In which Kai finds that the pains of Hell have multiplied
While he had been asleep, flies in their thousands had taken over his body, crawling inside his clothing and covering his face. He raised his hands to brush them away and retched with the stench coming from his decaying flesh.
Now he found that it was not only fire that could set the body aflame. His skin was a mass of swollen, festering bites... All over... Everywhere...
Flies poured into his open mouth, choking him.
Was this it? Was this the end? Was this how he would spend eternity - a lump of ever-rotting flesh surrounded by its own stinking miasma and driven mad by this endless six-legged torment? Would he stay here forever in this one spot, too weak to move? He was appalled.
"Help me," he whispered, though there was no one to hear.
"Please help me."
"You do give up easily, don't you?" came the cynical voice of his shadow self, needling him from within.
"Go away. I don't need you," Kai moaned softly.
"No? You may be happy to rot here, but I'm not."
"Well, unless you're going to come up with some answers for a change, you'll have to," came the petulant reply from Kai's conscious mind.
"So you still have some spirit left?"
"Sticks and stones . . . Don't waste your remaining energy. Think. Have you noticed that there's one part of you the flies haven't touched?"
Kai hadn't, but thus prompted, he noticed that there was a small part of his chest above his heart that was cool and itch-free.
He'd been so wrapped up in his own sufferings, he'd forgotten his Goddess. He thought of calling on her for help, but feared to do so. Having so shamefully neglected her, it seemed an infernal cheek to invoke her name now that he was in trouble. He was not yet beyond hope and must find his own solution.
A picture came into his mind - courtesy of the voice? A memory of Linden's accident with the beehive - the flight down to the lake - the bees' impotence as Linden slid under its surface...
Kai looked at the sullen river. He was lying beside a broad creek, its shallow water almost still, and stagnant. Not an inviting prospect, but possibly an improvement on his present circumstances.
He rolled over, dragged himself to the edge of the creek and was about to tumble in when a fresh thought struck him. Painfully, he dragged the amulet from under his shirt and took it off. Cautiously, he dipped it into the foul liquid.
"O, Blessed Lady," Kai mumbled hoarsely, "Source of Light, and Fount of All Wisdom, may Thy Name ever be venerated in the hearts of Thy servants. By Thy Power vested in Thy Amulet, I pray Thee, bless this water and make it holy."
They were not the proper words he was sure - he was no priest - but it was worth a try. It was also worth the effort.
The noisome water began to steam and bubble. Slowly, a circle of crystal clarity spread outwards from the amulet until it was fully a man's length from side to side. Around the edges the waters of Hell frothed and fumed. Kai rolled thankfully into the limpid pool.
Instantly, the fire in his skin cooled and the flies rose in a cloud above him. It was blissfully comfortable. He wondered how long he would have to remain submerged. Except for the necessity of taking periodic breaths of the ftid air, he thought he could cheerfully stay there forever.
Eventually, the great swarm broke up and dissipated in swirling skeins of blackness. Kai waited some time before emerging, then, kneeling in the shallow water, he took the opportunity of assuaging his thirst with the sweet water. As he raised his hands to drink, he saw with surprise and gratitude that they had been restored to normal during his immersion. Giving thanks to the Goddess for her beneficence, he left the hallowed waters.
He had not gone above six steps before he perceived a faint hum on the edge of hearing. It intensified rapidly. From every direction came hordes of the wretched flying insects, all homing in on him. Looking back, Kai saw that Hell had taken back possession of its creek. No help there.
The swarm did not attack immediately however. Instead, it formed into a huge pillar in front of him, which slowly evolved into the shape of the head and torso of a humanoid creature suspended in mid-air. When the flies had completed their metamorphosis into a seemingly solid body, two round, red, fiery eyes sprang open and a voice of infinite menace rumbled out.
"Who dares desecrate my sacred realm?"
As there came no reply, a giant hand reached down, grasped Kai around the waist and swept him high into the air, the better to view the violator.
The hideous face was in a constant state of motion like a dung-hill under a seething mass of flies. Kai was certain for a moment that the lipless mouth was about to swallow him whole. It did not, however, merely scrutinizing him in a way that made Kai feel that his soul was being stripped bare of every last hidden guilt. Finally, it reached the end of its deliberations.
"Thou art not worthy of remaining in my domain," it growled thunderously, and hurled the warrior high and away, much as a child might throw a rag doll that had somehow caused offence.
When Kai recovered his senses, his clothing had long since dried out. He was lying on his back, blearily looking up at the blood red sky. Recollections of his most recent experiences fought their way through a groggy haze to the forefront of his mind.
Strange, every bone in his body should have been broken, yet although his body ached exceedingly, he was not in actual pain.
Cautiously, he levered himself up on to one elbow. Still no pain. Thankfully, he rose to his feet and took stock of his circumstances.
Looking around, he realized that he was now on the other side of the river. Better and better. Now he could pursue his enquiries in the black town.
It was as well Kai approached with extreme caution, for it seemed that people lay in ambush for the unwary at every street corner, and shadows lurked in dark doorways. The buildings were made of a kind of sooty adobe, and set closely together without any sign of a plan, producing a warren of narrow alleyways between.
There were occasional scuffles in shady corners. Kai was prepared to bet that in most cases, the odds were at least four to one. His innate sense of fair play suggested that he ought to even things up, but common sense overruled it. He was unarmed, and noted with unease the ruby glint of the dim light on steel. Furthermore, it was unlikely that any of the combatants was here for any altruistic reason.
He was wondering where and how he might come by the information he was seeking, when a faint moan caught his ear and he spotted a figure slumped against a wall in an alley to his left. The person appeared to be alone, probably the victim of a skirmish such as he had witness several times already. Warily, Kai approached the man and bent over him to ascertain his present state.
With the speed of a striking cobra, the man lunged at his would-be helper with a wicked-looking dagger. As Kai leapt backwards, their eyes met.
"Casper!" The voice oozed hatred.
"What?" came an exclamation from behind. Kai spun round to see Archduke Zervan wielding a hefty broadsword, then went down with a searing pain in his back as Vash'târik thrust the dagger up under his ribs.
"Now we have you to enjoy for all eternity," Vash'târik gloated as father and son dragged their prize to a building a little further along the alley.
Kai's frantic attempts to resist his capture were rewarded with repeated strength-sapping stabs from Vash'târik's dagger. Inside, the evil pair strapped their victim's wrists and ankles to a solid wooden bed.
"Where do we begin," mused Vash'târik, his eyes glittering in the light of a guttering oil lamp. "What a delightful problem! How generous of the Lord Andras to deliver this one above all others to us. Hm, yes - I think we begin by sharing with our 'dear friend' the pleasures in store for him... "
"He seems a new arrival here," Zervan interrupted. "I wonder how much he knows of the functioning of this particular Hell?"
"Does it matter? He's got plenty of time to find out."
"I just thought it might add to his... enjoyment, to know that whatever delights are visited upon him will heal... eventually. Dismembered limbs will reattach - then we can begin all over again, and so on, and so on until the end of time... So glad you could join us, Caspar."
Kai shuddered inwardly and hoped his face did not betray his dread as Vash'târik enumerated his sadistic plans with great relish. He would begin by piercing Kai's eyeballs with his dagger and gouging them out. Then he would fill the empty sockets with oil and set them on fire...
Slowly, he worked his descriptive way down Kai's body, slavering with anticipation, while Zervan looked on with an appreciative grin. Kai tried very hard not to listen but without avail. His tormenter's sibilant voice was too close to his ear. Desperately, he prayed for guidance or succour Anything.
Vash'târik had just reached that part of Kai's anatomy that was the principal source of his grievance when a voice, soft but compelling, said, "No, Vash'târik, you must not do these evil things."
There was a shocked silence for several seconds.
"It cannot be " whispered Zervan.
"I would not believe that you were anything but kind and good," the ethereal voice went on, "but now I see I was wrong. How could I have been so blind?"
"Peri? Perizada...? My dearest girl, where are you?"
"I am here, father, praying for you."
"You are in Hell, too? Oh, no! That I cannot bear."
"No, I am not in Hell, though it is precious close to it knowing that those I love are there."
"The wizard too?" asked Zervan in surprise.
"No, he still lives."
"I do not know where mother is."
"This is naught but some trick to deprive us of our just revenge!" Vash'târik snarled furiously. "I will not be cheated again, father. Take no notice."
"It is Peri's voice. How can I ignore my beloved daughter?"
"You seem happy enough to ignore your 'beloved son'! I will not be thwarted. We both perished by his hand, and you know well what he did to me!"
"Will you not stay your hand for me?" the discarnate voice pleaded.
"Never! Vengeance is so sweet. Why should I be tricked into foregoing this sublime pleasure?"
"If you go on, you will be damned forever."
"Divine damnation then!"
"Do you think you will remain in this one of the Hells forever...?"
"What do you mean?"
There was no immediate reply.
"People used to talk of the Seven Hells," Zervan said pensively.
"Talk! What did they know?"
"More to the point, what do we know?"
"I know there is the Abyss," Kai murmured softly, "the Pit of Fire, for that is where I must go."
"He speaks truly, Vash'târik," came Perizada's voice. "His body is not dead, yet he sends his soul to the Everlasting Fire. And he has the blessing of the Lady... "
"Now I know 'tis all a lie!" Vash'târik exclaimed. "No one would ever do such a thing."
"Nevertheless, it is my intent."
"Well, you would say that, wouldn't you? Anything to save your skin."
"Don't judge me by your standards," Kai retorted, stung. Vash'târik let that pass.
"We still have only your word that this 'Abyss' exists."
"You keep out of this, trickster!"
As he spoke, the air in the centre of the room seemed to shimmer. A small opalescent blue light appeared and grew into a faint wavering ovoid. Within this nimbus, a beautiful figure slowly materialized, tenuous and translucent.
Zervan started forward as if to embrace her, but she held out an imperative hand.
"You must not touch me," she warned, "indeed, you cannot touch me."
The spirit went on to detail certain pieces of information about Vash'târik that he had thought were known to no one but himself. If he remained unconvinced, he was at least persuaded to adopt a less aggressive stance.
"And now," Peri continued softly, "for the sake of that fraternal love we shared, I ask you not only to refrain from tormenting him, but to aid him on his quest."
"What?! Go to this Abyss? No, Peri, you ask too much."
"Perhaps I do," she said mournfully, "or perhaps you never really cared for me," and with a sigh, the vision faded.
"Peri, come back!" came the voices of father and son in unison, but only silence and darkness remained.
"I think we must have been hallucinating," Vash'târik said slowly some moments later.
"No, Vash'târik, she was really here."
"Wishful thinking, father," his son snorted, snapping back into his usual suspicious frame of mind.
"I think she is here still."
"Use your senses, Vash'târik."
Suddenly Kai, too, became aware that within the room the all pervading reek of sulphur had been replaced by a delicate perfume.