Authors: Frank P. Ryan
To Kate, the Yoolf resembled the ultimate spoiled brats. They were bobbing slowly up and down in empty space against the background of endlessly writhing roots. Her eyes lifted to see that she was still suspended by her hair from the horny claws of the vulture-being, Urale.
The male spoke in a malicious monotone. âWhat is the direction of time?'
The female added, âThe direction here â not there.'
âWhat is the direction of time â but only here?' Kate asked.
âWe ask the questions.'
âAnd woe betideâ'
âThose who fail â I know,' Kate said
They stared at her, blinking slowly in unison.
Kate heard Elaru's whisper enter her mind:
But could she trust the alter ego of the obnoxious vulture?
She said, âUpwards.'
The two chubby faces looked at one another, their features creased with rancid displeasure. Their mouths gaped, exposing rows of sharp fine teeth.
Elaru was right. Kate knew from their wrathful expressions that her answer had been right. The questioning began again.
The male and female alternated:
âWhat is right when wrong?'
âAnd wrong when right?'
âA parody of truth?'
âWhen seen, a delight?'
Elaru's whispered answer:
âIrony,' Kate said.
The male screamed, âWrong, wrong â a thousand times wrong.'
The female screamed, âBite it â rend it! Cast it into the yawning void.'
âOh, Elaru.' Kate felt nips of teeth on her arms and legs. âWhat are these little monsters doing to me?'
But it was Urale's voice that answered: âPoor darlings â they cannot help lying and cheating.'
Kate's heart was full of dread as the interrogation began again:
âWhat is a song without voice?'
âAn answer without question?'
âAs here to there.'
âAs darkest day to blessed night.'
Kate felt a fury of nipping and biting all over her arms and legs. The Yoolf had multiplied. She struck out with her oraculum at the hordes of brat faces with their myriad snapping teeth.
âHelp me, Elaru.'
Elaru's voice whispered so quietly that Kate could not hear the answer. The snapping grew rapidly worse. Although she had no flesh here, the Yoolf gorged on her spirit and were intent on devouring her.
âI can't hear you.'
Then she realised what it was. She screamed it, at the top of her voice. âThe answer, you miserable wretches, is echo!'
âWrong from start to finish.'
âAnd from finish to start.'
Kate's oraculum erupted. She tore herself free from the claws of Urale.
She plummeted through the void, her auburn hair flapping around her face, twirling and twisting in the bottomless abyss.
But the fall came with a sense of liberation. She screamed to her twirling, falling self, âI am free of them.'
There was a second being, broken free, detached from Kate's own spirit, a figure of smoke with a tormented face, twirling and spinning beside her. Kate turned, to hold the figure steady.
âThank you, Elaru â for helping me.'
âWe're certainly in a pickle. And I don't quite know how to get out of it.'
âThen we are lost. We shall plummet into the abyss forever.'
âNot if I can help it. Your alter-ego has wings. From what you say, he made you. But then you allowed him â Urale â to control you. You allowed him to entrap you, make you dependent upon him. You must break free.'
âBut how can I do so? I exist only as a manifestation of him.'
âHe created you. And he's a god, even if only a minor one.'
âI do not understand your reasoning.'
Kate chuckled, though she felt curiously dizzy, almost inebriated. âI'm not quite a goddess â but a goddess certainly empowers me.'
âI still need a guide.'
âHe was you â and you he. You must, somehow, abandon his control.'
âI don't know. But we'll find a way.'
Smoke was curling into the sky from several different directions as Penny emerged from the fire-blackened wound of St Martin's Lane. The Razzers were everywhere. She heard the sirens of dozens of fire engines and stared with sad concentration at the ruined front of one of her favourite churches: St Martin-in-the-Fields. There was a thickening veil of smoke in the air as she backed away into the open space of Trafalgar Square.
She had been so furious with Gully because he had refused to capture some live pigeons for her.
âWhy're you rabbitin' on about it? What do you want with a live pigeon? You know I can't go with that. It's cruel, Penny. Catchin' one an' puttin' it in a bag would frighten the life out of it.'
âYou're the one who wrings their necks.'
âBut that's a kindness, gel. They ain't no hurtin' in that. I do it so fast they don't even feel it.'
Gully was staring at her through the smudged lenses of his glasses. He pushed the glasses up the bridge of his nose. âAw, Penny â don't you go out right now. Them streets ain't safe no more.'
Now Penny stared up through a tangle of razor wire around one of the giant bronze lions. The authorities had fenced them off to stop the Razzers from spraying them with graffiti. She felt the breeze blow on her face, coming up from the river. Raising her hood she squinted at the glare of the late afternoon sun, feeling the lancing cold cut straight through her clothes. Her breath steamed from her nostrils. She couldn't afford to hang about. There were Skulls and paramilitaries among the crowds. Still, she loved to look at them, the lions and the soaring Nelson's column.
Hurrying on, she pulled up the zip on her parka as high as it would go, heading for the Embankment and the rain-swollen current of the river that Gully called âthe Old Man o' London Town'. The wind roared through the sparse foliage of the plane trees over her head, while their ball-like seeds gambolled and whipped in its current. She had to press her body forward against a spree of autumn leaves that bowled along the pavement, battering against her jeans and jacket, adding their resistance to the wind's.
She didn't like travelling in the City Above during a Razzamatazz. Maybe if Gully hadn't got her so mad she wouldn't have chanced it. What was more, the argument had caused her to forget her claws. But there was no going back, not now. She knew she had to return to the left-hand
tunnel, no matter that she was terrified to do so. She remembered the underground river falling down in an amazing cascade. Her heart beat faster when she thought about what else she had discovered: an entrance into the City Below. She had glimpsed constructions of some sort, glittering things, fantastic and wonderful, but she hardly dared to consider the implications.
She had figured out that she could probably get past the Grimlings if she could distract them. If only Gully had done as she asked of him. If only he had got her some live pigeons.
I don't want to harm them. I just want to let them go
Wot â down there? In them 'orrible tunnels, with them Grimlings an' all you been talkin' about?
Penny's memories were scattered by three different sirens â police, fire engine and paramedic â all hurtling past. They were fewer these days, with the authorities not bothering to respond very much any more. The noise was so distracting that it was difficult to keep hold of the train of her thoughts.
Resolve and fear were fighting inside her head. â
I have to examine it â the City Below
So I can picture it, Gully â so I can draw it on the map
You've gone bonkers with them pictures. You know them pictures is driving you crazy, gel
You must help me, Gully. Or
Or so help me, Gully, I'll leave you
There it was. She really had said it to him. And he had stared back at her, lost for words, his glasses sliding down his sweating nose. His owlish brown eyes had blinked frantically behind the smudged-up lenses.
You know I mean it
His face had gone pale. He looked about to cry. â
Wot? Leave all a that scribblin' up there on the ceiling?
A shiver had invaded her then. She had begun to tremble.
He reached out, as if to hug her.
Don't touch me!
I know how you feel â about that stuff. Them maps!
You know nothing
I know you're jolly well goin' bonkers, Penny
I am not
Yes you are. You're stark ravin' bonkers â that's what you are
I will â I'll leave you, Gully. If you don't get me those pigeons
As she reached the Embankment, the evening sun had begun to glimmer red on the muddy water. A mist of rain hung in the air, aglow with sunlight and permeated with smoke from the burning streets. Soot was smudged on her clothes and skin. She stared at the fires, which seemed to be everywhere. Smoke was rising from half-a-dozen places south of the river â big billowing stacks suggesting whole streets ablaze, or major buildings. She felt a choking sense of sense of fear just looking at the chaos, which was getting so much worse day by day. The globular lights on their
intricate bronze stands flickered on as she reached Cleopatra's Needle, illuminating a ragtag bunch of drunkards fighting with one another on a muddy patch. She saw bodies on the ground, writhing and groaning. She glimpsed flashes of knives, which made her want to run.
Somebody behind her was shouting. When she turned her head she saw that a tall, bedraggled man was calling out to her. Staggering drunk, he was dressed in old army fatigues, with a heavy beard on a deeply-lined face. He wanted to know what she was carrying in her backpack. As he took several steps towards her she increased her pace to a trot. He was far too drunk to catch her. Nevertheless, she had taken a big risk carrying the dagger so openly and so far. But she felt she had to do it, an inner voice told her that it was time she put her theory to the test.
There were Skulls everywhere. Big groups of them, all wearing long black leather jackets, were crossing over the four lane road, heedless of the fact they were interfering with traffic. Just a few years earlier the streets would have been clotted with red double-decker buses, but nobody would risk such open transport any more. Most of the traffic was taxis; the drivers sealed within their cabs by reinforced steel walls and bulletproof glass. But even then they weren't safe, according to Gully, because the robbers could knife or shoot them through the back of the seat.
Paramilitaries, in their grey camouflage uniforms, were sitting in a minibus immediately opposite her. A Skull was speaking to the man in the front passenger seat, through
the gaping door. The man wore a neatly tailored suit. He looked like a God-botherer from Grimstone's church. As Penny hurried by, just feet away, he looked at her. She met his gaze, puzzled by the familiarity of his face. Penny had a very good memory for faces. She realised she had seen him standing beside the Reverend Grimstone on the posters that were all over the city, on Tube station walls, on billboards and on the pamphlets they distributed throughout the streets. She turned and glanced back at him a second time to be sure. He was staring back at her. She trotted quicker.
Up ahead was the Blackfriars underpass. She had to cross the road but was worried by the possibility she would be held up at the lights. Before she had travelled more than ten yards there was an explosion in the side street opposite to the river and a building big enough to take up a whole block burst into flames. Razzers were screaming with triumph, emerging from the doors. Penny blinked several times, fixing the scene, and all the maniacally jubilant faces with their tattoos of spirals and stars and the rings through lips and nostrils, in her memory. She hesitated, then turned to look back at the minibus. The paramilitaries were emerging from their vehicle, looking to join the Skulls. They were carrying guns. Penny heard shots almost immediately. They were shooting at the Razzers. She searched among the paramilitaries for the man in the suit, but he had disappeared.
When she looked again she saw the suited man talking
with two of the armed paramilitaries. He was pointing in her direction.
Penny started to run. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that they were running after her.
She stared ahead to where she glimpsed the rounded dome of St Paul's Cathedral in a gap created by a demolished row of buildings. The sight spurred her on. She couldn't afford to wait for the lights, but ran between the traffic, ignoring the screaming horns. She was still running when she crossed the road immediately opposite Blackfriars station, tearing through the traffic again, only slowing down when she reached a maze of winding streets.
A greenish glow was pervading the late afternoon sky as she entered the circular space around St Paul's between the heavy railings that surrounded it. Some had been hacked away around the front, the missing railings replaced with steel mesh and posts fixed into the paving stones with ugly blocks of concrete. In front of the cathedral, unprotected by the mesh, was the statue of Queen Anne surrounded by mythological figures. The figures were vandalised and had missing heads and limbs. Penny had no idea how anybody could have got to them; the authorities had surrounded the cluster of statues with razor wire seven feet high.
She headed for the entrance to the cathedral. There were ten black granite steps, a marble inlaid platform, then another fourteen grey marble steps to the main entrance. The big central doors were shut, as usual, but the side entrances were open. She headed for the door on the right,
drawn by the friendly light inside the entrance hall through which a small rush of people were emerging, heads down. The women's faces were obscured by scarves and there was a single man with a wrinkled bald head. There were cigarette butts scattered over the tiled floor. Inside, the giant nave was completely empty.
When Penny had drawn St Paul's, she had inserted something extra to it â a kind of three-dimensionality. Gully was always pestering her to put in some people.
Why ever not?
People spoil things
That was exactly what they were doing. They were spoiling everything â everything that she loved.
Penny assumed it had been the sounds of gunfire that had frightened the people away. Given the open doors the great church was hardly a refuge. There were people out there with no respect for churches.
She drew back her hood while thinking of where to go. She headed left, across the black-and-white tiles of the floor, and passed by the monument to the Duke of Wellington. She was heading towards the little chapel at the far end of it, immediately to the left of the high altar and the painting of Jesus as the Light of the World. When she got there she stood underneath the picture, in which the face of Jesus was in deep shadow. She readjusted the straps of the backpack and moved into the American Chapel.
In the light of dusk she stared up at the triptych of stained glass windows showing an image of Cain and Abel, the Washing of Feet and the Nativity; the central showing the Crucifixion, the right, the Entombment topped by the Resurrection.
The dagger was rattling inside the backpack.
âI knew it,' she murmured.
She was directly over the spot where she had seen the alien beings and the Grimlings through the fissure in the underground chamber.
The big cave is under St Paul's Cathedral!
But what did it mean?
While she was thinking about it, she heard the crash of one of the side doors slamming shut. It caused her heart to rise into her throat. There was a second crash â the other door shut and bolted.
Somebody had followed her in here.
Penny headed into the shadows to the right of the main altar, past the white marble effigies of heroes and luminaries. Her feet clattered over a huge circular brass grid, which allowed heat from the basement to come up into the chancel. She heard a sound behind her â boots treading quietly.
She pulled the backpack down and hugged it to her breast.
There was a side entrance, which was very close. She ran for it only to find a heavy oak locked door barring her way. The big iron key was in the lock. She was afraid that it
would be hard to open, but it turned easily in her hand. She pulled open the door just far enough to allow her to slip out into the gloom. Dusk had fallen, but the street lights had failed to come on. She found herself in an overgrown garden with neglected shrubs, small trees and a dark patch of lawn.
Desperately she searched for an escape, but the garden was completely surrounded by high iron railings. She darted into the shadow of a bush and fell onto all fours beneath it, hoping that her pursuer would not find her. She screamed when a hand dragged back her back by the hair.
A blade was pressed against her throat.
Skulls carry knives they call sharps
A deep male voice whispered wetly into her left ear, âA single peep and I'll slit you â in more than one place.'
Oh, God â if only she had brought her claws!
Though she resisted, he easily threw her onto her back. The hand that had been yanking her hair now moved to her throat. Her right hand broke free and she flailed it at him, clawing at the shaved dome of his head. He grabbed her hand and shoved it behind the small of her back. He used the blade to cut open her parka, then the belt of her jeans. She felt its cold sharpness slide inside her underwear and rip it open.
âIf you're nice to me â I won't cut you.'