“We’re moving too slowly without the horses,” said Primo. “I’m afraid we won’t make it to the mountains in time.”
“When will the moon reveal the entrance to Hell?” asked Shrike.
“Tonight, I think. Perhaps tomorrow, too. After that, it will be invisible for a month.”
“Show me where we are on the map.”
Primo pulled the Braille map from his jacket and placed the fingertips of Shrike’s right hand on one set of raised dots. “We’re here,” he said. He moved he hand north to another set of raised dots. “We need to be here.”
“If we push through, we can make the base of the mountains late tonight,” Shrike said. “But we’ll have to rest at mid-day.”
“I’d rather not, ma’am.”
“I know, but we all have injuries and no one’s had any sleep. I don’t want us limping and yawning into the underworld.”
“You’re right, of course.”
They’d been walking most of the night, since an hour or so after the attack. Food and water was weighing heavier on their backs with each step. Spyder had a length of the Count’s rope tied around his waist and this was tied to Lulu’s left wrist. She was blindfolded with a yellow scarf, like a Tibetan prayer flag, Shrike had taken from a boudoir conjured by her magic book. Lulu didn’t have much to say as they trudged through the sand. She never let the four-ten drop from resting on her shoulder, Spyder noted.
“How you doing, Lulu?” Spyder asked.
“Feel like I’m your rottweiler bitch you’re taking out for a whiz. Find me a fire hydrant so I can mark my territory.”
“You’re lots sweeter than a rottweiler. Hell, you might be a Shih-Tzu. Maybe one of those little Teacup poodles old ladies like.”
“It’s not wise to taunt a woman with that much firepower,” said Count Non. “That gun is enchanted and will never run out of shells.”
“I have this demon-made knife Madame Cinders gave us. Is that some kind of demon blunderbuss?” asked Spyder.
The Count sighed. “The way you people use words, it’s a wonder you understand each other at all. Every vaguely inhuman creature you find unpleasant or frightening or just strange is a ‘demon’ to you. And everything conjured or made by these creatures is ‘demonic.’”
“Back in San Francisco, there was a fat fucker with a monster mouth right in the middle of his chest. He wanted to eat me. You telling me that wasn’t a demon?”
“He was no more a demon than Primo. Primo is Gytrash. Simply another humanoid race. A different kind of human animal. A more interesting and durable species than you ordinary humans, and probably a bit scary to you First Sphere bumpkins.”
“So, what was Mister Mouth?”
“He sounds like a Bendith,” said Primo. “They’re a particularly ugly sort of troll and aren’t averse to human flesh.”
“A Bendith or possibly a Nagumwasuck,” said Count Non. “You boring one-headed, two-eyed humans are scattered through all the Spheres. Take our Butcher Bird. Like you, she’s an ordinary human, but clearly she didn’t grow up in some First Sphere backwater. She’s lived with other intelligent races and understands the infinite varieties of life, the magical possibilities, that spring from the conjunction of different living species.”
“I was right there with you, Count. Up until the bestiality stuff right at the end,” said Lulu.
“Humans and animal entities have been mating and producing offspring since the world began, little sister. It’s still quite common in regions of the Second and Third Sphere.”
“Okay, Shrike, Lulu and me are white trash, Primo is a Second Sphere
“A fallen angel,” said Count Non. “Demons are from Hell. They serve Lucifer, command his armies, run his cities and, when called upon, torment the souls that have been consigned to the underworld. True demons travel throughout all the Spheres and while they can seduce and despoil almost any creature that catches their fancy, they can’t produce offspring. The demons that exist now are the same ones expelled from heaven long, long ago. Give or take a few.”
“What happened to the demons that aren’t around anymore?”
“The prophets tell us that a few managed to beg and cajole their way back into Heaven. Others are dead. Demons can be moody company and while a human exorcist can, for instance, expel them from a possessed body, they can’t kill them. Only god or another angel can kill an angel, fallen or otherwise.”
“Or an angel’s weapon,” said Spyder, pulling Apollyon’s knife from his belt. “This was made by a demon to kill demons.”
“The weapon is ready, but are you? You will have to get very close to use that. You’ve never even seen a true demon. Will you be able to walk up to your worst nightmare and stick that toothpick in its gut, little brother?”
“The babe to my left is the killer. I’m just here to hump gear and look pretty.”
“You’re doing a fine job,” said Shrike.
“Thank you. Where’d you get all this Trivial Pursuit data, Countdown?”
“I study life. It’s what my people do. We are infinitely curious about the forms that life takes, from insects to angels. We know them and treasure them all.”
“You’re like an anthropologist or a something?”
“Both really. That’s the best way of putting it.”
“An anthropologist with a big, goddamed sword,” said Lulu.
“‘God will put his angels in charge of you to protect you wherever you go. You will trample down lions and snakes, fierce lions and poisonous snakes,’” recited the Count. “Self-preservation is no vice. If a black widow spider tried to bite Charles Darwin, I doubt he would have had much guilt about crushing it under his boot. Loving life doesn’t mean being soft.”
“Amen to that,” said Shrike.
When the sun was almost directly overhead and the sky was unbearably bright, they rested in the belly of a ruined metal storage tank in a scattering of industrial ruins. The night and first part of the day had been rough. Now, they drank water and ate dried meat and what little bread hadn’t been lost in the fight the night before. Things buzzed gently in the ground beneath them. If he weren’t so tired, Spyder imagined that he might have found this alarming.
Later, Shrike lay down beside Spyder. “Thousand fingers massage,” he said.
“The buzzing downstairs. It doesn’t feel so bad.”
“Mmm,” Shrike said and was asleep against him. Spyder closed his eyes and in a few moments, he, too, was asleep.
Spyder was in a scrapyard like the lot behind Santos Raye and Iggy Atkinson’s chop shop, only this scrapyard stretched to the horizon in all directions. Piles of dead cars burned in the distance, sending up gushers of flame and black smoke that boiled together like entwined snakes in the sky. Spyder looked down at the ground. It was wet and bones protruded from the red soil. The burning cars threw his shadow, long and distorted, behind him. When he looked again, Spyder saw his younger self there. He wasn’t surprised. The kid had always been just a step or two behind him. He looked worse than ever. His clothes hung from him in rags as if he’d been in a terrible accident. His eyes were gone and his body looked like something dragged off an autopsy table. Spyder’s shadow self smiled. He was still holding the punch dagger he’d had in Berenice. The blade was still slick with Spyder’s blood.
Spyder knew what was coming. He dragged a heavy femur out of the wet ground so that he could hit the kid when he made his move.
Something came clattering toward Spyder across the scrapyard. A filthy old man with a bit in his teeth was pulling a flaming chariot. The chariot’s rider wore a golden war helmet with a mesh face shield. He pulled that off and Spyder saw that the chariot driver had the same face as the old man with the bit in his mouth. The rider then pulled that face off to reveal a lean, fox-like face that Spyder didn’t recognize. “How many masks are we wearing today?” shouted the rider and he pulled at the face of the old man dragging the chariot. The old man’s skin came off his skull, a limp rag, exposing muscle, bone and mucous. Spyder was still considering this vision when he was staggered by a white hot blow to the back. The punch dagger, ruby red with blood and glittering like Christmas lights, was sticking out of his chest. It had been pushed clean through him, back to front. He felt weak, but the shock to his body was so great that the wound didn’t even hurt.
Shrike screamed and startled Spyder awake. Before he could move, Shrike was up and out of the tank, charging across the desert with her sword drawn. Spyder ran after her, and finally caught her by a collapsed brass tower thirty yards away. Shrike shook and cried, but her body was tense, ready to spring, ready to kill something.
“Were you dreaming?” Spyder asked
“Yes. My father was in Hell being tortured by the bastard, Xero Abrasax.”
“Was he pulling a chariot?”
“Yes,” said Shrike. “How did you know?”
“I think I might have had part of your dream.”
Shrike breathed deeply. “We’re close to Hell. It can creep into your dreams. That’s good. It means it was just a nightmare and not an omen.”
“Yeah. We just dreamed what scares us the most.”
“But why did you dream about my father?”
“I don’t know. I know I’m not going to sleep again, that’s for sure.”
“Listen, let’s just go till we reach the mountains. No more bullshit. No more pit stops. We wait for it to cool off and we walk till we drop.”
Shrike nodded and they walked back to the tank. The others were all up, looking pale and agitated, as if they, too, had been awakened by disturbing dreams. There wouldn’t be any arguments about pushing straight on through to the Kaslans.