VOICES FROM THE FIRE: S.R. Malone

The Purgatory Gate

I

Skies crackled overhead. Was it lightning or something of fouler origins?

Unsure, he nudged the iron visor from his eyes. Never before had he witnessed such deviancy from the greys and blues of the skies above, save for the melting pinks that bled into winter mornings above the village.

Now the village was moved, torn from its resting place among green glens, and scattered. The sun was of no help here, nor could it be spotted clearly among the demonic paintwork that formed the backdrop of this unknown region. Everything, lifted. Everything, gone.

No, this would not do. 

The village itself was even gone, engulfed by the thick soup that had gathered souls and landscape alike. Surrounding Morcant many bodies stood, rigid in the wave of the tide that bore them to this place with cracking sulphur skies and anorexic buildings.

“O, paladin!” wailed one, gripping Morcant’s tunic. “Pray, tell us where we are? Are we in Gehenna?” Knuckles turned white as fingers dug deeper until the knight felt it down to his own flesh, tearing his arm from the gibbering man whose eyes stayed fixed above.

“I would not say for certain, Firmin, though hold one’s tongue until I can deliver news that may be of benefit.”

The ground beneath was a mire, or as near to, above which drifted a soft wisp of mist. Morcant stepped past Firmin, the man’s talons receding as he moved from their proximity.

Gehenna would remain to be seen.

A solemnity held the valley, and its effects weighed heavy on Morcant’s chest the farther he pursued the path downwards. The walkway was scorched and well-trodden. Skeletal homes gave way to burned, sometimes burning, trees and often vegetation that the knight could not identify.

At points in the trail were he to encounter others, they said little as they gazed upwards. One woman fell into him, toppling with arms outstretched, enough to almost force him to the ground; she had no memory of falling, or even that of basic language as her speech tumbled out in fractured sentences.

“Are you hurt?” Morcant’s vacant tone masked by the slightest of irritation. She snatched at his clothing, much like Firmin before her: a blind fool scrambling for purchase. He shook her free and she returned to her previous post, blissfully unaware of him again.

These foreign lands stretched beyond the horizon, the world twisted, alien. This word was a whisper in his mind, sharp but clouded, and not a term Morcant could admit to knowing, educated as he was. Alien. Something else, something wrong. Where had this phantom voice come from, or rather what pit of his subconscious did this inner machination burrow up from, exactly? More words struck him inside the shadow of his helm, but he would resist the urge to lift it from his head and expose his mind to dense mists that only grew denser as he stumbled down into the vale.

Then, two shapes formed on either side of his vision. They were not lethargic as the wayward souls here, more alert. And armed.

Morcant thought the mists to be dulling his calves; he assumed the stance but felt his legs might give way, a chilling numbness rising from the ground up. The two were closing on him, their features still disguised. The rattling of plate informed Morcant of their armoured state however, and he reached for the sword on his hip.

Drawing in time to parry a downward strike from the first, Morcant thrust his blade into the chest and split open a smoking gape. They dropped where they stood.

Uttering fractured speak as the woman above the vale had, the second figure made more cautious advances, crouching lower to the tall grass while keeping his weapon raised; it was a curved blade of unknown origin, nothing that Morcant had engaged in battle across any crusade. 

No, this was of cruder design than some peasant weapon. Stranger. The man pointed it directly at him now, mere feet away. Morcant steadied himself as best he could, clutching his own sword with two hands in preparation. Poised, awaiting the first attack and his enemy’s first mistake; he noticed the weapon opposite him, noticed its almost liquid-like consistency, and how it would not sit still as steel but rather warp and alter as water.

That word from earlier. Was there a more apt way to describe such a thing?

Morcant drew breath, contemplating how this weapon might crash on his own like coastal waves on a cluster of rock. He didn’t have to wait long, as the figure stepped forward with clumsy haste; was it attempting a feint, or actually staggering? Now it was on his left side, arm pulled back with that terrible blade eager to pounce— eager for his blood— and in the instant it had left its chest exposed, Morcant sent his sword deep through the plate.

It twitched, and there was no doubt it was an ‘it’ and not a ‘he’. The death shriek escaping its dry throat felt strong enough to corrode every sliver of metalwork in the vicinity, a piercing sound that tore at the very fabric of this land.

As for the weapon, it landed amongst the brown strands of grass and spilled its liquid blade in streaks of scarlet. It was no water blade, but it still should not have existed.

The day wore on. There was no telling if the inky blackness of night would seep into the afternoon here as it did religiously back home. Putting trust in such a predictable notion seemed ludicrous in this place.

Home.

Voices chattered, and each time Morcant refocused his attention outside of his mind. Pride would not allow him to admit that he was lost, no longer striding among the peoples of Meamoor in the early afternoon, collecting alms for the impoverished peasantry— the waylaid coins jingled lightly in his tunic— instead left to linger around a featureless marshland, devoid of life.

Rows of trees, scorched black, lined the path ahead. He longed to see just one tree that bore fruit, one that might offer even a glimpse of a promise of colour to cleanse the land of its dun hue. With each forward step brought more rot; dryer bark, shattered and black with branches that snapped in the odourful winds.

Home.

Morcant beat a palm against the iron helm. And again. He threw down his glove, striking the armour with bare flesh.

Home.

He let the thing tumble into the mire, rattling all the way. The voice that had been like a fly, buzzing incessantly around his head, was gone. Warm, stale afternoon air bothered his face, and he wiped at a forehead slick with sweat, parting his frayed dark locks.

Morcant let a thought drift back to the countless people he had passed as he watched the onset of dusk, wondering how they intended to cope with no shelter, no visible sources of food. How was he going to cope? Ruins and remains of villages and farms lay miles in his past, the dead tree field consuming the land now.

Curling under the lip of a jagged stone outcrop, Morcant pulled his knees close to his chest. His sword lay on the earth beside him. Bizarre shrieks rang out across the plains as all succumbed to night. Near and far came barks of madness, responded to in kind by the howls and grunts of creatures that eluded Morcant’s imagination.

He lay a hand on the sword’s hilt, dragging it closer slowly. Whatever used these twilight hours for cover could not have been far. Morcant swore to himself that he could pick out the scent of something rancid, worse than the corpse cart that frequently trundled through Meamoor village, staggering the paths ahead of his shelter.

 All he could do was focus on the blood pulsing in his ears and pray that the mouths of madness would not find him that night.

II

The opening had been a yawning expanse, an invitation to the scientific discovery of their year, possibly decade: an electron diffusion region, an X-point tucked away in a cave in southern Utah. It belched sour fumes into the open air when they approached, seeming to blacken surrounding rocks and sparse vegetation, and yet had been called in by a local from Emery while walking their dog in the wilderness one morning.

Now, Taran Pyley, physicist from the University of Utah, proudly waited in its jaws, wearing an expression of awe across his already smug face. This was a real, bona fide gateway— a fucking steppingstone— to another section of space and time. 

And he was the lucky fish that got to swim upstream this time.

“Whaddaya see in there, Taran?” a voice blared from his headset, that of Dr Gwen Rosson. She remained at the opening, still on Utah time, pepped up to the gills on account of having not slept the night before out of pure excitement. Taran felt the weight of that sleepless night too, pausing to ponder whether it wasn’t an effect of the gateway.

He took another few steps, frequently tugging on the thick tether cord attached to his enviro-suit. It was insurance, if nothing else. 

Buzzing lights evaporated, revealing a sickly yellow sky tarnished with shredded clouds. Taran scanned three-sixty degrees, confirming he was no longer just ten paces from the university crew in some dripping cavern in Western America. How many unwitting strangers throughout human history had been swallowed up by these gateways, plucked from time and never seen again? The tiny hairs on Taran’s neck stood in anticipation of what could lie ahead.

He let out a whooping cheer repeatedly over Gwen’s questions to the point where her voice sharpened.

“Dr Pyley, report please.”

He cleared his throat. “I’m out in the open, a woodland of sorts. It’s like I’ve wandered out of state.”

“You’re not picking up on our short-range scanners anymore,” said Gwen.

“What’s the reading?”

“Negative.”

“Say again?”

“Negative, negative!” Gwen’s voice sputtered through the speakers in his headset. “You’re off the grid! What does your digital display read as?”

“Time is as follows,” hummed Taran, “00:00. Oh—”

“Oh?”

“Well, now it just says ‘error’. Weird.”

The comms link fell silent. Taran held his breath in anticipation, fearing the line had gone dead. Murmurs stirred. A warm voice moved forward in the mix, and it took a moment for him to understand that it wasn’t Gwen’s.

Home.”

Thunder rumbled far off. There was movement across the field ahead, an insect or small animal at least. A gentle haze, similar to heat shimmer, distorted the tips of the long grass; Taran wiped at his plasti-glass visor, his very presence antiseptic in a strange landscape. It definitely wasn’t summer here, that was for damn sure. 

“Uh, repeat, control. What did you say?” he said eventually.

“I didn’t say anything.”

His mouth instantly ran dry, a metallic taste coating his tongue.

“I heard a voice just now. Did someone take the mic when you went away there, Gwen?”

Another murmur.

“What are you talking about? No one else has had the mic,” said Gwen, impatiently. “Taran, do you need to come back?”

Another shape darted between the trees. It was large enough to be a fully grown person.

Gasping, Taran locked his legs in place. His muscles trembled beneath the enviro-suit, perspiration gathering on his brow. He’d seen it, he knew he had. Yet, when he craned his neck to see around the spidery shape of the tree, there was no sign of anyone.

He grabbed the tether cord, looking back longingly at the dark void that was his entrance, and tried to figure out just where the hell he was. The apple was rapidly losing its shine, and with every passing minute from his sighting of the shadowy figure in the trees, Taran grew more inclined to follow the cord back— back through the connecting magnetic fields, to his waiting colleagues.

Gwen gradually rose in the audio, her voice rising above the unmistakable white noise that buzzed from the coarse ground.

“Dr Pyley, respond! It’s no good, start retracting the tether—”

“Wait, not yet!” he replied. “I’m still here.”

“What is your report? We lost you for two minutes there.”

Taran squinted. The trees were clear; had he been hallucinating?

“Nothing, control. I assume an issue with the comms crossing vectors. Collecting a soil sample now and returning.”

“Roger that.”

A glint of light hit Taran as he rose, sharp and swift like a knife. Screwing the cap on the vial of bubbling soil, he trudged towards a ridge that cradled the left-hand side of the woodland. The light was brief, but it didn’t shine again. All he had to work with was memory, though had he seen it? Was it a memory if he couldn’t recall it happening?

He felt a biting impulse to move as fast as his weighted boots would carry him, in the direction of the X-point; his limbs said otherwise, lured to the brink of a maw underneath the ridge. The air here was humid, laced with rancid notes that danced on the lazy breeze from under the rocky shelf— the smell bringing back memories of his Uncle Drew’s farm in Ohio the year they’d had to cull and burn his cows due to a bovine madness outbreak.

Taran crouched, being too tall to enter from standing. He twisted the lamp fitted to his shoulder harness and let the milky white beam illuminate the cave; shallow, barely ten feet deep. The ceiling slanted progressively towards the far reaches, otherwise appearing to have been hollowed out on purpose by Mother Nature herself. 

If anything about this land were natural, thought Taran.

Finally, his eyes locked with a set of sunken sockets, a face of taut flesh pulled back in a blood-curdling grin. Below the chin sagged a chest plate, rusted and bloated, under which ran a violet tunic laced with cobwebs. Bony legs were splayed out, arms to either side with one resting on an empty scabbard; a crusty sword lay just out of reach of the right hand, coated in what could have been barnacles in the solitary lamplight. 

“G—Gwen!” Taran fumbled with the chat button on his headset, his breath trapped in his throat.

The getup was ages old, rusted as if it had been submerged for centuries amid a sunken wreck. The corpse itself didn’t seem that ancient in comparison. Bleached bone shone through sections of tissue that hadn’t all withered, the greening skin rebelling against the ages, betraying the clothing’s medieval aesthetic.

“Gwen? Control? Ah, screw it.”

Thunder boomed overheard, the storm on top of the dead tree field at last.

Tearing his gaze from the body with great difficulty, Taran plodded alongside the tether, frequently glancing at the war-torn clouds as they fired out claws of forked lightning. 

#

It was not natural.

It was not right.

Night lasted barely four hours, a night spent counting the minutes and hearing out for all manner of arcane terrors stalking the glens. Eventually, a light had returned to warm a vale that had now taken on a decaying odour.

Scurrying from his makeshift shelter, Morcant rubbed at his eyes, feeling the dark ringlets around them. He was now convinced, more so than ever, that this was Meamoor no longer.

Gehenna.

The word echoed, not like the whispers he had heard previous within the confines of his iron helm, but an echo in his heart that threatened to drag his chest downward. Firmin’s suspicions of a dawning purgatory he had written off sharply as soon as they tumbled from the chap’s whiskered mouth, the incessant ramblings of the village bumpsy. 

Perhaps the elderly sop was right.

Turning, Morcant could see for miles up the pathways he had descended the day before. Black shapes standing upright appeared to dot the browning hillsides, the villagers he had passed. Except now, they weren’t staring skyward.

Now, they stared downhill, eyes aglow. 

Tiny hairs stood on the back of his neck as he met their gaze, a chill wriggling down his spine. Morcant grunted, turning away. His stomach gurgled with pain; it had been some time since he had eaten. True enough, he would have hunted where possible, but there had not been any sign of wildlife.

The eyes on the hillside burned through his tunic and plate.

Another shadow emerged, this one mere feet from him. It was so close Morcant wondered how he had not caught it sooner. He attributed it to his sleepless evening, his full day without feasting. No, this figure was as tall as the others

—taller than the others you have slain—  

and if he could put his blade in its belly swiftly, perhaps he could move it away from the hordes of judgmental eyes watching from the hill.

He stepped lightly, his remaining plate clinking gently. The figure paid no mind. The creature shimmered, its edges wavering and its form unsolid. Morcant would have cried heresy had he seen a creature such as this in Meamoor. Back then, however, he wasn’t hungry.

We ate whatever the peasants offered—

Sword drawn; he shot an upward slash. The blade, jutting from the hunched back, took on some of the being’s shimmer. Morcant panted, whipping it free and wiping the blood, if he could call it so, on his dust-laden tunic.

The body fell forward, slumping into the muck by his boots. His stomach growled, primeval in its delivery, a messenger for the hunger.

Morcant looked back up the hill just the once, the silent gathering watching him feast. Each time he cast a look back, his mouth would be caked ever more so with gore.

Notions of Gehenna rarely entered his mind after that. Nor did much, for that matter.

“Dr Rosson, the machinery is struggling!”

“I don’t care, he’s been radio silent for too long.”

The pulley strained with metallic aches, a foot of the cord flopping back through the X-point. They nearly had him, if it could keep going—

“This should be him!” she gasped, spotting the steel bolts of the enviro-suit attachment lurching from the swirling gateway.

With a final yank, the cord was belched out.

The screams were a symphony.

What was left of Taran Pyley slopped into the cavern, still attached, smacking into the dust. 

Rigor mortis was obvious, until Dr Gwen Rosson explained she had been in radio communication with him not five minutes prior to having the team whisk him from the magnetic portal. The bite marks, the cleaved hole in Taran’s abdomen— both mysteries in their own right, an impossible discussion that keeps the lights on at the physics department of the University of Utah long after the campus has wound down in the evenings.

As for the X-point: following its revealed sudden closure in the cave system, Dr Gwen Rosson began offering a small cash reward for whomever could find them the next magnetic opening, convinced answers regarding the untimely death of Dr Taran Pyley were preserved within.

Her and her team are still searching to this day.

END.

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