P.S. The title PSYCHOPOMP was suggested by my friend Thomas, who is quite the writer himself. Even though I'm not Christian, his Christian poetry is brilliant! Psychopomp is from the Greek word psuchopompos, meaning the "guide of souls". Pretty cool, huh?
“An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't.” -Anatole France
The entrance essays for the demon defense course Bub was going to be teaching at the academy were deplorable. I’d learned that word from Jack, Bub’s butler, but I’d figured out the definition all on my own. It meant that they were shit.
I threw the latest disasterpiece down on Bub’s desk. “Why am I helping you review these again?”
Jack slipped off his reading glasses and rubbed the small span of forehead between his gritty horns before pinching the bridge of his nose. “Because you’re more familiar with this gibberish that your kind mistakenly calls English. And Master Beelzebub insisted that you approve the class roster.”
“At this point, he’s more likely to have an apprentice than a class.” I slouched back in my chair and gazed out the darkened window of Bub’s study. It was well after nine. The light was fading behind the mountains, leaving only a thin line of pink along the sharp skyline. Bub still hadn’t returned from his meeting with the Hell Committee.
Jack followed my eyes to the window and sighed. “I think we’ve tortured ourselves enough for one night. Would you care to join me for tea and dessert?”
I was still full from the dinner Jack had prepared, that Bub had also missed, but I nodded anyway. Sugar would help ease my disappointment. Besides, Jack made a chocolate mousse to die for.
Bub’s country home in Tartarus was swanky, but it was rustic and small enough to still pass as charming. Well, except for the study. That room was downright archaic. I felt my shoulders sag with relief as we left the soaring shelves of volumey texts behind. Clusters of antlers were fashioned into little chandeliers down the hallway, and they flamed to life as we made our way towards the kitchen. I had a feeling it was more sorcery than modern technology, but Bub was known to dabble in both.
We bypassed the dining hall, opting for the more humble breakfast area in the main kitchen. Between the cooling ovens and low ceilings, the room was quite toasty. The stone floors were polished to a shiny gray. They matched the alcove shelving behind the counter that dissected the room, separating the old table from the modern gadgets in the otherwise medieval kitchen.
I took a seat while Jack paused at the pantry to slip an apron over his dapper butler attire. It was a simple white garment, but it still managed to look comical on the stuffy old demon. He looked up at me, and I pressed my lips together in an effort to hide my grin.
“What?” He blinked stiffly.
“Hmm? I’m just excited to try your chocolate mousse.”
He raised an eyebrow before clearing his throat and setting to work, retrieving a carton of cream from the refrigerator. He poured some in a metal bowl and set it under an automatic mixer, quickly moving on to the sink, where a basket of fresh berries waited in a colander.
Jack’s forehead crinkled as he rinsed the berries. “Unfortunately, the only decent essay I’ve read thus far happens to be the one submitted by your apprentice, Mr. Kraus, and he’s the least likely to need a formal education in demon defense, as he has you for a mentor.”
“Kevin submitted an essay?” I frowned. Why hadn’t he told me? I’d been teaching him bits of what I’d learned over the summer, but I had to admit, I’d left out the more tedious lessons. I was just so relieved to be finished with my training and classes at the academy, and excuse me for not missing the migraines. Summer was meant to be enjoyed. I’d try harder now that fall was creeping upon us.
The mixer chimed just as fluffy white peeks began to curl up out of the bowl. Jack retrieved the chocolate mousse from the refrigerator. He had made it just before dinner and left it to chill as a bribe to lure me into the study and read essays. Sneaky old demon. He placed three crystal serving glasses on the counter and put a healthy scoop of mousse in the bottom of each. Then he layered in the fresh whipped cream and spiraled the last of it on top for good form, outlining the rim of each glass with the berries. There was nothing Jack made that didn’t look as wonderful as it tasted.
He picked up one of the glasses and sighed. “I’ll just set this one in the chiller for Master Beelzebub--”
“I think not, my good sir.” Bub suddenly appeared in one of his flashy business suits. It was a shiny blue number with a gold tie that matched the flecks swirling in his dark irises. He slipped out of his jacket and flung it over his shoulder before taking the dessert from Jack.
Jack brought me the remaining glass of mousse and took his down the hall with a frown. I think he had been looking forward to discussing the essays further, but I couldn’t say that I wasn’t relived to have that conversation postponed. I also couldn’t say that I wasn’t relived Bub had finally shown up. I felt a little pathetic that I had waited around so late hoping to see him, and I could feel my skin warm from embarrassment. Bub did his best not to gloat, but I could see it in his tired eyes all the same.
“How’d the meeting go?” I asked.
He tossed his jacket over a chair and joined me at the table. “Same trouble in paradise. Different day.”
“Well. That’s nice and vague, and it perfectly explains why you’re nearly three hours late.” I peeled my eyes away from him and took a bite of chocolate mousse.
Bub had the decency to look ashamed. “It was a horribly long meeting, about horrible people with horrible plans. Please, forgive me for not wanting to relive the tedious details a second time in one evening. I have better things in mind.” The twinkle returned in his eyes as he dropped them to take in the low cut of my dress. It felt a little wasted at this hour.
“Your better things will have to wait. I’ve already stayed longer than I should have. Jack asked me to go over the entrance essays for your class.” I raised an eyebrow in question.
Bub chuckled nervously. “I’ve read some of them. I just asked Jack to help out a little, is all. What are butlers for?”
“Mmmhmm. You have to turn in an approved list by Friday. You do realize that’s in two days, right? Have you even started on your lesson plans, or is Jack doing that too?”
“Lana.” His shoulders slumped with a heavy sigh. “I know I play the part of a carefree playboy, but try to keep in mind that I actually do have legitimate responsibilities.” His face creased, and he looked away. “I imagine they’re not as legitimate as the likes of Maalik’s--”
“Not that again,” I groaned. “He had the Helm of Hades. I had a plan, and it went all to hell when he was injured--”
“I’m able to achieve invisibility without the helm. You could have included me in the plan.” Bub’s brows pinched together in hurt confusion.
“We’ve been over this.” I raked a hand through my curls. “You’re the better warrior, and you know more about demon defense, obviously. I mean, you’re teaching a class on it. Come on.”
“Right.” He sighed and pushed his half-eaten dessert away. I knew Jack would be insulted, but I didn’t feel like eating the rest of mine either.
“It’s late. I should go.”
Bub reached across the table and took my hand. “Let’s not end our evening on a sour note, love.”
I placed my other hand on top of his. “How about a do-over? Friday night?”
He grinned and gave me a nod. “It’s a date. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
I gave him a light peck on the cheek and scooped up my glass of mousse. “I’m taking this to-go. Tell Jack I’ll return the glass this weekend,” I said with a wink.
I left through the foyer and stepped out onto the front lawn, if you could call parched desert lawn, and coined myself back to the harbor of Limbo City.
Normally, I wouldn’t have felt especially safe on the dock at night in nothing but my skimpy evening attire. But since Grim had deactivated coin travel through the city and set up travel booths with nephilim guards, I didn’t have to worry as much. Aside from the time Loki had shapeshifted into a guard and knocked me out cold, I hadn’t had any problems with the new system. It was just that once, I reminded myself, as I eyed the two guards standing watch at the end of the dock.
I quickly made my way to the nearest travel booth and took it to the booth across from Holly House. The city was cooler than Tartarus, and I shivered against the chill. A light fog wove its way through the courtyard past the gates of the most holy condo complex in Limbo. Just a few months before, I had been slumming it in a crummy studio apartment, until a fire demon remodeled the place for me. It had taken awhile to warm up to the ritzy new digs, and the ritzy new rent bill, but it was worth the added security.
I passed a gurgling holy water fountain and a few concrete angels on my way to the front door, where I paused to punch my security code into the little cross-shaped box anchored to the stone wall. Charlie, the perpetually chipper deskman, called out a friendly greeting as I waited for one of the elevators. I gave him a short wave and smiled as one chimed open to take me to the tenth floor.
On the way up, I finished my chocolate mousse. I had three roommates, which meant nothing in the refrigerator was sacred. Chances were, they were all sleeping soundly by now, but Josie and Kevin were usually up a bit earlier than me. They were really taking advantage of the amenities at Holly House, especially the fully equipped gym. Jenni woke earlier than me too, but not by much. Punctuality was higher on my priority list, now that I was captain of the Posy Unit.
The condo was dark and quiet, except for the grumbling snores of my hellhounds drifting down the hallway. I considered it comforting white noise, but I was pretty sure most people would find it as soothing as snuggling up with a couple chainsaws.
I set my dessert glass in the sink and headed back to my bedroom. My mind was still on Bub. The fact that I was holding onto some of my secrets hung in the air between us more and more lately. It wasn’t like him to push or beg, and I hadn’t noticed until recently that he was biding his time, waiting for me to unravel my mysteries to him. He already knew too many of my deepest and darkest for my tastes.
The secret that clearly weighed on Bub’s mind the most these days was why I had asked him to fetch Maalik for me during the battle that took place when we rescued Jenni Fang, my roommate and Grim’s second-in-command. The Helm of Hades, better known as the Cap of Invisibility, was a weak excuse, and I knew it, but it wasn’t like I could come right out and say what he wanted so desperately to know. What everyone in Eternity so desperately wanted to know.
Maalik was one of three people who knew the location of the secret Throne of Eternity. Grim and myself being the other two. Winston, the former soul on the throne, had given Maalik a coin that would take him to the secret pocket realm from anywhere in Eternity. He’d given me one too, but after an impromptu abduction, Caim and Loki had relieved me of mine. That’s why I’d needed Maalik. The battle had beaten us down, and we were on the waning side of it. Maalik was our only hope of reinforcements. He went to Winston and gave him our coordinates, along with a request to activate coin travel in the cave corridor just beyond the battle and to level the main hall full of raging rebels. By some strange magic, we managed to escape.
Maalik hadn’t even received proper thanks for the feat, since not even Grim knew about the coins Winston had given us. The cave-in was written off as a fortunate coincidence. Everyone at the scene had been so relieved that they hadn’t thought to ask why or how coin travel had been activated within the cave corridor. Maalik and I were the only ones privy to that detail. It didn’t mean that we were on our way to a tender reunion.
I could understand Bub’s concerns, but I still wasn’t about to spill my guts to ease his mind. I was hoping a little time and attention would be enough to prove to him that I wasn’t going anywhere. I was pretty smitten with the Lord of the Flies.
There were still some lingering questions I had about Maalik. For starters, I really wanted to know if he was aware that in order to get us out of the cave alive, Winston had stepped down from the throne and installed the new soul I’d brought him as a backup.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about Naledi yet. She definitely wasn’t Winston, but she did distract him enough that he didn’t require my attention as frequently. In fact, I hadn’t been back to see him since our follow up meeting after the cave incident. It had been three weeks, and I still didn’t have a replacement coin or any other means of contacting him. I was starting to get a little unnerved. If he didn’t show soon, I’d have to suck it up and ask Maalik for an update.
I was not looking forward to that conversation. As far as I knew, Maalik didn’t know that I had been commissioned by Horus to find backup souls for the throne. That was a secret I had guarded fiercely, and one that probably had more to do with our breakup than I cared to admit.
Maalik was good at his job on the council. Maybe too good. He wouldn’t like what I was doing behind the scenes. I didn’t really have a choice though. Horus was prepared to expose my secrets to the council if I didn’t help him relieve Winston of the throne. Now that Winston had stepped down, my task was essentially complete. Not that I could tell Horus that. Not yet, anyway.
Winston was in no hurry to leave the secret throne realm, and not just because he needed to keep up appearances with Grim for my sake. He was in love with the new soul. I hadn’t been around them long enough to tell if Nadeli returned the sentiment, but if she did, Horus might not be too happy about it at the end of his term, when he fully expected Winston to follow him to Duat, the Egyptian afterlife.
Besides my mental turmoil, life had been simple for the past three weeks. The Posy Unit was running smoothly, Grim had been scarce, and best of all, Gabriel and I had patched things up. My favorite archangel was even living at Holly House now, and he was keeping his halo sharper these days, laying off the booze and mingling with political socialites. He’d even accepted a position on the Board of Heavenly Hosts. It had taken him a little longer than me to get past the rut we’d fallen into since the death of my mentor, Saul Avelo. But to be fair, I hadn’t taken that first step willingly. We were both back on track now, and things were looking shiny.