Monday 23 April 2012

Radiance 12 - There was a Prophet among them

    Mercury watched with interest as a single drop of creamy tehina made its slow progress down the side of Ostar’s pita, tracing its inexorable path towards his large, suntanned fingers. Ostar, of course, did not notice, and continued tucking into his falafel with enormous appetite, as if he hadn’t eaten in a week or more. Mercury knew for a fact that this was not the case, as she had so far today observed him eating a banana, 5 dates, 2 burgers, 31 thin-cut french fries, a medium portion of Israeli salad and a handful of peanuts (she hadn’t been able to count them). That it was still only noon was a source of amusement and wonder - even after all these years, she still underestimated his prodigious ability to eat.

    “You want some?” he offered, mumbling through a mouthful of vegetables and gesturing the half-eaten stuffed pita towards her.
    “No thanks, I just had breakfast.”
    “Breakfast? Breakfast was hours ago, my dear, must be lunch time by now.”
    “Perhaps,” Mercury said. “Certainly, it is lunch time somewhere.”
    Ostar laughed, somehow still managing to swallow at the same time.
    “What can I say? This surveillance business is hungry work.”
    “I’ve noticed - it certainly is getting rather dull.”
    “You’re right, my dear,” Ostar said, gesticulating with his falafel. “Li was here for months and never really found anything - what are we doing here now?”
    “Watching,” she replied, keeping her eye on the unremarkable shop front behind Ostar’s left shoulder.
    “And we’ve been watching for days.”
    “I know. Nevertheless it is our job. Perhaps we should play a game to pass the time?”
    “Oh yes? Any good ones in mind?”
    Playing games was one of the few social activities they could both agree on. For thirty years they had been married, and despite a few aborted efforts, none had been nearly as successful. Li still shuddered at the memory of Ostar taking her to a ball game back in the mid-eighties. Too many people, too much noise - how could a person think in such a seething mass of humanity? But then their art-house movie night had not exactly been a resounding success either - Ostar had fallen asleep ten minutes into the first reel. Perhaps it was for the best that they had had little time to just relax and hang out.
    “How about Categories?” Mercury suggested.
    “Sure, okay,” Ostar said, nodding, “as long as I can choose the category.”
    “You know it is my turn.”
    “But yours are always so tricky,” he complained.
    “Well,” Mercury said with a smile, “if you think you can’t handle it…”
    “I can handle it,” Ostar said, “bet I can get it right in ten guesses.”
    “You’re on - so ‘magic’ is in my category.”
    “Hmm, how about ‘witchcraft’?”
    “No, sorry. But ‘augury’ is.”
    “Huh,” said Ostar, thinking for a minute, absently brushing crumbs from his greying beard. “What about ‘tarot’?
    “Absolutely,” said Mercury, before making it difficult “and so is ‘legwork’.”
    “Really?” said Ostar, “Now I remember why I hate it when you choose the category - so damn difficult to guess.”
    Mercury chuckled - “No, it is simplicity itself.”
    “Everything with you is simplicity,” he said, “but things aren’t that simple. What about ‘firework’?”
    “Sorry no,” she said, shaking her head. “But the world is fundamentally simple - everything fits into categories, divisions and subdivisions. By the way, ‘division’ is in the category.”
    “But Mercury, come on! You know there are exceptions, shades of grey, spaces beyond the rules. How about ‘shade’?
    “No,” began Mercury, “well, yes, ‘shade’ is in my category, but you are incorrect about the world. Shades of grey just means we haven’t found the proper ways to separate out the different strands. With the right vocabulary, the right tools, everything can be divided. And ‘vision’ is in the category.”
    “Bah!” he replied, gesturing with his thumb towards the remains of his meal. “Look at this, eh? What is it? Is it food? Well, yes but who would eat it. Is it waste? Yes but still edible. While it’s here it’s still mine but if I stand up it belongs to no one, no one but the birds and the rats. So what is it? Whose is it?”
    “A lack of facts does not prove that the facts are unobtainable. And it’s your turn.”
    “I’m thinking,” he said, taking a long, deep swallow of coke.
    Mercury watched him, faintly smiling, enjoying the view of his strong neck and throat. She’d have to make it more obvious soon. Ostar hated feeling stupid - it was worth the hint to see the look of delight he would have when he got it.”
    “Mercury,” Ostar said.
    “Yes! That’s in the category.”
    “No, Mercury, I think something’s happening. Some people gathering outside the shop.”
    “Ah, the true game is finally afoot.”
    Without seeming too eager, she turned her attention to the shop. In front of faded advertisements stapled to crumbling chipboard were two men, dressed in long black coats and black hats.
    “Just chareidim,” whispered Ostar, “not so surprising for a sofer - they’re probably just coming to get their tefillin checked.”
    “No, something is not right,” said Mercury, “their coats match the Sanz-Klausenburgers, which makes sense - there are lots around this area - but their shoes seem to be more Gerrer chassid. And all chassids button the right side of their coats over the left, but these are the wrong way around.”
    “So we move, right? We take them down and find out what they’re doing here.” Already, Ostar’s golden armour was beginning to materialise around him, forming etched greaves around his legs, up through the rest of his body.
    “We wait. Those our are orders - we observe, we report and that is all.”
    “Really? Your going to give me this crap now?”    Mercury was all ready for another argument - in truth, she rather enjoyed arguing with Ostar - but this time she never had the chance.
    At that exact moment, a drop of moisture on the napkin dispenser began to drift towards the ceiling, becoming a clear blue - like the sky itself for clarity. The droplet span and swelled, coalescing and expanding, rapidly taking shape into the familiar hooded figure of Rahko.
    The worker behind the bar dropped the falafel he was working on, staggering backwards into the kitchen. Mercury heard him shouting as he ran out the back door.
    “Ostar, is this scene really necessary?”
    “Where is Li? Why isn’t she here?”
    “We don’t know,” said Ostar, “kind of thought she was with Virgo, or back at the palace.”
    “Is there a problem?” asked Mercury.
    “Everything’s gone to hell. Li is nowhere to be seen, I can’t get in touch with Virgo or Asher - something is keeping me from them - and I just received word from beyond the curtain - we must move now, before it’s too late. Somehow, the fate of the world is in the balance.”
    “Thank God,” Ostar said, immediately appearing in his full suit of golden armour. “Time to bust some heads.”
    Mercury nodded, her silver blade shimmering into existence in her outstretched hand.
    “Are you joining us, Master Chessed?” she asked Rahko.
    “No, I need to find Virgo and Li. They too must be warned - I pray that I’m not too late.” And with that, Rahko collapsed into a splash of clear water and was gone.
    “Alright,” Mercury said, “we move.”
    Instantly, their motions became harmonious as they slipped into familiar movements. The golden shield at the front, the silver sword weaving behind. Without looking for any passersby, Ostar rammed the door with his shield, sending it flying from its hinges. Immediately, Mercury threaded her way behind him, weaving into the doorway, scanning for any signs of trouble.
    They entered a hallway, bare and pale, paint cracking and crumbling from the walls, a single, bare lightbulb swinging above their heads.
    “Clear,” whispered Mercury.
    Moving as one, they headed towards a dark, iron staircase, spiralling away into black at the end of the hall. Even extending all her senses, Mercury was getting nothing from the bottom - no sound but the soft pad of Ostar’s feet, the faint chink of his armour as he walked. The spiral staircase was unfortunate - nowhere to maneuver, hard to fight side-by-side. The faster they reached the bottom the better.
    Ostar went first, eying the darkness warily. Mercury followed. She couldn’t help noticing that the direction of the spiral greatly favoured any attackers below them, giving them plenty of room to swing a sword while greatly hindering her own actions. But there was no way around it now - with Li missing, Virgo unreachable, and the word from behind the curtain, everything had become suddenly a lot more urgent. After months of waiting, it was frustrating to be so ill-prepared.
    Ostar had reached the bottom now - scattered reflections from the armour of Netzach giving off the only light in the room. Flecks of gold danced over scrolls and parchment, revealing scattered ink bottles and bookshelves.
    And then the lights came on, sudden and blinding.
    Mercury blinked rapidly.
    Two ‘chassidim’ stared at her, dressed identically in black coats and hats, long grey beards. But more than that - they had the same glasses, the same nose, the same deep, piercing, black eyes that were slightly too big for the face. And when they spoke, it was with a single voice.
    “Ostar and Mercury, the weakest of the seven. A paltry prize after so long waiting.
    “Ashmedai,” hissed Mercury, “what do you want?”
    “Me?” the King of Demons responded, a mocking tone underscoring his words, “Nothing for me - yet Samael can be very persuasive, and he wants the two of you quite badly.
    “What for?” said Ostar, readying his shield, shifting his feet for the coming combat.
    The two ‘chassidim’ began to merge together, linking foot to foot and leg to leg. Black coats became folded wings, hands became long spikes and talons.
    Mercury automatically moved in concert with Ostar, shifting her grip to prepare to strike. In all honesty, she did not know if they could defeat him, even working together. But they could hold him off, until they could flee to the Palace of Understanding - they had to send word to Virgo about the Sitra Achra.
    “What for? Why, for the end of the world.
    The lights went out, darkness engulfed them.

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