By Andrew P. Weston
This is an excerpt from Hell Gate by Andrew P. Weston, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Andrew P. Weston, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Hell Gate will be available in trade paperback and digital editions. Copyright 2018 by Perseid Press.
The Angel Grislington is dead, effaced from existence during an epic battle with Daemon Grim that destroyed a Zion forged blade and one of Satan’s premier palaces in the process.
Chopin and Tesla have gone to ground. So much so, that they might as well be six feet under it and helping to push up hell-daisies.
Even Erra and the Sibitti, his living weapons of vengeance and destruction, seem reticent to show their faces.
Rioting sweeps the length and breadth of the underworld. Yet the halls of the Mortuary lie vacant, for someone is stealing soul-essence, the very means by which Satan condemns sinners to everlasting torment.
But who would do such a thing? And how does the hush that descends upon the dirty streets of latterday hell tie into ancient prophecy relating to the Reaper’s destiny?
It’s often calmest before the storm.
Just imagine how bad things will get with the apocalypse approaching.
The reality of Skull Isle was vastly different to the picture I’d painted in my mind.
On a prior sortie here, I’d headed a team of pirates on a mission that led to the recovery of two of my Hell Hounds — Yamato Takeru and Champ Ferguson — from a Sibitti holding cell deep in the bowels of the clustered peaks once again before me. On that visit, a verdant ring of menace had encompassed a snowcapped cordillera, providing a taste of what lay in wait at the center of the island: the mother of all obstacle courses. An apt analogy, for rivers of molten metal, booby-trapped bridges, and lethal labyrinths riddled with hidden snares protected their prison.
But of course, that was before a monster tsunami pulverized the encircling heights and dragged the whole island beneath the waves.
I cast my senses down through the curtain of hydrothermal gasses. Fluids rippled up from the depths. I watched, mesmerized, as a veil of silver-gray mystery turned the murky waters of the Bitter Sea into an effervescent wash of contradictions.
The faint tang of fading thaumaturgy still lingered, a timely reminder of the potency that once dominated this whole region. Even better, that echo was a surefire sign my suspicions about this place might be correct.
And if they are, I’ll have a nice selection of bargaining chips to take back to the Kigali homeland.
Albeit most of the mountains had toppled, the exterior of the catacombs remained remarkably intact. The visage of one of Erra’s enforcers — the Sixth, to be precise — with jaws wide open, marked the main entrance to the waiting maze, adding a menacing overtone to a locale that didn’t need any help exuding a heartfelt f— off vibe. A gentle surge of energy propelled me toward that access point. Igniting the gem adorning the tip of my scythe, I surveyed the interior to find things much changed from my previous visit. While the atrium had survived most of the destruction and still displayed an impressive array of stalagmites and stalactites, there any similarity ended.
Now a forest of petrified megaliths and jagged stumps had replaced the glittery splendor of diamond-encrusted limestone. Stained black by an all-pervading discharge oozing from a fretwork of fissures lining floors and walls, those ranked columns filed off into the distance, obsidian clad sentinels waiting to frogmarch miscreants to certain doom.
Far from muting the former glory of the grotto, the mineral-laden soup had transformed it into a nightmarish tribute to the inexplicable and macabre.
Here ghostly eyeless fish gulped for breath, their albino feelers constantly testing the inky darkness about them for microbes and other tasty tidbits. There all manner of gothically-armored crustaceans vied with territorial starfish of outrageous size and color. Obviously wary, both soon put their differences aside to scuttle for shared cover the moment my staff illuminated them.
The only creatures unperturbed by my presence were the new colonies of hell-worms infesting the rocks around each freshly opened vent. And it soon became apparent why.
Wreathed by a halo of whiskery tendrils waving invitations to all and sundry, the hell-worms provided a calm and languid counterpoint to the frantic game of survival playing out all around them… until a careless shrimp or crab happened along. No sooner did those welcoming tentacles detect prey nearby than vicious looking barbs shot out to snare the unwary and reel them into a central maw lined with razor-sharp teeth.
Every so often shrill cries from another hapless critter that strayed too close punctuated the percolating backdrop, followed by a resounding crunch cutting short its protestations.
No matter where you venture in our many-layered underverse, it’s a constant cycle of eat or be eaten. Exactly the way it should be.
Shaking free of this pleasurable interlude, I decided it best to crack on with the business at hand: I’d come to catch what game was afoot, not to sightsee.
Examining the gloom, I noticed the rear gallery had escaped much of the damage evident elsewhere. The exit porch still boasted the same message, inscribed in ancient Hellanese, across its lintel: “Fá entrig a-mhàile a’ cothreh-tah (Only the balanced may enter),” providing a subtle reference to the logic puzzle waiting beyond its threshold, where the pressure-activated floor-trap would consign reckless explorers to a lingering death.
A contending tide issued from within, resisting my progress. Working my way forward, I held tight to the doorjambs while I peered inside. Not until then did the cause of the outflow become obvious:
Four months previously, I had ruptured the wards emplaced by the Sibitti, Erra’s seven personified weapons, to keep my captive Hounds incommunicado. In so doing, I triggered the chain reaction that caused the island to sink. Given free rein, the encroaching sea worked its way along myriad passages. Conduits crisscrossing the massif in a pulmonary network of fiery capillaries led down into the lava chambers, precipitating a further series of volatile events that spawned the current conditions.
This cell contained one such channel, and the flue connecting its two main levels must have remained open. Scalding eddies redolent with the heady aroma of sulfur had boiled up from below so fast that one corner of the puzzle room’s tilting platform was forced against its roof.
Excellent. A surge of affirmation emboldened me. The Sibitti’s machinations were more thorough than I’d realized, effectively protecting the primary route to the oubliette from the worst of the damage. So I should be able to access the spire with minimal fuss. But first —
Summoning my strength, I encompassed myself within a gleaming sphere of power, and then directed a bolt of kinetic energy through my scythe and into the raised section of flooring. Solid granite slabs exploded as if no more than but brittle plaster. The resultant cloud of hydrous dust and larger particles swirled around a common center before being swept away with the rest of the outflux in a race for the surface.
Inspired by their eagerness, I extended the front of my shield until it morphed into an elongated teardrop and shot forward into the opening. Piercing the opposing riptide like a marlin cutting the waves, I made speedy progress and soon sensed the end of the tunnel.
Painful memories intruded. During my last foray into this terminus I had been projected at high speed into a buffering wall and dropped through a narrow annulus onto the top of a solitary pinnacle above a cauldron of lava.
Forewarned, I reduced velocity. But I needn’t have worried. This time I encountered no bulwark or accompanying exit.
Hmmm, no doubt blasted to smithereens during the cataclysm that tore the guts out of this place.
Sailing free of the connective artery, I entered the principal magma chamber and circled its circumference several times to get my bearings. Although ravaged by the colossal thermodynamic energies released when the ocean had breached its confining enchantments, the heart of the mountain yet maintained its core integrity. Swamped by a blanket of cauliflower pillars billowing noxious steam and poisonous vapors, the intact bore resembled an upended cylinder a hundred yards across. Free of the undulating pall, its upper levels sparkled through all the colors of the visible spectrum. The invading aquatic confluence only complimented its stark beauty.
Flooding or no, the spirit of this once-mighty peak prevailed. Time and again, the ruddy glow of its flowing lifeblood ignited the brume’s interior in rose-gold glory. Each flare served as a precursor to a new eruption whose pyroclastic fury hurtled toward the vault’s roof in a bid for freedom, only to fall back, spent and impotent, into the forge’s raging hearth.
Relief swept over me as I realized I needn’t face that furnace head on, for it promised to be hell to navigate, even for one with my rare talents.
Refining my probe, I hastily pierced the frenzied stream of luminescent bubbles around me while searching for my next target: an isolated archway cut high into the chamber’s far wall.
A slender bridge had once connected that doorway to a splinter of rock at the exact center of the vault. But like everything else in this hellhole-in-hell, now it proved only a memory, another casualty in a war not of its choosing.
I willed myself toward and through that exit without hesitation. A sharp contrast in outlook and a familiar tingle like insects on skin confirmed the portico still active.
Lowering my shield, I descended into a small and silent antechamber. It was pitch-black, for no hint of the havoc wrought on the other side of the esodesic plane intruded on this, the inner sanctum of repeated Sibitti atrocities.
I bridled at the thought of what the Seven had done. And here I am again, undoing yet more of their mischief.
Once I adjusted my perspective to the changed environment, everything sprang into crystal-clear clarity:
Telltale signs of my earlier mission lay scattered here and there about the hall: scuffmarks and footprints; discarded items from where Captain Charles Vane and the scumbag, Low, had rearranged the contents of their backpacks; deeper scratches nearer the fountain where Griffin poisoned himself and died in agony.
The shallow pool at the rear of the antechamber also remained, but its source had run dry or been diverted by the tectonic stresses brought to bear during the island’s demise. The water was stagnant and coated in a thick film of scummy dross.
An ancient stairwell beckoned in the vestibule. Relaxing, I sent out my seeker-sense and followed the shaft’s course with my mind’s eye through a giddy series of descending landings and switchbacks, until its steps ended at a wide gallery, dominated by a bottomless pit.
Beyond that pit, a further tunnel gave onto a spiraling passage that wound down for over a mile into the roots of the mountain. Its outlet formed a small gorge with a precariously narrow ledge following the right-hand side of the scarp.
At last. Time to pick up the pace.
My curiosity satisfied, I saw no further reason to linger. Gathering my potential, I envisioned myself standing on the sill leading out into the chasm, and in less time than it takes to blink, I’d phased…
… and stood there.
A churning river of lava mumbled past, forty feet beneath me, only a shadow of its former self. Shocked, I spoke aloud: “The tributary’s much lower than before. And it feels cooler…?” On impulse, I tested the air: “A balmy hundred and ten degrees… maybe a hundred and fifteen, at most.”
I sent my farsight skimming along the bed of the trench. It detected multiple fractures running the length of its course. Some had scabbed over, fused shut by igneous caps.
“Bugger me. The magma’s gradually draining away. If I hadn’t hit on the notion of coming here, the talle–bhést would have been screwed.”
More determined to succeed than ever, I strode forward for about thirty yards before turning to face the wall. The molten flow’s lurid light cast puppets on the walls; flickering shadows and frenzied flares danced before my eyes, making every nook and cranny of the bluff pulse and quiver like a gravelly amoebic sac.
But the shadow play was mere illusion. Nothing but lava moved here. As keen as my augmented senses were, I could distinguish jack shit. The talle-bhést must have discerned the dropping temperature and reduced their autonomous functions in order to hibernate.
No doubt, the talle-bhést were here; and when they emerged, they would recognize me. Therefore, I decided to adopt the dignity of my station: the Phage.
Yes, I was here to render the talle-bhést aid. But they wouldn’t know that, and the last time we’d met I dispatched two of their number with extreme prejudice. And so far as I knew, the only other entities they’d ever met were the Sibitti, who spirited them away from their home to dump them here, where they faced a withering death.
They’ll be pissed, wary of strangers and, once they’ve gained their bearings, ready to fight. So I’ll have to convince them we’re on the same side.
I resorted to the eternal flame within me.
In an instant, the Bãlefire responded to my call. A corona of sparkling ebony and silver light glazed the atmosphere; purple and yellow streamers charged my soul-well to full capacity; a crown of gold and scarlet stars burst to life above my head, anointing me in unyielding dominion.
Holding the full measure of my might in abeyance, I raised my palm and trickled steady heat directly into the cliff. Soon, the entire escarpment glowed red. As the temperature rose, I reverted to ancient Hellanese and called out, both mentally and verbally, “Se áis Daûmen Grÿrmm, Satanase Thanatos (I am Daemon Grim, Satan’s Reaper). Prìoàrd mathas ruag etom cuirch measg iadcho òrdaich Ilfrinn Cuú-gar (Chief bounty hunter and master of those appointed as Hell Hounds). Se ten seo caraíth bhure (I am here as your friend).”
A keening shriek, strident and piercing, cut the air like an eagle’s cry. The cliff trembled. Stones and other loose fragments broke free and slithered downslope. Abruptly, more than a dozen talle-bhést detached themselves from the rock face to either side me. They lumbered forward, their clublike arms held high. Their thoughts were jumbled and hard to fathom. Nevertheless, a storm of disquieting emotions betrayed their confusion.
It’s only natural they’re reacting this way, I suppose. Let’s see what I can do.
Calm and deliberate, I opened my arms wide to show I meant no harm. Then I lowered my personal shield and repeated my message, so they could taste the nuance of my feelings.
Now they know I’m telling the truth.
I also took the precaution of uttering a single phrase in the Kigali language. “Síothellnath (Peace).”
So suddenly did the talle-bhést halt their advance, I was momentarily at a loss for words. Thankfully, instinct took over. Acting on the unexpected opportunity, I inched my hand toward my scythe and slid it from its holster. Leaving it folded, I then visualized a specific destination and depressed the second stud from the bottom.
A sizzling amber iris more than twenty feet in diameter manifested on the lip of the precipice overlooking the lava flow, its event horizon no more than a dappled gray void. Not good enough, I have to make an impression.
Channeling my considerable strength into a nub of focused intent, I molded the energies flowing into the quantum medium until a noval flare blanched the surrounding nimbus white. The geodesic plane shimmered and clarified, showing a picture of the exact coordinates I’d chosen: Kí-gal.
Surprised at the ease by which I’d circumvented the instabilities currently wreaking havoc on the hydraspace lanes, I snorted. Well, well, well. Would you look at that? Satan’s changes continue to manifest?
Such a realization made me contemplate my growing list of private enemies who would one day face the consequences of their duplicity. For a fleeting instant, my mien darkened, causing a number of the talle-bhést to bark in dismay.
“For f— sake, Daemon,” I grumbled to myself, “get a grip.”
Forced to dismiss such thoughts of revenge — for now — I sought to make amends.
Perhaps this might work?
Softening my countenance, I gestured to the vista displayed through the eye of the gateway, and tried communicating in the Kigali dialect, a tongue I had only recently learned.
“Thig a-miŝ (Come along). Air fen cámad, tekt dión tau etu dûbit-e tau da-hel hí-gal (I am a friend, sent here to protect you and take you home).”
I pointed for a second time. “Argûs, aite sin ifé, Chí-ghâl (Look, there it is, Kí-gal). Chí-ven tok. S’gaul táir (Hurry up. Let’s go).”
Standing to one side, I reined back my aura so the lure of something familiar could take center stage and waited patiently for the talle-bhést to respond.
And respond they did. Whatever means they used to communicate was still beyond me. Even so, they arrived at a unanimous decision simultaneously. Shuffling forward from both sides, the ogres formed an orderly line and took turns stepping through.
Watching them go, I breathed an overdue sigh of relief.
Thank Satan for that. I’ve tippy-toed around Kigali etiquette for long enough. Well no more. The return of these boys is bound to win Kur’s favor, or at the least force his hand to grant concessions. By this time tomorrow, I’ll have a spook team and state-of-the-art surveillance inside the soul sapphire crèche, or my name’s not Daemon Grim. I rubbed my hands together in anticipation. I can only hope I’m there to see the look on Chopin and Tesla’s faces when their whole underworld comes crashing down on them.
And with that, I let the portal collapse in on itself and joined the talle-bhést on the far side.
Chapter 1: Picking up the Threads
Ferocious heat beset Frédéric Chopin from every quarter. The assault on his person raged, relentless, despite soothing salve applied generously to his face and neck. Sweat ran in rivulets down his temples and along his spine, staining his white shirt a filthy gray. His clothes stuck to his form like a glued-on second skin. Desperately thirsty, he tried to swallow, but received naught for his efforts but an overwhelming urge to gag.
Chopin refused to be distracted. He continued, devoted to the task at hand, which was downloading his most recent experiences into the glittering amber jewel wedged amongst the rocks at his feet.
Measuring three feet wide and twice that long, this soul sapphire (in the Kigali language a trúllefeng, or in everyday terms, a stone of remembrance) was among the biggest of its kind. Imbued with special mimicking properties, such sapphires occurred naturally, growing in an isolated cave deep in the heart of Kí-gal’s greatest volcano. What was more; the first tribe of hell actually used such stones extensively to chronicle their accomplishments, and the distinguished history of their race.
During the course of their travels, Chopin and Tesla had found the larger sapphires capable of more, much more, than recording dry facts. Ever the opportunists, the two refractory damned sought to exploit the superior imprinting capabilities of those specimens by cloning copies of themselves as insurance against capture, torture, inevitable death and reassignment… or even obliteration.
Chopin stared at the serene countenance of his mirror image, sleeping soundly within the stable environment of its prismatic world. Fully formed, its epidermis appeared pale but healthy, with no signs of the waxy vernix goo that had coated it from head to foot during its early development.
Its eyes roved from side to side beneath its lids, signaling that the current memory packet had triggered an onrush of dreams.
“Not too long now, my fine fellow,” Chopin murmured. He pressed his forehead against the cool exterior of the gem and savored a scant respite. “Hopefully, I’ll never get to use you, in which case you’ll slumber for all eternity. But if I do, it’ll be satisfying to know the Undertaker won’t be able to spoil the benefits of all the extra knowledge I’ve gained, or the fabulous feats I’ve achieved despite his insufferable machinations.”
Someone grunted, and Chopin broke the connection with the clone to find his partner in crime, Nikola Tesla, staring at him, an open cooler to one side, two goblets of chilled wine at the ready.
“You were linked for an unusually long time,” Tesla chided, “so I thought you might need this when you finished.” He teased the sweaty composer with the largest of the drinks.
Hell’s bells. Do I ever. Chopin stood, snatched the proffered beverage from Tesla’s grasp and drained it in one gulp. His thirst only partly assuaged, Chopin tossed the glass over his shoulder and paused to listen as it shattered with a gratifying crunch. Satisfied, he made haste to work the kinks out of his back.
And now? Warily, he extended his arms and flexed his fingers back and forth. A hollow pulsing ache, similar to the discomfort of arthritics, radiated along Chopin’s limbs. He breathed a welcome sigh of relief. That’s it?
As Chopin had been delighted to discover recently, his own particular curse — that of a cruelly amplified form of temporal-lobe epilepsy that cramped his muscles, snapped his ligaments, and shattered his bones whenever he attempted to surmount a personal challenge — receded in those realms not among the latterday circles of hell.
In a contemplative mood, Chopin stared about the alien environment and marveled at its harshness.
It’s a pity conditions within this Gate are so barren. It rules out any chance of a permanent move, but — inspiration struck — but if I’m careful, it needn’t preclude my coming here to compose and rehearse. After all, our enemies haven’t the faintest idea this place exists, and those who have stumbled upon it by chance… Chopin thought of those poor unfortunates who had blundered into this land by accident, and chuckled. Well, they don’t last very long. Yes, I think I should explore the… eh?
Only at that moment did Chopin realized his daydreams had run away with him again. Well accustomed to lapses in his companion’s concentration, Tesla had been forced to wait patiently for Chopin to pull his act back together.
“Ah, forgive me,” Chopin apologized. “Yes, I took rather a long time, didn’t I? Do excuse the inconvenience. I wanted to ensure I’d transferred the full extent of my musical repertoire for posterity, especially as several of my latest compositions — the Devil’s Trull included — were dedicated to my dearest Amantine. Having gone to all that trouble, I’d rather not score them all over again should we run afoul of the Reaper at the last hurdle.” He paused to salute his clone. “However, with these extra precautions in place, even the warped vagaries of the Undertaker’s twisted perversions won’t prevent the sweet joy of our sacred reunion. And once Amantine witnesses firsthand the obstacles I’ve overcome to show my devotion, I’m sure she’ll be only too happy to forsake some placid heavenly existence and stay here with me.”
Tesla didn’t seem all that convinced by the reference to Chopin’s long lost sweetheart, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin — aka George Sands — or her willingness to endure perpetual suffering for a man she’d secretly despised. Ill at ease, Tesla mumbled, “Well, it won’t be for the lack of trying, that’s for sure.” He dropped to one knee to scoop some of their gear into a carryall and continued, “So in two weeks, when the Winter Soulstice is upon us, you’ll get the chance to see Miss Dupin again. Tell me, how do you think it best to expend our energies meanwhile?”
Chopin gave the question serious consideration before replying: “In view of the escalating situation, I say we keep our heads down, enjoy the subtle delights offered by Hell’s Kitchen, and trust in misdirection both subtle and foul to keep the Reaper’s apes of wrath at bay.”
“In other words, do nothing to attract attention?”
“Out of sight, out of mind.” Chopin grimaced. “Not the best comparison, I know, but our remaining moles amongst Satan’s hierarchy will give us fair warning — or unfair warning, if all hell starts breaking loose.”
“Are you sure we’re wise,” Tesla pressed, “to trust our safety to their judgment?”
“Of course. They have given sterling service till now, blissfully unaware that their conditioning will spur them to even greater deceptions as we approach apogee. Though such subterfuge may result in their apprehension, their aptitudes ensure they’ll remain silent… at least until it’s too late to foil our plan.”
“And if you’re wrong about them?”
“Then we turn to our brutes. Their personal vendetta with Nettesheim aside, Castile and Guiteau are making enough noise to wake the devil himself. And with the additional mayhem of these latest riots? We couldn’t have arranged things better ourselves — What?”
Throaty snarls rumbled across the open, blistering-hot plain.
“Do you hear that? Someone chases another party of slaves this way. Best not to press our luck,” Tesla advised.
Picking up their equipment bag, he scuttled to his compatriot and removed a small silver-gray orb from one of his pockets. “Shall we?”
“Let’s,” Chopin replied, mopping his brow. “How about a brief stop at Niflheim first? I really do need to cool down properly before doing anything else.”
The air warped, shimmered, and all that remained of the interlopers’ existence was a spiraling pair of dust devils, dancing around a common center.
Nearby, the facsimiles yet slept, oblivious to the deadly game they might one day play.
At a small pavement table outside Cullognes’s finest bistro — Der Letzte Biss (The Last Bite), safe behind Tesla’s identity-masking profile inhibitor, sat Isabella Castile, once queen and instigator of the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition. She who once blighted the lives of thousands of innocents had long since perfected an air of aloof confidence. Dressed in a steel wool Killvin Klein pant suit, Isabella drew admiring glances from most passing by.
Her colleague, Charles Guiteau, relaxing opposite, pretended to read a newspaper. Similarly attired in business ensemble, he appeared even more elegant than his stunning companion, for his neatly trimmed beard and mustache and the gold rimmed spectacles perched upon his generous nose added a touch of sophistication to his demeanor that set him apart from most other patrons.
Outwardly, both appeared at ease and unconcerned by the boisterous antics of the revelers filling the city’s central piazza around them. However, a more discerning observer would have noted the way they dissected each face in the crowd with unwavering vigilance. Closer inspection might also have revealed the distinctive bulges spoiling the outline of their tailored jackets.
Isabella leaned forward and sipped of latte from a delicate porcelain skull cup, her movements economical and feline. She swallowed, and her top lip peeled back like a panther’s, in a moue of disgust.
Dishwater. But what else to expect from the peasants of New Hell’s murder capital. She smiled disdainfully. They try so hard to hide their coarseness behind the illusion of class, but constantly fail.
An insightful observation, for Cullogne was the New Dead’s simulacrum of “a tale of two cities.”
While homes in the outer districts crowded together in jumbles that put most topside shantytown slums to shame, those located closer to the cathedral and twin palaces situated on opposite banks of the River Rhime gleamed, spacious and flamboyant. Châteauesque townhouses and rambling villas vied with miniature castles and sprawling mansions for dominance, their Byzantine inspiration highlighted by superfluous arches, imposing towers, and creneled walkways overhead that lent frosty streets an opulent veneer.
Isabella marked the progress of several rape gangs and kill squads stalking the outer square’s perimeter, their inbred aggression underlined by the way each crew evaluated their prospective victims and one another.
No wonder this place breeds violence for violence sake, Isabella reasoned to herself. With nowhere else to go, the majority of its citizenry have little to do but vent their frustrations upon those foolish enough to flaunt success — as I do believe I’m about to witness.
One young dandy braved the press with impunity, believing his wealth and two hired bravos sufficient to keep him safe.
At first glance his bodyguards also appeared as souls of substance. Strutting like roosters in designer combats and equipment harnesses, they made a great show of bullying other denizens into giving their client a wide berth. Where that failed, they shoved people out of their way or applied a bullet to the back of thick head.
But for good reason was Isabella Castile one of hell’s preeminent femme fatales. “It’s all in the details,” she sang softly, unafraid.
And in this case, those details spoke volumes: unkempt hair and grubby fingernails; permanent nine o’clock shadows and dirty clothes; scuffed, ill-worn boots and counterfeit labels; frayed straps and filthy weapons. She noted the repeated glances exchanged by the would be/ should be protectors and the ruffians waiting patiently on the steps of the Low Court of Injustice who made a play of being out for a breath of sulfurous air, in the hope a spot of trouble might come their way.
Riffraff, she mused, sent as backup should our intrepid guardians here prove ineffective.
Anticipation sparked a fight-or-flight response in the queen, along with a corresponding flicker of arousal deep in her stomach, a sensation delicious and feral. Spurning the rest of her coffee, she turned instead to a bottle of Ty Rant spring water to slake her thirst and watched as the cuckoos herded their charge toward an alley running between the courthouse and adjacent uncivic center. The same alley, coincidentally, which the band of thugs also at this very moment chose to investigate.
Sure enough, a commotion ensued in which the unlucky dupe — minus his bodyguards — was pounced on and dragged away to certain reassignment.
Seconds later, a shriek split the ether, demanding retribution and freezing everybody in their tracks. Time resumed as the cry died and triggered a roar that erupted toward veiled Paradise, while a vast assortment of concealed pistols, knives, axes and cudgels appeared as the damned souls turned on their neighbors.
Isolated shots barked in quick succession, followed by yelps of pain, hissed curses and dissipating corpses. On the far side of the plaza, a machine-gun opened fire, thinning the crowd.
Those unarmed were few and far between. These swiftly resorted to other means, smashing furniture at hand to brandish broken table legs and chair backs or glass from shattered windows. Armed thus, they flung themselves into the fray with savage aplomb, beating, bludgeoning and slashing any soul in reach.
In some cases, bare knuckles sufficed. Townsfolk possessing a degree of finesse then snapped wrists, broke teeth, and popped eyeballs. Those unskilled resorted to choking the unlife from one another.
Combatants slipped in gore and other appendages that had no business paving the thoroughfare.
Although their particular establishment seemed immune from the unfurling rampage, Isabella herself most certainly was not. Pulse pounding, she felt the knot in her belly tighten. The hunger for slaughter rose in her throat in time to her accelerating heartbeat.
Then came an unexpected explosion that threw combatants across sidewalks and noncombatants into a panic.
Did some fool let off a grenade? Isabella licked dry lips with an unwieldy tongue.
A huge gap manifested in the midst of the throng fighting outside the uncivic center, extending the effect of the blast. Regardless, the brawl resumed almost immediately, but as it did so, Isabella’s finely-tuned senses discerned an odd change in tempo. Is the synergy of this conflict mutating in some way?
Evidence supporting her suspicions soon surfaced: those rolling around on the pavement stopped struggling; they began to embrace; then kiss. Whereas before their fingers and nails had been deadly weapons, they now passionately tore at clothing, buttons and other loose fastenings.
Comprehension jarred her spine. “Oh no,” she gasped, “the plague! It’s happening again.”
“Just look at them, Isabella,” Guiteau snarled. He coughed, taking care to discreetly mop the ruby stains glazing his chin with a napkin from the table. “Some of the shortest fuses in the underverse reduced to pathetic, stuttering candles.”
He surveyed the worsening debacle before them, his cheeks blushed red. “Hell and damnation, nothing goes right for us these days. This little shindig is devolving into another one of those cursed orgies that keep breaking out in one place after another. I tell you, if Nettesheim is here, it’ll spook him. And if he’s using his mystic abilities to watch events closely, our nonparticipation will earn his further scrutiny. Mark my words: Tesla’s identity-diffusers or not, he’ll be onto us and we’ll have wasted — Eh? I don’t believe it!”
Following the direction of his gaze, Isabella espied a number of former antagonists who’d thrown caution to the wind and were now ravishing each other in full view of all, and with wanton abandon.
“Oh lordy me,” Guiteau spluttered, spraying blood across the tablecloth. Addressing the copulating couples, he yelled, “Don’t spoil the fighting by f—ing. What in Hades’ name do you hope to achieve? You‘ll never escape the consequences, you know.”
It was no good: nobody listened, although Isabella did spot several couples who hurried, perhaps inspired by her partner’s admonishment.
Multitasking, eh? How the other half lives… or not, as the case may be.
Her judgment proved unerringly accurate: rhythmic movements became frantic; eyes screwed shut and mouths gaped wide; spines arched and then fell limp; moans of ecstasy turned to mewling groans of pain; stomachs distended; bodies doubled over and teeth clenched in agony. A ripping sound filled the air as flesh tore.
In seconds, the mall disappeared beneath a quivering, twitching blanket of biting fangs and darting stingers as a mass of hideous spiders and grotesque scorpions burst into view. Without hesitation, the arachnids set about devouring their hosts first, and then promptly set their jaws and venom on everyone else within reach with a commendable dedication to duty.
Isabella found herself aroused to the point of climax by the rampant butchery. I don’t suppose it would hurt to play along, if only for a little while? After all, the only lusts my associate and I covet tend toward the mortal.
Reaching beneath her jacket, she slipped her Hell-Brass 6.66 Magnum from its holster, took aim, and blew the brains out of their waiter, the maître d’ and two other customers in quick succession.
“What the devil… ?” Guiteau gasped.
“You’re right,” Isabella explained, “If Nettesheim is here, we can’t risk that he’ll recognize us and realize we’ve been tracking him these past months.”
“Are you sure?”
Isabella shrugged. “It would have been gratifying to catch our target at last. If only to teach him the error of his ways as we slowly flay him over an open fire. But it matters not. For some reason, he’s drawn to Cullogne as to nowhere else. Don’t worry. We’ll bide our time and pick up the threads on his next visit.”
“And until then?”
“I’d have thought that was obvious, my lovely.” Isabella’s husky voice took a steely edge to match the stiletto blade she expertly extracted from her ankle sheath. “We let off some steam.”
Without a further word, she hurled herself into the madness, and the screaming reached fever pitch.
Acclaimed throughout hell, the Bridge was an orphic structure of versatile scope, a sentient entity, capable of transporting passengers throughout the length and breadth of the underverse without those strictures usually imposed during multidimensionhell travel.
And Heinrich von Nettesheim was one denizen who was pleased it could.
Over the past several months, he had employed the Bridge’s inimitable functions to further his quest for knowledge. His was a quest that had taken him through stygian landscapes, shrouded in perpetual midnight; across heaving oceans of acid, teeming with continually dissolving aquatic unlife forms; up mountain ranges erected from the bones of long forgotten titans; and through entire continents where endless fields of supplicants screamed for mercy.
On each occasion, the Bridge had adopted a modus best suited for navigating the obstacles it encountered. Sometimes it would materialize as an exact representation of its namesake — the Brooklyn Bridge — from fabled New York, topside. At others, it embraced the characteristics of an ingenious array of conveyances; carriages as diverse in appearance and operation as a pirate’s galleon, a steam locomotive, even a 1920’s Cadillac — or, as on this day’s journey, a hot air balloon.
Despite the varying manifestations of the Bridge, all had one thing in common: they were capable of negotiating the instabilities wrought upon the Sheolspace continuum by the Sibitti. For this blessing, Nettesheim was especially grateful.
A bell sounded, followed by the hiss of gas venting from the top of the blood red envelope overhead.
Ah, we’re almost there.
Nettesheim decided it might be prudent to mentally review his itinerary for the next few days, and his eyes glazed over as he summonsed a visible representation of his assigned work schedule.
Very well. So far, I’ve completed an examination of the archives from eleven of Cullogne’s thirteen High Churches. The only two remaining — the Abbey of the Blessed Heretic, and the Chapel of the Epistle of Judas Iscariot, within the Grand Church of Profanity — should provide me with the details I need to complete my final preparations. Just as well. The Soulstice is upon us and the current unrest has caused me — ?
“Next stop, Cullogne,” announced a disembodied voice. The burners whistled as the flames keeping the balloon aloft extinguished. Nettesheim’s stomach lurched as his rate of descent increased. “Please collect all your belongings prior to vacating your seat, and mind the gap when disembarking.”
The seams around the edge of the gondola’s floor space blazed, in an effect similar to that seen when a welder uses an oxyacetylene torch. Then the bottom of the basket faded into a thin transparent film, revealing a view familiar to Nettesheim: his usual arrival point here in Cullogne, the highest of the buttressed walkways connecting the gleaming spires of the cathedral itself.
“Thank you, my friend,” Nettesheim whispered, as much from habit as courtesy. “Don’t forget, I have a return ticket, so I’ll be in touch as soon as my research is concluded.”
As always, the Bridge declined conversation. But a tickling sensation across the top of his scalp signified that it understood him. Nettesheim smiled, stepped forward and dropped through the portal.
The subdued glow of Paradise filtered through the clouds, adding a jaundiced tinge to the verglas-coated rooftops stretching into the distance. Nettesheim reveled in the grandeur of his hometown from this vantage point, where the sheer presence of the imposing public monuments and stately homes surrounding the cathedral gradually gave way to the tightly packed maze of the farther slums. The mephitic breath of the River Rhime coated everything in a chilling haar, as if the entire city had been dipped in frigid gossamer and left to congeal inside a gigantic permafrost cobweb.
Taking a deep breath, Nettesheim inhaled the invigorating stench of carrion. The acrid odor reminded him how deadly this place could be. Forewarned, he reached into the subatomic medium binding the varied levels of hell together, creating a pocket of reality slightly out of sync with the normal flow of time.
“That’s better,” he muttered aloud. “Now I’ll remain hidden from direct line of sight and telepathic observation. If my shadows aren’t already here, they’ll soon follow. And while I’m sure Guiteau wouldn’t present too much of an obstacle, only a fool would underestimate that Mata Hari, Castile.” He whistled low. “There’s a woman who kno–?”
Hello? An earsplitting shriek lanced up from the milling throng nearly six hundred feet below, a battle-cry of aggression. Sensing it, people charged one another, clearly intent on violence. From Nettesheim’s perspective, the townsfolk resembled ants swarming to defend against an attack on their nest.
“Ah, home sweet home. It doesn’t take much to spark a blaze. Odds bodkins! What now?” A glittering net of diffuse energy materialized within the fabric of the esoteric backdrop. Nettesheim caught his breath, recognizing the onset of the mystery infection running riot through most of the latterday hells.”
He adjusted his scanning frequency to better apprehend the purpose of the pathogen now spreading its influence through the air. “It’s like a virus,” he mused aloud. “Yes, it attaches itself to the nucleus of any predominant emotion, and mutates it into something atypical. Something unnatural.” His blood ran cold. Is that lust? Adoration? Wait a minute.
One facet of the contagion’s character struck a familiar chord.
“It’s mystical in origin, and designed to target a specific behavioral response. No wonder we’re seeing so many orgies.” Incensed, Nettesheim undertook a further review. “I need a closer look. This underhanded attack against hell’s unsocial instability must not stand, We can’t have unrestrained… Scheisse!”
Down below, the crowd’s mood had changed.
Here we go. Things will turn real messy, real soon.
As if by his command, they did.
An unstoppable tide of scorpions and spiders of ghoulish variety burst from the bellies of those unable to curb their deviant desires. No sooner had they surfaced, than the rampaging arthropods set about consuming their lustful progenitors. Afterward, they went to work on those too stupid or distracted to flee.
Nettesheim noted how a small number of combatants seemed immune to the effects of the insidious catalyst in their midst. The scientist in him wondered, What makes them resistant while so many others succumb?
He zoomed in to take a closer look and was nonplussed to discover two individuals in particular — a male and female, dressed similarly in business suits — whose faces he couldn’t properly distinguish.
Trying again, Nettesheim saw his mental probe dissolve while the features of his targets remained unresolved.
They’re shielded somehow? Okay, got something to hide, have you?
While watching the scene unfold, Nettesheim inscribed a series of glowing pictographs in the air before him. Each glyph flared in turn, allowing him to draw on the latent potential saturating the infirmament with devilish power. Adding its potential to the mix, his next attempt successfully pierced the veil around his two targets.
What he saw came as no surprise.
So, my stalkers were already here and waiting. Nettesheim pondered his recent movements and realized what had happened. Ah, my research has brought me to this city so often that they easily tracked me: an avoidable mistake I should have corrected much sooner. He shrugged. Still, it couldn’t be helped. The convergence is almost upon us, and Grim’s power grows exponentially. If the occult restraints shackling his mind fail before we are ready, everything we hope to achieve may be lost. And that just won’t do.
Nettesheim studied his would-be antagonists as they vented their pent-up frustrations, and his pulse surged at the prospect of eventually facing them.
“Your time will come, my friends,” he muttered, as if vocalizing his thoughts would validate the promise he now made. “But not yet. Alas, my personal satisfaction must await the master’s pleasure. Once my obligations are fulfilled, though, I shall see about you.”
Chapter 2: The Sound of Silence
The trees ringing the hills around my present location didn’t merely brood, they exuded maleficence so profound that the rank and file of damned souls would be under no illusions that they weren’t welcome here. In case some didn’t get the hint, mists of foreboding and ghostly vapor trails squeezed between the close-packed boles of the forest during every hour of every day. The wood and its ambience formed a first line of defense for one of Satan’s most prestigious seats of power: the Palace of Verse and Sighs.
Not one to leave things to chance, His Infernal Majesty had put a second defensive contingent in place. In recent months, the demon and reaver patrols of old had been bolstered by a squadron of Dread-Locks, phantoms from another dimension, granted free rein to drain the unliving essence from anyone or anything naïve enough to think they could encroach on our dark father’s privacy with impunity.
The encircling region around the palace itself boasted checkerboard parklands, neatly manicured lawns and walled enclosures containing arboreal and sculptural displays. Although the mere mention of this place evoked bad memories, I’d come here quite often of late. It was rare I got time to myself, and the gardens called Sentinels Square exuded a rare vibe that allowed me to do something even rarer, which I desperately needed at the moment: the chance to clear my mind and see things more clearly.
Gravel crunched beneath my boots as I walked toward the square’s west gate. Approaching from this direction allowed me an unobstructed view of the shattered remains of the Colonnade of Eternal Reflections, a half mile beyond and to the east. At this distance the missing roof offered scant testimony to the cataclysm unleashed nearly four months ago when I’d destroyed the cherub, Gaz-árdiel, aka the Angel Grislington.
Not so eternal now, is it?
Despite my jibe, the magnificence of the Colonnade was memorable. A testimony to Satan’s pride, thirteen great onyx pillars gilded in liquid fire had blazed opposite an equal number of arcaded windows that spanned the length of the six hundred and sixty-six-foot room with ease. The floor, its huge marble slabs smoldering like molten ice, had formed a perfect medium to intensify the light of a thousand candles and more than a hundred crystal chandeliers. And the mirrors…
Even this fleeting consideration brought that conflict flooding back:
The thrill of imminent satisfaction as the pursuit of one of the underworld’s most dangerous fugitives finishes; anticipation of imminent death as I close on him; triumph as I obliterate my enemy. Elysian energies surrounding me. Filling me. Burning me. Suffusing every pore of my being as a heavenly backlash renders me senseless.
My recollection jumps to events some hours later. Greasy vapors ascend from great rents in the earth. All around me, the stench and stain of a hard-won battle assails the senses. A smoke blackened regnal mound takes center stage. The devil himself sits there, cold, proud and aloof, an island of calm amid a storm-wreck of ruined walls, fractured columns, shattered glass and pulverized fixtures.
My Hell Hounds and Chief Inquisitor are close by, come to celebrate the victory with me. Only then do I realize Satan’s fallen angels gather opposite. Armed. Waiting. Eager to act. Bristling with indignation and barely veiled malice.
The dark lord speaks directly to me. I remember his words as if spoken only yesterday:
“In a moment, I’m going to give you a simple command. I expect you to obey that command instantly and without question. My directive will allow you a certain degree of latitude. I look forward to witnessing how you interpret it. Will you extol my sovereignty or not? We shall see where your heart truly lies.”
This cannot be happening, I think, confused that such a test of my integrity should be necessary after my great conquest on His Infernal Majesty’s behalf.
A flare of alarm courses through my gathered Hounds. Seasoned killers all, they teeter on the verge of arming themselves and fighting back. But dare they fight and face the consequences? Doing my best to forestall catastrophe, I intercede: “Tell me. What do you want me to do?”
Assuming his most dreadful fire-flaming aspect, Satan points toward my closest, most precious companions, and passes judgment. “A head is nowhere near enough compensation for this debacle. One must suffer obliteration, a soul effaced from existence. Now!”
From Abbadon’s mouth comes a decree for full extinction. Its resonance burns with a siren’s call I cannot resist. The lives of those for whom I am responsible flash before my eyes:
Strawberry: a kindred soul whose damnation and depravity balance my own; Nimrod, the closest thing I’ve ever had to a friend; Yamato. Uncompromising, noble, steadfast; Champ, stolid and unflinching, as down and dirty as they come; and Gemini, my newest recruit who shows such great potential.
For all their qualities, my loyalty to Satan is absolute and merciless.
I am the Reaper. I am Death personified, constrained by my creed to respond.
Faster than thought, I react. My blade stretches into an altar upon which I offer my oblation. A body falls, severed from crown to crotch, its anima consumed. A rumbling fanfare rends the heavens. Lightnings etch the sky with lurid threats.
Nimrod, my closest confidant, remains reduced to sand, to dust, to naught. More than dead, he no longer exists — and never did.
I feel my fondest memories of him torn away, expunged.
Turning, I kneel before my king. “It is done. I trust you find the value of such an offering sufficient?”
Approval pulses through the air… along with something else.
“Do you see, Samael?” Satan croons, “Did I not deem your suspicions unfounded? My Reaper’s ruthlessness extends even to his most intimate associates.”
Samael? My chest heaves; my eyes flare in comprehension. So he… ? Thunder plays across my brow.
I almost look up from the floor, but the Angel of Death speaks:
“That you did, Sire,” mumbled Samael the coward, “that you did.” His acknowledgement comes grudgingly. Not surprising, for thus he reveals his duplicity.
There and then, I mark him in my secret heart; I allow the veneer over my mind to turn opaque. I’ll remember this day, you motherf—er. You and I will have an accounting — accounting — accounting —
The certitude underlying my threat hadn’t diminished with time. Blinking, I found my place in the present: fists clenched, shaking with rage, and on the verge of my own combustion. Every flashback I suffer feels the same, as if I picked at a festering wound and opened it, bit by bit. And perdition has an endless supply of salt for those who need vigorous rubbing.
Fortunately, I’d continued walking through my déjà vécu — or, as I felt was more appropriate, déjà f— you — and discovered I’d already reached my destination. Pausing just within the entrance, I took a deep breath and surveyed the only place that guaranteed me some measure of solitude.
I could gain access by any one of the trellised arches sited midway along the north-, south-, east-, and west-facing prospects of the main wall. A wide shingle walkway circumnavigated that wall, while four narrow aisles led straight from each toward a central grass island protected by a low stone bailey. There, in pride of place, grew a solitary glowing Wyrd tree, its silver-white bark and ruby leaves dwarfing all lesser flora.
Sentinels Square hosted a total of thirteen sculptures positioned so that they dominated all four corners of the court. For some reason, the uniformity of the arrangement had been offset in the southwest quadrant, for while the gardener had grouped the other figures by threes, that corner possessed one additional guardian.
Positioned upon individual plinths, those statues arrested the eye.
Every one stood over seven-foot tall; each was an armored sentinel, carved from a single block of arcane stone. Coated as they were in effluvium from the nearby forest, they might have been fashioned from stardust-encrusted jet. Winged, hooded, and with gauntleted fists wrapped tightly about the jeweled pommels of inhumanly long swords, the warrior gods stood silent, contemplating the glowing Wyrd tree for all eternity.
Turning left, I made my way along the track and halted before the first three monuments. I studied them awhile, trying to spy anything that differentiated one from the others. But it was no use. No matter how I tried, I could detect no detail — be it a minute difference in their finely carved features or a variance in their impressive dimensions — that set one of them apart from its fellows.
Undeterred, I worked my way around the square and repeated the process before the next two groups in turn.
Nothing. Not a goddam thing.
Continuing along the path, I finally arrived at the mystery quartet. As usual, the second effigy from the right fascinated me.
So, what makes you so special? And why do you haunt my dreams?
On impulse, I stepped up onto the platform and ran my fingers along the cross-guard of his weapon, a crystalline representation of a Vidium Sword. It didn’t surprise me in the least when I found myself becoming lightheaded and, an instant later, floating free of my physical form.
On an astral plane I witnessed events from an entirely different era; an age when infernity stretched before me, laid bare, young, and uncluttered. And less substantial…
The only evidence that the square exists there are its foundations. And apart from the Wyrd tree, not a single plant grows. In fact, an endless waste surrounds me as far as the eye can see. Witnessing desolation on such a scale, I am convinced a colossal battle raged here recently.
Bittersweet triumph and sorrow pervade the ether.
Yet all is not lost. A rose-gold warmth radiates like a beacon of hope from the Wyrd tree, infusing the area with beneficence. Under its influence, the ruined, ashen soil freshens, darkens, and pushes forth tender shoots.
A captive in this time thread, my mind reels under the assault of too many thoughts from too many viewpoints all at once, so that in the end, nothing remains except the certainty of confusion and isolation.
I sense another entity nearby and am moved to venture a question.
“Where… where am I?”
“Fear not,” a commanding voice intones, “all will be well again… eventually.”
“Trust me. We will refashion you, blend and forge you anew into something better.”
Hands turn me so that I face the glowing Wyrd tree squarely. Its leaves chime and dance to the caress of an unfelt breeze. The sound of a distant choir recedes; closer, a harsher chorus rises in unison. The weight of their words fall upon my neck, and the desire for slumber becomes irresistible.
I sag forward, exhausted. My palms fall upon the hilt of a great sword. “Who… whose is this?”
“No more questions. Sleep now. Though it takes an eternity, you will be mine.”
A shroud descends to filter out the glorious light still visible from on high. As it does so, it releases a bane of stunning complexity that weaves itself through the bedrock of this new and terrifying plane. Detached, I am yet aware that seasons come and seasons go in a flickering cycle of baleful embers and somber darkness.
Memories of a life lived aforetime now fade.
Time marches on and new ones are introduced.
Eventually everything, everywhere, twists into its most debased form.
As do I.
My perspective jumps forward to an unknown space and time. In it, a lucent full moon fills a cloudless magenta sky. Resonant with purpose, lunar purity focuses the night like a lens, and fills the now lush square with an expectant hush. Here lies snow; a virgin glaze that powders the garden in a crystal white cocoon as cold and brittle as the heart that no longer beats within my obsidian chest.
From the edge of that sanctuary I maintain my silent vigil, patient, knowing that the day will come when I mature and am ready to be unleashed upon an unknown enemy. But for now, I wait…
The soft crump of feet upon icy flakes intrudes as a lonely figure walks the unblemished snowy path. Hooded in black, her footfalls are light, and leave indented scores along its length.
Without a word, she approaches and stands before me. Pale fingers draw back the cowl, and burnished raven-blue hair that blazes like a plasma storm in the moonlight cascades around her shoulders. A livid scar divides her countenance in two. One side retains its natural vivacity; the other is ravaged, reducing her complexion into dried out parchment. For all that, she remains beautiful, glowing with an inner strength that signifies she is at one with her surrounds.
I feel that I should know her from somewhere, for this woman bears a familiarity as appealing as it is instinctual. She climbs the pedestal on which I stand and stretches up toward my ear.
Cupping her hands, she whispers, “Though the Divide has been established, beware the convergence. The Veil is imperiled, and only you have the power to stand between both worlds. It’s time to wake up. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”
I staggered and flailed my arms; only a pair of guiding hands pressed firmly against my ass prevented me from falling. Phew! What a rush.
Gaining substance, the interceding voice became more insistent: “Daemon, can you hear me? Daemon?” Firm fingers gave my butt cheeks a quick pinch before letting go.
Ow! I turned on the spot and looked down. Gemini? “My apologies. I was a million miles away for a moment there, and then the return journey caught me by surp — ?”
Still disorientated by the sudden change in circumstances, it finally registered that she was actually here, in person. “Hang on; aren’t you supposed to be with Champ and Yamato down in Kí-gal, overseeing the instillation of our spyware? Don’t tell me we’ve run into unexpected hitches?”
“Relax; everything’s fine. Six different forms of covert surveillance now ring the trúllefeng crèche including infrared; motion detector, and thermal imaging. Oh, and I thought to add an additional esoteric I.D. tracker into the Kigali world’s geodesic boundary.” In answer to my surprise expression, Gemini reached out, squeezed my hand, and explained, “It’s been camouflaged to appear as a completely natural byproduct of Erra’s meddling, so don’t worry. We’ll tag those trying to sneak in by unfair means or foul. I also spliced it to our team’s mental signatures so we know immediately who’s closest and best able to respond.”
Smart girl. Returning her embrace, I replied, “I take it you‘ve had no hassle from Kur or his petulant eromenos?”
“On the contrary, both Kur and Eshi have gone out of their way to help. You know how insular their race is. I think they’re rather put out that someone would dare to intrude upon their borders, and value how determined we are to punish transgressors.”
The Sibitti included, I thought to myself. Jumping down, I queried, “What are Champ and Yamato up to now?”
“Yamato wanted to get straight back to Perish. Pascal Fléau has finished vetting the latest batch of GDSI recruits for our Inquisitor snatch squads, and I think Yamato’s keen to ensure they know our standard operating procedures and are properly introduced to the raft council’s representatives before they’re let loose on the city’s scum. Both Champ and Yamato are cooling their heels, waiting for the council’s ambassador, Brown-Tail, to ferret out the next bit of actionable intelligence.”
“And how’s that going?”
Gemini pursed her lips. “Slow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not for lack of trying. The damned tend to forget the thousands of miles of subterranean pipes and tunnels beneath Perish. I tell you, there’s nowhere our targets can hide. What’s more, the hell-rats have been a devilsend, unearthing most of Chopin and Tesla’s known associates, no matter how tenuous the link.”
“But even when we arrest and interrogate likely candidates, no one seems to know anything. The sound of silence is deafening. Pascal’s patrols have coordinated their operations to include innocents and suspects alike, so the panic’s spreading. And the fact that we’re dragging most of them all the way back to the Black Tower in Juxtapose, has ramped up the fear factor of noncompliance beyond our wildest dreams. Prisoners yet await Sparky and his Inquisitors, but they’re literally up to their nuts in blood n’ guts. The Brutish Broadcasting Company airs hourly bulletins on the fatality rate of those being needlessly tortured and reassigned.”
Gemini’s reference to Sparky — aka, Dr. David Livingstone — our new Chief Inquisitor, prompted my next question. “How’s David managing our flood of customers? It can’t be easy, being thrown in at the deep end while fresh to the job.”
“He’s taken to the role like the proverbial duck to water. I think his time as warden of Cadavers Lunatic Asylum prepared him to handle responsibility without complaint. And after seeing what he can do with a simple set of jump leads, the team’s glad to have him.”
“Good to hear. So since we’ve established a rhythm and assessed the results, what’s the overall consensus?”
“The evidence tends to confirm your earlier theory that Chopin and Tesla have packed their bags and gone to ground elsewhere.” Gemini smiled, eyes gleaming with savage delight, “An inconvenience we can easily counter if you give us permission to expand the net into other circles of hell.”
A twinge of pleasure rippled upward from my gut at the prospect. “Any suggestions as to where we should start?”
Gemini shrugged, and her grin became more ferine. “Why limit our efforts to one realm at a time? News of our actions has spread far and wide, so let’s add indiscriminate and random incursions across the board.”
“Oh, I do like the way you think. Ask Yamato to liaise with all of our contacts within The Devil’s Children and kick-start things. I know he’s busy, so have him delegate to Pascal on this side of the pond, and Bella and Donna Nightshade over in New Hell. The wider our web extends the more flies we’ll catch.”
“I’ll get right on it, once… er… once you’ve sorted something else out.”
Gemini’s statement reminded me that she wouldn’t have come so far merely to exchange pleasantries, burgeoning romance or not. Suddenly suspicious, I growled, “Not that it isn’t nice to see you, but why are you really here?”
“Ah yes, that…” She stepped closer and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. “The Undertaker’s been on my back since yesterday afternoon, demanding your assistance on an urgent matter.”
“Demanding?” My tattoos flared hot.
“You know the way he is, Daemon. I get the impression he desperately needs your help and is posturing for his minions, hoping to save face.”
Now I was confused. “If he’s so desperate, why didn’t he whine to me directly as usual?”
“He’s been trying” — Gemini pointed to the enclosure surrounding us — “but something about this place mutes telepathic communication.”
I stared at the walls. Sheolanite, that’s what it is. Satan’s been using that stuff more and more. Gemini’s words tweaked a nerve: “Wait a minute; you say the Undertaker’s been on your back since yesterday? How? Why? I haven’t been incommunicado that long. I only got here what, twenty, twenty-five minutes ago?”
Now it was Gemini’s turn to look perplexed. Placing her hand on my shoulder, she lowered her voice and whispered, “I’m sorry, Daemon, but you’re mistaken. We lost contact with you” — she checked her watch — “more than fifteen hours ago. That’s why I came here in person.”
“Fifteen hours?” Echoes of my mysterious vision trilled through my mind. I turned in place, a slow full circle, searching for clues that might explain the discrepancy. There’s more here than meets the eye. Aloud, I continued: “And what is it, exactly, that Old Rotten Breath deems so urgent?”
Gemini snorted. “Hey, I may be a fully-fledged Hell Hound, but to him, I’m one of your underlings. You think he bothered to explain himself to me?”
“Buggering hell and damnation!” I spat, “why does that twat continue to be so difficult, even when — Eh?” I glimpsed something I’d never noticed before: a faint mark etched into the stone parallel to my favorite statue’s sword tip. What in Hades name is that?
Intrigued, I stooped down and rubbed my fingers across the indentation. Then I glanced along the rest of the line. There are more of them?
Altering the resolution of my astral sight, I enlarged each character and projected them into the air. Only then did I realize I was looking at a series of archaic celestial glyphs. The two furthest away on my left — ₴ and ₡ — had been rendered in an obsolete form of Hellanese, a language whose syntax and grammatical formation was so close to the divine tongue that its use was now forbidden. Nevertheless, here I noticed seals representing my favored boy and his friend, inscribed in that same vernacular, צּⱻ and ﬧⱾ, although those symbols retained their original clarity.
The marks were inestimably old. Even so, I instinctually connected to them on the basest level. Scanning from left to right, I read aloud, “sèiadah (storm), cógath (war), eysh-éh (burning flame), shamár-as (annihilation).”
As I plangently intoned the musical score, a phosphorous scarlet light distinguished the occult characters from the blue-white glare of their angelic counterparts.
Something stirred deep within me. “I can — I can almost — ”
“Merde! Where did they spring from?” Gemini spluttered. “I could have sworn they weren’t there before?”
“You and me both,” I grumbled, “and knowing how keen your sight is, I’ve no doubt they’ve manifested only this second.” Cocking my thumb toward this new enigma, I declared, “These are elohgraphs, antiquated even by heaven and hell’s standards, and now the latest pieces in a jigsaw that represents my ongoing struggle to understand what the f— is going on in my life. You’ll see, the longer you’re with me, the more crap like this keeps on — ?”
Reaper? Are you there?
This time, I heard the Undertaker’s plea as if he were standing beside me.
Jesus, does that halitosis-spewing dick-on-a-stick have a crystal ball that automatically alerts him to the most inconvenient time to call? Projecting my thoughts toward the netherworlds’ most unsavory skid mark, I amplified his signal so that Gemini could eavesdrop and snarled, “I’m here. What do you want?”
About time, the Undertaker complained. Where in Satan’s name have you be — ?
“Don’t ever imagine I’ll explain myself to you,” I interrupted. “That’s never gonna happen. I asked what you wanted.”
What do I want? The Undertaker seethed.
Even at this distance, I could taste Bad Breath’s ire lacing the ether. He verged apoplectic from helplessness in the face of repeated sleights against his station and person.
I nearly hemorrhaged from staying my laughter.
What do I want? I… I want action, of course. I am still the Undertaker, so I want screaming, merciless injustice!
I imagined the blood vessels in his temples palpitating like a retard’s on the receiving end of a stun gun.
Not content with stealing the reanimating unlife force of our society’s dregs, some blithering bastard of an idiot is now siphoning the sin out from under my nose. I want it stopped, Reaper, and I want you to deliver the culprit or culprits to my slab so I can work my most heinous arts upon them.
Siphoning the sin… ? The diablo dropped. “Are you telling me,” I asked him calmly, “that a Trojan virus has infiltrated the Hub itself?”
Yes. Why else would I be so distraught? You have to do something. Satan will have our heads served up on platters… go further than that and twist… roasting over… pitchfork shoved so far up my…
Filtering the Undertaker’s constant barrage of complaints, I turned to Gemini. “I’m afraid he’s right. Reassignment is one of the bastions of His Dark Majesty’s misrule. Without it, Satan can’t extend the misery of eternal suffering beyond a single unlifetime. We have to respond.”
“I agree. Hopefully you’ll know how?”
I recalled a startling discovery made on a previous visit to the Mortuary, and from there took a leap of faith: “As a matter of fact, yes I do. You’re coming with me. I suspect that your heightened senses will come in handy.”
Nodding toward the distant simulacrum of our gray-faced acquaintance, Gemini asked, “Are you going to tell him we’re on the way, or not?”
I listened as the Undertaker vented his spleen for a moment or two longer and then turned to regard the still-glimmering sigils.
Dammit! Their secrets will wait a little while longer… as will someone else.
The look on my face wordlessly conveyed my retort.
Chapter 3: Idle Hands
Poised on the balls of his feet, Yamato Takeru needed only a fraction of a second to select his next target. Spinning lightly on his toes, he jumped into the air and struck with serpentine speed and grace. So keen was his fabled katana, the Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven and so sure its action that the blade barely registered the shock of the unwilling tissue through which it passed.
Maintaining his form, Yamato wheeled around to survey the results of his attack.
His victim, one of dozens plucked at random from the streets of Perish, whimpered forlornly. Delirious, she was only partially aware of the dank chamber imprisoning her here below the capital’s Palais de L’Injustice. But that was understandable: over the past two hours she’d been bound to a wooden frame and subjected to a litany of physical and mental abuse that, so far, had cost all her fingers and toes, along with a considerable amount of flesh from limbs and torso.
The pallor of her rapidly blenching skin stood in stark contrast to the crimson stain pooling at what remained of her feet.
Yamato noted how her blood trickled, inch by inch, toward the drain in the middle of the floor, as if seeking escape
Lingchi — the death by a thousand cuts — was both a torture and execution common throughout the Orient for more than two thousand years before its abolition in the early twentieth century. The punisher used a razor-sharp instrument to methodically remove portions of a person’s body over an extended period — sometimes many days — to extend their captive’s suffering and humiliation. Yamato Takeru was a past-master of the art whose experience spanned millennia.
He studied his patsy closely and smiled. While not a vindictive soul, Yamato remained a formidable assassin and a man dedicated to the integrity of his profession. As he watched, a string of tiny beads appeared on the woman’s face, sanguine pearls which commenced tracing their way down her jaw to her neck, followed by a meaty flap of cheek.
No sooner had the hunk of fresh raw meat landed in the scarlet puddle at the base of the post than it dissolved, joining the many other chunks, appendages, and digits already in transit to the Undertaker’s slab.
On the far side of the room, a hollow thuck, followed by a stifled moan of pain, indicated that Yamato’s fellow Hell Hound and partner in misdeeds, the infamous Champ Ferguson, practiced with his new set of throwing stilettos on another helpless victim.
Although he hadn’t been keeping count, Yamato estimated that Champ had disposed of a score of their prisoners in this manner. Fortunately, the number of captives didn’t matter. Quality did. The day’s catch lacked actionable information, but possessed a silver lining: their latest batch of fall guys and girls, unworthy of processing back at the Den, allowed Yamato, as Lead Hound, to use them for a spot of stress relief.
Ignoring Ferguson, Yamato circled his prey, reversed his grip, and leaped high once more. This time he used the flat of his blade to deliver a ringing blow to the side of his quarry’s head before slashing downward.
Like a fragile leaf before a stiff autumnal breeze, a delicate ear flopped to the flagstones, lay there in a fizzling brew of vapors for a second or two, before joining its counterparts in spare bits n’ bobs limbo.
The quivering handle of a dagger suddenly sprouted from the woman’s ruined breast like an alien bursting free of its parasitic womb. Then she faded.
“Champ!” Yamato rounded on his partner, the extent of his ire conveyed in that single bark.
Before Yamato could say another word, Champ rushed to defend himself. “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, brother. Relax. I only wanted to hurry thing up a bit. My spine is growing roots. How much longer are we gonna be stuck here, anyway?”
“As long as it takes,” Yamato snapped. “The raft council has been exemplary in their support so far. If they say they’re onto something, then I trust them enough to wait and see what they turn up.”
“Onto somethin’? Shoot, you’ve seen for yourself how well Chopin and Tesla cover their tracks. The search for them has been grindin’ to a halt for a few months now.”
“That’s as may be, but we can’t rush. We have all infernity. Anyway, you should count your curses. Once we’ve completed this particular phase of the assignment, Daemon hinted we might get a day or two off.”
“Really?” Champ visibly brightened. “That’d be great timin’. Word on the street is that Edward Low is about ready to debut his performance at the Cirque du Freak. If what I’ve heard is right, they’re gonna pair him with a freshly mutated Thomas Cream in a fight to the reanimation armed with nothin’ but cheese graters. Can you imagine?” Champ paused to fling another knife at the vacant torture stake. “I mean, how long would it take to sever someone’s jugular or saw through their neck with somethin’ like that?” His face a picture of delight, Champ shook his head and cackled, gleefully.
Champ’s mirth wasn’t lost on Yamato, since the entire infernal law and disorder fraternity despised both Cream and Low.
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream first attracted notice after stealing a prohibited article from Satan himself. Not content to have committed such an audacious crime, Cream then used that artifact to spirit himself topside — a near impossibility — where he planned to further his ambitions by committing a string of atrocities to increase his standing amongst the elite of Hellonian society.
With a damned soul topside, His Infernal Majesty had been obliged to dispatch his Reaper. Only after Grim tracked and slaughtered the wayward doctor — thereby condemning him to reassignment with extreme prejudice — did the Reaper discover that Cream was in league with two of infernity’s most notorious rebels: Frédéric Chopin and Nikola Tesla.
Pursuing the malefactors throughout the many latterday levels of hell, Grim had finally cornered the troublesome trio within the maximum security penitentiary on Cog Isle. While Chopin and Tesla managed to escape, Cream had met his grizzly end at the hands and blade of a furious Reaper.
Edward Low, a different kind of deviant, was a manipulator who tried to hide his collusion with Chopin and Tesla under the pretense of comradeship and mutual support.
Joining Grim on a mission to rescue Champ and Yamato from a Sibitti holding cell on Skull Isle, Low showed his true colors by trying to double-cross and kill the Reaper. A foolish thing to do and one that resulted in a one-way trip to the Mortuary for Low and his reassignment as a permanent member of the grotesque troupe inhabiting Icepiccadilly Circus.
News of Low and Cream and the duos’ respective fates had spread, perdition wide. Their just deserts captured the imagination of the damned public, for few find anyone in hell unquestionably worse off than the next fellow.
And knowing my dark father like I do, their degradation promises a welcome distraction for centuries to come.
That thought warmed Yamato’s heart more than he would have deemed it possible, and he was moved to declare, “Now that you’ve mention it, I think you’re onto something. I might even commandeer a block of front row seats for our entire department at this weekend’s matinee performance. I’d relish the opportunity of watching them suffer, and I know others would too, especially if the ringmaster allows a little celebrity audience participation to make things a little more interesting.”
“Seriously?” Champ sat bolt upright. “You think you could manage that?”
“I don’t see why not. After all, with the number of Hounds, Inquisitors and Devil’s Children who’ll attend, it…”
A scrabbling noise issuing from the main drain caught Yamato’s attention. “Heads up, someone’s coming.”
Quick as death, both Hounds dropped to their hands and knees, trying to prize one corner of the heavy trellis away from its casement. Slick with gore, progress was slow and arduous, but eventually they managed to lift the lid free.
Beady black eyes stared up out of the gloom. Glittering fiercely, they seemed to regard the hulking great figures looming over the cover with professional curiosity before edging into the light to reveal a wiry profile with a long twitching nose, gray whiskers, and well-groomed fur.
“Brown-Tail,” Yamato cooed. Conscious of the fact he didn’t possess Gemini’s inter-species communication skills and keen not to scare away the ambassador, Yamato struggled to calm his mind and present a friendly demeanor. “Good to see you. Please don’t hang around down there in the dark, c’mon up and say hello.”
The little hell-rat responded immediately. Squeaking loudly, she scuttled out onto the bloodstained floor, whereupon Champ and Yamato allowed the heavy grating to fall back into place with a loud clang. Only then did Yamato realize Brown-Tail carried something in her front paws.
Unable to commune with animals in the way Gemini could, the Hounds had devised a simple means for the raft council to convey the import of what they uncovered on each of their forays into the labyrinthine depths of Perish’s sewers: tokens of varying color. Green to denote there were no concerns or all was clear; orange for those denizens or locations suspected to have infrequent or unsubstantiated connections to Chopin and Tesla; and finally, red, where evidence of prolonged interaction with the fugitives was beyond doubt.
And as Yamato had come to appreciate, the rats were never wrong in their evaluations.
“Red,” Champ gasped, “after all these months, a red disc.”
The two Hounds stared at each other.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Champ continued.
Yamato was already on his feet and heading toward the door. “Of course I do.” He glanced back and noticed his partner still crouched beside their visitor. “What are you waiting for? Pay the ambassador for her troubles and let’s move. We need everyone in on this. Hounds, GDSI… and get Pascal, too. His local knowledge will prove invaluable.”
“We take no chances. This is the first break we’ve had in a long time, and I want to ensure we make the most of it. And think about it: Would you like Daemon to go Lingchi on our asses if we screw things up?”
Erra rarely walked the outer wards of Emeslam, his palatial cathedra of plague and putrefaction, for he seldom had need, content to consecrate himself wholeheartedly to his sacred calling: judgment of the damned and their castigation under the all-consuming jaws and swords of the Seven.
All damned souls measured, guilty or not, were treated thus, for his motivation wasn’t spurred by vengeance or lust for satisfaction at seeing punishment rendered. No, Erra’s whole existence revolved around fulfilling his purpose with unquestionable reverence.
Even so, today was one of those rare occasions when circumstance demanded his attention elsewhere; he would interview someone whom he’d been surprised to find had earned his respect in recent months.
The subject of Erra’s interest had been a devout Christian in life, Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, otherwise known as Saint Teresa of Ávila. She had been pious, chaste, and (due to lingering periods of debilitating sickness since childhood) prone to episodes of religious ecstasy. Her visions were so intense that Teresa claimed she could rise from the lowest form of devotions to the highest: one of perfect union with God, wherein she’d experience the rich blessings of tears.
Many skeptics believed her knowledge diabolical in nature. Dismayed by such rumors, Teresa began to doubt. Doubting, she inflicted grievous injury upon her person. This gave Satan the opening to claim her as a great prize. Needless to say, upon her death, the saint had been shocked to learn the harsh truth.
In spite of this, Teresa had never bewailed her condemnation to hell. Far from it. Buckling down, she’d dedicated herself to winning the hearts and minds of those who heard her simple but profoundly powerful message: no matter what a person may have done in life, love could heal any scar and give worth to all things.
And the denizens of infernity oft responded.
Outraged at his miscalculation of how dangerous was this saintly woman, Satan reacted swiftly. To reduce the impact of her ministry he locked her away in one of perdition’s many prisons. And there she stayed for centuries, until two of Erra’s deacons of destruction set her free to continue her work unmolested.
Evidence of the saint’s intervention now bloomed everywhere, for the plague currently sweeping the latterday levels of hell was a conjugation of her own devising. Even more remarkable, its reactive agent bore the same curse that had so alarmed His Infernal Majesty in the first place: love. And love could instigate unrest and confusion as easily as it inspired unity and respect.
Yes, Erra thought to himself as he traversed the manifold galleries of his abode, Teresa’s approach differs vastly to my own. Yet I must admit she gets results… and exceptional ones at that.
Turning a final corner, he grinned as he entered the corridor leading to Teresa’s suite. Even if no one realized the true nature of his visitor, the sheer number of flowers arranged in chains suspended between groined windows and hanging in fantail sprays from baskets and braziers alike provided an extravagant hint of a gentle feminine presence… Until you looked closer, that is. For these bouquets were comprised of monkshood, red-berry and white-snake; poisoned ivy, Amazon lily and oleander. Colorful, yes, but deadly.
And the fragrance: something about the smell of death — no matter how subtle or sweet — always put Erra in a reflective mood. Typical of my saintly lodger to find beauty in the midst of so much danger. Speaking of which…
Reaching the terminus of the passage, Erra took a moment to change his startling visage into one less frightful to the human condition. Only then did he knock upon one of the golden panels adorning each of four floor-to-ceiling double doors.
Two great leaves swung inward of their own volition almost immediately, revealing his charge, deep in conversation with the First of Seven.
“… said before, don’t you see?” Teresa’s face betrayed the stoic demeanor adopted by teachers when explaining something straightforward to a pupil who should already know it. “Although it has taken many weeks for my invocation to mesh fully with the composition of the Sheolspace continuum, it now spreads exactly as anticipated.”
“Yes, I understand that aspect,” the First replied, “and we Sibitti watch with interest as your sorcery runs its course upon the vermin of this… ?” Erra’s principle champion noticed his master’s presence. “My Liege?”
“Forgive the intrusion.” Erra inclined his great head. “Have I disturbed you in the midst of something important?”
“No apology is necessary, and your interruption is most fortuitous.” The First turned to the fallen saint and extended an invitation: “Teresa, please. Repeat the gist of what you just said, especially your conclusions. I’m sure Lord Erra will find it most enthralling.”
Teresa sauntered forward, gaze raised to the plague god towering above her. Regardless of the difference in their size, Erra found the fragile woman before him no longer overawed in his company. That fact irked him more than it should.
She bowed formally. “My Lord Erra, how are you today. Well, I trust?”
At least she’s still polite. “All things considered, well enough, though I’m not one to sit on my hands when work waits.”
Teresa’s face broke into a self-satisfied smile. “Then take heed. I was explaining to the First that we now enter a crucial stage of the operation, one on which you will wish to capitalize.”
“How so?” Erra took a seat without waiting to be invited, a privilege of rank.
His host carried on: “Now that the seeds of love have been implanted into the matrix linking Satan’s realms together, we at last begin to see its fruits manifest. As I emphasized from the start; in those precious few who are truly remorseful, my enchantment has kindled a desire for repentance. Such ones should be ripe for harvest under your mandate, for they will face their fates with resolution and hope.”
“And the rest?”
“No doubt you already noted how the majority of hellkind are too far gone; too self-centered; too quick to take advantage of weaknesses in others to benefit from the cathartic effects of my gift. In them, the saplings of unity soon withered and died, allowing the weeds of sin to choke what goodness remained in their hearts. In some, rejection and abandonment leads to isolation and suicide; in most, to hatred and violence. And once inflamed, the damned become enslaved to the deviances sown by their own lusts.”
“A negative result, wouldn’t you say?” Erra replied, still slightly puzzled by Teresa’s earlier assertion. “How will I capitalize on this?”
“Isn’t it obvious? It works to your favor when sinners’ habitual actions continually condemn them. Wouldn’t you say these are ideal for auditing?”
A surge of pleasure coursed Erra’s illusionary form; sparks crackled in his beard and along his exposed arms. “So you feel that now is the time to let the Seven off their leashes?”
“I do, Lord Erra. Good news, I suspect, for while I don’t possess the constitution of a demigod, even I can see they chafe to be about their divine commission.”
Erra glanced toward his First, and their eyes blazed in unison like stars. Nevertheless, a note of caution caused Erra to lower his voice and lean forward in his chair. “And what of Grim?”
Teresa took a seat close to the glowing titan. “Grim? He is a creature of infinite quality. He acts with no restraint or remorse. Since the loss of Strawberry and Nimrod, he’s grown harsher — if that’s possible for Satan’s Reaper — and darker, too. Thousands have fallen to his blade, thousands more to his unbridled fury. Yet, for all the peril he represents, there’s purity to his service. Outside influence cannot sway him. Such piety I have only witnessed in rapture, a long, long time ago…” Teresa’s voice trailed away.
To Erra, she appeared caught in a current of memories from another time and place.
Then she remembered where she was, for she jumped and breezed on as if nothing had happened: “That’s why I say without doubt that his capacity for true love knows no bounds.
“True love? The Reaper? And that flaw makes him vulnerable, you think?”
“Possibly. But be wary, Lord Erra. Evidence of my labors resounds throughout the underverse: hatred; violence; unprecedented wrath. Bedlam ensues, and things get worse. Now imagine such unbridled passion in the hands of the Reaper. Those most sorely wounded often commit the greatest atrocities, and Daemon Grim has been hurt more than any other. It — It goes far beyond what happened to his lover and friend. I can feel it, sense it. Nevertheless, where he is concerned, my second sight is confounded, so I am unable to further clarify the matter…”
Once again, Teresa fell silent, succumbing to her personal tides of reflection.
It mattered not, for Erra had heard enough.
Maintaining an outer calm, he sent a shielded order thundering toward his primary enforcer: Notify your brothers. We begin afresh on the morrow.
Our parameters? the First enquired without moving a muscle.
As before the enforced hiatus: strike everywhere, but stick to the previously agreed strategy of fighting in pairs. This configuration will expand our range and increase the expectation of terror among the masses.
What about the Reaper?
We will test his resolve. If it transpires he can be distracted, then we bait him and lure him into a trap at a time and place of our choosing. He will pay for the insults heaped upon us, mark my words.
It shall be done. The slightest flicker of reticence on the First’s face betrayed a lingering doubt. Teresa won’t be happy you’re ignoring her counsel.
Erra’s countenance flushed, and for the merest fraction of a second a horrific entity occupied his chair, in dread repose. She has almost served her purpose. Mystic or not, the day will come when she too must answer for her actions. Then we will feast and taste the truth and depth of her penitence.
is a forthcoming novel set in the Heroes in Hell™ shared universe
It will be published by Perseid Press
All rights reserved. Available in trade paperback, and digital editions.
Andrew P. Weston is a Royal Marine and Police veteran from the UK who lives on the Greek island of Kos. He is the creator of the critically acclaimed IX series, and author of Hell Bound & Hell Hounds, part of Janet Morris’ Heroes in Hell universe. Visit him at andrewpweston.blogspot.gr and andrewpweston.com.