The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Chapter Thirty-six: All the Heavens of Earth

        Sara and Brunhilde made a high, wide circle around the monumental central hill of the Celestial City, the native proudly showing off the local sights to the tourist.
        In the center, a massive pyramid dominated the scenery, but it was not the multi-thousand-year-old ruin that Sara had once visited. Its whitely gleaming limestone façade was smoothly intact, an awesome sight unseen since the dawn of recorded history. There were other pyramids from other continents, all in pristine condition. The nearby Parthenon was as it had been in its glory days atop the Athenian Acropolis. Many, many other symbolic structures were represented as well, such as Angor Wat, the Pantheon, Chichen Itza, the Statue of Liberty, Hagia Sophia, Stonehenge, and the Taj Mahal. There were still others from forgotten realms that had long ago crumbled to dust — including the Philistine edifice brought down by Samson — now faithfully restored to glory. Only the Alamo was in less than pristine condition, since its metaphorical importance was as the bullet-scarred fortress of sacrifice it became, rather than its original mission.
        Sara excitedly called out the names of the ones she recognized.
        "Those are not the habitations, Sara Corel," Brunhilde shouted over the windy noise of their passage. "They serve to represent expressions of reverance, made holy by the consecration of their devotees."
        "OK," Sara shouted back, "So which ones are the godpads?"
        "See? There is Olympus, abode of the gods of two worlds, Hellenes and Romans, and inspiration to philosophers of myriad ages and cultures."
        A craggy outcrop of granite supported a few dozen exquisite marble-columned dwellings clustered around a central ampitheater. No movie matte had ever done the scene justice.
        "And there abide the animal-headed Egyptian deities along with millenia of dynastic god-kings and their retinues," Brunhilde cried, pointing to enormous sandstone palaces surrounded by massive Pharaonic statuary and obelisks.
        Sara recognized another huge complex of structures overlooking the river from a bluff at the base of the hill.
        "Isn't that the Kremlin? What's it doing here?"
        "Men oft made gods of what once were men. The creations of obedient mass adulation have aquired immortal status. In that place reigns the avatar of the god Stalin, though his soul lies elsewhere."
        "Ugh," Sara replied. "I guess that explains the Chinese Forbidden City and the Japanese Imperial Palace."
        "Those have had many masters, though not as numerous as the Pharaohs. They are attended by the soulless shades of their most fanatical worshippers, courtiers, and factotums. Hordes of ideologues, political commisars and grey bureaucrats serve the Soviet gods, and slogan-chanting students waving little red books proclaim the Chairman's religion. The Reichschancellory is there," Brunhilde pointed, "and Camelot is over there."
        "What about that little old place?" Sara asked, pointing below them. It was a mansion from the Old South with a pink Cadillac in the driveway. "Doesn't look like a godly dwelling compared to everything else. Who lives there?"

        With the sun nearing the horizon, they made their final approach. As they neared the bridge, Bifrost, that provided the only access to Asgard, they were intercepted by a great number of wingéd beings of indeterminate gender who laboriously rose to meet them, flapping frantically with the great effort needed to cope with their unlikely aerodynamic design. Brunhilde did not seem to be very pleased, but made no attempt to avoid them.
        "Who are they?" Sara asked.
        "A company of the Heavenly Host," she replied, with all the enthusiasm normally reserved for door-to-door Bible-bangers. "Annoying busybodies, but unavoidable to all who stray within their range. 'Twould be best to humor them."
        The colorfully gowned mob escorted them to a wide plaza enclosed by their innumerable barracks, singing robustly to the accompaniment of harps, cymbals and a vast collection of modern, medieval and even antique musical instruments. They made a great and joyous noise unto Heaven, altogether louder than a rock concert and in likely violation of local noise ordinances.
        One poor fellow struggled mightily with a tuba, barely able to stay aloft, much less loose an occasional bassic blast. Their flying might leave something to be desired, but Sara had to admit that their harmony was first-rate. They probably have a lot of time to practice, she thought.
        They touched down amidst a noisy celebration, each heavenly denizen proclaiming his or her rapture more expressively than the next. It took some bit of time for the praising and worshipping to die down enough to make conversation possible.
        "Thou hast a guest unknown to us, sister Brunhilde. Wilt not thou makest introductions?" said their chieftain, a large and imposing warrior of exceeding fairness, an eternal youth with abundant platinum curls, garbed in flowing white samite and golden fighting harness, clutching a silver spear.
        "Sara Corel, human soul — Raphael, archgeneral of the 3275th Blesséd Legion," she intoned formally and perfunctorily. If she'd had a watch, she'd have glanced at it.
        "Pleased to meet you," Sara curtsied.
        "Our presence doth honor ye," he replied. The throng surrounding them shouted affirming halleluiahs and amens, flapping and singing, rattling their tambourines and bleating their horns.
        Sara looked at Brunhilde, who sighed and rolled her eyes skyward. This could take the rest of the afternoon.
        When the tumult died out, Sara said, "Yeah, it was a real moment and everything, but we've got an appointment…"
        "Yea, verily" he replied, "And thou hast kept it! Come — rejoice with us and know the everlasting Word of glory!" Another round of wing-fluttering hosannas and fanfares swept the excitable mob.
        Eventually, Sara was able to say, "Actually, I came over from the humans…" 
        "Praises be! Thou shalt be one of our company as our holy crusade issues forth to smite the enemies of righteousness!" He exclaimed. Singing erupted, accompanied by martial melodies — as if John Phillip Sousa had joined forces with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
        When the impromptu parade finally ground to a halt, Sara protested, "This 'smiting' stuff… Is that really necessary?"
        "We shall crush the blasphemy of disbelief!" The crowd went nearly hysterical in their show of patriotic fervor.
        "Well," Sara was finally able to say, "Frankly, I'm hoping we can find a way to keep the war from happening."
        Raphael started to speak, and then stared uncomprehendingly at her with his mouth open. The assemblage was stricken with quiet.
         At last, one of the company said, "You mean, no fighting?"
        "That's what I hope," said Sara.
        "What's the point in that?" another said, King James accent forgotten..
        "No killing," said Sara. "No smiting. No wounding and suffering,."
        "But," said still another, "It's… It's prophecy."
        "It's what we're supposed to do," a voice complained.
        "They're dead anyway, and we're immortal."
        Sara objected, "What about all the suffering that goes with it?"
        They looked at each other, puzzled. One said, "We do not suffer."
        "But they would," Sara pleaded.
        The assemblage just stared at her. Their expressions seemed to say, And your point is…? Brunhilde examined her fingernails.
        "And, anyway," she continued, "you're just as corporeal as the rest of us. I wouldn't be too sure about not getting hurt. They're not gonna try to sing you to death. Have you ever gotten up close and personal with a tank?"
        "We fear naught. We are the Heavenly Host, fell and impervious," Rafael intoned. A few half-hearted responses were heard and the tuba player blew a sour note.
        "Fine," said Sara. "Tell you what. Why don't you stick me with that toothpick of yours and see what happens?"
        Raphael hesitated unsurely and Sara taunted him, "Come on, your archgeneralship. Show me what you got. We're gonna have to rumble pretty soon anyway, right?"
        He looked at Brunhilde, who gave him a most disdainful look, wounding him as surely as arrows. The crowd began to egg him on.
        "Go ahead."
        "Do it."
        "Show her."
        "She mocks us."
        He suddenly reared back and hurled his weapon straight at her. His aim was true and his technique superb, talent and practice in the martial arts clearly evident. It rebounded from the center of her emblem and clattered noisily to the pavement, its elaborate point bent into uselessness.
        "Now it's my turn," she said, advancing on Raphael. She punched him very carefully in the stomach — not a hard blow, but there was a mountain of momentum behind it. He crumpled, clutching himself in unaccustomed pain.
        "Ow!" he moaned reproachfully. "That hurt."
        His troops were stunned, uncomprehending. This was a nasty bit of cognitive dissonance.
        Sara bent over and helped him to his feet. "You better think about this, all of you. If you want to fight this silly fight, you should know it's not going to be anything like choir practice."
        They'd never been hurt before. Their entire existences had been devoted entirely to song and ease, oblivious to any kind of strife or lack, every wish fulfilled and every whim satisfied. They had never known birth, life, suffering, inconvenience or even discouraging words. Their lot was the stuff of unearned — and therefore unappreciated — fantasy. Pain and defeat were alien to them by the very act of their creation. Their minds refused to even grasp the concept. They could not understand that things might be different now.
        They milled uncertainly.
        A new sound thundered onto the plaza from the far corner as a long line of chromed Harleys blasted up out of a tunnel from some subterranean source and motored noisily toward them, farty four-stroke p-p-p-pops echoing their hard acceleration from the surrounding buildings. The feathery herd respectfully made way for the newcomers, who were clad in intimidating black-on-black outfits featuring protruding studs and spikes and other un-charming decorations. They were a rough lot, like characters from a string of dreadful post-apocalyptic B-movies melded with the nightmare paintings of Heironymous Bosch. Everything about their demeanor proclaimed them to be badasses.
        The leader screeched to a halt in front of Raphael, trailing a cloud of hot, oily exhaust. His leather jacket was emblazoned on the back with a large circular patch bearing his initials, 'B.L.Z.', arced above a flaming death's head, with his handle, 'Bubba', grinning below it.
        Rafael acknowledged him distractedly, "H'lo, Bubba."
        "Yo, Rafe," Bubba replied, eyeing Sara. "Who's the new bitch?"
        "Sarah something-or-other," Rafael responded poutily. "She says we shouldn't fight the Last Battle."
        The army of nightmarish bikers howled derisively. Bubba barked at Sara, "What are you? Some kinda human?"
        "Yes, I am," said Sara proudly. "I care for my fellow humans, and this whole silly war is ridiculous. There's got to be a better way."
        "I thought they was all warriors up there, not a bunch of girley pansies. If you don't want to fight that's cool with me. Maybe me an' you can have some fun before I kick your ass back to Hell," he leered suggestively. His mates roared their approval.
        Sara looked at Brunhilde, who shrugged. So she deliberately walked over to Bubba's bike and picked it up with one hand.
        He snarled at her, "Nobody fucks with my bike, bitch."
        She folded it in half.
        Cursing profusely, Bubba swung his huge, knarly fist at Sara's face, connecting solidly. The shock of contact stunned him momentarily.
        "Ow!" he moaned reproachfully. "That hurt."
        Raphael commiserated, "She hurt me, too. And ruined my spear."
        The two of them looked at Sara uncertainly. The silent crowd edged away from her. Brunhilde laughed.
        Sara addressed the throng, "If you idiots are so intent on fighting, then you'd better realize that those humans out there all know what it's like to suffer and die — and you'll likely find out yourselves if you mess with them. What could possibly be worth going through that? Do any of you even know why everybody's so set on this?"
        Brunhilde came beside her and said, "They need not ken the reason for the task to which they are set. But they will do what they have to do. Just as I will, friend Sara Corel. Just as will your friends."
        "Damn' straight," said Bubba.
        "Yea, verily," said Raphael.
        They have no souls, Sara reminded herself. They cannot be but what they are.
        There was an awkward silence until Bubba announced, "Screw this. Let's party."
        "Amen!" affirmed Raphael, and all the glorious bedlam started anew as the two groups together moved away from the girls. A hymn broke out, cymbals clashed and flutes tootled. Bikes were kickstarted into raucous life, popping squealing wheelies. The tuba player hurried after the rest, wings waving and cheeks puffing. They quickly disappeared into the barracks of the 3275th — wings, tubas, motorcycles and all.
        Brunhilde told Sara, "Well done! Mayhap this wast the quickest method yet seen to dispatch these boors. Let's away."

        Asgard proved to be dark and foreboding in the gathering gloom of evening. There were stoneworks, but most of it was ornately carved heavy wood that smelled faintly of forest mustiness and resin. Dragons and trolls lurked in every decoration, and the complex surfaces sucked up sounds and cast disturbing shadows by the flickering of torches. Smoke had stained the ceilings black, leaving a bite in the air that tickled the throat and teased the nostrils.
        It was a Heaven devoted to battle and death, whose only glory derived from duty and honor in the face of certain doom. Its comforts and rewards were in strong drink and gluttony, rough comradeship and the warmth of a blazing hearth on a cold night. Here, the wolves howled within.
        Brunhilde ushered Sara into her father's study. He sat heavily astride a fur-covered throne of bones, his one good eye gauging the depths of eternity. The great black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who flew forth daily to gather tidings of events great and small, perched dolefully on either side, close to his ears. His countenance was as bleak as the frozen northern wastelands, and he huddled within himself, a wizened husk hoarding unspoken power.
        "Hail, Allfather, sire and lord. I bring a traveler for your blessing and wisdom. She is called Sara Corel and is a mighty warrior, a soul of the human kind possessed of godly attributes."
        His eye fixed them like a bolt. "Brunhilde, my dear. I see so little of my precious daughters these days. Come hither that I might embrace thee. And bring your friend. I know somewhat of her, and somewhat of her doom."
        They approached him and he laid his ancient hands briefly upon their shoulders. They sank back into the piles of skins that littered the stone floor before his seat.
        "What would you have of me, child?" he asked Sara.
        He impressed her. His strength and wisdom poured over her like an icy flood, chilling her senses and piercing her mind like an icicle. She had been so full of questions that now seemed so foolish in his presence. She felt an unaccustomed shyness and lowered her chin, looking back up at him like a small child. All she could think to ask was, "Why…?" in a very small voice.
        He looked gravely at her. "Your friend is wise, daughter. She asks the question that cannot be answered."
        Sara was at first mortified, but seeing Brunhilde's beaming smile finally realized that he had shown her an unmistakable sign of affection.
        "It is called the Twilight of the Gods, fortold in every lore, part of the basis of human understanding of their destinies. For we immortals were begotten by humankind who knew the limits of their wisdom. In us was vested the unexplainable against that time when they could understand for themselves the meaning of the question you posed. And when that time comes, humans must wrest from the gods their stewardship of the unknown.
        "We will not pass quietly, nor will we pass utterly. There is usefulness for us yet. But the hold of superstition must be confronted and the fears overcome. This will be a battle of tokens fought in the unconscious ubermind of humanity, defining collective rationality against which individual dreams can be measured.
        "The pain and suffering must needs be real, and the outcome uncertain. An abyss of chaos lies beneath us all, and the old gods may return in greater force, or new gods arise, enslaving their masters for millennia in fundamentalist intolerance. There are those ever ready to slay reason at the altar of dogma, and humans have a weakness for idols of their own making.
        "The essential difference between those beings with souls and such as we is that for them, the concept of 'death' is meaningless. It is the true life, but it is formless and without meaning. They partake of 'life' as a diversion, a challenge, a means to enhance the structure of their underlying essence. Experiences are born of imagination, and that is the only meaningful capital in the economy of eternity."
        Sara sat motionless throughout his speech, and there was silence for a time after. Finally, she said, "But the pain… Few will die quickly in such a battle. Many will linger in agony for who knows how long. There's got to be a better way to — to…" 
        "Tomorrow," he said, "there will be a convocation of the Higher Powers. You shall be my guest. Now it is time for dinner. Will you join us, Sara Corel?"
        Like she would refuse…

        Sara walked with Odin and Brunhilde to the enormous main hall of Valhalla with its roof of shields and 540 doors, each wide enough to pass 800 warriors abreast. The rough and raucous cacaphony of the heroes filled the great space (…almost as big as the Astrodome, Sara thought). There was a tremendous shout when their party entered, and a din of ram's horns (…sounds like the Astrodome, too, she added). The other Valkyries were gathered before the long head table from whence Odin would preside over the nightly feast that always concluded a day of fighting drill. Even those who had been grievously injured were made whole in time for supper.
        Brunhilde motioned for Sara to follow her. The shieldmaidens did not sit at table, but rather tended to the heros they had fetched from myriad battles, pouring wine and trading coarse jests in a familiar manner. Each of the sisters had been responsible for bringing in about a twelfth of the horde and knew every one of them by name. Some they even knew intimately. After all, they could choose whosoever they would amongst the slain, for whatever reasons they wished. They were all valorous men, of course, but some were more valorous than others — and others were more, shall we say, manly.
        The warriors made quite a fuss over Sara as she moved among them, making boozy offers and launching flagrant gropes. It was all she could do to avoid having some of the bolder ones try to throw her over their shoulders and carry her away. Her apparent youth was not a problem among men from a culture where life must be lived quickly and girls Sara's age had already borne their Viking mates' children.
        She passed Brunhilde and asked, "Is it always like this?"
        The Valkyrie nodded enthusiastically and whirled into the thick of a massive brawl in order to encourage their mayhem all the more.
        There was an enormous quantity of food available, mostly of the heart-attack-on-a-plate variety — except that there weren't any plates. Or silverware, besides lethal-looking knives. Forget glasses or even cups: mead, ale, wine and other adult beverages flowed from skins or resided briefly in drinking horns — which, once filled, could not be set down and must therefore be emptied. There was enough alcohol (and meat byproducts) on the floor to consitute a fire hazard.
        Eventually, Sara was summoned to the head table and introduced to the other gods in attendence that night by Brunhilde, interrupting the usual litany of boasts by Thor. She recounted their brush with Raphael and B.L.Z. 'Bubba', which drew laughs of appreciation from most.
        Thor never liked being upstaged — especially by a girl — and snorted derisively, "Bearding such halfmen is hardly a worthy deed. Those mincing flutterers and their brimstone-stenchéd lovers are not worth a good kicking."
        Brunhilde laughed at him and said, "Regard her not lightly, brother, or she may pull your beard."
        "How so?" said the easily offended champion of Asgard. "You think this brat my challenger?"
        "Aye, braggart. That I do."
        Thor looked as if he had been slapped. That was a grievous insult, one he would not take lightly even from a Valkyrie kinswoman. A current of anticipation swept through the multitude like a wave at a football game. Oho! The wench would match herself with Thor! What sport!
        "Now, wait a minute," Sara objected. "I'm not trying to pick a fight…"
        "Bah," said Thor contemptuously.
        "Nay. Not a mere fight," Brunhilde countered dramatically, playing to the masses. "A contest!"
        The Norsemen bellowed their appreciation. This was what they wanted to see. For they knew a contest involving the gods — especially Thor — was never what it seemed.
        "What manner of contest?" Thor asked suspiciously.
        "Yeah," said Sara, "what?"
        "Sara Corel has made a long journey to be with us tonight and has served our heroes well, taking nothing yet for herself. What poor hosts we have become if we do not offer to assuage her hunger, for surely she must be famished by now. And mighty Thor has barely touched his meat. We know he has an appetite!"
        The hall exploded in laughter — for, indeed, his was renowned.
        "But methinks," Brunhilde went on, "the poor waif's is the greater this night. Why, she is so thin and pale she must have much need of nourishment. Let us see if great Thor can keep apace with her."
        The noise was deafening. The gods applauded. Even Odin smiled. Thor looked like he somehow knew he was being blindsided and couldn't do anything about it.
        Poor Thor. He tried — and it was a mighty effort — but he never had a chance. And nobody else got seconds that night.
        Eventually, the besotted warriors either passed out or crawled away as the torches guttered and smoked into mere embers. The gods retired and a wagon was brought 'round to carry away Thor's insensate bulk. For a few days, he would be a 'thunder-god' indeed.

        The Valkyries' apartments, in a separate wing, shared a common area. There, Brunhilde introduced her sisters: Grimhilde, Kreimhilde, Sigrun, Svava, Kara, Hilda, Hriste, Miste, Skuld, Urd, and Belledande. They were all as gloriously beautiful, strong and proud as Brunhilde and welcomed Sara as a fellow warrior who had given their brother a well-deserved comeuppance.
        They didn't understand Sara's squeamishness about the battle, looking forward to it themselves in high excitement. They had witnessed plenty of fights over the centuries, choosing the worthiest warriors to carry away when they fell. Though their souls went to Hell with all the others, their doppelgangers dwelt still in Valhalla, carousing and fighting, preparing for Ragnarok — now only two days' hence.
        "I thought so," said Sara. "Some of the guys back there looked awfully familiar. So their 'souls' are out there with the humans… And the Valhallans? They don't have 'souls'? I don't get it."
        Skuld was the brainy one of the lot. She tried to explain, "All who are in the Heavens are but symbols, metaphors, representations. As we are immortal, we are also unchanging, fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. And so it is with the shades of these slain examples of what it means to be a warrior. They each defined the honorable warrior spirit, and so their avatars are represented in this place made for them. It is so in many cultures, where there have been places prepared to receive the valiant dead. But the essence that created each model perished, only to be resurrected from Hell for this purpose."
        "You mean, like Muslims or Cossacks or Japanese soldiers who believe they'd go straight to Heaven if they died in combat."
        "Thus mankind must in part face himself in this battle to end his gods. Some souls must confront their own superstitious creations."
        Most of the Valkyries slipped away during Skuld's speech, changing from their battle dress into something softer. They had trysts to keep and flew silently away into the darkness one by one. Only Brunhilde, Kara and Sigrun stayed behind to visit with Sara.
        They cozied up in front of the fireplace on a pillow mountain, their giggly conversation turning eventually to the subject of men. They were keen appraisers of maleflesh, comparing notes about the relative merits or weaknesses of the lovers they'd taken.
        Sara was embarrassed but fascinated by their stories. "But I thought that 'shieldmaiden' meant…"
        They laughed at her naïve notions, Kara explaining, "Today I am a maiden, and tomorrow I will be a maiden still. But tonight…"
        Brunhilde told her, "We are goddesses. This is Heaven. If you return to the ice cream shoppe in the morn, you will find it untouched."
        "Oh," said Sara. That bit of information sounded very important to her somehow.
        "So who shall we find suitable for young Sara?" Sigrun asked merrily.
        "Aye," Kara responded, "She merits our best hospitality."
        Sara protested, "Now, wait a minute…" but they carried on.
        "Hrolfgar is a patient, gentle man…" suggested Brunhilde.
        "Who'll put her to sleep, like as not," Sigrun countered.
        "What of Olaf? He is mighty…" Kara said.
        "Mighty quick," Brunhilde testified to general laughter.
        "Gunnar Gunnarsen wields a great spear…"
        "Betimes. And betimes not."
        "Beonir is most comely…"
        "And fancies Gunnar Gunnarsen."
        "Ladies, please," said Sara. "I'm very grateful, but, really, even if I wanted to take you up on your offers to, uh, help me, it just wouldn't work out, believe me. I mean — I don't know how to put this — I really am indestructable, y'know. Really indestructable. Everywhere."
        "There's always sister Hrist," Hilda said. "She has an Amazon lover on Olympus." The others tittered.
        "As do you, sister dear," said Kara.
        "As do we all," said Brunhilde, "when our revel-sotted he-men cannot be roused to do their duties."
        The lusty goddesses laughed. It was clear, though, that they took the burdens of hospitality seriously..
        "Oh, swell," said Sara. "Yeah, I'm really flattered, but I don't think I wanna swing that way."
        Brunhilde shushed the rest. "Please, the jest goes far enough, sisters. Let us honor our guest."
        "Hey, I know you mean well. Honest, I appreciate it and all. Maybe I wish it was that easy." She looked a little wistful.
        Gently, Brunhilde reminded her, "This is Heaven, Sara Corel. All things must be possible here…"
        When at last Sara slept, she dreamed of gods.

Chapter Thirty-seven: The Congress of Gods

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© Patrick Hill, 2000