She had found herself praying harder than usual, focussing on each word closely, as waves of meanings washed over her, cleansing her troubled mind. Nothing was proceeding according to plan - Li was supposed to have been in Netanya watching the store but somehow she had disappeared right when they had been busy fighting the dybbuk. Ostar and Mercury could look after themselves but if they had been up against some of the more powerful forces that the Sitra Achra could muster Virgo was right to be concerned. And now they had vanished. Virgo had been listening to the cantor, allowing the letters to rearrange themselves in her head but got very little - they were still alive, she was sure of that, but where they were or who held them she could not make out. Perhaps her mind was still too troubled; or perhaps they were being hidden from her. Either way, once shabbat was out she was going to call Rahko, Li and Asher to the Palace of Understanding and come up with a new plan of attack. Together they could surely free Ostar and Mercury.
But then she noticed that Asher was missing. She had no idea when he had left but it could have been up to twenty five minutes when she had last cast her eyes in his direction. She waited another fifteen minutes while the Torah service finished before she was sure that Asher wasn’t coming back. Virgo needed a new plan.
This was incredibly frustrating - Asher was so wilful, so impetuous, always acting before thinking. If he didn’t seem to have such a grip on the power of Malchut Virgo could almost have sworn that he was the wrong guy for the job altogether. It had taken years of trying before they had even met properly, and by then it had almost been too late - already years of bad habits and neglect of the tradition had begun to corrupt his soul. And now he had run off in the middle of the shabbat morning service - it was unacceptable, it was inexplicable, it was… so like his father.
Okay, this wasn’t helping. Where would he have gone? To their rooms, perhaps, though it depended on why he had left - but knowing Asher it could have been anything - even just to get a drink. Still, she had to be sure he was okay. The demons wouldn’t touch him on shabbat of course but he still wasn’t fully recovered and shouldn’t overexert himself.
Virgo quickly prayed the additional service for the sabbath, gathered her siddur and left the synagogue. That was when she knew something was really wrong.
She hadn’t taken five steps from the door when a shadowy figure tripped over her in its haste to run down the street. Virgo pinned it to the ground with the Staff of Moses, while it mewled and scrambled to get away.
“Why are you running, demon?” Virgo asked. “Don’t you know that it’s shabbat?”
“Try telling him that,” hissed the creature, warping and twisting beneath the wood.
Asher - what trouble has he got himself into now?
“Where is he?”
“The Lower Temple,” the demon said, “now let me go.”
Virgo removed the staff, letting the spirit scurry away. She saw other demons now, all running south on Fifth Avenue. Sighing heavily, Virgo walked quickly in the opposite direction, heading for Central Park and the Lower Synagogue. This shabbat was not turning out to be quite as restful as she had hoped.
When Virgo arrived in the park, she found it relatively quiet. Certainly there were hundreds of people enjoying the sunshine but far fewer spirits than she had seen just a few minutes earlier. Perhaps whatever was happening was calming down. Still, one did not venture into the Lower Temple without taking precautions and Virgo was alway most careful.
“You will not fear the terror of night…” she began to recite in an undertone, weaving the words into a protective shell about her.
Of course, Virgo had visited the Lower Temple before, though many years ago and never on Shabbat - the demons could be quite aggressive if they were disturbed while praying so Virgo had thought it better to err towards caution. But now thanks to Asher she was about to burst into the demon’s inner sanctum on the holiest day.
Gripping the Staff of Moses tightly, Virgo stepped up to the side of a hill and tapped it firmly three times.
Immediately, a sensation of falling gripped her senses, though Virgo knew she wasn’t really going down in any literal or geographical sense - the Lower Temple was below the centre of everything, lurking beneath surface reality just out of reach. Yet sometimes a person shivers for no reason, or feels a chill run down their spine - and they feel that the Lower Temple is near.
And then she was standing on a wide marble floor with walls of stone tapering to infinity above her head. The rock seemed both damp and hot, flicking bursts of steam into the humid air. Around the vast cavern were wooden pews, precisely arranged to face east and the ark - at least they were normally like that. Right now many of them had been smashed as if in a giant barroom brawl. And there was Asher amongst the chaos, standing over a group of spirits.
Virgo strode towards him, her staff beating time against the black marble.
“Where are they?” Asher was asking.
“Asher, we have to go.”
Asher ignored her. Gathering his energies, he pushed at one of the demons, sending it flying across the Lower Temple. “One of you will tell me where the Sitra Achra is keeping my friends, or I’ll rip you all apart.”
“Asher, stop this and come with me.”
“Leave me alone,” he said, “I’m not working for you any more.”
“Oh yes, I see that. How’s it working out for you?”
“It’s going great,” Asher replied, not taking his eyes from the demons. “One of these spirits was about to tell me where to find Ostar and Mercury.”
A creature of shadow and black muscle spat at Asher’s feet. “You will get nothing from us, Malchut.”
Asher smiled, grabbed him by the arm and threw him across the cave. He landed on the bimah at the front of the room and lay still.
“We’re leaving,” Virgo grabbed Asher and tried to drag him out of the room.
“No we’re staying,” Asher said, not moving, “we’re not going anywhere until I find out what I need to know.”
“Asher, it’s shabbes, you’ve broken one of the fundamental rules. Now we need to leave before the demons return to their Temple in force.”
“Too late,” whispered a familiar voice of sand and glass from the dark recesses of the room. “I see the Unborn Prince has decided to join us for shabbat. How nice.”
“Not so unborn now,” said Asher, turning to face the King of the Demons. Ashmedai emerged from the darkness, swathed in huge black wings that swept behind him and trailed into the shadows. When his face became visible, Virgo found herself looking into a twisted mirror, a stretched version of her own features.
“I’ve learnt a trick or two since we last met,” Asher said, placing himself in a combat stance, arms braced before him, energy channelling to the palms of his hands. This was going to ruin Virgo's entire plan - how could they leave now?
“So brave, yet still unborn. You come into my temple, threaten my subjects, desecrate the holy sabbath, and think you can defy me? You are nothing, less than nothing.”
“Let’s go Asher,” Virgo tried one last time, seeing the shadows begin to grow around them, sprouting eyes and claws.
“Where are they?” Asher demanded.
“And why should I tell you?”
“Because it’s shabbat and you can’t hurt me.”
“True,” the King of the Demons replied, “but shabbat is over in seven hours. So, unborn prince, why should we let you leave?” The demons began to show themselves now, all around them, teeming from every crack and corner. Claws and wings - legs and vicious eyes - hungry, open mouths, slavering and dripping. They were surrounded and the circle was growing tighter by the second.
“Virgo?” Asher said.
“Oh, so now you’re ready to listen?” Virgo said, putting her back to Asher’s, readying her staff in case it was needed.
“I will rip out your mind, tear it up until you don’t know who or even what you are; flay the skin from your flesh and drink your wine like blood. Do you hear me? I will crush you as I did your friends - then you will cry for mercy and receive none.”
This was probably going to take some work. Virgo grasped Asher by the hand and began to chant the first psalm of ascent. “In my trouble I cried to the Lord and he answered me.”
“What are you doing, Tiferet? This boy has broken the sabbath, rejected you and your god. Why are you helping him?”
Virgo ignored him and continued to chant. When she finished the first psalm she began the second, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?”
But it wasn’t working. The tides of darkness were deepening around them, the hot stone walls solid and immovable. There was no way out.
And just then Asher grabbed her other hand, the one that held the Staff of Yesod, and joined her chanting. He did not say the words - Virgo suspected he did not know them - yet he began a humming counterpoint, weaving above and below the words but rising ever higher, elevating the chanting to new levels. Virgo began to feel them rising.
“Do not let them escape!” shouted Ashmedai, his voice raised like steel on china.
The shadows pressed all around them but Virgo was not deterred. As she reached the end of the third psalm, Virgo felt the two of them begin to lift as the cavern shifted around them.
She heard a final angry cry from Ashmedai before the Lower Temple was replaced by the white crystal of the Palace of Understanding.
Now Virgo just had to put Asher in his place.