“History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
~ Napoléon Bonaparte
Through the corner of her eye, Jasco saw Andy clutching his chest as his astral form collapsed in upon itself. There was a pinprick of green light and he was gone.
All she had worked for, all the progress she had made, was gone with him. It was all because of Leraje. The fury she now felt twisted in with the pain in her leg. She could use it. It joined the energy from her crown and her root in the blue vortex at her throat. With Andy gone safely home she could unleash it now.
And so through the silver megaphone now crushed to her teeth, and into the astral sky, came the horror of the banshee’s scream.
Her servants, the dullahan, the four horsemen, would not come to the quiet realm, she knew – but the sound was enough. Leraje stumbled back and dropped zir bow to impulsively block zir ears. The cyberi walked backwards away from the wailing banshee. Their lowered heads were twisting and flailing in the air and against the ground, trying in vain to escape the relentless onslaught of sound.
Jasco’s jaw ached with the exertion. The pain in her leg, where the snake arrow writhed maliciously and arched the length of its body against the tortured flesh, was excruciating. She felt as though the totality of her consciousness had moved to the wound. Was her will failing? She knew any injury to the astral form was insubstantial and that her meditating body in the Hall of Memories would not suffer from it. Her concern now was whether her silver cord would come and betray the location of her physical body to Leraje. Her voice wavered. She wondered again at how the demon and its hellhounds had not seen Andy and then she screamed in her own head as well as into the megaphone.
After all these months she had been so close. To lose him now, just mere steps away from where Kip would be waiting in the Hall of Memories was infuriating.
The ferocity of her tortured wail was insufferable beyond imagining to the acute hearing of the hounds of Hell. Their thrashing and howling added to the cacophony.
Then, she could maintain it no more. Spent – and not just in her voice – the moon-coloured banshee of Fey slumped forward onto the wine-coloured astral soil.
All she could do now was buy time.
“You do have quite the mouth on you don’t you?” Leraje’s androgynous voice was no less intoxicating as it wavered and cracked through zir struggle to recover from the impact of the scream. Wiping blood from zir ears, Leraje glared at zir prey with redoubled disdain.
Seeing this, Jasco smirked through the haze of the blinding pain, which had now became so intense it was causing her vision to tunnel.
“But your horsemen stooges cannot come here, can they?” the demon had collected her bow and was walking toward Jasco. The cyberi stayed where they were, whining and pawing at their ears.
Jasco could not help but swoon at the pleasure Leraje’s voice stirred in her again. She wondered now if she was clinging to her waning consciousness merely to remain in the presence of that voice. Bewilderingly, she felt that she wanted to impress the demon now – that she longed for zir approval. She was succumbing to the seduction.
“I am yours, Leraje. I can do no more. Truthfully, what chance had I against these Olympian mongrels and their dog.” Her hands now clasped her thigh exerting pressure around where the snake entered and exited. But she could not harm it. It continued to twist and writhe in the wound and around her hands. Jasco rocked back and forth. She blinked the tears out of her eyes so they now left trails upon her soiled cheeks. She felt foam at the corners of her mouth. Just as she began to wonder if she — if anyone — had ever endured pain like this before, she felt the telltale tingling in her solar plexus. Her silver cord was coming. Leraje would find her meditating form in Hypnos Somnos. If Kip were with her, ze would find him there too.
It would all be over. Everything they had worked for would be done.
“Oh! There’s that exquisite faerie mouth again. Such power! Such sass! So delightful. I can see why that cretin, Arawn, has paid so handsomely to have it back.” Leraje had recovered zir bow and had now dropped to one knee before the banshee.
Gingerly, seductively, the demon placed a finger under Jasco’s quivering chin and tilted her head up so their eyes met.
Jasco’s pain retreated slightly as though the very essence of her being could not pass up an opportunity to be this close to such exquisite beauty. The features of Leraje’s fox face; the colour and sensual sheen of zir fur; the elegant, sacred geometrical perfection of zir sloping spiral gazelle-like horns; even the perfume of zir breath were too much now. Jasco tried to drop her head in exasperation – but those eyes — the vastness in them – the love of life – the longing… the longing for her! She could not look away.
“I do have you, don’t I?” Leraje said it in matter-of-fact tone while tilting Jasco’s face here and there as though inspecting a horse at auction.
“But this isn’t the you I want.” The marquis of Hell reached behind zir back with zir free hand and pulled a long hunting knife from a sheath there.
“I’m coming to get you. And who knows what I’ll do with your physical form before I hand you over to that mushroom-addled faerie oaf. I can only imagine what he wants to do to you. Maybe I’ll take you back to Hell first to see if I can do worse…” Zir eyes flickered from cruelty to lust. “… Or better.”
Jasco, unable to look from Leraje’s eyes, felt the tip of the demon’s knife under her ribs. She had been correct about the demon’s endgame: when the knife went in, the retreat of her astral form to the Hall of Memories would lead Leraje to her physical body. A legion of Hell would follow in short order.
But she no longer had the strength to care. She did not even care that Kip would fall with her when they came. All she knew now was that the demon’s mouth was inches from hers. It was all she wanted now.
So complete was Jasco’s longing for Leraje’s mouth on hers that she didn’t hear the hiss of the superheated air or smell the burning fur and flesh that came next. Nor did she notice that the knife point digging into her side was gone.
When the mouth never came, a crushing disappointment that consumed the last remaining spark of her consciousness forced open the banshee’s eyes. And for only a moment, she looked again into the eyes of the demon. But where there had just moments before been such life, now there was only the signature vacancy of death the renegade reaper knew all too well.
Then as the demon’s body listed back and to one side, Jasco saw that the back of its head beneath its horns and behind the beautiful face was completely gone. There was no blood. Just fetid, black smoke. Then the face flopped back horrifically, and down onto the smouldering stump of a neck, and the limp body slumped to the ground.
Jasco had nothing left. The despair arising from the lost kiss had finished her.
She too wilted forward. Her last thought was excitement at the prospect of maybe feeling Leraje’s beautiful body tight against hers.
But the demon’s silver cord had already taken zir back to Hell.
And Jasco too, was gone before she fell.
There was a cramp in her right thigh from having sat in full lotus for so long — but it was a far cry from the pain of the snake-arrow she had known just a moment before. There was no vertigo, no shock. Her experience transitioning between planes, especially by way of projection, had moved her beyond such things years ago. Now, Jasco only felt the sense of calm and sensory clarity that are the hallmarks of moving from the meditative to the waking state.
At first, there was only a lingering sensual pleasure that caused the corners of her mouth to curl up into a slight smile. Then the fear rushed back and her eyes darted about the massive hall. With the remarkable agility of the Fey, she sprang from the full lotus position of meditation to the crouch of Fey-Ral with her wolf-fang-handled knife at the ready.
She sniffed frantically for the sulphuric stench of an open Hellhole. There was nothing. If Leraje was coming for her, it might take her time.
Then she saw Kilroy.
With his back to her, he kneeled in the centre of the massive archway opening onto the astral plane. In front of him was a stone bench he had dragged from its proper place against the wall to the right of the open archway.
His head was slumped down onto the bench and the banshee now saw that he had just come out of a static marksman position. His right elbow rested by his head on the bench and the smoldering barrel of the only remaining Martian sun-pistol in existence pointed straight upward toward the ceiling. She imagined the muzzle of it had just moments before rested almost touching the transition to the astral realm.
“Welcome back, Betty,” Kilroy said it without looking up, and despite the fact they had failed utterly in acquiring Ancaster Crowley, he said it with the good humour he was so well known for.
Then he turned around and rested his back against the bench.
“Sorry I had to blow Veronica’s head off.” With the jacketed forearm of his pistol hand he wiped the sweat of concentration from his forehead. “Or was it Reggie?” He feigned a quizzical expression. “I couldn’t tell from here.”
And in that moment, even a dashing Kip Kilroy full-faced grin could not make Jasco feel any better.
Even the spicy heat of the Stygian brandy had not helped. Of course Kip had been optimistic in his assessment: at least Leraje, for whatever reason, had not seen Andy and he had returned to Sanctuary unharmed. At least his sun-pistol shot had taken the demon out before Jasco’s silver cord had pulled her back and so their location had not been discovered.
Kilroy had trained his whole life to be steward to the one who would be Abraxas. So long as there was hope regarding their chances for success with Andy – it would be front-and-centre with him.
But Andy’s welfare was not what was bothering her now. Nor was it her concern that the Earther might have been so frightened by the whole affair with Leraje that he would now be more reluctant than ever to cooperate with them.
What consumed her thoughts in this moment were the details duty demanded she hide from Kilroy, and her resentment of being put in what she felt to be an unethical position by the Pharaoh. Indeed, by the Pentarchy itself!
She took another sip of the brandy. This far out on the Sea of Tears, the stars shone further into the blue-green part of the spectrum and the black of space was more of a slate grey. It was beautiful to her. She was always comforted by the sensation of being between things rather than in the thick of them. Being out here always offered a reprieve. Sailing between dimensions upon the Sea of Tears was one of the benefits of having fallen in with Kilroy.
The beauty of the night out here, the warmth of this third mug of brandy would give her the strength she needed to recollect that night when she had met with the Pharaoh. She wanted to be perfectly clear on what was going to happen next, now that Andy had likely retreated to Sanctuary, and very likely into himself. She wanted to be sure she did not slip up and, in so doing, reveal something to Kip that would betray her responsibility to her ultimate mission.
She drained her glass and reminded herself that deceiving her friend was a necessity. She had no choice.
Her mind then was back in the luxurious antechamber of the Martian Imperial throne room of the grand pyramid on Memphis Nova I.
“Who will harvest his soul?” she asked? Which house? Which reaper? It should be me!
“You of all people should know we cannot know those things! It is not like we have arranged this! Is that what you think is happening here? No! It comes from the Norns themselves that this is indeed the lad’s time. That this is what would be. We cannot meddle! We cannot know the details!” The Pharaoh’s tone was emphatic without being angry.
“In the event that you fail to win the spawn over to our cause, we must use his friend’s death to assure him that his experiences beyond Sanctuary were not a merely a dream or a fabrication of his Earther mind. I don’t like it either. It is unsavoury. But you know the stakes in this.”
“Please Lord, do not call him that.” Jasco was demure, she respected the Pharaoh and genuinely did not want to offend him. The large man, who was looking out the antechambers enormous windows turned his head and looked at the banshee. There was a quizzical look on his face.
“Spawn.” She clarified.
The Pharaoh smiled gently at Jasco, and she could tell he was suppressing the deep, boisterous laugh he was known for.
“Yes, of course, Jasco, I am sorry.”
There was another, longer pause.
“This is difficult for all of us you understand,” he finally said.
“Sometimes power demands service. Sometimes the greater good demands a lesser evil.” The kindness in both his manner and his voice comforted her then, for it was sincere.
“This is a small thing we do. We have hinted to the one called Deborah that their friend Nicholas will die in the future and that Ancaster will know what to do. The tragedy is not of our making and is the natural course of things. We have been told he will drown at a party and we simply use the situation to convince master Crowley of the truth of his recent experiences beyond. All of this to bring him hopefully into our service – into the service of all life in the multiverse.”
He was still looking out the window as he spoke.
“The message you have planted in this Earth girl’s dreams is the seed of countless noble deeds that will span all of reality for all of time. It is the way of heroes and legends, Jasco.”
He turned and walked to the reaper then. Her eyes were welling up with tears and the great Garuk Motunkhamen embraced her.
“It is a hell of sorts, Jasco, to be at the centre of things. Reality is oscillation, and though the pivot of the pendulum moves not, it bears all of the weight.”
“If this is such a small thing we do, why must I keep it from Kip? She looked up at him like a daughter who, knowing full well her father cannot provide the answer she wants, will be satisfied enough merely to hear his voice attempt one.
“Sir Kipling’s burden in this is far greater than all of ours.” He said, pushing an errant strand of her luminous moonbeam hair away from her tear-filled eyes.
“And his loyalty to the sole sorcerer of Sanctuary will be a thing of legends. They will be as one force together; a force for good; for salvation. Kip has trained his whole life for this. There can be no deception, no secrets between them. You must lift that weight from him. You do him immense service in this, though he knows it not.”
Jasco pulled back then and wiped her own eyes. She straightened and summoned her composure.
“The poor girl, Deborah, she will lose this boy, Nick. And then we will take Andy from her.” She said.
“We say much here of small things, though this is no small thing for her.” She said it solemnly. It was her turn to look out the window. Against the backdrop of Jupiter, which filled the sky, she spotted the hot glow of a Fey Coven witchcraft on re-entry to the east.
“This girl, Deborah, remember…” the Pharaoh was reverent then. Ominous even. The weight of what he said next was not lost on Jasco of Fey.
“… though she knows it not in her waking life, is also Commander Peregrinus-Sherle of the Morphean Guard. She will play no small part in all of this either I imagine, before all reckoning is done.”