Read Once Upon a Time in Hell Online
Authors: Guy Adams
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Science Fiction, #Steampunk, #Westerns
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HELL
BOOK TWO OF THE HEAVEN’S GATE TRILOGY
First published 2014 by Solaris
an imprint of Rebellion Publishing Ltd,
Riverside House, Osney Mead,
Oxford, OX2 0ES, UK
ISBN (epub): 978-1-84997-498-1
ISBN (mobi): 978-1-84997-499-8
Copyright © 2013 Guy Adams
Cover art by Dominic Saponaro
The right of the author to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owners.
Irish and I'm a liar.
If you're the sort of reader that requires reassurance that what you're reading is true then it's best you're aware of my pedigree. Of course, if you are that sort of reader then God help you, because all writers are liars. It's what we do. Even when we're trying to tell the truth, which I'm doing now.
My career of falsehoods is, perhaps, a little more outrageous than others. I started out with good intentions, something the philosophically-inclined amongst you would be quick to point out is a surefire way of reaching Hell (in that, it has clearly proven successful). I wrote all manner of tales, offered ghosts and ghouls, murderers and spies, monsters and explorers. They weren't terribly good.
Then I found my milieu (forgive me, a posh word, we writers love them). I became the world-renowned Roderick Quartershaft, explorer, adventurer and figment of a desperate imagination. It is more than possible that you've read some of my stories (according to my gleefully rich publisher there are few in the English-speaking world that haven't and he has the house to prove it). It is equally possible that you read those stories believing them to be real. The Volcanoes of Hades? The Rat-Men of Sumatra? The Cradle of Life (that outlandish basin in Antarctica that is alleged to contain a jungle so dense and populated as to rival anything along the banks of the Amazon)? Thrilling places, filled from root to canopy with fantastical beasts, wild natives and creatures from myth and history. All dreamed up in a whisky-haze from the comfort of my study in London. I hope admitting as much doesn't lose my publisher that house of his, he's a scurrilous old rogue but he's done well by me over the years. Perhaps those stories will continue to be enjoyed. Perhaps their provenance doesn't matter. Perhaps.
Roderick Quartershaft is dead, that's the important thing. He died on a journey the like of which he had never before imagined. And that it is saying something. In the company of the English inventor Lord Forset and his daughter, Elisabeth; The Order of Ruth, a small brother hood of monks and Billy Herbert, engineer and driver of the wondrous Forset Land Carriage (a train with no track by any other name), Quartershaft faced the like of which his pen had never dreamed. I think that's what killed him, either that or his drinking (which lingers, though I'm trying, dear Lord I am). By the time our party arrived at its destination, this camp, he had expired due to a surfeit of lies. I am the man left behind.
So it falls to me, Patrick Irish, the liar, to tell you some of what came next. To tell you about Wormwood, that impossible town that appeared out of nowhere containing a doorway to the afterlife. To tell you, in fact, what may be the most important and unbelievable story you will ever hear.
It's up to you how much of it you choose to believe, though some of it will now be a matter of history and therefore, one might think, undeniable. Undeniable, that is, if you choose to believe historians any more than you do authors. Which you shouldn't as they're all liars too.
HE CAMP THAT
grew in that open plain that might have been Oklahoma, or Oregon, or Ohio (we all traveled our own journeys and yet somehow shared a destination), had grown large by the time Wormwood appeared.
Families, adventurers, outlaws and clerics, our population came from all walks of life, all gathered to wait for the impossible.
Wormwood, it was said, would appear as if from nowhere. It would exist for one full day then vanish again. During that time it would offer a door to what comes after. Be it Heaven or Hell—the difference between them could be said to be subjective—you could walk into the after life and take a look.
I was reminded of the hucksters that littered the midways of America's fairgrounds.
Sharp-suited and silver-tongued, they promised glimpses of the impossible, a peek at the freakish. Wormwood had a huckster of its own, he called himself Alonzo but we'll come to him later.
First, let me paint you a picture of that camp because, beyond all the fantasies and horror, this is still a story about the only thing that really matters: people.
During our journey, the passengers on the Forset Land Carriage had assumed, with some arrogance, that we were on a singular quest. A moment's thought should have dispelled that notion, we were composed of three distinct parties: the late Quartershaft, the Forsets and the Order of Ruth, all of whom had heard about Wormwood through their own means before pooling their information and agreeing to travel together (here you can once more see the guiding hand of my publisher, a man that knew a possible best seller when he was presented with the chance of funding it). If we had all heard of Wormwood why then should we expect others had not? In a world filled with millions upon millions of people, knowledge shared by a few hundred is still tantamount to a secret.
We had narrowly escaped death at the hands of a tribe of Indians, a bizarre, hybrid people with limbs of iron and hearts of coal-fire and hissing pistons. Emerging from a narrow pass through the mountains into this open space, we found we were faced with a burgeoning gathering of folk. In fact, it occurs to me now that, while waiting for one town to appear another was all but built. Some had been there so long as to construct rough homes, others slept beneath canvas or the stars. Perhaps we should have given the settlement a name. If pressed for a suggestion I would likely have offered 'Hope' but then, I had become a sentimental fool on my 'road to Damascus'.
We were better suited to a comfortable wait than some of our fellow travellers, having sleeping accommodation, a kitchen and stores that extended beyond the simple ingredients most were forced to subsist on. At night, the entire camp would be lit by cooking fires, the air filled with the rich steam of many meals. Often I would walk a winding path amongst them, a trek timed by a decent cigar. The variety on offer never ceased to amaze me. Londoners think they are well-versed in diversity and yet, in truth, we rarely stray from our defined groups. Here was a microcosm of the very Heaven we aspired to enter—rich and poor, black or white, young or old, the camp was as rich a mixture as the stews they placed on their fires.
I took to documenting the journeys of some of them. I would like to say that I wanted to mark them down for posterity but perhaps I simply wanted to capture stories, either way I'm not sure it matters. There was the negro nurse, Hope Lane, and her charge 'Soldier Joe', a war veteran who had spent the last few years as an unwilling performer for Obeisance Hicks, a travelling preacher. 'Soldier Joe' suffered from stigmata, making him a superb cash draw for Hicks' crowds.
Hicks was now dead, his tame messiah a free man if only he could be unshackled from the chains his own disabilities wrought on him.
And what of the blind shootist Henry Jones? The skin between his nose and hairline was utterly smooth. God, in his perverse wisdom, having decided not to grant the man eyes. Jones had somehow prospered with a gun despite this obvious handicap. From the whispered reports I heard, he had been feared in every town across the country, a wild and dangerous outlaw. But no more it would seem. His hands ruined by frostbite, he had lost the majority of his companions.
Knee High, a dwarf, was the only other surviving member of his gang, one-time performers in Dr Bliss' Karny of Delights (I cannot be blamed for the spelling, not all men were born to wield a pen). The Geek, a savage man who would eat nothing unless it was alive, Toby the Snake Boy and, most painfully for Jones, Harmonium, his wife, had all been lost en r oute to Wormwood.
And of course, perhaps most importantly in the events that were to trigger history, there was Elwyn Wallace, travelling with an aged gunslinger who—according to both Wallace's report and those who slept alongside them—appeared to contain fire in his belly. While sleeping, the old man's mouth, nostrils and even eyes glowed with the light of those internal flames. Elwyn had been travelling to the West coast to take a position in a bank, a simple ambition that he would never attain. Nobody knew the old man's name, nor seemed to consider the fact strange.