If you’ve been taking your medicine properly, then you’ll know that a daily dose of “Doctors in Hell” can keep you in the very best of diabolical health.
But what to do once your prescription runs out?
Fear not, a spot of self medication is the key.
At the end of “Doctors in Hell”, you are treated to an excerpt – A Moment of Clarity – an entire chapter, in fact, from Hell Bound, the first hell novel by international #1 bestselling author and Amazing Stories team member, Andrew P. Weston.
Hell Bound, continues Grim’s story on his return to the underworld, and details his further adventures after he unearths a conspiracy that is not only eating its way like a cancer through the highest echelons of Hellion society, but one which threatens the very stability of Satan’s rule.
And here, exclusively in Amazing Stories, A Moment of Clarity is presented for your enjoyment.
Ensure to dose up on what’s taking place in the Heroes in Hell Universe. You’ll find it might be just the tonic you need to soothe your darkened soul.
A Moment of Clarity
by Andrew P. Weston
In the Juxtapose level of hell, Olde London Town is a conundrum at the best of times, a heady mix of the implausibly warped and secularly grotesque. Its denizens are the perfect accompaniment to their city; a stir-fried hotchpotch of condemned souls who take the geophysical and temporal irregularities of their hometown in their stride.
Everyday life here is as much an enigma as it is a challenge, and you’d think that, having lived here for centuries, I’d be used to it by now. Yet it still catches me by surprise from time to time, as the boundaries between eras are as fluid as they are temperamental. In this place more than any other, I’ve discovered that even if you know a surprise is coming, forewarned is definitely not forearmed.
As is the case regarding my current predicament.
Noah’s grandson Nimrod and I were en route to the Grey Friars. In the land of the living, Greyfriars had been the site of a Franciscan friary that existed from 1225 — 1538, in a northwestern part of the City of London, called St. Nicholas on the Shambles. That great establishment had included one of the largest conventional churches in the capital. It had also been home to a Studium, an extensive library of logical and theological texts so important it was rivaled only by Oxford University. It achieved a level of cultural prestige that drew people from all over the then-known world, until Thomas Cromwell — a man who came to be a good friend of mine — ordered it seized during the English Reformation. Under his enlightened guidance, the Greyfriars estates were confiscated, the order itself disbanded, and most of its monks banished or executed.
Of course, we couldn’t let such a monument go to waste. And with a gothic twist, it became the perfect establishment for the truly irreverent.
The Grey Friars became Satan’s very own thought police, an unholy order of hermits who regularly vetted the ranks of the Devil’s Children to weed out those with doubts or illusions of grandeur. Every Sinday morning, the pews of the High Church of Lucifer within the Friars’ domain would be packed with blue suits and spooks, all of whom would undergo their regular confessional evaluation.
But the order also serves another purpose.
The site had retained its archives and now boasted one of the largest publicly known repositories of occult knowledge and arcane mascots in the underworld, rivaled only by the Hellexandria Library.
The Grey Friars defended that vault and had placed the treasures in their care within the Cloister of Scourging, a great castlelike tower situated within a separate annex. Constructed on a mound built from the bones of those who died during the Great Fire of London, some one hundred years after the original monastery’s passing, the cloister was protected by a series of enchanted wards, and a powerful temporal barrier. Of course, it was also guarded by the friars themselves, who were known to possess skills far more lethal than Shaolin monks tripping on amphetamines.
A heavy set of precautions, and yet all these measures were but a secondary line of defense. To reach them, you first had to pass the Knights Bridge, although the term “bridge” was rather a loose one in that it wasn’t a literal construction of wood or stone linking one side to another. It was more an esoteric conduit from here to there, between now and then. A multidimensionhell link that spanned hydraspace to get you to where you needed to go.
Appearing much like a ground level mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion, the Knights Bridge encompassed the Cloister of Scourging in a haar of literal thought-stealing smog. A brume so thick, so cloying, that unworthy individuals had been known to enter only to wander forever more, lost and alone.
And if the thought of facing such a barrier wasn’t daunting enough, the entire pall was also protected by the Knights Tempter, an ancient heraldic order of warriors fanatically devoted to the glory of the Arch Deceiver and Father of Lies himself: Satan.
And to get where I needed to go, that obstacle had to be faced.
I stood outside the Old Bully — the main court of the Ministry of Injustice here in Juxtapose — and eyed the deceptively calm mists tumbling and twisting over and over on the other side of the street.
“Okay,” Nimrod murmured. “What do we do now?”
“We don’t do anything,” I replied. Then I cocked my head at the murky film on the other side of the street. “I, on the other hand, have to go into that.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?”
“There’s no point in us both having our minds screwed with. You’ve heard the horror stories. Anyone attempting to traverse the bridge must pass a series of tests. What they are, exactly, differs from aspirant to aspirant. But whatever you do contend with, it measures your physical, mental, and spiritual fortitude in a way that flays your damned soul bare. Not a pleasant experience for a denizen of hell.”
“Then why risk it, Daemon? People like us are especially wicked and depraved. The stronger we are, the more profound will be their experience in there. Why don’t you simply try to phase through, or generate a short-range portal? For fuck’s sake, if anyone’s strong enough, it’s you.”
“Because that would be suicide, my friend. Don’t forget, that stuff has built in safeguards to prevent any kind of skullduggery. And if it was that easy, you’d get idiots like Tesla storming the place like hyenas on a fat juicy carcass.”
Nimrod fell silent for a moment, then calmly stressed, “And yet, Cream and his cronies managed to breach the Sphincter and the Grumbles gate-room without much difficulty. And one of their clues led you here.”
“I know. I’ve been worrying about just that point, because if they’ve found a way around shields like this, we’re all in trouble.”
Nimrod clasped me by the shoulder. “I never thought I’d say this, but thank Azazel for the Knights Tempter, then.”
“I’ll let you know.” I returned the gesture. “Remember, that fog is designed to neutralize whatever enhancements a candidate possesses.”
“So you’ll be completely . . . ?”
“Ordinary? Yes. And I for one don’t intend to have my head rearranged by a magically augmented club anytime soon.” Pointing at myself, I tried to lighten the mood. “I mean, look at me. Would you want your features spoiled if you were a perfect specimen like me?”
“If I looked like you,” Nimrod countered, “I’d be ashamed to be seen in public without a bag on my face. Two. Just in case the top one fell off!” His countenance suddenly became impassive. “But if you’re afraid, I could always fit you with a set of baby reins to pull you back when you start crying.”
I scanned his aura and could see he was attempting to mask his concern behind a humorous façade. I had to admit, I felt all emotional.
“Fuck off, you pussy! Sitting here talking about it won’t get the job done. I’ve had enough of your drivel. See you on the other side.”
I pushed myself away from the wall, strode across the sidewalk, and headed toward the gently undulating wall of mystery. Passersby checked their step as they realized where I was heading. Cars screeched to a halt.
Seizing on the lull, Nimrod called, “Can I have first dibs on your apartment when you die? I’ve always wanted rooms with a view.”
I gave him the finger, stepped in . . .
. . . and froze.
I’d expected a gradual transition from light to dark, a sense of being progressively enveloped and transported in some way to a new location. But I didn’t get any of that. In an instant, I was someplace else entirely.
A thick gray soup surrounded me. I couldn’t see the ground beneath my feet, and when I extended my arms, my hands were swallowed whole, as if they didn’t exist. Peering about me, I searched for a focal point on which to establish a plane of reference.
Not a goddam thing. Has the trial started already?
Suddenly wary, I realized it would be best to clear my head, so I took a deep breath, calmed my nerves, closed my eyes, and listened.
Thump — thump, thump — thump, thump — thump . . .
The sound of my heartbeat dominated, its steady rhythm providing an anchor around which to ground myself. I didn’t need a cardiovascular system, of course, but I’d always found the sensation soothing, as it made me feel something I’d never been: normal.
For some reason the enfolding brume exacerbated that beat. It grew louder, and then more distant, as if my heart had suddenly been transposed beyond my flesh.
Thump — thump, thump — thump, thump — thump . . .
Now I was puzzled.
It sounds like it’s getting louder. Drawing closer in some way. But how . . . ?
I opened my eyes and was startled to realize the vapors had folded back to reveal an open tourney field, carpeted with thick, lush grass. White marquees formed a parade on either side of the meadow, each of them bedecked in red and gold pennants. In front of them, equipment racks had been arranged so that unseen champions might chose from a wide assortment of lethal-looking weapons. I completed a quick three-sixty and discovered there was even a fully decorated pavilion behind me, resplendent in the sunshine and festooned with ribbons and bows in the same heraldic colors.
The entire arena lay within a surrounding cocoon of milk-white fog, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t detect any other unliving soul.
Thud — thud, thud — thud, thud — thud . . .
I spun toward the sound, and a massive shadow detached itself from the mist at the open end of the field. My jaw dropped, for there, not fifty yards away, was an armored warrior atop a midnight-black charger.
Dressed from head to toe in steel, and with the distinctive scarlet and gold inverted long cross emblazoned across his surcoat and shield, I knew without a doubt that this was a Knight Tempter. The horse itself was huge, a courser; its broad chest and powerful body likewise protected by barding, spikes, and leather.
Armor and tack were coated in fine beads of moisture which glistened like diamonds in the imaginary sunlight. Staring at them, I imagined for a moment what it must be like to face such a daunting team in battle.
My thoughts were definitely jinxed lately, for no sooner had I contemplated the notion than the knight lowered his visor and raised his lance in salute. He then put his heels to his mount’s flanks, and the horse jumped forward into a trot.
Mesmerized, I stood rooted to the spot and tried to fathom what it all meant.
Their speed abruptly increased to a canter.
So, is this part of the process? Am I supposed to react . . . or not?
I chose to react and rolled to one side. As I came up, I unbuttoned my coat and threw back my hood.
Rider and steed altered trajectory, and the earth trembled beneath my feet. I gamboled again, and drew my scythe. By the time I had dropped into a fighting crouch, my weapon was extended and primed for combat.
Does he really want me to hamstring his horse? Or worse still, confront him directly?
They accelerated into a gallop. The beast snorted, its nostrils flared. Muscles bulged and the vibrations increased as divots flew. Like a portent of doom, the spear tip lowered.
Intuition kicked in.
No matter what’s taking place, we’re on the same side.
We’re on the same side, we’re on the same side, we’re on the same side . . .
Despite the danger of the situation, my gut was telling me not to resist them. They were here to do a job. I had to work with them.
Oh, bugger! I need a raise.
Against my natural instincts, I collapsed my weapon, stood tall, and threw my arms wide. At the very last moment, I squeezed my eyes shut and yelled, “I am no threat to you, or to the treasures under your protection.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but my voice sounded as feeble as a wet fart flying in the face of thunder. As their shadow blotted out the sun, I decided I wasn’t so sure anymore.
Shit! Shit! Shit! Sh-iiit!
The tip of the lance struck with the power of a runaway freight train. Piercing leather, fabric, skin and bone, it lifted me high off the ground and carried me through the air as if I were nothing but a rag doll. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think. Nothing else existed except the pain of impalement.
Suddenly, the spear impacted against something hard behind me, and shattered. The shockwave ran along the length of the splinter still embedded in my body and multiplied the agony a thousandfold. As I slid back down onto the wet grass, the knight disappeared, and an ethereal voice hissed, “Impressive . . .”
I landed in a heap, blood bubbling from my mouth and nose, and streaming through the fingers clasped tightly over the hole in my chest. For some reason, my self-healing ability didn’t appear to be kicking in, and there was nothing I could do to staunch the flow. I threw my sight inward to assess the damage, and tried to stop my heart.
It was no use. I was locked within a mortal coil. A terrible, hollow ache crawled its way up from the pit of my stomach, only to give way to a wash of cold, prickly heat. My vision began to waver and recede. The strangest of sensations wrapped itself around me. All discomfort faded and without knowing why, I suddenly felt heavy.
It took me a moment to realize — this is death approaching.
“There you go, old boy. Not to worry.”
I jumped as an unexpected voice intruded.
“Don’t you worry now, I’m a doctor. I’ll soon sort you out.”
A doctor? What’s a doctor doing here?
Strong hands flipped me over and commenced an examination of my injury. I tried to see who had come to my rescue, but my eyes refused to cooperate.
“Hmmm. That’s a nasty wound, but I have something here that will take away the pain. I take it you’re not allergic to anything? Penicillin, ampicillin, cyanide? Ha! Just joking, I don’t want you fading away on me just yet.”
Great bedside manner.
Whoever this guy was, he wasn’t gentle. He lifted my head by the hair, laughed in my face, and then abruptly let go. I saw stars as my skull slammed back down onto the ground, but at least it helped to clear my sight. My vision wavered, and then came back into focus.
Someone was kneeling at my side. Dressed in a style reminiscent of a nineteenth-century physician, he had turned away from me to rummage around inside a black case. It was adorned with a decorative motif — a silver skull and crossbones, if I wasn’t mistaken — and I could hear clinking, as if glass bottles were being jiggled together. Sure enough, my mystery savior removed two small test tubes from his bag and hummed a merry tune as he mixed their contents together in a separate vial.
Next, he extracted a syringe from his pocket, complete with needle, and filled the barrel with an evil-looking green liquid. Turning back to me, he said, “Normally, I’d let you ingest this little concoction, but where’s the fun in that?”
Cream! “How in the blazes . . . ?”
I attempted to wriggle away from him, but discovered I couldn’t move.
“Now, now,” he cooed, “just be a good boy and lie back. It’ll all be over soon.”
He loomed over me, and made a show of squeezing a drop of his foul brew from the tip of the needle. With a final leer, he stabbed down and impaled the side of my neck.
“That’s it, that’s it. Now I get to watch you die. Quite fitting, don’t you think?”
A burning sensation exploded into my throat. Intensifying, it launched itself throughout my nervous system, quickly spreading into my heart, brain and spine. In moments, an involuntary spasm caused my teeth to clench, and my extremities started jerking with spasmodic convulsions.
Fury congealed across my brow, but all I could do was snarl at him.
Cream grinned in response and stooped to pick up my scythe. It responded to his touch and began powering up.
Hey . . . ? That can’t happen . . . !
A flush of realization washed through me.
This isn’t real. It’s part of the test.
A welcome sense of release trilled in the ether. It didn’t last long, as the taste of rising bile forced me to flip over onto my hands and knees. I heaved and vomited the contents of my stomach over the grass. Then, before I realized what was happening, my arms and legs commenced sinking into the ground itself.
Oh, for Azazel’s sake, what now?
Wraithlike voices condensed out of the air, singing a hauntingly evocative refrain. As the melody clarified, the lyrics took on a whole new weight of meaning. Something deep within me responded to the call of the Knights Tempter.
“We have seen the places you have been
And can never go again.
Though dark and windswept
And as bitter as a sea of souls,
A bosom awaits to welcome you home.
Lost but not forgotten,
You will be enfolded once more
Within light’s eternal embrace,
Where you will rest,
Forever free of burdens . . .”
The words faded, snatched away by the breeze. Nonetheless, their import remained.
A paradox of some sort? But how does that relate to me?
As I tried to work out what it all meant, the foundations of the earth beneath me turned fluidic, and I found myself free-falling through thick, white clouds. The wind howled as it hurtled past my face; and as I broke free of the veil, majestic sunlight baptized me in coronal radiance. My insides heaved again, but instead of puking my guts up, my perspective shifted, and I somehow felt myself merge more fully into the unfolding drama.
A plummeting sensation seized me, body and soul, and sent me hurtling to my doom. Nonetheless, I drew comfort from an object grasped tightly in my right hand. I glanced that way and saw a huge sword. It blazed like lightning, encompassing me within a violet and gold corona that bonded the blade to my flesh and inured me against the terrible drop.
Things happened faster: The rate of my descent increased. My internal alarm triggered. As I scanned the vicinity, something hurtled toward me across the vaulted sky, and my sense of danger peaked. Instinctively, I stabbed out. Glass chimed against glass, and a shower of prismatic light and sparks crisscrossed the heavens with glittering reflections.
My unknown adversary clamped his hand around my sword wrist. I returned the gesture and squeezed as hard as I could. Locked together, we tumbled out of control, over and over, each attempting to obliterate the other by sheer force of will. Vast ribbons of energy encompassed us in a living plasma field.
A suspended-animation rush of impressions consumed me.
The terrible drop . . .
Skin, glowing white-hot from devastating friction . . .
Primary flight feather torn free by overwhelming drag . . .
Excruciating, prolonged torture.
A vast pit of malevolence rushing up from below . . .
Light receding above . . .
A moment of clarity as the truth of my predicament finally registers.
I’ve fallen too far!
The endless spiral, down and down.
An overwhelming surge of heat as I pay the price . . .
The silence of eternal midnight . . .
The inevitable pressure of all-consuming oblivion . . .
Anguish compounded a thousandfold.
Then an unexpected voice stabbed out of the darkness:
“You are more than you appear to be . . .”
Then why do I feel so emasculated?
“. . . so much more. Do you not realize who you are?”
Who I am?
“What you are?”
I am alone. Stripped, barren, and darkened.
“Then why tolerate it? It is unnatural.”
I deserve it.
“But you are a god!”
Don’t be ridiculous, I am nothing. Debased, corrupted, and tarnished.
“A Titan to rival the likes of Lucifer himself.”
That is preposterous. Outrageous. You shouldn’t talk like that.
“Why? You are a colossus amongst insects. Why shouldn’t you release the potential so artfully obscured and claim what could be yours?”
What are you saying?
“Overthrow the pretender, Satan. Why do you think Erra and his personified weapons were dispatched? He is insufficient for the task.”
“Take the throne . . .”
“Assume your rightful place as lord of the newer underworlds. Have you not personally consigned billions to such a fate? Who better to rule?”
Myriad images flickered toward me, each depicting the many realms of hell as they would be under the dominion of my governance. Desolate, inhospitable, and the epitome of pure misery . . .
It was magnificent. I felt emancipated, alive for the first time in millennia.
“This is who you were,” the enticing voice cajoled, “and a portent of what you will become.”
It was . . . it was . . .
The very thought of it repelled me. Fueled by a sudden burst of unrighteous anger, I trembled on the brink of the Obsidian Rage, a deadly fury as harsh and abominable as all the levels of the netherworlds combined.
“I know what you’re doing,” I roared into the night, “but you’ll never break my resolve, Tempters. These are but fabrications sent to test my integrity. I refuse to play these mind games any longer. Now release me, or face Satan’s wrath . . .”
My challenge pealed into the void.
“Very impressive . . .” hissed an unexpected voice above me. Its resonance echoed through the ether, then dissipated on the wind.
My skin tingled as I found myself standing on a narrow gravel pathway leading up a small incline toward a fortified tower.
The Cloister of Scourging, I guessed.
A hulking great brute of a man dressed in simple gray robes stood before a lowered drawbridge. Behind him, a portcullis barred the way.
The welcoming committee? Or another test?
The guardian radiated great power and authority. Although he appeared to be in his mid-forties, his aura betrayed the ruddy tinge of one who had served in hell for centuries. Arms like threaded tree trunks crossed a broad, finely muscled chest. A combat scepter hung from a worn leather belt about the monk’s waist. Something about the weapon set my teeth on edge.
Eyes like two chips of stone regarded me in silence. I was surprised to note a look of astonishment tinged with respect in their flintlike depths.
“You made it, then?” he stated.
“It would appear so.”
I patted myself down to ensure all the bits were in the right places, and then turned to look about me. “That was one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had to endure, and believe me, I’ve suffered quite a few.”
“It’s supposed to be unpleasant” — a brief look of anger clouded his face — “but sadly, not unpleasant enough, it seems.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think it’d be better if I simply showed you. Since you’ve now tasted what it’s like to face the Knights Tempter, you’ll appreciate more than most just how daunting the task is. Hopefully, you’ll put a word in with His Nibs and be able to divert the heat of his anger.” He extended his hand. “I’m Friar Lemuel Tuck, the Warden.”
“Friar Tuck? Seriously?”
Lemuel smiled. “No. Not that one. I’m the real deal, one of the nastiest bastards you’ll ever have the misfortune to meet in the woods . . . but only if you cross me.”
I grinned in return and took the proffered hand. Only then did I notice it was a different color than the rest of his arm. In fact, the stitching was exquisite, an outstanding piece of work.
I felt my fingers go numb through my gloves.
Unholy shit! How did he do that? “Did the Undertaker make this modification?”
“He did, on His Satanic Majesty’s instructions.” He patted the war hammer hanging from his belt. “If I didn’t possess the angel-hand, I wouldn’t be able to wield the power of Godsbane, my mace.” He gestured along the path, and began to lead the way. “Please follow me, and I’ll clarify a few things.”
“I take it this all has to do with the reason why our Dark Father is going to be pissed at you?”
“I’m afraid so,” Lemuel sighed.
He took a deep breath, and continued: “Tell me, would you say the Knights Bridge was a formidable obstacle?”
“Are you kidding?” I couldn’t prevent a claw from scratching its way down the chalkboard of my spine at the mere mention of it.
“What did you find the most disconcerting aspect of your experience?”
I thought for a moment. “To be honest, being confronted by my nightmares made manifest, and being unable to do anything about it except let the vision take me where it wanted. How did they manage that?”
“That, dear Reaper, is due solely to the power of the mystery we protect — the Key of Sighs.”
“Key of Sighs?”
“Yes. Despite your high standing, it’s a closely guarded secret, and not something that you, even with your clearance level, would have heard of. Don’t feel insulted, it’s a need-to-know matter.”
“I’m not, believe me. My current assignment is emphasizing all the time precisely how little I really know. Seeing as you’ve mentioned it though, what is this Key of Sighs?”
Lemuel shared a strange telepathic image with me. At first, I thought I was viewing an oval piece of stone, but on closer inspection the artifact had the texture of crystal, overlaid by the iridescent luster of a precious mineral.
“Is that a rock?” I murmured. “Silicate of some kind?”
“Believe it or not, what you’re looking at is a hunk of the pearly gates themselves, taken during the original attempt to storm heaven. We call it the Key of Sighs because of what it can do. Anyone with sufficient strength of will can channel its divine nature to generate a sympathetic cosmic cipher — a key, if you will — and . . . Shazam!”
“No way! Are you saying it can breech the Divide?”
My guide merely flared his eyebrows.
Then a certain notion struck me:
“But what does all this have to do with you? Or the Knights Tempter, for that matter?”
Lemuel responded by enlarging the psychic representation. The Key of Sighs circled idly, round and around, and as it did so I noticed what appeared to be two smooth areas along the upper quadrant of its surface. From my perspective, it looked as if a gem cutter had excised two portions from the chunk itself.
Lemuel explained: “As you can see, our Lord Satan had two slivers removed from the Key in order to augment its defenses. The surrounding miasma generated by the Knights is empowered by one of those flakes. Think of it as an environment laced by the very essence of God’s Grace. A crux that acts as anathema to all who are hell-spawned.”
The friar continued: “By its tincture, the Tempters are able to measure the physical, mental, and spiritual worthiness of all who seek to pass, for the Key searches out the darkest secrets of an aspirant’s soul. From this, the Knights gain a foundation for each trial.”
They certainly do! But I still had questions:
“And this is linked to your hand and the scepter?”
“Correct.” Lemuel flexed his fingers and hefted Godsbane from his belt. “This weapon is forged from a subtle blend of medusanite and the second fragment of the Key. As I mentioned, were it not for the angel-hand, I would not be able to wield its might in battle. Nor would I be able to do things like this . . .”
By now we had arrived at the portcullis. Lemuel took a moment to compose himself, and flipped the mace so its handle was uppermost. Then he pressed its heel into a small indentation next to an ornate ring-pull.
“Lan khol yé zélah (by all that is holy),” he intoned, “pa-the eyl e-na shavat (open to me now).”
“You speak the divine language?” I felt a familiar ripple of power, and the metal grating rose ponderously into the air.
“A necessary evil, I’m afraid.” He looked resigned. “The enchantments about this keep are comprised of both divine and occult essence, not that they seem to do much good, as I said.”
I gasped. “Don’t tell me someone’s stolen the Key?”
“No! In a way, it’s much worse.” Before I could ask him to clarify his remark, Lemuel gestured again and led me down a short flight of steps. We stopped before a solid oak gateway covered in metal studs and engraved with a host of cryptic sigils. The hairs along the back of my neck and arms stood up, and I realized we had arrived at the threshold of a powerful force field.
Lemuel removed a set of old-fashioned jailer’s keys from a fold of his robe. He selected one, positioned it in the lock, and whispered a brief phrase in Hellanese. A spark of energy pulsed through the glyphs and I heard a loud click! The entrance swung silently inward to reveal a similar corridor and identical-looking door about twenty yards away, down a short slope. Braziers, stationed within alcoves on either side of the passage, burst to life as we stepped inside.
From the way he approached the next obstacle, I thought Lemuel would adopt the same procedure as before, but I was mistaken. This time, he used the shaft of Godsbane to operate the lock — as he had at the portcullis — and uttered a single word in the divine language.
Only at the next gate did I spot his pattern. The first doorway had been sealed by sorcery, the next by angelic wards. As such, Lemuel was patiently employing an overlapping strategy to overcome each successive barrier. We continued in this manner until, after more than fifteen minutes, we arrived at the final gateway.
This particular entrance was huge, fashioned from two great leaves of very dark timber. I examined its texture, and determined it must be something similar to brazilwood, as the black grain was enriched here and there by knots of luscious red heartwood.
The outline of two opposing hands had been carved into the surface of each panel at chest height; one on the left, the other on the right. On this occasion, the protective shield was powerful enough to make me feel as if a million insects were crawling across the surface of my skin.
My guide turned toward me. “Prepare yourself, Reaper. What you are about to see has only been witnessed by a handful of denizens in all the levels of infernity, including the underverse. You might find it a little . . . overwhelming.”
“Don’t worry about me. My heart is black through and through, and my soul belongs to Satan.”
“Good to know. Nevertheless, I urge prudence.” He winked. “You’ll see why in just a moment.”
Lemuel slung his scepter and removed a knife from the opposite side of his belt. He ran the tip of the blade across each palm in turn. As rich scarlet fluid flowed from the wounds, he placed both hands against the outline of its corresponding relief upon the panels. Conflicting energy blazed to life, red on the left, blue on the right, outlining his fingertips in coronas of lurid light.
He uttered a single word: “Lem-esh (Lemuel),” then stood back and made the sign of an inverted cross in the air.
His blood soaked into the wood’s dark grain before my very eyes, and when I glanced at his palms, I noticed the cuts had already closed over.
The background buzz cut off. The barrier dropped, as did the door; straight down into a hidden trench in the floor. My sensibilities were instantly assailed by the pure, unadulterated glory of my personal opium made manifest.
I staggered, and had to grasp the frame and lintel to prevent myself from falling.
A chamber lay revealed, similar in design to a hundred-yard vertical tube. The entrance I found myself occupying appeared to be the only one, and had been positioned at the exact center of the chamber’s height. At a point two or three feet below the ceiling, the Bãlefire erupted from thin air in a rush of pyrotechnic fury. It thundered down past our position to terminate in coruscating glory at a similar distance from the floor.
I inhaled deeply, and felt my potential swell.
“Careful, Reaper,” Lemuel hissed, “so much tincture in such a confined space may present unforeseen hazards.”
He’s right, of course.
Only with the greatest effort was I was able to prevent myself from leaping in, there and then, to feast.
Lemuel must have guessed my intentions. A firm grip on my shoulder refocused my attention away from the rose-tinted wonderland before me, and toward something else. “Look carefully,” he murmured, pointing with his other hand.
I adjusted my sensitivity to compensate for the presence of so much limitless might, and was rewarded by the actuality of what I’d already seen by way of psychic representation.
“Behold the Key of Sighs,” Lemuel breathed in a reverential tone, “a most puissant icon, and one of the great mysteries of the Divide, for by its sweet solace is the prohibition between our realms maintained.”
Gleaming like a many-faceted precious stone, the basketball-sized hunk of the pearly gates hung suspended within the matter stream like the personification of tranquility made manifest. Its surface glittered as if it had been dusted by a thousand mirrors, and in those reflections I saw an echo of the power of creation. It revolved slowly, around its own axis, and its hypnotic redolence called to me in ways I’d never imagined possible for one so dark-hearted.
The more I searched the mystery of its hidden depths, the more I found myself falling into it, meshing with it, and understanding the sublimity of its nature.
A dissonant tone grated across my nerves. Without thinking, I linked to the discord and manipulated the Key’s position within the plasma strand. It twisted, revealing a portion of its surface that had been hidden. An ugly scar marred the beauty of its perfection.
“Bloody hell! Your thoughts presented a different picture. I thought you said an expert was employed to extract the samples for the defenses?”
“You are perceptive, Reaper. Rest assured, that wound was not caused by us. Our artisan was indeed skilled enough to take the cuttings without marring the Key’s form or function. What you are looking at is much more recent, and here we come to the crux of our dilemma, for whoever committed this act of vandalism was making a statement.”
“A statement, you say?”
“Of course. Think about it. They went to all the trouble of infiltrating one of the most heavily fortified locations in all of hell . . . and for what? Just to leave their prize where it was? So they could take a selfie and post it to Hatebook? No, they came here for a reason, and the realization of their plans involved a great deal of preparation. I dread to think what the bigger picture may involve.”
My visage darkened.
Lemuel noted my look of anger and moved closer. “You suspect someone of this outrage?”
“Is it that obvious?” I projected a sanitized précis of my dealings with Cream and his mysterious benefactors directly into Lemuel’s mind, so he would better understand my recent frustrations.
He spent the next few minutes studying the specifics of the data, and then laughed out loud. “I see. Now it makes sense.”
“Reaper, I suspect you’ve either been baited again, or left another calling card.”
“Yes.” He pointed to the Key once more. “Please focus more acutely and tell me what you see.”
I did as he asked, and was surprised to discover something wedged within the crudely fashioned hole. Something small and shiny.
I frowned. “Do you know what it is?”
“Sadly not. For all our arts, none of us possess the might to withstand the pure essence of the Bãlefire. Even I cannot enter, for the presence of the angel-hand might cause the wards about it to drop, and give away its location to those above who seek to recover it.”
“So this setup effectively veils the Key from you-know-who?”
“Amongst others, yes. That’s why I need your help. Because of your unique heritage, only you can hope to withstand such fury without triggering a catastrophic reaction within the shield’s integrity.”
Lemuel’s statement puzzled me. “Hang on a second, what about Satan and his fallen angels? Surely they could have helped you?”
“His Satanic Majesty is loath to approach, lest the mere presence of the Key prompts his ardor to attack heaven once more. Such a move requires careful strategy and execution, and he is set on a success certain, next time. When he comes for this blessed device, it will be at the hour of his devising, not before.”
“And Samael and his brothers?”
“In all truth, HSM does not trust them to possess such might.”
But he trusts me?
I didn’t know whether to be shocked, honored, or downright insulted. Regardless, something Lemuel had just said hit a nerve.
“How do you think our intruder managed to enter, then? From what you’ve intimated, the barricades surrounding this site are formidable. If they’re breached, there’s a danger they’ll fall. Our burglar didn’t want that to happen, so he took precautions. But why? And how exactly would he do that? I could list the possible candidates on one hand, fallen angels and their mystic weapons included.”
“Ah, I see what you mean,” Lemuel replied. Then, more quietly, “I fear the answer may lie in the realms of the forbidden. Things proscribed since the Time of Sundering. Understand, Reaper, I only discuss such matters now because I wish to ensure the security of the treasure in my charge.”
“By that inference, I take it you’re aware of contrivances that could do this?”
“Of course. As the protector of the Key, it is my function to know of everything that might present a danger. Having studied the factors of this incident closely, I feel we may be forced to consider one or two utensils that should have been vitiated long ago. Such as the Sword of Damocles, or the Mermaid’s Pin.”
“What do these artifacts do?”
“The Sword negates all power, no matter who or what the source. The Pin is able to pierce the strongest barrier. They can only be used by a damned individual once, and even then at great cost. Both were ordered destroyed millennia ago.”
Oh, fantastic. Another pile of shit I’ll have to sort out along the way.
But I’d procrastinated long enough.
“Right, you’d better stand back while I get this show on the road.”
“Very well,” Lemuel replied. “But if I may be so bold? Be careful to keep your aura under control. If the Key registers your presence, I fear your fortitude may trigger the Divine wards, and that is something to be avoided.”
“You don’t have to worry on that account,” I answered wryly.“The least I have to do with anything of heavenly origin, the better.”
Yeah! I scolded myself, you talk the talk, but how are you actually going to walk the walk, and pluck the item from the Key without touching it?
I considered my dilemma from a purely practical point of view.
Physical exertion is out. If I make contact, it’ll activate the stone and God’s angels will descend on us like the proverbial avalanche, and damn the consequences. But if I use my hell-spawned abilities, that could also elicit an adverse reaction.
I scanned the interior of the bore from top to bottom. My gaze came to rest on the spot where the Bãlefire erupted from hydraspace. Opening my senses wide, I tasted the resonance of the matter stream as it cascaded through the chamber, and followed it down to the point where it disappeared.
Of course! It’s so simple . . .
One of my primary attributes was the ability to phase through the ether. To do so, I incorporated a proficiency to blend with the very quintessence of hydraspace itself. However, I never actually breached the event horizon, as someone would do if they teleported. Instead, I merely skimmed the threshold between dimensions in such a way that it allowed me to jump between two locations in close proximity almost instantaneously. Thus my molecules would temporarily mesh with those of the exotic medium through which I was traveling.
And if my essence is blended with the Bãlefire, it shouldn’t trigger . . .
In an instant, I was there.
At one with the roaring, writhing monstrosity that was the very heart-blood of the underworlds, I allowed its essence to sweep me along in a tide of ferocity that took my esoteric breath away.
Part of my consciousness was aware of the expression painted all over Lemuel’s face. My maneuver had obviously taken him by surprise. Fortunately, that didn’t distract me from the task at hand: The Key of Sighs.
As the column of fire screamed down, it flowed across the dignity of the stone without generating the slightest ripple. Where the current impacted the mystery token, however, a violent eddy had been created. Swirling round and around, the miniature maelstrom concentrated the rush of energies so much that they threatened to vaporize the memento at any second.
Fortunately, that would no longer be a problem. Joining with the vortex for just an instant, I snatched the offending article from its perch. Then, indivisible from the plasma ribbon once more, I allowed the stream to carry me toward the terminus.
Moments later, I was back, standing beside a startled Warden, with a glowing — and exceedingly hot — souvenir in my grasp.
“Well, that was easier than I thought.” Makes a bloody change.
Lemuel was dumbfounded. “How did . . . ?”
“Let’s just say it’s part of the unique heritage you mentioned. It’s what makes me an effective Reaper. Nowhere is safe.” I paused to carefully unfold my prize and take a closer look. “Now, what have we got here?”
The item in my possession was different to the messages I’d been left before. Although written by the same hand, and in blood, the author had somehow managed to stencil the words into a malleable, metallic, sliver of paper.
This stuff feels like gold leaf . . . but far more flexible.
It was a very delicate piece of work, and it made me wonder how the text had been inscribed onto the surface without damaging it.
My latest clue said:
Pickled remains of past grievances,
Both great and small,
Marinating now upon their shelves,
Preserves of the most succulent variety.
Mine to savor when the fancy takes me,
Sweet rich marrow,
Toothpick finger bones,
Toasting your accomplishments,
And flensing the taste of you from memory.
“Well, well, well!” I fumed out loud. “It looks as if I’ll be settling some old scores much sooner than I expected.”
“Is this from that Cream fellow you mentioned?” Lemuel asked. “And more importantly, do you understand what it means?”
“Oh, I understand it all right. And it’s close enough to Cream to count as one and the same.” I turned to the Warden and shook his hand. For some reason the tingle running up my arm was much, much stronger this time. “Lemuel, thank you for your assistance. I wish there was some way I could repay you, but I’ve got to get going. This clue tells me where I need to be. The sooner I get there, the better for all concerned.”
Lemuel maintained his hold and grinned. “Then there is a way you could repay me. Just fry the bastard who dared to make me look incompetent, and return the stolen piece into my care. None of us will be safe until the shard is reunited with the Key.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“One thing more,” he said. “Think of it as a parting gesture.”
Before I could ask him what he meant, Lemuel muttered something under his breath. I felt an icy-cold veil of darkness wash across my body. Everything went black for a moment and when I opened my eyes, I found myself standing on the sidewalk outside the Old Bully, right in front of a very surprised hell-hound.
“How the fuck did you do that?” Nimrod spluttered. He jumped back, his usual composure totally blown away.
“You’ve only this second walked into the mist on the other side of the street. . .”
His voice trailed off, and I grew quite concerned by the way he was staring at me.
“What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a long lost friend after he’s been away for years.”
“That’s just it, Boss, you haven’t been anywhere. One minute you were over there, and then you appeared right beside me, glowing like a neon advertisement outside a brothel.”
I stepped away and looked at my reflection in a window. Then I held up my hands. Power radiated from me in waves, and I was shocked to discover I was indeed surrounded by a rich, strontium-red nimbus.
It must have been my exposure to the Bãlefire.
I sent my senses deep inside. And come to think of it, I do feel strangely invigorated. “This is gonna come in handy.”
I waved the latest clue in his face. “Thanks to the Knights and the Grey Friars, we’ve gained a lot of time. And I know where to go next. What say I use all this excess energy and take us there in style, right now?”
“Sounds good, but where are we going?”
“We, my dear friend, are going to make a very public spectacle of a self-styled crime lord who thinks that attempting to murder the Reaper won’t have repercussions. You might want to get out your sword. I have a feeling we’ll be in the thick of it as soon as we arrive.”
Andrew P. Weston is an author and regular contributor to Amazing Stories. You can find his profile, and links to his posts, here.