Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Bonfire Of The Vanities

When last we delved into the story of Lucifer, we considered the nature of absence. Absence, as I argued, is simply the presence of some other concept, or some other state of mind. This is why Lucifer's insistence that there is nothing he wishes to acquire is entirely reasonable on its face, but distinctly lacking when you dig into it.

Death has already worked this out, of course, but further ruminations on this subject will have to wait. Lucifer has an appointment to keep in Hell, and whatever else one might want to say about him (quietly, for fear he may hear you), the Morningstar is a not someone to keep his enemies waiting.

We need not abandon the idea of absence completely, of course, because Lucifer heads to the plains of Effruil for a duel against the angel Amenadiel, and does so whilst bereft of much of his power.  As I've said, however, the absence of the overwhelmingly potent Samael simply means the presence of something else, in this case, the calculating, manipulative Samael.

Actually, we've met him more than once before.  He made his most obvious appearance in the House of Windowless Rooms, in which he was a mortal amongst Gods. There, he made one enemy his servant, and caused a second to kill a third.  His facing down of the Basanos was another example; Lucifer had no chance of defeating the living tarot deck in a straight up fight, but by threatening their unborn child, he persuaded them to destroy themselves rather than lose their progeny.

In both those cases, Lucifer turned his foes against each other, and against themselves.  Really, all he had to do was dodge or withstand the blows that came his way, and wait until someone else lunged the wrong way (literally in the case of Susano-no-Mikoto ).  Even when our protagonist is at full power, though, this tends to be his preferred approach; the only real difference lies in who he can call upon to take to the field for him, whether that be Mazikeen and the Lilim, Japanese spider demons, or a giant killer immortal foetus.

Theoretically, that's an excellent approach.  Your victories are your own, and your defeats only cost others.  The only problem is that if you spend people as ammunition, you need to make damn sure you're making enough allies to keep your guns loaded.  And making allies is exactly what Lucifer claims to have no interest in doing.

You could consider the fact that the Morningstar has survived this long at all as a triumph of tactics over strategy.  Somehow, Lucifer always has the tools to hand.  There's always some way to push people just so that ensures he comes out on top, but with a little planning, a little grace and dare I say it a little humility, these last-minute escapes from certain calamity wouldn't be so risky, or so commonplace.  On the other hand, if one could ask him - and like Death, do so at a time where he couldn't just squish you for your impertinence - he might simply say that he's willing to take the risk.

Either way, Lucifer arrives in Hell with a distinct lack of power, and most of those who might have been inclined to help him dead.  It's time for another last-minute escape from certain calumny.

We're now far enough into Carey's tale that we can pretty much assume such an escape will be forthcoming, and it will doubtless involve misdirection and a judo-like application of his enemies' own strengths against themselves. What Carey does here, then, is take great pains to delineate the nature of the trap Lucifer finds himself in, so as to make this story about how Lucifer bends the rules, rather than demonstrating how willing he is do it.  Basically, this is a heist movie set in Hell, and the big score is the Morningstar's life.

The boundaries of Lucifer's predicament come from three sources, character, plot, and narrative.  Together, these strands form the simplex triangle within which Lucifer resides (though really, what story doesn't use the same principles to the same end?).  Those first two sources change their forms and implications as the story moves onward, of course, but it's the narrative that has really sealed Lucifer within the box:  "I have brought an angel to his death", Christopher Rudd tells us on only the second page, and Amenadiel grins with triumph as he holds aloft a human heart still gushing blood.

A duel between Lucifer and Amenadiel in which we quickly learn one wins by tearing out the heart of the other?  An angel dead?  Amenadiel displaying his grizzly trophy?  Like so many prophecies in fantasy, we can assume that the goal here will be to escape what is foretold without violating what is foretold, but the question of how becomes both more urgent and more interesting.

One potential escape route is suggested early on in the proceedings: Lucifer has dispatched Mazikeen to intercept the fleeing Susano-no-Mikoto, and retrieve and burn the feathers the Japanese deity carries with them, to allow the power within to return to the fallen angel.  The implication here is that Lucifer's predicament has a time limit, that sooner or later Mazikeen will catch her quarry and moments later the Morningstar will return to full power.  Of course, Lucifer has no idea when Mazikeen will manage this feat, or even if she will succeed at all, so playing for time has its limits as a viable strategy.

This is particularly true because of the other characters in this drama.  Amenadiel, Remiel - the angel who rules Hell following Lucifer's abdication - and Arax - ruler of Effruil, where the duel will take place - have all witnessed Samael's previous victories.  They know how he fights, or avoids fighting, and have taken great pains to fashion their battle plan accordingly.  They will test Lucifer's power, then act on what they have learned.  They will brook no delays in kicking off the duel, if indeed their foe survives long enough to make it to the arena.  They've placed Lucifer under the care of Christopher Rudd, a man with no friends in Hell, and with every reason to hate Lucifer for his former stewardship of the system Rudd is determined to overthrow.

No allies.  No surprises.  No way to play for time.  That's the plan.  That's what watching Lucifer's uncompromising and unsubtle dance through the cosmos has taught them.  Whilst the loss of his power at the hands of the Ainu Gods has no doubt assisted Amenadiel in his schemes, it may well be that Lucifer's true peril lies not in his own status, but in the knowledge of those that oppose him.  By the end of the first issue of "Inferno" (Lucifer #29), it seems their plan will work out: Christopher seems more interested in threatening the Morningstar than in aiding him, and an attack by men loyal to Arux reveals that if you cut Lucifer, he does indeed bleed.  Meanwhile, Mazikeen has been led into a trap of her own by Susano, and now awaits the punishment of Scoria, a demon convinced that she is his wayward bride, though there is some disagreement on that score.

The board changes in the second issue, not all of it to Lucifer's disadvantage.  We learn of the specific nature of duels in Hell.  The winner is he who tears out his opponent's heart and eats it.  The only way to cheat would be to remove one's heart before the combat, but such a move would be immediately obvious to one's opponent, and forfeit one's life.  Once again, Carey is describing the bars of Lucifer's prison, to amaze us all the more when he escapes.

The Morningstar's enemies manage one victory and two defeats here, on the day before the duel. Their victory and their first defeat are obvious: having learned of Lucifer's vulnerability, they have dispatched an assassin and an assassin's helper to Rudd's castle, in the hopes of finishing off their adversary before the duelling grounds are ever needed.  The assassin himself Lucifer kills (or tricks into getting itself killed, on which more in a moment), but it's companion, an insane cherub named Vertis, infects him with its own paranoid incoherence, weakening him still further.

It is perhaps fitting that Vertis succeeds where the assassin himself, a demon named Braid - one half centipede, one half a trio of human torsos atop one another, and a distant cousin of Musubi, she of the scented well and no little skill at angel killing herself - considers the cherub utterly useless.  It is Lucifer who speaks the word that springs the trap that kills Braid, but really, the demon's own arrogance bears the true blame.  It doesn't occur to him that two minor cantrips might be a danger, only to discover that one of them was the only thing keeping the ground beneath him solid.  If I'd been privy to Amenadiel's plotting, I might have suggested the job of angel murdering is best given to those who can fly, but it's easy to criticise from the sidelines.

What's clearly true, though, is that arrogance got Braid killed, and arrogance is what got Braid hired.  For all the time spent considering how to deal with Lucifer, Amenadiel and his co-conspirators forgot the most important rule about fighting Lucifer: he is no less dangerous when he is without power.  It is merely that the danger changes form.

The other mis-step made by Lucifer's foes is to concentrate so hard on trying to not underestimate him (with already only mixed success), they've underestimated Christopher Rudd instead, and completely ignored the Lady Lys, with the result that they have aided Samael.  This is their second defeat, to allow allies - albeit temporary ones - to sneak in and help out.  But that's the trouble with the overwhelmingly arrogant.  At best you can only teach them to avoid underestimating specific people.

No discussion of the arrogance of characters in Lucifer can avoid considering the arrogance of its eponymous character, naturally.  But here Carey surprises us by introducing something new.  Whilst Amenadiel, Remiel and Arux struggle with attempting to rein in their egos in order to outwit Lucifer, and also whilst Mazikeen is held prisoner by a demon who is convinced he has dug his way into God's mind and will therefore become God himself, Samael is being forced to rely on others, something which cuts directly against his arrogance.

In previous issues, Lucifer has been very clear on this matter: he despises the idea of being beholden to anybody.  Indeed, Meleos helped him out in the previous story arc specifically to piss him off, by puncturing his belief that he owes no debt to anyone.  This time, Lucifer receives help from people who want to help him, a far more terrifying proposition (Elaine has done this already of course, but since she died almost immediately afterwards, the weight upon Lucifer is far less).  True, Rudd looks as though he gave Samael the means to defeat Braid purely so as to gain credit for helping Amenadiel in the upcoming duel with a box capable of seeking Lucifer out, but when Duma helps the Morningstar first burn out the cherub and then get to the duelling ground (mere seconds before his absence would have incurred a forfeit), it is the action of a friend helping another friend.  There's a straight line between this and Lucifer's ultimate fate almost four years later.

It's fitting then that Amenadiel, for all his talk of ending the duel swiftly, takes some time to gloat as he easily bests the exhausted, powerless Lucifer.  "You have not inspired loyalty, Morningstar.  You have not inspired love."  "I... never asked for either", Lucifer replies, but it is the servant of Yahweh who has the last word:
But what else have we lived by, after all?  Where else is our legacy to be found?  You choose to live alone -- to reject all opinions, all realities, but your own.  So you have not lived at all.  And this is not death -- but the confirmation of death.  
These are almost the last words Amenadiel ever speaks, moments before he bites into Lucifer's heart and discovers exactly how Carey has escaped the trap he has presented to us.  It's another strong hint as to where the series is ultimately headed.  It's also a perfect encapsulation of where Amenadiel has gone wrong.  He's completely misunderstood Lucifer, and has done from the beginning.  Lucifer's entire motivation is to avoid a legacy.  Legacies are for those who care what others think.  For those whose pride in contingent on the wider world.  People like Amenadiel, who only ended up in this duel in the first place because he was so humiliated during the short battle over Lucifer's Creation.

Perhaps Amenadiel's flaw is that he assumed Lucifer's arrogance was similar to his own.  Certainly something has blinded him to the reality here, that Lucifer has replaced his own heart with that of Braid's, and bound Vertis within it.  He's evaded the rules without violating them, just as we knew he would: his own heart is in the arena, carried by Amenadiel himself, in the box Rudd gave to Arux as a way of tracking Lucifer.  What makes this solution doubly neat is that Carey has presented a more obvious ending all along.  Surely, we're led to believe, Mazikeen will escape Scoria in time to retrieve the feathers from Susano and save her former master?

And escape she does, but not in time.  Lucifer's desperately improvised and exceptionally risky plan - which relied entirely on both Arux and Amenadiel choosing to violate the rules in order to gain advantage - proves to be all that is required.  When Mazikeen pitches Susano into a flaming trench, Lucifer bursts once more into full, terrible being, but it's only in time to help with the mopping up.

Amenadiel's death would seem to signify, for the moment at least, the end of active war between the Silver City and Lucifer's Creation.  At the same time, though, new developments threaten new conflicts.  Duma has now rebelled against Heaven, and informs the Lightbringer that he's not the only one.  Christopher Rudd has replaced Lord Arux with the Lady Lys, but he makes it clear that this is only the first stage of a larger plan.  And crucially, in both these matters, Lucifer now has an active interest.  For what may be the first time since the dawn of time, Lucifer now owes favours.  Well, favours to those still alive at least.  The absence of his power has been dealt with, but in the process, he has lost something else.  Something far more fundamental.

How the awareness of this loss pans out will ultimately change the very fabric of reality.

No comments: