Hellraiser

Jeffrey Thomas is the author of the novels, in release or forthcoming, Monstrocity (Prime), Letters from Hades (Bedlam Press), Boneland (Bloodletting Press), The Sea of Flesh and Ash (with brother Scott Thomas, from Prime) and Everybody Scream (Raw Dog Screaming Press). His novella Godhead Dying Downwards was released through Earthling Publications. His collections, in release or forthcoming, include Punktown (Ministry of Whimsy Press, with an expanded special edition from Prime), Aaaiiieee!!! (Delirium Books), Honey is Sweeter than Blood (Delirium Books) and Terror Incognita (Delirium Books). He lives in Massachusetts.

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'Who can open the doors of his face?' - Chapter 41, Book of Job

 

The scarecrow was twenty feet tall, seemed to loom even taller for having been erected atop the roof of the derelict factory. Its torso was a gutted hovercar, its arms and legs twisted rails, and its head a razored metal pinwheel - a fan blade from some factory machine which spiraled lazily or became a blur when the winds picked up. The monster windmill was spray-painted black with green streaks and patches that  glowed in the dark, and around its wrists were lashed long red ribbons that snapped in the air. Zandra felt these were meant to look like streaming blood; perhaps the demon had slashed its wrists in bringing its spidery metal hands to its vortex of a face.

It was some god or devil of N'r'j folklore, but whether it was meant to overlook its erectors as a kind of guardian idol, or to ward/warn off outsiders from entering the factory grounds, Zandra didn't know. She did not speak the N'r'j tongue, and though she wore a translator headset in her work, it was of little avail if the N'r'j did not talk to her. They were nearly silent as a people - even amongst themselves, from her experience thus far.

Even the infant before her didn't squall as Aileen, Zandra's more experienced partner, inoculated it. It already had the tangled, glossy black N'r'j hair down past its shoulders. Zandra found the N'r'j sexes indistinguishable from each other, and the children were merely smaller version of the adults without (from her perspective at least) the "cute" factor which prompted everything from humans to dogs to feel affection for their young. That is, the infant's eyes were no larger; they were the same crusty white slitted lids contrasted within black sockets like oil stains. Its skin was the same grayish brown color, with a look and texture like layers of mummifying bandages sealed with a glistening varnish, the nostrils black dots and the lips a scabby black, ever peeled back from gray teeth half the size of human teeth. The adults were very slender but a head taller than humans, like ghastly scarecrows themselves. Zandra was sure their appearance accounted for a lot of the negative feelings the adjacent neighborhoods felt for the beings. Even in a colony city like Paxton, teeming with transplanted life forms in a day-to-day Mardi Gras, they were considered repellent.

Aileen smiled up at the creature's mother. 'He's a good patient...nice and quiet!' Zandra heard Aileen's words turned to disjointed growls over her mike.

The mother said nothing into their headsets. She gathered her child in her arms, turned, and walked back toward the gaping loading dock caverns, her long hair and long black robe rippling in the chill breeze.

Aileen looked to her new partner. 'They're a proud people - but I know they appreciate our efforts.'

'How old do you think that mother is?' asked Zandra, squinting as the breeze picked up. Grit was blown in her eyes and she glanced up to see the giant's rotor whizzing like a primitive propeller. She shivered.

'None of them here are past their teens. She was eighteen at the very oldest. I wish I could tell them apart more easily...they dress alike. If they were animals I might tag them!' she joked.

They moved on, stepping over strewn debris, moving between machines the N'r'j had dragged out of the factory shell so as to make more room for habitation; scorched ovens with shattered monitors piled on them. Between some of the larger ovens canopies had been draped to make tents, and N'r'j sat on chairs under them. Zandra smiled at some of these tent sitters as she passed, wondering what they were doing, if anything. If they had been talking they'd stopped. A boy, perhaps, already taller than a human man, traced a black metal rod in the dust. Its point had been sharpened to a silvery spike.

'Hey there,' Aileen said to a knot of small children, clustered in the old parking lot just beyond shipping/receiving. She extended a basket of foil-wrapped bars, nutritional but sweet. The children waited until she had come to them, then reached into the basket and grabbed like starving trick-or-treaters. 'Just one, just one,' Aileen told them, 'save enough for others.' The children scurried away, most vanishing into the factory through a broken window but several scampering up to the roofs.

The two women resumed their stroll of the old factory grounds. They were not as long-abandoned as they appeared; it had only been eight years since the Demakes Corporation had closed this plant and relocated. A fourth of its work force had been illegal beam skippers, teleportation stowaways seeking asylum in this melting pot colony. They had been a very inexpensive source of labor. But as the work had moved on, so had the N'r'j laborers, and Aileen estimated that half of their children had been left behind. As this area had been the only home they'd known (the N'r'j had dwelt in company barracks), the children had not strayed far. Except to beg in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Zandra saw a half-grown child kicking a can back and forth with two other children. He had but one arm. Aileen had informed her that the older children had severed limbs from some of the younger children so that they might illicit more sympathy when begging...but that this hadn't availed them much and thankfully the practice seemed to have ended. In fact, she said, begging had almost ceased altogether, and she felt the intervention of herself and others of the Mission had done much to help these people in the six short months since their project there had begun.

The can skittered off, missed by the child with one arm. While he dashed to chase it, a blastula drifted out of the air and alighted on the back of one of the other children's heads, where it pulsed like some external organ. Zandra made a small sound of alarm, started forward as if to move to the child's aid, but he/she seemed to sense the small translucent creature at last and brushed at his/her head. The primitive animal, spherical with a fluttering gill-like ring at its base, rose up into the sky again, the late afternoon light showing through its dark purple membranes.

'They don't seem to do any harm to people,' Aileen said. 'That's right...I haven't shown you the Monster yet.'

'What do the N'r'j think of it?' 

'They've never told me. But they keep away from it, so I think it scares them. They're very superstitious, so I wouldn't doubt they'd see it as a demon or god. I did see some kids try spray-painting  it once but the paint went right through. Come on...'

A high wall of glossy black tile surrounded the grounds, broken only by the front gates. In the rear of the factory complex there was a narrow alley between the wall and the back of one of the buildings. The two volunteers entered it, but Zandra nearly pulled back at the sight of a dozen blastulas affixed to the facing walls, pulsing, like a crop of strange fruit. But Aileen pressed ahead, and the creatures did not swarm down on them as Zandra feared. She had seen a lot since moving to Punktown, as the city was nicknamed, but never before an extradimensional life-form.

'Don't worry,' Aileen reassured her, 'they've landed on me before, but I didn't feel a thing. They don't have the effect the Monster has.'

'Will we feel anything, getting close to it?' Zandra asked, finding herself whispering.

'You won't suddenly step into a wall of depression. Working here, you might realize after a while that you're depressed, extremely tired, fatigued. You might not even realize the source of it at first, until you remember the Monster is back here.' Aileen stopped short of the alley's end and faced her younger companion. 'I'm on a prescription for antidepressants, so I don't have a problem. But unfortunately, half the people in the surrounding neighborhoods have to take drugs for the Monster's effects, too. They aren't happy about it. Until the authorities discovered it back here, from the air, it was thought to be residual waste from the factory. People were suffering lassitude, something like narcolepsy: there were even several comas. And three suicides. The Monster disturbs the electrochemical activity of the brain.'

'What about the kids?'

'The N'r'j don't appear to be effected, themselves, but we haven't been able to convince them to let us do a more comprehensive examination of them. Some have opened up enough to mention bad dreams to me, when I pressed them, but...' She shrugged.

'What is it the Monster's doing that makes this happen?'

'Biologists have been out here to study it. A lot of people want to kill it, and I think the neighbors would have done it already if they could find a way how. They're hoping, now, that the blastulas will kill it for them.' Aileen glanced over her shoulder nervously, but Zandra couldn't tell at what. 'The biologists think the electrochemical disturbance is a kind of telepathic cry of pain.'

'Pain?' Zandra breathed.

'Come on.' And Aileen stepped into an open area beyond.

It was an irregular courtyard of sorts made from the backs of several of the low factory structures. There were some drums, heaps of rubble, piles of autumn leaves with their color washed out of them, but no N'r'j. Whether the creature before them did effect the squatters, or just frightened them, or simply left them indifferent, the hidden courtyard was empty of life except for that from another dimension.

The Monster would be as large as a good-sized whale, Zandra estimated, were it to be seen in its entirety...and it was somewhat whale-like in its general form. But she could only see the forward half of the vast animal. It hovered in the air, translucent and a glowing ultraviolet color, like a cloud taking on life. The light seemed to pulsate subtly, and it was the creature's bioluminescence which had given it away to investigators in the air. At the mid-point of the creature, it abruptly ended, as if neatly cut away.

Aileen circled the immense life form, keeping back a bit perhaps more out of reverence and awe than fear. Zandra followed, and saw the cut-off point from the rear. Hard as it was for her to believe she was looking at an extradimensional animal hovering just above her in the air, it was harder still to imagine its tail end extending back into an utterly alien dimension her kind could not even glimpse. Was it a creature of the seas, judging from its flipper-like unfinished limbs, which waved in the air in slow motion, as though paddling? In its own realm, was it just as ethereal, or solid as she was in her world?

Its blunt head held no eyes, no mouth, she noted as they circled around its other flank. At the end of its aerodynamic body there was only a kind of checkerboard, an area of alternating squares of raised and depressed flesh. A sensory organ, but of what nature? That was all. As she watched, the great head lifted very slowly, then lowered again.

They think it was several months just to get this far through,' Aileen told her.  'And it's still coming, very slowly. But whether it will make it all the way through alive or not...' She trailed off.

The source of the Monster's suffering was apparent. To its ghostly flesh were affixed dozens, if not a hundred, blastulas...mostly congregated around a humped bulge on its back, which might be some vital area, some extra tasty source of whatever it was the parasites fed upon. The Monster showed no wounds, but the leech-like smaller creatures were feasting nonetheless. They were also from its plane, but seemed to move and fair much better here than the Monster did.

'What does it want to come here for?' Zandra whispered. She realized she was hugging her own arms to her chest.

'Who knows? It may be trying to get away from something. The blastulas, I would think, chased it here. Whether it made the rift itself or if something about the factory is somehow responsible, the biologists haven't figured out.'

'Poor thing,' Zandra muttered.

Aileen looked at her, and smiled. 'Well, the blastulas have to live, too, right? Come on, we should really be leaving. It will be dark soon. It's...not really a good idea to be here at night.'

Zandra met the other woman's eyes. 'Why? The blastulas...'

'The children. They know me...it's just...they've been so mistrusted, so misunderstood. They're nervous about outsiders, and I don't blame them. They used to work the night shifts because they're much more active at night, and I notice they get restless and the younger ones get...agitated, excited. That's when they go out into the neighborhoods. But like I say, they've been so badly treated...especially with the killings, and the police not properly investigating. They're still children, all of them, and children are wild. They get more daring at night, bolder. But they're children...'

Zandra nodded at Aileen's emphatic reassurance, but found herself shooting a look up at the dark roof tops around them, as if she expected to see lean silhouettes hunched there, with streamers of black hair flowing in the evening breeze.

Aileen began picking her way back to the alley opening. For a lingering few moments, Zandra took in the bisected, nameless creature. With every darkening moment it became more luminous. The head was lifting again. The blastulas, a more concentrated purple, looking like dark barnacles upon it but more like lampreys, throbbed as they sucked at its essence.

As Zandra turned at last to follow the older volunteer, she heard a stifled cry from the gloomy alleyway. It was something of a muffled gurgle, a terribly watery gurgle, as though someone were suffocating on vomit. Or choking on blood.

Then, three short sharp cracks, like dry sticks breaking. A gun, she realized, rooted in numbed terror.

'Aileen!' she whimpered, and a peripheral movement made her jerk her head to the right as a tall murky figure dropped from a low roof top a mere several yards from her.

It was a typical N'r'j, though not yet of adult height. The unruly black hair, parted in the center and stirring in the air. The lacquered mummified face - as impassive, utterly unreadable as the scarecrow's whirling smudge of a face - the peeled grin, the eyes that never seemed to open, crusted shut. Dressed all in black, its coat long and lapels turned up. But in its fist, something she had never seen a N'r'j with before. A large, expensive pistol of obsidian black ceramic.

And then the dark being was rushing at her, seizing her arm, dragging her along. Zandra screamed.

The N'r'j stopped long enough to press the gun muzzle under her ribs and hiss, 'Shut up. Come with me if you care for your life.'

The voice was not a translation over her headset; that had a different quality. The words had come in English from the being's mouth.

She stumbled along more willingly, the N'r'j leading her to the far corner of the courtyard. There were several drums clustered there, and the N'r'j pushed her down behind them into a scratchy puddle of leaves.

'Please, don't hurt me!' she pleaded. Tears blurred her vision, so that what she saw next took on an even greater unreality. Standing over her, gun in hand, the N'r'j reached up with its free hand and tugged at the skin of its neck. Then it was stripping off the flesh of its face, flaying itself before her.

But as the hideous face slithered away, she saw beneath it the face of a human man. His hair was short, dark, his features youngish and agreeable. She was too frightened by his gun, however, to be much reassured.

He crouched down behind the barrels with her, gun in one hand, mask in the other. 'Just keep quiet,' he hissed. He shot a look over his shoulder. 'Not that it matters, huh?' he added bitterly. 'They know we're back here.'

'Who?' managed Zandra.

'Who?' He glared at her. 'The N'r'j. Who do you think?'

'What do you want from me?' She heard her last two words decay into sobs.

'Nothing. I'm not here for you. You're just in the way, you and your friend.'

'What did you do to her?'

'What did I do? I didn't kill her...your long-haired friends did her.'

'Killed? Aileen?'

'Yes. Aileen. Whoever. She's dead. They got her. I shot one of them and the rest backed off. You two were fools to be here this late. Fools to be here at all. These things are devils. They don't appreciate what you're doing for them.'

'Who are you?'

The human regarded her a moment, and them smiled darkly, amused and perhaps proud. 'You've figured it out. You know someone's been killing N'r'j that stray into the neighborhoods...'

'Oh my God,' Zandra said. 'Oh...no...'

'Oh my God what? Listen...behind this back wall a block over is one of the oldest, nicest spots in Paxton, preserved from the Choom town that was here before Earth folk set down. Cobblestone streets. Quaint little shops. Beautiful stonework, iron balconies. Rents are high. It's a tourist attraction. And at night, for eight years now, N'r'j delinquents have been venturing there more and more. Begging by day...scaring off tourists. Getting bolder. Robbing people, mugging them, at night. Even murdering people. ' The human lifted his gun, read its ammo counter, switched off the luminous numbers. 'So...concerned citizens who shall remain nameless sought out an individual who would deal with this matter.'

'Please don't tell me,' Zandra begged, desperate. 'I don't want to know...please just let me leave...I won't say anything, I swear to God!'

'You think I'm going to kill you, don't you? Well, that's not my job, sister. You are a nun, aren't you?'

'No, just a volunteer,'

'How sweet. How naive.' He poked his head up to peer over the stained and dirt-caked barrels. 'What's your name?'

'Zandra.'

'Choom name?' She didn't answer until he looked at her.

'It's Greek. It means 'friend or helper of mankind'.'

'How convenient. Or...is that not your real name?' He obviously recognized her hesitation. 'It's not. Well, friend of mankind, since I've been so generous with information, what's your real name?'

Zandra hesitated once more, then: 'Shlet.'

He pretended to wince at its ugliness, amusing himself. 'No wonder. I can hear the comments from the kids in school now. Shit. Slut. Now...that is a Choom name, isn't it?'

The Chooms were the native people of the world Oasis, one of the most human of races Earth colonists had encountered, leading to theories of humans seeded on other worlds by more advanced beings in Earth's ancient past. If so, the Chooms had adapted since then. The greatest feature that differentiated them from Earthly humans was their wide mouths, extending ear to ear, and filled with multiple rows of strong molars. The Chooms had never become great hunters or even herdsmen, instead subsisting almost entirely on a vegetarian diet...until the colonists came. Perhaps because of this, they were a peaceful people, and there had been very little opposition to the colonization when it came; just isolated instances of violence from individual malcontents. Indeed, the Chooms had welcomed the Earth humans. They embraced the imported cultures. They learned the various imported tongues. They even became so self conscious of their queer dolphin-like mouths, so envious of the Earthly countenance, that it was not unknown for Chooms to have themselves cosmetically altered so as to look more like the Earth people. Black skin was alien to them, so particularly glamorous; they might dye their skin. And they might have great mouths made small and their jaws made less heavy with teeth...

'Isn't it?' the assassin persisted. 'You're a Choom.'

'Yes,' Zandra admitted, sitting up straighter, propping her back against the building's wall, and in so occupying herself, averting her eyes from the stranger's intent gaze.

'What was wrong with being a Choom that you want to be one of us? Chooms are fine by me. They're no worse than anybody. Not like these monsters here.'

'I...just like the way Earth girls look.'

'It's more than that. Are you ashamed? You think you'll get treated better? And the people you work for, they're a church, right? So you even adopted one of our religions, and you're spreading the good feeling to the poor and destitute with all that new convert's zeal. You shouldn't hate yourself like that, Shlet, you know? You seem like a nice girl...'

Zandra's eyes flashed at him. 'My nane is Zandra. Legally.'

'Shh. All right, whatever.' He stole another glimpse of the courtyard over the drums, then scanned the roof tops, gun gripped close by his face. 'I've never actually come into their camp before tonight. I always concentrated on the ones that strayed outside. They knew about me before, I'm sure...and now they know I'm here in their territory. I hadn't planned on getting pinned down like this...but I couldn't leave you vulnerable after what they did to your friend.'

'Assassin with a heart of gold, huh?'

The killer grinned at her. 'We're getting a little braver now, huh? I'm not a monster, dearie. I don't take every job I'm offered. I have beliefs, opinions, my own code of ethics. I feel for the people in this area. This isn't rich against poor like you think. Tourists get mugged, and people from less expensive neighborhoods just come to shop, and they aren't wealthy necessarily. The N'r'j are animals, plain and simple. They don't give half a damn about you and what you're doing...they probably laugh at you. Inside. They never laugh on the outside. They left their kids here. On their world, they do nothing but war and kill each other...they get along so poorly with their own, let alone anyone else, that they live in little clans and tribes of extended family more than real towns, and they don't have any real countries or unified government. You want to make them like you? It will take more than a mouth job, Shlet. They're evil.'

'No people are inherently evil. Evil is...subjective.'

'Oh, yeah. That is true. We should respect that one group may commit genocide on another, or cut off a woman's clitoris so she can't enjoy sex, or hack off a kid's leg so she can be a more effective beggar. Just because it's not the way we do things doesn't mean we should pass judgment...'

'You're so passionately concerned about terrible things, for a hired killer.'

'That's the spirit, dearie. Insult a hired killer with a gun. Good. At first, there, I thought you were just a little jellyfish.' He checked the view again. 'Speaking of which, that big beastie is amazing, huh? Beautiful, really. He lights up the whole courtyard.'

Zandra found herself staring at his pistol. Dare she try to seize it? When he twisted back around she flinched, as if he might catch her gaze upon the weapon.

'I feel kind of...dopy, watery. Do you feel that way, or is it just psychosomatic?'

Zandra wasn't going to reply, but realized suddenly that, yes, she did feel weak, drained - even sleepy. They were so close to the apparition's emanated aura. 'I guess,' she admitted. 'Look,' she said, then paused, then continued, 'I know you killed Aileen. Why would they suddenly kill her, when she was helping them for months? Why suddenly tonight, coincidentally the first night you came over the wall?'

'Well I think they saw me. So I think they were excited and on edge, and got bloodthirsty, and came back here thinking they'd get me and found her instead. And would have got you, too, if I hadn't stepped in.'

'But you were wearing a mask. You looked like them.'

'Yeah, true. And pretty convincing, isn't it?' He held the face up by its long hair. 'It should be; it's real. A trophy from an earlier excursion.'

'Oh...Jesus!' Zandra turned her own pretty mask away as she heard the skinned face drop with a nauseating rustle. 'You're...sick...'

'They must've seen my gun. They may have thought I was one of them, betraying them, or maybe even my great disguise didn't convince them. But I noticed they were starting to move around like they were alarmed...I would have aborted and gone back over the wall, really, if you and your friend hadn't run into trouble first. But I didn't kill your bleeding-heart friend, Zandra. I wouldn't.'

'Not for free, anyway. And your heart must bleed, too. For rich shop owners. And for pretty girls...'

'Oh, modest, aren't we? You think you're pretty now that you look like an Earth girl, huh? Such sad vanity. I'm sure you were pretty even with that big old Chew-'em grin.'

'I don't believe you didn't kill Aileen.'

The assassin's good humor was replaced by flashing dark menace. 'I told you, I didn't kill her! Why, then, haven't I killed you? I may have got her killed indirectly...by agitating the N'r'j...and I'm sorry you got caught in the middle. But I don't want to hear that again...'

'Or you'll kill me?'

'You are brave,' he croaked, directing his hot glare elsewhere as if to divert his anger. 'They're smart, they're hanging back. Waiting to ambush us. It'll be a long night but I suggest we don't move until light, when they get more sluggish. Then I'll get you over the wall.'

'You'll let me live? After I saw your face, and you told me everything?'

'It's blown. So what? I've made good money on it; I'll make money somewhere else. I don't have roots here.'

'Do you feel so passionate about all your jobs?'

'No. But these parasites are easy to hate. You superimpose your good intentions on them. Look at them with naked eyes some time. And I don't mean their ugly faces. That's of no consequence. The real horror is inside.'

'It sure is. Because you're pretty good-looking, on the outside.'

He swivelled around to smile at her, his good mood restored. 'Why thank you.'

'It was really an insult.'

'I know. But I'm enjoying your company anyway.'

Zandra blinked her eyes hard several times in an effort to crack the heavy weights that seemed to be solidifying on her lids. Her body felt like a loose bag stuffed with stones. Though she couldn't see the Monster from this position, she saw its violet illumination on the tiled wall and the buildings around them, and against the phosphorescent air the occasional dark bubble of a voracious blastula.

'You're the vain one,' she murmured. 'You couldn't resist showing off to me what you do. Trying to impress me, and yourself.'

Apparently more confident that they would remain undisturbed so long as they did not compromise their position, the assassin moved from his crouch to sitting on the ground nearer to Zandra, his back against a drum. With his free hand he rubbed at his eyes. 'You're so cruel, after I saved you.'

'I don't believe they'd hurt me!'

'They're not you, dearie. Not everyone and everything is you. You can't convert them, because they have no souls to save. Some beings are only shadows of life...if you weren't some little Choom rube from some insulated hick town you'd have learned that already. You thought coming here and putting on a small mouth would make you fit into this place? You should have left your own soul back home, little girl.'

'You're very superior for a murderer,' Zandra retorted, but she was disturbed by how easily he saw through her transfigured flesh, guessing even that Punktown was as new to her as extradimensional creatures. She supposed that a lifetime in such a city would indeed heighten one's perceptions. It would be a matter of animal survival. The drive for survival made people do ugly things, that much she would concede. She rested her forehead on her knees, which she wrapped her arms around against the late autumn cold. 'You're the parasite. You're robbing the shop keepers, too. You're like those...things on the Monster.'

'I'm not the one who's like those things,' she heard the stranger murmur. 'Life is hard, little Choom. I'm just a sheep dog. And there are wolves out there.'

'Wolves aren't evil,' Zandra mumbled.

The assassin did not reply. He had mellowed with the quiet of the night. All she heard now was the distant scraping whir of the scarecrow's spinning metal face.

She looked up and the fan was spinning above her head, a swirling halo. She looked to one of her wrists, and then the other, and found they were lashed to the wrists of the scarecrow with red ribbons. She looked down, and a N'r'j standing below her thrust a spear up into her side...

There was a tugging at her sweater, and she thought the stranger was removing her clothes, having caught her asleep and dreaming. But no, he seemed to be lifting her up. Was it time to go over the wall? She was lifted higher...but she was so groggy she could only just slit her swollen eyes. Her feet dangled off the ground. Crucified, as in her dream? No...she was sliding up the wall, hooks at the end of chains snared in her sweater and belt.

With all her strength, she tilted her head back and saw hunched silhouettes against the sickly green glow of city sky. Long hair snapping like tattered banners.

She looked back down at the ground, and now made out her companion, still slumped against his drum. They had fallen under the Monster's spell, she realized, and there it was still suspended in the air, caught between worlds like her, and covered in those pulsating organisms. It lifted its head, paddled helplessly in place.

'Thank you,' Zandra slurred to the N'r'j as they hauled her onto the edge of the roof. 'Thank you. I thought he was going to kill- '

She sucked her breath back in a thorny little gasp as two of the grinning stick figures stepped to the lip of the roof, cocked back their arms, and flung sharpened black pikes downward. From the edge of the roof, Zandra could see the drugged stranger flinch hard as the first pike plunged into his shoulder, and then slump forward with the second through his crown and out his jaw.

Her gratitude turned to horror and, oddly, regret. But they had saved her. He was a killer. He couldn't possibly have intended to let her live after what he'd confessed. He had been keeping her as a hostage; that might be why the N'r'j hadn't advanced on them sooner, afraid he might hurt her. She was, after all, their new benefactor.

She mustn't show her horror. She mustn't let them think she didn't appreciate her rescue. She staggered back from the roof edge, turned to face the creatures who were now her benefactors.

'Thank you,' she told them again.

Three N'r'j loomed before her. Their faces were empty. They were interchangeable, mass produced as if by the factory itself. But they seemed to be regarding her as the alien. And then one of them abruptly struck her across the head with the side of its unthrown spike and Zandra fell heavily to the flat roof at their feet.

'No! Please!' she cried, raising warding hands. 'I'm not with him, I'm not!' The blow had dislodged her headset; could they comprehend her meaning? After another moment of regarding her, the N'r'j cocked back his metal rod for another blow. 'I'm here to help you!' she wailed and the pike came down. Raised. Came down.

Zandra rolled onto her belly. She couldn't see. Before the spike could pummel her a fourth time, she pulled herself off the edge of the roof in one desperate lurch. The drop wasn't far, and there were leaves to carpet the fall, but she felt blood pool in her ear.

She dragged herself farther away from the building, so that their hooks wouldn't reach. All the way to the slippery smooth tiles, she guessed by touching, of the black surrounding wall...hopefully out of the range of an accurate spike throw.

She rested there, alongside the wall. The Monster must be directly above her, she thought. Like a scarecrow, it would keep the demons at bay. Its nearness, which had frightened her only hours earlier, was now her greatest comfort. Her guardian angel.

The night had become still again. The rustle, only, of stirring dead leaves. The squeaky whir of a metal face. The sweet perfume of a luminous fog, creeping into her mind, soothing it, filling it with light to substitute for sight.

She welcomed its peace. This return to the comfort of blindness.

She was able to roll onto her back, so as to turn her unseeing face to the being's soft radiance, so as to surrender herself to it. But as soon as she had done so, she realized she could see again. In part, could see again. She saw, strangely, only the glowing extradimensional creatures against a void of solid blackness. She saw a darkly glowing sphere alight on her unseen leg. Another floated onto where her belly must be. The air was suddenly filled with swarms of the creatures, like soap bubbles drifting to earth. Drifting to her...

They smelled death, she thought. They smelled a soul soon to be liberated, and vulnerable...

She was too weak to do more than run one hand once over her belly. It seemed to pass through the jelly-like beings. More blanketed her.

But in congregating on her they were abandoning the Monster. In fact, its movements seemed to grow more animated, as if it meant to shake off the last few of the vampires.

'Go,' she whispered, smiling feebly. She could save one soul, if not her own. She spread her arms out like wings, to invite the feasting demons.

As Zandra watched through eyes dropping slowly shut, the Monster gave one final heave - throwing back its great faceless head, throwing off its yoke - and slipped backward into the rent it had originally come through. And then it was gone. And Zandra was left in darkness in its wake.

 

 

(C) Jeffrey Thomas 2004

 

 

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