JANG! JANG! JANG! RANG THE HAMMERS IN THE RAIN.
JANG! JANG! JANG! CLANGED THE LINKS OF BLOODY CHAIN.
JANG! BANGED THE BOOMERANG BOUNCING IN HER BRAIN.
JANG! SANG THE KANGAROO –
Something touched her shoulder. In a fever dream of manacles and red rock, Naoko surged upward, grabbing for the throat. The intruder gagged, falling back, and she took him to the floor.
“Naoko,” he choked, patting weakly at her arms. “It’s me, it’s Ten.”
She blinked, finally seeing the tufted ears and eyebrows of her fae friend in the lamplight from the hallway. “Sorry,” she said, letting him go and slumping back against the bed. She had hoped a few hours sleep would improve her condition, but this was emphatically not the case. Her body ached from pores to marrow, and her skull was throbbing like it would explode.
“What the fuck, dude? Probably best that we never slept together.”
JANG! JANG! JANG! – “Shut up,” she whispered, a shiver running through her.
“What?” Ten asked, staring. “You asked me to wake you up when it got dark. Well, it’s dark. And I think –”
“Shhh,” she pleaded. JANG! BANGED THE BOOMERANG –
“Are you okay? You look bad. You want me to get you anything? I think there’s some –”
JANG! SANG THE KANGAROO –
“Quiet!” she snapped. “Please! Just for a second!” And finally Ten shut up.
Deliberately, in that interval, head bowed, she silently intoned: Om ah hum vajra guru padma siddhi hum. Mystic syllables to ward off demons. She repeated the mantra again, felt her head clear a little. Whenever the children’s rhyme started pulling her back, she countered with the mantra, a trick she’d learned years ago to ward off psychic attacks.
“You’re acting crazy,” Ten said finally.
“I’m not crazy,” she yelled, orange eyes flashing. “I’m not crazy,” she repeated, less crazily this time. “I just … have unusual problems.”
He slowly nodded. “Want to tell me about it?”
“It’s safer if I don’t. But listen: if you see anything strange, let me know, okay?”
He chewed on this. “We’re about to descend into a war in Hell. Beelzebub and King Rat are going to cross the Styx and assault the inner circles, while Moloch, Lura Vyre and Lucifer himself, for all I know, prepare to rain fire on anything that reaches the farther shore. What, exactly, would qualify as strange?”
“Just anything … Australian.”
Bafflement. “You’re a fucking nut, you know that?”
– DRIVING HER INSANE, came the thought, completing the rhyme. “I’m not crazy,” she said again, and silently mouthed the mantra.
Hell was hot, but she felt cold and clammy as they descended the winding, irregular stone staircase of Echelos to the Third Circle. She still trusted – well, hoped – that her mostly human genes would fight off the bloodrot, a demonic virus that had decimated the city’s population, but entering a battle with muscles quivering and chills sweeping through her may have been her stupidest idea to date.
But Aobozu, the monk she’d been pursuing these last three days, would most likely also be trying to cross the river now, with the kidnapped boy, Robbie Radner, in tow. Whatever lay in store for the kid in the Second Circle, it wasn’t sunshine and daisies.
The upper reaches of the Third were surprisingly quiet, though there was a perpetual patter of claws upon the stone passing them on either side, a ceaseless rivulet of rats heading downslope. As always when walking anywhere in Hell, she kept her katana in hand and her runechain loose. But tonight even the lamprey-bats took no notice of them. It would have been quiet, except for a growing roar from the direction of the river.
The number of rats passing them steadily increased, many of them deformed and diseased, faces bulging with tumors and boils, leaving trails of blood and pus, skin covered with scales, spines, sewage. Though some were scarcely recognizable, all answered King Rat’s call. Most took no notice of them, but one, large as a terrier, paused in its scurrying to turn, stood on its hind legs, and looked them up and down.
Its skull was all wrong, a hideous protrusion of bone and mottled flesh ringing its head. Something exploded downslope, the concussion riffling Naoko’s hair, and all three of them – Naoko, Ten and the rat – looked toward the billowing flame. The rat turned back, its body in darkened silhouette, and with a new chill she realized that its malformed skull looked exactly like a leather cowboy hat. “Welcome to the party, mates,” it said, and ran off.
Ten’s eyes bugged out of his head. “I would qualify that as strange.”
Fuck. “You should go now. Lay the spell on me.”
From his pocket he withdrew a small vial and handed it to her. “Swallow this,” he instructed. “It won’t last long – maybe thirty minutes – but the rats should ignore you for that time.” She peered at the glass. Inside was something red and clotted. “Best not to look,” advised Ten. “Bottoms up.”
She took it like a shot, trying to minimize any contact with her tongue, and then squatted in the street, trying desperately to overcome her gag reflex and dizziness as the utterly putrescent taste – mothballs and dead mice – permeated her body. Don’t throw up!
There was an incantation that went with it, which Ten performed, hacking, coughing and burbling in the demonic tongue. When it was done, Naoko swayed back up to her feet, eyes watering. “Do you have any gum?”
He shook his head. “Bad idea anyway. It’s mostly the smell that keeps them away. You want to maximize it.”
“Before I go, you going to tell me what’s going on?”
She held her hand in front of her mouth as though that would somehow lessen the taste. “It’s like a psychic parasite, but … it can manifest in the real world. Some nightmare out of the dreamtime. Mostly it doesn’t bother me, but sometimes when I get sick or stressed it leaks out. It’s like … demonic herpes.”
“And it’s dangerous?”
“Oh, it’s murder.”
He looked like he wanted to say more, but the clock was ticking. “Good luck.”
She tried to break into a jog, but that felt truly awful, so she settled for a fast walk. The trick was that to get across the river, she would need to cast another spell to walk on the water. It was simple stuff, Witchcraft 101, but she needed to be in her human form to do it. That was tricky, because Naoko had a strong tendency to transform into a twelve-foot tall, black-spined demon cat when threatened; and she could not cast spells in her demonic form.
The rats were thicker now, the rivulet becoming a cascade, and she distinctly saw a large crocodile waddling toward her in an alley. The rats did indeed ignore her, even when they brushed against her legs, but there were other entities moving downslope as well, crawling, flapping, and slithering.
One of these, something like a big spider, perhaps feeling peckish, launched itself toward her, and promptly found itself cut to pieces. She had been a little slow with the katana, honestly, but the runechain had done its job. She had it on what she called “slice and dice,” a ten-inch blade dangling from its end, and when she was done with the spider she kept the chain swinging loosely from her left hand.
She made it fifty more feet before having to dispose of a three-headed snake, and from there on the attacks were pretty constant. Presumably most of these demons were headed to help with the battle, but demons were notoriously hungry and notoriously indiscriminate, and she looked like easy pickings.
An armored centipede with glowing mouths on its back – a clot of flying claws – a cyclopean ape. The ape was wearing a khaki cargo shirt and as it died it grinned and growled, “Jang brang the red rain.” She jerked the katana free with a grimace.
She was now about four blocks from the river, and the hills fell sharply toward the flattened expanse of the warehouse district. Most of the warehouses were on fire, but at the top of the stairs the smoke cleared and she could see all the way to the Styx.
The landscape boiled with demons. Millions upon millions of malformed rodents surged in waves toward the water, overrunning creatures a hundred times their size. Swarms of lamprey-mouthed bats accompanied them, darkening the sky. With them and against them raged two demonic armies: Hell’s darkest reaches emptied for this titanic battle. As she watched, an enormous squid with limbs fizzing with green acid surged out the water, flailing and crushing the rats, its acid literally melting their flesh. A rotting rhinoceros big as a house slammed into it, throwing it fifty yards, before itself being enveloped by a flying gasbag. Flames flared, black blood shot in jets, shrieks split the ears.
And then: a glint of glowing blue, very near the waterline. She stared intently. It was him: Aobozu the monk, electric blue from shaved head to tabi. With him, walking hand in hand, was a seven-year-old boy, equally blue. Unlike her, they appeared unhurried, Aobozu’s magical lotuses rendering them insubstantial ghosts, immune to harm.
To enter willingly into that battle was suicide. It was madness itself.
She turned and saw without surprise the hulking, red-eyed kangaroo at her side. “Looks like you’re in need of old Jang after all,” it said.
She shuddered. “Fine. But I’m not crazy.”
“Course you’re not.” It turned its gaze toward the battle and grinned, exposing teeth more appropriate to a great white shark. “Now let’s turn up the dial, shall we?”
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Check out Joel’s September Birdy install, Her Lonely Work, if you missed it.
Jonny DeStefano is the co-owner and co-founder of Birdy Magazine. He is also the founder of the comedy activist space Deer Pile. His favorite color is red, he loves shark attacks, hockey and upright bass.
Peek Jonny’s September interview with prolific surrealist artist Chris Austin here.