Chapter 24: Losses

Ashley had stopped in front of the Dampmine Apartments parking lot. There were police cars parked outside the block where Zach lived. People were walking or being guided out, shaking, crying, blabbering to the officers. The cars' blue and red lights spun and shimmered over the scene. Ashley stared as if hypnotized by these lights.

"She's moved on from there," came a voice behind Ashley.

The girl spun around, only to be relieved by the sight of Rhea, looking as though she, too, had been running. "She isn't there anymore," Rhea said, "and neither is Zach." She was holding a broadsword with congealed blood on it, one that she had undoubtedly brought from Pandemonium. There would be a fight tonight. They both knew it.

"She's after him?" Ashley said.

"I think she has unfinished business with him, too," Rhea said, wiping sweat off her brow. She stared down the street, downtown. "Of a different kind. Why are you wearing such an impractical garment?"

Ashley gave a tired smile. "Prom night."


"Something silly that Dampminers do."

Rhea frowned, as though suddenly angry at herself for standing here and talking about irrelevant matters. "We can't waste time. Let's go."

Rhea set off, and Ashley ran after her, struggling to keep up.

"Our child?" Zach stared uncomprehendingly at Astarte for a moment. Then, comprehendingly. Then, gasping with nausea. "Oh God, oh God, oh God …"

"We should get out of here," Astarte said, as though all they needed was a little bit of fresh air.

She opened the doors and walked with Zach down the short stairway, holding him by the back of his neck. In the front room of the movie theater, the lanky young film geek who had escaped from the hall before was trying to explain the situation to the old man behind the ticket counter. "I'm telling you, you have to call the police – oh God, that's them! Run!" He took his own advice and sprinted out the doors and down the street.

The old man remained seated behind the counter, staring bemused at the odd couple passing by him. Astarte's chiton and arms were smeared with blood. The cat's claws scraped along the floor, attached to her left hand. Zach was breathing deeply, trying not to vomit.

"What … the hell … is going on here?" the man asked no one in particular, his eyes following Astarte and Zach like a painting, inanimate. Astarte left him alive, unharmed.

They stepped out onto the street, and Zach breathed the cool night air thankfully. His nausea was subsiding, but the realization was still there, clear and sharp and painful: 'Our child.' 'Our.'

"Ah, we can sit down there," Astarte said, pointing to the Bench-Lady's bench across the street. Zach wondered if there was any way she could know about the significance of this one bench. There wasn't. This was a simple, pure, striking coincidence.

They walked across the desolate street and up to the bench. Astarte's idea of 'sitting down' turned out to be that she pushed Zach down to sit normally on the bench and then sat on top of him, straddling his thighs. She clasped her hands around the back of his neck, the blades still sticking out from her left fist. She lowered her right hand to feel her own stomach, rounded slightly, Zach thought, now that he gazed down at it. "In here, it's growing," she said with a smile. "Our spawn. Half demon, half human. I do not think anything like it has ever lived before. Do you want to feel it?"

Zach raised one hand slowly, clenching it and rearing it back to punch her in the stomach –

but she gripped him by the wrist and stopped him, staring into his eyes calmly. "Zach. Aren't you proud of what you've done? To impregnate me … To create a life that will be unlike any living things before it. It is a glorious achievement."

"You raped me," he hissed. He remembered that one time. How she had come into the cell, without Baal. She had played with him, and he had yelled at her to stop, yelled that he hated her, that she was an ugly bitch. But she was not ugly, and it had been easy for her to stimulate him, to use him for her own pleasure, to ride him and bring him to his climax. "You … raped me. I was a virgin. I still try to forget it, to push it from my mind. It disgusts me. Do you understand that? You disgust me."

"Oh, Zach, don't say such horrible things to the mother of your child," Astarte said with a teasing smile. Then, her tone began to shift into a pleading one, a desperate one. "I'll take you with me; you'll stay with me. I'll teach you. I'll teach you about pain. How you can enjoy it like I do. I'll teach your body to enjoy pain, and I'll teach you to torture others, to administer pain to others and enjoy their suffering. You can still be like him. Reborn. You can still be my Baal. Baal, too, was inferior to me when I first met him. I had to teach him, too, shape him, make him better, perfect, like me. I can do the same for you. I can make you as strong, as skilled, as perfect as Baal. And we will be lovers, and we will experience pleasure even more exquisite than anything I ever reached with Baal, and pain even more excruciating, and our son – I know it will be a son – will be even better than us, and he will teach us things and bring us pain, bring us pleasure, until our bodies tremble for the last time, and we die."

"It will be a mutant, you know," Zach said softly. Astarte seemed only pathetic to him now. "The child will be a freak. Weak and pathetic. Maybe even stillborn."

"It will be perfect. Everyone will fear it. Everyone will suffer."

"You have to remove it," Zach said, feeling numb. "You have to just kill it right now. Or I'll reach in there and rip it out for you."

Astarte struck him, hard, on the right side of his face, then drew the blades across his cheek, leaving three fine, red lines from which blood trickled down. "You will stay with me!" she screamed at him, and he saw through a haze of pain tears trickling from her eyes. "You will be Baal reborn! You will be just like him! I know that you want this! Don't you see that you WANT this?!"

"Astarte, stop."

At the sound of the familiar voice, Astarte jumped backwards off the bench, off Zach. She stood ready to fight, holding her blades in an arch above her head.

Rhea and Ashley stood farther down the street, under a streetlamp's sickly yellowish glow. Rhea stepped forward. She ran her eyes over Astarte's body, the wound where her breast had been. Rhea's eyes were wide with shock for a moment. Then, she nodded slowly, as though she knew of the ritual, but had merely been amazed to see that Astarte had gone through with it.

"Rhea," Astarte said in one, dry breath.

She ran up to the black-haired demoness with a scream, and Rhea raised her broadsword, deflecting the first swing of the claws. Astarte whirled around the demoness in a series of jumps, retreats and dashes forward, like an insect constantly drawn to the light, the light of battle, the light of her boundless hatred for Rhea. Rhea's fighting was more static, but constant, more defensive than Astarte's wildly aggressive ballet around her.

Ashley ran in a broad semicircle around the fight and up to the bench, where Zach still sat, physically and emotionally exhausted. "Zach! Are you all right?" she shouted to be heard over the clinging of steel against steel, the almost animal, bird-like screams of Astarte and the small shrieks of pain as a few slashes went through Rhea's defenses.

Zach did not reply to Ashley's question; he stared numbly at the fight. Sirens could be heard in the distance, rapidly growing louder until their source became visible. Three police cars, probably all there even were in Dampmine, sped down the road and screeched to a stop in front of the two fighting demonesses. The guy in the movie theater probably had called the police after all.

Rhea and Astarte were lost in their sphere of combat, unaffected by the arrival of the police cars. In a series of strong, horizontal slashes with her sword, Rhea drove Astarte back until the white-haired demoness jumped up a streetlamp behind her, swinging herself around the pole to deliver a hard kick to Rhea's chest that sent her flying back.

"Stop – fighting – immediately!" came a police officer's voice, amplified through a megaphone. Officers were training their guns on the two demonesses across car roofs and doors. Some were slowly, cautiously approaching in riot gear, plexiglass shields in front of them. "Stop – fighting – immediately – or we will have to break in and stop you." The six men in the riot gear looked very hesitant and afraid to do so.

"Restrain them!" the officer in charge commanded.

The officers in riot gear closed in on the demonesses and tried to reach out to break up the fight, but were immediately thrown back. It was like a shock wave from an explosive blast of some kind; in one second, they were all sent flying back by just a few quick flicks and swishes of Rhea's and Astarte's limbs and weapons. The two demonesses resumed their fight instantly after this splitsecond of cooperation to fend off the pacifiers.

Various outbursts arose from the police officers: "Holy shit, did you see that?" "Who the hell's going to stop them now?"

It wasn't only the police force that had been drawn here. A crowd of civilians was forming behind them. The citizens of Dampmine, some still in pyjamas and dressing gowns, some of them probably already rattled from the break-in at Dampmine Apartments, were all coming down to see the two strangers' brawl in the middle of the main street.

Ashley realized at that moment that now the people of Dampmine were all being exposed to Pandemonium. Now there was no turning back. Now they could all see that there really was something very strange indeed going on under the surface, and there always had been.

With one hard kick, unforeseen by Astarte, Rhea sent the white-haired demoness sprawling on the ground on her stomach. Astarte put out her palms instantly as though doing push-ups, her hair tumbling in a white waterfall over her face. Rhea raised her sword to deliver the coup-de-grace to the fallen demoness, but then Astarte cried out into the ground: "Pandemonium Pandemonium Pandemonium!" The trapdoor fell open in front of her bowed head, her hair hanging into the darkness.

Rhea froze. Astarte wouldn't open a trapdoor to run away from a fight. What was this new, strange move she was making?

Astarte spoke into the darkness: "Semnai, Praxidikae, Podniae Maniae."

"No," Rhea breathed, bringing her sword down upon the demoness, but Astarte rolled away and jumped to her feet unharmed, a mad, triumphant smile on her face.

And through the trapdoor, they came flying up in a graceful arc, like dolphins jumping from dark waters. The Furies. Astarte's trump card. They could travel between all worlds, unharmed by the Light. They floated above the scene for a second, surveying it with the crimson, narrow slits that constituted their eyes. The long, black serpents hissed and slithered around their white limbs and hairless crowns like wreaths. Their black, condor-like wings swung lazily up and down.

They opened their mouths, the jaws dislocating like those of snakes, drawing in air to scream –

Rhea turned to the crowd of Dampminers, bellowing: "COVER YOUR EARS!"

The townspeople stared at the sight of the Furies, some of them screaming, others paralyzed and silent, none of them following Rhea's advice in time -

but the screams never came.

Light shot down from above the Furies, a cocoon, a bubble of strange, pulsating, bluish light, shielding the world from their madness-inducing shrieks. And within this strange, large dome of light, there were other figures now, two beautiful, floating figures that Ashley recognized instantly. The Empyrean spirits. She had seen them that day with Pythia, on this street, when they had come to extract the location of the Bench-Lady from her, and she and Pythia had had to escape through a trapdoor. They were still so strangely beautiful, like an ethereal blend of stingrays and androgynous human bodies, their faces white voids with small, circular holes in the centre, eyes or mouths or both.

And they were attacking the Furies. Their movements were turning sharp and fast and furious, lashing out at the now weak and defenseless Furies. Rays, waves of light shot out from the holes in their faces, connecting with the Furies like huge umbilical cords, like spears, pushing, driving them down. It was all over in a matter of seconds, the Furies driven back down through the trapdoor, out of this world.

The Empyrean spirits lay on the ground for a moment, their vast, wing-like membranes spread out on the ground like the leaves of withered plants. They were resting. They looked like enormous jellyfish washed up on the shore, heaving, pulsating slowly. They covered the road from sidewalk to sidewalk.

As Ashley and everyone else, even Rhea and Astarte, stood motionless and watched the strange sight, a small, warm hand found Ashley's and clutched it tightly. Ashley looked down at Pythia.

"Why did they do that?" Ashley said. "They ... they saved us all."

Pythia nodded. "They were only cleaning up."

"Cleaning up?"

"They like things to be separated and pure, not muddled and mixed together. They like the worlds to be separated. If the Furies had screamed and infected the people of this town with their madness ... Such a leak, such spillage, from one world into another, would not be tolerated by the Empyrean spirits. And so, they stopped it. It was not done to 'save' anyone, not out of sympathy or love. It was done to keep things organized and clean. No colouring outside the lines."

As Ashley listened to Pythia's calm, objective words, the Empyrean spirits slowly rose from the ground, spreading out their vast, billowing membranes and floating up. They ascended, faster and faster, until they might only be two more stars in the night sky.

"Where did they go?" Ashley breathed.

"To ... 'recharge', you might say," Pythia said simply.

As suddenly as it had stopped, the fight between Rhea and Astarte now exploded again.

Astarte ran towards her nemesis with another high, birdlike screech, bringing her blades down from above on Rhea's head, but Rhea easily dodged to one side. Their combat continued in the same whirl of jumps and twists and pirouettes, a violent ballet, more furious than ever now that Astarte had seen how her secret weapon, the Furies, had been so inexplicably and quickly deflected.

Suddenly, one of Rhea's stabs wasn't dodged by Astarte, and four inches of the blade slipped effortlessly into Astarte's abdomen. It was as though Rhea stopped herself before she would have pierced the demoness' body completely. They both stared down at the blood-splattered blade, like two children whose innocent game had suddenly had consequences that they hadn't been aware of.

The wound was not fatal – at least not for Astarte herself.

The demoness looked up at Rhea with a genuinely hurt look in her wide, cold blue eyes. It was unbearable to look into those eyes at that moment. Even Ashley, standing at a distance, had to look down. But Rhea stared back, silent. Astarte's lips moved. Zach thought he could see her forming the words "My child …"

Then she screamed, a piercing, crystalline scream of pain and hatred and sorrow.

Rhea drew the blade out of the demoness' stomach.

Thinking fast, Ashley ran up behind Astarte and shouted: "Pandemonium Pandemonium Pandemonium!"

The trapdoor opened.

For one terribly quiet and slow moment, as though the whole world paused and breathed a sigh, Astarte simply fell back silently, through the trapdoor, into darkness.

The trapdoor closed.

Rhea started running down the street, away from the crowds gathered at the police cars, away from Ashley and Zach, away from everything.