At the very least, the Institute would be displeased with Apprentice Guth Bandar. Yet, whatever punishment Senior Tutor might levy, Bandar could not imagine that it would be a worse fate than being absorbed into a Hell. Chastising malefactors, after all, was what such Locations did best.

When the noönaut had finished, the listener on the throne was silent for a long moment, stroking his concave cheek with a triangular nail, the great dark eyes turned inward. Finally he laid a considering gaze on Bandar and said, “Is that all? You’ve left out no pertinent details that might construe a trap for a hapless idiomatic entity such as I?”

Bandar had thought about trying to do exactly that, but had not been able to conceive of a means. Besides, he had expected this question and knew that any lie he attempted would only scamper off to its master, leaving Bandar to re-experience the demon’s intruding claw, if not something worse.

“It is all.”

The Adversary stroked at his beard. “You can imagine that this news comes as a shock.”

“Yes.”

“Even a disappointment.”

“I express sympathy.” It wasn’t a lie. Bandar could express the sentiment without actually feeling it.

“It repeats forever? And I never win,” he indicated the cavern’s ceiling again, “against You Know Whom?”

“Never.”

“What would you advise?” the archfiend asked, then added, “Honestly.”

Bandar thought it through but could come to no other conclusion. “You must be true to your nature.”

The archfiend sighed. “That I already knew.” He reflected for a moment then went on, “It ought to be comforting to know exactly why one exists. Instead I find it depressing.”

A silence ensued. Bandar became uncomfortable. “I can offer one solace,” he said.

The dark eyes looked at him. “It had better be exceptionally good. I usually need to see a great deal of suffering before I am comforted.”

Bandar swallowed again and said, “When your Location’s cycle ends and recommences, you will not know of this.”

“Hmm,” said the other. “Thin comfort indeed. Knowledgeability is my foremost pride. To know that I shall become ignorant is a poor consolation until ignorance at last descends. The battle up there may go on for eons. I must think about this.”

Bandar said nothing and attempted to arrange his mismatched features into an expression of studied neutrality. He saw thoughts making their presence known on the Adversary’s features, then he saw his captor’s gaze harden and knew the archfiend had come to the inevitable conclusion.

The voice was not just cool now; it was chilled. “I see. If I keep you and make you part of this ‘Location,’ as you call it, then might I expect you to regularly reappear and remind me that I am not what I thought I was?”

“I do not know how much of my persona would survive the process, but there is a risk,” said Bandar. “I would be happy to relieve you of it by moving on.”

“Hmm,” said the other. “But someone must suffer for my pain. If not you, then who?”

Bandar looked around the smoky cavern. All the demons and imps seemed to be regarding him without sympathy.

He thought quickly, then said, “I may have an idea.”

Intoning the three threes, Bandar scaled the ladder that reached to the brink of Heaven. The first assault had failed and the invaders had pulled back, leaving mangled fiends and demons heaped on the tower’s top and scattered about the narrow strip of celestial turf that marked the limit of their advance.

Angels of lower rank were now heaving the fallen over the edge and casting down the scaling ladders so that Bandar had to climb with scampering haste to avoid being toppled. He picked his way across the grass, stepping over bodies and dodging the clean-up. There was a sharp tang of ozone to the otherwise delicious air of Heaven; an inner voice told him it was the afterscent of thunderbolts.

No one paid him any notice as he made his way between regiments of angelic defenders, drawn up in precise blocks and wedges, their armor and weaponry dazzling and the space above their heads almost conflagrant with massed halos. But beyond the rearmost ranks he saw others laid upon the grass, their auras flickering and dim, shattered armor piled beside them.

As he neared the recumbent forms he heard again the whoosh of great wings. Huge figures gracefully alit and gathered up the fallen angels then took to the air and winged away. Urged by his inner voice, Bandar ran toward the evacuation and, seizing the robe of an archangel, climbed to the broad span between his wings. His tiny fists made it hard to hold on as the great pinions struck the air and they sprang aloft.

So far, so good, said the voice. Bandar was too busy clutching and intoning to frame a response. They climbed above the fields and woods of heaven, until the great rivers were mere scratches of silver on green. For a long time, the archangel’s wings dominated the air with metronomic strokes then the rhythm ceased and the great feathered sails held steady as they glided down toward a city of shining stone upon a conical hill, with serried roofs and pillars and windows that flashed like gems. The archangel alighted on a pristine pavement and carried the angel in his arms toward a vast edifice of marble and alabaster.

Down, said the inner voice, and Bandar descended, clutching handfuls of angelic fabric until his feet touched the polished flags. Turn right and go up the hill. There’s a staircase.

Bandar wanted to say, “This is unwise,” but he was afraid that to cease intoning the thran in this part of the Location would invite a blast from on high. He topped the staircase and came upon a broad plaza of more white stone accented by inlays of colored gems. On the other side of the square stood an enormous rotunda — yet more white stone, though this one was roofed with a golden dome. Its gigantic doors — still more gold, bedizened with mosaics of gems — gaped open, throwing out an effulgence of light and a glorious sound of massed voices.

Here we go, said the inner urging. Bandar advanced on trembling legs until he stood in the doorway. The interior was incandescent with magnificence. Rank upon rank of angels stood on wall-climbing terraces, singing unparalleled choruses to the great white-bearded figure who sat a diamond throne that grew from the middle of a diamond floor.

In, said the voice in Bandar’s mind, and keep chanting. The noönaut’s legs could not have felt looser if they had been made of boiled asparagus, but he did as he was told, crossing the brilliant floor until he stood directly before the throne. Its occupant’s feet rested on a footstool that resembled a globe of the earth, just at Bandar’s eye level. He noticed that the bare toes bore delicate hairs of gold.

The sojourner stood, awaiting direction from within. It was hard to keep intoning the thran while the thousands of perfect voices sang in flawless harmony a song that thrilled the soul.

It’s always the same song, you know, said his passenger. He never tires of hearing it, and they know better than to tire of singing it.

The music was climbing, crescendo upon crescendo, ravishing notes impossibly achieved and sustained, quavering tremolos that intoxicated the senses. It was all Bandar could do to keep intoning the three threes, especially with his distorted vocal equipment and the difficulty compounded by the sharpness of hearing that his elephantine ears provided.

Wait for it.

The thunderous chorus was now pealing out such a paean of praise that Bandar feared the golden dome might lift away.

Almost.

The voices soared to the brink of climax.

Now.

Bandar ceased intoning the thran. From the point of view of the idiomats, including the Principal on the throne, he suddenly appeared before them, with all his acquired anatomical peculiarities on full display.

The music stopped in mid-melisma. There was an instant silence so profound that Bandar wondered for a moment if he had been struck deaf. Then he heard the thrumming sound of the giant crimson monstrosity that still vibrated on his front.

Perfect, said the inner voice. Open up, here I come.

Bandar opened his mouth. He felt the same unpleasant sensation of stretching and an urge to gag that he had experienced when the Adversary had entered him down in the sulfurous cavern. A moment later the sinister figure was standing beside him, looking up at the divine face staring down at him from the throne of Heaven.

The archfiend raised his arms and cried, “Surprise!”

“It’s always much easier to get out of Heaven than to get in,” commented the Adversary, as they plummeted toward the lake of fire. When the heat grew uncomfortable for Bandar, the archfiend considerately sprouted wings — much like an archangel’s though somber of feather — and swept the noönaut to safety in a subterranean passageway that led back to the cavern of the iron throne.

“Are you going to keep your promise?” said Bandar.

“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t,” said the Principal, “but I don’t want you popping up in every cycle to remind me of my futility.”

“Thank you,” Bandar said.

“Although it goes against my nature to be fair, you do deserve any reward in my power to grant.” The dark eyes unfocused for a moment as their owner looked inward to memory. “The expression on His face. The way His eyes popped. That was worth anything. I will keep the war going as long as possible just so I can retain that image.”

“I will be happy to accept what we discussed,” Bandar said.

“Very well.” The Adversary looked at him. “It is done.”

Bandar consulted his own memory and found there a complete chart of the noösphere, exactly like the great globe suspended in the Institute’s communal study chamber. Or was it?

“Is it real?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” said the archfiend. “Since your arrival my concept of reality has been severely edited. I used my powers to improve your memory. I can assure you, however, that it will lead you away from here, I hope forever. I do not want you back.” His long fingers imitated the action of walking. “Off you go.”

Bandar consulted the globe and saw that the gate in the cavern led to a selection of Locations, depending on which thran was used to activate it. He returned the map to his memory, chose the seven and one and stepped through the rift.

He was overjoyed to find himself in a shaded forest of giant conifers. He recognized a particular tree not more than a few paces distant, strode to it and sang a handful of notes. Again the air rippled and he departed the forest to emerge into hot sunlight on a white beach strung between laden coconut palms and gentle wavelets.

“I have overcome!” he cried.

“You have certainly achieved some sort of distinction,” said the nasal voice of Didrick Gabbris. Bandar turned to meet his rival’s sneer. Gabbris lounged in the shade of a palm. Beside him, Senior Tutor Eldred inspected Bandar in detail, from the tiny skull with its flapping ears and pendulous nose down to the minuscule hands and the crimson humming centerpiece. When he had finished the catalog, his face formed an expression that Bandar found uncannily like that which he had recently seen on a deity.

“I can explain,” the apprentice said.

“Not well enough,” predicted Eldred.

It was a prescient observation. The Institute decided that Guth Bandar was not what they were seeking in a new generation of noönauts. Nor was Didrick Gabbris, for Bandar’s account of the shattered urn was believed and he had the compensatory satisfaction of seeing his enemy driven from the cloister while he was still being debriefed by a hastily convened inquiry.

Bandar learned that in the tens of thousands of years that noönauts had been visiting the Commons other sojourners had run afoul of Principals, though no one it seemed had ever shaken the confidence of both a god and his chief opponent. it was decided that the contaminated Locations would be declared out of bounds for a few centuries, to give them time to recycle.

Bandar returned to the family firm and took up buying and selling. But in his leisure hours he would sit crosslegged, and summon up his perfect map of the noösphere. He soon found a Allegorical Location entirely peopled by nubile young women. And with his ability to make useful modifications to his virtual anatomy, the idiomats were always delighted to receive him.

He decided that a little learning was only dangerous when spread too thin.


The Compleat Guth Bandar is available as an eBook from the Archonate Bookstore, Amazon (for the Kindle) and Kobo.