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Blind Shrike Page 35

"I think it's time to go," said Lulu. She led Spyder and Shrike to the edge of the stinking, clotted water and helped them into one of the coal cars. Souls fell back as they went. Spyder felt their hands caress him, as if looking for warmth. The car lurched into the air and carried them over the Bone Sea.

"I seriously wonder if we're gonna make it out of here," said Lulu. No one replied.

Forty Five

Pink Boy

It seemed to Spyder that it was taking a long damned time for the little cart to clatter and squeal its way over the Bone Sea.

"Talk to me, Lulu," said Spyder. "Where are we?"

"About half way across," she said.

"How's that possible? We've been crossing for hours."

"Daddy, are we there yet? Daddy, are we there yet?"

"We're not in the world anymore," said Shrike. "We can't expect time to run here the way it does at home."

"This is an E ticket freakshow, I wanna tell you," said Lulu. "You sight-impaired-types are missing some severe shit. Which might not be a bad thing. Like, if you ever want to eat again."

"Tell us," said Spyder.

"I'm just babbling cause I'm a little scared. You don't need this shit in your heads. My guess is there'll be plenty of monsters to go 'round."

Spyder shifted in his seat, trying to find a comfortable position. The sheath for Apollyon's knife kept jabbing him in the leg. When he tried to stand, Lulu pulled him back down.

"There's things on the wires. Like baboons with porcu-pine quills all down their backs. The quills are matted together, like knives. They're eating this green fungus growing on the wires. The bored ones are grabbing souls from the other carts and dropping 'em into the sea."

Spyder fidgeted as Shrike began to sing. "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship…" Lulu picked up the Gilligan's Island theme, then Spyder. When that was done Spyder tried to remember the words to the Mickey Mouse Club, but all he could come up with was, "Hey there, Hi there, Ho there, we're as happy as can be…," so they sang that over and over until it got boring. Lulu started a kid's song about a dog named "Bingo." They sang every TV theme and campfire song they ever knew.

Finally, Lulu said, "Praise the lord. We're made it." A moment later, the bottom of the cart dragged across a beach that crunched underfoot, like crushed shells. They jumped out and landed safely on the ground, as the cart continued its endless roundabout journey.

Lulu grabbed Spyder and pulled him and Shrike to their feet. "Let's move. We're attracting a crowd. More of those hangin' around dead folks."

Spyder didn't need her to tell him. He could hear them coming, crunching lightly across the beach toward them. Their voices were like whispers drifting through a long ventilation duct-flat, distant and insistent. Spyder stumbled and went down on one knee, cutting his hands on the sharp shells. Lulu and Shrike started to help him up, but other hands were there, pulling him away, purring and cooing and desperate.

"Blood. He's alive!"

"Please wizard, do me a service in Hell and I'll tell you where to find a great treasure back on earth…"

"Take my place in the Inferno and your heirs will rule a vast and wealthy kingdom!"

"So pretty. The red. Life."

"Save me, my lord. I am a virtuous woman…"

There were so many lost souls on this side of the Bone Sea, and they were much more aggressive than the souls who'd refused to make the crossing. None had much individual strength, but their combined desperation had Spyder pinned within their massed presence. It was like being slowly crushed under a ton of feathers. Spyder felt his leather jacket rip and his shirt come apart. The souls gasped and fell back.

"His skin marks…"

"L'homme peint…"

"A warrior…"

Their hands were on Spyder's back, and running over his arms and face. So many of them, he couldn't breathe. They pulled his hair and clawed at his cheeks. He tried to push them away, but it was like pushing at air. Fingers slipped under his blindfold and into his eyes. The souls' fingertips glowed inside his eyeballs like eerie deep sea creatures.

"Get back!" Spyder yelled.

The weight of the souls instantly left his body-but a second later a hand swept across face. Among the faint gasps and wails, Spyder heard the distinct sound of laughter. He turned toward it and was shoved down hard onto his back. The fall knocked the wind out of him and Spyder slowly opened his eyes. It took his mind a few seconds to register that the streaks of gray and white he saw weren't ghostly fingers in his eyes but the bone beach. When his eyes focused, the first thing he saw was the dim, colorless souls crowded around him, then Hell's rough black cavern walls. They seemed to go up forever.

"Back off!," Spyder screamed as he scrambled to his feet. He heard the sound of laughter again and spun toward the sound, pulling Apollyon's blade from his belt. When the sound came again, Spyder swung the blade at the nearest spectre, a big man nearby dressed in the leather and iron of an ancient Roman soldier. The knife passed through the soul as if through smoke, but the knife tore him as it went. The soul clutched at the bloodless wound, trying to hold himself together. Too late. He split apart completely, like fraying cloth, and vanished with a breathy sigh. The remaining souls scattered down the beach.

Off to his left, Spyder saw Lulu, laid out on her back, her mouth open in a kind of silent scream. A crowd of souls had her pinned to the ground and seemed to be examining her wounded body. At least a dozen souls had their fingers buried deep in her empty eye sockets. Spyder slashed through the crowd, scattering terrified souls, and pulled Lulu up. She buried her face in his chest, but didn't make a sound. She just clung to him and shook.

Further down the beach, Shrike was holding another group of souls at bay with her sword. She'd used her magic to cover the blade in fire, but the gesture wasn't really stopping the souls, just distracting them. Spyder got Lulu to her feet and pulled her over to Shrike. Some of the group must have seen him dispatch the other souls, because they ran away as he got close.

"Shrike, it's me," Spyder called, and she lowered her blade.

"Lulu?" she asked.

"She's here with me. She's pretty shaken up."

"How did you find me?" Shrike's hands were up searching for him. "You can see me?"

"Yeah."

Shrike found Spyder's face with her hands and felt for where the blindfold should be. When she didn't find it, Shrike sagged against Spyder and kissed him lightly on the lips.

"Damn," she said.

"That pretty much covers it."

"Ooo, a little group action. I like that," came a hissing voice. "Or is this some platonic expression of relief? What a bore. Lust is all that's amusing about talking meat. The faces you make and the all squishing sounds."

Spyder lunged with the Hell blade, jamming it under the chin of the demon staring at them from atop a black obsidian boulder.

"Don't hurt me with that thing!" it cried.

The creature was small, pink, bloated and na**d. It had an over-sized semi-human head with tiny eyes and a slit that seemed to serve for both a nose and mouth. Its hands and feet were so tiny that they appeared useless, yet its nails were black, twisted and razor sharp. The thing's c*ck was thicker than its arm and dragged along the ground like a third leg. Into holes in its skull were set thirteen white candles, which never seemed to blow out. Wax flowed down the thing's head and face like slow-motion tears.

"You know what this is?" asked Spyder.

"I'm not blind," said the creature. "It's the black blade, hungry for death, even among the dead."

Spyder pressed the knife harder into the thing's throat. "Are you the little prick who snatched my blindfold?"

"Why would I do that? You talking meat are vile enough as spirits. Who wants you alive down here, eating and defe-cating and breathing your foul stenches into the air?"

Spyder withdrew the knife, but kept it by his side. The creature clumsily crawled onto its tiny feet.

"Who are you?" asked Shrike.

The creature proudly drew itself up to its full height of about four feet. "I am Ashbliss, servant and valet to his Divine Abhorrence, the Lord of Flies, Beelzebub."

"Why were you spying on us?"

"This is my day off. I often come here to play about with lost souls. They make funny noises."

"Fuck off, pink boy," said Spyder, "before I carve my initials in your ass just too see what kind of funny noises you make."

"You don't want to do that. I'm here to help you," said Ashbliss. "You're the Painted Man."

"Who?"

"Modesty is such a bore. But I know about you, and you need my help. You're here for the book, aren't you?"

"How do you know that?"

"The same way I know who you are. You're here because you have to be. It's all been foretold. You're not the first champion to come this way. You're not the first talking meat to come for the book. This beach and the roads of Hell are paved with the bones of the champions who came before you."

"How can you help us?" asked Shrike.

"I can take you to where you want to go. To the book."

"Why would you do that?"

"Because I want a small favor in return," Ashbliss said. "You're brave and you have the black knife, the blade that empties all vessels of life. I want to be free of my master. True, his cruelty is boundless and his depravity is deeper and darker than the chaotic void that lies between Heaven and Hell." Ashbliss looked at his feet over his round belly and shrugged his tiny shoulders. "My problem is that I know all his terrors and his tirades. He's a bore."

"So, you're a demon, huh? How's that working out for you?" asked Lulu.

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