Chapter 26: Collapse
Ethan was standing on the balcony again. He had spent many nights here during the last few weeks, just leaning against the railing of the balcony of Lethe's apartment, contemplating the view of Hades. It was a majestic sight – at times frightening, at times beautiful, but always strangely majestic. Judging by all that he had seen so far, the entire city of Pandemonium was like that. Frightening, yet beautiful.
Throughout the nights (and there were no days in Pandemonium; not once had he seen the slightest glimmer of sunlight on the pitchblack sky) vast crowds of demons would whirl around in their frenzied dances on the floor far beneath Lethe's apartment under the dome. It was impossible to keep one's eyes fixed on a single demon for more than a few seconds. Their movements were fast, blurred out in the disorientating lights that swept over the crowds, and furthermore, Ethan would constantly find himself distracted by a nearby spectacle which looked even more astonishing than the last.
Much like the people of the human world from which he had come, Pandemonium's inhabitants had their dangerous ways of drowning sorrows. At the bars, only the most outlandish of beverages were served. Some of the tankards and drinking horns contained liquids which looked (and probably tasted) like oil, mud and huge pools of twitching maggots. Other beverages seemed more appetizing to Ethan. One of the liquids being sold would, through some sort of bizarre chemical reaction, change its colour every other second.
The most popular beverage was quite literally a great long flame, which hovered and coiled around in mid-air like an eel in the water, a billowing orange serpent. Although the flame sometimes seemed to have a mind of its own, it could easily be manipulated with one's mere fingertips, and the person drinking the flame would often toy and juggle with it for a moment before consumption. The demons would throw the small cascades of fire back and forth between their hands, before finally guiding it down their throats with the agility of sword-swallowers.
Apropos of things being pushed down throats, Ethan could see other, even fiercer activities of physical delight in the darker corners of Hades. The bodies of demons, nude, intertwined in hundreds of sexual unions between all ages, genders and anatomies which ranged from the beautiful to the bizarre. Ethan was repulsed and horrified by some of these sights. There were women who would brutally kill their lovers instantly after they had climaxed, like a travesty of the female praying mantis, and men whose genitals were more like those of octopi or reptilia than human beings. But then, there were sights in the midst of this madness that aroused Ethan – beautiful women, some playing with other demonesses, others riding the demons, and others doing both at the same time.
Once, when Lethe had caught Ethan staring at one of these orgies, she had asked him if he wanted to join in.
"No," Ethan had replied, stammering. "I … I don't think I would … you know. Fit in."
In truth, Ethan did not seem to fit in with any aspect of life in Pandemonium. Everything was too fast, too wild, too dangerous. Lethe would protect him and stay by his side whenever they left her home in Hades and wandered around in the Great City. Ethan knew that he would not have survived for five minutes on his own in this place if Lethe weren't there to guide him, like Virgil had guided Dante in one of his favorite works of classical literature.
Speaking of literature, he missed the library. He missed his job there; he missed some of his colleagues. He kept asking Lethe when they were going to visit the Oracle and find out how he could return to Dampmine. Lethe would tell him that she had neither enough energy nor enough time on her hands to travel all the way up to Delphi. "Soon; we'll go there as soon as possible", she'd say. "Besides, don't you like it here?"
Ethan would always shake his head and claim that he despised this place. He was starting to think that Lethe actually wanted him to stay in Pandemonium, that she was deliberately stalling his homeward journey. But why would she want him to stay? She was a famous singer around here; she could easily find better male company if she wanted to, right?
Ethan looked over his shoulder as the curtains behind him were drawn aside. Lethe stepped onto the balcony and stood beside him, peering down at the vast crowds of dancers, drinkers and orgiasts in the depths of Hades. "This is one of the quieter nights," she remarked.
Ethan nodded. "I know." He had seen even greater crowds in the past few weeks, and he'd heard more chaotic music reverberating up to the top of the dome. A slow, melancholy song was playing tonight. The instruments sounded Egyptian, albeit mixed with what he thought he could identify as an Indian shenai and a Moroccan ney flute.
Ethan could only stare at Lethe for a moment. And another moment. And another one. And -
Lethe laughed. It was not a sound of scorn, but rather a light, forgiving laugh. "Sorry. That was too ..."
"No, no, not at all," Ethan said. He suddenly felt as awkward as a teenager on Prom Night, desperately trying not to act like a complete idiot in front of his date. "I wouldn't mind dancing with you."
Lethe had soon put her arms around his neck, and they were moving around the balcony in slow circles. Ethan was once again struck with memories of the school proms from his younger years. This was truly surreal. He was lost in a sinister, otherwordly place like this, and all he could do was dance cheek by cheek with a total stranger …
"What's funny?" Lethe asked.
He suddenly realized that he had been chuckling. "I don't know," he said, "it's just that … well, for one thing, I haven't danced with anyone for the last … seven years, I think."
Lethe tilted her head curiously. A length of her blue hair slid over the back of Ethan's shirt with a silky whisper. "Who did you dance with seven years ago?" she inquired.
Ethan kept the answers coming, amused by the interrogation-like progress of their conversation. "My wife," he said. "We had to dance at our wedding. That's what we call it in Dampmine, when two Halves 'officially' become a Completion and all their relatives are gathered to celebrate it," he quickly explained, thinking that the fast-paced culture of Pandemonium had no room for such things as weddings.
"Oh … So you've already got a Half," Lethe said. She loosened her fingers slightly from the back of his neck.
"Does that surprise you?"
"I guess," she said. Her voice was tinged with a note of sadness. It was vague, almost imperceptible, but Ethan was still close enough to pick up on it.
"Why?" Now it was his turn to ask the questions. "Do I really look that awful?" he quipped. At that moment, the circle of the slow dance brought them past one of the glass doors which led back into the apartment. Ethan looked up over Lethe's shoulder, on which he was resting his chin as they danced, and saw his mirrored visage in the pane. He did look awful. Pale, greyish skin with specks of dried blood, bags under the somewhat bloodshot eyes, weeks of unshaven growth conquering his chin in the razor's absence.
"You look okay," Lethe said. "It's just that … I don't know. You don't seem like the Completed type."
"Well, if I have to be honest … she's not a very good Half," he said. "She's always working on her god-awful books. And I think she's cheating on me."
"What does that mean?"
"Fucking someone else," Ethan clarified. Normally, back in Dampmine, he would not use such a strong word in a casual conversation, and he would certainly not dare articulate the notion that his wife might be having an affair. But this was not Dampmine, and he was not feeling normal. Ever since he had first set foot in the streets of Pandemonium, he'd started to change. He could feel it in his bones; it was like … growing pains.
Ashley sat on an uncomfortable stool in the corner of Asclepius' operating room and watched him work. Zach was sprawled out on the stone slab. When she and Rhea had arrived half an hour ago, she'd immediately handed the two eyelids over to Asclepius and removed the black bandages from Zach's head. Asclepius had seen the lidless eyeballs and, giving Ashley a nod of wordless understanding, begun to stitch the eyelids back onto the boy's face. He worked slowly, silently, carefully, using an instrument which resembled a cross between a microscope and a sewing machine. Fortunately there was no need to sedate the patient, since Baal and Astarte had already drugged him up quite effectively.
At one point during the operation, Asclepius looked up at Ashley. "What's his type?"
Ashley was silent at first. Then, she remembered what the inspector had told her about the results of the lab analysis of the eyelid. "A-negative."
Asclepius rummaged through his cabinets. He had soon procured a test tube filled with O-negative. He hooked the scarlet liquid up to the fine line where Zach's eyelids met the skin of his forehead. As the blood pumped into the patient's facial flesh, Asclepius proceeded to start cleaning the slashes on Zach's chest. He dabbed some ointment on the worst of the burn marks.
Lethe dropped her arms down from the back of Ethan's neck. For a second, he thought that she had grown tired of their dull little dance, and with a sadly resigned gesture, he stepped back to let her leave him alone on the balcony. But Lethe didn't want to leave him at all. She simply took him by the hands and drew him closer to her. During these first few minutes of the dance, he had been letting his arms hang limply at his sides. Lethe moved his hands up to place them on her waist. She slipped her arms around his back once more, and their slow, melancholy waltz continued.
"You're too shy, Ethan. You can't go through your whole life acting so shy." Her voice was at a tone of soft amusement. Gone was the sadness from before.
Ethan didn't reply. Her long, pitchblack gown felt light at the hips, where she had placed his clammy hands. Her cheek was like silk, at least compared to his stubble-covered skin.
"So, if you don't miss your Half, why do you want to go back to Dampmine?"
Ethan thought about Rachel. He thought about the library. He thought about his colleagues, friends, family. Dampmine.
"I … don't," he said. Once he had forced those first two syllables out, he found it surprisingly easy to say the rest. "I don't want to go back." The fact that he was actually saying this, thinking it and saying it, did not surprise him. He had been having thoughts along these very same lines for quite a while. Hell, it had probably begun while he was still living an ordinary life in Dampmine. That was when he had first realized it.
"I don't want to be in Dampmine anymore."
"Good." Lethe planted a kiss on his cheek. Even this did not come as a surprise to him. It was all like one big dream. He accepted everything that happened to him, because anything could happen in dreams, and none of it would ever have any consequenses whatsoever on his real life in the real world. 'That's just the way dreams work … right?'
Lethe's next kiss was lighter, brushing over his lips. At first, he merely stood there, as cold and inanimate as a statue. Slowly, he started to zone in. She kissed him again, and this time he kissed back. She leaned in over him, her hair shielding them from their surroundings like two great curtains, shrouding Ethan in a world of blue.
Finally, Asclepius leaned back from the unconscious body, like a painter contemplating the portrait he had just finished. "Done," he said tersely.
Ashley stood up, her legs even shakier than those of the stool she'd been seated on. Slowly, holding her breath, feeling her stomach turn with bleak expectations, she walked across the room to the operating slab. It was only a distance of a few yards, but she felt like she was crossing miles to reach her destination. At last, she stood over Zach's unconscious body and stared down at his face.
His eyes were closed.
His eyes were closed, and she felt a wave of relief rush through her mind; for Zach's eyes were actually closed, his eyelids stitched back onto the orbs where they belonged. She couldn't even see any scars. However, as she leaned down to take a closer look, she noticed two fine, white lines curving up between the corners of his eyes. But they were barely visible unless you looked at him from a distance closer than an inch or so.
"He should rest for the next few days," Asclepius said. "At first, it's going to hurt like hell when he tries to blink, but it'll pass. Just give him some sedatives for the first few hours after he regains consciousness."
Ashley slipped a hand into her pocket and felt the bag of Memoria which she had grabbed from the shipment in Golgotha. "So … can we go home now?" she asked.
"Of course," said Rhea, who had been sitting on the edge of a table behind Asclepius, watching the operation. "You do remember how to open a trapdoor, right?"
"Yes." Ashley hesitated slightly. "Goodbye, Rhea."
"Take care, Alice."
Ashley turned around and walked up to Zach, wrapping her arms around his torso to lift him from the slab. And so, holding onto her unconscious friend in a clumsy sort of sideways hug, she gazed up at the ceiling. "Purgatorium, Purgatorium … Purgatorium."
Their lips parted. "I wish Rachel could see this," he said with a wry smile.
"Forget Rachel," Lethe said, already unbuttoning his blood-soaked shirt. "Just forget her."
"I can't," he admitted.
Lethe stepped back from him. In a single motion, she had pulled the gown from her shoulders, sending the light fabric billowing onto the floor. She was naked underneath. "I can make you forget her, can't I?"
Ethan said nothing. There was no need for any more words. She tore the tie from his neck, throwing it out over the railing of the balcony. Ethan gazed after the blue strip of cloth until it had fallen out of sight. The tie he had worn when he'd worked at the library, the tie he had worn when he fell through the trapdoor. Gone.
Lethe slid her tongue over his neck, and he instantly focused on her body. She was laying down on the carpeted floor of the balcony, and gently, insistently, she drew him down on top of her. Ethan did indeed forget; he forgot that she was a demoness, that not all demonesses were as harmless as they seemed, and that physical contact with them could have irreversible consequences.
He forgot where he had come from, he forgot where he was, he forgot what he had wanted in the past. All he wanted right now was Lethe. And as she wrapped her legs around him and he slid into her, he got what he wanted.
The trapdoor opened. Both of the teenagers below were enveloped in a warm beam of light. Once again, Ashley felt her feet float up from the ground, but this time, she was carrying someone with her. The light pulled both of them up through the opening, and again, just like last time, she was struck with the sensation of floating through water, through a vast, warm ocean. They broke the surface together, just as the trapdoor closed below them.
Where were they? Where the fuck were they? She was sure they'd kept some TNT here in the dungeon. Astarte moved from chamber to chamber, from storage cell to storage cell, rummaging through Baal's layer of explosives which he had purchased 'just in case we'll need them somenight'. She grabbed a crowbar and pryed the lids off crates to rifle through their contents. Grenades, incinerator, C4 … None of it would be powerful enough for what she had in mind.
Astarte had been one of the few warriors still standing at the end of the battle in the Pantheon – and it had been a big one. Had the people of Pandemonium known of such a thing as factual prose, this battle would have gone down in the history books. Regardless of whether she wanted to tell the tale, Astarte had lived. And as she'd wandered across the piles of mangled corpses littering the floor of Golgotha in a shallow lake of blood, she had discovered that someone very close and important to her had, in fact, not survived. Namely Baal.
She knew who had been his slayer. She'd seen them fighting out of the corner of her eye, while she was absorbed in her own fight against Judecca's forces. Baal and Rhea.
There were no tears, not a single one. She had other issues on her mind than the mourning. She was already planning how she would hunt down Rhea, how she would trap her, toy with her, humiliate her, torture her into insanity, deform her beyond all recognition. Rhea was hers now. Rhea belonged to her. In killing Baal, Rhea had signed her own sentence, and Astarte would be more than happy to act as both torturer and executioner.
But before she could proceed to those two tasks, she had to destroy Golgotha. This place where she had spent such wonderful nights with Baal, where they had found pleasure in giving pain to each other and to their victims. The place where Baal now lay dead, just another warrior carried off by valcyries at the end of the battle. Golgotha had to be wiped out. As long as it remained in this world, she would not be able to focus on her revenge. She would not be able to move on.
Finally, she found a small, but powerful package of TNT in one of the crates. It was rigged up to a timer, which could be set for a countdown of up to two hours. Astarte grabbed the TNT and ran up from the dungeon, back to the main hall of the Pantheon.
She chose the pillar that rose closest to the dome in the very middle of the Pantheon. Holding the small package between her teeth, she climbed to the top of the pillar. Her movements were incredibly agile as she pressed her toes into crevices between the skulls and hooked her fingers into the eyesockets. In less than thirty seconds, she had scaled to the top of the column. She took the TNT from her mouth and attached it to the drum of the great dome. Her fingers flew over the button pad, setting the timer to tick for fifteen minutes before detonating.
In less than twenty seconds, she was back on the floor and making a dash for the exit. The enormous, arched gates still stood open, and she rushed out to the street beyond. She made her way to a desolate rooftop a few avenues away, where she could be alone and elevated from the noise of the streets when she watched the Pantheon collapse. For the next ten minutes or so, nothing happened, but she waited patiently.
When the explosion did come, it was beautiful.
"What was that?!" Ethan said, raising his face from Lethe's neck. He could have sworn he'd felt the balcony shake underneath him, and it had had nothing to do with the movements of their entwined bodies. No, this had been like a goddamn earthquake, accompanied by a horrifying orchestration of crashes and groans from the streets outside. Something was collapsing, something big.
"I don't know," Lethe said truthfully.
With his knees and hands on either side of her, he propped himself up to look through the railing of the balcony. In the hall beneath, demons were rushing out to the street to find out what had happened. He felt an urge to follow them, a spark of curiosity …
… which was quickly snuffed out as he heard Lethe's voice. "Can't it wait?"
Ethan hesitated. She put a hand down between their hips, guiding him back in. All thoughts of resistance were forgotten in the blink of an eye. She was there, under him, and there was nowhere else he'd rather want to be, no one else he'd rather want to be with. Not even Rachel. Especially not Rachel. Compared to Rachel and the few other women he had been with during his sad little life in the world above Pandemonium, Lethe was perfect. She knew exactly what he needed, how he wanted her to move against him, how fast he wanted them to go. She knew it all.
And so, while hundreds of demons rushed out onto the street, leaving the main hall of Hades silent and deserted, two figures were left on the balcony under the high dome. Their breathing was the only sound to be heard in the entire hall.
All the spires came tumbling down, all the domes collapsed upon the main structure, and the entire building was reduced to ruins with a boom which rendered everyone in its near vicinity completely deaf. The walls were higher than those of Jericho, and their destruction made an even more awe-inspiring sight. They uttered deep groans, as if the building were a living, breathing animal, lying down to suffer a painful death from its wounds. The earth quaked throughout Pandemonium, and the crowds screamed in terrified unison. Hundreds of demons were crushed under the collapsing building, and traffic in the nearby streets was brought to an abrupt halt, triggering hundreds of car crashes.
Clouds of thick, heavy smoke billowed from the building, rolling through the streets, shrouding everything in grey darkness. The clouds were as relentless as a tidal wave. Their surfaces almost looked solid, like enormous cliffs moving through the streets. There were people pointing, shouting, screaming, running, some trying to save their loved ones at all costs, some trying to save themselves at all costs, all panicking, all trying to get away, all trying to survive. Few of them succeeded.
Aclepius stood in the street and gazed at the darkened horizon. A column of heavy smoke ascended from the center of Pandemonium. It came drifting above the Great City, an enormous wave of smog, blacker than the night sky which it covered.
The second Asclepius and Rhea had heard the explosion – just a few minutes after Ashley and Zach had gone through the trapdoor – they had run out to the street to see what was happening. Several other dwellers in this part of Pandemonium had come out from their abodes as well, pointing up at the smog with looks of awe-inspired fright on their faces, talking excitedly. A rumor ran amongst them, and Asclepius could hear scattered fragments of the conversations.
"… it's Golgotha; it's gone, it's just gone …"
"… a bomb, maybe several charges of C4 or TNT …"
"…why the fuck would anyone want to …"
"It's Astarte," Rhea said quietly. "It's got to be Astarte."
"You mean … Astarte blew up Golgotha?" Asclepius blurted out. "Why?"
A look of fear crossed over Rhea's face. "I killed Baal. She wants me to know that she knows. She wants me to know just how pissed off she is."
And on her deserted rooftop, Astarte stood elevated above the chaos she had caused. Her white hair fluttered around her in the winds. Fires rose from the obliterated Pantheon and the countless car crashes, the tongues of the titanic flames licking towards the heavens. The flames were reflected in Astarte's eyes. The fires burned inside her pupils.
Golgotha had fallen. It had taken several years, hundreds of architects and thousands of workers to build this place, and it had fallen over the course of mere minutes, destroyed by a single person.
Astarte closed her eyes. For a while, she simply listened to the screams and inhaled the fragrance of the explosion, the crushed corpses, the burning flesh. She smiled.
Bench-Lady could feel the tremor as it passed through the very fabric of Dampmine's world. Someone was entering the town from beneath, floating up from Pandemonium. There were two. The girl and her friend. And Bench-Lady knew exactly where the girl would want to be when she woke up.
The Bench-Lady closed her eyes. She manipulated the fabric again, making the girl's trapdoor open up in the right time, in the right area.
When Ashley's eyes fluttered open, they were met with the sight of a small bedroom. She had never been here before, but it looked like an apartment's bedroom – probably somewhere in Dampmine Apartments. And judging by the posters of old horror movies plastered across the walls, this was Zach's room. Blinds were drawn over the window, but the glimmer of dawn shone through. The night had grown old and was slowly passing away.
Ashley turned her head to find Zach lying on the floor beside her. The girl scrambled to her feet and dragged him up onto the bed. She stood there, staring at him for a moment. During his torture sessions with Baal and Astarte, Zach's boxers had been drenched with both urine and specks of blood. And after the ordeal Ashley had just been put through in Pandemonium, she was too exhausted to feel embarassed about something as harmless as nudity. She pulled the boxers off, opened the window and threw the reeking undergarment into a container below.
She promptly rifled through Zach's wardrobe and took the first pyjamas she could find. It took her a few minutes of pulling and fumbling and cursing and swearing to put the pyjamas on Zach's unconscious body. Then, she collapsed in a nearby chair and hunched over the desk, resting her head on her arms, closing her eyes. Sleep came instantaneously.
She awoke with a start. Someone was shaking her by the shoulders, yelling at her. A male voice. "Wake up, goddammit! Who are you? What are you doing here with my son?!"
Ashley opened her bleary eyes. A middle-aged man stood before her. Zach's father? 'Great. Just great.'
"I'm Ashley," she said groggily. "I'm a friend of Zach's. Are you his dad?"
"Yes, I'm Andy." Andy did not waste any more time on introductions. "Where the hell has he been?"
"What do you mean, where has he been?"
"Zach's been missing for days! The police has been totally stumped; it's like the earth just swallowed him up!"
Ashley spent the next fifteen minutes trying to calm down the bemused father. She quickly came up with a semi-believable lie. Zach had been out hiking in the woods north of the town, and as dusk descended, he'd tried to take a short cut which deviated from the forest path and brought him into the wilderness. To put it shortly, he got lost. Ashley had been out hiking just yesterday, and coincidentally Zach had stumbled back onto the path in front of her, looking dazed and almost dying with thirst. He'd passed out in her arms, and she had carried him back to the town. At one point while he'd been lost, a grizzly bear had attacked him, which would explain some of the marks Baal and Astarte had left on his body.
Andy seemed to believe the tale. "I'll go down to the police station and tell them to call off the search."
"Why don't you just phone them?"
"The phone doesn't work in this place. Margaret – Zach's mom – she didn't pay her bills. When she was living here, I mean," he added, as if to stress that he wasn't using the past tense because he considered his ex-wife to be dead. "She had a breakdown a few days ago, in the mall where she works. She got a heavy nosebleed, then she started thrashing around all of a sudden. She's at rehab now. It's gonna be horrible to have to tell Zach about it when he wakes up." He stared over at the unconscious boy in the bed. There was a strangely hopeful smile tugging at Andy's lips. "But … I think a lot of things are going to change from now on."
Ashley thought about everything that had happened over the course of the last two weeks. Everything that had happened in Dampmine, everything that had happened in Pandemonium. She thought about all the places she had visited and the sights she had seen – the horrible, frightening sights and the beautiful ones.
"I think a lot of things already have changed," she said.
Half an hour had passed when she was forcefully pulled from her sleep for the second time that day. Andy had gone to the police station, and she had decided to get some more sleep on the couch in the living room, which was considerably more comfortable than the chair at Zach's desk. The noises that had awoken her were coming from Zach's room. Screams. Zach was screaming.
She scrambled up from the couch and rushed into the boy's bedroom. He was sitting up in bed, rocking back and forth, fingers scratching furiously at his eyes while he screamed in pain.
He had tried to blink.
Ashley grabbed him by the wrists and, putting one knee against his chest, forced him back onto the mattress. "ZACH! Calm down!" she yelled. "Calm – the fuck – down!"
The screams receded into agonized whimpers.
"You're going to be okay. Everything's going to be just fine. Your eyelids just need some more time to heal. That's all. Just. Don't. Blink. Again. Okay? Nod if you can hear me."
Zach nodded, weakly.
She left him alone for a minute as she hurried into the bathroom to grab a cup of water. She reached into her pocket and produced the bag of Memoria. Pulling out a single pill between her fingertips, she returned to Zach's bedside. "I need you to drink this."
The pill was quickly dissolved in the cold water. She brought the cup to Zach's lips.