THE SONGS OF PETER SLIADEK: a COMPLETE illustrated e-book of the fantasy novel-cycle by Henry Lion Oldie contains all 12 novelettes

By Henry Lion Oldie

Fantasy, Action & adventure, Historical fiction


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19 mins

CHAPTER TEN The Hand and the Mirror

“Come on, Zekiel! Move your hooves!”
The curses were the first thing Hans heard when he came to himself. The world around him fell into pieces, and an infinitely small part of eternity later, it formed once again into an ugly mosaic. This picture made Erzner’s hair stand on end, and his heart sank into the depths of despair. A single glance was enough to throw away all doubts: this was hell. Gehenna. The vale of sorrow.
“Can’t get enough of staring at it?”
Mockery could be distinctly heard in the roaring of the dog-headed devil.
Indeed, there was something to stare at.
A low vault covered with brown crust served for a sky. Sometimes the vault would leap up nauseatingly, and then it would fall almost on Hans’s head. The whims of the sky depressed him, flattened; it seemed to him that he was a ripe grape in a tub under the feet of the torturer wine-maker.
In addition to this, the vault was tormented by festering sores, exuding ichor. The stench of the viscous drops was veritably hellish. Rocks of the craziest shapes towered around, and gleams of crimson blazed in the crevices. But the rocks did not stand still! Grinding one another, cracking to pieces, and joining again in even more unnatural combinations, the cliffs moved in an aimless dance of chaos. Streams of burning, hot lava sprang up between them. One of them cleft the ground quite nearby; Hans felt a blast of unbearable heat. The gnashing of teeth and heartbreaking rumbles abraded his ears, which were exhausted with cacophony and were about to wither, shrivel, and fall into dust like dry autumn leaves. The earth trembled; its tremors transferred to Hans’s body, his teeth ached, and his stomach turned into a volcano ready to erupt.
Being reasonable and honest, Hans Erzner did not consider himself to be a righteous man. Yet he had a faint hope for God’s mercy. Purgatory, at least! Or maybe this was Purgatory? His thoughts were blurred, sulphuric smoke brought tears to his eyes, and granite jaws gritted in his brain. Apparently, that was why the old man did not quite understand what his escort was talking about:

“Once again, we’ve gotten between shifts. We’ll have to take him ourselves.”
“Loafers! For all that, we’re Hounds and not Watchdogs!”
“All right, let’s go. And then we’ll go to Sulphuric Lake, for a bath.”
“You rascal, what are you doing listening with your mouth all open? Want to go to the Sulphuric, too?”
“Dream of it!”
“A psalm to your guts, instead of the Sulphuric! If you get caught once again, you muck—you’ll get the eternal-long!”
“That’s it, quit goggling! Move on!”

A seven-fingered paw gave Hans a considerable push on his back. He plodded on gloomily, stumbling and slipping on the treacherous scree. Obviously, his sluggishness irritated the devils that were escorting him; soon prods and clouts rained down on the poor man. Hans endured them silently, clenching his teeth. Why, that was just the beginning. The worst was yet to come—the poor man was becoming convinced of that with his every step.
Soon, a lava stream appeared in their way. Both devils forded it with visible delight, and when Hans, his eyes shut with fear, jumped over the blazing flow, both of them stared at their victim with unconcealed bewilderment.
Now they’ll go and throw me into the very horror! he thought. Obviously, sinners should ford it, to torment their bodies; while I, a fool as I am…
He got lucky. They did nothing.
Only one of them spat through his yellow fangs, his saliva sizzling on the stones: “Pervert!”
The other devil squinted at Hans with his round, corvine eye and blinked in a strange manner, as if with respect: as if looking at a man sentenced to death who spat blood into his executioner’s face. The comparison was unusual, alien. However hard Hans tried, he could not understand how it had gotten into his head.
They continued on their way in silence.
The landscape around them—if chaos could be called “landscape”—was gradually changing. The cliffs still shuddered, trying to grub up their roots from the depths of the earth, yet they stopped moving from one place to another. The tremors became appreciably weaker, and chasms where rivers of fire flowed also remained behind their backs. The air became fresher and cleaner; only now did Hans smell that the horrible fiends stank awfully of sulphur, and for some reason, of wet dog. Not the daintiest fragrances, it must be noted. On the other hand, Hell Hounds probably must smell of some filth—not of incense, after all.
The vault was now covered with a leaden shroud, just like clouds swollen with rain, yet the stinky muck was no longer dripping from it. The stone piles moved to the sides, gave way; dead, gray sand rustled under their feet. All three of them walked on, skirting dunes and sand hills with ugly burs sticking out of them. The sand was gradually obtaining a yellow color; the burs were seen more frequently and did not seem so lifeless anymore. The vault above their heads grew more distant and bright, and it seemed to Hans that a scrap of blue sky flickered in the gap in the whitish mist.
The sky?
In hell?
A devilish illusion, nothing else! So that the desperate sinner would gain hope once more—still harder it would be to lose it again, while falling into the flame of Gehenna! Now the earth would gape under his feet!
The earth lingered to gape. After they had skirted the nearest dune, Hans rubbed his eyes, just in case: there was a gently sloping hill in front of him, and its top distinctly curled with green. The green was thin, like the remains of curls on the bald head of a giant buried in the earth up to his eyebrows. Lord, real grass! Green grass!
The escorting devils’ spirits became obviously low; they stooped and even seemed to wither a little. They were moving with effort, dragging their bony legs.
“Move on, you son of a bitch!” the dog-headed devil croaked angrily. Hans Erzner climbed up the hill, glanced down—and was stunned.
Hell was over. Were it not for the Hounds breathing heavily and stinking behind his back, the old man would have decided that he had just had a nightmare. That he was at home, in the castle of Hornberg, or better yet, in the Nuremberg suburbs. Alas! He had never seen such an idyll on the sinful earth. A malachite-green meadow was a colorful show of various wild flowers; it gradually descended from the hill to a narrow, murmuring river. The water, curling its small surfs, winked at Hans with frolicsome gleams. A neat little bridge with carved railings arched over the river. The gilding of the knobs on its supports glinted. A toy of a bridge! A feast for one’s eyes! Surely, this was another illusion.
As if in confirmation of Erzner’s thoughts, a sheep began bleating capriciously on the bridge.
An unnaturally white and clean lamb.
The illusion spread still farther, beyond the river. A settlement was situated there: two perfectly straight streets crossing one another and lines of lovely houses with tiled roofs. Front gardens, flowerbeds, phloxes and dahlias, paths for walking, painted palisades—not against thieves, just for beauty. Trees stood in line like the Guard in a parade. Bushes were trimmed. What a pity there was not a single soul in the streets. And there was no church. Surely the temple of God was too hard to chew for the hellish progeny; even in the illusion, they did not dare!
Hans Erzner’s pious thoughts were interrupted in the roughest and most prosaic way: “D’you recognize the vale of sorrow? That’s your third term!”
A mighty prod at his buttocks sent the victim down the hillside head over heels. Erzner was rolling on humbly, waiting for a pan or a cauldron with boiling tar to appear at any second. Yet he got only into the thickets of sweet pea and was lying for a long time, breathing in a spicy odor. Then he stared at his index finger, soiled with pollen, and looked around.
The Hell Hounds disappeared without a trace. Had they existed at all?
A meadow, flowers, bees buzzing busily. A river, a bridge, a sheep.
Is it hell? Quite the contrary, if anything, Hans thought cautiously.
And he got awfully frightened of such a thought—even felt a lump in his throat. Too strong was the temptation to believe in the unexpected, and above all, undeserved salvation.

Hans could not deny himself the pleasure of bathing. He wanted so much to wash off the damned dust and soot, and also to get rid of the sulphuric stench that seemed to saturate his entire body.
After getting out of the river, the old man dressed up slowly and headed for the settlement along the bridge. Everything looked real. The foul demons proved to be so skillful in sorcery that it was impossible to distinguish reality from illusion. Hans recalled a vagrant Franciscan monk who had told him once in a tavern that sinners who had distinguished themselves in the career of evil were at first shown paradise on purpose, so that their future sufferings would be a hundred times more painful.
God forbid!
The carpet of fragrances that was the meadow ended, and a path paved with smooth slabs lay under his feet. The slabs were laid tight and in perfect order. It was pure pleasure to walk along such a path. Even the pavement on the streets of Munich seemed clumsy wretchedness compared to this perfection. Kings and dukes probably have such paths in their parks! And in the Garden of Eden, too, probably.
As if in unison with Hans’s pious thoughts, beautiful music sounded from above. A chorale? A hymn? Alas, Hans Erzner knew as much about music as he did about the arrangements in kings’ parks. It was nice, heartfelt—thank God! And the houses, just look at the houses! How he wished to live in such a miracle: delicately whitewashed walls, opened shutters with carved hearts, an elegant bronze door handle. A weathercock on the roof, a front garden, and round the corner…
Erzner turned the corner of the beautiful house and gasped, breaking wind from fear.
The monk had told the truth!
In front of Hans stood a devil. Compared to this fiend, the Hell Hounds could very likely pass for nice street dogs standing on their hind legs. The monster’s glossy skin shone with hectic blush, its fangs glinted with metal, and its maw exhaled hot stench. A dozen jagged horns stuck out of its ugly head; its torso, sitting on strong lion paws, bulged with thorny muscles; its bare tail, which could make any rat proud (if rats had tails about six cubits long), wound lazily along the path. The devil crossed its front paws with dagger-like claws on its chest and bent its head to one side, eyeing his guest appraisingly with two pairs of eyes—bony craters, with a pitch-black bead at the bottom of each one. The monster was sniffing distinctly.
“Why, I warned ya, Zekiel,” the monster roared with veritably infernal sorrow. “Ya broken the rules again? Then again, I ain’t better myself.” The devil bent his head; his two left eyes shed a few tears. “Fine, follow me, a fool that y’are. Ya know well yerself: to shirk yer work here ain’t worth the effort. They'll bless ya generously, so ya be whining like a harp in the lock-up. And they'll increase ye term, too.”
Hiccupping from fear, his legs wobbling, Hans obediently followed the devil. Surely the hell resident was leading the sinner’s soul toward eternal torments, yet the thought of escape did not cross Erzner’s mind. It was too far to escape from hell. Just why did all of them—both the Hounds and this sorrowful nightmare—persistently call him Zekiel? Maybe that was how they called all the sinners down here? Should he ask? But whom—surely not this one?
They approached a long, low building that differed greatly from the other houses. Rows of lancet windows were lit from the inside, the walls shone with multicolored nacre, and a silver fish fluttered merrily above the roof, catching the breathings of the day. And the music in the sky seemed to sound more distinctly. It must be angels who lived here!
The devil pushed the door—instead of a creak or a rumble, there was a melodic jingling of bells. Hans took a deep breath and stepped inside.
“Oh, Zekiel!”
“In here once again?”
“Glad to see you!”
“Hush, riffraff! ’Tis Zekiel the Daredevil himself!”
“What got you in ’ere this time?”
“H-hello everyb-b-bod-dy…” Hans muttered in reply, staring at the crowd of “angels.” Claws, fangs, spines, horns, scales, armored plates, sticky slime, fire in the eye-sockets, slobbery maws, muzzles of hogs, dogs, lions, dragons, and utterly godless creatures, tentacles, tails, trunks, hooves, articulate and sharp-clawed paws; rustle, hiss, clicking, creaking, wheezing—everything got mixed up in the house of impiety. Hans felt dizzy, the familiar iron fist squeezed his heart, and the poor man collapsed in the saving cradle of unconsciousness.

“Look how it seized ya, from loss of habit,” rumbled someone above.
Hans stirred and discovered that his body obeyed its master. The old man had not the least wish to open his eyes. He opened his eyelids in a secret hope that he would wake up in the castle’s wine cellar.
“Ya better now?” the nightmare inquired compassionately, touching the victim’s forehead with its tail.
“B-be… be-bet…” Hans forced himself to say.
“Then get to work, Brother. Or it’ll get worse. Ya know it yourself—’tis not yer first time.”
A clawed paw fell on his shoulder. Erzner shut his eyes, but the hell progeny, instead of tearing the sinner into pieces, put the poor man on his feet in one jerk.
“Yer place’s the third in the line. Ya remember, dontcha? Hey, once there were nice days!”
Hans looked around in stealth. Some of the monsters were casting glances at the newcomer, yet most of them were busy: they were turning, planning, weaving, knocking together, or modeling. It’s a workshop, Hans figured. And what about me? What am I to do?
In front of Erzner, on a shabby workbench with deep traces of claws, lay pieces of hempen rope, scraps of steel wire, and bull sinews (Hans hoped very much they were bull ones, for all that). The recently deceased sinner cautiously cast a sidelong glance at his four-eyed neighbor. The devil, with a sorrowful expression on his muzzle, was concentrating on weaving some rubbish, while wounding its fingers with sharp wire and grimacing from pain.
“Hey, Zekie, lost yer memory? Forgot how to weave intrigues, did ya?” he caught Hans’s perplexed glance. “Why, ya got it hard! Where’ve ya been caught?”
“In the chapel,” Hans confessed honestly.
“That’s it,” the devil nodded with understanding. “In a chapel ’tis worst of all. Don’t matter; hold on. You’ll come to your senses in a couple of days. Yet, ya know, sometimes I get to thinking: it’d be better not to remember! All right, look here.”
It turned out to be as easy as pie: you interweave wire with hempen, tie them up with sinews, and twist this into whatever complex knots and loops that come to your mind. Just make sure it does not get untied.
The finished intrigues were to be put into a birch bark box nailed to the side of his workbench. During the day, as the four-eyed devil had said, Hans was to fill the box. Or he would get a lock-up and a harp. Are these hellish torments? Hans thought in surprise, while making a fig sign for the next intrigue. Is this retribution for grave sins? Why, even to clean cesspits with my bare hands would be happiness for me! So the wire scratches my fingers. All the same, it’s better than to be boiled in a cauldron. It’s true what they say: the devil is not so black!
However, as he was looking at the devils working around him, the old man had the impression that the job, though rather easy, was causing them quite a lot of suffering. Why were they writhing so badly, these poor creatures? Hans caught himself feeling compassion for his hideous “companions in misfortune.” Or maybe what was good for a German was death for a devil? Then why had he been sent here and not to other sinners?
There were no human beings in the satanic workshop, except for Erzner.
“Ya did wrong to break the Contract, Zekie,” the four-eyed devil muttered, pushing his neighbor in the side. It was hard to make out the devil’s words. After finishing another work of weaving, he poked his scratched, bleeding, smoking fingers into his maw with a plaintive groan. “Why, yer term was about to end! How much longer would yer baron last?”
“The devil knows!” Hans answered sincerely.
The devil nodded. “That’s what I say. Maybe five years. Maybe six. Or did ya hope to make your way in life? Ya shouldn’t. That’s superstitions. Lies. And what else—ya can’t run away from the Hounds.”
“Sorry, my lord, I don’t understand,” Hans dared to mumble. The devil seemed to be in a rather friendly mood, and this encouraged Erzner a bit. “What are you talking about? And why are you calling me Zekie? Zekiel?”
“Are you kidding, Zek?” the horned devil was sincerely astonished. “ ’Tis me, Kalaor! The Wall-Eyed Kalaor, from Pentagrammaton! We done time together: ya been inside for the second time and I—for the first! We sat side by side, just like now. You forgot?”
Hans honestly tried to remember.
“That’s bad. ’Tis because of the chapel, damn it! Why in the hell did ya go in there? Or maybe ya wanna play dumb? A hospital and all that?”
“Talking, are we?” someone roared suddenly into their ears. “Wagging your tongues, loafers! Once again, you’ll botch the rate, and who is to have all the honey on his head? Azathoth, the head of the barrack?”
Clear and plain terror loomed over Hans. Azathoth stopped shouting and flapped his crooked, angular wings in irritation. After his screams, even the Jericho trumpet would seem quiet.
“That’s it, Zekiel! Finish it with the intrigues!” the head of the barrack announced quite inconsequentially. “Get to machinate plots! Shaiburan doesn’t manage there alone. Kalaor, sit still! You start peering—I’ll blow your even eyes off! Look at him—he wounded his finger, poor boy! This ain't Heat or Sulphurix for you! Atone for your crimes with honest work; maybe it’ll be reckoned.”
Machinating plots turned out to be not much harder than weaving intrigues. You just knocked your hammer and checked that the unsteady structure made of planks and bars didn’t fall apart at the first push. The gloomy dwarf, Shaiburan, the bastard child of a spider and a turtle, cheered up: with his limbs, the machinations progressed thoroughly bad, whereas Hans was not working as a carpenter for the first time. Together, they got things going. Only Shaiburan often hit his mandibles with the hammer and got splinters under his claws.
These devils are so clumsy, Hans noted in passing.
Then Erzner was sent to dig up dirt—to model ugly figures from viscous, black clay. Yet the sinner turned out to be a poor sculptor, not to say something worse—he just soiled his hands in vain. The smart Azathoth quickly sent him to mound obstacles. Scarcely had Hans acquired a taste for it, swaying his trowel and shouting to his workmate, “Grout! Bring me grout!” when the work was interrupted with a sonorous toll.
The toll caused convulsions in three of the devils.
“Lunch,” Wall-Eyed Kalaor explained, appearing at Hans’s side.
Yet Erzner did not notice any agitation among the devils. The workers despondently toiled their way to the exit, resembling ordinary convicts, and Hans followed them, catching himself at the thought that he started to get used to life here. In any case, the sight of the devilish ugly mugs did not arouse his loathing anymore.
The infernal refectory turned out to be clean and bright.
May every tavern be the same!
A very long table was loaded with dishes of fresh bread, plates of honey, and jugs. Hans decided at first that there was wine in the jugs, yet it was fresh milk, still warm. While the dinner sets—goblets, plates, two-pronged forks—were made of silver! Even at the Old Baron’s estate Hans had not seen such luxury.
He was surprised a little by the lack of either meat or beer, yet the devils’ behavior was much more surprising. As if they came for torture rather than for a meal. They took their seats on the benches hopelessly, looking at the food with disgust. The spider-turtle Shaiburan stretched out his thin paw, seized a bun, started chewing it, and grimaced as if he had tasted something rotten. Hans cautiously took a piece of bread. Smelled it. Took a bite. Fine bread! White, lush, its crust toasted. Seldom had he eaten such tasty food in his life!
Feeling ravenous, he fell on the food. A piece of bread into the honey—and into the mouth. Into the honey—and into the mouth. Delicious, brothers! And fresh milk from the goblet. In paradise, the food is hardly better! Hans hurried to shut the heresy up with a caraway bun.
Meanwhile, what was happening at the table looked quite unattractive. The devils, though definitely hungry, were swallowing with difficulty, choking, hiccupping, coughing, spitting, desperately wrinkling their muzzles and making grimaces; two of them vomited right onto the floor. Hans’s friend Kalaor tried to grab a silver goblet of milk with his claws thrice—and each time would jerk his paw away, hissing. Finally, he gritted his fangs, clutched at the damned vessel (there was a distinct smell of burning flesh), and overturned the goblet into his maw, yet accidentally touched the goblet’s edge with his lower lip.
Scream, whine; the devil was looking at the spilled milk, almost crying.
His injured lip was swollen like a melon.
“Need help?” Hans asked.
The devil stared at Hans as if the latter were a madman. He quickly bent to his comrade’s ear: “Hush, Zekie! D’you wanna get even more term? For showing mercy, damn it? Why, I ain’t some foul sheep to cross my friends!”
“But I see how you suffer!” Hans whispered hotly in reply. “Let me help you.”
Yet Hans Erzner, not listening to the four-eyed hornie, already filled the goblet with the milk up to the brim and winked at the devil: “Open your maw wide!”
“Spit! Spit there!” Kalaor croaked.
It was pity to spoil the excellent milk, but if a man—ahem, a devil—asked for it… The milk with the spittle poured into Kalaor’s throat. The devil’s belly started rumbling indistinctly. Choking, he chewed the bread crust and heavily breathed out a cloud of fume.
“Eh, Zekiel… ya be a good devil, y’are!”
Suddenly, the devil stopped short and stared intently at Hans’s hand that was still clutching at the goblet. Hans got embarrassed without any visible reason, unclenched his fingers and hurried to hide his hand behind his back. Yet Kalaor did not avert his eyes for a long time, and it seemed to Hans that he began sniffing once again. Finally, the four-eyed devil shook his ugly head, as if trying to shake off an illusion, harrumphed, and turned away.
After dinner, they did not go to the workshop: in the evening, they had to “clean up and leave no trace.” In plain language—to sweep and clean up the streets and paths of the settlement. Hans was given a broom, too. Leaves, deadwood, dust, and other litter had appeared out of nowhere on the paths, so that there was something to do. They collected the litter in pits, which were closed with steel lids shaped like crowns. Then they poured a bucket of water into each pit and also threw in some unpleasant scraps that Azathoth had given them. The scraps were stirring.
This was called “to put into deep water.”
Erzner did not find this job difficult. Foolish? Yes, but by no means agonizing. However, the devils had a hard time here as well. The dust made their eyes smart; every so often, they got cramps in their paws while holding the brooms. The devils were limping and breathing heavily. While the music in the skies caused them to veritably writhe. Hans, on the other hand, did not feel any discomfort, so he quickly swept the path allotted to him and afterwards helped Kalaor, who was out of breath.
At last, they put the last “crown” in its place with a clank. The hymns in the sky stopped playing, and Kalaor wearily wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“That’s all for today. Work’s over,” he announced.
“Hard day, eh?” Hans did not understand himself whether it was a question or a sign of compassion.
“Yeah… And to ya, as I see, everything’s child’s play! Salt in the dust, an aspen broom, silver tableware… The same Zekie the Daredevil… Bathe ya in holy water—ya say ’tis a sulphur bath! Showing off, old boy, posing as a tough guy! How long ya gonna last like this? Last time, ya remember, ya almost kicked the bucket!”
“I don’t remember it,” Hans Erzner admitted. He was not afraid of the four-eyed devil anymore. Not a bit. “You, too, as I see, don’t remember jack. I’m not the devil Zekiel. I am a human, Hans Erzner, the baron’s servant.”
“The devil? As clear as day ya ain’t no devil, Zekie. Ye’re a demon, an honest Talisman demon. And as fer the baron’s servant—ya didn’t like that word, ‘servant.’ Never did. Yet ya served the baron honestly. Just that ya did wrong to break the Contract. Ya could rest after that; recover in Limbo. Eh, Zek, here I’m teaching ya, and what about myself!”
“Open your ears, Kalaor! I’m a human. Get it? Hu-man! Hans Erzner. Just look at me! Do I look like a demon? I haven’t got horns or hooves or scales!”
Erzner stopped short. It was the first time that he saw a demon laughing. One might say—roaring with laughter. And he could not say it was the most pleasant sight in his life! It seemed an earthquake occurred inside the four-eyed.
“A real jester y’are, Zekiel, ay!” Kalaor croaked when he stopped laughing. “Ya certainly got it hard in the chapel! Just look at ’im—he’s human! Just listen—he got no horns! ’Tis sidesplitting!”
The demon shook with guffaw again, and at that moment, his contours started changing. First, a busty beauty laughed sonorously in front of Hans, winking merrily at the stunned old man. Yet he had not much time to feast his eyes on her buxom body. The beauty turned into a gray-haired hunchback with a wart on his nose, the hunchback into some mucous creature, the creature into the Baron von Hornberg, the baron into a dragon, and the dragon into a jet-black unicorn. Hans had been lucky enough to meet neither dragons nor unicorns in the flesh, yet he identified them by the tapestries he had seen in the castle.
The metamorphoses stopped as suddenly as they had begun. Kalaor was once again standing in front of Erzner in his familiar shape, puffing and panting as if after running.
“ ’Tis a masquerade, Zekie. Who ya hoped to deceive? The Hounds? Me?”
Suddenly, the demon stopped. A shade of doubt arose from the bottoms of his crater eyes. He sniffed once more.
“Let’s sit. I’m tired.”
Erzner obediently sat down on a bench.
“Why, ya ain’t lying… Zekie? Or not Zekie?” Kalaor was talking to himself, and Hans did not dare interrupt the demon. “Ya smell odd. As if ’tis Zekiel’s smell, yet now—sure, I feel the smell of a human! Ya say ya been caught in the chapel?”
“Yes, at the exit.”
“What were ya doing in there?”
“Bringing the hand to the altar!”
“Ya gone crazy? What hand? What altar?”
“The iron hand! The baron’s! It had strangled the baron and fell out of the window. I saw how it was crawling to the chapel, along the puddles, busting a gut. So I helped it. I felt pity for it.”
“Pure filthiness! A halo on me head! So Zekiel finally did it! So that ain’t tales? Not superstition? Daredevil, buddy! Ya cheated the damned Hounds!”
Kalaor was shouting soundlessly, raising his paws to the evening sky. Then he fell on the bench, smiling dreamily. For a moment, the fiend’s muzzle seemed to Hans almost human.
“Now I see. Ya smelt of Zekiel. I’d say—reeked of him. That’s why they arrested ya. Horns or not—that’s just appearance. Hogwash. So that means ya won’t be staying here fer long. A day, two days tops.”
The former fears returned to Hans at once. Perspiration stood out on his forehead. “And what then? To a cauldron? To a pan?”
“Why?” Kalaor looked surprised. “They let ya go. Home. Maybe ya’ll even get compensation: some ten years extra.”
Almost unconcealed jealousy trembled in the demon’s voice.
“But I’m dead, am I not?”
“Dead, not dead, who cares! Sure, the Hounds in their anger would be glad to tear ya to pieces, but their claws are short. They can’t. Or else, they get in here themselves. D’you want me to tell ya what we do to Hounds here? Don’t be afraid, my friend, they’ll put you back to where they took you. How did ya say, what’s yer name?”
“Hans. Hans Erzner.”
“Ya may consider yerself lucky, Hans. To go alive into Pandemonium and back—’tis great luck!”
Hans had serious doubts about his luck.
“You know, Kalaor… When I was led here—everything was clear. Hell, inferno, fire, sulphur. And here suddenly—grass, river, houses; hymns are played. Honey is given for a meal. And the job’s easy. Why is this?”
The demon made a wry muzzle as if he had toothache. “Easy, ya say? Now I see fer sure ya ain’t no Zekiel. ’Tis a prison, human. A poisoned casemate. ’Tis for you milk, while I would prefer blood with milk! This honey—wish I’d never seen it in my life! I’m for meat, fresh meat!” Kalaor licked his lips dreamily with his black, forked tongue. “Or to bathe in the Sulphuric Lake. Well, ’tis like ya would dive into a river on a hot day. We’d prefer flame, tar, sulphur—got it?”
They were silent for a long time. Hans was trying in vain to digest what he had heard, while the demon was thinking about something of his own, definitely sad.
“So it comes out that the baron’s hand—well, your Zekiel!” Hans said finally. “One’s not thrown into a prison for nothing. Except maybe by mistake. Or because of slander. Is it otherwise here?”
“Here ’tis also for some reason. We’re renegades. Freaks. Somebody acted against the Contract. Another felt that innocent blood, inspired sins, spoiled souls got stuck in his throat. So they catch us by our tails—and bring here! To atone! ’Cause an honest demon must tempt, defile, demolish, and lead to the dark path! Say Zekiel—he’d be getting the third term. And the fourth—that’s it, eternal-long. Till you drop dead. I’m for the third time here, too. I couldn’t stand it. If it was only some scheming or arranging squabbles! Piece of cake. Just that the sorcerer who called me wasn’t satisfied with it. This stinker, he wanted entertainment… with spices…”
The demon got a fit of muffled cough. His body became densely covered with heavy rash and he fell to the ground, wheezing. He was writhing in convulsions on the neatly swept path, spitting foam: “Transformations! Took me strength… Shouldn’t have… I’m gone, Zekie… That’s it…”
Hans was rushing about, not knowing how to help. The other convicts started gathering around them.
“Dying, bitch spawn,” Azathoth muttered morosely, looking at Kalaor, who was racking in convulsions. “Pity. We’re old friends, yet from the Flood.”
“Maybe he’ll get better, and all that?” the puny Shaiburan squeaked with timid hope. “Such strength, and all that! Enormous!”
“Yeah right, strength! If you get the third term—all your strength goes down the drain!”
Hans howled with hopelessness, clenching his fists. “So why are you standing here, horned devils that you are! Are you demons or milksops?”
“Some sulphur for him… sweet tar,” a demon resembling a toad with hooves smacked his bluish, flabby lips. “Some bracing fire… He'd come to himself at once!”
“There! There it is!” Hans waved his hand at the direction of Gehenna from which the Hounds had led him. “Fire, sulphur! A lot!”
Azathoth flapped his wings angrily. “Just try and get there, Zekiel! Have you completely lost your memory or what?”
“Guards? They won’t let me?”
“What guards, you scumbag with ears! What nonsense are you blabbing here? There’s the pentagram around! You’ll burn away before you even squeak!”
“Squeak yourself, freak! Give me a bowl! Quick! I’m not going to carry tar for you in my hands!”
“Daredevil!” Azathoth moved his jagged brow. “What a daredevil you are, Brother!”
Shaiburan flew away as if gone with a sneeze. Soon the spider-turtle made his way through the crowd and thrust into Hans’s hands a bowl and also a clay pot with a wide mouth. “Sulphur! Take some sweet sulphur!” the demon was looking into Erzner’s eyes with hope.
Hans nodded and rushed towards the outskirts of the settlement. The convicts huddled over the dying Kalaor and followed the old man with their eyes in silence. Thus warriors of a besieged fortress might look at a scout who volunteered to go for help.
He was going towards certain death, such a hero!
When he passed the bridge with the lamb bleating in anger and started climbing up the familiar hillside, Hans felt he was panting. His age was not fit for running along hellish wastelands and slopes! Yet he stubbornly walked on, climbing farther. Aha, the top. From the left, from behind the dunes, crawled gray flocks of smoke, and Erzner hurried there, sinking in the sand up to his ankles. Just not to lose the direction, find his way back! Hold on, four-eyed, I’m coming! I’m running!
Hans came across a small tar lake surprisingly quickly. It was about ten cubits in diameter. In its middle, the tar was boiling, gurgling, and fuming with hot, black smoke—almost ready to burst into a blaze; yet near the shore, it was viscous. It was hard to fill the pot with it. He would not manage to get it back: it would harden on the way, and what good would it be then? He needed fire, a torch, to heat the pot on the way or right on the spot.
A dry tree, twisted tight as if by a giant’s hands, was lying at some distance. Hans broke off several branches, dipped them into the tar… Fire! Give me fire! He could not run around to look for lava streams. It was too far; he would not make it back in time.
God, help me! Give me fire! Hans did not understand himself whether it was blasphemy or a prayer; incoherent, desperate screams broke from his lips, crashing against the indifferent silence of the vault above his head. The old man was screaming, sobbing, praying, and cursing.
The sky frowned, rumbled. A wave of heat hit Hans on his back. He turned around.
The tar lake was burning, set on fire by lightning.
Was it a miracle? Was it luck?
The tar started bubbling from the hot tongues of the flame. While muttering words of gratitude, Hans thrust one of the tarred branches into the fire. It was set ablaze at once. Now he needed also sulphur. He looked around; then lowered his eyes to his feet. Why, there it was, sulphur! Angular, dirty-yellow crystals. The old man had lost the bowl on his way there, so he put a handful of crystals right under his shirt. The drops of tar from the torch burnt his wrist. It did not matter. He would not be exiled farther than hell. Quick, quick! While trying to take a short cut, Hans went astray among the dunes. He had to go a long way around to return to his own tracks. An evil polecat was biting at his right side, he felt a tickling in his throat from the torch’s fume, and his eyes were watering from the sand.
The hill!
The torch was fading. Hans lit another one with it. He felt sick; a steel hand squeezed his nape. Hold on, you lost soul! Don’t you dare fall! Don’t! The meadow was leaping like a two-year-old foal, trying to knock him down out of the saddle, yet Hans Erzner walked on and cursed, cursed and walked on. He was stumbling, barely moving his feet, yet it seemed to him that he was running, hurrying, rushing, flying on wings!
The bridge with the sheep!
The settlement, damned it, and blessed be it!
Hans’s boots thumped hollowly over the wooden decking. The damned settlement had gone quite crazy: it was barely plodding instead of rushing towards him like wind! Why was the bridge railing flowing by so slowly and swaying as if in a dream? Why was the bridge shaking? Maybe the pillars had broken, the bridge had fallen into the river, and now it was carried away? The decking laughed with rasping laughter, trying to hit Hans in his face in stealth. Yet a pair of mighty paws prevented him from falling.
“You did it! By Baal’s tooth, you brought fire! A chorale in my liver!”
Azathoth’s happy muzzle was hovering in the sky, shining with a sharp-toothed grin. The nostrils of the head of the barrack were eagerly breathing in the odor of burning tar.
“Give it to me! Give it, quickly!”
“There… sulphur… under my shirt…”
“I see, I see! Oh, such a smell! Delicious!”
Hans was laid gently on the grass. The old man shut his eyes, ready to die from delight. Flowers, grass rustling under the light wind. The splashing of the river. The echo of hymns above. And there was nothing he had to do, nowhere to hurry—he could just lie. Had he come in time? Was he late? He tried not to think about it.
“Human Hans Erzner!” hit his ears like an alarm bell. Hans jerked and opened his eyes.
“Hans Erzner, you son of a bitch! Get out! With your luggage!”



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