Hey, folks, I completely flubbed today. But then, Wee Dave has been … annoyingly needy recently, so it’s not like I’ve gotten anything else done recently, either. Since I’m late for a thing as is, here’s the rough opening of the thing Sarah and I are working on.
Edited because I was in a hurry the first time around…
Matthias Fairweather Grinn had cursed his ridiculous blue frock coat every day since a British musket-ball punched a fist-sized hole in his chest and he’d woken up in hell. He’d thought the General a madman to choose blue for their uniform coats. Certainly it showed them to be no longer British citizens – a thought that still pained him – but they should have adopted the green of the sharpshooter companies and the forest scouts. The battle line of the Continental Army must have been handsome to see. Nearly as handsome as the Redcoats, though Matthias had never had the pleasure, always marching somewhere in them middle of the formations. Still, blue? He’d thought it a foolish affectation with no place in such a serious conflict.
Here, in the land of the dead, his blue coat had marked him. Set him apart from the many who had arrived before he awoke; from the many more who would arrive after. In a place of such strange confluences as this City people by the dead, he’d been afforded no camouflage. He smiled at the word. He’d had no French in life, but had since picked up bits, and this word was on of which he heartily approved. This blending in with one’s surroundings appealed to Matthias.
Cowards are like that.
Eugenia Grinn’s middle son had always known himself a man without courage. The notion of violence turned his bowels to water. He could barely stand to hunt, and then only from ingenious cover and great distance. How he’d found himself shouldering a musket on the field of battle in defense of his home still escaped him.
He had a notion a rash vow to William Smith’s daughter Virginia while under the influence of too much of both her beauty and her father’s good punch had something to do with it. Coward though Matthias knew himself to be, the fear of embarrassment – and the loss of the fair Virginia’s good graces – had been enough to compel, though barely, to compel him to don the coat he so hated, and he’d cursed it daily since.
But not tonight. Whatever that term meant in this sprawling city of interminable twilight. Every day was almost-night, and not-yet-dawn, casting deep gloom upon this hotchpot existence. The coat blended into the shadows that always loomed close, and kept him from any curious eyes.
Grinn huddled in the lee of a massive building, bigger than anything he’d ever seen. Bigger than the Boston’s North Church, and made of something that looked like poured stone. He assumed it was some product of the new science in the time since he’d died.
He looked up, as he often did, and swallowed, shrinking deeper into the shadows. The sky overhead, or whatever passed for it, boiled. He’d seen storms that swept down upon the fair coastline of New England with less fury. Clouds of every shade of black and gray, limned from within by some infernal and constant lightning churned above him. Silent. Brooding. Hungry.
Occasionally he’d tried writing poetry about it, but hadn’t the gift. Death had not changed that.
A gibbering howl rent the air, sending the familiar wash of chill fear flooding through Matthias’ innards. Apparently it did the same for the others on the cobbled street, as shapes and figures half seen scrambled at the noise. Unlike such wise folk, however, his fear attempted to root his feet and hold him in place.
But Matthias had learned much in whatever time he’d spent in the City. While the slick darkness of shed blood stained his blue coat black in the maddening gloom, the wisdom of great experience drove him across the rapidly emptying street toward, the pinned-back tails of his frock coat flapping against his legs, urging him onward.
Another howl belled away to his left, higher than the first, and closer. Without a thought, he lurched to the right and picked up speed. The slap of his feet on the cobbles was loud in his ears, as loud as the rasp of breath in his throat. The second howl rang again, echoing weirdly from the hard walls of the building surrounding him, but Matthias had spent what might be a long lifetime hunting demons through the City. Once he’d been conscripted, he hadn’t had much choice.
He ducked into an alleyway that might have been at home in the Boston of his youth. Close-set cobbled gave way to imprecisely placed slate flags, unsteady under his feet. The closed and barred rear doors of what could have been a cooperage faced a wall higher than he was tall. The gate set in the middle of the solid stone barrier bulked forbiddingly. He’d try for it as an option of last resort, but it was imprudent to intrude in another’s demesne in this place. You never knew what you’d find waiting for you.
The same gibbering howl wailed down the street from which he’d turned. His face set, Matthias drew the short saber he’d found still strapped to his waist the first time he awoke in the City. Like the coat, he’d never been able to get rid of the thing, but unlike the coat, he’d stopped wanting to.
Claws scrabbled on cobblestone as the gloom gathered, masking the ends of the alley. The only real illumination came from a wrought iron lantern hung over the door of the maybe-cooperage. He’d have found it charming, but that in place of a dancing flame swirled greenish fluid. It swept from one side of the lantern to the other, casting its unholy glow upon the alley.
A squat figure advanced through the dusk on four limbs. Just out of easy sight, it lifted its head and sniffed, doglike.
Matthias hadn’t seen a dog in the good Lord knew how long. They didn’t exist in the City. He liked to believe that was because dogs, in their loyalty and unconditional love, all went to heaven. The very idea would have had him excommunicated when he’d been alive. But then, he considered himself a freethinker in the model of the great Franklin.
He waited, coiled and yet relaxed. The creature cast its head about, then stepped forward into the light, and Matthias’ sphincters contracted. He’d seen a shark pulled out of the bay once. This thing had the same gray skin and dead black eyes, and his heart – that old, familiar enemy – quailed inside of him.
The beast slunk forward into the pool of green light. Bulky shoulders followed the prow-shaped head with its short, broad muzzle. Legs like a dog’s held the thing off the ground, each terminating in almost-hands. A bear’s cruelly curved claw tipped each of the near-digits. With each step those talons scraped at the irregular slate flagstones, a shivering rasp that drove a devouring chill deep into Matthias.
It was never cold in the City, not like that last, bitter winter at Valley Forge. Likewise it was never hot, yet the curious and twisted beast’s breath plumed mist from its jagged maw with every exhalation. Presently, Matthias nostrils flared as the acrid bite of sulfur filled the little alley.
So, this was something genuinely infernal. It didn’t look the least bit intelligent, but appearances could be, and often were, deceiving in the City. He knelt and carefully pulled loose a small stone chip from the mess of the alley.
Carefully, quietly, he flicked it toward the stone wall opposite the cooperage. It hit with a click of stone against stone, and the beast’s head whipped toward the sound. Matthias stifled a curse as a gout of sooty, yellow fire burst from the thing’s mouth and splashed against the wall. The flames briefly lighting up the murk and left a black flower around the spot at which he’d aimed the tiny stone.
Even the small sound of his gasp had been too much. The creature’s head snapped back around, dragging it’s shoulder with it. The same hellfire again lit the alley, no doubt providing a beautiful beacon for Matthias’ enemies to find him. Ravening flames bore down on the spot he’d occupied, but he was already moving.
He thanked a Providence he wasn’t certain he still believed in for the miraculous boots on his feet. The soft, black soles of some material unknown to Matthias gripped the slate of the flags far better than even the leather moccasins he’d known in life.
Eyes slitted against the sullen yellow fury, he dodged to one side, praying his gamble would pay off. The tip of his saber flashed up over his shoulder. He brought the curved blade down in a powerful stroke. As it always had since he’d woken to the closeted madness of the City, the very edge of the wickedly sharp blade left a streak of light in the air the very color of his blue coat.
A thrill of elation surged through Matthias, threatening to turn his knees to jelly. He’d been right: the hell-beast’s eyes closed when it breathed its fire. His blade drove into the beast’s gray hide just forward of its heavily muscled shoulder, and the thing roared its sudden agony to the roiling sky above. It tried to snap at the blade deep in its dark flesh, but the flood of blood-ichor already took the thing’s strength with it.
Matthias wrenched his saber free and struck again and again at the monster’s neck until the heavy, prow-shaped head dropped free. Even then, the beast’s mouth snapped open and shut, open and shut, still seeking his flesh.
Matthias kicked the head into the shadows and drove his sword point-first between the beast’s ribs, pinning it to the alleyway. Heedless of the pool of its blood, he knelt by the still-twitching body. He pulled a sharp, little knife from its sheath at his waist and thrust it into the beast’s belly, opening it from ribcage to groin. His stomach churned to match the sky above him, but however much his gorge threatened, he’d learned. Oh, how he’d learned.
Dropping the knife, he thrust his free hand elbow-deep into the corpse, reaching, searching. The touch of the monstrous thing’s innards on his skin set him swallowing convulsively against his contrary fortitude. It had been thus since he was a boy. Slaughtering pigs had unmanned him then, and this was no different.
After a brief eternity, during which he warred against his known nature, his questing fingers found his prize. Seizing it, Matthias wrenched free the beast’s heart-sack. Leaving the knife where it lay, he ripped his saber free of the now-still body, and – heedless of his own skin – brought the blade down on the meaty, black mass in his hand.
Again, the edge flared blue light, and again demon flesh parted on it. A musical tinkle, as of fine crystal, sounded as a curiously faceted gem fell free of the hellish meat. Matthias scooped it out of the pool of drying demon blood and wiped it off on his coat. The green-black smear it left behind would be gone by morning, one more peculiar property of this endless existence.
He held the stone in the shadow his body cast in the light from the strange lantern and waited, his breath caught in his throat. After a bare heartbeat free from the ichorous organ, a spark shone from deep within the gem. Bright, crimson red, the color of fresh human blood.
Matthias’ bowels turned to water. It felt as though the whole grubby mass of the City fell out from beneath him, and took his heart along with it.
“It’s true,” he whispered, awe and horror in his voice. “They come, and there is no way to stop them.”
The first, deeper, howl rose on the still air of the City. He’d heard it what seemed like a lifetime ago. It sounded as though it was right on top of him, and Matthias lurched to his feet, glowing red gem clutched in one had, the other tight on the grip of his saber. Fear sank frozen talons into his guts and he bolted into the gloom.
Matthias let his terrified feet carry him along through the con-fused ways of the City. The pillars of a Greek temple flashed past on his left, and he dodged through them and found himself amid dead trees and brown grass. Nothing grew in this place, though plenty was dead. The statue of a dead god rose in a clearing as he ran past. The idol’s face laughed at his misfortune while bone-chilling howls sounded nearly on his heels.
Knife-sharp claws snagged his heel, sending Matthias tumbling, his heart in his throat. The dust of the clearing puffed around him, drifting on the still air and mixing with the chill sweat coating his exposed skin. He rolled, desperate to stay away from the dark form seeking his life. Snarls ripped at him, carried on chill breaths that stank of putrescence.
He rolled and continued rolling, finally getting a pillar between his tender hide and the demon-beast. Matthias flipped to his feet in a movement he could never have intentionally duplicated. He ripped his saber from its scabbard and slashed furiously as the hell beast closed.
At last, after a lightning flurry of blows, he slumped against a tree trunk on the edge of the godling’s defunct grove and tried to calm his thundering heart. Slowly spreading stains darkened one shoulder and the opposite calf. The wounds burned with a poison sickness he’d never encountered before. The affected members trembled with weakness at odds with the simple scratches left by the mass of flesh he’d left of the second demon.
Coming back to himself, Matthias stared at the corpse of his hunter and remembered his next task. Cutting out what passed for the creature’s heart served a dual purpose. He needed further proof of his suspicions to convince his nominal superiors. Further, he needed the hell-forged gem at the center to maintain his own existence. The cursed things were one of two forms of currency available to those like him. The other was simply their time, as this life as in the previous.
Of the two, the gems were by far the more valuable.
His weakened leg threatened to collapse under him, and Matthias suppressed a curse as he knelt beside the slumped form. Then he spat one in earnest when he reached for his knife and grasped only air. He raised the now mundane looking saber and contemplated how to use it to accomplish his goal, when another brace of howls rose on the hushed twilight.
Matthias staggered to his feet, abandoning the dead demon flesh to whichever scavengers had an interest. He burst out of the ancient temple much like a melon seed he’d spat as a child, a food he’d not tasted in an incomprehensible length of time. Like most food, you could find melons in the City, if you spent enough time searching. Also like most food, it tasted – off. Bland and somehow lesser.
His breath rasped in his raw throat, and chill sweat slicked his spine beneath his coat and shirt. His legs burned, and he missed – for the umpteenth time – the camaraderie and safety of the line of battle, as truly strange as the thought struck him. He’d been alone since he’d awoken in the City, and the simple presence of his mates would have been of enormous comfort. Instead, he ran alone through an alien world that had no place in his understand of creation.
He burst out of the press of buildings onto what was, for the City, a crowded street. It seemed a law of this unchancy place that the more use an area saw, the more kept up it seemed. The surface under his boots was of a patchwork, here cobbles, there paving stones, beyond it a contiguous surface of a black material he’d spent a bored twilit period picking at, only to find it was stone bound by tar. Brilliant and deceptively simple, but by the time he’d learned to communicate with the living, he’d found it had already been invented.
The crowd, such as it was, paid Matthias little heed. A grim smile teased at his lips as he elbowed his way through his fellow shades. In his youth, in life, an armed man whose brown eyes gleamed with a wild light, covered in blood and ichor, would have been cause for comment. Here, nobody gave him a second glance.
Except the Guards.
Matthias swore and jerked behind a portico, conscious of the glowing gem locked in his fist. He removed his battered hat and peeked between the polished granite balusters framing the broad steps beside which he hid.
Two figures moved slowly down the pavement toward him. Both appeared to be British Redcoats, though he was damned certain George III couldn’t have a colony in whatever afterlife Matthias had discovered. The one on the left stood tall, his uniform gleaming. His brightwork was actually bright in the dimness, casting a glow about him unaffected by the occasional flashes from the clouds above. His sober mien held hints of a sternness unswayed by human mercy.
The other figure slouched into rumbled clothes stained with blood and darker effluvia. Corrosion pitted the brass-work of his uniform, and wisps of darkness flowed around him. In marked contrast to his companion, he displayed a disconcerting interest in his surroundings. He eyed the figures around him with an unhealthy light in his eyes.
He’d been wrong to call the beasts he’d killed demons. Or perhaps not. These two were genuine devils, of that he was certain. Righteousness blazed in the eyes of the leftward one. Righteousness without kindness or affection. The one on the right oozed depravity, and he fiddled with a rusty razor of a knife as he walked. Only the edge gleamed, and even that shone with simple wickedness.
These two and those like them – and there were always two together – constituted the only peace-keeping force in the City. It needed no more. They existed seemingly to prevent the inhabitants of the City from slaughtering each other in the streets, as that was the only time they could be swayed from walking their rounds. Except to bother passersby, and that was predictable as the dawn in this place. Anyone who disrupted the peace, or looked like they might. Anyone who appeared to have been involved in an affray, carried bared weapons, or had obvious wounds. In short, anyone who looked like Matthias.
Matthias held quite still as the two messengers of infinity drew even with his not-quite-hiding place. And while the agent of darkness flicked a quick look at him, taking in his wounds, his bared blade, and his grim countenance, the only response it gave was a grin that frightened Matthias in a way the shark demons hadn’t – in a way none of the demons he’d harvested ever had.
Matthias held his breath until the two drifted out of sight in the damnable twilight of the City. The explosive burst as he released it drew a few mildly curious glances from the sparse crowds on the street. He ignored them all, and shakily sheathed his saber. Better by far to stand out just a bit less. Besides, he’d become adept at drawing it at need.
A heave of shoulder against stone propelled him back onto the pavers lining the street surface, just missing a pair of figures walking along. A close look suggested they weren’t nearly as human as they appeared. They walked in lockstep, though that wasn’t terribly unusual. It was something about the eyes, and the set of jaws moving back and forth under heavy skulls as though their owners didn’t know exactly what they were for.
He’d never become comfortable with the different creatures that passed through the City. Most of them actually looked human, like those he’d just passed, or the Guards whose attention he’d narrowly escaped. Until you looked closer, and then invariably, the hair on the back of the neck would rise of its own accord. Few people smiled here, anyway, and almost nobody laughed. Occasionally a genuine madman – or more likely a normal soul who simply broke under the strain of the place – would arrive, and need to be put down. Not so much for the safety of the rest of the populace, but because, well, they got in the way. It was hard enough to survive in the City without gibbering lunatics reminding one of the unnerving reality.
They had gems, too, though. All sorts of colors, from the vibrant red of the one in his pocket, to brilliant azure the color of the clearest winter sky, to a sort of a greasy, greenish-purple that didn’t belong to the world he’d known. And everything in between. Matthias presumed he had one lodged in his chest, as well, for all that he could feel his heart beating.
The crowd thickened as Matthias made his way through a section of the City that aped medieval London. He quickened his pace as he moved past St. Paul’s Cathedral, eager to put the decrepit monument to English Catholicism behind him. It wasn’t popery that bothered him – the new United States welcomed all manner of religious persuasions, though papists were often encouraged to find the frontier – but the air of death that surrounded the building. Black streaks held the gutted place of worship in sooty claw, as though an infernal conflagration had devoured the church from the inside out, leaving only the bones. Truthfully, it wasn’t far different from many of the buildings in this part of the City.
The noise picked up when he crossed a boundary between regions, leaving London Aflame for something altogether … different. Buildings made all of stone dominated, pushing pillars toward the flickering sky. Here and there an obscene mural picked out in minute tiles graced the side of a building. More people wore robes of some kind, and the streets led uphill. A sense of impending doom and a whiff of sulfur lay over this part of the City like a bad dream.
He walked into a market, his nerves alive and every sense straining to find the demons he knew still dogged his heels. Figures of every description did something resembling business all around him. Here a woman wearing an odd outfit consisting of a scandalously short skirt – exposing her knees, no less – and a tight-fitting and oddly masculine jacket bargained with a man in garments more appropriate to the plays of Euripides. For all Matthias knew, it was the playwright himself. Across the small plaza, flashes of light briefly illuminated the fat face of a greasy man sitting behind a makeshift table, a matter of some planks resting across a pair of barrels.
Matthias knew Rufus well. Some people seemed drawn to the back and forth of commerce, regardless of their plane of existence. The bursts of colorful illumination as people sold him gems much like the one in Matthias’ pocket made the sweating Roman – or at least so he claimed – a buyer of souls. The Guards never hassled this man, and Matthias had never pushed to find out why. The scattering of large, well armed and dour-looking bearded men around the merchant’s stall made angering Rufus Quintillus ill-advised. Pain still existed in this place.
Yes, Matthias knew Rufus rather well, to neither of the men’s pleasure. Still, he’d always been a source of information, and something almost like an ally in this strange place they’d found themselves in. Matthias’ feet shifted to take him in that direction. Indeed, he’d taken a handful of steps, when Rufus’ piggy, little eyes focused on him and the man’s fleshy jowls drew in as though he’d bitten into a lemon.
Matthias as he shouldered his way to the merchant’s table. Rude his actions might be, but Rufus was one of the best positioned brokers in the City’s strange society. Potential violence hung in the air, their stares boring into Matthias. He’d had a run-in or three with at least one of the slope-browed walking weapons, but he ignored them completely, fixing his attention on Rufus.
“What do have for me, Grinn?” It always amazed Matthias that such a corpulent man possessed so sweet a tenor voice.
Matthias pulled the soulstone from his pocket and placed it on the tabletop between them. He opened his hand without a word, taking care to shield the object from passersby. Rufus’ face went gray as the stone flared its sullen crimson light. He half reached toward it, then wiped his hand on his food-stained robe, and waved back his hirelings.
“Where, by all the gods, did you get that?” Rufus hissed. “And more importantly, why did you bring it to me, you barbarian?” Cold fury paled his skin, but for two small spots high on his cheeks. His eyes darted suspicious looks through the crowd, as though trying to keep everyone in the square in sight at once.
“Calmly, Rufus Quintillus.” Matthias kept the dread suffusing his being out of his voice. The last thing he needed was Rufus’ walking clubs using what passed for their minds. “I harvested it from a demon not half an hour gone.”
“They’re not dem-” The half-tired, rote response was nearly out of the fat man’s mouth before Matthias closed his hand on the gem and rapped the table with his knuckles.
“The word serves well enough.” He could feel his grin stretch taut his skin over the bones of his face. “And I brought it to you because someone else needs to know.”
“I won’t buy it!” Where Rufus’ fat face often resembled a pig, this was not the truculent boar of the forest, but the frightened domestic beast, bred for the slaughter.
“No more would I sell it to you,” Matthias snapped. He had no patience; could have no patience. Not with this. “Look you, if such as these are getting in, everyone needs to know.” And Rufus was well known as one of the City’s worst gossips.
Rufus drew back without moving a muscle, and weariness
swept over Matthias. At the fat man’s timidity, at his own
cowardice, but most of all at the sheer, unending mess of the City.
“I shall take my leave of you, sir.”
The man nodded so forcefully, his jowls bounced.
“Yes, yes, please do.” His gaze turned inward for a brief moment, then sharpened. “And come back and see me when you have something worth selling!”
Matthias left the square for a much smaller street, still moving uphill, and with the uncomfortable feeling of danger looming. Two such feelings, really. The mosaic immediately to his left, however, brought him up short.
The grinning godling held the same pose as the statue from the temple in which he’d fought the beasts. Now that his mind wasn’t gibbering in terror or blank in reaction, the message sank in. Mercury, the messenger of the gods. He patted his chest where a special pin rode the inside of his coat.
There was someone else he had to tell.
His pace quickened once more, and Matthias ran. Evasion was no longer important. He had to get this word out. And the only place to do that was home. He ran through sections of cities long dead, some just a few buildings huddled together, others nearly entire metropolises, and most nothing he recognized from life. Heavy over the City lay a sense of un-timeliness. Of the souls of people and places jerked out of their rightful place in history and planted slapdash. Matthias felt it despite the urgency burning through his veins.
Buildings and people – well, most of them qualified, of either variety – flashed by as he ran. No longer did he care about leaving memories of himself in those he passed. Even so, the habits of what felt like decades were hard to break, and so he didn’t even try. He turned at random, adding miles to his journey, but leaving such a trail that any pursuit would have to know his destination.
Finally, blowing hard with his pulse thundering in his ears, he arrived at an outlandish building. At least, it always seemed so to his eyes, which viewed it as a fortress designed by a man without a sense of good defense. Impatience warred with prudence in his heart, but Matthias cleaved to the caution that had saved his strange existence so many time.
He stood across the broad avenue from from the massive structure, in the shadow of an alleyway, and observed it for a handful of long moments. Doors yawned at every opportunity, usually doubled at the front, but studded all about the building at ground level. Broad windows stretched upward from the second floor, climbing over balconies and up toward the roof. Statuary of ancients in flowing robes – blackened with the sooty memory of conflagration so common to the City – punctuated columns racing the windows, gazing out of the lesser buildings all around as they held their silent vigil just below the roof.
And such a roof. A wealth of lead clad the broad peak that ran toward the rear of the enormous theater, where the roof leapt up in successive tiers until it reached a dizzying height. And theater it was. The interior reeked of opulence. Heavy velvet and gold gilt seemed everywhere, though often threadbare or tarnished, respectively, where it wasn’t smudged with the ever-present soot. Often, when he had thinking to do, Matthias would find his way through the warren of a building into the cavern of the main hall, and sit in one of the plush seats, imagining the marvelous shows that must have been put on in life. And remember. One of the last things he remembered before he’d awoken in the City had been the General ordering plays prepared and displayed for the men at Valley Forge after that bitter winter. Rumor suggested the fine gentlemen of the Congress had disapproved, but Matthias didn’t remember them freezing in the snow alongside the private soldiery.
He dashed across the street during a period of darker twilight while the wracking lights above the clouds took pause. Ignoring the main doors, he slipped around to a side entrance, keeping alert for prying eyes. It was more or less impossible to do anything unobserved in the City: the population was simply too high. Despite this, appearing ordinary usually prevented interest. Usually.
Once inside, Matthias relaxed somewhat. He rolled his shoulders and popped his neck, before muffling his customary sneeze from the combination of soot and dust that seemed to pervade the building. And ostentatious wealth, though he was more or less certain that part was all in his head. Fortunately, the lighting was always on. Unfortunately, it was slightly greenish-tinged flames dancing at the ends of narrow pipes sticking out of the papered walls at regular intervals. Having light pleased him; the color did not. Nor did the reminder of what had almost certainly brought the building to the City.
Matthias crept through the enormous theater as quietly as he could. So far as he knew, he was the only person to use it on anything resembling a regular basis; certainly he was the only one to actually live there. But that didn’t mean someone else wasn’t inside. There were too many entrances to guard them all, and likewise too many for him to place adequate precautions.
Which was why he made his cautious way down, and down, and finally down a spiral stair of marvelously wrought iron to a single, heavy wooden door set in stones that wept moisture.
He opened the door – though it bore an iron lock, he’d never found a key to fit it – and stepped through, into a cavernous cistern whose far wall disappeared in the dark distance. He took a moment to light a pair of oil lanterns he’d placed on the iron sconces he’d found bolted to the inside of the wall. Their warm, yellow light illuminated the huge room. Some of it, at least. Here and there massive pillars held up a ceiling that likewise faded into invisibility. The smell of a great deal of fresh water was a welcome one after the dry dust of the City. Drops of that water dripped from that unseen ceiling, dropping musically into the shallow pool that otherwise filled the spacious room.
Matthias strode down the stone pier and leapt off the end, splashing into the pool up to his knees. Cool water immediately filled his boots. Normally he’d have used the small boat tied to the pier, but here in his sanctum urgency prevailed over reason. He splashed through the cistern in the direction of the far wall, angling to his right as he went.
Halfway there, far enough for the light from lanterns to be a dim spark in the black, he ducked around a pillar he’d marked with another lantern. Instead of lighting it though, this one he pulled from its niche in the stones. He waited until he’d passed beyond the massive piling before he lit it. Its light revealed a doorway cunningly hidden in another pillar, set so it would be unseen from the pier. There might have been an actual door set into it once, but there were no signs of it now.
Matthias heaved himself up out of the water onto its threshold, passing bodily through the pillar and into a secret space set into the foundations of the theater. A narrow passage led into a complete apartment. He’d been astonished when he’d found it. Someone had appointed it quite handsomely. There were several pieces of furniture – chairs, a couch, a bed, even a table with fine china and silver – as well as a large brass tub for bathing. Behind a cleverly hidden door in the headboard of the bed waited his line to the living world.
He strode through the front room, intent on reaching the device, when a sudden blow from behind threw him into the table, sending the china and silver crashing to the floor in a cacophony of sound. Pain erupted along his side where it met the spindly-appearing, but actually quite sturdy wood tabletop, and in his head as that worthy struck the floor. Matthias gasped and curled around himself, even as heavy, rasping footfalls sounded on the rough floor and a massive, clawed hand lifted him off the floor by his shoulder.
“Well, little game, it appears we have run you down. Finally.” The voice, at once resonant and sibilant, and punctuated with odd clicks, held equally parts cruel satisfaction and malicious amusement.
As the fog of pain receded, Matthias vision cleared enough to allow him to see his hunter. He immediately wished he hadn’t. Smooth skin mottled gray and a rusty red covered a powerfully muscled arm with too many joints. At the far end of the arm holding him off the floor, the creature’s neck arched up and up to terminate in an hairless head that was more grinning jaws full of cruelly jagged teeth than anything else. Above the mouth, it scented the air through a pair of slits, and an uninterrupted sweep of brow set Matthias to wondering how the thing avoided bumping into furniture.
He didn’t realize he’d spoken his question aloud until the thing’s jaw dropped open and it released a grating sound. It took him even longer to understand the monster was laughing.
“Such amusing creatures you are!” Its head shook back and forth on its snaky neck. “And impertinent. It is not for such as you to question such as me.”
A lightning backhand from its other arm crashed into Matthias’ face. His mouth filled with blood and his vision exploded in pain and white. He barely felt the thing tear open the side of his coat and pull out his tiny gold pin in the shape of Mercury’s rod. He did hear its sound of satisfaction.
“Excellent! I do so enjoy it when I chase the correct prey. Not that you are likely to appreciate it, but it is always pleasing to marry effort and pleasure.”
“That’s – mine,” Matthias muttered. Connecting words took too much effort.
“Materially, it is in my hand. However, morally-” the thing grinned, its jaw dropping open like that of a particularly loathsome dog. “This is true, and since I don’t want to be touching it-” A single milky white claw bent the pin out perpendicular to the miniature rod, and then jammed it into the center Matthias’ chest. He screamed as the point grated on and then into bone. He writhed in the monster’s grip as fire lanced out from the tiny puncture.
“Oh, I am a fool.” It sighed. “I am supposed to ask you questions before I torture you for the answers.” The ravenous maw leaned closer, until its unholy breath was hot on his face. “My mistake. Now then, little meal not yet eaten, who do you report to?”
“Did I find you? It was not difficult. You have eminently corruptible compatriots. The hounds were mostly for show, though if they’d brought you down, they might have earned elevation.”
Matthias heart sank. If the Corps of the dead was compromised, who could deliver his message? Who could even be trusted to bear it, and to whom could it be given?
“Ah, but see, we’re getting our parts confused. I ask questions, and you answer them.” It’s harsh voice turned hard. “Again, who do you report to?” It punctuated each word with a blow to his gut. For all it felt like he’d been shot – again – Matthias knew these were just taps. It was clearly strong enough to tear him limb from limb should it decide to.
“That man never arrived here,” it grated. “I tire of this, man. Perhaps further pain will induce truthfulness.” It dug a claw into his chest and dragged it down toward his belt, cutting a trail of liquid fire as it went. Hot blood welled out and ran down his torso as Matthias screamed and thrashed in the monster’s grip. “It is fortunate that this place makes you more than you were, else this would surely kill you and I would not derive nearly such pleasure.”
It added another furrow to his chest, and then another. With each savage wound, Matthias’ will to resist cracked under the weight of the cowardice he knew lurked in his heart. Finally, with his shirt and chest in ribbons, the creature paused, as though to admire its handiwork. Matthias sobbed, tears, snot and blood making a mess of his brutalized face.
“Tell me, man,” the monster made the word an insult, “who you report to.” It’s voice softened, or at least rasped a bit less. “And I swear to you, your torment will end.”
The world seemed to pause, and Matthias knew he would not survive the night. That last night before the battle, his last on God’s Earth, he’d been terribly afraid. Afraid, and desperate for a reprieve from the battle to come. He’d feared the blood, and the noise, and the fury. And he’d feared the death which he hadn’t known would come to him.
Now that he knew his fate, that he would not survive the encounter, he found himself feeling only calm. And pain, terrible, searing agony, but his heart and mind were calm.
“You-” he rasped through a throat raw from screaming, “you may go to hell.”
“Go to hell? Go to hell?! I was BORN in hell, you pathetic, little worm!” The creature shook Matthias, rattling his head on his neck. The thing completely lost its temper. “I and my kin have been in hell all our lives, while you insignificant insects lived in a paradise you couldn’t even enjoy! You know NOTHING of hell! I will show you hell!”
The demon threw Matthias against the table, again, and this time the stout surface broke under his weight. In an instant, the demon leapt across the room on recurved legs ending in heavy claws. Matthias tried to dodge, but the creature was too fast. The demon snatched him up by his coat and kicked him in the side. The blow flung him bodily through the doorway into his bedroom, leaving his blue coat a tattered rag in the monster’s grip.
He had just enough time to scramble to his feet before the demon bounded through the door. Matthias ripped his saber out of its scabbard as the thing closed on him. He feinted and slashed at the demon’s leg, but quicker than he could see, monstrous hands snapped out. One caught his left shoulder again. The other closed on his sword blade.
They were both surprised to see the demon’s fingers fall away as the glowing edge sliced right through them. Man and demon stared as milky ichor spouted from stumps. Then the demon screamed. Dust drifted from the ceiling at the strength of the roar, but Matthias couldn’t see it. His head throbbed as the sound became his world for just an instant. The pain and fury in the sound shattered thought, and then he was flying through the air.
Wood and bone splintered as Matthias smashed into the bed, snapping one of the corner posts clean off. Fresh agony raged through his body from at least on major break, except below his hips, where he felt nothing at all. The pain was nothing to the chagrin that washed over him when he saw that his impact on the bed had exposed his device. The demon saw it, too, and roared its triumph.
Matthias had never seen anything like it before he’d been recruited. Well, reminded of his oath of service. It was a box, mostly, made from metal and a hard material something like horn. A thin, flexible coil sprang out of one side and connected to the end of the U-shaped device that rested in a cradle on the top of the box. He’d been told it was a “field telephone,” and while he understood the words, he didn’t really comprehend what they meant together. He’d always thought of it simply as the device. It was how he reported in, and it seemed it was what the demon wanted.
Fortunately, Matthias knew what to do. He thrust his saber into the center of the box, where a bottle shone with clean, blue light. The steel of his sword broke the glass, and the light flared. The demon’s roar turned into a howl of dismay as the raw energy chained within the now-broken bottle reduced the device to dust, and Matthias’ saber with it. He dropped the weapon, and the wild energy surged out, crawling over the bed.
Matthias’s injuries prevented his escape, and the searing blue light crept up the legs he could no longer feel. The demon howled its rage, but Matthias relaxed into the growing sense of heat.