CHAPTER 6: THE STOOP-BACKED CITY
They drove for what felt like miles until finally the city began to shade the horizon, slowly becoming darker and more solid.
“Who built this place?” Marie whispered, and you had to whisper.
“No one knows.” said Angela “It was always here.”
And it looked like it had always been there. The houses looked like ruins in the jungle look, as if they are part of the trees and the vines, as if they too are of the forest and not made by man. They looked as if they had been grown, as if the bricks and mud and mortar had slowly pushed their way out of the ground and come to rest. No two were alike, some leaned left and some right. As they drove through the streets she saw that there were quite a number of people out, but they looked fewer, because everyone kept their distance from each other. Nobody walked in pairs, and everyone walked hunched and with their eyes downward cast, stark against the pale walls of the silent, grave-like houses.
Marie felt a shudder pass through her, and the walls on either side of the street seemed to cave in a little closer. She sat back in her seat and closed her eyes, and felt for her comb.
If you could, for a moment, be whisked away from home and stand in any street of the city, you would at first be struck by the horrible, unbreakable greyness of the place. The buildings were as grey as the sand which was as grey as the people which was as grey as the sky which was as grey as the buildings…and on and on it went in a never ending cycle of dullness and despair. But after a few minutes you would begin to feel a horrible sensation that you had been here before. Those grim, rainy Thursdays. Those winter vigils at inner city bus stops with the sky hanging like an iron dome overhead. For purgatory is little more than life played again, a repeat of the main feature. Only now the jokes have been done to death, the twists can be seen a mile off, the characters irritate through familiarity and anything that once was new has now been seen a million times before.
The truck finally shuddered to a halt and there was a silence.
“Alright, so…” Hoss began.
But Angela had already undone her seat belt, opened the door and left.
“She doesn’t like you very much.” Marie noted.
“Nope.” said Hoss “No, she does not.”
Hoss blew through his lips. “Pff. Long story. Boring story. Ain’t got no heroes, and it ain’t got no happy endings.”
“It’s got a really big truck.” Marie noted.
“Yeah.” said Hoss with a smile “That’s a point in it’s favour.”
“And it’s not over yet.” Marie added “Who knows, maybe it’ll get better.”
She undid her seatbelt.
“Thanks for the lift.” she said.
“You are most welcome.” said Hoss “I’ll see you around Marie. Don’t forget your little sword, now.”
Angela strode through the dusty streets with Marie hustling behind her, trying to keep up.
Tristan, Hannah, Geoff ran in front of them, throwing sand at each other and laughing like children.
“You shouldn’t treat him like that.” said Marie.
Angela said nothing.
“He was just helping.”
“Marie, you’re very young and I don’t expect you to understand, but believe me when I say that the very last thing in this world that I need is Hoss’ help. I need him to run me over with his truck more than I need his help.”
“Well it just seems to me that…ow.”
“Ow?” Angela stopped. Marie was rubbing the centre of her chest with a rather worried frown on her face.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Marie nodded a little unsurely. The pain was subsiding again.
“Come along then.” said Angela “We’re almost home.”
“Home” was the Chapel.
Marie stood in it’s shadow as it loomed over her, a great grey dragon of a building, full of nooks and crannies and sweeping arches. The windows seemed to peer down at her, appraising her and finding her greatly wanting.
As they entered, two penitents garbed in white with only theirs eyes showing approached them. They bowed to Angela, and then without a word took the three Lethe-washed souls and led them away.
Marie noticed one of them glance at her hair, beautiful girl’s eyes that flicked to her and then demurely looked away, as if ashamed by such indulgence.
And then they were alone.
Angela led her down corridor after corridor of bare stone. After the roar of the storm and the hours of listening to the engine, the silence of the Chapel was an almost perfect deafness.
“Where…” and she stopped and swallowed, breaking the silence felt sacrilegious “Where are we going?”
“I’m taking you to your room.” said Angela.
They were passing a small black door when a scream erupted so loud that Marie shifted into slow-time purely on instinct.
“What was that?!” she squeaked, her words sounding high pitched through the slow-time envelope.
Angel walked on down the corridor.
“Angela!” she called after her.
“Shh.” Angela hissed “This way.”
“What’s going on back there?” Marie asked.
“Redemption.” said Angela.
“It sounded like torture.” said Marie.
“It is. One of our penitents is undergoing the Rite.”
“What are you doing to them?”
“Nothing. They must do it to themselves.”
Behind them, the door opened and two penitents emerged, with a third draped between them, dead or unconscious. His shroud had come loose and trailed behind him like a bride’s gown as they gently carried him away.
Marie ran and looked into the room from where they had come. She was expecting to see torture instruments, blood everywhere, teeth on the floor.
The room was as clean and plain as could be. There were no tables or chairs or furniture of any kind, except for a single pedestal in the centre of the room. And on it was a single chunk of black glass, worn smooth by constant handling.
Instinctively Marie reached out her hand to touch it, but Angela grabbed her by the wrist.
“Don’t.” she said quietly “I doubt very much that you are ready.”
“What is it?” Marie asked.
“This is a piece of the Black Glass mountains.” said Angela, “The mountain range that separates us from the second ring.”
“The second ring. Hell?”
“Yes. When you touch it, you will experience all the pain and misery you ever inflicted on your fellow man throughout your life. Even for good people, it is not an easy thing to do. For most it is sheer agony. Very few can take all that pain and deal with it. Those that can, those that can suffer everything that they caused others to suffer, they absolve themselves, and they may enter heaven.”
“That’s why they’re here?”
“Yes. Everyone here is preparing for the day when they will be ready to touch the glass.”
She picked up a square of black fabric and draped it over the glass, covering it safely.
“How many have managed to get into heaven with that thing?” Marie asked.
Angela said nothing for a while.
“There’s plenty of time.” she said eventually “We have all the time we need to save them all.”
And with that she walked out of the Glass Room, with Marie following silently behind her.