– a short story –
In general, demons do not much care for Europe after the seventeenth century. As Hastor was wont to say, the rot set in with Galileo; by the time Darwin came along, the party was well and truly over. Once every human soul was a battlefield; once even the wickedest could cry to the Name on his deathbed and be lost to Hell forever. Once, there was some sense of challenge.
But after the so-called Enlightenment, it just wasn’t the same. The damned were rationalists to a man: they reasoned that a disembodied soul could feel no pain, and so they felt no pain. And the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries? Enough to make Hell close its doors for good. Wave after wave of lukewarm agnostics, puling that they’d ‘tried to live a good life’. When they were shown the Lord of the Flies in his obscene glory, they talked about the ‘special effects’. The blasphemy of the Black Mass, which had thrice-damned Torquemada weeping on his knees, was greeted with polite silence; most of them scarcely knew which way up the Cross was meant to be in the first place. Pathetic.
They still produced wars and atrocities, of course, and on a much grander scale – there was always that. But since shame was now a curable illness, there was very little for a demon to work with. Most Europeans led cushioned, decent little lives, in which ‘torture’ was a extra-long wait for the bus; as Hastor was also inclined to say, they wouldn’t know a red-hot poker if you shoved it up their arse, and Hastor had certainly tried.
And so, when Hastor began to materialise and felt drapes of processed silk against its skin, it was suspicious. There seemed to be breasts, which was good; Hastor preferred the female form. But where were the smells, of hair and armpits and genitalia and feet? Only a heavy floral perfume. Somewhere after the mid-Twentieth Century, it had to be. Hastor cursed and opened its – her – new eyes.
She found herself hanging in azure skies, looking down upon a shining city. It stood on a mountain-top, nine rings one inside the other, rising to a white tower in the centre. The city was golden in the morning light, a beacon of hope to the plains around it.
Hastor looked closer. The City did indeed stand on a mountain-top. Right on a pin-point summit, in fact, balanced like a spinning plate on a pole. But it didn’t spin, or lose its balance – it stood firm. Hastor glanced at the horizon – the City may be golden in the morning sunlight, but the sun itself was overhead and must have risen hours before.
Ah, thought Hastor. One of those places. One of the pocket universes, in which the Creator’s clockwork had thrown a wheel, and things did not go entirely as they should. Or else, they went rather too much as they should. Hastor began to cheer up. Those places could be so interesting…
She turned to locate her two associates. Al-Arrazaz and the Devourer had not quite finished taking form; in another moment Hastor would not have recognised them. The Devourer had become a pink-cheeked chubby infant, with flaxen curls and fluffy white wings between its shoulder-blades. Al-Arrazaz was a pale and beautiful young man, with black ringlets cascading down robes of crimson and purple, and pearl-grey wings that almost reached its – his – feet. The two demons were staring at Hastor, their perfect lips parted with astonishment. She looked down at the shimmering white robes that draped her exquisite new limbs, at the golden hair that rippled over chastely-covered (but rather small) breasts. She wriggled her thighs together, and was annoyed to find no genitalia at all, male or female. But then she flexed her shoulders, and great white wings beat the blue air.
Hastor cawed her demonic delight, just before her voice changed to a sound like golden bells. ‘Rejoice, my dears,’ she said to Al-Arrazaz and the Devourer. ‘We’ve joined the good guys.’
There is nothing a demon likes more than being on the side of the angels.
Mary was walking the Avenue of Gold, to the shining white Tower of Council. She was uneasy. All around her, the laity were praising the Almighty, with glad countenance and voices lifted in holy song. Just another day in New Jerusalem, or so it seemed.
Mary, however, had learned from ten years in the Hidden Collection to keep her eyes and ears open. The blissful smiles of the citizens, which had always looked rather gormless, were now fixed and strained. A song rose from the lower circles – the words were unintelligible, and but it sounded far from holy. A child tumbled past her, the knees of his white garments scuffed and grimy.
Dirt, in the Holy City. Was the Holy Father ill?
Was he dying?
She assumed she was about to find out. The silver door of the Tower opened before she could knock. The gatekeeper, who as a layman had always greeted her with awe, now contrived to bow and leer at the same time. ‘Their Graces await you, Sister Maria.’
‘Maria Innocenta,’ Mary snapped as she swept past him. Behind her the man changed a snigger into an unconvincing cough. Mary didn’t have the energy to rebuke him; just to wish, for the thousandth time, her parents had not called her Mary. She made her way to the Chambre du Ceil, nodding to the beautiful painted boys and girls lounging in the corridor, and walked directly in.
The Six Archbishops were seated around the Council table, laughing at an off-colour joke about St Francis and his animal companions. Mary made them the briefest possible bow, trying to convey that her obeisance was made only to the Office of the Holy Council, and not to the six fat perverts of whom it currently consisted. But the Bishops greeted her cheerily enough; ever since the Dispensation on Paramours and Catamites, they had been mellow to the point of imbecility. Mary bowed rather more deeply to the figure at the head of the table. Cardinal Apostalus was not smiling, and moreover his downturned mouth was as red as his robes. Obviously he’d felt compelled to put on make-up this morning, which always put him in a bad mood. ‘My Lords,’ he said to the rest of the Council, ‘may I present Sister Maria Innocenta.’
Mary took a seat at the end of the table, while the Archbishops looked at her with renewed interest. They had never seen Mary en descendé, but word had got about. The Cardinal ignored them and got straight to the point: ‘You walked the streets to get here, Sister?’
There was a snigger from one of the Archbishops which Mary ignored. ‘I did, your Grace.’
‘And did you notice anything amiss?’
‘I thought the people appeared rather… wilful, your Grace.’
‘I see. As if they were following their own will, Sister?’
‘I cannot say, Your Grace.’
‘Or perhaps the Devil’s will?’
‘I do not know, Your Grace. I am not wise in these matters. As you are.’
The Cardinal smiled thinly. ‘Then we shall ask another witness.’ He raised his voice, ‘Please send in Father David.’
Oh no. Please, thought Mary, let it be another Father David… but it wasn’t. When the young priest appeared, even the most devotedly heterosexual Archbishops sighed with lust. David was blue-eyed, golden-skinned, beautiful as an angel on the Chapel ceiling. Apostalus, carefully avoiding looking at the young priest, nodded towards Mary. ‘Have you met Sister Maria Innocenta, Father?’
‘No, Your Grace.’ Father David turned a brilliant smile upon Mary, who had been digging her fingernails into her palms and frantically reciting the most boring parts of the Apocrypha, but who now had to look up. ‘Sister, I have heard all about your good works. I am glad and humbled to have met you – ’
Humbled. That was it. Mary leapt to her feet. Her wimple was already coming loose, as the hair beneath it began to curl; by the time she pulled the head-dress away her hair had turned a deep and sinful red. Her full-length habit strained under her swelling bosom, so she tore it off in one practised movement, aggrieved in some cool disregarded part of herself that she would have to pay for yet another one. The Archbishops whooped as her shapeless grey underwear turned black and figure-hugging; they tried to catch hold of her legs as she jumped onto the table, but she kicked them away. ‘Worms! On your knees before me!’
‘Mercy, o dark spawn of Lilith!’ cried one Archbishop, already fiddling with his flies. Mary took no notice but strode down the table-top to Father David. Her sensible convent boots had gone high and spike-heeled, and she was now carrying a whip, which she used to lasso the terrified young priest. ‘Save me!’ he wailed, looking for the Cardinal who was already leaving by the side-door, ‘the Whore of Babylon is upon us!’
‘You’d better believe it,’ growled Mary, throwing him across the table. ‘Get it out, big boy, and for your sake it better be worth it.’
Big boy. Before the descendé took her completely, she had just enough time to lament the Holy Father’s appalling lack of imagination.
Afterwards Mary prowled the corridors. She had tied up the Archbishops, but then left them untouched – even enwhored, she still had her standards. Although they had still lauded her deep understanding of the Sadeian arts, at least until she left them locked in the soundproof closet. But she was still unsatisfied, and the catamites had long since fled. She found a spiral staircase and climbed.
She emerged into a single shaft of sunlight. It fell from a stained-glass window, depicting a dove on a background of heavenly blue. Mary’s eyes filled with tears; she fell to her knees as her heart sang Rejoice, o daughter of Judah, thy iniquity is pardoned, and her underwear turned grey, and her hair straightened and dulled into light-brown.
When she finally got to her feet again, Cardinal Apostalus stood before her. These two understood each other well, prone as they both were to rutting frenzies of one sort or another; Mary saw much of herself in the Cardinal, as he saw much of himself in her. Needless to say they detested one another. ‘I’m curious, sister,’ the Cardinal said, ‘why did your mother name you “Maria Innocenta”? Did she have a sense of humour?’
‘As Your Grace is aware,’ said Mary, through gritted teeth, ‘it was thought in those days that giving a girl-child the name of the Virgin would heighten her ascendés – ’
‘Ah. What a shame Our Lady shares her name with the Magdalene, hmm? But thank goodness for the “Innocenta”,’ he widened his eyes in mock horror, ‘or you might have been utterly shameless.’
This was big talk from a man who kept a selection of horse-prick dildos by his bedside. But Mary decided to bite her tongue; he was a Cardinal, after all, and he now seemed to be wearing eyeshadow. ‘So now the rest of the Council are out of the way,’ she said instead, ‘why did you want to see me?’
A few minutes later they were in the Cardinal’s offices, Mary struggling into the new habit she had insisted on sending for (although it took a lot more than a half-naked nun to turn heads in the Tower of Council). Apostalus was calling her to the great window: ‘Tell me what you see, Sister,’ he said.
Mary looked out over New Jerusalem. From this height she saw no irregularity. ‘I see the Holy City.’
‘And beyond the walls?’
Green fields, sparkling rivers and gentle rolling hills. ‘I see the country of Albion. What else would I see?’
The Cardinal went to his desk and unrolled a piece of parchment. ‘I’m upgrading you, Sister,’ he said, dripping red wax onto the parchment. ‘You are already permitted to know what is Secret. By this decree, I permit you to know Matters of Heresy.’
Mary’s jaw dropped. ‘But only Mothers Superior are supposed to – ‘
‘It’s done.’ The Cardinal pressed his seal into the wax. ‘Now look again.’
Mary looked out of the window again. Eventually she said, ‘Oh shit.’
In the distance, the land had turned dry and dusty. Craggy mountains had replaced the little hills. Herds of – cattle? bison? – swept across the plain. Men on horseback galloped after them, firing guns into the air.
Mary said, ‘Is this real?’
‘So why can’t anyone else see – ‘
‘The Law of Heretical Knowledge is still holding. For the moment.’
Mary watched as another group of men on horseback, darker and dressed in feathers, attacked the first group. Though too far away to hear, Mary knew the darker men would be going whoo-whoo-whoo and playing the tom-toms. In her astonishment she blurted out, ‘Since when did His Holiness like Westerns?’
There was a long silence as she realised what she’d said. Any moment now, she thought, Apostalus would send for the Inquisition… but the Cardinal just nodded. ‘He does not like them.’ Apostalus sighed. ‘Come, you must see for yourself.’
And so Mary found herself approaching the Throne of Peter, in the presence of the Holy Father himself.
The Throne itself was magnificent. It was twice the width of an ordinary bed; its headrest and four posts were heavy with gold. The sheets and coverlets were the finest crimson satin. The figure lying on the bed seemed insubstantial, just an old man fast asleep.
But of course, he was dreaming the New Jerusalem.
Mary, overcome in spite of herself, fell to her knees before the Holy Father. She went to kiss the ring on his frail withered hand… which was not, she noticed after a moment, frail and withered at all. It looked healthy and robust, as did His Holiness’ face. ‘He doesn’t seem ill,’ she said to Apostalus.
‘He isn’t. His Holiness is sound of body, and mind.’
Mary looked out of the window. From the top of the Tower, she had an excellent view of the world beyond the City; at the moment a line of carts, covered with white canvas bonnets, were creeping across the dusty plains. Mary looked her question at Apostalus, who after a moment said:
‘This is not the Holy Father’s doing.’ Mary gaped at him. ‘There is another influence at work here.’
‘Forgive my flawed female intelligence, Your Grace,’ said Mary, after a long pause, ‘but are you telling me there is more than one Pope?’
‘There is more than one Pope-like influence,’ snapped the Cardinal. ‘Doubtless it is diabolic in nature. It comes from outwith the City.’
‘Across the plains. On the highest mountain-top. Exactly level with the Holy City itself, as it happens.’
This sounded suspiciously dramatic. ‘And why are you telling me this?’
The Cardinal smiled. Her suspicions were about to be confirmed. ‘Because you are going to find it, Sister Mary – ’
‘ – and then you will destroy it.’
‘But – but I’m not senior enough. It should be an Archbishop – ‘ She had a sudden image of the six Archbishops trussed up naked in the Council-room closet, ‘ – all right, not an Archbishop, but someone high-up. Like you, for instance.’
‘I shall be indisposed for the next few days. As you very well know.’ Of course, the moon was nearly full. ‘And there can be no more delay. Last week that,’ he waved a hand at the dusty prairie, where a group of even darker men were now putting down railway tracks, ‘was confined to the foothills. Set off at once, Sister, or there’ll be buffalo roaming the Streets of Gold within days.’
‘Why do you think I’ll be able to stop it? ‘
‘Because of your knowledge of such matters, Sister Maria.’ The Cardinal was positively beaming now. ‘Because of those items you have – ah – catalogued in the Secret Collection. The moving images, if you recall? The ones the heretics say are from another world? Not that you have viewed these things, obviously, because you know how keenly the Inquisition disapproves of – ‘
‘All right, all right. I’m going. But I still say you should send an elder churchman – ‘
‘I think a woman’s touch is called for here, Sister. This setting strikes one as rather masculine, does it not?’ He looked at the prairie, where men of every colour had abandoned the wagons and the rail-tracks and were just riding around shooting each other. ‘And they tell me that en ascendé, Sister, you could move the Devil himself to repent. Find this Pretender, Sister Maria; and if the love of Heaven is upon you, show him the error of his ways.’
‘And what if I’m en descendé?’
‘Then you can fuck him to death. You have your instructions, Sister. Be on your way by sunset.’
By the time Mary set out, the near-full moon had risen, and the streets were already thronged with naked shrieking men. By now, Apostalus would be locked in his own rooms with a group of large muscular monks; those without his foresight or resources roamed the City, some painted, some dressed in female clothing, all offering their buttocks to anything male. Other men wandered among them, fucking or beating them as they pleased. Mary encountered a pair of youths kicking an older man, who between his screams of pain still implored them to bugger him. Mary boxed the youngsters’ ears and sent them packing, then turned to help their victim; but he had already fled, shrieking in terror at the polluting touch of the female.
Mary was quite happy to leave the City tonight. The Holy Father’s view of women may be medieval; but what he believed about Sodomites was just downright bizarre.
Four hours later, when she stopped to rest, it took her less than a minute to make a campfire. This alone would have told her she had entered the zone of the new influence, even if her habit had not just turned into a fringed leather shirt and britches. Mary sat by the fire, wondering if she would ever dare to eat the pieces of raw meat-on-a-stick that had just appeared over the flames, when…
…a soft golden light fell upon her. The scent of roses was all around, sweeter than all the gardens of the world. Mary knelt, tears rising to her eyes as she heard the Voice, the song of the heavenly spheres.
‘Mary. Hear us, Sister.’
Three figures formed in the light. A cherubic infant, a Seraph of the Holy Blood, and a Principality: a she-angel of the highest order. It was she who stepped forward. ‘Mary. Don’t be afraid. Hear us.’
‘I hear,’ whispered Mary.
‘Turn aside from this path, Mary. Have faith. The Throne of Peter will prevail.’
‘What must I do?’
‘Forget the Cardinal’s words, Mary. Return to the Citadel, and trust in the will of the Almighty.’
‘I shall return,’ breathed Mary. ‘I shall return to the Cardinal, and tell him he’s a fool. I shall get thrown into an oubliette for the rest of my short life.’ She rose, dusting off her knee-caps. ‘And then I shall become the plaything of devils, while the Holy City turns into the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Nice try, Hastor.’
‘Ah. Clever little Mary.’ Hastor’s angel-face split in a demonic grin, giving her the look of a malevolent Christmas-tree ornament. ‘But how did you know?’
Actually, it had been the angel’s breasts; Hastor always contrived to increase her form’s breast-size, and real angels don’t jiggle. But if the demon hadn’t realised this, Mary had no intention of enlightening her; so she nodded at the Devourer, who was wolfing down as much of the raw meat-on-a-stick as his rosebud mouth could accommodate. ‘There’s no hiding him, is there?’ she said.
Hastor snarled something so foul that Mary’s ears popped; the Devourer changed into a roast suckling pig, still squealing through the apple in its mouth. Her temper much restored, Hastor turned back to Mary. ‘And now, Mary, what about you? A delicious red-current jelly, perhaps, or a blood-pudding…?’
‘Spare me it,’ snapped Mary. ‘ “The people of the Lord are not as beasts for the Devil’s table” and all that. You can’t touch me. And speaking of the Psalma Prophetica, isn’t there something about “the three agents of the Dark One whose bowels shall be torn and – “ ‘
‘Please excuse my colleague,’ Al-Arrazaz cut in smoothly. ‘We are all tired and out of sorts today. Trying to torment,’ his voice dropped to a painful whisper, ‘Protestants, you understand.’
‘Really?’ Mary tried to imagine anything worse than a lifetime of Presbyterian Church services. ‘What did you do to them?’
‘They have to spend the rest of eternity at Mardi Gras. And they’re not allowed to criticise or even be sarcastic.’
‘You absolute bastards.’
‘Why, thank you, dear. And now…’ Al-Arrazaz was staring at the Devourer’s roasted form and starting to drool. Hastor had already sprouted fangs. ‘If you’ll excuse us – ‘
‘Wait a minute.’ Mary had been looking at the angelic disguises: perfect in every detail. It seemed a lot of effort for the temptation of a single nun. ‘Why exactly don’t you want me to – ‘
‘Why Mary,’ Al-Arrazaz grinned, his new incisors cutting his bottom lip, ‘you wouldn’t be “seeking knowledge by converse with Devils”, would you…?’
‘No, no.’ Hastor was already tearing at the Devourer’s succulent belly, and Mary had to raise her voice above the Devourer’s squeals, ‘of course not. Goodbye. Avaunt thee,’ she added to be on the safe side, although Al-Arrazaz was already using his Seraphic wings to shove Hastor away from the best rib-meat, and no-one was listening any more. Long after the trio had vanished and their visceral sounds faded into the aether, Mary stood still and stared at the spot they had appeared. So – they didn’t want her going to the mountain…
Smiling unpleasantly, Mary kicked dust over the campfire, and set off along the road to the mountain.
Just after sunrise, she entered the desert. She kicked along the dusty road, singing a song she’d never heard before, about a horse with no name.
Hours later, the mountain didn’t look any closer. Mary sighed, ‘This is going to take days, it won’t – ‘
Then she gasped as a tremendous force took her, and she was –
– galloping across the plain on a thoroughbred palomino, red hair streaming behind her although she wasn’t aroused, and –
– at the foot of the mountain, wearing a metal bikini, carrying a sword and fighting a large group of orcs and–
– running up the mountain in skin-tight black shorts and t-shirt, pursued by dogs and leaping over the lip of the volcano and –
– abseiling onto a cavern floor in a tight leather catsuit, unnoticed by an army of anonymous men working on a colossal rocket covered with hazard signs.
Mary froze, too shocked to move. This was Narrative Manipulation. Einstein was roasting in the Circle of Heretics just for saying this might be possible. The Pretender must be immensely powerful, and – it occurred to her – very easily bored. Mary began tiptoeing towards the inevitable unobtrusive doorway, hoping she wouldn’t have to kill scores of the anonymous henchmen. But it seemed someone else was eager to cut straight to the finale, because she reached the door unnoticed and slipped straight through.
She was in a broad corridor of black metal. All around was the faint humming of a mighty engine. Mary took a step forward and stumbled over her skirt; she was now wearing a long white gown with a fake-silver belt and a hood. She raised her hands to her head, and sighed in exasperation as she found two tight buns of hair over her ears. ‘All right,’ she said aloud, ‘where are you?’
‘Come in.’ A deep voice echoed along the corridor. ‘Come in, Your Highness…’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake.’ Mary strode along the corridor, emerging in the vast chamber with the flight of steps leading up to a great window onto the stars. The black throne before it was turned away from her. The voice said: ‘You have spirit, my dear. But you will come to learn that your destiny – ‘
‘- lies with you. Young Mary. Yes, I get it. Look at me, will you?’
The throne swivelled. A round face, not a child’s but pouting like one, looked down at her. It said in an ordinary voice: ‘Hey, you’re not Carrie Fisher.’
His voice sounded slightly muffled. Mary reached up to unravel the coils of hair covering her ears. Somehow the whole arrangement was held together by one small pin, and when she pulled it out, her hair – straight but still auburn – tumbled photogenically about her shoulders. The man in the chair brightened. ‘But that’s okay. I like redheads.’
‘I’ll bet you do.’ Mary tried to loosen the collar around her neck – the silky dress was in fact pure nylon. ‘Do you have any idea how much I’m sweating in this thing?’
‘You could try the slave girl’s outfit,’ leered the man.
‘Don’t you dare.’
He pouted again. ‘You’re not acting much like my fantasy.’
‘I’m not your fantasy.’
‘Sure you are. Everything is, here.’ He grinned, swivelling the chair around. He was wearing black robes, and under them loose khaki trousers and sneakers. ‘It’s like the greatest RPG ever. I’m never going back.’
‘Back?’ Mary had begun to suspect this wasn’t just someone who’d run loose in the Forbidden Collection. ‘Back where?’
‘To the real world. To being awake. I’m in a coma, you know,’ he added conversationally, ‘and this is like my coma fantasy.’
‘Don’t be silly. Am I acting like your fantasy?’
‘No.’ He frowned at her, uncertainly. ‘You’re a little too old…’ He brightened again. ‘Hey, but maybe you’re not the heroine. Maybe you’re like her guardian or something. That’s how come you’re giving me a hard time? You’re like a female Jedi master, and you’re testing me? Have you got a beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter who – ‘
‘What’s your name?’ Mary snapped.
‘Cody. Cody Benson.’
‘Well, Cody Benson, this is not just your fantasy. You are, in fact, the Pope.’
Two minutes and an ad-hoc Decree of Knowledge later, Cody was sitting back on his throne of darkness with his mouth hanging open. ‘Whoa,’ he said.
‘So you see? You have to leave us. You have to wake up.’
‘Are you kidding?’ The throne of darkness changed into a throne of gold, draped in purple and carved with serpents and naked women. The dark chamber sprouted white marble pillars, red carpets and colourful paintings. Cody’s theological knowledge was obviously limited, although his sense of spectacle was impressive. ‘This is so awesome!’ he whooped, as golden robes formed upon him, ‘I’m going to be the best Pope ever!’
‘You can’t be Pope! You don’t know anything about religion!’
‘So what? I can make people’s lives better.’
‘No you couldn’t.’
‘I could too. I’d stop that thing women get here, for a start. You know, that good-girl-bad-girl thing?’
Mary stopped dead. ‘You’d do away with the dualité?’
‘Sure. I’m a modern guy. I know women have needs just like men do.’ He leered again. ‘I say they can be whores all the time.’
‘You think women should be whores all the time? All women?’
‘Even – just for instance – your mother?’
His smile froze. ‘Well, yeah… But my Mom just isn’t into that kind of thing. It just wouldn’t be her choice, you know?’
In other words, it was business as usual. ‘What about the Sodomites? Still that full-moon stuff?’
‘Oh, God, no. I told you, I’m a modern guy. They can live like they want to live. Just keep it away from me, that’s all I ask.’
‘No, no. They should just keep it out of sight, that’s all.’
Invisible Sodomites. ‘And the Sapphics? The butch voices, the hair that won’t grow long…?’
‘You mean lesbians? No.’ Cody stared into the future and began to smile. ‘I’m going to cure them…’
‘That does it.’ Mary put on her best Mother-Superior voice, ‘You get out of that throne, young man, right now!’
‘Sorry.’ He smirked down at her. ‘It’s my world, and everyone’s going to be happy. Including you.’
‘You can’t do that!’
‘Sure I can, I’m the frickin’ Pope.’ He pointed at her. A heavy diamond signet ring began to glow, with a crystalline sound-effect. ‘And you’re gonna love me, starting right – ‘
‘What are you,’ Mary searched desperately for the word, ‘a, a Fascist?’
‘That’s not fair.’ He scowled. ‘I’m the good guy here.’
‘Rubbish. The good guy doesn’t just make himself Pope. Or king, or whatever. It’s got to be right, hasn’t it?’ An election. That would keep him busy for ages… ‘You’ve got to be chosen.’
‘Chosen?’ His face lit up again. He snapped his fingers.
They were standing in a crowded city square in bright sunlight. Mary recognised the Angelus Square in the sixth tier of New Jerusalem, although it was now cobbled rather than paved in gold, and the buildings sported signs like ‘Ye Olde Taverne’ and ‘Ye Apothecary’. The citizens wore medieval tunics and gowns, blue and yellow and scarlet with dyes that hadn’t actually been invented till the eighteenth century. But it was still an impressive sight; and Cody’s flare for the visual was further demonstrated when the crowd parted suddenly, leaving Mary a clear view of the centre of the square, in which stood a large rock with a sword stuck in it.
‘This was a great idea!’ Cody was beside her, dressed in a white linen outfit he probably thought was typical peasant-boy gear. ‘I’ll make you one of my advisors, when I’m King.’
Several men turned to stare at them. Even in doublet and hose, there was no mistaking an Inquisitor. ‘Cody, stop this,’ hissed Mary.
But already a man in a mayor’s chain of office was stepping forward to speak. It was Apostalus. He looked at Mary for a moment, then announced: ‘Hear ye! Only the very worthiest man may draw forth Excalibur! And the one who draws forth the sword shall be our new… Pope!’
One by one, three men in shining armour got up to tug at the sword. Each was fatter than the last, and went through increasingly undignified contortions. The crowd of laity, who tended to react philosophically to the new and bizarre in the New Jerusalem, laughed and cheered. After the third knight had fallen off the boulder, a large man – obedient to Cody’s sense of dramatic timing, not to mention his short attention span – pointed at Cody and yelled in a low-paid extra’s voice, ‘Let the boy try!’
The crowd cheered its approval, and once again parted before them. Cody held out his arm to Mary, who found she was wearing a scarlet gown cut low enough to get her thrown in the stocks. ‘Come, milady,’ said Cody.
They walked through the now silent crowd into the shaft of golden sunlight that fell upon the sword. ‘Wish me luck,’ whispered Cody.
‘Good luck,’ whispered Mary, and pushed him to the ground. She jumped up onto the stone; her skirts tangled about her feet, and she clung grimly to the sword’s pommel and tried to haul herself up. Behind her Cody, yelling in protest, caught hold of her gown and tried to pull her backwards. But the red silk tore easily, leaving Mary in a ragged and (of course) very short mini-skirt. She scrambled up onto the stone, treading on Cody’s fingers, and seized the sword with both hands. With a ringing sound, the blade slipped out of the stone.
The crowd gasped. Cody was tugging at her ankles. ‘That’s cheating! It’s only the worthiest!’
‘He said worthiest man.’ Mary nodded at Apostalus, whose face was expressionless. ‘Basic gender loophole, Cody. Did you never play ‘Dungeons and Dragons’?’
‘But it’s not right.’ He was in tears now. ‘It just doesn’t work.’
‘Course it does. Ironic role-reversal. Girl power. Very Buffy.’ She stood up straight on the rock; her loose hair and tattered gown streamed in an obliging breeze as she held the sword aloft. Sunlight flashed on the silver blade. She called to the crowd, ‘Who do you choose?’
A hundred voices began to chant Ma-ry! Ma-ry! ‘Face it,’ she murmured to Cody. ‘This is just a better ending.’
‘You bitch.’ He was sobbing now. ‘I’ll get you – ‘
‘Time to wake up now, Cody.’ Mary snapped her fingers, and Cody vanished.
Mary looked down from the rock. Her legs were freezing, but she smiled. ‘Now,’ she said. She looked at Apostalus, who stared down at his feet. ‘Now,’ Her Holiness said again. ‘Where shall I begin?’
* * * * *
And so Pope Maria Innocenta began her reign. She threw away the mattress and the coverlets; by day she sat upon the Throne of Peter, and she stayed awake. At night she retired to her narrow bunk, and did not dream. Except once…
She dreamt she was sitting in her rooms as usual, late at night, going through the Divine Apocrypha and scoring out big chunks of it. The air before her shimmered, and three male figures stepped forward.
The first was dark and handsome, dressed in leather and smoking a cigarette. He had a wicked smile and bedroom eyes. The second was blonde and handsome, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He had gentle blue eyes and a loving smile. The third was a boy-child; he stood between the other two, his hair morphing from black to blonde, his face now kindly, now savage. Mary threw the Apocrypha at the blonde one’s head. ‘I won’t tell you three again,’ she said.
The blonde man’s eyes became a lot less gentle. ‘But I wanted you to see the new dualité, Mary,’ Hastor crooned. ‘I’m the Nice Guy. He’s the Bastard.’ Al-Arrazaz gave Mary a smouldering look. ‘And this,’ Hastor patted the Devourer’s small head, ‘is – ‘
‘- The mother’s son.’ Mary rolled her eyes upwards. ‘Could go either way. He’s trying to eat your hand, by the way.’
‘You know us already,’ Hastor cried, removing his fingers just in time from the boy’s snapping teeth, ‘you clever girl. So the new dualité is born!’
‘No,’ snapped Mary. ‘I don’t accept it.’
‘It’s very popular in some worlds.’
‘Not in mine.’
Hastor was looking rather hurt. ‘But it comes from your favourite world, Mary. The one that makes all those lovely films – ‘
‘It also makes diamonds out of human corpses.’ Mary stood to face them. ‘No. There’ll be no more dualités here. We will decide for ourselves. Now go away, we don’t need you any more.’
An aura of flame erupted around the demons. They advanced on Mary, eyes changing to the black of the infinite void. ‘Beware, mortal,’ Hastor’s snake-tongue flicked across his lips, ‘who are you, that dare command us?’
‘I’m the Pope, you moron. And what I say goes. Now, piss off.’
The three vanished. Her Holiness smiled in her sleep.
Somewhere else, the three howled their terrible anguish into the void. Then something began to happen.
The new forms came quickly. The Devourer was a plump and pretty little girl, all in white, with a silver circlet about her head. Al-Arrazaz was a beautiful woman in green, heavy with child and breasts swollen with milk, her blonde hair crowned with gold. Hastor was all in black; an old, white-haired woman, her head ringed with copper.
‘Ah,’ cried Hastor, so pleased she didn’t even envy Al-Arrazaz the biggest breasts. Her very specific senses scanned the Holy City. Already, in the streets, Her Holiness’ faith was hardening into doctrine. Women were the civilised ones – men were just savages. Too dangerous to be in the City; they should be in military camps outside. Wouldn’t a real man like that better anyway? And what was the point of a woman raising sons, when she’d just lose them to the world of men?
Sacrificial daggers appeared in the demons’ hands – silver for the Maiden, gold for the Mother, sharpened copper for the Crone. The three forms were still a little indistinct. Pope Maria’s influence, probably; she had turned out to be intractably fair-minded. But Pope or not, she was still mortal. In years to come, she could sit in Heaven and grumble all she liked; her world would be, once more, up for grabs.
‘Make a note of these forms, darlings,’ Hastor said to Al-Arrazaz and the Devourer. ‘I think we’ll be back.’
That’s why demons like mankind so much. We never keep them waiting long.