Covet Prologue

Author: J.R. Ward

Series: Fallen Angels #1

Genres: Fantasy , Romance

Demon was such a nasty word.

And so damned old-school. People heard demon and they conjured up all kinds of Hieronymus Bosch helter-skelter - or worse, Dante's stupid-ass Inferno crap. Honestly. Flames and tortured souls and everyone wailing.

Okay, maybe Hell was a little toasty. And if the place had had a court painter, Bosch would have been at the head of the pack.

But that wasn't the point. The Demon actually saw itself as more of a Free-Will Coach. Much better, more modern. The anti-Oprah, as it were.

It was all about influence.

The thing was, the qualities of the soul were not dissimilar to the components of the human body. The corporeal form had a number of vestigial parts, like the appendix, the wisdom teeth, and the coccyx  -  all of which were at best unnecessary, and at worst capable of compromising the functioning of the whole.

Souls were the same. They, too, had useless baggage that impeded their proper performance, these annoying, holier-than-thou bits dangling like an appendix waiting for infection. Faith and hope and love...prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude...all this useless clutter just packed too much damn morality into the heart, getting in the way of the soul's innate desire for malignancy.

A demon's role was to help people see and express their inner truth without their being clouded by all that bullshit, diverting humanity. As long as people stayed true to their core, things were going in the right direction.

And lately, that had been relatively true. Between all the wars on the planet, and the crime, and the disregard for the environment, and that cesspool of finance known as Wall Street, as well as the inequalities far and wide, things were okay.

But it wasn't enough and time was running out.

To go with a sports analogy, Earth was the playing field and the game had been going on since the stadium had been built. The Demons were the Home Team. Away was made up of Angels pimping that chimera of happiness, Heaven.

Where the court painter was Thomas Kincaid, for fuck's sake.

Each soul was a quarterback on the field, a participant in the universal struggle of good against evil, and the scoreboard reflected the relative moral value of his or her deeds on earth. Birth was kickoff and death was game-over - whereupon the score would be added to the larger tally. Coaches had to stay on the sidelines, but they could put different complements of players on the field with the human to influence things - and also call time-outs for pep talks.

Commonly known as the "near-death experience."

Here was the problem: Like a spectator who had been watching a postseason game in a cold seat with one too many hot dogs in his belly and a screamer sitting right behind his ear, the Creator was eyeing the exit.

Too many fumbles. Too many time-outs. Too many ties that had led to too many unresolved overtimes. What had started out as a gripping contest had evidently lost its appeal, and the teams had been given their notice: Wrap up the play, boys.

So both sides had to agree on one particular quarterback. One quarterback and seven plays.

Instead of an endless parade of humans, they were down to seven souls in the balance between good and chances to determine whether humanity was good or bad. A tie was not possible and the stakes were...everything. If Team Demon won, it got to keep the facility and all the players thai had ever been or ever would be. And the Angels became slaves for eternity.

Which made torturing human sinners seem like nothing but a bore.

If the Angels won, the entire Earth would be nothing but one giant Christmas frickin' morning, a choking wave of happiness and warmth and caring and sharing taking over everything. Under that hideous scenario, the Demons would cease to exist not just in the universe, but in the hearts and minds of all of humanity.

Although considering all the happy-happy, joy-joy, that was the best outcome in that scenario. Short of getting stabbed repeatedly in the eye with a pole.

The Demons couldn't bear losing. It just wasn't an option. Seven chances were not a lot, and the Away Team had won the metaphysical coin toss - so they got to approach the quarterback who was going to drive the seven "balls," as it were.

Ah, yes...the quarterback. Not surprisingly the choice of that key position had led to a lot of heated discussion. Eventually, though, one had been selected, one who both sides found who both coaches expected to rock the plays according to their values and goals.

Poor fool didn't know what he was in for.

The thing was, though, the Demons weren't prepared to leave such a momentous responsibility on the shoulders of a human. Free will was malleable, after all - which was the basis of the whole game.

So they were sending someone onto the field as a player. It was against the rules, of course, but true to their nature - and also something the opponent was incapable of doing.

This was the edge the Home Team had: The one good thing about the Angels was they always colored within the lines.

They had to.