“Hell is no place for angels,” whimpers Lorcas as the Bottle’s wheels judder over churned ice. Claws rake our brass-panelled flanks and rocks bounce off the glass portholes.
“We are quite safe in here, brother.” I utter an incantation, the holy fire in the centre of the curved floor flickers and the Bottle surges forward. “The warding prayers of the Principalities will keep us from harm.”
Despite the heat that forces us to wear nothing more than loincloths, Lorcas’ teeth are chattering. “I—I’m sorry, Azaliel. It’s just that—”
“It’s your first reconnaissance, I know.” We are careering down the snowy slopes of Hell in a small brass cylinder mounted horizontally on wagon wheels. The view through the fore porthole is of a frozen wasteland under a blood-red sky. Through the aft porthole the tracks of the Bottle curve to the near horizon. “It can be daunting,” I admit.
But unlike Lorcas I am untroubled. Our Divine Duty is to patrol the borderlands and occasionally, like now, penetrate the outskirts of Hell to gather information. This is my thirteenth mission and the Bottle—designed by seraphim, assembled by cherubim, blessed by principalities and crewed by two angels—is more than a match for the teeth and talons of our opposite number. The enemy horde could impede our progress in any number of ways, but these are stupid creatures with strange protuberances and obscene dangly bits. They do naught but throw themselves at our landship, then howl and shake in our wake.
Wishing to take advantage of a gentler gradient to our right, I close my eyes and say the Prayer of Realignment. Even through my eyelids I detect a change in the holy fire.
“One moment, I need to say the Prayer of Recalibration.”
I open my eyes. “Really, Lorcas, I—” The reproach sticks in my throat when I see his raised hand. His fingers and nails have turned a deep cherry red.
His voice wavers. “What does it mean?”
I scan the welds and joints of our vessel, searching for a crack or fault. “We’ve been breached, Lorcas. Sin has touched you.”
He moans, curls up and hugs his knees.
I shout the incantation for the Bottle to reverse at full tilt. “I must get us back to the Celestial City before the contamination takes hold.” I examine myself for changes as the Bottle jounces over the uneven ground, and find none.
Bodies impact on the hull without and demon bones crack. Within, the incandescent flame throws hard shadows on the cylinder walls.
Just as we are nearing the crest (I can see blades of grass poking through the snow!), Lorcas shoots into a standing position. Arms spread, he stares at his midriff. His breathing is ragged. “I—I felt something down there.” Before I can reply his loincloth falls away to reveal something growing in the fork of his legs.
“Sin has touched you!” It is all I can say, so profound is my shock. But my shock is nothing compared to when a thin stream of yellow fluid courses from the wyrm.
“Aaaggghh!” he cries. “What’s it doing?”
The peal of a thousand tiny bells caresses my ears as the fluid rings on brass panels. In another time and place I might have relished the sweet tinkling sound, but here and now my mind is on other things. “You’re putting out the holy fire!”
I grab his loincloth and try to stem the flow from the demon appendage, to no avail: the flame is extinguished.
The Bottle slows, creaks to a standstill.
The wind whistles through the chassis.
Neither of us dares to breathe.
Then Lorcas points to the fore porthole, to where a scaly horde is storming towards us. A new word pops into my head. I haven’t heard it before and I wonder if it signals that, like Lorcas, I have been contaminated.
“Fuck,” I utter miserably.
The demons pound on the hull and soon we are freewheeling into Hell.
Lorcas and I are sealed in the Bottle until rescue arrives, but I fear it may be too late for him. There is a sly cast to his eye and the angle of his hips is all wrong when he tries to stand in the rocking, bouncing cylinder. The fattening wyrm between his legs appears to hold a deep fascination for him, and when I tell him to leave it alone he regards my body with a crooked smile.
I don’t understand.
My poor brother Lorcas.
Michael Stone was born in 1966 in what is widely acknowledged as the fairest city of all England. Which is Stoke-on-Trent, as if you didn’t know! He still lives there with his wife and daughter and has no intention of ever leaving. Why would he when it’s so fair?
Mike’s work has appeared in numerous organs. Most recently Dunesteef, Dred, Pseudopod, Triangulation, TQR and The Beast Within. In 2008 Baysgarth Publications published Fourtold, a collection of his novellas with a foreword by award-winning fantasist Garry Kilworth. It’s reached the preliminary ballot of the Stoker Awards, a fact which pleases him greatly.
Mike’s website is at http://www.mylefteye.net/ and he has a Live Journal—username “mylefteye”. His journal is widely acknowledged as the fairest on the Web.