Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

Chapter 14


Chapter 14
Meanwhile, back at the hotel room, Raziel has given up his hopes to be a professional wrestler and has resumed his ambition to be Spider-Man. He made the decision after I pointed out that in Genesis, Jacob wrestles an angel and wins. In short, a human defeated an angel. Raziel kept insisting that he didn't remember that happening and I was tempted to bring the Gideon Bible in out of the bathroom and show him the reference, but I've just started reading the Gospel of Mark and I'd lose the book if the angel found out about it.
I thought Matthew was bad, skipping right from Joshua's birth to his baptism, but Mark doesn't even bother with the birth. It's as if Joshua springs forth full grown from the head of Zeus. (Okay, bad metaphor, but you know what I mean.) Mark begins with the baptism, at thirty! Where did these guys get these stories? "I once met a guy in a bar who knew a guy who's sister's best friend was at the baptism of Joshua bar Joseph of Nazareth, and here's the story as best as he could remember it."
Well, at least Mark mentions me, once. And then it's totally out of context, as if I was just sitting around doing nothing and Joshua happened by and asked me to tag along. And Mark tells of the demon named Legion. Yeah, I remember Legion. Compared to what Balthasar called up, Legion was a wuss.
I asked Balthasar if he was smitten with me," Joshua said over supper.
"Oh no," said Joy. We were eating in the girls' quarters. It smelled really good and the girls would rub our shoulders while we ate. Just what we needed after a tough day of studying.
"You weren't supposed to let him know we were on to him. What did he say?"
"He said that he'd just come off of a hard breakup and he wasn't ready for a relationship because he just needed to spend a little time getting to know himself, but that he'd love it if we could just be friends."
"He lies," said Joy. "He hasn't had a breakup in a hundred years."
I said, "Josh, you are so gullible. Guys always lie about stuff like that. That's the problem with your not being allowed to know women, it means you don't understand the most fundamental nature of men."
"Which is?"
"We're lying pigs. We'll say anything to get what we want."
"That's true," said Joy. The other girls nodded in agreement.
"But," said Josh, "the superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue, according to Confucius."
"Of course," said I, "but the superior man can get laid without lying. I'm talking about the rest of us."
"So should I be worried about this trip he wants me to take with him?"
Joy nodded gravely and the other girls nodded with her.
"I don't see why," I said. "What trip?"
"He says we'll only be gone a couple of weeks. He wants to go to a temple at a city in the mountains. He believes that the temple was built by Solomon, it's called the Temple of the Seal."
"And why do you have to go along?"
"He wants to show me something."
"Uh-oh," I said.
"Uh-oh," echoed the girls, not unlike a Greek chorus, except of course they were speaking Chinese.
In the week leading up to Joshua and Balthasar's departure, I managed to talk Pea Pods into taking on a huge risk during her shift in Balthasar's bed. I picked Pea Pods not because she was the most athletic and nimble of the girls, which she was; nor because she was the lightest of foot and most stealthy, which she was also; but because she was the one who had taught me to make bronze castings of the Chinese characters that were the mark of my name (my chop), and she could be trusted to get the most accurate impression of the key that Balthasar wore on the chain around his neck. (Oh yes, there was a key to the ironclad door. Joy had let it slip where Balthasar kept it, but I was sure that she was too loyal to him to steal it. Pea Pods, on the other hand, was more fickle in her loyalties, and lately I had been spending a lot of time with her on and off.)
"By the time you return, I'll know what's going on here," I whispered to Joshua as he climbed onto his camel. "Find out what you can from Balthasar."
"I will. But be careful. Don't do anything while I'm gone. I think this trip, whatever it is that we are going to see, has something to do with the house of doom."
"I'm just going to look around. You be careful."
The girls and I stood at the top of the plateau and waved until Joshua and the magus, leading the extra camel loaded with supplies, rode out of sight, then, one by one, we made our way down the rope ladder to the passageway in the cliff's face. The entrance to the passageway, and the tunnel for perhaps thirty cubits, were just wide enough for one man to pass through if he stooped, and I always managed to bruise an elbow or a shoulder along the way, which allowed me to show off my ability to curse in four languages.
By the time I got to the chamber of the elements, where we practiced the art of the Nine Elixirs, Pea Pods had the small furnace stoked to a red heat and was adding ingots of brass to a small stone crucible. From the wax impression we had made a wax duplicate of the key, from that we'd made a plaster mold, which we'd fired to melt out the wax. Now we'd have one chance to cast the key, because once the metal cooled in the plaster mold, the only way to release it was to break off the plaster.
When we broke off the mold Pea Pods held the end of what looked like a brass dragon on a stick.
"That's some key," I said. The only locks I'd ever seen were big bulky iron boys, nothing elegant enough for a key like this.
"When are you going to use it?" asked Pea Pods. Her eyes went wide like those of an excited child. Times like that I almost fell in love with her, but fortunately I was always distracted by Joy's sophistication, Pillow's maternal fussing, Number Six's dexterity, or any one of the other charms that were heaped upon me daily. I understood completely Balthasar's strategy to keep from falling in love with any one of them. Joshua's situation, on the other hand, was harder to figure, because he enjoyed spending time with the girls, trading stories from the Torah for legends of the storm dragons and the monkey king. He said that there was an innate kindness born in women that he'd never seen in a man, and he liked being around them. His strength in resisting their physical charms astounded me perhaps even more than the other miraculous things I'd seen him do over the years. I couldn't relate to the act of raising someone from the dead, but turning down a beautiful woman, that took courage beyond my understanding.
"I'll take it from here," I said to Pea Pods. I didn't want her to be involved any further in case things didn't turn out well.
"When?" asked Pea Pods, meaning when would I attempt to open the door.
"Tonight, when you have all gone to live in the world of pleasant dreams." I tweaked her nose affectionately and she giggled. It was the last time I ever saw her in one piece.
At night the halls of the fortress were lit by the ambient light from the moon and the stars that filtered in from the windows. Everywhere we went we carried a clay oil lamp which made the serpentine curves of the passageways seem even more like the inside of a huge creature as they swallowed up the dim orange light. After several years with Balthasar, I could find my way through the main living quarters of the fortress without any light at all, so I carried an unlit lamp with me until I had passed the girls' quarters, stopping at the beaded doorway to listen for their gentle snores.
Once I was well away from the girls' door, I lit my lamp using one of the fire sticks that I'd invented using some of the same chemicals we used to make the explosive black powder. The fire stick made a soft pop as I struck it on the stone wall and I could swear I heard it echo from the hall up ahead. As I made my way to the ironclad door I could smell burning brimstone and I thought it strange that the smell of the fire stick had stayed with me. Then I saw Joy standing by the door holding an oil lamp and the charred remains of the fire stick she'd used to light it.
"Let me see the key," she said.
"What key?"
"Don't be foolish. I saw what was left of the mold in the room of the elements."
I took the key from where I'd tucked it in my belt and handed it to Joy. She examined it by lamplight, turning it this way and that. "Pea Pods cast this," she said matter-of-factly. "Did she take the impression as well?"
I nodded. Joy didn't seem angry, and Pea Pods was the only one of the girls skilled enough in metallurgy to have done the casting, so why deny it?
"Getting the impression must have been the hard part," Joy said. "Balthasar is fierce about guarding this key. I'll have to ask her what she did to distract him. Could be a good thing to know, huh? For both of us." She smiled seductively, then turned toward the door and pushed aside the brass plate that covered the keyhole. In that second I felt as if a frozen dagger had been dragged over my spine.
"No!" I grabbed her hand. "Don't." I was overcome with a feeling of revulsion that wrenched my insides. "We can't."
Joy smiled again and pushed my hand away. "I have seen many wondrous things since I came here, but there has never been anything that was harmful. You planned this, you must want to know what is in here as much as I do."
I wanted to stop her, I even tried to take the key away from her, but she grabbed my arm and pushed into a pressure point that made my whole left side go numb. She raised an eyebrow as if to ask, "Do you really want to try that, knowing what I can do to you?" And I stepped back.
She put the dragon key into the lock and turned it three times. There was a clicking of machinery finer than anything I had ever heard, then she withdrew the key and shot the three heavy iron bolts. As she pulled the door open there was a rush of air, as if something had moved by us very quickly, and my lamp went out.
Joshua told me what had happened later and I put the timing together myself. As Joy and I were opening the room they called the house of doom, Joshua and Balthasar were camped in the arid mountains of what is now Afghanistan. The night was crisp and the stars shone with a cold blue light like loneliness or infinity. They had eaten some bread and cheese, then settled in close to the fire to share the last of a flask of fortified wine, Balthasar's second that evening.
"Have I told you of the prophecy that sent me in search of you when you were born, Joshua?"
"You spoke of the star. My mother told me of the star."
"Yes, the three of us followed that star, and by chance we met up in the mountains east of Kabul and finished the journey together, but the star wasn't the reason we went, it was only our means of navigation. We made the journey because each of us was looking for something at the end."
"Me?" Joshua said.
"Yes, but not just you, but what it is said was brought with you. In the temple where we travel now, there lies a set of clay tablets - very old - the priests say that they date back to the time of Solomon, and they foretell the coming of a child who will have power over evil and victory over death. They say he will carry the key to immortality."
"Me? Immortality? Nope."
"I think you do, you just don't know it yet."
"Nope, I'm sure," said Joshua. "It's true that I have brought people back from the dead, but never for very long. I've gotten better at healing over the years, but my back-from-the-dead stuff still needs work. I need to learn more."
"Which is why I have taught you, and why I am taking you to the temple now, so you may read the tablets yourself, but you must have the power of immortality within you."
"No, really, I haven't a clue."
"I am two hundred and sixty years old, Joshua."
"I've heard that, but I still can't help you. You look good though, I mean for two hundred and sixty."
At this point Balthasar started to sound desperate. "Joshua, I know that you have power over evil. Biff has told me of you banishing demons in Antioch."
"Little ones," Joshua said modestly.
"You must have power over death as well or it does me no good."
"What I am able to do comes through my father, I didn't bargain for it."
"Joshua, I am preserved by a pact with a demon. If you do not have the powers foretold in the prophecy I will never be free, I will never have peace, I will never have love. Every minute of my life I must have my will focused on controlling the demon. Should my will fail, the destruction would be unlike anything the world has ever seen."
"I know how it is. I'm not allowed to know a woman," Joshua said. "Although it was an angel that told me, not a demon. But still, you know, it's hard sometimes. I really like your concubines. The other night Pillows was giving me a back rub after a long day of studying, and I started getting this massive - "
"By the Golden Tenderloin of the Calf!" Balthasar exclaimed, leaping to his feet, his eyes wide with terror. The old man began loading his camel, thrashing around in the darkness like a madman. Joshua was following him, trying to calm him down, fearing he might have a fit any second.
"What? What?"
"It is out!" the magus said. "Help me pack up. We must go back. The demon is out."
I stood cringing in the dark, waiting for disaster to fall, for mayhem to reign, for pain and pestilence and no good to manifest, then Joy struck a fire stick and lit our lamps. We were alone. The iron door hung open into a very small room, it too lined with iron. The entire room was just big enough to contain a small bed and a chair. Every span of the black iron walls was inlaid with golden symbols: pentagrams and hex symbols and a dozen others I had never seen before. Joy held her lamp close to the wall.
"These are symbols of containment," Joy said.
"I used to hear voices coming from in here."
"There was nothing in here when I opened the door. I could see in the second before the lamp blew out."
"Then what blew it out?"
"The wind?"
"I don't think so. I felt something brush me as it passed."
Just then someone in the girls' quarters screamed, then a chorus of screams joined in, primal screams of absolute terror and pain. Instantly Joy's eyes filled with tears. "What have I done?"
I took her sleeve and dragged her down the passage toward the girls' quarters, snatching up two heavy lances that were supporting a tapestry as we passed and handing one to her. As we rounded the curves I could see an orange light ahead and soon I could see that it was fire blazing on the stone walls from broken oil lamps. The screaming was reaching a higher pitch, but every few seconds a voice was removed from the chorus, until there was only one. As we approached the beaded doorway into the concubines' chamber the screaming stopped and a severed human head rolled in front of us. The creature stepped through the curtain, oblivious to the flames that licked the walls around it, its massive body filling the passageway, the reptilian skin on its shoulders and its tall pointed ears grating against the walls and ceiling. In its talonlike hand it held the bloody torso of one of the girls.
"Hey, kid," it said, its voice like a sword point dragged across stone, a yellow light coming from behind its dinner-plate-sized cat's eyes, "it took you long enough."
As they rode back to the fortress, Balthasar explained to Joshua about the demon: "His name is Catch, and he is a demon of the twenty-seventh order, a destroyer angel before the fall. As far as I could tell, he was first called up to assist Solomon in building the great temple, but something got out of hand and with the help of a djinn, Solomon was able to send the demon back to hell. I found the seal of Solomon and the incantation for raising the demon almost two hundred years ago in the Temple of the Seal."
"Oh," Joshua said, "so that's why they call it that. I thought it had something to do with one of the barky sea animals."
"I had to become an acolyte and study with the priests there for years before I was allowed access to the seal, but what is a few years against immortality. I was given immortality, but only so long as the demon walks the earth. And as long as he is on earth he must be fed, Joshua. That's the curse that goes with being this destroyer's master. He must be fed."
"I don't understand, he feeds on your will?"
"No, he feeds on human beings. It is only my will that keeps him in check, or it was until I was able to build the iron room and put golden symbols on the wall that would hold the demon. I've been able to keep him in the fortress I made him build for twenty years now, and it has been some respite. Until then he was with me every minute, everywhere I went."
"Didn't that attract enemies to you?"
"No. Unless he is in his eating form, I am the only one who can see Catch. In his noneating form he's small, the size of a child, and he can do little harm (except for being incredibly irritating). When he feeds, however, he's fully ten cubits tall, and he can tear a man in half with the swipe of his claw. No, enemies are not a problem, Joshua. Why do you think there are no guards at the fortress? In those years before the girls came to live there, some bandits attacked. What happened to them is legend now in Kabul, and no one has tried since. The problem is that if my will were to fail, he would be set loose again on the world as he was in the time of Solomon. I don't know what could stop him."
"And you can't send him back to hell?" Joshua asked.
"I can with the seal and the right incantation, which is why I was going to the Temple of the Seal. Which is why you are here. If you are the Messiah predicted in Isaiah, and on the clay tablets in the temple, then you are the direct descendant of David, and therefore Solomon. I believe that you can send the demon back and keep me from suffering the fate of his return."
"Why, what happens to you if he is sent back to hell?"
"I will assume the aspect of my true age. Which I would guess, by this time, would be dust. But you have the gift of immortality. You can stop that from happening."
"So this demon from hell is loose, and we are returning to the fortress without the Seal of Solomon or this incantation to do exactly what?"
"I hope to bring him back under control of my will. The room has always held him before. I didn't know, I truly didn't know..."
"Know what?"
"That my will had been broken by my feelings for you."
"You love me?"
"How was I to know?" The magus sighed.
And Joshua laughed here, despite the dire circumstances. "Of course you do, but it is not me, it's what I represent. I am not sure yet what I am to do, but I know that I am here in the name of my father. You love life so much that you would brave hell to hold on to it, it's only natural that you would love the one who gave you that life."
"Then you can banish the demon and preserve my life?"
"Of course not, I'm just saying that I understand how you feel."
I don't know where she found the strength, but the diminutive Joy came from behind me and hurled the heavy lance with as much power as any soldier. (I felt my own knees starting to buckle in the face of the demon.) The bronze tip of the lance seemed to find its way between two of the monster's armored chest scales and drove itself a span deep under the weight of the heavy shaft. The demon gasped, and roared, opening his massive maw to show rows of saw-edged teeth. He grabbed the shaft of the lance and attempted to pull it out, his huge biceps quivering with the strain. He looked sadly down at the spear, then at Joy, and said, "Oh, foul woe upon you, you have kilt me most dead," then he fell back and the floor shook with the impact of his huge body.
"What'd he say, what'd he say?" Joy asked, digging her nails into my shoulder. The demon had spoken in Hebrew.
"He said that you killed him."
"Well, duh," said the concubine. (Strangely enough, "duh" sounds exactly the same in all languages.)
I had started to inch forward to see if anyone was still alive in the girls' quarters when the demon sat up. "Just kidding," he said. "I'm not kilt." And he plucked the spear from his chest with less effort than it might take to brush away a fly.
I threw my own lance, but didn't wait to see where it hit. I grabbed Joy and ran.
"Where?" she said.
"Far," I said.
"No," she said, grabbing my tunic and jerking me around a corner, causing me to nearly coldcock myself on the wall. "To the cliff passage." We were in total darkness now, neither one of us having thought to grab a lamp, and I was trusting my life to Joy's memory of these stone halls.
As we ran we could hear the demon's scales scraping the walls and the occasional curse in Hebrew as he found a low ceiling. Perhaps he could see in the dark somewhat, but not a lot better than we could.
"Duck," Joy said, pushing my head down as we entered the narrow passage that led to the cliff above. I crouched in this passage the way the monster had to crouch to move in the normal-sized halls and I suddenly realized the brilliance of Joy's choice in taking this route. We were just seeing the moonlight breaking in through the opening in the cliff's face when I heard the monster hit the bottleneck of the passage.
"Fuck! Ouch! You weasels! I'm going to crunch your little heads between my teeth like candied dates."
"What'd he say?" asked Joy.
"He says that you are a sweet of uncommon delicacy."
"He did not say that."
"Believe me, my translation is as close as you want to the truth."
I heard a horrible scraping noise from inside the passage as we climbed out on the ledge and up the rope ladder to the top of the plateau. Joy helped me up, then pulled the ladder up behind us. We ran to the stable where the camel saddles and other supplies were normally kept. There were only the three camels that Joshua and Balthasar had taken, and no horses, so I couldn't figure out why we were taking the time to stop until I saw Joy filling two water skins at the cistern behind the stable.
"We'll never make it to Kabul without water," Joy said.
"And what happens when we make it to Kabul? Can anyone there help? What in the hell is that thing?"
"If I knew, would I have opened that door?" She was remarkably calm for someone who had just lost her friends to a hideous beast.
"I guess not. But I didn't see it come out of there. I felt something, but nothing that size."
"Act, Biff, don't think. Act."
She handed me a water skin and I held it in the cistern, trying to listen for the sound of the monster over the bubbles as it filled. All I could hear was the occasional bleating of the goats and the sound of my own pulse in my ears. Joy corked her water skin, then went about opening the pig and goat pens, shooing the animals out onto the plateau.
"Let's go!" she shouted to me. She took off down the path toward the hidden road. I pulled the water skin from the cistern and followed as quickly as I could. There was enough moonlight to make traveling fairly easy, but since I hadn't even seen the road in daylight, I didn't want to try to negotiate its deadly cutbacks at night without a guide. We had almost made the first leg of the road when we heard a hideous wailing and something heavy landed in the dust in front of us. When I could get my breath again I stepped up to find the bloodied carcass of a goat.
"There," Joy said, pointing down the mountainside to something moving among the rocks. Then it looked up at us and there was no mistaking the glowing yellow eyes.
"Back," Joy said, pulling me back from the road.
"Is that the only way down?"
"That or diving off the edge. It's a fortress, remember - it's not supposed to be easy to get in and out of."
We made our way back to the rope ladder, tossed it over the side, and started down. As Joy made it to the ledge and ducked into the cave something heavy hit me on the right shoulder. My arm went numb with the impact and I let go of the ladder. Mercifully, my feet had tangled in the rungs as I fell, and I found myself hanging upside down looking into the cave entrance where Joy stood. I could hear the terrified goat that had hit me screaming as it fell into the abyss, then there was a distant thump and the screaming stopped.
"Hey, kid, you're a Jew, aren't you?" said the monster from above.
"None of your business," I said. Joy grabbed the ladder and pulled me inside the cave, ladder and all, just as another goat came screaming past. I fell on my face in the dust and sputtered, trying to breathe and spit at the same time.
"It's been a long time since I've eaten a Jew. A good Jew sticks to your ribs. That's the problem with Chinese, you eat six or seven of them and in a half hour you're hungry again. No offense, miss."
"What'd he say?" Joy asked.
"He says he likes kosher food. Will that ladder hold him?"
"I made it myself."
"Swell," I said. We heard the ropes creak with the strain as the monster climbed onto the ladder.