Even when he opens his eyes, Husher tastes the asphalt and blood in his mouth. He’s lying on the broken pavement outside of the gas station, a few brave strands of grass against his cheek. From the ground he can see the booth, a body crumbled inside; the obvious question can’t be answered. He pushes himself up and his head is reeling from the pain. There’s no entry hole, no exit.
This is turning out to be a long dream. And he’s growing tired.
Husher thinks about the doppelganger’s reason. Though his hands ache, his head spins, he huddles into his leather coat like a hermit, wandering aimlessly back home.
Carpocrates, you’re looking a lot like Hell. Where does that pixie with the black hair hide, trying to lure me into the dark. Still as the wind, the snow slips in circles around his ankles.
There’s nothing here for him. No one to kill, no one to save. A bundle of thick clothes lies face-down on the street. Tied off their final dose, a single tear of heroin frozen on the tip of the needle when he picks it up and pinches it between his fingers. Everyone is gone or going, the world isn’t turning, and the stars have faded away.
Nightmares and dreams leave Carpocrates. The streetlights blot out one by one. Husher sees one light though, off in the distance. A brick building with some windows on the second floor, curtains drawn, bristling maybe with life but he doubts it; he wants it, so he doubts it. The old faded sign shows the ghost of a woman, paint flakes wilting away one of her arms and half of her comely face.
It’s called the Day of Jupiter. Established 19– and since then men and women have flocked to her thick, metal door to be admitted into the grimy paradise.
The neon sign beside the entrance flickers with some lasting hope. He goes toward it, reaches out, places his hand upon the heavy door and feels the thump of music against his palm. Vibrations shocking him to his senses. Half-delirious still, Husher looks back over his shoulder.
He walks inside and the lavender light-beads line the rim of the ceiling. They cast shadows, strange shadows, but at the bar he sees several men face down in vomit, booze, or a mix of both. No one is there to tend to them. The music seems off, discordant, and far away, although the thump of the speakers still pound in his ears. He can’t hear anything. He can barely see anything. But there’s a stage, a single pole in the middle, and some of those lights still blare hotly onto the shiny surface.
Near this altar sits Burnham, head lolling in a kind of trance. He thought of Supplicant House, those driven mad by the Chant, and approaches him with caution. Husher grabs his friend’s shoulder and shakes him a bit, trying to loosen his senses. “Come on, you old fuck. Come on!” His voice echoes in the empty strip club. Burnham hardly responds. His glossy eyes drift toward the rail-thin killer, clad in black, and his nostrils flare weirdly as though a bad smell catches his senses.
“The man of the field,” he slurs. “Let them be…”
Burnham rubs his eyes with a tired hand. “Let them be.”
“Listen to me, you goddamn drunk. What’s happening? Was it a second Rapture? I can’t hear the Chant. The Venerated are silent and I’m pursued. Do you hear me! I’m a wanted man!” He shouts above the crackling music, the dull thump of the speakers. Burnham didn’t respond, instead he turned his face toward the stage and leaned his head back to let out a long and unsettling sigh. His hands rub the leather of the old chair and then grip the arms tightly.
“It’s sublime,” the old man mutters before he begins to convulse. Husher tries to stay him but the shaking passes on like a jolt and he has to recoil. His face twists in anger and he pulls out the pistol from his belt, lowering it down toward Burnham’s head. “They got you too, old friend–”
“If you do that,” a voice softly appears, “you’ll make a mess for nothing.”
Husher swivels and finds his gun drawn on a form squatting at the edge of the stage. It’s a woman, pale and so bone thin he could see her ribs. She wears electric tape in X’s over her nipples and a cat tail swishes inertly from the waistband of a leather thong. Her long, black hair touches to her thighs and the bangs are pushed back by a headband adorned with cat-ears. She has eyes like a cat, too. Yellow, black in the middle. Something is wrong with her face but he couldn’t understand exactly what.
“He’s Cathari now,” she explains. Unafraid of his weapon. “He’s free.”
There isn’t much time between when she finishes her words and when he pulls the trigger. There’s a loud crack and the bullet hits the back wall of the stage; seemingly passing through the stripper. She eases up to her full height, which is a foot taller than Husher, and slinks down on pointed heels until she’s standing above him and looking down at his wild, furious face.
“Go ahead,” she whispers. Her blood painted lips ease close to his ear, long fingered hands curling around his shoulders. “Ask me who I am.” The voice is like the aftermath of a high. His eyes sting with tears, bloodshot, and his nose begins to bleed; simply from the proximity or the sound of her voice. He feels his clothes stick to him from sweat.
“Sh,” she silences him. “Ask me not for I never lie. Ask me another question instead.”
“What’s happening to Carpocrates?” Husher replies. Finding his voice.
“Don’t you mean Apollonia?” The Black Cat smirks.
His head begins to spin, wildly, or at least his vision does. He staggers back and she catches him in surprisingly strong hands. Easing him down into a chair beside Burnham whose convulsions had since ceased and left him drooling, unconscious. Husher drops the pistol onto the floor, his body feeling numb; weightless.
“I need something from you,” he hears her voice. “A kiss. Only Cathari can know the truth of the Black Universe.”
He feels his heart pounding in his chest. The voice alters, sea-sawing between that dizzying methamphetamine and a kind of honeyed afterglow. It’s everything he wanted, depravity wrapped in a silken bow. She turns away from him, fingers trailing his jaw, and pivots before easing into his lap. He can hardly appreciate the dance. Nothing will work. His body aching with frustration and impotency, his mind swimming in the vision of those unearthly gyrations. “I want it,” he groans through the doped up state, “Tell me.” He begs.
At his words the stripper eases off him smoothly and then bends forward, touching her toes, with posterior resting high and near to his face. Husher eases forward, his hands weakly grasping the cheeks, before he plants an unholy kiss beneath the tail. It sends the veins in his face throbbing, his jaw tenses and he feels cracks form along his skull as his brain swells and pushes against the protective barrier. Blood comes freely from his nostrils. It makes him feel as if he’ll rip out of his skin, as though his body shrunk and all he’d have left is a brain floating on a bony stem.
The visions finally came, clearer than anything he’d ever known. But perhaps he had always known, and the rest…It’s turning out to be a long dream.
Burnham told him the story of Gerasene Baines, the man in the high house whose ungodly, occult experiments opened the way for the Creatures to come through; the Venerated barely able to contain him. He sees this, the two of them seated on the patio of his fifth floor apartment, looking out over the city. Once known as Apollonia. Carpocrates is the way, the meaning, and Apollonia is the thought. The true names of the demons from Loudon, where the pact was made, he wrote them in his own blood so that they could never be forgotten.
But Burnham said that the Creature’s didn’t come from Hell.
He sees the Black Universe swirling like a lightless ocean. Calm and chaotic. Intruding upon nothing for there is nothing. It’s all beginning to make sense.
Gerasene Baines, the occultist, pours over his thick tomes. A fireplace roaring in his study and all else is darkness. He scratches a pen across the pages. Algorithms of spells and incantations. Profane words believed lost to the human tongue. He could speak them but wouldn’t yet. His eyes fleet to the portrait of a woman above the mantle. The memory of a cold winter touches his skin, despite the heat. He continues his work, feverish and eager.
This world is not enough without her. He hears Baines’ thoughts. Malleable as this universe is, if I pour water upon the clay it shall turn to mud. I will reach in my hand and grasp her again, pulling her loose from the rolling, mad froth of that Black Universe. For the water is the life and love, love is the law.
Baines drew a perfect circle on a piece of paper before there came a thunderous knocking on his door. He reaches down for the revolver in the top drawer, clicking the hammer. Poised with a sense of tension in his eyes.
“Who calls at such an hour?” The occultist challenges. “Who calls!”
Husher sees the door to the study fling open and they come in, swiftly, somewhat drab and less impressive in their white suits. Baines fires a shot and kills one of them, the bullet ripping through the middle of his head before they overpower and grapple him to the floor.
If only he had the foresight to throw his work into the fire. Yet, now, they lifted his research up and held it above their heads. A jubilant and holy wail comes from their lips.
“And we shall make a Heaven of this Hell. We shall be venerated by the righteous,” they chant. “Praise the Lord!”
Baines struggles against them until they took out a knife. The parazonium. They plunge it into his chest and he jerks in agony, blood shooting out of the wound. It splashes against their white suits and they struggle to hold the flailing victim as they plunge the blade in again and again. A hundred deep gashes. Ventilated. It was sloppy and strange. These were only men. Frail men with frail ideas. But in their hands now they held a terrible secret–a terrible power.
One of them opened the tome and began to read such profane and unknowable words that they came as symbols rather than sounds from his lips. A white light filled the room. Awful and blinding, Husher had to throw his hands over his eyes to make it stop.
The Black Universe yawned. It took form and fell out of form and required sound and symbol to keep it together as it took the shape of a place like Carpocrates but not; this place they called Apollonia. It was a mirror upon our world. Held up by insane hands; the hands of the Venerated who spoke the Chant from their little chapel. They kept the world from tipping over the edge. People came in worship, danced with snakes, sang and wept, and died. All by the blessings of the holy rollers, the speakers on the mount, whose very utterances could cure the infirm and put right what was wrong with the soul. Here, in the House of God, they were his Angels on Earth.
The greater the sin, the greater the repentance. The closer one comes to God. They thought, to make such a world, and to save those in it; God would surely come to them.
Husher watches this transpire in a flicker and flash like images hidden in steam rising from a pyre. He knew the looks on the faces of the congregation; the same that he held night after night when he heard the call of the Chant. Let them be scattered. Fulfilling their holy purpose was enough to make him orgasm. He supped from that cup of grace. The waters glowing, but he ignored the worms. He never asked questions. Even after Burnham, he never doubted the crusade. Until now, after that abominable kiss. Profanity gave clarity in rare circumstance. Blasphemy became as ascension.
He closed his eyes and fell into the darkness. God was not coming.
The Creatures. Chaos. The Black Universe. What the Venerated tried to make, this holy house of sinful worshipers, those who needed saving, they built it from rot-wood. Insects came in through the cracks. This wasn’t a war, it was an infestation. And they were too righteous and diluted to try and stop it, to cancel the program, to flick off the lights. They thought they could kill their way back to order using Husher’s hands. The men of the field, all dead. Soon enough, he too would die.
The world crumbles around them; a drip into a great, hollow pool. He understood now the Rapture. Those people were not taken up to Heaven–they were floating, mindless, in that Hellish void. The Venerated were cleaning house, their floating paradise was sinking and they dumped the first cargo they could find; their unruly congregation. This is about staying afloat. A storm is coming.
There’s a rush, like hands grasping him beneath the water, and suddenly he’s…
He’s waking up. How long has it been? There’s a silent alarm clock on the nightstand. The Black Cat is gone. His lips sting with a burning sensation. Cold sweat dabs the shirt he picks up off the floor and he showers off the stench. This is the winter chill of Carpocrates, the space heaters drying out the air; drying him in his sleep. Lips spotted with cracks and blood. He peers through the Venetians to the empty streets. No cars, no sounds, and the streetlights have begun to fade. A city of thousands reduced to hundreds, reduced to nothing since the Rapture. Since the Failing.
Husher is taken by an urge and grabs his gun. The magazine loaded with blessed bullets. This is a real place, he prays, this is a real place. He turns the weapon over and sees the safety off.
This is a real place.
The Pentecostal House of the Chanting Angels is a white, unassuming chapel at the end of the city, deceptively small, with a sign out front that reads; REPENT AND BE SAVED BY THEIR VOICE. Above the double-doors at the top of the steps is a neon white cross that flickers in and out.
Everything is dark now; everything is going away. There’s shadows, representing places behind him. But it looks like smoke. If he turns back he knows that he’ll fall through, he’ll join the others in an ocean of lost souls. The Black Universe is stirring, waking up, and preparing to crash into this Sacred Dumpster like a thunderous wave. Not before he had his time; not before he made it right.
When he takes to the steps he saw her at the top of them. The little girl from the house on LaVey and the phone-booth. She stands beside the Black Cat, whose body is hidden by a draping black silken robe. Both of them eye him curiously.
“Cathari, blessed are the destroyers of false hope. What say you now?”
Husher stops and looks between both of them. He takes the gun out from his waistband and holds it in front of him. “I just want to sleep. But first I’m going to kill those fuckers.”
“The Black Universe welcomes you,” the Black Cat says.
“Is there a God?” He asks, with weird hesitation in his voice.
The Black Cat and the black-haired girl stand aside. “Would it matter? If this could not grab it’s attention. Such blasphemy and hubris. Would it matter if there was a God?”
“Yeah,” Husher mutters, “I guess not.” He pushes through the doors.
It’s quiet for a moment from outside. Then, through the windows, there are intense flashes of light. A terrible, earth-shaking voice splits the seams of reality and the windows burst into burning shards, the neon cross falls from its perch and shatters, flickering with finality. There’s more flashes. That awful voice transmogrified into a choking, human sound–the sound of helpless men dying.
Husher sits, exhausted, on the steps of the pulpit. The thirteen Venerated lie dead in various and gruesome positions, stains over their white suits. Riddled with sacred bullets. When the clip emptied, he beat the rest to death with the butt of the gun. It laid aside now, broken. His eye burst like a balloon in the socket from the briefest glimpse of the Chant turned against him. But he still had one good eye. Enough to see the lights going out. Blood dribbled down his cheek from the gaping hole. He couldn’t it, couldn’t feel much of anything, so he fished a cigarette from his pocket and lit it with the flayed fingers of his red right hand. Bone showing through the opening in the skin.
Smoke escapes his chapped lips. The chapel is becoming dim. His mind is clear, his heart is gentle, and his soul is free in those last moments sucking up the nicotine from the burning tip. Husher can’t help but think of Burnham, his bad moonshine, and the two of them bullshitting; looking into the nightlife of Carpocrates…Apollonia. Wondering what was to come, wondering how long they could keep the black dog from baying at their hinds. Wondering who would die first.
When it all goes quiet, briefly in the distance of the Black Universe, which churned without sound in a fathomless void; the faintest sight of the cigarette’s tip could be seen, trembling like a supernova from a million light years away–until even this, too, went into the dark.