“You can’t fight city hall.”
~ Earther idiom
The United Hells
Imperial Throne Room of Lucifer
Lucifer struggled to remember the last time he had used the throne room to receive a guest. Typically, he thought it a pretentious and archaic demonstration of arrogance unbecoming a true leader: the kind of leader that held power by respect rather than fear. In recent decades it had become his practice to receive guests on his yacht, or in the terrace overlooking the garden at his palace in Elysium on the border between what had been called Hades and the realm of dreams near Sanctuary Rim. But today, he was not receiving a typical guest. It was the Lord of Limbo who would come calling, and The Prince of Light had to assume he was coming to collect a debt: a debt he had no intention of paying.
Veins of red and orange shifted and flowed through the enormous black marble throne as Lucifer shifted about uncomfortably in an attempt to strike an impressive and imposing figure. It had certainly been some time, he thought, since he had had to do this.
He wore a black silk shirt and immaculately tailored rust-coloured slacks. His black-feathered wings were relaxed and released slightly up and away from his back to create an impression of size – without looking like that was what he was trying to do, of course.
He hated dealing with The Banjoman, and thought of him as unsophisticated – even simple-minded. To Lucifer’s mind, The Lord of Limbo was a painfully difficult adversary to contend with because unlike most other notables in the aristocracy of the multiverse in the vicinity of Sanctuary he could not relate to him.
Hades, Loki, Izanami, The Tin Prince – he could reason, deal and parlay with them. But The Banjoman, as he saw it, was a cretin beneath his capacity for sophisticated negotiation; and worse than that, he was a loose cannon.
He ceased fidgeting on his throne and resolved instead to not over-think what would or would not intimidate the Lord of Limbo and called down to Sir Michael, the once great general of Heaven who was now commander of the Imperial Guard of Hell.
“So where is he?” Lucifer tried to sound perturbed in an attempt to hide his nervousness, but Sir Michael, an archangel himself, and a seasoned warrior with martial skills far exceeding Lucifer’s, was also nervous, and he saw right through his master’s mask.
“We have no way of knowing where he is, Emperor. He is not beholden to the limitations spacetime imposes upon the rest of us. For all we know, he could be here already.”
“THIS one right here, the one with the brains – by rights – should be the one to rule Hell!”
Before anyone could react, The Banjoman had stepped from the residual purple mist that accompanied him from Limbo and slapped the Archangel Michael so hard on the back that he was sent sprawling facedown onto the shiny marble floor.
“He is far more clever than his master! Even if he is not entirely capable of noticing when someone’s got the jump on him!”
Another imperial guard, on the other side of the stairway that rose to the throne where Lucifer sat, dropped his long halberd into position and made for The Banjoman – but almost as quickly as he took action, he froze – as did the other three hundred angels and demons in the throne room. Sir Michael, now getting to his feet while The Banjoman stood and watched with his arms crossed, had barked a telepathic order for everyone to stand down and stand by.
With his back to Lucifer, the Lord of Limbo uncrossed his arms and extended a hand to Sir Michael to help him up. Demonstrating more dignity than should have been possible under the circumstances, Michael did not accept the offered hand, stood to his full height, and regarded The Banjoman with something that was part smirk, part sneer. Begrudgingly, the fiercest of all the warriors of the host of the Seraphim bowed to the Lord of Limbo. There was good humour in is his eyes, but something of a warning as well. The Banjoman smiled in a way that conveyed to the archangel that he respected this good-natured response to such effrontery. Both of them knew the slap on the back had not been intended as a personal insult. Rather it was just theatrics conceived to intimidate Lucifer.
Without taking his eyes off the Lord of Limbo, the archangel announced his arrival in a tone so formal it became parody.
“Lucifer, Prince of Light and High Regent of Hades Prime, Most Esteemed Muse and Cosmic Champion of Free Will, it is my honour to announce as the audience of your eminence, he who is ageless, he who is nameless, and he who knows no peer in the absence of subtlety or the low art of subterfuge (Sir Michael smiled directly at The Banjoman while offering this embellishment) – Emissary of Extremes, Minstrel of Melancholy as well as Mirth, the Lord of Limbo, realm between realms.”
Upon completing the formal introduction, the archangel spread his light-golden wings to their full span and turned to bow low to his Lord, Lucifer. Everyone else in the throne room followed his lead so that the only two left standing were the Lord of Limbo and the Prince of Light who had stood up in accordance with the proper state etiquette of the United Hells.
For a moment there was a tense silence befitting the history between these formidable adversaries.
It was The Banjoman who spoke first.
“Soooo wordy,” he said, adding a long pause to deepen the tension of the moment. Then he erupted with a greeting no one could have anticipated.
“… heeeeeeere’s Lucy!” His arms were outstretched with the bravado of a circus ringmaster introducing a feature performance. His banjo, held out to its full length, pointed directly at Lucifer on his throne and seemed to amplify his voice. And though the Earther reference had been lost on most, there was no doubt among all in the room that what had been said was intended as an insult.
All eyes were on the banjo, which quivered and hummed almost gleefully, at the end of the Lord of Limbo’s arm. Everyone in the room knew enough of its history to regard it with the fear and respect it deserved. But it was not the only menacing talisman in the throne room.
Sir Michael’s hand tightened on the hilt of his legendary sword – a weapon that, despite its magnificent exploits had somehow – like the banjo – remained impossibly nameless. Catching a glimpse of the white flame of the Heaven-forged steel through the crack that had now opened between the crossguard and the locket of Sir Michael’s scabbard, The Banjoman imagined the bedlam that would ensue should the twenty-two darting, blinking eyes, eleven on each side of that blade, present themselves in this room. But he was ahead of himself with these fanciful thoughts, for he knew most certainly that Michael would not attack him even if Lucifer gave the order. At least not in any way that would really bring him to harm.
Still bent low – one knee to the ground in the ceremonial bow of Hell, Michael’s gauntleted sword-hand moved no further. His eyes were locked upon Lucifer watching for a command. But none came. Instead, the Prince of Light stepped lightly and confidently down the stairs until he was face-to-face with The Banjoman.
“Rise Sir Michael,” he said over The Banjoman’s shoulder. “You and the guard are dismissed. Please leave the Lord of Limbo and me to our affairs. I get the impression from our guest’s irregular excess of good manners that he wants something from me.”
Lucifer looked directly into The Banjoman’s eyes, which had now shifted from their usual silver grey to deep purple – a demonstration that he was in this moment boiling with sorcerous potential. “I couldn’t stand for him to bear the embarrassment of asking a favour of me in front of so many.”
The Banjoman chuckled to himself. He had been right. Lucifer was terrified at the prospect of being humiliated in front of his subjects and was trying to cover for it. Free spirit indeed! His thought expressed itself as a snort of derision.
“As you wish, Sire.” Michael stood to his full height and issued a telepathic command for everyone to leave the throne room but stopped when The Banjoman casually swung his banjo around and pressed the drum-end gently against the chest plate of the archangel’s intricately engraved golden armour. The Lord of Limbo did this without looking. His eyes did not leave Lucifer’s.
“I’d prefer nobody left on my account,” he said. “Also Mike, I need you to do that butlery-type thing you do again, with the fancy introduction. For, this is a far grander occasion than any could have foretold! Behold! Hell has another guest, this day.”
Almost as quickly as everyone had risen to their feet, they were all on bent knee again, heads bowed low, this time, almost to the floor.
And though Lucifer did not bow, his reverence for the one who now stepped from the purple mist flashed across his face in a momentary mask of fear that betrayed the legendary grace and composure of the Prince of Light.
At over four meters tall, the new arrival towered over the rest. Wearing nothing but a traditional blue and gold Heliopolian shendyt (skirt), his enormous, dark-skinned physique was awe-inspiring. On his head there was a massive solid gold headpiece elaborately crafted into a long-snouted jackal. And though some of the beings in that room had lived for millions of years by Sanctuary Reckoning, not one of them had ever seen the face under that mask. In his left hand the giant held an ankh by the loop at the top.
“Sir Michael?” When this being spoke the effect of the jackle helmet was such that his voice seemed to issue from within the listener’s own mind.
Every being in the room except for The Banjoman, who had invited this guest, dared not even tremble. The fear was palpable.
“When last we met you served a different master. How does that saying go? Better the head of the rat than the ass of the lion.” The tone was cheerful in that way you know it is said with a smile around it, which made it even more insulting.
The Banjoman was grinning from ear-to-ear. His eyes were still fixed upon Lucifer’s – though Lucifer now paid no heed whatsoever to the Lord of Limbo. His eyes could not leave the new arrival and his head was bowed slightly in a demonstration of reverence.
“You will remember no doubt that I am Lord Anubis of Heliopolis. I am sure you and your master are familiar with the other formal titles I bear. I look forward to hearing you rhyme them off, son of Heaven become pet of Hell.“ The terrifying snouted helm tilted down toward Michael.
Nervously, the archangel got to his feet. He cast a disapproving glance at The Banjoman. And though no one else saw it, The Banjoman gave Michael a quick glance in return: one that conveyed something of an apology and a little gratitude as well. The Lord of Limbo felt for a moment that he had been too severe in his display of animosity toward the archangel, and he thought maybe Anubis was laying it on a little too thick, but it was imperative that Lucifer not know Sir Michael had secretly allowed he and his guest to enter the throne room undetected.
Then, The Banjoman feigned a serious face as he watched Lucifer turn and ascend the stairs to his throne. There was a defeated slouch to his shoulders that was entirely out of character for the Prince of Light. He dropped onto his throne and glared at The Banjoman just as the Commander of the Imperial Guard of Hades Prime completed the formal introduction.
“… Esteemed Officer of the Order of the Binary Protocol, Supreme Arbiter of the Soul Traders Guild, and Emissary of the Celestial Necropolis, Lord Anubis.”
“Thank you Sir Michael. Now let’s get straight to the matter at hand. Lucifer – ”
Anubis stepped forward and turned to face the throne of Hell head-on. His remarkable height was such that the raised throne and the giant Heliopolian god’s head placed Lucifer and Anubis almost perfectly eye-to-eye.
“It has come to my attention that you have fabricated a false debt to negate an honest one. And by the authority granted me as ruler of the immortal Celestial Necropolis – most sacred and incorruptible – I have come to render judgment on this matter.”
With his head bowed in reverence along with all the rest of the imperial guard, no one could see the slight smile that came upon the face of the archangel Michael.
Lucifer’s fists were shaking on the arms of his throne.
In The Banjoman’s experience, the least trustworthy person in any room with a throne in it was – almost without exception – the person sitting on the throne.
This was a classic example of that.
In his signature strategic style of attacking from in between – not just the places regarded by most, but also from in-between the notions and concepts most erroneously regarded as absolute truths, he had executed his plan to perfection.
The Prince of Light had not spoken more than twenty words; and The Banjoman had said even less.
Lucifer was not evil per se, but he was the very embodiment of rationalization. He could talk anyone – even himself – into anything. So, The Banjoman had surmised, the less he talked in the rectification of these affairs, the better.
And of course, it did not hurt to have friends in high places. Or in this case, to have friends who have friends in high places.
The Banjoman, holding Lucifer’s gaze, ceremoniously removed his dusty bowler hat. And though there was a stern look on his face befitting the serious nature of the proceedings, there was a twinkling glee in his eyes that was only for the Prince of Light.
When the proceedings were done, and all the souls he was owed were nested imperceptibly into his aetheric field, the Lord of Limbo bowed melodramatically to the Commander of the Imperial Guard of the United Hells. Michael, uncharacteristically grim of face, did not return the courtesy.
Then, leaving the host of the United Hells to entertain the Lord Anubis, their unexpected guest of state, The Banjoman walked through the crowd of demons, and angels gathered there.
With pleasure, he noted that the whispered gossip about Lucifer’s loss of face had already begun as he opened his third eye and stepped across the threshold between Hell and the nowhere and the everywhere of Limbo.
And he smiled.
He smiled for Sir Michael, who had been given a chance to hurt the one he now served despite despising him.
He smiled for Kip Kilroy who had given him the letter he had delivered to Anubis. He had not read the letter but he had guessed what was in it.
He smiled for Kilroy’s beloved, the Lady Anuket who, though tragically lost, had received some small justice this day.
And he smiled for Lady Anuket’s brother, Anubis, who though he could not prove it, had long suspected that Lucifer had played a part in his sister’s murder.
But he did not smile for himself.
For though he had acquired the souls he had come for, he understood the urgency, and the danger, of the purpose they would be put to.
And so in the rolling, boiling purple mist of the realm between realms, the roaring wind that had delivered him to this victory now blew the smile from his darkening face.