mercredi 15 novembre 2017

PLAYING GOD: The creation of a Fantasy world.


Ah, writing a new world: drawing strange landscapes, giving life to fantastic creatures, constructing societies… Sounds fun, right? Liberating? Heady even? It is, but it comes with a price. Lack of constraints can easily trip the unwary fabulist and the derived enjoyment has given speculative fiction a bad reputation: it’s escapism, fluff, too much fun to be of any real consequence…
Well pffft! Let me tell you the dark little secret: even the most grounded and realist writer of fiction (and a lot of so-called non-fiction) creates a world that is, be it ever so slightly, different from reality. ALL fiction is fictional, it’s only a question of degrees.
What’s more, inventing other worlds is a fundamental aspect of human intelligence. Margaret Atwood posits that the ability is within us from infancy, that the limited confines of the crib make us imagine an elsewhere, that then our first encounter with death forces us to confront the idea of an after-world. Then we grow up, we forget… but we keep doing it unconsciously, for framing reality with our values often distorts it.
Let’s get back to writing a Fantasy world. Not all writers of Fantasy feel the need to do this. The basic tenet of the genre only asks that we naturalize the supernatural, and this reality has proven most accommodating: over the centuries, authors have dropped in hordes of wizards, vampires, werewolves, witches, gods, aliens, and so on, without readers batting an eyelash.
So how does a new world come into being? It’s a well-known fact that there are two sorts of writers: the ones who plan their story in advance (planners) and the ones who let the story write itself (pantsers). Typically, a planner has outlined all the parameters of their universe before writing the first sentence. Me, I’m the other type. I didn’t realize I was setting up an Elsewhere until I was quite far into the story, it just kinda… happened. Who’s right? Who knows? The Church likes to profess that God has a plan, but if you ask me, it all makes a lot more sense if you think of God as the create-as-you-write sort.
Jokes aside, whatever kind of world creator you turn out to be, there will come a point when you need to stop and think about your creation, define its rules. This is when you must start taking your readers into consideration, for a fictional universe cannot be anything but incomplete: if it is born in the writer’s imagination, it is fulfilled in the reader’s. The latter has to be able to penetrate it, believe it. In the name of what some call “suspension of disbelief” or “impression of reality”, this world will need to possess a structure somewhat similar to the primary reality and a coherent equation of cause and effect. And while these concepts are important for any work of fiction, they are absolutely essential to any work touching on the supernatural.
Then you will need to think about your aims as an author, and if you don’t know what these are, it might mean digging deep into your unconscious. Fantasy has the potential to be didactic and moralizing: it simplifies life and by doing so, allows an author to enlarge society’s defects and draw the reader’s attention to real problems by changing their setting and magnifying them in contrast. Moreover, the removed standpoint permits the subtle handling of difficult, often delicate subjects. By using echoes or flipping the reader’s perspective, it becomes possible to reveal absurdities while sparing sensibilities… And they call it fluff ;)
This being said, always remember that the more you diverge from the primary reality, the harder it will be to debate concrete notions and critique society. Sadly, this means that most imaginary worlds will be parasites of our own, but how? Will your creation be linked, or completely independent? What will be its mechanics?
You can choose the oldest trick in the book: the geography or spatial angle (think Jules Vernes, Gulliver’s Travels, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), in which the distance traveled by the hero explains differences and where comparison with the primary society is built in.
Or you can reverse the Science Fiction thing, make your world a blast from the past, or something that feels like it could be our past (even if you set it in our future). Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, along with our fascination for Arthurian romances, has made this the conventional choice of High Fantasy. In these realities, traditional and heroic values of days yore are often imbued with a nostalgic glow to denounce the evils of our modern societies.
You can go Quantum, create a parallel dimension. This sort of world will usually be linked to ours, be it by a rabbit hole (Alice’s Wonderland) or a wardrobe (C.S. Lewis’s Narnia), thus permitting comparisons. There are exceptions, especially in realities only slightly different than ours, although this means you cannot define it as a parallel dimension in the story itself. You can do a Harry Potter and use a pocket dimension existing within our own. Of course, you may find a wholly new way – Bravo! – or you can mix everything up and create something in the lines of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. You may want to explain your world, or not, or just leave tantalizing clues.
At page thirty of Incompetent Gods, I realized I had created a parallel dimension. I opted to explain it, for its genesis was directly responsible for its society. My world split from ours two thousand years ago, when the ancient pagan gods, sickened by the spread of atheism (and perhaps the arrival of new competition), decided to rip the fabric of time and space, and leave this reality for a new one. This time, they said, we will live amongst the humans, so they will never stop believing. They didn’t realized that knowledge is not faith… Forward two thousand years, a couple of centuries after the end of an era marked by global warfare where gods had become the equivalent of atomic bombs, and they are now safely ensconced in Gods Incorporated, a huge multinational that regiments the relations between mortals and immortals.
Mine became an exercise in extrapolation (or retrogression for some parameters – remember I was already on page thirty), perhaps closer to Science Fiction than Fantasy: change a variable, and see where it takes you. Divine beings exuding it like we expel carbon dioxide explained the omnipresence of magic (while its unreliability dictated the need for technology). The combined existence of pagan gods, by definition promiscuous and weirdly shaped, and breaches in the space-time continuum that permit teleportation (and resulting splicing accidents), justified the presence of mythical creatures. And in a society where divine intervention is expected, miracles and acts of gods became bought and paid for commodities.
Whatever your model of choice, whether you choose to explain it or not, you will need to know how your world works, what is possible and what isn’t, for the smallest inconsistencies can shatter the illusion you have worked so hard to create.

References & suggestions for further reading
Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds. SF and the Human Imagination.
Stephen King, On Writing.
Ann Swinfen, In Defense of Fantasy. A study of the genre in English and American litterature since 1945.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf. Including the poem Mythopoeia.

dimanche 22 octobre 2017

How do gods blaspheme?


"When you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer, it's nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, "Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!" or "Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!"
Terry Pratchett - Men at Arms


As a reader, there’s nothing that brings me as much pleasure as discovering a new way of cursing. Disclaimer: this might be a French-Canadian thing. People in Québec, oppressed by the Catholic clergy until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, have developed a unique way of venting their anger: almost every sacrament (even the word sacrement), every implement of the mass, has become an expletive – Baptème! (my father’s favorite – baptism), Tabarnak! (Tabernacle), Ostie! (Host), and so on, which you can link in an endless chain with a de: Tabarnak de caliss d’ostie de ciboire de marde!
If not innate, my affection for swearing started at a very young age (before I even knew what it was, and long before anyone would tell me the words), with the discovery of comic books, which I read without knowing how to read. Most of these were, if not aimed at children, then at least kid-friendly, so the authors had to convey the anger and frustration inherent to a satisfying curse fest in creative ways.
There was the good old number’s-uppercase-line, but the best added to it with symbols and drawings – and the character’s expression was often quite telling, as in this lovely one from Greg’s Achille Talon.

In the next one from Astérix et les Goths, Goscinny and Uderzo pushed the irony a little further by translating the picturesque oaths.



Some found more original ways. In Gaston Lagaffe, Franquin would write out the sounds – meaningless on paper, they would regain their full sense once said aloud. And you gotta love the red face.
I grew up, sorely feeling the lack of older siblings (those treasure troves of the best profanities). I had two older brothers, but they were well into adulthood, and they couldn’t be persuaded to teach bad language to their little sister. On the other hand, they taught me that the words themselves don’t matter that much: with the right intonation, you can make up your own.
I remember my brother being cut by a bad driver when I was nine and him thundering “Cornichon à Roulettes” (pickle on wheels). My friend and I laughed for hours. And just like that, I saw the genius in Capitaine Haddock’s strings of literate insults (Tintin by Hergé). Here – Bighead, Cukold, a sort of inedible leek, Slime, Pest that attacks grapevines, and Cannibal.

When I reached my teens, I was shipped to an English speaking boarding school in Southern Québec (possibly because my language was deemed unfit by the nuns at my Catholic school). Lo and behold! A fresh new world of profanities opened itself to me. Sadly, the school library was poor in such things and my swearing vocabulary did not expand much further than what I could catch on American television.
Upon reaching adulthood, the singing ribaldries of 90s French comic cinema attracted me to the other side of the pond. Perhaps unsurprisingly, French cursing is mostly about sex, but whereas it feels puritanical in the US, the French revel in it and are not the least bit apologetic. What’s more, many French oaths also have a mundane meaning. And so a Frenchman can yell out Bordel! then look you straight in the eyes and say that no, he didn’t say whorehouse, he was just commenting on the mess.
Three years later, an incidental bachelor’s degree in my pocket, I was swearing like a native and ready to go back home, but my Great Epiphany was laying in wait. Stuck in a dreary London hotel, I discovered British humor. The sky opened up, the sun came out as I finally heard real British cursing. Colorful, irreverent, bouncy, fun to say… I fell in love instantly. It might even be the main reason I write in English instead of French.
How a person swears, the words he chooses to do it with, is revealing of his personality, but it’s also revealing at a cultural level. For a writer, it can be valuable tool that hints at a character’s nationality, and develops his personality.
My Gods Inc. series is, you guessed it, about gods. I wasn’t far into writing Incompetent Gods that the question presented itself: how in gods’ names would gods blaspheme?
But I’m not telling. You’ll just have to read the books to find out.





mardi 18 juillet 2017

 
Inclement Gods
GODS INC. Series BOOK 2
When you live in a world pullulating with gods, can you truly be an atheist? Well, yes…if you know a way to get rid of them. Mysantheos, a fanatic atheist at the head of a powerful lobby/terrorist organization, has created a weapon able to kill gods and his kamikaze army is ready to attack.

As the divine bodies pile up, resentment builds at Gods Incorporated and violent factions start pushing for the extermination of the human race, and the CEO/Queen Louhi is running out of ideas to calm them down. Hopefully, her black ops teams are doing better. But will the Nerds and Richard (a down-on-his-luck private eye), saddled as they are with a group of angry gods, manage to find 
Mysantheos before all hell breaks loose?

dimanche 31 juillet 2016

INCOMPETENT GODS

GODS INC. SERIES - BOOK 1


In a dimension created by the ancient gods, most are now stuck working at Gods Incorporated. CEO Queen Louhi Pohjola, a mortal demigoddess turned vampire (on a diet), holds the planet in the palm of her hand and while she cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called a nice person, there’s worse lurking in her shadow.

Goblin, a bitter hybrid with childhood issues and shape-shifting abilities, has a grudge against the world. First on his to-do list is getting rid of the Queen and take her place by forcing the titan Ba’al to devour her.

As her friends and allies fall one-by-one into Goblin’s traps, the Queen’s fate seems inevitable. With no one left to fight, will Ba’al’s friends, a bunch of over-the-hill incompetent gods, be enough to stop Goblin from turning the world into hell?


Available in December 2016!


jeudi 28 janvier 2016

POUR LE MEILLEUR ET POUR LE PIRE


La journée n’avait pas commencé que je m’en doutais déjà qu’elle serait terrible.

En réalité, tout a commencé la veille, pendant la soirée. Depuis un mois, tous les soirs ou presque, je trie le contenu des boîtes que j’ai dû sortir de chez ma Marraine.

Marraine (elle a toujours insisté pour que je l’appelle ainsi), c’était la seconde épouse de mon oncle. Elle n’a pas eu d’enfants, mais elle m’a accueillie sous son aile suite au décès de ma mère. Elle a été une maman adoptive formidable ! Le mois dernier, elle est morte d’un cancer du poumon compliqué par un AVC massif qui l’avait laissée à moitié paralysée.


MOI, MAMAN et MARRAINE



Bref, ce boulot qui me chiffonne le nez (il y a des papiers là-dedans qui doivent avoir plus de cent ans) suscite une gamme complète d’émotions. Ça aide d’avoir un mari à ses côtés et un verre de vin à la main.

À onze heures, on avait bu trois bouteilles. Ma gorge et mes yeux n’en pouvaient plus de la poussière. On a tout placé dans les chemises idoines et on a remis les boîtes au sous-sol. Incroyable comme ça pue du vieux papier !

Et pour bien terminer la soirée, on a pris un petit digestif avant d’aller dormir. Le verre de trop, quoi.

Minuit venait à peine de sonner quand mon mari a commencé à ronfler. Son ronflement de Calvados : rond comme une pomme, aussi subtil qu’un troupeau de Normands qui chargent. L’enfer!

Comme de fait, Satan n’a pas tardé à apparaître. En échange de mon âme, il m’a offert de rendre Achille (le nom a été modifié pour protéger l'innocent) silencieux pour le reste de ses nuits. D’habitude, Satan, il trouve des trucs beaucoup plus chouettes pour m’allécher : la jeunesse éternelle, des milliards de dollars, vingt livres en moins, la publication de mes romans, des pouvoirs magiques… N’empêche que je n’ai jamais été aussi proche de céder.

Connaissant Satan, je me serais probablement réveillée avec un mari muet.

Je lui ai dit d’aller voir au paradis si j’y étais et j’ai donné un coup de pied à Achille. Je me suis enfouie dans mes oreillers en remerciant Dieu pour la finesse de leur duvet et la douceur de mes draps (coton égyptien, huit cents fils au pouce, fini percale, hautement recommandés en cas d’infestation démoniaque).

Vers huit heures, mon mari s’est levé. Enfin, je pouvais arrêter de suffoquer dans mes oreillers et peut-être dormir.

Pas pour longtemps. J’avais oublié qu’on était dimanche. Pourquoi faut-il toujours que je prenne un coup le samedi ? On dirait que ça ne me rentre pas dans le crâne que le dimanche, la messe est à neuf heures et quart. Et pourtant, j’y allais, avant, pour accompagner Marraine.

En plus, ne me demandez pas comment, mais il le sait toujours, le bedeau, quand j’ai la tête dans le c… Je suis certaine qu’il le fait exprès. La semaine dernière, les cloches ont sonné à peine deux minutes. Ce matin, il a commencé à neuf heures moins cinq! Et il était en forme, le bedeau. Je l’imagine, tout rond, en robe de bure, chauve, pendu après sa corde en train de se balancer d’un mur à l’autre du campanile, un grand sourire aux lèvres. Le salaud…

Il faut déménager.

Mon cerveau était traversé de spasmes tranchants, mais je n’avais plus sommeil. J’ai avalé trois Aspirines et je me suis traînée hors du lit de peine et misère.

En bas, mon mari semblait en pleine forme. Il fait chier. Je lui ai grogné bonjour et on a joué à Pepe le Pew pendant deux minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEdBndu0YUM

Il a vite compris qu’après avoir enduré son imitation de siffleux toute la nuit, j’en avais ma claque, non mais flûte !

Verre d’eau à la main, je me suis installée à l’ordinateur. À tous les jours, en me levant, j’essaie d’écrire un chapitre de roman, mais ce matin, les annonces immobilières possédaient un charme irrésistible.

L’ordinateur a décidé pour moi : vingt courriels !

Comment ça, vingt courriels ? Appréhensive, j’ai ouvert ma boîte de réception. À travers la réclame et les inanités de Facebook, le nom redouté crevait l’écran. Pendant que j’épluchais des souvenirs de famille, mon cousin a encore piqué une crise.

Mon cousin (appelons-le Lefuneste - là, c'est pour ME protéger du déplaisant), c’est le fils de mon oncle, le beau-fils de Marraine. Il n’est pas content. Marraine l’a déshérité.


Lefuneste ne semble pas comprendre que les gens n’aiment pas être traités avec mépris. Marraine, écœurée de son dédain et blessée par celui de ses enfants, a donc préférer léguer ses biens à trois de mes cousins et à moi. Ça, ça ne lui a vraiment pas plu, à Lefuneste.

J’ai ouvert son premier courriel. J’y ai trouvé la rengaine habituelle : qu’il est triste, si triste, que c’est pas juste, que s’il a raté sa vie c’est à cause de son enfance malheureuse, blablabla… Difficile à croire qu’il a maintenant soixante ans, qu’il va bientôt être grand-père.



Le deuxième, plus virulent, s’adresse aux héritiers (avec toute la famille en copie). Il nous compare à des vautours sauvages et nous ordonne de lui céder notre héritage. Il est fou, ma foi.

Dans le troisième, après la réponse de ma cousine qui lui dit « Tu es fou, ma foi », il nous traite tous de chiens sales et nous annonce qu’il a engagé un avocat. Il va poursuivre tout le monde! Oui, même la matriarche de la famille, âgée de 90 ans. Rien pour aider ma migraine.

Sourcil froncé, j’ai tourné la tête pour regarder le mini diable perché sur mon épaule gauche. Comme son patron, c’est un satyre à la peau rouge et aux cheveux noirs qui porte une petite barbichette pointue, sauf qu’il ressemble étrangement à mon ex petit ami (celui qui est passé du côté obscur de la force).

Mon diable avait un air fanfaron. J’ai pointé l’écran du pouce.

- C’est vous ça ?

Il s’est embué les ongles et les a frottés sur sa redingote de soie noire (j’ai oublié de mentionner qu’il est toujours bien sapé, comme mon ex, d’ailleurs).

- Un chef-d’œuvre, on en est très fiers, en bas.

J’aurais dû m’en douter.

J’ai appelé mon mari pour qu’il vienne lire. J’aime bien avoir son opinion et un jour il pourrait être obligé de défendre mon honneur.





De toute façon, mon verre d’eau était vide. Sur le chemin de la cuisine, le flacon de Tylenol m’a fait un clin d’œil.

- Tut tut, a dit une voix de mon épaule droite.

Ça, c’est mon ange. Il m’énerve. Il a une tête de socialiste et une gueule d’animateur de jeux télévisés. Il porte une longue jaquette blanche et des sandales Birkenstock. Et, au lieu de jouer de la lyre, il joue de la cornemuse. Mal.

- Tu viens de prendre trois Aspirines. C’est pas bon ce genre de mélange.

- Mais c’est la faute de vos foutues cloches…

Il a haussé les épaules.

- Le Seigneur donne, le Seigneur reprend (Job, I, 21). Tu ferais mieux de boire une tasse de café.

Ça semblait raisonnable, mais j’ai appris à me méfier. Je me suis servie une tasse (trois Splenda, un sucre) et j’y ai trempé les lèvres.

Beuark ! Je le savais ! C’est toujours dégueulasse, du café, un lendemain de veille. Parfois, mon ange, il mérite des baffes. En plus, il rit comme Charlemagne.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMk63SOkdms

Mais j’avais trop besoin de stimulant. J’ai ajouté du lait et du sucre; le sirop a passé.

J’ai regagné le bureau. Mon mari avait les yeux gros comme des assiettes à soupe. Il s’est tourné vers moi en faisant son Obélix.

- Il est fou, ce cousin.

J’ai repris ma place. Que faire ? Mon roman ne m’intéressait plus. J’avais juste envie d’écrire à Lefuneste, de lui dire qu’à son âge, il serait peut-être temps qu’il arrête de faire le guignol. Mais je sais que ce n’est pas la solution : quand on lui répond, on l’encourage, il aime ça. Non, la seule chose à faire, c’est l’ignorer.

De retour au roman, alors…

Et là, l’ordinateur a planté. Je tapais incompétent, et sur l’écran ça devenait hyvizôcecye, je tapais dieux et le mot mhcgu apparaissait. Puis, la loi de Murphy a décidé de s’en mêler : le correcteur automatique est passé en mode finlandais.

J’ai expiré un bon coup par le nez en me disant que c’était probablement un code 18. J’ai abandonné le roman pour aller sur Internet. Pas moyen, l’ordinateur était gelé gelé.

Je hais ces machines. On passe plus de temps à les faire fonctionner qu’à s’en servir. Mes rêves de richesse instantanée se bornent habituellement à une chose : pouvoir lancer mes ordinateurs par la fenêtre quand ça me chante!

- Tut, tut, a grondé mon ange. C’est pas génial pour l’environnement, ça. Il faut que tu apprennes la patience.

Il a soufflé une note dans son infâme cornemuse. Tout à coup, j’avais diablement envie de jouer au base-ball, moi – avec une cornemuse et une tête d’ange.

J’ai cligné des yeux, il a disparu. J’ai crié à Achille de venir m’aider. Le temps qu’il arrive, j’avais décidé que c’était de sa faute. L’ordinateur marchait très bien avant qu’il ne lise les courriels du vilain…

Et l’engueulade fut.

Mais j’avais oublié mon mal de bloc. Après deux minutes, je me suis recroquevillée sur un fauteuil en pleurant. Achille m’a embrassé les cheveux. Il m’a suggéré de lire le journal d’hier à la place, pendant qu’il s’occuperait de l’ordinateur. Et peut-être que je devrais manger quelque chose, il ne restait plus beaucoup de temps avant le tennis.



Deux heures plus tard, j’avais repris forme humaine et je m’étais convaincue que je VOULAIS aller jouer au tennis.

Le problème, c’est que les clés de la voiture avaient disparu. Les deux trousseaux, pfft, volatilisés.

J’ai eu une vision : n’avais-je pas eu une rage de fumer, la veille ? J’ai demandé à mon mari s’il n’avait pas caché les clés, pour éviter que j’aille m’acheter des cigarettes. Il a répondu que non et on a commencé à chercher.

Trois quarts d’heure plus tard, on cherchait encore. Pour le tennis, c’était foutu, et Achille s’inquiétait de plus en plus. Quelqu’un (du genre cousin funeste) se serait-il introduit dans la maison ? Aurait-il volé les clés pour revenir plus tard en toute quiétude ?

Mais pourquoi les deux trousseaux ?

Moi, j’étais convaincue que mon hypothèse était la bonne. Achille s’est choqué : il s’en souviendrait, merde!

Mais là, je n’avais plus du tout envie de rigoler.

- Disons que tu les aurais cachées, fais semblant. Où les aurais-tu mises ?

Mon mari m’a fait une drôle de tête puis il a marché vers la bibliothèque. D’un geste hésitant il en a tâtonné le dessus. Cling !

Je me suis laissée tomber sur une marche. Je me suis tournée vers mon diable. Il semblait ébahi.

- Ah, non. Je te jure, il le fait tout seul. Il est phénoménal! On devrait l’engager, il serait vite le chouchou du patron.

J’ai senti la rage me monter au nez. Il fallait que je me calme. Mon ange n’avait rien vu aller, le con. Il était assis en tailleur en train de se faire une pédicure en mordant sa Birkenstock. Les pieds d’ange n’ont peut-être pas d’odeur, mais c’est quand même dégoûtant. Il a levé la tête et analysé la situation. Il a craché sa sandale.

- Désolé. Je suis aussi pantois que l’autre.

Mon diable, de son côté, a commencé à se battre avec un pot de moutarde. Je lui ai envoyé une pichenotte. J’ai fermé les yeux, j’ai compté. Je devais lutter contre ma génétique : je ne veux pas être comme mon père, je me défends de faire les mêmes colères dévastatrices…

Marraine, aide-moi !

Quand j’ai relevé la tête, mon mari était assis deux marches plus bas. Il m’a fait un petit sourire penaud.

- On fait ce que tu veux. N’importe quoi. Je suis désolé, je t’aime, ma chérie.



Mais moi, j’en avais vraiment trop marre de cette journée. Tout ce dont j’avais envie, c’était de prendre un long bain chaud puis m’envelopper dans des cotons ouatés. Me blottir dans un fauteuil devant un bon feu et lire un Petit Nicolas, histoire de me consoler d’avoir épousé Gaston Lagaffe.




mardi 28 juillet 2015

HELL IS OTHER GODS



The lawyer’s arguments danced a merry gig on the document.
Anubis, Jackal-god, Ultimate Guide of Mortal Souls, Vice-President in charge of the Afterlife Department, was well aware of the overcrowding in the purgatories. But to let a fiend of this magnitude reincarnate after only two thirds of his penance rubbed him the wrong way.
He let his gaze wander over the sandy walls of the room while playing a tattoo on his alabaster desk. At least the swine would be reborn as a platypus. Anubis signed the release.
His door crashed open. If he’d had a heart, it would have stopped.
Then it got worse: the Sheela-Na-Gig walked in. A small moan escaped his lips and he fought the urge to hide under the desk.
As always, the short fertility goddess appeared to have been moulded in bad clay by a clumsy Neanderthal, but today she looked even more dreadful than usual. Tears from her sunken black eyes sullied her elephant skin and her dress… the only qualifier that came to mind was tarpish, yet it still managed to emphasize some of her curves when she sobbed. Hidden behind her was Jupiter, looking sombre.
He found his voice. “Can I help you?”
“Ah-Peku is in hell,” said Jupiter. “We want to get him out.”
With relief, Anubis tore his fascinated eyes from the distressed goddess.
Jupiter shouldn’t have shaved his beard and he certainly shouldn’t have streaked his hair. Maybe the blond surfer look worked with the ladies, but it had stripped him of his majesty.
“Ah-Peku?” wondered Anubis. “The storm god? What’s he doing in hell?”
“He’s dead!” wailed Sheela. “Some humans killed him!”
“He was the victim of an enchantment… and a bazooka,” said Jupiter.
Anubis scratched the tuft of hair between his ears. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but if it were that easy, humans would have gotten rid of us a long time ago.”
“There’s a new sorcerer in town.” Jupiter’s tone became irate. “The bazooka thing works because the enchantment makes the god forget everything, including that he is one. And so, thinking he’s human, bam! Straight to Hell.”
“We have to get him out,” said Sheela, chops trembling.
She foghorned into a huge handkerchief and approached him. He pulled back so fast, the legs of his chair screeched in protest.
“Fine, fine. But you can’t just go waltzing in Hades…
Jupiter snorted. “That’s not what my brother says.”
Sheela kicked him. “That’s why we came to you. Can you help us?”
Anubis nodded quickly, before Sheela could start cajoling him again. “But I have to warn you, finding someone in the Afterlife is tough. I mean, the place is BIG: there are I don’t know how many hells, at least twenty heavens and then there’s the purgatories, usually customized and so, innumerable. It won’t be easy. He might not even be in there yet; the queues for the judgment chambers are always bad. Which reminds me, if a wizard up there has found a way to kill immortals, I better send a memo…” He typed a few words on a small screen embedded in his desk.
“Do you really think he might still be waiting in line somewhere?” asked Sheela, her lunar face filling with hope. “It’s been close to twenty-four hours.”
“No,” he breathed, “he’s in there, but where?” He rubbed his muzzle, lost in thought. “Ah-Peku is a Mayan god, right?”
“Yes,” said Sheela.
“And… was he somewhat of a wicked god?”
“He was a great god!” exclaimed Jupiter. “A great friend!”
“So he didn’t trick women into sleeping with him or go around dosing unsuspecting men with love philtres?”
Both gods reddened.
Sheela recovered first. “He was one of the nicest. His only vices were playing with clouds and drinking with friends.”
Anubis was certain there were more skeletons than that, but there was no point in questioning further. “He’ll probably be in Mictlan somewhere. It’s the most popular Azteco-Mayan Underworld.” He pressed a button on his telephone.
“Welcome to the Infernal Depths Telecommunication Centre,” droned a mechanical voice. “Please say the name of the person or division you wish to reach.”
“Mictlan,” enunciated Anubis forcefully.
“If you wish to reach Mickeyland, say yes!”
“No, Mictlan!”
“If you wish to reach Voltaire, say yes!”
Anubis’s pointy ears quivered. Very, very calmly, he pressed the diabolical instrument’s off key. He got up with a sigh and went to stand between the two lotus columns decorating the left wall of his office.
“I think it will be easier to go down there.” He raised an admonitory finger. “BUT there are rules! First: you must not, under no circumstances, eat or drink anything. If you do, you will be trapped in the Afterlife forever. Second: never, ever, look behind you. You won’t like what might be lurking in your peripheral vision. If absolutely necessary, do a complete body rotation.” He rotated three hundred and sixty degrees, never moving his head. “Thirdly…”
He looked at his audience and realized two rules were already one too many. “Oh, hell, let’s just go.”
He closed his eyes and, humming, laid his hands on the wall. It became transparent, then disappeared, revealing a long sandy valley leading to two identical columns on the horizon. After making sure the others were following, Anubis stepped out of his office.
They hadn’t walked five seconds when a chorus of barks sounded and a ball of fur dropped on Jupiter.
“Cerberus! Heel!” yelled Anubis, to the complete indifference of the three-headed bulldog.
Jupiter, sitting on the ground, wiped a bit of drool from his face. “It’s all right, Nub. We’re old friends, aren’t we Berus?” He tried to pat all three heads at once. “You’re a good doggie, yes you are.”
Cerberus yipped with joy and the saliva bath resumed. Perhaps realizing he was in danger of drowning, Jupiter got up.
“Down boy, down.” He lifted his eyes to his companions. “I won him from his dad when he was just a pup. We had lots of fun, but he was making the other gods in Olympus nervous, Juno in particular, so I gave him to my brother. But he remembers me, right buddy?”
The god and the dog fell into another tumble.
“Hem, Jup?” said Anubis. “What about Ah-Peku?”
Jupiter came up for air. “Right, sorry… Can we bring Berus with us?”
 “Sure, why not?” said Anubis. “With him around, danger should avoid us.”
“Bring that monster along?” squeaked Sheela from behind him.
Cerberus, intrigued by Sheela’s particular voice and smell, approached her with a low growl in the back of his throats. Six eyes widened then lost focus. He whined and ran back to his old master, heads trembling.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Sheela, her unibrow bristling.
Jupiter looked up at the sky, whistling, while Anubis rubbed his nose to hide his amusement.
Sheela came out from behind him and patted her knees in an effort to coax the dog. “Good doggie, you can’t be afraid of aunty Sheela…”
This charm operation would need an eternity.
“We have to get going,” said Anubis.
“Is Mictlan far?” asked Sheela, standing straighter.
“Near, far, time… None of that has any real meaning down here. Still, it’s better not to linger in the same place, we might attract unwanted attention.” He sniffed the air and pointed in a direction perpendicular to the columns. “That way.”
They walked slowly, crossing the paths of dead souls intent on making their way to the end of the valley. After a while the sand became grass, then mist. Every hundred or so steps, the landscape would change. Some of the valleys led to a form of gate shaped by columns, interlocking trees or ornate metallic arches. A few were blocked by an obstacle, a river or a cliff, others seemed to go on forever. And everywhere, the souls marched, oblivious to the group of trespassers.
Finally, they reached an endless valley whose rocky ground felt like that of a mountain pass.
Anubis tested the air again. “Ah, this is it, the path to Mictlan.”
“This doesn’t look like Mayan country,” said Jupiter, pulling at the collar of his aviator jacket. “It’s freezing.”
“Actually, sweetie,” said Sheela, “it does if you look further than the beach bars.”
“The path of Mictlan is one of reflection and hardships, it is an ordeal meant to test the valour of a soul. To Mayans, cold is a hardship: their hells are often glacial.” Anubis dropped the lecturing tone. “I’ve had an idea. Does one of you have something of Ah-Peku’s? Cerberus could follow the smell.”
“Of course!” said Jupiter. “Why didn’t I think of that? I’m sure I’ve got something in here somewhere.”
He rummaged through his jacket’s many pockets, taking out an incongruous medley of objects and handing them to Sheela.
“Yeech!” said the goddess as a glutinous ball of string fell into her hand. “What in my name is that?”
“It’s a ball of spider webs,” answered Jupiter. “Anansi gave it to me when we left.”
“Anansi?” said Sheela with a disappointed frown. “Wasn’t he supposed to come with¾
“That deceitful spider god is not welcomed anywhere in the infernal depths,” spitted Anubis, ramrod stiff with rage.
“Yeah, that’s what he said. Didn’t seem too broken up about it… Anyway, he thought the ball might come in useful if we encounter something nasty. Ah! Here it is.”
He handed a small pipe to Anubis, who sniffed it suspiciously.
“Poor dog,” he said with a sigh as he handed the pipe back. “Have him smell it.”
Jupiter put it under the three noses in turn. Cerberus seemed confused for a second, then all three heads yipped and pointed toward the pass.
“He’s got it!” exclaimed Jupiter. “Ah-Peku, here we come!”
As soon as they stepped on the well-worn path, a small winged man wearing a lion’s pelt for a headdress appeared in the air beside them.
“Good day kind visitors! My name is Qrapchipotl and I will be your guide today!”
“We don’t need a guide,” said Jupiter. “We have him.” He pointed at Cerberus.
Cerberus barked at Qrapchipotl, who smiled nervously.
“I am certain he is a wonderful guide… nice doggie. But without me, you might miss amazing landmarks such as the Panorama of Misdeeds, the Echoing Mountains of Complaints, the¾
Anubis stepped forward. “Qrapchipotl, my good guide, we’re not dead, we’re gods. Don’t you recognize me?”
“Yes, Anubis,” said Qrapchipotl with a respectful bow. “I assumed it was a case of dual beliefs. We get more and more with all that globalization going on up there.” The guide’s mouth twisted in disgust even as his eyes glittered with envy. “May I ask what gods are doing down here?”
“We are looking for another god, Ah-Peku, sent here by mistake. Have you seen him?”
Qrapchipotl shook his head subserviently. “I’m sorry, no. I assume you have the A37 permit?”
“Of course,” lied Anubis with aplomb, tapping the fold of his loincloth. “As you can see, we have no need of your services. I’m sure you would be more useful elsewhere.”
“Still, without me, you could fall in the Pit of Excessive Kindnesses or get trapped in the Vicious Circle of Good Intentions…” Qrapchipotl realized Cerberus was circling him and growling. “Hem, good doggie?”
“Cerberus! Desist!” snapped Anubis. “He’s just doing his job.”
“And perhaps he could help,” said Sheela, approaching the guide with a gargantuan smile.
Qrapchipotl’s eyes widened and he grimaced. Anubis could see the words nice girlie start to form on his lips. Then the guide shuddered all the way to his wings and regained his composure.
“All right. I’ll help… Since you have the A37 permit. But please ask your dog to stop looking at my posterior, I am not a mailman.”
“I bet he thinks you’re lunch,” said Jupiter. “It’s the feathers.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes, Anubis trying to accelerate the guide’s placid float, when Qrapchipotl stopped abruptly.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he burst out in a singsong voice. “Laid out before you is the incomparable Walk of Remembrance, where day by day you relive the actions of your life… What?”
Anubis sighed and slid his hand from muzzle to tuft. “How do I put this? We’re gods, we have lived for thousands of years, and we’re in a hurry. Can you find us a shortcut?”
“But it’s the best part,” whined Qrapchipotl before noticing the gods’ glares and raising his hands in submission. “Fine! Fine! I’ll break the spell. I just need to press my thumb between your eyes.”
Still sulking, he went to each in turn, hesitating a bit before touching Cerberus and Sheela. “The dog seems to know the way.” He said, gesturing toward Cerberus who was already following the scent. Anubis and Sheela passed him as he kicked the air and hung close to Jupiter.
After a dozen paces, Anubis did a quick spin. Qrapchipotl was searching his satchel. Was he planning something? His spiteful expression didn’t augur well.
Anubis whirled around once more, just in time.
“Jupiter, No!”
Jupiter was about to drink from a small flask. Anubis rushed to him and knocked it out of his hand.
“You berk! I told you not to drink anything down here!” He switched his rage to the guide. “And you! Why would… Never mind, it’s always the same reasons. Go away, we’ll manage without you.” He pointed back the way they had come.
“But without me…” started Qrapchipotl without enthusiasm. Then he shrugged and took a miniature sombrero out from his sack. “Can I interest you in a souvenir?”
“Go!” yelled the gods in unison.
“Poor little guy,” said Sheela as they watched him drift away. “Why would he do that?”
“Most denizens of the Underworld don’t like to see people leave,” said Anubis. “I would have preferred to keep him with us, there are many pitfalls here, not to mention what he might send us in retaliation. But it’s better if we find Ah-Peku without him around: that infernal permit is actually a piece of the murderer’s kidney, or a tooth, if he’s a serial killer.”
He took Jupiter by the shoulders. “Jup, repeat the rules for me.”
“Hey, it’s okay, I’m not completely stupid. I just forgot for a second. Don’t drink, don’t eat, don’t look behind… Sheela?”
Sheela was frozen, head turned over her shoulder, her eyes wide and glassy.
“Why can’t anyone remember those damned rules?” muttered Anubis, exasperated.
Wishing he had worn gloves, he seized her face with both hand and wrenched it back forward. He snapped his fingers in front of her eyes a few times, then slapped her hard on the cheek.
“Ooooh! It was awful!” moaned Sheela. “Big and scaly, with feathers all over. And it’s mouth! Its huge, gaping, toothy mouth!” She shivered.
“Quetzalcoatl,” breathed Anubis. “Now we’re in for it.”
“Where?” said Jupiter “I don’t see anything.”
“He’s hiding, Sheela must have glimpsed him in the edges of her sight.” Anubis closed his eyes; an idea was lurking. “I know! Anansi’s ball! Do you still have it?”
Jupiter nodded and took it out of his coat.
Anubis grabbed it. “Now go! Run, and stay close to Cerberus. I’ll try and stop Quetzalcoatl.”
Jupiter and Sheela fled, catching up to Cerberus. Anubis spun back and grimly waited for the Ruler of Mictlan to arrive.
Suddenly, the huge feathered serpent sprouted from the ground.
“What are you doing here, Anubis? Why did you hurt my dear Qrapchipotl?”
Anubis plunged into a deep reverence. “Oh, Quetzalcoatl! Pardon us, we are looking for a friend sent here by mistake.”
“Mistakes are final in Mictlan, as you will soon learn, along with your friends…” The snake hissed a giggle. “They think they can run from me here.”
“But I’m also a god of the dead,” said Anubis. “I have the right of passage.”
“Only on my countenance, which you lost by insulting my guide. I am going to eat your friends and send back your remains in a doggie-bag.”
Anubis didn’t answer. Instead he stepped backwards.
“What are you doing?” asked Quetzalcoatl, reaching to grab him.
But the ball of webs Anubis had dropped during his reverence had unfolded and wrapped the body and wings of the serpent in a glutinous cocoon. Quetzalcoatl screeched in rage and attacked the webs with his sharp teeth. Anubis jumped one hundred and eighty degrees and sprinted away.
He found the others near a well. Ah-Peku, eyes vacant, was sitting on the ground beside it and drinking a glass of water.
“Hells on fire! Oh well, let’s grab him and run for it. We’ll see about the rest later.”
Jupiter tapped him on the shoulder. Quetzalcoatl was approaching rapidly, followed distantly by Qrapchipotl, holding a huge pair of scissors.
Just as the winged serpent was about to attack the group, Cerberus leaped in between, barking, snarling and growling.
Quetzalcoatl froze. “Hem… Good doggie? Qrapchipotl? Hand me the scissors,” he said, keeping his eyes on the dog.
“I can’t, Oh Monstrous One, I put them down. I thought it could be dangerous.”
“As you can see, my little Qrapchit, there are worst dangers than floating with scissors.”
“I realize that now, Oh Malformed One.”
“You can’t fight this dog,” said Anubis with renewed calm. “We both know it. Anyway, we found what we were looking for, so we’ll just go.”
Quetzalcoatl looked at Ah-Peku.
“Hey! That’s Ah-Peku. What the Eden is he doing down here?”
Sheela took a cautious step forward. “He’s been cursed by a human magician. Please let us go, so we can save him.”
Quetzalcoatl, astonished, slithered backwards. “Oh, Lunar Beauty!” he crooned, fluttering his feathers. “To please you, I would move the hells and the heavens! In exchange for your love, Ah-Peku can…”
“It’s impossible, Oh Dazed and Confused One,” said Qrapchipotl, picking up the empty glass. “He has drunk from the well.”
Quetzalcoatl seemed dejected for a moment. Then he straightened and grabbed Ah-Peku by the legs under the bewildered eyes of the other gods. He shook him, head down, until Ah-Peku had thrown up all the water he had drunk.
“Here you are, Oh Voluptuous Enchantress.” Still holding Ah-Peku by one leg, Quetzalcoatl bowed and held him out to a radiant Sheela, as if the god was the most magnificent of roses. “On your promise to return, you may leave Mictlan… If you have the A37 permit.”