Before Yesh could break free of his horrified paralysis, the madman – the Demon – had reached out and seized his wrist. Yesh reflexively gripped back.
“Aaaaaa-” the Demon roared, then stopped. He let go, then reached out with both of his arms, terrifyingly fast, and grabbed both of Yesh’s hands. Then he slapped his fever-cold palms on the sides of Yesh’s face. “You’re not an Angel,” he said, mildly accusing.
“I told you that,” Yesh quavered.
“You-” the Demon glared at him, then down at his hands. They seemed normal, for the moment. Pallid, in fact, once the dark growths had receded. He may have been from some far-flung part of the Empire where the people were pale-skinned and golden-haired, although this man’s hair appeared to be silver at best, grey with age. His face was strong and … in fact, it seemed the Demon within him had withdrawn entirely. Or departed. “You cleansed me.”
“No I didn’t.”
“I think you fucking did, my boy. I was just about to dissolve into nothingness, and then I grabbed your hand and – look at me,” he spread his arms. Aside from the fact that he was dressed in an old uniform that was little more than rags, he did in fact seem fine. “I haven’t been able to hold my shape like this in five years. But you’re not an Angel, because if you were, we’d both be evaporating right about now,” the Demon – or possibly he was just a madman again at this point – stepped forward and poked Yesh sternly in the chest with a thick finger. “What are you then?”
“I’m – I’m – I’m just-”
“What is your name, boy?”
“Yehoshua,” Yesh said, not really thinking about what a bad idea it was to allow a Demon to know his name. “Yesh,” the madman stared at him. “I’ve never cast out a Demon before-”
“That’s not – what kind of – never mind that,” the madman said. “Do you know what this place is? What it was?”
“No,” Yesh replied. “My parents never talk about things from before.”
“From before,” the madman said with a weak smile. “How very portentous. As if before wasn’t, what, ten or twelve years ago?” he looked thoughtful. “Although … were you even born then? How old are you, boy?”
“Fourteen,” he said, then honesty compelled him to add, “on the morrow. I was a babe when the world fell.”
“It never ceases to amaze,” the madman-or-Demon shook his head. “You have lived your entire life in the wreckage. And already you know nothing more than the rubble. How quickly you forget. Your parents, they were alive,” he said, and added an unwarrantedly sarcastic wiggle of his fingers before intoning, “before.”
“Yes. My mother was young, but-”
“But you’ve learned that the world fell,” the madman said, “and that you are not to speak of it.”
“I learned some things from my mother,” Yesh said. “I was told not to speak of it by my father. And Salome,” he added, a little surprised at the admission.
“Salome. A sister?”
“Hardly. She’s my father’s mistress,” Yesh said bitterly. “On again, off again. She was my nurse when I was a baby. That was before the gold ran out, and so did she.”
“He ran off with her, because-”
“I don’t care.”
“-Because my mother was supposed to have been disloyal,” Yesh said hotly. “Which is stupid.”
“You’re not feeling this at all, are you?” the madman said in tones of quiet surprise.
“I wish he’d stayed gone, the old drunk,” Yesh started, then paused. “What do you mean, ‘not feeling this’?”
“I’m … forgive me, I was laying down a pretty serious bit of … encouragement … for you to very much want to be somewhere else and no longer have anything to do with me. A grown man with a legionnaire’s discipline would have gone green and found somewhere else to tell his tawdry little human stories, and never bothered me with them again. A kid like you?” he shook his head. “You ought to damn near have soiled yourself.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Yesh said. “I’ve never been very good at getting these subtle clues adults are supposed to give out all the time. It usually takes a couple of swift whacks with a stick to get me to want to be somewhere else. And right now I am somewhere else,” he added in a rising temper. “This is my somewhere else, and you’re in it,” he looked down as the madman brought his hand up and slowly clenched his fist, then lowered his hand again with a thunderstruck expression. “What was that meant to encourage me to do? Fondle your balls?”
“Extraordinary,” the madman breathed. “You’re completely immune.”
“I don’t think having Demons in you is contagious.”
“Stop saying things that make you sound like a fucking imbecile,” the madman advised, but his irritation was half-hearted at best. “You’re him, aren’t you? You’re the half-breed that God sired. Your poor dumb dipshit of a father ran off with your nanny because he found out his wife got knocked up by God.”
Yesh sighed. “My mother and my uncles used to talk like that,” he said, “but nobody thought it was funny,” he still remembered the hiding he’d received when he’d gotten separated from his parents in Jerusalem and ended up having an interesting conversation for once with a bunch of adults in the temple. He’d made one wisecrack about finding his way to his father’s house … “Lots of kids’ parents say dumb stuff about them. I don’t – to be honest I don’t think my mother has the initiative to commit adultery.”
“Well, not many kids can reverse underdark poisoning,” the madman said. “You think I’m insane, don’t you?”
“Yes I do.”
“Come with me. I’ll prove to you that, even if I’m not exactly sane, then at least that sanity is critically overrated. Your uncles,” he went on when Yesh hesitated. “Odd fellows, right? One of them is Melchior, or something stupid like that? Always wears a dumb hat or a fake beard?”
“You’re friends with Uncle Mel?”
“I wouldn’t say friends,” the madman grimaced. “I’m at least ninety percent sure he killed someone very close to me, but things were … confused … when the world fell. But I know him. I just don’t know where he ended up. We need to talk to him. This is larger than you know, and – more importantly – will get you out of this shitty sandhole.”
“I don’t – is Melchior in Rome?”
The madman shook his head. “Not him. Too crowded. Look, you healed me. Let me help you. I can protect you from things you never even suspected were real. I can tell you all about the world before it fell. Come with me, let’s spend your birthday somewhere with a bit of style,” the madman – the Demon – held out his hand again. “My name is Mercy.”