There is a place where the sky is always black
There is a place where the sky is always black. Starless and moonless, it floats like a surface of thick pitch, high above the lights of a city.
We are going down to that place.
There is a place where buildings reach towards the darkened sky, where Gothic spires and Byzantine domes have been erected throughout the ages, one more ambitiously built than the other. There is a place where the beauty of hanging gardens can be seen on the balconies of towers and palaces, a place where the grotesqueries of unholy rituals and orgies are carried out in cavernous temples far beneath. In this place, colossi and mausoleums are situated beside each other, as are Roman colosseums and Mayan pyramids, Rennaisance castles and Thai pagodas. In this place, the air is warm, and the winds always carry a strange fragrance of burnt flesh and dripping sweat. The fragrance drifts through every street and every alley, haunting them, restless, always moving fast. It is the fragrance of the Great City.
You may think you've seen cities before, great, vast, dangerous cities that never sleep and never slow down. But you have not seen the Great City. It is a place of contrasts, of beauties and beasts, of pain and pleasure. It is easy to get lost in such a place, and for people like us, with eyes accustomed to the laws of our world, it is inevitable to get disorientated and maddened by the sights of the City.
We are already there now.
On a deserted rooftop near the centre of the City, there is a demoness. She stands at the edge of the terrace, staring out over the streets and the bizarre crowds that stream up and down them in endless rivers of blurred, impossible shapes, waves of colours and noises. The demoness stands still, silent, alone, watching. Her face is one of symmetry, the skin pale and tender, the long, vertical crusts of scars hard and scarlet with dried blood. Lengths of white hair hang about her face.
She speaks in a slow, toneless whisper. "Semnai, Praxidikae, Podniae … Maniae."
And in the middle of the City, there are ruins. A vast, empty space between towering buildings, the ground covered with broken skulls and bones. This was once one of the greatest monuments in the City. It has been reduced to these pathetic remains, these fragments of skulls, cleaved by the explosion and scattered across the ground in a white, motionless sea of rubble. Golgotha, the place of the skull. A long time ago, it was a glorious sight, golden and shimmering, filling the entire City with its light. Then, the Downfall came. Blood was spilt, the blood of the building's founding father, and the gold melted away into millions of skulls. For years, the new Golgotha simply stood in the midst of the City, abandoned. Gone was the forum it had once been used as, the unison and democracy it had once represented. It was simply a mausoleum. There was a clash there between the forces of Cocytus and Hades, and at the end of the battle, someone – the people of the City did not know who, although there were rumors circulating – had planted explosives in the Pantheon. Powerful explosives.
And now, from beneath the ruins, three beings awaken. A corpse lies buried underneath the rubble of these millions of shattered bones and skulls. It is the corpse of a demon who was infamous in the City when he lived, hated by many, feared by most. He died hours ago. His blood is still there. A dark red, congealed pool on dusty, grey tiles, hidden, buried and forgotten beneath yards of the fragmented sceletal remains that once made up endless rows, constituting walls and domes, vaults and spires.
Shapes rise from his blood. They are small at first, mere drops trickling upwards from his mutilated corpse. They are joined by other drops, gathering into little rivers, gaining a harder consistency, becoming worms, becoming amphibians. They slither through cracks and gaps between the layers of rubble as they rise to the surface. Their evolution turns faster. The red liquid is a solid mass now, like clay being moulded in invisible hands. Limbs burst out, muscles are strung around the bones, flesh sprouts up around the sceletal structures, the skin slides down from heads to toes, clumps of black plumage widen into wings, the pupils appear and the eyes open.
They burst through the surface like dolphins leaping from the sea, smooth and graceful. Waves of skulls and bones fly in all directions from the site of emergence, and there are a few shocked screams from the demons standing nearby who have been examining the ruins, looking for a cause for the recent explosion. They draw back in terror as the three creatures unfold their wings, already hovering above the heap of broken sceletal remains.
Their trinity is one of blended elegance and obscenity, like so much else in the Great City. Their bodies are those of young women, their wings those of full-grown condors. Their hairless crowns are wreathed with serpents that slither restlessly across the womens' skin, sometimes hanging from their toes, sometimes curling around their fingers, breasts, necks. Tattered scarlet chitons hang from their shoulders, long and fluttering in the winds, with rips large enough to expose their breasts. But these beings are not ordinary women; they care about neither appearance nor their own personal gains. They exist merely to avenge.
They throw back their heads, and with an audible snap, their lower jaws dislocate like those of snakes preparing to feast. They scream.
The sound slips through the air as effortlessly as a blade through flesh, and those that stand closest are the most unfortunate, although everyone in the vicinity is affected. They all utter their own screeches, as though infected with a virus of screaming which spreads through the perception of the sound itself. Some cry, others laugh. Some fall to the ground, curling up in pathetic catatonia, pressing their hands against their ears. Others have more aggressive reactions. A Clawfingered demon uses the sickle-shaped extensions of his fingers and toes to slice his own torso open, stuffing the intestines into his guffawing mouth, devouring himself. A demoness begins to wail, falls to her knees, tears her hair out in thick tufts. A demon pounces on her, pins her like a butterfly, tears her clothes off, violates her whilst slamming her head into the ground until her last wails cease.
And from the two ruins, the ruins of Golgotha and the ruins of these demons' minds, the three creatures soar into the eternal night of Pandemonium. They scream as they ascend, spreading insanity to the minds of those unfortunate enough to hear the cacophony. They are the Furies, the Venerable Ones, the Vengeful Ones, the Awful Ones, the Madnesses.
"Alecto! Megaera! Tisiphone!" Astarte calls out in greeting.
The trinity swoops down and hovers before the demoness on the rooftop. Alecto is the first to speak, her voice little more than a guttural hiss. "Whose blood did we rise from?"
"The blood of my Half."
"Is there a bond of blood between him and his killer?" Tisiphone asks.
Astarte lowers her eyes, letting out a sigh. "No. There is no bond."
The Furies respond with inarticulate noises, a blend of laughter and hissing, disbelief and contempt. "We do not waste our time with such … insignificance. You know this, Astarte; if it was not murder within a family, we will not interfere."
"Oh, you will interfere." Astarte's voice grows stronger. She raises her gaze to the bloodshot eyes of the Furies. "You will hunt his killer down, and you will bring her to me. You will not hurt her. You will not scream in her presence. You will simply bring her to me."
The Furies are not laughing now. Alecto speaks: "To bring us from Dis and into this world where we are not needed, to awaken us when there is no purpose … You are not merely naïve; you are insolent."
"We could destroy you," hisses Megaera, "we could scream …"
"But you won't," Astarte says with a teasing smile. "Are you not tired of Dis? Dwelling at the gates of such a weary city … You want another hunt, do you not?"
The Furies are silent. They simply hover around their summoner, wings sweeping lazily through the air.
"I loved him," Astarte says softly. "I loved the man from whose blood you have risen. I loved him more than any mother has ever loved a son, more than any sister has ever loved a brother, more than any daughter has ever loved her father. And his killer was as unforgiving as any of the others you have persecuted. She is as worthy as Electra and Orestes … Is that not enough for you?"
Alecto floats slightly downwards, swimming through the air like some grotesque mermaid. She reaches Astarte's eye level. Her voice is turning slightly milder. "What is the name of the killer?"
ZONING OUT II
When I leave this town
I'm gon' bid you fare…farewell
And when I leave this town
I'm gon' bid you fare…farewell
And when I return again
you'll have a great long story to tell
Chapter 1: The Cruel Farmer
Mrs. Clarice Birch entered the classroom with the quick, small steps that her frame would allow her at its considerable age and less-than-considerable size. Thick glasses were perched upon her wrinkled nose. The teacher laid her papers out on the desk as she waited for the students to settle down. "Good afternoon," she said with her usual mousy voice. "Now, last time I asked five of you to prepare papers on five of David Hume's theories. Bob, will you begin with his view on free will versus determinism?"
Bob looked up from a page in his philosophy notebook which was rapidly filling up with sketches of Marvel superheroes. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Birch, I completely -"
"Yes, yes, you've completely forgotten your homework for the last five lessons now. Do pull yourself together, Bob." Mrs. Birch underlined this with an audible sigh. "Ashley?"
The girl had been zoning out, staring through the open window at the early June sky and its blue perfection. She turned to focus on her teacher, blond ponytail whipping around at the back of her neck. "Uh, yes, Mrs. Birch. David Hume." She grabbed her notes and rose from the table.
As she walked up and scribbled the heading of her subject on the blackboard, all the inevitable whispers and odd, knowing looks were exchanged between the other students. According to popular opinion at Dampmine High, Ashley Orswell was an oddball to say the least. It wasn't her looks – she was normal in that sense, even somewhat pretty at times – but simply her behaviour. She was quiet, nervous; a weirdo whose social circle of peers was practically limited to one boy from her class – some geek named Zach.
Ashley finished writing 'The problem of induction' on the blackboard and turned around to face her audience. "Uhm, the principle of induction is when you use past experience to indicate the future. Hume found two justifications for this way of thinking, and he rejected both. The first justification states that the future - oh, forget it." Ashley held her paper out above the floor. "What do you think will happen when I let go of this paper?"
The students gave her a slow, collective look which implied that she had just spoken that last sentence in fluent Swahili. Mrs. Birch, who could see where Ashley was going with this, gave an approving smile.
"Raise your hand if you think it's going to fall down to the floor," Ashley said.
The students raised their hands. Ashley dropped the paper. It swung back and forth through the warm, dusty air, floating gracefully down until it had landed on the floor. "Okay, you're right,"Ashley admitted. "Papers have always fallen down when you dropped them in the past; why shouldn't they keep falling down? It's only logical. But, as Hume tells us, we can still imagine a world in which papers float up to the ceiling, can't we? What would you do if gravity was reversed, or if water burned you and fire suddenly felt cold, or a trapdoor opened in the floor when you know there's never been any real trapdoors there? How would you explain anything like that logically? You can't. And how can you explain that the paper falls when you drop it? You can't explain that either. The only difference is that papers have fallen so many times, you're used to it by now.
Imagine a goose on a farm. Each and every day, the goose is fed by the farmer, until the goose expects to be fed again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after … Then, one day, the farmer doesn't bring food; he comes with an axe and chops the goose's head off. The goose couldn't use its past experience to prove what would happen in the future. There's always a cruel farmer, and he's ready to turn it all upside down …"
It was Friday. The sun shone, hot on the exposed skin of her forearms and the back of her neck. She stared into the distance as she walked, into the undulating blur of hot air above the asphalt, and she couldn't help but smile. She untied her hair from its ponytail, letting it flow in the summer wind.
There were large middle-class houses on either side of the quiet road, which was deserted save for an elderly man watering his garden and two little girls playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. Butterflies fluttered by, and a cat slept on a front lawn, darting away in the blink of an eye when the sprinkler system came on. This was Dampmine, and Ashley loved it.
She looked over her shoulder as she heard the slow rumbling of a car cruising towards her. It was a sleek, shiny model, reflecting the sunlight in its red-sprayed surface, driven by a sleek, shiny boy with sunlight glimmering in his blond hair. 18-year-old Josh Hayden was one of the prettiest boys at Dampmine High, and he knew it. In fact, everyone knew it. The girls wanted him, the other boys envied him, and he loved every second of it all.
Ashley raised an eyebrow in total indifference and walked on, quickening her pace slightly.
"Hey," Josh said as he cruised beside her.
"I liked what you said in philosophy just now. About the goose. That was pretty cool."
Ashley gave a shrug. "Yeah, well, it's not my theory."
"But you believe in it, don't you?"
She nodded. At that moment, they reached the spot on the sidewalk where the two girls had been playing hopscotch. They stepped aside shyly when the teenagers passed by, but Ashley gave a sweet grin as she hopped and skipped along the chalked squares, following the routine to perfection. She spun around on the last square, gave a slight bow, then walked onwards down the street as though nothing unusual had happened.
Josh laughed the kind of laugh that would form an instant crush in the heart of an average Dampminer girl. "You know, you're really a fun girl, Ashley."
Again, Ashley stared at him with that indifferent look in her dull blue eyes. "I guess I am."
Ashley came to a halt in front of her house, and Josh let the car coast to a smooth stop. "So, I was thinking that prom night's in two weeks now, and …" He tilted his head and flashed Ashley a megawatt smile. "I'd kinda like to invite you."
"I've already got a date," she said.
Josh looked as if he'd just swallowed a whole lemon, rind and all. "Really? Good for you! Who's your date, then?" he asked, though he already knew the answer.
"Zach. Anyway, this is my house. See you on Monday." She was about to walk up the front yard path to the house when she hesitated, turning around slightly to look back at sleek, shiny Josh and his sleek, shiny car. For a moment, Josh thought that she was going to see reason and change her mind, that she would go with him to the prom and forget about that loser Zach.
Instead, Ashley said: "Oh look. A butterfly."
Josh followed her line of sight and saw a common orange-red butterfly resting on the windshield. When he looked back at the girl, she was walking up the path to her house.
"Son of a bitch," he muttered as he drove off. The butterfly fluttered up and disappeared somewhere in the bright blue sky. Josh was more than disappointed; he was furious. Girls had never said no to him before, never said no to going to parties with him, never said no to dancing with him, never said no to sex with him. Ashley would say yes; she had to. There had been bets made with both friends and enemies, and he had money - a lot of money – going for the fact that he could and would be fucking her by prom night.
And she had said no. The cruel farmer had chopped his head off.
"Son. Of. A. Bitch."
Ashley dropped her schoolbag on the corner of the stairs and walked through the open door to the kitchen, where she poured herself a glass of ice tea and nearly drank all of it in a couple of gulps. Dampmine summers were always hot.
Karyn, the girl's mother, was standing in the doorway to the living room. "Were you talking to Josh outside just now?"she asked.
"He's such a nice boy, isn't he?"
Ashley gave a shrug of her shoulders and the apathetically eloquent answer: "Meh." She gulped down some more ice tea. "Asked me out to the prom. I said no thanks. He's a bit too old for me, isn't he?"
Karyn's smile faltered. "Oh, just two years' difference …"
"Anyway, I already told you, I'm going to the prom with Zach."
Karyn's smile gave up the battle and retreated from her face. "Well, you know, I think it could be really great for you. To make a new friend. A new male friend. You know, someone normal."
"I don't need someone normal. Zach's fine," Ashley said quietly. She put the empty glass down in the sink. "Anyway, this was probably just one of Josh's stupid bets."
Karyn frowned. "What?"
"Nothing." Ashley decided she should let her mother live on in the blissfully ignorant belief that Josh was the sweetest, most innocent boy in Dampmine. She walked out of the kitchen and started up the stairs to her room.
"Well, I've got some shopping to do now," Karyn said from the entrance hall. "So you'll answer the phone while I'm gone, and the door, if anyone comes by."
"'Course I will." Ashley went into her room and made a beeline for the vivarium. God, her pet iguana – originally named Godzilla, then nicknamed God - lay sprawled in the shallow pool of warm water. Even He seemed affected by the summer heat. Ashley smiled at the sight and crouched down in front of the vivarium, staring into the lizard's black eyes.
"Bye," came Karyn's voice from below as she opened the front door.
"Bye," Ashley called back. She heard the door close. "You know, God, my mom can be a real bitch sometimes," she told the iguana. "Of course I'm going to the prom with Zach. He's been my best friend for years, and after … what happened to us in the City …" The words caught in her throat. She couldn't talk about it, not even to God. She could not speak the name of the Great City. "It's over now, but it's still there, isn't it? Beneath us. Beneath Dampmine …"
God lay in the water, his furrowed, green body motionless. He lowered his head slightly, as though to avoid Ashley's gaze.
"I can't stop thinking about it," she murmured. Slowly, she rose to her feet, raking a hand through her hair. "Anyway, I'll go get your food now. I'll be right back."
She went downstairs, walked through the narrow entrance hall and was about to step into the kitchen when she heard the hiss.
It was a hissing, sucking sound, almost like the background noise on a tape recording. She stood motionless in the middle of the hall, trying to fill her thoughts with the hope that this wasn't what she thought it could very well be, yet frozen with the fear that it was exactly what she thought it was. How could she forget that sound? Those horrible, almost electric vibrations spreading through the air? How could she possibly forget?
With a dream-like slowness, she turned her head and stared to her right. The cellar door stood ajar. A wind was rising from beyond it. A cold, whispering wind, carrying the sounds in its invisible flow. The hissing. The sucking.
No. Ashley, no.
She reached out, grabbed the doorhandle. Pulled. The sound and the wind grew stronger. She stepped through and stared down the simple wooden stairs that led to the basement. The house's drier and washing machine were located in the main room below and to her right. The side rooms contained tools for home repair, a ping-pong table and several cardboard boxes of old, used junk.
The hissing sound was coming from the main room. 'Maybe it's just the drier or the washing machine,' she tried to tell herself. 'Maybe one of them's broken somehow and that's why it's making such a weird noise …'
Still, the hissing sound continued. And there was another voice in her mind now, a horrible voice, one which she had not heard since last November. 'You're a goose, Ashley,' it sneered at her. 'An ignorant little goose.'
She started to walk down the stairs. The air was stale and moist, the walls a dull shade of grey, only broken by yellowish rectangles of sunlight seeping in through small, dirty windows. Dust danced silently in these scant partings of the darkness. Ashley came to a halt on the third step. She clutched the banister in both hands, crouching down on the step to peer through.
no no no no no
There was a trapdoor. In the middle of the smooth, grey basement floor, a trapdoor had opened, and a figure was emerging through it. With a short scream, Ashley jumped back from the banister as though the wooden boards had suddenly turned red-hot. "Oh God, oh, oh God no, no, NO!" she wailed, pressing herself up against the wall.
A man, naked, floating through the air as if it were water, rising to the surface. His head was thrown back, and his arms hung limply on either side of a torso stretched backwards, pale and unmoving. Finally, his feet broke the surface, and the trapdoor closed below him. At that exact moment, the water-air became ordinary air again, governed by gravity, and the man fell onto the basement floor. He let out a groan.
"Oh christ oh christ oh christ," Ashley muttered as she practically leapt down the stairs. She ran up to the fallen man, kneeling down at his side. Instinctively, she took his head in her hands and checked the back of it to see if he had hurt it badly in the fall to the floor. There would probably be a swelling, but nothing severe.
"Who the hell are you?" she muttered. The man's eyes were still closed. She contemplated his face, his stubble-covered chin, his dishevelled, brown hair. She had seen him before …