The darkness was absolute. There was no wind in this place, and whatever was under Nash’s feet, it was not earth in the traditional sense. Every step was uncertain. It felt like climbing stairs in the night, not knowing whether there would be something there to meet your next step. Waiting for that awful moment when reality contradicted expectations. The powers Gene and Ariel had given him were not able to help. And in the realm of the dead, he didn’t even know where he was going.
“Can you see anything in this place?” he whispered. The air was stagnant and musty, filled with the scent of spores. There was no sound beyond their voices, which seemed muted and dulled, nearly grinding his whisper into nonexistence.
“Yeah,” Cassandra muttered. Her voice was strained as the two of them walked through the darkness. “Just keep moving. The… ground is even. There’s no gaps in it.” A tremor ran through her, and he squeezed her hand gently. “You’re lucky you can’t see this place. Believe me. There’s nothing here that you want to see.” Her hand clenched around his as they walked through the shadows. He thought he felt the ground shudder slightly under him, resettling. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, as he slowed his pace. “Keep walking. Maybe a little faster. There’s nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about.” She repeated the words like a prayer, under her breath.
They continued walking like this, for some time. The ground would shudder, and she would speed up her pace. The darkness was beginning to get to Nash. He couldn’t hear anything, he couldn’t see anything. Aside from Cassandra’s grasp, it was like sensory deprivation. “I might have a lighter or something in my jacket. Something that could light things up. Would that help any?”
“No!” Her words cut through the silence like a firecracker, and she stopped as the sound echoed for a few moments, before fading into the darkness.” Just- No. Trust me, alright? The best possible situation for you, right now, is to see absolutely nothing.”
“You know the saying ‘nothing is scarier’, right? The mind is capable of some incredible feats of imagination. I can imagine, for example, that we’re walking on the backs of hundreds of thousands of corpses, right now. That the shaking is some huge beast, in the distance, getting closer with every step. I can imagine that the ceiling is falling every time it rumbles, and that we’re trying to get out of this place before it caves in on us, each rock getting a bit closer. What I’m getting at, here, Cassandra, is that I have a hard time believing that what I could see is any scarier than what I can imagine.”
“Yeah. I’ve heard people say that.” Her voice was hollow, shaken. “Turns out they’re wrong. Now… okay.” She stepped ahead of him, and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Follow me. Very closely. Just keep your hands on my shoulders, and stay close. If something happens- Don’t worry. I’ve got you.” She swallowed hard. He followed her. Every step was deliberate, her arms outstretched on either side. With the greatest of care, he tested his surroundings with one foot, balancing with the help of Ariel. His toes didn’t find anything. Just empty air on either side of a slender bridge, perhaps a foot across. “Keep up.”
“How far is it to fall?” he asked, softly.
“Not very far. Maybe five feet.” The tone in her voice told him that this did not mean falling was safe. “Let’s go a little faster,” she whispered. Her tone had a note of pleading to it. He nodded, as the two of them walked through the darkness. Then, a slight imp of the perverse got into him.
He began to whistle the opening chords of In The Hall of the Mountain King. At first, the slow, plodding tune was absorbed by the darkness. Slowly, though, it began to cut through the pall that hung over them, beginning to grow louder. Just as he was beginning to hit the crescendo, Cassandra hissed out, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
“Is anything coming to attack us because I’m whistling?” he asked softly.
“Then whistle along. You’ve know the tune, right?”
“Yeah, I saw M.”
“They used this song in M?”
“You watched M?”
“Christ, Cassandra, I thought I was the strange one. Alright, then whistle along.”
“Why?!” she hissed.
“Because the silence is getting to me. And it seems appropriate to the surroundings.” He began whistling again. After a couple of bars, she joined in timorously. The two of them began to whistle it together, the song echoing out around them, growing stronger as she grew more confident. They hit the crescendo, reaching a harmony that rang the walls. They came to the end of the spit of earth, as the song finished. “Any trouble?” he asked, as the sound of the ringing whistles died away. She laughed softly.
“No. Uh, thanks. I feel a bit better. It’s… This place is kept dark to comfort those who arrive here, Silas. So they don’t see what it’s really like.” She was quiet for a moment. “Adventure isn’t nearly as fun as I thought it’d be. Still, I think this is important, what we’re going to do- oh, god.” Her voice grew suddenly strained. For the first time since they’d arrived, there was sound, like the rustling of wind through leaves.
“What’s the matter, Cassandra?”
“It’s a forest, Silas. Just a forest. If something bumps against you… just ignore it” She whispered softly. The two of them walked in silence for a while.
“Are you sure you can’t just tell me? I’ve seen some pretty awful things while I’ve been in Zion.” His imagination was already working overtime. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were opened or closed; Blinking didn’t make any change in the pattern of blackness in front of him. His mind conjured up all kinds of hideous images, though, eager to fill the gaps.
“Son.” It wasn’t Cassandra’s voice. He stopped. Cassandra tugged gently at his hand. “My son.”
“Mister Nash? You’ve got to keep walking, please. We can’t stay here.”
“My darling boy. Look how strong you are.” The voice was whispering from directly above him. He started walking again. “You have grown so magnificently. I told you, didn’t I? I promised that she would watch over you. And such gifts she has given you, my dear boy.” His mother’s voice laughed, softly, and there was a bubbling noise in that laugh. Like a throat that had not quite survived the terminal fall. “It was all worth it, wasn’t it? Say it, boy. I sacrificed so much for you, you know. Even my life.”
“I didn’t ask for that,” he hissed out, stopping again. Cassandra’s hand tightened.
“Mister Nash. Come on. There’s no one… animate… here. If you’re hearing something, it’s your imagination.”
“Silas. Come now. You know your mother’s voice. You owe me, my child. I gave my life to preserve yours. Now you can make it right.” He felt something silk brush across his cheek, like the web of a spider the size of a great dane. It was hanging from the branches. Another one brushed across his face. “All you have to do is take my place, son. You can make your betrayal right. You can remember how you felt when you heard what that Echidna woman went through, can’t you? She sought so hard to protect that boy. I was just the same. Don’t you owe it to your mother, Silas? Don’t you deserve this? Let me out of this dark place. Take my place!” The voice spoke, ringing in his ears, strange and alien.
His head was spinning. He could barely breathe. The words were skittering through his brain. Another of the silk ropes brushed over his face, cool and soft against his skin, soothing his thoughts. It ended in a loop, perfectly sized for his head to fit through. He took hold of it, and released Cassandra’s hand. He leaned forward, and felt it brush across his cheeks in a tender caress.
*Cool summer days loved ones the people who will never recover if you give up now you coward you can’t let them down they’ve sacrificed everything they had even their hope for you if you die now you’ll be betraying EVERYONE-*
He jerked back, and there was an unpleasant whipcrack sound. He couldn’t speak from experience, but it sounded very much like a snare tightening and snapping up at neck-breaking speeds. Cassandra grabbed his hand as he gasped for air. Not yet. He couldn’t die yet.
“Nash! For gods sakes, you can’t listen to the things here, okay?!” She tugged him along, faster this time. The ropes continued to brush at him, like the hanging silk of spiders, but he ignored them, and walked as quickly as he could without risking garroting himself on them. Of course his mother wouldn’t be here. She had died, certainly, but she wasn’t Japanese. She didn’t believe in Shinto. Why on earth would she be in Yomi? His mind was spinning out of control at the insinuating words. It had been so long since he’d thought of her death, of what he’d heard when she was taken from him. The mention of the red-headed nurse at the asylum. He shook his head. Then, they were walking up stairs.
“What’s going on?” he asked softly. He could hear the soft clatter of bones against ground, and flesh being dragged over rough stone.
“We’re in a city. I think that we’re getting pretty close. There are a lot of… things, around.” Not humans. Not monsters. Not even ‘people’. Things. That was an unsettling mental image. Today had been full of them. The two of them walked for a long time, up and down stairs. He could feel other… things… bumping into him, from time to time.
Sometimes they were thin, and light as sticks, and hissed curses in ancient dialects of Japanese when he bumped into them. Other times, they had too many arms, or nothing that could be identified as a head, and all of these things he learned when he bumped into them, leaving wet, slimy stains on his clothing. The two of them wandered through the dark city for what felt like hours, taking turns seemingly at random.
“Thank you for this, Cassandra. I’m sorry you have to see these things,” he whispered as they passed a rather irritating musician, playing a xylophone.
“It’s funny, actually. They’re not as scary, here. They’re weird, and a little bit… maybe nauseating. But none of them want to hurt us. They’re just… going about their lives- Nash!” He bumped into someone. “That was a pregnant woman!”
“Oh- I’m sorry, ma’am.” He paused. The thing he had bumped into was eight feet tall, and gargled something irritable in a voice like a badly clogged drain. “You’re taking this a lot better, now.”
“There are people here. Life, or at least activity. It was out there on the plains that was-” Fire flickered into life. In the darkness ahead, a star flared, and blinded Nash. He covered his eyes, warding off the painful, unexpected radiance. When he could bear to look, an ember glowed at the tip of a cigarette. It lit an area perhaps ten feet across. A canvas tent was propped up on four poles, small enough to fall entirely within the lit area, on the edge of an open market square. Underneath the tent stood Irayama.
She was dressed in nothing more than a large, white silk kimono, and a pair of priestly geta. Simple thong sandals made from what appeared to be planks of wood. She smiled cheerfully, gripping her cigarette between her teeth. She waved companionably to the two of them, gesturing for them to join her. The tent was set directly against one of the walls of the square. A door was visible in the pitch black, fungus-encrusted stone of the wall.
“Aaaah, Cassandra. Good to see you, dear.” The woman’s voice was full of gravel, harsh and gentle at the same time. “I’m sorry about your mother. I hadn’t counted on intermarriage when I was preparing the barrier. I am sorry. I am trying to find out a way to fix things.” Irayama took a deep puff, and the cigarette turned into a supernova, lighting the dark market square for just a moment. Nash wouldn’t forget the things he saw there for the rest of his life. “You are free to go through the door. Agent Nash and I have something to discuss, first.”
“… If it’s all the same, I’m going to wait for him.” Cassandra’s voice wobbled, but she stood by his side.
“Hahaha. Humans. What a bunch of pricks. And yet my daughters cannot help but make the same mistakes their mother did, and forget what superficial creatures they are. Just like their maker.” She puffed again, the cigarette luminescing and turning to ash. Memory flashed, of a green ring of flames. *The little prick*. And a ritual gone wrong.
“You were the one who stole Dean’s body,” he stated. “What were you trying to do with it?”
“I don’t think that matters much to you, Mister Nash. You know what I am?”
“No, that is my name. Do you know WHAT I am?” He was silent. He didn’t know his Japanese mythology as well as he should. “Very well. I was the first woman. Alongside Izanagi, I birthed the islands of Japan. I died in childbirth, to give him the child of fires, and the over-emotional fool slew the child I had died for.” She snorted. “He came to see me in the land of the undead. I told him that I could not leave with him, for I had eaten of the food of the dead. In truth, I did not want to go with him. I hated him for a thousand little things. The contempt of marriage, I suppose.” The star of the cigarette flared once more.
“But he was persuasive, and handsome. So I promised to consider it, and to ask the lords of the underworld for permission to leave. As though there was any in that place that could hold me in the world of the dead if I did not wish to say.” She flared her nostrils. “I trusted him to my detriment, again. He lit a fire, and saw my true form. And he fled, for my beauty had been devoured by maggots. It is the nature of humans. They love you as long as you are beautiful and familiar. But when they see what is monstrous about you, they recoil from you.”
“We’re not all like that. We get better,” he said, softly, knowing the argument was weak.
“Really? I wonder if Fred Korematsu would agree. I have lived in the US for a long time. We moved to Zion in response to the same things. The fear of that which is different. You humans still have your monsters, and where you cannot find them, you make them.” She sneered. “Turn around. Walk into the darkness. Find your own way out. This one is not for you.”
“I can’t do that.” he stated, reaching into his pocket. He took out the small silver ring. “You may have a grudge against humans. But a mother has lost her child, and I have sworn to deliver this on her behalf.” It glittered green in the light of the cigarette. “You may be right. Most humans are petty, thoughtless, careless, frightened of the other. The same seems to be true of monsters. But I’m here to set things right.” He let go of Cassandra’s hand. He gently pushed her towards the tent, and she reluctantly stepped through, as Irayama Onnashi walked forward, under the infinite black that passed for a sky. Her hands changed. Not a simple change of color, not quite. They were surrounded by wreaths of almost iridescent blackness. An entire rainbow of lack-of-light.
“You insult me, in my realm? You think you are a hero, to delve into the heart of the underworld, to laugh at a goddess, and then to leave as you please? I think not. You are no hero.” She puffed the cigarette, her hands glittering. “Your fate is death, Nash. That is the fate of all humans. But I shall gain great pleasure in hastening it, even if only by a few short hours.”
She lunged forward, much faster than he’d expected. She went from a dozen feet away to arm’s reach in less than a second. Her ink-black fingertips brushed his chest. There was a sudden, intensely sharp pain, and he felt light-headed. The darkness crackled like cold flames on his chest. His vision faded, as he took three steps backwards, and fell to the hard stone.
“Is this the end, then?” He floated in darkness. As absolute as Yomi, but without texture or ground. No contrast. Just an endless blackness, without even a place to stand. “Are you giving up, champion?” He tumbled slowly, end over end, feeling his head spinning. There was no up, or down. It was the infinite void of space, so far from any star that there was nothing but darkness. It was the place inside a black hole’s event horizon. It was the abyss. “What a disappointment you are.” The voice was familiar. His heart ignited with rage. And her hair flickered into view, like a bonfire, waving and dancing in the light. Her gunmetal smile flickered in the light, as she twirled through the dark with him. “That’s more like it,” she whispered. “Come and get me.”
He heard the thud. It was like the impact of a bomb. It reminded him of movies, of bunkers under siege. A second boom filled his head, bringing pain with it. The distant thump of artillery, mixed with dust floating down from the rafters. A third time, louder than before. It was his heart. Cassandra was sobbing, tears running down her cheeks as Irayama stood over her, an apologetic look on the old woman’s face. “Izanami.” His voice came out in a croak. The goddess stiffened, and turned, her eyes wide.
“Impossible.” Her eyes narrowed. “You cannot be alive. I stopped your heart. Not even the Sisters could preserve your life in this place.” His heart thudded. He could feel earth straining in his bones, his lungs swelling with the wind. He raised his hands, and she smirked. “Using my island’s styles against me, human? I think not.” She stepped forward, and then transitioned from a step to a lunge, moving explosively. Her hands flickered, as she swiped out to touch him again.
He grabbed her wrist, just beyond the flickering aura of darkness. A twist began in his knees, slipping up through his hips, amplified by his torso. When it reached his hand, it cracked Irayama through the air like a whip. Irayama let out a brief grunt as she spun in the air, before the arc of movement slammed her against the stone with boneshattering force.
She bounced and rolled, hopping easily back to her feet, a grin on her face as she recovered. She was light, and hard as diamond. She didn’t have enough mass to be harmed by his counters and throws. She was simply not heavy enough to do much damage to herself. He cursed, his heart pounding faster. He couldn’t beat her like that. He looked around, and an idea struck him. She lunged at him again, and he sidestepped. As he did, his foot crashed into the ground, propelling him, and leaving a cracked and shattered place in the delicate filigree of Japanese characters in the stone. Long lines fractured out from it.
“Is this what you’re reduced to, human? Petty vandalism!? How crass!” She danced after him, her blows elegant and graceful. It was an open-handed style, delicate, and without force behind the blows. His heart still ached, and he doubted it would survive another touch. So instead, he kept stepping back. With each step, his feet crashed into the ground, leaving a trail of destruction that she easily danced around.
“Hah! Human, you aren’t half bad! But the thing about death!” She lunged, and he spun off to the side, the sound of crumbling stone filling the air as he danced a staccato rhythm of destruction. The rage inside of him burned merrily as he ground his teeth. He wanted to see her broken. To watch her despair as she knew that she had fallen. She had made a mockery of him, his species. She had toyed with him. She had thought she and her ilk could get away with murder. That it didn’t matter, because it was only a human who they killed. “I’ll always gets you in the end!” Even now, she underestimated him.
She leapt over his head as he danced to the side. A circle of ravaged stone was visible, nearly twenty feet across, the product of his movements. She gave it a brief, dismissive look, and turned her eyes towards him. “What good do you think this will do?!” She lunged again, and he danced to the side, staying along the broken edges. She landed in the center of the circle. “You haven’t got a chance-” She stared down, her eyes widening in realization.
Air flooded his lungs as he crouched down. His stance widened, as his fingers dug into the ravaged stone. There was a tremendous sound of crumbling stone. She leapt into the air like a grasshopper, but it was too late. He lifted the semispherical mass of stone into the air, and brought it down again in a single smooth movement. She was caught between the huge chunk of stone, and the ground of the market square. There was a crunch. He lifted the stone into the air bodily, his shoulders heaving. She hopped to her feet, trying to regain her footing, visible by the flash of her cigarette. He brought the stone down again.
Three or four more times, he hammered the goddess like a cockroach, until the rock crumbled in his hands, the rage dying away. He turned his head towards the doorway. Cassandra was standing there, horror in her eyes. He brushed his hand across his forehead as the shame returned, sweat dripping down his face. There was an intake of breath, and light filled the market square, as the cigarette flared. “Ahahaha. Such anger in you, human. Such rage. Where do you learn that? Is it from your mother? Or is it from the company you keep?”
He turned, standing under the tent. Irayama lay in the rubble, battered and her clothes torn. One of her geta was missing, and her cigarette was bent badly. She still smoked it, though, an expression of annoyance on her face. “I trust that you are not going to die of your wounds in your own realm,” he said, weariness putting a ragged edge on his voice. “So I will go, to find the truth out from your daughter, and you will allow me to go. I will not tolerate any more interference.”
“So arrogant. Well done, though, human. I had not expected you to give me pause. But I love my daughters. Foolish girls though they are, with soft hearts. And I would sooner let the sun burn out than let them come to harm.” She laughed.
“You don’t seem like you pose much of a threat.” She was silent for a moment, puffing on the damaged cigarette.
“There is a rain in this place.” Nash frowned. He could hear a distant pattering echoing through the city. “It comes when I call it. It is a poison beyond any other. It will stop your heart, sear your nerves, rot your flesh. It kills only the living, and I shall enjoy watching as it consumes your flesh. Cassandra, if you don’t wish to share this human’s fate, I would recommend you use the door, now.” She chuckled softly. Cassandra looked up at Nash. He nodded, and she slipped through the door. The moment she was through, it disappeared. The sound of pattering was growing closer. A droplet landed on the cigarette, and put it out. “You are arrogant, human. I will rip the life from your bones, tear the skin from your corpse, and offer it as a gift to your friends. Nobody threatens my children.”
There was a sound. Slithering skin and slapping flesh. Unpleasantly organic, with hints of slime, and the scent of rot. And Nash felt the pull of power. It was overwhelming, the suction tearing at him. The darkness was absolute, but he could smell the putrid miasma of the rain as it fell to earth in slender drops. He stood in the darkness, and heard the sound growing closer. He tried to summon the rage- But what good would it do? The rain pounded against the canvas of the tent. There was the sound of something vast and hideous, moving in the darkness beyond the tent. A voice spoke, and it was the voice he heard in the cemetery. “You will not kill again, human.”
The tent tore away in a sudden movement, leaving him exposed. A calm settled over him. At first, he took it for acceptance, the certainty that he would die. Then Heather’s voice whispered in his ear.