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Blind Shrike Page 40

Ashbliss got to his feet, but stared down at the black and white pavement slabs that formed a checkerboard pattern in the square. "I understand, my lord. Have mercy on me."

"Mercy? You must be thinking of someone else."

"Cut the little creep some slack," said Spyder. "He's supposed to be sneaky. He's a demon for Christ sake. Oh. Is it okay to say that down here?"

"Do you hear that?" Lucifer asked Ashbliss. "This mortal, whom you were about to betray and murder, is pleading for your life. It will be a long time before you see such grace down here again."

"Kill me? We had a deal."

"No you had a lie," said Lucifer. "This little wretch doesn't work for Beelzebub. Do you, turd?"

"No, my lord."

"Ashbliss here is a freelance thug. Someone has paid him to dispose of one of my better commanders. Possibly our friend, Xero. Little Ashbliss was going to trick you into doing the dirty work for him and then eliminate you."

"Is that true?" Spyder asked.

Ashbliss wrung his hands.

"Fuck him," said Spyder. "Drag him back to the butchers' quarter them hang him up on a hook."

"I can't refuse a guest," Lucifer told the demon.

Ashbliss burst into tears. His candles flickered out, one by one.

"Hell, I'm just blowing off steam. Can't you just lock him up or something?" asked Spyder. Then to Ashbliss. "You'll tell this man everything he wants to know, won't you, a**hole?"

Ashbliss looked up with red-rimmed eyes, not sure what to do. He lunged and grabbed Spyder's hand, planting kisses on it with his thin membranous lips. "I will! I will! Thank you!" His candles flickered back to life.

Spyder looked at Lucifer. "Can you make the doggie stop humping me?"

"Come here, wretch."

Ashbliss went and stood before Lucifer.

"You'll begin your rehabilitation by going back to where you left my friend's companions and bringing them to my palace. Go quickly, before you ruin my good mood."

Bowing once, then twice, Ashbliss took off across the plaza as fast as his stumpy legs would carry him.

"Run, Forrest, run!" shouted Spyder.

Lucifer grabbed Spyder in a quick embrace. He was dressed in a striped black and gold hakama, the familiar chainmail over this bare chest, and a short jacket of some shiny material-vinyl or rubber. His head was shaved and from his mid-scalp down the back of his neck, his pale skin was covered with black tattoos, intricate letter-ing in what Spyder remembered from Jenny's books was a kind of Angelic Script related to the Coptic alphabet. Even in Hell, Lucifer carried deep scars in his handsome face.

"It's good to see you, little brother."

"You know, my father was Baptist and my mother was Lutheran and sometimes I ended up going to both churches on the same Sunday, so I shouldn't be happy to see you," said Spyder. "But I am."

"Being able to embrace contradictions is a sign of intelligence."

"Or insanity."

"That's what the Archangel Gabriel once said to me. Just before I cut off his head."

"Damn."

"I didn't have a choice. He would have cut off mine, if I'd given him the chance. I haven't thought about that in a long time. You know, that was the incident that triggered the war."

"In Heaven?"

"None other. You don't really think we're here because of the nice views?" Lucifer put out his right arm and wrapped Spyder's left arm around it. "We can catch up while I show you around my little kingdom."

Fifty One

Off the Radar

"You son-of-a-bitch. We thought you were dead," said Spyder.

"I was," Lucifer said. "That body was as dead as dead could be. I just ended up back here."

"You wanted us here all along, didn't you? You manipulated this whole thing just to get us here. Why?"

"Xero Abrasax. He came here with some very impressive magic. Enough to rally an army and challenge me. I needed a champion. A mortal to kill a mortal soul. Shrike can kill him. He doesn't show it, but he's afraid of her. There's something in the book she can use against him."

They passed a golden temple, like an Aztec step-pyramid. In front was a kind of sculpture on a tall bronze base. A heavy cloth twisted languorously on top, looping and folding over itself, as if it was spinning slowly in water. The material changed colors as it moved, revealing eye and mouth holes. Spyder realized that it wasn't cloth, but human skins sewn together.

"Even if I believed that, all the shit you put us through, dragging our asses through the desert and across Hell, why do that if you wanted us here all along?"

"The universe has rules for these things. I needed Shrike here. I knew she needed a partner that could help her get here, but would have no personal desire for the book. Besides, do you think you would have come if I'd just popped into your tattoo shop one night around closing and said, `Hello, I'm the Prince of Darkness. Think you could help me out with a little war next Tuesday, say, sixish?'"

"You had that demon attack me in the alley!"

"I just pointed out to the Bitru that you were carrying its mark."

"I'm suddenly remembering Sunday school. You're the Prince of Lies."

"First, don't try to quote chapter and verse to me, little brother. I know every holy book ever written. I even penned a few of them. Second, the `Prince of Lies' is Ahriman, the Zoroastrian lord of darkness and brother to Ahura Mazda, the lord of light. Not that I ever met either one, but I'm sure they were lovely chaps. No, before you try telling me how the world is and who I am, remember what Samuel Butler, a mortal, once said: `It must be remembered that we've only heard one side of the case. God has written all the books.'"

"You're just a victim of bad publicity?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Lucifer asked. "I was the loyal opposition in Heaven. I tested Job and plenty of others, all with Yahweh's blessing. In the early days, mortal faith and free will were new concepts. That's where the conflict began. God gave you free will, but we angels were expected to bow and scrape. I couldn't accept that."

"You were going to steal God's throne."

"I bet you believe everything Republicans say about Democrats. The archangel Michael accused me of wanting to sit in the throne of Heaven, but I didn't want to be God. I didn't want to be God's lap dog, either."

"You've got some serious daddy issues, mister."

The devil smiled. "Pride, too. The books got that right, at least."

"So, you're building Heaven to prove God wrong."

"Something like that. Heaven with free will."

"And not to set yourself up as a new God?"

Lucifer stopped walking and pointed with his free hand. "That's my palace over there. I don't need to remind anyone down here who's in charge. I'm not deluded enough to see myself as God. Over all, the first one did an impressive job creating the universe. It's the details I dispute."

"What's that weird quote? I've heard it a couple of ways, `God is in the details…'"

"And, `The devil is in the details.' Yes, I'm aware of it. I don't know which version is more insulting."

"Let me get this straight, you're just down here having this family squabble with God for the last few million or few thousand years… I don't get how time works here."

"Don't try. You'll hurt your brain."

"Cool. And you just want to show God that free will for your kind is hot biscuits and gravy. Then why f**k with us mortals? What's with all the temptation and corruption?"

"Who said that was me? Oh yes, everyone." Lucifer released Spyder's arm and they sat on a stone bench on the edge of the square. "I have to take some responsibility for that. Millions of angels came with me when father threw me out and changed the locks. I had to give them something to do."

"All those monks and nuns, Jesus in the desert, all the visions of all those righteous types, none of that was you?"

"I'll admit that I've had my hand in a tempting manifestation or two. I was an angry young man, lashing out at all God had created. But like you, little brother, I couldn't help growing up just a little."

Demons walked by them through the plaza, glancing furtively at the talking meat chatting with the ruler of Hell. Tall, bile-colored women with snakes for hair and dressed in high-collared latex robes whispered to each other as they passed. Graceful, loping things, like mechanical praying mantises, craned a stalk eye or two at the conversation. A flock of living skeletons, human from the waist up, but bird-like from the waist down, stopped and stared at the men on the bench. They skeletons moved as a group, like pigeons, chittering down one of the side streets.

"What about all those souls remodeling your den? What about the ones being tortured down here?"

"Do you think I invited them here? We've been Heaven's junkyard since time began. I'm just making use of the freeloaders. The tortures are just day work for my less intelligent brethren. And truthfully, some souls are useless, not even fit for manual labor."

"I'm having a hard time with this poor, poor, pitiful me line, Count. Lucifer. What should I call you?"

"Anything you want, just don't call me later for dinner," Lucifer said. He looked Spyder in the eye. "The truth will set you free. But it might also hurt your feelings: You see, humanity isn't even on my radar. My quarrel is with Heaven, not you."

Spyder looked at Lucifer's palace, thinking over everything he'd seen and heard. "You're my friend. At least Count Non was. I don't really know what to believe right now."

"Admit it. You want me to be a monster. Humanity has to find someone to blame for its crimes. The problem is that you never really believed Copernicus. You still think you're the center of the universe and that all creation revolves around you."

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