Update: This was the original chapter one, until I added the new prologue.
Nephys shook himself awake. He had slipped away for a moment. It was dangerous to sleep in the land of the dead — not that anyone ever really slept here. Instead, people just tried to lie down and rest in a form of forced meditation. That was the closest anyone ever came to sleep in the underworld, here on the vast grey shoals of Limbo. But you had to keep focused. If you lost concentration for a moment, you could drift out of time or space for a day or even a century. That could be a blessed relief, for a moment, but it was risky. You never knew if you might not come back out of that emptiness. You could wind up a shade, a lost soul, less substantial than candle-smoke, more adrift than a dry leaf on the wind, and then you could never come back.
Nephys got off of his bed and slipped his feet into his sandals as he pulled his blue and black robes over his shoulders. He shuffled his feet across the cool stone floors towards a large stone basin of water on an ebony stand. He splashed his face with the jet-black water and tried to reclaim himself. Was the water cool? warm? It was getting harder to tell anymore. He let the ripples slowly dissipate in the large, shallow bowl and concentrated on the shimmering image inside. Slowly, his face appeared dimly in the black pool. He looked down. How long had he been in Limbo now? One thousand years?…maybe two? All that time and yet he was not much older than when he got here.
Time was different in the underworld, it did exist, but moved slowly and sometimes even felt like it was moving backward. He was a tall, thin boy who looked all of maybe twelve years. He was gaunter and paler than he had been in life, while still retaining some of the natural grace that all of his people possessed. “Had possessed,” he corrected himself. His people were now long since gone, and no one amongst the living spoke his language anymore. His dark hair was shaved closely to his scalp, with a single lock on the right side just above the ear. It was the Horus lock meant to protect underage boys from harm. Cutting off the lock was a sign of reaching manhood. Nephys was supposed to have had his lock cut off by his next birthday, but he had never gotten there. Death had fixed him forever in adolescence. It was an old-fashioned custom anyway, even in his time, but his grandmother had insisted on it—not that it had helped much, obviously. There on his throat was a long, black gash, the wound that had taken his life.
Though he was but a few feet from his reflection, he could barely see it. He was slowly going blind. He had to squint to see himself. His eyes were lined in heavy make-up made from antimony, black kohl, like everyone in his country wore, well used to wear, but his eyes, which had once been warm and brown were now grey and clouded. Soon he would not be able to see himself at all, at least not with his natural eyes. Death had cruelly denied him his manhood, but ironically, like an aging man with cataracts, it slowly clouded his vision. He looked at his wound with failing eyes, and for a moment, it seemed thinner, smaller, fainter somehow, but then as he concentrated, narrowing his eyes further, he could still see the awful, black gash where the last of his blood had left him.
Suddenly, he flipped the basin over, scattering the water everywhere and knocking the ebony stand to the floor. The stone bowl shattered and then, almost instantaneously, reformed seamlessly. Nephys felt sick inside and then a strange pull, like an invisible fishhook in his gut grabbed him and pulled sharply downwards…but only once and then it was gone. He calmed himself.
That had been reckless. It had been a long time since he had let himself get that angry, that frustrated. Emotions were dangerous here. There was a strange gravity to emotions in the afterlife. Misery and despair pulled you sideways to the desolate swamps or wastes surrounding Limbo where souls became pitiful shades that were nothing more than shadows or mists, muttering endlessly to themselves. If you lingered too long over a sad thought or a melancholy moment it called to the shades, pulling you to them, and them to you. Like vultures circling carrion, shades were drawn to sorrow to feed. But anger? Anger pulled you downward to darker places and called up more frightening things. That was why everyone in Limbo adopted a stoic resolve—not too happy, not too sad or angry. Too much emotion led to other dangerous paths. No, Look inward and try not to get too upset. The Plains of Asphodel may be gray and desolate, but there were far worse places you could wind up, and there were monstrous things that could carry you off, if you were not careful.
Nephys walked the cool floors of the house to a large window that overlooked his garden and the streets of the necropolis. He gazed outward, with his natural eyes, on Limbo. It was a broad, flat plain, grey and blue and featureless. Not so much as a tree broke the horizontal monotony, and only the scattered, broken tombs of the city gave any indication of distance at all. The sky was the same blue-grey color as the earth, and there was not a trace of the sun, or the moon, or a star or any light anywhere in it. In fact, it was impossible to tell if it was a heavy gray, overcast sky, or just the distant overarching roof of some vast cavern. Nephys still wasn’t sure after staring at it for a thousand years or more. A pale, blue light emanated from everywhere and nowhere all at once, so that everything was in gloom, but nothing cast a sharp shadow. There were no hard edges anywhere. Even the horizon was indistinct. Instead of a bright line between earth and sky, there was a band of fog obscuring the distances.
Most of this Nephys could recover only from his memory, because he could hardly see past his garden with his natural eyes. He drew a long breath, calmed himself, closed his eyes, and looked inward. Suddenly, everything was crystalline. In his mind’s eye, Nephys could see…everything. The fog on the horizon was gone and it became a sharp, bright line. He could see clear to the edges of Limbo and even a little of the infernal topography beyond. The wastes and swamps, lowlands and caves and deeper places: ruined monuments and former occupations of demons and demigods. He could see the landscape dotted with small and distinct houses and tombs. Tombs in many styles in the fashion of many lands—pyramids and pagodas and palaces, all intricately carved and prepared for the deceased, and in his mental vision it all appeared to be made of crystal. Even the solid walls of his stone house appeared to be made of glass. The buildings around it were transparent like the clearest ice or calmest water. This was the Death Sight, a power granted to those that signed on for an eternity of service in the courts of Death.
The Death Sight could penetrate anything, and if he concentrated, he could almost look up and see through the roof of Limbo to the ragged edges of the land of the living, but he didn’t dare look down to the lower hells below. All was colorless and transparent. It was impossible to hide from a practiced Death Seer. Everything was transparent to an expert seer. And everywhere, like pale candlelights, gleamed the souls of the children of Limbo. This is where the faint, blue glow of the underworld came from. Limbo was lit by the slowly dying embers of departed spirits.
With his Death Sight, Nephys could scan the wastes and tell the bright, clear flame of a new arrival from the guttering flame of a soul that would soon be nothing more than a shade. In between, he could see many steady, clear lights: small, but resolute. They didn’t blaze with a vibrant glow like new souls, but held their light steady and calm for generations, long after other souls flickered out entirely. These were the servants of Death and Nephys was one of them.
Death was the Lord of the flat, barren lands of Limbo that stood between the land of the living, and the Pits of Punishment. It turned out that the job of Death was a great deal more than even he could manage. People were always dying in droves, more and more each day, and Death needed a court full of servants and bureaucrats, scribes, messengers, valets, guards and heralds to do the job properly. Why he couldn’t do the job alone was always something of a mystery to Nephys, but that’s the way it was. He chose as his servants those who naturally found a home on the Plains of Asphodel. Those whose anger or passions dragged them downward, or whose despair led them wandering to the swamps were not suited to the job. Death was implacable and supposed to be neutral, so he chose temperate servants of practiced indifference and conscious apathy. As fate would have it, most who fit that description were children: the children of Limbo.
You would think that it would be adults who would find a way to fit in, but a lifetime of living somehow made them too stubborn or clinging to old habits to change. They simply couldn’t let go of their former lives. They were too possessed by regret or old grudges to forget, move on. Few adults were ever found to be suitable to the Great Master, Death. Only children had the adaptability to become perfectly apathetic. Their lives, even when brutally cut short, were too new, too young to hold on to the pains and memories older souls found so hard to let go.
Nephys looked deep into his mind’s eye and saw the steady, small flames of countless children moving about the city and necropolis. There they were, busying themselves among the offices and courts of the dead, keeping records, tidying up tombs, shooing away shades and lost souls, like shopkeepers driving off loitering teenagers. With the exception of the locale, it was all very dull and monotonous; workman-like and ordinary, and that was the way the Great Master liked it.
Nephys opened his eyes. His dim, natural sight could hardly see past the blue-gray nightshade of his overgrown and weed-choked garden to the grey-white tomb across the avenue, but he preferred them to the Death Sight. There wasn’t much color in Limbo beyond muted blues and grays, but the Death Sight didn’t have any color at all. Accomplished Death Seers only saw a colorless crystalline world of no solidity, and no permanence or importance. Anyone who took service in the courts of Death for long was granted the second sight as just part of the job. It was necessary to see the world in this neutral way to do the daily dark chores the Great Master required. It gave clarity to his minions. It gave no joy, no fulfillment, but it also gave no pain. For most, this was a benefit and not a detriment. There were lots of souls to process, most arriving by horrific means. Souls carried the wounds of their death with them, their appearances forged by their last visceral memories. Everywhere were broken bodies and severed limbs. No one was whole here. Compassion was a distraction. Workers needed the cool detachment of bureaucrats and the Death Sight gave them that.
This was why, eventually, all servants that entered into the courts of Death went blind, because their natural eyes became useless and atrophied when compared to the penetrating and clarifying powers of the Death Sight. They retreated into their mind’s eye and stopped using their real eyes altogether until, after a while, their sight went cloudy and then abandoned them entirely. Some not only lost their sight; they lost their eyes altogether. Their faces had gaping, empty sockets where their eyes had been, or worse, blank stretches of white bone or flesh with no sockets or place for eyes at all, like cave-dwelling fish.
Nephys had been in the service of the Lord of the Houses of the Dead a long time, but he had resisted the Death Sight longer than anyone else. When you became a full Death Seer, the Death Sight not only took your eyes, it took the memories of everything those eyes had seen. All colors, dimensions, shadow, shape, form and contour were replaced by the clear, transparent crystalline view of Death, where everything was equal. More than anything though, Nephys did not want to lose the few memories he had left. He had lived in a bright, sunlit country of sharp shadows and brilliant skies. Nephys gazed out of his window with his natural eyes, and if he strained as hard as he could, he could almost remember the color green.
From deep inside the house behind him came a hoarse, bleating honking sound, followed by wheezing and a punctuated “Ka-chunk,” as something metal bit into the ground. He listened to the thing making the sound as it slowly got louder and scraped its way across stone floor until it was nearly right behind him. It was silent for a while and then the thing hooted out a short, impatient blast.
Nephys sighed and ignored it for a moment. Then the whooshing, honking, bleating sound became even more indignant. Nephys didn’t need to turn around to know what it was, but he did so anyway, just to keep it quiet.
It was Hiero.
Hiero was a devil, an imp to be precise, from one of the Pits of Punishment. There were many horrifying residents in the lower hells, but the majority of them inspired neither fear nor terror, but rather disgust and even a little pity. Most were, in fact, rather pathetic: misshapen abominations, cobbled together from odd parts and pieces, both inorganic and organic; sting rays with raccoon heads or dogs with the heads of finches with broken table legs for limbs. They were forged from the pure psychic trauma of the damned and lived to torment the souls that had begotten them. Hiero was one of these. Every once in a while an imp staggered up to Limbo from the depths. There was no one to stop them. Once upon a time, there had been horrible, implacable guards and sentinels with lidless eyes at every ring and crossroad of Hades preventing the residents from mixing, but most of those had wandered off or faded away after a time when they had discovered that they weren’t needed. Rarely did anyone ever leave his assigned place. The afterlife, it seemed, was dominated by inertia, and few looked beyond the horizon anymore. You don’t need guards for creatures that have lost all hope.
Still, every now and then, some unknown cataclysm deeper down burped up a few imps and lesser devils who staggered aimlessly across the Plains of Asphodel. Most got bored when they couldn’t get a rise out of the impassive inhabitants of Limbo, and returned to the depths looking for someone new to torment. An imp without a soul to torment was like a squirrel without a nut…desperate and lonely. Hiero was one of the few that had stayed and made himself somewhat useful. He occupied a position here in the houses of the dead somewhere between an indifferent messenger and a cantankerous pet. Perhaps he had lost interest in tormenting souls down below, or maybe he was so pathetic now no one down there was scared of him any more. That was hard to believe because he was an unholy mess to look at, and even amongst abominations he was noteworthy.
His left arm was a tiny piglet arm, fleshy pink, hoofed and entirely useless. The right one was long, thin and spidery, with three sharp fingers stained shiny black to the elbow. In this hand he carried a large, ragged butcher knife nearly as big as the whole imp himself. It was so heavy, the imp struggled to lift it at all, but his grip must have been strong because those three spindly, black fingers never let go of it. The right leg was also a short and stubby piglet leg, but that was the only part on the monster that matched another. The left foot was a webbed goosefoot—a stiff and arthritic one at that. These two feet were worse than worthless, so much so that Hiero had to use the tip of the butcher knife as a kind of gruesome crutch and walking staff, which probably explained why he gripped it so tightly. With these three limbs he would half shuffle, half pull his body along. He’d stab the knife down and drag the rest of his misshapen carcass forward while his stunted, mismatched legs waddled desperately to keep up. Stab-drag, stab-drag he made his way, everywhere he went.
But this was not the most disturbing thing about Hiero. No, the most disturbing thing about Hiero was his body, which wasn’t a body at all. Nephys had seen some revolting amalgamations in his time. He had seen a fish-headed cat with bricks for feet, and a parrot-bodied imp with porcupine quills with anteater tongues where his eyes should have been. He had even seen a salamander-bodied imp with the head of a cabbage. But Hiero took the biscuit. His body was a set of bagpipes. The bulbous air bag made up his body. It was made from a sheep’s stomach, all veiny and sickly white. It expanded and deflated with every labored, hooting, honking breath, and if a bright light shone behind Hiero you could see that he was literally gutless. Inside he was all air. What need did an imp in the afterlife have for guts or eating anyway?
The neck, canter and blowpipe of the bagpipe made up his head and shoulders. On his head he wore a black cowl, like a medieval monk. Out of the back of his head, and the long pointed tail of the hood, came the blowpipe complete with a mouthpiece. This functioned something like a blowhole on a beached whale. Disgusting phlegm and spittle wheezed out of the pipe with every struggling, bleating breath. Up front, underneath the dark hood you could see two glassy, fish-like eyes and between them, like the long bill of some bizarre crane, was the flute-like canter, complete with finger holes. Out of the trumpet end of this beak, there flicked a tiny, bloody red tongue covered in sharp barbs. Hiero had no teeth, lips or jaws to speak of, so it was a good thing he had no stomach. He couldn’t talk or speak either, except in shrill, discordant hoots and honks, but he never seemed to have any trouble making himself understood.
Jutting out of his back, like the bones of a bat wing that had been stripped of their membrane, were the other pipes and drones, blackened and skeletal. They rose and fell with each difficult breath, guttering out discordant tones and shrieks more unsettling than a pack of howling wolves. And when he got angry, they stood upright, like the spines on a spiky fish, hollering like a demonic steam organ. The pipes on his back were also tangled up in black, stringy cords, like spider webs or ripped sinews, and from these hung an odd assortment of ghastly flotsam. There was a broken inkpot and an old, bloody whetstone, bits of parchment covered in vile glyphs only known or spoken in the deeper hells and small dead rodents, hairless and eyeless from a lifetime in the depths. And hanging from the largest pipe dangling from the far end from a scarlet silk cord was a severed human foot. Whether these were Hiero’s treasured possessions, or just junk that had gotten stuck there, Nephys couldn’t tell, and even if he asked, Hiero couldn’t exactly tell him.
Whether Hiero was a damned soul who hated bagpipes that somehow fused with the instrument of his torture, or whether he was a set of bagpipes whose tone was so awful it had sprung to life as an imp, no one could say. Imps were neither created nor born. Instead, the monstrosities just seemed to pop up from their vulgar surroundings whenever a damned soul arrived. They were all pain, frustration, shame and humiliation personified. Unlike the residents of Limbo, who drifted about in endless stoic repose and resignation, Hiero was always in a foul mood, and frequently flew into psychotic rages. Nephys liked that. It broke the monotony.
In all the houses of the dead, Hiero was the closest thing that Nephys had to a friend. There wasn’t much to like about Hiero. He was a vile abomination, a shrieking, stumbling near-homicidal bagpipe, but a honking, hollering imp can never sneak up on you, and Hiero seemed to prefer Nephys’ company to any of the other souls here. Maybe he just liked to torment Nephys. Maybe he found Nephys a challenge and secretly wished for nothing more than his pain and degradation, but strangely, in this grey and twilit place where any motivation, even a sinister one, was rare, that was enough.
Nephys turned to face Hiero. The second Nephys made eye contact, Hiero’s impatient hooting ceased, replaced with a low droning breath. Hiero turned and began stabbing and dragging itself away. Nephys knew right away that Hiero wanted him to follow. Out of all the listless occupants of Limbo, there was an interest that only the two of them seemed to share—a morbid fascination with new arrivals that had entered the realm abruptly.Hiero had obviously just found one.