“You fool!” He viciously spat from atop his wicked throne, “you know not the powers you have just defied.” His forked tongue slapped the walls and roof of his mouth with each syllable so loudly that it cloaked every word with a foreign tinge. His lips curled with a certain voracity that mirrored the way his fingers clenched the arms of his seat, each razor-sharp fingernail scratching away at a different personal engraving for another recently claimed soul.
He thought to himself for a second, pondering which avenue to take towards my slow demise. He seemed to writhe and squirm in his chair, as if he was about to crawl out of his own skin, driven to near insanity by the sheer putridity of his own wild and illustrious thoughts.
“Feed him to them,” he ordered after little deliberation, motioning to a large barred door to the right. But then, at once, his face lit up with a sadistic brilliance previously unseen – a perverted “eureka!” moment. “But first, let their tongues bathe his porcelain skin in acidic torment before he is torn to shreds at my very hooves.”
Horror gripped me like a concerned companion and stretched wide my eyelids so as to facilitate the onset of complete sensory overload. It held me tight and would not release me. Perhaps even horror, itself, was frozen in fear.
Purposely or not, my eyes rolled into the back of my skull, likely in hopes to avoid visual contact with any more malevolence than I had already met. They hid behind clenched shutters. At least for them, there was an escape.
The winged creature beside me jerked me up by my elbow from my invisible pew in which I prayed in vain for anyone or anything to save me.
“I want it to hurt. Do you hear me, you imp?” he chortled after us as it led me past the door and down a surprisingly cold corridor. “I want him to feel it!” His words reverberated amongst the walls for what seemed like, and might have been, an eternity.
Although we continued to distance ourselves from him, his pretentious and vulgar concoction of laughter and taunts did not wane. “You will regret the day you crossed Belial! Your skin will peel and your eyes will rot out of your skull! Your bones will be crushed to dust and your blood will run red among the rivers of Hell! You will know my name, human. You will rue this day for eons to come.” He would have been thrilled to know that, even a hundred yards down the hallway, his breath was not wasted.
An army of deafening and torturous screams emanating from further down the hall did their best to drown out his threats, but the only voice that was truly lost in the chaos was my own. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even think. I was mentally paralyzed. I might have been physically, as well, for the creature was dragging my nonparticipant legs at a drudging speed with little care for the preservation of my body.
“They’re hungry. Can’t you hear them?” it chuckled, as if small talk was the only thing that this miserable trek was lacking. When it did not receive so much as a grunt of acknowledgement in response, it stopped walking and we stood in the middle of the corridor. It turned to look at me, as if it was trying to figure something out. Screams and the sound of something heavy and sharp hitting stone echoed in the background.
“Why aren’t you thinking anything?” it prodded. Oh God. They are inside my brain. I feared the mere idea of making eye contact with the being, thinking that it would grant even greater jurisdiction in the furrows of my mind than it already took the liberty of exercising so freely. I kept my eyes down at my torn clothes and dirtied feet.
“Well, it’s not like keeping your mouth shut is going to save you any torment.” The being sighed as it lowered its wings. “You’re going to live and die in this place infinity times over, and nothing can reverse that fate.” I looked up at him, timid and hesitant. I opened my mouth, but asking it to formulate a complete thought – nay, even a word – without vomiting was like asking Belial (dare I speak his name) to have a shred of sympathy. There was no use.
“Suit yourself, kid.” It said, but it seemed to understand. I figure now that it has likely seen so many men walk that corridor that it was used to the unintentional silent treatment. It seemed of much better humor than the others I had seen thus far on my journey, and I was thankful for that. Maybe Belial’s despicable aura made all else pale in comparison. But for the sake of this demon and its attempt at hospitality, I mustered up enough strength in my legs to take a few steps here and there so it didn’t have to drag me like it had been.
The path was very poorly lit, but I doubt that was a major concern of any of the architects of this realm. We had been walking toward a faint glow in the distance, and as we drew nearer, I began to make out that it was the top of a stairwell. There was no left or right turn, no door, no alternate route. Just… down. ‘What on earth could be below Hell?’ I thought, but quickly stopped myself from pondering further. It was listening, I remembered.
“Oh, down there? You’ll see, haha. It’s a wreck.” The nonchalant tone in which it spoke to me was almost more unsettling than a malicious one. “You have to work with me on these stairs, now, boy. I can’t carry you down all of them, and the staircase is too tight for me to use my wings. I tried to tell them – believe you me, I told them about the light in the hall, too. No one listens to us black-eyes.”
We stood at the top of the stairs, and I turned my head back to try to catch a glimpse of the door, light, even Belial – anything. But I saw pitch black. Miles and miles of endless black expanse. “He didn’t change his mind, haha. You’re stuck with me for the time being, and trust me, this will be the most enjoyable portion of your stay here. You’re better off.” For some reason, this reassurance was not as comforting as it might have assumed.
As my eyes strained to make contact with whatever resided at the bottom of the stairs, my stomach lurched simply from how far below it was. I had never been good with heights, even on Earth.
“Alright, let’s go. Remember what I said about these steps. One at a time.” My shaking appendage reached across the threshold, and as my toe approached the first stair, it ignited with a pain that was wholly unfamiliar to me. It was as if I had instantaneously broken every tiny bone in my foot. I shuddered – well, whimpered, probably. “They hurt now, but you get used to them. Come on.” it encouraged.
“I’m Baal, by the way.” I tried to focus on his words instead of the earth-shattering pain that was coursing through my every fiber. “I’m a black-eyed demon, if you remember me telling you that.” I didn’t respond; not that I could. “I know your name, you don’t have to introduce yourself. I know a lot more than just your name. I know your brain. Your whole life and every feeling you’ve ever felt. I know why you’re here.”
So I was right. They know everything.
“I guess you learned your lesson, though, huh? Well, if not, you will. Never in his wildest dreams should a man disobey Belial. They put him in charge for a reason.” I knew that now. At the time, I thought I was being strong. But now I cannot even begin to imagine the horrors that await me because of my moment of perceived valiance. “I don’t like him, though. Did you hear what he called me? An imp! Can you believe that? Just look at me. Any idiot can tell I’m not an imp. He’s just hot-headed. Of course, he’s my higher-up, so I don’t talk back like you did. Boy, did you really dig your own grave on that one, haha. Did you even know who he was?”
We were about two dozen stairs into our journey, and I was convinced someone was taking a nutcracker to each one of my toes. “I… I th-“ I muttered, then choked back a mouthful of bile. Maybe my body isn’t ready for speech yet. ‘I thought I did.’ I thought. ‘I didn’t know it would be like this.’
“Well, most people don’t foresee this kind of thing happening, sure. But Belial isn’t exactly someone you say ‘no’ to.” I knew this now. But thanks for the hindsight, Baal.
“I bet you’re wondering why I’m being nice to you.” I looked up at him and nodded before I took another step. The pain was not subsiding like he promised. “It’s for a couple reasons, really. I don’t feel like I was cut out to be a torturer. I’m more of an administrator or supervisor. I don’t like getting messy. I’m more logical and sensible than that. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m evil as they come. But only to those who truly deserve it. You know, rapists, murderers, that whole bag. Lowlifes. I’m big on justice. I’m a punisher. I know you, and you seem alright. I don’t think you deserve what you’re about to receive.”
The pain suddenly disappeared. Vanished. Did this demon actually have a… soul?
“You did what you thought was right. And to be honest, denying Belial in any other venue and to any other extent would have been right. People do it all the time, just not to his face. The only difference is that you got caught red-handed. Do I think you deserve to be maimed for the rest of eternity? No. Are there others who deserve far worse than you? Absolutely.”
‘Can you… save me?’ I thought. Baal looked me in the eyes and we stopped again, this time about halfway down the stairwell. “If only, kid,” he sighed, and his face looked honest. “Belial is the law. I have no authority over him. There’s nothing I can do except be as decent towards you as I can until I hand you over to Amon.”
The very mention of the name jolted my entire body, and my legs immediately gave out beneath me. I collapsed and fell down a stair or two before Baal caught me. I don’t know what it was; I had never heard the name before, but I assumed that it belonged to the demon that awaited me at the bottom. It shook my very core.
“Yeah, Amon is a true torturer. That demon was born to ruin men. I’m nothing like him, but I do respect him. He’s good at what he does. The best, even.” Baal paused and realized that he was doing more harm than good. “Basically, what I’m telling you is that I’m the only one in this place who you can confide in. Everyone else is too corrupted by power and greed and malice to recognize a good man when he sees one. For what it’s worth, I’m on your side. At least for a little while longer.”
Am I insane? My whole life I had been raised to view demons as Satan’s spawn. Evil, spiteful ne’er-do-gooders that sought only to destroy. And now my only friend in the entire universe was the demon leading my execution march. If my spiritual well-being hadn’t already been jeopardized by all of this, it now had been flipped upside down.
The pain in my feet never came back. Maybe this was indeed the closest to comfort I would come. Baal’s grip on my arm loosened, and I began to walk mostly on my own. We were only about three flights of stairs away from the summit. The sounds that tunneled out of whatever lay below were increasing in volume, and as we grew closer, I was able to discern several distinct categories of noise. First, there was a metallic “king!” followed by what sounded like a slow waterfall splattering onto a stone basin. This was accompanied by a slew of curse words and insults yelled – almost barked – by an alarmingly baritone voice. I heard the screams of numerous men for God, or for help, or even their mothers, from what I could discern. And below all of this lay a thick coating of growls, barks, roars, hisses, and slithers. The sound of crackling fire was the only familiar caress my ears recognized.
I stopped walking just before we entered the view of the bottom lair. “Is… this it?” I managed to choke out, surprising myself with my own ability to speak a whopping three-word sentence with only a single stutter. “Save your voice,” Baal insisted. “You’ll need it.”
“You won’t remain here forever. Well, you will,” he corrected, “but not here. See, this realm is set up in wings. This is the northern wing, and this is where you’ll start your cycle.” ‘Cycle?’ I wondered. “To make sure everyone receives the correct amount and type of punishment, we cycle men through all the different wings. I will luckily be your transporter demon, taking you from wing to wing when it’s time to switch. So you can at least count on seeing me from time to time.”
‘How long does each cycle last? What are the other wings? I don’t understand’ I mentally whispered in a panic. “There is no time, here, boy. No days, months, or years. Only fractions of eternity. And don’t you worry about the other wings; we’ll cover that when we get there. You have enough to worry about right now, anyway.”
‘What is Amon going to do to me?’ I asked. “It’s not Amon that you should be worried about, primarily. You heard Belial talk about ‘them’, didn’t you? Amon’s job is easy, very cut and dry. Er – no pun intended, haha.” I did not laugh. “It’s the Hellions that should scare you. The only thing I can tell you is to not fight back.” ‘So I just lay there and take whatever punishment is decided for me?’ I couldn’t believe what he was telling me to do: to submit to endless torture.
“The struggle is what makes it harder. Fear is the downfall of man on Earth, as it is in Hell. Accept your fates. All you have to do is make it to the next wing. Amon is vicious. Ignore his words, for they cut deeper than his scythe. And remember, don’t –“
“Baal! Is that you! What has taken you so long? His flesh cannot age any longer, bring me the boy!” a deep voice interrupted Baal’s hurried advice session. I froze.
“Heed my words, human. Do not struggle. It will only hurt more.” Baal whispered. “I’ll be back for you soon. Be strong.” I traversed the last few steps with my eyes closed. “It is I, Amon. I have brought him.”
“Alas,” Amon prolonged the ‘s’ with a terrible hiss, “the boy I’ve heard so much about. Welcome to the north wing, my child.” I opened my eyes and immediately regretted doing so, for they were met with the most atrocious sights they had ever witnessed. A long, skinny black hand about three times the size of mine with nails as long as my pointer finger reached out and brushed a lock of hair from my face. I could very well have died right then and there.
Before me stood a being with a massive chest and broad shoulders, immense and muscular arms, and legs that bent the opposite way of my own. It was nude except for a tattered and blood-stained off-white shawl secured loosely at its waist. In its right hand, it held a scythe whose blade was nearly as tall as I am. To top it all off, Amon boasted a crown of thorns atop the snarling head of a dog.
Amon licked his lips and raised his arm, motioning for me to come forward. Remembering what Baal said, I obeyed. But as soon as I took the first step, I heard and felt my foot squish into something that was starkly different from the cold stone floor. It was warm.
My eyes shot downward and, after assessing that it was indeed blood flowing through my toes, they traced the river to the source: my mentally manufactured waterfall was much less scenic in person. Ahead lay a giant stone slab at about the height of Amon’s midsection, painted with layer after layer of crimson, varying in shades from eldest to freshest. I think it used to be black or gray at one point, it was difficult to tell from its current state. The top was littered with body parts and entrails that looked nearly as putrid as they smelled.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I just like to play with my food sometimes.” Amon smiled a devious smile and waved Baal away. “Be gone, black-eye. The boy is mine now. Tend to your grunt work.” he dismissed without even looking up from me. I turned to look at Baal, but he had already disappeared. I was alone.
“So I understand you are the one who spoke out against Belial? To his very face? Tsk tsk tsk… Naughty, naughty boy. We don’t get many of you down here. If he started you in the north wing, you must have really angered him.” He again touched my face, this time more carefully, as if I were some precious artifact. “You had real potential, kid. Lucifer saw a lot in you. You’re strong. You have passion. You could have done great things up there. I think that’s why Belial is so up in arms about you.”
It was getting difficult to stand without Baal as my crutch. “You’re not normal. You’ve known that your whole life. You knew there was something different about you, didn’t you? That’s why we can’t exactly just light you on fire as punishment. Besides, that wouldn’t be any fun now would it?” Again, the smile. “I’d like to introduce you to a few of my friends. Human, I’d like you to meet the Hellions.” He turned my shoulders to face what I had been purposely ignoring: a vast pit whose floor was covered from wall to wall with bits and pieces of men, some still alive. In all of my incredulous stupor, I had neglected to realize that the noises I had heard on my way down had all ceased. It was silent. Even the men dying in the pit remained silent. Some of them were looking at me. “Welcome, boy, to the Pit of Despair.”
His face puzzled, he spouted playfully, “Now, where are those devils? I think you might have scared them away, boy.” He walked over to the edge of the pit and let out an ear-piercing whistle. “Come, now, do not tell me you fear this child! Where are my pretties? I have a tasty treat for you! A fresh, young virgin!” There were three giant holes in the wall of the pit, and I heard a myriad of sounds begin to grow from within each of them.
My legs trembled along with the rest of me. I felt sick. Not like I was going to vomit, like before. But I felt like there was something inherently wrong with me and my brain; that kind of sick. “Now I don’t want you to think for a second that just because you’re special, you’re going to receive any sympathy down here. If anything, you will receive less lenience. Don’t let that idiot grunt pump your head full of lies. You deserve to be here, and you deserve every second of torture my lovelies and I are going to inflict upon you.” He turned his head again to the pit and shouted “come and get him while he’s still alive and kicking! Hot and fresh!”
I am exaggerating in no facet when I say that the three creatures that emerged from the wall of the pit were indescribably horrifying. The one to the left was most rationally relatable to a bull, but it was easily twice the size and it had two heads: that of a vulture and that of a hog. To the right was a winged creature; bat-like, similar to Baal, except with Amon’s legs and a toad’s head. In the center… I shudder to recount it.
In the center stood a creature even more frightening than Belial and Amon combined. A creature that erased every ounce of fear I had ever felt in my life on Earth and reincarnated it all again, as if I was being scared for the first time. It was nothing short of monolithic. It had the body of an elephant and a halo of seven snakes spouting from its crown. Its tusks were so drenched with blood that they looked slippery to the touch.
“Ahh… aren’t they beautiful?” Amon sighed. I stared on in disbelief. “Look at me, boy.” I obliged. “Don’t you ever wonder if you would have just killed yourself from the start that maybe you would have gone to Heaven?”
“Yes.” I said.
“Ah, he speaks! The boy speaks!” he exclaimed tauntingly. “Well, maybe you should have killed yourself. Maybe you should have done everyone a favor and nipped this in the bud. You would have saved us a whole mess of trouble. We wasted so much time on you, you know.” I knew what he was doing, and I knew why he was doing it. But that didn’t stop it from stinging. “If you could go back in time and blow your pretty little head off, would you? Would you write a poem on your wrists with a razor blade and send yourself off the right way?”
“Yes.” I said again. I wasn’t lying. Anything would have been better than this.
“No one would have cared. Hell, no one even cares that you’re here. Do you know why Belial chose you? Because you were worthless without him. You meant nothing. Now, you could have delivered a new era unto your world. You could have been the one. But you denied your role in the change of times. You might as well have offed yourself. I know you wanted to back then. You thought that was the only way to escape him. Depression is a tool we used to test you. We pushed you to your breaking point time and time again, and you got close – hey, you even tried a few times. But you never gave up. That’s how we knew you were a winner. Or, thought you were.” He started pacing slowly around the ring at the top of the pit, dragging his scythe on the ground menacingly. “But now, you’re just another worthless piece of meat for my beautiful babies to munch on.”
He was trying to guilt me for not submitting to Belial. He was trying to make me regret not killing myself. And it was working. I felt like all of this was my fault.
“Then why are they afraid of me,” I stated rather than questioned, immediately surprised by my own defiance.
He turned to me, his mouth open, trying to mask his shock. “Testy, testy boy.” He seemed annoyed, yet amused. “I should have known you’d have a mouth on you. No one fears you here. You are a number – no, not even a number. Because even a number has meaning. You are nothing. The Hellions may have had their fill of meat for today. But they do not know fear. Especially not of a mortal.”
“They were hiding when I walked in. Even the men in the pit stopped screaming. They know me.” I was really starting to anger Amon, which in hindsight was foolish. But my temper flared each time he opened his mouth to speak.
Amon reached out his massive hand and slapped my face with such force that it nearly knocked me into the pit, his nails dragging along my cheek and mouth. “Silence!” he spat. “No one knows you! You are nothing! And when my Hellions are finished with you, you will be even less than nothing! You pathetic swine of a human… You didn’t even deserve to live on earth. Suicide was a closer friend to you than anyone in your life. Belial should never have wasted his time on you. I don’t know what Lucifer ever saw in you in the first place. You deserve only infinite death, a wish that I will gladly grant.”
I hated Amon. I hated him more than I hated myself, which astounded me. I hated Belial, too. I hated everything about everything. I wished Baal would come back, but even if he did, he would only take me to another wing. I am damned.
Amon put his hand on my shoulder. “You know what the beautiful part of Hell is, boy?”
“Your Hellions?” I said cheekily, instantly wishing I would just keep my mouth shut.
“Well, yes. But the beautiful part that I’m currently referring to is the fact that it does not end. Normally, on Earth, if you get chewed up by a mountain lion or fall off a cliff, you die and that’s the end of it. Game over. But not here. The split second you are dead, you are brought back to life so you can live through every bit of torture we dole out. The preservation of your life is actually a priority here in the north wing, as well as in the rest of Hell. We can’t do much with a dead body, now can we boys?” He motioned to the Hellions and they stood on their hind legs and bellowed. The cacophonous mixture of sounds that flooded my ears at that very moment cannot be put into words. It was every animal I had ever heard, every car wreck that ever occurred, every baby who ever cried, and every woman who ever screamed, all rolled into one terrible noise.
Baal was right. They were hungry.
I opened my mouth to calculate a retort, but my jaw seized up instantly. Pain from Amon’s claw marks on my cheek was pulsating with a severity similar to that of the stairs on the way down to this realm. Shocking, intense, crippling. I reached up to touch the wound and my pointer and middle finger met a sort of thick pus that had managed to squeeze itself out of my face in the last couple minutes without my notice. Putrid.
“What’s the matter, young one? No more witticisms? No more sass? What a shame. Whatever will I do for entertainment now? I am lost…” he said tauntingly. He had managed to get under my skin both physically and metaphorically. “Ah!” His eyes lit up with a feigned newfound profundity. “Why, I suppose I could send you on a nice play date with my pretty little babies! You’d like that, wouldn’t you, human?”
Before I knew what hit me, Amon shoved me with one of his massive arms forcefully over the edge of the pit. I landed hard on the ground, with my elbow unfortunately taking most of the blow. Lying there semi-conscious, I looked up at his wicked grin and knew there was no escape. This was his wing. His realm. His calling. His purpose. He embodies torture. He lives for it. I remembered what Baal had told me at the bottom of the stairwell: “Do not struggle. It will only hurt more.”
I supposed all I could do was grit my teeth and bear it, as they say. I gave Amon one last hateful gaze before I shut my eyes, clenched them tight, and awaited my doom.
A blind man once told me that people who lack one sense experience heightened versions of the other four. That man was correct.
I could smell the rotting flesh outlining the pit. The stench was so sickening and tangible that it had a taste that I cannot forget.
I could feel my blood coursing through my veins faster than ever before. I could feel the ground shake with each step the creatures took as they approached me. I could feel my neck hairs stand at attention. I could feel the courage draining from me like the pus from my wound. I could feel fear wrap me up in its cool embrace.
I could hear the Hellions snarling and growling. I could hear the spittle spill from their salivating mouths and crash onto the floor like fat rain drops on a tin roof. I could hear their heavy panting, irregular and quick. I could hear the delight in Amon’s voice as he called out, “This is only the beginning, human! This is simply the first step in the miserable trek that is your eternity! You will not live, and you will not die! Rather, you will live death infinitely!” I could hear the horrible scraping sound of Amon’s mammoth blade dragging along the stone rim of the Pit of Despair; my new home. I could hear the silence in which the suffering men around me immersed themselves. I could hear my heart pounding so hard that it felt like someone was boxing my ears. A disharmony I will never forget.
I still hear those things. To this very day. They haunt me.
They were at my feet. I felt their breath on my skin. This was it. The “beginning.”
“Remember what Belial ordered, you rascals,” Amon called down to them. “Bathe his something in something or other… I can’t recall the exact words. I’m not as eloquent as he. But that’s why he’s a talker and I’m a doer. Introduce him to your tongues and prepare him for dinner.” He laughed at his own sidetracked and characteristically dry attempt at humor.
The pain that ensued in the next few seconds, or minutes, or hours (Baal was right, there is no time) can only be described as horrendous and unimaginable. I felt a tongue lash around my torso, briefly stick to me, and slowly and slimily slide away. With it, it took at least four layers of my skin. My eyes jolted open out of sheer terror, and I saw, within inches of my face, what truly lies beneath the outer shell of a human being. All that remained on this strip of my chest and stomach was a thin, clear layer of perma-skin that encased my blood and inner organs. It looked like a simple pinch could burst my abdomen open like a water balloon. The area around the laceration began to bubble and whine like each square inch of the affected portion of my body let out its own individual scream of discontentment. I was rotting.
I let out a scream of surprising endurance, considering my asthmatic state. Not at the pain, but at the sight. It sickened me. I was in shock that a human body could withstand such torture. Not that it was doing a very good job of that, anyhow.
I shut my eyes again and clenched my fists. The Hellions squealed with delight at my torment, and only a split-second of silence occurred before Amon chimed in. “The tongues are the easy part, mortal, you hush now. Your vocal participation in this tirade only excites– Oh, come now, Hellions. Why start there? Wouldn’t you like to give the human a nice kiss?” The sound of his laughter made my soul vibrate within me.
I could feel one of them towering over me. The weight of the air between us was enough to make what was left of my chest cave in. I heard the snakes hissing and I instantly knew it was the third and largest Hellion that would be romancing me this evening. “I don’t want to kill you, human… I want to maim you. I want to disfigure you, to scar you irreparably. I want to mutilate your frail corpse and hang pieces of you from the walls of my dungeon like one of you would hang photos of your friends and family in your home. And I want you to live to experience every single horrific second of it. This is not the end, child. I haven’t even begun.” The whisper sounded like it was coming from all around me. It was probably in my head. They were inside me.
“Time for a kiss, now, don’t be shy.” At once, half of my face lit up with heat. That cruel bastard… It was the same side that Amon slapped. Pain seared across my cheek and, unfortunately, my lips. The wound that already made its home on my face now ignited with an unfamiliar severity. In a millisecond, I took back every time I had ever said “ouch” or “that hurt” on earth. I didn’t know pain then.
As I was trying not to enter epileptic shock, I heard a hellish squeal; but not one I had heard before. Not of delight, nor of malice. It was one of fear. Of pain. Was it me?
I felt the ground shake. Something was wrong.
I opened my eyes to see the third Hellion collapsed to my side, the snakes faintly hissing and squirming.
“Oh, my – no, my baby!” Amon broke out into tears and leapt down into the pit, sparing no time. I was surprised at the level of his affection for these creatures, but not nearly as surprised as I was at the current circumstances.
“The bastard tricked us, master! He tricked us…” The snakes whispered with little strength. Amon knelt down next to the behemoth and leaned in to hug it.
What? I didn’t do anything. I did what Baal said. I took my punishment.
He turned his furious gaze to me and gasped, likely at the sight of what my face had degenerated into. “My – my sweet, sweet Septuruum… It’s all my fault, forgive me,” he wept.
And at once, it clicked. Amon’s nails must have been tipped with poison, or something of the sort. Something toxic. And the beast ingested it when it licked my wound. Did I just murder a Hellion? Or did Amon? I lay there without moving or making a sound and listened to the thundering of his massive tears crash upon the body-turned-carcass of his prized companion. The other two had since scampered back into their holes.
Amon stood up and wiped his eyes before turning to me. “You… will never in your miserable existence understand the gravity of your actions. The weight of the crime you have just committed deserves immeasurable pain. I could only dream of harming you to the degree you have just earned. You alone deserve eternal torment. I would sooner let the rest of Hell roam freely amongst the angels than spend even a second away from your side, now. You have opened the floodgates, child, to agonies unknown.” He spoke very reservedly, without yelling or even projecting in the manner to which I was accustomed. “Infinite death is your destiny. Torture is your eternity. Hell is your home.” He slowly lifted his enormous blade over his shoulder and I shut my eyes, bracing as best I could.
I waited. Anxiously. 1… 2… 3… Still nothing. Was I already dead?
I heard sniffles, followed by the sound of Amon’s scythe hitting a pile of bones next to me. I propped myself up with my good arm and saw Amon hunched over in tears.
“Baal!” he cried out at a frightening volume. “Baal, take this abomination from my sight, and see to it that he may never return!”
Baal? Oh, thank God.
“You are nothing,” he said to me softly, without making eye contact. “You are as useless as the vomit of a pig. I wouldn’t even waste one swing of my scythe on scum such as yourself. Begone. I hereby banish you from the North Wing, you putrid pile of waste. Let me mourn in peace.” I could tell he was weak. I could see it in his face. I could hear it in the wavering of his voice. He couldn’t punish me. He couldn’t even look at me; he was too heartbroken.
I felt a slight gust of wind behind me, and knew at once that Baal, my demonic savior, had arrived. He gasped at the sight of the deceased Septuruum, and grabbed me by my shoulders. “You fool!” He whispered. “What did I tell you?” I didn’t try explaining anything to him. I just wanted to leave.
“What are you waiting for, you incompetent imp? Out of my sight, the both of you!” He shouted before returning to deep sobs.
Baal jerked me up and flew me away from the pit, towards a tunnel. Once we were out of earshot, he dropped me. I hit the ground hard, surprised at this rough treatment from my ‘only friend’. “Christ, kid, what are you trying to do here? You threw a wrench in the works with Belial and now y-“ I looked up at him and he froze as our eyes locked. “No… Amon killed Septuruum?”
I focused on our eye contact and mentally retold the story of what had happened.
“You know, kid, I’ve been doing this for a long time. The better part of eternity. And never in all my days has a Hellion fallen. Not to any ruler, any demon. But especially not to a human. I know what really happened, but do you think Amon is going to march up to Belial’s throne and say ‘Hey, boss, I am responsible for the passing of our fiercest and most ruthless torturer because of my own temper and negligence’? I’ll answer that for you. No, he won’t. He is going to say ‘That same bastard that denied you murdered my baby Septuruum.’ You are in a whole new world of shit, boy. You really topped yourself this time.”
“But, Baal–“ I protested, “I did exactly what you said! I didn’t fight back! I accepted my punishment, just like you told me to. Amon sliced my face and Sept–“ Baal raised his hand to silence me. He could tell I was hurt. He stalled for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “Listen, boy. I’m not angry with you. I’m just… I’m all sorts of sticking my neck out for you down here, and things are just getting worse.” He sighed a heavy sigh reminiscent of the wind I felt during my recent rescue from the pit.
I understood. I really did.
“It’s not your fault, this time, but it damn sure looks like it. When Belial hears about this, all Hell is going to break loose. And there’s a reason why that is a phrase up where you lived. You better pray this doesn’t make it up to Lucifer.” He shuddered at the thought of it, which made me feel sick. Come to think of it, most everything down here made me feel sick.
“We better get moving,” he said as he motioned to the end of the tunnel, which I could not see.
Oh, God, another wing, another torturer. I didn’t ‘escape’. I’m just beginning the next chapter of my eternal stay in this rotten hellhole.
We walked for a few minutes in silence before my curiosity got the best of me. “Hey, I have a question.” Baal looked at me. “Why did you say ‘Christ’ before?”
“What?” he asked.
“Before, when you were mad at me, you said ‘Christ, kid’, and it really surprised me. Wouldn’t demons say ‘Belial’ or ‘Lucifer’ instead?”
“Oh, haha. That.” He chuckled. Yeah, I say Christ. I acknowledge His existence. Humans say that, too, don’t they? Now, I wouldn’t take Belial’s, and definitely not Lucifer’s, name in vain. You don’t curse those who curse, I suppose. That’s recipe for unrest. Don’t you ever wonder what happens to falsifiers? It’s kind of the same idea as cursing; down here, anyway. I use Christ’s name because it’s accessible to me. I am protected from Him and His father by Lucifer and His army. However, nothing protects me from Lucifer. Does that make sense?”
“I think so. But who are falsifiers and where do they go?” I questioned. Luckily, the conversation was taking away from the pain my body was still enduring, and the fear in the pit of my stomach for whatever awaited at the end of the tunnel.
“Falsifiers. You know, people who claim to believe something that they don’t, or claim to live a life they only portray but by which they do not abide. Say there’s a priest who preaches the good word, but gambles and drinks his alone time away with prostitutes. Say there’s a boy with a Ouija board who tells his friends he speaks with the devil. They’re all punished the same way. Honesty of self is valued highly in Heaven and on earth, and the deceivers are sent to the East Wing. Now come on, Alyes is expecting us.”
Hearing the name “Alyes” shook my core in a way that should not have surprised me the way it did. “I… I know that name. Belial said it to me when I denied him. He told me to say that name.”
“But you didn’t say it, did you, kid.” He stated definitively rather than posing it as a question. He knew my tenacity better than I did. “No. I wanted to, though. I opened my mouth to say it and I said ‘no’. I don’t know how or why, but my mouth just said ‘no’. He gave me another chance, and I still said ‘no.’ That’s why I’m in this whole mess in the first place.” There was a silence. “So… who is he?”
“Alyes is… um.” Another heavy sigh from my winged friend. “Alyes is not a he. Nor a her. Nor a demon, even. Alyes is an entity; a force.” I could tell from the way he was speaking that this was something of a far different nature than anything I had seen here thus far. “None of us are in contact with it. So I can’t tell you much.”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
“Alyes has full reign over its wing. It doesn’t answer to anyone like Amon or the other rulers. I’ve never spoken to or seen it, and I know everyone in this stinking place. All I know is that even Lucifer has disassociated Himself from the East Wing. It’s a no-man’s-land of sorts. All I know are rumors. And those rumors state that Alyes has literally blacklisted itself from the rest of Hell. I’ve heard that it’s shapeless from some, and shape-shifting from others. I’ve heard it’s loud and brutal from some, and silent and cold from others. It isn’t… It is unlike anything that has ever existed. In any realm. It is cerebral and haunting. It is everything and nothing all at once. I wish you the best of luck.”
“What do I do? How long will I be there? Do you want me to not fight back like before?” I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what he was saying to me. It was too much. All I could do is keep rattling off questions rapid-fire to keep my brain from assessing this new information.
“Physically, you mustn’t move a muscle. Mentally, you need to stand your ground. Alyes knows what makes you tick. It’s a manipulator. This realm is based entirely on mental torture.”
We were steps away from a large padlocked door with an insignia above the threshold that I could not make out.
“It’s not English,” Baal said. “And here, look at me.” I turned my face to him and he placed one hand on my wounded cheek, and the other on my chest. They both started to flame and burn intensely. “Ah!” I exclaimed in pain and shock, but before I could pull away, he was done. “The last thing you need down here is an infection. I just cauterized them both. I can’t do anything about your elbow, though. You’re stuck with that.”
“Thanks, but, damn, that hurt.” I said quietly. He chuckled knowingly. “Hey, kid.” I looked up at him again, grimacing and hoping not to be the unwilling recipient of another surprise ‘healing’ session. He touched my face again, but it did not burn this time. His hands were cool and calloused. “Remember this: You do not belong here.”
I nodded. “I will be back for you. Do your best to stay out of trouble this time, okay?”
I laughed nervously. “You got it.”
And just as quickly as Baal had appeared, he was gone.
I stood outside the door for a while. A long while. I kept running my fingers along my wounds to check if they were still oozing, but they closed. I think it was becoming a sort of nervous habit, however unsanitary. I tried to mentally prep myself for whatever awaited me, but I didn’t even understand anything about what was to come. Hell, I don’t even think Baal did. What does he mean no one talks to it? It doesn’t answer to Belial, not even Lucifer?
Before I could ponder any more, the door unlocked itself and eased open slowly. I immediately lifted my good arm up to shield my eyes from the blinding white light emanating from within. The stark contrast between the luminescence with which my eyes were then met and the dark, dank cave-like setting of the rest of my adventure shocked my body and mind.
Against my will, I felt my body being gently pulled forward. I complied without thinking. The door opened wider to reveal… nothing. Not a single thing. All I saw was white. No walls, no ceiling, no moaning men, no fire, no demons, no blood. No sound, even. Just blank white and dead silence. I didn’t even hear the door close behind me. I was encompassed in nothingness.
It felt nice, in this room. Cool. Almost chilly. Nothing like above or the North Wing.
I was so confused. Is this purgatory? Heaven? Am I blind? I stood in silence for minutes on end, pacing a bit, letting my thoughts get the best of me.
“Do you ever wonder who is really in charge?” I heard. It was a soft voice, but it still startled me a bit.
“What?” I spouted idiotically.
“Don’t you ever wonder who is the ultimate power? Above God, above Lucifer? The one who spins the earth and lights the sky and aligns the stars?”
“I didn’t know there was… um…” I was dumbfounded.
“I am the faceless entity that rules all. I am the one who grants those idiots any power over man. This is a grim, grim day in your stay here, son. Welcome to the East Wing.”
I gulped so loud that I think Amon could probably have heard it from his wing.
“Why don’t they talk to you?” I asked. I swear to God, my curiosity decided to rear its annoying head at the least opportune times.
“Who, the other rulers? Demons? God? It’s simple: they cannot comprehend me. They fear me. I am the ultimate power behind all existence. I am life and death and everything before and after. I control all. They could be rendered powerless if I so willed it. With a snap of my metaphorical fingers, I could end all that ever was, is, or might be. I am omniscient in a way that God and Lucifer only feign to be. I answer to no one.”
The voice was so smooth and soft. Not at all abrasive as I had expected. But regardless of the tone, my brain was making quite the chore of trying to harness the idea that there existed a power above Lucifer, much less God.
“Where are you? Are you invisible? Baal said-”
“Baal knows nothing. He has never seen me, nor heard me, nor spoken to me. And for that, he should be thankful. I am right here, child. I am you and all around you. I am the air you breathe and the colors you see. I am the blood in your veins and the thoughts in your brain.”
I felt like I was going to puke. Physically, I felt more comfortable than ever. But my brain felt like it was going to upchuck all over the perfectly white floor. That is, if I was even standing on anything at all.
“He’s a good kid, though, Baal. He’s got his head on straight. He’s not cut out for this demonic torture stuff, though. He’s too soft. As for Amon – that’s who you came from, right? – He’s got a bit of a temper. I got wind of Septuruum’s death. That poor sucker was so tied to those three. I bet he had a fit. He sure knows how to deal with a rotten soul, though, that’s for damn sure. I’m surprised Baal took you here, though. I don’t see much action anymore. Most of the time, they just skip right over me and head straight to Southie. I understand you had a run-in with Belial, is that correct?”
“He came to me and told me to accept Him. He told me to say your name. And I didn’t.”
“Well, Christ, kid, it’s almost like you wanted to end up here. I would have seen you anyway, sooner or later. Belial just didn’t know what to do with you. I’m very surprised He even said my name. Usually he runs and tells Lucifer what’s wrong and He handles it – however incompetently. Like I said before, and I’m sure Baal told you, no one talks to me.”
“Why doesn’t anyone know about you? If you have all this power, why doesn’t anyone know your name or who you are? On earth, the general –“
“Do you think I need recognition? Do you think I have any need for anything at all? Do you think I want? I do not sleep, I do not eat. I do not need. I am everything. I don’t care whether or not humans know me. What an insignificant race. Lucy and God can take all the credit they want, but at the end of the day, I know who’s really turning the wheel.”
I kept silent.
“You sure ask a lot of questions, boy. That might get you into trouble one of these days.”
It was right. It was okay, too, that it silenced me. I felt so damn at home in this wing. I felt no pain whatsoever. And that voice, it was so honest and comforting.
“Now it’s my turn. Who do you miss the most, child?”
“What? Like, from earth?”
“Yes, from your home.”
I sighed heavily. “My girlfriend. You’re not –“
I felt a soft, cool pair of hands cover my eyes. I knew that smell. My heart leapt from my chest.
“Shhh…” she whispered into my ear and giggled quietly. I turned around so fast I almost knocked her over.
“Nadia, my God, Nadia!” I exclaimed and hugged her tight enough to quarter her. It felt like it had been years since I had rested my eyes upon her beautiful face. “Oh, God, I… This… I love you so much. I can’t believe you’re here…” I said as I buried my face in her neck. She pulled me off of her and took a step back, holding both of my hands. She was smiling that same amazing smile I remembered. She was just as I remembered.
I started to cry a bit. Not a lot, but definitely a bit.
Then something clicked. I went into panic mode. “Baby, it’s not safe here! What are you doing here? We’ve got to get out of here!”
“Shh, shh, shh… Honey, it’s okay.” She said. Those two words only made sense when they left her lips. I’d never believe them from anyone else’s.
Let me tell you something about this girl, Nadia. I loved this girl in a way that no man has ever loved a woman. I lived and breathed for her. She was the light at the end of my often dark, dreary, and seemingly endless tunnel. She was my lover, my best friend, my soul mate, my life partner, and everything in between. She was my backbone when I was weak, and my shoulder to lean on when I was down. She was my everything. I cannot even begin to tell you what this woman meant to me, and I honestly don’t have the time, nor the mental capacity, to explain to you just how perfect we were for each other. I would die a thousand times over just so she could see another day. I spent every waking moment on earth making sure she was happy, because she was just about the only human who ever actually deserved happiness in the first place. So, needless to say, seeing her again was damn near biblical for me.
“I love you so much. I’ve missed you terribly while I’ve been down here. How long has it been? Are you okay? They haven’t hurt you, have they? I told them to–“
She put her finger up to my lips to silence me.
I sighed in contentment. I remembered when she used to do that on earth. It made me weak at the knees.
“I need to tell you something.” She said.
“Anything, sure, go ahead.” I responded.
She smiled again and sighed. “I don’t miss you.”
“Wh… What?” I stuttered.
“I just don’t. I’m glad you’re gone. I spend all day thinking about how lucky I am to be rid of your useless ass.” She was still smiling that sweet smile. “I never did love you, you know. You’re pathetic.”
My hands fell from hers. “I don’t understand, babe, what’s going on?” This gulp probably woke God up.
“What’s going on is that you’re a worthless piece of shit and you are finally getting what you deserve. You are where you belong, and you’ll be here for infinite eternities. I thank God for taking you from my life. You were dead weight, and I needed that weight to be lifted. Now, I’m enjoying freedom and autonomy. This is what’s best for the both of us, you know.”
“What are you talking about?” By now I was bawling. “I thought we loved each other! We were so happy together on earth, what changed?”
“You are a spineless little prick, and I only stayed with you because I was too clueless to realize how much of a waste you are.”
I simply could not believe my ears.
“You were a waste of life. You’re better off dead.”
I turned away from her. How could I look at her? My heart felt like it was being fileted and served on a plate of starving leeches. I had never known such gut-wrenching pain. I would have sooner taken a thousand lashes from Septuruum’s tongue than listened to one more word out of my ruthless lover’s mouth.
“Do you miss anyone else, child?” I heard Alyes say.
“No.” I said. I knew what was going to happen. I know one can’t normally determine a trend from one instance, but I was getting pretty good at this whole Hell thing.
“Not even your mother?” It asked.
“Christ, no… Please, no.” And without further adieu, my precious mother appeared before me.
Let me give you the low-down on this woman: she was a saint. Plain and simple. I’d put money on it that she’d put half the angels up in Heaven to shame. She was the most selfless and generous person I had ever met. She taught me my moral sense, she taught me to trust in God and rebuke the Devil, and she was always there for me. You’d be lucky to hear an unsavory word ever leave her mouth. She was the kind of woman that would give you the shirt off her back, even if you were wearing a coat and gloves.
I hugged her against my best judgment. I needed to. I needed to feel her. I missed her so damn much.
“Mom, please… Please get me out of here. I can’t take this.” But I knew what was coming.
“Son, there is something you need to know,” she began. “I have never in my life been more disappointed in anyone. I am so ashamed to even know you, let alone call you my kin. You have failed in every sense of the word, and I rejoice on earth that you are dead. We all do. Everyone you knew and loved now leaps for joy that you are no longer with us. The world is a much better place without you.”
She took a step closer to me and put her hands on my shoulders. “You deserve this. You belong here in Hell.” I looked down at my feet and watched my tears drip from my nose. “Hey, look at me,” she said as she used one hand on my chin to tilt my head up so that we made eye contact. “You were a waste of life. You’re better off dead.”
Now, I could type a hundred pages a day for the rest of my life, and I would still only cover a fraction of the heartache I experienced in that moment. There are no words, in any language, that could even approach explaining what I felt right then and there.
The more I thought about it though, the more I started to agree with them. That’s what made it worse.
“Anyone else?” Alyes asked kindly. That rotten bastard.
“No! God damn it, no! I don’t miss anyone, now leave me alone!” I shouted. It felt like my vocal chords were going to rattle right out of my throat.
“They’re right, you know, son. You do belong here. You deserve this.”
I instantly remembered what Baal said before I entered the wing. “No! I don’t belong here! Make them leave!”
“Only you can make them leave.” And in my hand appeared a pistol. It was heavier than I would have expected; I had never held a real one before. It was cold, too. If you’ve never held a gun before, don’t.
“I can’t do that. I can’t kill my girlfriend and my mother. I won’t.”
“You were a waste of life. You’re better off dead.” They repeated softly in unison, their voices harmonizing in a terrible jingle.
I cocked the pistol. It took me a second to figure out how. It wasn’t a normal pistol, I don’t think. “But I can kill myself.” I said aloud. I raised the barrel to my mouth and pulled the trigger.
I don’t remember much from immediately after that. I kind of just laid there on the floor for a while. It seemed like a really long time. I could hear the blood pour out of the back of my head, kind of like if someone didn’t turn a faucet all the way off. It felt like my head had given birth to my brain via the back of my skull. All I saw was white, with a little bit of red on the left side. I don’t think I shot myself all the way straight. I’m no good at killing myself, I learned that much on earth.
“It isn’t that easy, child. You’re not done until you’ve finished your work.”
I reached around blindly for the gun. I knew it was on my right side somewhere because that’s the hand I used to pull the trigger. It was hard to feel, you know. Like, not to feel a feeling. But to process it. I heard my hand sliding around on the floor and clunking the gun around, but I couldn’t tell when my fingers were touching it.
I managed to finagle the gun into my hand and position it on my chest. I kept wondering if another good shot to the head might do the trick, but I knew what had to happen.
“You were a waste of life. You’re better off dead.” They kept saying. Over and over. It really started to sound like they were singing it after a while.
Something lifted my body to the upright position. For that much, I was thankful – just about the entire back of my body was soaking wet. I felt disgusting.
So there I stood, pistol in hand, facing the only two people I had ever loved as they told me how worthless I am in unison. I did a lot of thinking there. About life on earth. About love in general.
“There is no other way, boy.” I heard Alyes nudge in an attempt at guidance.
“I knew you couldn’t do it. Spineless, see, mom? Just like I said. No backbone. Just a sad, weak little boy with no courage.” Nadia never broke eye contact with me.
“Oh, don’t I know it. I spent twenty years raising a damn coward. What a shame.” My mother replied. “Not sure what you ever saw in him, to be honest.”
“Shut up! Just shut the hell up, the both of you!” I shouted. I was crushed. I raised the pistol and pointed it at Nadia. “I am none of those things!”
At once, Nadia’s eyes changed to the soft eyes that I once knew. “Babe… What are you doing? Oh my God, put that down! You’re scaring me!”
“…Nadia? Is it you?”
“Of course it’s me, honey, now put that gun down! You’re looking at me, aren’t you?” She looked genuinely frightened; a feeling I never thought I would invoke in her. “Baby, you’re really scaring me, please… We can fix whatever is wrong, I promise. Come here.” She opened her arms wide for an embrace, and I rushed to meet her.
“Oh, Nadia, this place is driving me insane. I’m so sorry I –“ And before I could finish my apology (which would have been in vain, regardless), she whispered into my ear three words that I had never heard her say: “I hate you.”
Now, earlier, I mentioned that it felt like my heart had been fileted and served on a plate of starving leeches. What happened here, dear reader, felt like whoever ordered that heart a la leeches decided to return it to the cook, because there wasn’t nearly enough salt on it. Dear Christ, did this burn.
I shoved her away in a violent fit. “You’re not fucking real!” I screamed.
What happened next felt like it happened over a period of several hours, but I know it only took a split-second. I raised the gun to her head, and her eyes changed again.
I always hear people say other people have beautiful eyes. In movies, in books, on cheesy first dates to mini-golf courses. But I don’t think they mean it like I do. People throw around that compliment more than is necessary, and I think actual beauty has been lost in just trying to foster a good (and phony) relationship with a member of the opposite sex. But I feel like if I were to sit all those people who use that line day in and day out down in a chair across the table from my sweet Nadia, they would have to redefine their idea of what beautiful eyes really look like. She’d make an honest man out of them. I used to tell her that the ocean envied the blue in her eyes, and the rainforest envied the green. They were so soft and caring that, in a second, any worry or apprehension that involved the outside world vanished every time I looked into them. And boy, when I looked, I was fixed. It was tough to break eye contact with that girl. I never wanted to.
So, it was those eyes that mine met, with a pistol aimed between them. And in that millisecond, or hour, or week, I recounted every single memory I had ever lived out with Nadia. The day we met at that park in Riverside, our first kiss on the couch at her apartment with some cheesy romantic comedy playing on her dinky little TV, how we used to hold hands in public even though I never really liked doing that with anyone else. Even when I told her I loved her at her parents’ house in the backyard on that rickety old porch swing. I remembered talking about getting a place together, and having a family. I said it on the top of a ferris wheel, if you were wondering. It was at the state fair, probably a year or so ago. I said, “I’d very much like to marry you, you know. Maybe have some kids one day.” I was never much of a romantic, but I got the point across when I really needed to. She giggled and reciprocated and all, right there at the top.
But it was too late. My finger had already pulled the trigger. One, two, three… I kept going. Well, I should say, my hand kept going. I didn’t feel like I was in a position of much control. It must have been around six or so, but I couldn’t really keep track. They were all really rapid-fire, like it was a full auto or something.
It was sad, what I saw. She didn’t have much of a face left or anything. I could see straight through to the other side at some angles. It was so chilling. I never knew what the inside of a head looked like, really. I wasn’t a fan of gory movies or hospital shows on TV. To be quite honest, I’d even venture to say I was squeamish at times. But to see a giant cave where the most perfect face I had ever seen used to be only seconds before, and to know that it was my doing, made me even weaker than my own head wound had.
Our bodies thudded to the floor in perfect unison. I hit the open part of my skull on the ground again, of course. My face was dripping with what was probably a concoction composed quite evenly of tears and blood. God, was my head sure bleeding. It just wouldn’t quit. Everything around me was slippery.
I tried to close my eyes – I needed a second to process everything that just happened. But all I saw was Nadia’s face being obliterated in slow motion by bullet after bullet. So I opened them and stared at the vast expanse of white above me.
It was really hard to breathe. And it was pretty hard to hear myself think over the seemingly 180-decibel blood spill from our collective wounds. Plus my head was pounding.
My mother walked up to my body and nudged my arm with her foot. “Hmph… See? I knew you were a bad seed. You just murdered the love of your life. However are you to live with yourself?” She chuckled. “You’re a rotten egg, son. A murderer. Didn’t I tell you that you belong here?”
She took a wide stance over my body, with one leg on each side of me, and leaned down for, what I assume was meant to be, a more intimate rendition of her favorite song. “You were a waste of –“
“AAAAH!” I screamed almost loud enough to drown out the sounds of the rest of the bullets in that cursed pistol exiting in a single file line.
I’m sure most of you have likely felt the weight of a human body on top of your own. Perhaps in an intimate setting, perhaps just laying down with someone and talking until you both drift off to a sound and peaceful slumber. But let me tell you, when that body on top of you is dead and lifeless, and is hemorrhaging blood onto your face and neck, it is about a metric ton heavier. I felt trapped under an immovable boulder, with no escape.
My head felt like ground zero. It felt post-apocalyptic. I haven’t really been talking about it so much, but you can bet your sweet ass it was sore. Preceded by one big grunt, I managed to shove my mother’s cadaver off of mine. It rolled to my left limply.
There are quite a lot of things I can recommend to you. I can recommend praying. I can recommend reading. I can recommend committing random acts of kindness. I can recommend going to the beach on a summer day, or gathering around a bonfire in the winter. But one thing that I cannot recommend to you is murdering your loved ones. I’ve never taken another person’s life before, so I can’t speak for strangers. Maybe it’s easier to kill someone you’re not related to, or someone you don’t even know. Or especially someone that you hate. But the only two lives I have ever taken belonged to the only two people I’ve ever really wanted or needed in my own.
I kind of wanted to shoot myself again, just as punishment, but the gun was gone. My hands just sloshed around on both sides of me trying to find it, with no luck. That was probably for the better, looking back on it.
I propped myself up and unintentionally feasted my eyes on the unappetizing scene before me. Nadia’s body was face-up, except her head had become sort of a blood reservoir that was beginning to spill over. The red in the room made it seem so much smaller. I collapsed yet again.
“Are… Are they really dead?” I asked aloud. “Was that really them?” Even shaping my mouth to form words was getting hard. I struggled quite a bit to complete my thoughts.
“What does it matter? You’ll never know the difference down here.” Alyes answered calmly.
I didn’t say anything back, and neither did it. What ensued then was a sort of mind-numbing silence that is difficult to describe. Imagine the intensity of a jet engine, but with the opposite volume. I could literally feel the crushingly heavy silence being laid over me like one of those lead vests they make you wear when you get dental work done.
Drip… drip… drip.
Before that moment, I would have killed for silence (no pun intended). Everything up until then had been so torturous and chaotic and loud that it was beginning to tear away at my psyche. But the silence that fell over the East Wing lasted for an eternity. I could feel my body age. I could feel each tick of my biological clock coincide with each drop of blood that thundered down to the pool below it.
And for the first time in Hell, the only time that I didn’t want to, I could hear myself think.
I thought about a lot of things, just laying there. I didn’t move a muscle. I just kept playing back what had happened. I couldn’t help it. Word by word, listening to my most valued loved ones verbally berate me without mercy. They were better off without me. No one missed me, and they wished I would end up here. And piece by piece, bullet by bullet, chipping away at the faces I most adored.
I also wondered about other people, and where they end up. I wondered if serial killers get this kind of treatment. Or rapists. I mean, had I known denying Belial and Alyes was such a capital offense, I might have reconsidered my actions. I wondered where mom and Nadia would go, if I even killed them at all. For all I knew, they could have been perfectly fine up there, totally unaffected by recent events. Hell, they could have even been missing me. But, by the same token, they could have hated me, just like they said.
But they really could have been dead.
I couldn’t shake that thought. Beyond me, there was them. I mean, okay, so I was dead. I understood that. But they were two of the most blessed beings I had ever come into contact with in all my years on earth. They didn’t deserve to die. Even if they didn’t love me. They deserved life.
I thought about other things, too. I thought about how much I missed earth. And I don’t mean like paying taxes and eating pizza and watching commercials and having a job and all of that jazz that goes along with living up there. I mean… The planet. I missed grass. I missed the ocean. I missed trees and mountains and the way the air smells at the beach and how breeze feels on your face when it’s sunburnt. I missed the way the sunrise and sunset would completely warp the colorset of the sky. I missed how perfectly you could see the stars from the top of the water tower in Treading, right off the interstate.
I thought about Nadia, too. I missed her even more than I missed the entire planet I used to live on, isn’t that crazy? I missed how it felt to have my arm around her, to hold her hand. I missed the way she’d always calculate tip when we ate out without a pen or paper. She’d say “hold on,” and close her eyes real tight. I could see the wheels turning in her pretty little head. She looked so cute when she was crunching numbers and all. I missed how she’d put lip balm on about every five minutes even when it wasn’t cold out. I even missed how when we held hands she would always switch hands every couple minutes so she felt “balanced”. I missed everything about that girl.
She always remembered everything, you know. That noggin of hers was a steel trap. I’d mention something about a book I couldn’t find and wanted to read, real offhand. I wouldn’t be making a point of it or anything. And sure enough, three months later, she’d show up at my place holding that very book. She was such a sweetheart.
She loved me something fierce, too. Up there on earth, anyway. She’d tell me all the time. She used to say “I love you more than life itself.” I never believed her, but I didn’t mind hearing it. That’s an awful lot to love someone, don’t you think? But I felt the same way. We used to do everything together. You name it. We’d even run errands together just so we didn’t have to be apart for too long.
I’m sorry, I know, you’re not trying to read all about my girlfriend. But it’s hard for me, you know, to remember it all. To remember the panic in her eyes. I wondered about other things, besides her, too. Mainly I wondered if I could die down there, from blood loss and all, and if I did, would I just become nothing? Like, would it all just end? Would I just not exist at all in any realm? That would have been nice. To be nothing. To not exist at all. I knew it wasn’t that easy, but a boy can dream, can’t he? It relaxed me.
Well, it started to, until I heard something metallic clink down next to me. I couldn’t lift my head, even if I wanted to, so I felt around for it. I was getting pretty accustomed to feeling around for things. Whatever it was pricked me on my ring finger, but it would take an anvil to the kneecap to distract me from the pain that still pervaded from the back of my skull.
I picked up and held before my face a dagger. The blade was wavy, though, not straight like I would have pictured. The handle was adorned beautifully. It had the kind of feel that fine china has, but the kind that never really comes out of the cabinet unless the president comes over or something. The blade had some cryptic writing along both sides, but of course I couldn’t make out its origin.
“Are you ready to advance, boy?” Alyes offered.
I groaned in agreement. Attempting to speak was so futile. I just wanted to leave.
“Then you must return from whence you came. But first, you will label yourself so that all will know what you truly are.”
To be quite frank, I had no clue what he meant at all. My head had been spinning since I got there, and him speaking enigmatically didn’t assist me in my lack of understanding.
And just like that, my anvil came to me. My left forearm, the inside where there isn’t any hair, ignited in pain. I jolted up, somehow, and immediately experienced a lightheadedness that, looking back, was in large part due to how much of my actual head lay on the floor around me.
The affected area was beginning to bubble violently. I was quickly developing a thick web of spider veins, all black in color. “What… What is this?” I uttered urgently, with much less vigor than I had meant to employ.
“To rid yourself of the poison of your sin, you must come clean. Purge yourself, child. Carve into your arm the one word that sums up your existence.” I knew at once what word he meant.
When I say that it takes a lot to convince a man to carve an insulting word into his arm with a dagger, I mean that a very large part of me wanted to continue to lay there in misery, and just about no part of me wanted to play surgeon on myself. But the metaphorical anvil on my kneecap dwarfed all other pain I was experiencing by far.
The W hurt the most. It was also the most shocking, because I didn’t know that what would spill from my wound was thick and black. The tar-like substance was hotter than Hell, but I felt such a release as it poured out.
When I started the A, I figured there was no way it would hurt just as bad as the first letter, but of course it did. The thought that it would get easier with each incision was that piss-poor optimist in me that would occasionally fool me into thinking that things were okay. I appreciated him chiming in, but he never did much good.
The S was a real bitch. I was going to curve it, like the letter looks, but it was tough to get a good angle with that blade. It wasn’t like I was using a pencil or anything. I ended up doing three separate lines, so it looked kind of like a lightning bolt. I don’t think Alyes cared what the letters looked like, though. And I certainly didn’t. I just wished I could man up and write faster, because it felt like I was taking my sweet old time.
The T taunted me, mainly because it ended up looking like a cross. It’s not how I meant to write it, honest. But with all the black spilling out, it was hard to see where the top of the vertical line was, and I drew the horizontal a little too low. It saddened me to see a cross in such a depressing situation. Jesus was not there with me. No one was.
The E was especially difficult because it was so close to my wrist. You know how paramedics put their pointer and middle finger on the inside of your wrist to check your pulse? That’s because your veins are right there. There’s got to be about one millionth of a centimeter between them and the outermost layer of your skin. And the E, like the W, had four lines. Really complicated letters, considering the medium.
By the time I lifted the blade from my wrist when I finished the bottom line of the last letter, all of the incisions closed up instantly. What remained, after I wiped away the black muck, was the most shameful and incriminating brand I had ever seen. From the bend in my arm all the way to my hand: W – A – S – T – E. At least the pain had subsided.
I let out a sigh of – well, not of relief – a sigh of something. I dropped the dagger and ran my fingers along my newest and most permanent tattoo.
“You’ll need that blade, boy. Recall the final instruction: return.”
I had no clue what it meant. No windows, no doors, no ceiling, no floor. No escape. Return to where? How? And why would I need the dagger?
“Oh come now, clever boy. Where are your smarts when you need them most? You were delivered by caesarean section, were you not?”
“How… How did you…” I should have given up on asking questions long ago. Everyone knows everything about me and my life, and that’s the way things work. The omniscience thing always slips my mind. “Yes.”
“So… utilize the tool you were given to return to your original home.”
As my brain began to attempt to wrestle with the idea of crawling back into my mother’s stomach, Alyes left me with one last parting gift: “Alda morie est, sertu entus licht so-ul.”
Upon the last syllable, there clung a millisecond of deafening silence, followed by the type of static you hear when someone is fumbling around with the receiver of a phone. What happened next will be difficult to describe, but I will do my best to translate the events as accurately (and tastefully, if at all possible) as I can.
A massive, and seemingly muted, detonation crushed my every molecule. Have you ever seen one of those war movies where a flash-bang grenade goes off right in front of a soldier, and the screen goes blank and all you can hear is a faint ringing? I was thrown to the ground with such force that I felt it give beneath me. My body felt as if I had been hit in the chest with a cannonball, and my brain felt as if it was an atom bomb test site. You’ve seen footage of that, right? Where the blast bends forests over backwards and peels all the wood off of houses. That’s what it felt like. Like I had just been stripped of anything that made me a cognizant and functional being.
There was a deep, low hum beneath the ringing that rattled my teeth. The combination of sounds never increased in volume, but rapidly grew in intensity. The atmosphere around my body felt so dense, and I was being forced into the ground by what felt like the weight of the world.
I could not see a damn thing through all of this. Everything was just blinding white and blurry as hell, with a very narrow and out-of-focus tunnel of vision in the center. The only images I could make out were that of the cursed dagger and my mother’s corpse.
Dear God, I’m writing and trying to describe to you the horrendous situation, down to the last painful detail, but I’m sitting here realizing that you will never in your wildest dreams come to understand, or even imagine, what I’m telling you. Not one part of this experience was of this earth, nor could ever be replicated here. You just don’t get it, and you never will. That droning hum, that squealing ring… Those are not sounds that are meant for human ears, nor comprehension. Times like these make me wonder why I’m even wasting my time recounting this story when no one will truly understand it.
Sorry. That’s not the point. That’s not the point of life. Or art. Or expression.
The point of painting is to paint, the point of writing is to write; not to be understood. I just get frustrated sometimes because reporting something so gristly and haunting is already hard enough, but when you factor in the reality that no one will truly connect or empathize with me, it’s plenty harder, let me tell you.
So anyway, the noise – well, enough about the noise. I could go on and on and you still wouldn’t hear it. It was crippling, let’s put it that way. And I knew the only way to escape it.
You know, if there is a God up there, I really hope he isn’t always watching like everyone says He is. I mean, it really would be great for Him to intervene sometimes, and sometimes it’s great that He’s paying attention. But He’s likely got loads of things to do and people to take care of, so He probably can’t keep His eyes on me 24/7. Or maybe Alyes has some sort of veil over his wing that God’s vision can’t penetrate. Or maybe God can’t see into Hell at all. But I’d just like to think that God is busy with something else sometimes. At least, that’s what I told myself when I made the deepest incision that dagger would ever make.
It was a lot bloodier than you would picture, I think. I’m not inside your head, and I don’t know what’s going on up there, so you might have it spot on. But I’m just saying it’s damn near impossible to imagine. It was a mess, regardless. Like I told you before, I don’t watch many gory movies, but I’d bet my life and everything in it that this dwarfed even Hollywood’s most impressive handiwork. The main issue is that I’m so damn tall, and my head is so damn big, and my shoulders are so damn broad, and my mother is so damn tiny.
I got my head in up to about my hairline and had to pull out because I almost vomited again. Luckily, by this time, I had built up one hell of a stomach for stuff like this, so I tried again.
It was a tight squeeze, but once I was in past my ears, the noise stopped. I was scared to open my eyes because I wear contacts and if I got blood in my eyes it would ruin them, and that would have been the icing on my metaphorical cakewalk in Hell.
It really felt like what Alyes meant it to feel like, I think. A reverse birth. A lot of people think that’s what death is. And they are very wrong in thinking so. Death is the end of life. And I would have opted for that over this ten times out of ten.
The worst part of it all was that by the time half of my torso made it through, my mother’s body had been all but torn in two. I’d prefer not to describe the rest, if you don’t mind. It doesn’t get much better from there.
By the time I made it all the way through, I stood up and wiped my eyes. Despite my earnest efforts to keep my contacts in peak condition, my vision had gone red. I instinctively kept rubbing my eyes and blinking like a madman, and unsurprisingly, one of them popped right out. My contact, I mean, not my eye.
Now, those of you who wear contacts understand my next train of thought: I was convinced that I could visually limp my way through the rest of the cycle via a perpetual wink of my impaired eye. As silly as you may think that would look, it was my only option (apart from submitting to my obsessive compulsive tendencies and removing my remaining contact for symmetry’s sake).
I would describe what my body looked like, but I know for a fact you would take no pleasure from it. Suffice it to say that I was a mess. There was no hole beneath me, no entry point beneath the pool of blood that was serving as my shadow and rapidly recruiting new droplets the longer I stood still.
I looked up and wiped my eyes again. I couldn’t see much, to be honest. There was so much blood in both of my eyes that everything was clouded, no matter how many times I stuck my fingers in them. But what I thought I saw was incredible.
As I scanned the room, I saw a plethora of things that didn’t quite make sense to me. The room was beautiful, that much I could tell from first glance. The walls were decorated with amazing paintings, the likes of which Michelangelo would envy. Gold covered every spare inch of, well, anything. There were statues lining each of the walls, a great stone fountain in the center of the room, and what looked like a bed next to it.
And for a minute there, my naivety took hold of me (or maybe it was just wishful thinking), and I foolishly assumed I had made it out. I was free. This must be Heaven.
My thought process made sense at the time. See, Baal, if you remember, was my transporter. He said he would take me from wing to wing, and I hadn’t seen him since just before my meeting with Alyes. So I somewhat logically concluded that this must not have been a wing at all. That coupled with how ornate and adorned this room was led me to believe that I had escaped. I served my time, I fought my fight, and Alyes was the final test.
Not hearing anything but the sound of the water trickling in the fountain, I lazily wagered that I was alone. I felt disgusting, but a wave of exhaustion engulfed my every fiber, and all I could think about was laying down in that bed. I approached it slowly, cautiously. However hopeful I was, my skepticism never left me completely.
Now, this wasn’t a normal bed. I mean, it’s not like the one you have in your room at home. It looked like the bed of a princess. It was easily king size, all white sheets with gold trim, bedposts that had to be a solid 12 feet tall, and a ridiculous amount of that mosquito-net-looking veil stuff hanging from above, concealing the bed.
I made my way over to it, and before I lifted one of the thin sheets to let myself in, I wiped my filthy hands on what I forgot was my filthy pant leg. It didn’t help much. And a thought that entered my head, and swiftly found its way to the exit, was that I probably shouldn’t get these nice sheets all bloody. But I was too drained. I needed it.
I pulled back one of the curtains, and my eyes were not met by an empty bed, but by the eyes of what I am presuming (in retrospect) to be a lynx. I’m not all that great with zoology, but I had seen one at the zoo in Treading before, and this one just looked like a calmer, cleaner, whiter version.
And for some reason, no part of me was startled. The entire atmosphere of the situation was very down-tuned and relaxing. It didn’t look menacing at all, and it was laying on the far side of the bed, just looking at me. I will admit that I kind of just stood there for a minute or so just to make sure it wouldn’t up and stab me or something. After living through half of this realm, you pretty much have to keep your eyes peeled.
The lynx lifted its head from the bed, and without breaking eye contact, said “Sie jui-nom tichti flas bruir.” The voice was so soothing, so tranquil. It sounded like it belonged to a beautiful woman, maternal and loving in affect. It laid its head back down and closed its eyes, as if telling me to do the same.
Have you ever been so tired that you don’t even bother to take off your clothes or get under the covers? That’s about where I was. I just laid right on top of the blankets and I swear to you I was unconscious within the minute. I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep that fast. I was just so calm. The calmest I’ve ever been. My heart slowed, my blood felt like it coagulated enough to stop gushing from my head, and I felt comfortable. I wasn’t hot, I wasn’t cold, I didn’t hurt. I didn’t even miss home. I didn’t anything. I quickly drifted off to sleep to the slow and steady rhythm of my chest rising and falling as my lungs inflated and deflated with each paced breath.
I dreamt down there. On that bed.
I was with Nadia. We were sitting on these tire swings in Hillard that we used to go to when we first started dating. This old farmer guy made them from used tractor tires for his kids to use, but they were always inside by sunset anyway; they hung from this giant tree overlooking the lake. So Nadia and I would go there after dark and look at the moon reflecting off the water and talk about everything under the sun. But the main thing we always ended up talking about is how small we are. Like, not as people. We are both normal sized people. But I mean, universally speaking. We are tinier than a speck of dust in the grand scheme of things. People always get too caught up in themselves, you know? It happened to loads of my friends back home. They’d get into a good school, or land a solid internship, or what have you, and they’d forget about everyone and everything else because they’re too focused on their own self. But Nadia and I, we used to stare at the moon and all of the stars and talk about how small we must be as pieces in the puzzle of the universe. We always used to joke about being corner or edge pieces because it only took us 22 years to find each other, and how if we were some no-name center pieces it would have taken us about a million years to sort through all 7 billion pieces to meet up. I guess it’s kind of cruelly ironic how we haven’t really had the time to make it back there lately. I wonder what kind of cosmic joke that is.
Anyway, that’s the backstory. Now back to my dream. We were swinging – well, we never did much swinging. We would for a minute, and then we’d just kind of rock back and forth, and eventually she would come sit in my lap and put her arm around me and kiss my head. I loved it when she did that. But in this dream, she reached out her arm from her swing and I pulled myself close enough to her for us to lock hands.
“I’ve been thinking, you know.” She said.
“Oh yeah?” I smiled. She was always thinking something, that one. “About what? Skinny dipping? Wink, wink.”
“Haha, no. Shut up. I mean about us.” She looked nervous. She was never nervous around me.
“Oh, well I think about us all the time. So I might have you beat on that one.” I spouted.
“Can you just listen for a second?” she laughed.
“Sure, sorry. Go ahead.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking. About us. And where we’ve been and where I want to go. We’ve been together for an age now, and I don’t see any end in sight.”
“Me neither, babe. This is it for me. You’re stuck with me, haha.”
She all of a sudden got this very serious, yet excited, look on her face. She looked like she was about to explode.
She took her right hand from me, reached into her pocket, and pulled out a white string.
Before I could say or do much of anything, she had tied it around my ring finger.
“Is this…” I stuttered. “I just never… I mean…”
“I know, baby. I didn’t have the money either. But I don’t want another day to go by without us making this commitment. I just love you. And only you. I want to be yours. Money doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out later. But I want you to be my fiancée more than I want anything on this earth.”
“I was going to, but you know that I–“
“Baby, I said I know. It’s okay.”
“Well, I mean… yes. Like, absolutely. Absolutely!”
What happened next was pretty cheesy and you’d think we were on the set of a romantic comedy (if you didn’t think that already). We sort of jumped around and hugged each other and cried and laughed and shrieked with excitement. It was pretty embarrassing and I’m glad there was no one around to point and stare at the spectacle we were making of ourselves. But our last hug turned into a kiss, and that turned into her resting her head on my chest and us swaying back and forth, and we eventually were slow dancing to the song of our hearts uniting as one.
It was probably the happiest dream I’ve ever had.
And it was from that dream that I awoke.
I was in a hospital bed. There was an IV in my good arm and I was in one of those stupid gowns that don’t have a butt on them. There was a tray to my side with an unopened applesauce and a little wooden spoon that looked more like a tiny tongue depressor than a utensil.
A woman walked in wearing an oddly stereotypical nurse’s outfit; hat and everything. Drop dead gorgeous, she was. Not that I was particularly hormonal at a time like this, but sometimes you see someone and you just have to admire their beauty. Chiseled cheekbones, tan and unblemished skin, wavy and smooth black hair almost down to her breast, and piercing green eyes. She was holding a clipboard and when she set it down I could see a chart accompanied by what looked to be a doctor’s telltale sloppy scribbles.
I felt pretty okay. I figured they had pumped me full of some numbing agent that helped me forget that I had been inches from death for Lord knows how long.
I tried to lean up in my bed, but I should have figured I wasn’t well enough for that. Pain shot through my body, from my head down through my fingertips, likely from the sudden change in altitude. I winced, louder than I had meant to, and sunk back down into my bed.
“Now, now, child. You rest.” She said in that same smooth voice I remembered coming from the lynx. It calmed me, but I was so confused. I couldn’t separate dream from reality. There was something I couldn’t shake.
“Who are you? Where am I? What happened?” I probably came off a little more desperate than I would have hoped, but I didn’t care much about what this lady thought of me.
“I am a nurse, and you are in St. Anthony’s Hospital in Treading. You are fine. Don’t worry, you are in the best of hands.”
“Oh my God, lady, you have no idea what happened, do you? I went to Hell. I got burnt and cut up and I had to kill Nadia and my mom and I tried to kill myself first but–“
“Please relax. I’ll be right back with the rest of your test results.” She smiled and turned to walk away.
Alone in that room, I had a little immobile celebratory moment where I mentally patted myself on the back for narrowly escaping such a harrowing adventure. I reflected on my entire stay in Hell. I thought about seeing Belial sit on that throne and spit down at me. He was despicable. And Amon, God. What a monster. I’m glad I killed Septuruum. Amon deserved to feel that pain. And Alyes and all his mind-bending tests. And Baal. I almost miss Baal. I wonder if he knows I’m back here. He’d probably be proud, I think. I made it. I made it through. I sighed a heavy sigh of relief and closed my eyes.
After about a minute, I thought I felt something soft and furry nuzzling my hand. Like a tired and naïve fool, I figured it was just my mind playing tricks on me.
Until I felt a light weight on my leg.
I opened my eyes groggily to see none other than the lynx laying next to me, asleep, resting its head on my thigh peacefully.
Shit! I thought. I clenched my eyes so tight that I thought my eyelids were going to swallow each other. Don’t be real, this can’t be real, please don’t be real, please dear God don’t let this be real. I telepathically whispered to whoever was paying attention.
“You know what makes this realm so beautiful? Even when you’re out, you’re in.” I heard that same sweet voice whisper into my ear. I cringed at the ton-of-bricks style realization of the concept and resounding undeniable factuality of the saying ‘cold hard truth.’ It almost hurt.
I managed to work up enough courage to peek open my good eye, and lo and behold, I was still in my hospital bed.