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Blind Shrike Page 43

Each of Lulu's shots hit, but it was like shooting at scarecrows. Each round went through the Clerks, as if there was nothing but straw to absorb the blasts.

The head Clerk snatched the shotgun from Lulu's hands and tossed it across the hall. "Your debt is past due. We will collect now. Your heart, I think?" he said.

"That's not going to happen," said Spyder. He got to his feet and stretched. "Damn. Sometimes dying is like two weeks in Miami."

"Perhaps your head was hurt in your fall?" said the head Clerk. "We move from Earth to Heaven to Hell. Nowhere is closed to us. We swallow life and spit out crea-tion. And you say we will not take this child's tiny life?"

Spyder went and stood close to the head Clerk, close enough to smell the rot in his borrowed flesh. "I know what you are. You aren't gods. You aren't even demons. Come on out of the closet, boys."

"We don't believe you."

"I know, but that doesn't mean dingo's balls. You're hollow. Puppets. I don't even think you're really alive."

"You are mad? I think so."

"Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain, that's the best you can come up with? It didn't work on the girl in the ruby slippers and it doesn't mean shit here."

"Enough," said the Clerk with the ledger. He opened the book and withdrew something that looked like a thick, ragged tree limb. Dropping the ledger, he twisted the limb until a dozen ragged blades sprang from the shaft, killing thorns. The Clerk lunged, but Spyder side-stepped the blow, slipping behind his attacker. Slamming his arm around the Clerk's throat, Spyder held him so that the others could watch, as he whispered a single word into the Clerk's ear. When Spyder released him, the Clerk remained frozen in place, his deformed weapon still in the air.

"A trick? Yes," said the head Clerk.

The frozen Clerk began to shake. His mouth came open and he made a sound that was part wonder and part howl of pain. He shook until he was a blur, and the stitches holding his pale body together began to split. The wan internal light the Clerks always gave off, burst through his seams as he flew to pieces. As each broken part of him hit the floor, it vanished.

The two remaining Clerks looked at Spyder.

"I said the true name of time and decay," he told them. "Do you even know what you are? You're the boy toys of the Old Gods, the Dominions. You need used up organs because you're trash on two legs. Golems. Animated table scraps. A word made you walk and a word can make you stop. I saw into the book. I learned the words."

"We are the engines of creation and destruction," said the head Clerk. "We balance the Spheres. We prune dead branches, taking life where it is not appreciated, such as in this sorry child?" The Clerk nodded at Lulu. "We pass her breath back into the universe for new souls."

"That was your burden. That's what you used to be. You balanced order and chaos, but something happened. The Dominions got inside of you. Instead of serving the universe, you started serving the Old Gods. You're their delivery boys. You grant wishes to the weak, the wounded and lost, getting your hooks in their souls so the Dominions can feed on them. There's nothing left of your old selves. You're empty shells. And this book was made to bring them back. But I'm not going to let you do that."

"Is someone going to kill someone soon?" Xero called from the stairs. "I was about to win a war."

"You were about to be eviscerated in front of your troops," said Lucifer.

"We know you. You are not a man, but a broken child?" said the head Clerk to Spyder. "You've seen and learned much lately, but you remain a drunken libertine who despises his own foolish weakness above all else. And your mortal body is trapped forever in Hell. But we will take pity and give you the gift of annihilation."

"I'm not afraid of you."

"But it is yourself you hate and yourself you must fight?" The head Clerk raised his hand to the palace entrance, where a figure was waiting.

Spyder saw his reflection. Sort of. A version of himself, but scarred like Lulu, crudely stitched together, like the Clerks themselves.

"He is your Shadow Brother, built from a broken memory you left in Berenice. All the blood you left in the street? A very powerful elixir. We sacrificed a few of the organs we'd collected," said the head Clerk. He turned to Lulu. "Child, do you recognize your eyes in another?"

"You got the jump on me in Berenice, bro," said the lacerated Spyder. "But I'm back and bad and ready for love."

"More golem trash," Spyder said the Clerks. "You think I won't kill it?"

"We're counting on it. He's special. Not you in name and form, but you, literally. A strike against him is against yourself? Show him," the head Clerk told the golem.

Spyder watched his Shadow Brother pull the punch dagger from behind his back and slide it hard across his chest, carving a deep, crimson wound. Spyder felt something like a live wire being dragged over his skin. He looked down and saw that he had a chest wound identical to the golem's.

"You know the true names. Use them. Turn him to dust!" called Shrike.

"I can't. I might dust out, too," Spyder said.

Feinting and teasing, the golem came at him with the knife. Spyder backed up and started to draw Apollyon's blade from his belt, but stopped himself. It would be suicide.

The golem kept making little charges, then stabbed and sliced himself. Spyder twitched in pain and bled, feeling each twist of the blade. The golem circled him, splashing blood onto the marble floor and laughing.

"Why are you running? This is what you always wanted. Life's too hard for people like us. Let me fix it for you," said the golem.

Spyder backed up. Sweat flowed into his wounds, stinging him.

"Remember the middle way, little brother!" yelled -Lucifer. "Would the Buddha fight himself?"

Spyder stopped in his tracks, he gaze flicking to Lucifer, then Shrike. He stretched his arms out wide and closed his eyes. The golem rushed him, jamming its knife deep into Spyder's chest. Gritting his teeth at the pain, Spyder wrapped his arms around the golem and held on. They were both bleeding and the floor was slippery with their blood. Spyder lifted the younger, smaller version of himself and spun on his heels, dropping his Shadow Brother onto the book. Gasping, Spyder twisted and threw all of his weight on his doppelganger, pinning him long enough to pull the black blade from his own belt and swing it once.

Both Spyder's and the golem's heads slid off their shoulders and rolled onto the floor.

Fifty Six

Stars

Spyder rose on wobbly legs and set his head back on his shoulders.

"You know those days when you just can't do anything right? You're having one of them," he said to the head Clerk.

"This is some trick of yours, Lucifer?"

"It's all me," said Spyder. His throat felt full of pins and needles as he spoke.

"No matter? Alive or dead, you are lost, locked in Hell forever. So is the woman."

"Not necessarily. You did us a favor, brainiac. Shrike makes these little blood sacrifices when she does small magic. All this golem's blood and mine should be good for one big favor, don't you think?"

"What are you doing?" asked Lucifer.

"I'm sorry, man. You're my friend, but Shrike and I can't spend forever down here."

Lucifer looked stricken. "You don't want to do that, Spyder."

"Sorry."

The book was already sucking down the blood Spyder and the golem had spilled on the floor. Spyder laid his hands on the metal cover and whispered strange words that seemed to flow into his mind. He was speaking a language he didn't understand, a tongue so guttural and inhuman that it would have been agony even if his throat hadn't been freshly slit.

The runes etched into the book cover glowed and the remaining blood began to boil. Spyder pulled his hands back as the golem's lifeless body, along with the last dregs of blood, were absorbed into the book.

Far across Hell there was a sound like thunder, only it came from beneath the ground, as if the foundation of the underworld itself had cracked.

"Do you know how insane this is?" asked Lucifer.

"I'm the fool, remember? I do shit you sensible guys wouldn't dream of."

Quivering green light, like a fluorescent bulb shining from the bottom of the ocean, blasted through cracks in the ancient unfinished wall Spyder had seen while walking to Pandemonium with Ashbliss. The colossal iron reinforc-ing beams began to bend and buckle as some fantastic new weight pressed against the bricks from the other side.

"Glorious! Glorious! They are here!" cried the head Clerk.

"Not for you."

"It is accomplished! We believed the Butcher Bird would free the Dominions, as revenge when you and the slut died. But you have done her job for her. The universe is ours."

"You're talking to a guy who just cut off his own head. You don't get to tell me what's yours and mine," said Spyder. He grabbed the head Clerk and ripped away the stolen skin that covered his face. In shock, both Clerks retreated a pace or two. The head Clerk touched his fleshless face, feeling for the missing meat, his eyes wide and locked on Spyder's.

"For your information, that cold knot in your belly is what we talking meat call fear," Spyder said. He then spoke a single word and the Clerks tumbled to their knees. They grew smaller and softer, as if their bones were turning to warm butter, until they were nothing but pale puddles on the stone floor.

Spyder looked back across Hell as the ancient wall began to crumble. Hands clawed at the gigantic bricks from the other side. Strange howls filled the air. Spyder became aware that both Xero and Lucifer's armies had grown considerably smaller since the Dominions had made their presence known. Deserters continued to sprint out the front of the palace.

Lucifer limped to Spyder and stood next to him, watching the ancient wall crumble. "You may have beaten the Clerks so cleverly that you've killed us all," he said.

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