by Jude MatulichHall
Jude dwells in her Heavenly Hell with child – Sidny, hubby – Jason, their black cat, Baphomet, and their bunbuns, Boo & Gizmo, in the lovely Pacific Northwest United States. Inspired by their domain, Jude has created the Eversteam Universe with her first book in a series, THE EVERSTEAM CHRONICLES, a Gothic Fantasy Satire with a Steampunk twist.
Jude is represented by White Cat Publications and her debut novel, where you can read more about The Pyro, is now available on Amazon Kindle and soon in Paperback.
Audiobook and other eBook options (Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, etc.) will also be available in the close future.
Jude has a 2nd novel in the works as well as an anthology of short stories that take place in the Eversteam universe. She also writes stories in the genres Eldritch, New Weird, Gothic Horror, even some Murder and Crime Mysteries.
You can find some of her short stories in LOVE LETTERS TO POE – A Toast to Edgar Allan Poe, Gypsum Sound Tales anthology COLP – Treasure, and THUGGISH ITCH – Birds Have Teeth.
Check out her podcast: TITLES TALK & TIPPLES on YouTube, her website at www.judematulichhall.com, and Facebook: JMH Writers & Illustrators.
You can also find her on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Rumble, & BitChute.
On a particularly damp autumn eve, all was still except a merchant bent over financial
records rubbing his worried forehead. Farther on, a grocer nodded off to sleep in a storeroom
after stocking shelves, a bottle near her boot. Machines lay quiet and covered awaiting the next
day’s work, toys lay unfinished upon workbenches, pendulums paused, boats and ships rose and fell with the calm night waters.
A lone carriage rested at a curb, driver napping in his seat as some lovers embraced for a final kiss goodnight. The horse, restless, snorted and stamped its foot. Further on in the red-light district, a sailor, intoxicated with love and liquor, staggered out of a brothel into the street. He was barely missed by a double-decker lorry clacking along its wooden rails, only a few stragglers onboard. A bobby patrolling the district swung her truncheon in time with the tune she was whistling. A few blocks over, a man stumbled into an opiate den, unknowingly into the arms of a crimp to find the next morning shanghaied on a ship bound for the Indies. Blocks away a lonely beggar in an alley, the third one in just under a month, was knocked over the head with a Rather Large Zucchini.
The skirl of a train sounded through the night, muffled and forlorn, whining along its
tracks. As if in answer, the majestic clock tower in the epicentre tolled.
Although most areas were quiet, a gentle, almost inaudible hum sounded through the
streets. At all times, thrumming buzzed beneath the ground and the city of Eversteam pulsed with energy.
Past humble farmhouses on humble farms, and extravagant mansions upon extravagant estates, in the Eastern outskirts, a fine mist, not yet turned to droplets of rain, filled the air, settling on brick and stone. Metal train tracks rusted at a snail’s pace. A thin fog established itself over trees, on fields, and an old decrepit, abandoned warehouse looming darker than the night itself. In its shadow, a hulking figure stood, methodically puffing on a large cigar. Sausage fingers curled around one end, bringing it up to long, thin lips spread grim across the broad, scruffy jowled face. Half-cast eyes of piercing blue rose above a hawk nose puckered with pockmarks. In the centre of this massive face was grand, bristling, perfectly manicured handlebar moustaches.
Meditatively – puff, puff, puff, the end burned orange, accenting sharp features and gleaming eyes. He dropped his hand and three perfect rings of smoke issued out of his mouth. At equal intervals, the meditation commenced; puff, puff, puff, blow out a ring, a second, and a third… again and again until the cigar was burnt down halfway.
A large shadow soundlessly crawled over him from above. He quickly slipped back into the darker shadows of the building. Dim light glinted off the shiny sides of the zeppelin as it wheezed its way overhead, a beam of yellow scanning the grounds. The man squinted to make out the emblem on the side of the airship: Eversteam Interpol. A low, short growl issued from his throat; he despised politsiya. As the ship continued its patrol, slothfully slipping out of sight, he hummed an uppity little ditty under his breath. He breathed a deep, heavy sigh and smiled proudly to himself. This was going to be the grandest one yet!
He propped the smoking stogie between pearly teeth; the ditty grew louder, his eyes
widened and flashed. He began to sing around the cigar; gruff, throaty, happy sounds. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down; he began to sway, the song got louder. He hopped, skipped, twirled, and pirouetted through the doors of the warehouse. His arms flew open wide, majestic broad chest heaving beneath a simple, ribbed, white A-frame shirt; the song became laughter,
deep and guttural. He grabbed up the cask of fuel from inside the doors and flung open its spout.
He shimmied circles and sloshed the pungent liquid here and there. Each splash accented with
his voice. Three times this dance and song had been enacted during the night. This round was
more ecstatic; more elaborate than the ones before. Like a rhinoceros he danced,
graceful and powerful, whipping up the dust from the floor to swirl around his feet.
When the dust had muddied, and his steps became splashes in puddles of petrol, and the
last drop had flung from the metal mouth, he paused… and bowed with grandiosity to his
audience of dust mites and woodworms. All was quiet except for the drips falling from the walls. He inhaled deeply, the fumes stinging his nostrils. He swayed, head swimming, eyes glazed, and giggled. The cigar was now nothing more than a smouldering stub, but it was enough. He sauntered to the doors, puffed ferociously until the end crepitated, pinched it between two fingers, and flung it over his shoulder. It took a few moments… He did not move… He held his breath… A minute longer and he could hear it.
He started to breathe again. Every muscle rippled beneath his skin in anticipation. The
small sounds grew bigger; the band began to play. Flames went crack, snap; the band became an orchestra, crackle, pop, pop – becoming a symphony, snap, crackle, crack – becoming a mighty opera, whoosh!
He grinned as the heat licked his back, charring the hairs of his neck. He did not turn around, not yet. He was shaking all over, waiting for The Moment. Beginning to walk away, every cell in his body quivered excitedly. Just a few metres more, his brow was sweating, his teeth gritting into a mad grin. The Moment had arrived! He turned, slowly, and beheld the majestic ballet of flames dancing before his eyes. Never before had he created such beauty; oh,
mighty inferno of Life and Destruction! He threw back his head and whooped in delight, howled,
and hopped up and down, clapping his hands like a giant child.
A gnawing thought in the back of his head told him to get further away, but he wanted to
feel the heat on his face. He was closer than he had ever been before. Even his eyebrows were
being singed. It was glorious! The thought persisted, and he soon had to give in, instinct being much more powerful than passion. He began backing away, but his foot snagged on something. Glancing down, he saw that his bootlace had come undone, and he had stepped on it. He bent to
retie it and beheld a delicate dandelion lay smashed where he had stood. He picked it up gently,
as though it were something so precious. He frowned, ears picking up the slightest warning.
He had not gotten far enough away from the inferno before it reached its climax, a large
container of extra petrol and dynamite placed in the middle of the warehouse. He had made it especially for this moment and planned to watch the finale from several more metres away. But that little flower betrayed him and he never did get to see his masterpiece. One moment he was looking at the fuzzy yellow head crumpled in the palm of his hand, the next moment he was standing amidst heat and flames in a long line leading down to fiery red gates.
Bortsovich stood curiously regarding the Gates of Hell. Tall, gnarled, red hot metal wound and reached and groaned. Sometimes the bars would form what appeared to be faces, sometimes hands that would grab at him. The gates were Alive. Hot air, like breath, emanated from them. The smell of sulfur filled his nose, the heat invaded his lungs. He could hear distant screams from innumerous voices ahead. Each person that had approached the gates pleaded, cried, justified, and tried to reason. Some had dropped to their knees praying, others had tried to run, but the burning metal hands had caught them and pulled them in.
There had been no hesitation from the Gates before, but now they seemed to ponder this big hulking man that showed no fear of Hell. The red heat drained from the bars and puddled, fiery and flickering, at his sides. The gates became solid cold steel. The puddles flickered and flamed, rising into a fire-shaped male at his right and a fire-shaped female at his left. They hissed and crackled and whispered. The figures floated around him, intertwined, inspected his one bare foot, tickled the hairs on his toes, caressed his skin, and spiralled all around him. A flame hopped from one of their fingers, slid into his ear and swirled around in his head, before sliding out the other ear. The Pyro smiled. He laughed. He spun about.
The figures danced with and around him, poured themselves once more into the gates and
opened them wide for him to enter. He stepped through what at first appeared to be a dark, empty tunnel of rock, but with each step, a torch ignited on either side of the path. There were doorways set between the torches. He tried to open one, but it was locked. He walked across to the other
side and tried that door, but it too was locked. He placed his ear to it and heard nothing. He walked back to the centre of the tunnel and looked back at the gates. They were gone, nothing but darkness lay beyond. As though coaxing him on, two more torches on either side lit up, and one formed a flaming hand that gestured him onward. He proceeded. After a few steps, the next
torches lit as the ones behind him extinguished.
For a time, he followed the flames, passing many doors and found himself walking on red
carpet, the tunnel of rock getting larger and warmer. The ceiling was so high he could not see
it; he supposed it went on forever. Many winged things could be heard overhead, here and there a movement would flee across his periphery. He arrived at a towering set of black, heavy doors carved with monstrous figures. Large, heavy steel rings bigger than his head were the nose rings in each nostril of the carved face of a mighty devil. From the torches on either side, the Gatekeepers formed. Each took hold of one of the nose rings and pulled. The doors boomed, metal clanked, and scraped ear-splitting creaks. The ground rumbled, the devil face split in two, and what lay beyond them was pure Heaven. Fire, flames, sparks, and explosions, heat, sulfur, brimstone, and pyres, fountains of lava, lava falls and lava pools, hot like no other heat, burning, singeing, wilting hot air.
His mouth fell agape, the scene reflected in his eyes. He opened his arms and screamed in delight. He began running along the red-carpeted path as infernos belched and blew up on each side of him. The sounds were deafening. Reds and Oranges and Yellows licked all around him. They extended out for what seemed forever to each side, and that carpet led him onward, through hotter and more fiery hells. He ran and ran, sweating and exhausted but kept running deeper into the inferno. He was ecstatic and insane and happy beyond anything he could imagine. He ran until he could run no more and slumped into a heap and began to cry. He wept and wailed with joy until he thought his heart would burst. The big man lay down on his side, and pulled his knees towards his chest, resting his cheek against a hot rock. He put his hand in a flame and felt its heat deep in his bones, pulled it away with surprise, for there was no pain, nor damage to his skin. He giggled as tears rolled, hissed, then evaporated away.
In front of his face, steam and smoke began to form, it billowed and grew. From it, black,
shiny, wing-tipped shoes appeared. Next to the feet, the polished tip of a cane. He followed the smoke up black pinstriped slacks. Pale, slender hands formed from out of a black silk shirt with skull cufflinks. One held the skull knob of the cane; the other held a black pinstriped suit jacket, a black rose, more deep purple than black, in its lapel. A long, thin, satin tie the same colour as the rose formed under the collar, and above it smoke swirled and danced; slowly, a chin appeared with a ginger goatee, a narrow jaw, a strong nose. Eyes bright and irises as dark and hollow as the pupils outlined with fire, expressive eyebrows, and ginger hair slicked back. Two small horns protruded from just above the forehead. The eyes crinkled at the sides, as a smile spread across white teeth, canines quite sharp.
The Pyro smiled back.
The man draped his jacket over the arm that held the cane, crouched down, extended his
hand in an amiable manner, and replied, “Welcome home!”