For the Halloween season I’m sharing a longer-than-usual story I wrote a few months before starting the blog; the first part appeared yesterday and the conclusion will appear tomorrow. Both of today’s illustrations were done especially for this presentation of the story by my friend LilyRose, whose webcomic Castrating Bitch Girl can be found in the “Whorish Media” link box. Her most recent short piece, “Starfish“, may also interest you.
It was a few days later that she once again found herself there, this time in a huge public plaza whose smallest corner could have accommodated the little fountain square and still had room for a respectable-sized pub. Its pavement was smooth, laid with tabletop-sized grey flagstones fit tightly together, and it was bounded on the longest side with what looked like a cathedral. Several streets entered at corners of the irregularly-shaped space, and except for a lovely arcade down one side the other walls of the plaza were occupied by various places of business. The open area was crowded with stalls from which merchants hawked a variety of wares and bargained with frugal housewives; the noise was incredible, the clothes were of every hue imaginable and the smells ranged from sickening to mouth-watering. She moved down the lanes between the stalls, taking in the sights, examining the merchandise, and tasting samples when they were offered. Sometimes she was jostled, sometimes looked over by young men, and once a little girl of about six tugged on her skirt, obviously having mistaken her for a similarly-dressed mother or aunt. And as always before, despite the exotic surroundings there was a strange familiarity about the place; people greeted her as if they either knew her or had seen her around town, and she had no trouble finding her way about any part of the city she had ever visited.
After a little while she decided to seek a quieter neighborhood and so turned into the nearest street, which happened to be the one directly across from the cathedral. It was much wider than the other streets and clearly less travelled; in fact, despite its connection to the crowded marketplace, she soon found herself walking completely alone past oddly featureless walls. Before too long the street ended at a very large and heavily-barred door; two narrow streets ran out from the portal at forty-five degree angles from the wide avenue by which she approached, and a glance down these alleys led her to the realization that except for the door itself, the wall ahead of her was absolutely featureless. No ornamentation or stonework bounded it, and as far as the eye could see in either direction the wall ran smooth and unbroken by window, seam or sculpture until it vanished around a bend.
Even in a city so clearly marked by age, the door positively radiated antiquity; the dry atmosphere had preserved the ancient wood long past the epoch in which it would have rotted away in natural weather. The bar was topped with a thick film of dust, and the iron fittings looked as though they had been forged in the morning of the world. And for the first time since she had been coming to the city she was afraid; something about this silent barrier terrified her, and she withdrew her hand and began to back away, her eyes fixed on it as though she expected it to burst open. But before she had taken seven steps back a hand fell on her shoulder, and though the voice which said “you know you shouldn’t be here, Miss” was not unkind, and the eyes of the old guardsman gentle, she awoke in a paroxysm of terror and screamed aloud.
“You gave me quite a scare last night, dear one,” he said, caressing her hair as they lay in bed. “Do you feel up to talking about it now?”
She pulled herself a little closer to his chest. “I feel like such a fool, screaming like that! Like a stupid little girl, afraid of shadows!”
“It’s not foolish to be afraid of nightmares,” he said. “Everyone has them occasionally.”
“But that’s just it, it wasn’t a nightmare! At least, not at first; it was just the usual kind of dream of the underground city, with absolutely nothing to be afraid of.”
“But clearly, something changed; you were never scared by a dream like that before, not enough to wake up screaming anyway.”
“But there was nothing to be afraid of,” she repeated. There was a moment of silence, and though she couldn’t see his face she knew he was waiting for her to continue. He had accepted her unwillingness to discuss it in the middle of the night, had simply whispered words of reassurance and held her while she cried. But she couldn’t very well refuse to tell him now; she had agreed to share the dreams with him, and her reason told her that the fantasies of sleep were nothing to fear in the light of day. Yet she couldn’t tell him about the awful door and the inexplicable terror it had evoked in her; how does one explain such a thing? He would worry that it was a sign of some deep emotional disturbance, might even be upset at his inability to protect her from her own irrational fears. So she stammered out some half-truths about going someplace in the city she shouldn’t have gone, and being surprised by the guard. If he doubted her veracity he gave no sign, merely held her closer for awhile and then began to make small-talk about ordinary things.
He didn’t have to work that day, so they spent it together; they went for a walk in the park, then to one of their favorite restaurants for dinner, and he took her to a show. It was a comedy, and though she laughed as much as anyone she could not completely forget the terror of the previous night.
The dreams became more frequent now, and subtly different; though the city had not changed her feelings about it had. The scenes and the people were as before, but she couldn’t help looking up at the artificial “sky” and thinking obsessively about the incalculable tons of rock overhead; what once had seemed a sanctuary now felt like a tomb, and she began to wonder why these people had sealed themselves off from heaven for uncounted generations. And more and more she found herself visiting the door, which though it had not ceased to frighten her yet gripped her in a terrible fascination. She did not repeat her mistake of the first time; she quickly learned the routine of the guards, and made sure she never paused in the area when they were about. For strangely enough, no one else seemed affected by the door as she was; if they thought about it at all it must have been with an unswerving confidence that it would continue to keep out whatever was beyond it as it always had. The guards were all old, and none of them but the one she had encountered on her first visit seemed even remotely concerned with the possibility that anyone would tamper with the ancient portal in even the most superficial fashion.
She had stopped telling her husband about the dreams; he asked a few times in the next several months, and though she did not lie outright she downplayed both their importance and their frequency. Either he believed her or he realized there was nothing he could really say, for it eventually ceased to be a topic of conversation. She had become very good at putting them out of her mind when he was home; she was reasonably sure that her behavior was not any different from what it always had been, and that no moodiness betrayed her secret to him. And she had plenty of practice, for she eventually began to dream of the city every night.
Then one day she arose early to get a head start on some major housecleaning she wanted to do; the work went more smoothly than expected, however, and she found herself done by mid-afternoon, but unusually tired from hard work performed after less sleep than usual. She therefore decided to take a nap, and soon found herself in the city again. But this time something was noticeably different; the overhead light which had never before varied in intensity was now very dim, almost completely dark in fact, and there was not a soul abroad on the streets. At first she was at a loss to understand what had happened, then she realized the truth: In order to maintain the health and sanity of the citizenry, darkness was periodically created by somehow dimming or shuttering the mysterious source of “sunlight.” For the first time, she was in the city at night, and though the reason she had never before observed this phenomenon did not occur to her during the visit, it was obvious when she awoke: She was not in the habit of taking afternoon naps. The day and night of the underground city were the opposite of those in the waking world, so that it was awake while she slept and slept during the day, when she was normally awake. And with this realization was born a plan, a means by which she might finally satisfy her burning curiosity as to what lay beyond the sealed portal and why the people of the city lived as they did, forever hidden from sun and sky.
It was quite simple, really; when she visited the city that night she bought a black cloak from one of the merchants in the plaza, and hid it in a large, empty urn on one of the less frequented streets near the door. She did not know if she had a residence in the city; if she had, she could not recall ever having been there. Her clothes were different in each visit, but she seemed to have no conscious control over what she would be wearing when she found herself there, nor any recollection of getting dressed. But given the uncanny consistency of her dreams of the city, and the near-abandoned state of the quarter near the door, she felt sure the cloak would still be there when next she visited. After that, it was merely a matter of getting up early the next morning and working hard all day so as to be tired enough for an afternoon nap.
Once again she found herself in a quiet, darkened city; she retraced her steps to the hiding place and there was her cloak, exactly as she had left it. It provided her perfect camouflage for skulking about the darkened streets, and in a few minutes she carefully approached her goal, confident that if a guard was near he was probably napping rather than diligently scanning the empty streets for moving shadows. It never occurred to her that the bar would be immovable; perhaps it was somehow maintained, or that the antediluvian architects who designed it knew engineering secrets long since forgotten, or that some force wished her to succeed; perhaps it is merely due to the fact that some things which are impossible in waking life come easily in dreams. But in any case the enormous bar slid aside as though moved by a well-oiled machine, and with no more sound than a rusty hinge might make. A quick look around assured her that no one had heard the brief noise, and the creak of the ponderous door was no louder; she opened it just enough to admit her through the gap, and was through in another moment.
The room beyond was suffused by the same dim, shadowy light as was the rest of the sleeping city, but it was enough to reveal her surroundings; she was at the bottom of an enormous square stairwell, and above her a wooden stairway, clearly of the same era as the door, stretched up flight after flight, circling the interior of the stairwell, until it was lost in the gloom above.
She wanted to start up the stairs immediately, but realized it would be a mistake to do so now; though she had long since learned to stay asleep no matter what she saw or experienced in the city, she was sure that her husband could still awaken her if he came home to find her still napping. Besides, she was not exactly dressed for this sort of excursion, and what if a section of the stairs far above had collapsed or been otherwise rendered impassible? She had come too far to ruin everything by impatience, so she slipped back through the door and closed it. The bar offered far more resistance in closing than in opening, but after several tense minutes of struggle she at last succeeded in sliding it back to its original position. She then returned her cloak to its hiding place and willed herself to awaken.
To be concluded tomorrow…