Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #Fantastic Fiction, #Wizards, #Fantasy - Series
Well, no, I didn't, actually-just from the clues, I had a notion she had been maximally mean to everybody she'd ever known, and people aren't that quick to forgive. So I changed the subject. "It doesn't get done in a day, of course-you have to earn trust, earn forgiveness by proving you've reformed-and proving it again and again for years and years. They'll punish you at first, sure, but you deserve it by now, don't you?"
"I did not when I was a maiden!" she said hotly. "Where was their good will then?"
"That was then," I reminded. "How much punishment do you deserve now? "
It was quiet, down there in the dark. Then she began to cry. I hate the sound of a woman crying. "Please," I said. "Please don't cry. I'll get you out of there somehow."
"I have been so evil!" she wailed. "I deserve death, slow and agonizing death! Nay, what if they were to do to me as I've done to them? "
"Maybe it would be quick," I suggested. inside me, my blood ran cold. just how wicked had this woman been, anyway? "Maybe they'd be so angry, they'd just kill you out of hand."
"Then I would be damned!" she howled.
"Not if you'd repented." Then I remembered my Dante. "Sure, you'd spend a long time in Purgatory-but at least it wouldn't be Hell. Besides, the more they hurt you before they killed you, the less time you'd spend in Purgatory." I hated that kind of logic-I had a notion it had resulted in a lot of people torturing themselves, and certainly refusing painkillers when their last hours could have been a lot less agonizing-but it would help in this case.
"I cannot face it," she wept. "I cannot face the tortures I have meted out."
There was a rustling noise, just in front of me.
I froze. Then, very slowly and much against my better judgment, I looked up.
He was very toothy in the grin, very red in the skin, very black in the wings, and very sharp in the horns.
Sobaka saw him and wailed so hard she almost jarred the earth loose.
I found my voice. "Is this your master?"
"Nay!" she howled. "'Tis his minion!" Or some peasant, I realized, come to get revenge by scaring the life out of her.
"Get back, slave," he sneered. "This soul is forfeit!" And he jabbed at my face with his pitchfork.
I recoiled, but reflex took over; I grabbed the pitchfork and yanked, hard. I took him by surprise; he stumbled into the hole and fell flat on his face.
Dirt cascaded down inside.
Sobaka screamed in terror.
I realized I had to work on her delusional system-nothing else was going to work fast enough. "Get out of here," I snapped. "You can't take her soul till she's dead!"
"I shall see to that, too." The devil bared his teeth in a snarl, rolling up to his knees, crouching to spring. "I shall cave in the hole.
Fear not-she's already buried." And he sprang at me. I leapt to the side, rolling. Oh, well, what the hell-I had a delusional system, too. "Guardian angel! This is where violence is authorized! " "It is indeed!" a steely voice sang. "Avaunt thee, hell spawn! Or I shall rend your ectoplasm asunder!" There he was, my guardian angel, twisting the pitchfork into a pretzel and throwing it at the devil. The horny one howled in terror and disappeared.
I wondered just what had been in those berries.
"Only juice," the angel assured me. "I am real, Saul. Remember." I was thinking at a frantic pace. "Uh, before you go, could you step ver to that hole, for a second?"
"Wherefore?" The angel frowned down at the hole-and then, bless him, he stepped up to the brim and called down. "Sobaka! Call on God, and He shall yet send your angel to ward you! I have banished your demon, but he will not stay gone when I go!"
I couldn't take a chance on any more hesitating. I began to chant, "Aid me now, insightful Freud,
To help this woman to avoid Paranoia stemming from Insecurities that come From toxic parents, spiteful peers, And all anxieties and fears They bred, that are a key That locked inferiority Into her soul, therein to fire Hot into a complex dire.
Vengeful fantasies, begone!
Grandeur-delusions, all be done!
I swear to this day, I don't know where that verse came from. I mean, if I'm really up for it, I can improvise-but not like that. Then I remembered the tried and true.
"Day by day, in every way,
I'm getting better and better."
"I repent me!" Sobaka wailed, deep down in the hole. "Alas, my soul! All these years, I have sought revenge for naught! For insults that need not have hurt me! Ah, what a monster I have been!
Well. Results already. What had been major wounds suddenly seemed like minor irritations. It didn't matter what people said to her, because she knew she was good.
But why was my guardian angel looking at me that way-I mean, surprised?
I shoved the question aside. The memories of her cruelties would swamp her newfound self-esteem, if I didn't give her an out.
"What's done cannot be undone, But what's broken can be mended. Remorseful sinners can atone For all the hurt intended."
"Yet there is hope!" the voice cried from the hole. "I can make amends-some, at least! Those whom I've slain, I can give aid to their survivors! And if 'twill restore some faith in goodness to them, to see me suffer as justice dictates, why then, let them hurt me!" I wasn't sure I liked the sound of that-but it would probably give her the strength she needed, to endure the transition back to goodness. Seeing herself as a martyr was better than the fire of her own self-damnation-I meant, condemnation-and if I ever came back this
way, I could see to it that she moved on from suffering to ser vice.
"I repent me!" she cried again. "Dear Lord, save my soul!
inflict what trials Thou wilt, what sufferings Thou dost deem just!
Only let me come into Thy presence!"
There was a howl of rage and frustration somewhere, distant, but ringing. I looked up, surprised, but I didn't see anybody except my angel.
He was smiling a very smug smile, though. "That, Saul, was her personal tempter. You cured her mind, and she saved her own soul." I stared.
Then I gave my head a shake. Whatever sort of dream this was, working within its rules was working very well. "Okay," I said, "but we'd better hurry up and save her life, shouldn't we?"
"Should we? For the longer she lives, the greater the chance that she'll slip back into sin."
I looked up at him, scandalized-but he wasn't even looking at me, he was talking to empty air on the other side of the hole. I felt the gooseflesh rise.
"Indeed, you are right," he said with regret. "If the Lord doth wish her home, naught we can do will save her."
"So if we can save her," I said, "that means it's not her time." He looked down at me in surprise. "Indeed, Saul. You see it most
clearly. " Well. I wasn't impressed. I'd figured that one out, long ago. Hadn't he been watching? "So how do we get her out?"
"Try a verse," he suggested.
"Ridiculous!" I snapped. "You can't make things happen just by talking!
peak of that to Madison Avenue," he retorted. "'Twas you put her down there, did you not?"
I just glared at him. I always hated it when the other guy was right.
But he was right-so I sighed and called down into the hole,
"The day doth daw, the cock doth craw, The channering worm doth chide!
'Gin you must be out of this place, Though in sore pain you may bide!"
And she was standing beside the hole, looking about her in surprise that very quickly became major fear. "How-how did you achieve that?"
"By poetry," I said impatiently, "or at least a very, very old folk song. What's the matter-don't you even know the rules of your own universe? " She shook her head, faster and faster, stepping away from me, hands coming up to fend me off. "I know only the rules of good and evil! " That stonkered me. "Then how did you work magic?"
"Why, by reciting the spells my mas ... doomer gave me." Rote memorization. Parrotlike repetition. Coincidence and association. She hadn't understood anything about what she was doing. No wonder she was a minor functionary. "There are other rules," I said.
Then I remembered. "But you don't need to know them any more."
"'Tis true." Her hands came down. "All I need now is the justice of God, and the need for faith in Him."
Suddenly, she was on her knees, clutching at my jeans. "And 'tis you who have rekindled that faith! 'Tis you who have cured my soul of the curdled anger called hatred, that did drag it down! 'Tis you who have freed me to suffer for the right and seek to aid my fellow creatures! Oh, a thousand thanks, young Wizard, and a thousand blessings!" Then she remembered herself and dropped her hands. "If the blessings of a corrupted soul may be of benefit to you." I was hugely relieved. I just don't like having things clutching at me-unless they're young, female, and shapely; and even then I'm wary. This one may have been female, but she was anything but beautiful, and I could have sworn she was growing older by the second.
"Your soul shines like newly minted silver," my angel said. I looked up at him, startled. Compliments were one thing, but this ...
Then I realized he was prompting me. "Say it yourself," I snapped.
"No way am I going to deliver a line like that!"
"To whom do you talk? " Sobaka quavered. I looked down at her, then looked up quickly at the angel. No, he was still there. "Him," I said, pointing. "Can't you see?" She looked where I was pointing, and fear creased her wrinkled face, not that it made much difference. "Nay," she said. "There is none there."
"Well, there is," I sighed, "even if he's invisible to you."
"A familiar!" Her tones quaked.
"No, an angel," I said quickly, and started improvising; anything to give her the guts to keep going. "You've got one, too, and he-"
"She," my angel prompted.
"She," I corrected. Maybe the Quakers had been right. "She is watching you every second."
Sobaka glanced around her, fear turning into wonder on her face.
"Can you see her?"
"No," I said, "but she's there."
"She is very happy just now," my angel informed me.
"She's very happy just now," I told Sobaka. "Don't make her sad again, okay?"
"Oh, I shall not!" She turned away, heading off downslope. "Oh, bless you, unseen angel, for never having despaired of me! Oh, stand by me and lend me strength, for I now must undergo the strongest trials of my life!" She turned back to call to me. "Ever shall I praise you in my prayers, healer of my soul!"
I shuddered, but managed to fake a smile. "Pay it back to other people," I called. "You don't have much time left. Better get busy.
" "I shall! Oh, I shall!" And she headed off down the hill, caroling her joy.
I winced; a singer, she wasn't. "At the rate she's aging," I muttered, "I don't think she'll even make it to the bottom of the hill."
"Even if she dies, she will be on the road to Heaven," my angel assured me. "Her angel thanks you, too."
"Tell her she's welcome." I turned to him, frowning. "So angels come in sexes, too?"
"Well, no," he admitted, "but it makes you humans think of us more easily if we seem to. You term it 'identification' and
'selfimage.' Call it 'gender.' " "Identification!" I looked up, understanding something I'd been wondering about. "So that's why you've dropped the 'thee' and 'thou' form.
"That you might better understand me, aye."
"Understand, my foot! You want me to identify with you, to e mulate you! Hey, I'm not even supposed to be able to see you!"
"You did call upon me," he reminded.
"And Sobaka didn't, so she couldn't see her angel? Is that who you were talking to, about whether or not to get her out of the hole or let her die,
"Her guardian angel, yes." He nodded. "You have made three most happy today."
"Three?" I looked around, frowning. "I only count two-Sobaka, and her guardian angel. if you say so."
"Three," he said proudly. "Count me, also. You have struck a blow for the angels today, Saul. You are on our side, after all." Why did that send such a thrill of panic through my veins? Why did I snap out, "No way! If I did something that worked for your side, it's just because it was the right thing to do under the circumstances!
Don't bet I'll do it again! If something else comes up that I think is right, I'll do it, even if it's for the other side-by your rules!"
A look of apprehension crossed his face. "Nay, nay! Do not sin for no reason other than my having said you are on the side of the angels! "
"Very funny," I said bitterly, "considering who's talking. If it seems right, I'll do it, even if it's against your side-but don't worry, I won't murder, loot, or rape, just to keep from signing up with your team, either. I won't go out of my way to commit what you think is wrong." I turned on my heel and stalked away.
"You have lied," he called after me, "with that speech."
"See?" I said over my shoulder. "I've started already."
The nice thing about being past Sobaka's checkpoint was that I was able to keep on trudging up-slope. I didn't know where I was going, except that it felt right-especially since it was out of her domain. Maybe, if I was lucky, I could get out of this massive hallucination.
Or else find Matt ...
Another nice thing about getting up in the world, was that I kept stretching out the sunset. Finally, I came to a pass at the top of the mountain. Down below me, the valley was in shadow-twilight, to them. I could even see a few lights appearing-fires of some sort. Maybe smoke-holes in huts? Had these people invented the chimney yet?
Then I looked up and saw one of the most glorious sunsets of my life. The only ones to beat it had been out in the Great Plains, where the landscape is mostly sky. Here, I was high enough up to have a lot of sky again, though not quite as much. Everything looked golden and rose, every mountaintop-and there were a lot of mountaintops. I wondered where I was-the Pyrenees? The Alps? Was I even in Europe?