I arrived home to an empty house. I didn't bother wondering where everyone had gone past the obvious 'away from me', which was really all I wanted because, damn, was my head starting to hurt. So I went upstairs to the livingroom where the sun leaking through the windows was set at a solid 'late afternoon' and plopped down face-first on the sofa. The dog padded after me.
Well, that was it. Chaz wasn't coming. Ruroi wasn't coming. None of the others were coming. I'd gone through the whole list, and nothing.
Yep, nobody else left. I reached out my hand and the mutt went in for ear scratchies.
I guess I could start looking from scratch, on my own, but that would take forever. Hell, I didn't even know where to start. What if they were all dead, or in hiding? Shem would be calling in any day now to check up on my progress. I'd have to go back empty handed.
Shem'd be pissed off, for sure. He was a cool boss, as far as bosses went, but if the last few millennia in Hell had taught me anything, it was that anybody higher up on the ladder than you couldn't be trusted. Cool boss or no, that wouldn't stop him from grinding me into a smear on the wall. A little yellow stain that the janitor would never be able to get out all the way-
Penemue is on the list! The voice of reason screeched in my head. You have his sign! Go find him.
I groaned and pulled one of the couch cushions over my head. Through the stuffing, I heard the noise of the dog's nails against the kitchen floor.
I don't wanna, I thought back to myself. Tomorrow. For realsies.
My sense of self preservation wouldn't stop giving me hell. I groaned some more and whined into the pillow until I could finally muster the motivation to drag my ass upstairs. I went back to my new, nice clean charm, set it up to find Pen, triggered it, and was off.
* * * * *
I hate the cold.
I really do.
So I guess it made perfect sense that Penemue would set up shop in a place suffering from a midget's height worth of snow. It was like Him Up There was defrosting the celestial freezer and decided to dump the resulting off-color slush down here where people couldn't file official complaints.
I landed in snow, in a courtyard surrounded by big blocky buildings. They were the sort of blocky buildings that tried to hide both their obvious new-ness and their natural blockiness by cramming in as much ornamental architecture as they could around the doors and windows and any other edges they had to make themselves look old and respectable. That didn't disguise the fact that somebody had based their basic design plans on a shoebox.
None of the few kids scurrying around the courtyard's concrete walkways paid me any attention. I wasn't sure whether or not to put that down to Odilia's charm having a built in look-away spell in it, or if they were all too busy tweeting or texting or whatever the kids do with the technology these days to notice me. They were all wearing red blazers. The girls all had on gray skirts despite the weather, the boys all had gray pants.
So, a school then.
I went into the nearest building to get out of the cold.
The inside of the building was much nicer than the outside, and not just because of the lack of cold. It was all polished wood and warm colors and portraits of stuffy looking old guys on the walls. All the doors lining the wall had plaques on them with the room numbers.
So, a fancy school, then.
As soon as I thought that, all the doors opened at once and a torrent of teenagers spewed out in a red and gray mass of vaguely disgruntled youth. I must have gotten swept up in the crowd, because when it ended all of four minutes later, I was in a different part of the building where the ceilings were lower, the stuffy old guy portraits were smaller, and I had no idea where I was.
To my left, a couple stragglers slouched their way to a classroom door and stopped to check the note posted there. One of them cursed and the two went jogging off.
For lack of anything better to do, I checked the posting myself. The note said that Professor Labbim's 10:45 classic literature class was taking place in the lecture hall today.
"Not even trying," I said, hurrying after those two kids.
They weren't all cool and slouchy now that they knew they were really going to be late. I had to run to keep up with them, but they were so absorbed in their own hurrying that they didn't notice or care about me. We went down a couple halls until they finally went into a pair of big foreboding double doors.
They went in. I hung back. The doors had convenient little windows on them, so I took a peek to see what I was dealing with.
Students. Lost of students, in a big half-circle shaped room that sloped down. Apparently the floor was set up like a giant stair case, with desks on every level, all arranged to face the big-ass whiteboard at the center. Off to the side of that was the professor's desk, piled high with books. I couldn't see much from behind the glass: he was hunched over writing something, anyways.
I opened the door and sat down in the nearest vacant seat, conveniently hidden- despite the angle of the floor- by a ridiculously large student in front of me. Penemue didn't look up when I entered. Just kept on writing. He said,
"The test is already in progress. If you came in late, you will have to see me after class and arrange a make-up. No exceptions."
Huh. I thought. Stutter's gone.
I glanced around for the two boys who had come in just before me. They were on the other side of the aisle, alternatively playing with their iPods behind the backpack-barrier on their desks and glaring at the teacher.
Figures Pen would be a hardass.
I closed my eyes and let my mind wander off so I could get a better look. As soon as I left my body, he jolted up and looked around. Silly as it was, I spectrally dove for the floor and hid under somebody's desk until he stopped looking my direction. All he'd seen was the sight of thirty kids all writing away on their test sheets. I oozed through floor and came up near the side of his desk.
He'd gotten a new body. Made sense, as I'm pretty sure Gabriel wrecked up the last one during the nephilim fiasco shortly after the fall. Unlike Chaz, though, this one wasn't rented. It was all Pen. I'm not sure if he made it himself, dug up a pre-used one, or if he'd pulled some strings to have someone make on for him.
He was taller than me now, which wasn't all that hard to do, but it put a damper on the 'nerdy little Penny' image I'd been carrying around with me for the past ten thousand years or so. The rest of him fit the bill, though. Gangliness had come with the height, and even from across the room, I could see he was pale from spending so much time indoors.
He had glasses. That bugged me. He didn't need them: he'dve gotten a body with perfect vision, so the glasses were purely cosmetic.
I thought I could wait it out. How long could a little test take? Fifteen minutes? I hung back.
At the fifteen minute mark, I was starting to get antsy. At the twenty minute mark, I began to wonder how fucking long this was going to take. At the thirty minute mark, I might've kinda sorta may have maybe snapped. I broke. The quiet was too much. The scratching of pencils and shuffle of papers was too much. I returned to my body and got the fuck out of that room.
Come on I thought, speed-walking my way down the hall. I know I saw one here. . .
There, at the end of the corner. A beautiful red rectangle attached to the wall with the words 'FIRE' 'ALARM' and 'PULL DOWN' all in white, bold print. I obliged the words and pulled the lever inside the box down. Immediately something wet sprayed all over my fingers. When I looked, my palms were covered in foul smelling black ink. Bells blared over the speaker system and a few classroom doors opened. I wasn't sure that would be enough, as there was the distinct possibility Pen would keep his students in through a drill, so I ran down the hall screaming, just to drive home the effect.
That got them. All the closed doors opened and hordes of kids started milling their way out. I guess I was expecting a mob, a mass of agitated humanity trampling over one another to get out of the building. Instead, they all exited in semi-neat rows, all ordered and on the speedier side of slow.
Huh. Go figure.
Mission thusly accomplished, I returned to Pen's class.
I sidled in through the open door just in time to avoid the crush of students eagerly leaving the room, the first bits of shoving I'd seen. Most of them had big ole grins on their faces, despite the fact that they were, for all they knew, exiting a burning building. Pen was still on the bottom platform, watching impotently as they went.
"Alright, everybody. Single file. Leave your bags and things at your desks. Leave your papers on your desk. If we don't come back in time, the test will resume Monday. Those who need makeups will be allowed to take it Monday with everyone else. I said leave your test on the table, Jeremy. No shoving, everybody out single file. We go to the designated meeting area by the bleachers-"
While he talked, he grabbed his jacket from his chair. The kids were in one hell of a hurry to leave him behind. Before he'd even gotten it on all the way, they were all out the door and down the hall.
"Don't bother with the bleachers," I shouted after them. "There's no fire."
Penemue was, against his own advice, packing up as many of the old books on his desk as he could. I sauntered on down to meet him.
Here goes nothing.
"Relax," I said, going up to his desk. "There's no fire."
He looked up from his frantic packing and, upon finding no one there, looked a little lower. "I'm sorry," he said. "But there seems to be an emergency-"
"No, really. There's not." I held up my hand and showed him where the ink had got me.
His face fell in stages. From slightly frazzled to slightly confused, to slightly annoyed until it finally came around to a hard-faced scowl of disapproval. He dropped his bag back onto the desk with a thump.
"Why did you pull the fire alarm? No. Wait." He grabbed my arm and started dragging me away. "Let's go see what the principal has to say about this, shall we?"
Several options flickered through my mind rapid-fire. I could bite him: his hand was right there. I could kick him. I could give him some massive boils or pestilence to deal with. Those were all knee-jerk, lizard-brain, instinctive 'something's got my arm' reactions. I could calmly say who I was, who sent me, and do this all the grown up way. That was my comparatively smaller and much smarter reasonable side thinking.
Instead, I shouted, "I'm not sorry about the camel shit!"
"Excuse me?" he kept on walking, dragging me along up the steps.
"Chazaquiel and I snuck into the village you were stationed at after Loquiel and I traded spots."
He slowed. "What?"
"We had barrels of the stuff. Not just camel, I'd imagine, but maybe ninety percent of it was. And brains. Piss, too, come to think of it. Stole it from a tannery."
He let go of me. The color drained from his already pale face.
"We dumped it all in your well. All of it. And I wasn't sorry for it then, and I'm not sorry about it now. You deserved it for the snake demon thing." The look he was giving me now was pure horror. I took in a deep breath.
Horror transformed into the much more familiar seething rage. "You,“ he hissed.
"Yeah, I get that a lot."
He lunged for me. I, being the savvy one I am, had already started moving. He missed. I hopped down the steps and back to his desk, making sure to keep it between him and me.
"This any way to greet an old friend?"
"Friend?" We circled around the desk. "Friend? You have the audacity to call me friend? After everything you put me through-"
"Oh come on. It wasn't that bad-"
"You mean aside from the camel shit? Should I make a list? Do you remember Matriel's raincloud?"
"We were in the desert! It was hot! I figured you'd appreciate it-"
He grabbed the coffee mug and started hurling pencils at me.
"Ow- stop it!"
"It rained frogs! I had to switch outposts because the locals thought I was a sign from Heqet and converted on the spot!"
"At least they got a good deal out of it," I said. A highlighter whizzed overhead. "Good eating on a frog."
"When we visited Ur you told the priests there I was the manifestation of Nidaba! They hounded me for weeks-"
"Not my fault you looked so feminine-"
He threw. He hit.
Pencil in the eye. Ow, ow. Pencil in the eye.
He ran out of pens and pencils to throw, so he threw the mug itself at me. I ducked. It shattered behind me.
"Get out of my school."
Eyes that had, until that moment, been a very human shade of brown flickered a few times like someone struggling with a lighter before blazing silver. He banged his fist on the desk. "My school! I swear to all things above and below, if you so much as look at one of my students in the wrong way-"
I hadn't noticed his hand creeping towards the ruler on his desk. Not until he snapped it up and whipped it across the table, giving me a good gash across the cheek. I fell backwards on my back. He leapt over the desk and landed right in front of me, holding the ruler like he was going to stab it down. His eyes burned, literally, casting off brilliant silver light.
"If you touch them-"
Then, right before he could shishkabob me, the speakers crackled to life above our heads.
A man's distorted voice told us to disregard the fire alarm, as there was no fire. It assured us that all was well on campus, save for the miscreant(s) who triggered the alarm, whom for which life was about to become very unwell indeed. We were to all return to our classes unless instructed otherwise by our teachers, and reminded again that there was no fire.
The sound seemed to snap Pen back to reality. He looked at the ruler in his hand as though he hadn't noticed it before. He hastily placed it back onto the desk.
I got to my feet.
He took a step back. "Get away from me."
"I'm not here for them, Pen. I'm just here to talk."
"Shemyaza's back, and he wants to talk to you."
There was a long pause.
"What," he hissed. "Does he want?"
I shrugged. "To take over Hell. I guess he and Lou are having a pissing contest, and he wants us to-"
Pen stood up a little straighter and adjusted his glasses. "Tell Shemyazza to stuff it." He pointed towards the door. "Get out."
"Don't be like this. Just go and hear him out-"
"Why? Why do you care?"
"I wholeheartedly support Shem in any plans he may have and think this maybe a good move for the universe in general," I lied.
"You're lying to me."
He leaned over so close I had to take a few steps back before our noses could touch.
"Listen closely. I'm not going with you. I'm not going to see Shem. I have a life now. I want nothing to do with whatever half-baked scheme he's up to."
"Will it kill you just to talk to him?"
"I don't know. Last time it got me my wings torn off, so yes, it very well might."
I groaned. "You gotta stop living in the past, Pen-"
"Living in the-! You really- you- you!"
After that, he trailed off into incoherent sputtering. I let him, figuring the more steam he let off meant the less I'd have to deal with in the long run. After a while his curses starting delving off into older and older languages, starting off first in English then meandering through several other modern dialects before hitting Aramaic, taking a turn at Old Egyptian and winding up in Sumerian. Eventually, though, he had to take a breath.
"You shouldn't keep your feelings bottled up like that," I said, ever willing to offer up helpful advice. "Bad for the heart."
His eyes bugged out, but his face had gone from a healthy shade of lobster to a more subdued turnip, so I called it progress and moved on.
"Just come with me-"
"My students will be returning shortly," he said icily. "That is if they all haven't ditched while I was in here with you. I don't want you in here when they get back. Leave."
And to make sure I left, he herded me to the door. I tried again. "Penemue-"
He reached over me and opened the door out to the hall.
"Tell Shemyaza what I said."
"Are you sure-?"
The door slammed shut on my face.
Welp. Last shot down. It had been worth a try. I took the last return charm out of my pocket and got the hell out of there. Last thing I saw before being whisked back home was the surprised faces of about half a dozen students coming up the hall.
I was so fucked.
* * * * *
It was evening when I got back. I looked out the window into the growing darkness, trying to figure out how bad the time dilution, before shrugging it off. It didn't matter much, I guess.
Faust was home again, downstairs and pajama-clad in the livingroom. There was a fire going in the fireplace, but all the pother lights in the house were off. He was also blind stinking drunk. The smell of alcohol came off him in waves.
"Hey, boss," I said, heading for the kitchen. It had been at least a day since I'd last eaten, possibly more with all the time shit screwing things up, and I was hungry.
"Hello imp," he said waaaay too cheerfully. I stopped to look at him. He smiled goofily. Shit, I knew that smile.
"Dammit, boss, what did you do?"
"I didn't do anything."
"You've got that stupid gushy face on. Who is it?" For a second I had a terrible, horrible, terrifying, unholy thought. "It's not Odilia, is it?"
For a split second I thought he'd sobered up. "No! No, no."
"Maria," he said with half a sigh.
That didn't ring a bell. "Who?"
He got up and staggered over to me. "Maria," he said again, almost singsong. "Maria, Maria. Imp, I have to thank you."
He was really drunk. I was going to go down to the wine cellar and find nothing but empty bottles. . .
"I take absolutely no credit for anything ever. Whatever it is is all your own stinking fault-"
He laughed, a high, ringing sound. "Maria. Matthew's mother. Maria."
Recollection stirred. A black-haired woman I'd only gotten the briefest glimpse of earlier that day. Just enough to know that she didn't have a lick of magic in her and was thus not a threat.
"Oh. Her. I take it you two hit it off?"
He grinned. Stupid, silly grin. Any second now little cartoon hearts were going to start floating over his head. "We all went to dinner. Odi insisted."
Oh. Well, okay. Maybe then that was kind of my fault. In a circular sort of way.
"You're not going to go domestic on me, are you?"
He barked out something I think was trying to be a laugh, but got caught halfway and came out more like he was choking. "No. No. Definitely no."
"Good. It's bad enough having the dog around."
He said something, but I'd already gone into the kitchen, leaving him to talk to himself.