I should be dead. Instead, I’m freezing my tits off. Go figure. You’d think ‘chilly’ to look at this place, but shit. It’s like an institutional deepfreeze. And me in institutional cotton. I’ve spent way too much of my life in institutional cotton. Shit’s like paper. The colors have only gotten worse. This particular fetching ensemble is in correctional O.J. Not exactly my color. Not exactly anybody’s color unless they drive a clown car.
My arms are folded across my chest, like hugging myself’ll help. Every breath I take exhausts as a plume of frozen mist. Normally that wouldn’t rate ‘disturbing.’ It’s cold. Cold does that. I shiver. I hate shivering. My institutional slippers are soaked and sticky from the reedy, weedy marsh grass and other assorted slimes, not to mention the standing, surprisingly-unfrozen water. It’s gotta be below freezing. I should be skating, not wading. Yet here I am, soaked to my knees from trudging through this crap.
Teeth clenched, I keep trudging, one numb foot in front of the other. Or at least they’re numb until they touch down. That wakes them right up. Good thing pain and me are such old buds. Like most of my friends, pain just makes me mean. Not that that matters. There’s nothing to fight here. Nothing except the fog. And whatever lives in the fog. No clue. Half-formed faces swirl in and out of the soup, looking a lot like misty variations on Mask Guy from Scream.
Which at any other time in many other places might be funny, but here and now brings me back to the ‘disturbing.’ I breathe and they come. I gave up batting at the air about an hour back. It’s pointless. They aren’t exactly action spooks, but they are persistent. They drift a little like lazy butterflies, in that aimless, haphazard way. Pretty lethargic as baddies go. I’m not even sure that they are baddies. They haven’t done shit to me yet, just drink my breath. That seems to be their thing.
The disturbing part, besides the image of Casper’s demented cousins sucking steam from my mouth: they come away from me looking a whole lot more substantial. Who knows? Maybe they’re chowing down on what’s left of my soul. They can have it. I’m too cold and tired to care. Looking at the ground helps keep the snafu from playing hell with my wits. Mostly what I see are thicker wisps of fog. Hunching over also goes nicely with freezing my ass off.
Besides, it isn’t like I’m missing anything. Leave it to me to ask for answers and get sent to a place where the oversaturated scenery never changes. It’s like Oz ala the Brothers Grimm. The greens are all too green. The blacks are all too black. The perpetual, sickly yellow twilight and thick, swirling fog are probably actually good things. Without them my retinas might burn out.
Oh, and somehow, in spite of the cold, everything stinks of ammonia and rotting meat. Not that I notice anymore. Once you get a snoot full of smelling salts, nothing much else registers. Your eyes and nose just kind of leak and that’s that. Avoiding stepping on the grass still seems like a good idea. I don’t know what the shit is besides repulsive. It smells like ass and sticks to everything.
Nice place. Dante was a bastard, not a role model. Vision-questing toward the city of Dis was never a good idea. I lose it. Lose myself. Lose everything. My own feet squishing through the muck are the only thing I see for—
Damned if I know. Scatter brained. Addled thoughts. ‘Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.’
‘Ascension’ is such a pretty word. Floating like a feather on an updraft. Becoming something better. I already have my answer. So why am I still here?
I look up. My ‘friends’ are still hanging in there. And they’re still pissing me off. Bobbing and weaving, dipping and pitching like goldfish in a bowl. I look past them. Hundreds of black, skeletal hands reach up from the fog, piercing the putrid, puss-to-piss yellow horizon. Either that or Tim Burton did the trees here. Static and stagnant like everything else, the boney trees don’t move. That doesn’t matter. This might be progress. At least something’s changed. That goes against everything I know about this place. It has to mean something.
And revelations are for numpties who don’t wanna stay in the game. The way the ground rumbles makes that point crystal-goddamned-clear. I should’ve kept my head down. Even the Casperettes think I totally ducked the fog. They cut their losses and run. Nothing says ‘you’re screwed’ quite like the local spooks getting spooked.
So what now?
Well, I could try getting up. The continental quaking has gone from ‘grand mal’ to ‘Uncle Benny without the sauce.’ Basting my backside in pure hellish swill isn’t even—
I make it to my knees. The ground heaves, throwing me flat on my face. While I’m sucking a pint of hell’s best into my lungs, I feel it: the first breeze I’ve felt in—since I got here. I don’t know what it’s like to be dipped in liquid nitrogen. I don’t think anybody does, or that anybody who does might’ve lived to share the experience. Besides, what would they share? ‘Oww?’ Whatever. I bet this is the next best thing. It stops my choking. I can’t choke. I can’t move. I freeze a little too literally for my own good.
The next breeze sends me skittering in unspeakable pain. My muscles jerk. I’m not the one driving. All reflex, no control, I thrash more than crawl. It wants to be crawling. I want to make it crawling. Hell with crawling, I want to run. I thrash. My jerky movements eventually land me on my back. No clue. I just end up that way. My ears fill with arctic slush, sending knives punching into my brain.
I look up into a cavern lined with sharp stalactites, stalagmites and whatever they call the ones that come straight out from the wall. Do those have a name? Should they be morgue basin pink?
Rancid wind whistles through the cave. The walls undulate, moving the jagged, nameless things hypnotically. Not that I notice that more than in passing. I’ve got other problems. As the whole, systematic, spasmy thing happens with Mr. Cave, my body lurches. It’s over. I’m done. I close my eyes. I think they call those things ‘teeth.’
I’m not even scared that I’m going to get eaten—that I’m no longer staring—because staring is pointless—into the mouth of a huge whatever-the hell-that-thing-is. The pain sort of overrides my morbid curiosity, so much so it doesn’t register. In the distance, my body burns, flops, flails, falls…
The magic carpet ride is over. Someone yanked the rug. I hit with an audible ‘thud.’ Either that or I got yanked backwards through a pinhole by my bellybutton. It’s hard to tell which. Either way, in the span of a heartbeat, I go from frozen anguish to slightly nipplish and a little sore. It isn’t a bad trade. I’m not even wet anymore.
I sit up and open my eyes. The institutional beige room swims into view. I’m in the right place and, ‘bonus,’ I didn’t set myself on fire by lying on the candles. Points for that. More points for not playing Jonah to some massive, demonic flukeworm. So, that was—?
“Did you find your answer?”
I never thought I’d be happy to hear that voice again.
“Yeah. Oh, yeah. Hell, yeah,” I say, ragged throat and all. I sound like I’ve been hit by a truck. Just that part. Feels that way too. “Next time I ask a question, just punch me in the mouth. It’ll be easier.” I sit my sorry ass up and turn to face the opposition.
Wonders never cease. Mildred Minerva actually looks concerned, or at least her craggy face is more craggy than usual. She says, “Yes, well—” breaking off in a display of true, understated Britishness.
I still hate her. It just figures that, even locked up, the sadists would saddle me with a sitter. Certain that she’s gonna have more to say on the subject, I grumble into the pause, “Is it messed up that I think that becoming a worm, no matter how big and scary is less ‘ascension’ more ‘regression’?”
Not even a little.
All I want the intrepid Miss Marple to say is ‘here endth the session.’ She annoys me with an indulgent smile and a Watchery monologue, “Yes, good point. Your friend was playing by a different set of standards. We’re very grateful that he did not succeed. However, you should note that Bezael was actually more of a serpent. We had to make do.”
She gets up to stash the witchy paraphernalia, still jabbering, and I zone out. The last thing I catch is something about, “the closest available analog,” whatever that means. I didn’t sign up for a seminar on demonology. I asked a simple question. I got a painful, complicated answer. What else? This is the Watchers’ Council I’m dealing with. I s’pose it’s nice to see that the sensitivity training stuck. She didn’t call Mayor Wilkins a loon or mention B.’s name. The rest of that was—
Whatever. I cut into a lag in her spiel to ask, “Can I go now?”
Ask a stupid question…
This time I get lucky. After a, “Certainly,” and a, “I suppose you’re fairly knackered,” from the limey faction, the guard escorts me away.