I hadn't realized that I'd fallen asleep until my eyes peeled open to reveal a change in scenery. The last I remembered, I had been with Jack, flying through territory unknown. Now, I was curled on the hard ground, my back stiff and head swimming. There were sharp pains in my legs, and my throat was dry. I pushed myself to a sitting positing, feeling pins and needles through my lower body. I rubbed circulation back into my legs as a shiver ran down my back. I knew I was awake, but the sight was chilling enough to be a nightmare.
I was in a graveyard. An old graveyard with chipped and cracked headstones, lichen taking hold of the worn faces of grave markers. The grass was brown and yellowing, crackling with the slightest touch. I hadn't realized my shoes had gone until the moment they touched the sword-like grass. A thin mist clung to the ground, a blanket if the headstones were granite pillows. I saw a tree, dead and gnarled, a few feet from where I lay. Lifeless leaves littered the ground around me. They, too, crumbled to dust as the slightest suggestion. Despite the heat I had felt earlier, a chill had set in. I squinted through the mist, but it cloaked my vision and I was not able to see more than ten feet in any direction.
But it was the sound that sent aching terror through me.
It was the sound of nothingness. Of emptiness. The closest a human being usually comes to hearing the oppressing sound of nothing is the snow. Snow mutes sound, while this was nothing. No echo, no wind; I was barely able to discern my heartbeat. When I did, it was frantic. The sound was so close, pressing against me, letting me know how utterly alone in the world I had become.
I clutched my arms around me, getting to my feet. I glanced at the tombstone nearest me. Reynold Gillespie. Died 1875. A large chip had been taken out of it, obscuring his birth date. Something shifted in the grass to my left, and I whirled towards it. Nothing. Another sound. I turned again with a gasp this time. There was a shadowed figure just inside the fog. I fell backwards in surprise, my back against Reynold Gillespie's headstone. A flutter of wings. The scrape of sharp claws on stone. Two headstones in front of me, I saw the winged shape of the demon Jack land stiffly atop a tall tombstone, folding his leathery black wings around him against the cold. His breath fogged before him, and he held his hands close against him. I saw that his fingers had turned to claws, and they were bloodied.
"Jack," I tried to say, but my voice was thin and flat in this noiseless world. It sounded alien after minutes alone in the silence. He pulled his lips thin, his cheeks pale. One finger (they were no longer claws, I noticed) pointed toward me, and he shifted his weight on his clawed feet from his perch on the tombstone, resting his head on his hands. I had fallen asleep. He hooked his thumbs and imitated the motion his wings made in flight. He had been flying. He dropped his hands quickly, then spread his hands out with a sad look in his eyes.
"I fell asleep while you were flying," I chanced, thinking delicately, "which made you fall?"
He shrugged. It was about the gist of it. He looked over his shoulder, the direction he had come out of the fog. I followed his gaze, and was met only by a white curtain.
"Where are we?" I asked. I got no response. I blushed, remembering that he was deaf and could only "hear" me when he watched my lips. I gently approached, crushing the dry grass underfoot. I touched one of his arms, and he jerked his head in my direction, as if frightened. I saw that he had been fiddling with his wing, and his fingers still held blood. "Your wing?" He touched my cheek lightly.
"Nothing you need to worry about," his voice rang in my mind. "But I won't be able to fly you anywhere soon. We'll have to go through there." He looked again over his shoulder. I reached up and took his jaw in my hands, turning his eyes back to me.
"Through where? Where are we?"
"You remember those stories of the Nine Levels of Hell?" His fingers were still touching my cheek. "They were true, in essence." I saw his face pull back in a grimace, and he sat down on the tombstone beside me. His feet were human once more. "This plane that we're on now is the first level, Limbo. No one here is tortured, but-" He trailed off, and I could feel his meaning. Although there was no punishment in Limbo, I could feel the sadness seeping through the air.
"Is this... Was Dieter taken here?" I asked. Jack nodded.
"I know the demon that interfered with Dieter's ascent to Heaven in the first place," his voice took on a bitter tone as it echoed between my ears. "Five years ago, a demon who goes by the name of Gregory Stanton was among the mortals, collecting souls who had lingered too long on your plane." He paused, then motioned for the two of us to crouch behind the wide headstone. As we did, he continued. "Gregory found the two of you- He took the muggers' souls that night, but something stopped him from allowing your husband to leave his body." He took his hand from me, and that feel of static electricity danced on the warm place where his hand had been.
I felt him take me quietly into his arms, and he folded his wings around the both of us. I looked bewildered into his eyes, but he simply put a long finger to his lips. In the moments of silence, I saw that the rip in his wing had escalated to a mangling. It was torn halfway up, and the wing itself was bent awkwardly. Blood was caked thick on the wing, and I averted my eyes quickly. Feet crunched the dry grass on the other side of the grave, then slowly dissipated into the fog.
"Whoever it was is gone," I said quietly. Jack nodded and let me free of his embrace. He rubbed warmth into his arms, peering through the fog to see if he could spot the stranger. I looked questioningly at him. "How could you know someone was coming?" He peered at me with a thin face, then rolled his eyes. He placed his hands over his ears, then his palms were flat over his eyes as he shook his head. I bit my lip. His meaning was quite clear.
I'm deaf, not blind.
He checked the surrounding area again, then turned to me, pointing a finger at his ear.
"No, I don't hear anything," I said after a pause. Jack made a sad sort of grin, then took my hand in his. He looked at our hands for a moment, then met my eyes sheepishly. "I don't mind," I told him. "You probably know your way around here more than anyone else." He shrugged in response and we walked toward the fog. Dead silence surrounded me again, but with the real, warm flesh of Jack's hand in mine, I knew that I wasn't left alone to face it on my own. I felt my eyes going again and again to the torn and bloody wing. His blood was congealed, no longer dripping quietly onto the cold headstones. But it bothered me, nagging at the corner of my skull. I looked away to our feet. The fog was beginning to thin. Trees, all of them dead, were appearing like hulking ships run aground from some distant harbor. Jack paused to brush a dead leaf from my hair, and I realized that sound was coming back into the world.
I heard the echo of our footsteps against the grave markers. Somewhere, there was a brook, or perhaps a river. Jack's uninjured wing twitched nervously, and he tried to fold them close against his back. His face contorted in pain, and the damaged wing sprang back into place. He resigned to have one wing folded and the other sticking straight out. I hooked my arm with his, my hand getting rather sweaty from clutching his. He looked up.
"Could Victor and Elliot have followed us here?" I asked. I wasn't sure if I was asking because I was worried about them (worried that they were worried about me?) or if I was concerned that they would try to take me back. Jack watched my face through this thought process, and for some reason, I knew he understood what I was thinking. His free hand brushed back my free strands of hair and placed his thumb and forefinger there on my temple.
"Your friends could have followed us, but one of them would never be able to make it across the River Acheron. The angel would be forever banished from Heaven if he put just one toe into that water." He looked away into the thinning fog, his face suddenly sad and bitter. "Because the water is damned, just like we are." His hand retreated to his side, and we walked on in silence. The sound of rushing water became more and more evident. I felt a terrible sadness, knowing that Jack never heard the sound of water. The fog thinned to almost nothing, and I could see the graveyard for what it was.
Headstones, some of them probably hundreds of years old, stared back at me. Names, hundreds of them, were worn like raiment on the spotty and chipping stone. The shoddy rows seem to extend into forever, the fog swallowing them like some insatiable beast. Every few paces, I saw one name that was strikingly and terribly familiar. I turned Jack's face to mine, but could not look away from the tombstones.
"Who are they, Jack? Why are all of them here?" He looked out over the landscape, unfazed by the sheer vastness of the unending graveyard. Again the thumb and forefinger were on my temple.
"They are the sinners. The damned. The name of every single blasphemer and heretic is etched into stone here." He allowed himself a grin. "Something you might call "Hell's Roster." The grin faded, and he looked away quickly to his feet. I took my gaze to where his eyes had lingered for just a moment. I averted my eyes, sadness tugging my heart down into my stomach.
Jack Fitzgerald Callaghan II. Born August 13, 1868. Died January 25, 1890. Guilty of the sin of thievery. Served 100 years in the Malebolge for his sins. Serves in Satan's Army of the Damned.
"My Master walks through the Nine Levels of Hell," Jack began. I had forgotten that his fingers lay on my forehead. "He looks for faithful servants for his Army of the Damned. He found me in the Malebolge, and asked me to serve as-" He broke off, biting his lower lip. "When you serve 100 years in the Pit of Despair, you tell me that you wouldn't join him to free yourself from the never-ending torture." He stopped walking, and I almost went tumbling into the river.
We were at the banks of a wide river, which was almost glassy smooth. The currents twisted and wound near the surface. The water itself never stayed one color for long. At one moment, it was slate gray, the next an inky black. Jack held my shoulders to be sure I didn't slip off the bank and into the seemingly calm waters. He pointed at me, then the water, made a pained expression, then pointed at himself. I got the message.
You fall in there, you end up like me.
I nodded, steeled by my determination. He pushed me backwards a step to safety, then made a strange motion with his hands. I looked like he was beckoning across the river, whose opposite bank was hidden by yet another bank of fog. I watched the strange display, watched as Jack's face grew pale and gray as the water, his eyes dark and lifeless. It seemed suddenly colder, and I wished that I had brought a scarf. The thought almost made me laugh aloud. When visiting scenic Hell, don't forget to pack a hat, scarf and gloves! It can get a bit nippy!
Something was plowing through the water, and I looked up sharply. A small boat, unmanned, was slowly drifting toward this bank. Jack motioned for me to join him at the edge of the river, and again I felt his hand on my face.
"This is the River Acheron," he told me. "All souls are ushered across it when they enter Hell. On the other bank is the first level of Hell, Limbo. If Gregory hasn't caught on to me, Dieter will still be there."
"My theory is that Gregory was the one that brought your husband here to make up for the mistake he made five years ago. He should have gone to Heaven-" He lifted me and set me gently into the boat. In only a moment or three, he joined me and the boat set off again without provocation from Jack. He sat on one of the bench-like seats and finally managed to fold his injured wing all the way. I sat beside him, but he chose not to continue the thread of conversation. The fog bank approached, and I readied myself for chilling cold. But when the boat's prow cut through the mist, I was greeted with a pleasant blast of warm air.
Jack put one arm around my shoulders and gazed forward to the opposite bank, enjoying my puzzled face.
"Welcome to Limbo," he said with only the slightest hint of sarcasm.
The boat rolled through the changing waters of the Acheron, rolled on toward the impossible stone-walled castle that awaited us on the opposite side of the river.
AN: Someone told me that this story is going through a change, and she wasn't sure how to describe it. Well, change, especially for something this big, is inevitable. I hope I'm not cheezing anyone off by doing this. I'm probably also gonna be called some sort of blasphemer for this. Goodness... Well, enjoy, everyone!