Friday, 20 March 2015

Badlands VI : Fallen Angel



Fallen Angel, the sign said, the letters faded so much that he could hardly read them, pale grey on the bleached white of the wood. The board hung askew, moving slightly as a gust of wind struck it.

Fallen Angel, he thought. Where have I heard that name before?

Wherever this place was, he had no desire to be here, or to enter it even for a moment. But the road he had been following across the desert led through here, and he hadn’t seen any other sign of human habitation in longer than he cared to remember.

He stood by the sign, looking at the sprawl of the buildings on either side of the dusty desert track. They seemed to be one with the desert all around, as brown and sere as the drifting sand, and as liable to fall down and blow away. Nothing except puffs of dust stirred in the street.

“Demon,” he said, softly, but of course she wasn’t there. There was no demon and there was no beast, and he had been walking for longer than he wanted to imagine.

Alone.

He rubbed his eyes, tired from the unceasing glare of the sun, and wished – once more – that the demon and the beast had been with him. He had no idea where they were, no idea when he had last seen them, and no real hope that he would see them ever again.

He only half remembered the quarrel, and no memory of what had set it off. Maybe he didn’t want to remember. But he had said things, which, even now, he knew were beyond forgiveness, things he wouldn’t have forgiven if someone had said them to him. He’d accused the demon of using him, treating him as a tool or a slave, and then, at the end, he’d said that he never wanted to see her again.

He had one clear memory, one which was burned indelibly into the back of his skull; the demon, standing beside the beast, her hand on its mane, watching him with a very strange expression on her face as he strode away into the night; and if he hadn’t told himself he’d been imagining it, he might have thought it was despair.

But that was really too ridiculous, he’d thought, and kept walking into the darkness. It had been a very dark night, and he’d soon been lost.

But that was quite all right, because he had wanted to be lost.

He’d been walking ever since.  

Fallen Angel, the board creaked in the wind, and the town lay like the desiccated bones of some mighty beast in the desert wind. He looked back over his shoulder, down the way he’d come, but there was nothing, just the white dusty road through the desert.

There was no way but forward, he thought. Behind only lay the empty desert.

Then he turned round, loosened the sword in the scabbard over his back, and walked into the town.

*********************************

Before he had gone past the first houses, he already knew he’d made a mistake. There was something very wrong here, something so wrong that his nerves screamed out at him. He stopped, looking around, trying to feel what was wrong.

The first thing that struck him was the silence. Apart from the wind, which gusted erratically and sometimes blew sand against the walls with a rustle, and the sound of his boots on the hard surface of the road, there was no noise at all.

Nor was there any sign of anything alive. It wasn’t just that there were no people in the street – in this heat, they might well have been staying indoors. But there wasn’t even a bird sitting on the roof, a desert lizard basking in the sun, or even a withered bush still valiantly clinging on to life. There was nothing.

Yet it was not dead. The whole town throbbed with a kind of anticipation, as though just waiting for something to happen, something it had been anticipating for a long time.

And he had a feeling that what it had been anticipating was his arrival.

He thought about turning back, but he already knew it was impossible, that there was no way now but onward. Turning back would only mean that he would have to wander the desert again, endlessly, in search for something that was no longer there.

Very well then. Whatever it was, he would face it, and face it alone. He took a deep breath, checked the sword of nameless metal on his back, and stepped forward once more.

He hadn’t gone far when he heard the singing. At first he didn’t realise it was actually singing. It was so soft that had everything not been so silent he wouldn’t have heard it at all.

It was a thin, high, wordless song, at the very upper limit of hearing, rising and falling in such complex patterns that he couldn’t believe that it came from a human voice. And yet the sweetness in it was so great that it might have brought tears to his eyes if he had still been capable of tears. And almost without his conscious volition, his feet moved, taking him closer to the singing.

It came from one of the smaller houses in a side street, a building so much the same bleached colour as the desert that it seemed as though the sands had been gathered up and somehow made into walls and a roof. He paused, then, unsure if he should enter, something in the back of his mind urging him to turn away and leave as quickly as he could, to continue on to the end of the town – if there was an end to the town.

But he might wander among these streets forever, and there was nowhere to go if something happened. He took a deep breath, settled his helmet more securely on his chain mail coif, and walked up to the door.

It opened slowly to his touch, reluctantly, as though it had not moved in a long, long time and hadn’t thought it would ever have to move again. The room inside was dark and thick with shadow, and he paused to let his eyes adjust. The singing came from somewhere in the shadow, and had not paused for a moment, not even at the opening of the door.

Blinking away the darkness, and stooping to avoid the sagging lintel of the door, he entered.

She was sitting on the other side of the room, bent over something on a frame, her fingers flickering to and fro, while she sang, sang, the wordless tune. He could see little of her for the shapeless gown she wore, grey as the dust. Only her long, pale arms and fingers, and the side of her face, moved back and forth as she worked the frame.

“Lady?” he asked. “Lady?”

Slowly, she turned. She must have once been a great beauty, but her face was drawn and thin, with her eyes huge and staring in the gloom. She stopped her singing and stared at him.

“Are you all right, Lady?” he repeated, feeling inadequate.

Her lips moved, trembling. Her voice was a whisper. “Are you real?

“Well, yes,” he said. “As real as anything is. What are you doing here, Lady?” In order not to have to stare at her, he peered around the gloom. The thing she had been working on was a loom of some kind, and she was spinning a mass of the grey material. It looked as though she was making thread out of the dust.

She didn’t answer his question. Getting to her feet, she came across the room to him, obviously agitated. “Why have you come here? Leave while you still can. Oh...” she peered into his face, her huge black eyes seeking. “You can’t leave, can you? It’s already too late.”

He looked at her. “Already too late? Could you explain?”

“Explain...I wish I knew everything, so I could explain.  All I can tell you is that anyone who enters this town can’t leave again.”

“And where is everyone else?”

“They’re there.” She waved a hand. “Everywhere. All over the town. Only they don’t want to come out, and who can blame them?”

“They don’t?” He turned to look out of the door. The street lay quiet in the sun. “Why don’t they want to come out?”

“Would you, if all you could do was wander around and never be able to get out again, just hurt yourself with the memories and the yearning?” She touched her mouth with her long pale fingers. “I’m sorry, you’ve just arrived. I shouldn’t have spoken so shortly. But you’ll find out for yourself.”

“Well,” he said, “I intend to leave if I can.”

She smiled slightly. “That’s what we all said when we came here. But we never left, any of us.”

“So,” he said, going to the door and looking out, at the unchanging street, “it’s always been like this ever since you first came?”

“Ever since I first came?” She considered the question, her head tilted to one side. “You know, I’m not sure if I even know how long it’s been since I came here. Sometimes it seems as though I’ve been here forever. Why don’t you sit down?”

He sat on one of the stools in the room, and she took her place before the loom. Her fingers began to flicker.

“What is this place, Fallen Angel?” he asked her. “It seems to me that I’ve heard something of it, in whispers and rumour, but I cannot bring it to mind.”

“It’s a long story. But it used to be a good town once.” She paused a moment, adjusting her loom. “Back then, there were many people here, and no surprise, because it was on the main route through the desert.

“Back then, the town was at peace. Perhaps it was at too much peace. Because when the bad things began to happen, people did not know what to do.”

“What bad things happened?”

“It started with the coming of the criminal gangs. Now, a town of this size, it always has some crime. I suppose you would know that. There are gamblers and prostitutes, thieves and cheats, and the kind of person who can supply things that you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. Every town has them. But these were different.

“They were the worst of the lot, the dredging of the big towns on the edge of the desert, the scum who could find no other refuge. They came in dribs and drabs, and when they found this town, like starving wolves they threw themselves on it, eager to devour.

“There was little the people could do. They were not used to violence, did not know how to fight, and the gangs were utterly ruthless. Soon they had carved up the town among themselves, and it became impossible to go from one street to another without paying a toll to all sides. And none of the gangs would let anybody leave; it would mean the end of their earnings, because nobody would stay.

“Then the gangs began to fight each other for supremacy. It was inevitable, of course, and the only surprising thing was that it took so long to begin. But when it did, the fighting was savage, and might have continued until the gangs had destroyed each other completely.”

“But it didn’t happen?” the knight asked, watching the woman’s hands fly over the loom.

“No. For among the criminals was a couple, a man and a woman, who went by the names of Stoneface and Firelight. These two were as fierce and cruel as they had vision and ambition, and those they had in plenty. They were the leaders of two rival, but small, gangs, both far too small to be able to stand against the rest. But Stoneface and Firelight decided that if they got together they could defeat all the rest, and take the city for their own.

“It must have been a strange sight when they met for the first time, in an alley between the two gangs’ territories. Stoneface was short and very muscular, and had a face that matched his name, while Firelight was tall and beautiful, and so they seemed as mismatched physically as they were rivals in crime. But there was a spark between them, which both recognised, and they sealed their deal that night.

“The gang wars that followed were still long and hard, but the two together proved more than a match for the others, who were stronger but had neither their planning nor their ruthlessness. Also, Stoneface and Firelight offered the other gangs good terms to change sides after killing their leaders. In only a few weeks, the last of the other gangs was defeated and assimilated, and the two of them ruled over Fallen Angel together, like king and queen.

“And then the real trials of the town began. If things had been bad before, they became infinitely worse. With nobody to check their cruelty, no other gangs to fear, the two visited the full force of their depravity on the people.”

“They became drunk on power.”

“On power, yes, and on their own capacity for evil. Evil so great that even they could  not escape it, and it caught them, and changed them.”

“Changed them? How?”

“How can I explain? I don’t know the words. Things happened that no one should have to see, nobody should have to bear. Even I...” She broke off, looking down at her pale, twisting hands.

“You?”

“Never mind what I had to go through. The main thing is, you can’t ever leave, now that you’re in here.”

“Who’s going to stop me? The gangs? I’d like to see them try.”

“Oh they will, Sir Knight, they will.” She looked at him wistfully. “Though if you could...”

“I would take you along, and anyone else who wishes to go,” he told her. “If, that is, you want to come.”

She smiled and got up from her loom. “It would be nice,” she said, “if only I could believe that you would be able to leave. But I don’t, for others before you have tried.”

“We shall see.” The sword of the nameless metal lay heavy in the scabbard across his back, and he grew conscious of it. “Lady? Where can I find the gang?”

“They’ll find you,” she said. “In fact, it’s certain that they watched you come.”

He smiled at her. “Well, then, I am leaving now. If they want to stop me, they’ll have to do so now. Will you come with me?”

She looked at him for a long time, and then nodded. “I’ll come.”

    *********************************

I came to tell you I’m leaving, Man.” The demon leaned down from the beast’s back, her horns framing her face. “I did not want to leave without saying goodbye.”

“No, wait.” He reached up towards her, but his questing fingers failed to touch her arm. “Don’t go.”

“I can’t stay, Man.” Her face was filled with sorrow. “I waited as long as I could, but I have to go away now. We have to face the future, you along your path, the beast and I along mine.”

“Please,” he began. “You can’t go. I want to be with you. Please don’t leave me.”

“It’s too late, Man.” The beast was already walking away into the darkness, and the demon’s hand, as she held it out, just failed to touch his. “Don’t forget me...” she said, her voice trailing away behind her.

“No,” he said, his voice catching in his throat in a strangled sob. “No, no...”

“No,” he said, his throat dry. The darkness was absolute as he opened his eyes. There was a rough surface under his face, rubbing against his cheek past the edge of his coif. He hurt all over.

Trying to sit up, he found that he could only raise his head a short distance. He was lying in some kind of confined space, barely wide enough to accommodate his body. Kicking out with his feet, he could feel nothing, nor if he held out his hands in the direction of his head.

“Where am I?” he asked pointlessly. Not only was there nobody to hear or answer, the mustiness of the air told him nobody had likely been here in a long time. Except whoever had put him here, of course.

“How did I get in here?” he amended.

It was difficult to remember. He could recall stepping out of the old sand-coloured house, the woman in grey close behind him. Once in the street, he had taken the sword from its scabbard and held it in his hand, ready. But there was nobody to fight. Not then.

They had almost made it out of the town, to the other side where he could see the white road stretching through the desert, the woman and he, and he had begun to wonder why nobody had left before. And he had just turned to check on the street behind when...

What?

He couldn’t remember. He’d turned to check on the street behind, and all he remembered after that was his dream with the demon, and waking in the darkness, with pain all over and unable to see a thing.

How long had he been here? It was impossible to tell, but from the dryness of his throat and the stiffness when he tried to move his limbs, he thought it had been several hours at least, perhaps as much as a day. What was happening? Had the gang got him? What about the woman? What had they done to her?

He had to get out of here. Somehow.

There was no way to tell which way he ought to go. But he couldn’t stay here. No way but onwards, he thought grimly. Even if onwards merely brought you to even worse grief than what you’d left behind.

With difficulty, pressing his gloved hands on the rock over his head, he managed to lever himself forward a little. It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning. He couldn’t bend his knees enough to put his feet flat against the floor, so that was no good. But this was better than nothing.

Slowly, wearily, he began pushing himself along. He was in a tunnel or passage of some kind, he realised, cut into the stone a very long time ago. It went on and on, until he had stopped wondering where he was going, until he had stopped thinking about anything at all, until all he was aware of was the screaming pain in the muscles of his arms.

The end of the tunnel, when it came, caught him by surprise. He had just given his body another weary push when the top of his helmet came into jarring contact with something hard. Exploring with his fingers, he found the passage blocked.

A long moment of baffled fury and frustration washed over him. All that effort wasted! Now he would have to go back the other way, if he could. It wasn’t at all clear that he could.

He might be stuck here forever.

Wait, he thought. Calm down and get a grip on yourself. The rock blocking the way felt irregular, not like the rough but flat stone of the tunnel. When he pushed with his hands, he felt something give. A couple of pebbles bounced off the conical surface of his helmet. He pushed again, and heard something fell heavily on the other side. And then, flooding into the passage, was a stream of cool, fresh air.

After that it didn’t take much time to move away the rest of the stone. A lot of it fell on him, but in the confined space, it didn‘t fall far, and his armour protected him from injury. With every bit that fell away, his hands had more freedom to work, and in only a little while he flung away the last of the pebbles which had fallen on him. A final push, and he fell head first out of the tunnel.

It wasn’t much of a fall. Just below was a pile of rubble and drifted desert sand, and he rolled a short distance down it before reaching a flat stone floor. Dusting himself off as best he could, he stood up.

The first thing he did was check for his weapons. They were gone, of course, both the ancient dark sword and the steel knife he carried in his boot. He’d have been astonished if they hadn’t been.

Then he began to feel around him, to find out where he was.

He stood at the bottom of a vertical shaft, like a dry well, which rose up into the darkness. Fresh cold air came down it, and with only a little exploration he found iron rungs set into the stone. They felt old and fragile, not really strong enough to bear the weight of him and his armour, but there was no other way out. Slowly, testing each rung for strength, he began to climb.

At the top of the shaft was another sloping tunnel, this one heading upwards. In the darkness, his feet felt iron rails, and lumber. Now he knew. He was in an old mine of some sort.

He did not have to follow the tunnel very far. It emerged into a wooden shed, with the side opposite the main tunnel open. And when he saw what lay outside, he had a moment when he thought of retreating back into the tunnel.

It was night, but the night was filled with light. Fallen Angel seemed to have come alive. The streets were filled with people coming and going, but they weren’t people he’d care to meet if he could avoid it. He saw not one who wasn’t heavily armed, and most, men and women alike wore spiked leather armour or chain mail. A bonfire burned in the middle distance, its sullen red glow frowning over everything.  

Something touched his flesh under his chin, just above the margin of his coif. It was something hard, and very sharp.

“Don’t move,” a voice said, quite pleasantly, “or I shall cut your throat.”

Cursing himself for not having been more alert, he turned his eyes as far as he could without moving his head. The man beside him was short and very broad, his neck, shoulders and arms bulging with muscle. His face looked as though it had been hacked out of a slab of granite.

“Stoneface,” he said.

The short man raised his eyebrows. “I see,” he said, “that you’ve been hearing things. Curious, are you?” He put a tiny hint of pressure on the knife he was holding to the knight’s neck. As far as the man in armour could see, it seemed to be his own steel blade. “Well? Would you like your curiosity satisfied?”

“Do I have a choice?”

The man called Stoneface grinned. “I like that,” he said. “Of course you don’t. Come along.”

They stepped out on to the street. A small crowd had already gathered. They looked at him rather like starving desert jackals would at a piece of meat.

“An enemy spy,” someone said.

“Kill him,” somebody else replied. “Kill him now.”

“No, no,” Stoneface said. “Our friend deserves the warmth of our hospitality, don’t you think?” He looked around, his knife still to the knight’s throat. “Don’t you think?” he repeated.

“Yes,” the person who had called the knight a spy laughed. “It’s a cold night anyway.” Hands grabbed at the knight’s arms and pushed him along towards the bonfire.

It had already been used. In the middle of it was a post, and something that had been lashed to it sagged, still tied by the arms and legs, its face bent into the flames. He thought he knew who it might have been.

“So,” Stoneface said, “how do you like Fallen Angel? Is it to your tastes?”

“He’s to my tastes,” a voice said, soft but penetrating. “Totally to my tastes, Stoneface.”

The crowd fell silent and parted like water before the prow of a boat as she came through it. She was tall and exquisitely dressed, in dark red with a cloak of orange. Her face was covered with a mask that reflected the light of the fire like a mirror.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, looking the knight up and down. Even Stoneface had fallen silent and was watching her cautiously. “Well?”

“Firelight,” he said.

“Of course.” She stepped up to him, so close that he could smell her, a perfume that brought to mind an exotic spice. Her hand rose, one gloved finger running down the knight’s cheek. “Do you like me, knight?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t exactly got to know you yet.”

She cocked her head, studying him through the eye holes in her mask. “And do you like Fallen Angel, knight? You’ve got to know it a bit better than me, haven’t you?”

“I didn’t come here to like or dislike it. I was just passing through.”

“I’m afraid nobody just passes through Fallen Angel, my friend. They stay back, as you will.” Her finger traced the line of his other cheek. “Won’t you?”

He didn’t reply. The finger ran down to the line of his throat.

“You have a choice,” Firelight continued. “You could choose to stay back, of your own accord. I could make it worth your while. After all,” she put her masked face almost against his, “I could get to fancy you. And maybe you could like me, too.”

“And if I don’t?”

“That would be sad,” she shrugged, “but I don’t see that it would be a problem. I could ask Stoneface here put that knife into your throat. Or...” she pulled aside her cloak, and he saw something long and midnight-black hanging from her waist, something very familiar. “Or, I could use this on you. You know, it, don’t you?”

“I know it,” he said.

“And there’s the third possibility.” She motioned with her head. “You could join our late friend on the fire.”

“Is that...” the knight thought of the woman in the house and her huge, tragic eyes. “Is that what you did with her?”

“With whom? Does it even matter?” Firelight tapped her finger on his mailed shoulder. “Well, what is it to be?”

The knight said nothing.

“Burn him,”  Stoneface said.

Firelight nodded. “Burn him.”

The eager hands pushed him forward.

*******************************************

They had tied him to a post, and piled wood around his feet. Now they stood back in a circle, but he could still hear them, even those he couldn’t see.

“Think he’ll scream?” one asked. “I’ll bet he’ll scream.”

“How much are you willing to bet?” someone answered.

“He won’t live long enough to scream,” a third person said. “The smoke will do for him first, like the other one.”

He tried to block out the talk of the crowd, focussing instead on Stoneface and Firelight talking. The short muscular man handed the woman a lighted torch.

Firelight bent to push the torch into the piled wood. As the flames rose, she stepped back, and, looking up at the knight, slowly pulled off her mask.

Then something struck.

It struck from out of the darkness, in a great rising shriek, drowning out the screams of the crowd. It was red glowing wings and talons atop slashing hooves, death on the move, smashing down everything in its way. It reared above the cowering forms of Stoneface and Firelight, and came down on them like a falling mountain. And then the naked red winged fury had leaped through the fire and tearing at the ropes tying the knight to the post.

“Demon,” he murmured, as the smoke rasped in his throat, “I knew you would come.”

Then his consciousness ebbed, and he knew nothing more.

*******************************************

She had put him on the back of the beast, and was holding him in place when he awoke. All around, the desert lay in the morning light. There was no trace of the town.

“Demon,” he murmured. “You came back for me.”

“Shh.” She sat behind him and cradled his head between her breasts. “Don’t talk.”

“I must.” He turned his head as far as he could, to look at her. “Did you follow me all the time? You must have, of course.” He pressed his tongue against his palate to moisten his mouth. “It wasn’t real, any of it.”

“It wasn’t?”

“I had my doubts, right from the start. That name, Fallen Angel. I knew I’d heard of it before, but I couldn’t remember where. But fallen angels aren’t real, are they? And anything named after them wouldn’t be real either?”

“It’s just a name.”

“It wasn’t just the name.” He reached down to his boot and felt the knife, back where it belonged. “There was the story the woman told, about how nobody could leave. How could the gangs ever make any money if nobody could leave? Where did they get their food and water? And how did they stop absolutely everyone from leaving? It didn’t make sense.

“Nor did it make sense that when they had me in their power, they didn’t just kill me, but instead put me in a place I could escape from, if only I kept my head. That place was a mine. What was a mine doing in a desert town in the middle of nowhere?

“And when I did manage to escape, if I’d kept my head a little longer, they might never have caught me at all. Instead I allowed myself to be captured through my own stupidity.”

“You aren’t stupid.”

“You think so?” He laughed shortly. “I know it as surely as the sword is back in the scabbard on my back. If it required any confirmation, it was when Firelight pulled off her mask, and I saw her face.” He paused. “Do you know whose face it was?”

“No,” the demon said. “Who was she?”

“She was the woman in the house.” The knight watched the beast’s nodding head as it trudged forward. “I should never have left you,” he said. “That was stupid, dangerous and I regretted it almost at once. And I don’t want to be away from you ever again.”

“Hush,” she said. “There’s no need to talk about it. You’re with me now.”

“Of course there’s a need to talk about it,” the knight said. “Did you arrange the whole thing just so I could discover for myself if I could get along without you? Was it all a game played out in my mind?”

The demon said nothing.

“Demon,” he said, “was that it?”

“Hush,” she repeated, and hugged him against her breasts. “Go to sleep, Man. There will be much to do when you wake, new roads for us to tread. Go to sleep.”

Warm and secure in her embrace, he slept.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

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Tuesday, 17 March 2015