Ashe reacted to the disaster that had struck the city in the same way he reacted to everything: calmly, methodically. Datapad in hand, he delivered orders to staff before anyone had a chance to panic, approaching the chaos in such a systematic way, Maxwell would have thought he’d had always had a plan of action in place to deal with demon attacks if he hadn’t known better. They weren’t yet within the affected area, so Ashe was able to divert all the staff to safety, while advising them to contact family immediately, without worrying about functioning in the midst of a battle zone or during a loss of power.
While his assistant dealt with the particulars, Maxwell walked along beside him, wondering about his sons. Julian could take care of himself; the small arsenal he kept in his home attested to that. Phineas worried him, though. His younger son’s only defense at a time like this was the fact that he was small and flexible enough to find a good hiding place. Based on what he had been able to glean from Ashe on the situation, however, that might not be enough.
They came to a stop in the entrance hall beside the staircase, standing across the broad space from the elevators as Ashe tapped at the screen of his datapad. Maxwell sighed through his nose and looked up at the high ceiling. It wasn’t as though he could even contact Phineas to reassure himself when all of this was over, not without initiating another manhunt.
“All staff members have been removed to the buffer floor below us, sir. They are, of course, appropriately restricted in their access to the space. Now I would suggest that you join them via the ladder beneath the stairs here. The buffer floor will provide--”
His head jerked up and he fixed his gaze on the lefthand elevator door. The lights went out.
Maxwell stood in the darkness, his eyes still directed at the ceiling. He waited for the back up generator and the emergency lighting to kick in, and when it did not he redirected his gaze toward Ashe, expecting an explanation or at least some assurance.
Ashe said nothing, still staring into the dark. The only light came from his datapad, and it cast a blue-green tint across his face, making his eyes glint in colors Maxwell had no names for. He followed Ashe’s gaze, and as his eyes adjusted, thought he could make out a bulky shape beside the elevator doors that was darker than the rest of the room. At first he thought it was a trick caused by the afterimage of the light from the datapad.
But then it moved.
“Ashe. What is that?” Maxwell kept his voice even.
Ashe exhaled slowly, thumbed a button on his datapad, and for the first time in Maxwell’s recollection, the device turned off. Though the darkness should have been complete now, Ashe’s eyes still seemed to reflect light from an unknown source.
The shape began to uncoil, spreading as it advanced.
“Ashe?” Voice spiraling up in tone, Maxwell reached out for Ashe’s sleeve.
“I have to advise you to retreat at this point, Mr. Maxwell,” Ashe said, slipping his dead datapad into his back pocket. “It is no longer safe here.”
Maxwell gave his assistant a look that he either didn’t see or chose not to acknowledge. He had always known Ashe was made of titanium, but this was insane. “You too.”
“I have business to take care of here, sir. It is imperative you go now. You will not have another chance.”
Maxwell opened his mouth to argue, but the thing that had been advancing let out a noise that was a mockery of human laughter, and Maxwell found himself crouched behind the curve of the stairwell, moved by some animal repulsion toward the creature that apparently Ashe did not share. He had no recollection of getting there, but there was a dull pain in one leg from where he must have wrenched it moving so quickly. Staring between the posts of the banister, he watched the creature stop some distance from Ashe, and the two stared each other down.
“This is a nice guise I find you in, father,” the creature said, and its voice made Maxwell want to vomit. “Rags and constricting human flesh. You’ve grown far too attached to this dust-ball world. Where is your majesty? Your darkness?”
“What is it you want, Malchior?”
The thing laughed again and there was a sickening whining noise in response, as though every metal beam in the building’s superstructure had warped in disgust. Maxwell knew how they felt.
“Is that any way to greet your long lost child?”
Ashe brushed his curls out of his eyes. “I have no time for games. State your business.”
“I’m only here to force your hand, father,” Malchior said, its tails lashing in amusement. “You know what you should have become during the last cataclysm--anything else, especially this little farce, is beneath you.”
“The annihilation of this world means your destruction as well,” Ashe said. Maxwell wanted to scream at him; the thing was almost twice his height, and had more appendages than he could easily count, but Ashe appeared not to have noticed. He spoke in the same unimpressed tone he used with people he had no time for. Something was wrong with him.
And what the hell did the creature mean by calling him father?
“Indeed, it has,” Malchior replied. “But out enjoyment of life extends only as far as does human suffering. The people in this world are broken, dragging themselves toward an end that they see as inevitable. The population will never recover. The world will never recover. What little seeps into our realm barely keeps us from turning into mindless beasts. We are starving, father, and I would rather see my race go out in a final, ecstatic climax of agony than be reduced to animals because of your inactivity.”
Ashe regarded the creature in silence for a moment. “But that isn’t the ending you have in mind for today.”
“Of course not.” The words came out in guttural slur of laughter. The thing extended one hand, its long fingers curling invitingly. “I’m willing to allow you the few pleasures you’ve found in this world. Mine won’t touch what is yours as long as you don’t interfere with what is mine.”
“I see no reason not to destroy you now.”
There was something about the way Ashe spoke--something in the sudden faraway, hollow timbre of his voice or the absolute certainty behind his lackluster tone--that made Maxwell shiver. He had known Ashe a long, long time, and had always known there was much going on beneath the surface when it came to him, but he had never imagined that his long-time companion could seem so utterly alien.
Malchior’s hand dropped to its side, but Maxwell could see its teeth as it smiled. “You’re welcome to do so, father. But I imagine the backlash would be very painful to you--it might even destroy you.” It tapped its teeth with a single claw in mock contemplation. “I wonder who would be next in line if you failed to take up your mantel.”
It was a moment before Ashe answered. He was facing away from the stairs, but Maxwell didn’t have to see his face to know the look he was giving the demon. He could tell just from Ashe’s stance, the way his clothing shifted and his hair fell into place. He was losing his patience, and coiling himself in preparation for a swift and brutal attack. It wasn’t something that happened often and Maxwell watched in fascination.
“I’m not the only one who profits from this night, father, no matter what you do. Of course, you knew that already,” the thing added slyly.
Ashe inclined his head and brushed his hair out of his eyes. Maxwell knew he was smiling.
“It’s time for you and your kind to go back where you came from.”
To date, Maxwell had never witnessed or heard of anyone disobeying Ashe when he gave an order, no matter how indirect or veiled it was. Julian and Phineas, though both impetuous, had always done as they were told, and the staff never dared disobey; even Maxwell followed Ashe’s instructions, on the few occasions when he had been bold enough to give them outright. So, despite the situation and the nature of the creature in front of them, he was surprised when Malchior laughed.
“You are a coward,” it said, pulling itself up to its full height. Its curled horns almost brushed the ceiling. “You were unwise to cut us from you and discard us, and you are weak without us. I believe he is right: you are not fit to be the God Who Becomes, father, no matter what has been written.”
“I was mistaken.” Ashe stepped forward, extending one hand. “It’s time for you to cease.”
He made a plucking motion, and a tendril of what looked like thick, black ink appeared between his fingers. It extended across the space between the two of them until it hit Malchior’s abdomen and disappeared into it like a grotesque umbilical cord.
Malchior was unalarmed. It chuckled, its tails coiling behind it, and the elevator doors behind it groaned, though Maxwell could see nothing that could be putting stress on them.
“Perhaps there is hope for you yet.”
Ashe’s extended hand clenched into a fist, and the thread connecting them split and multiplied, piercing both their bodies. Malchior made a face that was part pained grimace and part crooked smirk.
“But you’re still too attached to this world. Allow me to help you, father, as a token of my...love.”
The doors blew off of the righthand elevator. Maxwell saw them coming and ducked down behind the staircase, braced for the impact. Through some miracle, neither of them hit him, though one crashed through the banister just to his side, spitting a shower of splinters that bit into his arms as he shielded his head. The other door hit the staircase itself, and Maxwell winced both at the thunderous noise and at the thought of how much the repairs were going to cost if he survived this.
“You overstep yourself.”
The voice that had spoken was Ashe’s, but it was wholly foreign, as though several Ashes were speaking at the same time, voices deep and ringing from a single mouth. It was a sound more beautiful and more frightening than anything Maxwell had ever heard in his life. A strange light had infused the room, casting strange shadows through what was left of the banister. Maxwell’s whole body was trembling, and it took everything in him to make himself peer over the edge of the stairs.
He was just in time to see the doors of the lefthand elevator fly toward Ashe. Maxwell yelled an unintelligible warning, but the solid metal doors hit some invisible barrier just in front of Ashe’s face and disintegrated; the air current from their flight rustled Ashe’s hair and shirt. He didn’t so much as twitch.
“You need me,” Malchior roared. “You will only know what I see when I am part of you again!”
“You wish reintegrate with me?” Ashe’s voice was back to normal, and the glow coming from him somewhat dimmer.
“It will pain you, and that pleases me,” the demon said, flexing its wings. “I can never kill you, I can never surpass you, but I can be part of you. Together again, we will give shape to a new world.”
Ashe stood for a moment in silence and then sighed. The creature collapsed into black dust.
Maxwell stayed frozen for several moments, staring while the dust settled and the backup generator finally kicked in, bringing the lights buzzing back to life. He didn’t even move to shield his eyes, instead squinting at the empty spot where the demon had been. The whole ordeal had been over far too quickly and with much less fuss than he was comfortable with, and he was waiting for something more to happen.
It wasn’t until Ashe lurched backwards and sat down heavily on the bottom stair that Maxwell moved. He rose, ignoring the way his joints ached after crouching for so long, and skirted around the curve of the staircase to reach his assistant. As he got closer, he could see that Ashe’s whole body was trembling; he sat with his head in his hands, and he seemed to be having difficulty breathing. Concern flooded Maxwell, and he reached out to touch Ashe’s shoulder.
The other man straightened before his hand made contact. He looked up through his curls, but Maxwell didn’t have time to place the emotion in his eyes before something in his expression shifted back into his perpetual look of business-like boredom. He rose and brushed himself off.
“If you are unharmed, Mr. Maxwell, I suggest we make our way to the buffer floor to recover the staff and set them to assessing the damage to your property.”
Maxwell stared at him in amazement, appalled at the ease with which Ashe ignored everything that had just happened and the fact that Maxwell had seen it all. If his display in dealing with the monster hadn’t been proof that something abnormal was going on, this ability to shake the whole thing off as inconsequential was more than enough for Maxwell, who was only ignoring how scared he was by being annoyed at his own ignorance.
“Bullshit,” he said and grabbed Ashe’s wrist as the other man reached to retrieve his datapad from his back pocket. “We aren’t doing a damned thing until you tell me what just happened.”
“If you insist on inaction, then I must suggest that we relocate to another room where you can sit until your nerves are calmed.” Ashe shook his grip off and, taking him by the elbow, steered him toward his study.
Once in the room, however, Maxwell pivoted, planted his hand in the center of Ashe’s chest, and pushed him down into a chair. Ashe landed heavily, exposing the exhaustion he’d exhibited on the stairs moments before. He blinked in surprise while Maxwell turned away and poured liquor into two heavy glasses. In an unprecedented act, he pressed one into Ashe’s hand, then sat across from him and sipped from his own.
Ashe stared at the glass and then at his employer, and Maxwell suppressed a self-satisfied smirk at being able to elicit such unguarded emotion from him.
“So tell me what’s going on.”
Ashe grimaced and set his liquor down untasted. “There is much to do, Mr. Maxwell. I need to check with the staff and assess the damage to the compound.”
Maxwell ignored him. There would be time for all of that. “I find myself unnerved by how little I know about my lifelong friend. So talk.”
“This isn’t the time for this story, sir, and I don’t see that my personal life has anything to do with this situation.”
“I disagree,” Maxwell said, taking another drink. The liquor calmed his nerves, warming him from within, and being in charge of the situation again helped as well. “That creature called you ‘father,’ said you created it, and, according to what else it said, it is now a part of you.”
Ashe scowled, an expression Maxwell was not sure he had ever seen on him. He liked it.
“So how exactly does one make a demon? That’s what it was, right? A demon?”
Pursing his lips, Ashe picked up his glass and downed its contents. He set it back down on the table with a thunk. Apparently, this was not when or how he had wanted to have this conversation, but Maxwell didn’t care.
At length, Ashe said, “Malchior was a demon, yes, but not in the classical sense. He and his kind represent emotions that I removed from myself a long time ago.”
“That’s a type of catharsis I’ve never heard of: giving physical--and bloodthirsty--form to emotions.”
Ashe looked at him through half-lidded eyes. “Hatred and pain and despair are voracious creatures, Mr. Maxwell.”
“So at some time in the past, you purged yourself of negative emotions and they became demonic creatures?” Maxwell scoffed. “And you did this how?”
“There is a certain amount of divinity attached to anything that is or was a part of me. In that way, physical form was given to these emotions, which were not, I must add, all negative. Malchior, for instance, represents unshakable pride. There were others that represented glee, ecstasy, happiness. All I have retained are what you yourself have noticed in my presence: boredom, amusement, things like that.” Ashe tilted his head and his curls shifted across his face, a curtain parting to reveal a hidden actor. “They are all part of me again, now. I am a new person. I hope it doesn’t take you too long to become reacquainted with me.”
It was Maxwell’s turn to stare now. It was a hard story to swallow, but as he had said, he knew much less than he had thought about the man sitting across from him, and given what else he had seen that night, it was difficult to say that what Ashe was claiming was impossible. In fact, quite a few odd things about his assistant that he had always dismissed out of hand were starting to fall into place. Ashe looked back at him, idly running his finger in circles on the rim of his glass, and went on.
“As a god, I am capable of quite a lot, sir.” His lips curled in a slow, crafty smile; another expression Maxwell had never seen on him. “I am very ancient, Mr. Maxwell. My proper name is Ashe-im-Torim.”
Maxwell mouthed the name and his eyes narrowed in approval. As long as he had been around Ashe and as much as he had grown attached to him, the other man had always seemed like a caricature hidden behind a veil, so that even his blunt, two-dimensional outline was hard to make out. Things were obviously going to be different now, but he approved of the newcomer sitting before him.
“Well, Ashe-im,” he said finally, setting his glass down and rising. “We have some work to see to.”
Ashe-im also rose, slipping his datapad out of his pocket. “Leave it to me, sir.”
“I always do.”