"Have you thought about what you're going to do, little brother?"
"When we reach the gates of Hell."
"Not much, no."
"Maybe you should. I've listened to you talk about the place and, while _dmire your scholarship, I wonder if it's enough."
It was just after sundown and the sky along the horizon was the color of rus_nd bruises. Spyder was spinning the flails of the Hornet over his head, speeding and slowing the serrated metal as they walked. Count Non was besid_im. Lulu and Shrike walked ahead, led by Primo. Lulu said something that mad_hrike laugh.
"What's ever enough? In for a dime, in for a dollar," said Spyder.
"Does that attitude make you a hero or a fool, I wonder."
"They're the same thing. Fools get themselves cornered. Heroes are just th_ools who get out of it."
Count Non nodded. "Being a fool might just be your greatest strength. A foo_an do what a wise man won't," he said, and shifted his pack from on shoulde_o the other. "In the Tarot deck, the Fool is depicted as a young man about t_tep off a cliff into empty air. Most people assume that the Fool will fall.
But we don't see it happen, and a Fool doesn't know that he's subject to th_aws of gravity. Against all odds, he just might float."
"If fucking up is power, I should be the Hulk by now," said Spyder. He took _reath. "Goddamn. I'm going in. I told myself I wasn't. I've been sort o_urning it over in my mind this whole time."
"Thinking goes against the fool's strengths. Just do what you have to do."
"Truth is, I kind of always knew I was going, from the first time Cinder_ought it up. But I couldn't admit it," Spyder said, spinning the Hornet fro_ide to side. "There's an old Buddhist saying that whenever you ask _uestion, you already know the answer."
"I'm glad to hear you bring up the Buddha," Count Non said. "All that medieva_hristianity that informs your descriptions of Hell had me worried. We ca_earn a lot from the Buddha. In Hell, you'll be all right if you remember hi_ost basic advice: follow the Middle Way."
"All the books say that Hell's a naked roller derby on broken glass. It'_othing but extremes. Think there's a Middle Way down there?"
"If you're on fire, do you jump into the pool of water or the pool o_asoline? Even in the most extreme circumstances there's a choice."
"I wish I could see the place. Being blindfolded the whole time sounds lik_alls."
"That's the first choice you have to make. Is seeing Hell's dé or worth bein_rapped for eternity?"
"I'd have to give that a big No," said Spyder. "How about you? How do you fee_bout playing blind man's bluff?"
"It's all the same to me. This won't be the first prison I've visited. I'v_een locked away in dark places. After a while, the darkness becomes a comfor_nd light is the stranger."
"You've been there, haven't you? Hell, I mean. You're dancing around th_ubject, but I have this feeling."
"My people have done business there."
"What kind of business?"
"It varied. I'm not proud of much of it."
"Why didn't you say anything when I was wanking on about it? If you know th_lace better than me, why didn't you speak up?"
"You were doing a fine job. I didn't see any reason to interrupt."
"Is there something you can tell me that I should know? Anything that can hel_s?"
"That's not permitted," Count Non said.
"What does that mean?"
"Hell is a place of extremes, yes, but extremes are relative. What's extrem_or Spyder isn't extreme for me. Shrike's extreme isn't Primo's or Lulu's. Th_etails of Hell are different for everyone. Telling you about my dealing_ouldn't do you any good and might just confuse you. I wouldn't want to be th_ause of you getting hurt. Or worse."
"You're killing me with tender mercies. There's nothing you have that can hel_s?"
The Count sighed. "I've been talking about it this whole trip, trying t_repare you. You're as ready as you're going to be. Remember the Buddha'_dvice. And don't ever lose heart. Hell is designed to drain lost souls o_ope. Don't let that happen. We've already agreed that you're a fool and s_ar, despite a few bruises, you've been lucky. That's halfway to a hero. N_atter what happens, what you see or hear or experience, be the fool tha_ives. That's my best advice."
"I was hoping for a magic helmet or something."
"Don't be afraid, little brother. The stars are on our side. When the moo_oints to the hellmouth, the underworld's defenses are down and all the gate_re open. `In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shal_unish Leviathan; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.'"
"You can talk some shit, Count."
Count Non tossed a stone straight into the air. As it arced down, Spyde_ilted up the Hornet and ripped the stone to powder.
"There's airships over us," said Spyder.
"Angels, too," the Count said. "To the west."
"If your people did business with Hell, did they work for Heaven, too?"
"You aren't not on the flying monkeys side, are you?"
"You mean the Brotherhood and their angelic lapdogs? They can all kiss my rub_ed arse," said Count Non. "Would you prefer it if I was on the other side?"
"Both sides can blow me right about now," said Spyder. "I'm just jumpy is all.
That Bible talk of yours had me wondering."
"It's a family habit and hard to break."
"You aren't a preacher or something?"
"My father is."
"I knew it."
"When the urge hits, perhaps I should switch to Greek."