ONE HUNDRED FIFTEEN
The transitional phase from life to death was surprisingly noisy. To the extent that I’d been expecting anything, I wasn’t expecting that. It was pitch dark, but that seemed, you know, plausible. I’d always thought the tunnel and the shining white light seemed unduly optimistic. Some of the noise might have been voices shouting—shouting, I thought, savagely, furiously, wildly, frantically—but they were shouting in a language I didn’t think I recognised. I supposed—in a vague, leaving-it-all-behind way—that the devils in hell would speak (or shout) in their own language, which probably wasn’t on the average earthly school syllabus. I’d barely made it out of intermediate French with a passing grade; Devilish was probably beyond me.
As I waited to finish dying I listened to the voices. As a fantasy writer you find yourself having to cope with weird languages oftener than is comfortable for someone who found intermediate French a struggle. When I listened to a story in my head I began by writing anything that wasn’t English as collections of syllables, but eventually, if I couldn’t figure out a way to delete them (the preferred alternative), I needed to know what they meant. Occasionally in the commotion around me now there was a word or a phrase that seemed familiar, but the memories this familiarity teased and tugged at were not friendly. One phrase I heard several times sounded a lot like Grah, ablud alaladik do vorn zeblastr which Flowerhair had picked up on one of her mercenary gigs and which translated approximately as ‘Your entrails are mine, ratspawn, and thus you die’. Another one, Bierna flit sed guntoon moronocur eda for dash dash was ‘You go now to hell, but you will have to wait a long time before you welcome me there’.
I knew I wouldn’t be on the fast track to heaven, but hell seemed a little harsh for someone who had never murdered anyone (at least not until today, and only because they were trying to murder me first) or even lied to the IRS. (I may have been wrong, but I didn’t lie.) But those were definitely not angelic voices shouting, unless the whole post-life set up was even weirder than the half-dozen major religions I knew anything about predicted. Although a friend who’d grown up to take holy orders as a Benedictine monk said that his guess was that when Christians showed up at the pearly gates they’d have some surprises. That wasn’t reassuring in the circumstances. Vorn zeblastr. Maybe.
But if this was heaven, I didn’t want to go there. I hurt too much. Surely you got to leave pain behind on that unreliable dirtball, earth. In which case this was much likelier to be hell, and my tormenters had already been assigned. Ugh. Although if so, they weren’t being very creative: I merely felt like one gigantic bruise. Ugh. Or not so merely. In tormentors you want a low level of creativity really. Was there a third possibility? Sure, if I was into fantasy. Maybe I wasn’t dead yet after all. That would be stretching this story’s credibility pretty far however. Remember the black thing and, more to the (ahem) point, the black thing’s sword. Maybe that irresistible partnership had been called away to quell some other country/planet/dimension at the last minute—at my last minute. Maybe it had just been amusing itself with me while it waited, like a kid restlessly bouncing a basketball against the back of the bus shelter because the bus was late. If the bus comes soon enough the wall will still be standing.
Maybe I’d wake up in a minute, in our bed in the penthouse, with Gelasio snoring gently behind me.
Involuntarily I shivered, which was a mistake, because wherever else I was, that shiver shook me consciously back in my body again—the body that felt like one gigantic bruise. All the gazillion individual bruises that made up the single gigantic one came into murderously sharp distinct and discrete focus. And I was suddenly even more sharply aware of voices—human voices—shouting very nearby.
Something that might have been a foot inserted itself under my ribcage as I lay curled up on my side, something I was pretty sure was a knee pressed against my sore back as something that might have been a someone bent over me, and something I was sure was a hand—an ungentle hand—grabbed me under the arm and gave a heave. I squealed as I came up off the ground and nearly fell, but the someone’s other hand caught me under the other arm and jerked. Every muscle fiber in my entire body shrieked. I was too traumatised to make any sound at all—my mouth was still open from the squealing but no sound came out—but I came more or less upright, and still holding Silverheart. I looked at her in amazement. You don’t really expect a sword-holding arm to be covered to the wrist in a draggled cotton jersey nightgown with little pink roses on it. Let alone your arm and your nightgown. At least not if you’re an almost-forty-year-old genre fantasy writer, even if you’re having a really, really, really bad day. I swayed, digging my poor sword’s tip in the ground again to keep me vertical. The hands under my arms gave me another yank.
“Keep it together, tha useless mare,” said a rough hoarse voice. “Tha’re all we’ve azogging got.”
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