Heaven and Hell
Joy to the World
By Bek D Corbin
Edited by Steve Zink
With heartfelt thanks to Maggie Finson, for her invaluable advice,
And letting me play in her universe to begin with.
In his spacious office (Heaven Branch), Marc, the Archangel of Trade, checked his suit and tie to see to it that they were just right. He wasn't vain about it, but if he weren't perfectly turned out for the Seraphim Council of Archangels, Dominic, the Archangel of Justice, would undoubtedly make snide comments about it. Dominic would undoubtedly make snarky comments about him being perfectly tailored as well, but better to be critiqued for being over-prepared than unprepared.
The intercom on his desk buzzed. "Yes, Kimiko?"
"Milord Marc, the Archangels Michael and Raphael are here to see you.
Probably here to lobby me for some proposition that they want to push in Council, he thought to himself. Hold the phone- Michael? Raphael? The Archangels of War and Mercy? It wasn't that Mike and Rafe hated each other; it was just that the Words that they embodied - War and Mercy - were so completely incompatible. Not incompatible within the larger cosmic pattern, but still, try and seat them at a dinner table! "Shoo them in, dear. I'm simply dying to hear what they have to say!"
Marc's Tenchi receptionist showed the two luminaries into his office. Michael was tall, dark and lean, with the calm air of a wolf entering uncertain ground. While there was nothing overtly martial about his jeans and leather jacket, he still looked like he could pound a minor legion of Hellions into the ground before breakfast. And why not? When The War had been going hot and heavy, he had done just that on a few occasions, and eaten heartily afterwards.
Raphael, on the other hand, wafted in like a cool breeze on a hot day. Her long ravenswing black hair fell over on one side of her perfect oval face, and her large dark eyes shone with an unconditional love of everyone. Her wide expressive mouth was curved in a smile that said that she was genuinely happy to see Marc. But then, she was genuinely happy to see everyone. She wore a simple green business suit, probably as a nod to her host.
Marc smiled equally at both of them. He was always glad to have Raphael visit - who wouldn't be, this side of the Great Chasm? - and Michael was an old poker buddy of his. They made a little heavenly chitchat for a while, and since time was running short until the Council, Marc got to the point. "So - Mike - Rafe - what brings you here?"
Michael and Raphael looked at each other for a second. Uncharacteristically, Raphael took the initiative. "Marc, I've been working on a project for a while, one that I think is particularly appropriate to launch during this Truce. If we can get it approved, I think it will resolve a lot of Mortal suffering-"
Michael couldn't help but interrupt. "-While having some very promising Military applications."
Raphael shot Michael a look of annoyance. But, being Raphael, it didn't last long.
Marc raised both eyebrows. "You BOTH worked on this?"
Michael shrugged. "Rafe did most of the work. I just kibitzed a little."
Marc leaned back in his chair. "Okay, I'm intrigued. What could the two of you come up with, that serves both of your Words?"
Raphael didn't answer directly. She pointed to a viewer set into one wall. "Marc, what is that?" She already knew, Marc had shown her several times.
"Hmmm... That's the monitor that I use to watch my Infernal counterpart, Mammon, screw himself over." There were several opposite numbers in Heaven and Hell - Michael had Baal, Prince of War, Dominic had Asmodeus, Prince of Judgement and so on. Marc's counterpart was, of course, Mammon, Prince of Greed. Unlike the other Archangels, who viewed their opposite numbers with hostility, disgust or outrage, Marc viewed Mammon with undisguised amusement. "It's getting really funny, what with the Enron debacle going off in the middle of Mammon's 'Return to the Greedy Eighties' push."
Raphael smiled enigmatically. "But why would you, the very spirit of honesty and fair dealing, find amusement in watching the doings of a being who lives to swindle the very life essence out of the entire world?"
Marc smiled broadly. "Because, in the long run, Mammon is just as much a victim and prisoner of Greed as any mortal pauper or plutocrat. I mean, just look at how he lives! He's Scrooge McDuck, without the bill and feathers! But, unlike Donald Duck's rich relation, he can't even enjoy the money that he has because he's absolutely sure that there's still more out there for him to steal. And since he is existentially incapable of understanding the old Arabic saying 'Greed lessens that which is gathered', the more he grabs, the less he actually gets. Watching him screw his servitors and himself over for one minute makes me feel better about how I run my business all day."
"But Greed is one of the most powerful of Hell's tools."
"True, but Mammon is even more susceptible to its drawbacks than even most mortals, because he can't see them for drawbacks, or he'd have to admit that his entire premise is fatally flawed. So, there he is, a victim of his own Word. Now, don't tell me that that isn't funny!"
"So, despite the similarities between yourself and Mammon, you have a fundamental difference in how you see and do things, a Heavenly quality that sets you above and gives you a primal advantage over your rival?"
Marc shrugged. "If you want to put it that way."
Raphael grinned. "And that is the basic principle at work in this concept." She handed Marc a laptop computer. "Press Control-H."
Marc opened the laptop and pressed the buttons. A schematic diagram appeared on the screen. His eyes popped wide open. "_Wow._"
The Seraphic Council of Archangels ground along, strictly following Robert's Rules of Order. Dominic insisted on it. Personally, Marc always thought that things would probably have gone along faster, more smoothly and more effectively, if they just got together and played Poker, thrashing things out while they played. After all, that's what Marc, Michael and several other Archangels did anyway. But neither Dominic nor Laurence, the Archangel of the Sword and Heaven's General of Troops, would have any of it. Sometimes Marc thought that what Laurence really needed was for somebody to shove a stick of dynamite up his ass and light it. Maybe then he wouldn't be so full of it. Though God knew if even a stick of dynamite would do anything for Dominic.
By the time that the agenda finally ground down to 'New Business', Marc had managed to leverage his way to being first on the docket. "Okay, people, this is really Raphael's baby, but she's asked me to handle the presentation." Raphael beamed at her fellow Archangels. Marc wasn't distancing himself from the plan; he was making sure that Raphael's personal charisma was as closely associated with it as possible. Everybody likes Raphael. Well, almost everybody. Dominic huddled within his dark enshrouding cloak and glowered at everyone with the thousand glittering eyes that peered out from that cloak in every direction.
Marc turned to Michael. "Mike, during the active phase of The War, which breed of Demon would you say was their most effective?"
Michael made a show of thinking it over. "Hands down, the Succubae. They were tough, smart, devious, versatile, elusive, vicious, and effective. They served as recruiters, scouts, messengers, saboteurs, diplomats and majickers, and they were also pretty tough in a one-on-one scrap. Belial tried to make his own version with the Incubi and Baal tried with those ninja-wannabe Shadow-Fiends of his; but they were both just knock-offs of Lilith's basic design, and not up to the standards of the original. No, we specifically targeted the Succubae because that was what really hurt the other side strategically."
"Thank you. Now, as you all know, Lucifer has taken advantage of the Truce to give Lilith carte blanche in recruiting as many replacements for the Succubae as she can. Not only that, but Lilith is experimenting with a prototype Succubus/Hellmaid hybrid. I've met the young 'lady', and she's a quite formidable character for someone so young."
Atypically ignoring The Rules of Order, Laurence interjected, "You're not going to propose actively recruiting this hybrid are you? We've been trying to get the Succubae to defect since Lilith first started breeding them! We succeeded in turning, what? Two?"
A pall fell over the assembled Archangels. Raphael spoke, a tear forming in the corner of one eye. "Mehala. Almodine. Do you remember them, Laurence? They were magnificent! While their sister Succubae just took, they delighted in giving. It was truly sad days for Heaven when Hell struck them down. They were notes of pure joy in the Symphony of Heaven, and our Song is poorer for their loss."
Marc laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, and then resumed. "No, Laurence, while we will still actively pursue encouraging the Succubae and the hybrid Angelique to Redeem themselves, we won't rely on any success on that front. But, since Hell is experimenting, why can't we? Basically, my fellow Archangels, what we are proposing is that we produce a prototype Heavenly counterpart to the Succubae."
Dominic shot bolt up and hissed, "What! Are you seriously saying that we, the Force of Order, Reason and Decency, should pollute ourselves by copying the tactics of the Foul? If we do that, then we all but hand Hell complete justification for all their atrocities on a silver platter. To ape their methods is to state in concrete terms that their means are valid and their ends just! If we do this, we all but lose the war, without Lucifer lifting a finger!"
"Your points are valid, Dominic, but they proceed from an invalid presumption. I didn't say Copy, I said _Counterpart_. Counterpart, as in a Brightness to their Darkness. You see, where the Succubae feed on Male Essence, robbing mortals of their divine spark, our 'Bright Lilim' - okay, so it's a working title, so sue me - will feed on Spiritual Pain. She will devour the pain of mortals and turn that pain into Good Fortune-"
Laurence strummed his fingers on the table. "You say that so blithely, as if it were an everyday thing."
Raphael interrupted. "But it IS an everyday thing, in the Marches of Dreams!" She looked back to the gallery. "Michiko? Would you bring it?"
Two female Tenchi came forward. One was carrying three sealed containers; the other was carrying a particularly odd looking animal. The animal was about the size of a bulldog, and had a similar body shape. And that was all that was canine about it. It had large feline paws, a leonine mane, a long curling tail, leonine ears, a mouth full of feline fangs, large eyes, and a long elephantine trunk. Michiko, the Tenchi carrying the animal, put it on the table and started with her best 'Joan Embry' presentation. "Honored Luminaries, this creature is a Baku, which hails from the Marches of Dreams. The Archangel of Dreams, Balandine, has given her blessing for using this creature."
The baku got up and started snuffling around the table.
Michiko resumed her spiel. "The Baku hail from those Marches of Dreams that correspond to the Earthly regions of Japan, Korea and China. The Baku are highly regarded in those parts, because their main function is to eat bad dreams and give the dreamer good luck."
In demonstration, Amida, the other Tenchi, opened one of the containers and spilled a crawly mess out onto the table. "These are minor spirits of unfocused anxiety, what Americans would call 'Heebie-Jeebies'." The Heebie-Jeebies swarmed over the table.
"Baku! Devour!" The little creature hardly needed to be told. It scrambled forward, its snout lashing out, picking off the Heebie-Jeebies and sucking them in. In a trice, the table was cleared of the noxious swarm. A few got off the edge of the table, but the baku's snout reached out and got them before they hit the floor. When the last Heebie-Jeebie had been eaten, the baku sat down, and fairly glowed with benign energy. Michiko stroked his mane and cooed, "Good Baku!"
She gestured to Amida, who began unsealing the other container. "Nor are the Baku limited to hunting down psychic vermin. Indeed, they truly shine when faced with larger problems..." Amida poured the contents of the container on the table. It looked like a huge cancerous rat equal in size to the baku, with a mouthful of razor sharp fangs, crab-like claws instead of forepaws, a scorpion-like tail, and a ridge of ragged spines down the crest of its back. "This is a dream-spirit of Invalid Guilt, the kind that can gnaw away at a mortal's sleep, giving them neither rest nor hope of redemption." The Guilt-Rat hissed at the collected Archangels, and sprang at Raphael.
The Baku didn't need to be told to devour. It squirmed out of Michiko's hands and intercepted the Guilt-Rat in mid-spring. The two creatures went at each other in a blurred mass of fangs and claws. Some of the Angels moved to separate the animals. "No!" Michiko pleaded with them, "Baku has had much experience in dealing with this kind of creature! He has begun, he must finish!"
Indeed, the baku, though cut and bleeding, had the Guilt-Rat by the throat and was busily snapping it back and forth. Finally, the Guilt-Rat went limp. The baku dropped it, and began sucking it up through its snout. When the last of the Guilt-Rat disappeared, the wounds along the baku's flank sealed and faded. The baku looked around for something else to fight, and then complacently started grooming itself. Michiko ruffled his mane again.
Amida hauled the third and largest container onto the table. "And to prove the baku's mettle, this is a Serpent of Self-Sabotaging Delusion!" Onto the table poured a python-sized snake with five viperous looking heads. Again, the baku scrambled into battle. This one was longer, as every time the baku chewed off a head, two more grew in its place. Again and again, the hydra struck at the baku, causing the brave little creature great pain. Several times, the Angels had to be waved back from coming to help the doughty little beast. Finally, the baku, though grievously wounded, managed to get its teeth on the hydra's back and broke it. Even as the serpent screamed its last, the baku worried the spine until it was almost completely chewed through. The snake-thing went completely limp, and the baku began slurping it up.
Michael smiled fondly at the little creature. "Now that's my idea of a fighter! Tough, smart, and he doesn't stop until the fight is completely won!"
When the baku finished feeding on the hydra, all the damage the snake-thing had done was completely healed, and the baku looked up at his handler and wagged it's fluffy tail.
Raphael resumed. "As you can see, the baku not only consumed the psychic pain that is part and parcel of these dream-creatures, but it converted that energy from a negative to a positive bias. In its usual workings, the baku uses this energy to feed and heal itself, and passes along any surplus positive energy to the dreamer, which often takes the form of a streak of good luck."
Novalis, the Archangel of Flowers, asked, "You intend to introduce Baku to areas outside of Asia?"
Marc shook his head. "Not a bad idea; I'll have to talk to Balandine about it. But not what we had in mind. No, our plan is to create a new kind of Angel, using an advanced version of the Baku's feeding mechanism as the core dynamic. This will be an Angel that will feed on the psychic pain of mortals and heal them."
"Why not just widen the distribution of Baku worldwide?"
"Baku are very competent, as we've proven - but they can't eat the spiritual pain of mortals unless it takes on a distinct and separate form on the dream realm. The pain must separate itself from the mortal. But this new form of Angel will - join - with the mortal in question, identify the source and manifestation of their pain, help them resolve it, devour their pain and help them heal."
Dominic leaned forward, still inscrutable within his cloak. "Join? And _exactly_ how will this theoretical new Angel... join... with the mortals?"
"Oh, through several different means, including entering dreams - we've already cleared that with Balandine - but the quickest, most direct, most effective means will be through <ahem> Sex."
Raphael bridled. "Of Course through Sex! Our Creator Himself created sex in shape, manner and form, beautiful, wholesome and joyous! One of Hell's greatest triumphs has been that this stigma of Sinfulness has been attached to it! They have claimed one of the most powerful and primal drives of Angel, Demon and Mortal alike as their sole province! With this, we will reclaim the healing power of Sex for Heaven! If these new 'Bright Lilim' do nothing else, the re-sanctification of Sex will be a Major Victory for us!"
Laurence took Dominic's side. "But Sex distracts mortals - who are so easily distracted in the first place - from the spiritual to the carnal!"
Marc shook his head. "Mortals can be distracted by almost anything, if they're so inclined. But Sex also has a higher, more spiritual side, which has been sadly neglected in modern times. By retaking the Sex Drive, we not only make Virtue more appealing, but we weaken the forces of Temptation and Corruption, and starve the Hellspawn of Essence that they are so accustomed to. A truly elegant solution, no?"
Dominic snorted. "It is a truly elegant solution - for Hell! Let Heaven create these foul creatures, and then let their own disgusting nature force them from our Realm. Why bother wasting effort recruiting new Succubae, if Heaven will do it for them?"
Michael raised an eyebrow. "And what makes you think that this new experimental Angel will be so easily corrupted?"
All one thousand of Dominic's seraphic eyes glared at Michael. "Because, by its very definition, this creature will feed on psychic pain. What could be more logical for it, than to ensure more of its feed by first causing psychic pain, which it then devours?"
Raphael smiled. "Ah, Dom, you've put your finger on the very reason why these 'Bright Lilim' couldn't fall - you see, they won't gain nourishment from the Pain, but rather from the act of converting that pain into positive energy. Causing that pain wouldn't merely pain the Bright Lilim (Marc, we have got to come up with a better name than that!), it would rob her of what Essence she already has!"
Novalis raised her eyebrows in comprehension. "So, the Primary Dynamic of these new Angels would by its basic workings, work against them falling from Grace! Yes, it is a very elegant solution!" She shot a critical glance at Laurence. "Much surer than the 'Honor' that the Malakim are always going on about!"
Dominic stood, and slammed his hands on the table. "_NO_! This is an Abomination! _I _will_ NOT_ Allow _This!_"
Michael stood, his rugged face as stern as stone. "_Allow_, Dominic? You will not allow us to even vote on this matter? Do we mere Archangels even hold these councils at your pleasure? Are you proclaiming yourself our Lord and Master? Are we to bow down before you in abject submission? Where is your Crown, Lord Dominic?" Michael sneered as the implications of what he and Dominic were saying registered on the other Archangels and their servitors. "You DO remember what happened to the last Seraph who decided that he was better suited to be the King of Heaven than Our Lord and Creator?"
Everyone remembered. The Seraph that Michael was referring to was Lucifer, who had been the Highest Among the Most Holy. Michael had fought Lucifer in hand to hand combat during the Rebellion of the Angels, and personally thrown Lucifer down from Heaven. Everyone also knew that Michael and Dominic had bad blood between them, ever since Dominic had Michael brought up on charges of Vainglory. Dominic had arranged the case so that Michael's servitors and allies were all silenced and cowed. Only the direct intervention of The Divine had saved Michael. Michael had obviously not forgotten - or forgiven.
Dominic sat down, silent, but did not relent.
The vote was taken. Dominic rasped out his Nay. Yves, the Archangel of Destiny, merely smiled and abstained. Laurence voted Aye, with reservations. The rest voted Aye. It was less that they believed in Raphael's project than a message to Dominic that, no matter how powerful he may be, they were his Peers and Equals, not his servants. The vote passed.
The other New Business was dealt with, and the various Angels returned to their business. Marc, Michael and Raphael gathered together. Raphael sighed. "Well, that's over with. Now we have to make this idea work. It's too dangerous to alter an already existing Angel's primal being - we'll have to find a suitable mortal spirit and convince them to undergo the conversion."
Marc grimaced. "Hmmm... That's a tough order to fill. We can't really ask the Blessed already in Heaven to do it, either. Maybe Yves will have some idea of a soul that's on the short line for the Pearly Gates..."
Before he could finish his statement, there was a messenger from Yves at Marc's elbow, handing him a folder. The folder was a dossier, for someone named Ralph L. Beldon, which was subdivided into sections for his Destiny, Dark Fate, Past History, Talents & Weaknesses, and Miscellany.
Marc looked non-plussed at the folder. "I Hate it when he does that."
In the corridor outside the Council Room, Dominic was waiting for Marc. "Well played, Marc. You win this hand. But, I still have grave reservations about the repercussions of your 'project'. Degrading ourselves by copying the Unholy can only lead to disaster. Be assured that I will be watching the developments of this matter."
Marc stopped and took a long look at Dominic. "Dom, what has happened to you? I mean, you've always been tough - you wouldn't have been chosen for your post if you weren't - but you were also reasonable! You used to believe in the concept of the Benefit of a Reasonable Doubt! These days, your policies are more along the lines of 'Kill them all, God will know His Own'."
Dominic wrapped his cloak around himself even tighter. "The War...is Eternal. Thus, Vigilance must also be Eternal. Justice must come swiftly and surely, or corruption will once again stain the Halls of Heaven. It isn't...pleasant...but I do what I must, for the sake of Heaven."
"Maybe. But what's the deal with this stupid cloak? We used to be able to see your face once in a while! Now all we ever see are the cloak and all the stupid Seraphim eyes."
"Familiarity breeds contempt."
"And desperation breeds cliches."
"You mock me?"
"No, Dom, I take you very seriously. You have the hardest job in Heaven, even Michael's not withstanding. Michael can at least relax with his Servitors and Allies. You, on the other hand, literally have to suspect everybody."
"Then you understand my position."
"I understand that you have been working yourself too hard. For the Love of God, Dom, take a few days off! Take a breather! Let your people cover for you for a while! Get some perspective! Dom, I'm worried about you! Tell me honestly, are you all right?"
Dominic intensely regarded Marc for a short while and found neither deceit nor derision in the Mercurian of Trade. "I...appreciate...your concern, old friend. But I'm perfectly fine. My burdens are heavy, but I am up to the challenge. I appreciate the offer, but my task is Eternal Vigilance. Eternal Vigilance is impossible from a beach chair on Cancun. Fare thee well, Friend Marc. But one last time, I must warn you of the folly of Raphael's 'project'." With that, Dominic was gone in a swirl of dark cloth and glittering eyes.
Marc watched Dominic go sadly. Then he sighed and rejoined Raphael and Michael.
Once securely within his stronghold, Dominic clutched his cloak ever closer to his form. He turned all one thousand eyes upwards toward the God that he hadn't seen in all too long. "Oh, my Dear God! I am a Seraph, a being of Essential Truth! And I Lied!"
Marc approached the Gates of Heaven. He nodded to Saint Peter, and proceeded onto the office of Azrael, the Archangel of Death. Azrael was, as always, overworked. The Angel of Death looked up as he saw Marc coming and moaned. "Oh, No! Not another special favor!"
Marc raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Another? Az, I haven't asked you for anything from you since I asked you to exercise your option on Rupert Murdoch! And didn't I come through for you with that lovely little beachfront cottage on Maui for you and Nesemath? And didn't I vote for your proposal to have Jean upgrade your paperwork from hardcopy to software?"
"Yeah," Azrael agreed, "for all the good it's doing us." He slammed an impatient hand on top of the computer terminal. "C'mon! Process, already!"
"Y'know, Jean owes me a few favors - why don't I have him send in a SWAT team of computer-geeks to get this all back on line?"
Azrael grimaced. "Don't bother - it's not really the hardware. It's the freaking volume, as always. Have you seen the line out front? It's this stupid population boom, I tell you! More mortals get born, so inevitably more mortals die, and I have to process them! Man, am I glad that I just have to schlep them up here, and not Judge them! Have your seen the Courts lately?"
Marc shrugged. "So, are there any major gluts headed your way?"
Azrael shuddered. "Oh, yeah. The American involvement in Afghanistan is just warming up, the Balkans are trying to re-arm for another go at wiping each other out, Columbia is teetering on the brink of Civil War, and there's yet another famine on the horizon for Myanmar. Most of the idiots from the Balkan thing will probably be immediately shunted off Downstairs - I mean, do they teach those people atrocities in school? - but that famine is gonna be a real back-breaker. There's nothing like rampant hunger to make people look to Heaven."
Marc fiddled with a cufflink. "I can't do anything about Afghanistan or Columbia. I could block the shipments of arms to the Balkans, but that would be in violation of my Word. I'll talk to Michael about giving you a little breathing room there. But as for Myanmar, I think I could fiddle them a few trade breaks, get them a few bargains on imports, and like that. It may not stop the famine, but it should slow it down enough for a good famine relief effort to get started. Maybe I could talk to Novalis about a bumper crop of rice or something in the region."
Azrael eyed the Archangel of Trade suspiciously. "And what is this gonna cost me?"
Marc smiled and spread his hands wide. "The trade and import breaks? Nada. Consider it a good faith measure. Talking to Michael and Novalis? That's gonna cost me favors. In return, all I want is one of your Collectors with better people skills to exercise an option on this guy." Marc dropped the Beldon file on Azrael's overcrowded desk.
"He's That big a shithead, that you want him off the Big Chessboard, like NOW?"
"Quite the contrary! He's definitely Our Kind Of People! As a matter of fact, this is a recruitment - we want him to be one of our newest Angels."
The Archangel of Death raised both eyebrows. "Right off the board? You don't want him to hang around as one of the Blessed for a century or two, like usual?"
"Didn't you hear about the big debate in the Council?"
Azrael shrugged. "Hey, I would show up more often but-" he swept his hands around the cluttered office, "maybe if you sent me over, oh say, a squad of those primo paper-shufflers you have over at your place..."
"Az, you still haven't returned that flock of clerks that I sent you back in the 17th Century! Thirty- forty years tops, you said! I'll bet that if I went into the back that I'd find them-"
Azrael held up his hands, "Okay, okay! No need to make threats! Now, what's this big debate that you were talking about?"
"Well, Raphael has this idea for a new kind of Angel-"
I looked at my watch and I knew that I was gonna be late. Carrol Wellby was up for a part on a soap - okay, so she's gonna be a cashier who gets to say 'Here's Your Change, Sir', but Hey! It gets her in front of the cameras where the director and producer and people can see her. Besides, she needs the rent money. The odds were that she wouldn't need the services of an agent, but she'd definitely need somebody there for moral support, especially if she doesn't get the gig. When you're just starting out, that's what you really need, somebody to believe in you and let you know that you're not just spinning your wheels. When I first started out, trying to be a stand-up comedian, I saw way too many people who could'a been BIG, really Great, give up 'cause nobody had faith in them. Well, good things don't just happen, you gotta go out and make 'em happen. Heck, that's my motto; I even have it on a plaque in my office, just in case I ever forget.
Carrol could be Big some day - she's got a kind of 'girl next door' look to her that most black actresses working don't have. And she projects this air of a kind of simple honesty, mixed with a shrewd common sense. Once the Producers pick up on her, they'll have Scriptwriters churning out scripts for her, just like they do for Samuel L. Jackson. All she needs are a few good breaks and somebody to stick by her during the hard times. That's my job, making sure that newbies like Carrol get the breaks and sticking by them, getting them non-acting jobs to fill in during the long wait. But she'll make it - I have faith in her.
I trotted out between the cars to the island and checked traffic for a sprint to the other side of the avenue. Traffic was getting thick, and they weren't slowing down in the middle. I'd just missed the green light, and I was in a hurry. I checked the coming cars, and then I noticed a Hispanic looking kid of about twelve making a bonehead dash from the other side. I knew he wasn't gonna make it. There's no way that Lexus could swerve in time. Maybe if I yelled, he'd see-
And then everything froze, like a movie with the VCR on pause. "What the Fuck?"
"There's no need to curse, Ralph."
I turned around, and saw that there was a guy standing there, apparently unaffected in any way by all the weirdness. Other than the fact that he was the only other person or thing moving on the street, he was completely unremarkable: average height, average build, average coloring, average cut of hair and clothing. If he weren't moving while everything else was stock still, he'd fade right into the background. He nodded at me and took a step closer.
"Who are you? What's going on? What did you do to them?"
He smiled ruefully and scratched his head. "Well, in order, my name is Azmaveth. Please, no 'shortness of breath' jokes; I am quite literally a taker of breath. You see, I am an Angel of Death."
"Angel of Death?" My heartbeat went up about a thousand percent. "Hold it, wait a minute - it can't be my time... No you probably hear that all the time. Hold it - isn't the name of the Angel of Death Azrael?"
He nodded. "My Boss. He doesn't do personal appearances that much anymore."
I looked around at the unnatural scene around us. It wasn't how I'd seen myself buying the farm, but then who ever does get that right? "So, it's my time? Shit. And Carrol really needs me."
He smiled ruefully. "Well, actually, its not that simple. You see, we're exercising what we call 'an option'. You see, right here, right now, somebody is going to die. It could be you, _OR_ it could be-" he pointed at the kid about to be hit by the car, "Him."
"You mean, I have to decide between dying or saving my life at the cost of a child's? That's Monstrous!"
He shrugged nonchalantly. "This? <pfaugh!> This is nothing! Yesterday, I collected an entire family in El Salvador, just because the Secret Police got an address wrong. Death is part and parcel of Life; believe me, keeping that in mind is the only way that I can do this job. Fortunately for me, this is a special job. Some very Highly Placed Personages are interested in you."
Hunh? Interested in Me? Highly Placed Personages? "Okay, now I know that you've got the wrong guy. I'm nobody special. I'm just a guy who holds the hands of people who might become special."
He pulled a large dossier file out from nowhere and leafed through it. "Ralph Lynn Beddleham; aged fifty-two, changed name thirty-one years ago to Ralph Beldon. Theatrical Talent Agent, New York City. You started out as a stand-up comedian during the comedy boom of the late 70's. You weren't that good as a comic, but you could hustle with the best of them. You started out representing yourself, but you started giving your cronies tips on job openings. It turned out that you were better at getting other performers jobs than you were at scaring things up for yourself, so you became an Agent. You specialize in struggling newcomers - who either give up on you, or drop you for a more Uptown kind of representation once they get their feet in the door. Indeed, this is your niche in the New York Entertainment community, to the point where Cecile, your wife of five years, left you two years ago for a TV producer-"
"OKAY! Okay - I believe you. You're an Angel of Death, you've come for Me, no doubt about it, and I have to decide whether to just lie down and croak or let an innocent kid take the fall for me."
Azmaveth quirked a half-smile. "This is where it gets really interesting. You see, that kid isn't so innocent." The Angel produced another dossier. "His name is Hector Javier Enalamero, age twelve and five months. He's a habitual shoplifter and a schoolyard bully. He's pushing to get into his local gang. His Dark Fate-"
"Dark Fate? You mean this is all predetermined? So why go through the torture of making me choose, if it's already decided?"
"It isn't. Everyone has a Destiny and a Dark Fate both. Neither is inescapable, despite what you may have been told. Your Destiny is your Higher Calling, the very best possible use of your options on Earth. Your Dark Fate is it's exact opposite - the worst possible outcome, both for you and the world. For instance, John Wayne Gacy could have become a courageous crusader for Gay Rights in the Midwest, showing the people of Middle America that homosexuals can be good decent upright people - instead he went out and picked up young boys so that he could torture them to death for kicks.
"Now, as for Hector over there - his Destiny is to become a stable, respectable member of his community, and to be a rock of moral strength that his grandchildren can rely on in hard times. His Dark Fate is to become the Ultimate Warlord for his gang, kill several other young men, be incarcerated, lead a prison riot that will kill twelve guards and fifty-four inmates, and instigate a series of repressive punitive measures in America's prisons. _OR_, he can die, right here and now, and let you, a kind and giving man, continue to succor the fledglings of the Great White Way for a few more decades."
I started to sweat. "And there's no guarantees which way he'll turn out, right?"
"Absolutely none. Though I will guarantee that if you choose to save him, he will indeed survive safe and intact."
"How long do I have to decide this?"
"This moment is timeless - Time itself is proceeding at its normal rate, you are merely outside its flow. This state will last until you irrevocably commit to a course of action or inaction. Also, you can't leave this immediate spot."
"In other words, I can take as long as I want, as long as I focus on this. If I stop thinking about it, I've committed to a course of inaction."
"Good. You pick up quickly."
"You'd set up a _kid_, just to put me in this fix?"
"Good Lord, NO! Quite the opposite - y'see, we know just enough about the future to know that Hector over there was going to pull this bonehead play. We did set you up, so that you'd be here in the right place at the right time, to save him - or not."
"If I do save him, will it at least be over quickly?"
"I'm sorry, Ralphie, but by my expert calculations, given the speed that car is travelling, your body mass and general state of health, the odds are that you will break your lower back and both legs, rupture your spleen, have a couple of ribs penetrate your lungs, and probably have a major concussion. It will take you at least two weeks to die, and you'll be awake for most of it."
"You aren't making this easy."
"Ralphie, decisions like this aren't supposed to be easy. The entire point here is - what do you really believe?"
It occurred to me that my life was over. Even if I decided to do nothing, and 'saved' my life, it would still be over. There's no way that I could be the same person I was, if I bought my life with this kid's. Maybe this is my Dark Fate, to become the kind of manipulative parasite of an Agent that I have detested for the last twenty years. They always say that the worst offenders are usually the ones that started out with the highest standards.
No, that was just me trying to rationalize my real decision. The simple fact is that I couldn't allow a child - even a rotten, vicious brat - die in my place.
I stepped off the concrete island and pushed Hector out of the path of the car. The second that I touched him, Time snapped back into it's normal pace - or I just re-entered it. Let the philosophers argue that out. Hector fell back, to safety. There was a dull thud, and then I felt myself being thrown forward. I clinically noted them as each injury registered - broken ribs penetrating my lungs, spine snapping, legs breaking, spleen rupturing, and head hitting the curb to cause a concussion.
Just as the pain started to set in for real, I felt a hand on my shoulder. The hand PULLED me up, and out of the pain and discomfort. I looked around, and saw Azmaveth with his hand on my shoulder. I looked down, and a few feet down, I saw the body of a pudgy middle aged man with balding sandy hair and a slightly threadbare suit lying in the gutter of 45th Street. There was a small pool of blood on the asphalt next to his nose and mouth. His eyes were open, and unblinking.
He was dead.
He was me.
I turned to Azmaveth. "You said that it would take me weeks to die."
"I exercised an option to cause a heart attack. You were going to die eventually, so I saw no reason for you to suffer unnecessarily."
"You never said that you could do that!"
"That's right. I never said anything about that, one way or the other. After all, your decision wouldn't really mean anything, if you thought that it would be easy."
"What about the kid? Which way is he going to go? Have I condemned him to a life as an urban animal, just to spare my conscience?"
Azmaveth shrugged. "How would I know? Angels can only know Destiny and Dark Fate - we can't know the outcome of Free Will or Random Chance; both of which exist, and can be a real pain in the ass, let me tell you!"
I sighed. "Okay, it's over. Let's go." We started, then I stalled.
Azmaveth looked at me hard. "You're not gonna challenge me to a game of Chess, are you?"
"No." He sighed and relaxed. "I-I just want to know, before I go... Did I do any good?"
The Angel raised his eyebrows.
"As I look back, I realize that all my life, I just wanted to do some good. With all the running around, and meeting and wheedling and wheeling and dealing, I gotta know - did I do any good? Or was I just spinning my wheels, wasting everyone's time?"
Azmaveth shook his head. "I wish that I could tell you, Ralphie, but I can't. I'm an Angel, but I don't know everything. That kind of call is way beyond my scope."
With that, he took me by the arm, and we left this vale of tears.
There was a brightness as we broke through to the other side. There they were, the Pearly Gates. Big whacking actual gates, up at the top of a high and very wide bank of steps. There were several very long lines - twelve, as I later found out - leading up to several booths, where rather harried looking Angels were trying to get them sorted out. The people on line were the most mixed bag of souls that I'd ever seen. I don't know which were more heart-breaking, the groups of family, friends and lovers who were worried that they might be separated for Eternity, or the lone souls of those that died alone.
I turned to ask Azmaveth about them, and instead of Mister Average-Average-Average, I was looking at this huge golden bear with a large pair of lambent wings and a halo around its head. The bear looked at me and said in Azmaveth's voice, "Hey, if you think that's bad, you should seen it back before we got the computers up and running!"
We walked up the stairs, bypassing the line. A few people stared at us resentfully, but would you give a great big winged bear a hard time about cutting in line? We stopped right in front of one of the gates. I looked at the aggravated Angel slamming the top of her computer, trying to get it to process faster. I jerked my head at the line.
Azmaveth shook his head. "Don't worry about it. Hey, I finally get to give you a little good news! Remember I told you that some very highly placed personages were interested in you?" I nodded warily. "Well, due to the way that you lived your life, not to mention the way that you died, you don't have to worry about wading through that line, or going through the Courts. As of right now, you are pretty much IN Heaven.
"BUT you are going to have to make another hard decision. The reason that I was told to exercise that option on you is that you are on the short line to be made an Angel. Before you enter the Gates of Heaven, you must decide whether you want to spend Eternity as one of the Blessed, or as an Angel."
I screwed up my face (at least I think I did - I wasn't too sure that I still had a face at the time) in confusion. "What's the difference? I thought that everyone in Heaven was an Angel."
"Ah, No. The Blessed are those mortal souls that are making up their minds whether to become Angels, or to go on to the Higher Realms and be with God."
"And what do they do while they're making up their minds?"
"Well, they just kinda hang out. Remember bless and bliss come from the same root word. Even then, they do contribute - they make Heaven, well - Heaven. We Angels handle the hard stuff, the stuff that needs to be done."
"Wow. That kind of sucks for you, doesn't it?"
"Not really. Do parents and older siblings really begrudge doing things for infants? It's kinda like that."
"So, given that, what's so great about being an Angel?"
"Only one thing, Ralphie - you get to do some good."
I struggled with that for a while. I mean, the choice of being able to just kick back and enjoy Eternal Peace, or shuck all that and actually do some good. I looked at Azmaveth. "And I have to decide right now?"
"Yep. We can't let you enter Heaven until you've made that decision. But at least we are letting you make that decision - down in Perdition, they just assign you to whatever duty suits them best. Up here, you get to decide; you have to live with your decisions, but you do get to decide."
I took a deep breath - or at least I think I did - and made up my mind. "Azmaveth, I'd like to be an Angel. I just pray that I'm up to the challenge."
The heavenly bear looked at me with a light in his eyes. "Thanks, Ralphie. It's moments like this that make it all worthwhile - all the pleading, crying, whining, deal-making and chess-playing; it's all worth it, when I bring someone up here, and they decide to go the extra mile. C'mon in, Ralphie, I think that you'll fit in just fine."
Somehow, Heaven was larger than it seemed from outside the Pearly Gates. I looked around a bit, and then turned to Azmaveth. "Well, what now? Do I go somewhere, or does somebody come and get me, or do I change right here on the spot?"
Azmaveth went back to his human seeming and pulled out my dossier. "Okay, Marc wants you to show up at the Halls of Trade ASAP-"
"Mark? The Apostle Mark?"
"No, Marc, with a 'C', not a 'K' - this Marc is the Archangel of Trade."
"Trade? You mean there's an Angel in charge of Business? I thought that was more or less H- ah, the Other Place's big gun!"
Azmaveth just smiled. "I'll let him fill you in - it's been nice, but there's one thing about being an Angel of Death: you're always either too soon or you're running way behind. Right now, I'm needed somewhere."
Azmaveth left me at a soaring skyscraper, which somehow didn't clash with the rest of the Heavenly landscape. The interior was elegant without being over-lavish. The Asian... receptionist, for the want of a better term, made me comfortable. "Mister Marc is a very busy person, you understand. While he is very eager to meet with you, he also has several other projects that also require his attention."
She had me sit in a very comfortable chair and had one of her subordinates get me a cup of coffee. As I waited, I watched her and her aides in action. She wasn't just a receptionist; she was more of a communications regulator. She handled a couple of hundred different communications in the time I watched her, often handling as many as twenty at a time, all with that off-hand efficient elegance that the Japanese call Shibumi. After a few minutes watching her do her stuff, I got the distinct impression that she hadn't been snowing me - Marc really was a very busy person. Getting even a few minutes with him must be a real honor to a not-yet-minted Angel.
Finally, one of her hands (I swear that I saw Six of them going at one point!) hit the button on an intercom and she peered over her console at me. "Mister Beldon? Mister Marc can see you now."
I got up and wished that I had a tie or some cuffs to straighten. I steeled myself for meeting the being who would probably be my boss for Eternity, and went through the double doors.
There is a commonly held belief in the business world, that the bigger your office is, the more important you are. Marc's office put the lie to that myth. It was large, at least three times larger than my office back on Earth. But it wasn't as large as some of the Earthly offices that I've been in. It was roomy, but he avoided that uncomfortable cavernous effect that you get in some status-obsessed executives' offices. It was just right. He had it decorated in hard woods and leather, but there were enough modern pieces to avoid the 'I'm trying to look like Old Money' effect that many other executives try for. His desk was just the right size for him. If anything, the general impression that I got from Marc's office was that here was a man who knew what he was doing, and knew how to do it right.
The man (Angel? Archangel?) himself was busily making a few arrangements on a phone. He wrapped up and gave me his full attention. "Sorry about that. Last minute details - the bane of Heaven, Earth and Hell. Ah well, if it were easy, then why would they need me?"
He favored me with a rueful smile. "You have absolutely no idea of why you're here, do you?"
I gave a helpless smile back and shook my head. "Azmaveth - the Angel who brought me here - said that I was up for being some kind of apprentice Angel. Though for the life of me (gee, can't use that one anymore!), I can't see Heaven being so short on Angel power that they'd have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for me."
"You sell yourself short, Ralph." He opened a dossier. "It says here that you gave Darryl Wayeborne, the comedian, his start."
"Yeah - Darryl and I started out in Stand-Up together. When I decided that I was better at wrangling Club Owners to give other performers a break than getting audiences to give me a break, I made sure that he got into the right clubs. Then he got that HBO special-"
"And he dropped you for a hotshot at Phillip Morris the second that HBO started to get serious."
I shrugged. "Hey. That's Show Biz."
"The same happened with that actor who does all the 'dark, brooding, troubled villain' roles in the movies, Lazlo Theissen. And Clarisse Fox, the Broadway ingenue, Harvey Colliard, the gross-out comic, Tom Xavier, the soap opera heartthrob and a score of lesser lights. Your secretary, Amy Vassen, spends half her time out on casting calls, and I'll bet diamonds to pebbles that she'd do exactly the same, once she got the break."
"Hey, I would have gotten a break - eventually. One of them would have stuck with me. And in the meantime, somebody had to go out and make things happen. Most people just hang around, waiting for something good to happen. Well, good things don't just happen, you gotta go out and make 'em happen."
He looked down at the dossier. "Your motto - you even have it on a plaque in your office." He looked back up at me. "And that is what you're doing here. Ralph, you've had to make a couple of really big decisions today. You had to decide between a stranger's life and your own - and you decided that the other guy had a better right to live. You had to decide between an existence of sublime exaltation and ease, and an existence of serving others without any real recompensation. You chose the hard road. Well, Ralph, fasten your seatbelt, you gotta make another big decision."
I could feel the flummox cover my face.
"Ralph, I'm going to offer you another choice. You can take or leave it, without fear of angering, offending or disappointing anyone. I won't blame you in the least if you turn it down. You CAN decide to be another junior Angel, working in the Entertainment Division of my organization. There, you will basically do a more advanced version of what you did on Earth - help promising performers, encourage honesty in the business and promote a higher mindset in music and drama.
"OR, you can go an even extra mile. We have a plan for what you might call an 'experimental' Angel. Most of the 'Choirs' - Choirs are what we call the different kinds of Angel that you'll run into - have been around for millennia. But, instead of becoming a Kerub or Mercurian - the Choirs that you'll probably best fit in with - you'll become a completely new kind of Angel."
"What? I'll have jet engines instead of wings? Radar instead of a halo?"
Marc chuckled and shook his head. "Actually, the form that you'd take isn't completely unprecedented." He snapped a remote at a wide screen monitor. A picture of quite possibly the most primally desirable woman that I'd ever seen popped up. She was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick in a stained glass window. She had a child-woman's face and a body made for sin, all wrapped up in a dress so tight that it wouldn't leave much to the imagination of an accountant. Marc clicked another button, and the image began moving. The invitation to sin implicit in her body became an all-out media blitz to carnal excess.
"She looks like she was just made for sex, doesn't she? Well, she is - literally." He clicked another button on the remote. The seeming of mortality faded, and the love goddess sprouted bat wings, a barbed tail, a pair of dainty horns, and cloven hooves. "She is - or was, should I say - a succubus, a demon of temptation. Her name was Mirjam." Marc clicked the remote again. Five Angels all in armor and brandishing flaming swords attacked Mirjam. My sense of chivalry and fair play stopped being offended when I saw that the overwhelming odds weren't so overwhelming. Mirjam whistled up swarm after swarm of vile looking insects, which plagued and blinded the Angels while she tore into them with her bare claws. When the battle was over, Mirjam was on the ground bleeding, but the Angels were bleeding too, even if they were still on their feet. They'd walk away from that fight, but they'd limp.
Marc shut off the monitor. "Ralph, you've probably heard that Heaven is at war with Hell. That is unfortunately true. Currently, we're enjoying a truce, which is enforced by some of the best magical and legal work ever done by either side. It would have to be, to keep Old Luke honest for even a second. But, it is inevitable that the War will start up again. Lucifer is just biding his time until he feels that his forces are strong enough again, and then he'll storm the walls of Heaven - again. The Succubae, the sisters of that creature that you just watched, are probably Hell's top agents. They are Hell's best spies, diplomats, assassins, recruiters, scouts and magic users. And, as you've seen, they aren't exactly pushovers in the hand-to-hand combat arena, either. They can take on any female shape, and they are utterly irresistible to males of all varieties - Mortal, Angel and Demon alike. They live on the Male essence of the men with whom they have sex."
"Whoa! You want me to become a heavenly version of a Succubus?"
"No. We want you to become the heavenly counterpart to a Succubus. Y'see, Ralph, Succubae are takers. In exchange for a few minutes of pleasure, they take a man's male essence, leaving him nothing. If she isn't careful, she'll even turn him into a woman. What we want is an Angel that won't take, but give. Instead of feeding on a mortal's maleness, this new kind of Angel will feed on the mortal's spiritual pain, leaving them stronger, not weaker."
"Ralph, you worked with performers, a group that knows all about how people torture themselves unnecessarily. You know how much real Evil is done by people who aren't really evil themselves, just in pain. How many people have you seen in your life who did stupid, pointless, evil things, just because they thought that it would ease their pain just a little?"
I closed my eyes, and I couldn't get the image of Clement Harrison out of my mind. Clem could have been one of the Greats. He carried around five men's burden of Anger, Sorrow and Shame, but he used it in his comedy routines and spun that pain into things of beauty. He could have been what Richard Pryor tried to be, and was every so often. He could have been the man to give African Americans a voice to their pain, a voice that cleansed with laughter even as it vented the Rage. He could'a been great. But as soon as the Village Voice picked up on him, that bastard Artie MacHeath came along and spun him the same old line. 'Sure, Ralphie's a nice guy - but nice guys finish last, don't you know that? You're gonna need somebody tough to handle you, or the BigWigs will eat you for lunch! Sign with me, I'll take good care of you'. Artie took good care of Clem, all right. Hooked him up with a dealer. Introduced him to that no-good bimbo Shaheri, who wormed Clem away from Dinah. Convinced Clem that he had to do the 'John Belushi' thing, and perform fucked up. Of course, neither Artie nor Shaheri were anywhere near the place, when Clem went totally off his rocker from the coke and speed, and shot Dinah. Or when the cops came in, and shot Clem 'cause he wouldn't drop the gun. Maybe - maybe if Clem hadn't been toting around quite as much pain, maybe he might have lasted long enough for the world to hear what he was trying to say.
I opened my eyes. "Exactly how would I feed on this 'Spiritual Pain'?"
Marc cleared his throat, and nervously straightened his tie. His instincts for salesmanship warred briefly with the strictures of his Word. He wasn't merely the Archangel of Trade; he was the Angel of Fair Trade. "Ah well, while there are several different options, the classic and most effective way is through - Sex. It's a variant of the method that the Succubae use to drain men. And, since I know that you're gonna ask, yes, we're gonna ask you to, uhm, manifest as a Female Angel."
"Why a Female Angel?"
"Well, first of all, you will be in direct competition with the Succubae. Hell has a male version, called Incubi, but the Succubae are noticeably more effective, especially during this 'Cold War' phase. We're gonna need Angels who are not only immune to the Succubae Charms, but actively cut into their 'market share' so to speak. Secondly, Ralph, we do want you as our test subject; our analysis of your core personality shows that you are perfect for this job. And you see, there's this strange phenomenon that we've noticed for a while. Persons changed from their original sex to the opposite display a phenomenal increase in magical potential. If you're gonna go up against the Daughters of Lilith, you are gonna need as much magical power as you can assimilate. And, lastly, to be perfectly honest, according to Raphael's research, this 'pain-eating' gig just works better with the female dynamic. It's a Yin-Yang thing, I'm told."
Lord, the decisions they keep throwing at me! I mean, I like being a guy! Okay, maybe I wasn't Arnold Schwartzeneggar, or Hugh Hefner, or Brad Pitt, but c'mon! Then I flashed back to that recording of that fight with that Succubus. Besides the bugs, the black flame and glowing knives that she'd used, her greatest weapon had been that the Angels that she'd been fighting were male. They had obviously struggling with their own primal attraction to her, and it had cost them in their own blood. If I managed to talk Marc into letting me do this as a guy, not only wouldn't I be as effective, but also I'd be almost at the mercy of the first Succubus to come along. And if I were cutting into their 'feeding grounds', they would be looking for me. As for the Incubi, well, as an Agent, I'd seen just about every slimy underhanded trick that Men use on Women, applied by experts in that craft. I've lost count of the besotted women that I pleaded with, trying to convince them that the bastard they were hung up on was just no damn good!
Maybe if I were there as a guy Angel, protecting them - but then the memory of Clem Harrison's tragic, pain-filled eyes came back at me. I failed him. He could have been Great. He needed someone to help him with his burden of pain...
Is this what it's like, fighting your own primal nature? Is this what a salmon feels, when it says, 'I don't want to go upstream to spawn! I don't wanna die!'
I looked Marc in the eyes, and took the leap from the lion's mouth. "I'll do it."
Marc smiled like a sunrise. "Wonderful! Y'know, there are times when I despair for humanity. Then something like this happens - a person rises to need-"
"I've heard this spiel. From the last Angel who was trying to get me to do something stupid."
"Hey, it's still true! Most people - most Angels! - wouldn't do what you're doing. And yet, it's always Mortals who always make these exceptional leaps. Angels are as they were made, but Mortals can exceed their limitations. Which is one of the reasons that we chose a Mortal to become the 'Bright Lilim'-"
"Hey, it's a working title. We're working on it. As I was saying, the very nature of this project demands that the subject become more than they were before." Marc got up. "Very well, there's no time like the present."
As we went through his front office, Marc paused for his receptionist. "Kimiko, have Gadiel, Shemariah and Makheloth handle my schedule for the rest of the afternoon. I'm going to want to help out personally with this project."
Kimiko reached over and fluidly flipped three toggles. "All set."
As we left, Marc leaned over and said, "Y'know, someday I'm going to get her to tell me how she does that."
We took an elevator to the ground level and began walking at a relaxed pace. I looked over at Marc. "I thought that you were such a busy guy."
"Well, yeah, but one of the secrets to my success is that I always take the opportunity to relax a bit and smell the roses."
"What are your other secrets?"
"One - Always make sure that you sell something of worth. There's no advertising campaign as effective as a deserved reputation for quality. Heck, when was the last time you saw an ad for Rolls-Royce?
"Two - Remember that the true value of an enterprise isn't always best revealed in a ledger. Sometimes you have to accept a loss in order to secure your place in a market. You have to keep your eye on the Big Picture, not just the Bottom Line. Or, to put it more simply, sometimes you just have to accept that you ain't gonna get what you want, in order for someone else to get what they need."
"The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed up world?"
"You know that movie?"
"Know it? I love that movie! A movie about a man who rises above his bitterness, despair and apathy, recovers his faith, and finds the strength to give up a woman who has haunted him for years, all in the name of a Greater Good. What's not to love?"
We came to a low sprawling complex of buildings, with lots of windows and galleries, and courtyards with gently splashing fountains. It was a very soothing place. I tried to pump Marc for a few more detail about the 'Experiment', but he just shook his head and said, "I only know the general outline of the project. The real expert will be with us shortly." After we relaxed in the cool of the courtyard, a woman joined us. All of the Angels that I'd seen in Heaven had been beautiful. This woman was also beautiful, but in a way that completely put the lie to the myth that a woman has to be slim and girlish in order to be beautiful. She was tall, matronly and full-bodied, in a way that wasn't a euphemism for fat. You looked at her, and you saw what Peter Paul Rubens was going for. Her thick body managed to be both motherly and very sexy at the same time. She had the kind of generous bosom that sort of invited you to snuggle in and either cry your woes out or burrow in for the winter. Warm dark eyes shone in her plump face. They looked at you, took all of you in, and accepted you warts and all. You felt better, just looking at her.
She beamed at us both, and greeted me like I was a friend that she hadn't seen in years. "Marc! You show up at last! And I take it this is our brave volunteer!"
Marc beamed back at her. "We got here as quickly as we could. How could I tarry, knowing that I was coming to see you? This is-"
Raphael held up a plump hand. "Please, no names." She gave me an apologetic smile. "It's not that I'm denying the introduction, mind you; it's just that you won't be the person with that name much longer. When your Exaltation is over, you'll be given a new name, one more in keeping with your new state." She cocked an eye at Marc. "Speaking of 'new states', did you tell him everything?"
"Yes, I did. Have you every known me to lie?"
"Lie, no - but you have been known to be very strategic about the timing of exactly when you tell the whole story!"
We spent a very pleasant hour or so (do these measurements of time really mean anything in Heaven?), until one of Raphael's aides came in and told us that 'the others' were waiting. We went through the galleries, into a very large courtyard with a dais in the middle with four small concert shells on all sides, facing toward the dais. While there were at least a dozen lesser Angels standing around reading sheet music, the courtyard was dominated by a couple talking near the dais. The man was a wiry, very physical type in jeans and a leather jacket. He looked like a cross between the Biker that you never wanted to run into, and the Drill Sargent that every recruit both hopes and fears to get in Boot Camp. The woman was lanky, with 'Mother Africa' features. She was dressed in yards of bright multicolored batik that should have clashed with her brass jewelry, or been garish, but somehow didn't.
Marc raised an eyebrow in the direction of the woman. "Eli? I didn't know that you were involved with this project!"
The woman - Eli? - smiled a magnificent broad smile at Marc. "Well, y'should have! How can you make somethin' new if you don' create! And Creation is MY Word. A'course, Rafe asked me t'help in helpin' this poor thing Exalt. An' it's well past time. We've had the same ol' Choirs for millennae! Rafe didn't bring my being involved up, 'cause Dominic has a mind to cast me out. And the others are leery of me as well; my participation might have queered your spiel in Council."
Marc shrugged. "All right, I'll allow you that. But what's with this new look? I mean, I've heard that you've been doing the Rastafarian schtick for a while, but don't you usually go for a more <ahem> Manly look?"
Eli clucked her (?) tongue. "Now, now, Marc. Would you ask this poor thing to have three Daddies, and only ONE Momma? And when was the last time that ol' Mikey here walked on the other side of the street? Or are you offering?"
Marc shook his head. "Why should I, when you do such a wonderful job?"
Maybe Marc was following this, but I was completely lost. "Daddies? Mommas?"
Raphael took mercy on me. "Exaltation, the process by which one of the Blessed becomes an Angel, isn't an inpersonal thing. A new Angel must be 'reborn' so to speak, with a 'father' and a 'mother' imparting a part of their essence to the child. Since Exaltation isn't the simple material thing that mortal birth is, parentage isn't limited to only two. Besides Marc and myself, your parents will be these two. The tall brooding macho type is Michael, the Archangel of War. The fashion victim is Eli, the Archangel of Creation."
"Ummm.. hokay—Now, getting part of the Archangel of Trade, I understand. The Archangel of Creation, I understand. You, the Archangel of Mercy, is flat out obvious. But, I'm supposed to become some kind of Angel that relieves suffering - how does a part of the Archangel of War enter into it?"
The Holy Biker bridled at my question and stepped forward, glowering right into my eyes. I looked him right back, straight in the eyes. We locked gazes for a moment. Then, as if satisfied, he nodded. "Good. Good question, made directly, and stood by in the face of opposition. I like that. You misunderstand. My Word isn't War, as you understand it in English. By the way, we aren't speaking in English, this is the holy tongue of Enochian, the language of Angels. My Word doesn't mean war, though it does encompass it. It means to face a problem and overcome it. It means to struggle towards a goal, and to achieve that goal. My Infernal counterpart, Baal, does encompass War as you know it - endless, pointless, fruitless strife and destruction. And he's welcome to it. In your primary work, you will have to confront mortal suffering and overcome it. My essence will help give you a focus, an ability to apply your powers and yourself, that these others-" he swept a hand indicating Marc, Raphael and Eli, "for all their virtues, aren't exactly over-equipped with."
Marc balked at that, but Eli laughed and Raphael just accepted it.
I chewed that over. It made sense. One of the first things that I learned as a Talent Agent, was that reason and persuasion will only get you so much - sometimes, you just gotta face somebody down and beat them out of things. And I was going to be facing Pain - spiritual pain, which doesn't just lay down and die. I'd need a hefty infusion of the warrior spirit that almost glowed out of Michael. I nodded.
Raphael took me by the hand. "Very well, if there are no further questions-" she lead me onto the dias.
"Why, this is where we're going to do it."
"Yes. What, were you expecting a mad scientist's lab, with booths and wires and bubbling chemicals?"
Actually, I'd been so blown away by the prospects that loomed before me, that I hadn't spared a thought as to how it would be done. I shrugged, and assumed a stance at the center of the dias.
An Asian appearing Angel came up and handed me the weirdest lookin' critter that I had ever seen. It was about the size of a beagle, but looked like someone threw a pygmy elephant, a lion cub and a Pekinese into a blender and set it on gene-splice. The Angel patted the critter on the head and said, "This is a Baku. It has within it the basic spiritual dynamic that we will be building your Exaltation around. Hold onto the Baku as long as you can, and we will construct a sympathetic resonance around it." We were supposed to be talking the language of the Angels, but it was all Greek to me.
The...baku...squirmed around to look at me, and gave me a long lick with it's fifteen yard long tongue. Apparently it liked the taste of me, 'cause it settled down in my arms and let me pet it.
The twelve Angels formed a circle around the dais as Eli, Marc, Michael and Raphael each stepped into one of the acoustic shells, and opened a sheaf of sheet music. The 'backup singers' began singing a single note. Eli began singing a primal chaotic song that was all words and no words. Then Michael began singing a song with such a strident rhythym that it imposed an order upon the chaos of Eli's song, without lessening it in the slightest. Then Marc began his part of the song, which provided the harmony, and Raphael provided the melody. I felt their songs meet in the precise spot in which I was standing, and they shook me down to my very core. If felt like that glass in that opera singer's trick where they shatter it with their voice. I felt the baku in my arms also vibrating with the power and the glory of their song. Then I felt the vibration within the baku start to meld with the vibration that was within me, and I completely lost myself within the Song.
Ralph Beldon began to glow with the power of the Song of Exaltation. He couldn't see the Angels as they shed their corporeal manifestations and assumed their celestial forms. The circle of Angels became as a ring of stars. Only Marc remained anything like human, and even he was inhumanly glorious, a golden figure with golden wings and a radiant halo. Raphael became a glorious golden lioness with shining wings, a brilliant halo, and a flicker of green flame above the halo. Michael became a long serpentine form with blood-red feathers, six shining white wings, and six diamond like eyes. Eli lost all semblance of carnate form; she dissolved into a Lovecraftean shifting collage of eyes, mouths, hands and shapes. It would have shattered any mortal's sanity to look upon any of them.
This change in form did nothing to diminish their Song - indeed, shedding the limitations of their corporeal form allowed them to extend their Song beyond mere vocalization. They resonated Glory into Ralph Beldon, and he absorbed it all. His form began to inflate like a balloon, growing out of the proportions forced on it by his expectations. The baku stopped resonating, and clambered out of his deforming arms. It looked up at him as he lost all bipedal context and expanded into a glowing oviod, a Divine Egg. Then, from above, from a point without reference, a beam of iridescent light came down and lit the Egg.
How do you describe it? How can I make you understand what it was like? It's one thing to say that I was lost in the Glory that was their Song; it's another to say that I felt everything that had been me being stripped away - these things you might understand. But to say that I was touched by _God_? Do I describe it like being kissed by a Star - no, a Super-Nova? Do I compare it to the Ultimate Orgasmic Ecstatic Experience? No, there is no way to really impart that rapture of finally knowing from direct personal experience, that there is a God who does love you. Mere communication fails, and reduces a symphony into crass noise.
As the Angels, Archangels and baku watched, the Egg trembled and then exploded. A gloriously femine figure rose from the wreckage of the Egg with four lambent wings outstretched, her entire being a rhapsody of ecstacy. Her eyes were blue novas and silver bolts of lightning shot from her mouth. She spun lazily for a moment, and then drifted to the ground. She slowly shed some of her inhuman glory, becoming a well-built young woman in roughly her late teens or early twenties, with long golden blonde hair and large blue eyes. She looked around herself and said in a sightly blissed-out voice, "_Oh _Wow._"
Marc, Raphael, Eli and even Michael gather around her for a group hug. When the clinch broke, Raphael looked at her new daughter and said, "Absolutely lovely. Can I cook, or what? Well, my dear, welcome to Heaven. As your mother, I give you the ability to know other's pain and to understand why people torment themselves." She kissed the former Ralph Beldon, and the new Angel suddenly knew that she could sense and understand the pain of others. "And I gift you with your name. Your name is-"
"JOY!" Eli interrupted. "Don't hog the child all to y'self, Rafe!" The Archangel of Creation took 'Joy' into her arms and hugged her. "Joy, as your mother - as well - I give you your name. I also grant you the ability to create small material objects out of pure Essence. This will keep you from suffering from material want, and assist you in your Holy Mission." Eli kissed her, and Joy understood how to weave the basic energy of Heaven into small simple objects. Eli gave her a last hug, and passed her on to Michael.
Michael looked at her and gave her a brisk hug. "Joy, precious newborn daughter, as your father, I give you the strength and endurance to cope with the rigors of a Universe that does not understand the value of the gentleness and mercy that are part and parcel of you." Michael kissed her, and she felt the essence of Heaven flow through her form, making her stronger and hardier. Reluctantly, Michael handed Joy over to Marc.
Marc smiled sadly at her. "Joy, more precious than any pearl, as your father, I grant you the ability to form a rapport with any being, as to understand what they want, and more importantly, what they really need." He kissed her, and she knew exactly what he was talking about.
Raphael turned in annoyance to Eli. "Joy? That wasn't the name that I was going to give her!"
Eli gave her a broad, goofy smile. "Yeah, but y'gotta admit, it fits, don' it?" Raphael sighed in exasperation and let it slide.
Then a voice as dry as Albuquerque in August came from the side. "A blonde, blue-eyed angel. How...original." The collected party turned to see the dark foreboding form of Dominic glaring at the newborn angel with a hundred eyes from within his cloak.
Eli flipped an insouciant sneer at the Archangel of Justice. "Oh, it's the Patron Saint of Critics."
Raphael restrained Michael with a gentle hand. "Dom, she's a prototype. We're playing around with so many new dynamics here, and causing such an extreme alteration in the original that we had to give her a nice simple, easily acceptible base form. The mortal media taught her that female angels are blonde and blue eyed - a rather racist conceit, I'll admit - so, we had to make her blonde and blue-eyed. Besides, everthing goes with Blonde."
Dominic stepped forward and closely regarded Joy. "I will be watching you." With that, he turned and left without saying anything further.
As one of the lesser angels wrapped a draping white robe around her, somehow not entangling the wings, Joy looked around her. "So, who was that?"
Eli smiled broadly at her. "Oh, that was Dominic. Don't let him bother you. I never do." Eli reached over and fondly took her daughter by the arm. "Now, come along - it's time to Celebrate! Believe me, Honey, you haven't lived until you've danced on the head of a pin!"
My 'coming out' party was Glorious! Y'know all those stories where people say that Heaven is boring, all hanging around on clouds, playing harps and singing hymns? Pure Infernal Propoganda. Believe me, these people know how to Party!
Raphael greeted Marc again the next morning. The Archangel of Trade gave her a fond hug. "So, Rafe, how's our little girl this morning?"
"And here I thought that you were here to see me; and after we had a child together, and all!"
"Ah, sweet Raphael, I would pursue you for myself, but then I'd piss off every other angel in Heaven!"
Raphael chuckled, "Good one. But then you always were the silver tongued devil."
"Please! There's no need to be insulting. So, how's the kid?"
'She's still sleeping off that 'do last night. I must say, she really got right into the swing of things!"
"Well, it would be hard not to, with Eli pushing the party along."
Then the subject of their discussion appeared, with the baku trotting along after her. "I woke up with this beside me. Does that mean anything special?"
Raphael leaned down and scratched the baku between the ears. "Only that he likes you. Which only shows that he has good taste. Do you want to keep him?"
Joy thought it over for a bit, and nodded. "Why not? I think I look like the kind of girl who would have a cute fuzzy critter as a pet."
"Speaking of which, what do you think of your new look?"
"I think I look like Little Annie Fanny's kid sister."
Marc looked her over. She definitely had a point; both she and Will Elder's cartoon charmer had wonderfully curvaceous figures, long legs, proud chests, blonde hair, big blue eyes, wide smiles and an open, friendly demeanor. But Joy lacked the cartoon character's exaggerated charicature of femininity dimensions, her bouffant hairdo and her woman-child air that invited people to take advantage. If anything, Joy might be Little Annie Fanny's smarter kid sister. There was an awareness, a shrewdness and a strength in those crystal blue eyes, and something else. Respect. Joy respected herself, and her self-esteem had nothing to do with a lack of respect for anyone around her. Indeed, he mused, this might be her real advantage over the Lilim; while the Succubae were walking invitations to carnality, once the rutting was over, what use did you have for them? The best that the average Succubus could ever hope for would be a string of one-night stands with the same stranger. But Joy, she sort of encouraged you to think about things like long walks, picnics, cuddling and actually let your guard down. While desire and passion were in her, there were the gentler and more substantial things as well. A man would actually be glad to see Joy again.
Raphael crossed her arms. "Well, I'll admit that it's a tad obvious, but then you are new at this. No, there's no use in giving you the keys to a sports car, when you're just ready for a tricycle. Yesterday, you were mortal and male; now you are Immortal and a female. That body will help keep that last fact in mind. Besides, you haven't even begun to learn the ways of feminine wiles. It takes some skill to handle men, but that body should make it a lot easier, until you get the gist of it. And believe me, honey, it takes centuries of experience to be able to pull off a body like mine!"
Joy quirked a half-smile. "Yeah, I can see that. It would also go a long way toward explaining Britney Spears."
Marc cleared his throat. "Speaking of which, that's an interesting little number that you've got on!"
Joy was wearing a simple powder blue, single piece leotard that covered her from collar to foot. It simultaneously covered everything and displayed everything, and was paradoxically very modest while still very enticing. "Ah, well, y'see, I couldn't find what I was wearing last night when I woke up, so I tried to use Mama Eli's gift and, y'know, conjure up something to wear. This is the best that I could do - by the way, Mom, I hope we have something like recycling up here. I'm afraid that I've got a pile of rejects on the floor of my room. Speaking of which, where did I leave what I was wearing? I didn't - y'know, do anything embarrassing, did I?"
Raphael chuckled. "Not to worry, Sweetie. After twelve straight sets of Pin Dancing, I'd be amazed if you did remember what you were doing when you straggled to bed."
"I never did get to count-"
"Honey, if you can count, then you aren't doing it right!"
Marc stepped in. "Joy, honey, you don't have to worry about getting the clothing bit right for while yet. When you go to work on your first case, you'll form an aspect to deal with your 'client', and the clothing will automatically adjust itself to suit it."
"Annnd, how do I 'form an aspect'?"
"Just use that Rapport power that I was telling you about. Trust me, it will come naturally."
Joy gave Marc a half-smile. "The last guy to tell me to 'trust him' tried to sell me a Yugo." She waved that unworthy thought away. "Well, anyway, I'm reporting for work on my first day on the job!" She snapped to attention and saluted.
Raphael gave her a rueful look. "I'm sorry, Joy, but your real job is being a prototype. You see, we've never made an Angel like you before. The two 'Bright Lilim' that came before you were Succubae who Redeemed themselves. You are literally the first of your kind. There may be unforeseen complications."
Joy's face fell. "But I was told that I was going to go out and help people by eating their spiritual pain!"
Raphael laid a comforting hand on her daughter's shoulder. "You will, Sweetie, you will. Just not immediately. First of all, you've got some classes to attend with Eli, Marc, Michael and Me, and we are still working out who your first 'client' will be. After all, your first should be special, don't you think?"
Joy blushed, and nodded her head shyly.
"Good. Now, I think that it's time that you went over to Michael's place so he can show you the finer points of bashing things about. Michiko? Would you be a dear and show Joy over to the Grove?"
Marc snapped his fingers. "Oh, before you go-" he handed her a plastic card.
She looked down at it. "Celestial Express™ Orichalchum Card©?"
"Hey, don't leave Heaven without it. It's a minor miracle. It shuffles around the money that is destroyed in various ways - fire, water damage, mold, vermin, bullet holes, whatever - and puts it into our accounts. This way, when you're on Earth, you'll be able to pay for things without having to take the money in immoral ways."
Joy smiled wryly. "The Ultimate 'Daddy's Card'. I feel so pampered."
Marc gave her a mock scowl. "Well, don't be, Young Lady! I fully intend to rake you over the coals for each and every expense on that card. Money doesn't grow on trees, y'know! Why, when I was your age-" He spun on his heels and ambled off, spouting 'severe father' cliches into thin air.
Raphael gave Joy a parting hug, and went off on some business of her own.
I turned to my guide. She was kneeling down and petting my...critter. "Oh, so that's where you got to!" she crooned.
"You know this - whatever it is?"
"It's a Baku."
"Oh, right. What's its name?"
"Hokay- first thing, I gotta give you a name other than 'Hey, you with the nose!'" I wracked my brain for a while, and decided whattheheck, he's terminally cute anyway. "Snooks. At least it will do until something better comes up." He looked up at me and went Vrrrunff!, as if in agreement. "Well, that definitely wasn't the something better. Okay, Snooks, let's go!"
As we stepped out of Raphael's place, Michiko was looking up at the sky. I looked up with her, and couldn't spot anything. "Uhm, what are we looking for?"
"Oh, just checking traffic." With that, she extended a pair of wings, flapped them a few times, and went a few feet off the ground. Then she stopped and looked down at me. "Oh, admit it - you're dying to!"
"Well, neither Marc or Raphael did-"
"Ah, just because they're too cool to do it, are you gonna pass up one of the great pleasures of Heaven?"
Okay, I'll admit it, I've been itching to try these wings out ever since I really noticed them. I extended my wings, took a few experimental flaps and promptly flew straight into a tree.
But once I got the hang of it, it was a stone gas! Y'know how people always say of something really exciting that 'it's like flying'? Well, the real thing is a hundred percent better! It isn't just riding along in something that's flying, or hanging from something that's gliding, or even being pushed along by something that's jetting. To fly under your own power, with nothing between you and the air to get in the way! Everything else pales!
We took our own sweet time getting to Michael's place, swooping around spires and looping through arches, and all that aero-gymnastic stuff. And I only plowed into a wall twice!
Finally, when we couldn't put if off any longer, we touched down in a Sierra Club member's dream of a forest. It was huge! The trees were huge with branches that could support good-sized cities in them. The trunks were as large as buildings, and you could set up camp in the emerging roots. Indeed, there was a rather Roman-looking encampment settled among one of them. Michiko gestured for us to go down. As I looked around, I felt something bump against my leg. I looked down, and Snooks looked up at me, as if he wanted to be picked up and petted. Then I realized that neither Michiko nor I had picked him up and carried him here. I looked at Michiko, "How?"
Michiko smiled and shrugged. "Baku are creatures of Dream. They don't operate the same way that mortals, or even Angels do. He decided that he wants to be with you, so he followed you. Past that, well, it gets complicated."
I held up a restraining hand. "Please! Today, I need simple. LOTS of simple. Little baby learning to crawl simple."
Having got me to where I was supposed to be going, Michiko took off. For all the laid back atmosphere around here, Heaven is a busy place. I walked up to two guys with wings. One guy was in a sorta Roman-looking suit of armor, with a breastplate and the things for the shins and forearms, and was holding a very large spear. The other guy was tricked out in cammies and was carrying enough firepower for the next Arnold Swartzeneggar movie. I walked up to them and smiled. "Hi!" They gave me blank stares. "Would either of you point me in the direction of the Commander, or whatever they call the Head Honcho around here?" More blank stares. "Well, at least I'm safe from being talked to death by you guys." I walked past them, but was stopped by a heavy hand on my shoulder.
"No one sees the Commandant without the password."
That wasn't the password. They grabbed me and hauled me off to the Sergeant of the Watch, who passed me along to the Officer of the Watch, who kicked me up to the Watch Commander. By the time I was finally taken to Michael's presence, my good mood was shot, and I was all set to kill something. Which was probably the point.
Michael was overseeing some kind of arms training; Angels were practicing with more different kinds of weapons than I really care to think about. There were spears that shone like the sun. There were swords that flamed. There were warhammers that echoed with thunder. There were axes that screamed. And the Guns! Handguns, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, sniper rifles, and anti-tank guns! The din was overwhelming - and yet it faded tracelessly into the echoing spaces between the trees. I wondered where all the ammunition was coming from. Then I remembered that I was in Heaven. It probably just miraculously appeared. Or they just never ran out, like in a bad movie. Michael turned from his subordinate and acknowledged that I was there. Silently he walked over and looked me over. He walked around me, as if gauging my fitness.
"Joy, do you know why you are here today?"
"Well, Mama Raphael told me to come over here, _quote_ 'So he can show you the finer points of bashing things about', _unquote_."
He sighed. "She would. Joy, while your primary task will be to help mortals by alleviating their burden of spiritual pain, you will have other duties. When this Truce ends - and it will end, eventually - many of your other duties will place you in harm's way. While you were selected for your primal inclination to put yourself forward for others, you were also chosen before others with the same inclination, because you aren't a wimp. You have the willingness and ability to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I'm sorry, Joy, but at some time in your duties, you will have to, as Shakespeare put it, 'Take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them'. In other words, you'll have to kill something. It isn't something to look forward to, but it will have to be done. You are here so that you will at least have an idea of what to do when that time comes."
He turned to one of his aides. "Nicanor, get Bezai and go get my sword." The aide went over to a weapons rack and brought back a sword. "No, as I said, get Bezai and go get _MY_ Sword." Nicanor got what Michael was getting at and split. Then, after a while, he and another Angel came back lugging this huge sword in a matching scabbard. The sword was as least as long as Michael was tall, and even allowing for the scabbard, the blade must have been at least a foot wide.
"Well, now for a little warrior Zen. Joy, in every culture where a Warrior Ethic develops, that also has the crafts of metalworking, the Sword is the symbol of the Warrior. Not the club, not the spear, not the bow, but the Sword. Whether it's the Katana, the Claymore, the Gladius, the Scimitar, the Kukri or the Kris, if there's a smith, then the blade is the chosen tool of the warrior. Why is that, do you think?"
I mulled that over for a bit. "Because smiths are expensive, and creating a decent sword is one of the hardest things for a smith to pull off. So, swords can only be owned by the class that can get the money to pay the smiths. So it sets them apart from the common people, making them seem 'better', if only to themselves."
Michael nodded. "Not bad. And closer to the mark than most of us here would like to admit. No, Joy, the reason that the blade is the symbol of the warrior, is that the blade is kept in a sheath. It is dangerous to leave a blade lying around without the sheath to protect you. In all Warrior Ethics, you do not unsheathe a blade, unless you are going to practice with it, or clean it, or you are going to kill someone with it. You see, the sword is also the symbol of _Violence_. Violence is our trade, but it isn't something that we're casual about. We keep it sheathed and safe until it's absolutely necessary. Then we unsheathe it, use it to achieve specific ends, and then resheathe it. You see, violence doesn't care. It doesn't care who unleashed it, or who it was first used against, or why it was unleashed. It just destroys. If it isn't carefully applied to specific ends and gotten back under control as quickly as possible, it will run amuck. It will even destroy that which it was unleashed to protect."
He snapped his fingers, and a large oblong stone was set upright in a hole in the ground. Michael gripped the long hilt of the sword and pulled it out in a single smooth draw. The sword was plain, completely without any kind of decoration. It didn't need it. It didn't need to be flaming or shining, or glittering with ice, or crackling with lightning. It was too primal for that. It was so THERE, that it didn't need any bells or whistles. It was the First Sword, the one that all other swords were just reflections of. It was the big whacking sword that other big whacking swords wanted to be when they grew up. Michael hefted the sword with both hands and swung it into the center mass of the stone. The stone was shattered into a hundred bits with a single blow of that incredible sword. Then, as if he were fighting with it, Michael leveraged the sword back into its sheath.
"You see, Joy? I decided on a target and what I wanted to do to that target. THEN, I unleashed the violence. I applied the violence to that specific target, achieved the effect that I wanted, and then, most importantly, I stopped. I stopped the violence, I re-sheathed the sword. And that last thing is the crucial part of any conflict. Nations have died, and Dynasties fallen, because Kings and Generals couldn't get the Hounds of War back into their kennels."
He looked at me hard, as if he was trying to put into words something that was so important that he couldn't trust anything so crude as mere communication. "Joy, the only reason to fight is to make things better. The only prize worth winning in any war is peace. Peace is the only End worth the Means of War. _But_, in War after War, the Means that was used somehow spoiled the End. As Tacitus said, 'They make a desolation, and call it peace'. Joy, we are enjoying a truce in a long and vicious war. This War will only be worth the pain and suffering, if after it's all over, things are better than they were before. So, when the fighting resumes, we _must_ fight it in a way that doesn't spoil the peace that follows. In order to do that, we must control our own violence. Indeed, it is more important that we don't kill the innocent than it is that we do kill the guilty. And that is why you are here - to learn how to control the violence that you will inevitably become a part of. Joy, if you remember nothing else, remember this - If you don't master the violence that you become involved in, then you will be its victim."
He gestured toward the weapons rack. "Pick a weapon and we'll start with the basics."
I went over and looked over the rack. Man, who'da thunk that they spent do much time working at killing people in Heaven? I chose a sword that looked like it wasn't too heavy. I gave it a testing swing, and pulled myself off my feet with a panicked *eep!* Michael buried his face in his hand, sighed, and helped me up. I tried everything that they had, up to and including an impressive Aztec wooden club studded with jagged obsidian bits. It didn't matter - I was completely inept with all of them. Heck, I was more of a danger to the people that I wasn't trying to skewer than the ones that I was. Michael went from looking disappointed, to angry, to disgusted to completely baffled.
A look of complete befuddlement on his face, he said, "This makes no sense. Even the most incompetent bungler ever born is better than you are! And yet, I know that you're doing the very best that you can, and I can feel the Warrior Spirit within you. We must be missing something very basic."
I looked up at him from where I'd fallen, after sweeping myself off my own feet with that stupid Aztec klanth. "Well, I am supposed to be some kind of experiment. Maybe it's a side effect of the basic dynamic that allows me to consume the pain of others. After all, if I'm supposed to take the pain of others into me, then inflicting pain on others should going against my 'programming'."
He chewed on that for a bit. "Not a bad idea. But it doesn't quite work; the dynamic you spoke of was derived from the baku, and they are very competent fighters." I looked down at Snooks and tried to imagine him fighting anything, He looked up and me and licked my face with his tongue. "But, I think that you might be onto something there. Well, since you can't handle weapons, let's see how you are at hand to hand combat. Metierias, would you do the honors?"
The tall Angel dressed in buckskins looked at me and then at Michael. "Do I have to? I feel like I'm kicking a puppy!"
"Just tap her on the chin, to see how she reacts."
Metierias sighed, took a sort of sideways boxing stance and jabbed at me. I just reacted, and suddenly he was face down on the ground. "Ohmigawd, are you all right? I didn't mean to-" I looked up at Michael, who looked as if an octopus had dropped out of the sky and was trying to deliver a tap-dancing telegram.
His expression never changing, Michael said, "Metro, try it again. And this time, really try to peg her."
Metierias got up, took a more serious stance, did a couple of feints, stepped in real close, executed a classic one-two combination, and this time landed on his back. He never so much as touched me, and I still didn't have the slightest idea of what I was doing.
Michael snapped his fingers. An Angel in antique Greek-like armor came charging at me with a spear. The spear went flying, and so did the spearman. Then a swordsman, and after him, a guy with nunchucks, and then a guy with two short swords. I sent all their weapons flying in one direction and them in another.
Michael clapped his hands brusquely, and they started shooting arrows at me! I went *Aaack!* and swatted them all aside. When they stopped shooting at me, I glared at Michael and yelled, "What are you doing?"
He smiled at me, his hand in his chin. "A very good question. We will have to answer it - Tomorrow. For now, run along, your lesson for today is over." He patted me on the butt and sent me off. I picked up Snooks and left with as much dignity as you can have when being dismissed like a child.
I spent the rest of the day taking beginning lessons in Magic, Diplomacy and Healing from Eli, Marc and Raphael respectively. I knew that I was dog paddling in very deep waters, but at least no one was throwing things at me. It was exhausting, and at the end of the day, I hit the sack like a ton of bricks, but the worst part of it all was that I knew that I wasn't out there, doing what I'd been Exalted to do.
The next day, I flew to the Glade for my next day's instruction in being a target. Maybe this time, I'd get to be a moving target. This time, I bypassed most of the bureaucracy by going directly to the Officer of the Watch, who sent me directly onto Michael. Michael was in a clear glen without any weapons or targets or anything. He was talking to two Angels that I hadn't seen before. One was a wiry Asian in Chinese robes, and the other was a tall gray eyed Mediterranean woman in a well-cut business suit. Michael smiled broadly when I walked up. "Ah, Joy! Just in time! Joy, these two are Tsien-Shin and Sophia. They're here to help us with that little...development of yesterday." Then he threw a punch at me.
Like yesterday, I threw him flying, but he landed matter-of-factly on his feet.
Tsien-Shin and Sophia watched this with interest. Tsien-Shin came up to me, bowed briefly and smiled gently. "Child, are you getting tired of being punched at?"
"He- Heck Yes!"
"Would you like to punch me?"
"Ah...well...No, Sir. I'd really rather not. Care for a cup of tea?" I smiled, manifested a simple china cup filled with Lapsang Souchon in one hand and offered it to him. What can I say? My classes in Magic with Eli are a stone gas!
He took the cup and sipped the tea. "Not bad. Could use a touch of lemon, though." He handed the cup to Sophia, who was trying to fight down a guffaw. "Now, seriously. I'd like you to take a good hard punch at me."
I shrugged, cocked a fist and swung at him. In a single fluid move, he blocked my punch, redirected the force of my swing past him and threw me. I should have landed on my ass, but I reflexively did the same, landing on my feet and tossing him. Again, he should have gone flying, but he turned it back on me. And I did the same to him again. We wound up doing a kind of cartwheel for a few yards, until the entire force of my punch was spent.
As we came out of the cartwheel, Tsien-Shin looked at me, and wordlessly threw a powerful punch at me. We cartwheeled all over the glen, until the force of his punch dissipated, which was a lot longer. We did this a couple of times, wheeling around the glen. Finally, Tsein-Shin stopped trying to hit me. I looked at him and asked, "Why'd you stop? It was just getting Fun!"
Sophia broke out laughing, and Michael was chuckling as well as we walked back to them. Tsien-Shin walked up to Michael, bowed and said, "Indeed, very impressive. And the most impressive thing is, she does it completely reflexively, without the slightest hesitation or delaying thought. It is as natural to her as breathing. Indeed, it may have applications in Magic or Diplomacy."
Sophia nodded. "Indeed. You say that the primal dynamic that you used when Exalting her was to convert spiritual pain into nurturing Essence? Yes, you could regard that as a form of turning force against itself. And it would explain her complete incompetence at conventional aggressive attacks."
I cleared my throat and smiled winsomely at them. "Excuse me? Could the furniture ask a question? What are you talking about?"
Michael smiled broadly and gave me a big hug. He felt big and warm and safe. Y'know, I think that I could really get to like this 'daddy's girl' schtick! "We think that we've figured out why you were such a bust yesterday with the swords and spears, but almost completely untouchable in hand to hand combat. Tsien-Shin here is what you might call the 'patron spirit' of the arts of Judo, Aikido and Hapkido, the martial arts that emphasize turning an opponent's projected force against them. Sophia is an expert on defensive warfare - she used to be the Goddess known as Athena to the Greeks and Minerva to the Romans. Right now, she works with Marc in halting hostile takeovers of companies by firms controlled by Infernal masters. I asked them here to confirm my suspicions. Joy, I think you are a natural at what's called 'soft' style martial arts. Your basic nature is to take damaging forces and turn them to your advantage. This is supposed to be limited to psychic pain, but apparently it's so basic to your nature now, that you apply it to almost anything that tries to attack you. The problem is, by extension, you seem to have problems directly attacking anyone else. We think the reason you kept screwing up with the swords and spears is that when you attacked, your instincts were to turn the force around, which completely threw you off balance."
He relaxed the hug and looked at me. "But that also poses a problem. You can't always defend. Occasions will arise where you must take the offensive, because the best way to defend someone is to prevent them from being attacked in the first place. This could be a serious weakness, Sweetheart."
Sofia spoke up. "Excuse me, Joy, but I understand that you were just Exalted. What nationality were you before you died?"
"I was an American. Why?"
"An American? Well then, the solution's obvious - Michael, just give her a gun!"
Michael looked worried. "I don't know - she's dangerous enough to be around with a sword. I don't want to run the risk of giving her a gun!"
Tsien-Shin shook his head. "No, Sofia is right. Archery and Marksmanship are the same basic discipline, which is sufficiently different from the basic dynamic behind Melee. But, as the English say, 'the proof is in the pudding'. Why they say that, I have no idea. But, let's see if our guess is correct. Give her a gun, and let's see what she does."
Sofia cut in. "Of course, we do that after we find something big to hide behind."
To tell the truth, I wasn't that bad a shot. For a rookie. Who didn't like guns much back when I was alive. I wasn't either a danger to the entire region, like I was with melee weapons, or an instinctive ace, like I was with the 'soft' martial arts. I was your basic plinker.
My routine became that when I visited Michael, I would spend a few hours learning how to shoot and maintain a firearm, and then practice a while with Tsien-Shin. My practice with the patron Angel of Aikido was so that I would intellectually realize what I was capable of, without cluttering up my reactions with thinking the moves through. I even discovered that I have a gift for using 'cord' weapons - manrikigusari, ropes and like that. Tsien-Shin showed me how to use a long white silk sash as a weapon. It doesn't do that much damage, but I can do some really interesting things with it, like disarming weapons, tripping opponents and entangling them in the sash. Now I wear the sash around my waist, tied in a special knot that easily comes undone if you tug it just right. It's a weapon that I can carry, without imposing the dictates of a weapon on a situation. Besides, it goes with most of my outfits.
It took a while, but I did get the hang of being an Angel. I only fly into walls if I'm distracted now.
One morning, as I was setting off for my first round of instructions, Raphael stopped me. "Not today, Sweetie." She showed me a folder. "Today, you earn your wings."
I was hopping around like a kid waiting for an ice cream cone, as we walked over to a reflecting pool. Raphael passed a hand over the pool. Instead of reflecting the sky, the pool showed a boy in his late teens, wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a summer camp logo that included 'Counselor In Training' on it. He was eating breakfast at a long table with several other guys his age, all wearing jeans and the same T-shirt. He was a hefty kid, not fat but hefty, with dark curly hair, glasses and the kind of complexion that usually leads to nicknames like 'pizza-face'. He seemed to be much more interested in his breakfast than with the younger kids around him. And from the stolid way that he ignored the occasional 'accidental' bit of food thrown at him, I think I knew why he was so interested in a summer camp breakfast.
Raphael opened up the folder. "This is Ernie Hezgavaldo. He's seventeen years old. He lives with his mother, Margaret, and his sister, Elizabeth, in Toronto. His father left the family six years ago, and is currently residing at a cult commune in Montana, trying to 'find himself' - and a cute little co-member of the cult as well. Ernie here took it hard, and has slowly been withdrawing into himself. Between his weight, his complexion and an ingrained sense of worthlessness, Ernie became a natural target for teasing and bullying. He's interested in girls - heck, he's seventeen; he's just this side of obsessed with girls! - but he's completely convinced that no girl would so much as touch him without direct orders." Raphael looked up from the file. "I'd say that Ernie down there could really use a break."
I smiled back at her knowingly, "And you think it would be good if he were, ah, 'Touched by an Angel'?"
Raphael grinned back at me earthily. "Oh, I think you'll have to do more than just touch him, Sweetie." She turned back to the reflecting pool. "Keep watching him in this pool. You see, Time works differently here in the Celestial Realms than it does down in the Mortal Realms. By watching him, you can see his future. BUT, since the future isn't predetermined, the further into his future that you look, the hazier it becomes. This is because there are thousands of choices and random chances happening every second. Now, Ernie here is in a very secure, stable situation - he's pretty safe, and the camp's schedule cuts down on the variables a lot. His day is pretty well mapped out. _But_, you see, down there in the late afternoon? He's thinking about cutting Arts & Crafts - Hey, can you blame him? Helping a bunch of screaming kids, who don't respect you, make lanyards? - and going out into the woods to be by himself."
I put a mock ingenuous expression on my face and said in a stilted faux bad actress voice, "Oh-Gee! I-just-had-a-great-idea! Why-don't-I-go-down-and-slurp-up-some-of- that- Spiritual-Pain-that-he's-lugging-around-when-he goes-to-be-by himself?"
Raphael gave me a 'very funny' look and said, "Y'know, wiseass really doesn't go with that outfit very well."
"_Sorry._ Okay, how do I get down there?"
"I've arranged for transportation. Oh, two more things. One, you won't have to worry about assuming an appropriate form until you're ready. You see, on Earth, most people won't see you."
"I can become invisible?"
"No, an invisible person would be too noticeable. No, most people just don't see things unless they have a context for it. Until you assume the form that you're going to be working in, they won't have a context for seeing you and they just won't notice you. Well, except for little children, visionaries and nutjobs. And nobody ever listens to them, anyway. So wait until the last minute to assume your working form - it will give you room to work with."
"And the second thing?"
"Joy, it's very important that people work things out for themselves as much as possible. People have to take control of their lives. So we can't let them think that God - or more accurately, WE - will take care of every little thing for them. So, I am going it impart to you a new power, one that you haven't needed until now." Raphael leaned over, took my face in her both hands and kissed me. I felt different somehow. "Joy, you now have the ability to Kiss people and make them forget everything in the past five hours that happened involving you. When you are finished, use that Kiss on Ernie. He'll still have a sense of what happened, but he won't remember any particulars - especially YOU."
"So, he'll have a sense of having succeeded with a woman, but he won't remember which woman. Raphael, you're sure that you haven't pulled this scam before?"
Raphael looked away coquettishly. "I don't know what you're talking about."
We walked out of Raphael's, and a gust of wind blew across our path, materializing into a sleek motorcycle being driven by a lean young man with long wind blown sandy blonde hair and the expression of a dedicated velocity addict. "Hoooyaaah! Did somebody here call for a cab?"
I looked at Raphael. "You're kidding, right?"
"Oh, Shemeber here will get you there in one piece - though you might have to wait for your stomach to catch up with you."
Shemeber patted the rear portion of the seat. "C'mawn, Babe, we got places to do and things to be!"
I looked pleadingly at Raphael; "Can I at least get a helmet?"
Raphael pushed me toward the bike. "You worry too much - GO!"
As we sped off, I managed to leave her with, "Some mother you turned out to beeeee!"
The Summer Camp was situated in the north woods of the province of Ontario on the inescapable lake. Ernie was walking around, trying to get his ten-year-old charges to take him for something other than a target for insults. He wasn't having much luck, and it wasn't hard to see why. I could just smell the psychic pain in him. It smelled like food. His insecurity almost oozed out of him, and the kids had picked up on it. They had somebody who was bigger than they were, whom they could pick on more or less as they wished without worrying about getting their asses kicked. He was better than a video game. Time to hit the Reset button.
Y'gotta give ol' Ernie credit - he could take it. From the way that he was hanging around, he was trying to make up his mind whether to go to the Arts & Craft hut - even though he wasn't really needed - or going off and getting a little peace and quiet. I decided to finesse his decision a little. Passing unnoticed through the camp (though I think that one of the smallest of the munchkins may have gotten a glimpse of me), I beat him to the Arts & Crafts hut by at least ten minutes. I made my way over to the radio in the building and sloooowwwly turned the volume up. Not so loud that it was obvious, but loud enough that the kids, who were already noisy, would have to shout to be heard. With that racket coming out of the hut, Ernie's choice was pretty obvious.
I made my way to the secluded patch where the pool had shown that he'd head, and got to know the layout. It was, all things considered, a pretty romantic place. It was a small hollow about forty feet across, with a nice sized brook flowing through it. Every one hundred yards or so, there were short log 'bridges' across it. I checked the bottom of the creek with my shoe. It was good and muddy. I smiled, knowing that I had my pretext.
Now I needed my context. I couldn't just show myself to him as I usually present myself. Even without the halo and wings, a girl who looked like I do would send poor Ernie into a panic - that is, if he didn't think that I was setting him up for something. Having been on the receiving end of that kind of razzing back in High School, I was pretty sure that Ernie had gotten some of the same. So I focused on becoming a girl that Ernie wouldn't have any problems talking to - and promptly became a dog. Dumpy, overweight, bad skin, stringy hair and beady eyes behind glasses. Ooog. Doing a girl like that wouldn't do Ernie's self-confidence any good. And, while I'm sure that girls like that have lots of problems of their own, right now they're not my responsibility. Ernie is.
I heard Ernie coming. He shlumped into the clearing, sat down on a log and started to do all the classic stress- reducing exercises. Still unseen, I magically reached out to Ernie and felt around for images of the girls that he wanted. I immediately dumped all the TV/Movie stars, rock divas, and High School bitch-queens that he disliked but still desired. There were still a double handful of images of girls that he'd like to get friendly with, but was sure that they'd shoot him down. I blended the images together into a single girl. She - that is, I - was skinny, with a tight butt and high perky breasts, clear skin, long straight chestnut brown hair, a heart-shaped face, big brown eyes, a turned up nose and one of those pouty mouths that all the girls seem to have these days. Not bad. Not something to send a man into a rutting berserk, but not bad either. I created an outfit of a pair of cutoff jeans with some cutesy patches sewn on, a T-shirt from one of the other camps, pink sneakers and a red bandana keeping my hair in place. As an afterthought, I added a pair of large 'fashion' glasses and gave myself three large zits where they'd show but not spoil my looks.
And so, I was ready. I purposefully strode across the nearest log, let my foot slip and fell into the creek. I yelped for help and managed to get my foot stuck under the log. It was hard, but I managed. Ernie came charging to the rescue, and clambered into the creek to help. With a lot of splashing around and getting mud all over the place, he helped me dislodge my foot from under the log. As he helped me out of the creek and over to his perch, I noticed that somehow he had managed to get ahold of my right breast. But he was holding it gently. He seated us down and started asking all the flustered boy questions - never letting go of my breast. I said nothing, pretending to heave dramatically in fading panic. As I calmed down, I noticed his hand on my breast. I looked over at him with big doe eyes and said, 'Thank you."
Now, I understand that Succubae work by kind of reaching out and magically grabbing a man by the gonads, sending them into a mindless rut. I have to work more subtly. I don't reach out, I welcome in. Ernie was excited, both from having saved someone, and from having his hands full of a pretty girl, maybe for the first time. He wanted to kiss me, badly, but all his hang-ups were telling him not to. I wordlessly told him that it was okay. He leaned in and kissed me. I kissed him back. After that, we were two healthy seventeen-year-old kids with a lot of adrenaline in our systems; it woulda taken Crazy Glue to keep our clothes on. Yeah, for all practical purposes, I was a seventeen-year-old girl at this point. The context that I created when I took the form demanded it. And, what the heck, I was a virgin too - or at least I'd never been with a man before.
We only broke our lip-lock in order to get our T-shirts off. Then he lowered me down to the leaves and took me. He nuzzled at my breasts for a bit, which felt really good, but that was it for foreplay. Not that I minded, I was like a racehorse in the starting gate - I just wanted to get out there and strut my stuff. I had a brief moment of panic as he put the head of his cock against my labial folds. Heck, I was a guy for fifty-two years, you don't just forget that! But then he slid his cock into me. First, there was that unprecedented sense of being filled, then the pain as he plowed through my maidenhead, and then a lovely sense of that pain being replaced by this wonderful sensation. His first stroke was slow and tentative, but then he got into the swing of things and started thrusting with a rhythm that would have made a pile driver jealous.
Now, at this point, I almost blew it. I was so caught up in the heady sensations of my first feminine fuck that I forgot what I was here for. Then he bucked and stiffened, and I felt him blast something hot and wet into me. He started to relax and pull out. I wrapped my legs around him and held him to me. "Please. Don't go. This is my first time." I looked up at him with big brown pleading eyes. "Can we do it some more?"
He grinned down at me and kissed me deeply. We squirmed together for a few minutes and he was hard again. I had little to do with that - he was seventeen. Ah, Youth - it ain't gonna be wasted on the young this time!
This time, as he entered me again, I remembered why I was here. I smelled that delicious aroma of pain, and I reached out and grabbed it. I took it into myself hungrily, gobbling it down. But it just stayed there like a rock in my, well, stomach, I guess you'd call it. I had to find the source of the pain. Slightly distracted by the sensations of being plowed like a field, I felt around in his soul. Give him this, he wasn't any sissy! No, he was really a rather tough hombre. He'd have to be, to keep on keepin' on with all this pain in him. A thousand little hurts and many more large hurts. Most of them were the usual suspects: bullies, worries, teasing, sex, school, troubles with his Mom; pretty much what you'd expect.
Then I found the real thorn in his soul. It was shaped like a big powerful man, a measure that Ernie felt that he had to live up to. It had a weird shape; the man was constantly going away, but he paradoxically stayed there while he was going away. The pain of his separation wouldn't go away. But why wouldn't it go away? I looked deeper into the wound. There was something there. It was shaped like his Mom. But not the usual image of mom as lifebringer and caregiver. No, there was an element of carnal desire here. Ah, the old Oedipus bit. He had a tangled mess of forbidden desire for Mom, guilt over that desire, resentment of Dad for his mastery of Mom, pain, anger and guilt at Dad for leaving, gladness at his leaving because it left Mom open for him, guilt over that gladness, and despair over feeling that he would never measure up to Dad. It all meshed together, each pain aggravating and reinforcing the others.
I couldn't overcome the feelings for Ernie; the whole dynamics of the thing demand that he do that for himself. I could devour the pain that they caused, but not the source. But I could help him by disentangling this whole mess. I reached in and grabbed the lynchpin of this puzzle-trap: his forbidden lust for Mom. I shook 'Mom' and told her that Ernie didn't need her anymore, that he wasn't her little boy anymore. He was a Man now, and he was having sex with a real woman - Me. The really nasty thing about Pain, especially irrational pain, is that it has a life of it's own and it will try to defend itself. 'Mom' screamed at Ernie that he shouldn't be doing this. Fortunately, Ernie was busy with me at the time. 'Mom' wailed that he was leaving her. He did. 'Mom' howled like a banshee as she disappeared down into the depths of Ernie's soul to be discarded with all the other emotional trash. The rest of the gaping wound shuddered and began to collapse as its keystone disappeared. I helped it along by breaking up the stronger associations.
Then Ernie came again, and it kind of exploded, lost in the rush of healing life that we all have inside of us. Bits and pieces of those shards of torment washed out of him and into me. Finally, I could properly feed on the pain. I twisted it around inside me, and it went from an inert morass into a dynamic rush of soothing and invigorating energy. It felt so Good! I had to share it with Ernie. I let the Good Luck flow into him. As a bit of an afterthought, I used a little of it to help his acne clear up. Well, it won't hurt him to have one of his tormentors' favorite targets go away. And you know what they say is the perfect way to get your complexion to clear up!
Ernie sighed and wrapped himself around me contentedly. I kissed him gently. Then I realized that while I'd done everything else, I still hadn't come myself. And I felt a keen knot of feminine need inside of me. I was aroused, and I needed to come badly! I hugged him tight and squirmed my tight young body against him. I nuzzled his cheek and whispered, "One more time?" Ernie grinned a big macho grin, and all but willed himself hard. Well, maybe the Good Luck that I'd pumped into him had something to do with it this time, but I still think the fact that he was seventeen was more to credit.
He took me with a single masterful stroke of his cock, and I let myself enjoy the feeling of being deliciously fucked. He pounded away into me, harder and harder, pushing me up higher and higher. Finally, I reached whatever peak I'd been climbing to and I all but exploded in a series of fluttering comes. My breath became a series of staccato gasps, and I bucked like a bronco. Then the firecrackers going off in the middle of my tummy ran out and I lay back on the leaves with a sigh. Then Ernie, God bless him, lay down beside me and held me. I kissed him again and breathed, "Oh, that was wonderful!" Okay, so it wasn't a field of wildflowers, but God, it was beautiful.
We lay there together for a long while, whispering soft things to each other. Our little idyll was shattered by the sound of a siren on a screechy PA system. "Damn," Ernie muttered, "Dinner Call. I have to go. Will - will I see you again?"
I pulled my T-shirt on. "Oh, I'll be around."
As we stepped out of the hollow, Ernie stopped and looked at the view of the camp and the lake below. It was lovely, but Ernie had probably never let himself see its beauty before. We stood there for a long moment, enjoying the view and the feel of each other under our arms. Well, this was a good a time as any and better than most. I stretched up and kissed Ernie with the Kiss of Forgetfulness. In a moment, Ernie would remember that he had made love to a girl, not once, not twice but three times, and completely satisfied her. He wouldn't remember exactly who, or how, or where, or when, but he would remember what we'd done. I whispered, "Today, you are a Man," and regretfully dropped my context. I stopped being a gawky seventeen-year-old girl with skinny legs and zits who was the apple of Ernie Hezgavaldo's eye, and returned to being the resplendent Angel Joy, whom Ernie couldn't even see.
Ernie snapped out of his reverie, took a long last look at the lake and started down the trail to the camp. I watched as my first love walk away, not even aware that I was there. I waited a moment, and then curious, I walked down after him. After all, I'd told Ernie that I'd be around, not that he'd see me again. I wondered if I'd really done Ernie any good - other than helping to clear up his complexion.
I followed Ernie into the Dining Room, which was predictably aroar with screaming eight-to-sixteen-year-olds. Ernie walked through the uproar with a different stride. He wasn't wading through the world anymore, he was briskly in charge of it. He lucked out and got the very last cold soda and the very last of the veal parmasagna, leaving the mystery meat for the kid right after him. He took his tray over to the table with the other Counselors In Training. One of the other guys made a snide remark, which Ernie returned in style. The snide remark-maker took it in good humor, and the body language at the table changed a bit. Apparently, Ernie was finally getting his head out of his ass. One of the kids at the next table reached over to snitch Ernie's soda. Ernie caught him at it and snitched it back. The brat yelled, "Hey! Give that back, Dork!"
Ernie swung around and stood up, rising to his full height and weight. "What was that?" he asked, not threatening, just not taking any shit. The brat backed down, as ten-year-olds tend do to someone who has eight inches and at least sixty pounds on them. There was a general murmur of approval at the CIT table, and Ernie entered into the stream of conversation.
A wide grin spread across my face. Ernie was going to be all right. His life wouldn't be perfect or anything, but he'd be all right. Whatever life he made for himself, he wouldn't be shackled by an irrelevant pack of nonsense that shouldn't have happened in the first place. For a while, he'd have a streak of good luck, and after that, he'd have his own strength to carry him over.
I felt a lightness in my heart that spread to every inch of my body. I laughed and felt like I was dancing on air. I looked down - I was dancing on air! My joy at seeing Ernie begin to bloom had carried me aloft. I knew that I had done good, and that knowledge was as heady and potent as sex. And I would be doing this for the rest of Eternity. God, I Love My Job!
I wafted out of the Dining Room, spread my wings and flew out to the mountains. As I passed over the Dining Room, all conversation sudden came to a halt, and there was a brief moment of silence. Still giddy, I alit on a hilltop and shouted, "Shemeber! Front and Center!"
The heavenly biker whistled up to me, and I easily swung one leg over the saddle. "Home, James, and don't spare the horses!"
He gave an approving grin and nod, and just replied, 'Hooyaah!' We were past the Pearly Gates before you could say 'John Knox'. Why you would want to say John Knox, I dunno, he's one of the biggest bores in Heaven. Shemeber pulled up in front of Raphael's place and I got off. Snooks ran out and gamboled in front of me, happy that I was back. I picked him up and scratched between his ears as I went in. All four 'parents' were there, waiting for me. They each held up a card with a score written on it: 9.7 for Eli, 8.9 for Michael, 10 for Raphael, and 6.4 for Marc.
"Six Point Four?" I asked incredulously.
"I'm the Rumanian judge," Marc replied in mock severity, "I knocked off points for the use of mud. We're trying to prove that Sex isn't dirty!"
My schedule changed. Now, I was expected to go out on at least one mission a week - however you measure weeks in Heaven.
I walked into the Tower of Trade, looking like the perfect little intern, in a blue business suit. The suit made me look like a teenybopper trying to disguise herself in her mother's clothing, but that was the idea. I waited with trim professionalism until Kimiko, Marc's 'receptionist' told me that I could go in.
And once in his office, I totally blew it. I did a victory shimmy with both thumbs up and grin of triumph on my face. "I did it, Daddy!"
Then I noticed that Sophia, the Angel that Michael had said was working in Marc's Corporate Defense division, was in the office. I quickly straightened myself and tried to resume the proper decorum. Sophia didn't help by grinning knowingly and saying saucily, "He was that good?"
I gave her a goofy grin back and waggled my eyebrows over the corporate uniform glasses. I reached into my briefcase and pulled out my 'client's' file, complete with my finished report - in triplicate. "Karl Osterfeldt, Head Accountant and Oversight Manager for General Consolidated Reinsurers of the Netherlands, age thirty-seven, divorced with no children. No worries there, Dad."
Sophia raised a judgmental eyebrow. "And how did you feel about 'servicing' a pedophile?"
I raised a correcting finger. "A potential pedophile. Give the man credit where it's due - he knew that his urges were wrong, and he cared enough to fight them, no matter how much frustration and stress that caused him. Not to worry, I've got that covered."
I flicked the flirty bangs on my 'do. "When I pulled my 'vulnerable little intern' number on him, I pulled his fantasy little girl out of his unconscious and matured her until I got this. When I had, ah, deeper access, I found out that Osterfeldt's little girl fixation was due to two factors. One, his early life was dominated by a real harpy of an aunt, who raised him. She wanted to keep control of the money that his parents left him, so she did everything she could to diminish him, especially sexually. This left him with a deep rooted fear and distrust of mature women.
"Two, there was a long - when you're Eight - and deep friendship with a girl, that 'Auntie Dearest' did everything she could to deep-six. She managed to get the girl's family transferred overseas, keeping Karl under her thumb. Karl kept an image of 'Little Julia' in his unconscious as a safe and comforting female figure. His otherwise natural sexual urges were repulsed from women his own age my his fear of 'Auntie Dearest' and they had nowhere else to go but 'Little Julia'.
"I managed to defuse the 'Auntie Dearest' image's power over him, and planted the suggestion in Karl's unconscious that 'Little Julia' had also grown up, and was thirty-seven too. So now he'll be able to look at mature women and see a potential 'Julia' instead of 'Auntie Dearest'."
Sophia gave a hopeful look. "And is 'Grown up' Julia...?"
I shook my head. "Nope. Married - kid - marriage is pretty sound. No fairy tale ending there, Sophie. _ But_, Karl has a much better chance of noticing that a female exec in their Acquisitions division has her cap set on him."
"And is there any chance that 'Auntie Dearest', as you call her, might do something to mess up your work?"
I shook my head again, and jerked a thumb down toward the floor - and even Lower regions. "Among her other vices, 'Auntie Dearest' drank like a fish. She wrapped a BMW around a lamppost at seventy kph fifteen years ago. I understand that she's 'interning' with Mammon now - as an entree."
Marc nodded. "So, thanks to you two, the key man at General Consolidated Reinsurers of the Netherlands is no longer vulnerable to a corruption ploy targeted at this latent pedophilia-"
Sophia smiled, "Which, combined with his lowered levels of stress and distraction, will make Mammon's takeover bid that much harder."
Marc grinned. "Not to mention that Osterfeldt will probably be really pissed when Mammon's front man tries to play their bogus Ace in the hole! If I know Mammon - and I know him well - he's got his entire campaign funded on a shoestring, and it all depends on having this supposed 'hold' on Osterfeldt. I think I hear a major chunk of Mammon's operating capital going *flush!* in the near future! Good Work, Girls!"
Sophia and I beamed back at him. Marc wasn't stinting with praise, but it was always truthful. You earned a pat on the back from him.
"And as everyone knows, the reward for a job well done is more work! Get used to it, Joy, I've had to live with it for centuries!"
"Daddy! I just got back! I have to feed Snooks! I have to take him hunting in the Marches of Dreams for some bad dreams! Mama Raphael keeps complaining that she keeps finding him snuffling around under the cushions and things. He needs a nice juicy indigestion nightmare to keep him happy."
"Don't worry Joy, I'm not sending you out just yet. We'll give you a week to 'depressurize' after that long-term insertion for the Osterfeldt mission."
"Oh! Thank goodness! Do you know how hard it is to get a 'working woman's' apartment in Amsterdam these days?"
He casually left the file folder on the very edge of his desk. It sat there, teasing me, taunting me, to read it. I pointedly ignored it. Then, it suddenly occurred to me that I was losing a contest of wills with an inanimate object. I snatched the file off the desk and flipped through it. It contained several reports by Earth-based Celestials of magical intrusions and interference at the Corporate Headquarters of a British Real Estate Holding Company that among other things owned several large housing tracts and industrial parks in the English Midlands and the Scottish Industrial regions. Hmmm...messing with the company that provides the housing for so many people and companies would be a really effective way of gaining power over a lot of people.
Then I saw the picture. They were several photos of a –creature- and an artist's composite sketch. It was man-shaped (barely) and about half-again larger than the silhouette of a man placed next to it to provide scale. From the waist down, it looked kind of like a horse or donkey, complete with hooves and longhaired tail. From the waist up, it looked like a gorilla with crocodile skin, a boar's snout and tusks, and big pointy goblin ears. There were rings in the ears and through the nose, and it wore several metal bands around its wrists and biceps. It was bald except for a long ponytail high on the back of its head.
I grimaced and held up the composite. *Ick!* "What is this?"
Sophia made a moue. "That, little one, is a Djinn."
"A Genie? _Man_, Barbara Eden has gone downhill in a hurry!"
"Not, a Genie, a Djinn. Genies don't exist, never have. The 'Genie' is a corruption of the traditional Arabic tales of the Djinn by the Victorians, who subconsciously wanted an image of docile, friendly 'heathens' who would do the bidding of their 'more civilized' Masters. Djinn, on the other hand are very real. When the Great God Pan died, and the Olympians knew that their days were numbered-"
"Hold on a sec. The Great God Pan? Wasn't he just an overgrown Satyr or something?"
Sophia shook her head sadly. "No, dear. 'Pan' means 'All' in Greek. While my father Zeus was the King of the Gods of Olympus, Pan was the source from which we drew our strength. When the sailors cried to every shore on the Mediterranean Sea that the Great God Pan was dead, we Olympians knew that our day had passed. Some, like Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, even Great Hades, and myself begged refuge for us and our entourages from the Most Highest. Many of the others, like Father Zeus, Demeter, and Great Poseidon just ... faded away. And others, like Hera, Ares, Nemesis, and Dis, chose to - in the words of Dylan Thomas - 'Not go gentle into that good night which awaits us all', blamed the Lord of Hosts for the passing of their day, and signed on with Lucifer out of spite. Hera always was a vindictive bitch, and Nemesis wouldn't know the meaning of mercy if it were the clue in a crossword puzzle.
"Anyway, when the day of the Olympians passed, there were hundreds of thousands of lesser spirits and entities that wouldn't - or couldn't - sign on with either side, and refused to just up and die. Many of them gathered in the tribes of the Djinn and Ifrit. The Almighty had King Solomon the Wise clean up most of the more obnoxious ones in the Mid-East, but not even the mightiest sorcerer of all time could round up them all. Anyway, several centuries and far too many heroic quests later, most of the Djinn and Ifrit understand that if they keep their heads down and mind their manners, neither Heaven nor Hell will bother them."
Marc nodded - he knew the story all too well, the Mid-East was were he started out. " _But_ there's always a wise guy that pops up every so often. Like our 'friend' here. He appears to be your basic Asia Minor Djinn, not counting the bluejeans that he's wearing. What he's doing in Great Britain is anybody's guess. I made a few discrete phone calls and found out that the other side isn't claiming him, either. As a matter of fact, from his Modus Operandi, we think he's pissed in the other side's drinking water as well. Which raises some tricky questions. Like, what is a neutral being that prefers the sunny Mediterranean doing mucking around in cold, drizzly England?"
Joy wrinkled her brow. "So, what do you want me to do? Try to talk to this guy, and find out what he wants? Get him to move back to Iran?"
Marc shook his head. "Actually, Joy, your participation in this matter will be tertiary. Sophia and a few other experienced field agents will handle this Djinn. You see, it'll be a bi-partisan effort by us and the Opposition, mostly to make sure that neither side was behind him. We've made arrangements that the other side will send one of their most promising rookies - a succubus by the name of Lorelei."
My ears pricked up at the sound of the word 'succubus'. "And what do I have to do with a Succubus?"
"Nothing - Yet. But eventually, you're going to graduate to more complex duties, including intelligence work, diplomacy and recruiting. Duties that might bring you into opposition with the succubae. Your job on this mission is to study Lorelei and one of her underlings, a rather odd duck called Angelique."
Marc handed her two pictures. One was of a curvaceous little sex kitten with chestnut brown hair and big almond shaped blue eyes, wearing a royal blue outfit with matching bat-wings and barbed tail. The other one was of a blonde bombshell with darker blue wings and tail. Either one of the pictures could have been used by Larry Flint on the cover of Hustler magazine to piss off the religious right.
"Which one's Lorelei and which one's Angelique?"
"Angelique's the blonde.'
"What's so odd about her? She looks like your run of the mill Hell-Bimbo."
Marc handed me another picture. In this one, the blonde was wearing an outlandish combination of chainmail and plate, with a tacky looking batwinged helmet, a shield and an admittedly nasty looking sword. "Woof! I didn't know that the Succubae went in for the dominatrix look."
"Mostly, they don't. Most of them prefer a softer touch - unless they're trying to claw your throat out. Angelique appears to be something new. I want you to stick as close as you can to these two during the mission, and observe them. Make out like you're Sophia's 'apprentice' or something. I don't want you to lie, just let them get the wrong idea. Lorelei - that's the brunette - made a real name for herself a little while ago. Somehow, she took out a dark Sorcerer called Girard St. Thomas - a real slimedog who had been around for centuries and had a whole passel of Angels, Demons and other types under his control. Then, a little later, she helped another bipartisan mission take out a renegade Angel called Shen-Dai, who was up to no good. The Angels who went on that mission say that she's very unpredictable, very tough and almost ridiculously magically powerful. The other one, Angelique, is also very talented magically, and is a pretty tough fighter. Your job on this mission is to observe both of them, see if you can spot any patterns or habits, and generally try to figure out what they'd do in a given situation. Don't bother trying to figure out any weaknesses or anything like that; you'll need a lot more experience before you can intelligently gauge those things. Other than that, all you have to do is back up Sophia and keep your prototype nature a secret."
"So, it'll be Sofia, me and these two Demons?"
"No, you'll also have a Seraph named Taberah who works for Dominic along, one of Laurence's Malachites named Corydon, and one of my better people, a Mercurian named Tobiashazaar. Both Taberah and 'Shaz have dealt with Lorelei and Angelique before. Shaz has pretty good relations with her and is used to dealing with Succubae. It's understood that Lorelei will bring along a like number of her followers."
"What about this Taberah?"
"Not so good, but from what I've seen of Taberah, that's pretty par for the course."
"Do I at least still get my week's down time, before going off on this?"
"Sure! The others are still wrapping up their own affairs, so the only thing that you'll have to worry about for a bit is keeping your baku fed, and getting in a little armor training with Michael."
Sophia nodded. "Of course! Your cover on this mission will be as my Shield Bearer. You'll have to learn how to move in armor and lug around the heavier parts of my equipment. Basically, you'll be like a caddy, only instead of golf clubs, you'll be schlepping around my spear, shield, helmet and other things. I'll need to have someone do that anyway and this way, Lorelei and Angelique will probably consider you as part of the background, so you can watch them as closely as you want without them getting suspicious."
It was nice to be back in Heaven after a prolonged stay on the Earthly Realm, even in such a nice, civilized place as Amsterdam. I took Snooks out into the Marches of Dreams and let him stalk a couple of wily 'Test? I didn't know that there was going to be a Test!' anxieties that were skulking around. Snooks caught the trail of a honest-to-goodness Boogieman, but it slipped over the boarder into the Realm of Nightmares, and we couldn't follow it. Snooks was full, but I think he really wants to catch a Boogieman some day, just so he could say that he did.
When we got back to my room, Snooks flopped down and rolled over on his back in one of those awkward, impossibly comfortable positions that those of us with two legs just can't seem to achieve. I sat down on my bed and stretched my wings. As I stretched out the last bit of tension in my wings, I spotted someone seated in a chair in the corner. It was Sophia, looking bemusedly at me with a book on her lap. She was wearing a diaphanous one shouldered shift, and her long straight dark hair was hanging loose. As my surprise registered, she smiled and said, "Good hunting tonight?"
"Uhm, Yeah. Snooks really enjoyed himself."
"And what about you?"
"Well, the Marches are really cool the first few times, but to be honest, I think I prefer to do my dreaming in my own bed.."
"Well, that's good, because it seems to be all that you're using your bed for."
"What else would I use it for?"
I sputtered, "SO-phie!"
"Oh, so, you have been having sex? Who's the lucky Angel?"
"Well, of course I've been having sex! It's part of my Job! The best way for me to connect with one of my 'clients-"
"Yes, yes, I know. But that's sex with a purpose. You have your rationalization so that you can distance yourself from it. Joy, I know that you were a man when you were mortal, and you have a lot of old taboos that you're doing a kickass job of getting around. _But_, you're ducking the issue with sex. Sweetheart, sex isn't something that you endure for the good of the cause - it's one of the Great Gifts!"
Sophia got up and came over to sit by me on the bed. She laid a hand on mine. "Joy, I don't think you're consciously blocking off any attempts at intimacy. After all, you've only been with us for a few months. I just think you're not really sure of how to go about it. After all, you were brought up with this image of Heaven as this rather sterile place, where everyone just floated around meditating on pure things. Joy, Sweetheart, it would be my great pleasure to help you through this awkward stage."
"Help me through? How?"
She just smiled and stroked the line of my cheek with a finger. "If you really don't want to, I won't push the matter. Just don't refuse me out of fear or guilt. You are new to being female, so I think that, ah, 'getting over the hump' will be easier for you with another female."
"Isn't that against the Rules up here?"
"You've been listening to those Televangelists. No, the only restrictions on Sex we have up here are between 'parent' and 'child', and if the Angel involved has formed a formal Mating pair. And again, this is less a matter morality or law, than it is a reflection of subtler dynamics of pairing up here. Love is Love, Joy. It's more a matter of how you love than who you love."
"Wait a minute - you were supposed to have been Athena, the Greek Goddess. Weren't you a _Virgin_ Goddess?"
She grinned infectiously. "True. I'm not a Goddess anymore, either. Sort of makes up for things." She leaned in and kissed my trembling lips.
Maybe it's that she's a Goddess, or at least an Angel; maybe it's just that she's female. Either way, Sophia's kiss was very different from any that I'd had before. With Ernie and Karl Osterfeldt and all the other men that I'd kissed and had sex with, it had been this tremendous focused force, like a great wind blowing me along. With Sophia, it was a sweet gentle breeze caressing my soul. If having sex with a guy was like a shot of whiskey, then this was like sparkling Champaign, sweet, heady and gigglesome. I drank in her kiss, and she pulled me to her. She nuzzled on my ear and began working her way down my neck. Again, a comparison hit me - sex with a male was like shooting the rapids in the cascades; this was drifting down a lazy river, taking our time, and enjoying all the sights.
She kissed my breasts, taking loving care with each of them, and then moved her way down. She drifted down to my crotch, unhitching my hunting shift as she went, and the real program started. She licked my pussy like it was an ice cream cone, savoring every delectable taste. Her expert tongue guided me to one shuddering orgasm after another, until I was as limp as a rag. As I lay back, perfectly relaxed, Sophia crawled up and took me in her arms to share the wonderful glow. We wrapped our wings around each other. It sounds clumsy, but it was very intimate and oh, so warm.
I just drifted along like this for a while, when I became aware of something down below. "Uhmmm...Sophie? Don't take this the wrong way... but I think I need a Man - Right Now."
"Oh yes, that does happen. Not to worry, Sweetheart; it's all taken care of."
Then I felt something familiar and hard rub up against my thigh. I looked down.
"Don't worry, Joy. What's called 'hermaphroditism' now was very common among the Greek Gods. My father Zeus was notorious for lusting after boys and girls alike. It drove that bitch Hera nuts! Just remember that I'll never force you. If you don't want to..."
Another preconception shot to hell. "Oh, what the heck!" I opened myself to her and let her in. Again, not the same as being with a man; interesting, just not the same.
And so I became Sophia's 'companion'. Mind you, we weren't joined at the hip. Sophia spent most of her 'day' either working with Daddy Marc's organization or brushing up on her melee skills with Poppa Michael's crew.
Now, the job of 'Shield Bearer' sorta carries with it the implication that it's this made up job to keep the big hero's little buddy around. Well, it often is, but it's also a very real job in and of itself. I mean, that stuff is Heavy! If I weren't an Angel, and hadn't been given Michael's Gift of Endurance to boot, I wouldn't have been able to lift half this stuff, much less carry it around! "Sophia, do you really need this great big spear?"
"Yes, honey, I do. That spear was forged especially for me by the god Hephestaeus. It's stronger than any material ever forged by mortals, it's sharper than any razor ever made, it will never blunt, and in my hands, it's as light as a feather."
"Okay, okay, and I'll assume that the same is true for this great big whacking shield - but what's with the owl symbol on its front?" Bubo, her pet owl, hooted at me angrily from her shoulder. "I'm not knocking you, Bubie, I just thought that Sophie had Medusa's face on her shield, that's all."
"Oh, not on my shield, dear. That was the Aegis, the shield of Zeus. It wasn't my shield, I was Shield Bearer to Zeus, just like you're Shield Bearer to me."
"Didn't you inherit it, when Zeus went past the vale?"
"No, dear, you see the Aegis wasn't just a magical artifact - it was a physical manifestation of Zeus' power, like those thunderbolts of his. When Perseus beheaded Medusa - and believe me, there was a lot more to that story than Bullfinch ever let on! - Zeus took the head and joined its power with the Aegis. That kind of power doesn't just lie around waiting for somebody to come and pick it up! No, the Aegis went with Dad when he faded away."
"Okay, I can see that. Now, what's with the handgrenades, the four-shot TOW missile launcher and the .50 caliber heavy machinegun with a 5000-round box?"
"Well, they won't let me have thunderbolts..."
The week flew by. I got the hang of running around in a breastplate with grieves, vambraces, and chain sleeves and skirt, lugging a couple of tons of metal without tripping over myself. Finally the time came to move. Taberah was a tall, white-haired, rather patrician looking Seraph who affected judge's robes. She was cordial, if aloof, to Sophia, and almost completely dismissed me. Corydon was dark, sleekly handsome and had 'hotshot' written all over him. He sniffed at Sophia's spear - something about the Sword being a 'noble weapon' - and gave me an amused look at how overburdened I was. Then he draped a combat shotgun, a couple of javelins, and a box of demolitions packs on me, completely upsetting the balance that I'd worked so hard to master.
As Sophia and Taberah were working on the portal to where we'd meet this Tobiashazaar on the Mortal Realm, Michael came over to me. I looked up at him from out of the depths of the big Greek helmet that Sophia had put on me. "Hee-Haw", I said flatly.
"I didn't sign on to be a pack mule."
"Well, it's a good cover for your real mission. Besides, if the shit hits the fan, you will be the one with the heavy firepower."
"Yeah. So they'll shoot at me first."
He chuckled at that, and reached into a pocket. "Oh, and in case you're not overloaded yet, Eli came up with something for you." He pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to me. It was a small, gold-plated derringer pistol with pearl grips.
"You're kidding, right? That isn't a gun - it's barely even jewelry!"
"Take it, and pull the hammer back."
Shifting my load, I took the silly little thing, pointed it at a target and cocked the hammer. The 'derringer' grew into a large caliber revolver, something that Dirty Harry Callihan would have been comfortable with. "Woof! Now that's what I call a gun!"
Michael grinned. "I thought that you'd like it. Eli says that all you have to do to reload is think about it and pump Essence into the gun. The gun will create viable rounds right in the cylinder. _But_ there's more!" He handed me a small box of bullets. I peeked in the box. There were twenty bullets in the box, and they gleamed of a dull gold. "These bullets are made of Orichalchum. They will wound even Celestial and Ethereal creatures that are immune to mortal weaponry. And they are enchanted so that they will pass through most sorcerous barriers."
"Oh, Poppa! You always give me the best gifts!" I gave him a big hug and a kiss, both of which were only mildly hampered by the arsenal that I was toting around. Then I had to scamper to catch the portal.
Michael smiled after me. Then he noticed his subordinates standing around grinning at him. "Well? What are you looking at? Okay, three laps around the glade, double time, _double time_!"
We appeared in a disk of lightning (y'know, I think that Sophie really misses her Dad, sometimes) in an alley in New York. A tall, slender well-dressed black man with dreadlocks and a goatee was leaning against the alley wall, reading a magazine. As we stepped through, he gave us an amused look and tucked the magazine under his arm.
"'Bout time you all showed up. Hi, Sophia. My, you're looking...Archaic."
"Hello, Tobiashazaar. Have you made the final arrangements?"
"Yep! We have a date for coffee and Danish in about five minutes. Jade is holding a table for us."
Sophia was about to say something, when Corydon stepped in. "Very well. Tobiashazaar, Ombudsman of Commerce, I am Corydon, Lieutenant of Daring. This lady is Taberah, Tribune of Integrity. And that is Sophia's Shield-Bearer. You will..."
Sophia glared at Corydon with those gray eyes of hers; one hard look and you knew why the head of Medusa was one of her symbols. After she quelled the upstart, Sophia turned again to Tobiashazaar. "Yeah, we do look sort of like something out of an action movie, don't we? Can you do something to make us look a little more 'Town & Country' than 'Guns & Ammo'?"
He nodded, reached into his wallet and pulled out an entire deck of credit cards. He spread the cards into a fan and whispered, "Pierre Cardin." The cards flew out of his hands and swirled around us. When the cards stopped circling, we looked more like an advance team of lawyers from an Uptown law firm - y'know, the kind that lists seven WASPS and two Jews as partners? - than a commando squad. I was still heavily laden, but now I looked like a paralegal weighed down with accordion folders, document boxes and chart tubes. Tobiashazaar looked at me with amusement. "You okay with all that, Kid?" I gave him a chipper thumbs-up in response.
We walked a couple of blocks to a coffee shop somewhere in the Mid-30's. It had 'Neutral Grounds' on the windows in gilt letters. An absolutely, gorgeous Latin (or was she Eurasian? Palestinian? Amerind? Greek? ah, fahgeddiboudit!) woman stopped pouring coffee. "Shaz!" she cried. She came over and gave him a fond hug. "You here for that table you reserved?"
"Yeah. Jade, you remember Taberah-" the two women exchanged rather tepid greetings, "-this is Sophia, that's Corydon, and this is...what did you say your name was, dear?"
"I didn't - it's Joy." I shifted my load and stuck a hand out to shake.
Jade shook it and looked at all the stuff that I was hauling. "Do you expect to come in here with all of that?"
I got the sudden impression that she knew exactly what I was carrying. "Uhm...not really - you got a place I can stash this?"
She took a few things from Sophia and Corydon, and led me over to a closet that she unlocked. The closet looked like it was for brooms, but the room behind it was huge! I gratefully shucked the load that I'd been given - even the helmet, and Jade locked the door. "Only damn coffee shop in New York with a Weapons Locker," she muttered.
As I got back, Shaz was fooling around with an espresso maker. I kept my order simple, and just asked for a cup of joe and a croissant. As I waited, I checked out the other customers in the shop. On the surface, it was your basic trendy New York caffeine addiction outpatient clinic - yuppies, bohos, art-nazis, Andy Warhol wannabes, hold-out beatniks, Old World types and a couple of rastas. But there was an undercurrent. "Ah, Shaz - this place is weird."
Shaz flickered his eyes over to Sophia and Corydon. "Either of you been here before?"
Sophia shook her head and Corydon hedged, "Well, I've heard of the place, of course..."
Shaz just gave a condescending smile to that. "Okay, just so that we're all on the same page here - 'Neutral Grounds' isn't just a cutesy name, this place really is neutral grounds. For EVERYBODY. This place is situated on a very potent Font. For the rookie, that's a place where Essence flows freely in the world, and spiritual beings like us can freely take advantage of it. But this Font has both very effective wards and a Guardian. The lovely young lady who met us at the door, Jade, is the Guardian of this Font. She doesn't just run this shop; she literally has completely authority over everything that happens here. The Almighty might be able to over-rule her here, but so far he hasn't. Now, Jade is a very laid back kinda gal - she's on the fast track to being a Bhoddisatva - but she won't put up with ANY shit from ANY BODY. Demon Princes, Archangels, Fae Lords, Greater Loa, forgotten gods and Goblin Kings all mind their Ps and Qs in here - if they know what's good for them. If they don't-"
He turned in his chair. "Hey Jade! Who's on the shelf this week?"
Jade walked over and looked up at the sideboard, where there were four bottles with something churning inside them. She tapped her lips as if to help remember.
"Lessee - there's that Demon of Theft who tried to steal our security system; he's gonna be there a while. There's that ghost who ran up that tab that he couldn't pay; dunno what I'm gonna wind up doing with him. There's that schmuck Manitou who insisted that I turn the Guardianship of the Font over to him, because he was the fifth cousin of the last Guardian or something. I'm gonna let him cool his heels for another week and see if his manners have improved any. And, there's that Fae Princess who got snotty and tried to cast a spell on me. Her husband's off trying to meet my conditions for her release. Even then, her picture is going on the Wall of Shame."
Shaz jerked a thumb at a corkboard with several snapshots on it. "Those are the ones that she isn't letting back in, any time soon."
Jade gave a toss of her head.. "Running this place demands that I be able to both keep the peace and enforce my neutrality. That means that these people have to understand that when I say 'No', I mean No! Would you believe it? Last month some piddling little Meso-American godling Tezcatlipoca-wannabe tried to perform a human sacrifice on the kitchen stove?"
Taberah was aghast. "NO! What did you do to him?"
Jade grinned evilly. "I bottled him, and sold him to a mortal alchemist who gave me a binding agreement that he was going to boil him down for components. Mister Huitzlimachtl isn't coming back anytime soon."
Jade went to tend to her other customers. Corydon bristled. "That's barbaric! Even if this Hweetzlmakkel-"
"Whatever! It is not for a parvenu like Jade to pass judgement upon her betters. This Hwee...godling - should have been handed over to the Heavenly Courts for judgement, in the proper keeping of things."
Taberah sighed and drank her coffee. "I'm sorry Lieutenant, but as much as I'd like to agree with you, I can't. Jade's actions were harsh and presumptuous, but they were in keeping with both her authority as Guardian of this Font, and this place's position of strict neutrality. To hand the false deity over to the Courts would be to recognize Heaven's authority over this Font, and Old Luke wouldn't stand for that for a second."
Corydon grumped into his latte. "Which would be for the best. This place is an abomination."
Sophia twirled her tea with a cinnamon stick. "I disagree. The Font's neutrality has a stabilizing effect of the Truce here in New York. And, as even Los Angelinos will admit, what happens here in New York greatly influences the rest of the Mortal Realm. So, the Truce is strengthened everywhere. This gives us a chance to finally deal with some of the more opportunistic 'Neutrals' who have been playing Heaven against Hell for their own advantage. Like this Djinn that we're going after; I'll lay you odds that he's been using the crossfire between us to hide from both sides since Solomon's day."
Corydon still wasn't a happy camper. "I still think we should go after him without the Unclean coming along to muck things up."
"Can't be helped. Hell claims that he's not one of theirs, so he isn't protected by the Truce. But the only way we can be sure of that - and vice versa, that they can be sure that _We_ weren't using him as a 'deniable asset' to trash one of their operations - is for both sides to be present when we take him down."
I held up a hand. "Aren't you assuming that he's doing this on his own? Maybe he did get bound by King Solomon way back when, and someone's making like Aladdin?"
Taberah's eyes lit up. "Now, that's better! While it takes a lot more to secure the services of a bound Djinn that merely rubbing a lamp, a mortal sorcerer is a definite possibility! And any chance we have of getting any of those Hall of Mages types off the board is worth taking."
"Hall of Mages?"
"MMphhf!" Shaz started to say through his espresso. "Not all neutrals are what you might call 'disinterested third parties', like the Loa or the Fae. The Hall of Mages is a group of very powerful Sorcerers that actively play both ends against the middle for their own gain. As a rule, both Heaven and Hell hunt them down and squash them as often as they can. But, unfortunately one of the most basic of spells that these Merlin wannabes have is a Warding that protects them from the attempts of both sides to find them. They can capture and bind both Angels and Demons to their will. They also bind anything and everything else that they can get away with. One of the reasons that Michael asked for Lorelei is that she single-handedly took out an especially vile Mage call Girard-"
"Girard St. Thomas, right? He was that bad?"
"Worse. But beyond that, she showed a lot of class - she had a whole passel of Angels right there under her thumb, including a friend of mine, and she just let them go. They still OWE her, for letting them go, but she could have kept them under her thumb."
Sophia gave a sphinx smile (and she would know how, she knew the Sphinx personally!) over her coffee cup and said, "We're still trying to figure out what she was up to."
Taberah grumped. "I've met her. Just another soul-sucking Succubus."
Corydon's eyes glinted like steel. "Truce or not, we're going to have to take her out, eventually. The longer she's around, the more powerful she becomes. Every time she does Heaven one of these 'favors', she becomes a little more powerful. Keep your eyes open - I smell a trap here. When she makes her move, and she _will_ make a move, cover me, and I'll take her out."
Sophia's gray eyes out-steeled Corydon's. "Lieutenant, I suggest that you concentrate on this mission. Our stated mission is to capture the Djinn, and verify the reasons for its actions. If it's just an upstart who managed to avoid King Solomon, we grab it and take it to the Heavenly Courts for justice. If some third party is behind it, we use the Djinn to find them and neutralize them. IF it's a trap, we let the trap close, and then we deal with the Demons. But only _if_ it's a trap. Archangel Marc went to a lot of trouble to get this to happen; don't screw it up just because you want Lorelei's head for a trophy."
"A lot of good Angels were destroyed or crippled during the War, cutting down on the numbers of those Hell Whores! Now we're supposed to just stand back and let that slut Lilith not only build up her numbers, but experiment with new kinds of them!"
Shaz deftly stepped into the short break in the increasingly tense conversation. "Aaahhh - I am sensing a minor difference of opinion here. Now, exactly Who is in command of this little clambake? Now, the Kid and I are obviously the juniors on Marc's team, but of you three, who has seniority? I mean, whose show is this? Tabby, you are a Seraphim of pretty high standing - that debacle with your Ex notwithstanding - and this is pretty much a police action; are You in charge?"
Taberah shook her head.
"So it comes down to either Sophia or you, Cory; are you saying that this is Lord Laurence's project?"
"An operation like this should be run in a proper military fashion-"
"I'll take that as a NO. So, let's see: Lord Marc set this up; Sophia holds a higher rank in his organization than you do in Laurence's; Sophia has at least a thousand years of seniority on you; her take on both the spirit and the letter of the orders I got make more sense than what you've been saying; in a show of hands, the Kid and I would give her our support; AND when push comes to shove, my money is on her to kick your ass! Given all that, I think Sophia's in charge."
Corydon was about to make a retort, when the bell over the coffee shop door jangled, and a set of newcomers entered. Taberah and Tobiashazaar's body language hinted at a closing of the ranks. The newcomers looked like a Vogue magazine version of a jogging group - two drop-dead gorgeous model types, a very tall amazon beauty, an absolutely adorable little blonde girl, a German shepherd dog with the obligatory kerchief around the neck, and this utterly scrumptious looking guy who could have been a male model. No, there was too much intelligence in those deep green eyes for him to be a male model. They were all in jogging clothing. Jade went over and greeted them. The amazon and one of the 'models' stashed their carryalls in the 'weapons locker'.
Jade brought them over to our table. Their positioning suggested that the smallest (if you didn't count the little girl) of the women was the leader. She sashayed up to the table with the moves of a woman who's hotter than Mt. Pele, and knows it. She flashed Shaz a warm smile and then a cooler greeting to Taberah.
Shaz got up and gave her a friendly peck on the cheek. "Lorelei! You're looking good, as always! Let me introduce our side; you know Taberah-" Taberah gave a terse nod, "-this is Sophia, she'll be doing the talking for our side from this point on. That's Corydon, he's one of Laurence's best." There was a 'letting you know what you're getting into' undertone to that. "And this is Joy, she's studying under Sophia." I gave the succubus an 'eager rookie who's desperate to be accepted' smile.
Lorelei smiled and returned the introduction. "All right, this is Angelique-" she indicated the blonde who had stashed something in the weapons locker along with the amazon, "-who's pretty much my good right hand - or is it good left hand, if that's the sinister one. I keep forgetting. The tall one is Sylvana, our resident Hell Maiden and expert butt-whooper. The one with the fur is Helga, my very own HellHound. Watch your hands, she bites - everything. And this-" she waved a hand at Mister Gorgeous, "-is Richard. He's basically Comedy Relief."
Taberah glared frostily at the darling little girl clambering up into a chair with her teddybear. "Lorelei, you were supposed to bring FOUR associates. What's that doing here?"
Lorelei tousled the kid's hair. "Oh, Dimona? She's just a little Imp-" the kid ruined her facade of innocence by giving a grin that looked like it belonged on a Tazmanian Devil, "-she doesn't really count."
Taberah was about to say something when Sophia asserted her leadership. "Very well, Lorelei, if you say that you really _need_ your support staff, we'll let it slide - this time." Very nice - Sophie's allowing Lorelei to bring in an extra demon, because the succubus needs the extra help, thus turning Lorelei's little token power play into a favor owed.
As my Elders - in this case, everybody including the Imp - sat down and compared notes, I sat back and got my first good look at the infamous Lorelei. She was a really nice little package of candy, I'll admit, but I didn't see what all the fuss was about. Then I kicked myself, and tried to resurrect my old male perspective. Once I did, I almost fell out of my chair. She was utterly gorgeous! She was exactly the right mixture of sleek and curvy, with a heart-shaped face, a cute upturned nose, and big blue almond shaped eyes. She was cute and bubbly and sexy and innocent as all get out. As I got my equilibrium back, I reminded myself, so she's sexy. So what? It's in the Succubus job description. What's so great about her that doesn't apply to all the other succubae? Well, that is my job here; they wouldn't have even given me the job if the answer were obvious.
The War Council wrapped up its plans and we all got up. I went to the 'closet' and got all the stuff back. As I was dealing with the conundrum of balancing all that weaponry within the context of its illusory appearance, one of the demons came up to me. It was the big blonde, Angelique. She smiled as she reached in and got her stuff. "Are you sure you can manage all that stuff?"
"Sure, no prob. It's just kinda awkward, y'know?"
"And how do you expect to fight, carrying all that stuff?"
"I don't. My job is to schlep all this stuff around, so the Big Guns can concentrate on being on their jobs."
"Nice job if you can get it - being a Big Gun, I mean."
"Yeah, well, running around ramming pointy thingies into people ain't really my regular gig."
"Oh? Then why are you here?"
"That's what I've been asking myself. Mostly I'm just here backing up Sophia. Speaking of which, what's all the hubbub about Lorelei? I mean, I've only just met her, but either you or the big one - what was her name again?"
"Ah! Right! You and Sylvana are a lot more impressive that she is. What's the big deal?"
Angelique just gave me an amused look. "Wait until we're a few blocks away from here - I think you'll get a first hand look at what the big deal is."
As she turned and left, the demonic studmuffin - Richard, I think his name was - came up. "Could you use a hand carrying all that stuff?" he asked with a smile that made little butterfly sensations in my stomach.
I quickly reigned in an incipient dither-attack. Truce or not, having one of the Other Side handle our equipment didn't seem like a very good idea, no matter how hunksome the prospective caddy might be. "Aahh - no thanks, I've got it under control. Besides, if I give you anything, I'll just have to figure out a new balance, and that would take so much time that it just wouldn't be worth it. But thanks, anyway." He accepted that with a panty-drenching smile and walked on.
I was almost out the door, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Shaz was there, giving me a concerned look. "Joy? If I might have a word in your shell-like ear?" He pulled me off to the side. "Look, you seem like a really nice kid, so I don't want you to get hurt."
"You do know what this 'Richard' guy is, don't you?"
"Sure! He's a demon. He's one of the enemy."
<heh> "Yes, he's a demon. _But_ more importantly, he's an Incubus."
"Hunh? An incu-whattabus?"
"Ah, Joy. If there is a single law that they actually obey down in Hell, it's that success breeds imitation. When Lilith's Succubae turned out to be such a raging success, a lot of other Demon Lords tried their hands at creating their own versions. Most were pretty lame; some were really nasty in their own right, just not up to the Lilim's standard. But the Demon Lord called Belial had the bright idea of turning Lilith's basic concept around, and creating a breed of devil that seduces and preys on women the way the Succubae feed on men. While the Incubae aren't as flambouyant or as successful as often as the Succubae are, they are their very own kind of sneaky. And when they do get their claws into a woman, they do a first rate job of screwing up her life. What few women I've seen who've managed to get free of an Incubus' influence were scarred, rather badly. They didn't trust men, and they didn't trust themselves or their own judgement anymore, either."
"Yeah, well, I've run into that type before-"
"_NO_, you haven't. Joy, he's not just cute and built and charming. He has a magical power, the opposite number to the Succubae charms, that excites and entices any female - and I do mean ANY female - at whom he directs it. He's probably here to handle whatever female influences the Succubae can't handle. The thing is, he's an _Incubus_ - flirting with women is what he does. Taberah's a Seraph, so his lies won't work on her. And Sophia? Heck, I'd sell tickets to see what would happen if he tried anything with Sophia!
"But _You_ on the other hand, are right up Richard's alley. And given the lack of other opportunities to screw with us, you are his obvious target. Joy, he will flirt with you - he's an Incubus, it would be like asking a fish not to swim. All I'm asking you to do is remember that it's just a magic trick."
With that, Shaz tipped his hat, and was out the door. I felt a wealther of emotions: gratitude for his concern; a flickering disappointment about Richard; a touch of anger at both of them; resentment that Shaz thought I was such a baby; and embarrassment that Richard had gotten to me so easily. I shoved them all aside and concentrated on catching up with the others.
A few blocks away, our two groups got together again. Lorelei made a casual gesture, and a large portal appeared. *whoa!* So that's what Angelique was talking about! I mean, Mother Eli can pull that kind of thing off, but she's an Archangel! The Archangel of Creation, no less! Almost everybody else that I've even heard about has to work up ten gallons of sweat to do that! Yes, this Lorelei definitely needs watching...
It had been late afternoon when we left Neutral Grounds, but the sun was just going down. We must have traveled eastward from New York, either to England or Europe. The disguises dropped, and Sylvana regarded the departing sun with relish.
"Aahh - th' Gloamin'. They's jus' so much y'ken get awhey wi' in th' Gloamin'."
I looked to Sophia for clarification. "The 'Gloaming' is the period between the time when the sun goes beyond the horizon and darkness falls. It's a time that's neither Day nor Night. Supernatural powers work more effectively, because neither set of rules applies. If our prey is going to do any real moving, it's going to be in the next forty-five minutes."
As if to verify that, Bubo, Sophia's pet owl swooped down from the sky and alit on her shoulder.
Lorelei raised a sculpted eyebrow. "And what is _that_?"
Sophia favored her with a wide grin and mimicked Lorelei's voice. "Oh, Bubo? He's just a little owl, he doesn't count."
The Succubus gave Sophia a 'very funny' grimace, but didn't take issue with having her own words thrown back at her. The German shepherd, which had turned into a scaled monstrosity with spikes along its back and on its legs, that would have dwarfed an Irish Wolfhound, growled and bared it's fangs at the little bird. Bubo opened one eye and calmly regarded the snarling Hellhound. Impossibly, he leaned forward, enlarged his head a hundredfold, and swallowed the Hellhound with a single gulp. Then suddenly his head was its normal size, with only a bifurcated tail dangling from his beak to show that anything had happened. Bubo settled in, then his eyes popped open and he regurgitated the devildog. <blech!>
The Hellhound scampered behind its mistress and glowered at the owl from the safety of her wings.
Sophia ignored the incident. "Besides, Bubo here is an expert tracker, especially in the dark."
Lorelei crossed her arms. "Well, so is Helga-"
"Good! Then whatever evasions the Djinn uses against one side, the other will be able to track."
Lorelei saw that she'd been out-maneuvered, shrugged in a way that neither Corydon, Shaz nor Richard could completely ignore, and let it slide. "Okay, down to business. We don't know enough about what the Djinn's been doing that slipped under our respective radars to second guess its agenda. So, we'll have to handle this the hard way - looking around for signs. Luckily, the Djinn got sloppy on its last job, and left this-"
Angelique pulled out a piece of varnished wood, in which there were three long parallel gouges. "This should have enough of a trace of the Djinn's Essence that Helga should be able to track it."
Taberah nodded. "We also have something to add to the evidence. It left this track at the site of its last operation that we were aware of." She produced a plaster cast of a large un-cloven hoofprint. "In the interests of clarity, we should have both of our trackers check both of these traces, so that we're absolutely sure that we are dealing with a single Djinn, and not two or more. Also, the two samples should give the trackers a better idea of the Djinn's 'scent', without either the confusing traces of Divine aroma or Infernal stench."
Lorelei ignored the snide delivery and saw the wisdom of the idea. Taberah and Angelique laid their evidence on the ground, and Bubo and the Hellhound carefully went to get a good whiff. The Hellhound snuffled for a while, and then said, "Definitely a single Djinn. *sniff!* An old one, too. *snuffle!* And a trace of something else..." The devildog raised her nose into the air and began scenting. "He's around here somewhere-" Bubo gave a warbling chirp, as if in agreement. The dog gave him a 'I don't need help from you' look.
The Hellhound started snuffling around, trying to get a better scent. Bubo took to the air, following whatever traces that owls do, and began a lazy outward spiral search pattern.
After a bit, the animals came back with a lead. I started to get all the stuff loaded properly, when the big Hellmaid, Sylvana stashed a big axe and a large spiked mace on a chain in among the stuff I was carrying. "Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
She straightened up and glowered down at me. "You're the pack mule, aren't you? Well, shut up and carry my stuff, or I'll skin you and use your bones to make a travois, so that you'll be useful!"
"Hey, I am Sophia's Shield-Bearer! I gladly do this for her, and out of necessity, I'll put up with it from Corydon. But You? You can carry your own stuff!" I shook my pack to dislodge the spiked flail, which accidentally dropped on her foot. "Oh, I'm so sorry! Did that hurt?"
"MY HOOF! You scrawny little half-witted featherhead!" The titaness took an angry swipe at me.
*Crash!* "Oh, did _I _ do that?" *Thud!*" Oh my, let me help you..." *Whap!* "Honest, I didn't mean to do that!" *Rat-a-tat-tat!* "Funny, I could have sworn that the safety was on!" *Sqwashhhh!* "Oh, Dear!"
Bruised and battered, Sylvana skittered away on the ground from the untouched Angel. Joy reached out a hand and pleaded, "Oh, Please, let me help you..."
Sylvana held up a hand, "NO! No, thank you! Just - just gimme back m'axe, and I'll carry m'own stuff." Joy gingerly handed the battle-axe back to Sylvana. Cradling her favorite weapon in her arms, Sylvana sidled over to Lorelei. <heh> "Ah, Lor, I think you should keep an eye on the li'l blonde one." Lorelei smirked back at her and said nothing. "NO, Lor, I'm serious! I've been a Hellmaid for a long time, and I've been in a lot of scrapes. But _that_? Lorelei, I just either had my ass handed to me by a true master of evasive fighting, or I just ran into the biggest klutz in the Three Realms, who has the Luck of all the Irish ever born with her!" Sylvana flicked a gaze over to the slight blonde Angel as the latter was putting the finishing touches on her load. "And, y'know, I'm not sure which one scares me more?"
Finally, Bubo flew back, and we heard a howl that probably had kids hiding under their sheets. They'd found the Djinn's trail. Having been born and raised in the US, I found out a rather odd thing about Britain - in the UK, you can go from an almost complete wilderness to a pretty well developed area in only a few hundred yards. We started out in a Crown Preserve Park, and followed the Djinn's trail into the town of Little Thripping on the Pewtey. Little Thripping was an ugly little town, made mostly of a grayish brown brick, and it definitely was laid out before the introduction of the automobile. We stalked through the streets in the twilight; it was too late for little children to be out, and too early for drunks to have their toot on, so we were unseen by mortal eyes. While the Hellhound had a better nose for tracking, Bubo seemed to be able to follow traces that the dog couldn't. Between the two of them, they were closing in fast on the Djinn.
We tracked our bunny to a low office building. Apparently, the people of Little Thripping had just enough lawyers to make them miserable. As we positioned ourselves around the building to wait for the Djinn to leave, Sophia took possession of her spear, shield, helmet and a few hand grenades. She did a little mojo so that the grenades and the other explosives I was carrying wouldn't make any noise. I noticed Taberah was pouring silvery sand in a circle around the building. Then we all settled in.
We waited for an hour or so. Then Bubo sensed something. An attractive young woman came out of the building. She walked up to the circle of sand and stopped. The circle should have been invisible to human eyes. The woman looked down at it and looked around. She shifted the packages that she was carrying, and held the palms of her hands out. The sand began to part, particle by particle. When the break in the circle was large enough for her to pass through, she gestured over her shoulder. A flare of fire flew from her fingers and went through a window on the first floor. Without looking back, the woman stepped through the circle, and left the building to burn.
I popped my head up and looked at Sophia. She looked back at me. "You just know that there are probably people in there! You go in; I'm going to hand that bitch her ass!"
I leaned over and gave her a parting peck on the cheek. "Go get 'er, Boo'ful!" With that, I winged my way - as best I could with all the gear that I was carrying - over to the burning building. I flew through the window and tried to find where the fire had hit. Instead, I found a little ball of flame merrily jumping around from object to object, leaving a trail of fire behind it.
It didn't seem to notice me, so I picked up a large ledger (ledger? Don't they know about computers in Little Thripping on the Pewtey?) and snuck up on it. I tried to squash it with the ledger, but either it was too quick, or this move was a little too direct for my fighting style, cause I missed by a mile. I chased after the damn thing, from one office to another, and another after that, trying to swat it. Then I realized that I had another way of getting the little firebug. I cradled my hands and spoke the name of the Archangel of Wind. The name bounced around in my hands for a while and spun itself into a small whirlwind. I sent the tiny twister at the fireball. The twister swirled around the emberling and sucked the oxygen out from the air. Since the firebug couldn't move where the whirlwind was, it sputtered and died.
I gave a deep sigh of relief and triumph. Then I noticed that while I was chasing the stupid fireball, we'd managed to set at least four offices full of archaic paperwork ablaze. Ooopps.
Then I heard a shrill screaming. Oh, Lord, the last thing I need right now if for a char-lady to get charred because of what I did. It was just too Monty Python. I ran out into the hall and ran into Shaz. He jerked a thumb up to the next floor. We spread wings and flew up the stairwell, following the sound of the screams. We found three women trying to get away from the flames. Secretaries or Paralegals, maybe. (I don't even want to think about the consequences of saving a lawyer!) As we walked through the flames to them they started to freak out. Hey, wouldn't you? I tried to calm them. "Be not afraid. Your time hasn't come yet." They calmed down from completely freaked to mildly hysterical. We picked them up and shielded them with out wings as we walked through the flames.
We got them outside to safety. I gave them a quick once over to check for smoke inhalation. As Shaz started on damage control, I went to see how the others were doing with the Djinn.
Unfortunately, it was definitely a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. While the Djinn was definitely on defense, our side - or should I say, our side_S_, were doing more damage to each other than they were to the one trying to hit. The Djinn helped this along with a lot of confusing illusion casting and shape shifting. He finally got them all so tangled up that he managed to drift away as a cloud of mist.
As he drifted near a car, I pulled up the TOW missile launcher and put a round into the car. The explosion knocked the cloud of mist so far apart that the Djinn had to stop moving and concentrate on pulling itself together. Behind me I heard one of the paralegals say to another, "An Angel with a Bazooka?"
The other one whispered back, "Maybe she's an American Angel."
I pulled out the satchel of grenades, and tossed it to Sophia. "Boo'ful! Catch!"
Sophia caught on quick, and kept the Djinn off-balance by lobbing one concussion grenade after another into the cloud of mist as it tried to collect itself. After three grenades, the mist was gathering much more slowly that it had at first. Taberah gestured to Sophia to stop. The mist gathered into a very dazed looking Djinn. Taberah waved her hands about, and seven long shining chains erupted out of the ground, very effectively binding the Djinn.
Lorelei looked rather askance at the bound Djinn. She cocked a wry eyebrow at Taberah. "Chains? What, is that a family thing, or something?"
Sophia briskly clapped her hands. "All right, people! Let's get it together! Lorelei, have your people haul Mister Wispy here to a place where we can get a few straight answers out of him! Taberah, Corydon, you keep an eye on them. Sylvana, haul that wreck over to the nearest junkyard, where it won't be noticed. Shaz, replace the car! Joy, you handle the witnesses."
As the rest dealt with sweeping up the traces of our fight, I approached the three paralegals. They pulled away from me in fear at first, but I stowed away all my frightening weapons and came to them with empty hands. I gave them each the Kiss of Forgetfulness, and whispered in the last one's ear, "You know, they really should have upgraded the wiring in that old firetrap years ago."
The three women blinked, and suddenly found they themselves outside the office where they worked, looking at it burn, with no idea of how they got outside.
When we all got back together at the Crown Preserve Park, Shaz turned to me and said, "Do you know how much a 1963 Morris goes for on the open market these days? The costs of replacing that junker are coming off of your card!"
In the meantime, our prisoner was snarling and furiously shapeshifting, trying to get out of the chains that bound him. Taberah took a long look and him, and then turned to Lorelei. "There's no way we can threaten any information out of him. Regrettably, some form of coercion is called for. I believe that torment is your side's specialty?"
Lorelei sucked on the tip of her tail for a moment. "Lessee now - Torment is really a specialist's job. Sylvana's the closest, but she doesn't really understand hurt - she's more of a 'do as much damage as efficiently as you can' type. Between Richard and Me, we could tempt the information out of him - but how do you tempt someone who can be either sex if they want to? It's gotta be something that we can just keep doing - Oh! Of Course!" She snapped her fingers. "Dimona! Showtime!"
The imp crawled up on the prone Djinn's stomach, as Lorelei made a whirling gesture with her finger into the palm of her other hand. A cotton candy like substance appeared. She pulled off two bits of it and handed them out to each of us, stuffing one bit in each ear when she was done. We all did likewise. "Okay, Li'l Bit! Hit it!"
Dimona did a quick two-step on the Djinn's chest and... "Oooonnnn thhheee gooOOOood ship, Lol-Lyeee Pop!...."
"The Sun'll Come Owwwt- TO_ MOR_ ROW! You can bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow..."
"Iiiiit's Aaa Smaaalll Wooorld Aaaafter Aaaalllll...
"Eyeeee Saw Maaahh-Meee Kiss-sing SaaAAAaan-Taaa Claaawwws.."
"Feee-Lings! Whoa, whoa, whoOOOoaaah, Feeeeee-Lings..."
"I gave my love a che-RIE, that haaad nooo stoooone..."
"...Fifty-four bottles of beer on the wall, Fifty-four bottles of beEEEeer..."
"STOP! STOP! I'll talk, I'll Talk! Please! Just make it Staaawwwp!"
Dimona peeked down into the writing Djinn's face. "Are you sure? I have a whole repertoire of Show Tunes that I haven't even touched!"
We all joined in with the Djinn. "NOOOOO!"
Dimona clutched her teddybear to her chest and stalked off, the taps on her shoes clicking. "Hmmpphh! Everybody's a Critic!" she grumped.
Lorelei took the stuffing out of her ears and looked at Angelique. "First thing we do when we get back Home - we take away her karaoke machine!"
The Djinn whimpered, "Please, Please, I'll tell you anything - just no Andrew Lloyd Webber!"
Taberah jumped on the opportunity like a tiger. "Very well - first, why did you break into the offices of the Greater Midlands Real Estate Trust?"
"For the same reason that I broke into that lawyers' office - because I was commanded to."
"Who commanded you?"
"The one who holds the vessel that Suleiman Al-Hakim-"
"That would be King Solomon the Wise, to you," Sofia translated for me.
"Ten thousandfold blessings on his name for his mercy and compassion, bound my miserable essence into. My wise and benevolent master commands me, and I, lowly wretch that I am, obey as best I can. How can I, base creature of unnature that I am, hope to fathom the needs and demands of such an exalted-"
Shaz cocked a cynical brow, "Tell me, do you always go on and on with this self-debasement?"
"Hey, Conjurors eat this crap up with a ladle!"
"Well, that's nice, but we don't have either the time or the inclination for it. So, who's the one pulling your strings?"
"Sorry, but the guys who control me are very careful to not let me know their names or get a good look at their faces."
Angelique's interest rose visibly. "Oh? Then how can we be sure that you are bound? Maybe you're a Free Agent, doing favors for whoever pays you the most. After all, you Djinni are known for your ability to turn the truth around, until the Sun beats down at Midnight."
The Djinn snarled back at her. "Yeah, we're almost as bad as you Hellspawn! If I were gadding about on my own, would I be wearing this thirteen-times accursed Pendant of Slavery around my neck, just in case the control that having the vessel that holds my Soul isn't great enough?"
Angelique leaned over, picked through the binding chains and looked at the pendant. "Yep. It's the Real McCoy. No Free Agent is gonna go around with a leash dangling from their necks, waiting for the first mutt that comes along to grab it."
Shaz nodded and looked up from the document that he'd been studying. "Okay, so you're only following orders, fine. But why does this guy want you to steal all the property statements that deal with a place called 'Halliwell Abbey'?"
The Djinn shrugged. "Probably for the same reason that he had me cop the papers for the last two places."
"Hmmm - I was gonna get to that. So, why did he do it with those?"
"Well, from what little I can gather from my drinking cup-"
My ears perked up at that. "Drinking Cup? I thought that you Djinn types got stuck in bottles and lamps!"
"Suleiman used whatever was handy - we Djinn didn't exactly lie around getting a tan while he was binding us, y'know! Anyway, from what I've picked up, he - or they, I'm not really sure - leverage their way onto the property somehow, bogus up a claim to it, and then have me or one of the other lads-"
"Yeah - he's a spirit binding fool, whoever he is. Like I said, he'll have me or one of the others steal the genuine documents and do something like that fire to compromise the rest of the archive. He uses a little mojo to alter the originals so that they look like their erroneous or outdated or forged, and has me plant them somewhere where they'll be found. The legit owners think that they have a clear claim, but when it comes to court, his documents look better than theirs do. So, he gets title to the property cheap. Like I said, this is the third time that he's pulled a variation on this scam."
Shaz nodded again, "Okay, I can see all that - slimy, but effective. But Why? From what I can tell, Halliwell Abbey's only asset is that it's strategically placed in relation to Little-Thripping-on-the-Pewtey. So what? Little Thripping has two factories; one that makes buttons for shirt collars, and another that makes shoelaces. The Chamber of Commerce of Little Thripping has been breaking its collective neck to drum up industrial investment for the better part of six decades, without success. Again, I say - So What?"
The Djinn shrugged again. "I'll be dam- ah, Darned, if I know! The last two places were real backwaters, too."
Corydon waved this all aside. "And _I_ say So What? The Point here is - where is your master now, unclean vermin?"
The Djinn gave a dismissive laugh. "Is that supposed to hurt? I say worse things about myself when I'm brushing my tusks! But to answer your question - hey, put the sword away, kid; I'm cooperating! - the Conjuror is staying at Halliwell Abbey. He'll stay there until the dust from getting the place dies down, and then he'll move on to the next place he wants to add to his collection."
I looked over at Shaz, who was still pouring over the lawyer's records. "Shaz, it's called an 'Abbey'; how old is it?"
"Not that old. There used to be a 'manor house' there that was an old Cistercian Abbey that Henry the VIIIth nabbed from the Roman Catholic Church, but that got razed some time in the Nineteenth Century. The guy who built the first version of the local shoelace factory bulldozed the place and built one of those High Victorian monstrosities on the site, but kept the name. According to the 'historical notes', there was some kind of shrine connected with the original Abbey, but nobody knows who or what it was about."
Cell phones were pulled out, and questions were asked of beings that normally know about these sorts of things. Sophia even called in Saint Brigit, who was originally the Celtic Fire Goddess Birgid, and asked her about it. Unfortunately, Britain was a very confused place, esoterically speaking, with multiple waves of deific invaders washing over the place, each one muddying up the tracks of the others. If anyone remembered what was Holy about the Well at Halliwell Abbey, they weren't talking.
The amazing thing about High Victorian architecture is that people really did have to spend a lot of money to make a place like Halliwell Abbey that ugly. Edward Gorey would have turned his nose up at the place. The place sprawled rather badly, and if this place had had any work done on it since Churchill was Prime Minister, I'd be amazed. A large parcel of untended parkland that had gone to the weeds rather badly surrounded the place. But the strangest thing about Halliwell Abbey was that no attempt, whether Divine, Infernal or Sorcerous, to magically look into it was successful.
The party that I was in drove up to the gate in a purple van. Don't ask me why Shaz chose a purple van, 'cause I can't be bothered to ask him. We had decided to penetrate the house in stages. The group that I was with - Lorelei, Corydon, Richard, that stupid Hellhound, and me - would go in first, very obviously. The second group - Sophia, Corydon, Taberah, Angelique, and the Hellmaid - would go in sneaky right after us, and preemptively take out anyone who tried to ambush us. Sophia's owl, Bubo, and Lorelei's Imp, Dimona, would hang back and go for help if something went wrong.
The van pulled up in front of the gates and we got out. As the senior member of the party, Lorelei had insisted that she be the glamour-puss. She was done up as a knockout teenage redhead in a purple miniskirt with green accessories. Purple and green? Who dresses like that? I was relegated to the 'shlump friend' image. I was short and pudgy, with a round face, freckles and short mousy brown hair, wearing a bulky pale orange sweater, a pleated miniskirt, high socks, and glasses. Honestly, I hadn't thought that I'd been female long enough to so keenly resent being the dumpy one. Corydon was feeling rather put upon too, since he was got up as a sloppy looking gangly kid with scraggly whiskers. Lorelei's male counterpart, Richard, was looking pretty spiffy as an athletic blonde kid in a white shirt and jeans. Though I have to wonder - what was the ascot about? What thoughts I may have had about Hell looking after its own vanity were quelled by the appearance of the Hellhound. She was done up as a large, awkward and rather stupid looking Great Dane. For some reason, her disguise muffled her voice to the point where she was almost unintelligible.
Lorelei had a technically valid document from the property's legal owner allowing us access. Our excuse was that we were local students checking the grounds for some signs of the ruins of the previous abbey, for historical reasons. It was a pretty lame rationale, but since it was supposedly historical, it would fly in England.
We got through the front gate by the simple expedient that it wasn't locked. At least, it wasn't locked after the Hellhound bit the padlock off...
At least for once, I wasn't the one carrying everything. Since I was one of the girls, all I had to carry was a flashlight. Lorelei took some odd satisfaction in weighing Richard down with as much of the gear as possible, for some reason. We picked our way down the twisting unpaved drive, through the creepy looking forest. As we walked down the path, we were constantly aware of things slipping in and out of the corner of our eyes, out among the trees. We weren't alone; we knew that we weren't alone; they knew that we knew that we weren't alone. If they'd been smarter, they would have known that they weren't alone out there.
Then we came to a bend in the path. The path was blocked by a net of whitish strands that went from a tree on one side to another tree on the other side. We went up to the roadblock and examined the barrier.
I looked very closely at the net. "It looks like a spider's web," I said in a high pitched, slightly nasal voice. God, I hate being the schlub. I fought down an impulse to say 'Jinkies'. "But Spiders don't weave webs like this. The strands are too close together."
Lorelei said in her cute girl voice (she would get a cute girl voice!), "Let's go around the web." We tried, but when we tried to get off the path, we found that the web extended further into the woods. Whatever had woven the roadblock had taken advantage of the time we spent looking at it to completely encircle us. When we turned to go back, even the path behind us was webbed in.
Lorelei whispered, "They won't do anything just yet. They'll let us stew for a while, letting us psyche ourselves out, then start playing little 'rustling bushes' tricks to completely freak us out, and only attack when we've panicked ourselves to a frazzle."
"So, we force their hand." I took the camp lantern from the gear that Richard was carrying, removed the glass chimney, and lit the wick. When the lamp was nice and bright, I started to use it to burn the webbing. Then the woods exploded.
Dark spindly figures like bad anime ninjas popped out of the trees, trailing silvery threads from their mouths. If they weren't so damned busy being all martial arts bad-asses, they'd have noticed a few of their rear flanks being jerked back into the trees. The ones that were still with us, landed in appropriately cinematic squatting stances. They were thin and dark, with eight limbs and faces that looked like they belong on Heavy Metal rock album covers. The faces were elongated fanged skulls, with white wiry hair flowing out from the skull and the obligatory red glowing eyes. Two of the eight limbs were rather ordinary legs, four were your average arms, but the two set between the arms and the legs looks sort of like they could function as either arms or legs. All the limbs came equipped with nasty looking claws. Still, the weirdoes all carried badly over dramatic weaponry - y'know, the kind with wicked looking but unnecessary flanges and skulls and stuff?
They paused just long enough for us to get an idea of what they looked like, and then as one they opened their mouths and a putrid fog clouded the scene. Under the cover of the cloud, they began to circle around us, trailing those silken threads. That was a major mistake. One tried to 'count coup' on me; I reflexively chucked him into the web barring the path. I could hear muffled sounds through the fog; the rest of my little 'gang' was handing these jerks similar surprises. I tossed two more into the web. Then I heard a whispered voice. "Joy! Hold on!"
"Right - we've got these Night Fiends under wraps. Come with me while the cloud is still up."
When the blinding mist cleared on the path, all that could be seen by mortal, immortal or sorcerous sight were five figures all bundled up in silken cocoons hanging from trees next to the path.
Dragging two of the Night Fiends - at least that's what I think they're called - I followed Sophia through the woods into a small clearing. The rest of the party was waiting there, with similar prisoners. Lorelei shed her teenybopper guise, bent over and took a good hard look at them.
"Yep. Night Fiends, all right. No mistaking those ugly pusses."
Taberah glowered at Lorelei. "Night Fiends. Demons. I thought your superiors said that Hell wasn't behind all this!"
Lorelei looked back up at her, not taking any of it personally. "That's what Mother Lillith told me, and I believe her. These are Night Fiends - they belong to Lord Baal. But I can't believe that even Lord Baal would be stupid enough to pull something without explicit written authorization from Lord Lucifer, not after-" She looked like she realized that she was telling tales out of school and changed the subject. "Anyway, these guys aren't here on orders from Down Below."
Shaz tried to play peacemaker. "The Djinn said that whoever was pulling his strings was, I quote, 'a spirit binding fool'. Maybe all these Night Fiends are on a similar short leash."
I knelt beside one of them. There was something very wrong about these beings. "Hey, Lorelei, how does this Lord Baal make these 'Night Fiend' thingies?"
Lorelei shrugged. "I'm not completely sure about the exact technique, but I've been told that they are Lord Baal's half-assed attempt to make succubae. He's supposed to take the souls of treacherous men, turn them into female souls-"
"These are female?"
"-And then demonize them into these things. He wanted succubae; what he got were bad ninja knockoffs."
"But they are demons, right?"
"Well, Demons are only supposed to feel a generalized suffering that comes from their downcast state, right?"
"Hey, we get along all right! What's your point?"
"I don't think these beings are demons - they're in active agony! Even unconscious, they ooze torment. I think somebody took some other kind of spirit - maybe even a mortal spirit that's been kept from its heavenly or infernal destination - and kind of molded it into these forms. They've been warped into these things that are alien to their nature, without the...well, I guess you could call it _protection_ of having been demonized first. I think it's like having every bone in your body pulled from its socket and having to run an obstacle course like that." Even the demons winced at the simile.
"But why change mortals into faux demons? After all, he's supposed to be this 'spirit binding fool', right? So why not just summon more of this particular kind of demon?" Corydon wanted to know.
"I think I know," Sophia said. "Suppose you're a sorcerer and you managed to get your hands on one or two mid-level Demons like Night Fiends. They're comparatively low-magic, high physical ability critters, so copying them isn't all that hard. But Baal only has so many of these things in his forces. If one or two of them go missing, well, the fortunes of war and all that. But if large numbers of them go missing, then he starts sending out people to go looking for them. You might bag a few more demons that way, but the odds will eventually turn on you. So, you use the Night Fiends as a template of sorts, which you use as a lathe of sorts. You get yourself a bunch of mortal spirits through necromancy, human sacrifice or at a discount from corrupt devils-"
"Corrupt devils? Isn't that redundant?"
"-And you turn those mortal spirits on that 'lathe', until they're something that resembles Night Fiends."
Angelique shook her head. "Sorry, it doesn't work. Mortal sorcerers, even the most powerful of them, don't have the raw power to turn mortal spirits into demons. Only Demon Lords have that kind of power."
But I got what Sophia was getting at. "Exactly! And these guys aren't demons! If they were, they'd be both a lot more powerful and in nowhere near as much spiritual pain. Speaking of which, we're going to have to do something for this poor soul. If nothing else, he'll be so grateful that he'll tell us everything he knows without us even having to look cross-eyed at him."
Lorelei suddenly looked interested. "Oh? What are you going to do? Put a Band-Aid on his entire corporeal form, kiss it and make it all better?"
"No, we can perform the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald. Come, Brothers, Sisters, let us spread our wings to shield the eyes of the Profane and Unworthy-" I glared at the Demons, "-that would be you - from the Majesty and the Glory that is the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald, lest their eyes be scorched from their sockets."
All we Angels stood in a circle around the bound faux-demon and spread our wings to form a dome over all of us, completely concealing everything. Once we were hidden from the demons, Corydon turned to me and hissed, "What the Glory is the 'Rite of Tusslock-"
"Thuschlock. Get it right if any of the demons ask you about it."
"Whatever! What is it?"
"It's a very powerful and sacred rite where you shut the fuck up and let me work! I can consume the pain that's plaguing this poor spirit, but I can't let the demons know that! This way, they'll think that it's some really obscure and powerful Angelic rite; maybe they'll pass it along to their superiors, and Old Luke will waste time trying to find out what it is! Oh, and speaking of wasting time, let me get to work! Sophia, make an eerie light, so that the demons will have something to wonder about. Shaz, start making bizarre noises, same reason."
I took the bound faux-demon's head between my hands and kissed her brow. Now if she were still alive, or even Immortal, this wouldn't be so simple. I'd only be able to affect a male, and then I'd have to form a bond with him. But she's a discarnate mortal spirit that's been forcibly kept on Earth. She lacks the definition that being alive, or Blessed or Damned would give her. I sucked up the pain through the focus point in her brow, and followed the pain into her, to the source of that pain.
The source of the pain was, predictably, her patently unnatural state. The pattern that was forced on her soul was sort of 'pinned on' with magical lattices. I ripped the lattices apart, and I felt her entire being shift. No, I could take the pain that I had consumed and covert it into positive energy. The more positive energy I had, the more I could heal her; the more I could heal her, the more the lattices that were 'pinning' the false matrix burst; the more the false matrix fell apart, the more pain I could convert into positive energy. It was an escalating pattern that kept building until I had enough energy to undo the most basic alteration - from male to female.
Finally, the mortal soul was as it should have been, a pale shade of a stocky middle aged man, curled up in a fetal position. I gestured for Sophia and Shaz to stop shamming; the 'Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald' had done it's work. We pulled our wings back, revealing the poor soul to the sight of the demons. I wondered if that was really such a good idea, but the demons would only get bitchy if we didn't let them get in a few questions.
When both sides were in attendance, I poked him. "Wakey, wakey - time to get up, Sleeping Beauty!"
He stirred to awareness, and almost totally freaked out. It turned out that he was a British policeman from a little town in Wales called Madrigal. He had been sent to investigate reports of squatters in the local haunted house. His last recollection was of walking up to the house and seeing a brief glimpse of something dark and spidery. He ended his 'report' by assuming an 'At Ease' stance, in proper 'Bobby' fashion.
Sophia sighed, "Well, we have to perform the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald on all of them. Then we have to get them to the Heavenly Courts for Judgement."
Lorelei shook her head. "Nope. Doing that stupid ritual will take too long. We only have a few more minutes of the Gloaming left, and then Night-time rules apply. As for taking them to the Heavenly Courts, that would mean losing one of your people. And we're gonna need all the Angel-power that we can lay our hands on, taking out these assholes. Lucifier alone knows what these assholes have bound and haven't fielded yet!"
Shaz gave a sneaky smile. "Actually, Lor, you have a point. But we can turn that point to our advantage..."
The four kids and their dog raced down the hallways of the rickety manor house, with four wispy spectres chasing after them. The place was decorated in late dilapidated, and badly needed a cleaning crew. The spooks chased the kids and their dog all through the house. Finally, the redhead stopped in her tracks and held up a hand. "Oh, this is ridiculous! We're not getting anywhere!" She turned and glared accusingly at one of the ghosts. "Are you sure that the bozos who are running this operation are even here right now?"
The ghost shrugged his ectoplasmic shoulders. "How would _I_ know? I don't remember half of what went on while I was in that demon-form, and I don't understand even half of what I do remember! Being dead isn't what it's cracked up to be."
The redhead shot him a 'oh, the things I could tell you' look.
The serious looking girl with the glasses joined in. "Okay, the 'racing around, trying to get their attention while giving them the wrong idea' bit isn't working. Time for 'Plan B'-"
"We have a 'Plan B'?"
"Of course, we have a 'Plan B'! How can you have a 'Plan A', if you don't have a 'Plan B'? 'Plan B' is we stop racing around and start actually looking for clues as to what the He- heck is going on here. Denzil, Alf, Clarence, Mills, and Prunella - you go with Lorelei and Corydon. Arthur, Deirdre, Maud, Phillipa and Elsie - you come with Richard, Helga and me. If you run into anything, one of you ghosts goes running to the other party, another goes looking for our backups outside, and the rest does whatever seems sensible. Lorelei's party goes this way, my party goes that way, and we check this place out as carefully as we can. Well, that's the opening suggestion." Joy turned her eyes upwards, as if looking for strength or guidance. "And now, for Democracy..."
After the inevitable arguing, wheedling and whining, the two groups were settled more or less the way that Joy had suggested, for the very reasons that Joy had suggested them in the first place. Oh, the joys of Democracy...
With that all settled, Lorelei, Corydon and their crew of spooks went East, and Richard, Helga, I and our crew of whispies went West. Arthur, the Welsh cop, wasn't that bad - for a ghost - but Phillipa kept noodging me about what Heaven was like.
Suddenly, Helga stuck her nose up in the air and started sniffing.
I couldn't help it. "What's the matter? Smell a Scooby snack?"
The Hellhound started snuffling around. "I smell something familiar. Damnation! Why does it have to be one of those damn subtle scents?" She followed the trace to a panel in the wall.
Richard sighed exasperatedly and buried his face in one hand. "A secret passage. What next? A trap door? Eyes in the portraits? If cheesy bubblegum rock from the 60's starts playing, I'm leaving!"
I tried to remain professional. "Okay, Arthur, Maud, poke your heads through that panel and try to figure out how to open this thing."
Maud looked at me. She wasn't really comfortable with being a ghost. "You're the Angel. Why don't you open it with your powers?"
<martyred sigh> "Because, Maud, if Richard or I use our Celestial powers, it would be like sending up a flare saying 'Hey, slimebags! Powerful beings here! Send your most powerful hench-things!' If we want to stay sneaky, we have to keep it very low key, and only use the most basic aspects of our powers."
It was the old 'pull the light fixture' gag. It was a steep stairwell, going up.
"Deirdre, go find the other party. Elsie, come here..." I tied off a trailing tendril from Elsie's 'shroud' to the light fixture.
"'Ey! I'll unravel!"
"Elsie, you're already unraveling. This way, it's actually serving a purpose." Elsie grumbled a bit about bloody bossy Yank angels and where they could shove their halos, but she did as she was told.
As Helga snuffled her way up the staircase, Richard helped me up the steep flight. I was extremely aware of Richard's hands on me, and the gooseflesh they were raising. Keep still, Joy, he's an Incubus, it's just a normal reaction to that demonic Male energy that's inside him. Though the fact that he's packaged as a tall, athletic, good-looking guy just at that cusp between boydom and manhood that is so delectible, doesn't hurt, either.
The staircase led up to a concealed study, which was quite possibly the only room in the place that wasn't covered in an inch of dust. The room was littered with very old books, strange asymetrical abaci, astrolabes covered with astrological symbols, and loose sheets of paper with calculations on them.
Richard picked up one of the strange abacuses. "I wonder why they use these things instead of calculators or computers?"
Without turning from the shelves, I responded, "Because certain kinds of mystical preparations don't really require mathematical precision as much as they require that the sorcerer wraps their head around the dynamics involved. A calculator will give you a quicker, more accurate answer, but you'll be separated from the process. With one of these abaci, the mage is in direct control of the calculations at all times."
"Of course, we, as Celestial beings, don't need such crutches. What were the factors that decided that you could only convert ten of the faux- Night-Fiends, and not all twenty-five of them?"
Actually, it was really just a matter that we didn't have enough time, and we could only hide three of them at a time under our wings. But he didn't have to know that. "Richard, you, Lorelei and the others are the only Demons that have ever seen the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald. If you asked any Angel, even the most honor-bound Seraph, they would tell you that it does not exist. That is all that I can say."
"I see." He gave me a long look. "You must not think very much of me."
"Well, since I haven't thought that much about you, I can't say that I think that much of you. And what I've seen isn't that much."
Richard looked hurt, like a kicked puppydog. "Ah, well, I guess I should have expected that, especially from an Angel. But, I'm used to it. Nobody respects us Incubi."
"Richard, Incubi's existences are centered around screwing up women's lives! How do you respect that?"
"That's what everyone thinks, Joy. 'Oh, an Incubus! He's all cock and no brains! All sytle and no substance!' Joy, do you have any idea of how hard it is to be this pretty toyboy? Nobody respects you, no woman really wants affection from us, just a good swift fuck and then it's, 'What are you still doing here?' And the women that should understand what we're going through, the Succubae, are not only worse, but they have all this status and respect! Succubae are feared and coveted. Incubae? Even the demons that think in terms of spreading Evil don't respect us, because women are supposed to be so much more easily corrupted. It's so sexist!"
I gave Richard a 'Poor Baby!' look.
"You know, Joy, Hell already knows about the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald. The various Infernal spymasters are already well on their way to tracking it down. So, it's only a matter of time before Lord Lucifer finds out everything there is to know about it, and corrupts it to Hell's ends. But if _I_ brought the secret of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald first, then it would go a long way toward improving my standing in Hell. And Joy - I _need_ to build up my standing. I've lost too much face with Father Belial. If I don't come up with some real coup, quick, they're gonna throw me into the Larvae Pits and boil me down for Grue!"
He pulled me close, his face so tantalizingly close to mine, his maleness almost overwhelming me. "Joy... _Please_ Help Me! I _Need_ You!"
I'll have to give Richard credit, he was good, he was very good. But then the Hellhound, who was still industriously sniffing around, noticed a very strong scent on one of the bookends and moved it with her snout. A large trap door opened up under all of us, and since we didn't have our wings manifested, everybody except the ghosts dropped down the shaft. "Helgaaaa- You _IDIOT_!"
We dropped down four stories and landed on a stone floor. Helga landed first, then Richard landed on top of her, and I landed on top of Richard. The drop would have killed mortals, and even so, we were a bit phased by the drop. The ghosts wafted down. Elsie turned to Arthur and said primly, "I told you that we should have waited for proper British Angels or Demons to rescue us."
We were just getting ourselves untangled when Lorelei and Corydon found us. Lorelei crossed her arms and cocked a hip with an amused expression on her face. "Oh, did we interrupt something?" Corydon looked like he had been slapped.
I glowered at Lorelei. "Your idiot dog triggered a trap door on the third floor!"
As I crawled off of them, Richard made a point of copping an obvious feel under my mini-skirt.
"How did you three get down here?" Corydon bellowed.
I dusted myself off. "I told you. Trap door on the third floor. Probably meant to kill. Of course, you have to wonder what kind of paranoid builds a trap door in a secret room-" Well, of course! A paranoid sorcerer with a thing for crypto-architecture wouldn't build his workshops out in the open! There's probably an entire section of this house that's distinct and separate from the rest of the house! That would also explain the rambling layout of the house! It was literally built around the sorcery complex!
But I couldn't let the others in on it, because Corydon had his mad on, and was aiming it at Richard. "And what do you think you were doing, Hellpimp?"
Richard batted his eyes at Corydon. "Well, Corey, if you don't know, why don't you go ask your mother? She should know - she asked me to do it five times to her last week!
"You dare profane one of Heaven's own-"
"Hey, she's a big girl, and a damn good looking one, too, once you get those glasses offa her - and other things..."<dirty snicker>
"Corey, nothing happened, I swear!"
Richard stood next to me, wrapped one arm around my shoulders, stood up straight, and held up the other hand. "OF COURSE, nothing untoward happened!" he said in his best 'Boy Scout' voice. Then he spoiled it by lowering the arm around my shoulder and 'honking' one of my tits.
Corydon gave a spine-freezing yell and manifested a long sword that flickered with silvery-blue flames. Richard made a production about not being intimidated. He jerked a thumb at Corydon. "Angels - Big swords, leeeetle schlo-"
I placed myself between them. "Corey, you idiot! Why not hire a blimp to fly over the place with 'Angel In The House' written on the sides in lights?"
The Hellhound was snarling at Corydon, and Lorelei had her hands full keeping the beast from attacking.
"Dammit, Corydon, can't you see that he's just being a big prick!"
Richard smirked. "And she should know how big, from personal experience!"
Corydon gave another shout and charged. Helga slipped out of Lorelei's grasp. I spread my wings to both shield Richard and improve my balance. Richard pulled me back to be a better shield. Lorelei let a bolt of something powerful fly. Helga hit Corydon, knocking him just far enough out of his trajectory that Lorelei's bolt missed by a mile, and hit the wall behind Richard and me. Corydon kept coming. Under those circumstances, ATLAS couldn't have kept his balance.
My attempt to parry Corydon's sword went disastrously wrong, driving my wing right into the arc of his blade. I let out a scream of surprised pain. I'm not used to getting hurt, I can usually deflect anything that's coming in at me. Everyone was trying to recover from that cluster-fuck of a first clash. I semi-reflexively threw Richard as he tried to use me as a shield from Corydon. Corydon was securing his fighting area and squaring off against the Hellhound. Lorelei had apparently caught on that in these close quarters - not to mention being in the basement of a rickety, one hundred plus-year-old building - her attack spells were more of a danger to her own people than to Corydon. She was moving to spring on Cory's back, when she accidentally crossed into Richard's path as he landed from my throw.
The Hellhound was doing the best job - she hesitated from springing, and snarled loudly at Cory. This fixed his attention on the mutt. Even off balance from my wounded wing, I figured that I could handle Corydon in a grappling match. I jumped on his sword arm, and almost had him off of his feet when Helga jumped. Corydon was a better fighter than I thought. He used me as a shield against her claws, which raked my other wing, and her to pull me off of him.
As Helga pulled off of me and jumped again, Corydon ducked under her leap and used its momentum to force the tip of his sword into a chink in Helga's scales in the junction of her foreleg and her shoulder. He then used his sword as a lever to force the Hellhound over him and dislodge his sword from her shoulder.
As he recovered, I managed to get him in a grip that pinned both his sword arm and his wing, and I levered him off of one leg, so that he was completely off-balance. "Dammit, Girl, why are you helping these Hellspawn!"
"Because there's a TRUCE on, you idiot! AND we're in the field, on a mission, facing powerful enemies that are a danger to both our sides, Idiot! So you use your Celestial powers, letting even a novice sorcerer know that we're here, while you attack our allies!"
"They are NOT our allies! They are our sworn enemies, Truce or no Truce! Oh, I See! That Incubus has corrupted you with his carnal lust! Traitor! Fallen Slut!"
At this point, I'm not exactly sure what happened. I know that Corydon was fighting me with every ounce of strenght that he had. I was badly off balance myself, from the wounds to my wings that I didn't have the strength to retract. I know that both Lorelei and Helga jumped into the fray.
Richard, the asshole who started all this in the first place, was the only one not in the dogpile. With all the power whipping around, we teetered awkwardly for a moment, and then all went flying in different directions. When I got to my feet, and got my bearings, I looked to find Corydon to try and stop this idiotic fight.
Corydon was standing a few yards away from me, looking down in amazment at his chest. Somehow all the crashing around had driven his own sword into the center of his chest. Exertion clear on his face, he pulled the blade from his chest and held it in front of him. I went to go to try and heal him. He glared at me past his sword. "Treacherous Bitch!" he snarled. He canted his head back and let out a single pure note of song. He disappeared in a flash of light, leaving only his sword, which now had two wings of light on either side. The sword rose up and disappeared.
Lorelei had apparently been hurt in the confusion as well. She got up and hobbled over to me. "Is he dead?"
I shook my head. "I doubt it. I think that was some kind of Malachite emergency retreat technique. He's probably in Heaven, having his mommy put a really big band-aid on his boo-boo. Are you all right?"
"I've been better. Helga chomped me when she should have been chomping his leg. Why did you stop him?"
"Like I told him, we have a Truce on. I don't ignore a Truce just because some prima donna sword jockey gets pissy."
Lorelei laughed tiredly, said, "Kid, you're one of the good ones!" and clapped me on the wing. Then she apologized for hurting my wing worse. "Where are the ghosts?"
"Where do you think they are? Like good, sensible spirits, they cleared out the second that Angels and Devils started mixing it up. I just hope that at least one of them had the good sense to go find Sophia and Savanna."
Lorelei turned and snarled at Richard, the only one in the group who hadn't been injured. "And what did you think you were doing? Dissing an already pissed off Angel?"
Richard just shrugged nonchalantly. "It's a Guy thing. You wouldn't understand."
The glare Lorelei gave him would have frozen over the Lake of Fire in Hell.
I burned a lot of the Essence that I'd gained by converting the faux demons back into ghosts, healing my wings. At least I healed them to the point where my left wing wasn't dragging, and neither of them was actively aching. I tried an experimental flap of my wings, and immediately stopped before I undid all my work. I'd have to do a lot of old fashioned healing before I could fly again.
With the wings showing, I completely dropped the schlub disguise, proving that even the worst storm blows some wood up on the beach.
I told the Demons of my theory about the layout of the house. "So, I figure that there's a second foundation built into the first one, concealing the workshops and such. Since I imagine that the sorcerer who built this place would want to be able to move the bodies of the suckers that he threw down his trap-door quickly, the workshops and such must be near here. We can either scry for secret panels or just blast through the masonry."
Lorelei nodded. "I vote that we scry for secret panels. Less chance of bringing the house down around our ears. But even scrying might tip off the current occupants. Let's try and find the secret panel the hard way."
"Why bother? Our 'hosts' already know that we're here. If the fighting didn't alert them, then Corydon's spectacular exit did. Besides, Sophia and Sylvana will probably be coming for us. Using obvious effects will give them a way to find us."
Lorelei gave a 'what the fuck' shrug and started casting spells to detect hidden passages and the presence of magic. Richard and I did likewise. Helga just gave us humanoid Celestials a sour glance and butted the secret door open with her head.
"How did you know that it was there?"
"I could SMELL the incense and stuff through the cracks in the door."
In keeping with the paranoid nature of the building's occupants - past and present - the short corridor behind the secret door was lined with more magical and mundane traps than a D&D module. When we pulled Richard off of the infinite repeating Mobius teleportation circuit, we passed into a large octagonal room. The place looked like spread in Better Tombs and Dungeons. The edges of the room were littered with shelves, tables, cabinets, and bookcases full of oddball looking gewgaws. Toward the center of the room were three large circles set into the stonework of the floor.
Lorelei, Helga and I went over to inspect the diagrams. "Hmmm, Circles of Summoning, Protection and Containment, all set out in mosaics of jet, jasper and quartz. Not as effective as gold, silver or jade, but cheaper and still effective. The figures are well set, and I don't see any obvious weak points. Whoever did the original layout of these things was a real pro."
From behind us, Richard smugly said, "Oh, I dunno about that, Lor. If you look hard, you can see a weak spot in the north-by-northeast point of the pentacle of the Circle of Containment."
Lorelei, Helga and I leaned as close to the circumference of the Circle of Containment. "Funny - I don't see any breaks!"
"Well then, look closer!" Suddenly, a powerful wind whipped out of nowhere inside the room. The wind caught Lorelei's and my wings, and dragged us along. Helga tried to hold her mistress by the tail, but a bolt of emerald lightning knocked the faithful Hellhound off of her brace, and she was set aloft with us. We were carried into the Circle of Containment, and powerful forces held us prisoner, unable either to move or access our powers. But then, that's the entire point of a Circle of Containment.
Richard whistled, and the wind gathered itself into a ball in the palm of his hand, which he then stashed in his pocket.
Lorelei pounded at the walls of her confinement and snarled, "Richard! What do you think you are doing?"
"Oh Please, Lor! Did you honestly think that I'd be satisfied to play spear-carrier to you for all Eternity? 'Comedy Relief', indeed!"
I yelled at him, "You Idiot! The sorcerer, whoever he is, can't not know that we're here now! And he knows exactly where we are! Get us out of here, before he shows up!"
"Well, from where _I'm_ standing, that's _your_ problem, not _mine_!" Richard grinned triumphantly. Even being a complete dick, he was still sexy as hell.
"LET US OUT, YOU DICK!"
He fixed me with his deep green eyes. "First, the secret of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald. If it can turn that ersatz Night Fiend back into a ghost, then it must be a very powerful ritual that rids a spirit of Infernal taints. There are major players who would be very interested to know what the secret of such a process would be."
"No! The secret of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald is beyond your comprehension! Richard, we don't have time for this! The mage must be on his way; he'll be here any time now!"
"Y'know, you're right? I think I hear someone coming down a flight of stair right now! But FIRST, the secret of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald!"
I fought down a sob and hung my head. "The secret of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald is encapsulated in the phrase, 'Dea Htihsa Sidrahcir'. That is the key. When you understand that, you will understand everything."
Richard gave me a broad smile and said, "Thanks, Toots! Well, gotta motor, Luvvya babes, don't ever change."
"Wait! You said that you'd let us out if I gave you the secret!"
"Ah, _NO_, I said 'First, the secret' - First, the secret, Second, I leave!"
Lorelei pounded at her containment. "Richard, screwing over her is shitty enough - but what about Us?"
Richard smiled even more broadly. "Hey, _Lor_ I have faith that you'll get out of this somehow! And as for Us, well, we'll always have Paris. Oh - that's right, we never did go to Paris together. Oh, well...."
"Richard, you RAT!"
Richard turned at the door, a look of epiphany on his face. "Rat? Hey, thanks for the great idea!" With that, he turned into a large brown rat and scurried down the hallway. I hoped that the Mage had a really big cat for a familiar.
Lorelei turned to me with a sour expression. "Y'know, if it weren't for the _Great Sex_, I wouldn't have anything to do with him?"
We didn't have long to wait. A few minutes later, the sounds of footsteps came down the hallway. There was a sound of another door opening and closing. Several minutes later, we could hear the door again, and then a figure appeared in the arch of the door. The figure wore a draping dark blue hooded robe with characters embroidered in silver thread along the edges. His (?) face was hidden by a crude mask that looked like it was just a few holes for the eyes and mouth cut in a few strips of wood and bound over the eyes with a T-shaped piece of metal. His (?) front was covered by a sort of 'apron' studded with several rows of semi-precious stones. His (?) hands were gloved, and he carried a censer billowing with incense in one hand and a tall rod capped with a large glassine eye braced by a pair of gold metal wings, in the other hand.
He stood in front of the Circle of Containment and looked at us for a bit. Then he - yes, it was a he - spoke in a brisk, cultured British accent. "Well, I didn't believe it when I scryed it, but it's true! The Wards are holding and the Containment's intact. Your 'friend' really did just leave you here!"
He walked around the room, closely inspecting each of us in turn. "Let's see now, a Succubus, a Hellhound and a beautiful Female Angel of uncertain specifics. <pfeh!> As if I'd ever believe that!"
He went over to one of the cabinets and started collecting materials. He lit five braziers around our Circle of Containment, and three around the Circle of Protection. Then he hauled a bookstand into the Circle of Protection, and placed a large tome on the stand. Then he went into another room and brought out a basket. From the sounds coming from the basket there were chickens in it. Then from the safety of his Circle, he looked at us. "A Succubus, a Hellhound and an Angel. Now, who would be fool enough to believe that? No, your treacherous Incubus lover gave you away, Lorelei. I was listening, using certain scrying devices secreted in this chamber. _Lorelei_. The Succubus who killed the dread Girard and stole all his power. Lorelei, who is supposed to know the True Names of more Angels and Demons than any Mage, Wizard or Sorcerer living. Lorelei, who is supposed to wield the greatest of magics with but a wave of her dainty hand. And who is rumored to be accompanied by a Hellhound, a beautiful Imp, and a Hellmaid. The Hellhound, I see. But your friend here looks to be neither Imp nor Hellmaid. Ah! But tales tell of yet another follower of yours - a beautiful blonde Succubus - called Angelique."
He stared at me. "What a pathetic disguise."
Well, if I ever needed proof that God has a sense of humor, this is it. Hiding my amusement, I urged him, "NO! I AM an Angel!"
"Don't bother, Daughter of Lies! No, now that you are in my power, I will wring from you the secret that the Incubus wanted so badly. What is the secret of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald?"
"Do your worst, mortal worm! If that back-stabbing ratsass Richard doesn't understand it, what makes you think that your mere mortal mind could encompass its majesty?"
"Very well! I was going to bind you all to my service, anyway! But I'll bind you first; with the power of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald, binding the mighty Lorelei should be child's play, and then her power will be mine as well!" He made a few adjustments with a doodad that looked like a number puzzle toy, and the Circle of Containment spun so that the 'leg' of the pentacle that I was bound within was directly facing the point here the Circle of Containment touched his Circle of Protection. He spread a line of salt around the perimeter of his circle - a further warding against Demons, which wouldn't do bupkiss against me - and then began a Rite of Bondage. He called me by the name of Angelique, by the lineage of Lilith and by the sovereignty of Lucifer - None of which I recognize. He commanded me to foreswear any use of Infernal magics or Succubus charm or Hellmaid arms against him. I gladly agreed - why not? It didn't limit me in the least! With that he reached in to the basket and pullet out a black rooster and a white hen. Holding the rooster by the neck in his right and the hen in his left, he began chanting furiously. At the crescendo of his chant, he broke both of their necks at once with a practiced snap of his wrists.
A double line of dark power extended from his Circle into my leg of the pentacle. "NOW, Angelique, you will impart to me the secret of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald!"
"Very well, 'Master', but what if one of your fellows is scrying as well? A secret shared is power diminished."
"True." He picked up a bottle of colored salts and threw them around his Circle. A circle of shifting mists went up around the three circles. "NOW, what is the secret?"
I stepped out of the leg of the pentacle and walked along the lines of dark power into his circle, ignoring all the protections that the lines cut through. "_I_ am the secret of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald."
With that, I raised his mask off of his face. He wasn't as old as I was expecting, maybe only in his late twenties or early thirties. He wasn't that bad looking, with a long regular face that wasn't really improved by the goatee and mustache. His hair and beard were ginger and his eyes were gray. He was staring at me, dumbfounded. I kissed him.
_Wow!_ How can someone this young be carrying around so much pain? Being a sorcerer must be a lot harder on the soul than they make it look in those Harry Potter books. I took his pain into me, and started feeling around for the source. Semi-automatically, I started slipping off his clothes and mine. His mind was almost completely at a loss to understand what was going on, but his body was responding nicely. I took his phallus into me, and I took his pain into me.
Most of his pain came from his practice of Dark Magics. Believe me, I've waded through some psychic sewage in this job, but whew! Ah, there was the lynchpin of all this suffering! It was shaped like a heavyset man in what appeared to be late middle age, with a squarish balding head and slightly effete features. Despite his less than impressive appearance, the image resonated with power, authority and menace. While on the whole, I'd rather go to Bermuda, I dove into the image.
Like most lynchpins, it was a mutually reinforcing tangle of anger, hate, shame, fear, and inadequacy. I was battered around by these emotions, the 'Master' taunting and jeering at. Then, I found the keystone: Despair. The 'Master' had convinced this young man that his love of the esoteric had irrevocably doomed his soul. Only wading deeper and deeper into the Dark Arts could forestall his inevitable damnation. Only complete control over everything would keep Judgement at bay. And of course, he, the Master, was the best source of the knowledge and power that would keep the novice from being dragged down into Hell. I took the Despair and countered it with the one thing that could disprove it. My knowledge - not faith, not certainty, but Knowledge that God would love and forgive him, if only he would forgive himself and turn away from Evil. The knowledge gave birth to Hope. The hope grew and melted the despair. The 'Master' railed and raged, but it was inexorably pulled down and the young mage took control of his own soul. As all the pain flowed out of him and into me, I noticed several mystic cords that had been tied to the despair. I tied them off, not letting them go slack. No sense in letting the 'Master' know that his apprentice was no longer on a leash.
I exulted in the sensation of all that pain being turned into Good Fortune. I slipped a little back into him, but not much. After all, he is a sorcerer - you can't be too careful with those types. Then I was able to lie back and enjoy the sex. While he wasn't seventeen, he did have a lot of stamina and discipline. My aching wings spread and fluttered with my climax. Then he came himself, and collapsed on top of me. We cuddled for a while, with my wings covering both of us. As he cradled his head against my breasts and I rubbed my cheek against his brow, I asked him, "What's your name?"
"Call me Donovan', he murmured luxuriously.
"Donovan? Do you want to stay with the Hall of Mages?"
"What? Good God, NO! The sooner that I can get out from under DeGroot's thumb, the better!"
I gave a pussycat smile. "Good. Let's talk terms."
"But where can I go? The Hall hunts down renegade mages and kills them without mercy! And I don't want anything to do with Hell!"
"Mmmm... Better and better! But who said that I worked for Hell?" I tickled him playfully with one of my feathers. "Didn't I tell you that I am an _Angel_? That's why all your spells, wards and bindings didn't work - they were specifically geared to Demons!"
"But...the other two in the Circle of Containment..."
"Oh, yes, they're Demons, all right. In good standing with Hell and everything."
"Hey, you think that mortal politics breed strange companions?"
We hammered out a preliminary agreement right there in each other's arms. Donovan would be a provisional Soldier of God, answering to me. He would forswear all use of Necromancy, Diabolism and other proscribed magical practices, but he would be allowed to study Magic, the calling that had gotten him into all this mess in the first place, under the tutelage of a Heavenly teacher. He would help Lorelei and me get back to Sophia and the others, and then help us all track down Anselm Reinholt DeGroot, his former 'Master'. It was understood that this agreement was pending the okay by my Heavenly superiors, but would be honored as binding until that decision. Hey, you would be amazed at the terms that you can get from a guy when you're negotiating lying next to him buck nekkid.
When our negotiations were finished, we got up and got dressed. Then we heard an exasperated voice. "Well, if you're quite finished, would you Get Us The Hell OUT Of Here?!" Lorelei glared at us from within the Circle of Containment.
Donovan put his mask back on and looked at me. "Are you absolutely sure about this?"
<sigh> "Not really, but there's a Truce on, and we have an agreement... Open 'er up, Donny."
As soon as Donovan let them out, Lorelei glowered at me. "You could have at least let me offer him an alternative deal. _Hey!_ What kind of Angel are you, anyway?"
"_This kind._" I kissed first her and then Helga with the Kiss of Forgetfulness. Now, on a mortal, that Kiss would erase all their memories that involved me for the last five hours; with Infernals like them, it would only erase the last five minutes.
Lorelei and Helga shook their heads, saw that they were free and made ready to rip Donovan's throat out. I held up a hand. "Sorry, Lorrie, but you're gonna have to save it for the real bad guy. This one has just been accepted as a provisional Soldier of God."
"Hunh? How'd we get out? How did..."
I assumed a prayerful pose and intoned, "Such is the Majesty and Mystery that is the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald."
Lorelei looked at the concealing wall of mists. "Well, we won't have to worry too much about DeGroot. Even if the Ghosts haven't told them about our little to-do, if I know Richard, he's hedging his bets by going to Sylvana. He's probably telling her that Corydon blundered us into some kind of trap, and he barely made it out in one piece. Our backup should be breaking down those walls any time now."
Donovan made a loud gulping noise. "Okay, ladies, problem - if you're expecting anything in the way of a rescue from your friends out in the woods, forget it. DeGroot already knows that they're there, and he's been sending out very subtle probes to figure out what they are. He was in the middle of arranging an ambush when he had me check the disturbance in the Conjuration lab. I think that by now, DeGroot's in position to take them out."
I smiled. "You don't know Sophia."
"True, but by now, DeGroot does. And that almost automatically translates into Angel Under Glass. DeGroot has centuries of experience dealing with Celestial beings. He has a bodyguard of bound Angels and Demons with him at all times."
Okay, now I was getting worried. "How many Angels? How many Demons?"
"Four Angels - an Elohite, a Cherub, a Malachite and a Mercurian. A grab bag of Demons - a Succubus, a couple of Calabim, a few Cacodaemons, three Hags-"
Lorelei curled her lip, "Hags."
"- a couple of Imps that can't stand each other - or anybody else, three Mymirdons, and a five-demon clutch of Night Fiends. Not to mention a couple of Djinn, a Danish Bog-spirit, a few Sidhe knights, a Scots Kelpie a French Ondine, a Rakshasha that somehow got to France from India, and something that came shambling out of a Nazi death camp one Walpurischnacht. He also has a Finnish Atavara, but he can't get the stupid spirit-snake to do anything."
I was rather impressed. "Now that's what I call a spirit-binding fool! That's a lot of Demons to have hanging around! Almost asking for trouble, I'd say."
"Oh, he doesn't have them all with him at one time. He has a set of charms that allow him to call any one or combination of bound spirits to him from a central storage place in the Black Forest of Bavaria. Right now he has the four Angels, one of the Mymirdons, a Calabite, the Night Fiend team and a whole swarm of these experimental psuedo-Demon Night Fiends that he's managed to create out of Ghosts."
"We've run into them. But still, how effective an ambush could he put together at the last minute?"
"Last minute? Lady, you don't know Anselm Reinholt DeGroot! The first thing that he did when he set up shop here, was arrange an all-purpose booby-trap, one that would be equally effective against Mages, Angels, Demons, and sundry non-aligned spirits, and set up a very elaborate alarm system. It's part of his SOP. That way he can send whatever he thinks will get the job done, no matter how much 'noise' it will make, and not have to worry about following his errand-boy back. If someone does, *Bam!* he has another slave to work with. Heck, that's how he got those Night Fiends - he caught one, and the others followed her into the trap."
"Sooo, he puts a lot of thought into these traps?"
"Well, yes. DeGroot is several centuries old - he claims to be a nephew of the Albert DeGroot who wrote the Albertus Magnus - and he's very careful about taking care of his extended lifespan."
"So, basically, he's a coward."
"Well, you _could_ say that. Mind you, _I_ wouldn't say it - not while he's still breathing, anyway."
Then a disembodied head flew through the wall of mists. "Miss Joy! Oh, Thank God! The Angels! The Demons! I... We...flew to them as quick as we could, just like you told us! But - Demons! - traps! - things! Arthur, he tried to help, but the big bugger - beggin' y'pardon - the big bastard with the mask had his name...! I tried to do something, but I'm afraid that I just lost my head."
"Elsie! Calm down!" I took the phantom head between my hands. "You're telling us that you tried to tell Sophia and the others that there was trouble, but they had been ambushed, right?" Elsie's head bobbed furiously. "Did you see how it turned out?" Elsie swung her head back and forth.
Donovan sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose. "Given that the first thing DeGroot would have done if anything had gone wrong, would be to call me and have me teleport him to safety-"
Lorelei raised a sculpted eyebrow. "Why not do it himself?"
"Summon a portal in the middle of a battle, when you can get someone in a Conjuration laboratory to activate an already prepared one? DeGroot's a lot of things, but he's not that stupid! But I'd still say it's almost a given that DeGroot has your friends well under lock and key."
"You have a method of communications?"
"Of course!" Donovan pulled out a satellite phone.
"Then call your boss, and tell him that you're bringing in some more captives."
A squat figure in a draping dark red hooded robe with characters embroidered in gold thread along the edges finished preparing the ceremonial altar. He wore a golden mask fashioned after the famous coffin-mask of Tutankhamen. One his front, he wore a chest device of ten disks with Hebrew characters on each one, patterned after the Sephiroth. Helping him with the preparations were two other figures, one in gray, the other in purple. The gray one's mask was a featureless silver ball, the purple one's mask was a crude wooden African 'medicine mask'. On their chests, they wore bejeweled aprons like Donovan's.
Within a circle of pale blue flame, Sophia, Tobiashazaar, Taberah, and Sylvana were bound within chains of dark purple lightning. There were strips of paper with characters written on them of a language that is taught in no mortal school dangling from their foreheads; the slips of paper bound them more securely than did the lightning. At the four compass directions around the circle, were four Angels looking in at the prisoners, holding flaming swords before them. The Elohite, the Cherub and the Mercurian were crying streams of silent tears, their faces masks of pain and regret. The Malachite was dry-eyed and stone-faced, aside from looking like she'd bitten into something rotten. Beside the circle of fire, five Night-Fiends squatted by the silk-cocooned form of Angelique. On either side of the altar were two hulking Cacodaemons, leaning on typically overornate swords.
Donovan walked in, holding three slender silver leashes in his right hand, attached to collars around the necks of Joy, Lorelei and Helga. The Angel and two Demons trudged before him like dogs being walked. A flashlight was tucked into his belt.
The figure in red looked up as they approached. "Well, it's more than time, Apprentice! Well, a Succubus, a Hellhound and an Angel! A very impressive catch, Donovan! And bless my soul - what soul that I've got left - if the Succubus isn't the famous Lorelei, who killed my bosom companion Girard, and took all of his lore and power. Not to mention put the screws to Shen-Dai, the only Angel that I've ever met who had the slightest notion of how things should be done. Oh yes, a very impressive catch! How did you manage it?"
"To be honest, they had an Incubus companion, who chucked them into the Circle of Containment as part of some half-witted scheme of his, and left them there. He left in the form of a rat. We'd best get all of this done, before he comes back with an Asmodean strike force."
"Oh, the Rat is going to be busy for a while. I sicced that Goblin Cat that we picked up in Amsterdam on him. And did you bind them to yourself, adding their power to yours, despite the fact that I specifically forbade you to do so?"
"Tried. It didn't work. They are unbound, except for these cords that I used to bring them here."
DeGroot made a noise, as if he were disgruntled that he couldn't get his apprentice in a double jeopardy bind for disobeying an order on one hand, and failing to take the initiative on the other. "Very well. I think that we should begin with a little necromancy first - we'll summon up the Shade of poor old Girard, and use him as a conduit to draw out his stolen power from the Succubus. Once I've got that power, I'll send Girard back to continue rotting in whatever pit they've got him in, and I can finish mastering the power within the Well. After that, binding the rest of this lot will be easy. Oh! That reminds me! That thirteen times accursed Djinn, Oupnekhat, still hasn't shown up anywhere with the papers to this place. I wouldn't be surprised if he let himself be captured and set this lot on us. He might be up to some mischief. Donovan, be a good boy and - By the Paigoels! What treachery is this? You're supposed to lead Spirits around by the Left Hand!" The three Mages lashed out with restraining magics as the 'leashes' dissolved and the four charged the altar.
Chains of bright light wrapped around Lorelei and Helga. A stout vine of thorns grew about Joy and sunk deep roots into her wings. Saturnian rings formed around Donovan. But before the three could exult in their quick victory, there was an unearthly scream and a clear, low soprano voice cried out, "DeGroot! I knew that it had to be you! Of all the scumbags in the Hall of Mages, only You would be so chickenshit as to waste an Assyrian Slave Charm on a Djinn whose vessel you already had!"
The Mages turned. There were two Angeliques, one still in the cocoon, the other standing over a fallen Night Fiend, Heaven's Bane spitting icy fire in her hands. She got rid of another Night Fiend with an off-handed blast of black fire.
DeGroot screamed at the Cacodaemons, "GET HER, you mesomorphic morons!" and warmed up something nasty of his own. The blossom of destruction that was flowering between his hands didn't fly, though. Suddenly, seven saturnian rings of sorcerous suppression trapped him in a ball.
The Mages turned again. Donovan was running straight at him. Lorelei was running toward the entrapped Angels and Hellmaid, slips of paper sprouting in her hands. Joy was also free, and was blasting at the chains of light that bound Helga.
As Donovan was running straight at DeGroot, DeGroot pulled a jade lozenge out of a pouch and threw it at the saturnian rings. The saturnian rings shattered. Donovan summoned forth a glorious eagle of living ice and sent it at DeGroot. As DeGroot surrounded himself with a shield of fire, Donovan shouted 'Surprise!", pulled out the flashlight, and pointed it at the Mage. The Djinn erupted from the flashlight like a volcano and took the Mage by the throat.
"What is this? Oupnekhat, you are bound! Even if the Slave Charm is off your neck, I still hold your Vessel! You cannot... uuurrrggg..." His complaint died in a bloody gurgle in his throat. Oupnekhat pulled the golden mask from DeGroot's face. But the face behind the mask wasn't that of Donovan's 'master' - it was the face of a rather hatchet faced woman in her late fifties.
The Mage in the featureless mirrored mask, who hadn't so much as raised a finger during the battle, spoke out in DeGroot's voice, "Indeed, what is going on here? I think the time for child's play is over!" A storm of pale white dust blew over the scene. The 'Djinn' who was still poised over the dead sorceress' form, rooting around for her soul, was the Hellhound Helga. The 'Donovan' facing the altar and forming another Ice Eagle was the Angel Joy. The 'Joy' who was freeing the 'Helga' from the chains of light, was Lorelei who was freeing the Djinn Oupnekhat. And the 'Lorelei' pitching slips of paper at the Circle of Containment was Donovan. "Aahhh.. I see! You used illusions, so that the attacks and bonds which we would send at you would be the least appropriate ones! Donovan, I see your twisty hand in this... I think I'll hang you and use it to make a Hand of Glory."
Before I could release the eagle, DeGroot raised a hand, and waves of raw power gathered in it. The waves turned into beams that lanced out in all direction. One came straight at me. I managed to turn it and use it to blast the cage of power that DeGroot thew at me next. The blank face of the mask seemed to consider me for a moment, and then a flurry of disks erupted from his hand. They gathered around me and formed concentric circles of containment.
I could feel the smugness radiating out from DeGroot, even through that stupid mask. "Aaahh... Now, where were we?"
I looked around. All of my allies were trapped in cages of power. But that was impossible! Even a Mage of DeGroot's age and standing shouldn't be able to pull something off like that, just with a wave of his hand! Why would he bother with all the props and rituals, if he could just wave his hand and... Hold on! Back when he'd been using that woman as a ventriloquist's dummy, he'd said something about 'finish mastering the power within the Well'. There must be some great source of power within the well - wherever the Glory that well was - that he was using. If he was this powerful before he masters that power, God alone knows how powerful he might become!
I looked at the containment in which he had me trapped. I realized it was calibrated to hold Cherubs, one of the choruses that Daddy Marc had told me I'd fit best into. And, Mama Raphael is a cherub. But, _I_ am not a cherub - there isn't even a real namefor the kind of Angel I am, yet. So, if I can distract DeGroot...
"What is it? Can't you see I'm busy defiling the primal order of the Universe?"
"I have ONE thing to say to you!"
"Oh? And what's that?"
My precious darling critter came tearing out of the ways that dream beings use, that are a mystery to Angel, Demon and Mage alike. Knowing a bad scene when he sees it, Snooks sank a set of needle sharp teeth into DeGroot's leg and did his level best to gnaw it off.
While DeGroot was yelping in pain, I pulled my little 'derringer' out of my sash and pulled the hammer back. *Bam!* *Bam!* *Bam!* I put three Orichalchum rounds through the containment and DeGroot's wards, and right into his stomach, hip and leg. Poppa Michael would probably ream me out for such lousy shots at this close range, but DeGroot was hopping around like someone had given him a hotfoot. I emptied the cylinder of the remaining Orichalchum rounds (hey, these things are expensive!) and started putting materialized rounds into the containment. The cage weakened and I walked out, hardly bothered by what was left of it.
Even with Snooks worrying at his leg and three bullets in him, DeGroot was still a clear and present danger. He readied for my next move.
So I did something else. I put manifested rounds into the cages binding Helga, Lorelei, Angelique and Donovan. Hopefully, Lorelei would realize that the Djinn was still bound to DeGroot, and would be more of a hindrance than a help, and not waste time trying to free him. They started cracking away at their damaged confinements. This forced DeGroot in the position of having to decide whether to reinforce their containments and ignore me, concentrate on the more immediate threat and let them get out, or try to do both and probably fail at both of them.
DeGroot wavered, trying desperately to make the right decision. I decided to push him even further. I charged straight at him, firing manifested rounds as I ran. I was right on top of him and-
-and then I fell through the floor.
Well, now I know where the Well that Halliwell Abby is named for is.
I tried to catch myself with my wings, but I was so surprised by the drop that by the time that I spread them, I had built up too much momentum. The force of breaking my decent undid all my healing. I screamed in pain and dropped like a stone into the darkness of the well.
As the blonde Angel dropped from sight, DeGroot chuckled, "Well, that takes care of the sacrifice - I hope that she was a virgin!" Then he was forced to deal with more immediate concerns as the caged Demons and his traitor apprentice broke from their prisons.
I dropped for a long while, and finally hit bottom. Landing knocked the wind out of me, and it took a while for me to get up. Wherever I was, I didn't think it was a normal, physical cave - there wasn't any physical point of reference for a place to fly out of, even if my wings were working. Maybe I could whistle up a whirlwind to carry me out. No, that would injure my wings even worse. Then, I became obscurely aware that I wasn't alone.
Okay, I admit it, I did the classic movie slow turn to face the pair of smoldering eyes. Only this pair of smoldering eyes were at least three feet apart and the size of streetlights. A voice that didn't need speech rasped, "Who... Are... You.../"
A terrified grin on my face, I squeaked, "Avon Calling?
There was a noiseless roar which gave focus to the incoming strike. Which was the only reason that I'm still here, 'cause it gave me something to dodge. Then a maw either opened or manifested - I'm still not sure which - and a gush of pale green flame came pouring out. At least the egregious use of combustion gave me an idea of what I was dealing with. Yep, a Dragon. Not one of those dinky little komodo dragons, either! No, it was a proper, where's-St. George-when-you-really-need-him?, fire-breathing dragon, complete with bat-wings and a spade tail. Now, oddly the first thing that struck me was that this critter wasn't reptilian. No scales, and while it did have four legs, its body wasn't built like a crocodile or an alligator, or any other kind of lizard. It was built like... well, a dragon! It didn't lurch or crawl, it flowed, with a grace and power that a leopard would have envied. While it didn't have scales, its hide was colored in a strange way. It was dark red, with traces of brighter red, black, and a sort of trimming of purple. It reared back and struck down at me with its beak - oh, yeah, it had a curved raptor's beak that somehow didn't clash with the long saber-like mouthful of teeth. The reason I mention that beak is that it made for an absolutely wonderful fulcrum when I turned the force of the Dragon's charge against it and threw it against the floor with a crash.
Up above, the battle briefly paused as there was a deafening crash and the ground shook. There were several comments on all sides, the general gist of which was, 'What was that?" Then someone took a shot at someone else, and the battle started anew.
The Dragon was back on its feet in a trice. Okay, I"m not really sure that it was a trice, but exactly how long is a trice, anyway? Anyway, it flowed back on its guard and shot a lance of flame from its mouth. I had a shield of power up in more than enough time, and deflected the blast easily. "Okay, I get the message! You don't like visitors! Hey, I'm cool with that! What say you stop trying to mash me for, oh five minutes, and I'll be out of your lair."
Puff wasn't having any of it. It gave a rattling hiss and struck down again *Wham!* "Please! *Wham!* Stop attacking me! *Wham!* I don't want to hurt you! *Wham!* This is stupid! *Wham!* I just want to get out of here! *Wham!* Stop attacking me! *Wham!* Please Stop!" *Wham!*
The Dragon pulled its head up off the floor groggily and looked at me blearily. "Why are _You_ crying?"
<sniff!> "I really don't like hurting people." <snuffle>
"An...admirable...trait," it said, just before laying its head down to recover.
"Ummm...excuse me, but how do I get out of here?"
"A question of merit. Its answer has eluded me for years beyond counting."
"You mean you're stuck down here? How did you get down here, anyway?"
"Obyreyn, the Fisher King, lurled me down here with mounds of faerie gold, many heads of boar and five hundred tuns of wine. After I ate the boar and drank the wine, I slept. When I awoke, the faerie gold had melted like winterfrost in late summer. Somehow, the nature of Obyreyn's spelling turns my strength against me, even as you do. So, I have remained here without light, or sound or wind, for time unknowable."
"Hmmm... Obyreyn. Oberon? The King of the Fae?"
"Aye, King of the Fair Folk is one of his many titles - also the Fisher King, Lord of Riddles, Father-"
"Yes, yes, very interesting. _Man_, you have been down here for a long time! Oh, while we're on the topic, my name is Joy. What's your name?"
"I be hight Gwyrddan, which means the Green Fire. I am also known as Scourge, Plunderblaze, Razewyrm-"
"Okay, Gwyrddan, Newsflash! Oberon hasn't had any real power in the British Isles for centuries! When was the last time that you really tried to get out of here?"
"It has been a while..." Without a further word, Gwyrddan raced around in a circle, building up speed, steam trailing from the corner of his mouth. Then, with an earth-shaking roar he launched himself upwards, gathering speed and power as he climbed. Then, at an unguessable point, all that power seemed to turn against him, and he was thrown down with a sickening *thud!*
Gwyrddan raised himself up again and targeted all his anger and frustration at me. I looked him straight in the eye - which was no mean feat, since his were set so more further apart than mine - and said, "Don't even think about it, Puff. Anyway, you were going to just up and leave me here!"
"You have wings of your own."
"Which are badly injured, and can't hold my weight. Why do you think I'm down here, anyway? But I have an idea. If you carry me on your back, I think I can use my magics to undo the constraints on this place."
"Well, it has been a couple of thousand years - you'll probably need someone to help you get acquainted with the world as it's become. At the very least, I won't attack you, if you agree not to attack me."
"Oh, Gwyrddan, just in case you're thinking of pulling anything foxy, I think you should know that one of my fathers is Marc, the Archangel of Trade; he can make any agreement stick, not matter how much you twist the wording. And my other father is Michael, the Archangel of War; he's been known to slay a dragon or two in his time. And, as I've already proven, I'm not exactly made of spun glass m'self."
Gwyrddan made like he was hurt that I should ever even imply that he would even think of such a thing. Right. This guy has 'crafty auld wyrme' written all over him. Oberon probably lured him down here in the first place because he was eating all the livestock and taking all the nubile young virgins. Why not? All the other dragon's moms were letting them do it!
He lay his SUV sized head down and I climbed right behind his neck. Then he started his 'round around trying to catch yourself' number, building up speed and power, and launched himself straight up. As he wound up, I realized that he was stoking the fires of his anger, banking them up and focusing them to a needle's point. When he was good and furious, with his rage exactly pinpointed, he launched. As we rocketed up, I reached out and felt the lines of magic in the place draw closer. As we rose, the lines grew red with the energy of anger and formed a cage at the exact point where Gwyrddan was aimed. They grew larger and sturdier and when we hit, it was like running full-throttle into a stone mountain. *Bam!*
We fell senseless to the floor. At least my fall was cushioned by several tons of dragonflesh.
Once more on the surface, the battle took a brief breather as the entire region shook. Sophia paused in her reluctant struggle with the Cherub named Ushaelek. "Joy, little darling, what is happening to you down there?"
Gwyrddan rose up, all rage again, roaring in frustration. I let him vent for a while; then I knocked between his horns. "Well, if you've got it all off your chest, are you ready to hear some good news?"
"Glad tidings? You actually have glad tidings after that folderol?"
"YEP! Gwyrddan, let me guess - you were a bad boy back in the day, weren't you?"
The big iguana looked coyly off into the distance. "I don't know what you're talking about!"
"You went around burning down farms, killing livestock and generally depressing real estate values, didn't you?" Gwyrddan's only reply was an eloquent silence.
"So, Oberon stuck you down here to keep you from turning the Midlands into a desert. Now, from what I've been able to figure out from our last ride up, Oberon had the bright idea of using the ONE force that he knew would always be here and would always be powerful enough to overcome you - Your Own Rage. It's sort of a variation on the old 'Indian Monkey Trap'. While you're working yourself into a fit generating enough anger to power you out of here, you're also powering the 'cage' that's keeping you in. The more power you focus into breaking out, the more power you give to the 'cage' to keep you here. Oberon knew that you were so reliant on your anger to power you through any obstacle that you encountered, that it would never occur to you to NOT BE ANGRY."
"NOT BE ANGRY! That would be like telling a bird not to sing, or a fish not to swim, or a tax collector not to skim off the top of the take!"
"Exactly. You see the elegance of his trap. You are your own keeper. Now, I don't have either the time or the skill or the serenity to teach you to get Zen. But I _do_ have a way of dealing with your anger, which is, after all a form of spiritual pain." I kissed Gwyrddan between the eyes and began to form the beginnings of the link that I form with my 'clients'. I reached into him, and found the form of his peace and longing. I became...
I will have mercy on your tender soul, and spare you the lurid details of Dragon Sex.
Anselm DeGroot dug deep into the well for more power, and struck paydirt. Energy, pure power coursed through him, filling him. He lashed out at the Angels and Demons that presumed to keep him from his destiny as a God! Yet still more lovely power came to replenish that which he spent. If this was what happened when he sacrificed but a single Angel to the well, he had six more at hand! If only ONE did this, then Seven - a magic number, indeed - would make him a GOD!
I found the keystone of Gwyrddan's rage - it was nothing! A bit of grit in his soul, a triviality that even he didn't understand anymore. I flicked it out, and was rewarded by the most intense rush of Good Luck that I had ever known! I drank deep of the Good Luck and shared it freely with Gwyrddan. When we had drunk our fill, he simply rose, no need to rush about and rocket upwards. We serenely drifted up through the Fisher King's snares and out of the sacred well of Halliwell.
DeGroot felt the cascade of might just dry up, as if someone had turned a tap off. Then, impossibly, a glorious draconian figure of glowing gold and silver rose up out of the well. And that behaloed trollop was riding it like it was a pony.
"NEIN! No! You will not rob me of my rightful Godhood!" He turned his full fury on the dragon, using all his power and craft to bind it to his will.
The Dragon ignored his efforts, and rose up into the air, made a lazy loop, and swooped down to swallow him in a single gulp.
The pitched fighting abruptly stopped the second that DeGroot went down the Dragon's gullet. The sole surviving Master Mage wrapped himself up in diversion and camoflauge spells, and tried to turn himself into a fly in order to escape. One of the Cacodaemons, which had been bound to DeGroot alone - DeGroot always made sure that he was the master of as many of the bound beings as possible - reached out, grabbed the fly in midair and went *squish!*
Donovan, who was still dressed as a member of the Hall of Mages, had proven himself to the Angels by freeing them from durance vile during the fight. Now he made sure that he had at least one of those Angels between him and any of the now masterless Demons at all times.
Gwyrddan lowered himself to the ground, and gave a hearty burp. I slid off of his neck. "Hi, Guys! Miss Me?"
Sophia came at me in a full charge. Gwyrddan started to growl, but Sophia dropped her spear and shield and grabbed me in a fierce hug, as Snooks gamboled around my feet, wanting to be picked up. "Oh, don't you ever scare me like that again! Where did that come from? How did you..."
"Okay, Sophie, I think introductions are in order. Sophia, this is Gwyrddan-"
"Sorry, Joy, but that is no longer true."
"What? But you told me..."
"Gwyrddan was my name when I was a creature of fury and rage. Now I am not. I am more, and I cannot be confined by the strictures of a name that no longer fits. You changed me, and so now I no longer have a name. You must name me, for you made me, and I must have a name. You cannot give me a True Name, for that is writ on my very being, but you must give me a name."
I chewed on that for a second. What do you call a forty foot long creature of almost infinite destructive potential? "I name you 'Muffin'." *smooch!*
The Hellmaid Sylvana was totally aghast. "_MUFFIN?_ You named a Dragon Muffin?"
Muffin stared down his beak at Sylvana. "Are you making fun of my name?"
Sylvana, who loved a fight, but not _that_ much, grinned widely. "Oh, _NO_, perish forbid the thought!"
I returned to the introductions. "Anyway, Boo'ful, this is Muffin. He was bound down in that well. It seems he's been down there for thousands of years-"
Sophia massaged the bridge of her nose. "Let me guess - he was bound down there by Oberon, the Faery King, and old Obie just never got around to telling the Hosts of Heaven that this particular landmine was lying around. Yes, Oberon has pulled this kind of stunt before. My guess is that 'Muffin' here was what DeGroot was leeching off of to power those incredible spells of his."
"Okay, Muffin, this is Sophia. She is my very best friend, and she works with me in Heaven-" Then Muffin gave another hearty burp. "Well, excuse you!"
Then Angelique stepped forward. "Hey, Joy, this is all very heartwarming, but there is a rather nasty problem that you're ignoring - DeGroot had the True Names of all the Demons, Angels and others woven into his spirit. And I'm afraid that burp that 'Muffin" just made may be an indicator of something worse. Muffin just ate DeGroot - DeGroot is inside Muffin. I think DeGroot is right now trying to ensure his own survival by... infecting Muffin with his spirit, trying a kind of hostile takeover. I doubt he's had time to really do anything, but give the bastard time..."
Sophia wrinkled her brow. "Well, the most logical thing to do would be to simply _take out_ both the True Names and DeGroot's spirit, before he has time to do anything. But who would be fool enough to go down a dragon's gullet _On Purpose_?"
I gave a soft whimper and raised my hand. "I trust Muffin. Okay, Muff, open up, I'm going in!"
Sophia grabbed me by the shoulder. "No, Joy, you've done enough today!"
"Please, Boo'ful, I have to do it! It isn't just that _I_ trust Muffin. Muffin also has to trust and care about whoever goes in there. I mean, think about it - would you let a perfect stranger down your throat?"
Sophia gave me a worried look, but let go of my shoulder.
"Okay, Muffin- Say Aaahhh...."
Muffin opened his cavernous mouth and rolled his tongue forward. Sophia grabbed one of my legs and Sylvana grabbed the other. "All right, let me down. Sophia, when I fish out a Name of one of the Angels, you grab it. Sylvana, you field for the Devils. Oupnekhat, you take the Names of the Neutrals. Okay, going IN!"
I slid down Muffin's throat and entered the spacious area that was his insides. As a spritual being, Muffin wasn't restrained by the limitations of mere biology. There in the belly of the Dragon, I found Anselm DeGroot, fighting tooth and nail to stave off complete digestion. Floating around him were True Names, Mystic Ties, magical items, and other mystical detrius.
"Okay, I'm inside!" <probe> "Got one! Demon Name-" <probe> "Angel-" <probe> "Demon-" <probe> "Djinn-" <probe> "Demon-" <probe> "Angel-" <probe> "Elf" <probe>"Thingamabob-" <probe> "Demon-" <probe> "Angel-" <probe> "Djinn-" <probe> <hunh?> "I dunno what that is!" <probe> "Demon-" <probe> "Demon-" <probe> "Angel-" <probe> "Doohickey" <probe> "Djinn-" <probe><Ick!> "What the Glory is _that_?" <probe> "Demon-" <probe> <eeewww!> "Oh, I ain't touchin' that!"
It took me a while, but I got most of the stuff that DeGroot had dragged along with him out of Muffin. Then I snagged DeGroot's greasy, grimy, nasty spirit and dragged it out. Lacking anyone better, I handed him over to Taberah.
Taberah gave DeGroot a distasteful once-over. She adopted a very formal stance. "Anselm Reinholt DeGroot, you stand accused of practicing Black Arts, trafficking with Demons, extending your lifespan through proscribed methods, and other crimes. Do you have any mitigating circumstances to explain your behavior?'
DeGroot said, "Why, Yes! I-"
Six sapphire blue eyes flashed on Taberah's face. "Liar! Lorelei, as senior Demon here, I remand the soul of this sinner over to you, to do as you see fit. We'll wait until we're back at our respective home bases before we deal with the paperwork." Taberah wadded DeGroot's spirit into a wad and tossed him over to Lorelei. The little wad managed a weak 'help!' as it landed in Lorelei's hand. "Oupnekhat, you still have to answer in the Heavenly Courts for the crimes that you committed at DeGroot's behest. It will probably be only a formality, but it would go a long way towards getting you out of that drinking cup."
While Taberah was getting all that sorted out, I turned to Sophia. "Boo'ful, do they allow Dragons in Heaven?"
Before Sophia could say anything, Muffin trumpeted, "Heaven? Dragons in Heaven! Yes! Yeeeesssss!" With that, he scooped Snooks and me up onto his head and took off skyward.
Apparently, while Muffin didn't have Gwyrddan's rage, all that anger had somehow been transformed into boundless enthusiasm. Just what Heaven needs - a fifty ton Saint Bernard puppydog. Muffin spread his now golden, feathery wings and shot like a rocket toward the Pearly Gates. I was trying to think of how I was going to explain trying to get a Dragon past Saint Peter - who's a real stickler for this sort of thing - when Muffin didn't stop where logic said he would stop, and he shot right past the Gates.
"Ummm - Muffin, the reason that I was asking Sophia about Dragons in Heaven, is that I've never actually seen any Dragons up here. But I do remember something about Dragons being divine creatures in most Asian cultures, so they just may hang around some part of Heaven that I'm not familiar with. Daddy Marc would probably know..."
"Where is Daddy Marc?"
"Well, y'see that gleaming tower over there? He's in the very top floor of that building, and..._Muffin!_ No! GO DOWN! USE THE _DOOR_! The Door, Muffin, the DOOR!!!" *Ker-Rassshhh!*
Now, in Muffin's defense, I genuinely believe that he had absorbed the idea of using the door, and was trying to descend and follow the approved protocols. It's just that after a few millennia of being trapped in that stupid well, he's sort of lost the knack of toning things down and using the least amount of force necessary. After all those centuries of battering away at that one point, he just sort of reflexively locked on the point that I'd given him - Marc's Office - and kicked in all the burners.
Marc looked up from his desk at the wreckage that Muffin had made of his office. Even the unflappable Kimiko burst in and just gaped flabbergasted. I peeked over the crest of Muffin's head at Marc and said, "Ah, HI Daddy, he followed me home - Can I keep him?"
I have to give it to Daddy Marc; once I told him the entire story, he was very reasonable. He took away my Orichalchum card for a month, and made Muffin and me help clean up the mess in his office.
But, while we were sweeping up the debris, he was on the phone to Bahamut, the equivalent of an Archangel of Heavenly Dragons. Bahamut was more than a little surprised - new Dragons don't exactly show up every day, even in Heaven - but he was willing to see what he could do about arranging some quarters for Muffin. Once the wrack was cleared away, Marc gave me directions to the Dragon's Den. Given Muffin's cannonball technique of flying, we walked the distance.
Comparing the Dragon's Den to Carlsbad Caverns is like comparing the Taj Mahal to a 7-11. Glorious is a serious understatement. Not only were the chambers within the magnificent mountain cavernous, but there were warm streams running through them that just screamed out for waterslide action. The sleeping pits were lined with nice comfy gold and gems. Great Auld Wyrms lounged about, drinking tuns of wine at a toss, discussing topics long forgotten by Man and singing songs that humans never knew. And, of course, there were passages that led out to high cliffs for jumping onto thermal updrafts and flying. Muffin looked around like he had walked into a Dragon's dream of paradise. Well, why not? He had!
I made sure Muffin was all squared away with Bahamut. Now, Bahamut comes across like this gruff old Dragon King, but he's just a big pussycat under it all. Scratch him behind his ears and he all but purrs.
I was helping Muffin get his sleeping pit just right - you know how Dragons are about their sleeping pits, one thing out of place, and they get all in a snit; just ask Bilbo Baggins! - when Snooks came out of nowhere, with a message held in his snout.
I reached down, took the message and gave Snooks a quick scratch behind the ears. "Thanks, Sweetie." But Snooks gave me this worried look.
"What is it, Joy?"
"Ah, drek! Sorry, Muffin, but I have to go. I must face a horrible and merciless enemy, who will try to ensnare me in snarls and tangles and infinite delays."
Muffin raised up, his wings spread wide and eyes ablaze. "What foul creature would dare do such things to my precious Joy?"
"The dreaded Red Tape Wyrm. Relax, Muff - it's just paperwork."
"Paperwork? Why would paper work? It just lies there."
"Exactly. It just lies there, so we have to do all the work! No, Muffin, Paperwork is something that that developed after Oberon bottled you up. Ask some of the Dragons around here about it - they should be able to tell you stories of paperwork that would chill your blood! Y'know, you should be very popular around here - imagine, being able to tell millennia of gossip to someone who's never heard any of it before! No, I just have to go and make a few Statements before the Heavenly Courts. That Djinn is trying to clear up his record, and there are all those poor Ghosts to get straightened out. So, I have to walk over there and help out. Hey, it sucks, but it's part of the job."
"Walk? Are your wings still injured?"
I flexed my wings tentatively. "Well, between having one wing carved by a Malachite's sword, and the other raked by a Hellhound's claws, I think I'm gonna be a pedestrian for a while."
"But why walk? I can fly you there!"
I looked up into the biggest pair of puppydog eyes ever created. "Weeelll... Okay, but remember what Bahamut told you - go with the flow!"
Flying dragonback is fun, but it's not flying under your own power. Muffin made a point of just gliding along instead of jetting forward with everything he had, but I could tell he wanted to give it the guns. Maybe I should hook him up with Shemeber and let them drag race. Are there Sonic Booms in Heaven? I don't wanna be the one to find out.
Muffin put me down in front of the Courts of Divine Justice. "Before you go, Joy, one thing?"
"What's that, Big Guy?"
"Where exactly is this 'Land of Honnalee' that you keep humming about?"
I gave Muffin a kiss on his VW Bug sized nose, and sent him back to Dragon's Den to hear spine-chilling tales of the dread peril 'Paperwork'.
Believe me, wading through paperwork isn't any more fun than it is on Earth. At the very least, the Bureaucrats of Heaven give you an impression that the information has a purpose and a use; you wouldn't believe the stories that I've heard about the Other Place! I mean, the reports are in triplicate, but what I told them directly impacted on Arthur, Elsie, Maud and the other ghosts' chances of going to either staying here, getting sent down to Hell, or being reincarnated. While Arthur had been a rather iffy case when DeGroot killed him, his fearless and selfless actions in taking on DeGroot when Sophia and the others had been ambushed tilted the balance. He would stay in Heaven as one of the Blessed. There was even some talk of him maybe being considered for the Angel track. The others were being readied to go to the Waiting Room, where they'd be put in line to be reincarnated.
Maud was a little huffy about it. "I mean, I've been waiting all my life to see Heaven, and now that I have, I've got to spend all my time here in a bleedin' queue! Joy, you're an Angel - can't you at least put in a good word, so that I can at least be born to an Earl, or a Duke or a TV star or somethin'?"
"It doesn't work that way, Maud. You can't pick and choose who you're born to - otherwise, only Royals and Kennedys would breed. Your soul basically goes where it... oh, how to put this?... _Fits_ is the best work that comes to mind. That bastard DeGroot killed you before you had a chance to even come close to either your Destiny or Dark Fate. Eventually, you're going to have to deal with that. In an odd way, I think Arthur fulfilled his Destiny. Maybe his Destiny was to confront DeGroot and be part of his downfall."
Maud grumped, "Truly spoken like someone who isn't taking a chance of being born to a _Welfare Mother_."
Oupnekhat wasn't having much in the way of luck, either. "Five Bloody Centuries. They took off only Five Bloody Centuries. I have to stay in that stupid drinking cup for 14, 452 years before they'll let me out. By the time I get out of that drinking cup, it'll probably be in a museum on Tau Ceti! The mortals will probably be able to do more with their technology than I'll be able to with magic!"
Sophia, who had testified for the Djinn at his hearing, smiled her patented mysterious smile. "Well, Oup, if you're interested, I can arrange that your cup falls into the hands of somebody who can help you whittle off your time as per the 'Good Deeds, Selfless Acts, Heroic Rescues & Leaps of Faith' clause of your confinement."
Oupnekhat looked at Sophia askance. "You're not talking about the Aleh-Ah-Dein deal, are you? Those things cause more trouble than they're worth!"
"Oh no, we don't do those anymore. You're right, they caused more problems than they resolved. No it's a lot more reliable than that..."
Sophia was about to go into more detail, when we were interrupted by three Malachites wearing the livery of the Dominican Inquisition. Their swords were out and flaming bright white. "You are the Prototype Angel called 'Joy'?"
"Yes. What's with the swords, guys? Oupnekhat isn't giving anyone any problems. He-"
"The Djinn is not the problem. Prototype Angel Joy of no given title or rank, you are called to Judgement on charges of Mutiny in the face of the Enemy, Being Corrupted by the Lust of the Unholy, Aiding & Abetting the Enemy, Giving Succor and Solace to the Enemy, Freely Giving Lore and Wisdom to a Godless Sorcerer, Loosing an Ancient Evil into the World, Endangering the Kingdom of Heaven, and the attempted Murder of the loyal Malachite Corydon."
"Wow, when you say it all like that, you make it sound like I did something _bad_!"
"You will come with us now to Judgement."
"Ah, Sophie? Do Angels called to Judgement get a court-appointed lawyer?"
"Joy, I hate to tell you this, but there aren't any lawyers in Heaven."
"But I'll see what I can do."
With that the three Malachites marched me off. For some strange reason, when you're all ready for them, the Courts are full of infinite delays, but when you want a little time to wrap your head around the charges - and maybe get some backup - it's 'Justice waits for no one!' They put me in a cage - yes, a cage! - and pulled me into a surreal set designer's vision of a court of law, with high vaulting banks of benches, tiers of seats, a witness stand and three thrones. Most of the seats were already occupied as I was being dragged in. On one bench, looking very pleased with himself, was that buttwipe Corydon. Three guesses who went to his Archangel and had charges brought up? Next to Corydon was a thin, intense looking Angel in dark clothes. He wasn't wearing anything to show any kind of rank, so I figured that he was either nobody of any real importance, or a real bigwig. Then all the legal argy-bargy started. Three Angels, a Seraph with his six eyes and six wings showing, a Cherub and an Elohite with those eerie large eyes and inscrutable faces, came in and seated themselves on the thrones. As one, they intoned, "The Inquisition for the protection of the Holy Kingdom of Heaven is enjoined. Justice, Truth and the Welfare of the Kingdom are our only concerns. Mercy and Balance may be granted, but never at the cost of Justice, Truth and the Welfare of the Kingdom. Leave your feuds, agendae and biases outside; they have no place here. Let the charges be read."
Corydon came forward and read off the charges. Then he turned to me and asked in the most scolding tone imaginable, "Are you the experimental Angel known as Joy?"
"You know bloody well who I am, Corydon!"
"Let the record show the accused's defiant and rebellious attitude. Are you the experimental Angel known as Joy?" It went on like that for a long while.
He accused me of 'Mutiny in the face of the Enemy' despite the fact that the Demons weren't at that time and situation technically our enemies, and He wasn't my superior.
He accused me of 'Being Corrupted by the Lust of the Unholy'; getting felt up a couple of times by an Incubus is being corrupted? Then all those male Angels that I've heard about playing footsie with Succubae must be next on the docket.
He accused me of 'Aiding & Abetting the Enemy' despite the fact that it was a bipartisan mission, and we'd been given specific orders to uphold the Truce.
He accused me of 'Giving Help and Solace to the Enemy' - I think they're pissed 'cause I let Lorelei take all those freed Demons back to Hell with her. Despite the fact that I wasn't even there when the parties involved returned to their home bases.
He accused me of 'Freely Giving Lore and Wisdom to a Godless Sorcerer', despite the fact that I'd managed to talk Donovan into a preliminary agreement to become a Soldier of God, thereby negating the 'Godless' part.
He accused me of 'Loosing an Ancient Evil into the World'; well, technically, Muffin is a newborn Dragon with a heart worthy of Heaven, and therefore neither Ancient nor Evil.
He accused me of 'Endangering the Kingdom of Heaven'; so, Muffin ran the stoplight at the Pearly Gates and crashed into Marc's office - Hey, I'm paying for it out of my allowance!
He accused me of the 'attempted Murder of the loyal Malachite Corydon', when the yutz was standing right there, fit as a fiddle. And he'd not only been blithely ignoring his orders to uphold the Truce AND endangering our mission by using his Celestial powers at absolutely the wrong time, BUT had not only fallen on his own dang sword, but carved up one of MY wings as well! _I_ should be bringing charges against _HIM_!
Corydon kept hammering at me, asking one 'Have you stopped beating your wife?'-type question after another. He finished off with a ringing denunciation of me as being the vilest corruption disguised as innocence. Then he went over to his bench and sat down, so smug that I wanted to just reach out of my cage and slap him down.
"Well, now it's my turn to defend myself!" I started.
"No," the Seraph said, "you were defending yourself during the questioning, and did a very poor job, if I may say so. And now for the Judgement-"
A calm, cultured voice spoke up from one of the benches. "A moment, your Rectitudes. There are several venues and points that have not been explored. I am Trimagestis, a Mercurian in the service of Marc, the Archangel of Trade." A tall, slender Angel of Mediterranean aspect stood up and approached the bench. I noticed Sophia sitting next to where he had been. She smiled, and gave me a thumbs up.
"This is a Court of Perfect Justice. There is no need for lawyers here."
"Your Rectitudes, I am not here as the Defendant's Advocate. I merely noted several points in the Lieutenant's accusation where he presumes rather material points. Your Rectitudes, I believe that even the least observant bystander can detect a distinct bias in the Lieutenant's approach. While this is understandable - he almost died, after all - are we not explicitly told to leave 'feuds, agendae and biases outside'? Is Truth served if only ONE side of an issue is explored? Is Justice served by a rush to Judgement? Is the Welfare of the Kingdom served by a single injustice at this level?"
"I merely want to ask the Lieutenant a few questions about the statements that he's made, for the sake of clarity."
The Elohite leaned toward his colleagues. "The Malachite was far from objective about this. Let the Mercurian ask his questions."
Trimagestis smiled and turned to Corydon. It was really very impressive. Trimagestis never once questioned Corydon's honor or integrity. He questioned everything else, but in a nice way that suggested a teacher trying to coax a student towards the proper solution to the math problem on the blackboard. A very slow student. The 'Loosing an Ancient Evil' and 'Endangering the Kingdom of Heaven' charges withered on the vine when it was pointed out that the 'Ancient Evil' that was 'Endangering Heaven' was at this minute getting lessons in fine control while flying from a much respected Celestial dragon. The 'Aiding & Abetting' charge was dead, because if _I_ was going down for that one, so were Corydon and Taberah. As for 'Giving Help and Solace to the Enemy', the question of what we would do with the True Names of that many Demons and Neutrals without provoking a breach of the Truce came up.
Corydon was still sputtering. "But you can't deny that she gave Lore and Wisdom to that Hall Mage Donovan, now can you?"
I called from a sitting position in the cage, "Corydon, if you'd checked, Donovan is being considered for a position as a Soldier of God! He's renounced the Hall of Mages - a very dangerous thing to do, by the way - and he's made a binding oath to the service of Heaven. Pending approval by the appropriate Archangel, of course. By the way, who is the appropriate Archangel? I haven't had time to check up on any of this."
Corydon was red in the face with frustration and embarrassment. "Well, just TRY and explain your attempt to murder me! Well, I dare you!"
Trimagestis simply pointed out that it was well known that I was utterly incompetent with swords, and the only way that I could have used my 'boomerang' effect is if _He_ were attacking _Me_.
"But she was defending the Incubus-"
"I was defending the _TRUCE_, nitwit! If you can figure out a way to do it without giving Lucifer cause to start the War up again, I'll Hold that bastard Richard down for you, and let you geld him!"
The Elohite smiled wryly. "Well, that doesn't sound very much like an Angel who is Lust-besotted with the Incubus in charge!"
Corydon grated, "But I _saw_ them-"
I yelled, "You saw what that dickhead Richard _wanted_ you to see! He wasn't trying to get to me, that would be too obvious! He was getting his jollies ragging on _you_! A THREE-YEAR-OLD could have seen that, but not you! And then that slime-bucket had the nerve to... oh, never mind!"
The Seraph glared at me with all six eyes. "GO ON."
I related about the 'Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald' and Richard's trap for Lorelei, Helga and me. The Seraph's eyes glittered coldly. "So, you lied to get out of the trap."
"No, the 'Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald' is real - I just created it. It's the rite were all the Angels around hide me or my successors as we work, to keep the Demons from finding out. I invented it, so I get to name it!"
"But you told this Richard about your secret nature, in order to get out of the Circle of Containment."
"No, I told him, _quote_, 'The secret of the Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald is encapsulated in the phrase Dea Htihsa Sidrahcir. That is the key. When you understand that, you will understand everything.' By this time, Richard is no doubt trying to sell this 'secret' to as many Evil-nasties in Hell as he can, in order to cover up the fact that he ran out on Lorelei. Or maybe he got Brownie Points for cowardice, treachery, double-dealing and deceit. I admit, their priorities down there baffle me."
"'Dea Htihsa Sidrahcir'?"
"Spell it backwards and change the spacing. It is the truth, it was the great secret of the 'Rite of Thuschloch Arrenald' at the time, and it maintains the secret of my prototype nature nicely."
The Seraph mentally reversed the spelling and changed the spacing. You could see the cogs in his mind going as he followed the probable consequences: Richard's ego would never let him see the simple code, so he'd think that it was a very complex, very subtle code. And since Heaven would never hide a trivial secret behind such a sophisticated cipher, he would reason that it was extremely important. He would, indeed sell it to as many Spymasters in Hell as he could. His own sincere greed would sell them on its significance. Also, they would realize that there was no way that Richard would sell a bogus 'secret' that insulted him. They would start tearing up the Three Realms looking for further clues as to the solution to the enigma. And since they would never cooperate on anything that promised such rewards, they would no doubt be spying on and sabotaging each other. Their own greed, powerlust, deceit, and mutual distrust would keep them looking for a Mare's Nest.
The Seraph started snickering, and then completely broke down laughing. He passed his insights along to his colleagues. The Cherub roared, and even the detached Elohite smirked.
The Judges laughed themselves. The Seraph wiped the tears from all of his eyes, and said, "Well played, Joy. But there is still the matter of Judgement."
As one, they all intoned, "Let There Be Justice!"
Above them a gigantic golden sword of light formed. It lowered itself down toward me as the walls and roof of my cage fell away. The edge came swooping at my head-
And lightly touched me once on each shoulder and once on top of my head.
As one, the Judges intoned, "Justice Has Been Served!" and they filed out of the courtroom.
Sophia walked up as Trimagestis was helping me. "Well, THAT was a first! I don't ever remember a Panel of Inquisitors ever so much as cracking a smile on duty, let alone completely cracking up before!" Then she turned to Trimagestis, "Thanks, Herm, Y'did good." She gave him a fond kiss on the cheek.
"Thanks, 'Thena. It made for an interesting break from the same old, same old."
My puzzlement must have showed on my face. "Joy, Trimagestis here is probably better known to you by his old Olympian names - Hermes, or as he was known to the Romans, Mercury, the Messenger of the Gods, and God of Thieves, Liars, Businessmen and _Lawyers_."
Trimagestis murmured, "I like to keep my hand in."
I waved my hands in front of me. "Okay, I get that - oh, by the way, _thank you_ my lord Hermes. What I don't get is why they went through that whole drawn out accusation bit, if they were only going to summon up that 'Sword of Justice', which would have detected my guilt or innocence right off the bat."
Sophia gave a rueful smile. "Well, it's a little more complex than that. Even with that 'leave feuds, agendae and biases outside' schtick, the Courts of Judgement are too dang powerful to be completely apolitical. The Panel of Inquisitors can opt to summon the Sword or pass their own judgements. I think the reason they summoned the Sword had more to do with covering their own asses than it did to do with exonerating you. I asked Corydon why he was so convinced of your guilt in this, and he told me that Taberah had told him to keep a close eye on you, that you were suspect in the eyes of the Inquisition. Taberah's superior Dominic and Corydon's superior Laurence are tight, so Corydon went along with it. He figured that the Inquisition had you pegged and needed a pretext to bring you to Judgement. I suspect that's why none of your four 'parents' showed up - they didn't want to give the Panel grounds for slapping any of you with charges of trying to sway the Panel by intimidating with the presence of your patrons. That kind of thing has happened before."
"Hmmm... That explains why the charges stemming from stuff that happened after he left in his private 'ambulance' were on the docket. But what's Taberah got against ME?"
Sophia looked over her shoulder at the three Inquisitor Malachites approaching. "Oh, I don't think it's Taberah that you have to worry about.
Manny, Moe and Jack surrounded me again, swords drawn. "Prototype Angel Joy of no given title or rank, you are called to Judgement-"
"What? Didn't we just go through all that?"
"-Before Archangel of Justice Dominic personally."
"What? But I just got out of Judgement! I was cleared of all charges! Whatever happened to 'you can't be tried for the same offense twice'?"
Trimagestis rather embarassedly cleared his throat. "Well, Joy, that only works in the American and Canadian courts. Up here, the Inquisition can pretty much do whatever it has to, pending a Seraphim Council's veto."
The Malachites grabbed me by the arms and started to drag me off. "Sophie! Call Marc! Call Raphael! Call Michael! Call the _ACLU!_"
The Malachite dragged me through the halls of the Courts of Divine Justice to a tall pair of doors that could have been the model for Rodin's 'Gates of Hell'. They thumped on the doors, and passed me through the doors. I wondered why they did that. In all the movies, the 'stormtroopers' always dragged the heroine straight into the villain's presence. The outer office of Dominic's domain was a warren of activity, with existing factoids constantly being checked against other factoids in light of new incoming factoids. Two Cherubs grabbed me by the arms and took over where the Malachites left off. They dragged me through the office to another foreboding set of doors and chucked me inside.
Dominic's office was everything that Marc's wasn't. It was huge, dark, cavernous, and completely unrelieved by anything to draw the attention away from the task at hand. There were no windows or pictures to mitigate the gloom. The only furniture was a huge desk the size of four pool tables and a single chair, at which sat whom I assume was the Archangel of Justice himself.
Uncountable red eyes glared out at me from the folds of his cloak. "So, finally I have you."
I got up and brushed myself off. "Are you sure you want to open with _that?_ You might want to check your Villain's Big Book of Threats and Cliches and see if there isn't something better. Y'know, like 'Your sufferings have only begun' or 'Abandon all hope' or something like that."
"_I_ am not the villain here."
"Oh? Lessee - On my side: a cute, perky, fun-loving angel who is loved by one and sundry, and who has just come through a totally unwarranted Adjudgement with a completely clean bill of health; on your side: a crabby, creepy-looking Tyrant in a dark cloak with too many eyes, who is feared by one and all, and has just completely ignored the normal rules and procedures of jurisprudence to persecute the aforementioned cute, perky angel. Yep, that spells 'villain' in every script that _I've_ ever read!"
"YOU WILL NOT TRIVIALIZE THIS WITH PURILE 'POP CULTURE' ALLUSIONS!"
"Ooo... Resorting to yelling when quiet intimidation doesn't work - your 'Darth Vader' quotient just went up fifteen points!"
"You are an abomination! A misbegotten creation of the Mad Angel Eli-"
"Hey, watch yer mouth, Bub! That's my Mom yer talkin' about!"
"You must be expelled as the Grigori were expelled, for the good of Heaven and The Cause!"
"What's a Grigori?"
"They were the lowest order of Angels, the 'Watchers' of Humanity, who became corrupted by the carnality of mortals. As you are corrupt by the carnality that is part and parcel of your misconceived conception. They were unfit for Heaven and they were cast out, as you will be cast out."
I crossed my arms. Cast me out of Heaven? Over my dead body! Oh wait - that phrase doesn't work anymore... "Citing what cause, Lord Dominic?"
"Hubris? What's Hubris?"
"PRIDE. Selfish, vaunting, unwarranted Pride!"
"You, an upstart mortal, without even a century as one of the Blessed to learn the essence of what Heaven is about, are not only elevated to the station of Angel, but scheme to manifest a Major Word!"
"Word? What Word?"
I snickered. "Lord Dominic, Joy isn't my word, it's my Name! It's actually a rather common name down on Earth." I brightened. "Do your really think that I'd make a good Angel of Joy? Gee, Joy really is a Major Word - are you sure it isn't taken? Wow - 'Angel of Joy'. _Man_, that is a lot of responsibility! I don't think that I'm up to that. Do your really think that I'd make a good Angel of Joy?"
"I AM NOT OFFERING THE POSITION!"
"Oh, we're back to yelling again."
"You were not FIT to enter Heaven, let alone be Exalted to the position of Angel!"
"Oh, I think the Big Boss Upstairs might disagree with you. That shaft of Divine Illumination that came down during my Exaltation sort of puts the seal of ultimate approval on it, wouldn't you say?"
"How DARE you presume to the Touch of the Divine, when there are those who have labored long, hard Millennia in the service of the Ultimate Good, with nary as much as a glimpse of The Most High for succor?"
"Oh, is THAT what this is all about? You haven't talked to the Boss in a while? Wow, that does suck for you, doesn't it?"
Dominic stood up, his frustration and rage radiating even through his all-concealing cloak. What ailed the man? This just smelled...
<sniff> It smelled like food! Heck, I'd been too busy being insolent to notice, but the entire place smelled like a bakery! So, unless he was making croissants on the side, Dominic- "You're in pain," I said, suddenly understanding. "The strains of your office have you in agony."
"You are as deluded as your mother!"
"For the sake of Heaven, you do things that you hate, against people you love, because you have to. For thousands of years, you have been in torment, in the middle of ecstasy."
"I bear the weights of my office as a badge of honor!"
"Even for an Angel of your incredible strength and faith, that can't leave you unscarred! That's why you wear that cloak! To hide the signs of your pain."
"My habits are none of your concern!"
"And that's why the Malachim that serve you aren't allowed within even your outer office! They'd sense it."
"Leave Me! You are free to go!"
"I can't leave you, not like this." I went up to him and pulled back the hood of his cloak. Dominic was paralyzed, caught in the grip of too many conflicting drives to move. Under the cloak, Dominic was twisted and cyst ridden. From each sore peeked a red eye. Each eye along his malformed limbs and disproportionate body and head looked at me with a separate and distinct passion. "Oh, you poor thing!"
He flinched from my touch, but I kissed him on his cracked and leprous lips. I have tasted pain before. I have experienced the pain of adolescents in the throws of teen angst, self-tortured pedophiles, Black Mages and Dragons. But I had never experienced any pain so pure and intense. Involuntarily, I pulled back, my lips aching.
Dominic looked at me with a thousand separate expressions. I steeled my will and threw myself at him. I wrapped myself around him and gave myself to him. Reluctantly, Dominic took me in his arms and let himself love me.
Oh, the pain! I was like wading through molten lava, trying to reach the crater of an erupting volcano. So much pain, from so many sources. Anger, disappointment, shame, betrayal and regret were the least of it. There was that desolate feeling of abandonment, that sense of a child looking for a mother that he knows should be there, but isn't. I swam through that acid suffering, looking for the lynchpin that was keeping him from finding solace.
Finally, there it was. It was in the shape of a tall Angel, with six glorious Peacock wings and six eyes that were not gems, but stars. He was beautiful, he was glorious, he was magnificent. He was Lucifer, Son of the Morning, Greatest of the Fallen Angels.
Dominic pulled away from me and screamed. Suddenly, he was a crying woman. "LUCIFEERRR!!!" she cried. "Lucifer..." she whimpered. "He was Glorious. More welcome than the Spring Dawn, more majestic than the Noonday Summer Sun, more beautiful than the Autumn Twilight, more sublime than the Winter Night, and more awesome than the Eclipse. I loved him, and he loved me. But I loved Our Lord more. I saw his arrogance grow, but in my love for him, I turned a blind eye. I purposely saw nothing, until his Rebellion was ripe and he had tainted all those Angels with his Pride. Then I went to Our Lord, and our good friend Michael with my horrible news. And Michael... Michael, who loved him as a brother... Michael beat him like a dog, crippled his left leg and threw him down from Heaven into that filth with the Evils, to rot. As he fell, Lucifer, who I loved more than my own heart, called to me to join him in Hell. He said that Hell would be as Heaven, with me by his side. But I loved Our Lord more, and I stayed. But even Our Lord was aghast at my betrayal of My Love, and cannot stand to behold me. Now, I suspect everyone and everything. I do the vilest job in Heaven to atone for my failure, and because it is all that I am really fit for..." She began sobbing.
I pulled her to me, but she pulled away. "No, no, it's my curse, my atonement for my failures."
"Bullshit. You've been had." I pulled her to me and kissed her. I waded through the slightly lessened pain, to where the image of Lucifer waited, laughing at me. I pointed a finger at him. "You are a lie, a true son of the Father of Lies. Lucifer may have loved Dominique once, but by the time he fell, he only loved himself. He learned his craft lying to the Angels in Heaven. He lied to those who followed him and fell, he lied to Dominique to get her to stay silent, and most of all, he lied to himself. And it is only the power of that One First Lie that truly keeps him in Hell! You have plagued Dominique for too long - Get Thee Behind Me, Satan!"
The pain-image of Lucifer laughed. He may have been a son of the Father of Lies, but he was truly his father's son. He lied, evaded, shaded, implied, misdirected and used all the arts of Deceit as only the Devil's Own Shadow can. I fought him with the Truth - unfortunately, lacking more information, I didn't have that much ammunition. I fought him with faith, but Dominique's had been slowly eroded away for centuries.
I was exhausted, and I'd used up every trick and ploy that I knew. But the pain-image of Lucifer was still there, gloating. But then, Dominique loved Lucifer, and she could barely stand me. But then, there is only ONE that Dominique loves more than Lucifer. I cannot beat the Devil, but there is ONE who can.
I looked to the Heights Beyond Heaven and called "HOLY FATHER! Save Her! Only You Can!" Then Glory Opened. Light beyond Light. Grace overflowing and all healing washed over both of us. The pain-mage of Lucifer screamed, and lied once more for Dominique to join him in perpetual torment. Dominique reached out her hand to the Seraph that she loved most dear, but then she looked up into the Glory. And then she clenched her fist and destroyed the only child that she would ever have by Lucifer. The pain-image of Lucifer shattered like a stained glass window with a brick heaved through it. Abruptly, the Glory stopped, and we two were alone in Dominic's office. Or as alone as you ever are in Heaven.
Dominic staggered. "Thank you. Now that I have that...thing out of my system, I will be all right. Now I can deal with-" I shut off his blitherings with my lips and drank of his pain. "No, you don't have to - the pain is too great - you've done too much already..."
Lacking the lynchpin, the pain flowed freely, but it was still as thick and rancid as before. I drank it in, but there was something keeping me from digesting it. But I couldn't let Dominic walk around with this pain for another day, not after all that time. I dug in and kept eating.
Suddenly, Joy stiffened and dropped to the surface of the desk. Dominic looked down at himself. He was perfect and whole, and his entire body was awash in the strangest sensation. Then he realized that it was an absence of pain.
Almost not daring, he cast his eyes upwards. And there was His Lord, in all his Glory, forgiving, accepting and loving him. And he realized what every child knows - that His Lord had always been there; for no matter how many eyes he had grown, he simply wouldn't' let them see. He basked in the Glory and Forgiveness. Then, reluctantly he cast his eyes down at the small soft figure beside him, writhing in agony. He was cured - but at the cost of an innocent? He took her pain-wracked body in his arms and wept.
"My Lord Laurence, I share your concern with the breach of protocols in bringing the suspect Joy here after she had been cleared by the Court of Divine Justice. But Lord Dominic is busy questioning the suspect at the moment. Once he has the information that he's looking for, I'm sure that Lord Dominic will be more than happy to explain his actions." Rabsaris, Dominic's chief office assistant, desperately hoped that none of the screams or moans would happen again while Lord Laurence was in the office. The young Archangel was a good ally to the Inquisition, but he was so idealistic that he might interfere if untoward sounds came from the Inner Sanctum. That might lead to a major breach between the Armies of God and the Dominican Inquisition. Running the Inquisition was hard enough without having the entire Army at your throat.
The doors to the Outer Sanctum of Dominic's domain burst open, almost flying off their hinges. Michael, the Archangel of War, wearing his best dragon-fighting Orichalchum plate armor, walked in with two of the Malachites struggling by the neck in each hand. He walked into the outer office, with Sophia in her own armor following, the third Malachite's head locked under the crook of her arm. Behind her were two Angels of War, struggling under the weight of Michael's sword. Then the Archangels Eli, Raphael and Marc stalked in behind. Joy's pet baku, Snooks, scampered between their feet, looking neither silly nor harmless, baring a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth.
Michael threw the Malachites at Rabsaris' feet. "These belong to you?"
Rabsaris willed himself to not be intimidated by this upstart assemblage of Angels. Intimidation was his job, dammit! "Lord Michael, do you realize that by breaking in here, armed and in obvious opposition to the Holy Order, that you are committing open Rebellion?"
Laurence stepped forward, his hand on his sword. Before he could say anything, Michael rumbled, "Larry, if you draw that sword, I will gut you like a fish and have you mounted on the wall before it clears the scabbard." The two warriors, the General and the Warlord locked their eyes, each unwilling to give in the slightest. Laurence rather hero-worshipped Michael, but his honor wouldn't allow him to budge. Michael stretched back his hand, and his two sword-bearers maneuvered the handle into his hand.
"Oh, this is ridiculous!" Raphael snarled, and she elbowed her way past the others. She marched right up to Laurence, her eyes hard and penetrating. This was impossible, unheard of! She was Raphael, the living spirit of mercy! The very lack of compassion in her eyes was like a vicious slap!
There was no warm consolation in her stance now. Now she was the Lioness of God, defending her cub. It flickered across Laurence's mind that death is sometimes a mercy. "Listen up, Larry, JOY is in there, and she's being held without charge, cause or reason! Now, I have Had Enough! I've had enough of Dominic and his bullying tactics, I've had enough of this Inquisition that thinks that it's the very voice of Our Lord, and I'm tired of YOU and your silly Boys' Own Adventure Book antics! Joy is being held for no reason other than Dominic's pathetic paranoia! If you think-"
Laurence may have been honor-bound, but he wasn't a fool. He backed down. Raphel advanced pantherishly on Rabsaris.
Michael reached forth a restraining hand. "Rafe- I'm supposed to be the militant one, remember?"
Raphael flashed a rueful smile back. "Sorry, Mike. I got carried away."
Rabsaris was trying to figure out a way to call more Malachites, when Marc advanced on the front. "Rabsaris, you just threatened us with a charge of Rebellion. Bad news, Rabe." He pulled out several folded slips of paper. "These are proxies from ALL the other Archangels in the Seraphim Council. Even Jordi, Baladine, Azrael, and Bahamut!"
Rabsaris tried to sneer, but it didn't quite come off right. "And what of the Archangel of Destiny, Yves?" Yves always voted an abstention, but if he could be persuaded to vote against this uprising, the Inquisition might be saved.
"He sent his proxy to my office even before I got there! I hate it when he does that. But, with the exception of _two_ votes-" Marc glared at Laurence "We ARE the Seraphim Council! And speaking as the voice of the Seraphim Council in this one matter, I order you to produce Joy, Dominic, and a credible explanation - IN THAT ORDER!"
Marc paused to let the sound of his shout echo through the still office. "Now, are you going to comply with a reasonable and legal order from the Seraphim Council, or is the Inquisition in a state of open rebellion?" Marc looked at Rabsaris and then Laurence.
Laurence shifted his stance so that he was standing by Michael's side, and crossed his arms. "I was here looking into the blatant breach of the protocols myself. If this is a legal act of the Council, then I'm more than curious as to the answers myself."
Then everyone in the Outer Sanctum felt an incredible surge of Divine power from within the Inner Sanctum. Somebody shouted, "What the Glory?"
No one moved during the pulse of Ultimate power. Then there was nothing. They all stood around for several long minutes, trying to figure out what to do. Then, from the Inner Sanctum, came the sounds of weeping.
Rabsaris shooed everyone away from the doors to the Inner Sanctum. He tried the doors, but they were sealed and warded. He knocked, but there was no answer. With a single smooth motion, Michael drew his sword from its sheath (Laurence took a few mental notes of his technique). He squared it against the crack between the two doors, and brought it down in a fluid motion. The doors just stood there. Restraining the sword, but not sheathing it either, Michael pushed against one of the doors, which swung open.
In the center of the dark echoing room, on top of the vast desk, Dominic, the Archangel of Justice sat weeping. He was half-naked, with the other half of his trademark cloak wrapped around the small fair figure lying still in his lap. Every so often, she would give a minor tremor.
Eli beat Michael to the punch. "JOY!" she thundered, all her usual joie de vivre lost, her stance one of barely checked rage. "What have you DONE with her, Inquisitor?"
Dominic looked up, tears streaming from the two eyes that he dared to use. "She was magnificent!"
It was exactly the wrong thing to say - Michael barely managed to restrain Eli from her charge. Then Dominic said the right thing - "She healed me. She healed wounds so old that I'd forgotten what it felt like to not to have them. I- I- I tried to stop her! I knew there was no way that she could stand to eat that much pain, but she kept eating, taking it all. And when it was over, and I was finally whole again, she just lay there..."
Michael smiled sadly at his little daughter. "Now that's my idea of a fighter! Tough, smart, and she doesn't stop until the fight is completely won!"
Snooks climbed up and gingerly licked her cheek. In response to the baku's lick, Joy struggled to open her eyes. Then she opened her rosebud mouth and let out a juicy, resounding, windows-rattling, *Beeeellllcccchhhh!*
Joy looked up with pained eyes at Raphael, who was standing over her, "Mooommmy, I dooonnnn't feeeel gooood! I think I aaaateee tooo muuucchhhh...! <groan!>" Then she let out another, but less spectacular burp.
A look of bathetic surprise on her face, Raphael kissed Joy on the stomach, the solar plexus, the collarbone, the throat, the lips and the brow. As she kissed Joy on the forehead, her eyes went up. Then a look of great relief crossed her plump visage and she smiled broadly. "Don't worry, Joy, you're going to be all right. The reason that you're experiencing this much difficulty digesting all that pain, is that in Dominic's case, there was something else intimately mingled with the pain: a perverse pride in being able to withstand it. Dominic held it in so long that the stoicism that he took such pride in melded with the pain, making it both worse and harder to get rid of. Right now, your system is working furiously trying to separate the two. And, since your system isn't geared to consume that kind of foolishness, it's bloating your insides."
Raphael shot Dominic a raking glance, "In _Other Words_, My Lord High Inquisitioner, you were full of HOT AIR!" Indeed, sitting there half dressed, Dominic did look rather deflated.
Raphael turned to Michael. "Okay, get her back to my place - maybe between us, Eli and I can come up with some kind of Celestial Bicarb." Michael bent over, and letting Snooks hop on, took Joy up in his arms and carried her out of the room. All the others left with them, except Dominic, Marc, and Laurence.
Marc shot Laurence a sharp look, and waving the proxies at him, shooed the reluctant younger Archangel out. Marc held the proxies up in Dominic's face and explained what they were. "Dom - Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? In this case, it's Me. Now, starting from the top, I wanna know _exactly_ what went on in here just now. Start Talking!"
"...And then she called on the Most Highest to give me strength. I destroyed the false Lucifer that I have borne within me for so long, and she began to consume my pain and-"
"AND, I think we came in at that point. Okay, from what I'm hearing, you've been carrying this pain around in you since the Revolt. You hid it not only from the rest of the Seraphim Council, but from your own people. It's been making you crankier century by century. It made you persecute Michael for his role in throwing down Lucifer. It caused you to lean on everyone who wasn't in as much pain as you were, including Eli, Gabriel and Novalis. It caused you to avoid common sense measures like vacations, not only for yourself, but also for your staff. It caused you to drive your staff with the same maniacal fury that you drove yourself. It caused you to turn away from Our Lord. It caused you to turn the full powers of the Inquisition on poor Joy, just because you saw her in communion with the Boss during her Exaltation. It caused you to ignore the protocols and procedures that you yourself had a hand in writing. Good Glory, Dom, from the condition that Joy was in, I'd say that you had one foot in the Pit and the other on a banana peel!"
Dominic only hung his head.
"As the representative of the Seraphim Council, I find you guilty of all these charges. I sentence you to-"
Dominic steeled himself for the blow.
"-Two weeks in a beach chair in Cancun. In a luxury suite at a Five Star hotel, all expenses paid, including cabana service." A ticket folder materialized in Marc's hand. "Like I said, Dom, take a vacation! Get some fresh air! Don't deal with things for a while! Get Laid!"
"But, my work here - Eternal Vigilance..."
"That's Contempt of Generosity! Another Two weeks! And you have to spend your sentence in your female form."
Dominic gave him a stunned look.
"Why? Well, obviously Old Luke had his hooks rather deeply into Dominique, and you've been reflexively suppressing her. Besides relaxing, Dom, I think you need to get in touch with your feminine side!"
"Oh, like you spend that much time as a femme!"
"Hey, you have _obviously_ never seen me at a Bloomie's Half-Off Sale! Take the ticket's, Dom."
"More Contempt! Two Months! AND you have to take snorkeling lessons!"
Sensing an injunction to take Limbo dancing lessons in the offing, Dominic took the tickets. "But whose going to look after things here?"
"Oh, we'll let your people handle it for a while. When you get back, I want to work out a vacation schedule for the lot of them."
Rabsaris stuck his head in the door. "Oh, believe me, if you just get him out of the office for a while, that'll be vacation enough for most of us!"
Dominic looked at Rabsaris with a struck appearance. Then he looked at the tickets, and for the first time in anyone's memory, the Archangel of Justice laughed.
Dominique shifted uncomfortably in her beach chair. It all felt wrong. Just lying there in the sun, while there was so much to do. After a week, the strangeness of being on Earth was fading, and boredom was beginning to win over ingrained habit. Her black bikini set off her pale skin admirably. The paleness, her stylish chin-length hair, and her regal angular features combined with the tenseness and wariness of her body language to produce the perfect picture of a stressed-out high powered Manhattan businesswoman trying to depressurize from her career and doing a bad job of it. Most of the other guests at the resort just gave her a wide berth, at least until she wound down a little. New York Businesswomen are known to be vicious if provoked.
She idly sipped at her iced tea and wondered if she would get around to getting those snorkeling lessons out of the way. And what was so great about snorkeling, anyway? Then there was a sound something like *Aaaawk!* and a small explosion of sand erupted a few feet away from her.
A curvaceous blonde figure with her two upper wings suspended in metal and plastic braces staggered out of the sand. "Man! I gotta work on my landings all over again! At this rate, these stupid wings are never going to heal!"
Dominique recognized her immediately, but Joy gave her the 'shush' sign, handed her a cell phone, and mimed holding it next to her ear. Dom complied with a rather bewildered look on her expression. Once the unit was in place, Dom asked, 'Well, what is this?"
"Oh, this is just a trick that will allow us to talk, without you looking like a psycho. If anyone looks, they'll think that you're talking to someone they can't see - which you are. They'll just think the person they can't see has a phone, that's all."
"So, did Marc send you to check up on me?"
"What, you think that they need me to do that? No, I figured that right about now you were probably going through that 'I'm really bored' phase, and could use someone familiar to talk to."
<hmmph!> "I notice that you're the first - and only - Angel to do so!"
"Well, of course! Most of the High Ranking Angels have their hands full covering for you, and the rest of Heaven is scared to death of you!" Joy leavened the last part of her statement with a wry smile that implied 'and why wouldn't they be? You worked long and hard to make them afraid of you'.
Dominique's face started at glowering and ran through a spectrum of expressions, ending with ironic resignation. Then she snapped to. "The others have their hands full? Something's happened? It's those blasted Hindi Divs, isn't it? They've gone and done something foolish, haven't they? Or is it Gabriel? She's finally gone completely over the edge, hasn't she?"
"Not that I've heard. But, it does seem that there are a few remaining Shen-Dai faction cells that were laying low and just waiting for an opportunity to pull something."
"I KNEW IT! I'd better-"
"SIT! It's being taken care of. Marc is running a sting operation, using some of Gabriel's people to set them up, with Michael and Laurence waiting for them to commit. Dom, like I said, it's being taken care of!"
Dominique gave a 'nobody really needs me' pout.
"Hey, Dom, if it means anything to you, it's taking FIVE Archangels to do your job, and they're really looking forward to you getting back. And Laurence is driving your staff nuts."
"Really?" Dominique lay back in her beach chair and brightened considerably. It's good to me needed; it's better to be wanted.
"Yeah. And I'll let you know, you're not the only one on the sidelines - until my wings heal completely, Mama Raphael says that I can't retract them. If I can't retract my wings, I can't form an aspect to create a context to interact with mortals. And if I can't do that, I can't work. It's very frustrating, knowing that there's all this pain in the world and not being able to do anything about it."
"Tell me about it. At least you're still somewhat mobile. I have to stay at this stupid mortal resort. I feel like a sitting duck for every Demon who wants to rack up a few points with its superiors."
<snicker> "You don't get out in the field that much, do you? You're an Archangel! You could smack down 90% of the beings in the freaking Universe without even spreading your wings! And the tiny minority that could give you a run for your money both have better things to do, and - more importantly - know better!"
Joy started gossiping about her circle of friends in Heaven - Sophia was hard at work, trying to break up a Mammon-guided insider trading ring. Snooks had caught a Boogyman, and was trying to figure out what to do with it. Muffin was lobbying to get the Dragon's Den wired for the Internet. Dominique winced at the possibilities for trouble. The two Angels, Archangel and apprentice, sat there in companionable silence for a while.
Dominique looked at Joy. "Joy? I want to thank you."
"For what? Coming to visit you?"
"Well, yes - but really what you did for me..."
Dominique was getting a little maudlin, so Joy decided to put a silly spin on it. "Well, Shuckin's, li'l lady, twern't nuthin'," Joy said in a truly lamentable impression. "Weren't nuthin' that any straight-shootin' cowpoke wouldn'ta done fer a lady in distress, I reckon, un-hunh!"
"What was that?"
"What? You don't know a John Wayne impression when you hear one? I admit, it's a really bad John Wayne impression, but still!"
*woof!* "You really don't get out in the field much, do you? Dominique, if you're gonna interact with the other guests, you gotta at least be able to communicate with them. They get American TV down here - why don't you catch a few old movies and maybe a couple of recent sit-coms? I admit it's drivel, but it is what passes for culture these days."
Dominique crossed her arms peevishly. "And why would I want to 'interact with the other guests'? After all, it is MY vacation!"
"Well, if you don't interact with the other guests, how are you gonna get laid?"
"And why would I want to do that?"
"Dom, from what I remember, most of your troubles came from the fact that even after all these years, you still got it bad for Lucifer. Now, you're finally over him you need to move on. And the best way to start that is with a little healthy wholesome sex."
Dominique ran a playful finger down Joy's leg. "Oh, and are you offering?"
"I mean, with a guy. A fun little no-strings relationship to put between you and Old Luke. Why do you think Marc booked you into a place like this? It's the landfaring version of a cruise ship; people come here to relax, enjoy themselves and have a nice little fling, all with the understanding that when it's over it's over. Oh, and let me freshen that up for you!"
Joy took Dominique's iced tea and transformed it into a pink frappe looking drink in a fancy glass with a silly looking umbrella stuck in it. "Here. You have to drink at least one of these fruity drinks with the umbrella in it EVERY DAY - doctor's orders."
"Mmm! Not bad! But honestly, Joy I don't have the slightest idea of-" Dominique looked up from her drink, and Joy was gone. She folded up the cell phone and took another sip of her drink.
A male voice came from beside her. "Y'know, those things are no good for you."
Dominique looked up at a stocky man in his late thirties wearing a white beach shirtand dark shorts. His hair was thinning, and his face was plain but pleasant. She held up the frothy pink concoction. "You mean this?"
"Oh, no! That's fine! I mean the cell phone! Those things will drive you to an early grave! No, the fruit drink is the first sign that you're finally starting to unwind."
"I've been that obvious, hunh?"
"Ooooh, yeeah. Let me guess - the only reason you're down here is because that boss sat on top of you, told you that you were on the verge of burning out, and that you were driving your staff crazy, am I right? He told you to take your accumulated vacation time, and not come back until it was all used, am I right?"
Dominique smiled ruefully "Close enough."
"And the phone call you got was from a friend at the firm, telling you that the place wasn't going to Hell in a handbag, but that you were missed, and everybody wanted to see you again - in two weeks."
Dominique gave a dry laugh. "Sort of. My name's Dominique, I ah..." How do you tell a mortal that you're an Archangel?
"Don't bother. Leave your job title back at the office. I'm Herb, a fellow Crisis- junkie in recovery. I've been here for a month, and I'm just getting to think I know myself again."
Dominique smiled voluptuously. "So...Herb- What's all the hubbub about Snorkeling lessons?"
Dominique basked in the post-orgasmic glow and nestled her cheek against Herb's hairy chest. Hmmm... So different from Celestial intercourse, and yet - there was that indescribable touch of the Divine. She looked up at Herb's smiling face as he dozed. Not a handsome man, by any stretch of the imagination. Certainly not up to Lucifer's standards. But then, no one short of the Most High was, and she was absolutely certain that Herb wouldn't try to drag her down with him into the Ninth Circle of Hell.
The silent intimacy was broken when the phone rang. Herb roused himself and reached for it without breaking the embrace. It was his room, so it was almost definitely for him. "What? Really? Wow." He replaced the receiver.
Dominique mumbled sleepily, "What was that?"
"Funniest thing - my firm just decided to extend my vacation another two weeks, and they're even picking up the tab! Looks like you're not getting rid of me that quickly, Sweetheart!"
Dominique pulled herself closer to Herb. "It's a Miracle," she murmured.
I replaced the hotel phone. All I had to do was contact Daddy Marc, and Herb's vacation extension would be a done deal. I relished the rush I get from knowing that I've done good - not only for Dominique, but for Herb as well. Hey, good things don't just happen, you gotta go out and make them happen!
Then I heard a familiar voice in the restaurant. "Honestly, I've had some absolutely gorgeous women in my life, but none of them have reached my Soul, the way you have."
I looked around the corner. There sitting at a table, wearing one of those embroidered white linen shirts, was indeed Richard. Boy, did he choose the _wrong_ resort to hit! He was holding the hand of a thirtyish ginger-haired woman, who obviously would have been besotted with him, even without his Incubae charms. I wondered if Richard was just cruising for some Female energy, or if he was here on a mission from his superior, Belial.
Well, either way, I doubted that Ginger over there would be all that happy after Richard got through with her. While Succubae usually are content with 'Wham-Bam- Thankee- Sam' hits, Incubae play on women's desire for long-term relationships to stretch their victimizations out as long as possible. By the time Richard got through with her, she wouldn't be able to tell up from down, white from black, or sugar from salt.
Besides, I owed the ratsass some grief.
Mama Raphael is gonna be pissed, but... I carefull, painfully withdrew my wings. Man, these things are never going to heal at this rate! I accepted the pain, and focused myself. I tried to think what a moderately attractive woman in her mid-to-late thirties would find threatening. I became a busty blonde nymphette with big blue doe eyes. Other than the pnuematic chest and the bubble butt, I was every inch the delectible woman-child morsel. Just the thing to arouse the insecurities of Ginger over there. No... better.... I took the nymphette and had her massively pregnant, her face, figure and slender limbs swollen from bearing a child at the wrong time in her life. You could still see the tender morsel within the bloated cow, her shattered beauty all the more tragic for being able to see the traces. I draped my swollen body in a muu-muu and waddled over to their table.
"Ricardo! _There_ you are!" I whined. "I've been looking all over for you!"
Ginger looked at me like I'd just wiped my ass on the tablecloth. "Ricardo?"
I turned big watery blue eyes on Ginger. "Ricardo, who's she? Oh! Oh, I see!" *Bwaaaaaaahhhh!* I fell to my knees and grabbed him by the leg. "Please, please don't leave me! I'll, I'll change! I'll get the abortion, like you want! Just don't leave me.. *Bwaaaahhhhh!*"
Richard tried to spin some damage control, but it was a pretty hard sell with a bloated broodmare clinging to your leg and crying like a fire siren. Ginger stalked off, and the hotel manager asked Richard to leave. I followed him around for hours.
When the Seraphim Council sat for the first time with Dominic back from vacation, he was his old self and he wasn't. He still wore the draping black cloak, but he at least pulled the hood back when he was talking to his fellow Archangels. He was still formal and dour, but at least he didn't glower and snap. Then the matter of the Shen-Dai partisans came up. Laurence was pushing for complete destruction of the Angels involved. The issue went around the table. When it came to Dominic's turn, all eyes were on him.
"First of all, I agree with Laurence - we must root out the Shen-Dai heresy completely. But, the most effective way of rooting that heresy out isn't to destroy the heretics. No, the most effective way of eliminating this threat is to expose the fallacies at the very root of the Shen-Dai lie.
"Shen-Dai seems to think that if he can trick Heaven and Hell into a premature Apocalypse-" there were muted gasps as the dreaded 'A' word was used in Council "-that he and his followers can stay on the sidelines while the Angels and Demons destroy each other. Once both sides have wiped each other out, Shen-Dai seems to think the Throne of the Most Highest will somehow be empty. He thinks that by simply taking an empty throne, he will become the Most High himself. _That_ is the empty lie.
"While on vacation, I watched a few mortal TV shows that dealt with how they thought the Divine Courts worked. Ridiculous of course, but there was the germ of a good idea there - in several of these shows, the spirit of the dead mortal is given a task to perform on Earth, on the pretext that when the task is finished, they will be allowed to enter Heaven. Again, a silly notion. BUT, in several of these programs, the task is so defined that the spirit of the departed must face his own limitations and vices, and overcome them in order to accomplish the task. Sort of a 'Heaven must be in you, before you can be in Heaven' kind of arrangement. While this won't work for the mortals - reincarnation handles that much more effectively - it _may_ be the way to handle the Shen-Dai partisans. Cast them down, but tell them that if they take on tasks that will require that they face the shallowness and emptiness of the Shen-Dai myth, they will be allowed to return to Heaven. This way, their wretched state is their own fault, not ours. We maintain the sanctity of Heaven, without either alienating those loyal Angels close to the Apostates, or being overharsh. And it does allow the downcast to return, once they have seen the error of their ways."
Raphael nodded. "It will take a bit of work, figuring out individual tasks for each partisan. But, if it means bringing the strays back into the fold, I say go for it. Good Glory, if enough of these Shen-Dai partisans make good and are redeemed, maybe the Demons will notice it as well, and start to give real thought to redeeming themselves!"
Yves smiled and spoke up, a rarity for the Archangel of Destiny. "I have a few people working with me who might be up to the job. Over at Destiny, we love a good puzzle."
With the Archangel of Destiny's atypical approval, Dominic's proposal was adopted for closer study, pending another decision after the study had been completed.
As the meeting broke up, Marc approached Dominic. "Well, Dom, good work today! Very... Just. More like the Dominic I used to know - tough, but fair."
Dominic gave a rueful smile. "Yes, well, amazing what taking a little time off and getting a little perspective can do. Oh, speaking of which, while I was down there, Joy dropped in and visited. That was nice of her. I'd thank her for her kindness, but I haven't seen her around Heaven since I got back. Where is she?"
"Oh, Joy? Well, once she got those splints off of her wings, she was up and raring to get back on the job. Now there is a girl who does love her job! When she comes back for her next assignment, I'll pass along your thanks. By the way, Dom - it's good to have you back."
"It's good to be back. I'd forgotten how beautiful Heaven is."
"That wasn't what I meant."
"I know. But I'd still forgotten how beautiful Heaven is. And it is good to be back."