Before I had a chance to ask him what he had witnessed, a faint resonance caught my attention. I held my breath and cupped my ear.
“Is that singing?”
Nimrod listened. “It would seem so.” He glanced through the same exit from which the blood trail emerged. “I think we’re supposed to go that way.”
“By all means, let’s go and see what else our hosts have in store for us.”
That doorway opened onto a long dark passage. In the distance, a strident, flickering glow illuminated our destination and made it appear we had entered a tunnel leading to a literal Dante’s Inferno. With weapons yet drawn, we made our way toward the apex of our journey.
The corridor itself was lined with an assortment of abandoned trolleys and wheelchairs. That made the going slow, as we needed to push them out of our way to avoid the bloody mess smeared down its center.
The gore smelt fresh, so I stooped to examine it. I was surprised to discover chunks of sticky flesh, bits of bone, and quite a lot of hair attached to portions of scalp. Broken nails near several of the doorframes revealed that whoever had been dragged this way had been conscious and put up a valiant fight.
And I’ll bet those parasites let them, just so they could feed on the misery of it all.
Here and there, rooms stood open to inspection. We were obviously heading in the right direction, for they were sparsely furnished with examination tables upon which moth-eaten sheets now moldered to gray. A few of them even contained body bags that had seen better days. Regardless of their condition I could see they were in use, for mutilated limbs protruded like porcupine quills from holes where canvas had perished.
How long have these cockroaches been in residence? Perhaps it’s time to fumigate the establishment.
In due course we emerged into a long, low compartment, at the end of which squatted the source of the ruddy light I’d seen earlier. A giant metal incinerator. The hatch of the furnace was thrown open, and hungry flames crackled and snapped with an eagerness that was a delight to behold.
Silhouetted against the blaze, the female torso of the Dread-Locks’ latest meal sat tied to a chair. Her head flopped limply onto her breast, and what remained of her long tresses hung down over her face. The woman’s hair was matted with dried blood and what looked like strips of fat. But that was the least of her worries, for her severed arms and legs lay in the middle of a pool of urine on the floor where her feet should have been.
Two massive shadowy helices swirled about their prey, softly singing unintelligible words that somehow conveyed a sense of inevitable menace.
One appeared larger than the other. From what I remembered of these beasts, that would indicate it to be the more dominant individual, and the one I needed to address.
The tones of the song faded, and the flock leader glided down to a position immediately behind the bound victim. Blackness condensed about it, whereupon it solidified into a more tangible form. It started humming, and its two great hands fussed the female’s head as if the creature was suddenly mindful of the distress it had caused. Then it grabbed her by the hair and yanked harshly backward.
A sharp gasp indicated she was fully conscious, and a tear of pain stole from the corner of one eye. The drop froze in place on her cheek. Somehow, it then peeled away from her face and gravitated toward the shimmering outline of her tormentor. The crystallized expression of grief blended with the monster’s substance, and another glittering scale appeared on the surface of its skin.
They’re keeping her alive so they can feast off her.
“Why are you here, Reaper?” a taunting, masculine voice called out. “Have you come to offer yourself in order to spare this unfortunate wretch?”
To enforce his meaning, the Master reached around and traced the edge of a gleaming talon along the woman’s chin and down her throat. He prolonged the torture by leaning down to place a tender fluttering kiss on each of her eyelids.
Her emotion-laden sob echoed around the chamber.
“What?” I countered. “Do you think that is going to intimidate or move me? Look around you. This is hell. You’re just enforcing what this place is all about. All you’re doing is pissing me off. As your little buddies just found out, that’s not a wise thing to do.”
“They were lesser drones, insignificant battle fodder. We, on the other hand, are far more potent and not so easily vanquished.”
“Is that why you thought it would be safe to accept a contract to take me out? Did you imagine chaff like that would be able to distract me, or soften me up before you stepped in?”
The flock leader didn’t reply. He didn’t need to. His emotions did that for him. I watched as the very edge of his dark aura burned vermillion.
The subordinate Master floated down to take a stand by its companion. It hovered in the background, and by the way it acted I suspected a closer, more intimate connection than was immediately apparent. Sudden intuition provided the answer.
I wasn’t fooled by the difference in size, as the females of most species are much deadlier than the males.
For some reason I thought of Strawberry and smiled.
The Dread-Master took my grin as a challenge. Barbed claws raked across fragile skin and fresh blood welled to the surface. The woman bit her lip in an effort to contain her anguish, but that didn’t prevent another diamond from appearing within the crux of her tormentor.
I’m getting sick and tired of this posturing.
Stepping forward, I planted the heel of my scythe firmly on the ground. “Who offered you the contract?”
Neither creature replied.
I moved closer and added a compulsive element to my voice.
“Who offered you the contract? And perhaps more importantly, why?”
The extremities of both ghouls flared in response, but they remained silent.
Okay, time to make a point.
“Very well. By the authority vested in me, prepare to be judged —”
“You cannot do anything, Reaper,” the flock leader interrupted, cold humor radiating from him in waves, “for we are not of this realm, and you have no jurisdiction over us.”
I lifted my weapon and slammed it into the floor.
“Oh, really . . . ?”
For the first time in more than a century, I manifested the Phage, the full Satanic might of my station. Power bloomed, and I stood encompassed within a midnight nimbus of stunning magnitude. Purple streamers burned along the tips of my corona, and a coronet of scarlet flames danced about my head. The concrete bubbled at my feet as the indescribable potency of Hellfire rushed to obey my summons. I felt myself swell as my aspect darkened.
“I beg to differ.”
A name appeared in burning letters in the ether before me. Gru’al.
“Gru’al! Troh a’ lùthse ain mi sealbģh (Gru’al! By the power invested in me), do a’ fàs dorcha, se thu deòraich (I banish you to the black void). Ansîn, toil thu bàsath ís críen (There, you will wither and fade). Faod uíl méoem bi lârmud am thu, gu-bràithe (May all memory of you be forgotten, forever).”
“You cannot!” he screamed. “You have no —”
The weight of obliteration fell upon the Dread-Master like a singularity. One moment he was hovering in the air before us, and the next he was crushed out of existence as the hex swallowed him whole.
An abrupt silence filled the room.
I turned my attention to the final ghoul, and another name manifested: Desh.
“Desh of the S’gãth,” I began, using their ancient name, “I will offer you one last chance. Comply and you may avoid the fate of your companion. Tell me, who bought your services?”
“I . . . I cannot . . .”
“You have seen what I did to your mate. Do you wish to join him in oblivion?”
“We are bound by our oath to fulfill —”
“I cannot say,” Desh replied in haste, “I don’t . . . I don’t remember. Gru’al committed us by sealing the agreement in unholy concordat, although I know not why.”
Alarm bells rang in the back of my mind. I could tell by her aura that Desh was speaking the simple truth. As a Master, she should have been consulted about the details of the agreement, but her flock leader had forged ahead and concluded the pact alone. Once signed, the rest of the squadron was locked into fulfilling its terms.
I tried a different line of approach.
“How recently were you obligated to this contract, and where were the details actually sealed?”
“Although we have resided in secret within this great structure for more than a year, an accord was reached only this past week, where all such covenants are made.”
As I thought.
I had a sudden notion.
“What brought you to this realm in the first place?”
“An offer of unlimited access to all the levels of this netherworld. The grandeur of such suffering proved hard to resist, for we would be able to feed and grow as never before.”
“And do you recall who made that offer?”
“It was . . . I can’t . . .” Once again, her aura became agitated as she struggled to remember specific details.
As if I needed any further verification.
I’d heard enough.
I raised my staff and stabbed forward. A concentrated beam of God’s Grace lanced out, enveloping the Dread-Lock within a skein of purifying power. Her threshold expanded alarmingly, and then she exploded in a shower of darkest distillate and tinkling scales.
“I thought you promised her she would avoid the fate of her companion?” Nimrod said.
“I did, and I kept my word. Although reduced to next to nothing, her essence will eventually filter back to the S’gãth home world, where she’ll start all over again. Gru’al, on the other hand, won’t exist for much longer.”
“Fair enough.” He cocked a thumb toward the woman still tied to the chair. “What about their victim?”
I studied her long and hard. Although her eyes were wild and staring, the light of hope now burned in their depths.
The Reaper in me won out.
“Leave her to the rats and other vermin.”
In reply to the stoic eyebrow raised in my direction, I said, “She’ll suffer. She’ll endure a prolonged death, and then she’ll be reassigned. As I said to Gru’al, that’s what hell’s all about.”
With a flick of my wrist I collapsed my weapon, spun on my heels and stalked from the room. Nimrod brought up the rear. Wails of protest followed us as we strode back along the main corridor. I blanked them from my mind, and soon the woman’s pleas faded into the distance. I didn’t give her entreaties a second thought, not even when the rats began to congregate for their unexpected banquet.