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All day he had toiled up the pass, the beast’s horned head nodding heavily as it trod the stones. But now at last he was over the top of it, and had begun the long descent into the valley.
He had been here before. How many years that had been, he could not tell. But then the valley had been lush and green with vegetation and the river that ran through it had sparkled like molten silver in the sun.
There was no woodland, and no river, now. The dry brown bed was bare, the rocks sinking into the dust, and the earth of the banks was cracked like the hide of an ancient monster, too gigantic to move the weight of its body. On the far side of the valley, the mountains that had once been capped with snow were desiccated humps of stone.
“Demon,” he said, “why did you bring me back here?”
He had expected no answer, and received none. He hadn’t seen the demon in days, hadn’t even sensed her around. At times he wondered if she had finally left him for good, and then he’d wondered if he should be happy or sad about that.
“Demon,” he still asked, aloud into the silence. “What happened here? Why is it so badly changed?”
Nothing came back except the noise of the beast’s hooves on the track.
Somewhere down in the valley, he knew, he had once found a home for a while. The memories of that time had become so hazy that he had a hard time remembering, but he had faint memories of a woman who had lived there, who had taken him in and loved him for a little time. She had wanted him to remain forever, and he would have been glad to, for she was warm and human and had slaked for a bit his thirst for company. But then he had been forced to move on, and had left her standing at the door to her hut, weeping.
Try as he might, he could not even remember her face, let alone her name.
Dusk lay thick on the valley when he finally reached the river bank. In the near darkness, the way was treacherous, each step into shadow so deep that it would be impossible to know what lay beneath. But the beast went on without a pause, not even bending its head to look where its hooves were falling. He let it have its way; long experience had taught him that when he did not know where he was going, the beast knew.
Sitting on the creature’s back, he let himself doze. And he dreamed.
In his dream it was high noon. The sun shone down on the valley, which was thick with flower and fruit, and the water of the river was as clear as the air. And the woman was there, running beside him through the grass, racing until both of them collapsed helpless with laughter, holding on to each other till suddenly the laughter drained away. So they kissed and held each other, and made gentle love until the sun went behind a cloud and the grass withered away, the trees vanished and the water of the river turned the colour of blood. And he lay there with a skeleton in his arms.
He started awake, shivering. The beast had halted. The light of the stars outlined something angular and artificial, and he knew he had come to the hut.
Only it was no longer a hut, but a roofless ruin.
Stiffly, he dropped from the creature’s back to the ground. The hut was smaller than he remembered, the broken walls lower, the windows gaping holes letting in the darkness. When he stepped up to the door, the starlight glimmered faintly on rubble scattered across the floor.
Suddenly, with a shock like physical pain, he remembered where everything had been. In this corner, below the window, she had had a small table at which she’d done sewing during the afternoons and sat by candlelight reading from the tattered scrolls she had found in the hills. On the far side, there had been the pallet where they had slept together, limbs tangled, in the warmth that came after love. And there, on the far wall, there had been her shelves, full of bottles and tiny pots filled with unguents and potions, which she made from crushed herbs and perfumed oils. It had been a lovely little place, once, filled with life for all that it had been so far away from everywhere.
Now, there was nothing left, nothing at all, except broken plaster and cracked stone.
He would have called her name, if he could remember it. But he opened his mouth, and nothing came.
“She isn’t here.” The voice was at his shoulder. “She hasn’t been here in a very long time.”
He didn’t turn round. “How long?”
“A long time. It’s been longer than you think since you were last here, Man. Much, much longer.”
“I thought you’d left me and gone away,” he said then.
There was no reply to this. He still didn’t want to turn around.
“Where is she?” he asked at last.
“Do you really want to know?”
“Yes.” He could see the demon out of the corner of his eye now, a red glowing shadow. “Is she dead?”
The demon laughed, a low chuckle. “Why don’t you look at me, Man? What makes you so shy?”
“Where is she?” he repeated. “Is she dead?”
The demon laughed again. “No, she is not so lucky. Do you want to find her? Really?”
“Is that why you brought me here?”
“Why should I bring you here, Man? You brought yourself.” The demon touched him lightly on the shoulder, a touch like mist, but one he felt right through his chain mail. “Weren’t you thinking I’d left you and gone away?”
He turned his head to look at her. She formed out of the darkness, her eyes glowing amber in the shadow, her hair dancing like flames. She grinned, her teeth sharp and white.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
The demon crossed her arms under her bulging breasts and pretended to think. “Well,” she said judiciously, “if you want to find her, you might follow this river bed along till the night turns over towards dawn. Then, perhaps, you might find an entrance carved in the rock.” She paused, her eyes glinting mockingly. “And once you go through the gate, then...”
“Then, Man,” she said, her eyes staring into his, her smile disappearing, “you are going to wish you had left well enough alone.”
“But if I want to go,” he said, after a pause, “you won’t stop me?”
“I won’t, Man.” She sighed, her breasts rising and falling. “I could, and perhaps I should, but I won’t.”
“Then,” he said, “I’ll go.”
The sky was pinkening with dawn over the bare hills when he saw the entrance.
It was a doorway carved in the rock, with pillars on either side, and stairs leading up from the dry bed of the river. He was sure he’d come this far along before, all those years ago, but he’d never seen it then. It must have been completely submerged under the water.
“Who made this?” he asked the demon. The intensely grim look was still on her face, and she made no attempt to answer. Instead, she motioned at him to dismount.
“Leave the beast here,” she said. “It can’t go inside there.”
Reluctantly, because he had come to think of the beast almost as a home, he complied. The creature showed no reaction, its eyes merely turning once towards him for a moment. He did not, of course, need to hobble it in any way; it would wait for him to return.
Forever, if need be.
The stairs and pillars were very old, so polished by time that the stone had become polished enough to gleam in the dawn light. There had been carvings, once, but they had been almost completely effaced. What little was left of them made him obscurely glad he could not see them any more clearly.
The dawn light faded rapidly as he walked up the stairs and through the doorway. Inside there was a long, low tunnel, which sloped rapidly down into darkness. He could see the stumps of brackets on the walls which might once have been holders for torches, but there was nothing there now.
The light filtering in from the entrance quickly faded, giving way to pressing shadows. He stubbed his toe on something and stumbled, almost falling. His helmet clanged against the wall.
“Follow me,” said the demon, pushing past him. “Watch my feet and step exactly where I tread. Don’t put a toe out of line. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he said. Where her bare feet touched the stone, they left prints which glowed orange-red for a while before fading, so he could see where to walk. “How far must we go before we find her?”
“You can’t express it in terms of distance. Come along.”
He was so intent on watching her feet that he never realised just when his surroundings began to change. The first he noticed was that her footprints seemed to be glowing less brightly, and fading quicker. Then he realised that it wasn’t the footprints which were fading faster, but the fact that the darkness around them was decreasing. A reddish light was seeping into the tunnel.
A few steps further, and she led him round a bend held out a hand to bar his way, so suddenly that he almost bumped into her.
He bit back a gasp. At their feet the ground fell away in a near vertical slope of red, glowing rock to a distant plain, in which red and orange glowing rivers flowed between black humps of stone. On both sides, the wall of glowing rock spread out, into the far distance, until they faded into darkness. And on the far side of the plain, so far away that he could barely see it, there was another diffuse glow of red.
They were standing on the lip of a gigantic crater, so huge that he could not imagine its size.
“Is she down there?” he asked, his mouth dry.
“Yes, indeed. If you want, we can go back. I won’t think any less of you if you do.”
He swallowed, painfully, and deliberately brought to mind his dream and the shattered hut.”We’ll go on.”
“Fine. Follow me, and step where I do.”
He followed her. The slope was so steep that it felt as though he were stepping down a vertical wall. But he had no time to think about that; his eyes were fixed on her feet, which always somehow seemed to find the dark cool spaces between the glowing rocks.
“Hold on to my tail,” she called over her shoulder, when the way had got so steep that he could no longer balance on his legs properly. “Be careful not to fall.”
With the desperation of a drowning man clutching at a piece of driftwood, he clutched the barbed tip. It hummed in his gauntlets, buzzing as though filled with energy that was barely held back, so that he almost let go again. But she grunted impatiently, so he held on tight to it. After that it wasn’t quite so difficult to climb down, except for the strain in his back, calves and thighs.
“We can’t stop for a break,” she said, though he hadn’t suggested anything of the sort. “This place would fry you to a crisp.”
Trying to keep his trembling legs from collapsing under him, he followed her down to the plain.
From close up, the river was like a snake made of molten rock. It hissed and spat and bubbled, and the heat and light were so intense that he squeezed his eyes almost shut and flinched.
“How do we get across that?” he asked.
“We’ll have to look for a bridge across. The flow tunnels under the rock here and there. We’ll find a way.”
“You could get across if you wanted, couldn’t you?”
The demon glanced at him. “If it were up to what I wanted, Man,” she said drily, “I’d never have come down here at all.”
“And she’s down here?” he asked incredulously, gesturing around. “She’s down here in this?”
“That, I can assure you.” The demon paused a moment. “Of course, you may find her a little...changed.” Without another word, she turned and began striding along the flow of liquid rock, and he had to hurry behind in order to put his feet down where hers had rested a moment before.
As they went, he noticed some things. None of these made any sense to him, but increased his disquiet. There were movements out on the plain beyond the river, as if slow heavy bodies of titanic size were dragging themselves slowly through the darkness. And once or twice he was certain that things twitched and moved in the incandescent liquid itself, things with long necks and huge teeth, but the light was too bright for him to be sure.
At last they found a bridge, It was just wide enough for one foot to go before the other, but the demon tested it and said it was fine. Holding her tail, he followed her across it, trying not to look at the inferno beneath.
“What is this place?” he asked, once they had finally reached the far side. “Have you been here before?”
The demon laughed. “You don’t have words to explain what it is, Man. Just be content that it is, and that you’ve got me to help you.
And,” she added, casually, “I think that is your friend now.”
When he had first seen her, all those years ago, she’d been sitting on a boulder by the river, looking down at the flow of the water. In an ironic echo, she was sitting on an outcrop of stone by the molten river of rock, looking down into it, in the exact same attitude, her head between her hunched shoulders, her hands pressing on the ground by her side.
When he was still several paces away, she spoke, without turning her head. “Why have you come?”
He was astonished that she’d noticed him at all. “Looking for you,” he said finally.
“Did you have to come?” She still hadn’t turned around. “I did not ask you to.”
“You didn’t,” he agreed, and took a few steps closer. “But all the same, I felt the need. I’d come to the old house, and when I found it that way...”
She laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh. “You thought it was because you’d left me and gone so many years ago, and if you only came back, things would be all right for me. Is that so?”
He swallowed. “I suppose you’re right in one way, but...”
“Don’t come any closer!” She threw out a hand at him, finger pointing. “Stop where you are.”
Startled, he stopped. She continued looking out over the molten river. Something raised its long neck from the surface, a cluster of heads writhing. She threw something, the heads snatched it out of the air, and the neck plunged back beneath the surface. She laughed again.
“Well, you were wrong.” In one smooth move, she jumped to her feet and turned to face him. The grey cloak she wore whipped round her body, outlining it for a moment. She had grown shockingly thin, as though her body wasn’t really there any longer.
But her face was still the same. As soon as he glimpsed it, he remembered it as it had been, and with that her name came back to him. “Listen, Mara –“
“No, you listen. You don’t have to do a thing for me. You don’t matter any longer, do you understand? I’m not interested in you any longer, or in the place you came from.”
He looked around helplessly, but the demon had disappeared. He could feel her, though, somewhere close, keeping just out of sight. “What are you doing here, then?”
“That’s not your problem.” She walked up to him, gliding over the stone as though her feet didn’t quite touch the ground. Her eyes blazed with fury. “It’s you who have no business here.”
“In that case,” he said, “I’ll go away. But just tell me one thing. Can you answer one little question? After I’ve come all this way, you owe me that at least.”
“I owe you nothing. But ask.” Her upper lip lifted a moment in a snarl. “I don’t promise I will answer.”
“All right.” His eyes were smarting, and he fought down the urge to rub them. “Are you happy?”
“Happy?” It was as though a mask had fallen away at that word, and he saw her suddenly as she really was, her face full of sadness and despair. “What does that word mean, happy?”
“Is something wrong, Mara?”
“No, nothing.” She tried to smile, but her lip trembled where earlier it had snarled. “Everything’s fine. I’ve answered your question. Now go.”
“Not until you tell me what’s wrong. I could never live with myself if I went away and left you here, knowing that you can’t even remember the meaning of the word happy, and not having done anything to help you.”
She looked at him a long time, and blinked furiously. “Damn it,” she said absently, “I can’t even cry any longer. I think I’ve forgotten how to cry.”
“Oh, all right,” she said. “Come with me, and I’ll show you.”
“I’d not got over you leaving, when he came,” Mara said. “It took years, you know? Years and years. I would lie awake half the night crying for you, and when I’d fall asleep finally, I’d wake up and begin looking for you by my side. And when I didn’t find you I’d start crying again.”
There was a long pause. They kept walking along the plain, rivers of molten rock on either side. In the distance before them, the a cliff of rock glowed dull red.
“And then he came,” she said at last. “I remember waking up one night to see fire flickering on the walls, and the ground was shaking. I jumped up and ran to the window to see what was happening.
“The river and the hills were burning. This may be hard to believe, but the water, and even the air over the river, was on fire. Even as I watched, the trees disappeared in flame. And then the roof above my head erupted.
“I think I screamed. I know I rushed out, past all the things that had meant anything to me, my scrolls and potions and the clothes I’d sewed. The door was already on fire as I ran out, and I think something fell on me. I recall a heavy blow to my back. And then I must have blacked out.”
She paused, her thin-fingered hands running through the grey folds of her cloak like frightened spiders. “Perhaps it would have been better if I’d burned to death then. But I didn’t, because he was there, and he found me.
“When I came to, I was here, in a cave in the hills. And he was there, too, in the cave. He was there, bending over me, and when I saw him I passed out again.”
“He? Who’s he?”
“You’ll see.” Mara glanced back over her shoulder. “I’m taking you to him now.”
She ignored the question. “At first, I was terrified. You can’t believe how terrified I was. But I learned not to be afraid, over time. Over time, I learned not to shrink back with fear of him.
“But he was a fugitive. I did not know it then, but he was in hiding, too, and there were – forces – he’d offended, and who would not forgive. And then, one day, they came for him.
“He’d known, I think, that they would come, that he could not run forever. But if it had not been for me, he would not have lingered so long in this place. He would have moved on, and perhaps it would have been much longer before they found him.
“But they did find him,” she said. Her hand rose, pointing. “And when they found him, they did this.”
At first he didn’t realise what she meant. They had arrived at the wall of rock he’d noticed earlier, which rose red and glowing. He looked up at it, blinking in confusion. And then he saw it.
The giant was so huge that his body seemed part of the rock itself. His back was arched against it, arms and legs drawn back, gigantic granite bands holding them back against the glowing stone. His head was thrown back, looking up into the darkness, so that his face couldn’t be seen, but the tendons in his neck stood out as though tensed with agony. He moaned, the noise vibrating through the ground.
“Can you see what they did to him?” Mara clutched the knight’s hand. “And that isn’t all. They’ve staked him out here to burn on the rock, but that wasn’t enough. No.” Her voice shook. “Soon enough, the monsters of the air will come down to dine.”
“Monsters of the air? Dine on what?”
“What do you think? He hardly has any eyes left, or even a face. He suffers endlessly, and he can’t even die. He’d give anything to be able to just die.” Her voice shook. “You want to know why I’ve forgotten what happy means? Look at him.”
“Who is he?”
“He was a god once.” The demon’s voice was in his ear. He turned quickly, but he couldn’t see her. “He was a god, and sinned greatly against the other gods – sinned by their lights, of course.” Her voice was cool and ironic. “I told you that you’d find your friend changed.”
“What should I do?” he asked.
“Could you help him die?” Mara asked. “Kill him. Please just kill him, if you can. That would set him free.”
“How can I kill him? Is it even possible?”
“They put him up there to suffer, and they made it so that he couldn’t die of the suffering. But they didn’t make it so that he can’t die.” Mara’s voice broke on a sob. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried to kill him. Can you imagine how I felt to have to kill him, and then how I felt when I couldn’t even do that with what I can put my hands on?”
“And what about you? If he died, what would you do afterwards?”
Mara shrugged. “What about me? How do I matter? If he can die, I’ll be at peace.” She looked at him. “Maybe I could even go with you again.”
There was a brief silence. Something flickered in the darkness high above, circling, drifting lower towards the upturned face. He saw wings, and red eyes.
“Here they come.” Mara’s voice was filled with hopeless despair. “Will you kill him, please? If not, then kill me.”
He reached for the sword in the scabbard on his back. It leaped into his hand, black as the gulfs between the stars, always ready. His arm rose and fell, once, twice, four times.
Mere granite could never hold on against the nameless metal. With a crack, the first shackle parted.
“What are you doing?” the demon hissed in his ear.
He ignored her. His arm rose and fell, again and again. The fourth shackle splintered and fell.
With a noise like the earth cracking apart, the giant stumbled away from the cliff. Slowly, unbelievingly, he took one step forward, and another. His arms rose, and snatched at something in the air, something which chittered and twisted and died. Again and again, his hands rose and fell, snatching and slapping, until there nothing left to destroy. Turning away, he staggered off into the darkness.
“Wait for me,” Mara screamed, running after him. “Wait for me.”
“Did you really expect me to bring her back with me?”
The demon did not reply for a while. Her hand absently stroked the beast’s neck.
“Let me ask you,” she said at last, “why you didn’t kill him, as she wanted you to. After all, if you had killed him, you could have brought her back with you. You realise that.”
It was his turn now to pause. “Yes. I could have. But I didn’t, did I?”
The demon chuckled. “No, Man, you didn’t. And I did not think you would.”
“She...” He looked at the beast’s horned head, and he looked at the demon’s hand. He reached out and touched the hand. “She’s going to be happy now, you think?”
The demon laughed. “What does that word really mean, happy? Oh, Man, I thought you knew better than that.”
He shrugged. “Maybe I don’t.” He gestured back over his shoulder at the valley with the dried river and the burned hills. “Do you know, I have not the slightest desire now to ever see this place again?”
“There will be other places to see, Man. I think we both know that.”
“I suppose,” he said. His hand stayed on the demon’s hand, and she made no move to pull it away.
Stolidly as ever, the beast plodded up the pass.
Swooping from the east, cloaked in stars and shadow, night was coming.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014
In keeping with the theme of the earlier story, this is the (partial) inspiration: Gods of Wrath by Metal Church.