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!”
“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 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.”