just slipped by her wordlessly and headed to the swinging door that hid the kitchen from view. He couldn’t promise her that, and she knew it. Slamming his open palm into the door, Raph stepped into the Riverside Inn’s dingy little kitchen.
Two sets of dark eyes, so like his own, shifted to watch the door at the sound of his entry. His older brother, Horace, picked up the bottle of liquor from the rough wooden table in front of him and poured himself a shot, glanced at Raph again, made it a double for good measure, and downed it in one solid, smooth gulp. He cleared his throat softly, picking up the bottle again and swirling it experimentally. “Hmm…Either you’re actually here, or mother’s distillery is getting better.”
His younger brother Judah hopped up from his seat next to Horace on the stained bench and sidled over to Raph, smiling crookedly at him. “He’s real, Horace! What’s up, Raph? Didn’t think we’d see you for a long time after what you pulled upstairs.”
Raph winced. “You heard about that, huh?”
“It’s all over the streets. I mean, sure, it was ballsy of you, mouthing off like that to the Queen of Hell, but let me tell you, man, you are so utterly screwed. Like, you’re basically a walking corpse right now. You’re toast when she finds you!” He said, grinning a little too cheerfully.
Horace pushed to his feet, slamming his hands down on the table for emphasis. “That’s enough, Judah. Raph,” he said, holding a somewhat unsteady hand out to his brother, “Come, sit. You look like you’re about to be sick.”
Raph began to protest feebly, but Horace shot him an authoritative glance that shut him up. “Sit.” He wasn’t used to being disobeyed, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Grudgingly, Raph sat down across the table from his brother. Horace nodded his head at the bottle between them. “Now, drink.”
Raph raised an eyebrow at him, and Horace snapped his fingers, a glass materialising next to the bottle. “You have that look new recruits get when they see their first bloody corpse, Raph. You’re either going to faint, vomit, or drink. So drink, because we don’t have much time and I’m sure Judah doesn’t want to clean up your puke.”
A loud “Hey!” flew from Judah’s mouth, which earned him a look from Horace. “You work here.” He said pointedly, cutting off all protestations as his younger brother lapsed into sulky silence.
Raph reached for the bottle and poured some into the glass, bringing it to his lips and slinging it back. Immediately, he began choking and coughing on the liquid as it burnt a fiery path down his throat. “What proof is that stuff?!” he spluttered, wiping his mouth off on his sleeve.
“Let’s just say you don’t want to strike a match near it,” Horace said, taking a slow sip from his own refilled glass as he refilled Raph’s. He set down his glass and reached up to loosen one of the buttons high up on the neck of his military uniform jacket, carefully brushing aside his short ponytail of dark, wild curls. “Now, do you feel well enough to talk? I assume this isn’t a social call.”
Raph swallowed, fighting back another wave of coughing. He did feel better, surprisingly. The coughing had shocked him into a clearer state of mind, and the warmth of the alcohol was spreading to his cold, aching limbs and making them feel a little more alive. “Yeah. It’s all gonna sound insane, but yeah.”
Horace chuckled quietly, one side of his lips lifting slightly. “Try me. I’ve dealt with my fair share of insanity, kid.”
Nodding once, Raph told his brothers everything. Everything about Abby and the angels and Satan. Everything about how he had betrayed everything they stood for as demons, and had broken the girl he loved and angered the woman he feared. He told them everything he could think of, and only stopped when he ran out of words.
He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath and expelled it slowly. “You’re right, Horace--I didn’t come here to vent.” He opened his eyes and looked at his two brothers, both now sitting across from him, completely silent. “I came here to ask for your help. Both of you. I need to find a way to get Gabe’s soul back.”
Horace’s expression remained impassive; Judah’s eyes grew wide and incredulous. “So lemme get this straight--you want us to help you nab an angel’s soul from somewhere in Hell and get it back to his body so that you can what? Get yourself back in some chick’s good graces?! What the fu--“
“That’s not why!” Raph snapped at Judah, irritation rising. He hoped he wasn’t wasting his time being here. “Don’t you see it? Abby is wanted by both the King and Queen, and Heaven is doing all they can to protect her. She’s not ‘some chick.’ She’s a weapon. And even though Gabe was doing a piss-poor job of it, he’s still her Guardian. He’s leverage. Abby loves him; if we don’t get him back, who knows what stupid things she’ll try to get his soul back!” He knew that that probably sounded more bitter than he’d wanted it to.
Raph gave Horace an imploring glance. “Horace, please. You’ve been in battle. You know better than any of us what would happen if Lucifer or Satan got their hands on her. You know who actually pays when wars happen, and you know it sure as Hell isn’t the nobles sitting pretty in their palaces.”
Horace made a noncommittal noise in his throat and took another sip of his drink. Judah, at least, had the decency to look surprised. The thought obviously hadn’t occurred to him. “Shit.” He said, tone hushed. “Damn it, that’s low. If we don’t help you, we’re cannon fodder. If we do help you, we’re practice targets for the army. Shit.”
“Trust me--this isn’t what I wanted either, but if we don’t do something we’re all screwed.” Raph said, gaze fixed on his older brother. Jude was as good as in; the little rat knew when to abandon a sinking ship and jump onto the only lifeboat still floating.
Horace, on the other hand…Horace was a mystery, as always. The man was disciplined from his military training, stony poker-face in place despite the amount of alcohol he had knocked back. He was sharp and calculating, but surprisingly kind all the same. Raph knew that he often trained new soldiers, helping them to harness and master their powers. Horace made war machines. Raph had plans for that, if Horace would agree to help.
His older brother finally met his gaze, giving a nearly imperceptible nod. “Fine. We’ll help you, but finding and extracting a soul from the Dungeons isn’t going to be easy. Assuming that that is where he is?”
Raph nodded. “I’m pretty sure he’s down there somewhere. I got here through, uh, unconventional means, so I sort of half-managed to track his soul’s descent.”
Judah flopped forward, thumping his head onto the tabletop and groaning dramatically. “Great. He half-managed it. That’s it. We’re dead! We’re all dead.”
Horace gave him a casual swat upside the back of his head, earning him a glare that he ignored completely. “You’ll need to get into the palace, then. I know someone who might be able to get you in, for the right price.”
Relief washed over Raph like a tidal wave. “When can I meet him?”
Horace’s brow furrowed. “You aren’t going in alone, Raph. I hope you realise that. You want to save the angel, save the girl; you’re going to need a plan and a team. Unless you were planning on a suicide mission, in which case, why are you wasting my valuable time off?” Raph wanted to point out that his time off was being spent getting drunk, alone, in his mother’s kitchen, but he stopped himself. He was right, of course; strolling into the castle solo would probably be the last thing he ever did.
“Who did you have in mind?” he asked grudgingly.
Horace shared a glance with Judah, and suddenly Raph knew. “Oh no. Oh no, not her!” Judah grinned. “You wouldn’t!” He didn’t want to deal with her, of all people, right now. The girl and he were oil and water; this was going to get ugly, he was sure.
Judah snickered and snapped his fingers, and someone appeared beside him in a puff of vibrant fuchsia smoke. “This had better be good, Jude! I was at a great party on the other side of the River, and I left a whole bag of loot behind!”
“Hello, Cara.” Horace said, greeting her with a fond little smile.
“Hey big bro! ‘Sup?”
“Oh, not much. Actually, we have a proposal for you.”
At the “We”, Cara looked past him and spotted Raph for the first time. “Oh. My. God.” The smirk splitting her face was disgusting, and Raph rolled his eyes. “You? You need my help. Oh my GOD that is… That is priceless.”
“Yeah, okay, I do. I need your help, you and anyone you know that’d be up to grand treason and theft of a soul from the deepest, darkest part of the royal dungeons.” He spat, giving the girl a surly once-over.
He hadn’t seen her in a few years, and his half-sister had shot up like a weed. She had their mother’s bright blue eyes and shapely figure, though she had inherited her father’s sleek black hair. Raph didn’t really remember her father; he had been another one of his mother’s short-lived flings, and not a remarkable one at that.
Cara was the youngest of them, but she was far from being meek. She co-led Hades’ biggest street gang with Judah, and she had always held a fierce rivalry with her predecessor. And now? Now he was asking for her help. She laughed lightly, gloating. “Of course. I can have the best crew of thieves and liars gathered within the hour. But first, I wanna know why.”
Raph waved her away irritably, belatedly remembering why he didn’t come home very often. “Jude can fill you in. Basically, if you and your little friends want to survive to steal another day, you’ll help me out. Horace,”
Horace turned his attention back to his brother.
“Do you have a spare mirror? I got rid of mine, and now I think I’ll want one sooner than later.”
Horace reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, flat gold compact. “Picked that up off a General once upon a time ago. I thought it might come in handy someday, so it’s been in my pocket for a while.”
Raph nodded his thanks, stuffing the mirror into his breast pocket as he spoke, lowering his voice and leaning forward. “I need you to do something else for me. Take Judah with you. I think she’ll need both of you.”