Chapter 10: The dead and the damned
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
The bottom of a vortex is a hell, a realm of demons. That is what I’m falling towards. You need a sizable army of magicians to get in and out of a hell successfully. I’m alone. Well, maybe Sanderson’s here, too. But that girl didn’t have the sense to get the hell away from a vortex. I doubt she’ll be of much help. Probably already dead.
While I’m a trained and experienced demon killer. At least I won’t be caught unaware, and I won’t die without a body count. So I land on my feet and pivot about to get a quick glimpse all around me before taking the initiative.
There’s almost no light on this plane of reality. Still, I can see I’m surrounded by demons. Goliaths. Ten feet high, tougher than tanks, and bad-tempered. They smell bad, too. There must be at least a score of them. I’m screwed.
But I’ll die fighting. I haul out my magic Bowie knife and launch into the goliath in front of me, while rapidly reciting a killing spell aimed at the one behind me. My Bowie knife slices through the demon’s rock-solid chest, taking it down before it knows what hit it. I spin, dodge a blow, finish the spell that kills the demon behind me, and launch into a third demon. It’s holding up an arm in defense but that won’t stop my knife, no . . .
Abruptly I’m on my back, my knife lost, and three goliaths standing over me. Maybe three, I’m having trouble focusing. One brings his massive foot down on my head, but I roll away before getting my head crushed, only to be slammed in the side by another demon kicking me. Yet another picks me up and pins my arms to my side. And still another reaches out with his paw and presses it against my chest. I can feel the demon taint fighting its way into me and I try to resist. Something slams my head again and I cry out in agony as I feel the demon’s touch sink into me.
And then I simply fall back onto the ground. Where’s the demon that was behind me? What about the one who was just burning me? He’s standing with his hand out, but looking beyond me, as if he’s seeing something he can’t figure out. I see him open his mouth and start to scream. He never finishes. Something large and silvery swoops over me, something with two sets of knives, which rip the demon to shreds in seconds.
Anything that kills a demon is on the side of the angels right this moment. I’m not going to worry about it. Instead, I take a moment to collect my wits before sitting up. I can see that my shirt’s burned in front, and there’s a giant paw print on my chest. I’m lucky to have survived that encounter. The goliath would have killed me or converted me into a demon in only a few more seconds.
With that done, I stand up and look at the creature that saved me. I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing: a large silvery bird, maybe half again as tall as the goliaths. And those knives I saw, those are its talons. Its eyes are black, though. It’s standing on top of the corpse of the last goliath it killed. It looks at me, twitching its head every few seconds, and then asks, “How many did you kill, Harry?” The voice is Sanderson’s.
“I was working on my third when I was interrupted. Must have been blindsided,” I tell the creature. I see my knife a short distance away and go pick it up. “You sound like an acquaintance of mine, you know.”
The bird blows a raspberry, which is quite a trick since it has no lips. “You’re supposed to be experienced, Harry. How do we get out of this place? Because I can see at least a hundred of these things off in the distance heading this way.” It still sounds like Sanderson, right down to the note of contempt in its speech.
How does one get out of a hell? It’s not something even magicians consider much, mainly because one isn’t likely to survive in a hell long enough to make an escape. I look up. There’s no sign of the vortex, which eliminates one escape route. “I could perform an elaborate spell to get us back to the normal world.”
“How long would that take?”
“About an hour.”
The bird caws like a crow. “That’s about 58 minutes too long. Mind if I try to fly us out of here?”
The bird shrugs. If it’s not Sanderson, it’s doing a good job aping her mannerisms. It says to me, “Maybe not, but it will at least get us away from here.”
“Good point. What do I have to do?”
I wake up and feel dizzy and confused. Where am I? Wait, I was in a hell. I was in a hell, and I was being carried out of it by a silvery bird holding me in its talons. A large silvery bird that acted like Sanderson, if she were a large silvery bird. The notion runs around in my head like a joke. It is what it is, if it is what it is.
I sit up and look around. This is getting to be a familiar procedure. But every time I do it I seem to be somewhere else. This time, I’m in the middle of a field of short brown grass. Off in the distance, I can see some quaggas and dodo birds ambling across a field. Nearby, there’s a small house. This definitely isn’t the normal plane of reality, I can tell. It sure isn’t the hell, either. Where are we?
Beside me, Sanderson yawns and opens her eyes. She’s human again, or still, I’m not sure which. Or maybe she isn’t. She sees me, makes a cawing noise, and smiles at my reaction. Then she sits up and looks around. “Well, at least I’m not a bird on this plane of reality. What in the name of . . . ?” She’s looking at her right hand. There are still feathers on the back of it. But instead of being black, they’re silvery.
“The bird you were was that color, too,” I observe.
“Damn. I wonder what it means.” She looks over at me. “Any idea of where we are, Harry?”
“There’s a house behind you. I guess we should go ask.”
Sanderson stands up, turns around, and sees the house. Her shoulders slump. Without turning around, she says to me, “I know where we are. We’re in the realm of the dead.”
Could well be. That would explain the extinct wildlife. I stand up and join her. “Nice house, at least.”
There’s a lot of tension in her voice when she answers. “Not really. I know that house. It was demolished years ago. I spent the first four years of my life in it.” She clicks her tongue. “I have a bad feeling about this. But we’d better go check it out.”
Sanderson heads off toward the house at a good clip. I follow along. We get to the house. Without any hesitation, Sanderson heads to the side screen door, opens it up, and steps inside. I’m right behind her.
It’s an unremarkable kitchen. The décor looks to be 1970s or so, a style I particularly dislike. The appliances and furniture all look worn and shabby.
It’s the woman at the kitchen table who catches my attention. She’s a looker. And she’s as eerie as all hell, because she looks a lot like Sanderson. Lighten the skin tone, give her dirty blond hair, and soften the lines of her face, and Sanderson would look just like her. Makes me think maybe I’ve been a bit premature to rule out bedding Sanderson.
She sees us, and she instantly recognizes Sanderson. With a rush, she stands up, comes over, and throws her arms around Sanderson. “Oh, Désirée, heart’s desire, heart’s desire,” is all she can croon, over and over again, while she holds Sanderson tight.
Sanderson finally pulls back far enough to look the other woman in the face. “You’re dead, Ma?”
She nods. “And I hoped you would be dead, too, heart’s desire, when I saw you next,” she replies.
What? Some mother! But before I can hear what comes next, someone else grabs my arm and I hear a voice in my ear. “Come away, Henry Eberhardt. Leave these two to their own affairs.” The voice is female.
I find myself being hauled back out the door to the outside. I turn to see who my companion is, hoping she’s as cute as Sanderson’s mother. It takes me several seconds to recognize the woman, but recognize her I do. The official portrait I’ve seen is of an older woman, but there’s no doubt in my mind exactly who she is. This is Abigail Lane, the very first magician ever hired by the Office of Occult Affairs, and its leader for several years in the early twentieth century. She’s been dead for decades, but even so, she’s no one to trifle with.
I am not putting the moves on Abigail Lane, no way. So instead I greet her more formally. “I’m honored, I guess, Ms. Lane,” I say, once we’ve come to a halt outside of the house.
Abigail fixes me with a steely stare. “You reek of demons and there’s an imprint of a demon’s paw on your chest. Report.”
Okay, the long-dead head of the Office is asking for a report. I guess dying doesn’t change some people. Just think of how much more enjoyable this would be if this were Silly Hughes, whose official portrait makes it look as if she wants to crawl into bed with you. But no, it’s Abigail Lane, and I’d better give her what she wants. “Sanderson, the woman who was with me, was trying to raise a ghost from a corpse that had been booby-trapped by a demon to open a vortex to a hell of goliath demons. She and I fell into the vortex. We killed the demons awaiting us and then flew out of there, I think. I lost consciousness in flight. We woke up in the field over there.”
“That might explain why you’re now in the ghost lands. Probably Persephone wanted to go somewhere safe.”
“She didn’t seem happy to see her old house.”
Abigail looks back at the house. “She’ll be even less happy after talking with her mother.” She shakes her head. “I gather Persephone didn’t even know her mother was dead. That will make this meeting even more bitter.”
Abigail’s been quizzing me about the case for some time when we hear the screen door slam as Sanderson comes out of the house. As Abigail predicted, she doesn’t look happy. Somehow this doesn’t look like her normal unhappy state; it looks more intense.
She makes a beeline for Abigail. “How much of this did you know?” she demands.
Abigail takes no notice of Sanderson’s tone. “None at all when I first met you. It was only afterwards that I began wondering why and how someone with night feathers had appeared again. So I hunted down your mother. She would tell me nothing until I told her that I’d met you. She agreed to tell me something about your history if I would tell her what you’re like today.”
Sanderson’s tone remains belligerent. “And my father?”
“She would tell me nothing of him.” Abigail’s face goes soft. “Child, you must understand. Once people die, they lose interest in the world of the living as the people and places they know disappear. That woman you just spoke to in there is not your mother as she was in life. She would have passed beyond, but for her love for you and her hope that you would join her here in the land of the dead. That’s all that remains of her. Do not fault her for what she has become. Remember what she was to you in life.”
Sanderson seems both skeptical and frustrated. “You manage well enough, and you’ve been dead a lot longer than her.”
Abigail looks away toward the horizon. As if she’s speaking to the sky, she says, “When I resigned from the Office of Occult Affairs, I was devastated. It was the end of everything I knew and cherished. I went to a tea room. There I met a good friend, one,” Abigail turns and gives Sanderson a smile, “whom I thought of as dead. She told me that I’d just resigned from my job, but not my vocation, and that I could and should still do what was important to me.
“I had to think hard about what that meant. I realized that I wanted what Asa Porter Heard had wanted when he founded the Office. He wanted it to be the defender of the nation against magical perils. That was his vocation while he lived. It was now mine, even if I were no longer part of the Office. The job didn’t define who I was; my vocation did. And here I still am, doing what I should do.” She takes us both in with a glance. “That’s why I am the way I am, even now.
“You’ve suffered some great disappointments this day, Persephone. But they don’t change what you are, what you want to be. What is your vocation?”
Sanderson looks thoughtful in silence. Her next question seems a non sequitur. “What happened to the person you knew with night feathers?”
Abigail looks off into the distance for a moment, then faces Sanderson squarely. “I helped him die. It was a difficult and terrible death.” She pauses. “It need not be yours. You are not fated to die that way, no matter what your mother thinks.”
Sanderson takes that in. She looks over at me. “You have a vocation, Harry?”
Do I? Killing demons, or fucking women? Abigail turns toward me, a severe expression on her face, one eyebrow arched. Damn, she must have heard that.
Yes, I did, Henry Eberhardt. Do you think you are so unique as to be the only person interested in sex? Earlier, you were having a fantasy about one of my successors, Silly Hughes. Let me tell you that her reputation for taking lovers was amply earned. Even so, that was not her vocation. She was much more than that. Are you?
Before this can get any more embarrassing, I tell Sanderson, “I don’t know whether I have a vocation or not.”
Sanderson nods and turns to Abigail. “I don’t have a vocation, either, but I have something just about as important. I have a friend in need, and I’ve let her down. My friend Eurydice Young has been possessed by a demon, and I’ve been stupid and foolish and let the demon get away with her.”
Abigail replies, “So what do you intend to do to remedy that situation?”
Sanderson looks off into the distance. “I was stupid. I know how to find her, but I didn’t think about it until just now.” She turns back to face Abigail. Her face looks dark and grave. “I am going back to the normal world, Abigail. I am going to use my abilities to find her. And when I do,” and she holds up her hand, showing us the silvery feathers, “we’ll see whether any demon can stand against Black Hecate.”
Abigail frowns. “That may be a dangerous course, Persephone. It may be that commanding dark powers is what will turn you into one.”
Sanderson quietly asks, “Can you think of a better cause, Abigail?”
Abigail is a long time in replying. “No, I cannot.”
End of chapter ten