Pebbles span into the ravine as the truck scraped past a fallen tree, the roar from its engine drowning out the howls behind them. Char wedged herself deeper into her hiding place tucked behind the cab as a lurch juddered through the chasis. Then her ride gained traction and more of the road spun into the chasm.
The snarls sliding over the snow were getting closer.
Knives and bullets she could deal with, they had men behind them. But the weather that had forced the wolves toward the valley floor was different and Char was going to need a hell of a lot more rest if she wanted to try influencing a mountain range. She scraped her hair from her cheek. The blood had washed off days ago, but she could still feel it on her skin and it was going to take even longer to forget the smell as the building went up. She’d been warned, right from the start, and more than once, but Char had never listened when she was curious. She liked to make her own mind up. Her co-cultists had died with candles for mouths, and eyes like cinders because of that. She hadn’t realised it would be so quick, so powerful.
Char tried to rub the exhaustion from her face.
‘At least there’s this.’
She stuck her head between the logs and let air so full of frost she could barely keep it inside slip into her lungs.
She was on her own now. Maybe it was better that way
Morning arrived and with it the realisation the truck had stopped.
‘I’ve had better….drive down from…’
Char opened an eye that felt like it had tried to weld itself shut during the night and peered through a crack between some logs as the voices grew closer.
‘Boss told me you’d be late. We need to get your cargo off and the rig turned round with me in it, like, yesterday.’
As they faded into the distance she began to wriggle out of her sleeping bag. The spot that had been itching between her shoulder blades ever since the fire that had started her journey was growing worse. A run in with people was bound to mean problems but if what she’d called into the world caught up they’d be the least of her concerns. She stamped on the thought, and decided to concentrate on more temporal matters. If the cops were called and didn’t believe her lies about missing papers they were bound to arrest her and she’d no idea how far she’d have to travel to get away from the sort of attention she’d attracted. No idea if it was even possible. Char glanced at the cars zooming past; she had a hole in her wallet and her thumb.
She needed to ditch her ride.
‘Where you going girl? In case you haven’t noticed it’s going to be minus twenty later on,’ said the driver of the battered SUV that had pulled up on the hard shoulder. ‘You stupid or something?’
‘Good morning, Sir.’
Char made sure to use her best smile, the one she’d kept for when they were recruiting as she leaned towards the car’s open window. ‘My rides broken down. Can you help? Anywhere a little further along would be just fine.’
The man with the drooping moustache showing the first touch of grey at the edges gave her the once over and pushed his cap back.
He spat leaving a crater in the snow.
‘What’s wrong with your eyes?’
‘Nothing to be worried about, sir,’ said Char. ‘I’m as normal inside as the next young girl even if my Mum always says they must have given her the wrong kid at the hospital. The condition’s called Polycoria it makes me look a bit odd.’
He gave her a slow once over, taking in the fractured mess where it looked like her pupils had burst.
‘I’m going as far as Spokane. First sign I see of you being more of a freak than you already look you’re back on the road side.’
It turned out the man’s name was Bud and he was a vet, from oil rigs to a half dozen bullshit conflicts he’d been there.
Char didn’t take her long to work her magic.
‘I’m ready for retirement now; had enough of the mountains.’
They’d parked by the rail road not long after she’d made the offer and for a moment he was silent.
‘Gonna settle down somewhere warmer – fish myself to death.’
The engine ticked for a moment as it cooled and Char sighed. It was time, there was no point delaying it any longer.
‘Then you won’t mind this.’
When she’d finished the wire made a wet sound like a kiss as she slid it from his neck and put the reel back in her pocket before closing his eyes. They were always so grateful when she said yes; she wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d parked on the tracks instead of beside them.
Char dug through Bud’s pockets lifting money, discarding ID, thankful nobody had her prints below the border, not yet anyway. They’d think it was a suicide if she lit the vehicle properly.
She’d gotten as far as the first carriage before the lights at the crossroads began to strobe. She supposed she should have expected it. Bud had been more alive than she’d thought, his death had lit its own type of beacon.
‘Who’s there?’ said Char.
Just visible where the light ended and the dark swallowed anything that wasn’t the glitter of houses from a distant town something moved.
‘Where you going little Char?’
‘What business is it of yours? You shouldn’t even be here. I didn’t dedicate to you.’
There was a plink and the lights snapped back on all the way. Char gasped, despite herself. The figure perched on the sign post was so huge it had bent the metal like a reed, and it had a resident of the pits lowest circle’s ten metre long horns.
‘Neither should you. The boss wants a word.’
Char shrugged, ‘Really? As if what I called wasn’t enough of a give away. How’d you find me so fast?’
She turned to go. Demon’s all wanted the same thing, and she’d enough blood on her hands from the ceremony. Char had gotten as far as the nearest railway cars before the wind filled with the rustle of things she’d last heard before the cult had been consumed by fire.
‘I’ll let them loose Char,’ said the demon. ‘You know I’ll do it, or I have an offer you should hear.’
‘What makes you think I’d do business with you?’
‘Because the prize is your heart’s desire.’
She stifled a yawn. It had been too long a journey for the usual spiel. The one stop Bud and her had made for coffee hadn’t done much for topping up her reserves either.
‘Heard it before,’ said Char as the demon started to clamber down the sign post snapping off boards with the names of towns she’d never heard of as it went.
‘Stay away from me,’ said Char and she put as much of the voice into it as she could.
‘Who taught you how to do that?’
‘None of your business.’
‘Little lonely Char. I can offer you something better than that.’
‘That’s your train,’ it pointed in the direction of one of those cross state specials that still carried cargo to destinations she’d never seen; never even heard of. The door of a goods car slammed back as its locomotive started up, ‘when you get to the coast I want you to deliver a present for me.’
Char hadn’t noticed before, but the demon had something in its fist.
‘Your reward, you work for me and I’ll make sure you get something no mortal has ever had. All you have to do is one thing.’
Char could see what it had in its hand now. The blood red cubes looked like dice; except every surface was printed with a six.
‘The keys for the gates of hell,’ it said dropping them into her palm. ‘If you help me fulfil my quota I’ll let you keep them.’
‘I don’t know. I’ve my own ideas about work.’
‘There are perks,’ the demon dropped a leather holdall at her feet. Inside was something that looked like the guns they used in beauty parlours for tanning clients. ‘I’d keep it myself, but they’re on to me. Even in my circle theft gets noticed. Pretty soon the department for armaments will be here looking for the culprit. Take it and spray as many of the vermin that come crawling past you as possible.’ It watched the expression on Char’s face. ‘If you do I’ll show you what we’ve done to your father.’
‘He’s with you?’ Char shook the dice in her fist, ‘and with these I can…?’
‘Any time you like.’ The demon chuckled with a sound like mountains rubbing together. ‘They’ll always come up with your lucky number.’
She bent down and scooped up the case like she was picking up buried treasure. The one thing she wanted more than anything in the world was too see her old man again and wipe the smile off his face.
The railway yards lights had begun to flicker again and tumbleweeds made of litter were racing by so fast they looked like were running.
‘They’re here,’ said the demon craning its head to look at where the moon was just visible through the clouds. As they watched a shadow flitted over its surface and the demon turned to Char. ‘Go, quick, remember, spray them well. They’ll thank you.’
Char didn’t hesitate, she fled down the tracks so fast her feet had trouble keeping up. She’d met Hell’s department of armaments once before, and once was enough.
It was raining when the train stopped for the last time and Char got the impression the townsfolk probably liked it that way the place was that clean.
‘Mr? I know it’s late, but I need a room.’
Char slapped some money down, hoping that the lake forming at her feet wouldn’t put the guest house owner off.
‘A week should do it.’
‘A week?’ said the establishments proprietor.
‘Sure, and a newspaper. I’m looking for work.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a beauty technician.’
She put the box the demon had given her on the counter.
‘I give people tans.’
Char was up half the night before she hit jackpot. She circled the add and the woman’s name, and this time the bargaining to get it right took more out of her than it ever had before.
The next morning she looked at herself in the mirror and grimaced.
‘Never told me I’d have to do all the leg work did you?’
Char pulled at one of the bags under her eyes with a fingernail. It felt like Hell had given her a year or two extra in return for assistance this time.
There was a knock on her door, and she stopped her examination.
‘Hallo? You in there Miss Char?’
‘I wasn’t sure if I should say anything. Its odd timing, but there’s an opening at the local beauty parlour. The owner’s a friend of mine and I mentioned your name. Come see me when you’re ready. I’ll give you the number.’
Char smiled, and glanced at the sheets, she’d have to throw them away before her landlord noticed the scorch marks. But it was a good start none the less.
By the time she got to the neon lit parlour the guest house’s owner had directed her too the sun was well overhead. A woman sat in one of the booths looked up and Char saw her mascara had run half way down her cheeks.
She tried to smile a little less widely as she said, ‘Hallo, my name’s Char. Mr Bartholomew at Crabapple Guest House sent me. I hear you’re looking for someone.’
‘Yes, but…I don’t know…it’s so soon. If it wasn’t for the rent being due and Zoe’s holiday coming up I wouldn’t even be considering it. If I give you a spot and let you get on with it can you manage that? One of the other girls will keep an eye on you and we’ll sort things out at the end of the week.’
‘Why, what’s wrong?’
The woman stared at a spot somewhere past Char’s ear.
‘A friend of mine was washed up on the shore last night, it looked like someone had…’ The woman rubbed at her eyes. ‘I’m Mrs Lynne by the way,’ she said as she tried to scrub her tears away. ‘Just don’t cause any trouble, ok?’
‘I won’t, I promise.’
Char doubted she’d heard her because the woman was already heading out the door. She certainly never saw the satisfied look on her newest employees face.
By the end of the month Char had more customers than anyone else in the parlour.
‘What do you do to them?’ Her colleague, a girl called Sandy, smiled. Sandy had four kids and a husband who was always fooling about, and the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
‘Oh,’ Char looked away, ‘nothing I try gets them to talk to me like they do with you. You must know half the secrets in town.’
‘I just tell them what they want to hear.’ Her colleague lifted a slat on the blinds. ‘I don’t know that it’ll work so well today though, look at them.’ Some of the customers on the seats were itching so much they had welts on their skin. ‘You sure that new gear you’re using’s ok?’
‘They just need another treatment is all. I tell you what – if I let you have the ones I can’t deal with will you keep quiet about me using my own stuff? I don’t want the other girls getting jealous.’
‘I suppose…if you let me in on your secret.’
‘Sure, Sandy,’ Char’s smile was as sweet as knives. ‘Why not? But just not now.’’
She opened the door and was nearly flattened as the first of her customer’s rushed past.
‘My skin’s peeling.’
‘I can’t feel anything.’
The hubbub rose, pretty soon Char was going to have a riot on her hands.
‘Calm down, calm down,’ she said with a weather girl’s smile – broad and shiny as a glossy magazine, ‘all you need is another session. Now, none of you’ve been to the doctor have you? Like we agreed?’
Not that it would have mattered. Char had been visiting him in the dead of night and the old bachelor would have sooner cut his wrists open than harm the young girl he called his ‘dove’.
‘It felt so good at first,’ said a woman with what looked like half her face hanging off.
‘It will again, I promise,’ said Char hustling her past before anyone noticed.
‘But we’ve no money for another sitting,’ that was one of the town’s jocks and there was something peeking through his skin that looked a lot like scales.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ Char beamed even wider, ‘today’s freebie day.’
That was a busy morning. She sprayed till her fingers ached and her customers shone like bronze.
It was on all of their lips.
That night Char made her first trip to see her father.
‘You didn’t tell me you’d need so many.’
‘Why should I?’
The demon spread its palms wide, ‘You really thought you could just walk in and out of Hell without plenty of souls to offer?’
Char shut her mouth. She wasn’t a child, she’d been dealing with the pit since she was a teenager. Of course there were trades to be made.
‘When will you take them?’
‘That’s the beauty of it, we won’t, not straight away this time. They’re just the start. Now, do you want to see him?’
When she finally got back to her booth and pulled the curtains round her she still had the smell of brimstone on her clothes and screams in her ears. At one point she’d thought she was going to damage herself, but the demon grabbing her arms had stopped her.
‘Just watch a moment Char see what he’s got an eternity of,’ the demon had whispered in her ear. ‘Then you can start again and again, night after night. Every time you come back he’ll be ready.’
She could still feel the soft flicker of its tongue as it whispered the words. Char went back plenty of times after that, just like the demon had known she would. Nothing had ever felt quite as good as watching Dad crawl on his stumps to where she’d thrown his limbs.
‘And they put them back afterwards?’ Char had asked the question with an expression on her face like she’d seen an angel.
‘Of course,’ answered the demon. ‘It wouldn’t be much fun otherwise.’
She’d taken one last look at the whimpering thing as it tried to escape, and flicked it off the end of her boot.
‘See you soon Daddy.’
Char pulled her thoughts back to the present. It was the middle of the night, and she was alone in the shop, or she should have been. A knock on the window made her look up.
‘Who’s there? Come on; you know I’m busy.’
Pretty soon she wished she’d kept her mouth shut as hands bounced across the glass trailing skin that had peeled into ribbons.
‘You have to help us.’
‘…we need another spray.’
The bell tinkled and her customers came in. Most of them hadn’t bothered to dress this time. But a few had odds and ends on them like they’d forgotten what they were doing as soon as they’d started, or forgotten why they were doing it in the first place.
‘We don’t open again till tomorrow,’ said Char
‘Char, please, we need it now.’
‘It hurts real bad.’
The shapes glistening under the lights looked like they’d been hit with a hammer and annealed, until what flesh they had left was stretched across their scales like plastic. Char decided they probably had a point.
‘Catch,’ said Char with a thin smile as the gun arched over their heads and landed in their midst.
She watched as their hands thrashed and tore until they found what they wanted and the shop door slammed open hard enough to shatter glass as the storm that had come with them blew in. Back at the huddle round her booth she could hear the hiss and clack of the gun already.
Char was outside in the snow before anyone could remember she existed.
‘Told you you’d be able to visit Hell as often as you liked,’ said a voice from overhead.
The demon was sat on the shop front and it didn’t take her long to realise it was laughing.
‘You said I could have my heart’s desire,’ said Char.
‘Did I? I forget, anyway, I meant in the other place not here at least not until we’ve brought about the End of Days and the final battle. By the way you’re not running off anywhere. I want you to bear witness.’
Of course she tried, but every time she got close it picked her up and brought her back. She got a ringside view after that; even if it was a cold one. Char kept to the church mostly, no one had told its owner that girls like her weren’t supposed to cross its threshold, and it was quiet hidden in the steeple.
She supposed it was about the tenth day when they finally gave up on subterfuge. Char watched a woman run past in the street screaming. But she knew if she went down she wasn’t coming back; the creatures that had been her customers were only yards behind. One of them soon put the housewife out of her misery and Char really started to think about how she was going to get out of town.
At first she’d been worried she wouldn’t find the gun amongst the shattered glass and shed skins in the ruined beauty parlour. Because it looked like whatever had happened to her customers they no longer needed it. But as the the light began to fade Char’s fingers touched its casing, and she heard something whisper in her head. By the time she returned it looked like the townsfolk could tell something was amiss. Some of them were sniffing at the air like they could smell what she’d found round the back of the church already. She’d picked as much as she could carry but she hadn’t counted on them noticing. They didn’t look like they were capable of it not now they were more teeth and scales than anything else.
Char decided to get to work, and swung up and down on the bell tower’s rope until her palms were sore and the towns inhabitants were crowding round. By now there were so many lizards in the square it was packed and as the noise grew louder they clutched at their ears and fell to the ground twitching and thrashing so much they looked in danger of hurting themselves. A forgotten part of Char felt a little sorry for them because they’d have run if they knew what was good for them. When there was enough of a crowd she dug the gun from its bag and prayed to every lord of hell she’d ever met that the tincture she’d made would work.
In the end she sprayed so much that even the houses were soaked with henbane. Soon the figures that had thrashed like their hamstrings had been cut were leaving the ground behind and her neck had grown tired with the effort of trying to follow them into the sky. Char walked along the empty streets the happiest girl in the world; and listened to what felt like the first silence she’d felt in her life. Now she knew why the demon had been so amused.
‘I just raptured a whole town.’
You can find the images that helped inspire this story on – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/PirateFrequency/the-sixth-face/
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