John Hurt
Tilda Swinton

Blind Shrike Page 42

Xero grinned a wolf's grin. "No thank you. I think I'll take everything."

"You won't," said Lucifer.

Xero kicked the demons cowering at his feet. "Go back and get the key!" Reluctantly, the demons crawled down the stairs to Shrike. She lay quietly, her hand over her bloody wound, watching Lucifer. Spyder tried to catch her eye, but she looked as if she were in shock.

"You won't take my kingdom because you aren't equipped to. Winning a few battles is nothing. Even taking this palace is a pointless gesture."

"Then why don't you just surrender it and leave?" said Xero, and his troops laughed.

"You're a good tactician-for a mortal. And that will be your downfall. Your wars last weeks, months, perhaps a few years. It's easy to plan, to keep your armies together, to believe in yourself. But how long can you do it, mortal? The last war I fought lasted ten thousand years."

"And you lost."

"That was to God. Do you think you're God, little man?" said Lucifer. "I can wait, you see. You can win a thousand victories and I can wait. Time itself can burn out and the universe can collapse in on itself, and I can still wait. And in the last second at the last moment of existence, when even gods and angels must perish, I will find you and slit your throat. And the last thing you'll see before the nothingness takes you will be my face smiling in victory."

Shrike saw the demons coming for her down the stairs. She screamed at them. When they tried to grab her, she hacked to them with her sword, but she was too badly injured to crawl away.

"What a silver tongue you have. But none of it will happen if I kill you first," said Xero. He raised his arms and waves of black lightning blasted down at Lucifer, along the way vaporizing the demons he'd sent for Shrike, just as one triumphantly held up the key he'd pried from her side. The key went skittering across the floor, leaving a tracery of blood, and came to rest at Lucifer's feet. Lucifer placed his right foot on top of the key. Xero bellowed in anger.

Shrike ducked and pressed herself beneath the bolts. Lucifer didn't move. He appeared to know when something was coming and simply raised his right hand, letting the lightning flow into him and out his left hand, right back at Xero. The stairs exploded around the general, but he kept throwing the bolts, pushing Lucifer back, only to be pushed back himself.

It was too much, Spyder thought. Xero couldn't be bribed. Maybe Lucifer could wait for the end of time, but Shrike couldn't. Fuck this dime store Heaven and Xero. Fuck Madame Cinders.

Spyder grabbed Lulu and pulled her over to the book. "Help me," he said.

"How?"

"We're going to push the book into that case of chaos. Let it swallow the damned thing. Maybe we'll die, too, but we'll take these demonic f**ks with us."

In the center of the room, Lucifer and Xero's battle continued. Shrike slowly, painfully, crawled down the stairs toward her father. The two armies shrieked, growing more agitated by the second. When their taunts and roars reached a mad pitch, someone threw an axe. That's all it took, both armies rushed each other with weapons, claws and teeth.

Lulu came around to Spyder's side of the book cage and pressed her back against it. Spyder grabbed the bars and put his shoulder into them. He felt a funny click and stepped back. The front of the cage fell open.

The battle quieted, then stopped all together. The demons stared at Spyder, as did Xero and Lucifer. Shrike lay by her father and looked at him, dazed.

"He has the key!" screamed Xero.

"No, he doesn't, you idiot," snapped Lucifer. He looked at Spyder. "You haven't been holding out on me, have you little brother? No secret sainthood or magic in your past?"

Spyder shrugged, shook his head.

"That cage doesn't pop open for just anyone."

"Get the book!" screamed Xero to his troops.

"It's not yours?" came a quiet voice by the portico. "The book belongs to us."

Spyder turned too look, but he already knew what was there. The Black Clerks, ledger in hand, were walking into the palace straight through the demon armies. The demons fell back, afraid to touch them. Only Lucifer stood in the Clerks' way. For the first time, he seemed truly enraged.

"Out of my kingdom, crawling filth!" he screamed.

The head Clerk stepped forward. He cocked his head to one side. Then he raised a finger. Lucifer was thrown, loose-limbed and helpless, across the room. He landed hard on the stairs above Shrike, stone splintering as he crashed on the marble.

The Clerks turned to Spyder. "Come to us?" the head Clerk told him.

"Fuck you," Spyder said.

The Clerk flicked a finger. The scar Spyder had received earlier from the Clerks began to burn. His vision clouded. He saw things. He saw himself through their eyes. He saw himself looking at himself looking back at himself in infinite regression.

"Not dead yet?" the Clerk said.

"Shit," said Spyder, sorting through the pictures in his head. Dizzy, he grabbed Lulu. "It wasn't you they were looking through," he said. "In the desert. It was me. I helped them follow us the whole way."

"Strong," said one of the other Clerks.

"What do you want with the book?" asked Spyder.

"It's ours," said the head Clerk.

"I don't believe you." Spyder leaned on the book for support.

"No matter," said the head Clerk, and in a fraction of a second, he'd pulled the little knife from his belt and flung it into Spyder's chest.

"Spyder!" screamed Shrike.

He fell back against the cage. The Clerks walked silently toward him. Trying to stand, Spyder grabbed the book with his bloody hands.

"That's not permitted," said the Clerk.

An icy white shock ripped through Spyder's body and he fell to the floor.

Fifty Three

Threnody 23

The long-extinct scorpion people of Anu sang songs for their dead. Each song was designed to teach a new spirit some skill or valuable lesson for the Afterlife.

Of all the Anu songs set down on tablets and scrolls, only a handful were for those on their way to Heaven. The vast majority of the songs were for those on their way to Hell.

A translated excerpt:

To whom shall I cry to as I go into the depths?

My god who, if she should appear, would destroy me

With her terrible beauty?

God's Enemy, who would consume me in his beautiful terror?

At the desolate edge of the abyss, beauty and terror are less than

A burning step apart, each worthy of worship, graced, pure, demanding.

God burns us. The Enemy burns us.

They will light my way through the long dark

And fire me in a sublime pyre, until I am only ash.

Only ash, I enter the abyss to behold

My shadow

My sins

My world laid bare

Surrounded by souls, dust and ash, I go alone.

Dust and ash, I know that we all venture alone, but that we all venture.

And it is only dust and ash that passes through the abyss,

Only dust and ash.

The sublimely consumed. The radiantly destroyed.

Only dust and ash passes through.

Fifty Four

More than Heaven

He was falling for a very long time. Hours. Years. Eons. He was in the book. He was the book.

Stars twinkled in and out of existence. Dust became planets and cooled into mountains, then was dust again. Life appeared, flourished and died. He felt the immense emptiness of an entire universe devoid of any living, thinking thing. The universe died soon after. He absorbed its passing into every atom of his body.

He saw, felt and tasted nothingness, or as much of nothingness as his mortal mind could fathom. But even in nothingness was life. It passed through him and moved on, immense beyond belief. So large, it didn't notice his microscopic presence. He was at the end of time and the beginning. Some immense wheel was turning somewhere. Existence was done, but not over. Life was too powerful for that. It was beyond time or space or god or death. He couldn't quite get hold of it. The image of life, the idea was too big for his flea-size brain, but he caught a glimpse, as he floated high, so high above the universe (Is this Heaven? Or something more?) that he could look down and see it all laid out below him-clusters of galaxies like strands of pearls. But stars were things. And what he'd glimpsed wasn't a thing, but a force. Something he couldn't quite grasp, like light shining through a prism. He could put his hand into it, touch it, but never really hold it.

It was beautiful and sad where he was. So lonely. He was the oldest living thing in the universe. Or was with it. Or it passed through him, like air moving in and out of his lungs, leaving a little of itself behind-just a few molecules. Each molecule grew into pictures and words. The pictures and words flowed together to form a structure. It had doors and windows and a seemingly endless number of rooms. It was a cathedral. A memory cathedral, the kind monks used to memorize whole sections of the Bible. Spyder had read about them in Jenny's books. But the rooms in this cathedral were filled with something else. Some immensely older knowledge. Each image he touched, each word he mouthed filled him with power and dread. For a long time, he thought he was dead. Then he tripped over an uneven door frame. He caught himself before he fell, but tore the palm of his hand on the frame. His blood dripped onto the floor of the cathedral. This body is alive, he thought. I'm alive.

I'm alive.

And then he was falling again.

Fifty Five

Table Scraps

He awoke on the floor of Lucifer's palace. Someone was standing over him. His eyes fluttered fully open and he recognized a woman's face. She was red-eyed and -crying.

A name floated by and he said, "Lulu." She reached down and pulled the knife from his chest. He groaned.

"Alive?" said one of the Clerks.

"He is surprising," said the head Clerk.

Spyder leaned shakily against the cage that housed the book. Lulu spun on her heels and blasted the Black Clerks with round after round from the four-ten.

"Don't," said Spyder, reaching for her.

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