The Banjoman stroked the panting warmole’s snout.
“You have endured much here. Rest now before you make your way back.” His voice was gentle and his gratitude genuine. Nexusa, who was roughly twice the size of an Earth elephant was utterly spent.
The Banjoman had chosen her for her strength, for female warmoles were larger and mightier than males, but she was accustomed to tunneling through subspace, not matter, and the strange flux-prob weakforce at play here had taken a toll on the ancient creature.
The Lord of Limbo felt sadness that she now suffered so, but he knew she would recover. He had not chosen her solely for her powerful physicality. She was the oldest of her kind, and her wisdom and familiarity with unusual regions of spacetime had helped her cope with the strange nature of reality here – on the razor’s edge between the sorcerous multiverse and the magicless serenity of Sanctuary.
The warmole mustered a smile for The Banjoman.
“There will be no need to pluck me a lullaby, my Lord,” she said. “I already smell the lilac of the realm of sleep – though I fret some about what awaits me there in the strangeness of this place. It is to you now to complete the task.”
Her gentle, slow voice was quieter in The Banjoman’s head than it had been and it took him great effort to hear it now, this far from the coreshaft, this close to the surface.
“Of course, my lady. We will be home soon. I know this place is uncomfortable for you. Rest now and when you can, make your way back to the barge at the coreshaft. We will meet you there.” The Banjoman thought about how she would begin the slow, labourious squirm backward when she awoke, for there was no room in the freshly dug tunnel for her to turn around. Lovingly, he touched the plastic faceplate of his teal and gold, nemes-shaped martian space helm against her snout.
She was already asleep.
The Banjoman smiled for he understood that the dreams she would enjoy here, within the Rim, would be more vivid than she was used to, and he resolved to remember the satisfied smile on her sleeping face in that moment.
Then he turned around to face the wall of rock before him and un-shouldered his banjo. Still, even here, residual fluxprob weakforce from the coreshaft radiated to him from the long dead realization engines in the Martian core. He knew not for how much longer this would be the case, but for now, the strange energy – which had been called alchemy by the Martian imagineers of old — flowed through him into the legendary banjo crafted for him by the dwarven smiths of Huran-Tor.
And with an intense gratitude for the ceaseless tunneling Nexusa had undertaken for the last three days welling up in his chest, The Lord of Limbo swung his banjo mightily into the blood-red Martian bedrock.
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
~ Sun Tzu
Lucifer’s Yacht, Prince of Light
Port of Plutonia
1984 AD SR
The muscular, shirtless djinn accepted a cigarette from the surfer-dude-looking demon who shifted about nervously and seemed embarrassed about having his arm in a sling. Smiling wide and hoping he hadn’t made too much of a show of his muscled, tattooed physique as he took the cigarette, he flipped the long braided top-knot that sprouted from his otherwise shaved head over his shoulder and leaned casually against the door to the yacht’s main lounge.
Named Zepar, he was of the tribe Marid, the most powerful of the djinn clans. Beyond his remarkable physical and magical prowess, he possessed prodigal understanding of the mechanics of sound: a useful specialty for the top security agent in the Olympian empire: the one responsible for the safety of the Imperial family.
Right now, while he was chit-chatting with this demon – who had somehow recently broken his arm – he was listening through the door as though it were not even there.
“There is no way Leraje can know for sure it was Cormac Kilroy’s sun pistol,” said Ares as he appeared to be paying the minimum possible amount of attention to the meeting. It was obvious he was hearing music some sort in his head, which bobbed loose on his neck while his fingers tapped the tabletop he imagined to be a keyboard.
“Of course you are right. There is no way to be certain.” As a seasoned diplomat, the Prince of Light had no problem masking his annoyance at the Olympian’s nonchalance. “But we do have substantiated intelligence that Arawn’s rogue reaper had been associating with Cormac Kilroy. So it is possible.”
“Kilroy is a free agent.” Unlike Lucifer, Ares did not hide his annoyance at someone ‘jammin’ his groove’ as he put it. But with Ares, who was typically so even-tempered and easygoing, even when he was annoyed, he conveyed a pleasant, soothing vibe.
In addition to his long-held fascination with piano (and more recently with pop synthesizer composition) the one who had been worshipped as a god of war had recently taken up The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. The painter’s gentle, laid back worldview jived perfectly with Ares’ reformed take on life. In Bob Ross, also a former military man, Ares had found a kindred spirit – even something of a mentor. The Olympian had even assumed the painter’s teased-out perm.
“I will inquire with Admiral Charon as to Kilroy’s whereabouts of late. He doesn’t like him, so I know he will have kept tabs on him.” Ares clasped his powerful hands together now. He glanced at the banana daiquiri, which sat in front of him untouched, before looking under his eyebrows at Lucifer. As he leaned in, his incredible Olympian arms appeared as though they might explode from the seams of his legendary trucker jacket, which would have been a tragedy, for it was crafted from highly coveted, genuine Sanctuarian denim and exquisitely weathered.
“Why the interest in this banshee? So what if she is friends with Kilroy? Everyone is friends with Kilroy!” The softness of his voice and his gentle demeanor were in direct contrast to his imposing physicality.
“What is going on Lou? If you are looking for Olympus to be involved in something, you had better be right up-front about things.” A light of excitement shot into his red eyes then and he leaned back and resumed his keyboard composition on the tabletop again. This did not break his train of thought and he continued talking while he plaid.
“You know I don’t care about your annexation of Hades. It has been nothing but good for me. You know I don’t care about your annexation of Fey. Its subjects are certainly better off under you than they were under twelve-point buck here.” He shot a rare look of disdain at Arawn, whom, as usual was intoxicated in some way or another and only half-heartedly acknowledged the insult.
“Everyone knows that since the Gorilla thing, my father prefers to keep a low profile, which makes me the de Facto emperor of Olympus. I just want peace, man. But I will not lose any more ground for the empire. Hades was as far as you I could let you go. I would hate to think you are getting greedy.” He paused for effect and allowed some heat to come into his unnerving Olympian eyes.
“Prince of Light as liberator, I can take. Prince of Light as despot… He shook his head side to side as a smile came to his face.
“… I will break.”
If Lucifer was intimidated, he showed no sign of it.
“Of all people, I think you know me Ares. It is about the arts for me. It is about beauty and expression – and freedom. I have helped Arawn see this. Hades wouldn’t see it so I had no choice but to do what I did.”
Ares’ face darkened. It was no secret that he had hated his uncle, whom he saw for the tyrant he was. But while he secretly enjoyed the regime change, he also disapproved of the death and destruction that had been wrought there. He had also not expected that the murder of his uncle at the hand of his old personal rival Tyr would be part of Lucifer’s plan.
“And let’s be honest,” Lucifer continued, “you and I are on the same page as to your other father’s priorities.” He was referring of course to Zeus’s fervent commitment to the manifest destiny of Olympus. In recent millennia, cultural and economic belligerence had replaced military aggression in the exercise of Olympian hegemony, but either way, Ares, ever the pacifist, ever the champion of free will, found his father’s arrogance, nationalism, cruelty, bigotry, and lust for power distasteful.
Zeus’s self-imposed isolation as a result of what they called Hera’s gorilla gambit, had not only put Ares functionally in charge of the Olympian empire, it had given him an opportunity to soften the edges of Olympian foreign policy.
In the elite circles of this corner of the multiverse, some had even speculated that Hera’s play on Zeus’s legendary ego, by demanding that he remain in Gorilla form and thereby in a state of perpetual humiliation, was in no small part a result of her feelings for the newer, softer Ares – and her sympathies with his politics.
“Our mutual distaste for my brother’s shortcomings as a leader are not a license for you to assume his traits Lucifer! I don’t know how to say this nicely, man, so I’ll just say it. Remember your place. Don’t try my patience. I don’t like some of the company you keep.” He jerked his head sideways in the direction of Arawn.
Ares didn’t say it but he was suspicious of Lucifer’s motives. Why so much interest in one of Arawn’s reapers-gone-renegade? Why the interest in Cormac Kip Kilroy, servant of the Stygian Navy and friend of Olympus – but also a ward of Mars? And if Mars was involved, chances are Heliopolis was involved.
There was also the matter of rumours circulating regarding Lucifer’s recent humiliation at the hands of the Lord of Limbo. Normally this would just have been considered a matter of business gossip – except for the fact that, in his briefing for this meeting in Hades Prime, Ares had been told by Director of Olympian Intelligence, Torus Phi, that The Banjoman, who never meets with anyone, had recently gone on a drunken rampage through Punta Epsilon with none other than Cormac Kipling Kilroy.
Lucifer was up to something – and apparently Mars, and possibly Heliopolis were up to something too. That typically neutral and impartial Limbo was also involved was altogether perplexing and Ares made a guarded assumption that if Mars and Limbo were involved, then all of this had something to do with Sanctuary. And finally, if Sanctuary was involved, that in-turn suggested worst-case scenario: the Pentarchy was involved.
Most of the time the former god of war, was a reasonable enough guy. But at this precise moment, he wasn’t down with being kept in the dark on something as big as what this was shaping up to be.
“Don’t make me remind you how much you don’t like some of the circles I travel in.” It was a reference to the fact that Ares was one of only a very few beings in all reality who had once been to the palace of Yod, the inner court of Heaven as an emissary on Zeus’s behalf. He had accompanied Prometheus at the ratifying of the Eden Proclamation. Rumour had it he had made a positive impression on the invisible man and woman in the invisible castle atop the invisible stairs. But there is no possible way of knowing if this was indeed true.
Uncharacteristically, Lucifer bristled at this. The Banjoman, and even merely the mention of Heaven were possibly the only two things that got to him.
He struggled to reconcile the fellowship he and Ares found in their commitment to free will with the favourable light in which the Olympian was apparently held by those he thought to be the worst tyrants in the multiverse.
“You know too well what I want.” Ares said. “I want peace.” He paused. “I didn’t necessarily get that in Hades did I, Lou?”
Even when he was being stern, Ares made you want to give him a hug, thought the Prince of Light. It was infuriating.
“Admittedly, I underestimated the propensity for barbarity of our Asgardian friends in that situation.” Lucifer appeared to mean it. But Ares smiled as though he knew otherwise.
“Tread lightly, Lucifer. You believe that to be true now. But, even with Tyr in your pocket on the inside, you knew exactly what Loki and Hela would do. This is your power and your curse my friend. I have never known you to lie to anyone other than yourself – it is how you so easily make everything you say come off as the truth.”
You need to be more grateful that I – and therefore the collective power of the Olympian empire – holds you in higher esteem than most.”
The Olympian took off his exquisite jean jacket then and hung it over the back of his chair. He was wearing a Black T-Shirt emblazoned with the album cover of The Guess Who’s American Woman. The Olympian’s powerful aetheric presence filled the room. Suddenly there was the palpable fear, agony and grief of billions of fallen souls over millions of years.
“This is why antlers here is going to leave right now…” There was no menace in Ares’ voice whatsoever, which only intensified the feeling of raw terror in the room.
Before Ares had even finished his sentence, the door to the room had opened and the djinn Zepar was standing inside it in all his blue-grey shirtless menace. Gracefully, trying not to make too much of a show of his rippling physique, he gestured in a way that indicated the way out of the room using the hand that wasn’t leaning on an enormous, gleaming scimitar.
Arawn, even when he was drunk, knew the limits of his skills. Some survive because they are combatants; others because they are cowards. Even he knew he was the latter.
Then Ares, who had picked up the banana daiquiri he had not touched until just then, walked over to Lucifer’s bar, just he had done so many time before. After rummaging about, he removed the little sword from the maraschino and banana slices in his drink and replaced it with a cocktail umbrella.
“Detachment is forgiveness. Salvation is enlightenment. All is seen as one when no harm is done. When no harm is done all is seen as one.” He repeated this in his head three times and the inclination to simply kill everyone in the room receded completely.
When he looked up he saw that Arawn, who had not said a word the entire time, was bowing and backing out the door.
Then, after a pause of a length that was altogether disconcerting to Lucifer, the only person left in the room, Ares finally finished his sentence in his softest, kindest tone.
“… and you – if you want me to ask favours of Admiral Charon – are going to tell me exactly what is going on.”