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Blind Shrike Page 41

"You've been practicing this speech for a while, haven't you?"

"I'll give you an another example. The snake in the garden of Eden?"

"Yeah?"

"It was just a snake. I was never there. Humanity's first real decision was to defy God. So was mine. That's the reason I make you uncomfortable. We're so much alike." Lucifer leaned closer, speaking quietly. "In Heaven I tempted mortals for God's benefit. It's a hard habit to break. But I always worked on the little things. Lust. Jealousy. Greed. Humanity didn't need any help with the big sins. It was you who ate the apple and fell from grace. It was you when Carthage was raped and burned and the earth salted. It was you at Hiroshima and Wounded Knee and Auschwitz and at every lynching of every -hapless sharecropper who dared to meet the eyes of a white woman."

"You must really hate us. If we didn't exist, you'd still be in Heaven."

"I don't hate you. You're children and don't know any better. And if it hadn't been you, something else would have set off the troubles between God and me." Lucifer shrugged. "Fathers and sons."

"Did you have anything to do with taking my blind- fold off?"

"Why would I do that? I don't like many mortals and the few I do care for should be off living their lives, not going mad down here. You were trapped by something else. There's a black cloud around you that I can't see through, which means I can't help you. But you're going to have to deal with it sooner or later."

"Who's the Painted Man?"

Lucifer rolled his eyes. "The boogey man for demons. The Painted Man is the monster in the closet. Dr. Moriarty. Kayser Soze. He's supposedly a creature of pure chaos, neither God nor angel nor demon, who one day will come to destroy us. Why do you ask?"

"No reason. I heard a demon mention him."

"That's all? And you called me the Prince of Lies." -Lucifer stretched and stuck out his long legs. "Don't trouble your handsome young head, Spyder Lee, you're not the Painted Man."

"Is Xero?"

"No, but he thinks he is and that makes him dangerous."

"How do you know he's not?"

"If he were I would have smelled him coming. I'd have tasted him. I'd have heard every beat of his heart. If the Painted Man ever sets foot in Hell, I'll know it."

Spyder looked down and saw a half-smoked cigarette lying at his feet. He picked up the butt and smoothed it straight. "Got a light?" he asked. Lucifer handed him a pink fur lighter.

"This is Lulu's," said Spyder.

"She dropped it by the Bone Sea. I was going to return it the next time I saw her."

Spyder lit the butt and dropped the lighter into his jacket pocket. It felt good to pull the smoke into his lungs.

"What's the deal with all the Satanic losers back home? Do you like them? Do they drive you crazy? What about Anton LaVey?"

"I love Anton LaVey. I love all carnies. God can have the meek. I'll take the grifters."

"You've got an answer for everything. I'll give you that, Count."

"We all have to live with ourselves, especially here. I'll tell you something, because I think you'll understand: I know that our Heaven is quite probably a pointless and futile thing, but we'll build it anyway, because it's all the Heaven we're ever likely to have."

Across the plaza, Ashbliss came with Lulu and Shrike. The men rose as they got closer. Both Lulu and Shrike went right to the man they knew as Count Non and hugged him.

Spyder said, "Ladies, let me introduce you to the man in black, his infernal badness, Lucifer."

Shrike and Lulu looked at the devil. Shrike took -Spyder's hand. Lulu smiled. "Count Non, you tricky f**k. I knew there was something about you. Not many men can make me question my gender preferences."

Lucifer looked at Ashbliss. "I'll talk to you later, dung beetle. Vanish." He snapped his fingers and the little demon was gone.

"Here," said Spyder, and handed Lulu back her lighter.

"Where'd you find it?"

"I'll tell you later."

"What happens now?" asked Shrike.

"Under other circumstances I'd probably throw a party. Given the current unpleasantness, I'll just take you to the book."

"Just like that?"

"Unless you'd like to wait around in the open for Xero to attack again." Lucifer nodded to the hills beyond the golden step-pyramid. Men and demons were massing along the ridge.

Lucifer turned to Shrike. "By the way, it's nice to finally see your eyes. They're lovely."

"Thank you. It's good to see you, but a little strange, too."

"I get that a lot."

Lucifer started across the square to his palace as the others followed. Spyder looked over his shoulder and saw Xero's troops starting down the hill for Pandemonium.

Fifty Two

Waiting for the End of the World

The entrance to Lucifer's palace was covered in flowers.

Bloody roses snaked, on unnaturally long stalks, around the main entrance, a wide portico which let onto an immense reception hall. Inside, the roses were joined by clusters of white lilies and fleshy pink and tiger-striped orchids. The white marble floor was covered with a rich, purple carpet, trimmed in gold. On one wall were exquisitely detailed anatomy charts of humans, demons and every kind of animals Spyder had ever seen. On the opposite wall hung a huge tapestry, a rendering of -William -Blake's "Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun." Along the back wall was what Spyder took to be Lucifer's trophy gallery.

Victorian-style curiosity cabinets were laid out neatly around the gently curved walls. The first cabinet held a kind of black knotted lump floating in air behind leaded glass. The little plaque at the bottom of the case read, John the Baptist's Heart. Next to it was a set of battle armor, blackened, the metal ripped and melted by some monstrous blast. "That's mine. From the old days," Lucifer told Spyder. Nearby was a silver trumpet. "Gabriel's. I nicked it on the way out the door." The next cabinet held a crown of thorns. "No explanation needed there, I suppose." Rare plants and animals were lying in bell jars and pinned in display cases. They were all alive, but trapped. Two cases side-by-side held an assortment of Fabergé eggs and different kinds of puzzle boxes. Lucifer shrugged and said, "I just like them." Another glass case contained a kind of black, swirling nothingness that seemed to suck light into itself. It was labeled, Chaos. At the end of the row was a cage and in it lay the book. It was as tall as -Spyder and the covers were riveted plates of solid steel, with runes etched into the surface. When Spyder saw it, he thought, This is not a human's book.

"I feel sick," said Shrike. She clutched her chest.

"Is it the key?" Spyder asked. "We're near the book. It's probably trying to get out."

"I'm not sure. This doesn't feel right." She took deep, painful breaths.

Behind the cage that housed the book, the flowers began to die. The wave of death spread around the room. The flowers all turned black, shedding their petals before falling to the floor in dry heaps. Spyder's gaze followed the trail of rot around the room. The trail of dying flowers ended at a long staircase where Xero stood, with Shrike's father at his feet. Xero kicked the old man and he rolled down the stone steps, landing in a heap at the bottom.

"Father!" screamed Shrike, and she stumbled to him. Spyder and the others followed, Spyder with the black blade out and Lulu with her shotgun pointed at Xero. As Shrike reached her father, demons dropped down from the ceiling and dragged her up the stairs. Spyder started after them, but Lucifer grabbed his shoulder and held him.

"Don't move," Lucifer said. Spyder turned and watched as Xero's troops quietly streamed in through the front entrance, filling the front of the hall.

"`And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer,'" Lucifer said to Xero. "You have more gall than brains coming into my capital and especially my home."

"You have a million idle threats, angel. What you don't seem to have is an army."

"You aren't looking hard enough."

Lucifer closed his eyes. The Blake tapestry on the wall exploded into light and demons poured from it, armed with barbed spears and vicious swords. The opposing troops snarled and growled, showing each other their teeth, beating their weapons against their shields. Neither side attacked, but waited for a signal from their masters.

"Get the key!" shouted Xero. One of the demons holding Shrike pulled a knife from his belt and cut into Shrike's chest. She screamed. Lucifer pulled Spyder back from the stairs before he could do anything.

"Lulu!" Spyder screamed. She opened up at the demons with the four-ten. They fell back as the shots tore up the stairs around them. One demon collapsed with a shot in the chest, and another went down with a head wound. The other demons scrambled up the stairs to cower at Xero's feet.

Lucifer pulled both Spyder and Lulu back across the room to the curiosity cabinets. Spyder shook himself free.

"I thought you were a warrior. What's wrong with you?" he yelled.

Lucifer spoke evenly. "Timing is everything, boy. Never let your temper lead you. Both of you, stay here."

Lucifer went to the center of the room, between the two snarling armies, and looked up at Xero. He looked relaxed. Even happy, thought Spyder.

"You've done very well for yourself," Lucifer said. "You're not the first to ever challenge my position, but you're the first to get this far."

"Save your congratulations. I'm not done yet."

"Why should you be? You've come so far with so little. We're alike in that. When we angels first came to this place, there was nothing. Now look at all we've built. You were just another lost soul when you arrived and look at what you've accomplished. I admire that. I don't like to annihilate talent. How would you like your own principality? You've killed off a few of my less competent generals. Would you like their lands for yourself and your men?"

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