© 2013 Jane Kindred

In the gaming room of the Brimstone for the next several evenings, Belphagor kept an eye out for Vasily’s entrance without appearing to do so. He hadn’t become the best wingcasting player in Raqia by telegraphing his moves. He played exceptionally well, in fact, by maintaining an external awareness beyond the boundaries of the marble-rimmed table while projecting an air of inattentiveness to anything but his own cards. The false inward focus was contagious and tended to make his opponent forget to take note of the broader actions of the game.

When he cast the die or called his opponent’s cast, he let his attention encompass the entire establishment. This part of the game was only chance; willing the die to land on the elemental creature one had called or staring anxiously at the twelve-sided game piece as it struck the table’s rim after an opponent had called one’s own cast had no effect on the outcome. Shifting the air around the table might, of course, but that was easily done with the flick of the wrist in casting or the breath of a bored sigh. If Belphagor’s cardinal element responded more readily to his influence than it did for other airspirits, it was no coincidence.

He’d devoted years of his life—and the number was considerable for a demon who frequently fell to the world of Man where aging was far more rapid than in the pure celestial air—to understanding how to master the dominant element in his blood. The number of Fallen who literally fell was small in comparison to the demonic population, and the average demon had never experienced terrestrial magic. In Heaven, a demon—or even an angel, though they were generally too uptight to try—might manipulate his element for simple tricks and folk magic, but in the world of Man, every celestial possessed a radiant power that manifested as elemental wings.

Belphagor had first fallen when he was only fifteen years of age. He hadn’t made the discovery right away, and the Fallen he’d encountered there, in the city of Petrograd, hadn’t told him. It was only in fleeing the law some months after his arrival that he’d inadvertently found his wings. Leaping from a bridge to escape, he’d expected to swim for it and found himself instead soaring on the wind, the radiance that burst from his shoulder blades outstretched as wings of solid air that seemed to swallow up the visual range of light into their element.

“Ptarmigan,” he said absently as the die tumbled from his opponent’s fingers and struck the rim. The other demon scowled as the die landed with the ptarmigan face-up. Sometimes Belphagor’s luck was better when he put no effort into the game at all.

“It’s a loaded die,” the player accused. The demon had clearly had too much to drink.

Belphagor narrowed his gaze on the pallid-looking waterspirit. “I beg your pardon?”

“Loaded die!” He stood and delivered the accusation loudly enough for the house to hear. Any such accusation had to be taken seriously. The game was immediately halted and the pot forfeited to the house while the deck and die were confiscated for examination.

It took every ounce of Belphagor’s restraint to keep from leaping on the little worm and delivering a very unerotic beating. He’d automatically turned up the cuffs of his shirt in preparation for it without being aware he’d done so, showing his ink like an animal might show its teeth in warning.

The bluish-black tattoos that marked his fingers and the backs of his hands were the badges of his incarceration in the Russian prison system. They marked him asvor, a thief, and announced in no uncertain terms that he was not to be trifled with. The association commanded a certain level of respect in the world of Man—among the right people—that he might never have been afforded due to his less than impressive physical stature, but in Raqia it had the added intimidation factor of making it clear that he had not only dealt with the harsh prison system of theZona but with the Seraph bounty hunters who exploited it with their own terrestrial magic.

Just as the game inspector pocketed Belphagor’s favorite wingcasting set, the street door opened, ushering in a blast of wet winter wind and admitting a party of young angelic toughs—arrogant, but breathtaking in their sterile waterspirit purity. One of them had his arm over the shoulder of a demon smartly dressed in a black velvet frock coat and tailored slacks. Despite his impressive size, had it not been for the shock of red matted locks done up in a knot just below the demon’s crown, Belphagor might actually have missed him.

The sore loser still glaring his defiance across the table at him ceased to matter in the rush of possessive desire and jealous fury that nearly knocked Belphagor off his feet.

Angels were touching his boy.

His brain dropped into his testicles, and he charged across the bar like a bull sporting bloody banderillas and struck the angelic prick right in the kisser.

The angel went down in stunned surprise, and time seemed to freeze for a moment before the rest of the angels in the fancy one’s entourage sprang forward and descended on Belphagor, dragging him upstairs to the street. Despite his stature, he was more than a match for a pair of the little bastards, or even three; prison had taught him a number of valuable skills. But he’d had the misfortune to anger a pack of them.

“Learn your place, you Fallen piece of trash.” A fist landed in his gut while he struggled, snarling, with the group of angels who had his arms, and another slammed into his cheek. As he spat blood into the snow, the angel before him raising his fist for another blow suddenly howled with pain. Behind him, Vasily had reached over the angel’s shoulder and twisted his arm into an unnatural pose.

Belphagor’s odds had just improved.

The angel went sprawling across the slush-dirty cobblestone while two of the angels holding Belphagor let go of him to converge on Vasily. Belphagor slammed his elbow into the throat of another on his left, simultaneously kicking sidelong against the knee of the angel on his right, dislocating it with a loud pop drowned out instantly by the angel’s shriek as he hopped backward. While the choking one on Belphagor’s left swung wildly at him, he grasped the wide-swiping arm and knocked the angel face-first into the brick wall of The Brimstone, punching him in the kidney for good measure.

He turned and saw the two angels Vasily had grabbed scrambling away, badly bloodied, while the one on the ground dragged himself across the street with one arm at an alarming angle, howling like a child. Two others that had been behind him, and the first one Belphagor had punched, who now stood on the top step, wisely took off running, shouting racial slurs over their shoulders in cowardice.

Belphagor wiped his fist across his bloody lip and met Vasily’s eyes. Flame sparked dangerously in them.

Sukin syn,” Vasily snarled. This was not the Russian Belphagor had taught him. “You think you own me, you son of a bitch? You think you can just march up and mark your property the moment someone else takes a fancy to me?”

Belphagor’s stance was casual, but the set of his jaw was hard. “I told you.” He spoke calmly. Dangerously. “Angels are not to touch you.” Vasily had just dispatched a handful of angels in seconds, the same angels who’d been beating the snot out of Belphagor a moment before, yet his angry expression was now tinged with fear. Knowing he could strike that fear into Vasily despite his superior physical strength made Belphagor hungry to make good on the unspoken promise. “Did I not make myself clear, malchik?”

“No—I mean, yes, you—” Vasily stopped and swallowed nervously, clearly trying to pull his defiance back on. “Why?”


Copyright 2013 Jane Kindred