Hmm? Why hello there, reader! It is I, Asmodeus! Prince of thrones and… wait, we already did this bit. Nevermind then. No use in making you sit through it again. It’s been a long time since we last saw each other, hasn’t it? A bit too long, I’d say. Here I was starting to think you might’ve forgotten about little old me. I was only introduced in the last arc, you really ought to pay more attention. Tut tut, reader.
Wait, where was I again? When was I again? Oh, right! It’s been far too long since we’ve had a chance to talk, you and I, which swings me back to the topic at hand. Time. It’s a funny little thing, time. It’s simple yet magnificent, like a bagel or a mint julep. Yes, time is like a bagel. It’s circular, which means it never ends and often repeats itself, and much like a bagel what makes it delicious is often underappreciated and so deeply misunderstood.
You see, a good bagel is all about the preparation. There must be specific ingredients of a specific quality (in this case let’s say Philadelphia cream cheese, smoked salmon, capers, and parsley), and they must be prepared in a specific way and in a specific order. Mix the cream cheese, capers and parsley in a small bowl with some lemon juice, salt and pepper. Next, place two slices of the salmon in a cross pattern on a flat surface. Place one-fourth of the cream cheese mixture in the middle of the cross (why yes, silly, of course demons can make this recipe~) and fold the flaps until you have a package roughly two inches to a side. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Then, simply butter each half of the bagel and place your salmon package in the middle to make a sandwich. There you have it! The perfect bagels and lox recipe! Notice how if you’d mixed the ingredients after putting them on your bagel instead of before the end result would have been completely different (not to mention much messier)? Well, that’s what time is like. A few small changes to the preparation or the quality of the ingredients can lead to different and sometimes undesirable outcomes.
And time, much like a delicious bagel and lox prepared with exactly the right ingredients in exactly the right order, is something we demons don’t have the luxury of enjoying the same way you humans do. We experience it out of order.
Oh yes, time is not a simple linear progression as you experience it. It’s far greater than that. And you humans have the luxury of having it prepared and served to you so you can experience it the right way. Your puny, three-dimensional lives are so simple. Demons like me aren’t just served time in the right order. We’re given our bagel and lox in all of its individual pieces, then told to assemble it ourselves, without a recipe. It may sound simple to you after learning my easy five-step recipe, but when you’re given all of time to work with, your choices of ingredients are a bit more vast. Four point four-one-five-oh-four times ten to the power of sixty vast. That’s the total number of distinct instances in history since time began relative to you. And it’s going to go on a lot longer than just that.
Yeah. Imagine making a bagel with that many ingredients.
But we’re not here to talk about my troubles. We’re here to talk about a specific bagel I mean story, one not too far in your future. The day Alfonso Anastasio came to visit me, for the second time. Let’s see if we can’t piece these ingredients together into something delicious. Shall we, reader?
Alright, where did you leave off again… ah, right! The train ride, right after the apocalyptic punch-up but just before well… you know (you don’t know yet, but it’s fun to keep secrets, isn’t it?). Okay, so. Working from there… hrmmmmm… let’s try this ingredient first.
“Are you sure this is wise, Master Alfonso?” Theo asked, lifting the bed sheets to cover herself as she sat up. “To renege on your promises so quickly? You do remember what we talked about while we were aboard the train, right? Or perhaps the drugs have addled your memory?”
Alfonso sighed as he slipped into his boxers.
“For the last time, I remember, Theo. And I thought I told you to stop calling me ‘master’?” Alfonso groaned. “Look, I agree that promises are important. So is being able to trust your family, and I have not been doing a good job at either of those things lately. But do you know what’s more important than that?”
“What?” the homunculus asked.
“Protecting your family. And to do that, sometimes you gotta lie, for their own good. Do you think Annie would want to know I’m doing this?”
“She would not want you to be doing it at all,” Theo replied. “So why are you?”
Alfonso slipped on his chalk-white suit, freshly laundered and re-stitched after last week’s incident.
“Because it’s necessary. Because money is money and bills are bills, and if I can’t pay them then Annie gets taken away from me, or worse.”
“I understand the difficulty of the situation you’re… we’re in,” Theo said with patience. “But there has to be a better way-”
“Does there? Because from where I’m sitting, it looks to me like life is just one big string of impossible decisions that you gotta make, and then hope you guess right. But then again, I’m not as smart as you are. Tell me Theo, what would you do, with that big computer-y brain of yours? Do you think there’s any rational way to solve this problem?”
“You know that isn’t true, Mas-… Alfonso. You are very intelligent and-”
“Theo? Answer the question.”
She sighed. “I cannot think of one, no.”
Alfonso’s shoulders sagged. “I was actually kind of hoping you wouldn’t say that.”
Theo watched as Alfonso continued to dress himself in his usual work clothes.
“You know that as your familiar I will always support you. Just let it be known that I do not approve of this decision.”
“Yeah…” Alfonso stared at himself in the mirror. “You and me both, Theo. You and me both.”
Hmmm… that seems a little far. Let’s rewind a bit.
“Master Alfonso, are you forgetting something?”
“We still need to formalize the contract. And then there’s the matter of the first…” Theo cleared her throat. “Feeding.”
Alfonso’s eyes opened wide. “Oh. Ohh.”
Oooookay, that doesn’t seem like any of my business, so let’s move on. Though I might go back and finish watching it again later just to see what happens…~
“Dammit!” Alfonso yelled as he pounded on the rickety walls of his tenement building with his fists. “Dammit dammit dammit!”
Theo quickly ran to his side, restraining him.
“Please be quiet! You will wake Mistress Anastasia at this rate!”
The mafioso struggled uselessly for a few minutes, trying to worm his way out of her grip so he could continue to vent his frustrations. Finally he just broke down, and stopped struggling altogether, losing all motion and momentum and every spark of life like a marionette with its strings cut.
“It didn’t work, Theo.”
The homunculus’ eyes became downcast. “… I see. Do you wish for me to tell Mistress Anastasia?”
“No,” Alfonso said very clearly, and calmly. “Don’t do that. Don’t tell her anything. She doesn’t need to know this yet.”
“But Master Alfonso-!”
“Please. I don’t want to make her life any harder than it already is. If this is what stops her from suffering, then… I’ll do it. You… understand, right Theo?”
The homunculus was quiet for a moment. Then she bowed slightly. “I understand. I shall honor your wishes.”
Nono, that’s still too far. But it seems like we’re getting closer. Maybe we should just start with the instance where he’s walking into my office. Alone this time. Yeah, that’ll do.
Alfonso stands before me on my throne. And here he is. What does he have to say to me, dear reader?
“Take my soul,” he says, patting his chest.
In the moment, I frown. Well he certainly doesn’t waste time.
Setting down my book, a little tome called “The Gospel of Perfection” from before all that New Testament business took off, I say, “And what are you asking for in return? Don’t tell me this is a charity.”
“I want you to save my sister’s life. Do that, and you can have my soul.”
He says it with the utmost seriousness. It seems like he’s really ready to do it, too. Alfonso Anastasio isn’t the kind of chickenshit who backs out of a deal. So I’ll give it to him straight then.
“… I refuse.”
“What makes you think one soul, one life is worth an amount equivalent to another?”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m asking you, smart one. What makes you think that? Would you trade the life of the Pope to save some nameless hostage? Would you expect the President of the United States to donate his own still-beating heart to save the life of a voter on the operating table? Of course not. If we all made deals like that, the world would be in complete chaos. Not even the fun kind, either.”
“So are you saying you won’t take it? I thought the deal was one wish for one soul! What the hell is this supposed to be?!”
“That is the deal, but what you can buy with that wish all comes down to worth of each individual soul. Your life expectancy, your assets, the domino effect you have on the people around you… all of them are important. Ask yourself how you compare to her. What do you think the answer is? Do you really think your lives are equivalent?”
“So then why won’t you take the deal? You said it yourself, she has so much more ahead of her! I have nothing! If my life can save hers, then why won’t you take it?!”
“That’s precisely the point. If she lives, she’ll help change the world someday, and someday soon. If she lives. Now do you understand? Because one of you has so much more ahead of them, they also have so much more to lose. I can’t just trade the life of someone so important for the life of someone who has no future.”
“You think I have no future?”
“Isn’t this little meeting of ours proof enough of that?”
“So what? You’re saying that you won’t take the deal because you want to see that all go to waste?!”
I shrug. “It’s in my nature as a demon to only take deals that I think will compensate me adequately, whether it be in the form of payment for services rendered or my own entertainment. Take Aster here. After I told them their souls were no good, his parents sold him to me for a quick 10k to pay off a couple of loansharks and never looked back. You think I want souls like that? No. No no no, not at all. Aster’s much more valuable. And he’s much better off with me, where I get to decide how he lives and how he dies. He’s the only human I can touch because he’s mine. Isn’t that right, Aster?”
“So as you can see, trading your soul for her life wouldn’t be fair. I’m nothing if not honest, and as an honest businessman or woman, would you really expect me to bite on this one? I’m sorry to say it but your sister’s path is set in stone.”
“Screw you then,” is all he says to me before he walks off. Aster watches him as he goes.
“Do you think he’ll be back, mistress?”
“Who knows? Maybe one day, when he learns just how valuable his sister really is. To everyone besides him, at least.”
I cradle him closely. That’s right. You’re the only one who’s mine, Aster. The only one I want. Your soul. So innocent. So pure. I want to spend eternity defiling it. Twisting it until it’s completely mine, until no one will ever be able to take it away from me, not even that wretch, Death.
And yet… I’ve already seen you die. I’ve already lived a future without you. When the sun is snuffed out and this renaissance world reaches its very end, death and entropy will claim you too, and there’ll be nothing I can do about it. Because I already own your soul.
And when he dies, it will be because of you, Alfonso Anastasio. Everything that happens next… that’s all on you. So I won’t tell you the truth. I will tell you no lies, but nothing honest will escape these lips either.
But I have to know. Why? Why did you do it? Why will you do it? What reason could you possibly have?
The phone rings. Annie’s asleep. Everything is quiet except Al.
“Mr. Anastasio? Oh thank god. This is Dr. Evans. We’ve been trying to reach you for days. I’m afraid… I’m afraid we have some bad news. We’ve been reviewing your sister’s x-rays since she was last in the hospital with us and… well, it seems like her cancer has spread.”
Alfonso was completely quiet, stunned into silence. Uncomfortable with his complete lack of a response, the doctor continued.
“… It’s metastasized in her kidneys and bones, sadly. Our best guess is that it crossed over from her lymph into these areas. Now, since your sister was already an on-watch cancer patient, we managed to catch these very early on, so we’re hopeful about her five-year survival rate-”
But that’s all he heard. “Five years”. Without saying anything to the doctor, he gently put down the receiver and started to cry.
Ah. So that’s why. As you can see, dear reader, assembling these moments in time so they make sense can sometimes be a difficult affair best left to a storyteller rather than a demon like me.
Well, enough blustering. I should let you go so you can resume your simple, peaceful lives and enjoy this story in the order it was meant to be shown to you in. With that in mind, enjoy the dawn of the newest chapter in Alfonso’s storied little world as it unfolds for you next week. Until next time, dear reader.