Broken, she walked the streets. Knees, hips, and toes hurt, thighs trembling, calves hard as knots, sweat carving channels through the grime of the city on her skin, black grit accumulating in her creases and corners, rubbing against each other, skin wearing raw, and she could feel the blisters and pus forming beneath the each, anticipating the swelling and cracking to come, the thousand infections already begun. Yet she couldn’t stop.
Lungs burned, though she wasn’t walking fast, and she sucked at the air that tasted of sulfur and ozone and offal. There was something primal to it, the uncleanliness of a volcano’s caldera, the air itself burned and stung and filled with the ash of new rocks screaming to life; it washed away the industrial scents, the chemicals and dyes and acids that ripped and tore at eyes and lungs, and even the human smells were just a substrate beneath it, all the piss and shit and cooking-fires, oils and rot carried on the wind, the herd-smell of the two-legged race crammed into their coffin-chambers and tombs, ignorant of the cloud of dander and grime they left on everything they touched, ever day breathing in and out cells and smells of a million people.
She breathed brimstone, and she knew it came from her, wondered if the yellow fumes were rising from her mouth and nostrils, a wretched oracle wreathed in pallid smoke, and the adyton was within her. There was a hole in her chest, like the ache of a sudden loss that would never stop, but it radiated heat. Autumn winds blew cold on her skin, but the fever rippled through her veins in waves, settling behind her eyes, in her ears, pounding at her temples as she moved her legs forward mechanically, bare feat scraping on the stone and soil of the city, feeling the steps in rhythm, her mind tracing the path of the sigil she carved step by step through streets and alleys, around buildings and through parks, across streets and down concrete slopes to culverts, naked feat crashing through the thin ice atop pale brown sludge, leaving oil-flecked rainbow prints when she emerged on dry ground once more, climbing chainlink fences, still moving through the arcs and knots…
At last she came to herself, bright with fever, in the darkness beneath the city. She crawled on her belly through a sewer, only her nostrils above the water. Around and with her were the crawling things of the earth, roaches and centipedes and deathwatch beetles, some strange and glorious in their slick and darkling shapes. The pain in her heart flared as she crossed over, and she shuddered and choked in the tight tunnel like a goldfish stuck in salt water. For whole minutes she could not scream, paralyzed with pain and exhaustion, and could only breath in shuddering gasps, alone in the dark save for the crawlers in the darkness.
When she had recovered, she moved on again. Every arm-length she seemed to gain in strength, the pain and exhaustion fled from her. She crawled from that secret heart of darkness, up through ancient sewers of stone and brick, where water that had never seen light flowed through screaming mouths carved in stone by blind hands, where every brick was mortared with blood and pain, and beneath every foundation-stone was buried an undying sacrifice. New rhythms came to her through the stone beneath her fingers and toes, the warm pulse of a living city, the reverberation of screams in strange harmonies, the grinding of vast machines and stamping feat in unison. Her instincts guided her through dark galleries and past long-disused pits where unseeing, maimed things lingered; past the broken shrines to dead false gods, and the hidden fanes where blazing sinners lay sealed in the tombs they had made for themselves. At last she stood before the iron portal, as tall as four men and carved with the triumphant engravings that spoke of the raising of this single great city of the Fallen and the Damned.
Pandemonium. Dis. The City of Hell.
Pandemonium. Dis. The City of Hell.
She did not place her hands upon those doors. She did not even open her eyes to read the scenes of the city's foundation and rise. In her heart, the burning flickered from an ember to a flame. Her mouth tasted of ashes, and from the chin up the liquid filth that clung to her darkened, dried, and cracked, leaving her hair in stiff unruly dreads. She opened her eyes, and as if as one, the doors opened before her.
The street was thronged by worms that had once been men and women, crawling on their bellies; strides atop them were the demons in all their majesty and myriad forms. Twisted parodies of man and beast clustered among vague shapes of shadow and flame, spoke harsh and sibilant tongues that were old when Adam first learned of evil, and at the center of the street a dark man stared at her, and with but a word halted the procession of souls and soulless alike. For a moment, her heart skipped a beat, and the flame within it stuttered, but did not go out.
He stared at her with wide black eyes - androgynous and sharp-boned, though the flesh hung off him oddly, as though he had not put it one quite right - and he addressed her in the common language of the Damned.
"What does a living soul do here?"
"I have come for my beloved." she answered.
"You have come to bargain, little Orpheus?" He did not smile or sneer, and never blinked, his eyes as flat as polished pebbles or cloudy glass.
"No," she said. "I have come for her. Give her up, or I will take her."
There were no hearts in hell to beat, except for her own; and for three heart-beats neither said anything. Then he whispered.
Without a nod, she seemed to kneel, and sank within the stone of the sidewalk. The dark man stared at where she had been, but did not move until the rumble swept through the streets and the great ziggurats began to shift and heave.
Then he took to the air - a straight vertical leap, spreading black wings wide like a heron taking flight, and the long bones seemed to shift beneath that ill-fitting skin as he climbed toward the sunless sky, higher and higher. The closer he came the less he looked like the ill-fitting man, but discarded the guises of men; six black wings fluttered and flapped, and a black halo sat about his head, wreathing him in darkness; unhealing wounds marked him, which dripped burning drops like pitch, and from his feathers came forth a swarm of stinging insects, that surrounded him with the aura of a buzzing cloud.
Yet below him, and rising swiftly after him, the city stood. Stone and brick shifted in unfamiliar patterns, but reassembled themselves as those they had always been meant for that purpose. Great ziggurats balanced against each other to form a great spine leading up to the dome of the parliament for a skull, the windows placed now like the eyes of a spider, towers and shrines to black saints shaped themselves into talons at the end of mile-long arms, and streets sunk in on themselves like hidden veins, the scuttling souls moving along the paths unheeding of the strangeness.
The dark angel had fought men and angels before, had thrown down rebel demons and dark would-be gods, flayed the skin from mortal wizards who dared defy him, and had inflicted more elaborate tortures on those witches who had betrayed him. He had laid waste to cities, and stood unmoved when they died and lay still. Yet he had never fought a city. He had never fought a city magician, who had dared to ply their trade in Hell.
As the serrated spikes that topped the dark shrines reached for him, the dark prince held out one hand.
"Hold," his voice buzzed, the swarm carrying his voice throughout the entire city, though demons cupped their hands to bleeding ears and glass and crystal rattled and shattered. "To defeat you would be to destroy what I have wrought, for though I could slay you now, to do so would destroy what I have built. Take your beloved's soul, and never return here again."
And the city lay down, the streets finding once more their ancient courses, the shrines sinking into familiar foundations, until in a handful of moments none would ever know the city had moved at all. But in the darkness beneath the city, a woman crawled through filth and darkness, infernal strength ebbing from her as the spirit of Dis flowed from the urbanomancer, and behind her followed a pale figure. All the way back to a more earthly city, where day was breaking, and it's light fell between skyscrapers to illuminate the avenues in great streaks that left the cross-streets yet in shadow.
Still, in her heart, the dull ache and ember flame never quite went away. For still within her she carried something of all the cities she had ever known and loved, and now she carried within her the scent of brimstone and the memory of hellfire, and those who listened close to her heartbeat would swear there echoed there the whisper of the screams of the damned and the dialects of Hell.
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