Among them I saw Prelate Sivar, magnificent in full plate with Legion insignia, and Primate Dion in simple cotton robes. Both of them looked wan. I wanted to lie back down, but I rose on creaky limbs and levitated up and onto the lip of the crater while the crowd gawked.
My pranic projection was basically black, the only bit of purple showing through at the edges. I floated over to Sivar and Dion. “Um…how long have I been there?”
“Seven days and seven nights,” Dion replied.
“Why are you and all of these people here?” I asked.
“They witnessed you talking to the angel,” Dion replied. “They wanted to see what came next.”
“You talked to the angel,” I said a little defensively.
“You did it in full view of several stories of the Tower, not to mention anyone with a good pair of binoculars,” Dion shrugged. “Plus, I’m a Primate; it’s expected.”
I looked around. “Do we want to have this conversation here?”
“I have a ship standing by to take me back to the Northern Observatory so I can pray and meditate on these recent events,” he replied. “You can come with me if you want to.”
“I am here to find out what you will require of me as penance for fouling your soul with the essence of an arch-demon,” Sivar broke across our exchange.
I wavered a moment and then said without further hesitation, “I forgive you Prelate Sivar. I do not want anything. I will be as I am.” Her jaw dropped and her mouth worked silently for several seconds, and I continued. “The angel said that the things I were primarily worried about were not going to happen, so I forgive you. Sure, I… ah… rebooted who knows how many times, but if the filtered essence helps Paulos and the other Legionnaires with him, it’s worth it.”
“I told you,” Dion said.
“You are a monster,” she said.
I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or Dion, but since I had a case of motor-mouth, I kept talking. “No, I am different, but I am still myself. I will remain myself. I have not suddenly become more susceptible to evil. Nor does evil have a backdoor into my head. I asked the Angel about it and it said that was not an issue.”
“Why were you unconscious for so long?” Sivar asked. “Eye witnesses say that it touched you.”
“Yes, it did something, changed me, also changed my True Name,” I replied.
Sivar sagged slightly, declaring with mocking exhaustion, “Great. You’re a minor demon now. We can’t use you to filter again.”
“He is not a demon,” Primate Dion said sternly. “The angel did not revoke his passage; he is still a citizen!”
“I know!” she snapped.
“Be thankful that the boy is pleased with the changes we’ve wrought in him,” Dion said. “Who knows what he would have asked for in reparations. This one understands budgets in trillions of units of currency.”
She sighed and stalked off to confer with some official looking men and women standing outside the guard ring in a clump.
Dion stretched, “Well, you’re up, so I’m off. Why don’t you come with me.”
My gut rebelled at the thought. “Nah,” I smiled.
“I had to try,” he said. “You’ll see me again. Promise me that you will not get yourself killed permanently or eaten.”
“I can’t promise that without staying away from anything living, or formerly living, now that I think about it.”
“Just don’t let anyone harm you,” he said putting a fat finger in my chest. “It’s not healthy.”
“I just wanted everything to calm down!” I ranted, gesticulating dazedly. “I thought taking a conciliatory position would keep the situation from degenerating. I have what I need. It seemed like I could survive this, so I did not think I should extort the moment.”
“Good enough. Next time someone tries to use you as a biological filter, kill them,” Dion advised.
“Even if it’s you?”
“It won’t be,” he replied. “There is no love more tenacious than that of a wounded person. I do not think I can cultivate that in you again. So you are safe.” He literally stepped out of sight as if he turned the corner of a wall I could not see.
A prickling danced across the back of my neck. I followed the sensation. The crowd was thinning and I noticed a still, golden figure. Paulos’ curiass was no longer dented and smudged, but polished, new and brilliant. Plate greaves sheathed the legs and metal covered his arms. His face bore an intensity I only saw when he had made up his mind to kill men.
“He is here to kill you,” a tiny woman in a snowy white robe with the face of an octopus said. “He owes fealty to those who believe that the only good demon is an obliviated one.”
My pupils contracted painfully and my chest began to hurt, “Thank you. Why are you helping me?” I asked.
“Because you do not deserve to be killed by your beloved after sacrificing so much unknowingly to preserve him,” she replied. “However this turns out, though, you will lose him forever.”
I glanced about, “No one else can see you can they?”
“Dion could, that is why he left so quickly,” she said.
“How can I not kill him?” I asked. Oddly I was not afraid of him killing me. Paulos would hesitate. I know he would and I would bisect him.
“He has specific orders from those within the Legion who can give them,” she replied. “He is to kill the demon Yrek. Do not let your feelings lead you into deception. Paulos has had centuries of experience doing things he disapproved of. You will not bisect him. However, the order for restitution is not withdrawn. If you do not specify the terms, terms will be drawn up. You can survive, even thrive. Be selfish. Be aggressive. Think broadly. Ask for a lot. She can only say ‘no.’”
“Thank you, Celestial,” I replied.
“Do not think that walking away will be enough. He will cut you down from behind in the spirit of his orders. We will talk again if you survive.” The figure disappeared.
I pivoted and walked purposefully to where Sivar met with the well dressed functionaries.
“Prelate,” I began, “I wish to withdraw my earlier statement. There is something that I would like to ask of you.”
She turned and suddenly seemed to relax, “What do you want?”
“A fortune suitable for maintaining me in a comfortable standard provided I do not deplete its interest earning base capital. And I want a new Name,” I replied.
She watched my face carefully, closely paying attention to my word and actions. “What do you wish to be called?”
Remember who you are, I thought.
I leaned forward and whispered it to her, the air turning faintly purple as the sound was kept from spilling out. “In my examinations I declared that I was not unhappy with my choices. I’d like to experience this life as myself. I want my name to be ‘Vycta.’”
She smiled, “Not Vycta Franks?”
“Just ‘Vycta,’” I replied thinking, if it is good enough for Cher, it’s good enough for me.
“Dion told me you have a brand on your right shoulder,” Sivar said. “Show it to me.” I took off my cloak, pack, and jacket. She held her hands out, fingers beckoning me to give my things to her as I took them off.
On my bare arm was black writing. I was sure I had been branded, not tattooed. I touched it and it smoked with purple light. The language was palpable, present, pushing against my consciousness even though I could not translate it.
“What does it say?” I asked her.
“It says, ‘my name is Vycta,’” she breathed. “It seems like the decision has been made for you and for me.”
The light sealed back into my flesh and it became a meticulously detailed tattoo, even with some sort of coding at its base. She withdrew my Book from her robes and held it close to the mark. Darkness surged into it, but the book did not change color. She opened it and said to me, “It is done; you are Vycta. I will make sure your settlement is well made.”
I blinked in confusion, “What just happened?”
“Prophecy,” she replied.
I mumbled, “Oh crap.”
She spared me a wan smile. “Smart boy. Be afraid of prophets, for the future is often cruel. Go tell the assassin that his quarry died seven days ago in that hole. We will hold the elevator for you.” And as if to make certain I followed, she hurried off with my stuff.
I crossed the distance between me and Paulos. He created a pranic blade when I was within ten paces.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Who are you here to kill?” I asked. I was rankled that he didn’t even tell me to run, or disappear. “You are under very specific orders. Tell me the name.”
He tensed and shouted, “I am here to kill you!”
“Who am I?” I asked.
“My orders are to kill the demon Yrek!” he replied.
“My name is not Yrek,” I replied. “Yrek died seven days ago in that hole after meeting an angel.” I showed him my brand. “My name is Vycta.”
“You… that…” he stammered, not losing his physical readiness.
“The Name is written in the heavens and etched into my Book.” I said firmly. “The person your orders targeted is no more. Unless you think your leaders above the Celestials?”
“This is trickery,” Paulos muttered. “I did not teach you this kind of deception. Take your fate with honor.”
“What honor is it to poison someone’s soul to save soldiers and have their hierarchy order me to be cut down by one I love?” I found my wrath and it burned worse than the demonic vomit. “It isn’t duty that sent you here. It was some fuck’s sadistic idea that if it was you, I’d just fall on my knees and take it.”
I fumed for a moment, resisting the urge to pace. “Remember when we were first negotiating the boundaries of where lover began and teacher ended? The first time you hit me, you explained that it was to teach me to experience pain, to know how it felt to experience injury so I would not be unmanned by it in battle. I accepted those lessons. You taught me to fight. To survive. To be strong. You aren’t my teacher anymore. You don’t get to educate me anymore.”
I finally roared, “I let them run demon ichor through me for you because I loved you!”
“I love you too,” he said. “But I do not love you enough to compromise my word.”
“Then you are bound by the letter of your orders,” I replied, my voice guttural with something scalding and sad. “Yrek loved you so much that he gave up his purity. Vycta doesn’t love anyone enough to give up Eternity. It’s not like it matters; they weren’t going to let me be a Legionnaire anyway, so I doubt our paths will cross again. I love you Paulos, but I have to love me more.”
“My word, my honor, is all I have!” he screamed.
“You still have it,” I said. “Yrek died in that hole, you can’t kill him. The letter of the law is as important as its spirit. Goodbye, Legionnaire.”
I stepped into blackspace, the transition coming much easier now. It mildly disturbed me, but I could not dwell on it. I needed to beat feet while my former lover was wracked with emotional pain. I now knew Paulos was a good soldier. He’d totally stab me in the back. He’d be tear-soaked, but he’d totally do it.
The voyage up the express elevator took several hours. Sivar and I actually traveled together, alone in a spacious cabin that held a full view of the desert horizon.
“I’m sorry to isolate you at this time, but there are papers that need to be signed, and Principality acclimation recordings to watch,” she said.
“And you don’t want me to have too much access to the public because the miracle ‘they did not witness’ did actually occur,” I replied.
“Well, yes,” she said. “No need to cause confusion.”
“I agree,” I replied. “So are you testing the other people who filtered to see how their pranic systems have changed?”
“Yes,” she replied. “The angels were more displeased over our use of new and relatively newly arrived souls to filter demonic prana.”
“A few,” Sivar replied. “Dion suggested you. The old bastard knew more about the process than he led me to believe. Because of his meddling, you were a success beyond all expectations. But, I think I understand why the Celestials intervened at the end of the process: they don’t mind us having moments of brilliance, but some things they do not want written down.”
“The mutagenic properties of demonic essence are well-known,” Sivar continued. “Panacea is a very valuable medicine, but it was ludicrous to think that ‘love’ could influence the process. It flies in the face of the industrial methodology. Can you imagine trying to exploit ‘love’ on such a large-scale?”
She laughed, “I can, and the Celestials know it, too. So they step in and make certain it isn’t written down, literally or figuratively. New souls are the most emotionally vulnerable creatures in Heaven. They cannot be slaves, so I truly doubt we’d ever be allowed to industrialize them and flood them with demon ichor to make medicine for a problem humanity caused. The exploitation still happens occasionally, because no one wrote down not to do it.”
“There is no Bible of Heaven?” I asked.
She stopped and I could see something warring within her; my gut began to tighten as she spoke. “Of course there is.” And there was the lie.
“Are you certain?” I replied. “Or is it something written to crib the terrestrial work and used for keeping order in heaven?”
“Would you like a copy,” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “At this point I need facts free from allegory.”
Her amusement was palpable. “Do you think yourself holy?”
“Do you?” I replied. “You were the one rebuked by God’s extended middle management, not me.”
She did not deflate. “Yes, that is true. You did not answer my question.”
“I think myself… cheated,” I replied. “It seems that in Heaven all of our basic needs are seen to, and most likely—barring violence or violent incidence—we can live forever. But because living things are involved, because humans are involved, conflict ensues. The conflicts are organized and dramatic, but it alleviates the boredom… the potential ennui.”
“And the results of the conflicts are permanent,” she replied. “We are all powerful, or have the potential to be powerful; you just have to be willing to put in the work. Unless you’ve made the proper precautions, if you die here, you start over, sometimes with memory, sometimes without, but always without your accumulated things. It’s a fate worse than death for some.”
She stood, wandering to an ornate cabinet where several bottles stood. “Would you like a drink?” I demurred, she poured herself one. “We, the Prelates of the Principalities strive to create safe places for the souls on this world, which was polluted by a massive war before we were even created,” Sivar recited, her words suddenly very hot against my skin.
She seemed to swell in power as she continued to speak. “The essences that rained to the earth in the continuing angelic wars have turned the life on the planet into monstrous things. It is mostly tamed in the Old World, but in the New World, things went poorly trying to evict those already here.”
“You see, the Celestials always blast the earth before starting new Principalities, creating deserts for hundreds of miles to keep out encroaching monsters, and it is up to us to make it livable. In some ways it is a joke to be a Prelate of a western Principality. We are spread out, so that if one falls due to attack, infighting, demonic subversion, or Atlantean incursion, the others will not be immediately affected and the angels have a clear area to wage Armageddon to expunge the infection.”
She noticed me flinching away from her and her tone softened. “What’s the matter?”
“Your words,” I whispered. “They feel like fire.”
“I was a Sun Priestess for my tribe a very, very long time ago,” she responded. “Some storytelling habits never go away. Will-borne-oration is also a necessary talent. I am one of the few female Prelates. The Jade Empress was the first, but she is largely independent. It is very different in China and the East, more of the old ways. The new dead go to mountain settlements shielded from the sun by flying cities, learning to control and manage their prana until they can fly. Afterwards they ascend to the airborne cities. At least that is the way I was told it is supposed to work.”
She sat down across from me. “Given some of the stories related by souls who came to us in the past few decades, these towers are very similar to ‘orbital elevators’. Have these been built yet?”
“No,” I replied. “Beanstalks are still theoretical. Actually, when I died, there seemed to be an assault on science and education. It’ll probably be decades or a century before they are realized.”
“That is well enough,” she said. “Those who have the intelligence can become pranic engineers and can make their vision real here.”
“Paulos isn’t going to go away,” I said, thinking out loud. “When he survives his posting he will probably come to kill me. I need to get better, maybe find a new teacher.”
I stopped talking because the tension washing out of her was palpable, even visible. Something was happening, but I had no idea what. I hoped it was not a bad thing. Sivar had been carrying a lot of tension, and it had just diffused.
Sivar adopted a more conversational tone; less preachy, more informal. “The doctors were very taken aback by your mutations. The other filters pissed and shat themselves, and vomited while the ichor of the demon was shoved through their arteries. They did not know what to expect from someone with so few openings.”
I started to blush.
“Then they detected a pattern,” she said. “You would filter, pass out, awake and breathe a torrent of fire, and then you would be fine. At a certain point when you woke up, you would burn out completely. They would resuscitate you and the process could continue. Do you normally excrete so?”
Blushing painfully now, “Urr…ah, no. I ah, I do not normally excrete. I eat very little. It goes in, nothing else goes out.”
“Interesting,” she said. “They also talked of your sex.”
“Cock, penis, organ,” she rattled off like a professor.
I shifted in my seat. “What about it.”
“They called it ‘vile,’ ‘writhing,’ and ‘cthonic’,” she replied.
“It’s not,” I caught myself, lowering my voice. “It’s not any of those things. It’s extensible, prehensile, and sealed. It’s something totally devoted to pleasure and resistant to disease.”
“Indeed,” she replied. “The doctors say that it tried to attack them while you were unconscious.”
“Well they had everything else tied down,” I replied. “It seemed subdued when I woke up.”
She smiled, “You blush but you are not ashamed.”
“I wouldn’t walk around naked, but I’ve had seven years to get used to it,” I replied.
“And to practice using it,” she added. “Such lovely memories you have. Paulos is a very accommodating man.” (by Hank T Cannon)