Chapter 24

Oliver jerked his head back in surprise, having thought that they were the only ones in the vicinity, near the vault. The voice seemed familiar, though it was filtered through a tone he’d never heard the voice use before. As a group they cautiously backtracked to the vault room, peeking their heads inside carefully, keeping on their toes in case of danger.

What Oliver saw though, was Asmodeus, standing in the middle of the vault by himself. He refused to make eye contact with Oliver, though he did flit his eyes to him after a couple of seconds.

“Hey.” He said, ushering them into the vault with a wave of his claw. Oliver walked inside the vault again, his friends following him suspiciously.

“Listen, this isn’t easy for me to say to you,” His eyes again darted up to Oliver’s face, finally making eye contact. “But I have a proposition for you.”

Oliver laughed, the absurdity of the moment overwhelming him. Here was the dangerous demonic monster he’d had chained to his soul for the school year, the one who’d been so disappointed in his normalcy that he’d been ill-tempered to almost a degree of insanity. He’d moaned and groaned about everything Oliver had done, condescended to him about everything, but as Oliver saw him now, he seemed almost… meek.

Oliver was almost nostalgic of the days where people had just spoken over his head, thrown salt at him, and just generally been confusing and unpredictable. But a demon? They were always easy to read.

“What do you want from me, Asmodeus?”

Asmodeus flinched uncharacteristically, and then spoke slowly, haltingly, as if he was forcing the right words out while trying to avoid others, “I have… something that I think will…benefit both of us…”

“Aww!” Ramona said, grinning, “He looks so cute like this!”

Asmodeus began to shoot a glare at her, but managed to stop himself, impressively.

“Ok, I’ll bite. You seem to be on your best behavior for this, so I can only assume it’s something you actually think will help.”

“I have spoken with your friends’ demons, and we have all decided… as a group, that it would be in our best interest for you to overthrow Lucifer. And in light of this we’d like to…” He struggled with his words again, the absurdity once again astounding Oliver.

Am I ever going to get used to it? He thought to himself, sighing out loud.

“We’d all like to renegotiate our contracts with you.” He finally managed, giving a glance to everyone in turn.

“Yeah, ok.” Oz said immediately, to the mild surprise of everyone else.

“How can you say that so quickly? You haven’t even heard their terms yet!” Maxwell said, smacking Oz on the back of the head.

“She’s right.” Celeste said to Oz, before turning back to Asmodeus, “What are your terms for renegotiation?”

“We’ll give you back your souls, returning your payment. However, we’d like to institute a new clause that we’ll stay with you until you defeat Lucifer.”

“So what do you guys get out of it?” Oliver asked.

“Well, we get to uh, be in control of Hell.” asmodeus said, trying to downplay the gravity of the statement.

“So let me get this straight,” Maxwell said, rubbing both of her temples with her index and middle finger, “You want to give us back our souls.”

Asmodeus nodded his head, horns waving dangerously.

“You want to keep working for us as you have been.”

He nodded his head again, his horns still posing a major threat.

“And in return you want control of Hell if we beat Satan?”

He began to nod his head and then stopped.

“Well, to correct you, we want control when you beat Lucifer. If you die fighting him, we’ll consider it a breach of contract and repossess your souls.”

“So basically, you’re giving us back our souls on the condition that we kill Satan? And you taking control is just incidental?” Celeste asked suspiciously.

“When you put it that way, yes.” He thought for a moment, “Us taking control is incidental to the contract, but I hoped giving you an insight into our plans would make me seem more ‘forthcoming’ and less ‘evil’, as most people think of demons. They’re not wrong, of course, but that’s not the kind of image I’d like to project.”

When did he become such a businessman? Oliver thought, curious as to why Asmodeus had never taken this route with him. Was I really that disappointing, after spending thousands of years in Hell?

“Ok then, I agree.” Celeste said, after considering it. “Either we die, or we get our souls back. Sounds good enough to me.”

Ramona nodded her head vigorously, “Same! I mean, if we die, we’ll just end up here again, I think? So it’ll be like a respawn!”

Oz gave her a funny look, but said nothing.

“I agree too,” Oliver said, “I think it’d make me feel better, knowing that at least now the demons want to work with us, instead of being contractually obligated to.” As he saw Oz open his mouth to contradict him he continued speaking, holding up a finger, “I mean this time our goals are aligned. Yes we’re still in a contract, but at least we’re all working for the same thing.”

“Then I guess I agree too.” Maxwell said softly, though she didn’t look up from the spot she’d been drilling a hole into with her eyes on the floor. The thought came back to her again, haunting her even though they’d all imagined it so casually.

We could die doing this, She thought to herself, We’ll probably die doing this.

Isn’t that what you signed up for?, a voice in her mind asked.

She swallowed, trying to find strength within her.

“Yeah. Let’s fucking do this.”

The contracts were made as they had been before, though they didn’t need to use the ritual to send it through the planes as an “advertisement”, since they had their “other party” directly in front of them. They spoke the words they had before, and the contracts were sealed.

Oliver noted that he did actually feel different after the renegotiation, but he felt it was more in his head than anything physically affecting him. It was a lightness, a levity. He didn’t worry so much about Asmodeus anymore, knowing for once that the demon wasn’t secretly plotting his death. They were all in this together, demons and humans, working towards the same end.

They made their way out of the vault room, and deeper still into Pandemonium. The air had gotten noticeably colder, and as the hairs on the back of Oliver’s neck began to stand up he realized they had made it.

Two large gold doors stood in front of them. This itself wasn’t unusual, as everything else in Pandemonium had been gold as well, but these had been encrusted with jewels from top to bottom. Emeralds lined the edges, the green square gems set every so often in the perimeter. Within that, sapphire circles made a large ring inside the emeralds, so that the center of the circle was the center of the door. Inside of that was  a large X, composed entirely of ruby rectangles in a line. As Oliver looked at the door, the entire image seemed to gradually move, the jewels taking on new positions as they shifted imperceptibly every second, giving it a kaleidoscopic effect.

Oz summed up all of their thoughts quite succinctly, “This gives gaudy an entirely new definition.”

“Well I think we could try garish, ostentatious, or tasteless but it might be so much so that it ruins those words too.” Maxwell mused.

Ramona, in the meantime, had latched on to the nearest jewel she could reach, one of the square pieces of emerald, and was trying to pry it off.

Celeste quietly and quickly smacked her hand, glaring at her

“What? I’m just looking for a souvenir!” She protested.

“I think there are more important things to worry about. We’ll see about getting something on the way out.”

“Fine,” Ramona said, “Then let’s get a move on.”

“She’s right,” Oliver said, taking a deep breath, “Anything to say before we head in?”

“Yeah,” Oz raised his hand in mock-question, “Are we sure this is the right room?”

They all looked at the door, with it’s multitude of moving gemstones, and then back to Oz. He shrugged his shoulders, conceding the point.

“Do we have a plan of action?” Maxwell asked hesitantly.

“Actually, I think I’ve come up with one.” Celeste said, “Don’t die.”

“That’s it,” Oliver asked, “That’s all you’ve got?”

She shrugged, “We’re fighting against Satan, enemy of mankind since Day 1. If someone could come up with a foolproof plan for fighting him, don’t you think he would’ve been dealt with already? We have no idea what he’s capable of, but that just means we’ll have to improvise.”

Ramona began to push open the doors by herself, “Then let’s get going!”

The rest of them joined her and soon enough the door began to squeak open. The more they pushed the faster the doors opened, until they’d gathered enough momentum to move by themselves, opening fully and slamming against the walls.

The throne room itself was opulent, wreathed in the same gold as everywhere else, but glossed until it shone brightly. Where there wasn’t gold, there were pathways of pearl, spiraling across the walls and in intricate patterns on the ceiling. In the center of the room was a pathway of white marble, leading from the group all the way to the back of the room, where the throne was, a beautiful seat shaped like a bursting golden sun. Their eyes followed the path, leading them to the monster seated upon the throne.

A beautiful Angel greeted them, sitting on the throne as if they’d been expected.

“Come in!” It said to them, glowing faintly with a bright white light.

The light itself wasn’t blinding, and what they saw was what looked like a beautiful man. He was as close to a description of Adonis as Oliver thought was possible, his blonde hair hanging in curls around his head. His eyes were a dark, clear brown, warm and friendly. His skin was pale, but more like fine china than sickly-looking, complemented by his glowing aura. He wore no clothes, but had no real anatomy to speak of. Oliver felt almost entranced by the man’s divine beauty, before he noticed that the Angel’s wings weren’t made of pure feathers, but instead looked darker and more bat like, covered in a black membrane.

“It must’ve been a long journey to get here.” He said, and with a wave of his hand, an unseen figure behind them quickly moved to close the doors, slamming them shut with ease before disappearing back to the shadows.

Oliver immediately dropped into a fighting stance, followed by the rest of his team, “Drop the act, I know what Satan looks like when he’s sitting in front of me.”

The “Angel” looked offended, holding out his open palms, “It doesn’t have to end this way, you know. I can reward you for the efforts you took to get here, and then send you back out on your merry way.”

“Like that’s gonna happen!” Oliver said, already feeling anger rise to the surface, waiting just below his skin.

“Hear me out.” Satan, said, implacable. “How about you?” He pointed to Maxwell with one pale-skinned finger, smiling warmly. “Is there nothing you want? When I acquired your soul I saw what you lost. I saw Sarah.”

Maxwell flinched at the name, her heartbeat increasing.

“I know you’ve forgotten her, and you think that if you get your soul back and remember her that everything will be alright. But that isn’t quite true. You don’t remember enough, but you two had a… how should I say, a falling out? It was tragic, and happened just before your arrival at Killian. I can change that though. I can give you the ability to go back, to change it and make amends. You don’t want to be alone, do you?”

Maxwell said nothing, tears rolling down her face.

“All you have to do is lay down your weapons, if you even brought any, and go back to your normal life. That’s all. You can live out the rest of your life as long as you don’t interfere.” He smiled at her again, as if reassuring a child who’d woken up from a terrible nightmare.

Maxwell sniffled, her head in her hands. She was silent for a moment before they heard a muffled, “No.”

She cleared her throat as she brought her head up to face him, her eyes red but full of fire, “No. You’re right, I don’t know what happened, or why we fell apart, but I know that whatever it is, I can fix it myself. I don’t need magical demonism to make friends, and even if it doesn’t work out with Sarah, I already have a perfectly good group of friends right here!”

She smiled at everyone around her, though her fists were still clenched, her knuckles turning white.

“Well, what about you two?” He looked over to the twins, who had been pointedly not looking at him, “You’re not quite as burdened as this girl was over what she’d lost and forgotten, but only because you had reasonable evidence that nothing had been lost at all, right?”

Celeste began to grow red as Ramona knitted her eyebrows in confusion, “What do you mean?”

“Ah, twin sisters. You never thought that anything was missing. Twins are a complete pair, aren’t they? But you were originally a pair and a spare, so to speak. You forgot all about your baby sister, Alice. I can see from your faces that you don’t remember her at all. Such a pity.”

Ramona scoffed at him, “If I don’t remember her at all, then how can I tell you’re not trying to trick us?”

Satan put a hand to his bare chest, feigning shock, “Would I lie to you?”

Everyone yelled different affirmatives in unison.

“Then you’ll just have to trust me. She took after your mother’s bright blonde hair, rather than you two with your father’s dark hair. She was a few years younger than the both of you, so you adored her, spending much of your time fawning over her, playing with her as she grew, and taking her places that she wanted to go. It’s truly a tragedy that you’ve forgotten someone who meant so much to you…” He seemed wistful as he finished, letting out a soft sigh.

“Well, if you don’t like that, then I can always offer limitless power to the shorter one and limitless knowledge to the taller one.” He said flippantly, rolling his eyes.

“That’s so lame and typical!” Ramona said, scoffing at him, though Oliver noticed that she was still shook by his earlier words.

Celeste said nothing, motionless.

“Snap out of it!” Oz shouted, “You can see Alice when this is all over! If she’s real I’m sure she’s out there, waiting for you! You can’t give up and zone out right now though!”

She seemed to gather herself at his words, pulling herself back together, “Fuck you!” She spat at Satan, “I can’t speak about how ‘my friends are my power’ or how ‘my heart is my weapon’, but there’s no way I’d give up now because of your last-ditch attempts to stop us! This just shows me that you’re afraid. You’re too scared to take the five of us so you’d rather tempt us with things to take us out of the running.”

Satan seemed unsurprised by her response, “A simple ‘no thank you’ would’ve sufficed as well.”
He turned to face Oz, but before he could open his mouth to speak, Oz cut in front of him, “Don’t even try it, buddy. I wouldn’t have come this far if I wasn’t sure about myself. Don’t give me some garbage like ‘I can make you love yourself’ or anything. I’ll pass.”

Oliver stepped back in surprise at Oz’s ideas of what Satan would tempt him with.

Is that how he feels about himself? He thought ambiently.

Satan frowned, “I can’t even turn you for a limitless package of cigarettes?”

Oz seemed genuinely taken aback by this, but more by personal revelation, “Actually, I don’t think I’ve smoked a single cig since I’ve gotten here. No idea how long we’ve been wandering around to get here, but I don’t even want one anymore. So, no thank you, I’ll pass.”

He grinned widely, giving Oliver a big thumbs up. Oliver smiled back, amazed that he hadn’t even noticed Oz going without cigarettes for so long.

“Last, but certainly, most definitely, and completely not least, Oliver Arcus, the pawn that fucked up.”

Satan smiled again, as if oblivious to his own words, “What could I give to you that you might want?” He seemed to be looking Oliver up and down from across the room, “I opened that rabbit hole near you as a portal because I thought you of all people wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation of a new start in a new life.”

He grinned at Oliver’s discomfort, “You fell hook, line, and sinker for it. You took the escape I gave you, and I thought I could use you as a puppet to help maneuver my plans around a little bit better. You even took the second temptation I’d given to you, sneaking into the school after I’d told you not to. I expected this, of course, why else would I allow a student and a stranger to wander the premises after the stranger seemingly “got through” our impenetrable defenses?”

Oliver pursed his lips together, the memories of his first moments at Killian, with the Dean, with Oz played through his head, the pieces that he’d thought were nonsense coming into place.

“You managed to monumentally mess up though, so in the short run, you were useless to me. In the long run, you changed the whole game. You upgraded everything to another level, and for that, I thank you.”

Oliver gritted his teeth, “Why then? Why did you pull me down here? What did you want for me that I messed up so badly?”

Satan laughed, a sound like a car accident, horrific yet alluring and earcatching, “I used the schools as an excuse to summon demons to Earth, attaching them to people. When those people died, naturally or otherwise, the demons would be allowed to remain on Earth by virtue of the contracts that originally bound them, instead of being forced to return to Hell. After I’d recovered enough of my power, I pulled you through the portal to a school, so that I could use you personally as a conduit for power. It worked for a while, but Asmodeus’s power was strong enough that he could sense my tampering, and shut it off, rendering you useless. If you’d only worked by the rules and summoned someone weaker, everything would’ve been fine. I would’ve gathered enough power to open holes for demons like Baal to come through regularly, and I could’ve set my army up on Earth, aiming for another War in Heaven.”
Oliver cringed, his head reeling. He hadn’t known what he’d thought of himself, as if he’d imagined he was some ‘chosen one’ or otherwise, but the truth didn’t help. He felt Oz’s hand rest on his shoulder, and he felt comfort from the proximity of another person.

“What the fuck…” He muttered, confused.

“You were so useless I tried to throw you away, but you couldn’t even go away right.” Satan said, grinning menacingly as he egged Oliver’s mental collapse.

Oliver scratched the top of his head with both hands frantically, mussing up his snow white hair.

“Ah, I know the perfect thing to offer you. How about Noah?”

Oliver stopped moving, frozen.

“That’s the spot, then? I’ll bring back your friend Noah. You want that, right? You got him killed after all, right?”

Oliver felt the tears run down his face, but he couldn’t do anything about it.

Noah died and it was my fault. He died and it was my fault. My fault. My fault. My fault. His thoughts looped continuously, overriding any other conscious thoughts he might’ve had.

Satan, his act of being a “benevolent angel” run into the ground, summoned a column of fire, using his ability to shape it approximately to a likeness of Noah. He danced it around cruelly for a moment before dousing it with his ice, the steam sounding like a far off scream.

Oliver fell to his knees, looking at the reflection of his own face in the shining floor. He hadn’t seen his own reflection often after the Summoning, whether by unconscious desire or otherwise, but here he was. He saw his own face, almost unrecognizable with the freckles that marked most densely the area around his nose, spreading out in a soft explosion. His white hair hung down over his forehead, still unusual to him. But despite everything, it was still him.

Noah had seen him before the battle, he’d said something about wanting to be strong enough to protect people, and then Oliver had found him on the battlefield, with people saying that he’d stayed behind to make sure everyone had gotten away safely.

“No!” Oliver shouted, coming to his feet, “No! It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault any more than it was anyone’s fault! He died protecting people. He died bravely. He died because of you. You can’t pin the blame on me, because I won’t take it anymore. Noah wouldn’t want me to give up right here for him, so I won’t let you torment me anymore! I don’t care that you gave me this new life, that I lost my old one, my old identity, because I’ve taken a new one! I’m Oliver Fucking Arcus, and I’ve got my friends to back to me.”

At his words, they all moved towards him, grouping up to face against Satan.

“You’re right, Oliver. It wasn’t your fault.” Celeste said, smiling warmly at him.

“Yeah! Like with my eye, you thought you did that, but I made the choices that led up to it, and that’s ok!” Ramona said, sticking her tongue out and pointing to her eyepatch.
“I doubt this year would’ve been so interesting without you, Oliver.” Oz said, grinning.

“Let’s take him down!” Maxwell said, punching her palm.

“Oh joy.” Satan said sarcastically, rolling his eyes, “Is this some ‘power of friendship’ garbage? Very well then, I tried to solve this the easy way.”

He stepped away from his throne, walking towards them as his bat-like wings unfurled behind him.

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