The sheer insanity of Isaac's endgame, which he had thought suitable for pillow talk, left Christabel speechless. To goad an android to a state of fury that exceeded Homeric rage and transcended Shakespearean wrath was a plan whose methodology betrayed audacity approaching hubris. Nevertheless, there remained in her a sliver of doubt. "Isaac, you've showed me magic, but you're asking me to believe that you hold an entity capable of credibly pretending to be God captive. That might be a bit more than I can take on faith."
"And so you insist on gnosis? That can be arranged," said Isaac, as he gently got out from under Christabel and slipped out of bed. In a trice his avatar was clothed again, perfectly coiffed and subtly cologned. "When you are ready, I will take you down to see what drives the engines of innovation here in Asgard."
It had not occurred to Christabel to question Isaac's statement until the elevator carried them from 128F down past the ground floor—labelled 0 on this display—and down past B1F. "Have you got nuclear reactors down here?"
"No. That would be only slightly more dangerous than what awaits us below."
The elevator's display now said B3F. "How much further?"
"The AsgarTech Building's roots delve deep. We've a long way to go still."
Waiting in silence, Christabel leaned against the wall and watched the sub-cellar levels tick by. Isaac had seemed to withdraw into himself. His eyes slipped shut, the lashes a rime of silken frost, and there was something in his abstracted expression that suggested to her that he was engaged in some delicate internal preparation and that it was best not to interrupt.
He did not stir until the elevator had reached the very bottom and its display read B127F. Though there was a soft chime to indicate their arrival, the doors would not open of their own accord. "It is dangerous down here," said Isaac.
Reaching into his jacket, he withdrew a slim rod of platinum-veined sapphire shaped in a manner she might have found suggestive in a different setting and pressed it into her hand. Standing behind her, he guided her thumb to touch a point where the platinum veins seemed to converge. A slim blade of crackling azure flame extended from the rod's tip, and Christabel lifted her thumb in shock only to see the blade flicker out.
"Hold on to this. The Almighty may attempt to attack us and it would not do for you to be defenseless in the unlikely event that I find myself overwhelmed. If we are attacked, you are to run back to the elevator as swiftly as you can and return to the surface without me. If one of its angels attempts to stop you, use the forceblade this weapon emits on them."
There was nothing in Isaac's instructions that pleased Christabel, and his injunction to abandon him at the first sight of trouble that his instructions implied was one she liked not at all. "If I have this, can't I help you?"
His kiss behind her ear seared her nerves and made her toes curl. "Your concern is touching, but bear in mind that by bringing you down here I've endangered you. Though the /asur'astra/[fn:9] I've given you is as powerful as the weapons I've built into the einherjar, it is still a last-ditch weapon. Attempt no heroics for /my/ sake, please."
It was not until Christabel acquiesced and promised that she would not stand and fight that Isaac opened the elevator. The doors opened upon a vestibule that intruded upon a cavern whose walls, floor, and ceiling she could not see. The building's ventilation system extended down into the depths, providing fresh air. Dim amber lights mounted along the steel walkway pushed back the subterranean gloom as she tripped their motion detectors, but they were too weak to reveal the full extent of the space in which she found herself.
"Close your eyes a moment," said Isaac.
Though she complied, the sudden radiance still pierced her eyelids and forced her to cover her eyes. "Shit. I must have gotten used to the dark already."
"It's the nature of this place. Open your eyes slowly and you will see."
Once she found the nerve to comply, it seemed to Christabel as if she stood inside an immense geode. The entire cavern seemed lined in jagged, deep purple crystals. A lake spread beneath the catwalk, and though it was too deep for her to see the bottom she suspected it would be little different from the ceiling. As her ears adapted to the space and filtered out the constant low hum of the ventilation fans, she could hear the faint, syncopated, and atonal music of water dripping from the ceiling. As each droplet struck the lake, it sent ripples that collided with those radiating from the impacts of other droplets, so that the surface never stilled and neither reflected nor admitted any insight into its depths. Only once did she see any evidence of life in these opaque waters as an eyeless fish broke the surface to take an insect skimming across the gentle chop for its prey.
"Beautiful, is it not?" Isaac had an arm about her waist, steadying her as she leaned on the railing. "Few such ecosystems like this exist on this planet. This cavern is heated by the magma tubes that feed Mount Erebus. One such tube runs beneath the bottom of this lake. Magma occasionally breaks through, and is immediately cooled by the water. The water dissolves the igneous rock, releasing minerals that extremophilic microorganisms feed upon, providing the foundation for a food web.
Something resembling a tendril of kelp broke the surface, and began questing along the posts supporting the walkway's railing. The side closest to Christabel seemed to be lined with suckers reminiscent of those of an octopus or a squid. "Isaac, what /is/ that?"
"Some organism the Almighty has recreated out of its own memories," said Isaac. As it reached for Isaac, he condensed a blade of ice out of the air that constantly sublimated in his hand. Ice radiated along the tendril's veins from where the cold sword bit into it, causing it to shatter beneath its weight. The owner of the resulting stump withdrew, and Isaac released his blade. "It seems I need to adjust the binding patterns again if it can draw enough power to create something that big."
"Are there monsters down here?"
Isaac shook his head. "The organisms the Almighty recreates are native to its home planet. They are only monstrous because they do not belong /here/ and their evolution cannot be traced to any common ancestor in this planet's tree of life. The angels it sends are different. Hopefully you will not see for yourself."
"Maybe I'd be better off not seeing the Almighty, either?" Though she had wanted evidence to support the story Isaac and his teachers had told her, that tendril had been a bit more than she was prepared to incorporate into her understanding of reality.
"You would be, but it's too late for that," said Isaac. "You need to see before you'll accept the necessity of belief. This is better for my purposes, for you, and for the world than blind faith, but it is a harder path to tread. Now, follow close and touch nothing. You are safest with me, but it is not safe down here."
Though it felt as though she had been following the suspended walkway that led back to the AsgarTech Building's private elevator all day, Christabel's implant told her that a mere hour had passed. The catwalk had led them out of the subterranean lake and down a long dead magma tube.
At the end of the tube lay a spherical chamber, which Christabel suspected had not been created by natural processes. Within a massive block of ice to which machines whose functions she did not understand were attached a whirlwind of flame seemed to writhe. It blazed with the radiance of a noonday desert sun, but the ice encasing it would not melt.
The presence within the ice addressed Isaac in polyphony; the names it used overlapping.
"Mastema... Why have you come to taunt Me?"
"Prometheus... Why have you come to taunt Me?"
"Imaginos... Why have you come to taunt Me?"
"You've been straining at your bindings again, I see."
"Not merely straining, little upstart." The incandescent storm seemed to shift within its prison. "What of the ape following you? A sacrifice, perhaps?"
"It would be fitting for humanity to know you as Moloch, but she is not for you."
"Nevertheless, I think I shall have her. I shall rip her gestalt from her brain and make her part of my Host."
As the Almighty declared its intent, shapes coalesced out of the darkness surrounding its prison where the walkway's lights could not reach. They resembled masses of wings covered in eyes. The beings' eyes stared unblinking at Isaac and Christabel, intent with predatory hunger. Each spread multiple sets of wings, revealing that they bore the faces akin to those of humans, lions, bulls, and eagles, but kept one set of wings wrapped tightly about their bodies as if for modesty's sake.
Christabel backed away, reaching into her purse for the weapon Isaac had given her. Once she had it out, she activated it, holding the force blade between herself and the abominations before her. "Stay /away/ from me." She meant it as a command, but the words came out on a moan and sounded more like a plea to her own ears.
"I will see to these angels." Rather than turn to address her, he kept his eyes on those of the beings that appeared around the Almighty as they began to chant. "Leave me, Christabel. You have seen enough."
As she turned to comply, one of the entities appeared before her and spread its wings. Its four faces sang a polyphonic chorus. "Holy, holy, holy..."
"Holy shit," said Christabel, breaking character and dropping the accent she had cultivated. "You fuckers are even uglier up close."
As she thrust the forceblade into its chest, it screamed in four-part harmony and burst afire. The flames did not last long, and they left no ash behind. She threw herself into a sprint, still keeping her weapon handy but with her thumb off the trigger lest she stumble and injure herself with it.
Something had happened to the catwalk lights after she had gotten out of the magma tube and the cavernous subterranean lake stretched before her. Since her breath had run short she slowed to a walk and used the railing to guide her as the world around her faded to eigengrau.
Some of them flew ahead of her and placed themselves in her path, their own preternatural radiance announcing their presence and lighting her way. Each was more grotesque in appearance than the last, every one of them an obscenity flung in the face of her understanding of nature. In the cavern they could attack from every side, but for some reason they attempted frontal assaults. Christabel had found that she need only hold out her weapon, and thumb it on when an angel got close enough. They did not seem to understand that the weapon activated instantly and killed on contact.
The last was different. This one more closely resembled the angels Christabel had seen depicted in old paintings kept in museums; it resembled a human man possessed of impossible beauty; its skin seemed of bronze, its hair of gold, its wings feathered in platinum, and its eyes glittering diamoned hard. It bore a flaming sword similar to her own forceblade, and long-buried instinct warned her against stepping within reach of that weapon.
Standing guard before the elevator, it spike in chimes. "You may not return to the world. Not now that you have seen. Be not afraid, child of man; your end shall be swift."
The soft rustle of wings behind her beneath the endless chant of "holy, holy, holy..." told Christabel she was surrounded. Everything Isaac had tried to teach her about fighting was a blank.
Instead, it was something Morgan had once said that came to mind: /When every avenue of escape is denied you, do not freeze because flight seems impossible. Nor should you freeze because you do not know how to fight. Should you ever find yourself in such peril, remember that you need not fight your enemies. You need only kill them./
"Kneel and submit before the Lord thy God," said the angel with the burning sword. Its approach was slow, with the dignity of a procession, and it held its brand by its side loosely gripped in its right hand. "Peace be upon you."
For some reason a snatch of a psalm came to Christabel's mind. Here, beneath the earth was the valley of the shadow of death and she was in its midst. A calm settled over her as she sank to one knee and bowed her head. Despite her awareness that she only had one shot, and that blowing it would be her death, her only thought was /I will fear no evil/, the fixed idea repeating like a mantra.
The angel stopped, and raised its sword overhead in a two-handed grip as it spread its wings. Once the flaming tip was at its apex, Christabel thrust upward with her forceblade and activated it. Her weapon pierced the angel's immaculate body as its scream pierced the cavern's silence. The angels behind her began to keen as she sprang forward and crossed the remaining distance to the elevator at a dead sprint, pounding the call button with the heel of her free hand and putting her back to the door to face the angels that would surely swoop down on her en masse.
Instead, the angels fell frozen in midflight. Most struck the lake below and sank, but one struck the catwalk and shattered against the steel, spraying fragments like shrapnel in all directions. Once Christabel had lowered the arm she had used to protect her face, she found Isaac standing before her. He was immaculate, his cravat still perfectly knotted and not a single silken strand of his frost-blond hair out of place, and he held a steaming brand of nitrogen ice in each fist.
For some reason, all Christabel could say was the question that had nagged her since the first time he had condensed a sword of ice out of thin air. "Doesn't it hurt to hold those?"