Friday, August 7, 2009

Part 11: Throne of Minos

Rachael came to, with Nate buzzing annoyingly around her face. She tried to swat him away, but with no success. Nearby, Necros7 stood watching disinterestedly, while from somewhere either above her or below her drifted the sound of sighs so weary that just to hear them tugged at Rachael's heart. Above these soft, dolorous sounds came the strain of distant cries of souls lost in torment. Rachael heard these cries and for a moment she recalled standing on a ladder, climbing downward into an Abyss that hung impossibly above her. Her mind rebelled against the memory, and she nearly heaved. All she wanted to do was to slip back into unconsciousness, but something forced her to her feet.

"Where are we?" she asked. "Nekros7, can you get us out of here?"

If a robot could be irritated, then that was the tone in Nekros7's voice as he responded. But it sounded more like profound boredom.

"Is that the most challenging task you can think of?" he asked, his voice a weary monotone.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply -- "

"Oh, don't worry about it," Nekros7 said disinterestedly. "It's the sort of thing I'm used to. 'Tell me how to get to Kroger's, Nekros7.' 'Do my taxes for me, Nekros7, and don't forget to use Schedule SE and to include my itemized deductions.' Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and no one comes up with an interesting task for me to do. It's never 'Find an intelligent national energy policy, Nekros7' or 'How would *you* recommend reforming health care, Nekros7?' Ask me about the time I saw President Obama at the White House."

"You've seen President Obama?" Rachael asked, impressed. Too young to vote, she nonetheless had been captivated by the president's inspiring campaign and his commitment to make government work for the people instead of just for industry, as his predecessors had done. "What's he like?"

"Bipedal," Nekros7 said despondently. "Bilaterally symmetrical, and carbon-based. Depressing, really. All he could ask me to do was to throw out the empty take-out containers that President Bush had left in the Blue Room."

They had been walking as Nekros7 talked, and now the three travelers found themselves in a large chamber. Marble pillars stretched from floor to ceiling, and a vast crowd as silent as the grave filled the room. At the front of the room a man in judge's robes sat behind a wooden lectern. Fatigue was etched into the lines of his face, and as he read the book before him and listened to the testimony of the woman before him, he pursed his lips as though he were eating a bitter piece of fruit.

At last he brought his thundering gavel down on the podium before him, and the marble hall echoed "doom" with the finality of that blow. What happened next Rachael did not see, because just then a familiar voice intruded. It was scarcely more than a whisper, the noise a solitary reed might make when the wind blew across it, yet in that room she would have heard it even if the speaker had been across the room.

"Rachael?" She spun and found behind her a man in his mid-forties. His face was tanned from sunshine, and though he was still young, his long, braided hair was the color of smoke. A hawk sat upon his shoulder, its right wing badly broken.

"Daddy?" she said. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm dead," he said, then the hawk added, unnecessarily, "I was killed looking for you."

"Killed?" she asked, alarmed. "By whom?"

"Jonathan Stone Crow!" The voice of Minos rang out in the hall, and whether he would or no, Rachael's father began walking toward the seat where the judge sat.

"Beware your sisters," her father's ghost whispered, and the bird said: "Anorme."

Rachael watched helplessly, unable to hear what was said, as Minos and her father spoke. Then, horrified, she saw a long red cord whip out from beneath the podium where Minos sat, and coil around her father's chest once, twice, three times, until it had completed eight circles about him. He gave no grunt or sign of distress as it squeezed. With no immediately apparent effort, the cord hefted him and thew him through a portal that appeared suddenly behind Minos, and he fell into the Abyss. He hung suspended there, receding in the distance, growing smaller but always perfectly visible as he fell farther and farther while the seconds passed like long hours.

"NO!" The scream tore itself from her, and it occurred to Rachael somewhere deep within her that it was the first real outpouring of grief she had expressed since her father had disappeared when she was seven. She fell to her knees, conscious of the eyes of the entire courtroom upon her.

She expected to be reprimanded; she half-expected that hideous red whip to lash itself around her and dispose of her as it had disposed of her father, but neither of those things happened.

The hand that touched her on the shoulder was gentle, like she had always imagined the hand of her mother would be -- her real mother, not Lisa, who had raised her almost begrudgingly after Jonathan Stone Crow had not returned from his weekly trip to the pharmacy for the Sunday paper and a packet of chewing gum, but the one she had never known save in her idle fancies and daydreams.

She looked up, tears brimming in her eyes, and found herself looking at the most intoxicating woman she had ever known. Her hair was a red as deep as fire, and her eyes were bewitchingly calm as the open sea. The woman smiled, and Rachael found herself wanting nothing more than to be held by this woman, to be comforted by her, and to be told that everything was going to be all right. At the edge of her vision, Rachael could see that Minos had risen reverently to his feet, while bailiffs all around the great hall had bowed their heads or fallen to their knees.

"Everything's going to be all right now, Rachael," the woman said. "I knew you would find your way here when the time was right."

"My lady," Minos said. "It is has been ages since the First Among the Fallen has come to my court. You honor us with your presence here."

"My daughter is here," the woman said. "I had to come for her."

"Your daughter?" Minos' tone was hushed and awed, and wonder rippled through the guards and all the souls gathered in the room. "This is indeed a great honor to our court. Not only the Adversary, but her dear child as well." The kindly old judge looked at Rachael, and his eyes crinkled with tears. "It's been fifteen years," he said at last, and though he had found his voice, it came with only the greatest effort. "I can still remember the day your mother had you at the hospital. You couldn't have weighed more than seven pounds."

"Six pounds, four ounces, actually," the woman said, and she cradled Rachael in her arms. "My breasts ached for weeks afterward, for want of you, but they wouldn't let me have you. But now you're here, and we can be together at last. Things will finally begin to happen as they should."

Rachael looked around, bewildered. It was too much, too fast, and she couldn't even begin to make sense of it.

"Come with me to my office," her mother said. "It's down on the ninth floor. You two" -- and here she indicated Nekros7 and Nate -- "can wait right here. We'll send for you when you're needed."

And with that, the woman opened a door in the air, and ushered Rachael through. Only when they had disappeared did Nate dare to speak.

"What an extraordinary woman," he said. "But imagine the idea of us just standing here until she returns, as though she has any authority. Who does she think she is?" He stood still for a moment, and sweat began to bead on his forehead. "I say, Nekros7, can you move from that spot at all?"

"Is that the most challenging task you can think of?" Nekros7 asked, and for a long moment, he did nothing. Then at last he said, "No, I can't."

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