The sun was setting on the Necropolis, a vast sprawling city of the dead where the inhabitants of Ellison had been buried for over three hundred years. Once, it had been very grand, with rows of headstones that stretched for miles in every direction, huge family vaults and elaborate marble statues. But with the passing of time it had become sadly neglected. Now bird droppings covered its crumbling monuments and its broad avenues were overgrown with trees and bushes.
Beneath one of the larger tombs the ground had subsided to leave a cavernous opening and, as the shadows darkened, a figure began to crawl from this hole. Filthy, bedraggled, and half-starved, it looked like an animal creeping stealthily from its lair. But it was Dante Cazabon.
Dazed and bewildered by the effort of overcoming the creature that had once been Doctor Sigmundus, he had fled from the Star Chamber. For weeks he had wandered the outskirts of the city looking for somewhere to hide. He had outwitted soldiers and security guards, sleeping in sheds and barns, and wandering from place to place like a beggar. Finally, he had come to the Necropolis, a forgotten place, and he had made it his refuge.
Now he scrabbled about on the ground, searching for something to eat. It was days since food had passed his lips and he knew that he would soon be too weak to do anything other than lie down and die. And a voice in his head urged him to do just that. It would be so much easier than struggling on. But Dante refused to listen.
Near the entrance to the Necropolis was a decaying two-storey house. He had spent the last two days observing it and had seen several people come and go. Only one of them, an elderly man, seemed to remain inside for any length of time. But even if there was an army within its walls, Dante had made up his mind to break in.
Inside the house Malachy Mazotta, supervisor of the Necropolis, sat in his study, completing entries in the ledger of deaths. On shelves against the wall stood countless earlier volumes. Their pages contained the names of all those whom the Necropolis had swallowed up. A tall man once, he was stooped now from years spent bending over his desk and his face held a look of permanent disappointment. What remained of his hair was completely white but his mind had lost none of its alertness. As he wrote, he gradually became aware of noises coming from the kitchen. The rats were getting bolder, he told himself.
Rats and corpses were his constant companions and he kept a shotgun standing ready in case either of them should pluck up the courage to turn on him. Silently, he got up from his chair and made his way across the room. He slipped off the shotgun's safety catch, then kicked open the kitchen door.
In the middle of the room stood a wild-looking teenager, tearing at a loaf of bread with his teeth. Malachy raised the shotgun. ‘Don’t move!’ he warned.
Dante stared back at him.
‘What do you think you’re doing, breaking into my house and stealing my food?’ he continued.
Suddenly the doorbell rang.
Malachy made no move to answer. ‘That’s my assistant, Kurt,’ he told Dante, speaking softly. ‘He’s big and strong and very keen on his work. What do you think will happen if he finds out about you?’
‘I don’t know,’ Dante replied.
‘He'll insist that I inform the authorities in Ellison. If not, he’ll do so himself. So I’m going to give you a choice. You can agree to answer my questions. And then we’ll see what happens next. Or I can tell Kurt about you right now and the situation will be out of my hands? Which is it to be?’
‘I’ll answer your questions,’ Dante said.
‘Good.’ Malachy pointed his shotgun at a door in a corner of the kitchen. ‘Inside!’
Dante opened the door and saw that it led to a narrow pantry, lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. He stepped inside and the door was locked behind him. Then the old man’s footsteps retreated from the kitchen. While Dante waited in the darkness, he continued to devour the loaf of bread.
After some time the door of the pantry opened again and Malachy ordered Dante out into the kitchen once more. ‘Kurt has gone home,’ he said. ‘Now you must keep your side of the bargain and tell me about yourself.’
‘Can I have something to drink first?’ Dante asked.
Malachy nodded reluctantly. Still holding the shotgun in one hand, he pointed to the tap by the sink. ‘There’s a mug over there,’ he said. ‘Help yourself.’
Dante filled the mug with water and drank deeply. ‘May I sit down?’ he asked.
‘If you must.’
After so long without food, eating had exhausted him. Dante would have liked to put his head on the table and go to sleep. But the old man was waiting.
‘It’s not a simple story,’ Dante began. ‘To be honest, I’m not sure I understand it all, myself.’
‘Perhaps not,’ Malachy agreed, ‘but I would guess that your tale begins with the realisation that Ichor has no effect on you. Am I right?’
‘How did you know that?’ Dante demanded warily.
‘That’s easy enough. Breaking into my kitchen was a criminal act. Only those on whom Ichor is ineffective, would consider such behaviour.’
Realisation dawned on Dante. ‘It doesn’t work on you either, does it?’ he asked.
Malachy merely raised one eyebrow. ‘I’m asking the questions,’ he declared.
Dante was convinced that he was right and felt sufficiently emboldened to tell at least part of his story. ‘My name is Dante Cazabon,’ he began. ‘I used to be a kitchen boy in the asylum of Tarnagar. Have you heard of it?’
‘I never knew my father. All I was told about my mother was that she was an inmate in the asylum and that she killed herself when I was a baby. And this was what I believed until one day a patient called Ezekiel Semiramis arrived at the asylum.’
A look of interest came over the old man’s face.
‘Do you know him?’ Dante asked.
‘I have heard the name,’ Malachy admitted. ‘And a handful of rumours that sound too far-fetched to be true. Carry on with your story.’
Dante described how Ezekiel Semiramis had told him that his mother had been murdered and that he himself had known her in the ruined city of Moiteera. ‘I’d never heard of such a place before,’ he continued, ‘but there was a girl called Bea on the island who hadn’t yet come of age. She told me that she often dreamt of a ruined city.’
He expected the old man to look shocked at the mention of dreaming, a forbidden topic in Gehenna, but Malachy seemed unperturbed.
‘I wanted to ask Ezekiel more about my mother,’ Dante went on, ‘but I was forbidden to communicate with him and when I tried to do so secretly, I was caught and locked up. I expected to spend the rest of my days in a cell but Ezekiel rescued me, and my friend Bea. He took us to Moiteera and we lived there for three months until one day we were attacked by soldiers. In the battle, Bea was injured and we had no choice but to bring her to a hospital for treatment. That was how I was recaptured. They brought me to Ellison but once again I escaped. Since that time I have wandered about, sleeping rough, eating whatever I could find until I made my way here.’
‘And what do you plan to do next?’ Malachy asked.
‘I promised I would return for Bea and when I have the strength, that’s what I will do, though I’ve no idea where to look for her.’
The old man looked thoughtful. ‘You haven’t told me everything,’ he said. 'That's obvious. But it’s enough for the time being. There's a great deal for me to think about. In the meantime, what am I going to do with you?’
Dante looked anxiously at him.
‘You can stay here tonight, but only on one condition.’
‘You must take a bath. You stink like a dead dog.’