“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Think about it,” the Devil replied. “They already have money, all of Hayato Yamaguchi’s worth, as well as other benefactors, I’m sure.”
“They have weapons. How they haven’t turned you into Swiss cheese yet is beyond me. Especially given your track record.”
“So just what is your ‘Pentagram Gang’ after?” He paused for a moment, giving me a chance to fill in the blank before continuing. “Lives. The lives of desperate people. Those who feel they have nothing to lose. The only ones who would be willing to risk the eternity of their afterlife for some petty reward.”
“Okay Mr. Know-it-all, what have you turned up then?”
The Devil sighed, “Nothing you don’t already know.” He rested his forehead in the palm of his hand. “A circumscribed pentagram was a symbol of the Old Guy. Not one of the victims you’ve encountered have appeared here for Judgment. There’s only one conclusion I can draw from that.”
“Somehow, he’s granted those individuals the ability to move between the realms I created after his banishment. He’s made a pact with them. Those who die after accepting this power are forced to join him in the Pit. At least, that’s my theory,” he said, scratching his head.
“I don’t know. I suspect that there’s another party involved. Whoever figured out how to make contact with him. This gang has to have a leader after all.”
“About that. I think I might have a--”
The Devil held up a single finger, cutting me off for a moment of silence. “Something’s come up,” he said, as if someone had just whispered in his ear. “There’s been some kind of cult activity recently in the small town of Milton.”
“I want you to check it out,” he spoke over me, “It could be a lead. Get going, we’ll talk more later.”
I rolled my eyes, gave a nod of acknowledgment, and headed for the empty archway.
Milton. If desperation was the trait they were looking for, this town looked like the place to find it. There were a lot of things you could say that Milton needed, but a new coat of paint was definitely a top priority.
Dark grimy streaks ran down the chipped paint on the siding of the town’s buildings. Those made of brick hadn’t fared much better. The bricks were all beaten up and the mortar was completely black in spots. An abundance of broken windows were left hanging from their frames.
Though many buildings lined ‘Main Street’, few held any businesses or residents. Many were vacant with boarded or barred windows. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake ‘For Lease’ as the town’s name.
The few restaurants that remained here displayed soft drink signs over a decade old. They gave me a strange sense of nostalgia. Their faded colors and dirty plastic didn’t quite match my childhood memories.
According to my notebook, Milton was an old hunting and fishing village. That was how its residents had chosen to remember it anyway. I could tell each one of them had contributed a little bit of their former lives to it's atmosphere. The town had failed to keep up with the times though.
The 14-Point Buck. The Trout Terrace. The Rabbit’s Foot. These were just a few examples of the ‘fine’ establishments that had survived the town’s economical drought. Out of those three, I decided the Buck looked the most appealing and headed for the door.
Inside I found a dimly lit diner full of scraggly patrons. The darkest corners of the place could have passed for a jail cell given a few alterations. The customers ate meals that ranged from mildly unappetizing to down right disgusting. Most, if not all of these dishes were served next to a tall pint of beer, probably out of necessity.
“You gonna order something?” said a large hairy main behind the counter.
“Yeah, I’ll have a...” I trialed off, looking from plate to plate, trying to find a dish less appalling then the next. “Actually, I’m not that hungry.”
“Order something or leave,” the man clarified, leaning closer to me with a scowl.
“I was hoping I could ask your guests a few questions abou--”
Almost in unison, half of the restaurant stood up. Between their hunting camouflage, dirty overalls, and discernible affinity for wearing boots, they were a rather intimidating looking bunch.
“Okay... enjoy your meal,” I said, as I backed toward the door.
Once outside, I heard a car door shut in the distance. Across the street, there was an empty parking lot next to an abandoned shop. As I moved further down my side of the road, a lone car came into view, parked far to the back and snug to the building.
A suspicious figure approached from the parking lot. As this person walked, they kept a constant and paranoid watch on their surroundings. To avoid standing out, I pressed myself against the dirty brick wall behind me. I focused, trying to stealth my presence while also fumbling through my jacket. If they looked in my direction, maybe I’d seem like another Milton resident stopping for a smoke.
As the suspicious person crossed the road, I could start to make out their features. The individual was a thin, scrawny man, in his mid-thirties. He didn’t appear to be in the greatest of health with dark bags under his eyes, a bony face, and greasy hair. He looked like what he really needed was a good night’s sleep. The man’s clothing was dark, yet otherwise normal attire, a tee shirt and black jeans.
When he got to my side of the street, he did one last paranoid scan of the area, then ducked between two buildings. I followed behind, slowly, giving him a decent head start.
The ground behind the building dropped off down a hill, but a staircase lead around to a balcony and a basement floor entrance. The door quietly latched shut behind my suspect. I waited quietly for a few minutes, but no one else came or went through this entrance.
There were no windows on this side of the building to peek inside, so I instead crept up and put my ear to the door.
I couldn’t hear much, but I managed to catch a stray word here or there. There were many voices talking, though most were too muted to make out. Whatever was going on behind this door, it sounded bad. One moment, I could hear chanting and cheering as a group, the next I’d hear loud arguing.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Devil was right. If the pentagram gang was looking for a way to boost their numbers, a gathering in a place like this would be a great opportunity. Desperate people from a desperate place. The perfect source of volunteers.
I thought for a moment about Eddie. He was probably just a fringe case in all this. They couldn’t just threaten all of their members into joining, but what if they came willingly? They could even pose a serious threat to the well-being of the afterlife. And what exactly was all this manpower even for?
As I wandered, lost in my own thoughts, a glimmer of light caught my eye. My feet began to flicker from a bright glow shining out underneath the door. Rays of orange light flashed through slim cracks around the door frame.
I’d waited long enough, maybe too long. I turned the doorknob, but a deadbolt prevented the door from opening. I drew my gun and fired six shots into the door, surrounding it’s lock. Without hesitating, I kicked the busted door open.
Flames rose high from a circle drawn on the floor. Nine people stood in a ring inside the flames, their faces burning with pain. At the center of it all chanted an extravagant leader. Drawn inside the circle was the familiar pentagram and both glowed a deep bloody red.
At the sight of my entrance, the leader quickly finished his chant. He took off, dashing through a door at the back of the room. He passed through the flames without being burned, despite the anguished cries of those still inside it.
As the flames subsided, an enraged group of men and women turned toward me. Six members of the group broke away and rushed me. Panicked, I leapt backwards into the doorway and began to shoot my aggressors. Three of them fell before the fourth, a muscular thug with a scarred face, grabbed me by the arm.
He pulled me back inside and slammed me into the wall in one motion. Holding me pinned, he bashed the weapon from my hand. I might have been in trouble had he not gotten a shock when the bodies beneath him caught fire. He jumped back, out of the flames as they burned his ankles.
“Aarrrg,” I grunted as I fell to the ground. On impact I rolled away to escape the flames, the heat chasing after me. I jumped to my feet and raised my arms to fight when, to my surprise, everyone stood in place.
The remaining recruits, five men and one woman, stared in horror at the flames consuming my unfortunate victims. The fires died down, never leaving anything behind.
“That’s it? That easy and we’re gone?” said the man I’d followed here. The others remained speechless.
“Didn’t your runaway friend tell you that this was the consequence?” I questioned them.
“Yeah, but from one bullet?”
“He said we’d be stronger than this. He said we’d be able to change things!”
“He lied,” I answered, “And he left you behind. Is that the type of cause you want to join?”
“It didn’t used to be this way,” the scrawny man said, “Toni wouldn’t have let this happen!”
“Toni?” I asked.
“We used to play cards with him and bitch about this life.”
“That’s what this place was supposed to be. That’s how things were before he left.”
“I miss old Giuliani,” said the man who had pinned me.
“Yeah, did you know him?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“Old Toni said he was coming back. Said there was something he had to start, but he’d be back before long.”
“We don’t belong here,” one of the quiet few at the back of the room spoke up. “We don’t fit in here, not in this town or this realm. Toni said he’d get us out of here.”
It was true. This group didn’t look or act like the others I’d seen in town. They weren’t sporty or outdoorsman-like. They were a group of social outcasts, and probably always had been.
I reached down, slowly, picking up my gun by it’s barrel and keeping it within view. The disheartened group didn’t react, so I holstered my weapon.
“You don’t belong here? Then leave. That’s the power you traded for, use it. Stay out of trouble and lay low. You’ve got one slip up left for eternity. Unless you want to end up like them.” I motioned toward the char marks on the floor.
“And if they come looking for us?” Another quiet individual spoke as I reached the door.
“Run. Because if you join them, and we meet again, I won’t let you go a second time.”
With those words, I left. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to see if they left or what direction they went in. I didn’t want to see them again. I didn’t want to be responsible for any more pointless death, because I knew there was going to be more. After all, this was only the beginning. Toni had said so.
Clenching my fists, I focused on home. My boss and I had a talk to finish.
As the Throne Realm faded in, I marched toward him, feeling like I had solved everything.
“It was Toni!” I yelled.
“What?” asked the man in the top hat.
“The cult. They knew him. They were his friends. He’s gotta be the one pulling the strings!”
“I sent Toni Giuliani to the Pit for his crimes. You know that.” The Devil paused to think for a bit, but I kept talking at him.
“Well, how about the initials M.G.?” I asked, trying to catch my breath. “Do those mean anything to you? Was ‘Toni’ short for something? Did he ever used an alias starting with ‘M’?”
“M.G.?” the Devil asked. “Oh that motherf--”
The Devil rose from his chair. In the several years I’d served him, I’d never heard him use such strong language, and he’d almost never lost his temper. He began to walk toward me, an incredibly unusual sight.
“Follow me,” he commanded as he walked through my archway. He faded away before my eyes. I looked over at the confused queue line casting me glances of ‘what now?’. I shook my head, sighed, and focused on sensing the Devil’s trail. It lead somewhere I wasn’t familiar with, in a realm I’d hardly ever visited. As the world faded out, for a short moment I could have sworn I saw the Devil still sitting in his chair.