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Blind Shrike Page 31

"You're right."

Shrike nodded and they walked back to the tank. The others were all up, looking pale and agitated, as if they, too, had been awakened by disturbing dreams. There wouldn't be any arguments about pushing straight on through to the Kaslans.

Forty

The Possibility of Floating

"Have you thought about what you're going to do, little brother?"

"When?"

"When we reach the gates of Hell."

"Not much, no."

"Maybe you should. I've listened to you talk about the place and, while I admire your scholarship, I wonder if it's enough."

It was just after sundown and the sky along the horizon was the color of rust and bruises. Spyder was spinning the flails of the Hornet over his head, speeding and slowing the serrated metal as they walked. Count Non was beside him. Lulu and Shrike walked ahead, led by Primo. Lulu said something that made Shrike laugh.

"What's ever enough? In for a dime, in for a dollar," said Spyder.

"Does that attitude make you a hero or a fool, I wonder."

"They're the same thing. Fools get themselves cornered. Heroes are just the fools who get out of it."

Count Non nodded. "Being a fool might just be your greatest strength. A fool can do what a wise man won't," he said, and shifted his pack from on shoulder to the other. "In the Tarot deck, the Fool is depicted as a young man about to step off a cliff into empty air. Most people assume that the Fool will fall. But we don't see it happen, and a Fool doesn't know that he's subject to the laws of gravity. Against all odds, he just might float."

"If f**king up is power, I should be the Hulk by now," said Spyder. He took a breath. "Goddamn. I'm going in. I told myself I wasn't. I've been sort of turning it over in my mind this whole time."

"Thinking goes against the fool's strengths. Just do what you have to do."

"Truth is, I kind of always knew I was going, from the first time Cinders bought it up. But I couldn't admit it," Spyder said, spinning the Hornet from side to side. "There's an old Buddhist saying that whenever you ask a question, you already know the answer."

"I'm glad to hear you bring up the Buddha," Count Non said. "All that medieval Christianity that informs your descriptions of Hell had me worried. We can learn a lot from the Buddha. In Hell, you'll be all right if you remember his most basic advice: follow the Middle Way."

"All the books say that Hell's a na**d roller derby on broken glass. It's nothing but extremes. Think there's a Middle Way down there?"

"If you're on fire, do you jump into the pool of water or the pool of gasoline? Even in the most extreme circumstances there's a choice."

"I wish I could see the place. Being blindfolded the whole time sounds like balls."

"That's the first choice you have to make. Is seeing Hell's dé or worth being trapped for eternity?"

"I'd have to give that a big No," said Spyder. "How about you? How do you feel about playing blind man's bluff?"

"It's all the same to me. This won't be the first prison I've visited. I've been locked away in dark places. After a while, the darkness becomes a comfort and light is the stranger."

"You've been there, haven't you? Hell, I mean. You're dancing around the subject, but I have this feeling."

"My people have done business there."

"What kind of business?"

"It varied. I'm not proud of much of it."

"Why didn't you say anything when I was wanking on about it? If you know the place better than me, why didn't you speak up?"

"You were doing a fine job. I didn't see any reason to interrupt."

"Is there something you can tell me that I should know? Anything that can help us?"

"That's not permitted," Count Non said.

"What does that mean?"

"Hell is a place of extremes, yes, but extremes are relative. What's extreme for Spyder isn't extreme for me. Shrike's extreme isn't Primo's or Lulu's. The details of Hell are different for everyone. Telling you about my dealings wouldn't do you any good and might just confuse you. I wouldn't want to be the cause of you getting hurt. Or worse."

"You're killing me with tender mercies. There's nothing you have that can help us?"

The Count sighed. "I've been talking about it this whole trip, trying to prepare you. You're as ready as you're going to be. Remember the Buddha's advice. And don't ever lose heart. Hell is designed to drain lost souls of hope. Don't let that happen. We've already agreed that you're a fool and so far, despite a few bruises, you've been lucky. That's halfway to a hero. No matter what happens, what you see or hear or experience, be the fool that lives. That's my best advice."

"I was hoping for a magic helmet or something."

"Don't be afraid, little brother. The stars are on our side. When the moon points to the hellmouth, the underworld's defenses are down and all the gates are open. `In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.'"

"You can talk some shit, Count."

Count Non tossed a stone straight into the air. As it arced down, Spyder tilted up the Hornet and ripped the stone to powder.

"There's airships over us," said Spyder.

"Angels, too," the Count said. "To the west."

"If your people did business with Hell, did they work for Heaven, too?"

"Of course."

"You aren't not on the flying monkeys side, are you?"

"You mean the Brotherhood and their angelic lapdogs? They can all kiss my ruby red arse," said Count Non. "Would you prefer it if I was on the other side?"

"Both sides can blow me right about now," said Spyder. "I'm just jumpy is all. That Bible talk of yours had me wondering."

"It's a family habit and hard to break."

"You aren't a preacher or something?"

"My father is."

"I knew it."

"When the urge hits, perhaps I should switch to Greek."

"It couldn't hurt."

Forty One

Vanilla Roses

"Is this the place?" asked Shrike.

"I believe so," Primo replied.

"Believe?" Spyder asked.

"A figure of speech. This is the place."

"What happens now?" asked Lulu.

"We wait," said Primo, "for the moon to move across the sky and reveal the location of the entrance to Hell."

Shrike was hunkered on the ground, her hands moving slowly across the face of the braille map. Spyder knelt down beside her. The desert night wind came in dry, frigid gusts that threatened to drag the map off into the dark.

"Does this feel right to you?" Spyder asked.

"As far as I can tell, we're where we should be," she said. "We're in Primo's hands now. Is the moon up?"

"Been up for a while. That's what worries me. We might have missed it."

"We still have tomorrow night."

"We lost all our food and most of our water back at the OK Corral."

"Then, let's hope we still have a chance tonight."

"Can we start a fire or something?" Lulu asked. "The wind comin' off these hills is giving me some serious raisins."

Count Non shook his head. "That's not a good idea. Not with enemies overhead. They would spot even a small fire."

Lulu shivered in her light cotton jacket. "I'm seriously dying over here." Spyder took off his leather jacket and draped it across her shoulders.

"What about one of those caves?" asked Spyder. "We can do like the other night, start a small fire and stack some of this scrub over the entrance. Maybe cover it with our coats."

"It's still dangerous," said the Count. "What do you say, Shrike?"

"If nothing else, moving around and gathering brush will warm us. Do you see anything yet, Primo?"

"No, ma'am. Whatever your decision about a fire, I'm going to stay here and watch the moon."

While Primo and the Count kept track of the sky, the others began pulling the dry, shallow-rooted brush from the loose desert soil and piling it in a nearby cave. While Lulu and Shrike broke up some of the brushes into kindling, Spyder spread their coats over a pile of brush at the cave opening. Count Non volunteered a heavy wool cloak that he pulled from his weapons bag.

When he'd covered the entrance, Spyder slipped inside, trying not to disturb any of the brush that kept in the light. Kneeling next to Shrike and Lulu, he struck a match and lit the kindling they'd laid out. The sticks caught quickly and the little cave filled with light. The heat came up more slowly, but in the frigid night, they felt their skin begin to warm and it felt good. Spyder leaned into Shrike as Lulu huddled up on the other side.

Lulu pulled off her blindfold. "All they can see is the fire, right?"

"Yeah. They won't know where the fire is," said Spyder. "We having a good time yet?" Spyder asked.

"Shit, this is better than dinner and a spanking," said Lulu.

From outside the cave came Count Non's voice. "Sorry to disturb you, but you should come and look at this."

"Who should?" called Lulu.

"All of you."

"Dammit."

They crawled out of the cave slowly, gloomily, leaving the warmth behind. It felt even colder and more miserable now that they'd had a few minutes of comfort. The three of them remained huddled together as they went to where Primo and the Count were waiting.

Spyder followed the men's gaze upward to the night sky. "It's the moon," he said. "Been there. Done that."

"Look beyond that peak," said Primo.

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