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“You can’t kill them all,” said Sister Josephine, reading my mood accurately.
“Watch me,” I said, but it didn’t sound like me. Already my dark mood was passing. I sighed heavily, picked up Paul’s body, and stood facing Sister Josephine. “Tell me you know of a secret way out of here.”
“I have an old Christian charm,” the nun said quickly. “Through which any door made be made over into any other door, leading anywhere. It’s how we were able to arrive here unobserved, despite all the protections. Come with me, Mr. Taylor. And I’ll take you to Melissa.”
I looked around. “Where are the rest of your Sisters?”
“They’re all gone,” Sister Josephine said steadily. “All dead. It seems the stories about you are true after all, that death follows you around like a dog because you feed it so well.”
“Open the door,” I said, and something in my voice made her hurry to obey.
Sister Josephine reached inside her habit and took out a Hand of Glory, and distracted as I was, I still felt a jolt of surprise. A Hand of Glory is pagan magic, not Christian. A mummified human hand, cut off a hanged man in the last moments of his dying, the fingers soaked in wax to make them into candles. With the candles lit and the proper Words spoken over them, a Hand of Glory can open any door, reveal any secret, show the way to hidden treasures. Simply owning one was a stain on the soul. Sister Josephine caught me looking at her.
“This is the Hand of a Saint,” she said, not quite defiantly. “Donated with her consent, prior to her martyring. It is a blessed thing, and a Christian weapon in the fight against Evil.”
“If you say so,” I said. “Which Saint?”
“Saint Alicia the Unknown. As if you’d know which Saint was which, you heathen.”
She muttered over the mummified thing, and the wicks set into the end of each bloated finger burst simultaneously into flames. The light was warm and golden, and I could feel a new presence on the air, of something or someone else joining us. It was a…comfortable feeling. Sister Josephine thrust the Hand of Glory at the rear door, and the door shuddered in its frame, as though crying out at what was being done to it. Sister Josephine gestured sharply with the Hand, and the door swung inwards, as though forced open against its will by some unimaginable pressure. Bright light spilled into the underground car-park, and with it the scent of incense. Harsh voices cried out behind us. There was the sound of gunfire, but the bullets came nowhere near us. Rent-a-cops couldn’t hit a cow on the arse with a banjo. Sister Josephine walked forward into the light, and I followed after, carrying Paul’s body in my arms.
And found myself in the Street of the Gods. Where all the gods that ever were or are or may be are worshipped, feared, and adored. All the Forces and Powers and Beings too powerful to be allowed to run free in the Nightside. Churches and temples line both sides of the Street, up and down and for as far as anyone has ever dared to walk; though only the most popular and powerful religions hold the best territory, near the centre. All the other gods and congregations have to fight it out for position and status, competing for worshippers and collection moneys in a positively Darwinian battle for survival. You can find anything on the Street of the Gods, if it doesn’t find you first.
Sister Josephine blew out the candles on her Hand of Glory and put it away. A door shut solidly behind us, cutting off the sound of running feet and increasing gunfire. I looked behind us and discovered the Sister and I had apparently emerged from the Temple of Saint Einstein. The credo over the door said simply: It’s all relative.
People were calling out my name, and not in a good way. I turned to look. People had good cause to remember me after I went head to head with my mother here, during the Lilith War. A lot of people died up and down the Street on that awful night, and a lot of gods, too. Being a god isn’t necessarily forever, not in the Nightside. Worshippers up and down the Street took one look at me and started running, just in case. I smiled briefly at Sister Josephine, a little embarrassed, and she shook her head before setting off down the Street. I followed after her, hugging Paul to me like a sleeping child.
A lot of the Street was still rebuilding itself after the War. I remembered Lilith, wrapped in all her terrible glory and majesty, walking unhurriedly down the Street while churches and temples and meeting places blew apart or burst into flames or shuddered down into the earth, under the pressure of her implacable will. Many of the old landmarks were gone, ancient structures so beautiful they soared up into the night sky like works of art. Only rubble now, or burnt-out blackened shells. Some of the destroyed churches and their gods had snapped back into being later, a tribute to the faith of their congregations; but all too many worshippers had their faith shattered by Lilith’s calm, happy destruction of everything they’d ever believed in. Because, after all, if a god can be destroyed, then he isn’t really a god, is he?
Lilith murdered many of the oldest Names on the Street, out of anger or petulance or because they got in her way. Or just because she could. Some she killed because they were her children, and she was so disappointed in them. The Carrion in Tears was gone, and The Thin White Prince, and Bloody Blades. And others who had lasted for centuries uncounted. All gone now, un-made, uncreated.
Sister Josephine and I made our way down the Street, and people hurried to get out of our way and give us plenty of room. A few zealots shouted threats and curses from the safety of their church doors, ready to duck back inside if I looked like I was noticing them. There were great holes between the standing churches, dark and bloody like pulled teeth. Ancient places of worship were smoking pits now, and in the years to follow the very names of their gods would be forgotten. Would a murdered god still haunt the place where its church used to be? And what kind of ghost would a god make? You can find yourself thinking the damnedest things, in the Nightside.
On the other hand, new churches were springing up here and there like spring flowers after the rain, as lesser gods and beliefs arrived to stake a claim after being squeezed out in the past by more powerful religions. They sprouted from the rubble, proud structures traced in delicate lines of pure light or gleaming marble or solid stone, standing stoutly against the night sky. Some of these gods were new, some were unknown, and some were older than old…ancient and terrible Names whose time had, perhaps, come round again. Baal and Moloch and Ahriman. Hell, even the Temple of Dagon was making a comeback.
Gargoyles scurried along the guttering in high places, keeping a careful watch on me as I passed. Something with too many bright eyes sniggered to itself in the dark shadows of an alley-way, its many legs weaving a shimmering cocoon around something that still shrieked and struggled. And a human skeleton, its bones yellowed with age and held together with copper wire, smashed its face against a stone wall, over and over again. Business as usual, on the Street of the Gods.
I had heard of some easily impressed types who kept trying to raise churches to worship me—proof if proof were needed that most of the people operating on the Street of the Gods weren’t too tightly wrapped. I’d made it clear I disapproved in every possible way, if only because I didn’t believe in tempting fate. My good sometime friend Razor Eddie, Punk God of the Straight Razor, had taken it upon himself to burn down these churches as fast as they appeared, but the damned things kept springing up like weeds. Hope springs eternal among the seriously deluded.
One of the new gods came swaggering out of his splendid new church to greet me and Sister Josephine. To be honest, he planted himself right in front of us, blocking our way, so we had to stop and talk to him or walk right over him. I was tempted, but…The new god was a big brawny type, with a smooth pink face and a smile with far too many perfect teeth, all wrapped up in a pristine white suit. He looked more like a used-car salesman than a god, but it takes all sorts…His church looked a lot like a supermarket, where prayers could buy you the very best divine intervention money could buy, at knockdown prices. The guy’s halo looked fake, too, more like a CGI effect. And the jaunty angle w
as particularly off-putting. In my experience, the real thing tends to be much more impressive, and downright disturbing to be around. Pure good and pure evil are equally unsettling and unfathomable to the everyday human mind.
“Hi there, sir and Sister! Good to meet you both! I am Chuck Adamson, the god of Creationism. Blessed be!”
I hefted Paul’s body into a more comfortable position and considered Chuck thoughtfully. “Creationism has its own god now?”
The new god smiled easily and struck an impressive pose. “Hey, if enough people believe in a thing…sooner or later, it will appear somewhere on the Street of the Gods. Though I have to say, if I see one more Church of Elvis materialise from the aether, complete with blazing neon and stereophonic cherubs, I may puke. A great singer, to be sure, but a fornicator and drug abuser nonetheless. We are a proudly old-fashioned, traditional Church, sir, and there’s no room in it for a sinner, no matter how talented.”
“Cut to the chase, Chuck,” I said, and something in my voice made his big wide smile waver just a little.
“Well, sir, it seems to me that I am in a position to do you some good. I see that you carry in your arms the mortal remains of a dear departed friend. Cute little thing, wasn’t she? You mourn her loss, sir. I see it clearly, but I am here to tell you that I can raise her from the dead! I can raise her up, make her walk and talk and praise Creationism in a loud and carrying voice. Yes, sir! All you have to do in return…is bear witness. Tell everyone you meet who did this wonderful thing, and then send them here to learn the glory of Creationism! Oh yeah! Can I hear a Halleluiah?”
“Probably not,” I said.
Chuck stepped in a little closer, and lowered his voice confidentially. “Come now, sir, you must understand that every new church needs a few good old-fashioned miracles to get it off the ground? You just spread the word, and the worshippers will come running like there’s a sale on. And before you know it, my humble establishment will be leap-frogging up this Street to better and better positions. Praise Creationism!”
“You can bring my friend back from the dead?” I said, fixing him with my coldest stare. “You can repair Paul’s body and return his soul to the vale of the living?”
“Ah,” said Chuck. “Repair the body, yes. The soul…is a different matter. A bit out of my reach, you might say.”
“So what you’re proposing,” I said,” is to turn Paul into a zombie and have him lurch about shouting Brains! Brains! while he slowly but inevitably decays?”
“Well, not as such…Look, I’m new,” said Chuck, a little desperately. “We’ve all got to start somewhere!”
“You don’t even know who I am, do you?” I said. “I’m John Taylor.”
“Bit late to be invoking him, Chuck. You’re the god of Creationism…That means you don’t believe in evolution, right?”
“Your belief started out as Creationism, but has now become Intelligent Design, right?”
“So your argument has evolved, thus disproving your own argument.”
“Oh bugger,” said Chuck, as he disappeared in a puff of logic.
“Nice one,” said Sister Josephine. “I would have just shoved a holy hand-grenade up his arse and pulled the pin. Heretics! Worse than fleas on a dog. His church has disappeared, too, and I have to say I find the pile of rubble that has replaced it rather more aesthetically satisfying.”
“He’ll be back,” I said. “Or something like him. If enough people believe in a thing…”
“If a million people believe a stupid thing, it is still a stupid thing,” Sister Josephine said firmly. “I am getting really tired of having to explain that a parable is just a parable.”
We walked on, down the Street of the Gods. Past the Churches of Tesla and Crowley and Clapton, and an odd silvery structure that apparently represented a strange faith that originated in the small town of Roswell. Big-eyed Grey aliens lurked around the ever-open door, watching the people go by. They were the only church that didn’t bother trying to attract worshippers; they simply abducted them right off the Street. Luckily, they mostly stuck to picking on the tourists, so no-one else gave a damn. There’s never any shortage of tourists on the Street of the Gods.
In fact, a large crowd of them had gathered before an old-style Prophet in filthy rags and filthier skin, who harangued the crowd with practiced skill.
“Money is the source of all evil!” he yelled, his dark eyes fierce and demanding. “Wealth is a burden on the soul! So save yourself from its taint by giving it all to me! I am strong; I can bear the burden! Look, hand over all your wallets right now, or I’ll bludgeon you severely about the head and shoulders with this dead badger I just happen to have about my person for perfectly good reasons.”
The tourists hurried to hand over all their possessions to the Prophet, laughing and chattering. I looked at Sister Josephine.
“Local character,” she said. “He adds colour to the Street. The tourists love him. They line up to be mugged, then have their photographs taken with him.”
“This place is going to the gods,” I said.
It took us a while, but we came at last to the headquarters of the Salvation Army Sisterhood, a small modest church in the low-rent part of the Street. No neon, no advertising, just a simple building with strained-glass windows. The front door was guarded by a pair of very large nuns with no obvious weapons. They tensed as I approached, but Sister Josephine settled them with a few quiet words. They both looked sadly at Paul’s body in my arms as I followed Sister Josephine through into the church, and I heard them muttering prayers for the soul of the dead before the door closed firmly behind me. More nuns came forward, and I reluctantly handed Paul over into their care. They carried him away into the brightly lit interior of their church, quietly singing a hymn for the departed.
“They’ll look after him,” said Sister Josephine. “Paul was well liked among us, though he was never a believer. He can lie in our chapel of rest until his family decides what provisions they wish to make for his final interment.”
“Nice church you’ve got here,” I said. I needed something to distract me. Humour could only do so much. I don’t know why Paul’s death affected me so much. Perhaps because he was the only true innocent in the case. “I like what you’ve done with the place. Candles and fresh flowers and incense. I was expecting something with barbed wire and gun emplacements.”
“This is a church,” Sister Josephine said sternly. “Though it functions more as a convent, or retreat. We worship here, but our true place is out in the world, smiting the evil-doer. We believe in doing unto others, and we’re very good at it. We only come back here to rest and rededicate our faith. Our sustained belief maintains our presence on the Street of the Gods; but we make no effort to attract new worshippers. We’re just here for people who need us.”
“Yes. Like Melissa Griffin.”
“No. Paul never expressed any interest in our religion, or our cause. I don’t think he ever really believed in anything, except Melissa. But he was a happy soul, a bright and colourful bird of paradise in our grey and cloistered world. He was always welcome here, as Paul or Polly, and I like to think he found some peace within these walls. There weren’t many places he could go that would accept him as he was and not just as the Griffin’s grandson. We will clean and redress his body, and send him back to the Hall as Paul, with no trace of Polly on him. She was his secret. The world doesn’t need to know.”
“I’ll take him home, when he’s ready,” I said.
“The Griffin will ask questions.”
“And I’ll tell him what he needs to know, and no more.”
“You’re probably one of the few people who could get away with that,” said Sister Josephine. “But you know he’s going to insist on knowing who’s responsible for his grandson’s death.”
�s easy,” I said. “I’m responsible. Paul is dead because of me.”
Sister Josephine started to say something, then stopped and shook her head. “You’re very hard on yourself, John.”
“Someone has to be.”
“Not even the great John Taylor can protect everyone.”
“I know,” I said. “But knowing doesn’t help.”
She led me through the narrow corridors of her church. There were flowers everywhere, perfuming the air with their scent, mixed with sandalwood and beeswax and incense from the slow-burning candles. It was all so quiet and peaceful, the brightly lit rooms suffused with a real sense of calm and compassion, and grace. Out in the world the Sisters might be Warriors of the Lord, and steadfast in their violent cause, but here they were simply secure in their faith, however contradictory that might seem to outsiders. Sister Josephine took me into her study, a simple room with book-lined walls, a single stained-glass window, and two comfortable chairs on either side of a banked open fire. We sat down, facing each other, and I looked steadily at Sister Josephine.
“It’s time for the truth. Tell me about Melissa Griffin. Tell me everything.”
“It’s really very simple,” said Sister Josephine, settling back into her chair, her hands clasped loosely in her lap. “What kind of rebellion and defiance is there left to a teenager when your parents and grandparents have already done everything, broken every law and committed every sin, and gotten away with it? And even made a deal with the Devil himself? What was there left to Melissa to demonstrate her independence except to become devoutly religious, take holy orders, and go into seclusion in a convent? Melissa wanted to become a nun. It probably started out as an act of teenage defiance, but the more she studied religion, and Christianity in particular because of her grandfather, the more she realised she’d found her true calling. And since Jeremiah had sold his soul to the Devil, it’s hardly surprising that Melissa would end up choosing the most extreme, hard-core Christian church she could find. Us. The Salvation Army Sisterhood. She first made contact through Paul, because he’d do anything for her. He was the only one in the family who could come and go undisturbed, because his grandfather had already given up on him.”