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The Soul Stop Café
The realm that lies between life and death is a desolate place, an endless plain of cracked, parched grey earth. The living call it Purgatory. We don’t have a name for it. It is the no-man’s land between Heaven, Hell, and Earth, and it’s the only place where residents of all three realms coexist in peace. At least, that’s the rule of my café. Outside, they can do what they want. I own the Soul Stop Café, the only destination on this entire plane. Needless to say, I get some pretty interesting people in my little bar.
Though it’s always twilight around here, I can always tell when night falls in a major place on Earth. Business picks up, and Lu’s demons start filtering in with the souls. I don’t get too many angels; they’re shy things as a rule, preferring to stay in the cathedrals and golden cities in Heaven. The demons stick around for the entertainment value in watching lost human souls. They are not as devoted to their master as the angels are, and anytime they’re not on his orders, they’re as far away from him as they can get. I don’t care either way what the angels and demons do; my job is to serve the souls until it’s time for an angel or demon to escort them to their Judgment. I’m the only indifferent party in this whole universe.
My first customer of the evening wanders in. He’s dressed in a dark suit, every crease and pleat pressed to perfection. Just like every other soul that comes in here, no matter their past or how they’re dressed, he has that vague, lost look on his face. He sits down at the bar a little gingerly, as if he’s doing this for the first time.
“What can I getcha?” I ask.
“Bourbon, I suppose.”
“Comin’ right up.”
They always order the boring drinks. I can make any drink ever conceived, including the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, and I’ve even come up with a few of my own. But no, they always order their favorite human drinks. The demons, at least, are more adventurous. I hand the man his bourbon and start wiping the counters. Messy things, humans. I know better than to try to make conversation with most of them. They’re all too busy reflecting on their lives to pay attention to the barman, and they rarely have anything new to say that I haven’t heard before.
The door opens again, and in walks Mephisto, a hellhound at his heels. He’s one of the regulars, and he usually has something interesting to talk about. He used to be just one of Lucifer’s lackeys; then a couple hundred years ago, Lu put him in charge of a squad of legions and he got a taste for the power. He’s recently decided that it’s just about time for another promotion, though he didn’t give me any details about his plan.
“Hey, Charon! What’s going on?” He sits down in his usual spot, a few seats away from the human. The hellhound flops down at his feet and puts his huge head on his paws.
“Same old, same old.” I throw a glance towards the soul. “They wander in, they wander out. They don’t even bother to look at the sandwich menu; all they ever want is the human liquor.”
“Well, at least you got us demons to keep you inventing those sandwiches of yours. Lighten up! It’s gonna be busy tonight; it’s Mardi Gras topside, and you’ll be getting plenty of customers. Maybe some of them will be drunk enough to try that new drink you made. What was that again?”
“The Red Fire Destroyer,” I say, putting his regular Dragon’s Blood cocktail in front of him. “Isn’t it ironic how many people celebrate Mardi Gras, but not the day after? It’s all a party now.”
Mephisto hissed slightly, his tail whipping around the barstool. Demons can’t stand hearing anything pertaining to God or Heaven, not because it hurts them, but because they just get fed up with how happy and enraptured the angels are. Personally, I think they’re a little jealous, but I’m not one to judge either side. “The more the merrier around here, I say. Let the humans have their fun, it’s just more entertainment for me.”
I smiled to myself. “So you think it’s going to be a fight night then?”
“Oh yeah,” he replied, smiling and baring his bloodstained teeth. “Verrine told me he’d be stopping by here once he finished with a mission in Russia. And since Mardi Gras starts a time of strength for the angels,” he spat, “they’re bound to be here rounding up their share of the souls.” He leaned in closer. “There’s a rumor goin’ around that Michael himself might be coming on this round.”
Mephisto and Michael had a history that goes back to the time Lucifer left heaven. Both of them suffer extreme hatred of the other, and their notoriously short tempers get even shorter when they’re near each other. Michael, of course, being the general of Yahweh’s army, has to put on a good example for his underlings, but Mephisto has no such obligation. So, of course, Mephisto does his best to get a rise out of Michael, which happens much too often in my bar. If they took it outside more often, I wouldn’t mind so much. I will give them full points for showmanship, though; once word gets out that they might fight, my small bar overflows with rowdy, intoxicated angels and demons. And a drunk angel is something no one should miss, if they have an opportunity. Mephisto and Michael let me see it at least weekly.
I only shrugged. “At least it’ll break up the monotony. So what does Lu have you working on lately?”
Mephisto nudged the hellhound. “I’m supposed to be looking for a guy named Balam. No one knows if he even exists, but word hit the underworld a few weeks back that there was a rogue hanging around who hadn’t put his allegiance with either Heaven or Hell. And apparently, God’s put quite a number of His legions towards finding him. Personally, I think it’s a load of crap, but the boss thinks it might be true, and his opinion’s what counts.”
I nodded and let Mephisto drink his cocktail in peace. As he predicted, half an hour later Verrine walked in, followed by Asmodai and Beelzebub. Impatience flanked by Lust and Arrogance. This trio has worked together for at least a millennium now, and their exploits are famous from the deepest pits of Hell to the highest towers of Heaven. They exchanged news with Mephisto before taking seats around him. The soul, now staring into his second glass of bourbon, moved down the bar out of the way of their wings and tails.
“Is it always like this?” he mumbled.
“Sometimes. Tonight it’ll probably get even rowdier.”
“You’re the owner of this place; don’t you care about them wrecking it?”
I paused for a beat. No one in the six millennia I had owned the Soul Stop, had ever asked me that. I looked closer at the man. His eyes were clearer than most, green-gold instead of the listless grey that most souls get after they have been in this realm for a few hours. I was beginning to think that he might not be an average soul after all. But then again, it could be the bourbon. “They’ll be back in the morning to make repairs, if they break anything. They come here too often to risk getting on my bad side.”
The man shrugged and returned to his bourbon. I kept an eye on him until it got too busy. He never looked around, always into that glass of bourbon. I realized that he wasn’t as old as I had thought, just barely an adult, despite his maturity. His kind weren’t rare around here. Most of them were teens who had grown up too fast, then died in an accident or suicide. They usually stayed long enough to become regulars. Then, inevitably, Heaven and Hell stopped fighting over their fate and whichever side won would come to take them away.
The night progressed as usual. More demons came, then a squad of angel legionnaires arrived and staked out a spot in the corner. More souls wandered in from outside. I served them all. Through it all, that boy kept nagging at my mind. Then finally, around midnight, Michael arrived: Gabriel on his right and Uriel on his left, as always, and a few of his officers at his back. Immediately Mephisto jumped to the floor, his wings flaring. I felt the temperature of the room rise a few degrees as he put on his entire flaming glory. Michael just stared back at him: a little pompous, a little disdainful, and a lot of confidence. It’s no wonder that gaze infuriates Mephisto so much. The archangel just pushed past Mephisto as if the demon were nothing, though he flipped his wings ever so slightly so that the feathers brushed Mephisto’s face, and stopped in front of the boy at the end of the bar.
“It’s time,” he said simply. “You can run no longer.”
The boy chuckled, the first real sound I had heard him make all night. “Jehovah can empty every hall of heaven and send every resident to persuade me, and I will not join Him.”
“How can you still deny his offer? Would you rather stay here, drinking with this lot?” he asked, gesturing towards Mephisto.
“I told you, I told your master. My only allegiance is to myself.”
Michael smiled. “In this world, you are either on Our Lord’s side or Satan’s.”
The boy stood, shedding his jacket. “You don’t get it. I’m not working for either of you. In a few months, both Jehovah and Lucifer will be on their knees at my feet. Now I’ll give you a choice: either clear out,” he said, shifting his weight onto the balls of his feet and bending his knees, “or I will send you into oblivion.”
Michael put a hand on his sword and smiled indulgently. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”
Just then, Mephisto shoved Michael out of the way, his hellhound snarling. “Balam!”
The boy turned his attention to the demon. “Indeed, that is my name. Perhaps you will recognize me now.” He rolled his shoulders and the façade fell away like water. Gone was the pressed suit, and in its place was a jaguar pelt tied in place with cords of leather and gut. The entire skeleton of the jaguar molded around his body, armor that moved perfectly with him. Instead of hands and feet, Balam now had the massive paws of his namesake, long fangs, and a tail that flicked about his ankles. He flexed his razor sharp claws. “That’s better,” he said, his voice deeper and as rough as a cat’s tongue. “Now should we discuss business?”
Mephisto stared at Balam, a sinister grin on his face as he saw the powerful being he had been seeking for what he truly was. Michael’s face, usually as unexpressive as cold stone, had managed a look of mixed shock and disgust.
“The Overlord of Hell will give you all you desire and more, my lord Balam,” Mephisto said with a bow. His voice was now smooth as velvet, shedding its usual hellish cast.
“Mere trinkets in comparison to what my Lord and Father can offer,” Michael murmured. “What we offer you is true power, the chance to rule over people who will obey you out of love and devotion, not out of fear and lust for your own power.”
“I say again, when the time comes, both of your masters will bow down before me. Now get out, and tell your pathetic lords to put their affairs in order, for the end of their rule over this earth has come.”
When Mephisto and Michael hesitated, Balam snarled and swiped his paw through the air. A gust of air flung them across the room and into the wall next to the door. He advanced on them, his tail whipping through the air and fire gathering in his fists. “Go,” he commanded. They fled, and within minutes, every angel and demon had left the Soul Stop Café. The souls continued staring into their drinks as if nothing had happened. Balam took his seat once more and turned to me.
“I’m sorry for causing such a commotion, Charon. I had hoped that my disguise would be enough to throw them off. There is still more that I need to do to prepare for my mission, and now that they know who I am, it will make things a lot more difficult to move into place.”
“Just out of idle curiosity, what exactly are you here for?” I set down a Red Fire Destroyer in front of him.
“I’m here to bring about what the humans call the Apocalypse. It should be no surprise that I’m here, really; a jungle tribe of humans predicted it thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, I might be putting you might be out of a job.” He took a sip of the Red Fire Destroyer. “This is quite good, you know. Perhaps I might have a place for you in the world I’ll form from the ashes of this one. And it won’t be a bartender for the wandering souls. Are you game?”
“I’m always game for some excitement,” I replied.