Eternal Ch. 11byFeotakahari©
"How much of this did you plan?" Judith asked, not sure what answer she was hoping for.
"Not much," her son replied, standing over Belial's corpse. "I knew Belial was coming, but I froze up when I finally saw him. People died who shouldn't have."
"You did brilliantly, my dear, and you got rid of that arrogant bastard. Not without help, of course." She reached out with her mind, finding ten sword spiders, eighteen patrons, and an increasingly panicked dancer, and she gave them all an order: Be still. "Hold the humans for me," she called, and thirty tempters rushed the floor, nineteen wrapping them in tongues and tails, eleven milling about in case one broke free. (Sword spiders are hard to handle, and she didn't want to expend more energy than necessary.) "I'll find out later which of these spiders holds your Contract. Now, where were we?"
"You're going to kill me, aren't you?" Neil asked, seeming strangely unconcerned about the answer. "Just like you killed Cassie."
"Your potential is amazing," Judith replied, "as both a warrior and a negotiator. I'm going to kill you, but I'm not going to let you stay dead."
To Judith's surprise, Neil laughed again. "You want to make me into a demon?"
"You lack the rage that makes a sword spider, but I know you feel guilt from sins of cowardice. Before my time, it was always claimed that tempters were worthless in battle. With you at my side, I'll prove that imps are also a force to be reckoned with." She gentled her voice as she smiled at him. "We'll be together again, and this time, I'll be the mother I should have been back then. Your life has been sinful, but you can still be redeemed, just as I have been."
Neil seemed unsteady (and quite possibly unstable), but he didn't run or plead. "Just seeing you makes me remember things I haven't thought about in twenty-five years. I guess I always knew I should have died instead of Cassie. I'm ready now."
"Let me do the honors," another voice cut in, and Judith turned to find Lilith trailing behind her--as always, she'd stayed out of the way. Judith merely nodded, and within seconds, the old tempter was less than a tongue's length from Neil. She looked him up and down, as if trying to match him to some familiar pattern.
"Who was Cassie?" she asked.
-- -- -- --
"Good afternoon, Mother!" Neil called out in the most formal tone he could manage.
"Good afternoon, kid!" Leslie replied. "And don't call me 'Mom'--it makes me feel old." The woman who would be Judith had borne Neil nine months after her eighteenth birthday, unmarried to the older man who'd fathered him. "Wait--did you just call me 'Mother'? And since when do you say 'good afternoon'?"
"Cassie says that! Good morning, good afternoon, good evening." Neil suddenly looked sheepish. "Cassie said I shouldn't tell you about her. She said you scare her. But I like her, and you'll like her, too. She's a little weird, but she's nice, and smart too."
Leslie was angry, but she kept her tone gentle. "Neil, you know I don't like it when you hide things from me. There are lots of evil people in the world, and they'd love to grab you up and take you away! All of us deserve to be punished . . ."
". . . But some of us are worse than others," Neil finished. He started talking quickly. "I wasn't hiding anything. Ralph was being mean to her--telling her she was stupid, and she didn't know how to say things right. I told him to stop, and he wouldn't . . ."
Leslie listened to Neil chatter, and her suspicions began to grow.
-- -- -- --
"Cassie?" Neil replied. "She was just a little girl who wanted to grow up to be a princess. Then she got in Judith's way." He matched the penetrating look Lilith had been giving him. "Don't tell me--mmph!"
Should have shut him up earlier, Judith thought. Aloud, she asked, "Aren't you going to kill him?"
"There's something not right about this," Lilith replied. "I feel . . . strange."
-- -- -- --
"Good afternoon, Neil," a lilting voice said, somewhere towards the front of the apartment. "Is this really where you live? It is so very small!"
"Mom says it's 'sad,'" Neil replied. "Uh, I mean Mother says it's 'sad.' Anyway, she works late, so she isn't here now." A pause. "Good afternoon, Cassie."
Leslie strained to hear their words from inside the closet. She'd talked a coworker into taking her shift--she wanted to see what Neil did in her absence.
"Oh, I am so very sorry!" Cassie said. "When I looked at your home, I did not notice what happened to your face! Are you all right?"
Neil was probably blushing by now, though Leslie couldn't see to confirm it. "I told Ralph I'd get him in trouble if he didn't stop picking on you. He punched me in the eye."
"How very brave! Did you defeat him in noble combat?"
"I ran away."
"Do not blame yourself. You are still young and small."
At that, Neil turned indignant. "You're just a year older than me!"
Cassie seemed not to hear him. "When you are big, you will be my knight, and I will be your lovely princess! I am learning to talk like the princesses in books, and when I am big, I will wear a pretty pink dress. You will have a sword and shield, and go off to slay evil dragons! And if you are ever hurt, I will kiss you and make it better!"
Another pause, followed by a sound of disgust from Neil. "Why'd you stick your tongue in my mouth?"
"That is how my parents kiss. You want to be a grown-up, do you not? When we are grown-ups, we will live together, and we will kiss just like that."
Neil sounded nervous. "Cassie, this doesn't feel right."
"The knights in the books always say that. They say it is wrong to be with the princess, and what would happen if the king knew, and she kisses him so he will stop talking." She laughed, a high and delicate sound. "It sort of feels wrong to me too. My mother said I must not kiss any more boys. But the books say it is good to be wrong sometimes."
At that, Leslie slammed the closet door open. She neither scowled nor raised her voice as she saw Cassie for the first time. "You little whore," she hissed. "Do you have any idea what this means?"
Leslie knew that the apartments were mostly empty at this time of day--no one would hear any noise that was made. With one hand, she hoisted Cassie into the air, carrying her into the kitchen. With the other, she pulled a knife from a drawer. "I'll make you understand," she said. "You need to know what love really is. Watch closely, Neil, and don't even think of running--if you run, I swear to God I'll kill her."
-- -- -- --
"Come on, Lilith," Judith said. "We can't wait around here forever. The police won't risk their necks to fight us, but the army will get here eventually. If you're not going to kill him, I'll go get someone who will."
Lilith stared at Neil again. "You did nothing," she said. "I remember little, but I know that you did nothing."
Neil forced his mouth open. "When you stopped moving, I ran, and she tripped when she followed. She fell on the knife . . . I should have died. Not you." He gave up struggling, his point made.
Lilith's voice took on a strange lilt. "For you, I will do nothing."
Judith, briefly mesmerized by this strange exchange, remembered too late that she was supposed to be doing damage control. "I never intended to kill you, Lilith, only to make you understand. When we died, I took responsibility--I gave you the body you'd always wanted, and over twenty-five years, I taught you everything you know. You grew up strong under my guidance."
"There can be no happy ending," Lilith said, slowly walking towards Judith. "Neil would not be Neil under your control--he would be Adam, or Joseph, or some other not-Neil. I refuse to do this." As she passed to Judith's right, she leaned low and slapped Alice across the face. "Do nothing! All of you, do nothing!"
"Lilith, get back here!" Judith shouted. "I am ordering you, get back here! The Contract still binds you!" Judith realized that she was starting to cry. "Don't desert me now, Lilith. I've been atoning for twenty-five years."
The Contract pulled with its full force, and Lilith stopped just a foot from the front door. She wriggled and writhed under a pain that Judith couldn't even imagine.
Then, slowly, impossibly, she began to move again, pushing the door open.
The situation could have been resolved if Judith had stilled Lilith with her power, but she didn't think to do so when the Contract had already failed. Instead, she kept shouting, and Lilith kept ignoring her, twitching her way into the open air. Before the door closed, she turned around, and uttered a single word.
By the time Judith realized the implication of that word, there was already a tongue wrapped around her neck.
-- -- -- --
"I doubted that Neil could move that fast," Lilith told Ghost, "unless he had made a Contract with a tempter. It did not occur to Judith that anyone would be Contracted to two demons at once, but I picked you out of the crowd--those scars on your back are quite distinctive. You were always good at the neck snap, and I thought you deserved a chance at it, so I made sure she was facing the other way."
Ghost silently gestured towards the crowd inside the club--almost forty confused demons, and nineteen panicked humans. The implication was clear. Not now.
"Do not worry," Lilith told her. "If nothing else, I am a very good mediator." She strode boldly into the center of the room, and prepared to speak.