“Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus should we be, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World.”
~ Black Elk
Anishinaabe Sweat Lodge
1984 AD SR
Torus Phi, director of the Olympian Clandestine Colonization and Acquisition Marshals (OCCAM) was one of the most renowned strategic and mathematical minds in the multiverse. As such, he was capable of doing his job in his head from anywhere. Sometimes this was a beneficial trait. Other times, a liability.
In the present moment, as he shivered by a crackling fire in the hinterland off the coast of the great celestial lake Gichigami, he was inclined to think of his occupational mobility as the latter.
Having become lightheaded from exhaling more air than he inhaled in an attempt to avoid poisoning himself on what he thought to be the toxic campfire smoke, it was a wonder he had been capable of compiling his evening intelligence briefing for Emperor Zeus.
Dizzily, he rose to his feet and absentmindedly sniffed the shoulder of his glowing white Olympian military tunic. Just as he expected, it reeked of the awful smoke of the burning alien wood. Turning his head, he snorted all the mucous he could into his mouth – and spat into the carpet of pine needles at his feet.
Well, he thought to himself. At least once the Emperor hears my report, we will be leaving this nightmare of a place.
Somewhere in a starry sky, shattering a deeper silence than Torus Phi had ever experienced before, an eagle cried and was answered by a howling wolf.
How the Emperor thought he would find the answers to anything amongst such wild, primitive savagery he could not fathom. This had to have been Hera’s idea.
The sooner this is over the better, he thought as he trudged in his knee-high black boots toward the sweat lodge of the one Zeus had called the Fifth Grandfather, where ostensibly, the Emperor was learning of something he had called Dabaadendiziwin. Phi remembered that the word meant the intrinsic humility of being or something like that. He shook his head and laughed to himself.
I look forward to seeing how ‘humble’ his response to intelligence indicating Ares has met with Lucifer will be.
Then, forcing the grin from his face, pressing his shoulder blades back and tugging his tunic into proper position, Torus Phi opened the door to the lodge.
Against the steaming heat of the place he announced himself and walked forward. Sweat was already dripping into his eyes. Cursing to himself, Torus Phi blinked it away until, through the steam, he saw the enormous wolf Zeus had come to see. Beside the wolf sat his liege, the fabled emperor of Olympus: once, a tall, athletic, bearded man said to be the most classically handsome of all men anywhere, he was now a black-furred silverback gorilla of unnatural size. He reclined against the sticks and animal skins of the wall, sweating contentedly in the oppressive heat.
“Phi!” Zeus roared enthusiastically. His gorilla physiology had amplified the thunderous impact of his legendarily powerful voice. “Disrobe man! Join us! There is an abundance of wisdom to be had here. By the Grandfather’s grace, I would not have you miss out.” The gorilla turned to the wolf, whose kind, patient eyes regarded Torus as he stood sweating.
“Commander Phi could use a heaping dose of Daba… Dabdxada… err, humility!” Zeus said to the one called Grandfather Wolf. Phi noticed that the emperor made to slap the wolf on the shoulder, but managed to restrain himself at the last moment.
“Yes sire.” Without showing his embarrassment for his master’s uncouth demeanour and the mangling of this foreigner’s language (he was more than accustomed to that by now), Torus Phi began to undress.
“But first! Zeus said. “What news of the realm have ye?”
Torus Phi, thought about how in how in mere moments he would transform this uncharacteristic calm the Emperor was enjoying into one of the arrogant, raging tantrums he was infamous for, and knowing his face was hidden as he bent to remove his boots, he celebrated what was about to transpire with a secret smirk.
“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time.”
~ Albert Camus
The brandy had not helped Jasco sleep, and so, though she lay in her berth on the Lady Anuket, she sat now in Sisyphus’s diner on the astral plane.
“He’s happy! He’s in love! He has his whole life ahead of him!” She said it with genuine distress and Sisyphus was moved by the rare emotion the reaper conveyed. He didn’t say anything. He knew it was she who needed to do the talking.
“I have no choice in all this, Sisyphus.” She said it as a plea for his acceptance. “So much is at stake. That is all I can tell you. But even knowing I must do these things — that I have no choice — I cannot help but feel that the cost is too high! What I have done may destroy Deborah’s sanity. Nicholas dying will only make it worse. How can I be a part of these terrible things? The banshee buried her face in her hands and said, “As above, so below. Yes! But also – as below, so above! No?”
“I knew you needed to talk about this when you brought Andy here.” The Olympian had stopped tidying behind the counter and pulled a stool out from under it to sit down.
“I sensed the latent power of his sorcery, Jasco.” Sisyphus tried to look into the reaper’s eyes but her head was still down. “How is it possible for a native of Sanctuary to possess such sorcery – or to access any sorcery at all for that matter?”
“That, I can tell you, is a mystery to all,” Jasco said. She had collected herself somewhat and was now looking into her glass. She was embarrassed and not accustomed to so openly sharing her feelings as she had done.
There was a long pause as both reflected on the strangeness of recent events.
It was Sisyphus who broke the silence. His voice was gentle.
“That he is from Sanctuary, and potentially a sorcerer, means he is a variable in the cosmic balance of power. That he be properly managed then is essential.” The Olympian moved his head in an attempt to incite Jasco to meet his eyes. When their eyes met and held he continued.
“I hope you are not here asking one doomed to push a rock up a hill for all of time for a dissertation on ends justifying means?”
A look of guilt came across Jasco’s face then. “No, Sisyphus, I …”
Sisyphus interrupted her. “No Jasco! The pointlessness of my existence is exactly the point!” There was a smile in his eyes.
The reaper resolved to listen – to let the Olympian finish what he had to say.
“I was cursed to an eternal act of futility precisely because of my ability and willingness to intervene as an agent for change, for justice, for what I believed was the right thing to do. Just like Prometheus did, only I was never forgiven.
He paused, and appeared for a moment more forlorn than Jasco had ever seen him before. Then in a voice that cracked, perhaps with anguish, perhaps with rage, Sisyphus said, “I know better than any the high price of championing a cause. But if I could go back and live those days again – even knowing what ceaseless agony awaited me – I would not hesitate to do the wrong thing for the right reason again. Given the chance to change what happened Jasco, even knowing the torture and humiliation Zeus had in mind, it would end yet again with me pushing this accursed rock.”
Jasco reached across the counter and put her small pale hand upon his, which was large and golden with Olympian aether. She thought then of the silver moon of Fey and the golden sun of Olympus, and in that moment a sense of the balance of things came to her.
She searched for something comforting to say, but the Olympian spoke before she could find it.
“Considering all the things you’ve seen in all your years – all the mourning and heartbreak you have witnessed as a collector of souls, it is a marvel to me that you fret so over the broken heart of a child of Sanctuary.” Sisyphus’s eyes squinted and his head shook to convey confusion.
“Hearts,” Jasco said, kindly emphasizing the plural. “When next I meet Andy, how do I broach the death of his friend? “How do I explain how Deborah knew it would happen? What of Nicholas’s family? What of Andy’s? Do I tell Andy it was me who planted the message in Deborah’s dreams? Oh, how furious he will be!”
“You forget that Nicholas was fated to die, Jasco” Sisyphus said it matter-of-factly. “Much of the suffering in these events is not related at all to your part in this. All you have done is whisper the truth of an inevitable tragedy in Deborah’s ear. As for Master Crowley leaving Sanctuary, Deborah, and his life there, that is something he will do – not you.”
“You see all so clearly, Sisyphus.”
“I have the distance and the time for as much,” said the Olympian, without completely hiding his sadness as he said it.
“I am not sure Andy will see it all the way you have described. That is the challenge that remains to me. How do I get him through the anger he will doubtless feel for all this meddling in his affairs and the affairs of those he loves — all while the pain of his Nick’s death is still new.”
“The curse is the blessing. The blessing, the curse.” The Olympian said it proudly, as though he had not only crafted this cryptic truth – but knew it and owned it completely.
Jasco recalled many conversations they had shared about how he viewed Zeus’s punishment for him as the blessing that had delivered him to the life he enjoyed now as a restaurateur in the quiet realm.
“Nicholas’s death is not your obstacle here, Jasco. It is your opportunity.” He leaned toward her as he said it, and enjoyed the twinkle of realization he saw ignite in the banshee’s eyes.
“There is an obvious play here,” he continued. “A way to convince the lad to meet with Cormac Kilroy. He winked at her. You are a reaper, Jasco. Even better – a renegade one, with no fealty to any house! You can offer him something few others in all of reality can.”
The Olympian paused to see if she would grasp the plan he was laying out for her.
He enjoyed watching her search her thoughts for what he was implying, then, unable to help himself, he continued.
“Osiris, Balder, Persephone, Lazarus, it has been done more than once before.”
Her eyes widened suddenly and the silver glow of the Fey-fire surged into her face.
Yes, she was a reaper! The solution exploded across her mind. Of course! It had taken the quiet, detached reasoning of Sisyphus to make her see this, for hope was not an obvious weapon in the arsenal of one whose vocation was the collection of souls – verily, a herald of hopelessness.
Nicholas would drown in the river, his proper fate unfolding in accordance with what the Pharaoh had heard from the Norns. She could tell Andy the truth of this. This was not deception or duplicity. The message she had imparted to Deborah in the dream realm that Nicholas would die and that Andy would know what to do when he did had been an unfortunate necessity. It was required to convince him that what he had experienced beyond, that all that had happened on the astral plane had not been a dream or a trick of his mind.
All of it, though unfortunate, was necessitated by the pressing need – the multiverse’s need – to have him meet with Kilroy, and in so doing, come to understand his sorcerous potential and his essential role in the salvation of reality itself.
She would make it clear that she had not caused the death of his friend, but had been forced by his unwillingness to work with them to send the message through Deborah to ensure he knew what had happened was real. She knew he would be angry, yes. Any reasonable person would be. But the solution to overcoming his anger would be that which Sisyphus had just now proposed.
“You brilliant devil! No wonder even the fearless Emperor of Olympus feared you so!”
She was the renegade reaper, Jasco of Fey, banshee liege of the dread dullahan: a harvester of souls: a veritable scholar of the mechanics, rules and geography of death.
She would tell Andy that, though she had no part in his friend’s dying, that she could find Nick’s soul — and that she could resurrect him.
And in that moment, knowing full well what it would cost her to do this forbidden thing, she fully intended to keep that promise.
A wide smile came upon her face, and to both Jasco and Sisyphus it seemed she had resolved to accept all the things she had done – and the things she had yet to do.
Her bright eyes, which had been darting here and there in that way they do when one is formulating a notion in the mind, came to rest then upon Sisyphus’s, and without a word both knew a corner had been turned and a course in reality had been set.
Sisyphus slapped the counter causing two shot glasses to appear. She knew by their licorice scent, that this would be a toast to mark a void that had become a notion, that in turn and time, for good or ill, would become a reality.
With only his eyes, Sisyphus affirmed this much. And with his mouth he said, “May Apollo’s golden light guild the souls of Master Nicholas, and Mistress Deborah. Though they may know not their part in great and noble undertakings – it is enough that we know!”
The banshee and the Olympian smiled as they clinked their glasses together. Before they drank, the Sisyphus completed the toast, “and may a balance of the wisdom of Athena and the cunning of Hera find realization in the fine mind of perplexing Master Ancaster Crowley, Sole Sorcerer of Sancturary!”
The ouzo warmed the banshee’s heart in more ways than one.
“On to practical matters then!” Boisterously, Sisyphus slammed his glass down.
“I have no doubt that the scale, and perhaps also the significance the caper you’ve involved yourself in are unprecedented.” His face took on a nostalgic caste. Jasco wondered at what he was about to say.
“Much transpires in Sanctuary of late, Jasco. And I speak of much larger things than your dalliances with Earthers on the proximal planes.” Jasco fidgeted nervously on her stool. On many occasions before, Sisyphus had warned her that her interactions with Earthers in the realm of dreams and on the astral plane came dangerously close to being violations of the Eden Edict – the sacred rule of non-interference in the lives of Earthers. Reapers were permitted to collect the souls of the dying. Nothing more. Like everyone else, they were bound by the Binary Proclamation.
“Of what do you speak?” She leaned in, her eyes wide. With a thought, a fresh whisky materialized in her hand.
“I have long feared you would come to pay a dear price for your adventures in the proximal planes: that the Knights of Oblivion would hold you to account for what they deem a violation of the Edict. Indeed, when first you told me of what transpired with Leraje, I wondered if she was not an agent of the Knights.”
Jasco shuddered visibly at the mention of the demon’s name.
“If you think they would keep such company, then you hold the Knights in far less esteem than do I.” Jasco drained her glass.
“I do not think the marquis Leraje sought you at their behest. Far from it Jasco.” I believe you flit about the fringe of Sanctuary with impunity – and that you have enjoyed the rather-too-conveniently averted attentions of not only the Knights of Oblivion, but dare I say, also of The Five as well.”
A measure of the silver light in Jasco’s countenance faded away. Her eyes widened and her jaw clenched.
“Why do you say this?”
A satisfied look rose within Sisyphus’s handsome face.
“On occasion, as you know, I must return to my physical form in the prison in Olympus Mons.” Jasco nodded eagerly, curious to know where this was going.
“In the brief instant during which my astral body returns to or departs from my cell, I relish a glimpse of the only two beings I have seen in the physical realm for eons. Call it checking in on my friends.” He smiled at his joke, but Jasco saw the deep sadness in his eyes.
“Just two days past now, in that instant of transition, I glimpsed a sight bittersweet to me, for one I have known a moment-at-a-time every day for ten eons past was no longer in his cell.”
Jasco was in awe. Questions filled her mind, but her mouth in that moment was incapable of forming words.
“Loki remained as always in his cell, Jasco…”
Sisyphus’s face was radiant and Jasco saw that all the sadness had left it. Only a childlike exuberance remained. Joy for a friend’s newfound freedom.
“… but Cronos was gone. And by the nature of the ragged hole I saw in the floor, I would say he was assisted in his leaving.”
“Yes indeed, Jasco of Fey, reaper of no realm, much transpires of late in Sanctuary. Too much I think to go unnoticed by the Pentarchy. I am not certain, old friend – and do not take this as an invitation to succumb to carelessness – but I think you have cause to go forth boldly with confidence in the decisions you have made here…”
The legendary, tortured philosopher of Olympus seemed not tortured at all in that moment, and Jasco took comfort in his relaxed manner.
“…for it appears to me you just may have friends in the highest of places.”
The Banjoman knelt beside Nexusa’s enormous head and whispered into her ear.
“Rest yet ancient one. We have many hours still to travel and your strength shall return as we approach the core.” He stroked her neck gently.
Cronos stood on the platform and watched the Lord of Limbo and the warmole. After what was likely the longest prison sentence ever served by any living being, everything was as a miracle to him now. For so long, he had processed no more than the four walls of his cell. His eyes were wide as saucers and the grin never left his face.
Turning on the platform and shifting his perception of time, he slowed the passage of the walls that hurtled upward toward the dark point now miles above them. For him sensation of the platform plummeting smoothly toward Mars’s core ceased almost completely.
Letters, magic circles, hieroglyphs, runes, and numbers of every culture he had known, and some he had not, were carved with remarkable precision into the circular shaft that encompassed the platform. Part of a long spiraling pattern, the markings wound round and round a remarkable distance that stretched from the tip of an inverted pyramid buried beneath Mars’s service down into the archaic realization engines at the red planet’s core.
Cronos marvelled at the scale of the undertaking. Even as the platform dropped at what he guessed was Martian terminal velocity, it was going to take hours to reach the core. He wondered how long it must have taken to carve these details all along this shaft, which stretched the radius of the entire planet. When he recollected that there were 22 such shafts, eleven around the equator and eleven around Mars’s prime meridian, he surmised that the structures were likely Martian talismans: constructs of the minds of the long-extinct Martian imagineers.
“Wonderous, is it not?” The Banjoman had joined Cronos as he admired the carvings. Upon hearing the Lord of Limbo’s voice, Cronos shifted his consciousness back to the natural rate of the arrow of time.
“Indeed,” Cronos said. “The time it must have taken. Or no time at all, if they were conjured into being.”
“The lost Martian alchemy of the imagineers.” The Banjoman said. “Somehow they managed to draw and focus the unstable accessible probability near the Rim. I find Sanctuary to be the most interesting place in all existence. Out here on the Rim this alchemy developed as a means to cope without magic. Deeper inward toward the sun on the worlds known as the Lover, the Messenger, and Sanctuary Proper, which they call Earth now, the perplexing sciences and arts that have evolved in the absence of magic are fascinating and inspiring beyond imagining to me.”
“All of this so nearby all these years.” Cronos turned his head to address The Banjoman. The titan’s eyes showed no sadness or regret, but rather shone with the excitement and wonder of a child. “I should have liked to have explored some of it again. I can only imagine how much it has changed since last I visited these quaint realms.” His head bowed to the platform and his eyes were closed.
“But alas,” he eventually continued. “It is not to be, is it Banjoman. We have a bargain.”
“That we do Cronos, and I am sure you can guess from the ruckus your breakout is going to cause, that we have not undertaken your participation in this caper lightly.” The Lord of Limbo paused for a moment.
“It cuts me deeply that you, so newly liberated from bondage, should not have an opportunity to enjoy it.”
Cronos put his hand on the shoulder of the Lord of Limbo.
“I have no need of freedom, Banjoman.” The titan said. “I have in my way found it already. I have seen much old friend. And having had so much time to contemplate all that I’ve seen, I know now that all I wish to experience is that which you and the Pharaoh have arranged for me. In the end, is not the complete relinquishment of self the ultimate adventure: the most delicious gamble? After perhaps too many adventures and perhaps too much time to reflect upon my deeds, I have come to believe that given enough time in one life we come to desire death with an intensity like to that which was once directed only toward the defiance of it. Surely you understand my curiosity in this?”
“I am not yet ready for that last adventure,” said the Banjoman. “But then I have not seen all that you have, or experienced the uninterrupted span of solitary contemplation you have been burdened with. Or should I say blessed?”
“A burden in the beginning,” Cronos was pensive. “A blessing in the end. You of all people can begin to understand what I mean by this, Lord of Limbo.”
“You flatter me, Cronos. I cannot possibly know what you have experienced. But I can see in your eyes that wisdom and grace is yours now where once there had been nought but the uniquely spectacular obnoxiousness of Olympian youth.”
They both laughed then, and The Banjoman saw that the titan was genuinely happy.
“To our bargain then Banjoman,” Chronos roared. And the Lord of Limbo saw the light of the aether returning in the titan’s eyes, and the golden glow rising in his primordial Olympian flesh. The energies of the realization engines were feeding Cronos. Power the Olympian had not known for sixteen millennia was returning to him.
Despite this, The Banjoman did not fear him, for his character was no longer that of the petulant Cronos of old.
“I am not aware of what happened when you did this before.” The Banjoman said. “Another of Olympus’s many dirty little secrets I imagine.” He said it lightly and they both chuckled.
“Yes, only once, millennia ago, I did what you ask me to do now in an attempt to undo a wrong I had done Rhea.” Cronos’s head was heavy and he did not look at the Banjoman as he spoke. Then he lifted his eyes and locked them onto the Lord of Limbo’s.
“And as much as I regret what I did to her – I regret the mess made by the attempt at undoing it even more. You may, all of you, come to rue the day you asked me to do this thing. The sanity of all in reality hangs upon the thread of time and it is a fragile thread in my experience. But I am satisfied in having warned you, I do not care to impose my perspectives. My course is set by what I am about to do, and I am satisfied with its direction. The choices of others are theirs.”
The Banjoman felt deeply sad for the titan and put his hand on his shoulder. “As a reader of time and one for whom passage through space and between realms is not what it is for others, I know of that which you speak better than most, Cronos. Yet I say again, we do not do this thing hastily or thoughtlessly. We do it because it is truly necessary.”
“Besides, after all these years old friend – you must know that I, at least care not one way or the other what comes — not that much anyway. And after all the time you have had to do nought but contemplate all of our parts in things, surely you now know that, though there be many paths, all come to one destination in the end.”
A small smile came to Cronos’s face, for he knew The Banjoman better. He knew he did care. The changeability and intensity of his passions were legendary. But he knew also that he had said it because he was capable of being kind and agreeable.
“Time has bestowed more wisdom on you than me, Banjoman. I have borne the pain of living longest of all beings, and in so doing I believe there is a chance I have come closer than most to comprehending the grace of The All. I have had a long time to think about what I need.”
And The Banjoman felt then that he stood in the presence of the glory of the Cronos of old. The weak forces of accessible probability gathered from the transitional reality in proximity to the Rim and focused at Mars’s core were permeating him. The golden glow of Olympus was in him now and still growing. It was the ancient glow. The Banjoman had only ever seen it before in Gaia: the glow of the true Olympians: the demiurges – the oldest beings in existence.
“To finally die, to finally be born again – and so to forget at an end so as to learn from a beginning. Tabula rasa is the salvation I crave: for is it not true that only in the absence of knowledge can there be an abundance of wonder.”
Then, surprising them both, for it was rare that it ever spoke to any other than The Banjoman, the banjo murmured a thought into theirs.
“Yes, Cronos. Yes!” it said in the words that are not really words when minds speak to one another directly.
The Lord of Limbo and the father of time, both surprised, looked at one another; and each laughed at the silly expression of on the face of the other.
“Your strategy garners the highest of praise!” The Banjoman said. “Our deal seems a certainty then. You will have your wish Cronos.”
That the banjo had spoken was also a sign that, even though hours still remained in their journey, the platform approached the magical core: the one place, by way of ancient Martian ingenuity, where sorcery was made possible within the treasured realm of magicless Sanctuary.
The Banjoman looked over to see that Nexusa was awake and stirring to her feet. Her eyes met his but she did not speak. As a soldier of Limbo she would show deference to him in the company of others. But she did offer a nod to her master to indicate she was returning to strength and that digging into spacetime through the Martian core and back out into Limbo would be possible again when the time came.
“I have no doubt you will honour our bargain Banjoman,” Cronus pointed with his eyes to the sentient banjo.” For I know your partner will hold you to it.”
There was relief in the titan’s eyes that warmed The Lord of Limbo’s heart – and also allayed his fears, for he was about to deliver one of the most volatile temperaments and powerful wielders of aether to have ever lived back beyond The Rim.
“When am I going to?” Cronos asked.
“1963, by Sanctuary Reckoning.” And as The Banjoman said the words, the happiness he had felt for Cronos, and the comfort he had felt in the choices he had made and was making now, fell away from him completely.
For despite the necessity of what they were about to do, he knew he would always feel nought but regret for the doing of it.