Lord Beelzebub was agitated.
This in and of itself was not unusual – Hell was an exceptionally agitating place, and only more so since the Great Plan had ceased to govern its day-to-day actions. In fact, for several days directly after the events of what should have been the End of the World, Hell was so perfectly agitating that demons were being discorporated left and right by the sheer disquietude. The anxiety thrumming in the air had been almost audible, and while Beelzebub would have normally reveled in watching their subordinates struggle with such misery, they had been directly in the center of it.
However, this catastrophic agitation had tapered off as Almost Armageddon separated from the present, days sliding into weeks and weeks oozing into months. Though Hell’s ambient level of tension was perhaps a bit higher than before, this was not the reason the Prince of Hell had been pacing nonstop in their office for well over a week. It was not the reason that any demon who came within five feet of the office door (save Dagon, on a good day) found their mouth and throat full of squirming maggots that could not be miracled away for at least an hour. And it was certainly not the reason that Heaven had had to institute a “No Incoming Calls from Hell” policy after an exasperated Michael had wound up with seventy-five missed calls during a five-minute coffee break one morning.
No, the reason that Lord Beelzebub was agitated was that the Archangel Gabriel was missing, and no one in Heaven or Hell seemed to be able to tell them where he was.
First, it had been a scheduled phone call left unanswered, then another, and then a rendezvous on Earth to which the angel never showed. Gabriel was an absolute prick, and frequently late to Earth meetings because he insisted on jogging as his main mode of transportation, but after waiting for six full hours in that blasted, duck-filled park, the Prince had concluded that he simply wasn’t coming. They had been so angry as they descended back to Hell that every plant within a sixty-foot radius had immediately rotted.
All attempts to reach his cell phone went straight to voicemail. His office line appeared to have been disconnected, if it had ever existed at all. When Beelzebub could get Michael to pick up the phone (an increasing rarity, with no small amount of deception involved), the only answer she would give was that he was involved in some classified business and unavailable for contact.
This went on for weeks.
The Lord of the Flies had the Lord of the Files scour all available documentation in Hell on the Archangel, but nothing useful came to light. A small handful of angels had Fallen after the failed Apocalypse, but while there were new faces in Hell for the first time in millennia, none had a sufficiently potent aura to indicate high status in Heaven. An Archangel as powerful as Gabriel would not go unnoticed in Hell, that much was certain.
If he was not in Heaven, and he had not Fallen to Hell, that rather left the Earth. Lord Beelzebub sent Eric and a few dozen of his doppelgangers to scour the globe, with no luck. Gabriel was not in Switzerland, grumpily singing The Sound of Music to cheer himself up (the Prince had found him doing this before). He was not in New York City, beatifically granting small miracles to tourists walking out of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (the Prince had also found him doing this, once). One of the Erics had even walked into Aziraphale’s bookshop to ask after the Archangel, and learned just before his swift discorporation that the traitor had not seen him since his angelic trial, either.
And so, Beelzebub paced. They filled the worthless, sniveling demons outside their door with maggots, and they wore their carpet down to the damp, crumbling subfloor. As they paced, they grumbled angrily to themselves.
Why do I even care whether the Archangel is mizzzzzing? If he was killed, or demoted, or otherwizze run off, what problem is that to me?
They reached the far wall of their office, kicked it bitterly, and turned around.
It’s about the dizzrespect of skipping our tactical meetingz, our weekly callz, that’z it. No one standzz up the Prince of Hell without conzequence, ezzzzpecially not fucking Archwanker Gabriel.
Another wall, this one pounded with their small, vicious fist until a few paint chips fell away.
And Michael, lying to me! There izz no way Above or Below that he’d be off on azzzzignment and our agentz not hear about it. She’z hiding something. Angelz aren’t zuppozzzed to be deceitful, that’z our job!
This monologue was essentially identical to the one that had been running in the Prince’s head since they began their pacing. This particular round, however, was interrupted before its logical conclusion by a sudden shift in the power structure of Hell. The dim incandescent bulbs flickered overhead (or, well, flickered more than usual), and the air crackled minutely. A handful of demons in a lower circle, trying to shove the wrong size battery into a broken handheld radio, found the thing worked long enough to spit a few, crackling measures of an eerily familiar tune.
Most obviously, however, Beelzebub felt the shape of their aura shift. It tended to pull a bit on the edges toward other entities of great power – Lucifer, certainly, and the Dukes to a lesser extent – but as the single bulb above their desk flashed, they felt it tug strongly and insistently toward their office door, as if someone were on the other side. For a moment, the Prince froze, poking at the wards they’d raised to make sure they wouldn’t accidentally fill Lucifer’s mouth with maggots, should he have risen out of his temper tantrum in the lowest pits and deigned to visit. The wards, it seemed, thought this was a fine and self-preserving idea, and had already allowed Satan an exception. However, as Beelzebub stood stone-still in the center of their office, the shifting power settled. The overhead lightbulb dimmed. The far-below radio lost its station with a squeak.
The Prince exhaled. Not Lucifer, then.
Before they could ponder the matter further, however, a sharp knock sounded on the office door. As if it had never left, Beelzebub’s agitation flared back to life, and the maggot-infested wards with it. They expected to hear the sweet, sickly choking of a demon with a newly-crawling esophagus, but instead a second knock, just as determined as the first, rang through the office.
It was not Dagon’s knock.
Growing more agitated by the millisecond, the Lord of the Flies stormed to the door and threw it open, ready to soundly discorporate whatever miscreant had teased open a loophole in the wards. With venom on their tongue, they looked into the offending demon’s eyes, and for the first time in a long time found themselves truly speechless.
The Archangel fucking Gabriel was standing outside their office, hand still raised as if to knock a third time. But, at the same time, it certainly wasn’t the Archangel fucking Gabriel. Though his suit was as tidy and perfect as usual, it had darkened several shades, a sleek, leaden gray with only the vaguest purple undertone. He appeared gaunter, somehow; not less powerful by any means, but stretched thin and folded over, condensed down to barest bones, treacherously wiry. And his eyes… Beelzebub felt the tiniest catch of breath in the back of their throat as they saw that his ridiculous, brilliant lavender eyes had putrefied to a stale puce, the color filling his sclera from side to side.
Gabriel blinked down at the Prince, mouth half open but also apparently speechless. They blinked back, twice, before recovering their voice.
“So I have.”