by Eddie Amazon
A writer commits suicide then led through the Dark City in another world while in a coma.
|The sun was beating down on the weary artist's shoulders. He felt sick inside. Probably from all the alcohol he'd had the previous night.
He was suddenly plagued by thoughts from the night before. Horribly painful thoughts. His stomach turned. He felt so tired.
He didn't remember going to bed so he was surprised when his alarm clock went off at noon. He was disappointed that, even in his drunken stupor, he had remembered to turn it on. He could have slept a little later. He'd woken up to the feeling of needing to throw up. He had run quickly to the bathroom and wretched up a black ball. He'd emptied the rest of his stomach in disgust at it. It worried him that it had been black, but he figured it probably had something to do with how much he smoked.
He looked at his watch. It was a little after 2pm. His best friend was supposed to be picking him up for work and it wasn't like Angus to be late. The artist decided to allow him a few more minutes and smoked a cigarette to pass the time.
When he looked at his watch again, it was 2:30pm. Angus was definitely late.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed Angus' number. It rang and rang. The voicemail didn't even pick up. The artist felt uneasy. It wasn't like Angus to ignore his calls.
'Why didn't the voicemail come on?'
The tired artist stood up and groaned. He began walking to the bus stop down the street. He wondered what could have happened to Angus, hoping he was all right.
He stood at the bus stop, trying to figure out how he would get to work using the oddly put together routes that ran through the city and surrounding area. They were almost inconvenient with the patterns they ran.
He waited until he finished off another cigarette before thinking he should call work, letting them know that he would be late.
He dialed the number. It, too, rang and rang. The automated system that usually picked up right away never even came on. He thought maybe the phones were down. He sighed. They couldn't blame him, then, he tried.
He shifted weight on his feet.
His phone rang. The number on the display wasn't one he recognized.
'Maybe it's Angus from a payphone. Maybe he's had an accident?'
"Hello?" He answered.
<"Where are you?"> A woman's voice asked him.
"Who is this?"
<"I need to know where you are, Caleb, so I can pick you up."> She stated firmly, ignoring his demand for her identity.
The artist tried to think of who she could be. She had called him by name, but he didn't know anyone with a voice like hers.
"Why? Who is this?"
She sighed. <"Well, if Angus did not pick you up and the bus is not coming...">
At her comment, the artist noticed the complete lack of traffic on the street, car or pedestrian. He was alarmed by the sudden feeling of utter emptiness around him. The city looked and felt as if it had been abandoned. His heart began to pound.
<"I assume you are still at the bus stop. I will be there soon."> She said and hung up.
The artist couldn't think. Maybe she was sent to save him because he was the last one in the doomed city. What kind of doom, he was uncertain. But he couldn't think of another reason for the eerie emptiness. Maybe she was the disaster, or part of it, coming to kill him. He didn't know.
The artist was mildly terrified as he walked back to his apartment, looking both ways before crossing the street, anyways.
He opened the doors slowly and walked in. He had a good look around. Everything looked normal. He listened and noticed the absolute quiet. All he could hear was himself and every move he made. He heard his heart beat, faster and faster.
He felt as though he might pass out.
He walked back outside. There was a slick black sports car with a gorgeous woman driver in the driveway. She smiled at him and bade him come over. He shook his head. She chuckled and bade him, again. He slowly went to her.
"Hello, Caleb." She said, cheerily. He recognized her voice. She was the one who'd called him earlier. He took a step back.
"Who are you?" He demanded. "What the hell is going on?"
"Get in the car and I will explain everything." She replied, her smile as warm as the summer sun, making the artist even more suspicious of her.
"I don't even know you. How did you get my cell number?"
She shook her head. "I told you I would explain everything when you got in the car. So, if you want to know, get in." She shrugged. "Or, you can stand out here all day, if you would like. Does not matter, either way to me, really. I have an eternity for you to make up your mind." She grinned. "Literally."
The artist raised an eyebrow at the odd statement. He couldn't help his curiosity and, since he figured she wouldn't kill him, he walked around to the other side of the car. He got in and set his notebook and pen on his lap.
"I am glad you have decided to see it my way." She piped as he shut the door. She started the car and peeled off. "Now, to set your mind at some ease, I am not going to kill you. It is impossible for me to do that."
"Yes, but that is not important." She stopped and pointed down a street on her left. "Have you ever been down this street?"
He looked down where she was pointing. "No, why?"
"So you do not know where it leads, do you?"
"Well, I have a general idea."
"But, " she began, turning the wheel and speeding off down the street. "How can you be sure?"
"Well, I..." He trailed off as, on either side, the houses began to give way to a huge green field. His mouth gaped as they sped on. When he finally turned to look ahead, he could see that the road ended, heralded by an approaching sign. After the sign, the field went on.
"Where are we?" He asked, not able to put anything coherent together in his head.
They stopped when they reached the sign.
It read: 'No elements of "reality" beyond this point.'
The woman got out of the car without a word and went off into the field. The artist, grabbing his notebook and pen, scrambled out after her. He followed after her for a moment then felt that he should try to get some sort of bearings in case he needed to find his way back. When he turned around, nothing but endless green fields greeted his sight. There was no road, car, or sign.
"Caleb." The woman called to him. He turned to her, his mind beginning to overload.
In front of him, was a large dark gate set into an endless wall, stretching out as far as he could see from side to side. The sky had turned dark, the green fields changed to a dark wasteland. It was as if instant devastation had touched the world. The artist gaped mostly, though, at the changed woman before him. She had lost her vibrant skin, her long blonde hair, her bright smile, and her eyes were no longer electric. She had changed to a deathly pale, her hair tied back tightly behind her and black as pitch, her face was as emotionless as death, her eyes were dark and empty, she had dark black make-up on making her face seem almost translucently pale. She was dressed in a long, flowing black dress and gigantic bat's wings were at rest behind her. Her dress flowed behind her with the whims of dark shadows that rested around her waist and went back from there.
"Welcome," she began, slowly and with such effort that it seemed it was taking all she was to say it. "To The Dark City."
"Where the...?" The artist mumbled as the impressive gate began to swing open.
"Come." She bade him. "It is time to go within."
The artist chuckled angrily and shook his head. "No fucking way, forget it." He laughed, trying not to go crazy. "You better take me back to..." He looked around again and screamed at the top of his lungs. "FUCK!" He threw his notebook and pen in frustration, though it did not touch the ground. The woman had grabbed it within milliseconds.
The artist eyed her warily. "Where am I? And what the fuck is going on?!"
"You must follow me. I cannot explain anything here."
"Silence!" She commanded. The artist froze. "You must not draw attention to yourself. How you act within determines whether or not you can return. If you do not get tempted by The City, you can get home through The East Gate. But, first, you must actually accept the journey and enter."
"What?" He sighed heavily. "Look, I drank some last night. It was obviously a little much and now I am having some ridiculous nightmare. So, let's say, you end it, I wake up in my bed with the raging hang-over I most obviously deserve, and we call it even, huh?"
A deep sadness seemed to grip her and her shadows flowed violently. The artist watched her, his anger slowly ebbing.
"I cannot." She looked down. Her shadows calmed. "You are the one who has chosen this 'nightmare'. You fell into a sleep from which only The East Gate can wake you."
The artist groaned. He felt sick. He felt something in his throat, choking him. He bent over with an incredible spasm of nausea and threw up another black ball. He gagged at seeing it bounce off, but nothing else came up. He moaned.
"Please," he began plaintively. "I'm sick, tired, and really confused. I just want to know what's going on and somehow attempt to get on or return to my normal life. How do I do that?"
She sighed softly and her shadows began dancing all around her, in and out of her skin. "I am Aurora. A Guardian, of The East Gate."
The artist shook his head slowly, trying to regain his balance and stand. "I really couldn't care about your name or this East Gate business, no offense. I just want to get the bloody hell back home and soon." He finally stood on rubber-band legs.
Aurora let a tear fall from her eye. The artist watched it as it fell... It was the color of fresh blood.
"You are dead, Caleb." She said flatly.
He choked on his breath and coughed hard. "Excuse me?!" He squeaked.
"What is the last thing you remember, before this morning?"
"Woah, wait, hold on. Let's re-cap, here. Did you just say that I'm DEAD?!"
"Go back, please, to last night."
He grit his teeth in anger. "What the hell for?" He could feel the previous night surging within him. He pushed it away. "I think we've got something a little more important to discuss here than the past... Like the present... Like you saying I'm dead."
"Just think about it." She pleaded.
The artist threw up his arms and screamed at her. Feelings from the previous night began forcing themselves back into his mind. He pushed them back again. "I already said I was drinking, happy now?! Fuck!"
"Do you remember anything else?"
The thoughts fought harder and harder. They were getting excruciatingly difficult to push away. The artist felt wounded now. He bit his lip hard and answered her in a soft voice. "Barely. I was, uh, sitting at the dining room table, drinking." He sighed, the thoughts rushing in like a flood. "It's fuzzy."
"But do you remember the reason?"
The artist glared at her, hate in his eyes. Could she feel his thoughts caving in on him again? Who was she, what did she care? "What the hell do you care?! It has nothing to do with you!"
"The pain ran so deep, did it not?"
The artist clenched his teeth and shook his head. The thoughts had overtaken his mind, he couldn't stop them now. Tears started to fall without control. "Shut up." He violently wiped his cheeks. "Just fucking shut the fuck up." He looked away, unable to let her look into him any further. "What the fuck do you know about my pain?" He chuckled sourly, trying to alleviate the feeling of his thoughts burning his heart. "I should never have started drinking... This dream is so fucked up."
"You are not dreaming!" She snapped, spreading her wings open violently and her shadows spread like knives set to strike him down. She was growling, a low sinister rumble. The artist froze, shocked and frightened by the power of the gesture. Slowly, Aurora pulled her wings back and her shadows went back to their normal position.
The artist swallowed hard and wiped his cheeks. He sighed and then spoke. "Well." He said and heaved another sigh. "Then if I'm really dead, what am I doing here? What is this exactly and what, then, am I now? A spirit? Am I a projection of my soul? Is this the Afterlife?" He cleared his throat. He attempted to smile, but Aurora's expression maintained its emptiness. "And, if so, who decorated this place, because, um, it's a little drab if you ask me."
"This is The Dark City of Broken Spirits. This is the place where all suicides spend eternity. This is only one part of The World of The Damned. The reason you, or this projection of you, are here is because you attempted suicide last night."
The artist choked on his breath and coughed. "I did what? How? Did I drink too much and asphyxiate or something?" The artist felt lost, hurt, sick, helpless.
"You decided to take rat poison."
Flashes of things he did not remember doing came crashing into his head. He could see himself standing over the bathroom sink, looking into the mirror. The pain reflecting in his eyes, eating into his heart. He remembered the feelings, the depth of the pain. He could feel the sadness in the red, tear-soaked eyes of the memory vision.
'No more pain...' The vision said into the mirror, into the artist, pouring out all of the pain he felt out with the words, the hope.
The vision started to blur and warp as he drank a shot glass of poison and then another. He gagged and fell to the floor.
The vision faded quickly and the artist was back with Aurora, his cheeks wet with tears.
"You have the opportunity to return to life if you wish." Aurora stated.
"How? I thought..." He said, wiping his cheeks and sniffling.
"Not many are given that choice. You are in a sort of limbo right now. You are dead for the moment but it is not permanent. If you decide you wish to return to life, you must reach The East Gate. Those who come here with the choice of life or death, though, rarely make it there."
"Aurora," he began, another black ball forming in his throat. "Why would anyone who attempts to kill himself for the same reason I did be given a second chance, so to speak?"
Aurora looked at him with secret eyes. "Your reason is unique. But, to answer your question, life is funny like that. Hangs on and such." She turned to look at The City as the artist wretched and gagged. She sighed with incomprehensible sadness toward The City. She turned back to find him with his head between his knees, wobbling back and forth. She went to him and helped him right himself. She then handed his tools to him.
"Is that going to keep happening?" He asked.
"Another hanging on of life."
They began silently into The City. The gate closed behind them slowly with a low rumble.
Before them lay an empty road. on either side was what appeared to the artist to be a vineyard, stretching out as far as he could see.
A low, hopeless moan came to the artist's ears from the dark vineyard. He nearly leapt out of his skin. He stopped and turned to look where he thought the moan had come from. He walked slowly toward the vineyard.
"Caleb." Aurora called to him, turning slowly, her shadows agitating. "What are you doing?"
"I heard something."
"Watch your feet."
The artist stepped off the road and onto the soil of the vineyard. He began to sink. He panicked and fell backwards onto the road. He pulled his feet back onto the road and noticed that they looked as if they had almost begun taking root.
"Rest here." Came a low voice from no perceivable place.
The artist looked around with wild eyes but could find no immediate source for the voice. He looked up at Aurora who did and said nothing.
"It's quiet here." Came another. The artist searched frantically in the darkness with his eyes, jumping to his feet as more voices began to speak.
"You look like you need it."
Voices began to come from all over as if there were millions of people amid the vineyard, hidden by the darkness. They echoed and repeated and overlapped. Their sound was sleepy and low, a contagious drowsiness began to overtake the artist. He shook his head, but he felt his eyes beginning to shut and a yawn found its way out of his mouth.
"Who is that?" He asked, rubbing his eyes, trying to wake up.
"They are The Vineyard." Aurora replied flatly.
The blood-red moon above them broke from clouds for a moment and the artist saw, with eyes of horror, The Vineyard for what it truly was.
The Vineyard was made up of people hunched over rails so that their bodies hung like grapevines from it. Roots were coming out of their legs while stems, leaves, and withered grapes were coming from all over their bodies. They were emasculated in such a way that it was as if the roots coming from them were not nourishing them but stealing everything from them and putting it into the ground. They looked as if they had collapsed there for an eternal sleep rather than had chosen it.
"What happened to them?" The artist asked as the moon faded away behind a large ominous cloud. The voices continued to echo and repeat, but the artist's horror had wakened him. He rejoined Aurora and they began walking again.
"The people of The Vineyard are those who needed peace and rest from life." She explained.
The artist looked up at the dark burgundy sky, trying to avoid any contact with The Vineyard. Dark, ominous clouds were circling the blood-red moon above them. a roll of thunder like a woman's scream boomed out from behind them after a bright flash lit the sky. The artist jumped at the horrible sound whereas Aurora was unmoved.
Before the artist could speak, The Vineyard's low sounds gave way to shrill screaming and violent rustling. The artist shut his ears to them just as rain began falling lightly behind them. The Vineyard's noise became unbearable as the rain began to fall on them. Even with his ears shut, the artist was overwhelmed by the noise and it made his head spin. Slowly, the rain came closer and closer to the artist and the demon.
A droplet hit the artist's bare head and he was seized by a vision of his suicide. He screamed in agony and dropped to his knees. More droplets fell and, with each droplet that fell on him, he could feel his body dying, every second was an eternity of pain and nausea. He tried to run, but felt nothing beneath him. Then he heard Aurora call to him and the pain subsiding. He opened his eyes slowly. The artist looked around and saw that they were just beyond The Vineyard, though he could still hear their tortured voices.
"What was that?" He asked and pointed back, standing up and wiping his hair and face. He felt another ball forming in his throat and bent over, preparing.
"Memory Rain." Aurora said.
"It's horrible." He said and threw up. He wiped his mouth and stood up straight. He gagged hard and went to bend over again, but caught himself.
They had come to yet another gate and wall. At the gate stood a dark figure, his arms folded across his chest. He was barely visible as impenetrable dark shadows swirled about him.
"Aurora of The East Gate." He greeted her with a nod.
"Delling of The West Gate." She nodded back.
"Are you wishing to pass here?" He asked, a haughty tone in his voice.
"I am guiding him to The East Gate." Aurora said, her teeth clenched, her wings and shadows agitated.
Delling laughed in a way that made the artist shudder. "Then who guards your Gate?"
"Usha guards The Gate with me, as you know. He is there now."
Delling laughed again in such a way that the artist almost wanted to hit him for the tone he seemed to be directing at Aurora. "You left him alone?"
"It is not like so many souls know the location of The Gate, Delling. He can handle it alone."
"Hmm." Delling sighed. "Yes, well, my dearest, pretty Aurora," his face came from the shadows and he grinned menacingly at her, a vicious look in his icy blue eyes. "What do you hope to gain through this human?" He looked at the artist for a moment and then back to Aurora, slipping back into the shadows.
Aurora's shadows took on the shape of a snake coiling around every inch of her, ebbing back and forth through her skin. Her wings twitched viciously as if she might strike.
"Saving him from the Memory Rain was touching, I will say. Baring it yourself to save him the agony." He cackled. Aurora's eyes lit up like fire. "Oh, dear, have I upset you?"
"No, Delling, I would not give you the pleasure of upsetting me." Aurora replied, her voice completely flat and emotionless. Her shadows became a cobra with a spread hood as Delling laughed coldly. His shadows shifted and became the shape of a mongoose ready to strike. The shadows hissed at each other and snapped.
The artist got a better look at him. Delling was wrapped head to toe in black cloth and silk strips like a mummy except for his eyes and mouth. His visible skin was deathly pale like Aurora's and his lips were almost black. He was thin like a skeleton though he did not look weak, rather it looked as if the strips of cloth were simply set that tightly about him.
"Come now, my dear friend." He said and came very close to Aurora. His shadow mongoose hung back and Aurora's cobra shed its hood. He took Aurora's hand and grinned. His shadows fell back into the haze. "How rude of me." He said and loosed Aurora's hand. Suddenly, he turned to the artist, his face uncovered by the shadows. "I am Delling of The West Gate. I am the Guardian of The City's true Entrance and Judge of those who come to it." He grinned maliciously. "But you're not dead, yet, are you?"
The artist swallowed hard. "Well, uh, that depends on who you ask, it seems."
Delling laughed in a way that made the artist feel uneasy. He couldn't quite put his finger on why. He thought it was probably because after what he'd already experienced, laughter just didn't seem appropriate.
"Your name is Caleb, am I right?" Delling asked. The shadows began to swirl around Delling and moved up to his head where it became concentrated like a cloud.
"Yes, it is." The artist replied.
"Ah, I see..." Delling mumbled. For a moment, it was as if Delling was lost in the cloud. Then, in a flash, the shadows had gone back to their previous position around him. "Poison." He said, nodding to himself. "You must be throwing up black balls, right?"
"Since this, uh, morning or something." The artist answered. Delling simply nodded.
"Can we enter, Delling?" Aurora asked. She was becoming impatient with all of his banter. Delling grit his teeth hard and turned back to her, fire in his eyes.
"Not until you answer my question." He replied.
"The answer is not yours to know. Open The Gate." She said forcefully. Delling sighed.
"I will have the answer, dear Aurora, my friend." He said and turned to The Gate. "The Gate of The West is open to those who wish to cross." He said and The Gate swung open violently. Delling looked at Aurora for a moment with sadness. "Pass through."
The artist felt some strange energy pass through the two demons as Aurora looked slowly away from Delling and went in through The Gate. The artist followed and The Gate snapped shut behind them.
“He seemed like a cheerful fellow.” The artist said with mild contempt.
Aurora looked deep in thought. “Delling is unique, especially here.”
“That’s for sure.” The artist huffed. “Why wouldn’t you answer his question?” He asked uneasily, feeling the distance Aurora’s thoughts were putting between them. She said nothing in reply. He sighed. “What are you thinking about?”
Aurora turned and looked at him with sweet, energetic eyes though the rest of her face was still as dead and emotionless as a corpse. “Memories haunt even the damned.” She said simply and looked away.
They were walking toward a huge river that stretched for miles, completely surrounding the edge of The City. The artist could hear moans and cries coming from just beyond it. As they got closer, he noticed the berth of the river would make it difficult to cross, not knowing its depth.
“Uh, there’s no bridge.” He said dumbly as they came closer to the bank.
“The tears of those who weep for themselves are very shallow.” Aurora said, the far-away look gone from her eyes and replaced with something like contempt.
“What?” The artist asked, confused. As they got closer he began to see that, about every 4 to 6 feet, there was a bald, naked man or woman kneeling at the river’s bank, shivering and sobbing. Some of them were grinding their teeth or digging up clumps of dirt and throwing them into the river. Some screamed, others moaned. All of them glistened with tears as they were soaked in them.
“Who are they?”
“Those who died for vanity. Now they sit at this river, looking at their dead faces, crying their worthless tears.” Aurora replied, her voice carrying almost a triumphant calm.
“How do we get across? I don’t want to touch that stuff if it’s anything like the Memory Rain.” He said, shuddering.
“Not entirely.” She turned to him. “But you must not look down or you will be struck by your own image and stuck here to weep for eternity.”
The artist scoffed. “Believe me, the last thing I would mourn losing would be my face.”
“You would be surprised.” She said flatly and began walking on the water. The artist watched her for a moment, amazed. Then he went in after her slowly, making sure to avert his gaze, staring, instead, at Aurora’s long black ponytail.
Curiosity, though, began to eat away at the artist as they got closer to the other side.
‘What image so horrific or miserable could possibly possess these people to weep and grind their teeth for all eternity?’ He wondered.
“Not even a glance.” Aurora said as they came onto the ground. She turned to face him.
“What do they see?” The artist asked, shaking off his feet. They dried almost instantly.
“Must you really know? Did you not see the river’s length and berth? Do you not hear its prisoners grinding their teeth and screaming? Yet you still desire to see what they see?”
“Call it a thirst for knowledge.”
“I would rather call it stupidity.”
“Have you ever looked into the river?”
“Once.” She began walking away. The artist followed quickly.
“What did you see?”
“Nothing of interest to you.”
“Come on, Aurora. If I’m stuck here, I might as well learn something.”
“To what end?”
“For the purpose of maybe someday chronicling this whole experience? Who cares?”
Aurora was silent. The artist got in front of her and began walking backwards to watch her face.
“Tell me what you saw.”
Aurora stopped and looked up at him. She grit her teeth and sighed, but could not resist him.
“I will hold you fast over the river and then you can peer into it for yourself. If I cannot wrench you from it, though, I am bound by duty to leave you there. Is this your desire?”
He thought about it: ‘There is nothing the river can reflect that would be terrible enough for me to accept the fate of its eternity.’ He nodded slowly.
“Then we shall return to it.”
They began back and the artist’s mind raced with thoughts of what he might see, sort of a way of preparing himself for the vision.
When they reached the bank, Aurora took the artist’s hands. He felt his heart skip a beat as some sort of energy flowed from her to him. Her skin was softer than he’d ever imagined.
“Now, you will stand at the bank and shut your eyes. I will take your hands and hold you. Then you may open your eyes and peer within.” She loosed him and he turned, shutting his eyes. She took his hands again and held on tightly. “May vanity not seize you.”
The artist’s heart pounded in his ears and he sighed heavily.
He opened his eyes.
At first, nothing reflected, but slowly the river began to make shapes that soon became a horrific image. It was the artist with no hair, massive wrinkles, and horrible, hauntingly hollow eyes. The eyes seized him and he began to struggle against Aurora’s grasp. The face reflected his terror at seeing it and the artist became convinced of its truth. He screamed violently as he fought Aurora with all of his strength, but she would not let go.
“Do I really look like this?!” He shrieked. The image screamed with him. “No!” He cried. “It’s horrible!” He squirmed and pulled, but Aurora was steadfast. “Let me go! I have to touch my face! I have to know!”
“Is this what you truly desire?” Aurora asked, sounding almost hurt.
“I-! I...” The artist began weeping. The image wept with him, tears of blood.
‘He’s not real.’ The artist began within himself, the eyes still eating away into his soul. ‘I’m not real. This is only an image, meant to seduce my mind. How can I be so foolish as to weep over this hideous face? How can I be so shallow?’ He tried to look away, to shake himself with his thoughts, but felt weak at the eyes of the image.
“I must leave you here if-.” Aurora began but the artist spun quickly round to face her, ripping himself from the horror.
“No.” He said, still crying. He sniffled and she let him go. “You can’t leave me. Don’t leave me here.” He wiped his cheeks and felt the shock of normalcy.
They began walking again.
“You are as strong as I thought.” She said. The artist chuckled sourly.
“Is that what you saw? Some unbelievably hideous reflection of yourself?”
“When you have always thought of yourself as hideous beyond redemption, something like that is not so great a shock. You must fancy yourself a little bit.”
“What I fancy is that I don’t look like a rotting demon-.” He caught himself too late. He bit his lip and looked at his feet. “I’m sorry.”
“Caleb, it is no offense.”
“No, really,” he began, looking at her. “You’re not at all hideous. You’re actually probably the most beautiful woman, or, uh, demon, uh, woman that I’ve ever seen... or something...” He trailed, shaking his head. He laughed at himself.
He smiled at her. “But, do I look like that?” He asked meekly.
“Some unmentionably grotesque... thing?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Hollow, rotten eyes?”
“No, Caleb, not at all.”
“Are you sure?” He stepped in front of her. “Look at my face.”
They stopped and Aurora looked into his face with a blank expression. The artist looked back at her, really taking her in, and he smiled. He gazed into her dark eyes adoringly. “Why would you ever think that you were hideous?”
“It was what I was told all of my life...” She trailed and began walking again.
“Your life? Don’t you mean your death?” He joked, following after her. The thought suddenly struck him. “You were alive once?” Aurora sighed but said nothing. “Why don’t you answer all of my questions?”
“Some do not need answers.”
“Sure they do. That’s what questions are for. Answers. Come on, tell me, were you alive before?”
“Please,” she begged. “Do not pester me with this.”
“Okay. Then, let’s try another question and you can decide which you would rather answer.” He got in front of her and forced her to stop. She looked at him with a pained expression. “What do you want with me?”
Aurora stood in shocked silence for a moment. “What do you mean? I am your Guide.”
“Well, obviously something’s not right with that or Delling wouldn’t have asked you the same thing.”
Aurora looked away. “It is not for you to know.”
She looked back at him. “Are you not more interested in getting to The East Gate?”
“Yeah. Sure. But I figure I’ve got some time, so I might as well get to know some things about my situation, right?”
They stood in silence for a moment. Aurora’s wings twitched and her shadows agitated. She looked into his eyes and felt she could not resist him. She sighed heavily.
“Yes,” she began. “I was alive once, a long time ago. I looked very much like I do now and... I killed myself for very much the same reasons you did.” The artist broke eye contact and felt their shared pain ebbing inside of him as she continued to speak. “The madness and stupidity of the world, the seeming worthlessness of my own life, the lack of truth, care, or understanding, the pain I felt within myself was so grave that I felt as though the world was coming down upon me. I felt hopeless. I was alone and empty. A worthless shell in a sea of them, yet aware of everything, unlike the others.” She let her breath out slowly, remembering the feeling. “I took a cobra and let it bite me all over. I died painfully.”
The artist let silence come between them for a moment, unable to say a word through the unbelievable pain revisiting his body. He could imagine her, a dark room, alone, her eyes red with old tears. No hope, no feeling... Just the desire to die. He could see her, her beautiful pale skin kissed by moonlight as she reached into a clay pot and the first bite sang through her flesh. He shook the image from him and looked back at her.
“Then you came here and became a demon?” He asked.
“Yes. Not right away. I walked through The City and found no place in it. There was no temptation here for me. I reached The East Gate by some fortune and found Usha there. Beyond The Gate, he said, was a sunrise I would never see again. I asked him where I should go, since The City had not claimed me. He told me I would then become a Guardian as he was. He took me to the Viceroy, the one who changed me. He said ‘If you have found no temptation here and have found this Gate, then, for eternity, it is your duty to guard it.’ He cast me into shadows and I emerged changed to this.” She looked forward to the desert in front of them. “The reason I am guiding you is because... no one has ever interested me as much as you do. I am never supposed to leave The Gate unless ordered to do so by the Viceroy, but he has gone from The City and has yet to return, so I took the opportunity before me to meet you.”
The artist stood in some sort of awe or shock. He felt another ball forming in his throat.
“Me? What for?”
“You were so like me. A writer burdened by the weight of the world and the desire to make something beautiful out of the ugliness around you, to change darkness to light.” She shook her head sadly, her longing etching itself deep into the artist’s soul. “It is so very lonely here with no one to speak to other than the dead and the demons. So few demons and even fewer dead worth talking to.”
The artist smiled weakly. "That's, uh, flattering?"
"We must move on, the desert is before us. It is a long journey yet."
"This must be one huge City."
"It was made this large with the frailt of humanity in mind."
The artist chuckled sourly to himself. "So, who's buried in the desert?" He asked as they began walking toward it.
Aurora turned to look at him and suddenly siled. The artist felt his knees go weak and he fell and threw up.
"These are The Exiles." Aurora said, still smiling. "They are those who felt driven from life, as if their only choice was to die. Their life so alone, now eternally so, buried beneath the sands of this wasteland."
The artist stood slowly, his head spinning. "Why are you smiling?" He asked as they took their first steps onto the black and red sands.
"This place nearly tempted me. It is the closest thing to a home that I have ever had in this City. But," her sadness returned and her shadows seemed to die on her, just lying motionless. "Even amongst The Exiles I had no place."
The artist reached down and picked up a handful of sand. It was cold and glittered under the reddish moonlight.
"Aurora," the artist called to her. She turned slowly, as if distracted. "What happened with you and Delling?"
The demon looked shocked. "What do you mean?"
"Well," he began, letting a breeze empty the sand from his hand. "You said that memories haunt even the damned. What did you mean by that?"
"You are a most inquisitive person, Caleb." She said, her eyes happy, then she went silent. Her shadows turned and spun around her, as if guarding her from the artist.
"Do you control those things?" The artist asked.
"No." Aurora replied. "They move as they wish."
"What are they?"
"As they appear, they are shadows. Shadows of spirits who wished for brightness in their demise."
The artist laughed. "What a twisted world."
"Is it not the same above?" Aurora looked at him with laughter in her eyes through the shadows. The artist smiled warmly.
"I guess everything is a reflection of something else. This endless abandon, these sands of darkness, what other world could there be, this hopelessness, our own frailty, magnified."
Aurora's shadows stirred slowly and almost seemed as if they were watching the artist with desperate intent. Aurora had also stopped moving, just simply standing in the middle of the desert, totally silent.
The artist looked around, suddenly afraid. "What?"
Aurora turned to him slowly, her eyes bright, her face calmly awestruck. "Your words... They are so beautiful."
The artist swallowed hard, feeling sick. "Uh, thanks." He bent over in pain and threw up.
Aurora helped him stand, feeling the greatest need to touch him, and said: "We must continue."
The artist nodded. But they didn't move for a few moments. Aurora simply held onto his hand and looked at him. Then her face became dark and she began to walk again. He followed, feeling weak.
They walked on silently for what felt like an hour. The artist didn't know what to say or think after the moment they'd shared. He felt something strange whenever he and Aurora touched, something he couldn't explain, but it could be anything in a world like The Dark City. Maybe she was simply trying to make him feel comfortable through all of the things that were happening. But that last moment was something so completely strange. The artist felt this amazing energy pass through him from Aurora... an energy like her spirit. Then, though, why had her face turned so dark?
“How far away is the next part from here?” He asked. "Or, for that matter, how much farther until The East Gate?"
Aurora chuckled sadly. "It's not about time. You have all the time you could possibly need."
The artist chuckled, a little uneasy.
Then he screamed.
A bloody head was sticking up out of the sand. It looked like it had been half blown off by a shotgun and then messily put back together.
"Go from here." A hoolow voice came from the mouth of the head. "Do not look upon us."
The artist wretched up a black ball and then another one.
"Death is the escape. Why journey back?" The head continued.
The artist felt mournful at the voice. He looked into its one good but bloodshot eye.
"They are cruel. They are monsters. Alone. Alone. Alone even eternally." The head mournfully chanted. Its voice began to shake and the artist felt tears welling up in his eyes. "Did they not puch you to this? Did they not drive you away? Alone. Alone. Alone even eternally. You will not find truth there. Alone. Alone. Alone even eternally."
The artist began crying an unnatural amount of tears at the head's mournful chant. They welled up underneath his feet and he started to sink into the sand. He looked at Aurora. She was crying and sinking, too.
"Alone. Alone. Alone even eternally." The head sobbed and its tears ran off to pool with those of the artist.
"No." Aurora said through sobs. "I did not need them." She began to rise and the sand beneath her became dry again. Her tears began to abate and she shook her head. "Their rejection of me was not the cause. Keep your weakness to yourself." She cursed the head sternly.
The artist was torn, though. He felt the utterly hopeless feeling from the voice, he felt the lonliness collecting in his heart.
But Aurora was right. He did not kill himself for loneliness but for another reason entirely. IN his life he had been alone, of course. Very few understood him and his mind. But their rejection of him was not what killed him. Loneliness plagued him, yes, but it was not that important.
The artist clenched his teeth and fought back the tears.
"She's right." He said as the sand began to solidify and his feet cam back to dry ground. "I don't give a rat's ass about being lonely. I kind of like it."
The head sunnk away into the sand with a mournful groan. The artist watched as it sank back into its own tears.
"You felt that, too." He said, looking at Aurora.
"I told you, this was the one place that nearly tempted me." She replied. "It seems it has nearly done it, again." She looked in the artist's eyes mournfully.
They began walking again.
The artist cleared his throat, trying to avoid having to vomit for the millionth, but he knew it was unavoidable. He stopped and went to place his notebook and pen on the ground, he'd grown a little irritated at carrying them.
"No!" Aurora shrieked violently, turning to the artist. He froze in his place, notebook and pen tensed not an inch from the sand. "Never let those touch the ground."
He suddenly remembered when he'd thrown it down and she'd caught it, not letting it touch the ground. He smiled warmly then doubled over and threw up.
They walked until they reached a dark and ominous looking garden.
"The trees aren't going to jump up and try to do something unpleasant to me, are they?" The artist asked cautiously as they stepped into the garden.