You may have heard of Johannes Cabal; he is a necromancer and a little infamous. He is also very sensitive to attempts on his life. When a murder of crows tries to . . . well, murder him, and the contents of his bath are transmuted into hot nitric acid, he suspects someone may mean him harm. The trail leads to one of the less travelled parts of Hell itself, and there Cabal will need a guide.
As Dante had his Virgil, so Cabal employs the services of a devil who is a monster, a predator, and—most alien of all to Cabal—a woman. The devil Zarenyia and he delve deep into Hell, even into Satan’s greatest mistake, to confront challenges quite outside the ken of any mortal. But one should always use a long spoon when supping with a devil, and Cabal soon realises the unthinkable, a horror beyond his experience. He is actually beginning to like her.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by St. Martin’s Press editor Peter Joseph.
Johannes Cabal wasn’t used to being quite so overwhelmed in the presence of a woman, but overwhelmed he was, and a question, as impertinent as it was pressing, forced itself from his lips.
“Madam,” he said, knowing enough to be embarrassed by the asking, “forgive me for being so forward, but might I enquire—and you must feel in no way constrained to answer if you do not wish to do so—might I enquire, are you exothermic or endothermic? Your metabolism, that is?”
The lady in question regarded him with coquettish amusement. If she had possessed a fan, she would surely have fluttered it. She did not, however, answer.
“Poikilothermic, perhaps?” ventured Cabal.
“Poikilothermic,” she repeated slowly, each syllable divorced from its neighbour by a full second of silence. She smiled. “I like you,” she said. “You’re funny. I don’t think I’ve ever met a funny human before.”
Cabal hesitated; he wasn’t used to being found comedic, either. “I assure you, madam, it is in no way my intention to . . .”
But she wasn’t listening. “Poik,” she said, savouring the sound. “Poik, poik, poik.”
This was not going the way most summonings of supernatural entities usually went. He had some experience in that direction and knew them to involve a great deal of preparation, a precise understanding of the ritual’s ontological aspects, and patience. In this case, however, he had barely begun the ritual before the concentric summoning and warding circles were filled with a great deal of… he wasn’t quite sure what. He had summoned creatures from other planes, lost souls, and demons in the past, but this was the first time he had summoned a devil, which is to say a demon with more autonomy than the common herd.
The choice had been forced upon him by circumstance. If he summoned some common or garden demon, it might feel beholden to report his business to Satan; that would never do. He and Satan were not entirely sympathetic to one another these days. If Satan maintained a Christmas card list—which is not as unlikely as it seems—then Cabal was surely off it.
A devil, then. A reasonably free agent that did its acts of wickedness and subversion off its own bat rather than kowtowing to the great Lucifer and his menagerie of generals in the lowest ring of Hell. Johannes Cabal had gone through his extensive library harvesting the true names of any such things he could find, and then, by deduction and lot, settled upon one rarely summoned and therefore likely more tractable to the wiles of a cunning mortal such as himself. The disadvantage of such a method was that he had found no indications whatsoever as to the nature of the devil commonly—a very relative term in this circumstance—called Zarenyia, though whose true name was mottled with glottal stops, apostrophes, and—unavoidably—small sprays of saliva.
Cabal had therefore duly glottal-y stopped, apostrophised, and spat his way through the summoning and been rewarded with the diabolical manifestation that now stood before him, going “Poik.”
Cabal had been braced for all manner of hideous forms, anything from a body built from maggots to an evil-minded shade of pink, but he was slightly nonplussed by Zarenyia’s actual appearance. She was undoubtedly female, and probably very attractive in a shallow “really rather beautiful” sort of way. Her hair was short and red, her skin pale, her form gamine, her countenance open and attractive, her bosom pleasant without being overbearing, and her legs . . . Well, there were rather too many of them, by a factor of four.
From the waist down, Zarenyia was a great spider. Her abdomen was smooth and black, her legs arched and powerful in appearance within the articulated chitin.
Cabal had chosen to summon her in—what appeared to be from the outside—a shuttered metalwork business in a railway arch. In reality, it was one of Hell’s sundry backdoors, known as “Kemch” amongst those who tabulated such rarities. Beyond the breezeblock and corrugated steel wall was a cavern that in no way correlated with the dimensions of the arch in which it was based. The cavern was some twenty yards wide at its narrowest point, the outer entrance sealed by the inconsonant urban wall, but the inner trailed off to a tunnel that pitched into a slow descent. Torches burned eternally in sconces there, fuelled by the souls of hedge fund managers and other such low creatures.
Given all the space, Cabal had decided to allow a larger than usual circle for the summoning, and the serendipity of that action he now appreciated. The torch light glimmered from the dark armour of Zarenyia’s body and legs, and it occurred to him that she was not an exact analogue of a true spider; there was something mechanical about the abdomen and limbs that made them perhaps even more disconcerting than simply being an unfeasibly massive arachnid. Her forebody would have made her stand at least as tall as Cabal’s six feet and one inch had she been possessed of more conventional legs. The spider-like aspect of her made her stand a good yard taller than him, and the tips of her legs circumscribed the inner edge of the broad summoning circle in all its five yards easily.
“Poik,” said the great spider-woman devil. She sighed at such fun. “What’s this all about then? Which particular whim would you like me to fulfil, O mortal?”
“I abjure thee, O spirit, to be bound by this covenant!” said Cabal in a firm voice that brooked no shenanigans. One had to be firm with demons and, he presumed, devils. “By the power of the great Adonay, I . . .”
The devil was looking at him in astonishment. “Are you trying to bind me? You are, aren’t you? You’re trying to bind me!” The expression gave way to a flirtatious wink. “You naughty boy.”
“There is no trying about it, madam,” said Cabal. “You’re not leaving that circle until I have guarantees as to your obedience and my safety.”
“Well, here’s the thing, darling. You don’t mind me calling you ‘darling,’ do you?” Without waiting for Cabal’s opinion on the matter, she continued, “If I were a demon, you’d be doing the right thing. They are all mixed up in fealties and duties to one another. Terribly feudal, I know, but it seems to work for them. So, you call in favours from the higher-ups to gain power over those lower in the chain, yes? The rub is, I am a free agent. That’s what a devil is, at least by my understanding. The upshot of it is that the great Adonay can whistle for all I care. You can’t bind me. Sorry.”
She shrugged and seemed genuinely saddened by events.
Cabal was nonplussed. His plan depended on having a devil as an agent. He could not see how to proceed if such a simple prerequisite was unavailable to him. “Oh,” he said, and sat on a boulder. “This is disappointing.”
Zarenyia shrugged sympathetically once more, but offered no suggestions.
“I don’t entirely understand how devils are bound, in that case,” said Cabal. “If there is no fulcrum upon which to bend your obedience, how is it done? I have read of devils helping sorcerers many times.”
“Ah!” said the devil, raising her index finger to nail the important point Cabal had inadvertently raised. “Did you hear what you just said? ‘Helping.’ It’s just a thought, but you could always try asking nicely.”
“Nicely?” Cabal shook his head wearily. “Madam, I am tired and dismayed. Do not mock me. I am very much not in the mood.”
“I’m not mocking you, sweetheart,” she said, slightly offended. “I’m being perfectly serious. Look, you want a guarantee? A devil’s word is her bond, just as much as it for demons. We’re far more reliable that way than humans, yet we’re the evil ones?” She spread her hands at such injustice.
Cabal found his interest piqued. “You mean negotiation?”
“Exactly that.” Zarenyia smiled pleasantly. “Give me what I want and you can have what you want, which includes my promise that I shall not hurt you, enchant you, or otherwise ruin your day.”
Cabal rose and walked to the edge of the circle. “And what would you want?”
The devil looked off into the middle distance in deep thought, her expression that of a child formulating a letter to Father Christmas. “Well,” she said after some moments of consideration, “I haven’t been summoned in a very long time, and I’m bored. Whatever you want me to do, it had better be interesting. Also, it would be lovely to kill a few people. So . . . yes, those are my demands: murder and fun.”
Cabal looked up at the spider devil Zarenyia and crossed his arms. “Madam,” he said slowly, “I believe we may have a deal.”
It all began, as so many everyday tales do, with the quest for immortality. Cabal’s own interest was largely academic; life was offered impetus by its very brevity in his opinion. To take away the briefness of life was to rob it of necessity, and so immortality was simply a breathing death. On the other hand, immortality necessarily depended on the manipulation of vital forces, and the manipulation of vital forces was a subject close to the fist of flint he called a heart.
While those who historically claimed to have happened upon the secret of eternal life had usually let themselves down badly by subsequently dying, there were certain cases that the fine-toothed comb of Cabal’s researches had turned up that deserved further investigation.
One such (Cabal informed Zerenyia, who—upon a nest of folded legs—listened with gratifying attention) was the Chinese sorcerer, Luan Da, who lived in the time of the Han Dynasty. Luan Da has not weathered the waves of history well; since his life in the second century before Christ, he has been lucky to escape a sentence that did not also contain the word “charlatan” or “fraud.” He was attached to the court of Emperor Wu for the express purpose of making contact with supernatural entities that would furnish him—and thence the Emperor—with the secret of living forever. During a retreat in which he was to make such contact, he was shadowed by a spy of the Emperor who observed the great sage walking alone at a time when he would later claim to have been conferring with the spirits.
Wu was profoundly unamused on hearing this, and Luan Da was executed horribly for his perfidy by being sawn in two at the waist.
This, the history books tell us and, as far as they go, they are correct. The unspoken assumption, however, is that Luan Da must have been a charlatan, because clearly there is no such thing as magical immortality. To the mind of Johannes Cabal, such a conclusion was fallacious. There was only one way to be sure, and that was to ask Luan Da.
Twelve weeks beforehand, Cabal had organised a little séance, having first polished his Hokkien and Tang dialects so he would have a fighting chance of speaking with the dead man’s spirit. These preliminaries had proved unnecessary; he could not find Luan Da’s spirit to converse with it.
This in itself was not unusual; most dead people enjoy the taciturnity of eternity and don’t care to chat. At first he assumed this was the case, but subsequent ventures with lot and circle confused him. To borrow a modern analogy, calling Luan Da did not result in a ringing tone via the celestial switchboard that went unanswered, but instead admitted to nothing more than a dead line.
It is possible for the dead to be entirely unreachable or undetectable in the afterlife, but it is usually because their souls have been consumed by powerful otherwordly entities and this is a rare happenstance. Why this should happen to Luan Da exercised Cabal’s curiosity, and he proceeded with a programme of experiments to find the truth of the affair.
It was as he embarked on these experiments that he noted that small, odd things were befalling him. As a necromancer of some little infamy, he was not unused to small, odd things befalling him, but these were odd even by his lights.
First had been an attempted murder by crows. He had been making his way back to his house from the nearby village when a parliament of perhaps fifty of the animals had decamped from a stand of ash trees and done their level best to peck him to death. It was only through the intercession of the crow that lived by his own house and that fondly believed itself to be Cabal’s pet—it was alone in this belief—that the flock broke off its attack to indulge in a great deal of cawing at one another before repairing back to the ash trees to consider their behaviour. Cabal evolved the impression that its aberrance was confusing even to them. He retired to his house to cast some bacon rinds to his unexpected benefactor, and to dab at his wounds with iodine.
That was odd, but the next incident was extraordinary. Cabal had been running a hot bath and withdrawn to his room to recover a dressing gown. On returning to the bathroom, his sense of smell told him that all was not well, and his stinging eyes only served to reinforce this. He closed the taps and looked with dismay at the disintegrating remains of his loofah floating apart in the bath water. He left the room quickly, coming back only when he was swathed in protective clothing, rubber gauntlets, and an army surplus gasmask. Brief investigation demonstrated that the bath water was no longer anything of the sort, but was now highly acidic. Laboratory testing demonstrated it to be nitric acid of distressingly high molarity.
Cabal was intrigued to know which of the many agencies that would delight in his death would visit such an outrage upon his loofah, and began a process of deductive reasoning. While his list of enemies was extraordinary, they mainly cleaved to a markedly puritan sensitivity with regards to magic. Indeed, it was Cabal’s dabbling in magic that had earned their opprobrium in the first place. That, and the grave robbing.
Enemies with magical skills were far fewer, and those capable of penetrating the defensive wards about his home brought the short list down to none at all. Deduction having failed, Cabal was forced to conclude that this was some new enemy, and one of great puissance. He wondered what he might have done to aggravate such a person, and done so recently when the only thing he was currently engaged upon was the hunt for a Chinese sorcerer dead for, as near as dammit, two millennia.
The realisation dropped upon him like a wet mammoth. “Oh,” he had said. “It’s like that, is it?”
“So you’re saying that this dead Chinese fellow disintegrated your loofah?” said Zarenyia.
“I am,” said Cabal, “and he did so with the intention that I would be scrubbing my back with it at the time. If I hadn’t taken a minute to fetch my dressing gown, I would have been in the bath when the water was transmogrified into hot acid.”
“You have to admit, this Luan Da has a bit of style about him.”
“I’m not here to award points for originality,” said Cabal, “I’m trying to find out why he’s being so damnably defensive.”
“Mysterious, isn’t it? Well, darling, it’s interesting enough, but what about the killing?”
“Yes, I was going to ask you about that. Why specifically do you wish to murder? You don’t strike me as especially cruel.”
“Oh, I’m not,” she said, seemingly irked at the imputation. “Demons and imps and that lot may go in for the petty sadism, but we devils have more refined tastes.”
“Do you indeed?”
“We do indeed, yes. To be exact, I’m hungry. I can last a long time on a small snack, but a girl likes to have a bit of an indulgent blow out now and then.”
“You intend to . . . eat them?”
“Not exactly,” she replied, and smiled winsomely.
“I cannot promise that there will be opportunities for killing . . .”
“Awww . . .”
“But . . . there is a good likelihood of souls for the devouring, if that’s what your intent truly is?”
“Good enough,” said Zarenyia. “I’ll trust you. You have an honest face.”
“Oh, splendid,” said Cabal. “I feel so very validated now.”
“Super!” said the devil, impervious to irony. “Now if you’d let me out of this circle . . . ? ”
“Not so fast, madam. I shall need your word and bond before that happens.” He produced a notebook and fountain pen from his inside breast pocket, selected a fresh page, and proceeded to write.
Zarenyia wrinkled her nose. “You’re not writing up a contract, are you? Oh, how boring. Can’t I just say I’ll help you, I won’t harm you, I won’t look for any of those boring loopholes demons are so obsessive about, and we can just trot along and have an adventure?”
Cabal’s pen paused. He slowly looked up at the devil from beneath the brim of his hat.
“Guide’s honour,” she added, raising two fingers together in a benediction of sorts.
“You will forgive me, but one should use a long spoon when one sups with a devil.” He returned his attention to his writing.
The spider devil considered this for a moment, her brow furrowed. “Why?”
The pen paused again. “Why what?”
“Why would you use a long spoon when supping with a devil?”
“It’s a metaphor. It simply means one should be cautious.”
“I know it’s a metaphor, darling. I’m not a complete nincompoop. I don’t understand it, though. Why are you feeding the devil?”
Cabal could see he wasn’t going to get much peace to write the document and wished he had prepared one earlier. “I’m not feeding the devil, I’m… oh. I hadn’t thought of that before.”
“Do your metaphorical elbows not work very well, or something? I just don’t see how a long spoon keeps you away from whichever devil you happen to be supping with.”
“I think . . . perhaps, the idea is that both the devil and the subject are supping from the same pot?”
“The same pot?” said Zarenyia in great astonishment. “Would you sup from the same pot as a devil? Really?”
“No,” admitted Cabal, “I wouldn’t.”
“I don’t think a long spoon’s going to help.”
Cabal frowned, then ripped the page from his notebook before tearing it up. “Guide’s honour?” he asked, carelessly letting the fragments fall.
Zarenyia raised her index and middle fingers together in the salute of the International Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, a worthy organisation that would doubtless be collectively horrified by its use by such an entity in such a situation. “Guide’s honour,” she said solemnly. “Dib, dib, dib.”
Not without misgivings, Cabal walked to the edge of the circle and scrubbed out part of the perimeter with his foot. “I presume now is when you leap out, call me a foolish mortal, and kill me?”
Zarenyia glared at him. “I dibbed,” she said in outraged tones.
“My apologies, madam,” said Cabal. “You did indeed dib.” He gestured to the tunnel mouth. “Shall we go?”
The tunnel reverberated to the sound of one gentleman walking in the company of four ladies wearing heels. This was, coincidentally, the sound created by one necromancer walking in the company of a spider devil. The latter paused and sniffed the air.
“Where exactly are we heading, Johannes?” asked Zarenyia, using his forename (calling it his “Christian name” was never going to be accurate, nor wise) lightly and without permission. “I smell . . .” She inhaled again. “Is that chaos?”
Cabal stopped further down the tunnel and looked back at her. “It is. You have acute senses.”
“Well, I am a devil. Certain things . . .” She regarded him pensively and a little apprehensively. “I am beginning to get the impression that I should have asked a few more questions before agreeing to this expedition. Questions like, why exactly do you want me along, and where are we going?”
Cabal nodded. “Those would have been wise questions to ask.”
“I’m a little impetuous at times. I shall ask them now.”
“I need you as guide and protection, simply that.”
“That’s sensible, given that we’re entering Hell. Not that I’m so very familiar with the Abyss. That is where we’re going, isn’t it? Nowhere else smells like that.”
“We are,” said Johannes Cabal, and no more.
“Hell,” said Zarenyia, “is an orderly place. Rules and regulations. Hierarchies and so forth. The Abyss is a pit of chaos. We don’t like it very much because of that. Terrible place for a picnic. My point is, your Luan Da simply can’t be in there. The chaos would have destroyed him long since.”
“Very true, madam . . .”
“Please, call me Zarenyia.”
“. . . if he was exposed to pure chaos for any length of time, his soul would have become attenuated and eventually dispersed. There is, however, one place . . .”
“No!” Seeing a devil distressed is a rare occurrence. “We can’t go there! If Lucifer finds out . . .”
“I thought you were a free spirit, Madam Zarenyia? The infernal embodiment of footloose and fancy free?”
“That does not give me carte blanche to go running around in Lucifer’s grandest mistake! It is absolutely forbidden!”
“Is it?” Cabal said it lightly.
“Yes! Well, no, not exactly forbidden, he didn’t actually say that, but he dumped it in the Abyss, and his displeasure was very . . .”
“Hell is an orderly place,” said Cabal. “Rules and regulations. Do any such rules exist to forbid entrance to the Abyss?”
“No! But nobody would be insane enough . . .”
“Do any regulations declare Pandæmonium off-limits?”
“No. No, they don’t.” She smiled suddenly. “Can’t really complain then, can he?”
“Assuming he even finds out. I certainly shan’t be telling him.”
They strolled along the tunnel a little further in a companionable silence. Then Zarenyia said, “I’ve never actually been in Pandæmonium, darling. You realise that, don’t you? It was dropped into the Abyss before I was even born.”
Cabal frowned. “I shall admit some familiarity would have been useful, but that is a small matter. I am more perplexed at the idea of a devil being born. I had it in my mind that you and your kin are essentially eternal.”
“Oh, no. For the originals, the fallen angels, yes, and there are a lot of them. But the rest of us were spawned from the sins of the world, manifested first as scraps of corrupt souls . . .”
“You can call them that, but it always makes me think of those sweet things with big eyes that live in Madagascar. Lemures, then. And, slowly, we gain form and personality.”
“Then, once, you were human?”
“Once.” She smiled, but her expression was distant. She took a deep breath and smiled a little more naturally. “So, that’s us. Turning into rather an educational outing, isn’t it? Anyway, onwards. Pandæmonium ho!”
The tunnel wound on, and on, and on. Zarenyia had offered Cabal a ride on her back, but he had declined and marched in an icy silence for some time after that. It was not the first time he had walked to Hell, but previous journeys had involved a more traditional approach through the plane of Limbo, thence to Hell’s gatehouse and an argument with the gatekeeper.
This was of no use on this occasion for three reasons. Firstly, going in through the front door would certainly bring him to the attention of Satan and, as mentioned earlier, this was to be avoided. Secondly, the last gatekeeper Cabal had dealt with was apparently still missing after losing quite a muscular argument with Cabal, and so Cabal could not be sure of inveigling his way through in any case. Thirdly, the Abyss was not accessible through the workaday nine rings of Hell architecture. The chaos of the Abyss is dangerous, and Hell is more alert to health and safety than one might appreciate. After all, how can one enjoy an eternity of damnation if one has been torn to wisps and tatters by the action of unbridled chaotic energies?
Thus, the route he had chosen was more in the nature of a maintenance access, should chaos ever need maintenance, which seems unlikely. The tunnel was therefore obscure and untravelled, which suited Cabal very well indeed. It was also, however, unrelenting, and the fourth time Zarenyia offered to carry him, he reluctantly agreed. He was reminded as to the reasons for his previous refusals when the act turned out to be every bit as embarrassing for him as he had expected. The devil lowered herself that he might clamber up behind her, but the curve of her abdomen meant that the only place he might reasonably sit was directly behind her very human forebody, legs splayed out to either side.
“Hold on,” she instructed him.
Cabal did not hold on.
“Whatever is the matter?” she asked.
“Madam,” he replied, “the only handy surface available for ‘holding on’ is your torso.”
“Do you think you could possibly wear more clothes?”
She looked over her shoulder at him, frowning. “Such as? Socks?”
“I was thinking more of the human part of you. Your entire wardrobe seems to consist of no more than a strip of cloth.”
“Do you like it?” she said, misinterpreting him a little wilfully. “I think it’s pretty.”
“It’s prettiness is not in dispute.”
“It’s called a bandeau. That’s French.”
“Which in no way surprises me.”
Finally, with an expression of stoicism to rival a Spartan, and having pulled his gloves on firmly, he embraced her midriff.
“There,” said Zarenyia, “isn’t that nice?”
Cabal made no reply. They set off once again in silence.
Presently, Cabal checked his watch to see how long they had been travelling and was bemused to find his watch told him “dolomite,” and then on subsequent rechecks “ampersand,” “elongate,” and “Presbyterian o’clock.”
“Reality is becoming obstreperous,” he said. “We grow close to the Abyss.”
They were indeed. Two and a hippodrome turns of the tunnel later, they were standing on a vertiginous outcrop the shape of the underside of Elgar’s nose, the tunnel exit being the shape of Elgar’s screaming mouth, and the rock formations below being Elgar’s inverted features. Off and around them, the dark gulf of the Abyss boomed and echoed with inchoate, everything ricocheting from the steep walls. Into the edge of the precipice were inexpertly carved the words, “Nietzsche woz here.”
“Bracing, isn’t it?” said Zarenyia, breathing in deeply as if on the seafront at Skegness. “Nice to visit, but I wouldn’t like to live here.”
“. . . Yes . . .” said Cabal, rendered irrational and piscine by the environment.
Zarenyia sighed. “Mortals. You just can’t take the slightest collapse in the laws of causality, can you? Come along, fish-man, let’s get you somewhere more probable.”
In the looming shadows, amidst forms too chaotic to be merely random, she spied an edge, straight and true. It was impossible to gauge any scale to the thing—it could as easily have been an inch long as a league—but there was only one regular form within the Abyss. So she leapt without hesitation toward it trailing a silken thread behind her as they fell, she a model of concentration, he singing about sausages.
Through the Abyss they plummeted, or possibly rose, the spider devil and her necromancer-cum-halibut passenger. Zarenyia was, it must be admitted, enjoying herself. The very quality of obscurity that Cabal had sought in selecting her had rendered her diabolical life diabolically boring. She would not lower herself to prodding people with pitchforks while they basted in liquid brimstone, but neither was she often summoned. On the rare occasions when some magus or another called upon her, there were never repeat performances. Over the centuries she had left an intermittent trail of dead magi behind her, more as a matter of her nature rather than any animosity towards them. It was sad, but there it was. Thus, being an enforced shut-in with no hobbies (she had tried the common infernal pastimes of cribbage and macramé, but neither had engaged her enthusiasm), her own immortality was a burden rather than a boon.
Here she was, however, on some desperate mission upon whose particulars she was still a bit vague, abseiling into the Abyss in the company of somebody she gathered was on Satan’s admittedly voluminous shit list. It was all tremendously exciting and the nearest thing to fun she’d experienced since the Bishop of Onslow had tried exorcising her from his cathedral in 1737. She’d had one of her little chats with him, and then secreted the remains behind the organ pipes, where they had lain undisturbed for three decades until an organ mechanic happened upon them. Good times.
She set down a leg on a parapet, and hooked the tip around the castellation she found there, drawing herself and her burbling cargo onto the tower top. As she gained a proper footing, Cabal became less fishy by degrees until he was able to say, “That was not at all enjoyable.”
“Piff. You were adorable,” said the devil Zarenyia.
Pandæmonium was surprisingly ordered. Then again, against the backdrop of the Abyss, a hundredweight of cooked spaghetti thrown on a ballroom floor would look surprisingly ordered. The point of Pandæmonium was never chaos, however, even though it had become a byword for it. Back in the days when he was full of pep and his shelf-load of management books were shiny and new, Satan had created Pandæmonium. In those days, Satan regarded himself as something of a pirate captain, which is to say that he saw himself as a nominal leader, generally respected, but only turned to for direction at times of crisis.
Towards such an egalitarian view, intended to demonstrate that God’s notoriously hands-on style of obsessive micro-management was unnecessary and patronising, Satan built Pandæmonium as a parliament for his demons. Here they would gather and discuss the issues of the day, develop policies, and enact laws. It was all to be very democratic. Just because he and his fallen angels had been a little uppity in the face of God was no reason to doubt that they would not be able to govern like sensible, thoughtful creatures.
Thus, it may be understood how as prideful an entity as Satan felt when it turned out that you can’t fill a large parliamentary building with demons and expect them to behave like a meeting of the Quiet Society for Sensible People.
There was drinking. There was animalistic growling and squawking. There was vomiting. There were flows of excrement. Thus far, this was indistinguishable from most parliaments, but it was the refusal to get down to any real work that galled Satan. That, and the endless, endless noise. Finally he admitted to himself, if no one and no thing else, that Pandæmonium was a dreadful error on his part, strapped the great building to Behemoth’s back, and told it to dump the short-lived parliament of Hell into the Abyss. This Behemoth did, and that was that.
Now Pandæmonium was the great unmentionable that Cabal kept mentioning.
“So, this is Pandæmonium,” he mentioned, brushing off his hands in an unconscious test to make sure that they really and truly were no longer fins. “It’s bigger than I expected.”
It was approximately twice the size of the British Palace of Westminster, Cabal’s only useful guide to roughly how big a parliament should be. Twice as large in all dimensions, including a great spiked tower on one corner. Unlike the St Stephen’s Tower of its earthly equivalent, Pandæmonium’s great tower was not faced with clock dials, but only with empty gibbets flailing in the chaos storm of the Abyss from the ends of long, iron poles. Cabal watched the cages thrash for some moments, then said, “If I know anything about sorcerers—and I do—Luan Da will have made himself comfortable up in there.”
Zarenyia followed his gaze with an expression of mild misgiving. “However can you be sure?”
“Sure, I am not. But sorcerers are creatures of habit. Give them a tower to hide in and they’re up the stairs like a ferret up a drain, to borrow a phrase. Towers exert a strange glamour upon sorcerers. Caves, too, but only if a tower isn’t handy.”
“Even on you?”
Cabal glanced at her, scowling. “Madam, I have never expressed any desire to take up residence in a tower.”
“Bet you would if you could, though.”
Cabal suddenly realised that his laboratory was in the topmost storey of a tall house. Not exactly a tower, but still . . .
He coughed. “There’s no access directly to the tower from this rooftop. I think if we descend these stairs, we can search forward from there.”
Presently Cabal and Zarenyia found themselves in a broad corridor overlooking on one side the parliament building’s large courtyard, certainly sufficient to place a full-sized football field in the centre, with a horse racing course around it, and enough space left over for three or four Olympic standard swimming pools. As it was, however, such facilities would have offered a poor afternoon’s sport, as there was no ground to speak of. From the great glazed windows, they could see the Abyss below, and the Abyss above. As Nietzsche warned, it was not wise to look into the Abyss for too long, although this was largely because it gave one a screaming headache after a few minutes.
Cabal had better things to do than sightsee in any case, and they progressed at a meaningful pace in the direction of the tower. Cabal was walking on his own feet now, and Zarenyia politely crept along behind him, although Cabal knew full well she could gallop along gamely on her many legs far faster than any running human could possibly match.
There was little to say of the corridor, not least because much of the high-vaulted passage was in a flickering darkness cast partially by the embers of uncertain existence without and partially by flambeaux mounted in shoulder-high sconces along the way. Above them loomed a deep darkness, its monstrous architecture occasionally illuminated during lightning flashes outside. The architecture really was monstrous, too; Satan should definitely have hired in a decent consultancy.
After perhaps half an hour of walking, they reached a corner that surely led to the entrance of the tower. Cabal signalled to Zarenyia to wait while he advanced on tiptoes to peek around the corner and gather the lay of the land.
To his vast disappointment and irritation, the door to the tower was guarded. Slightly to his consternation, the guard was human. Or, he granted, apparently human. Either way, the man was heavily built, wore a suit of liang-tang armour of the sort used during the Han period, and stood cradling a huge temple sword in his arms. To be able to do such a thing for long periods was in itself a great feat, and Cabal found the man’s likely strength to be a likely stumbling block in the ongoing mission to locate Luan Da, find out if he knew anything of import, and then chastise him for his little pranks involving murderous crows and hot nitric acid. Cabal’s spectrum of chastisement began with “killing” and finished shortly afterwards with “killing.” It wasn’t much of a spectrum, when all was said and done.
“What’s going on?” whispered Zarenyia, unable to hide her glee at being out and about.
“This is an infiltration, followed by interrogation and then, in all likelihood, an execution,” said Cabal, also in a whisper. “If you could manage to avoid giving the impression that we’re just sneaking off to the pantry to indulge in a midnight feast, this would all feel a little more professional.”
Zarenyia put on the most serious expression she could manage. “What’s going on?” she asked, this time half an octave lower.
“I can see why you’re not a demon,” said Cabal. “Discipline doesn’t come naturally to you, does it?”
She slowly lowered herself until she was more or less at eye level with Cabal. “You must tell me all about discipline, the very first chance you get.” She was smiling disconcertingly as she said it.
Cabal was disconcerted. “Briefly,” he said, “there is a guard perhaps a hundred yards away. By him is a warning gong. On no account do we want him to strike it. I wonder if shooting him would do the trick?”
He opened the Gladstone bag he had suspended across his back with a leather belt and looked inside. He withdrew a droopy thing, covered in breadcrumbs. “My pistol has transmuted into a fishcake, and failed to transmute back. You know, I do wonder if chaos can actually be said to be chaotic when it shows an obsession with fish like this.”
Zarenyia did not answer. Cabal looked around to discover that, somehow, she had gone. Given her size, this was a remarkable disappearance in itself, and he wondered if the storming chaos outside had somehow affected her after all, given its piscine orientation, probably turning her to a shower of sardines or somesuch.
This theory he discarded quickly, and then feared that perhaps she had actually gone to engage the guard instead. He braced himself for the booming of the gong the instant the thought struck him, but the alarm was not sounded. Cautiously, he looked back around the corner.
The guard had gone. The gong hung unattended and silent.
Baffled, Cabal cautiously poked his head out further, but there was still no sign of the guard, nor of Zarenyia. He stepped out quietly, but his soft footfall did not presage a horde of guards tumbling through the door, and so he risked another step. By a procession of such steps, he found himself by the tower door soon enough.
“Where the blazes are you?” he hispered, which is to say, half-whispered and half-hissed.
A sound in the shadowed rafters made him look up and there he thought he saw a glistening chitinous form moving. He squinted harder until he could discern what exactly he was looking at. It was, after all, an unusual shape, comprised as it was by two forms.
Cabal gave a disgusted snort and turned away. “Du lieber Gott!”
“Busy!” called Zarenyia from above. “Be with you in a tick! Read a book or something.”
Cabal walked away a few steps, but there was no getting away from the noises from above. The guard—it could hardly be anyone else—cried out now and then, sometimes with fear, sometimes with ecstasy, sometimes both. He sounded muffled, but as he was partially cocooned in webbing, that was hardly surprising.
“Do you think you could hurry up a bit?” asked Zarenyia of her captive. She sounded sympathetic. “Love to dawdle, but on a tight schedule. You know how it is. I’ll tell you what, how about I do . . . this?”
There was a wet noise, as organic as it was salacious, and the guard cried out one last time. A long cry it was, filled with dark pleasure and diminishing life-expectancy. It lasted a full minute, far beyond the normal capacity of human lungs to maintain, Cabal thought, but the guard was in the process of discovering Zarenyia had the ability to extend some human capacities far beyond the norm, to quite fatal extremes.
Then the cry dwindled, and stopped.
A moment later the guard’s desiccated corpse, all swathed in web, crashed to the floor near Cabal. Its face was turned towards him, and Cabal could see it was smiling, nor yet in a post mortem rictus, either.
Zarenyia clicked lightly down the wall and walked to Cabal. She seemed a little sheepish, an impression enforced by the covert little kick she gave the cadaver of her erstwhile beau, enough to send the dried remains skidding off into a dark corner. She smiled awkwardly at Cabal. He looked stonily back.
“You’re being all judge-y, aren’t you? Well, look—I was peckish, and he was in the way. I mean, really . . . what’s a girl to do?”
“I thought,” said Cabal with pointed emphasis, “that you said that you don’t eat people.”
“I don’t!” she said in an outraged tone. Then she smiled a half smile. “Well, only sort of.”
“So,” said Cabal, “you are a succubus?”
It was an unusual conversational gambit, but then the conversation was between a necromancer and a devil as they ascended a winding staircase leading to—in all probability—an undead Chinese sorcerer in his hiding place within the abandoned parliament of Hell, tumbling eternally through the stuff of pure elemental chaos, and unusual is a very subjective term.
“Succubine,” Zarenyia corrected him.
“I’m not familiar with that term.”
“Succubine is a more general sort of category,” she explained. “A method of feeding. The succubi are the examples everyone thinks of, but they’re not the only ones, you know.”
“I know now.”
“There’s a whole—I don’t know what you’d call it . . . a phylum?—of spider-ish demons and devils, but many of them just have venom and enzymes and suck out liquidised innards.” She grimaced. “Bit uncouth if you ask me. Lacks the personal touch.”
“Your finer feelings are an ornament that suits you well, madam.”
“You think so? You’re such a sweet boy, Johannes. I’m glad I dibbed. We’re having fun together, and I haven’t killed you. It’s nice.”
Cabal paused on a step and looked back at her. “Against all common sense, I’m beginning to like you,” he said.
“Even though I’m a devil and I have a lot of legs and I devour the souls of my prey through the expedient of lethal orgasms?”
“I’m still waiting for you to raise a bad point.”
She slapped him lightly on the back. “You charmer!”
They continued up the stairs, both doing poor jobs of concealing their smiles.
“I’ve met a few demons in my time,” said Cabal. “You’re not at all like them. I didn’t realise that the difference between a demon and a devil would be so distinct.”
“Well, I wouldn’t take me as a case study,” said Zarenyia. “I’m my own creature, really.”
“But still evil?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied absently.
They climbed in silence a little further.
Then she said, “Well, I suppose I’m evil, at any rate. I’m a devil, when all is said and done, so I just assumed that I’d be evil. I kill people, after all.”
“Yes, but I don’t have to eat them at all if I don’t want to. I’m immortal, after all. But I become a poor enfeebled thing if I don’t snack on an obliging chap now and again.”
“Unsuspecting, which ends up being much the same thing.”
“And men only? That seems somewhat unfair.”
“Oh, I can prey on women. In theory.”
“In theory? How does the practise vary?”
“We end up chatting and after a while it seems impolite to kill them.”
They walked in silence a little further. Then Zarenyia said, “You’re wondering how it works, aren’t you?”
“How a demi-spider can even mate with a human, or how you absorb their soul?”
“Both, an inquisitive boy like you.”
“Yes. Both mechanisms intrigue and perturb me in equal measure.”
“Mechanisms he says. Such a romantic. Well, what say I let you watch the next time I do it?”
“Madam, I am no voyeur.”
“It’s not voyeurism,” she chided him, “it’s science!”
As they climbed, Cabal mentally shrugged off the bantering pleasantries—diverting though they were—and concentrated on the trials to come. The soul of Luan Da had gone to considerable trouble to hide in Pandæmonium. Why? It seemed unlikely that he had gone to such trouble to avoid the attentions of Satan, not least because he would probably have found himself well regarded and given a position in middle management. Satan was very happy to delegate matters wherever possible. Even if that didn’t happen, restructurings in the processes of Hell meant that it simply wasn’t the pit of eternal punishment that it once was. Unless Luan Da had a pathological fear of amateur dramatics groups, card schools, and balloon debates (admittedly with real balloons), it seemed like a lot of trouble to go to, especially since using Pandæmonium as a bolt hole would surely earn the wrath of Satan, should he ever find out.
Yet here they were, aboard (Cabal had found himself thinking of the edifice as a vessel atop a permanently storming sea rather than as a building) Pandæmonium, and it was most definitely inhabited, almost certainly by somebody of oriental origin, given the armour of the guard they had encountered. Speaking of whom . . .
“Madam, enlighten me. When you have captured your prey and have, how may I put this delicately..?”
“Shagged them to death?”
“Quite. You feed upon the soul, yes?”
“Yes. And a few bodily fluids, but that’s more a matter of personal preference than necessity.”
“Lovely,” he said, but seemed distracted.
“You seem distracted, sweety,” said Zarenyia after some minutes’ silence.
“When you killed the guard—”
“Killed makes it all sound so sordid . . .”
“—you left a body.”
“Yes. Didn’t I just explain all that? Is my memory going? So sad, and so young, too. And pretty.”
“Madam, please leave your vanity unattended for a moment and consider the facts. You devoured the guard’s soul.”
Zarenyia sighed. “Yes.”
“Leaving his corpse.”
“His mortal coil, all shook off, yes. I have done this before, you know.” She stopped on the stairs. “Oh, I am a silly. Yes, darling, I take your point, now.”
“How, if he were a true inmate of Hell, would he have a coil to shake off? Exactly my concern.”
“He was alive. Actually alive. Not now, obviously. He’s nothing at all now, apart from the fond memory of a pleasant repast. But he was alive.” She looked inquiringly at Cabal, as if this were some clever party trick of his. “So how is it a living man was in Hell?”
“It is not,” said Johannes Cabal significantly, “without precedent.”
“I can’t see the Old Man being very happy about it.”
“He wasn’t, nor would he be if he knew I was here again. Still less so if he knew where we were, and least of all were he to discover that Pandæmonium contains more living mortals than just myself.”
“That guard wouldn’t be the only mortal here, then? Of course he wouldn’t. No. It looks like your sorcerer has brought a retinue with him.”
“It also presents the question, why would a dead man need living men as that retinue?”
“Well, Luan Da’s clearly not dead. That’s obvious. Have you really not worked that out, Johannes?”
“I was working up to it,” said Cabal. “It was to be a rhetorical flourish.”
“Ah,” said Zarenyia. “Oops. Bad of me. But hold on, what about his… oh, what do you call them? Those things humans have?” She fussed as she scoured her memory, then clicked her fingers triumphantly. “I remembered! Life span!” She grew serious in the way a five year old grows serious when reprimanding a doll. “Wouldn’t he be frightfully old?”
“He would, yes. We shall have to find him to ascertain whether, in the first instance, he is a living man or merely a spirit, and in the second, assuming he is alive, how old he appears. In any case, he will have demonstrably discovered the secret—or more exactly a secret of immortality. It will be interesting to see how much vivacity that secret lends him.”
“Yes. He could just be a hairy little wrinkly thing. Oh! Deja vu!” She slapped him on the back, but was only rewarded with a hard look. “Little bit of succubine humour, there,” she said, abashed. “Doesn’t always travel.”
They passed many doors en route to the tower top, and dutifully checked each and every one of them. All were unlocked, and all were empty, of guards and sorcerer at least. Many showed recent signs of habitation, however, and Cabal calculated that Luan Da must have at least twenty unaccounted for guards or other servants lurking around the apparently abandoned structure.
“And you know what that suggests to me?” he said, risking another rhetorical device upon his companion.
“Lunch?” said his companion.
“The two things aren’t necessarily exclusive of one another, you know.”
As they closed on the topmost floor of the tower, Cabal grew more cautious while Zarenyia became more enthusiastic. She had been impressed upon not to kill Luan Da until Cabal said she might, but that the rest of his staff were fair game.
“Just try to be, you know . . .” She evidently did not. “Discreet,” said Cabal, unsure what that meant in this context.
“I shall, darling, you know I shall. I shall very discreetly shag them to death.”
“Do you have to use that term?”
“I have many others,” she said, and smiled. Then more soberly, she added, “Terminology aside, and as much as I enjoy the occasional orgy—or feast, again depending on terminology—I am concerned by numbers. If you’re right, and the Chinese chappy has twenty little friends with him, I can hardly ask them to take a number and read a magazine until I can get to them, can I? And there’s you with a fishcake. We may have a few problems.”
Cabal had been thinking along the same lines. “I know a few cantrips,” he unwillingly admitted. “I don’t usually have much time or talent for such fripperies, but I thought the proximity of the chaos stream would magnify whatever abilities I have in that direction.” He reached into his trouser pocket and reluctantly slid out a few inches of ebony wood, thin and gleaming, before letting it slide back into concealment.
Zarenyia was agog. “Is that a wand in your pocket?” she said, “or are you just glad to see me?”
Cabal seemed pained. “I do not easily use such accoutrements. There is something very unscientific about them.”
“Seemed very scientific to me. Is it telescopic?”
“What? Oh. No, these trousers contain a truncheon pocket.”
“My,” she said. “You have a high opinion of yourself. Oh . . . pocket. My mistake.”
“You are smirking, madam.”
“Yes, I am.”
The attack came as they reached the top the stairs, and as an antechamber before what seemed likely to be Luan Da’s sanctum sanctorum came into view. The guards—fourteen, Cabal quickly noted—came charging down the stairs as the necromancer and the devil were still some ten yards from the top, and therefore at a disadvantage.
Years of reflexive conditioning caused Cabal to first try to threaten the enemy with a wilting fish cake before he realised his mistake.
Zarenyia, meanwhile, said, “Hello, boys!” in tones of undisguised delight, before wading in. It turned out that her earlier concerns about being outnumbered had been a little ingenuous, as she was most definitely a fighter as well as a lover of the more terminal sort. Powerful arachnid limbs shot out, and caught guards hard enough in the midriff to knock them from their feet. While Cabal was still wrestling with his “truncheon pocket,” Zarenyia was scuttling up a wall, a guard dangling by the scruff of his neck from a hind leg.
“This is not the time for that!” shouted Cabal, finally clearing the wand from the cloth.
“Oh, hush,” came the reply. “I know what I’m doing. Buy us time, Johannes. Wave your little stick at them.”
Cabal truly hated wands. Now the wretched thing was in his hand, he felt as he had always done in the very few instances when he had used one before—foolish. It was a pleasure to clear his mind before using it, as it allowed him to forget what an utter idiot he must look.
The chaos without the walls provided a constant background hum of magical energies, the least ability of which was to cause blinding headaches. The trick was to let the rolling static of creation flow through his consciousness without catching on any thoughts along the way. Chaos was as impressionable as a young child and, like a young child, tended to misinterpret things. It really didn’t take too much of a desire to see one’s enemies on fire, for example, for chaos to express that as one’s medulla going off with the force of a hand grenade. The best plan was just to direct the stuff in a direction where it might cause trouble and then leave it to its own devices.
Chaos erupted from the tip of his wand like a lazily drawn line, curving gently in long sinuous waves as it snaked up the stairs and struck a guard squarely in the chest. He must have been entertaining a notion that he didn’t want to trip on the stairs as he would bounce down a good few steps of the steep rake. This was duly illustrated by the guard turning momentarily into a guard-shaped figure constructed from toy balls of all sizes and colours before they lost their cohesion and bounced down the steps in a bright avalanche.
This would have been a tactical coup twice over if the guard had been to the rear of the attackers, in which case the cascade would have caused them a hazardous descent. As it was, however, the guard had been in the lead and so only Cabal was troubled by balls bouncing off him and being forced to hold his position until they had passed for fear of taking a tumble.
The guards, all identically dressed and equipped although noticeably of varied ethnicities, came on, swords slashing at him, and he retaliated by slashing the air with the wand, all the time keeping his mind clear of any violent thoughts.
A hundred black darts spat from the wand, to ricochet harmlessly off the guards’ armour, although at least it brought the charge to a premature halt. Several of the darts rolled past Cabal, and he saw that they were fountain pens. On this one occasion, he wished they had been swords.
A guard stepped on a pen, and immediately a longsword sprang up through his sandalled foot. His cry was cut short as he tripped forwards and the tip of the blade caught in the flesh of his throat and then drove through with the force of his tumble. The body clattered towards Cabal, who reflexively stepped back, stood on a ball decorated with stars in concentric circles that had moments before been a spleen, and himself fell.
As he turned his attention from the possibility of being killed by a bunch of men with swords to being killed by bouncing down several hundred stone steps and revised his defensive options accordingly, Cabal caught a glimpse of something multi-limbed and almost egregiously jolly descending from the upper reaches of the high ceiling on a silken cable.
Zarenyia plucked one of the soldiers from his feet with her forelegs and threw him offhandedly up into the shadows from whence she had come. He didn’t come down again. Her further actions were lost as Cabal continued his fall.
Happily, he came down on another ball (the former head) that took the sting from impact, and ended up sliding down the steps for some distance rather than going fragile head over shatterable heels.
He brought himself to a halt after some twenty steps or so, and clambered awkwardly to his feet, bruised but unbroken. The guards, but for four who had stepped on the fatal pens and now stood or lay impaled, were all gone. Cabal blinked without comprehension. He walked painfully up a little way, recovered his dropped wand, and then continued to the top landing, cautiously avoiding any of the remaining pens.
Once clear of immediate danger, he looked up into the shadows and braced himself for what he might see there.
He needn’t have worried; Zarenyia descended the wall leaving behind her a large and ragged web, clearly put together in great haste. Scattered about it were cocooned forms. A guard’s foot stuck out of one.
“Won’t they suffocate?” asked Cabal out of curiosity rather than concern.
“Never have in the past. They don’t breathe much once I’ve given them one of my special kisses, anyway.”
“Special?” said Cabal, and then regretted it as Zarenyia smiled broadly, and a single white translucent fang extended from within her palate to jut from her mouth.
“Special,” she confirmed, the fang sliding back. “They’re in comas, having pleasant, priapic dreams. Useful if I want a snack later. Shall we proceed, Johannes?”
The great double doors of the topmost chamber were unlocked, which spoke to Cabal of their quarry’s overweening arrogance, which in turn was a misreading, although they weren’t to know that just yet.
Certainly the doors slammed open with a satisfying crash when Zarenyia put her forelegs against them and shoved. Cabal advanced, the wand tucked back into its pocket, held ready for a rapid draw by the guise of Cabal nonchalantly wandering in with both hands in his trouser pockets.
“Luan Da,” said Cabal in his best Hokkien dialectical Chinese, “we have come to parley with you. Please stop sending your men against us. It is becoming tiresome.”
Luan Da stood before them, dressed in the style of a noble of the Wu Dynasty. He seemed to be in his forties or fifties, sleek and smooth in a manner that troubled Cabal. It reminded him of some experience or some image he had once seen. He could not quite place it and, while it was not a half memory redolent with danger, it still irked him.
“You,” said Luan Da in a surprisingly youthful tone, probably a side-effect of his longevity, thought Cabal. He was more impressed that he said it in modern German. “You speak the language of my ancestors like my arse chews gum.” He folded his arms. “Unconvincingly.”
Cabal was not sure what to say to that.
“That’s a bit harsh,” said Zarenyia in faultless Hokkien. “I thought he made a good fist of it. Well, decent, anyway.”
“Could we discuss my linguistic shortcomings on some other occasion, please?” said Cabal, lapsing into German himself. “Sir, our journey here has been the product of much trouble taken and many difficulties circumvented. I come to you simply as a fellow seeker of deep secrets, and the occult academia. If you would stop trying to kill me, it would be greatly appreciated.”
“You are a fool,” said Luan Da. “You came here to steal my secrets. You will find only your death.”
Cabal sighed. “Just once, I would like to meet a traveller upon the same paths of research as myself who doesn’t instantly wish me dead on sight.”
“Get a lot of this, then?” asked Zarenyia.
“You have no idea.” He addressed Luan Da once more. “I can understand your prior attempts to kill me. The crows and the acid bath. You simply wished to be left alone. I can sympathise with that. I have done similar things myself. I understand and forgive them. Now, however, I am here, and we can perhaps help one another.”
Here Luan Da looked down his nose at Cabal, and said many hurtful things, primarily matters of race and lineage that stated in so many words a rich seam of bestiality in Cabal’s ancestors, and some career choices for his mother that Cabal knew to be untrue.
It took a while, but only when Cabal’s family tree dating back four generations was thoroughly dripping with vitriol and wreathed with effluvium was Luan Da finally convinced that Cabal had been sufficiently insulted.
Cabal pursed his lips. “And,” he said, “that is your final word?”
Luan Da sneered unbecomingly, a curved and sleek sneer upon an unbecoming face.
“Very well. I see you have your laboratory here. Your writings shall have to suffice. I am more than done with you. Zarenyia, be so kind as to suck the soul from this . . . shit in human form.”
“Sounds so appetising when you put it like that, but, yes, I doubt anyone will miss him.” Then to Luan Da, she said, “Pucker up, lover. You’re about to get the doing of your life.”
Luan Da’s sneer not only failed to vanish, but deepened.
“I know what you are, monster. A succubine devil. A poor sort of parasite.”
Zarenyia was possibly the most astonished she had ever been in her extraordinarily long life. She looked at Cabal. “Did you hear that? He insulted me! To my face! I’m about to off him in all manner of ways, and he insults me!” She looked back at the wizard, her eyes narrowing and a snarl growing on her face. “I was going to make it quick and pleasant, but you are going to linger, little man. I am going to drag the life from you, a fibre at a time, and you will beg me to finish you. And when you have pleaded for the thousandth time . . . you will still have nine thousand more to go before I first say ‘No.’”
It was an impressive threat, although the terrors it promised were a little time-consuming for Cabal’s schedule. Luan Da, however, seemed splendidly unconcerned. Somehow, he managed to deepen the sneer yet further. It was just as well that his complexion was so very sleek, thought Cabal, or he would have torn his face by now.
Then he remembered where he had seen somebody quite that plump and smooth before.
“You are helpless to harm me,” said Luan Da. “Behold!”
And, somewhat unexpectedly, he drew up his robes to expose himself. Cabal found himself beholding that which, on balance, he would much rather not have been beholding.
“The energies that you feed upon were sacrificed long ago to give me my magic!”
Zarenyia’s anger abated in surprise. “Well, poo tinky. That’s just rude.”
“A eunuch,” said Cabal. Of course Luan Da was a eunuch; it was written right there in the histories. He had read it and disregarded it as irrelevant.
Luan Da mercifully dropped the edge of his robe, and snapped an incantation, the high tone of his voice now making perfect sense. Everything grew dark.
“Well, this is just embarrassing,” said Zarenyia, “and I say that as somebody who once gang-banged a college of cardinals.”
She and Cabal were prisoners. Whatever incantation Luan Da had incantated at them had laid them both out, and he had awoken to find he and the devil in a great cage, his belongings taken from him and his wrists in manacles. Zarenyia too was manacled and her legs hobbled in a series of chains until they formed a cage of their own. She lay on her side in what looked like a very uncomfortable position and even Cabal, a man unused to sympathy, felt a little sorry for her. It was all thoroughly discourteous of their host.
Cabal was just considering the relative metrics of Zarenyia’s embarrassment—albeit much against his will—when the door to the dungeon opened and, preceded by guards, Luan Da entered to examine his prisoners.
He didn’t get around to it at once, however. First he found time to walk to the cage, regard its inhabitants for a full three minutes in total silence, then sneer extravagantly. Cabal was convinced the three minutes had been necessary for Luan Da to prepare himself for the sneer, a thing of splenetic perfection.
Then, without further comment somatic or otherwise, he walked to a table in the corner where Cabal’s effects were ranged. He sneered his way along the display of surgical instruments, syringes, notebook, binoculars, and other useful items for the necromancer at large, although the sneer did waver when he encountered Cabal’s erstwhile pistol.
“What . . . is this?” he demanded.
“It’s a Webley .577 fishcake,” said Cabal, irked and truculent. “What did you think it was?”
He was especially peeved because, before being a fishcake, it had been a brand spanking new example of the gunsmith’s art, and now it was a savoury. Cabal got through weapons like other men did handkerchiefs, but the reasons for the loss of the weapons were usually something quite sensible. This poor hapless revolver, however, had suffered a fate more ridiculous than death, and was barely out of the box when it happened. Not for the first time, Cabal considered buying shares in Webley, more from a view of any dividends acting as a discount for his profligate pistol purchasing than anything else.
“Fishcake . . .” said the Chinese wizard, prodding the breadcrumbs with the lengthy nail of one extended finger. “Ridiculous. You came here to destroy me with such apparatus?”
“I came here to ask you to stop trying to destroy me, and perhaps share our researches. I see now the latter part at least was a waste of time. You have no great power other than that you have derived from the Abyss. The historical records are incorrect. You may have been sentenced to be sawn in half, but it was never carried out. Instead, you made your escape to here, they were never able to find you, and so they claimed to have executed you to save the Emperor’s embarrassment. This was an ingenious bolthole, I grant you. I don’t underestimate the difficulty of purifying its energies to a state where they may be focussed and used, and I applaud you on your success. But it is a useless discipline outside the Abyss. You are trapped here, because if you were ever to leave, your powers would dwindle away. Am I correct?”
“I am not trapped,” said Luan Da. “I may leave at any time, and have done so. My powers are greater than you surmise, barbarian. But you are correct that here, I am unassailable. Even the Great Devil that built this palace would be nothing before me if he dared confront me here.”
“Why don’t you say that to his face?” said Zarenyia from the floor. “See how that works out for you? He has a frightful temper, you know. I’m all agog to know what he’d do to you, you silly little ball-less wonder.”
“I am invulnerable here, demon,” repeated Luan Da slowly.
“Demon!” cried Zarenyia, filled with outrage. “Did you hear that, Johannes? Defend my honour!”
Cabal looked over his shoulder at her, considered for a moment, and turned back to Luan Da.
“You have insulted the lady. I suggest you apologise.”
The wizard laughed, a shrill unlovely sound, much like a hyaena in a helium-rich atmosphere.
“Or what? Even if you were free, you could do nothing to harm me. In this my palace, no harm may befall me. No weapon my spill my blood. No poison work in my liver. No magic may cause me hurt. All would be humbled before me.”
Luan Da swept out, tittering unattractively. The door slammed shut behind him, and Cabal and Zarenyia were left alone.
“What an arse than man is,” said Cabal.
“You were so sweet, defending my honour like that,” said Zarenyia. “A demon he called me. So hurtful. Assuming that fixed expression of yours means that you’re busily coming up with a dreadfully clever escape plan, then when we’re free and clear I shall have to give you a proper thank you. I’ll try ever so hard not to kill you with it.”
Cabal regarded her dryly. “I notice you’re not dibbing.”
She held up her wrists. “Manacles. They impede my dibbiness.” She lowered them again and looked seriously at him. “Do you have a plan, Johannes? The awful little man was telling the truth. I’m not sure Lucifer himself would be able to lay a glove upon him.”
“I wasn’t intending to box with him,” said Cabal. “To the contrary, I want to help him.” Johannes Cabal smiled, and it had all the warmth and fellowship of a cut throat.
“And so we see the cost of failing to search somebody properly.”
It had taken a little time and a great deal of concentration, but Cabal was making headway with the wand. It had been lying snugly in the special long pocket in his trousers throughout their initial encounter with Luan Da and had remained undiscovered in their subsequent defeat and incarceration. While undoubtedly an artefact of great power, it was also profoundly unpredictable. The first hour of attempts to escape their cell had produced enough bric-a-brac to supply a church jumble sale, but none of it was proving very helpful for their purpose. Rubber ducks, nesting bowls, unsuitable hats, and a collection of old magazines littered the cell along with many other items of varying uselessness.
Zarenyia had been distracted from her supportive early comments first by the appearance of an angora sweater that she “bagsied” on sight, as if there was much chance of Cabal wanting it. Unhappily, she was unable to put it on due to her manacles, and it dangled from its hanger on the bars by her while she consoled herself by reading ancient agony aunt columns in the magazines.
Finally, Cabal gave himself a break from conjuring miscellaneous household goods from chaos, and considered where he was going wrong.
“The power available here is immense,” he said, looking ruefully at the wand. “Luan Da suggested that his power here is absolute and, if he’s managed to channel the energies outside effectively, I fear he is correct. Claiming the ability to defeat Satan here may not be an idle boast.”
“These people talk such rot,” said Zarenyia, ignoring him. “They say they offer advice in this magazine column, but all they do is make people’s lives more complicated. And as for their attitudes to sex, they talk about it like it’s a bad thing.”
“Sex with you is a bad thing.”
“Not for me, it isn’t. And anyway, I’m a very special case. But this ‘advice,’ well, really. What’s wrong with being the tiniest bit wanton now and again? What exactly is so sinful about onanism? What actual harm is done by the occasional bit of necrophilia?”
“I suspect you’d find a bit of resistance on at least one of those points.”
She threw the magazine aside and looked disconsolately at Cabal. “Haven’t you made anything useful, yet? I thought we’d be out of here in a flash. And a puff of smoke. Possibly some streamers.”
Cabal regarded her icily, receiving criticism not being one of his strong suits. “I am working on it.”
“While you’re about it, do you think you could whip up a wooden hanger for my sweater? Which is lovely, by the bye, thank you so much. The wire one it came with is playing havoc with the shoulders, though. A soft material like that needs to hang from a lovely, smooth rounded surface. My shoulders, ideally, but that’s a problem until we get these manacles off.”
“Madam,” began Cabal, “I have matters of greater import than . . .” He paused, and looked inquiringly at the sweater where it hung. “Wire, you say?”
Shortly thereafter, the sweater carefully folded at Zarenyia’s instruction, and its wire hangar liberated and unwound to form an impromptu lock pick, Cabal grunted with satisfaction as he freed his own wrists from their manacles.
“I like your satisfied grunting,” said Zarenyia dreamily. Cabal ignored her.
Presently, they were freed of their manacles, shackles, and of their cell, the locks being of a uniformly unchallenging design (“It pays to invest in quality,” Cabal had commented as the cell door swung open). Now they stood, resolute, liberated, and—in Zarenyia’s case—wearing angora.
“I presume the plan is to quietly run away, now?” She said it with the air of a vain hope.
“You presume incorrectly. Luan Da will continue to badger me with assorted curses until one of them sticks, I have no doubt. No. He must be dealt with.”
“This is the man who feels quite confident that Satan can’t hurt him. I think that bears repeating.”
“Yes.” Cabal looked around him, deep in thought. “His defensive wards and barriers are as near impervious as makes no difference. We cannot harm him.” He paused as a thought struck him. “No. We cannot hurt him.” He grinned savagely, a sight that had once sent a Hellhound running, yelping for its mother. “Come along, Madame Zarenyia. We have a wizard to defeat.”
The doors of Luan Da’s sanctum santorum once more crashed open under the impetus of large spider legs. “Hello!” Zarenyia said to the startled sorcerer. “Let’s try this again, shall we?”
“Impossible!” cried Luan Da, a silly sort of thing for an immortal eunuch living in Hell’s abandoned parliament to say.
“Only highly improbable as it transpires,” said Cabal, walking past the Zarenyia to confront Luan Da. “But if you will insist on living in a boiling cauldron of chaos, you only have yourself to blame for that.”
Luan Da shook off his surprise with a great effort of will. “So, you escaped. It will do you no good. I will simply return you to your confinement. Guards!”
There was no clatter of armed men in response, only the distant groaning of chaos in the eaves.
“Guards!” cried Luan Da once more.
“They’re indisposed, darling,” said Zarenyia. “Which is to say, they’re dead, but I didn’t want to shock you.”
“No matter,” Luan Da, slightly shocked anyway, “my own powers shall doom you!”
“Actually, I was thinking perhaps we could have a little duel,” said Cabal. “My magic against yours.”
Luan Da laughed, and it was as uncharismatic a sound as ever. “You? Your feeble skills are no match for mine, barbarian! Even the Great Devil would . . .”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Cabal dismissively. “We’ve already heard you brag in that manner before. Personally, I doubt you would long survive my first volley.”
“My defences are perfect,” Luan Da said with one of his overly-complicated sneers. “You can cause me no hurt. No man, nor any demon,” and here he pointedly looked at Zarenyia. Cabal heard her mutter “Ooooh . . .” crossly behind him, “can bring me harm. Your words are empty, fool.”
“Well, then.” Cabal drew his wand. “Prepare to defend yourself.”
Luan Da smirked, which was just as unpleasant an expression as a sneer on that buttery face. With a few short syllables of power, the air around him thickened as wards and barriers to protect him from any conceivable source of violence formed. When he was satisfied that they were in place, he contemptuously waved Cabal to him, an invitation to duel.
Cabal looked at the wand in his hand, hoped he had judged things correctly, aligned his thoughts, and cast a spell at Luan Da.
It was all very disappointing. The tip of the wand illuminated with a mild golden lambency, then fluttered out after a few seconds. Cabal examined the wand once more, pursing his lips. “Hmmm . . .” he said.
“Ha!” shouted Luan Da. “That was your best, was it? Now, prepare for an agony of slow death, you fool!”
Cabal put away his wand and crossed his arms, awaiting certain destruction with polite patience.
“I call upon the powers of the Abyss! I summon the forces that were old when the Earth was formed! I . . .” Luan Da coughed. “I call upon . . .” He coughed again. “I . . .” He touched his throat, plainly concerned.
“Don’t worry,” said Cabal. “It’s perfectly normal.”
“Impossible . . .” Luan Da was croaking. “This is impossible. What have you done to me, barbarian?” Around him, the air flexed and the distortions of his defences faded slowly.
“Well, I haven’t done you any harm, if that’s what you’re concerned about. You were quite right. Those were very impressive defences. I certainly couldn’t hurt you through them. So instead, I did quite the opposite. Something your defences were never intended to stop.”
“I . . . feel strange . . .” Luan Da succumbed to another coughing fit. “What is happening to me?”
“Oh, your throat? That will pass, with time. It’s just your voice breaking. It happens to all the boys.”
Luan Da froze. His eyes widened. “No . . .”
“Yes. I didn’t even try to hurt you, Luan Da. I have healed you. You should be grateful. Oh,” Cabal feigned exasperation with himself, “I am so forgetful. Of course, your magic depended on you being a eunuch, didn’t it? Silly me. Never mind. I meant well.”
Luan Da looked around frantically, suddenly becoming all too aware of an unfamiliar weight between his legs. “A knife! There must be a knife somewhere! I can . ..” He stopped, staring wildly at Cabal. “The demon! Where is it?”
Some prickling premonition made him look up.
“Hello, darling,” said Zarenyia as she descended on a silken cable, death in angora. She was not smiling. “Guess what? You really should have apologised when Johannes asked you to.”
The departure from Pandæmonium was leisurely. Cabal observed the first stages of Zarenyia’s feeding process out of scientific interest, and made a few notes. Then he smoked a cigarillo, but it seemed that Zarenyia really did intend to drag out Luan Da’s quietus to great lengths, so he wandered off to do what he usually did when he found himself in the home of a rival necromancer or sorcerer, which is to say he looted it.
The guards they had fought earlier still hung pathetically from the web above the staircase. Luan Da had made no attempt to rescue them. Perhaps he would have got around to it later, perhaps he wouldn’t have. He seemed to have had a very inflexible attitude to failure, and Cabal imagined it was perfectly in character for him to leave the sluggishly writhing bodies up there as a warning to the new intake of guards when he recruited them.
It took several hours, and netted him some useful items, yet Zarenyia was still nowhere near done with Luan Da when he got back. Cabal might have felt some pity for him, but the memory of a loofah prevented even the faintest kindling of sympathy. Instead, Cabal went off to find a bed, and slept for a while. He was awoken by being prodded by a giant spider leg. “Up and at ’em, sleepy head!” said Zarenyia.
“Luan done.” She smiled a smile that was not in the least part nice. “Grab your kit and we’ll be on our way. I’m bored with this place.”
Cabal rose, and noticed a couple of man-sized bulges firmly webbed to the underside of her abdomen. Through the threads at the end of one, the lines and metallic glint of a guard’s helmet could just be discerned. “Snacks for the trip,” explained Zarenyia. “If I get peckish.”
The thread she had used to reach Pandæmonium was still in place, and she climbed with astonishing agility along it with Cabal clinging to her back, hugging her around the waist and putting up with a commentary on the glories of angora wool the whole way. At least he had developed the mental skills necessary to avoid making the transit as some variety of fish/human hybrid, which was a relief.
The return journey was otherwise uneventful. Several hours of ascent passed with occasional conversation, and a long period during which Cabal accepted a lift, his dignity less affronted by the offer than on the downward trip.
Finally they were back where they had first met. They looked at the summoning circle, its candles long guttered. Zarenyia said, “Ah, memories. It seems such a long time ago, now.”
“It appears we are at a parting of the ways, Madam Zarenyia,” said Cabal. He seemed awkward and unsure.
“Indeed,” she said. “I’ve had a lovely time, Johannes. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such fun.” She regarded him fondly, as one might a stalwart companion, or perhaps an amusing pet. “I’m sorry you didn’t find what you were looking for.”
Cabal smiled wanly. “Yes, Luan Da’s ‘great secret’ was something of a disappointment. Living castrated in chaos isn’t really a helpful avenue for me. Still, it was an adventure, to be sure.”
Zarenyia spoke abruptly, the words coming quickly as if she’d just rehearsed them. “I just want you to know, if you ever have need of a devil again in future, think of me, will you? You won’t have to muck around with binding rites and all that rigmarole, either. I won’t hurt you, Johannes. You’re too much fun to hurt. I promise I shan’t.” She held up two fingers together in salute. “Dib dib dib.”
“Your dibs are more than good enough for me.” He cleared his throat. ”Madam. I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance. Very pleased indeed.“
Zarenyia leaned forward, took off his hat, and kissed him on the forehead before he had time to react. She put the hat back and smiled. “Farewell, Johannes.” She turned and walked back into the circle. As she dissolved into shadows and fancies, returning to the realms from which she had been summoned, he distantly heard her call.
“Don’t be a stranger.”
Johannes Cabal wasn’t used to being liked, and it left him troubled and uncertain. Parting was such strange sorrow. Finally, he settled his hat more firmly on his head, took up his bag laden with stolen treasures, and left the hidden entrance to Hell known as Kemch, entering into a Wednesday afternoon in a small market town.
“A Long Spoon” copyright © 2014 by Jonathan L. Howard
Illustration copyright © 2014 by Greg Ruth