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When he was ten, Septimus Jones first lost hope.
He and his brothers had been walking in the woods near their home. In his eyes, these trees were the size of gods, scraping the sky and looking down on creation through evergreen eyes. Amid these titans, his brothers, too, were grand things, standing above him like moving monuments.
After a while of hiking, his legs were tired, so he told his brothers he needed to take a seat. Martin—the oldest—agreed, and Septimus sat on a grand stump. Martin and Ahmad, the middle child, went ahead, leaving Septimus. The trail they were on was well known to all three, even little Septimus, so he should be fine to catch up.
It started to rain.
This was out in the places where rain could come up out of nowhere. Gray-blue sky one moment; the next, a storm the likes of which only the heavens themselves could unleash. The kind of rain that can be kind—the bringer of life, the grower of crops. But the weight of that kind of rain is special. Portentous.
Something is happening, your mind tells you. Something important.
Septimus made it home, but Martin and Ahmad didn’t. In the days after, reconstructing the events, the police decided it was like this: The rain destroyed any chance they had of navigation, so they didn’t notice that they failed to make a turn, and Ahmad - in the lead - fell over the edge first. Martin tried to get him out of the gorge, tried climbing down the side by hanging onto the roots and sticks stuck in the wall sides, but he slipped, and they both died beside each other at the bottom of a scar in the world.
The rain today reminds Septimus of that day. Something in it tells him that this day is going to be one of the most important in his life.
And it isn’t that he’s just survived a plane crash.
The rain is almost deafening. Heavy water slamming hard against metal, making an echo that’s just this side of unbearable. But here, inside the largest remaining section of plane, it’s at least dry.
The remnants of the plane look like eggshells strewn across the dark canyon, amid high columns of stone like the one that took the plane down. A few hundred feet away is the bulk of one engine. Nearby, perpendicular, a propeller stuck in the dirt.
It’s cold, but at least it’s not freezing. Septimus crosses his arms and rubs his chest for warmth. Thunder roils in the distance, and for a moment a streak of white-blue lightning makes everything glow.
This looks bad. He doesn’t deny that. But they’re alive. The plane broke up quickly, but Curson was able to save them somehow.
Septimus doesn’t know how.
Nearby, a rain-slick red lizard stares at him. Septimus watches it for a while, holding a staring contest.
Septimus blinks, and the lizard flees.
Actually he doesn’t even know it was Curson that saved them. But of the three of them, Curson is the only one that’s a demon, and walking away from a plane crash with only a few broken ribs and some light cuts? That counts as magical to Septimus.
Granted, he got off fairly easy.
She screams again.
A wail of pain and rage.
Jaq’s arm is broken. Small shards of glass have cut her up so she looks like a Mondrian piece. One bigger wedge of rain-cleaned glass was plunged deep into her side until Curson ripped it out without care.
She found a stone outcropping, largely free of mud, and that’s where she’s set herself. She’s on her knees, sitting back on her heels, and bent forward at the waist. Folded herself as tight as possible, her head resting on hard rock.
Her home. Her livelihood. Spread across a dark canyon because she did a favor for Curson.
She doesn’t even feel her arm anymore. It probably isn’t supposed to be at that angle, but she doesn’t care, and she doesn’t consider that not feeling the arm is probably a bad thing.
She’s cold. And she hurts. And she’s never felt so alone in her entire miserable life because the only fixed station she had in her entire tempest of emotions and facts has just been shred to ribbons, pulled apart bolt by bolt, slammed against a literal rock and a literal hard place.
She screams again, as hard and as loud as she can, although that isn’t quite as loud as the last one. When the scream turns into a sob she shuts it off because she doesn’t have time to be sad right now. Angry, yes. Not sad. That will come later. If she lets it.
Freezing rain has soaked her shirt so it sticks to her skin. Her jacket is nearby on the ground - Curson made her remove it so he could get to her wounds.
When he returns, she just barely notes the sound of his feet on the ground. Fine leather shoes squeak on stone, dry despite the downpour. He kneels down, small stones shifting under his weight.
“We’ll need to move fairly quickly,” he shouts over the weather. “We appear to be in a canyon,” he continues. “The rain is beginning to collect here. We have some time, but as this downpour shows no sign of—”
Jaq screams again. This one isn’t a wail of dread, but the sound of her entire left arm burning to life with electric fire. She screams her lungs out as Curson grabs her arm and forces it straight.
The pain doesn’t stop, but it dulls. A feeling of strong pressure closes around her forearm, constricting it.
“I hoped some annoying banter would distract you,” Curson says.
Jaq doesn’t say anything, just pants and cries on the ground.
Broken limbs hurt, by the way.
“I can’t heal the arm independently,” he says. “Sadly that is an ability that was lost when I was summoned here. But I can reduce the pain, and set it temporarily.”
Jaq doesn’t even have energy left to sit there anymore. When Curson lets go of her arm, she lets herself fall over to the right, laying on her side on stone, staring at him.
She looks at her forearm, which is wrapped in tight leather straps. Curson, still kneeling near her, holds up a sling that’s been cobbled together from cloth in the wreckage.
“There’s a building,” he says, and looks up along the canyon. “To the north. Well, north-ish. Hard to make out in the dark, but it seems to be of some size. Some kind of settlement. It’s at a good distance, though. We’ve a hike ahead.”
“You don’t know where we are?”
He shakes his head. “Something to do with the creatures, no doubt. The helmet-like one we were using has died, by the way. The energy of bringing us here killed it - it was dead before we hit the canyon.”
“I don’t care,” Jaq says.
“Let me die.”
“You’ve lost your home. Fine. Pick up and move. You’ve had an hour to grieve. I won’t let you waste your energy any longer, and I won’t let you waste my time. The only way to get on is to get on.”
“You aren’t my type.”
“Was that a joke?”
Jaq sits up. Slowly, groaning all the way. Once she’s upright, Curson stands and holds out her coat—a heavy jacket with a chickadee embroidered on the shoulder.
“When this is done,” Jaq says, “I don’t work for you anymore. Whether I’m living or dead.”
“I’ll replace the plane.”
“That isn’t the point, Curson. The point is that you threw me into this blind. I’ve lost my home. There’s no argument here. As soon as this is done, and you’ve put cash in my hand, we don’t know each other anymore.”
Septimus holds out a hand to help her. She stands without taking it, but grabs her coat as she walks past him.
“Hey,” Septimus says, looking up at Jaq. “How are you feeling?”
“Curson saw a building,” Jaq says. “At the end of the canyon. We’ve got a long hike ahead. C’mon, help me search the wreckage. We should find weapons.”
Septimus stands, crouching under the cover of broken fuselage, bones popping.
“Older than I used to be,” he says.
“Almost by definition.”
Septimus steps into the rain. He had an hour to dry off under the shelter of wreckage, but in the space of a breath he’s drenched again. Jaq starts walking toward one of the larger metal sheets, lodged in the ground.
“Scouting.” She groans after answering, and touches her hand to her left arm, then winces.
“Quit touching it.”
Septimus starts to ask another question, but stops himself.
“Did you hear a sound?”
“Rain and stone.”
“No, something else.” He scans the canyon up and down, then runs his eyes along the tops of the walls.
“There,” he says, pointing. “Look.”
Jaq follows his gaze, to the top of the sides of the canyon, stone formations that are nearly vertical walls rather than hills.
“Do you see it?”
Jaq sees something - a shape, maybe? Then - right at the edge of the rock, several pinpricks of red light.
“Eyes,” Septimus says.
“We should find guns.”
They split up and search the wreckage. Jaq has an idea of where her guns might have wound up, but the dark day and darker stone don’t fill her with hopes of finding them easily.
She follows a curving path of wreckage that leads her closer to where they should be. A coffee mug that somehow survived. A book she never got around to reading, but which was sitting on a shelf near the guns, and near—
A box. A box Jaq doesn’t recognize, nearly a foot long, made of wood. No flourish to the construction, only two long sides and two short, dark red. And completely dry.
Jaq picks up the box. As soon as she presses her fingers to the wood, raindrops appear all over, and soon the thing is as wet as the rest of the canyon.
There’s no latch, no keyhole. Just two hinges on one long side. Lightning flashes as Jaq opens it. Inside is a folded piece of heavy paper, with her name on it. She unfolds it with her bad hand, grunting slightly as she moves it. The print on it is well dried, so it doesn’t run, and the paper is heavy enough that the rain doesn’t cause it to disintegrate.
The words are written in broad, clean strokes, easily read, even in this light.
You do not know me, but I send you a gift and messages. The gift is for you.
The gift is enclosed in the box.
The messages are these:
Jaq: To win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths.
Septimus: Full fathom five thy father lies.
Curson: He jests at scars that never felt a wound.
Ask Curson about Vodyrazum.
The letter is unsigned.
Jaq reads it over a few times, trying to figure out the messages, but nothing comes. She fights back an impulse to throw the whole thing away. She’s never seen the box, and she’s never been here. So who knew she would be here?
In the end, she pockets the letter and looks at the box. If nothing else, the letter mentioned a gift. Gifts are fun and never a trap, right?
Under the letter, a thin panel sits in the box. She lifts it, tosses it to the ground. Underneath is a telescope of brass, with engravings of eyes up and down the shaft, except for a narrow band which reads ECCE OMNIA.
Jaq hears Septimus approaching before he speaks.
“Not a gun,” she says. “Read this.” She hands him the note, and takes the telescope. While he reads, Jaq looks through the lens. It works as expected: like a telescope. She scans the horizon, finds nothing.
“Those eyes are gone,” she says.
Septimus looks, follows the ridge of the canyon.
“Where did this come from,” he asks, waving the letter.
“I just found it. And this.” She looks again at the body of the telescope. “Does that mean anything to you? Full...what is it?”
“Well. If we take it literally, it means my father’s dead and underwater. The dead part isn’t news, but he’s buried in a cemetery back home, so I don’t know what this is supposed to tell me.”
“What about mine? Any thoughts?”
“It’s Shakespeare. They all are. Mine’s The Tempest, yours is Mac, Curson’s is Romeo and Juliet.”
“The Scottish play.”
“Why do you know this?”
“I have a bachelor’s in literature.”
“Very really. So, look,” he says, pointing out the message. “Win us our harm. Harm is harm, right, so what that means is: to lead us to harm, right?”
“I believe you.”
“Instruments of darkness.”
“Evil and it’s many agents.”
“Yes. Tell us truths is pretty straightforward.”
“So, evil folks win us over with little bits so they can screw us over in the end.”
“That’s what it says. The question is, what does it mean?”
“At a guess? It means not to trust Curson.”
When they regroup with Curson, Jaq and Septimus each have a pistol stuffed in their jeans. Jaq also has a rifle slung over her back, but her busted arm means she probably won’t be using it any time soon. Curson is sitting on a rock, waiting for the pair.
“What’s Vodyrazum?” Jaq asks.
“Vodyrazum. What’s it mean?”
“Is it a person?” Septimus asks. “Or a place?”
“Where did you hear that word?”
Jaq holds out the letter—no point in hiding it. She tells him the story of finding it. She skips the part about the telescope, though—no need for Curson to know about that just yet.
Curson reads the letter repeatedly. His fingers tense on the page, and he seems ready to tear or crumple it, but holds it out instead, handing the unfolded sheet back to Jaq.
“I have been a fool,” he says.
No one responds to that.
“I suspected, feared even. But I should have known.” He stops here, and watches the horizon. “The creatures you have seen. I didn’t make the connection, that’s how faded my knowledge of Hell has become.”
Like a film jumping a few frames, Curson switches from stoic to enraged. He lets out a cry of anger and smacks his hands against his skull, shouting. “Curse this damned brain! Damn that cursed wizard! I am losing my mind stuck on this ludicrous plane!” He groans in anger, then quiets. “Those creatures are the Vodyrazum. And I should have known that I have encountered them before.
“This story is long. We will walk, and I will tell you.”
“Exposition time?” Jaq asks.
If you wish to imagine Hell, imagine a clock. Each hour is a sphere the size of a city, bound to a thirteenth sphere at the center. But these spheres and their construction are not like your skyscrapers - they are not bound by reason. They are more akin to your Escher than your Bosch.
The spheres are Jahannam, Gehenna, al-Nar, Sheol, Pandaemonium, Tartarus, Abaddon, Annwn, Hades, Naraka, Apollyon, and Ishiogo.
The sphere at the center is the domain of Lucier, and is called Dis. But we’ll not speak of Lucier this day.
Yes, Lucier, not Lucifer. The f was a mistake of transliteration, as I understand it.
Hell is simply another civilization in the history of forever. It is a simple matter of entropy - Hell will not be the last.
But it is also not the first.
The first civilization has been lost to time. I speak true when I say that even Hell cannot see what came before my own people. We are granted far sight, but some shrouds are too thick.
Once, some time ago, my people found a crystal that inscribed a ritual that required much sacrifice - both blood and time - to complete, but which, we hoped, would reveal information about the times before ours.
As King of Ishiogo, the City That Seeks Knowledge, I was present for the completion of this ground-breaking ritual. Many dignitaries were present. Though our city is renowned for seeking knowledge, implementing such a unique piece of history was seen as vital to all of Hell. Lucier was not himself present, but some of his top aides were.
The ritual worked, and an entity came through. It was one of the creatures you have seen. The creatures we called the Vodyrazum.
It lacked any form of intelligence we could interact with, and lashed out against us. It fought us, and we could do nothing against us. The mightiest weapons of Hell did nothing. The beast only disappeared when the ritual ended. Before it went, it broke through my city, ripping down buildings, creating tunnels as wide as nations, destroying legions of lives.
That ritual was sealed away in a vault in the city of Lucier. It was deemed too dangerous to all of Hell.
And now, dozens of the creatures are appearing, engulfing entire islands. Ishiogo was once greatest of the Infernal realms, and under my own direction, it fell to the least. If the knowledge we gained in that ritual was found again, or more of my demons found new information, then circumstances are dire. Not just for my pride, as king of Ishiogo, but for my people.
His tale complete, Curson pulls himself onto a boulder without difficulty. Septimus follows - boosted by Jaq. He turns, and pulls Jaq up. Before Curson can climb to the next level of the canyon wall, Septimus puts a hand on his shoulder.
“So you’re a king? Septimus asks.
“Hang on. Just, let us get this a second. What’s your goal? What do you expect to find at the end of all this?”
Curson turns to face Septimus, but doesn’t meet his eyes. He looks down at the canyon, which is now more below them than ahead. They’re at the end of it, nearing the top. The rain has dropped to a sprinkle, but the stones are still wet, and the air cold.
After a while, Curson says, “I’m not sure. I am, as I always am, driven by a need to know. How have they come back? Who sent them? Can they be destroyed?”
Septimus turns to say something to Jaq, but she’s already moved past, pulling herself up onto the next rock, grunting with pain as she uses only one arm. Sep and Curson follow, and after a little while longer, they’re each standing on the edge of the canyon.
They stand at the summit of an island of grass. Ruins of walls and structures dot the island. The collapsed walls of twelve buildings form a circle ahead. Ahead, a chicken-wire fence has been ripped off of its pylons, strips of the stuff slapping in the wind. Crashing waves wash the distant edges of the island.
Ahead, in the center of the ruined circle is a building. Foursquare clapboard construction, three storeys, with a peaked roof and a small clock tower at one end. The clock has no hands.
Within the clocktower, a bell rings.