By Daniel David Froid
The manuscript is slight. It is bound in leather, a scarred and rough-textured hide, maroon in color, which makes one think of demon’s skin—but what else could it be? Only one copy is known to exist, and it was found in a certain antique shop dedicated to the preservation of peculiar relics. Its contents are handwritten, in very neat and close penmanship. The antiquarian declined to explain its provenance and would be persuaded to part with it only at a very dear price.
REMINISCENES OF BELIAL,
WRITTEN BY HIMSELF.
Where I was born.
My name is not a name. All those who share it are worthless: that is what it means. If you are reading, you know this, and perhaps it has occurred to you to wonder why that is so. But if you wish to learn what worthlessness can earn you, read on.
Herebelow, we had all been designated worthless, and we kept to ourselves. Perhaps some of the elders among us once bore other, more proper names, but not now. Everybody lived in identical rickety towers, so that, from a distance—from the nearby high plateaus that stretched beneath swirling and churning purple clouds—our town looked spiky, like a dragon’s open maw. And I knew what such a thing looked like, too, because the body of a felled beast marked the boundary of the exiles’ territory in the direction opposite to the plateaus. In our towers we looked up to the Ceiling—which loomed invisible above saffron clouds—and told each ourselves fantastical tales about life aboveground, or else we looked toward the dead dragon and pretended that we had memories of life past the boundary whence the elders had come. Aboveground—the place where the objects of our torments lived—we visited on the psychic plane only. To visit in the flesh was verboten; to travel outside Herebelow, to attempt to climb the Stairway, unthinkable infractions.
I was born in the plains with the other exiles and raised by a pair of keepers or guardians whom I called my fathers, both of whom also bore the name Belial. One was very tall, and his ungainly limbs flopped like trees’ thin limbs in a powerful wind. I called him Lyle. The other was soft and stout, and as stern as any demon I ever met, and I called him B. I don’t know which of them sired the black egg that hatched me. It might have been neither; they never said. They loved me but loved each other to excess. Always, I understood myself to be an interloper, an intruder in their peaceable kingdom of two.
I preferred to lose myself in reveries about the great and sprawling cities above, where beauty grew as weeds do, rampant, there for the taking, and everything and everyone had or could find it. Those reveries featured human inhabitants, of course, though in my mind they were not playthings to be tortured and harassed but denizens to be observed dispassionately. Placid, innocent, amicable, they were not in my imagining unlike dolls, I will admit. All this offered a sharp contrast, of course, to this town with its lean and shaky towers, prone to tipping over, and us, the worthless, with our pointed ears and jagged teeth and mangy tails.
Not that I had ever seen the world above. Once I asked my fathers to explain the cause of or the reason for our exile, to explain what exile really meant. B. told me, “We don’t talk about that.”
Lyle said, “We talk about it, but not with you.”
It was raining, but they urged me to go outside and play. “The rain will scar my skin,” I said.
Lyle replied, “But won’t it build character, my darling child?” I shrugged and left. Outside, the pelting rain hissed when it landed on my arms.
I would wander beneath the rain and sometimes approach the site of my hatching, a raised patch of earth like a welt—the bruises our births left on the landscape. They say that demon lineage is impossible to trace, a tangled mess that, in the end, doesn’t really matter, for in the end our lives turn out all the same. But they say, too, that the moment of hatching is sacred and private, one that nobody sees and that nobody ought to wish to do. The most sacred thing: a piece of knowledge owned by one alone. Once I overheard a demon passing on a rumor that he’d heard, perhaps from his own guardians, that demons could travel the psychic plane to the moment of their hatching if they truly wished to see it but that they would have to pay a price. What the price was he did not say, and even we are capable of heeding certain conventions; to my knowledge none had tried it. But the comment stuck with me, and I would take it out every now and then when I wanted to conjure a certain private and ambiguous feeling that I struggle, now, to describe—not enjoyable but meaningful; the feeling of being neither more nor less alone but more intensely so.
How I lived.
Pounding in no rhythm that I knew upon the wall, my feet woke me up and my fathers, too. In my dream, my feet carried me across the length of a street in an unreal village; I woke up on my back with my feet pressed against the wall, stomping away. Perhaps my feet would carry me along the wall’s length and up, across the Ceiling, lead me outside and along the length of the tower, and thence somewhere far from here. My dreams of fleeing, of escape, often leeched into the waking world in this way.
I lived well enough but largely alone. What does “well enough” mean? It means I lived. Exiles and their progeny make for bad company; we all of us felt paranoid and scrappy and would strike as soon as greet each other on a good day. None of us wished to be here, and all of us wished to prove ourselves superior to our neighbors.
Still, it seemed to me that I had a greater share of loneliness than most. At night, I could hear my fathers’ talking and laughing, their private pleasures, as they issued from the topmost level of our home. They occupied the garret of our tower, whereas I preferred the lowly base, the small corner of the tower that was designated mine. Separated from the rest of the room by a threadbare curtain, my alcove offered a rickety bed, a bare and sagging shelf, and little comfort.
And so, during the long hot nights, I ignored the sounds of my fathers; and during the day I wandered the house, a ghost in search of something to haunt. Or I would leave and let my skin burn in the rain, then sit and watch as it scabbed over: crust of deep purple forming over burgundy skin.
It was not long after my birth that I faced the choice of gender, and I did not hesitate to refuse in my choosing. It is essential to our kind to choose, but neither option appealed to me. And that, I reasoned, was itself a choice as well. The act of choosing neither path is an art, which I have honed well over the course of my life. My fathers questioned my decision, believing it dubious, asking, “Wouldn’t you like to be a demon of men, and torment those men of the earth who run, or believe they run, the cities and the towns and the factories? It is such a pleasure to watch them squirm, and so easy to make them do it.” I shook my head no and insisted upon my dissent.
One of my teachers did likewise, pulling me aside to say, “You could choose to be a demon of women, like me, and have such a great variety of torments to inflict. I myself am working on a lady author, who believes herself practically possessed by her work, the way she churns out her worthless novels. She is little acquainted with me, yet I feel such intimacy with her. We have such fun together.”
You see, their greatest concern was whom I might torment when I grew old enough to do so. A Belial is worthless, and, as all demons comprise knowledge woven into flesh, the Belial comprise all knowledge that lacks clear value, as well as all fears and concerns associated with worth’s gaping absence: that which is stupid, contemptible, wretched, and distracting, which we use in our tormenting endeavors. Yet: I realized young that tormenting would never be my lot.
Tormenting is first and most deeply practiced among the younger of the species, so for demons as for humans. Even among my fellow younglings I did not like the practice and did my best to resist it. I shirked my lessons. After all, my fellow demons practiced their torments on me, releasing volleys of insults and blows from their fists as easily as the acid rain fell from the sky. They did it with glee, and I, powerless to stop them, quietly lay there and took it, and, when they were done, dragged myself up from the ground and went home all full of dread, resolving not to inflict harm as harm had been lavished on me.
And so in this way the gulf that divided me from my fellows continued to widen. Within me was a well, dark and deep, and, though I continued to peer into its depths, never would I see to the bottom. A tower turned upside down and stuck into the clay on which we trod, whose spire might prod its way to—where? What sorry, dead, and sour place lurked beneath our feet, beneath Herebelow? Sometimes it seemed to offer me a home in which I might dwell my whole lifelong. Dread had long ago taken root within me. Dread, which comes from knowing your fate too soon, threatened to swallow me whole, for I knew I would never live up to the standards of my own worthless kind.
Yet I harbored a furtive dream, which I tucked away to pull out only in quiet lonely moments: My dream was to go aboveground.
Going aboveground. Instructions.
When I had reached a reasonable age—thirty—I left my fathers’ tower and our town. When I announced my intention to leave, my fathers feigned their surprise—I say feigned, for I could scarcely believe that they had no idea. Though never had I breathed a word of my desire, often they would find me approaching the plateaus, and just as often I would ask subtle questions about the immense Staircase that loomed far beyond us, which had, in my eyes, never lost its mythic allure.
When I gave them the news, they had little to offer me in the way of wisdom.
B. said, “Life aboveground is a constant torment. A vale of tears.”
Lyle said, “You can’t imagine the smells.”
To leave the town, you must climb the nearby cliff and reach the plateaus, which we children would dare each other to climb. Well, they often dared me, and in the art of climbing I became very proficient. So must you if you wish to go aboveground. The clouds churned above us, now and then letting rip, loosing rain in sheets that burned and charred us. The hot, acidic rain takes very little time in scarring, but, nonetheless, you must bear it with the utmost fortitude and walk the vast plateaus. You may come across the remains of our kind, those who could not bear the journey. Ignore these, unless you would like to save a hardy bone or two for future use. This might be wise.
If you are lucky, no other demons will disturb you. Otherwise, you may likewise encounter, as I did, others who live beneath the Ceiling or who, at least, visit now and then. I ran into Asmodeus.
As a Belial is worthless and irksome, an Asmodeus is inquisitive and more than a little depraved. The one who stood in my path wore a large cloak, as they all do, patterned with mysterious symbols whose meanings are obscure and likely unknown even to them. He bore one crutch; every Asmodeus has always one or the other leg broken, if not both. Though they are quarrelsome and get into fights, they are nonetheless easily bested. Other demons tend to punish them by pushing them from vast heights.
He said, “Ho! My child. So you meet the Devil upon One Stick!”
I said nothing, reluctant to meet his eye, and kept moving.
“And what sort of tale do you have to offer your friend Asmodeus?”
“Nothing. I have no tale.”
“Now that I can scarcely believe. Everyone does, even the worthless. Now come, tell Asmodeus, before I am called away from here yet again.”
Realizing that he would not leave unless he received either a story or a fight, I ceased my walking and fixed him with a gaze I hoped was steely, but which likely turned out to be as fearful as ever. I told him the tale I am now telling you, up to this very point.
He said, “This, my dear child, is a terrible story, with nothing of interest in it. You should come with me, as I can guide you through such regions Herebelow as you have never seen and likely never will, given your worthless status.”
He wished to whisk me away. But did I wish to see what he could offer? Did I feel some flicker of curiosity at the chance to see others of my accursed kind? No: this place held no interest for me. However much Asmodeus may have wished to lure me in, not only to fulfill his promise in whatever haphazard way he might but to gather more details about the Belial for his own obscure purposes—whatever his intent, I had little interest in following his lead. I shook my head and began to walk with haste, my speed increasing as he called after me.
When he caught up to me, where I stood close to the plateau’s edge, I made use of a tool that was new to me: violence. I pushed him off, ignoring his screaming and moving onward.
After many days of walking—and fleeing Asmodeus if you are as unlucky as I—you will reach the place where the clouds begin to part, revealing the great Ceiling itself. At this point, the plateaus end in a wall, along whose length you must walk for one day and one night. Then you will find the Staircase, which you must climb to reach the city. Each step of the Staircase is taller than a fully grown demon. Its stone has no recourse from the clouds that spew their acid rain, day upon day. But this means that the scarred face of the stone offers numerous footholds, making it easy to climb.
I wondered while I climbed who made the Staircase and what sort of giant creatures might have used it. Was it built for the convenience of those fabled demons of yore, who were said to have leaped across the sky from planet to planet? They could have bounded up the Staircase in the span of a moment, whereas it took me, as it will likely take you, several interminable nights and days, as lightning flashes above and the rain continues to hiss and spatter. But the whole time my eyes were trained on the crevice above, which led past the Staircase and out.
You will at last reach the top and perhaps collapse there. When you reach it, you may heave a sigh and feel the ground, rough and dry, beneath your fingers, its clay cracked and tougher than our demon skin, rougher than the clay on which we trod below. I fell to the earth, feeling an unfamiliar mixture of exhaustion and relief and something else, which at first blush I thought might be grace—something not merited but freely given—but given only to one like you or I who climbs here and falters, dizzy, at the sight. And so perhaps this was not grace, either, for earned it was. At any rate, what I mean is that I saw one corner of the sky, and then I slept for a time and woke up and found that I still had much to do.
What I found there.
What I did next was to face a creeping thing that had, in this one respect, never before plagued me: doubt. For I did not find any dreamed-of city at the top of the staircase.
Doubt. My whole life long had been an exercise in devotion to an idea—my notion of the glorious world above, a place I held in awe. But what I saw is just what I described: cracked clay, no different from the blighted ground in Herebelow, stretching beyond the limits of my vision. And the sky, though at first it overwhelmed me, had a dull quality, like a tarnished pearl. I walked further and realized I was leaving a cave; its tall mouth gaped behind my back, fixed in an unending cry, as of accusation. And, indeed, carved in the rock was a leering demon face, eyes wide and angry.
And so I faced doubt, and more than that. For my very notion of the world had been upturned. The world above was just the same, if not more dismal. The tarnished, dirty sky seemed to make it worse, for I could no longer dream of something better above it. I will spare you a tedious account of my wandering away from the cave, glimpsing little as I moved but the same dry rock, and scarcely any people at all. I wandered for days, far longer than it took me to climb the Staircase, until at last I saw signs of life.
I could spend countless pages, not to mention my flagging reserves of energy, to describe the cities, which seemed little better than the dragons’ maws I knew as home; the cities that swelled beneath skies darker and danker than the great clouded Ceiling; the disappointing cities, which ruptured the naïve fantasies I harbored of unceasing beauty and resplendence; the bustling cities full of humans, who dragged themselves forth on uncertain feet, morose and luckless faces drooping downward. Seeing them, I felt a rush of something that might have been pity, or perhaps sorrow, though it was mixed with a sort of furtive fellow-feeling. The Belial do not exert feelings on behalf of others, but, seeing these humans shuffling beneath a poisoned sky, the temptation to expend a bit of sadness on their behalf proved too much to bear. Or, rather, it seemed an extension of that which I felt for myself. It was easy to lend a little bit to them. And, of course, it proved very simple to approach and observe them closely, for I immediately detected that their entire beings, their perceptions, their attunement to the world—all of it—was timed to a different beat, sounding a discord with my own being. I moved at a frequency too high to be detected, and so they sensed me as nothing more than a frisson of something peculiar yet ephemeral, a prick of cold air that passed as soon as it arrived.
So I ignored the humans, steadfast in my refusal to torment. The Belial set the internal seas to roil and boil, and that was all my journey had done to me. But I did attempt to learn a little more of their nature.
In the area I then found myself—desolate, hideous, an encampment I could not call a city that lurked beneath a wide and appalling sky, which offered neither hiding-place nor shelter—I found myself eavesdropping on a young, frail specimen. He came to my attention because, like me, he pounded his feet upon the wall in slumber. What stirred within him was fear—fear, I found, of our kind, mixed with something else: a dark impulse, more than curiosity, less than desire, tending toward knowledge. What he wanted was us: he wanted to know whether we were real. And it struck me that I could give him a gift—not to torment him but to satisfy the desire that pounded within him like the soles of his feet.
Here is what I did. I followed his scent to where he sat within the basement of an ugly white house. He sat alone, propped on his knees a book that appeared too large for him. Now and then he looked up, as any prey might look with darting eyes, in furtive search for the signals of its predator. Whether he waited for a demon or for something else I did not and would never know, yet I moved toward him. I stood up in full view, and I stopped and breathed and slowed my beating heart. Soon I knew that he could see me: my scarred body with its purpled skin, my gangly limbs, the visage that he surely found horrible. His eyes widened, but those eyes seemed to show not fear: indeed, they reflected that complex feeling that I had detected, as well as satisfaction.
And then I vanished. I had felt something stir within me.
Shuffling off this infernal coil. Instructions.
It felt as though I were on fire. A new plan struck me. This planet—Herebelow as well as above—offered me no shelter. There was nothing for me anywhere, nothing I wanted or could use or even bear.
If you wish to leave the planet, as I then did, and if you are willing to do what is required to effect such a voyage, you must follow these steps.
To make your exit from the planet, you must first decide where you are going. Will you pursue a nearby moon, or will you move beyond the visible stars? If you are a demon who has found their way to these reminiscences, and have even read so far as to reach this late stage in my meager volume, then you have what you need to continue, and you probably know where it is you wish to go.
You must recognize that knowledge flows freely. The strictures of the body are no more than a cloak that you can shrug off. Let it fall to the ground. You must shift your position in time to when you were quite small, before you were even fully formed. You must locate with your mind the atrophied muscles that, when exercised, can move your body to this early time.
Demons should not visit the moment of their birth, but you must if you wish to leave. It is the most sacred event to a demon. We who are godless and lawless both, knowledge incarnate, thriving on its continual accumulation—we hold in the highest regard that private moment of the transmutation of knowledge into flesh. We do not look, for we appreciate, too, the pleasure of maintaining a mystery.
Yet you curious reader, you see the value, as I do, of shattering the sacred and of breaking from your kind.
You twist your body in time as well as space and move, there, to that moment. And you see the thick black egg that houses a handful of words, one little stray thought, and you lift the egg in both hands.
Hold yourself still for only a moment. Then, aiming in the direction that you will, fling the egg as far as it can go. Watch as it travels at speed, skimming across the surface of the real like a stone on a viscous sea, and soon it passes through that liquid barrier—straight through the Ceiling and the execrable sky above—and on it goes until it stops, and it hatches anew, and you yourself fade away. You disappear completely.
Where I ended up. My fate.
But where you ultimately land I will not tell, except to say that I myself landed somewhere most pleasant, where I undertook the task of composing this Wvolume, a meager offering that I am tempted to call knowledge incarnate, whose definitive end you have now reached.
Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Arizona and has published fiction in Lightspeed, Weird Horror, Black Warrior Review, Post Road, and elsewhere.