YANCEY SLIDE LIT yet another cheroot. "It was a magic age, I've got to tell you that, boy. I know eveiyone is getting twisted about His coming again, but, when He was in the world before, I personally had the best time of my whole, extremely long life, up until the end, that is, when things went a little wrong. Hell, I doubt you could even imagine it. We were lords of creation, cruising round in our aircars and living in the lap of luxury. I kid you not, the Great City between the Twin Rivers was a wonder to behold, what with the waterways, the flame groves, the floating gardens, and the whole system of streets and avenues on ten different levels, and the dreaming needle spires and the white stones of the piazzas in the blazing sun, and the great ziggurat towering over everything, close to half a mile high and black as the ace of spades, devouring energy and in total control of all who looked upon it. You should have seen that place, Joe Gibson, power entities coming and going like a bright shimmer across the sky that could stretch back to the horizon, and the ilalassu and the eagles and the little flying cars skipping in and out of the force skeins of their being and soaring in the backwash, so the air was as alive as the ground. And the nights, boy, the wine-dark nights and the women, heavy heat, and dangerous perfume on the wind off the sand, dark-eyed beauties with soft words and wicked mouths, and you couldn't even tell if they were djinn or human, and you were damned if you cared. It was an age of magic, boy, make no mistake about that."
Slide nodded to himself, and it was the first time that Gibson had ever seen him look wistful. Gibson took a pull from the jug, and the idimmu corn spirit warmed him through to the deep of his soul. It was hard to pin down time in the Hole of the Void, but Gibson was certain that he'd been warming his soul for at least three straight days with the result that his speech was slurred and objective reality was becoming elusive."It sounds idyllic."
Slide continued to nod. "You're fucking right about that, boy. It was idyllic." He paused to swat at one of the tiny cartoon things that flittered through the air like miniature bats or maybe large leather butterflies. Failing to hit it, he lay back, staring up at the constantly changing sky..
"Of course, there were times when it wasn't quite so perfect. I mean, there were bloody nearly ten thousand years of it. That's probably something else that you can't imagine. In a period of that length, you've got to expect a few ups and downs."
"When He was on a jag, things could become downright dangerous."
Slide lay reflecting on this for so long that Gibson was forced to nudge him back to speech.
"You should have seen the armies go out at the start of the Five Thousand Day War, banners streaming, armor flashing, and the lightleak from their weapons hanging above them like a snow cloud of silver. Or the endgame Battle of Kia Mass when Suhgurim sent in the trolls of his own breeding to massacre the demahim with their knives and electric clubs and might even have held the day if the stormcrows hadn't dropped on them like avenging vultures, ripping and tearing the trolls' weird flesh with their steel claws. Damn it, boy, you've never seen so much blood, I swear we were wading in it up to our knees."
Gibson and Slide had taken themselves and their jug of corn to the crest of one of the low hills that overlooked the valley and the bizarre, ill-assorted collection of buildings that were the heart of the Hole in the Void. Gibson had been grateful for his introduction to the idimmu corn liquor; even though the transition from Luxor had been quite painless, coming down from the hero serum had been making him feel quite ill. It had the effect of numbing him against the irrational fears and constant dull ache that seemed to be the aftermath of the streamheat instant courage.
Slide had never satisfactorily explained the Hole in the Void to Gibson, and Gibson had some doubts that the demon really understood it himself. When he tried, he came out with little more than vague analogies. "Think of it as a glitch, something that shouldn't be there, a twist in the fabric of whatever makes up the space between dimensions,"
When Gibson pressed him, he simply retreated into anger. "Think of it as a cancer cell on the sunburned ass of time if it makes you any happier."
Certainly it was the strangest place that Gibson had ever been, making him feel, in fact, that he was as good as on another planet. As a kid, he always wanted to go to another planet-that was, until he discovered that other planets, at least those that might be accessible to him during his lifetime, were essentially boring. When he found out that Mars was without either Martians or even a system of canals, that Venus had no exotic tropical jungles and wasn't ruled over by the Treens, and that Jupiter was just plain impossible, it came as more of a shock than finding out there was no Santa Glaus, whom he'd always found a little implausible at the best of times. He had decided that he wasn't going to be an astronaut after all and concentrated on rock 'n' roll.
The ground on which he and Slide had stretched out was a weird, bright orange-porous substance, and Gibson wouldn't have taken bets that it was even a mineral. Here and there, it appeared to sweat, exuding a sticky yellow liquid that first hardened and crystalized and then, after a few hours, crumbled to dust and blew away. The sky above them was without a sun and, for all the world, looked like a huge cathode screen in the blazing grip of wild interference. Juddering snags of white light blipped across psychedelic washes of color and line patterns that waved and contorted like the encephalograph of a madman, always rolling from east to west like someone had been screwing around with cosmic vertical hold. The Hole in the Void was far from being a restful place.
The buildings seemed to have been picked up at random from a variety of places in space and time for no other reason than because individual denizens of the Hole in the Void had taken a fancy to them, and then dropped willy-nilly, without thought or design, into an untidy cluster at one end of the valley. The overall impression was that it could be the deeply surreal back lot at some insane movie studio. In the loose approximation of a main street, an oak-beamed English tavern called the Rearing Eagle, that might have come from seventeenth-century London, stood between a crumbling adobe and a phallic pink glass tower with circular Lucite balconies that could have been a set for The Jetsons. At the top of one of the nearby hills, surrounded by its own grove of oaks, heavy with Spanish moss and dark shadows, an antebellum mansion from the Old South kept itself to itself and, in the periods of darkness when the sky went out, ghostiy lights moved from window to window.
Even day and night in the Hole in the Void were a matter of apparent anarchy. Although the settlement experienced approximately equal measures of each, they appeared to occur with little rhyme or reason. With maybe only the brief preamble of the sky streaking into a parody of a tropical sunset, the lights would go out and might not return for six or seven hours, but could also come right back on inside of five minutes. This chaos made slightly more sense when Gibson discovered that by far the majority of the demons were quite able to see in the dark, and some that couldn't actually glowed themselves, but, coupled with drunkenness and a drug comedown, it was a gross irregularity that had the effect of shooting his body clock all to hell, and he had no idea if he was ever going to sleep normally again. He had virtually given up the struggle for orientation and abandoned himself to a constant state of confusion.
The inhabitants of the Hole in the Void were more than a match in strangeness for the landscape and the architecture through which they moved, and the erratic cycles of light and dark that they appeared to take in their stride. Although the majority were humanoid in form, if fanciful in style and costume, like Slide, Nephredana, and Yop Boy, others were blessed or cursed, depending on one's point of view, with far more outlandish figures and forms. Gibson had seen creatures whose bodies were unholy combinations of man, beast, and mythology, while others totally defied description by being little more than changing forms of light energy, or gaseous apparitions that seemed only partially to occupy even the same reality as Gibson. With some, it was hard to tell if they were actually inhabitants of the place or merely decorative native fauna. On first arrival, as Gibson had left the Hudson with his head spinning from the first shock of this new world, he had walked straight into two massive insects like giant roaches, more than four feet long, with compound eyes, waving antennae and body carapaces lavishly decorated with inlaid jewels and metalwork. Even the size of the Hole's inhabitants failed to conform to any set pattern, with the inhabitants ranging from those who seemed to have the need to be giants, arrogant striding colossi over twenty feet tall, down to eighteen-inch munchkins who chattered about their munchkin business like characters from a Beatrix Potter nightmare.
"There's something that I don't get."
Slide sat up, looked at Gibson, took a pull on the jug and spat into the dust. "There seem to be a hell of a lot of things that you don't get."
"Sometimes you make it sound as if all these characters here, the idimmu, have been here forever, and there are other times when you refer to you all as being created by the superbeings."
Slide laughed. "Of course, boy. We were all created. The Old Ones, what you call the superbeings, made all of the idimmu and a bunch more other beings who didn't survive that last great exit. That's why we only have legends of the last time that He awoke. None of us was around to see it. He made us because He needed an intermediary being who could act as a go-between, bridging the gap that separated Him from the humans who were already living in the dimensions."
Gibson shook his head. "You look so human."
Slide shrugged and grunted as though it was obvious. "That's because we are partially human, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individual. We're the product of crossbreeding humans with a number of ancient discorporate entities."
Gibson had to consider that for a while. It was hard to get a grip on the idea of superbeings who could, with apparent ease, create an entire new species to do their bidding. "Does that make Him a god? "
Yancey Slide shook the jug beside his ear to see what was left in it. "It depends on what you mean by a god."
"How did you fall out with Him? What was the trouble at the end?"
Slide shook his head. "I'm not ready to talk about that yet, not with you. Suffice to say that things got a little out of hand when the time came for Him to pull out of the multidimensional universe and go back to the place of dormancy."
"What did you do? Lead some kind of revolt?"
Slide snarled at Gibson. "I told you, kid, I'm not ready to talk about it."
Gibson was left with the feeling that he had maybe hit a little too close to the truth for Slide's comfort, and then, as if to add dramatic effect to what Slide had just said, the light decided to go out. The sky disintegrated into purple streaks and then quickly faded to black. The Hole in the Void instantly became a place of a thousand points of light, flames and fireflies, and St. Elmo's fire dancing over the crystalline rocks that, here and there, projected through the orange ground material.
Slide got slowly to his feet. "There's nothing left in this jug so I guess it's time to head back to the tavern. You given any more thought about what you're going to do?"
Ever since they had arrived in the Hole in the Void, Slide had been putting a good deal of none too subtle pressure on Gibson to make some kind of decision regarding himself and the Prophecy of Ami Enlil. "You'd be a hell of a lot wiser to go through the preparation rituals and then go to the Portal and see whether or not it opens for you than just to let it all just fell down on you without warning when He starts to move,"
Gibson, who felt quite justified in opting to keep out of all embroilments in epic events for the time being, was decidedly reluctant to agree to any of the stuff that Slide seemed to be proposing. He wasn't even completely sure that he understood the whole business of the Prophecy and the waking of Necrom.
"Let me get this straight: according to this here ancient prophecy, when Necrom starts to wake…"
Even in the dark, Gibson could see Slide's pained look. "Yeah, yeah, I know, don't speak his name out loud. Okay. When He starts to wake, some unfortunate human has to go through this portal to aid the whole waking process."
Slide, who seemed to be rapidly shifting into an increasingly foul mood, grunted angrily, "I already explained that to you."
Gibson, who wasn't in the best of humors himself, snapped back. "Yeah, well maybe you ain't been explaining it too clearly. I still don't see the point of all this. Why the hell would something that, according to what you've been telling me, is close to being a god need some poor bloody human to help Him get up? It doesn't make any sense."
"You don't try and make sense out of what He does. You just obey and hope that you get out alive."
"That's where I have trouble with this whole deal. I've been spending too damn much of my time of late doing nothing but trying to get out alive. I'm also wondering why you're so all-fired keen to have me do this. What's in it for you, Yancey?"
Slide, who was walking down the hillside a little ahead of Gibson, suddenly whirled round with his eyes blazing dangerously. ^
"I'm getting real tired of your bullshit, Gibson. Maybe I should have left you to die in Luxor."
"You might as well have if I'm just being set up as the sacrificial lamb again."
It seemed that one of the side effects of the local corn was rapid negative mood swings. Slide was actually pushing back his duster coat, exposing the heavy-caliber revolver that was strapped to his hip. "I'm getting really fucking tired of you, Gibson."
Gibson slowly spread his hands. Familiarity must have bred a measure of contempt, because it was only at that moment he realized that he was actually dealing with an out-of-control demon. He forced himself to be as calm as he could.
"I don't have a weapon, Yancey. And, even if I did, I don't want to fight with you."
Slide's only reply was an animal growl. Gibson could feel himself start to sweat. "This is crazy, man. We're both drunk and things are getting twisted."
Slide held the threatening gunfighter pose for a few more seconds, and then he let it out with a short rasping laugh. "Damn it to hell, kid, will you look at me. The booze in this place is fucking poisonous."
Gibson eased the tension in his shoulders. "But I guess we're going to drink some more of it."
Slide nodded. "That's the truth."
They continued down the hill in the direction of the Rearing Eagle.
As they walked into the main room of the tavern, Gibson realized with some trepidation that he was the only human in the place. It occurred to him that he might actually be the only human in the whole of the Hole in the Void. This wasn't exactly an encouraging thought. When he'd just come as close as he had to being shot by Yancey Slide, whom he thought of as, if not a friend, at least a solid drinking companion, he didn't exactly relish the prospect of hanging out with a bunch of strange, hard-drinkhig idimmu who might turn out to be even more evil-tempered in their cups than Slide had proved to be.
The Rearing Eagle was crowded and there was noticeable tension in the air. As Slide and Gibson had earlier sat drinking on the hillside, Gibson had noticed that a major influx seemed to be taking place, with large numbers of demons coming to the refuge from the dimensions beyond. Every few minutes, a new vehicle and even individuals on foot would materialize in the soft spot at the opposite end of the valley from the collection of buildings.
It didn't take long to find out why the idimmu were coming to this place in such large numbers. Even as they made their way up to the bar for yet another jug, Gibson caught snatches of conversation that seemed to indicate things were bad all over. He didn't know whether the upheavals that were being experienced in numerous dimensions were a result of the print-throughs caused by the nuclear attack on Luxor or merely unrelated events, but it did seem that large areas of the multidimensional universe were going to hell on the high-speed elevator. He caught a number of conversations that placed the blame for the current troubles squarely on the streamheat.
"I'm telling you, those bastards are out to get rid of the whole bunch of us. When I got to Xodd, they were all over the goddamned town, thicker than flies on fresh shit. I ain't kidding- they were practically running the fucking City Senate. They had the local cops toss me in jail as a political undesirable. I mean, do I look undesirable? I didn't have no alternative, I blew a hole in the wall of the jail and lammed it out of there and back here as fast as I could. Without a word of a lie, they think they're lowering the net on us and no mistake."
The speaker was a short, squat idimmu, dark-skinned and wearing a stained leather jerkin, and although to Gibson's eye he looked pretty undesirable, he was nothing unusual by the standards of the Rearing Eagle. When he had finished talking there was a lot of nodded agreement. Clearly, his was no isolated case.
Gibson and Slide gratefully made it through the crowd to the bar and, armed with a fresh jug, retired to a booth beside the big open fireplace. Despite the strangeness of its location, the Rearing Eagle was actually quite a comforting, cozy place, with its low, smoke-blackened, wood-beamed ceiling, roaring fire, and dense boozy atmosphere, and Gibson could see why, out of all the gin joints in all the dimensions, so many idimmu should look on it as the watering hole of last resort. It really only existed because of the burly, red-faced landlord, Long Tom Enni-Ya, who ran the place much more for his own satisfaction than as a service to his fellow demons. Like Slide, he cultivated a strong human image, and his fantasy of choice seemed to be to live the life of some Dickensian publican. It was only his glowing demon eyes that revealed that he was something more than the bluff affable host of an English country inn.
Once installed in the booth with a drink in front of him, Gibson had a chance to look around the place. Most of the tables were taken and groups of demons sat hunched in muted conversation over jugs of corn and earthenware pots of Tom Enni-Ya's beer. The group that stood clustered around the bar was arguing, sometimes passionately, about the current political situation, the inroads that were being made into what they saw as the traditional idimmu freedoms, and what needed to be done about them. A number of the suggested solutions were spectacularly violent.
A swarthy woman with gold earrings and a leather coat was hunched over an instrument akin to a guitar, playing something that might have had its start in Delta blues but had gone a long way in a direction that Gibson had never heard or experienced. Long and drawn-out notes echoed mournfully around the room, calling to the ghosts of Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix.
Gibson wasn't sure it was the music or just the general atmosphere but he had a sudden insight into the idimmu. Despite their swagger, their bizarre looks and bravado, they were an old and frightened race. They didn't really live, just existed on the periphery of the real world. They had been around for thousands of years, but only as parasites on the stream of history. They had been made almost indestructible but they were also sterile, eternal but without offspring or progress. A wave of truly maudlin sadness washed over Gibson until he caught himself. He was being ridiculous. Sympathy for the demons? Feeling sorry for the idimmu because they didn't have any kids was about on a level with feeling sorry for Attila the Hun because his daddy had never taken him fishing.
The similarities between the world of the idimmu and that of Attila the Hun were forcibly brought back when, partway through the arbitrary evening, a figure came into the place who stopped conversation dead. He was one of the idimmu who looked part man, part beast, having the bumpy armored skin of an alligator and the same flat shovel head, the mouthful of exaggerated teeth, and small cunning eyes that blazed like the glowing coals in the fireplace. The fearsome pair of long, single saber-shape antlers that protruded from the top of his head lent him a close resemblance to the traditional devil of the Middle Ages, although these later turned put to be a part of a strange iron headdress rather than an integral part of his skull. As he came through the door, backed up by a gang of five others, who, although not as fearsome as their leader, still looked like some of the baddest demons in the place, Gibson went through an instant of primitive devil shock. Then he saw that the figure was headed straight for the booth where he and Slide were sitting, ducking his head to avoid hitting it on the low ceiling beams, and supernatural dread gave way to a much more instant and rational fear.
Slide had also spotted the man-beast coming toward them through the crowd, and he cursed under his breath. "Shit, Rayx."
" Who's Rayx?"
"You'll find out."
The creature halted in front of their booth and leered down at Slide. "Well, well, well, look who we have here, I thought you'd gotten yourself nuked to hell inside of Luxor. How did you get out of there, Yancey my love? Still got that knack for running away."
Hie thing's voice was a mixture of croaking rasp and hissing sibilance.
Slide regarded him calmly. "You still here, Rayx?"
"Where else should I be, Yancey?"
"Thought you might have crept off to play Prince of Darkness in some dimension where the inhabitants are real dumb and gullible."
Rayx picked at his teeth with a talon. "You know I gave up that shit eons ago. These days I just lay back and amuse myself. How about you?"
Slide shrugged. "I get by."
Rayx turned his attention to Gibson. "Is this the human?"
Slide nodded. "That's him."
"He don't look like much. You sure he fits the Four Requirements?"
"He seems to."
Rayx was shaking his head. "He sure don't look like much. You tried him at the Portal yet?"
"He ain't sure if he wants to get involved,"
Rayx looked at Slide in amazement and wisps of steam issued from his cavernous nostrils. "He ain't sure if he wants to get involved? Since when did a human have a choice in the matter, Yancey Slide? Put him at the damn Portal and see if it takes him, and if he doesn't want to go, drag him there. We got too much riding on this to let the whim of some goddamned human get in the way."
Gibson raised a hand. "Does anyone mind if the goddamned human has something to say about this?"
Rayx snorted and the wisps of steam turned to twin billows. "Feisty little fuck, isn't he?"
Gibson was becoming exceedingly angry. He thought he had moved on from situations where people talked about him as though he was an object with no free will of his own. "That's right, he's a feisty little fuck, and he isn't about to allow himself to be dragged off to any portal against his will without putting up one hell of a fight." He turned to Slide. "And what is it that you all have riding on this?"
Slide gave Gibson a warning look. "Stay out of this, kid. You don't know what you're dealing with. You're drunk."
"So are you."
"Stay out of it, kid."
Gibson, however, was feeling restless. He took a hit on his jug of corn. "How am I supposed to stay out of this when I'm in it up to my fucking neck?" Slide was right, he was drunk. "And another thing, I'm getting tired of being called kid.' You may be older than the rocks on which you sit, but you still don't have to address me as 'kid.' "
Rayx pointed a talon-tipped finger at Slide. "You want to get your little human under control, Yancey, or people are going to start talking."
Gibson had the bit between his teeth and he glared at Rayx. "I'm not his little human. I'm my own man and maybe you better get used to that."
This was too much for Rayx; he lunged for Gibson, grabbed him by the front of his jacket, and half dragged him out of his seat. "Someone needs to teach you some manners, little man."
Slide's voice was hard and cold. "Put him down, Rayx."
Gibson, who by this point was terrified out of his mind but determined not to show it, caught a blast of Rayx's breath full in the face. The demon had the foulest breath imaginable, and he almost gagged. Rayx continued to hold on to him and truculently faced Slide. "Do you intend making me?"
Gibson twisted his head around and looked at Slide. His hands had vanished beneath the table, and Gibson wondered if he had surreptitiously pulled out his gun. Slide was sitting very still and very calm, "Put him down, Rayx, or you'll answer to me."
Gibson was aware that the confrontation was no longer over him but was just the latest twist in some long-term rivalry between the two idimmu. There was almost a ritual to the facedown that told of a long history to the hostility.
Rayx lowered Gibson into his seat again and took a step back.
His eyes flashed. "You think you're ready for me, do you, Slide?"
"I'm always ready for you."
"Why don't you can the bullshit and just get to it?"
Slide's face was impassive. "So take your best shot."
Something silver had appeared in Rayx's hand, but before he could use it the table in front of Slide exploded in a flash of blue flame, smoke, and wood splinters. Rayx tottered back with an angry scream. "You bastard, you had a piece under the table."
Green blood was streaming from the man-beast's right shoulder, and the silver weapon had dropped from his hand. Slide was on his feet. The smoking pistol that he was holding looked exactly like a Civil War Navy Colt, except that Gibson had never seen a Colt that could spout blue fire.
Rayx was down on his knees, trying to stop the flow of blood from his shoulder. Gibson was also on his feet. "Is he going to die?"
Slide shook his head. "No, he'll live. It takes a lot to kill something like Rayx. I just hope that he'll think twice before he fucks with me again." The remark was made as much for the man-beast's benefit as it was for Gibson's. When it was clear that Rayx wasn't going to continue the fight, Slide looked around at the demons who had come in with him. "Why don't you get him out of here before he bleeds all over everything?"
Rayx's gang of five helped their wounded leader out of the barroom, but it was immediately plain that the incident was far from over. A group of idimmu, including Tom Enni-Ya, gathered around Slide with the attitude of people who wanted answers. The landlord of the Rearing Eagle became the spokesman for the group with the weary tone of a man who doesn't want to take control but knows that he has to. "Okay, Yancey, the fun's over. We all know that Rayx is a loudmouthed blowhard who frequently deserves shooting, but, this time round, he did have a point. What do you intend to do with the human?"
Slide holstered his pistol and sat down again. "I need a drink."
Tom Enni-Ya signaled to one of the serving women, and a fresh jug was placed in front of Slide; then the innkeeper put the question again. "What about the human, Yancey? Is he the one?"
Slide shrugged. "What can I tell you? He seems to fit the Requirements but we won't know for sure until he goes to the Portal."
"And when's that going to be? We may not have too much time. Every day more folks come in here with more stories of the changes going down. Since Luxor, it can only get worse. I hear tell there's print-throughs fucking things up everywhere. There are even rumors of a couple of serious continuity disruptions. Shit like that can't help but speed His waking process, and if we don't make our move pretty damn fast, it could well be too late."
Slide pointed to Gibson. "You heard what he said. He's his own man. It's his decision whether he goes or not."
At this, a number of the idimmu growled, and the demon whom Gibson had overheard telling the story of his run-in with the streamheat in the town called Xodd took it upon himself to voice the feelings of the others. "Maybe Rayx had the right idea. We can't let our whole future get hung up on the whim of one human. Maybe we ought to drag him to the Portal whether he likes it or not."
Now every eye in the place was on Gibson, and he knew it was time to make some moves on his own behalf. "Before everyone gets carried away, do I get to say something?"
Tom Enni-Ya nodded. "Sure, say your piece."
Gibson took a deep breath. "I haven't agreed to go to this portal and find out if I really am the one in the prophecy, but I also haven't refused."
The demon from Xodd looked round at the others. "He's got a point there."
Gibson continued. "I might be more willing to go along with this thing if I knew a bit more about it and had a better idea of what my chances of survival might be."
Again the demon from Xodd faced the crowd. "Seems to me that he can't say fairer than that."
Gibson was pleased that at least one person in the Rearing Eagle was taking his part; then one of the eighteen-inch munchkins piped up." Ah, screw it, why are we dicking around with one dumb human. I say drag him to the Portal and be done with it."
The general approval with which this was received was hardly encouraging. Gibson glanced at Slide. "You have anything to say about this?"
Slide shook his head. "Not a word, kid. You're on your own here. You told us that you're your own man."
Gibson sighed and turned back to the crowd. "I might be able to make a decision if I knew why my going to this portal was so goddamned important."
The mass attention immediately shifted to Slide, and the munchkin, who had been all for dragging Gibson to the Portal by force, climbed up on the shattered table and glared into Slide's face. "You didn't tell him?"
Slide looked more uncomfortable than Gibson had ever seen him. "I didn't think the time was right yet."
Now Gibson was not only terrified but also furious. "The time wasn't right for what? There was sure as hell enough time to bore the shit out of me with all your drunken stories of the Battle of Kia Mess and all the rest of the ancient history."
"It was the Battle of Kia Mass."
The munchkin turned round to face Gibson. "He didn't tell you that us idimmu were counting on the Prophecy of Anu Enlil to save our collective ass when He wakes?"
Gibson looked at Slide and shook his head. "He left out that part."
Tom Enni-Ya growled in his throat. "Fuck it, Yancey, have you always got to be so goddamned devious?"
Slide avoided the landlord's eyes. "Ain't you kind of forgetting that my devious behavior is responsible for us all being here today, drinking it up in this here tavern instead of having been blown to our component atoms fifteen thousand years ago?"
The munchkin turned angrily on Slide. "Yeah, right. We're all real grateful. It don't give you the leeway to be screwing around with the Prophecy, though."
Tom Enni-Ya was glaring at Slide. "Are you going to tell him or am I?"
Slide glowered back at the crowd of demons. "I'll tell him, goddamn it."
Gibson sat down again and leaned back. "So tell me."
Slide sighed. "It was like this. Fifteen thousand years ago, we all knew that His time in the dimensions of Earth was coming to an end, and we were getting worried about what was going to happen to us. The humans were gone already, some of us had even taken part in the exterminations."
Gibson looked outraged. "You exterminated the humans?"
Slide at least had the decency to look shamefaced. "Hell, we left enough of you guys alive to carry on the species and even that was taking a risk. We had orders."
The munchkin was nodding. "When He gave an order, you didn't screw around."
Gibson was getting bemused. Once again he'd asked for information, and more was being thrown at him than he could ever absorb in one sitting. "So you'd wiped out the humans. What happened then? You started getting worried about your own future?"
Slide nodded. "Pretty much. A bunch of us, most of the people here in fact, were ordered to the twin cities, Sadan-Gomrah, out on the plain. The last of the civilized humans, except for the few we'd let slip away to the hills, were gathered there. The idea was to level the place with a couple of nukes."
"This is a charming story."
Slides eyes flashed. "Fuck you, Gibson. I'd like to see what you'd do in the same situation."
"Just go on with the story."
"Okay, so we get to Sadan-Gomrah and start setting up for the destruction of the place. We'd tipped off one of the Patriarchs, though, that the shit was going to go down, so he was able to sneak a bunch of his people out of there…"
Gibson's lip curled. "You really are all heart."
This time Slide ignored the remark. "All the time, though, we're thinking that we might be next, since it was obvious that He was going for a full-scale scorched-earth policy, no traces left when he went dormant."
"So what did you do?"
"I organized this scam whereby we armed the bombs but set them to go off earlier than planned, so it'd look as though we'd fucked up and blown ourselves to hell. Just before the explosion, we all took off, spreading out across the dimensions so, as He was already slowing down for the dormancy state. He most probably wouldn't find us."
"And you got away with it?"
Slide nodded. "Sure did. A few were caught, but only a few."
"What happened to them?"
"You don't want to know."
Gibson shook his head. "I do want to know and I'm asking."
The demon from Xodd supplied the answer. "Can you imagine a thousand years of relentless pain or being buried alive in the heart of a mountain?"
"I don't think I can."
Slide smiled nastily. "That's why you don't want to know."
"So what happened next?"
This time the munchkin answered. "He slept and we survived."
"And now he's waking, you're worried that he's going to come after you."
Slide nodded. "His wrath is something else you don't want to screw around with."
"And where does this prophecy fit in?"
"We hope to appease Him through making sure the Prophecy is fulfilled."
Gibson frowned. "That doesn't make any sense. If he wakes up mad, how is one sorry human going to tip the balance in your favor?"
"When the Prophecy of Anu Enlil was told to us, we took it as an order that had been left behind. It has always been interpreted as a chance to redeem ourselves for the previous deception."
"Why not just go on hiding out?"
Slide sadly shook his head. "There'll be no hiding from Him when He wakes. He'll be strong, and He'll sense us wherever we are. We're His creatures, He'll be able to draw us to Him. We'll go to Him whether we want to or not, because that's what His power is all about."
Gibson took a long deep drink from the jug. He was beginning to sense what was coming, but he was determined to stave it off for as long as possible. "I still don't see how my going through the portal is going to save you all from the wrath of Necrom."
A shudder ran through the parlor of the Rearing Eagte, and Slide actually winced. "How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?"
Gibson was only now becoming aware of just how terrified the idmmmi were of what might happen to them when Necrom woke. Slide had to be the most frightened of all. "I guess he's going to take a special interest in you, seeing how you were the leader of the mutiny and all,"
Slide nodded. "He'll be looking for me."
"So what happens to me after I pass through the Portal?"
"I don't know. We only have the Prophecy.",
"But I'll be a part of the waking process?"
"That's our guess. When a massive mind like that comes back on line, it has to be a complex process. Maybe He'll draw something from you, some energy, or maybe He'll use the memories in your brain to somehow orientate a part of Himself. I truly don't know for sure."
"And will I come out the other side intact. Do you know that for a fact or is that just more guesswork? "
Slide spread his hands, and Gibson had the feeling that the demon was telling the truth, trying his hardest to overcome his previous reputation as a pragmatic liar. "It's written in the Prophecy, the very last verse, 'and he shall return and become the Master of Men.' "
"That's a lot to hang my life on. I mean, you're asking me to drop in on this being, and you're all too scared to even say his name."
Tom Enni-Ya pushed his way to the front of the crowd. "That's exactly what we are asking you."
Gibson nodded. "And you want an answer."
He knew that there was no way out. There hadn't been a way out since Slide had shot Rayx. Slide had saved him from being summarily dragged off by the man-beast, but it had been more of a case of saving his face rather than saving his skin. Slide had really only bought him the time to agree to go voluntarily.
"Okay, I'll do it. What else can I say."
A pandemonium of applause and relief filled the Rearing Eagle. The munchkin was pumping his hand and some other demon was slapping him on the back. Tom Enni-Ya was clapping his hands for the serving women and announcing drinks on the house. A load had obviously been taken off the minds of the idimmu and placed squarely on Gibson. For the moment, though, working on the principle that you might as well enjoy yourself while you can, he allowed himself to be carried along by the general euphoria. While an all but naked demon woman was kissing him, and, in the process, smearing Day-Glo green body paint all over his clothes, a full jug of corn was set in front of him along with a jar of ale with which to wash it down. It was almost like being a.rock star all over again. He did, however, wonder how long all this was going to last, how long he would be the hero of the hour before they'd expect him to go and face the waking Necrom.
He glanced round to Slide. "So when am I…"
He found that Slide had gone and that he was talking to an empty seat. He looked at the munchkin. "What happened to Yancey Slide?"
"He left. He didn't look too happy."
Gibson was immediately alarmed. Why had Slide suddenly vanished when he'd just got what he wanted? Was there something more that he wasn't telling? Gibson disengaged himself from the woman in the Day-Glo body paint and moved quickly to the door. A few of the demons, thinking that he was running out on the party, called after him, but he hurried on. Outside on the street, it continued to be dark. Slide stood by himself, head thrown back, staring up at the pseudo night sky.
Gibson halted, suddenly unwilling to approach him. "Yancey, are you all right?"
Slide didn't appear to either see or hear him. His mouth suddenly opened and a stream of words came out. "Eli ameri-ia amru-usanaku! Imdkula salalu musha urra!" It was like the cry of a wounded animal, plaintive and desperate.
Gibson moved quickly toward him, but, before he reached where Slide was standing, Yop Boy stepped out of the shadows. "Leave him be, Gibson."
"What's wrong with him?"
"He's just contemplating his fate, his mortality."
"But I thought that everything was settled. I agreed to go through the Portal."
"That may not be enough to save him. Remember that he was the leader of the escape. He may not be forgiven for that, whatever you do."
The terrible cry came again. "Eli ameri-ia amru-usanaku! Imdkula salalu musha urra!"
"Is there anything we can do for him?"
Yop Boy shook his head. "Just leave him alone. Go back inside and leave him alone,"
"Just go back inside."
Gibson took a last look at Yancey Slide and then did as he was told.
Back inside the Rearing Eagle, the party was still in full swing, and no one else seemed to be suffering the same soul torture as Slide. The booth where Gibson had been sitting had been taken over by other revelers, so he made his way to the bar, where he was greeted like a long-lost friend even though he had only been gone for a couple of minutes. Once again he was congratulated for his courage in deciding to brave the Portal, more drinks were pressed on him, and women smiled into his face. Borne along by a company who, at least for that night, seemed to be determined to adore him, he found that it was all too easy to turn his back on Yancey Slide's angst and bask in his own moment of glory. Over in the corner, the woman with the guitarlike instrument had struck up a lively dance tune and was singing in a husky voice.
"Ssalmani-ia ana pagri tapqida duppira
Ssalmani-ia ana pagri taxira duppira
Ssalmani-ia iti pagri tushni-illa duppira
Ssalmani ini ishdi pagri tushni-illa duppira.
Slide was speared by a pang of guilt. The words of the song sounded very close to the same language in which Slide had been screaming, the same hissing sibilants and guttural vowel sounds.
"Ssalmani qimax pagri taqbira duppira
Ssalmani ana qulqullati tapqida duppira
Ssalmani ina igari tapxa-a duppira
Ssalmani ina askuppati Tushni-illa duppira."
He couldn't, however, make Slide his problem. Slide had Yop Boy to look after him, and Gibson was essentially on his own.
As it turned out, though, he wasn't alone for very long. A woman moved along the bar and stood next to him. She was dressed tough, in stained leather jeans and a loose white, Greek-cut shirt with embroidery on the collar and cuffs. A belt of silver chain was slung around her hips, and a dagger hung from it in an ornamental scabbard. A brooch in the shape of a small green lizard, decorated with rubies, was pinned to the shoulder of her shirt, or that's what Gibson thought until the brooch turned its head and looked at him, at which point he realized that it was an extraordinarily tame ornamental pet. The woman's skin was deathly pale, and her tawny Nordic hair hung dead straight, clear to her waist. Even though there were some demon beauties in the tavern, this one was something special, a cool blond warrior maiden who probably gave no quarter.
"I'm Thief Lanier."
"I'm Joe Gibson."
"I know that."
Gibson, well aware that the idimmu tended to take a superior attitude around humans, ignored her somewhat snotty tone and continued to play it pleasant. "Thief is a strange name."
"It's what I do."
"Oh, yeah? And what do you steal?"
She suddenly laughed. "Practically anything that isn't nailed down. Do you know I saw you perform once?"
"I hope you liked it."
" You were okay." Her tone seemed to indicate that she considered she was doing him a favor by even attending one of his shows.
Gibson didn't have much to say after that shutdown so he went for the obvious. "Would you like a drink?"
Thief Lanier nodded. "Yes, but none of that god-awful corn that you're swilling," She gestured to Tom Enni-Ya. "Hey, Tom. Get out one of my private bottles, will you?"
The private bottle carried no label and was thick with dust. Thief Lanier blew the worst of the dust from it and removed the cork herself. When she poured her first drink, Gibson saw that it was a pale-golden liquid that actually seemed to shimmer and move in the glass.
"What is that stuff?"
Thief Lanier swallowed the first glass in one gulp and closed her eyes for a moment as though in ecstasy. "Very rare."
"Could I try some?"
Thief Lanier shook her head. "Not now. Maybe later, though. You wouldn't feel it after all that rotgut corn you've been pouring down your throat."
"What happens later?"
Thief Lanier smiled. "I figured that I'd take you off somewhere. There's something about a man who knows he's only got a few hours."
Gibson blinked. "What?"
"I said that there's something about a man who's only got a few hours."
Gibson was alarmed. "Who said I only had a few hours?"
"You're going to the Portal as soon as the celebrating stops. Even if you come back this way, you're going to be changed by the experience. It's your last hours as you are now."
"I'm not sure I like the idea of changing."
"You're so perfect as you are?"
"No, but I've grown accustomed to myself."
"Well, there ain't a damned thing you can do about it, but why worry? You humans change all the time, so you ought to be used to it. It's because you're so short-lived. You have a lot to get in."
Gibson was more concerned with the idea of his last few hours. "I also didn't realize that I was going to the Portal so soon."
"Nobody here wants to wait around."
"I wouldn't mind."
"Having second thoughts?"
"It's too late now."
"I'm well aware of that."
"So, are you coming with me?"
Gibson, aware of his new celebrity status, decided to play it a little hard to get. "Coming where?"
"To where I live."
Gibson looked around the Rearing Eagle. The party had reached that stage where it had taken on a life of its own, and it could get on very well without him. Gibson smiled nicely at Thief Lanier. "I'd be very happy to come to where you live."
As it turned out, Thief Lanier lived in the phallic pink glass tower with the circular Lucite balconies that stood right beside the Rearing Eagle. To be precise, she lived, or at least entertained, on the third level of the phallic pink glass tower. They entered the building by a circular door that faced the street and operated like the iris diaphragm of a camera, and then climbed a transparent spiral staircase. The third level was one large round room with a diffused rose-colored light coming from the walls. A huge circular bed with a red satin cover was positioned in the exact center of the room, and the ceiling overhead was one huge mirror. Thief Lanier obviously took her entertaining very seriously.
The space was surprisingly bare. Gibson had half expected that an idimmu's home, if indeed the idimmu had homes as he knew them, would be filled with the booty of countless lifetimes. Not so in the case of Thief Lanier. A suit of armor in black-and-red lacquer that must have come from sixteenth-century Japan stood against the wall like a mute guardian, and a small white bird of prey, maybe an albino falcon, sat quietly on its perch secured by a thin silver chain and with a leather hood over its eyes. A silver pitcher and two matching chalices stood on a small Moorish table that was inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Thief Lanier placed a hand on the pitcher.
"I think you're ready to try my private stock?"
Gibson nodded. "Why not?"
She poured golden liquid into each of the chalices and handed one to Gibson. He looked into the glass. The liquid actually seemed to be shimmering, squirming almost.
"What is this and why does it move like that?"
"It's the wine of a very weird dimension."
Gibson took a first sip. The wine was aggressively cold and vibrated and bubbled on his tongue like a very dry champagne that had somehow acquired a life of its own, and, to his surprise, it actually seemed to clear his head. He had heard of people drinking themselves sober but he had never really believed in it. The wine had to be some kind of stimulant that he had never encountered before. As he took a second sip he noticed that a straightedge razor lay on the Moorish table beside the chalice.
"I like to have a weapon to hand."
Gibson felt a little uneasy. "I hope you don't intend to use it on me."
Thief Lanier flashed him a fast smile. "You're perfectly safe as long as you behave yourself."
She took hold of his hand and and gave it a slight, brief squeeze. "I'm going to leave you for a moment. Don't go away."
She ran up the next flight of stairs to the level above, and Gibson was alone in the round room. He looked at the hooded bird and then walked over to the suit of armor and inspected it more closely. It seemed as though it might have been made for Thief herself, certainly for a woman, which was damned unique. What was the story, had she actually ridden with samurai?
Gibson was a little nervous. His only previous sexual encounter with a female demon had been the one with Nephredana, and that had left him close to shell-shocked. He guessed the only thing he could count on was that she wouldn't do him any permanent damage. They must want him intact to go to the Portal.
The sound of heels on the transparent stairs heralded Thief Lanier's return. As Gibson had imagined, she had slipped into something a little more comfortable, although when he saw her, he had to admit that comfortable was closer to magnificent. Her hair was piled up on her head and fastened with a gold chaplet, and the jeans and shirt had been replaced by by a flame-colored negligee that, when coupled with the rose glow of the walls and the scarlet of the bed, made the space look like a whorehouse in some high-tech hell. The garment was fastened at her shoulder with a gold pin so one breast was exposed and a revealing vent ran the length of her body, from ankle to armpit. The material was so sheer that she might as well have been naked anyway, and it also appeared to ripple and dance in a similar manner to the wine, as though it really was woven from living flame. Gibson could only imagine that the fabric also came from a very weird dimension.
"You look beautiful."
She moved past him, going to the bed and standing beside h, idly stroking the satin with her fingertips. "Come here."
Gibson put down his drink and went to her. For a second time, he was entering the strange landscape of demon lovemaking. After he had woken in Ba!g's lair to find Nephredana gone, it had seemed to him she had been able to cast a spell that rendered him incapable of remembering individual moments or specific details. All that remained was a series of peaks that had taken him to a frantic, spine-snapping, mind-wrenching euphoria. It seemed that Thief Larder had a similar ability to cloud his mind. It was as if she didn't have to touch his skin, but was able to reach right inside him and stroke his actual nerve endings. Pain and pleasure blended and blurred into a single cresting frenzy that had him pleading that he couldn't stand it and yet, at the same time, begging for more. There was really only one coherent image that stood clear of the screaming erotic background noise, and, in many respects, Gibson wished that it, too, had been lost in the roiling erotic mists. At the peak of what seemed like the hundredth climax, Thief Lanier had left him, standing over him for a moment as he shuddered and spasmed on the bed, and then disappearing from his sight. In seconds, she had returned with the falcon on her wrist. In her other hand was the straightedge razor, and she spun it between her fingers. He saw the razor with the alarming clarity of sudden unthinking fear. It had a pearl handle and along the gleaming blade was the maker's logo-Charleston Bluesteel. The blade flashed blood-red as she sliced at and through the neck of the bird. The falcon, still being hooded, didn't see the blade coming and didn't so much as flinch. Thief Lanier stood over Gibson, straddling his prone body and holding the twitching headless body of the falcon by the wings that had stretched out in death. The blood dripped onto his chest, burning like acid and sending waves of shock coursing through him while his back arched so only his head and heels were touching the bed. Above him, every action, every contortion of his white body against the red satin was repeated in the ceiling-size mirror, and then red flame took over his vision and his whole body seemed to be sucked into a rent in the tissue of reality and then slowly ejected into a gradually cooling limbo,
Gibson lay for a long time, relearning how to breathe and feel. After what seemed like an eternity of recovering, he reached out to touch her but she was nowhere on the bed. His mouth was now so dry that he was quite unable to speak, and he rolled over, reaching for his wine. The first thing that he saw was the falcon, standing on its perch, intact and seemingly unharmed. Thief Lanier was bending over it, stroking its feathers and whispering small cooing noises to the creature.
Despite the wine, which had lost none of its unnatural chill or sparkle, his voice was little more than a croak. "I don't understand.,. the bird… I swear I saw…"
Thief Lanier smiled wickedly. "And was it good for you, too, darling?"
Gibson shook his head and fell back on the bed. He knew that questions were pointless.
She finally took pity on him. "Don't try to work it out, Joe Gibson. You, if anyone, should know, by now, not to be dictated to by your senses. Just tell me I was better than Nephredana."