Hell is a disaster. Crowley’s redecorated the whole thing in Corporate Existential, the kind of scheme that looks trendy for a hot minute and then is hella dated by this time next year. The souls shackled to cubicle chairs stare bleakly at computer screens, and Meg supposes that’s fine if you want new demons in oh, say, a couple of centuries from now.
For just an instant, Meg wishes Alistair were here to see this. How furiously appalled he would be. Then she remembers the shiver of his voice down her spine and thinks better of it.
She pushes deeper. She tries the door of a janitor’s closet on a whim and discovers an alcove that seems to have missed the redecoration memo; here it’s all dungeon, blood, and stench. Familiar. Nostalgic, even. But here, too, the souls are half-baked. Not what she wants.
In fact the demons are few and far between, even this far into hell. What has Crowley done with them all, she wonders. Crammed them together in nailed-lined cells for torturous games of sardines? Or just let them loose upon the world?
She comes upon a young demon, weak, a minor imp at best. He cowers, at once repulsed by and hungry for the whiff of freedom hanging onto her. She knows that look. She wore it for centuries.
She passes him by.
Another few turns in the maze, and she finds a demon looking at her curiously, unafraid, calculating. She carries no files, no scalpels. She doesn’t hang on the rack. Doesn’t tremble before her betters. Walks the halls of hell like she owns them in tailored slacks and tailored jacekt and two-inch heels. One of Crowley’s minions, then, and that makes her worse than useless for Meg’s purposes.
“What’s your name?” Meg demands. She takes a swaggering step forward, then another, disguising the motion of unsheathing her twice-ill-gotten blade. As always, it tingles against her fingers.
“What’s yours?” the demon asks, insolent.
“Doesn’t matter.” Meg raises the blade, strikes – and pulls short just before tip of blade breaches the demon’s chest. She grabs the demon’s exposed wrist, barely scabbed over, and squeezes until blood oozes sluggishly between her fingers.
The demon is terrified. Was always terrified, Meg realizes; she just didn’t recognize that bravado for what it was. “Slipped your leash, didja?” she asked. The demon’s nostrils flared. “What were you going to do if you ran into Crowley? What’d you think he’d say if he found you off the rack?” Because those wrists are proof: somewhere in this Lucifer-forsaken place, Crowley still keeps a rack. Kept.
The demon doesn’t answer. Meg grips tighter, until bone grinds against bone. “I don’t know!” the demon cries. “I had to try, didn’t I?”
Meg ought to sneer, but maybe she’s gotten sentimental in her old age. More likely Castiel’s rubbed off on her somehow. Everything that’s wrong with her, she has become convinced, is Castiel’s fault, damn his feathery earnest soul. “Do you know what Crowley would do?”
“I can hazard a few guesses,” the demon says, and ah, there’s some spirit.
Meg leans into the demon’s face until the acrid stench of brimstone fills her nose. The demon doesn’t flinch. “Nothing,” Meg says. “He’s dead.”
The demon considers her a long moment. “The king is dead. Long live the queen?”
The question makes Meg twitchy. What idiot would want to be queen of this place? And yet. “A queen needs people, you know.” She drops the demon’s wrist, takes a step back. Gives the demon the illusion of a choice. Meg’s blade still tingles in her hand. “Generals, spymasters—”
Meg narrows her gaze. “For instance.”
The demon lifts her chin. “As I said. Long live the queen.” Under the mockery in her tone is something else, something Meg remembers from long ago when a yellow-eyed demon came to Meg’s cage and offered to open it. It kindled in her then: loyalty. Fealty, even.
“What’s your name, thief?”
“Bela,” the demon says.
“Well, Bela,” she says, letting the name roll off her tongue. “I need a few more in my ranks than just you. No offense.”
Bela’s eyes gleam black. “I know where we could find quite a number of souls who would be... grateful for a regime change.”
“Lead the way,” Meg says. She sheaths her blade – still within easy reach, of course. She follows.
So it begins.