CHAPTER 7: THE CUSTOMERS
She was awake and she was screaming.
In the darkness she tried to marshal her thoughts. Why was she screaming?
Not a dream, she didn’t have those anymore.
She felt like hot lead was being poured on her chest.
The pain had gotten worse while she had been sleeping.
It had gotten steadily more painful since her arrival in the City, and that had been four days ago. Now, it felt like it was killing her. Whimpering, she stumbled out of bed and felt her way down the corridor. Through a skylight over her head she could see the sky. It was early morning judging by the slightly lighter shade of grey. She did not know what made day or night pass in this place. It had been a long time since she had seen a sun.
The pain was now so bad it almost felt like her feet weren’t touching the ground, like she was being suspended in the air by a swarm of stinging hornets. Angela will know what to do, she has to.
There was a ball of fire in her chest.
She struggled on down the corridor, and came to the top of the stairs.
Her legs gave out and she tripped, rolling down the stair way, bruising her stomach and back on the hard wooden steps one after the other until she came to rest on the grey stone floor.
She lay there in the pale morning half-light, limp as a rag doll, unable even to move.
“Do not turn your back to the guilt. Do not push it away. Do not try to protect yourself from it. Guilt is the pain of the soul. It is the bleeding scar tissue left by your sin. It wants to hurt you. “
Angela’s clipped voice could be heard in the furthest corner of the hall, it cut into the last dusty grey nook in the rafters.
“Let it.” she said simply.
She stood against the wall of the Glass Room, while the woman she was speaking to stood with her hand outstretched, the palm spread over the cusp of the Black Glass. Her eyes were closed and she was clearly in great pain, the little piece of her face that was visible a twisted mass of lines, sticky golden tears running down her cheeks.
“Let it.” Angela repeated “Let it come. Let it devour you. Let it consume you until you feel that there will be nothing left. That is when you know you have suffered enough.”
“I can’t…I can’t…I’m sorry…” she mumbled.
“Don’t break.” said Angela “Weakness is why you are here in the first place. Even the damned on the other side of the black mountains have strength. This is not a place for the wicked, it is a place for the weak. Only by being strong can you hope to break the chains that hold you here.”
The door sprung open and one of the penitents stood in the doorway.
Angela glared at the intruder furiously. The Rite was never to be interrupted, under any circumstances.
The woman let go of the glass and fell to the ground, cradling her hand and crying softly.
“What is it?” Angela asked coldly.
The penitent whispered urgently in her ear.
Angela leaned over her.
She turned her on her back. Her eyes had rolled back in her head, she wasn’t moving.
“Marie! Marie talk to me!”
There was no answer, the girl was limp.
Angela looked around her.
“Help me get her into bed.”
She was the earth, a volcano bursting from her chest, white hot magma searing her flesh.
Colours swam in front of her eyes, every noise sounded like a swarm of bees.
And still the pain grew worse.
Angela and Hoss stood at the end of her bed, watching her as she whined in her sleep, and every movement she made spoke of agony.
“She been like this long?” Hoss asked.
“Since she came here. She said the pain’s been getting worse every day.”
“What about…there must be a doctor here?”
“Seven. But they’re more used to treating bodies, something no one in this place technically has, including her.”
“But she ain’t like us, is she? She never died. So…does she have a body or not?”
“I don’t know.”
“‘Cos that always confused the hell out of me.”
“I don’t know.”
“So what’s wrong with her?”
“It’s not a disease. It’s not an injury. It’s not…”
“Not anything we know it can’t be?”
“So we don’t know what it is? Speakin’ plain?”
“No. We don’t.” Angela turned away from him and looked at Marie.
“She’s dying, ain’t she?” Hoss said quietly.
“Yes.” said Angela “I think she might be.”
“I…” Hoss cleared his throat “I think…there might be someone who might know how to help her.”
Angela shot him an amazed glance.
“They…they’re in town. Picking up a shipment. They’re in the bar now.”
“I could ask them…offer them an extra crate.”
“Are you insane?!”
“I’m just saying…”
“Do you actually think they’d be willing to help her? They’re monsters!”
“Yeah, they are. Totally amoral, self-serving monsters and if they think they have something to gain they’ll do anything we ask ’em.”
“I am not going to hand her over to them. The fact that you pollute this city by bringing them here in the first place is bad enough but if you think…”
“There are worse things!”
“Angela…” Marie’s voice was almost inaudible.
“Yes Marie? said Angela gently, and went to her side. She bent down slowly, her ear over Marie’s mouth.
“Make it stop.” Marie whispered “Please…just make it stop…”
Angela fell silent, and simply gazed at Marie for a few seconds. Finally she got up and left the room.
When she came back, she had a sword in her hand. Hoss leapt back in fright.
“Whoa! Whoa! Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”
“It’s not for her. This is Marie’s. She told me that it can hurt them. If they try anything, anything, Hoss, you’re going to be down a few customers.”
“Uh, are you sure she wasn’t just kidding? What if it doesn’t actually kill them?”
“Then.” said Angela, and her eyes were as cold as the blade “I’ll just find another way to do it.”
On a stretcher cobbled together from blankets and bed posts, they carried Marie through the dust drowned streets of the city. Three on each side, Hoss at the back, Angela at the front, Marie gasping in pain in the centre.
“Almost there, hon.” Hoss whispered to her, “Almost there.”
Hoss’ bar was a large, circular affair with a wide, welcoming door quite unlike the thin, pursed lips of most of the buildings in the city. Inside it was dark and dank, and the air was full of the strange, spicy smell of Lethe water. There was a large bar to the back, and across the floor were round tables, each one with three or four chairs ranged around it. With one sweep Hoss cleared a brace of dirty glasses off the nearest table, and they laid her to rest on it, gently as they could so as to spare her pain. The few patrons who sat nursing their drinks looked up in surprise, perhaps the first surprise they had experienced in years, or if they were already in the midst of a trance, simply stared at the wall, the glass of Lethe clenched in their hands, their memories clenched in their minds.
“Mal?” Hoss called over to the bar where a young man who looked to have been in his twenties was cleaning glasses.
“Yeah Boss?” was the reply.
“They still here?”
“Them? Yeah, they’re still in the cellar.”
Without another word, Hoss ran to the cellar door and thrust his head down.
The cellar was too dark to see anything, but he could hear the sound of bottles being drunk in the black, and hissing voices speaking in low tones.
“Gameral?” Hoss called.
There was silence.
Something stirred in the black.
“Yes?” a voice purred from the cellar “Is something wrong, mister Hoss? I hope there was no problem with our payment?”
The tone of the voice was polite, subservient and utterly lethal.
“Gold’s fine.” said Hoss “I want to make a deal.”
There was a sharp intake of breath.
“A deal?” said the voice “Why, Mr Hoss, I thought we had just made one?”
“The whole stock. All of it. Everything in the cellar. It’s yours if you want it.”
There was a near cacophony of hissing in the darkness which was instantly silenced.
“You mean…you are offering me your entire stock of Lethe water?”
“In exchange for what?”
“Got a little girl up here. She’s sick. We reckon she may be dyin’.”
“I doubt that. But even if she were, I am no doctor.”
“No. But you’re greedy. And you’re selfish. And I have something you want. So you’ll damn well try.”
“Very well then…” purred the voice.
Something rustled like dead leaves.
From the table, Angela and her students watched in horror as the thing slowly emerged from the cellar.
It was both pitiful and terrifying, the bald head and the terrible yellow eyes, the nest of greasy, green needle-thin teeth that grew in it’s mouth. The filthy broken nails that sprouted from it’s paws. The lank wings of black skin that trailed in it’s wake.
The sheer evil that stank from it.
“So.” said Gameral with a smile that could rot an egg “Where is the patient?”