By Charles R. Bernard

(From CHM #4 October 2020)

“It will kill you,” Rigel warns her. Then he grins. His facial movements are constricted and pulled off-true by the ruinous scars that so badly tatter his features. Beneath Rigel’s hood, Parson knows, he has more scars, some of them even more terrible, circumnavigating his scalp. “You owe me,” he says. His voice is as ravaged as his face, a keepsake of having had his throat cut years ago. “Would be cheating me. To die so young. And so full of promise.”

“Yes, promise,” agrees Soft Jack in his loopy child’s voice. He is seated at the crumbling edge of the doused fumarole where he and Rigel have tended to, as of late, met Parson. Here, on the very periphery of Furnace Falls, they have a panoramic view of the luminous lava lake and jetting vents that give the city its name. Soft Jack likes the fire, and it gutters in his pale little eyes like a sullen pair of stars as he looks back over his shoulder at his master. “She has such promise, yes, pretty Parson does.” She ignores him.

“You said we could live without limitation. Yet here we are, hiding in a crack in the ground like rock crabs, grubbing for scraps—it suits the both of you. It’s not what I want.”

Rigel slouches deep into the umbra cast by the infernal glow of the nearby molten rock. The darkness around him clicks and whispers, and he leans his battered head to one side and listens. “You are hungry,” he says after a moment. “Good. Know the void. Inside you. Even better.” The shadows stir in the stagnant air like heavy drapes in a wind and Parson hears something chatter softly. “Young and stupid, though. Still can’t see. The power behind the power.”

“Such a pity,” Soft Jack moans. He has rolled onto his belly. He picks and plucks at one bloody fingernail with his favorite knife—the one with the thin, yellowed blade that sporadically sheds brittle bits of its edge.

There is a long pause as Rigel considers. The shivering air is filled with the grating, grinding sound of volcanic flux. “Perhaps,” he grunts at length, “an object lesson. Is in order. Come with me.”

Rigel leads the two youths back through the secret way they came, past vapor-shrouded chasms and bubbling pools of sulfur water. They walk up to the flat ash-and-gravel road nearby, where eventually, a battered truck spots them and rolls to a stop. The dour driver recognizes the name of the place that Rigel murmurs to him. He frowns severely, but waits as the three climb aboard. They seat themselves among the assortment of greasy, half-broken machinery that lies in the truck bed like the dismembered carcass of a mechanical giant. Soon they are hurtling toward the city of Furnace Falls, a great plume of dust trailing.

At the very edge of the city lies a district of rotting warehouses and labyrinthine train tracks. The driver pulls over and allows his passengers to disembark. Parson sees Rigel slip the man a gleaming gold coin and the driver departs the derelict neighborhood so quickly that his tires issue a single bright squeal of protest. Rigel lifts his hood and squints at the buildings, which are innocent of signage. He spots one two-story warehouse— more a framework of broken windows and grey shadows than a proper building, and sets off in that direction. Parson and Soft Jack follow behind him silently.

“Been quite some time,” he croaks. “Looking forward. To seeing an old friend.”

His laugh is like soft little hands clapping at the bottom of a well. The sound floats down the empty street and echoes off of the fractured windows of the warehouse as they enter. No breach is required; the doorframe is empty, as is the interior. It’s dim, although a jagged rip in the roof emits a brilliant, zig-zag of light. Rigel pauses for a moment to savor the shadows as though tasting them. Past the pool of sunlight, in the rear of the warehouse where the light is most miserly, hangs a rotting loft with a narrow, crooked ladder descending from an open trapdoor on its underside. “Up you go,” croaks Rigel. He plucks Soft Jack from the grimy floor and helps him onto the ladder. The boy clambers up and into the grey of the loft as easily as a pale, fleshy spider. As Rigel is helping Parson to the ladder, a watery scream unfurls from overhead, muffled by the loft’s walls.

The loft’s dirty skylight admits a dim luminosity. Whatever its purpose once was, it has become a repository of broken things, all nearer the end-stage of decomposition than to their original configuration. Broken shards of wood, softened almost to mulch by the teeth of rodents, lie on a bed of shredded paper. One corner is taken over by an enormous pile of rags. As Parson climbs out of the trapdoor, Soft Jack darts to and fro before the rag-pile, stabbing it playfully with one of his knives. The rags stir frantically and emit another scream as Parson realizes that a portion of the rags are some semblance of clothing—a ragged robe, that contains an emaciated man. His long hair and beard have congealed into a colorless tangle that is hardly distinguishable from the rags in which he tries to hide.

Rigel is last into the loft. He snaps his fingers and Soft Jack comes to heel. He snaps them twice, and a gout of red flame blooms before him and fills the loft with a sanguine glow. In the shifting light, Parson sees that the walls are home to innumerable black lizards. “Parson,” the warlock croaks, gesturing to the cowering rag-man. “Meet Enoch. He’s going to. Read for us.”

“Rigel. What is that.” Enoch extends a thin arm and points one shaking finger at Soft Jack. “What is that, Rigel, in the Bony Mother’s name, what have you done?” Rigel pulls Soft Jack close to him, places a scarred hand atop Soft Jack’s head, and toys with his hair. “This? This. Is Jack.”

“Hello, filthy-man,” moans Jack. Rigel grins as broadly as his mangled features will allow. In the bloody flame’s light, framed by his black hood’s shadows, the rictus is an awful sight. “Jack’s progenitors,” Rigel rasps, “needed a miracle. They got one. Jack was the price. And the product.”

“I was born to darkness,” Soft Jack boasts.

Rigel lifts his other hand and the flame floats closer to Enoch, who flinches and tries to burrow deeper into his nest of rags. “Enoch.” The red swamp-flame darts and dances closer still, driving the frightened derelict out of his corner. “I just do not.” The warlock drops his shoulders—his black cloak spreads like a cloud in a midnight sky. The red flame flickers low. “Have the time.” He is upon Enoch so quickly that even Soft Jack is startled. Scarlet light comes flooding back with a ferocious fnapf! One of the magus’ scarred and crooked hands holds the recluse aloft by the neck. Parson knows all too well how strong those hands are, despite their malformation. “For you to cower.”

“Anything,” squeals Enoch, “please!”

Parson— unlike Soft Jack— was not born to Rigel’s tutelage. Murder and extortion were languages she studied exactingly on her path to his side. A portion of the warlock’s devices are familiar to her from this more pedestrian schooling in crime and terror. Not all, but a few.

“Little oracle,” croaks Rigel as he drops Enoch to the floor of the loft. “Parson. Needs to see. The stars. The bad light. For herself.” Rigel fixes her with his glittering eyes. In the swamp-fire, they are both black and iridescent. “It’s still down there,” weeps Enoch. “Bony Mother take you.  Take us all.” A long rope of snot hangs from his angular nose and paints a dark, shimmering slick down his dust-colored beard.

“Boy.” Rigel’s tone is almost sweet. Like sugar ruining some mechanism, Parson thinks. The boy lolls his head back, eyes cast up at the magician. “Bring Enoch. A lizard.”

The long-necked reptiles that tenant the walls are slippery, but not particularly agile. “Lizard lizard,” sings Jack, “baby lizard.” His yellow knife glints. “Cut off our legs, now you’re a snake!” It gleams. “Cut off your tail, now you’re a slug!” He frowns and drops the scraps. “Uh-oh, no more lizard.”

“Jack,” Rigel scolds.

Parson closes the distance between where she stands and the bloody boy in two strides and slaps him as hard as she can. “You talk too much,” she says. She closes a hand around one of the larger, slower lizards. It squirms like a half-tied knot in her grip as she presents it to Enoch. “One day,” Soft Jack tells Parson as he gets back to his feet, “pretty Parson, you and I shall have to settle the bill, yes?” The childish sing-song has bled from his voice, leaving behind something that is both cold and old. Parson has heard it before, and is wary but not frightened. The same red miracle that binds Soft Jack to Rigel limits his usefulness, and all three of them know it.

Enoch stretches one skeletal arm and rakes filth from the floor, clearing a narrow swath. He pins the lizard with one hand and uses a long, black thumbnail to slit the creature’s belly open. It waves one leg feebly in protest and then lies still. “Enoch. Is the best haruspex. In Furnace Falls.” Rigel watches as Enoch gathers the entrails in one hand, sifts them, and weighs their minute whorls and sacs with his fingertips. Finally, he hurls the string of guts at the floor, where they land in a complicated curlicue with a wet thwap!

“Oh, this is bad,” cries Enoch, his dirty face a study in mean-spirited joy. Rigel regards the innards with a scowl. To Parson’s eyes, their shape is mundane— but at their frayed terminus is a hard knot amid the soft organ-meat; a finger-sized concretion. Whatever it is shimmers shifting black-and-bright in the ruby luminescence of Rigel’s flame. Enoch plucks the moist string of dainties from the floor, now wet with the ill-fated lizard’s various fluids and holds it aloft before him. He issues a happy bark of laughter, then turns his wide eyes to Parson. They are the one part of him, she notes, that seem to have retained their color. They are brilliant, jewel-green, and absolutely scream with madness. “He’s right,” says Enoch in a hoarse whisper, “if you seek a transit of the flesh between worlds, it will kill you.” He tears the glittering lump free and hands it to Rigel, then turns back to her. “He thinks he can stop you, but he’s the one who doesn’t understand. It’s already written. Right here. See?” With a satisfied smirk, Enoch whips his hand sideways and flings the dripping guts into Parson’s face. She recoils with a cry and lifts her hands, palms-up. Rigel grates a loud and futile negation: “PARSON, NO!”

If the red flame that Rigel summoned was akin to a torch, the fire that now fills the air is a hundred of them, ablaze with the rich golden color of a polished crown. The heat is tremendous. Soft Jack yelps and scuttles down the trap door just in time to avoid being incinerated as the blaze envelops Enoch, the nest of rags, and the rest of the loft. The flames part as they reach Rigel, leaving him as unscathed as a stone in a stream, but otherwise the havoc is complete.

“Well,” Rigel says. “So ends a very long life.” He drapes an arm around Parson’s shoulders, which tremble slightly as he leads her from the burning loft. Smoke and flames from the loft spread along the underside of the warehouse roof. Rigel whistles—a brief snatch of ear-splitting music full of malevolent lunacy—and the flames roll back into themselves, sucking the smoke with them. Within a few moments, the golden fire is extinguished. “Enoch has kept. Something here. A very long time.” He gazes at Parson as though seeing her anew. “One day. You will tell others. Of this day. Who you killed. What you are about to see.” She sets her jaw and stares back at Rigel, who nods, satisfied, and pulls down his hood once more. “This way.”

The sky is leaden. Parson steals a glance up and down the street as the trio emerge; it is as empty as it was when they arrived. Detritus is strewn in the empty lot behind the warehouse like the desiccated remains of insects in some long-abandoned web. Close to the concrete foundations at the rear of the structure is a cellar door, flat against the ground. It bears no lock. Rigel hauls on the handle and it opens with a metallic scream. Beneath, stone steps sink into a rectangle of perfect night.

“Jack will wait here. And keep watch.” Rigel tousles the boy’s hair, and then he and Parson carefully descend. Rigel’s ruby-hued flame accompanies them, bobbing just over Rigel’s head and casting its light on a brief, downward-sloping tunnel that terminates in another door, this one also unlocked. The air at the bottom of the tunnel is frigid. Parson detects an odor that is hard to place. There are notes of moist rock in it, hints of old death that are familiar from catacombs that she has explored, but with an oily machine substrate that she can’t place. Rigel nudges the second door and it opens silkily without sound or resistance.

“The first time we met,” Rigel croaks, “you had me. At a disadvantage. Do you remember why?”

“I was my shadow,” Parson says. The cellar is large, and rounded in a fashion that leaves no corners. It is bare of any ornament save for a single diminutive table at its center. On the table is a rectangular box, black and plain. “I interrupted you when you were looking for someone,” she continues. “I think I startled you. I didn’t know yet that the dreams were real.” The strangle curves of the room make Parson’s voice ripple and reverberate. The smell—death and enginery—is more repellant here than at the cellar’s mouth. She extends one hand, hesitates, and gently touches the warlock’s elbow. “Rigel, I… don’t think I need whatever lesson you have in mind. I believe you, okay?”

“No,” he grunts, and pulls his arm free. “You don’t. Because you learn. The way I teach. The snake that bites. Must bite. The blistering stove. Must be touched. But this fascination of yours. With physically traveling. To the places. You’ve been in spirit. Will be your undoing. Thus, our visit. There is something. I want you to see. That requires. An additional layer. Of protection. Beyond your astral form.” Rigel pauses, sweat standing out on his brow, and raises his fingers to the twisted scar that bisects and garbles his larynx. This is more than Parson usually hears him say at one go, and it is obviously painful for him to wrench the words free.

“I want to hear you say it,” Parson blurts, and instantly wishes she could erase the words before they can reach Rigel’s ears. “What.” His face is a stone. Parson’s cheeks burn, but she pushes on, no shelter to be had any more in silence. “I want to hear you say it. That it can be done. That I could do it.” Pride burns almost as hot as embarrassment on her face. “I’ve brought things back for you from the really far away places, so I know that those lands are real, as real as Furnace Falls, as real as any place my shadow goes. Can you imagine what we could accomplish, how much we could learn? The libraries I’ve seen, Rigel!”

“It can be done.” Rigel walks to the center of the cellar. From his cloak, he produces the glittering black-and-gold lump from the lizard’s guts, which she can now see is a key. He unlocks the box and opens it carefully. “You could, Parson. Your talents… Tremendous. So much power. Still untapped. But there is so much void. So many poison worlds. With bad air. Or peopled by monsters. But our journey. To this place affords you. A chance to taste something. That most often would kill.” Gingerly, Rigel lifts a small silver mirror from the box. He scrupulously holds it where neither he nor Parson are exposed to its surface. Its silver frame shines in the light like bone at the bottom of a wound.

“This mirror is charmed. It cannot leave this chamber. In your shadow body. You would never be able. To access this place. Nor leave it. The visions in this mirror. Are infected. By a particular world. A particular sky. A place of.” Here Rigel utters a word in a language that makes Parson’s belly roil and cramp, the syllables seem to run sideways in reverse, contrary to natural speech and the very vibrations of the air. He spits after he says it, clearing his mouth of what—to judge by his face—is an unspeakable taste. “’Light-that-festers,’” Rigel translates for her. “Enrobe yourself. In your shadow. And come, see. Then you will understand. That you must never. Try to travel. In your flesh. Lest this be the sky. You find.” When he turns, Parson is already seated on the stone floor, legs crossed, hands in her lap. Her eyes begin to flutter.

When Parson rises from her body, her shadow-form is not dark. It shines the same deep gold as the fire she visited upon Enoch, but muted, like lamplight glowing in a fog bank. Her shadow-eyes burn as bright as sunlight on a summer day. She floats above her body, weightless and shifting like a silk scarf under the sea’s surface. Rigel holds the mirror aloft. “This. Is why you must never. Travel wearing flesh. The corruption that waits. If you miss a single twist. Or take the wrong path.”

Parson’s golden shadow drifts closer, eyes flashing. It was, after all, the unquenchable thirst for forbidden knowledge that brought her under the warlock’s sway in the first place. For a moment, there is only silence and an unearthly tableau; the maimed wizard with eyes hidden by his cloak, the shining mirror raised in the light, the golden specter in the moment of forbidden apprehension. Then Parson’s voice, strange and muffled by the barriers of the dream and her ghostly dislocation; “Stars. There’s nothing to be afraid of— they’re just stars.”

And so they are— so it is. But she has already begun to see past them. Paralysis grips her, and she has time to be grateful for the weightless smoke that constitutes her shadow-form, for the slim protection afforded her, for her mentor’s harsh words and attempts to circumvent this moment. She has seen terrible things in his tutelage, and wonders, too— but nothing like this.

Because the stars, the stars wheel around her, multifarious and multiplying with each passing second. They fill her with a light that does more than simply shine, it lives, alive like the luminescent inverse of creeping black mold. And as she observes it, it observes her. As the radiance of those teeming stars infests her, it lives in her. Parson wants to cry out, wants to awaken and abandon her shadow-body like a puff of antiseptic vapor, but the venomous radiance of those stars has benumbed her as thoroughly as a caterpillar beset by a wasp’s barb. A limitless vortex of stars, a black and endless night that extends as far inside of her as it does around her, floods Parson, and she is washed clean of thought.

Eventually, the cellar door opens again, and Rigel emerges with Parson slung over one shoulder. “Oh, pretty Parson!” cries Soft Jack, delighted that his patience has been so lavishly compensated. He wriggles with happiness. “Is she a rag-dolly, Rigel? Did you break her?” He prods her motionless body with the jagged tip of one knife, drawing a bit of blood, until Rigel swats him away. “No. She is. Unbroken. And she isn’t infected, either. But she touched it. In the stars. A great malignance. She will have much to teach us. When she returns.”

He kneels in the trash-strewn dirt and sets Parson down gently. Soft Jack has ceased his excited squirming, and regards Parson with wide eyes that are almost respectful, almost tender.

“We’ll see. What she brought back.”

End.

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