He felt the pain before anything else.
It began somewhere in his midsection, and from there radiated in waves across his body, reaching below his knees and up to his mouth and nose. It was almost tolerable at first, but grew with shocking rapidity, until it was like a fire burning within him.
He tried to call out for help, but his torn throat could only let out a gasp. He tried to move his limbs, to get up, but all he managed was to roll himself over partly to one side – a move which would have made him scream with agony if he had been capable of it. Wearily, he let himself flop over on his back again.
For a long time, he lay unmoving, waiting for the pain to recede. Eventually it ebbed a little, enough so that he could draw shallow breaths without flinching, and could start to think again. And when he did, he faced a new terror.
He could remember nothing. He couldn’t remember who he was, his name, or anything else. He could not even remember how he came to be lying here on his back, his body a mass of suffering. There must have been a time before this – he could imagine that much – but of it he could recall nothing at all.
He moaned with the hopeless fear that washed over him. He felt the moan as much as heard it, beginning inside him and oozing over the back of his tongue. The terror washed over him, greater now than the pain or the helplessness, so extreme that it made him raise his head and cry out with the intensity of it. And this brought on the pain again, so severely that he blacked out.
“Man,” a voice was saying, very close by his ear. He couldn’t tell if it were a man or a woman, young or old. He felt someone shake his shoulder, first gently, and then harder. “Man. I heard you crying out. Are you alive?”
He must have made some noise, because the voice came closer. He could hear the words from very close to his ear now. “Yes, you’re alive. You’re very badly hurt though. Can you talk?”
He felt his battered lips open a little of their own accord. “Yes,” he whispered. “I think I can.”
“Good.” The voice receded slightly, as though the speaker was sitting back on his or her heels. “Now, before we go any further, I’ll ask you a question. Think about it very carefully before you answer.”
“What?” What was left of his strength was ebbing. He found it hard even to articulate the single word.
“You’re very badly hurt. In fact, you’re dying.” The voice paused. “But you have a choice.”
Despite the pain, he felt an urge to laugh. “A...choice?”
“Yes. You’re dying, but you’re not so far gone that you can’t be saved.” The voice paused. “Think about it very carefully, and tell me; do you want to live?”
His lips moved, but no sound emerged. He couldn’t be sure, even to himself, that he’d said anything at all.
“Here’s the choice I’m offering you,” the voice said. “I know you’re suffering terribly. If you’d rather not go on, I’ll understand fully. I’ll put an end to your pain quickly and mercifully. If you want to live, though...” The voice paused for a long moment. “If you want to live, I can only promise this: you will never see the end of suffering again.
“Blood, sweat, and tears, that is all I can offer you,” the voice continued after another pause. “Your life will no longer be yours – it will belong to a wider goal, an endless quest which can never be fulfilled. You will endure torments which will make you wish over and over you’d chosen to have me extinguish you in this moment. But this, too, I can promise.” The voice came close again, as though the unseen speaker was bending over his face. “Your life will never be empty again.” He felt a light touch on his cheek, like a cool finger. “Well, Man – what is it to be?”
His lips had opened to speak before his mind knew what to say. “Live,” he whispered, fiercely. “I want to live.” And then he stopped, appalled at what he’d just said.
“I knew it,” the voice said with a deep satisfaction. “You’re a survivor, Man. That’s why you’re still alive...here.”
“Here?” he repeated. The pain in his body had flared up again with the effort of talking, but he made the effort. “Where...here?”
“Wait. Lie back for a bit. I’ve got to heal you as much as I can.” The voice receded. He felt something touching his midsection, the centre of the pain. “This may,” the voice said with cool irony, “hurt a little.”
It hurt more than a little. It hurt so much that it made the former pain seem nothing at all, a minor ache in comparison. It hurt so much that he tried to push himself up, to get up and stumble away if he could. But his arms would not obey him at all.
And then it was over. At first he did not realise that it was over. But the pulling and prodding at his belly had stopped, and suddenly the pain was much less. He could still feel it, but at one remove, as though separated from it by a thick sheet of armour.
Armour, the thought came to him. There was something about armour...
“You should be feeling a little better,” the voice said. “I’m sorry I had to hurt you, but there really wasn’t a way otherwise. Open your eyes now.”
He hadn’t realised that he’d had his eyes closed. When he tried to open them, he found he couldn’t. The lashes were stuck together.
“Let me get the dried blood off them for you,” the voice said. He felt fingers on his eyelids, rubbing. “Try now.”
Warily, he opened his eyes. He was looking up into darkness, but it was not the night sky. Nor was it a room. Far, far above was a curved vault of rock, which reflected a faint greenish glow. Slowly, still flinching in anticipation of pain, he turned his head.
Something squatted by his side. He could not see it clearly. In the darkness, he only had an impression of long talon-tipped fingers, blazing amber eyes and a head full of tumbling red hair.
“Don’t be alarmed, Man,” she – it was quite definitely a she – said. “If I were going to harm you, I wouldn’t have saved you.” She held out a muscular arm for him to hold. “Can you get up now?”
Holding her by the arm, he pulled himself up. Now he could see more of her, of the heavy horns on her head, her naked golden skin and the tail whipping behind her.
“What are you?” he whispered.
She cocked her head to one side, studying him. “I’m a demon,” she said. “What else but a demon would you expect to find here?”
“Here? Where’s here? Where am I?” He looked around. He was sitting on a rough plain of rock. Far away, on all horizons, a pale greenish-blue glow flickered. “What is this place?”
“It’s...not the battlefield you were on. You can probably figure that out for yourself.”
“The battlefield? What battlefield?” But a faint memory came to him, of a head in a helmet covering the entire face, swinging a spiked ball on a chain. He heard yells, curses, screaming. Swords and maces rose and fell.
“You don’t remember, do you? It’s probably better that you don’t. It doesn’t matter anyway, who won or who lost, or who died. You’re alive. It’s all that matters.” Her arm, round his shoulders, lifted him easily to his feet. “Can you walk?”
“And I am...?” Cautiously, he took a couple of steps. His shoulders were weighed down, he discovered, by chain mail. When he touched his face his fingers felt the metal of his nosepiece, and the skin of his cheek felt the leather and iron of his gauntlet. “Who am I?”
“Does it matter, really, who you were?” she asked. “That life is over, Man. You can never go back again.” She stepped close to him, her arm round his back, careful lest he fall. “It’s a whole new beginning that lies ahead for you.”
“You said you were a demon,” he told her. “You said only a demon would be here. But you don’t look like a demon to me.”
She laughed. “I could look quite different if I wanted, Man. If I’d wanted, I could look like...” For an instant, she vanished, and something rock-skinned and spiky stood by his side, looking at him through faceted eyes. “...this,” she finished, reappearing. “I’m a demon, all right.”
The spiky monster had appeared and vanished so quickly that he’d not had time to react. He hadn’t even been able to get a good enough look at it to be afraid. “And what is this place? Hell?”
She snorted. “Hell? That isn’t a place, Man. There’s no such thing as hell or heaven. In any case, if there was a hell, you wouldn’t get there alive. In fact, nobody has, before, which is why I said you were a survivor.”
“How did I get here, then? I don’t remember coming here.”
“I found you.” The demon hesitated. “I was hoping someone like you would come. I’ve been waiting a long time.”
He thought about that a while. “So where are we?”
“This is just...a different place. Different from the one you know. And,” she added casually, “the first thing you have to do is find your way out of here. This isn’t a place for a man.”
“How do I get out of here?” Now that he had got his footing, the strangeness of the place had begun seeping into him, filling him with increasing uneasiness. “Which way do I go?”
“It’s not which way, Man,” the demon said. “It’s how.” She walked a few paces away and swung back towards him. “You do remember that you agreed to something in return for my saving you?”
He nodded. “An endless quest, filled with blood and suffering.” Somehow, now that the pain was fading, it seemed sharply more real, like something with claws hiding in the darkness, half-seen. “I remember.”
“It starts now,” she said. “Getting out of here won’t be easy, though, Man. I can guide you, but I can’t help you. You’ll have to do it yourself.”
He nodded. “I don’t want to linger here a moment longer than necessary. But how do I get out of here?”
She touched him on the arm, surprisingly delicately for her talon-tipped fingers. “Follow me.”
For a long time he followed her across the rocky plain. The green glow on the horizon still flickered, coming no closer. Here and there, too far away to be seen clearly, bizarre humps and angular extrusions rose from the rock, shapes so strange that he was glad they didn’t pass anywhere near one of them.
At length, though, it became clear that they were heading for one of the shapes. It was still far away, but clearly huge, its spiky towers and turrets silhouetted against the glow.
And it was cold. The closer they got to it, the colder it got, as if it were radiating coldness out into the air. The rock underfoot grew slippery with frost.
“What is it?” He had not spoken for a long time, and his voice sounded strange, as though the words froze as they left his mouth and fell out of the air. “What is that place?”
She glanced at him over her shoulder. “If it had a name,” she said softly, “it’s long forgotten. Just as nobody knows where it came from. But if you want to find a way out, it’s through there.”
He shivered, and it was not from the cold. They were now close enough for him to see that the structure more resembled the skeleton of some gigantic creature than a building, though it was clearly not natural. Through spaces in the walls, the green glow shone through like malevolent eyes.
There were stone steps leading up to an entrance that looked like a mouth studded with jagged teeth. The demon turned to face him at the foot of the steps.
“Before we go in, Man,” she said, “listen carefully. Once we’re inside there, I can’t help you directly in any way. I can’t fight at your side, I can’t heal your wounds, I can’t even pull you back out here if you’re badly hurt. All I can do is offer advice, which may or may not be helpful – but you can be assured that I’ll be giving it with complete sincerity. Are you ready?”
“Fight at my side?” he repeated. “You mean I will have to fight? But I don’t even have weapons.”
“There are different kinds of fighting you’ll have to do,” the demon replied. “Some fights are the sort where you may need weapons. The others are – maybe, different, where the weapons are in your mind. But remember this: nothing inside there will be as it seems. Remember that always. It’s vital.”
He thought about that, and nodded. “I’ll be as ready as I’ll ever be,” he said. “I can’t stand here much longer anyway. I’d freeze.”
She grinned. “That’s one advantage of being a demon. Heat and cold don’t bother us. Come along.”
He followed her up the steps, his breath turning to ice crystals in the air before him.
In the deep shadows of the corridor, he couldn’t at first see where she was. Then she reached out and pulled at his arm. “There’s a passage here, and steps going down. Be careful, it’s pretty dark.”
That, he discovered, was an understatement. The stairs were steep and narrow, and so dark that if it hadn’t been for the amber glow of her skin he would have been descending in the pitch blackness. The stairs descended in a tight spiral, and he had a sudden mental image of a fort somewhere, with a staircase like this and slit windows in the wall. He had known the fort well, and there were things there that he...
His foot slipped on a stair, and he might have fallen had he not had his hands on the wall on either side. Angrily, he pushed the half-formed memory away. This was no time to be wool-gathering.
A moment later, something stepped out on the stairs below.
It was gigantic. It was at least twice as tall as a normal man, and broad to match, and when it moved he heard the chink of chain mail. He glimpsed it a moment in the glow of the demon’s skin before she was thrust aside – armour black as night, dark as the gulf between the stars, surmounted by a helmet from whose vision slit two red eyes glowered furiously.
It spoke words. What the words meant, the man had no idea, but the intent was clear enough. It advanced, its metal shod feet clanking on the stairs, and raised a hand. In the hand was a sword big enough to cleave the man to the chest, helmet and all.
For a long, perilously long moment, the man stood frozen. His mind was filled with the image of another iron-clad head, another upraised arm, and he remembered, suddenly and awfully, freezing in fear – long enough for a spiked ball on a chain to begin a crushing descent. He remembered, and he was frozen again. Not even the breath moved in his lungs.
“Man!” the demon screamed. “Man, watch out!”
The man ducked. He began ducking even before the sword rose to its full height, and before it had come halfway down he was throwing himself as far to the side as he could, against the wall.
The armoured figure was fast, much faster than its bulk suggested. The heavy shoulders pivoted, and the sword changed course in mid-fall, and it still would have caught the man against the wall and cut him in two.
But the man was no longer there. He’d hardly touched the wall before he threw himself the other way, and at the instant the sword bit into the stone, he was already scrambling back up the stairs to a higher level. A second swipe of the sword across the stairs missed – he was already too high up.
With a roar, the armoured giant began climbing the staircase in pursuit.
It did not climb far.
The man jumped. He jumped with all his might, bracing his hands against the wall on either side to propel himself. He hurtled through the air like a missile, his boots smashing into the gigantic helmet, all his weight behind it.
Like a great tree cut away at the roots, the giant fell.
It fell in a crash of armour so deafening that the man cried out. His momentum had carried him over the toppling head of the thing, so that he hit the stairs too far away to have it descend on top of him. He fell, already rolling, and twisted in his fall to brake himself against the wall. He’d hardly stopped before he was up already, turning, to meet what the giant would do.
But the giant would not do anything. There was no giant on the stairs, just a jumble of immensely heavy armour, piled and scattered. The helmet he’d kicked rolled down the stairs to his feet, and stopped. It was empty.
“Where -?” he asked, foolishly.
“It’s gone,” the demon said. He could feel her, close by in the darkness; and then he saw her, a reddish-amber glow, slowly strengthening. “It was never something that had a physical body. Just the armour.” She picked up the giant’s sword and held it to him. “Take this.”
“This?” He looked at the weapon dubiously. It was far bigger than anything he’d ever handled before.
“You need a weapon, and you won it in fair combat. Besides, Man, this isn’t the kind of sword you’re used to. You’ll see.”
Gingerly, he took it from her. For an instant, it was so heavy that it almost made him stagger. But then it seemed to grow on his arm, and became almost weightless as he held it high.
“Amazing,” he said.
“It will bring you victories,” the demon said drily. “You will need those victories.” She hesitated. “Man?”
“I have never seen anyone do what you just did. I couldn’t believe that anyone could beat one of...them...like that.”
He laughed, bitterly. “If I’d been thinking, I’d have been rooted to the spot with terror. I’m just a natural coward.”
“You think so?” the demon asked. “Really?”
“I did freeze, a moment. If you hadn’t shouted I’d have been lying in pieces here, not that thing.”
“You’ll find there are all kinds of courage, Man,” the demon said. “You’ll discover a lot of things, if you give yourself a chance.”
They continued down the stairs.
They stood side by side, looking out on a vast and grassy plain.
It was not a normal plain. The grass was dust-grey and strange, hard and spiky, and it crunched under the man’s boots, instead of bending to straighten up again. And the sky was so strange that the man had taken one look at it and had no desire to look up again. It was grey, and flecked with black dots, as though it were the obverse image of the night sky and the stars.
They had emerged on to the plain shortly after leaving the remnants of the armour on the steps. It had happened quite suddenly, the stairs ending at a door which hung loose on its hinges, grey light leaking past it. When the man had pushed on it, it had fragmented, falling to pieces as though rateful of the opportunity for rest.
“Where do we go?” the man asked. His voice fell like a whisper into the grey immensity.
“There,” the demon said, pointing. He saw a low hut in the distance, which he’d been certain hadn’t existed only a moment earlier. “That’s where we’re going.”
He studied the hut as they walked towards it. It was made of wood, and built on stilts so that it was held off the ground. It also leaned to one side, as though weary and as eager to fall down as the door they’d passed through. “How did that come here?”
The demon looked over her shoulder at him and smiled. “The way everything else did – the way you did. In other words, I don’t know. I never said I know everything.”
“What do I have to do in there?” he asked. “Fight another of those...things?”
The demon shook her head, her hair flickering like fire, the only spot of colour in the grey. “No, Man. You just have to go in...and go out of the door on the far side. That’s all.”
He frowned. “That’s all? There must be something else you haven’t told me.”
She shook her head. “I’ve told you all I know, Man. All I know. Maybe you’ll find something to do inside...but if you do, remember what I told you.”
“Yes, that you can’t help. I know.” From close up, the house seemed even more decrepit, a swaybacked set of wooden steps leading up to the unpainted door. “Couldn’t we just, you know, walk around it to the other side?”
“Man,” the demon sighed. “I thought you understood. The object is not to get to the other side of this house. The object is to get to the other side.”
“What? Oh. I understand.” He looked at her and at the hut. “Well, no point wasting time, I suppose.”
The door opened easily to his hand. It surprised him how easily it opened. Inside, there was just a bare room, with another door on the far side.
He was halfway across the room when he heard a voice behind him. It was a woman’s voice. “Oh God,” it said. “It’s you.”
Slowly, he turned. She sat on the wooden floor, to the left of the door by which he’d entered, her back to the far corner. Her bare hands and feet looked startlingly white against the grey of the rough cloak she wore.
“Who -?” he asked.
She raised her head, the skin fine as porcelain and drawn tight across her features. She might have been a great beauty, if only her face hadn’t been marked with suffering. “Don’t you know me?”
He glanced quickly at the demon, who waited passively on the other side of the room, watching. A faint echo of a memory stirred, too far away to grasp. He lunged after it, chasing. “Lady –“
“Please,” the woman said, “don’t tell me you don’t know me. I couldn’t bear that.”
“But...” Suddenly the memory was his, for a moment, and he snatched at it. “You.”
“Yes. And you swore to love me for always. But where did you leave me and go?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, bending to take her hands in his and helping her to her feet. “I would have come back, but things happened. You don’t need to know what they were, just that I’m lucky to be alive. Very lucky.”
“I searched for you through all the world, and at last I found you – here.”
“I’m looking for a way to get out,” he told her. “I’m looking for a way to come back, and then I can find you–“
“There’s no need for all that,” she said impatiently. “Come with me now, home to me and our son.”
“Home?” The word hadn’t fully left his mouth when she gestured with her hand, and he saw, behind her, the wall had dissolved away. And there lay the old familiar hall, the chair in which he’d loved to spend his evenings, the heavy brocade curtains over the window which would look out on to the river, and –
The boy was halfway down the long hall, standing beside the table on which he kept his books, and was staring across at him, eyes opened wide with surprise. “Father!”
He felt her hands on his, pulling gently. “Come home, my love. Come to us, away from this cold. Come home.”
He’d raised his foot for the first step across the threshold when a cold voice sounded in his head. “Nothing will be as it seems,” it said. “Nothing.”
He held back, paused. “No.”
The woman frowned. “What do you mean, no?”
“I mean I’m not going in there. I’m not sure this is real.”
“But of course this is real.” She pulled his hand and held it to her breast. A tear trembled in her eye. “I’m real. Your home is real. Our son is real.”
“If that’s so,” he asked, carefully and brutally, “what’s my name?”
“And yours, and the boy’s. You keep saying ‘our son’. You haven’t taken my name once, either, or told me your own. Is it because I don’t know them?”
The woman’s mouth opened and closed.
“You aren’t real, are you?” he continued. “You – and the rest of this – it’s all from what I have in my memory. But I’ve forgotten my own name, let alone yours, and the boy’s – so you don’t know them either. Isn’t that so?”
There was a long moment of silence, and then she changed. At one instant she stood before him, his hand still at her breast, her tear-filled eyes gazing into his own; then, she crumbled suddenly, the delicate features changing to dust before his eyes, disappearing in a puff of air. Another moment, and he was standing in an empty room.
He stood there for a long time before he walked to the other door and opened it.
His hand, in the heavy gauntlet, shook hardly at all.
“Do you want to talk about it, Man?”
“Talk about what?”
“What happened back in the room. I could see you, but nobody else.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not really. Let’s just look towards what’s to come, not what’s done with.” He gestured at the broad stone steps at their feet, which led down to a great hall. The plain had vanished. “Now what?”
The demon shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never been here, but I suppose we have to make our way out of this place, whatever it is.” She walked down a few of the steps and looked back at him over her shoulder. “Are you coming?”
With one last glance over his shoulder at the empty wooden room, he went.
The hall was enormous, with immense pillars scattered at random intervals. The further corners were draped in shadow, but there was a dull light, like diluted sunshine, falling from high above. The ceiling soared so high that it was hard to see, but it was perceptibly warmer. The deathly chill was fading.
For a long time they walked through the hall, past the pillars. Sometimes, in the far distance, things seemed to move, but too far away to see or hear. Once in a while, shadows flickered overhead.
The pillars began to change. At first they had all been smooth stone, but now carvings appeared on them. At first these were little more than faint lines and scratches, but as they went further the carvings deepened, took form, and turned into things so strange and bizarre the man could not put a name to them. The pillars were more frequent, too, so that looking away from one only meant looking at another, so after a while he kept his eyes fixed on the demon’s back, ahead of him.
“Man?” she said, so suddenly that he started. “Something’s following us.”
“What?” He looked over his shoulder but al he could see were pillars.
“I don’t know what it is, but I’m becoming more and more certain. It’s been getting closer for a while.” She raised a hand. “Listen.”
He listened. At first the silence was complete and total, silence so pure that it seemed that there could be nothing else anywhere in the universe. Then, so faintly that he could not be certain that he’d heard it, came a noise like scratching and clicking. When he turned his head to listen better, it seemed to come from another direction.
“There’s more than one of them,” he said.
She nodded. “They’re stalking us. They aren’t very bold yet, not nearly bold enough to attack. But they’re getting bolder the further we go.”
“Like wolves,” he said. “Coming closer, from the rear and from the flanks. When they attack, it’s going to be from several directions.”
“Are you afraid, Man?”
He grinned without humour. “I doubt if fear will do me any good now.” He looked at the sword. It was a mighty weapon, but in the confined space between the pillars he didn’t know what good it might be. “Demon?”
“There’s something standing up there between those two pillars watching us.”
“Yes.” The beast stood calmly staring back at them. The huge horned head was mounted on the muscular torso of a man, but from the waist down it had merged into the body of a bull. It raised and brought down one of its hoof-tipped legs.
“Do you think it’s one of those who’re following us?” the man asked.
“No. And they’re getting closer. Watch out!”
The things came rushing from between the pillars on either side. They ran low to the ground, armoured snouts almost touching the floor, thick stiff tails held out behind. The nearest one sidestepped the man’s first thrust, slipped under the sword, and came on. It hooked its huge curved fangs upward, fangs which might disembowel a man, or lay his thigh open to the bone.
The man jumped, turning already as he was jumping, and came down just clear of the hunter, but it was already turning, and the second was preparing to spring, its body braced against its bent legs. He could possibly run it through in mid-leap, but by then the first one would be on him, and then it would be all over. And there were more – he could see them, running. They were still quite far away, but they were fast and would be here in no time at all.
Something hurtled past him then, something which knocked him aside at a touch of its shoulder. A huge horned head bent and straightened, and the second hunter was caught in mid-leap and sent flying. The first turned, growling, to meet this new threat, but already too late. The beast rose on its back legs, shrieking, and brought down both front hooves. There was a sound of splintering bone.
The other hunters were coming.
“Man,” the demon screamed. She leaned at him from the beast’s back, reaching. “Man. Get up here. Now!”
The third hunter was already hooking its fangs at his calf when he swung himself on the beast. It kicked out, its hooves smashing on the rock, screaming, and then turned and rushed off through the hall at a heavy, lumbering gallop, the hunters hard on its heels. But they feared the heavy horns and flying hooves, and kept to a safe distance. One by one, they fell back and away.
The beast’s gallop fell off to a clumsy trot. The man felt suddenly immensely weary. He leaned his head on the back of the heavy muscular shoulders.
“Sleep, Man,” the demon said, over his shoulder. “Sleep.”
“Look, Man.” The demon was shaking his shoulder. “Wake up.”
He blinked awake. The beast was walking up a long, rocky passage. At the far end was an opening, and through it he saw something which made him rub his eyes in astonishment.
It was daylight. Quite genuine, natural daylight. He saw grey cloud, and a patch of blue sky.
“We’re out?” he asked, unbelievingly.
“Yes, Man.” She touched his face, her glowing skin warm as though from an inner fire. “We are.”
“Demon?” he asked. “Can I ask you something?”
“Of course you can. What?”
“Why do you say we? Why did you come along with me?”
The demon chuckled. “Man, just because I’m a demon doesn’t mean I don’t have dreams. I told you I was waiting for someone like you for a long time. Well, there are things to do, and I can’t do them alone.”
“The quest you talked about?”
“Yes. There’s an endless amount of work to do, Man. It never ends, and it never will.”
They emerged from the opening, onto a hillside. It had rained, and the grass was wet. The sky was still heavy with cloud, but the sun was out, over the crest of the hill, behind their backs.
“Do you see that, Man?” the demon asked, softly.
In the middle distance, where the hill met the forested plain, a rainbow hung in the air, beckoning, beckoning.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014