The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions)
Al Bruno III
The following story was originally published by Eden Studios
. . . shapes moving in the half-light . . . the falling droplets spatter hollowly on their dark hides . . .
I fought my way to awareness, taking in distorted gasps of the waking world before the dream pulled me back down like a savage undertow.
. . . faces that are not faces, with mouths that jut and wide eyes that glitter and reflect . . .
Whimpering, I fought to keep my eyes from closing. The musty bed creaked beneath me as I twisted and thrashed.
. . . they know me . . . they chose me . . . their slick, gloved hands conceal a brutal strength . . .
Choking back a cry, I found myself fully awake and half-falling out of bed. My clothes were damp with sweat and I couldn't stop shivering. I let myself slide the rest of the way to the floor and sat there cocooned in the dank bedclothes.
I didn't know where I was, but this sure as Hell wasn't my bed. Slivers of memory came back to me -- a wedding reception, too much to drink and harsh words with a woman whose face I could barely recall. A relative? A friend? A lover? I tried to think but my stupor had robbed me of any coherent recollection.
Christ! I had a class in the morning -- the last one before mid-term exams!
I struggled out of the bedclothes and got to my feet. The room I was in offered no tangible clues as to where I was. Thick boards had been nailed over the windows, the frayed rug was a black and white chessboard pattern. The paint on the walls and ceiling was cracked and rotted away, revealing sable wallpaper. The bed was slender as a coffin and sagged in the middle, the nightstand beside it had no drawers, just gaping sockets. A single lamp illuminated the room with faint yellow light. It certainly felt like a motel room but there were none of the usual motel room amenities like a pad of paper, a bible or a telephone.
Something about the place disturbed me -- more than my inability to remember where I was or how I'd gotten here. Had I really been that drunk last night? And where for that matter was my fiancée? Visions of all my personal possessions lying on the front lawn spurred me to action.
There were two doors on either side of the closet, one of them had to be the exit.
My first guess landed me in the bathroom. Oh well, I thought as I flicked on the lights, best make use of the facilities while I'm here.
Puddles sat on the tile floor, veins of mold crawled along the underside of the toilet. A strange coppery scent hung in the air. I caught sight of my reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror. My suit looked like I had run the three-minute mile in it, my gray eyes were underlined with dark circles. Somewhere in the course of the previous night's adventures I had lost my best silk tie.
I relieved myself quickly, afraid to touch anything with my hands, and stepped back out into the room. I debated between sneaking out or searching for a front desk to pay my bill, when I heard a voice out in the hall, a female voice.
" . . . who's there? Come back!"
"Hello!" I answered, relieved that I wasn't alone.
"My name's Ron," I stepped outside, "Ronald Mills, and I know this is going to sound crazy, but I don't have the slightest idea where I am."
I found the hallway in no better condition than the room. It was a foul-smelling, crazy quilt of peeling paint and decaying plaster. Piles of debris, some almost waist high, ran along the left side of the hall. The sprinklers were rusty and dripping. More and more I had to wonder if I had stumbled into a condemned building.
"You don't know where you are either?" There was a tremor of fear in the woman's voice. She was short and slender with long dark hair. She wore a sweater and faded bluejeans. However she had gotten here, she had gotten here without shoes, her feet were bloodied and filthy.
"What's your name?"
"What do you remember?"
She paused thoughtfully. "It was about ten thirty, I had just gotten home from work. I kicked off my shoes and tried to turn on my apartment lights but there must have been a fuse out. It was pitch black. I was trying to feel my way to the phone when my . . . my hand brushed something."
"What was it?"
"I don't know, it was greasy and . . . and . . . and it felt like skin."
. . . slick gloved hands . . .
A memory tried to stir but something held it at bay.
"And the next thing I knew," she concluded, "I woke up here."
First slipping off one shoe and then another I said, "The problem is that we don't know where here is."
She tried to refuse the shoes but I insisted. "I was searching for an exit," hissing with pain, she carefully slipped the shoes over her wounded feet, "but this place is huge. It's like some kind of a maze."
"How long have you been here?"
"I don't know my watch was gone when I woke up."
I checked my wrist, "Mine too. Have you discovered anything?"
"There are elevators but none of them are running," she pointed back the way she had come, "and I haven't found any stairwells. All the doors around here are either locked with a deadbolt or torn off their hinges."
"Wonderful." I looked first to one end of the hall and then the other, both went on for several yards and then branched out, "None of the locked doors have room numbers on them either."
"Yeah," she paused to peer into my room, "and all the windows are boarded up."
"I don't like this." I went over to one of the piles of debris and yanked out a sizable board. I pulled out a second and handed it to her, "Who were you talking to when I came out into the hall?"
She hefted her board uncertainly, "I don't know, I thought I saw somebody."
"Well, lets keep heading the way you were going."
"Sure." Betty said, "And watch your step, there are nails everywhere."
One corridor spilled into another, one hour of exploration became three. We found no shortage of doors, some of them locked and some not, but we failed to find any that led to the outside world.
It was kind of funny in a way, to feel trapped in a place so vast.
As we continued to explore we found more mysteries -- corridors that doubled back upon themselves, rooms filled with stacks of water-damaged books, and wide chambers empty of anything save for a few pitiful mounds of sodden clothing. Padlocked steel gates blocked en try to the non-functional elevators and neatly bisected some of the corridors. Sometimes we got the feeling that we were being watched. One of us would spy a furtive movement out of the corner of our eye, but when we tried to investigate we found nothing except more hallways and dead ends.
I found out more about Betty than I did about our surroundings. She was a waitress with dreams of becoming a paralegal. Married right out of high school, she found herself divorced by twenty-one. She had no children and I gathered from her tone that she wasn't in a hurry to have any.
After failing to break into any of the locked rooms, we pried the boards away from one of the windows, only to find ourselves staring at a wall of bricks. The room on the other side of the hall offered a similar view.
"Well that's it," I ran a hand over the obstruction's cool, slimy surface, "we're in Hell."
Betty shot me a glance that was both angry and terrified, "Don't say that."
"I was just joking."
She stormed back out into the hallway, her eyes close to tears, "I don't care!"
I hurried gingerly after her. The rubble-strewn floor had reduced my dress socks to tatters and was threatening to do the same to the undersides of my feet.
A thousand bad movie clichés paraded through my subconscious as I chased after her; everything from billionaire madmen to alien abductions. Of course, I knew in my heart of hearts that the truth would be far more mundane because the truth was that I was no dashing movie hero and that billionaire madmen contented themselves with running for president.
When I found Betty again, she wasn't alone.
Her captor had her in a headlock, there was a desperate sheen to his eyes.
"We don't want any trouble." I said calmly.
"Then drop the friggin' board."
The makeshift club slipped from my fingers, I had almost forgotten I was carrying it. The man looked to be in his fifties but was still heavily muscled. Even with a 2x4 in my hand, I wouldn't have wanted to tangle with him. Hopefully I wouldn't have to.
"Now," he continued, "you two fuckoes are gonna show me the way out of here or I'm gonna break the both of your necks."
To emphasize the seriousness of his threat he gave his hold on Betty a momentary squeeze. She issued a crackling gasp, her face turning purple.
"Look," I drew closer but held up my hands in what I hoped to be a peaceful gesture, "we don't want any trouble, but we can't help you. We're trapped here the same as you are."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"I sure as Hell hope you do because it's the truth."
For a few tense moments he scrutinized us, then released his captive and shoved her my way, "What're your names?"
"I'm Ron Mills," I put my arm around Betty drawing her close only to have her push me away, "and this is Betty."
"My name is Frank, Frank Gordin. I don't remember how I got here."
Betty answered "Neither do we."
"How long have you been here?" I asked.
"A couple of hours, I woke up in a room at the end of the hall." he pointed to the ravaged corridor behind him, "You're the first people I've seen since I started exploring."
Betty shook her head, "What's going on here?"
I pointed back the way he had come, "Have you found anything?"
"Just a lotta weird shit."
He waved a meaty hand, "Just weird shit, there's this one room that's all empty except for playing cards nailed to the wall and then there's another that's got all these fucked-up lookin' scuba diving suits in it . . . "
. . . faces that are not faces . . .
Another image washed through my mind.
Betty drew closer to Frank, curiosity overriding her fear, "Diving suits?"
"No air tanks though, just the suits."
I leaned against the wall to steady myself, "Take us there."
"What?" Betty exclaimed, "Why?"
"Shouldn't we be trying to find a way out of here instead of doubling back?"
"This may help us to remember how we got here." I explained.
Betty peered at me quizzically, "What are you thinking?"
"I'm not sure," I picked my 2x4 back up, Frank got one of his own, "but I don't think that we're going to be able to find our way out of here until we figure out who it was that brought us here and why."
I motioned to Frank and with a sigh of resignation he led us back the way he had come.
The room, I mused, must have once been a banquet hall of some kind, perhaps even a ballroom. It was the widest of any chamber we'd come across yet, and it was also the most despoiled. Blood from my feet mingled with the inch deep layer of stagnant water that covered the wide marble floor. I craned my neck to examine the pallid remnants of the extravagant frescoes and intricate scrollwork that lined the walls. A length of copper cable had been strung from one decaying wall to the other, and on it hung the four 'diving suits' Frank had told us about.
The sight of them brought the memory I had been struggling with crashing to the surface.
. . . the world lurches around me like a ship in a storm but I'm feelin' no pain. I finally told the bitch what I've been wanting to tell her for so long and Holy Shit if I didn't do it in front of an audience. Not that I care, they were her friends, not mine. In an alleyway -- at this point God only knows where -- I stumble into the cool shadows not sure if I have to piss or puke. The wall is cool and inviting and I slump down it's length and end up falling into a deep sleep . . .
"What are they for?" Betty asked, prodding one with a 2x4.
. . . rain wakes me, I'm soaked to the skin but still too drunk to be concerned. I'm about to drift back off again when I see the shapes moving in the half-light. No. Not moving -- shambling. As they draw closer I can hear the falling droplets spatter hollowly on their dark hides . . . .
Betty's prodding knocked the strange costume from its perch, it fell to the floor with a muffled splash.
"Damnedest thing I ever saw." Frank said.
A tiny squeal escaped from my lips as I watched Betty run her soft hands over the leathery material.
. . . they loom over me, scrutinizing me with faces that are not faces, with mouths that jut and wide eyes that glitter and reflect. One of their hands brushes my face, its touch is oily. I can feel it leaving a slug-like trail as its blunt fingers trace my jawline. I scream and try to claw my way to freedom . . .
The "suits" were completely sealed, the arms ended in gloves and the legs in soft, rubbery boots. A stiff-necked cowl sprouted from the neckline. The cowl's protruding, almost snoutlike mouthpiece and broad, dark-tinted eyepieces combined to give it the semblance of a bestial face.
"There's somethin' real familiar about them." Frank commented, making me wonder if perhaps he too was beginning to remember.
"There's no zipper," Betty observed, "How do you put it on?"
. . . there is something nightmarish, yet dreadfully familiar about their touch. It makes me realize that they know me, that they chose me. But why? And for what? My pleadings and cries are unanswered. They lift my swooning body up with ease and I cannot break free for their slick, gloved hands conceal a brutal strength.
Consciousness begins to slip away from me and I can only sob as they take me to . . .
"DON' TOUCH IT!"
We all turned to see a boy with dark, curly hair standing in the doorway. He looked no older than ten, and wore filthy, threadbare clothes. A network of ugly scars worked their way up over his neck and face.
"Who the frig are you?" Frank demanded.
The boy took a cautious step backwards, "Those belong to the Thrones."
"Thrones?" I looked back to the suits, "Who are the Thrones?"
"The suits" was the boy's only answer.
Frank drew closer, "How do you know that?"
"They take the people away . . . "
Now Betty was on her feet, "There are other people here?"
The boy shook his head.
"How come they . . ." Frank's voice became an angry growl as the boy turned and ran. The older man dived, catching him in a rough tackle. They rolled across the watery floor. I was about to intervene when Frank started screaming.
The boy kicked free and scrambled out the door. I went after him, 2x4 in hand. A backwards glance showed Frank sitting straight up, a shocked look on his face and a dark circle of blood welling up on his right cheek, marking where he had been bitten. Betty was at his side, trying to help him.
A moment later I was out in the hall, chasing after the boy.
The boy led me on a frantic twisting journey through the halls. I managed to keep up but it cost me most of the skin on the soles of my feet and at least one toenail. Finally he made a mistake and found himself in a corridor that lead to nothing but a boarded-up window.
"Go away!" the boy reached down and began throwing chunks of debris at me.
"Hey! Hey!" I slowed my limping gait.
"Leave me alone!"
"I don't want to hurt you!"
I had to keep a hand raised to swat away the flying chunks of plaster and wood, "I want to get out of here same as you do."
"Bull!" he shouted, "You're jus' like all the others!"
"What do you mean?"
"They think that since I knows about the Thrones that I'm in with 'em! Well I ain't!"
The thought had occurred to me, and doubtlessly had also occurred to Frank and Betty. I cursed myself for letting paranoia get the better of me.
I dropped the 2x4, "I'm sorry I scared you."
The boy stopped throwing, "You mean that?"
"I can't save you."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm small for my age, I can slip through the gates that separates one wing from another."
"You know where we are?"
I carefully drew closer, "Where?"
He kept his gaze locked with mine, "This's the Citadel of the Hierophant."
As we found our way back to where we had left my two companions, I questioned the boy. He told me little more than his age -- twelve, and his name -- Vagabond. The name alone was enough to trouble me.
Why had we been brought here? I wondered And for what possible reason?
What could we have done to bring down the wrath of these so-called Thrones down upon us?
"So who is this Hierophant?" I asked, hobbling next to him.
Vagabond answered, "He lives upstairs. He rules from the seashore to the mountains. He's getting ready for some kind of a war, I guess."
"Do the Thrones work for him?"
"He makes the Thrones."
That was interesting. "How?"
The boy looked straight ahead, "I . . . I think I know, but I can't tell you."
When we reached the wide, waterlogged chamber, Betty and Frank were no longer there. I cursed under my breath. Had they set off looking for me? Or had they been taken by the Thrones? I shuddered at the thought.
The stagnant water began to sting my feet. I spun in place trying to find some clue as to where they had gone. Vagabond tugged my arm, "Let's go."
"What?" I asked, "What's wrong?"
"Look." he pointed to the center of the room.
The suit Betty had knocked to the floor had been re-hung with care, not only that, someone had taken it in, shortening the arms and legs. It looked like it would be just the right size for a child.
Or for a twelve-year old boy that was small for his size. I shuddered and allowed Vagabond to lead me out of the room.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"I'm gonna take you back to your friends, least that way you can be with 'em when . . . when it happens." he took me along a route I had not yet explored.
"What do you mean?"
"When the Thrones come for you."
I stopped in the hallway, "How do you know so much?"
"What does it matter?" he snapped back angrily, "I can't save you."
"So you say," I leaned against the wall, raised one foot and began to pick out splinters, "but how can you be so sure?"
He watched me cleaning my wound for a few moments before speaking again, "I've been here almost two weeks, I've gone from one part of the Citadel to another and no matter what I do, it's always the same."
I set the one foot down and went to work on the other, "What happens now?"
"In every wing, there's one room that has food, a fireplace and all kinds of stuff. You all find your way there sooner or later." His features and voice were pinched with guilt as he spoke, "You eat. You drink. You stop bein' scared. Then the sprinklers go off. That's the signal. They take you upstairs. No one ever comes back."
We started walking again, "What happens upstairs?"
He shook his head, "I don' know and I don' want to ever find out. That's why I'm gonna get you back to your friends and then I'm leavin'. Way I reckon it we got a few hours left yet."
After that Vagabond just stopped talking, replying to all my questions and comments with a noncommittal shrug. In a way I could understand. After all, in his opinion I was going to die. Why risk growing attached?
I had other ideas. Hopefully once I got back together with Betty and Frank, we could formulate a plan. We might not be able to slip through the gaps in the gates like Vagabond, but between the three of us we might be able to tear one off its hinges. Perhaps if we found more prisoners, we could wrest control of the Citadel from this Hierophant character.
There was a rattling squeal and the sprinklers burst to life, dousing us. Vagabond screamed, "No!" into the artificial downpour. I was about to ask him what was wrong when I heard the sound of countless deadbolts clicking back.
The doors on either side of us swung open and Thrones were upon us.
Vagabond tried to run and I tried to fight. Unfortunately I had neglected to pick my makeshift club back up and soon found myself being tossed around like rag doll.
They must have caught Vagabond -- I could hear his howls of terror. They goaded me into further struggles but it was no use, there were four of them on me now. I felt their greasy hands everywhere.
The knot of Thrones surrounding me loosened, the majority retreated back to their rooms. I watched, shivering and wet. I felt clammy hands on the back of my neck, keeping me down on all fours.
We waited there, the sprinklers continuing to pour down on us. I blinked the water from my eyes and tried to think of some way out. But all I could do was wish that back in my fiancée's bed, that this was a nightmare.
If only I could wake up beside her, I thought. If only I could wake up beside her I'd take back everything.
A strange howling began to fill the air, it was a phlegmy, alien sound. The Thrones holding me down began to bay as well, answering the call. They let go of me and straightened.
My muscles tensed -- to run or fight, I don't know which. Then my Throne struck me with its open hand across my back. I winced at the stinging pain. I heard Vagabond yowling but couldn't see him.
Another blow landed on me, and another, driving me forward. Suddenly Vagabond was beside me, we were being herded forward like cattle.
They ran us hard and fast over the biting debris, goading us to continue with a torrent of sharp blows. Any time we tried to straighten or raise our heads, we were beaten back down. A few minutes of this and my hands began to resemble my feet. I wondered what they were driving us towards. Visions of primitive sacrifice danced through my head. Or perhaps they would just keep doing this until we dropped.
Two more Thrones joined us, savagely driving Betty and Frank before them.. Betty was panting and sobbing, Frank punctuated every breath with a curse. They steered us through a thick iron door and we found ourselves on a darkened stairwell.
Frank made a break for it, hurdling over the railing and on to the next landing. His keeper was on him in moments. The battle was brief and one-sided. I closed my eyes and tried not to listen as he was pummeled into submission.
After he was returned, the Thrones began driving us up the stairs. I tried to judge how far we were going but after the first few flights, we were in pitch darkness. I submit completely to my keeper's blows and shoves for navigation.
It seemed as though the climb would never end. I wondered if my joke had been correct and that this was indeed Hell.
Finally, we were urged through a second iron door into a room that was warm and well lit. Our captors grabbed hold of the backs of our necks and forced us down until we were lying on our stomachs. My Throne kept firm hold of me, not that it needed to, my every muscle felt like lead.
Slowly the blood roaring in my ears subsided and I began to hear the sound of classical music. Stravinsky, I think.
Heavy footsteps approached, I found myself staring at a dress boot.
The Thrones hoisted us to our feet, stood behind us and took hold of our arms. The room we were in was wide and mahogany-paneled, warm light filtered in through the stained glass windows. A long desk covered with blueprints and prisms dominated the far wall. Beside it was an antique chair, a tattered yellow cloak was draped over the back. The music was coming from the battered Victrola in the corner.
A tall man wearing a dark gray uniform of a type I'd never seen before surveyed us. He was shuffling a deck of oversized cards. He wore a pallid mask similar in design to his minions but it was much more streamlined and hugged his face like a second skin. The eyepieces were clear, revealing cool dusky eyes.
It was the Hierophant.
It had to be the Hierophant.
He paused in front of Vagabond, "Let this be a lesson to you Fool, routines are established so the cattle may be easily collected."
"What the fuck are you talkin' about?" Frank shouted, his nose was broken and he was missing teeth, "Where do you get off thinkin' you can do this to people?"
The Hierophant stopped shuffling and rounded on him, they were inches apart, "You think you matter? You think God cares for you? You're nothing. You delude yourself with hope."
Frank replied with a litany of curses, crimson spittle flying from his mouth to speckle the Hierophant's uniform and mask. When he was done, The Hierophant selected a card from the deck and slowly drew the thin edge of it against Frank's face, splitting the skin.
After the first cry I looked away, staring down at my ravaged feet.
Once Frank had been reduced to a silence marked only by slurred weeping, the Hierophant spoke again. "It may be of some comfort to you to know that I do not do this out of malice or dementia. You were destined for this, and I am merely fate's instrument."
Betty's voice was merely a whisper, "What are you going to do with us?"
"In life you were so little . . . but in death . . . you have such terrible wonders before you."
"Why?" she begged, "Why are you doing this?"
He shook his head sadly, "I could no more explain my aspirations to you than you could explain your dreams to an earthworm."
With that our audience with the Hierophant was over and we were half-dragged, half-thrown through a nearby doorway. The tile floor was cold and scuffed. I pulled myself to my feet and looked to my companions. Betty and Frank were cradling each other, Vagabond was lying on the floor, curled into a fetal position, his eyes shut tight. I wasn't going to give up yet, they would take me kicking and screaming.
The room we were in was long with a high-domed ceiling. Diffuse light filtered in through tinted skylights. There were windows at eye level too, but they were almost opaque with dirt and grime. All I could see was a dark, twisted skyline and streets clogged with bowed, shuffling figures. I turned my attention back to the room, every few feet there was a stone pot holding a disease-ridden tree. I wondered what kind of a weapon one of the trees would make if I uprooted it.
No, I thought with a frown, That might work against an ordinary man . . . but a Throne?
Behind one of the rows of trees, there was a vent that fed warm air into the room. Realizing I had nothing left to lose, I sat down and began working at the grating in front of the vent, trying to loosen the bolts that held it place. I had no tools save for my bare hands but I didn't think one more cut would matter at this point.
A furtive grunting reached my ears and I looked up to see Betty and Frank in each other's arms. I turned away almost immediately but the image of Betty, her features curled into an animalistic snarl, cradling Frank's ruined, bloody face to her bosom lingered in my mind.
Luckily for me the decay that had taken its toll on the lower levels was also in effect here, the first of the four bolts came up more easily than I expected. Before I could share my victory with anyone the door opened and a pair of Thrones shambled in. They pulled Betty roughly away from her wounded lover and dragged her out of the room. Frank wailed with anguish and flung himself at the door only to have it slammed in his face.
Frank was taken sometime between my removal of the second and third bolt, either he didn't make a sound or I was too engrossed to notice. The work had reduced my fingertips to shreds but I pressed on, having no idea when the Thrones would return.
When the fourth bolt was lying on the floor beside me I removed the grate. What I found made me want to cry.
The vent was a little less than two feet in diameter. There was no way I could get through. I crawled over to Vagabond. I called his name but he didn't respond. I slapped his face but he didn't flinch. In spite of the room's oppressive humidity I began to shiver. Any moment now they would be coming for one of us.
I leaned in to Vagabond and whispered to him, "The Thrones are coming for you next Vagabond. I can hear them at the door, they saved you for last."
Suddenly my problem was no longer how to awaken him but how to keep him from my throat. I held his flailing hands and tried to make him hear, "I found a way out! Listen to me! You can get away!"
Eventually he did and I led him to the vent. He looked questioningly at me, "Where does it go?"
"I don't know.."
"What about you?"
I tried to keep my voice steady, "I can't fit though there, you'll have to go alone."
"Don't you know what they're gonna do to you?"
"They'll do it to you too." I nudged him towards the vent.
Without another word, Vagabond crawled into the vent. "Good luck." I whispered as I hastily replaced the grate.
Then I stood before the door and waited. If they found and took me first, it would buy the boy more time.
...they come for me eventually. I try to stay calm and go nobly to my fate, but in the end I beg and plead, my fingers scrabbling for handholds on the floor as they drag me to the sterile white room.
Held down, held fast, I wail as the Hierophant kneels over me, a scalpel in his hand. With practiced ease he peels away my flesh. He listens intently, knowing that as I die, prophesies will spill from my skinned lips.
When my breaths have stopped, the Thrones ease my body into its new skin. I shudder with understanding.
At long last . . . understanding.