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To Reign In Hell
By Steven Brust
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1984 Steven K. Zoltán Brust
All rights reserved.
Descend, then! I could also say: Ascend! 'Twere all the same. Escape from the Created To shapeless forms in liberated spaces! Enjoy what long ere this was dissipated!
Primordial ooze. Flux. Chaos. Cacoastrum.
The essential of the universe, in all its myriad forms and shapes. Essence. Any and all combinations of form and shape exist within this essence. Eventually, of course, cacoastrum may deny itself. Order within chaos.
How many times is order created? The question has no meaning. A tree falls in the forest, and the universe hears it. Order doesn't last; cacoastrum will out.
The flux creates the essence of order, which is illiaster, which was the staff of life long before bread had the privilege. It can't last, however. Conscious? Sentient? Self-aware? Perhaps these things exist for a timeless instant, only to be lost again before they can begin to understand. They may have shape; they may have the seeds of thoughts — none of this matters. One of them may be a unicorn, another a greyish stone of unknown properties, still another a girl-child with big brown eyes who vanishes before she really appears. It doesn't matter.
But let us give to one of these forms something new. Let us give it, for the sake of argument, an instinct to survive. Ah! Now the game is different, you see.
So this form resists, and strives to hold itself together. And as it strives, cacoastrum and illiaster produce more illiaster, and consciousness produces more consciousness, and now there are two.
The two of them strive; and then they find that they can communicate, and time means something now. And space, as well.
As they work together, to hold onto themselves, a third one appears. They find that they can bend the cacoastrum to their will, and force shape upon it, and command it to hold, for a while. They build walls at this place where the three of them are, and a top and a bottom.
Cacoastrum howls, almost as a living thing itself, and seeks entry. The three resist, and then there are four, then five, then six, then seven.
And the seven finish the walls, and the top, and the bottom and for a moment, at last, there is peace from the storm.
The Southern Wall of Heaven stretched long and stark. It spanned six hundred leagues and more, fading out of sight above, where it met with the azure ceiling. Its length was unmarked; its width unmeasured; its touch cool; its look foreboding and ageless.
The Regent had built it in the days of the Second Wave, and expanded it in the days of the Third. He had built his home into it, and out from it.
The foundations of the Southern Hold were deep into the bedrock of Heaven, carved and scorched with the fires of Belial, made immutable by the sceptre of Yaweh. Plain and grey like the Wall, the Hold rose over grassland and stoney plain, even and unbroken until its northern wall ended abruptly and became a roof that sloped sharply up to the top. There it blended into the Wall, giving the impression that the entire affair was an accidental blister from the Wall and would soon sink back into it.
The only entrance was built into the northern wall of the Hold. Here were placed a pair of massive oak doors, with finely carved wooden handles.
A visitor to the Hold, no matter how often he had been there, would be moved by the stature of the hard grey edifice — lonely, cold, distant, and proud. Like the Regent of the South himself, some said. But once inside, the illusion was shattered.
The visitor, a medium-sized golden haired dog, padded through the hallway. Being a dog, and therefore colorblind, he didn't see the cheerful blue of the walls. But he noticed the brightness of the lamps of iron and glass, one every twenty dogpaces. The oil for the lamps, pressed from local vegetation and refined in the basement of the Hold, had been scented with lilac.
The dog continued until he came to an archway. There was a small chamber, with large green couches and overstuffed chairs. The north wall held a burgundy-colored buffet, with cups and bottles of cut glass and stoneware. The lamps were always low in this room, but the dog heard the sounds of breathing, and smelled a friend.
He leapt onto a couch, facing this friend across a table of glass. Neither spoke; the dog moved slightly toward the Regent, who was seated with one leg on the table, his left arm across the back of the couch, his right hand loosely holding a glass into which he was staring. The dog caught a strong, sweet smell from the glass.
"'Tis but cheap wine, milord," he said.
"It fits my mood, friend Beelzebub. I'm feeling cheap today."
"Hath thy mood a cause, Lord?"
"All things have a cause, my friend."
"Would'st care to speak on't?"
His answer was silence. Beelzebub studied his friend as best he could in the dim light. The Regent was smooth shaven and somewhat dark of complexion. His hair was dark brown, almost black, perhaps a bit wavy, and curled over the ears. His brows were thick, his eyes narrow, yet wide-set, with shocking green irises and lines of humor or anger around the edges. His jaw was strong, his nose straight and pronounced; and he wore colors matching his eyes beneath a cloak that was full and gold. Brown boots covered his feet, and upon his chest was an emerald, as large as his fist, on a chain of gold.
Beelzebub studied him for a moment longer. "Perchance 'twould do thee good to speak, Lord Satan."
The Regent set down his wine glass, found a small bowl, and poured into it.
The dog moved forward on the couch, sniffed, but kept his opinion to himself.
He lapped up a bit and managed not to shudder.
"What do you, friend Beelzebub, think of Yaweh's plans regarding the Fourth Wave?"
"Milord? Then it draweth nigh?"
"Who can say? It'll come eventually."
"Not that we know. But Yaweh wants to be ready this time. He wants to build a place that will be safe from the flux."
"Verily, have we not that now?"
"Not permanently. What he has in mind is a place that's complete by itself, and won't be subject to Waves at all."
"Hmmm. Ambitious, nay?"
Satan glanced at him sharply. "You sound skeptical."
"Thy pardon, milord — who is't shall build this place? They must deal with the outside, so they must needs risk the ultimate end. Who is't shall do this? Thyself and thy brethren? You are strong, but only seven. Those of us from the Second Wave? We're less than a score of scores; the task is beyond us. Those of the Third Wave? Aye, they can do't, milord. Will they? For they know naught of such things save the fear of them. They must needs see the danger ere they fight it, I fear."
"You have a way," said Satan, "of getting right to the heart of things."
"It cannot last," says the first.
"We will make it last," says the second.
"We will build walls that are yet stronger," says the third.
"They must be larger," says the fourth, "for there will be more of us."
"That is good," says the second.
"Aye," says the first. "Let us begin, then, for I see the walls crumble before me."
And the evening and the morning are the Second Wave.
"Hmmm — yes?"
"Thou seem'd befuddled."
"I was thinking. Sorry." He shook his head. "Maybe they do need a Wave before they can understand — that's what Yaweh was afraid of — but I don't think so. We, the Firstborn, didn't, and we are all of the illiaster. No, I think our brethren will aid us."
"Perchance, milord. An they do not?"
"Have more wine."
Beelzebub felt the hair above his eyebrows twitch, and he bent his ears forward. "I have not yet finished the dregs of this bowl thou hast poured. An they do not aid us, Lord Satan?"
"Perhaps some brandy, then. I've some as a gift from —"
Beelzebub felt his ears lie back against his head. "Milord," he barked, "I crave an answer! Suppose our younger brethren aid us not? What then wilt thou do?"
Satan sighed and sat back. This time Beelzebub remained silent.
"All right," said the Regent at last, "what if they don't? What if we do nothing? I've been thinking about this for the last twenty days, Beelzebub. I haven't been able to find an answer I like. What if they don't help us, and we do nothing? What then?"
"The task will not see its end."
"And eventually another Wave will come. We'll lose more friends."
"If the angels from the Third Wave help with the plan, we can save tens of thousands — millions — of our future brethren."
"So it is in everyone's interest that they help, even if they don't know it."
"So we have the right to coerce them."
"I agree —"
"Or rather, I'm unsure. Yaweh isn't sure. Michael isn't sure. Lucifer is sure and Raphael is sure. We haven't spoken to Belial or Leviathan."
Beelzebub absent-mindedly lapped up wine from his bowl and then rested his head on his forepaws. "Meseemeth," he said at last, "that thou and thy friends have taken much upon you e'en to think on't."
"I agree," said Satan. He shrugged. "Nothing like this has come up before." He drained his glass. "I admit it, Beelzebub: I have doubts. I reassured Yaweh, but his questions have worn off on me."
Beelzebub looked up as Satan's voice rose.
"You think we can sit here asking ourselves if what we do is right, while the Storm rages out there? Do I think so? By what right do I argue the right and wrong of saving millions of lives? Answer me that!" Satan gave a short laugh.
"Coercion? We are the ones being coerced. By that." He gestured vaguely southward.
"How so, milord?"
He shook his head. "Lucifer is right, as usual. We know that we risk all of Heaven, if we do nothing. Each Wave has come nearer to destroying us completely — Lucifer proved it with numbers, somehow. Sooner or later, we'll have to do something." He laughed again, bitterly. "No, I shouldn't say that the flux outside is coercing us; what is coercing us is our own understanding. We can't know what the problem is, and know what to do about it, without acting. That is our curse."
Beezlebub watched him, his mind unclear but his heart filled with pity. "Thinkest thou to have no choice at all, then?"
"The greater one's understanding, Beelzebub, the less choice one has. For the love of Heaven itself, my friend — if you can, remain ignorant!"
The dog lowered his head and his voice. "Then thou hast chosen, milord? An the hosts wish not to help thy plan?"
Satan stood. His eyes flashed green fires; his cloak shone gold in the flickering light. Two paces brought him to the buffet, where he grasped a brown stoneware bottle. He brought it back to the table, throwing the cork impatiently to the floor. He sloshed red-hued liquid into his glass, unmindful of the spillage. He slammed the bottle down, then lifted and drained the glass. He fixed Beelzebub with his gaze.
"Then," he said icily, "it is my task to make them."
Yaweh stood by the sword of Michael, regarding it in its glass case. He stood in a spacious chamber of white curtains, tiled floor, and silvery walls. Toward the back was a throne — huge and gold. Opposite the case was another case, this one holding a large sceptre, also of gold. A great arched doorway opposed the throne.
The room had been designed by Yaweh, who wished it to be bare and unimposing. Those who entered, by dress and attitude, set its mood; it had none of its own. Here, Yaweh could address the archangels, all three hundred, if needed. He blended in so well that he nearly wasn't there.
Next to him, regarding the case, was an archangel. He was of the Second Wave, and small, thin, and black-bearded. A brief glance would lead one to think his frame slight; a closer look would reveal chest and shoulder muscles confined within the frame as though trapped and held in place with iron bands.
Yaweh turned from the case to him.
"You build well, Asmodai."
"Thank you, Lord. I am pleased. It served well in the Third Wave."
"Yes, it did. As did my sceptre, and Satan's emerald, and — but why go on? I am pleased with your work. Now I want more."
"Anything I can do, Lord."
Yaweh smiled at him and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Thank you, Asmodai.
This means a great deal to me, and to all of us. Come, I'll show you what I want. It isn't small, I'm afraid."
Yaweh was overcome with a great fondness for the little craftsman, but that wasn't unusual. He had never felt anything but fondness for anyone, and the occasional enmity between angels left him sad and puzzled.
They turned from the Sword and left the room.
A wide, sweeping stairway of white marble brought them up and around amid paintings and sculpture in a large hallway of bone-white walls. Some of the art wasn't very good — but Yaweh took delight in the joy of an artist whose work was placed here, so he rarely had the heart to say that a piece wasn't good enough.
They walked, arm in arm, until they came to a small chamber containing a long table covered with papers.
"Here, Asmodai. This is what we plan to make."
Asmodai spread the parchment and began studying it. By increments, wonder and amazement spread over his features. "My Lord," he cried, "but this is. ..."
"Large?" suggested Yaweh, gentle amusement on his face.
"Aye, large! It's bigger than Heaven itself!"
"Many times bigger."
"My Lord — where will we putit?"
"Outside, of course. It will exist amid the flux, just as Heaven does."
"How can that be?"
"It will be your task to discover this, my friend. It will require nearly everyone working together, and many days at that. And the longer we're out there, the more of us will be maimed or destroyed. So we must decide exactly how this is to be put together, what each angel is to do, so that we can spend the shortest amount of time at it. This is your task, if you are willing to undertake it."
"Lord! I cannot —"
"If you cannot, there is no one who can. You know what it takes to build from raw cacoastrum, and that is what we need. Your name is tied to the Sword, the Sceptre, the Throne, the Star, and many more things. You are trusted — and deservedly so. If you cannot, who can?"
Asmodai was silent for a long time. Yaweh knew what he was thinking — he was thinking of the greatness of the triumph if he succeeded, and the magnitude of the failure if he didn't. But Yaweh himself had asked him to — and that would make a difference. "I'll do it, Lord," said Asmodai. "I'll try."
It rages, it cries, it tears and bites and burns. The first one is nearly overcome, but holds himself together despite the violence of the flux. The second is filled with rage, and it falls back before him. He causes a wall to be, and envisions his home extending from the wall. He doesn't see the scores of beings that come into existence as he rages and shapes, nor do the others see the results of their actions, except as their area becomes larger.
The third one goes to the aid of the first, but his help is no longer needed. They stand near each other, and cacoastrum flares yellow and red and blue, and dies, turning into illiaster, which shapes itself.
Some of the new ones are destroyed even as they come into existence. The first one, alone of the Seven, notices this and is saddened by it.
The sixth one is suddenly overborne. She cries in pain as her shape begins to slip away, but the fourth one comes to her aid. She remains alive, but her form is changed now, into something long and powerful. She creates water around herself, and it soothes her. She feels she should rejoin the battle, but as her head clears the water, she sees peace around her, and four walls, and more than three hundred angels who hadn't been there before. She realizes that, for now, it is over again. She dives to the bottom so that none can hear her cries of anguish.
The first one hears anyway, and sends to her aid the fifth one, who heals her wounds and soothes her, though her shape cannot be restored to her.
But she has the capacity to be happy with what is. She learns to enjoy the water, and life goes on.
Thrumb thrumb thrumb.
The Regent of the West heard it, distantly, through leagues of water, and recognized it at once.
Excerpted from To Reign In Hell by Steven Brust. Copyright © 1984 Steven K. Zoltán Brust. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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