We plunge through the stinking darkness and out the other side in the blink of an eye, stumbling into the perfumed golden ballroom whirling with frenzied dancers. Hallelujah! Don’t get me wrong, I love trekking three miles through a freezing miasma. But never have I been so glad to step into the warmth of a perfumed golden ballroom.
I stagger under Franklin’s heft and drag the suffering man to the wall of curtained doorways. Kovac pulls the ringmaster’s arm off my shoulders and eases him, facedown, onto the dance floor.
Franklin shivers, his face no longer flushed scarlet, but a gray more pale than his gray hair. His shoulder hemorrhages heavily in spite of my makeshift tourniquet.
“Try not to put any pressure on the arrows, all right?” Kovac says, sending his voice magic filled with warm compassion.
Franklin nods weakly and squeezes his eyes shut.
I heave a shuddering sigh, feeling not too well myself, and confer with Kovac. “Jack, has the L.A. lab cooked up antidotes to these poisons?”
“They’re working on it, but it could take months.”
I nod, unhappy with his answer. “We don’t have months. We’ve got to get Franklin to a hospital as soon as possible. Sooner, even.”
“And you and me.”
“You, absolutely. Me, I’ll survive.” I point to the curtained doorways. “There they are, the little specialized hells I told you about.” I search among the whirling dancers for the dais, and there it is, a sacrificial altar stained with blood and semen and a smear of souls, the draped silks dingy and soiled without Alastor’s magic enchanting them. “Isn’t that where Alastor tried to make me his Queen?”
Kovac nods, following my implication. “Yeah. The dagger, the Seal, the Wand of Ur. They must be around here somewhere. I’ll go take a look.”
“Stay close to the wall. It seems to be the only boundary that doesn’t shift and change.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve got some urgent business to attend to. I don’t like little specialized hells.”
“Don’t take too long. Franklin and I will meet you at the mirror.”
I have to blink. “The mirror? Where is it?”
Kovac takes me by my shoulders and pivots me toward the opalescent surface shimmering from floor to ceiling in the near distance just ahead of us. The mirror is nothing less than thrilling to behold, that gorgeous shimmer promising our deliverance from Avichi.
“How odd! I didn’t even see it.”
“A lot of Real Magic is like that, Abby. You need to know what you’re looking for before you can see what is right in front of your eyes.”
Then he strides off, and I ponder whether there’s another meaning behind what he just said. Kovac being Kovac, there must be. I head for the doorways.
I seize the oily velvet curtain the mottled olive color of an over-ripe mango and rip the foul thing off its curtain rod. The stink of disgusting food clenches my gut a second time—a poisonous sweetness like insecticide, a surfeit of rancid butter, the bitterness of burnt meat.
I shout to the gorging gluttons, “People! You can leave this hell any time you want to. You’re free to go!”
A woman pries herself away from her bowl of sugared grease. “Who are you to tell us to leave this paradise? Where else could we feast endlessly?”
I suppose one woman’s hell is another woman’s paradise. “Then I leave you to your paradise,” I say and stride out of the banquet hall. I’ve torn down their veil of illusion. That’s the best I can do. It’s up to them to claim their own freedom.
I step back into the ballroom and spy Kovac and Franklin by the wall a dozen steps away. I smile and wave, overcome with relief to see them. Kovac has revived Franklin and put him to work. The suffering ringmaster laboriously crawls on his hands and knees, searching for the magical weapons.
Kovac grins, holding the golden amulet aloft. “Abby! The Seal of Solomon!”
“Well, all right! Keep searching. I’m not quite finished.”
I jog to the doorway veiled in moth-eaten ashy velvet and tear the curtain down. Way to go, two for two. Smoke billows out, a suffocation of fumes. What stirring message of liberation can I shout to the damned smokers? What will make sense to addicts trapped in a hell of dissatisfaction which they believe is a paradise?
“You’re free to leave anytime you want to,” I simply say and walk out. I don’t glance back to see if anyone has heard me, tamped out her cigarette or put down his pipe. Maybe no one has. Maybe no one in that hell ever will.
In the distance, hunting horns wail and wail.
Now I jog to the pinkish-apricot curtain and seize the repulsive fleshy velvet. The fabric is as taut as a tensed muscle and lubricated with some sort of slick fluid. I swallow hard and yank the curtain down.
I hate this hellish harem of lost women. The soothing candlelight, the glamorous mirrors, the murmuring fountain. All of it a lie, a demon’s malicious trick for eternity. The proud women, beautiful and damned, moaning, “Alastor, Alastor, Alastor.”
I summon my stirring speech of liberation one more time, though I’m guessing no good will come of it. “Women of all cultures and epochs, your veil of illusion has been torn down. You’re free to leave this bespelled hell.”
The tall, lanky woman in the beaded headband and hip-hugger jeans marches militantly up to me, her eyes blazing with hot rage.
“You. Chick.” She pokes her finger on my tattoo, pokes so hard that I gasp in pain. “Didn’t I tell you we’re waiting for Alastor? That we’ll wait for the One forever?”
“And I’m telling you, Alastor isn’t coming back.”
The lost women groan in unison, each a tiny doomed part of one great longing, lusting creature.
“Sure he is, chick. Alastor will always come back, no matter how long it takes. He has promised this.”
“Alastor isn’t coming back, not anytime soon. Jack Kovac and I threatened his mortality tonight. We witnessed him fleeing on a winged cloud of made of bits of bone.”
Stunned silence. Weeping eyes dry and glare furiously at me. Women rise to their feet and lurch toward me, a scowling female mob with clenched fists.
Don’t ask me why, but I don’t want to stay in this hell one minute more. I hightail it out the door, moving fast. The lanky woman dogs my heels, outraged and disbelieving.
“You can’t threaten the mortality of the One. No one can.”
“Trust me, I did.”
“I hate you!”
I stop and face her, at the end of my patience. “Weren’t you once a free spirit? Didn’t you live your life the way you wanted to?” Her rage wanes, and I persist. “He’s going to be gone for a long time, I’m telling you. Can’t you feel it? Can’t you feel how you’ve been released from his evil enchantment? Don’t you want to get your life back?”
Her face blossoms with hope. “Yeah, chick. Yeah, I can dig it.”
“Come along with me. I’ll take you out of Avichi.”
I jog through the doorway and out into the ballroom. The lanky woman follows, jogging by my side.
“Like, thanks, chick. You’re cool.”
“Don’t mention it. You’re going to be cool again, too, once you cross through the mirror and return to reality.”
Kovac and Franklin are waiting just outside, anxiety stitched on their faces.
“Abby, we heard the hunting horns,” Kovac says.
“So did I. Did you find the Wand of Ur?”
He holds up the carved tusk, triumphant.
“Excellent. I’m glad Curator Easterly won’t have to bust your chops.”
“Yeah. You don’t know Agatha.” Now he holds up the dagger. The bronze blade is broken in places, the edge chipped and jagged.
“Not so excellent, but it will have to do. I need to go to one more hell, Jack, and I need you to go with me. I need your weapons and your magic.”
“Abby, there’s no time.”
“I know, but we’ve got to. Remember Billy? I think he’s in that slaughterhouse.”
I hear a groan of anguish behind me, and Kovac and I look around.
“Oh, sweetie.” Franklin tenderly holds the lanky woman in his arms.
Her eyes are glassy, staring sightlessly. Her head slumps, her head thrown back, her neck no longer able to support the weight of her skull. As I watch, silver threads her dark hair till her hair turns totally silver, then falls out in clumps from her scalp. The flesh of her face sinks to the skull and her body withers, nothing but dried skin over a skeleton.
Franklin lays the corpse on the dance floor, gently arranging the limbs. “Who was she?” he says, tears in his eyes.
“I don’t know.” And then I do. “She was a Queen of the High Harvest, long ago.”
As I watch, the starry body of a beautiful young girl twists out of the corpse, shakes herself loose, and smiles at me. Then another starry body, and another, and another, too many to count, beautiful sparkling women spiraling up and up and up, laughing, free at last. They spiral up through the vault of Avichi and vanish.
“She didn’t give Alastor all of herself, after all,” I say.
“There may be hope for some of these souls,” Kovac observes.
But now the hunting horns wail louder, and closer. An edge of the endless horizon solidifies into a rippling surface and a sullen fog broods in the dark mirror. From the darkness comes the clatter of clopping hooves.
Kovac frowns. “To the slaughterhouse, my lady magician. And hurry.”
I seize the tarry curtain, squeezing blood from the soaked black velvet, and pull with all my strength. But the curtain refuses to fall. Kovac seizes the other side, and together we tear the loathsome thing down. The curtain falls with a noisome splash and slides across the floor, smearing the parquetry with streaks of blood and offal.
Womanly screams and the stink of slaughter assault me. I really don’t want to witness this cruel spectacle a second time and avert my eyes from the trussed-up pigs, the butchers with their knifes and cleavers, the sadists eagerly watching torture. Is Billy here? I can’t tell.
Kovac brandishes the wand and the dagger, his face grim with determination. “What is the magical operation?”
“Unleash the Wand of Ur and the bronze magic of the dagger to free the innocents!”
Kovac shouts, “I invoke the Wand of Ur and this blade of bronze to free the innocents!”
A hand of brilliant blue light shoots from the tusk and seizes the dagger, guiding the blade across the slaughterhouse. The blade slashes through the ropes binding the animals’ hind legs and thousands of pigs drop to the blood-slick floor.
Squealing, snorting, eyes wild with fear, the pigs struggle to their feet and kick off the ropes. Pigs stampede all around us, stampede past us out the doorway, and gallop across the dance floor, dashing underfoot, tripping the frenzied dancers.
The dagger flies back to Kovac’s hand like a boomerang. He wields his weapon, staring down the butchers and the sadists with a steely look meant to inform them they’ll see the business end of his weapon if they trouble us.
“Excellent work, Jack.”
“Anything for you, Abby.”
The butchers and the sadists boo and hiss and catcall. Not good losers, I guess. The butchers turn their knives around in their hands, considering the possibilities, glaring at Kovac and me.
“Time to hit the road,” Kovac says.
We back out of the slaughterhouse and jog into the ballroom. As I watch, the pigs shapeshift into boys and girls, brown- and black- and pink-skinned. I’d love to watch what the liberated souls do with their new freedom, but we’re really, really out of time.
“Let’s collect Franklin and get the hell out of hell.”
“I’m right behind you.”
The ringmaster lies sobbing on the floor. Blood drenches his shoulder, but that isn’t the worst of it. Now blood pulses freely around the arrow shafts buried in his back and thighs and shoulders. The temporary stanching of the wounds is no longer temporary.
Kovac seizes Franklin’s right elbow, I take his left. With grunts and groans all around, we lift the ringmaster to his feet.
“Franklin, listen to me. We’re leaving now.”
“You said that before, sweetie.”
“Yeah, and we’re almost there. But you’ve got to do one more thing for me.”
“Pull yourself together and help us out. Can you do that?”
He heaves a ragged sigh. “I’ll try.” He steadies himself, and I feel some of his weight lift off me.
The hunting horns wail and wail. Screaming demons mounted on chimeras burst out of the dark mirror. Hoof-clops thunder on the dance floor.
“I need to take a rain-check on our dance, Jack, but I promise we’ll do it later.”
“I’m crushed, but I’ll hold you to that.”
We stagger to the splendid shimmering mirror. As always, the opalescent surface is opaque on this side. For the second time, I’ve got to take it on faith that the mirror will lead us back to the Garden of Abracadabra.
When I was younger, I didn’t take a lot on faith. I struck out at the world with my will and my temper. Now that I’ve lived a few more years, I find myself taking a lot more on faith. After I’ve questioned and investigated and applied my will and my temper, of course.
For the second time, I say, “Ready, gents?”
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