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And They Shall Know Only to Fear the Flame in Jericho

She got in at a quarter past eleven at night. She took off her wings, unhooked her bra, and untucked her penis. She’d just finished a ten hour day, not including the thirty minute commute both ways. Worse still, her superiors ordered her to bring her unfinished paperwork to be finished by tomorrow morning. Her back hurt. She took a quick five minute shower to decompress, to collect her thoughts.

Naked, alone, and in the safety of her single room apartment studio, she nuked a single serving of macaroni and cheese, and fried up a few bits of tofu in ghee with lemon pepper rub for seasoning. It was a small thing, but she looked forward to it everyday, this small ritual of cooking for herself. She’d not eaten any fast food in over a month. She’d lost weight, but she suspected most of it came from the stress of working for the Underground Bureau. After dinner, she cracked open the file to process her last batch of documents.

15, 13, 15, 16, (which was pushing it, possibly a reject doomed to clerical work like her), and (good graces!) one as young as 7. She looked over their photos, read through their psych evals, their physical stats, got a gist of their temperament from preliminary interviews. Of course, the interviews were mostly worthless. These children had been in no mental state to give eyewitness testimony, let alone make sound rational discussion about their potential future as a Lady of the Peace. Orphans, all of them, like everyone else in the Bureau. Only they hadn’t been broken in yet, not fully, not like the rest. Not like her.

At around two in the dark of night, she got to her last subject. A boy, 9, with a black eye for the trouble of having defended his father from the apprehending Lady. That’s when she realized she was no longer alone in her apartment; that’s when she noticed the shadow in the vanity mirror, the one standing right over her shoulder.

She spun around in her seat, half-expecting a dagger to the throat. Her superiors were a ruthless breed of efficient, despite their penchant for theatrics.

“You seem jumpy, Clarice,” the Lady said. Her veiled mask gave away no hint to the cruel, playful tone. Honey laced with strychnine.

“How did you get in my apartment?”

“You left the door unlocked. You should be more careful, someone might come in and see you in all your feminine wiles.”

Bullshit, she was certain she’d locked and barred her door.

“Bullshit, you think?”

Clarice turned red. This was an interrogation.

“I’m sure you know why I’m here.”

A flash of panic; the thought, the intrusive imaginings of a naked child on their knees staring loving, carnally up at her. Her skin crawled, and it felt like she’d been punched in the gut. A gasp that was like getting the wind knocked out.

“My, my… At least you aren’t getting aroused. In fact, you fear what your own brain has produced. Good. Fear is a potent antidote. Fear keeps the human animal in line. But come now, let us talk about these… impulses you’ve been experiencing.”

The Lady sat on the small bed. Clarice got a good look at the daggers on either side of her heeled boots.

“According to our reports, these feelings began around, three? Four months ago? What’d changed then? Hmm? What’s caused these pedophilic inclinations?”

Clarice hated the way her superior’d said pedophilic. She didn’t know what the word meant, but it sounded like a pointed attack.

“It was.”

It dawned on Clarice that she was still naked.

“May I please put on some clothes?”

“No. Besides, I’ll be out of your hair in no time at all. I’d hate to keep a young woman such as yourself from their nightly beauty rest. Now tell me; what’s changed in the last four months?”

Clarice cleared her head, tried to collect her thoughts, find her words. She hoped it was enough to momentarily obfuscate her mind.

“That’s a dangerous game, Clarice, but I’ll allow it. For your own sake.”

After a moment, Clarice found the right answer.

“We’ve been so busy, the Underground. We’ve had an uptick in offenders, an uptick in the uptake of new potential recruits. Before, we’d get maybe two kids a week, no more than ten a month. But now every week, it’s been at least five, or more. I’ve processed more than fifty kids the last three.”

“63, to be precise. But yes, we’ve been busier than usual. These… people under our ward have been far too experimental as of late, too interested in the dark flame. Too easily corrupted. But I digress. Why would this cause your intrusive thoughts?”

“I don’t know. I truly wish I did. I’ve been having nightmares lately, dreams of my teeth falling out, a giant woman with a mirror for a face attacking me, me not having a face. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in what feels like forever. This dark flame, I fear it’s getting stronger. I’m afraid I’ve been corrupted, even though I’ve never gazed into it.”

“Aye, we of the Underground are all a touch corrupt. It comes with the battle, with this war of ours against that accursed false-Phoenix. That’s why we haven’t decided yet what to do with you. But we are concerned. I don’t need to tell you what’ll happen if these thoughts persist. We’re all martyrs here in the Underground. Sooner or later, the flame gets us. Just try to keep your head in check as long as you can.”

With that, the Lady rose up, bowed to her mortified captive, and made way for the door and out. Alone again, Clarice finally eased up, her entire body sore from how stiff she’d gotten in the Lady’s presence. She unclenched her jaw last. Exhausted, she took her nightly medication, and for once she was grateful it caused her to get up every other hour to pee. Sporadic sleep seemed preferable to fretful, nightmare plagued half-slumber.

The next morning, on the third Day of the Phoenix for the year, Clarice rode aboard the bullet train to the office. All around her, holidayers had gathered in their masses, the compartment more cramped than usual. Everyone had their best wings on, some leathery and speckled like peacock ore, others a flat arrangement of a single bright, solid color, but all were fringed red in honor of that great bird of yore, to which their beloved city owed its very existence. Babes with their halo bonnets rested on the laps of their parents, while the older children giggled and made their games, jumping in time with the passage of the electrical poles all-along the track. Clarice tried her best to ignore them, and was relieved to find her brain not so easily moved to assail her senses.

At around nine in the morning she arrived at her destination. The Underground’s main clerical office was a modest, unassuming building in the heart of the Artsville Annex park. Most never gave the building any thought, aside from noticing how queerly utilitarian its facade was kept. No bright banners or graffito decorated it,  and no sign indicated its purpose, its function. It stuck out like a gray thumb amidst bejeweled fingers. Flashing her credentials to the automated security system, she stepped into its temperature controlled interior. The chill bit her, and her nipples hardened even under her light coat.

She passed the Ladies monument by reception, the one bearing the inscription:

We Are Her Angels in the Dark

Her Blades Against Evil

For Those Who Have Lost Their Innocence

Shall Protect Those Who Shan’t Grow Wiser

Clarice hated how the statues loomed over the lobby.

A five story elevator flight later, and she was in her office with the rest of the clerical staff. Jasmini was already busy typing up her reports, while Theomata tended to her contacts between the smaller branches of the Underground, whose jurisdiction extended from East Bay all the way to the Last Parking Lot by the Gran Theatrique. At Clarice’s desk, there was already a stack of work half a foot high. She got comfortable, settled in for a long sit, and got to work. Her first case was a nightmare twenty pages long.


She read the charge over and over again. She couldn’t fathom it. Certainly, a great many of the usual clean-ups involved someone harboring murderous intents, but never had anyone ever actually committed the crime, not in so many years since the Underground’s system was put in place. The Ladies always clean-up potential threats before the dark flame manifested. How did this person, how did he manage to kill his neighbor before the Underground got to him?

Are we really that stretched thin? Where the newest recruits not working out? Her superiors had recently requested that she find any possible loophole in the criteria to approve as many aspirants as possible. The Underground needed its future soldiers, as surely as this city needed its next generation.

Its children…

The thought of breastfeeding a child entered her mind, but whatever sense of wholesome maternity such notion could conjure was overridden by the sudden and intense arousal she experienced at the thought of fellating several men at the same time. By milk, through milk, her brain traitorously generated. She grabbed a rubber band from one of her drawers, wrapped it around her left wrist, and she gave herself a quick snap to try and rid her mind of it. She continued reading the case, finding to her dismay the reporting Lady had to also clean-up several eyewitnesses to the murder. None should ever know of the horrors of the dark flame. The file was for the six year-old of one of the witnesses.

And so for hours she read through the ream of paper at her desk, evaluating each candidate’s physical and mental rigor, occasionally snapping the band to keep her mind clean. At around noon, she took her obligated lunch hour, but all the work’d soured her appetite. More than that, the pall of drowsiness had finally become too great to resist. She hunched forward to rest her head against wood, and despite the inevitable neck pain to ensue, she took a spell to catch some of the slumber she’d lost the night before.

The dark flame greeted her as a small spark, a single star against the pitch black firmament of her mind. It got bigger, and bigger, until at last it revealed itself a portal into the very deepest recesses of her psyche. And there lay the terrible truth she’d for so long tried so hard to resist.

The beast, no, the King of Beasts heaved its massive weight toward her. He was erect, his penis a throbbing, purple thing that looked nothing like her own. It was an animal’s appendage, and it reeked of power and virility, each pump of blood the heartbeat of some mighty force of nature wrought in flesh and blood. His sharp fangs were reared back in a grimace, one borne more of pure anger than lust. Oh, it was a lusting thing for sure, this creature. But it also resented her existence, resented her weak flesh, which it could so easily rent apart. Hate and love, want and revulsion, the King was all these things, more and less. And that’s when Clarice noticed the child at his feet, the small, terrified thing.

And Clarice could only watch, as the King of Beasts grabbed the child, and committed the most breathtaking rape she or any other person’d ever seen. Rape? What is rape? A momentary lapse in dreamed logic, she vaguely recalled her waking self, recalled some of her cases. She’d seen that word before, in many cases in fact, but never once did she ever look deeper into it. Her superiors’d only ever told her that it was one of the gravest thought crimes imaginable, the dark flame’s most hideous produce; that it was, in many ways, the Ur-crime, the crime above all others, to which each mind inflicted by its presence was to be put to death at the instant. Sometimes, Clarice felt as if her superiors were vaguely warning her of her own corruption when speaking of it.

Yet, if it was so great an evil, if it should be an instant death to even think of it, why was Clarice now witnessing it wholly enraptured?

There was no pain upon the child’s face, only the same dumbfounded reverie Clarice arresting her whole being, and suddenly the child’s face was her own. She was being taken by this drooling, scalding, stinking-breathed behemoth of genitalia and muscles. Her tiny, insignificant being was voided and filled repeatedly to the rhythm of her own paced breathing, voided and filled, voided and filled, voided and filled. And she watched in awe as he finished in a torrent of animal medium, taking a bite out of her smaller twin’s skull, a burst of flames erupting from the destroyed head. The still-warm corpse bloated. The belly stretched to the kicks of tinier feet from within. Something wanted out of her.

And the King of Beasts stared right at Clarice.

“And you shall bear this, my seed, so that the king of kings, the master of this world may be borne into power.”

Clarice fell to her knees before him, as he raised a mighty foot and pressed it against her face, its soft, leathery feel at once soothing and exciting. She became erect at its very touch. He continued pressing. She bent backwards with its force, its gravity. He stepped on her head, her spine arched to back-breaking extreme. Her penis pointed upwards, it seemed she meant to penetrate the very heavens themselves. And with a final pump, he pulverized her head, her brains bursting forth in a torrent of snakes and semen.

She awoke with a start at her desk. She had come in her sleep, her underwear wet and sticky. And by her side, a shadow loomed with a dagger drawn.

“A damn shame. You seemed stronger-willed.”

But before the Lady can render the Underground’s mercy against Clarice, suddenly a blast rocked the building. An alarm went off, and the Lady fled to its summons. Shaken and uncertain of what the alarm even signified, Clarice got up and ran for the elevator. There, Jasmini was already frantically trying to get it to work.

“Blasted thing won’t budge,” she screamed as Clarice reached her.

“What’s happened?”

“The dark flame, it’s begun its final push! Didn’t you see it from your office, look out the window?!”

“No. What’s happening?”

“The people, the people are turning on each other. And something else is out there too. Something big, and gray.”

“Come on, let’s take the stairs.”

They nearly tumble down the five flight of steps in their mad dash to escape the building, lest it became their tomb. Outside, they see the full extent of the chaos, the madness gripping the city.

A sandstorm had swept in, and with it a great host of snakes, frogs, insects, and other things not wholly human-like. Sand? No, this was something else, something finer. Gray.

“What is going on?” Jasmini asked, spitting grit from between her teeth, fighting crickets out of her hair. Something massive moved in the dark of the storm, and she fled for her life at its sight. But Clarice stayed behind by the building, dumbstricken by the maelstrom all about. The shapes that moved toward her seemed human enough, yet something alien about them was apparent even at a distance. To her amazement, they revealed themselves to be a procession of skeletons in armor and armaments, at their flanks several large wolves, some with human faces, others in human form with weapons of their own. The nearest skeleton stopped and nodded, signaling to the rest to keep up the march.

Its bones were utterly beautiful, carved with strange symbols all over. They vaguely reminded Clarice of the bangles Jasmini wore, and a crucifix like the kind Theomata wore was imprinted on its forehead, save inverted. Its armor was equally ornate, though an overriding functionality made it more practical over ceremonial. This was a skeleton fit for proper war.

“Who are you?” Clarice asked.

“We are nobody, but that ain’t too big a bother. We got company to keep us friends at least.”

“What have you come here for?”

The skeleton pointed to the distance, and Clarice saw a giant of a man (or perhaps a woman?) in shining, reflective armor leading the charge towards the city’s center.

“We march where our chief tells us to march. We go where we’re needed, supposedly. Some of us more naive think we’re liberators. I think we’re just getting more recruits. This here wild hunt of ours needs every willing soldier it can muster. Besides, the chief’s got a soft spot for the downtrodden, fancies themselves a force of karmic justice I reckon. Something about putting tyrants to the torch.”

“Are you angels? Did She, the Phoenix, did She summon you?”

“No, we ain’t no angels. We ain’t now heroes either. But we don’t mind bringing y’all a miracle just the same.”

The skeleton carried forward to catch up with the others. Clarice followed behind, falling in with the great host of invaders. She watched in awe as they set fire to her city, as the storm choked the life out of the avenues and parkways. She was mesmerized by the sight of the dead rising up from where they’d been felled. At the little tea and scones shop nearest her apartment, the one with the used bookstore inside, she found that one of the Phoenix statues’d toppled over, pinning an undead child soldier beneath its granite immensity. Pitying the poor thing, she managed to heft the stone enough for him to crawl out.

Wounded and exhausted, the undead child tried to get upright, leaning against Clarice for support.

“Hey, hey little guy. Don’t move too much. Just relax.”

The undead boy looked up into Clarice’s face. Soldier of the infernal forces of the Outside or not, his sunken yellow eyes belayed a child’s unease.

“What’s wrong?”

He pointed at her, then pointed at himself.


The undead child repeated the gesture, then pointed at his small dagger, then pointed back Clarice. Are you one of us?

“No. No, I’m not one of you.”

The child looked away, his brow furrowed with unease.

Then, he turned back to her, and put a clenched fist out wrist-side up. He emphasized the gesture, until Clarice mimicked him in turn. With her arm raised out, the boy whispered to his dagger. Clarice caught only faint scraps of raspy mutterings, but even then the hairs on the back of her neck got on ends for what little of his words she could decipher. Then, the boy gently drew the dagger across her arm lengthwise, enough to just draw blood. It took a moment for the pain to come, and suddenly Clarice’s blood began to glow along the shallow seam the boy’d cleaved into her flesh. The blood flowed, as did the glow and burning sensation until her entire arm was ablaze. The magic spread across her chest to claim the other arm, up her neck to grip her head, until finally reaching all the way down to her toes. Her clothes burned off, and she became like a living candlelight in the dim of the gray storm.

Engulfed in crimson light, the boy gestured her to follow after him, as they went together to rejoin the bulk of the undead army.

In the middle of the city, they found the Ladies’ last stronghold. Clarice recognized it. She’d never been there, but she’d seen it before in some of the documents. Another unassuming building; her superiors’d called it the Academy of Her Good Works.

The giant warrior at the fore, with nine black coffins at their back, did battle against the last of the Underground’s forces. One fell to dust, then another, and another, until at last the last Lady stood before the titan, defiant to the end. But with a single touch, she too fell to naught but creepy-crawlies and gray, her black uniform falling to the side, the sole reminder she’d once existed.

The chrome warrior entered the Academy, and a few minutes later came back out with a small army of children in tow, some no older than five, all of them far too young to have been reared as killers. They looked about the amassed horde with trepidation. Their city, their world had been turned into a dark and hostile place. And yet, as moths to the flame, they each bore witness to Clarice all the way in the back of the inhuman throng, and they recognized her.

They each were compelled to go to her side, and abandoning all caution, they made way to her. None of the inhuman things all about gainsaid them. Clarice in turn felt moved to embrace them, these her orphaned children of the damned. They gathered around her, and held onto her great, scaly body as a babe would hold onto their mother’s breast. Clarice’s great coiling body wrapped around them, her warmth keeping the cold of the Outside at bay.

Fire-Snake-Mother rose in prestige amidst the ranks of the Great Warlord’s most capable Generals.

Indeed, her children, her Reptiles proved themselves the host’s most formidable siege experts, and excelled in covert assassination, due in part to their diet. For Fire-Snake-Woman, in her motherly wisdom, saw fit to feed them flakes of her own divine scales whenever she molted. And more, she gifted her army a more precious gift still; the ritual sight of her swallowing her own tail, voiding and filling herself, voiding and filling in self-love and in harmony with her own earthly vibrations.

And this her Reptiles called their magic.

Jericho: Text
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