TARDIS : I'm a Demon from the 7th circle, department
C, monitoring. I put in a lot of extra time so I have 2 hours of incarnation
about every week, in which I can haunt the mortal souls for their screams.
The screen blanked out, and the fan rattled to a halt.
The small apartment was boarded up, from the inside, and there were bits
and traces of burns all over the wall, and chair, and desk. It had no
other furniture, no way in or out.
'A precedent,' he thought. He'd been reading up a lot in his two hours of surface time. Sure, it wasn't what they intended him to do; he should hunt down the weak and tempt them to sin, he should prey upon the wildly spread vogue of Sodom and Gomorra, and bring in souls, more souls. But, this opportunity! A live offering! That hadn't occurred since since forever, it seemed, though he knew the last instance was probably only 700 or 800 years ago. It'd make up for every minute he'd lost, looking, searching, scavenging the knowledge of mankind for that most elusive of answers.
Things were going bad for Hell. Everyone knew it, but no one talked about it. They just complained and complained. The entire business was in a major period of recess, cuts had to be made, resources had to be reallocated, and the deeper they sank, the more frequent the department meetings came with 'Facts and Figures', reassuring the staff that there was 'light at the end of the tunnel', that 'the flame would strike again in the fertile soil of this unique enterprise', and that 'Hell was as popular as ever as an afterlife among believers'. It was just that there weren't as many believers, apparently, as there used to be.
'If I can find a precedent for this, I may have a lot less trouble getting the grants and permits for it,' his thought continued. He was an uncomplicated demon, born thousands of years ago out of the simple faith of a small African tribe, from which he could still remember every single horror stricken face, and he had been carried to the south as time passed, growing into a lesser cult, and finally, being picked up and swept away from his homeland along with the black slaves, he was integrated here now, in the big Christian Hell, where he had been offered a post as a monitor on the lower levels. It had been quite a responsibility for a backwater demon such as himself, he knew that, so he had accepted it gladly. But after hundreds of years the job was getting old, much to his surprise. He missed the creativity and satisfaction he'd gotten from those long years of freelance demonizing. He missed the faces of his old tribe, even though they had long been processed and were long ago absorbed.
He grew sad. And a sad demon is not a productive demon. So he asked for time off, to return to Earth, and take up his old passion; possessing the souls of the living. They'd granted him a meager two hours a week, but it was more than enough for him to compensate for the drudgery of having to monitor the punishments of the damned.
He'd immediately possessed an old lady, who lived in an apartment on the edge of town, NYC, and forced her to buy his needs: a chair, a desk, and a computer with Internet connection. Then he involved her in the gruesome homicide of her only granddaughter, after which she had gratefully taken her own life. Pleased at this show of integrity and taking the initiative, the chief of his department had plainly told him that he would not interfere in his business 'above', if he kept the souls flowing in and the work on the floor equal in quality to his performance in the last few hundred years. Demons, in general, do not know joy outside the torturing of the would-be innocent, but this one came close, that time.
The angel looked at the credentials again.
'You're a janitor?'
The demon, who had been crouched in front of him, now stood on his hind legs, and reached with a neck over the desk to look at the papers.
'Monitor.' he corrected.
'Ah.' The angel leafed through the papers for the 4th time. 'It is unusual for us to receive visitors, you must understand. And I personally do not recall seeing a demon of your rank here. Of any rank, actually.' The angel looked at the signature at the bottom of the last page. 'However, everything seems to be in order. Please, follow me.'
It was insanity, to gain access to heaven. It was even more insane to ask for unlimited access to the Bibliotheca Angelica. There were no books in hell, except in some of the more exotic punishments, like the one which called for an infinite library to be filled with the handwritten testimony of a soul's remorse - not with a pen, but with its rotting finger, and not with ink, but with the blood flowing from the wounds in its ethereal wrist, which it had cut, itself, in the last minutes of its lifetime. That had been his personal touch, and possibly the one thing he was most proud of in his work at his current station; the blood. Pride, more so than any sin, was greatly encouraged among the department's employees.
They wandered through the marble and gold plated hallways at a fairly quick pace. Their bright light did not seem to have a source - which did not surprise the demon, really, since the vile, thick darkness of Hell did not have one either. The angel was tall, and his stride was enormous, compared to that of the relatively small being that followed him, sometimes on two, sometimes on more well, appendages. Whether it kept up with him or not did not bother the angel in the least; he did not once look back, or check his pace, to acknowledge the fact that his burden was still on the right track.
Only when they entered the heart of hearts of the Sacred Land, in the front section of which apparently was the One Library, did the angel turn around. He looked at the demon again, and even though his face was still a praise to serenity and unearthly beauty, his voice was just a little uncertain.
'Why are you ' the angel began, and gestured at the demon, 'wearing ' his voice trailed.
'Sunglasses?' the demon suggested. 'Just something I picked up. Very handy protection, you see.' The angel nodded, even though he didn't.
From this point on, the angel did not let the demon out of his sight, as they entered the small room. It was disappointing in size, considering its importance, the demon reflected. But he knew that, what little books there were in here scattered over various shelves throughout the two floors - a couple hundred, perhaps not even that - there was really only One Book, of which the others were merely shadows, translations, their contents filtered and more cryptic to spare the readers minds as they would try to comprehend the Truth behind it all.
Like the room, the One Book was quite small. Its back was red, and its front surprisingly enough, black, perhaps the only occurrence of that color in the whole Upper Realm, bar the soot on the demon's matted fur. The demon reached for it, and hesitated. The angel did not move.
'I can't touch it.' said the demon, turning to his guard, who still did not move, or blink, or give any sign of having heard the remark.
'Could you pick it up for me?' the demon ventured. The angel now seemed to be deep in thought, determined to find the trick behind this. He could not find any concealed treachery, however, and even if the being in front of him was pure evil, as was to be expected, there seemed to be innocence in his words. After all, to be able to come this far, for a Hellspawn, required nothing less than the protection of one of the Trinity and he wasn't about to question Their ways. He reverently picked the book up from the shelf, and handed it to the demon, who recoiled, as if, for a moment, in pain.
'I can't. I can't read the words. Can you please read them for me?'
The angel just stood there for a while, holding out the book.
'Please?' repeated the demon.
Without a change in his expression, the angel took the book in both hands, opened it at page one, and slowly, articulating as if to a child, started reading. Unable to sit down, or make himself comfortable anywhere, this close to the very Sanctuary, the demon just stood, and listened. A little bit of green ooze secreted from the glands in his facial features as the angel progressed, but went unnoticed by either one.
TARDIS: Windlord. I have awaited you.
'What's your name, son?' the voice said. It was very gentle, like that of his grandfather whom he vaguely remembered. Of course, his Gramps had died when he was only three, so he wasn't sure.
'Or shall I continue calling you Windlord?'
'Ok, Brian. You know what I am?'
That was a tricky question. Brian could guess what the owner of the voice was: an entity, to his best knowledge never before encountered or studied, that was interested solely in making him believe in the existence some sort of Higher Being that controlled his fate. The entire scene seemed to support this conjecture: a cold, black landscape under a red sun, where it was quite difficult to breathe. There was nothing but rock until the horizon plunged into the lava sky. Brian had to look at his feet to keep from going blind; even with his eyes shut, the glow of the blood drenched heavens penetrated his mind. He was damned if he was going to bow down to the ridiculous suggestion of anything supernatural, though.
'I should tell you now, and I don't mean to offend you by this, but I don't believe in you, ok?' he said, adding, hesitantly, 'Whatever you are.'
'I'm a Demon. A monitor on the 7th circle of Hell. I have told you before.'
'Yes. Of course.'
'I thought we should get acquainted before I take you to the depths of eternal damnation. Establish a relationship. You know.'
Brian mentally squinted his eyes at the voice in his head.
'You mean, you want me to trust you?'
'Trust?' the voice sounded a little surprised at the concept. 'You would trust me?'
'Well you haven't harmed me so far.' Brian tried. 'What's your name?'
This time, the voice was really taken aback. Or at least, it went silent for a bit. For a moment, Brian was scared he had offended it or scared it away with his inquisitive, skeptical nature, and that he'd be stranded in this Godforsaken place for ever; but he couldn't very well go on the journey being proposed without knowing who he was talking to, right? He was just about to try and move about, walk towards the North perhaps - if there was such a thing here - and see if he could figure out where he was, when he felt the presence regain its strength.
Brian waited. When it was apparent that nothing else
was forthcoming, he said, cunningly, 'What?'
'Oh. Well met, Bunu, demon of the 7th circle.'
'Likewise, Brian, human of the 17th year.'
There was another silence as both parties were evaluating what had just been said. Then the presence suddenly grew in strength, and a sort of shadow grew on Brian's left side, in the corner of his eyes.
'Well. Let's go.'
He had found the precedent he had needed. It was actually incredibly clever, and gotten him more than he could ever have hoped for. He had first looked into the small group of people - writers, mostly - who had claimed to have travelled through Hell, but that had turned out to be a scam. Most had never gotten even close during their lifetime. "Too many mushrooms" he had written on the file he kept, next to the names. Then there were several heroes who had defied Hell's sacred gates, who after careful research had apparently never existed except in myth and tall tales. He slowly began to despair, until he remembered the conversations in the chat room. A hunch, but a brilliant one.
It was the only way to let a volunteer keep his body. If he couldn't keep his body, he would never be allowed back; the bureaucracy wouldn't stand for it. The authorities had listened patiently to his plans, and considered them as foolish as he had thought them brilliant.
'A second temptation of Christ? How redundant is that?'
'Besides, this volunteer of yours - who is to say he is really Christ? We have had no communication about the End of Days having been set in motion.'
'No, he isn't Christ, at least, not that I know of. He's an atheist ' Bunu tried.
'An atheist? What in Beelzebub's name,' one said, but then quickly glanced on one of the larger demons in the meeting, who simply blinked a few eyes, gesturing him to continue, 'what in His name would we do with an atheist?'
'I ' Bunu started, but the large demon rose from where he'd been resting. There were more gaping maws and bugging eyes clapped on him than present at a Convention of 'Demons With An Extremely Large Amount Of Maws And Eyes,' and his wings out-spanned those of any demon there, or of any demon in existence - but all that didn't really worry Bunu. What was worrying, was that he, a foreign, comparatively new demon had caught the attention of Lucifer, something which he had studiously avoided thus far.
'Bunu,' several of Lucifer's mouths rumbled. The others just gaped at him, hungrily. Bunu waited - anything he said could only make this worse. He looked up at the demon.
'Bunu,' the mouths repeated, 'you go ahead and bring this atheist of yours in.' It is perhaps fair to mention here that most important demons do not communicate orally, if they can, for having the biology of a demon generally means that facial features such as mouths are either in abundance, or completely absent. Having been involved with humans so closely during his first years, however, Bunu had ears as human as you'd find on any demon, and Beelzebub's words sounded as if they'd been uttered by a small crowd of people, some of which were old and devoid of teeth, while others were screeching, and still others muttering, unintelligibly, or burping throughout the act of speech.
'You've heard His Lordship. Carry out your plans.'
said the demon, who had first objected to his brainchild. The others,
somewhat grudgingly, conceded to these words, and that is how, now, but
a few days later, Brian and Bunu have reached the fabled Gates of Hell.
'An escalator?' Brian repeated, for the fifth time.
'There has been talk of installing an elevator to replace the entire system,' Bunu answered. Brian stared blankly at the scene that unfolded before him. 'You should see the state in which some of our souls are when they pass the check in. It is difficult to let go of the memory of one's body in the first moments after death. Of course, after a few hundred years of agony, they wish they could forget.'
As Bunu explained this, they passed through an immense lobby, which on one end had large stained glass doors, on the other a series of large escalators all disappearing into black, sucking depths. There seemed to be a slight draft, a waft of warm air being expulsed from the back of the lobby, from the escalators. Cutting through the middle of the whole space was a seemingly endless row of desks, at several of which were queues of transparent shapes well, queuing. When these passed a desk, they were guided by small lights to a specific escalator, and disappeared into the void. Now, Brian could see above them, set in big, gothic black letters against the soft red background, a strange phrase:
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate.
'What's that mean?' Brian asked, silently trying to pronounce words.
'I'm not sure,' Bunu said, 'it's been there for quite a while now. The management thought it was a good idea.' He went silent in contemplation, before adding, 'I wonder if anyone notices.'
'Perhaps it says "This way down."', Brian chuckled. They passed the desks without any difficulty, far to the left of the centre of the room, where there were no queues. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be far fewer queues than the room was originally designed to process. A thought caught up with Brian's senses, and commandeered after a short struggle his mouth.
'Hell has a management?', he said thoughtfully, to no one in particular. Something in the shadows drew a deep breath.
'Well,' Bunu said, 'there was of course a time when Hell was a small enterprise, founded by his Lordship Lucifer, who took his know-how and the economic insight he'd gotten from his time with the Creator and started on his own, with a small crew of devout followers. It was touch and go for a while as they fought for survival among other older, and often more popular, afterlives, but with the spreading of the Holy Word, Hell was one step ahead of the competition: the partnership deal for souls, sealed now almost six thousand years ago, between both sides was perhaps the most important step in creating the current domination of the market as we currently know it. You see, Hell serves not only the three greatest religions, but also lends its services to freelance or short-lived phenomena, like suicidal sects, mass murders, or the various plagues and diseases man brings upon himself. One of our souls once said, during its lifetime, "I am not an evil man, but I have done evil things." Here, it has the opportunity to carefully consider the full meaning of those words until the End of Days.'
'Ah,' Brian said, but the deluge of words had not stopped yet.
'Having grown so large, and serving so many different needs, Hell has passed out of the hands of Lord Lucifer, however. He still remains the chairman of the board, but I dare say his function is now more that of an advisor, than that of a decision maker - he is no less powerful than in the early days, but the focus of his power has shifted. And with the decline in souls in the recent decades, even his current influence and guidance have been questioned.' Bunu paused, and added, almost under his breath, 'Though not within his hearing range.'
'How come you know all this?' Brian asked.
'Research, and, well, boredom.' Bunu admitted. 'If your job consists of the day in, day out monitoring of the same punishments, after a certain amount of time, you are able to routinely perform your function, and direct your energies at other, more interesting activities.'
'Gossip?' Brian guessed, pleasantly surprised. 'You are much more human than I thought possible. Speaking of which, if we are to continue with this fanciful charade, I had better be able to see you.'
'Charade?' Bunu worried, confusedly, 'See me?'
'Show yourself. I'm tired of looking at a shadow that is just beyond my sight, and listening to a voice in my head.'
'Are you sure?'
'Yes,' Brian lied. He had to get control of this situation somehow. If he wasn't careful, he'd almost admit all of this looked rather convincingly real. He felt the presence leave, and in the shadows, some shape appeared. He turned, and saw well, a demon. There were bits and pieces that were copied after human bits and pieces, and some parts were clearly taken from animals, but the whole, though obviously a functioning, sentient being, was both too ridiculous and too terrifying to fully grasp. After a few moments, his mind started doing what the human mind is so wonderful at doing, and he rather thought Bunu looked like a very big lion, walking on his hind legs, with two or three faces embedded in his belly, and a fringe of arms and tails and appendages. It was all in all probably three times as big as Brian, but so were a lot of people back home, he tried to reassure himself. His knees felt sort of weak, though.
'Well,' Bunu's voices roared, 'we best get on.'
'Eh, Bunu?' Brian gasped, clinging on to some piece of furniture nearby, his eyes tearing and his body trembling, quickly asked, 'Could you please use the voice in my head again? Please?'
'Sure thing, Brian,' Bunu's voice soothed him, 'whatever keeps your system from collapsing.'
It was only now after recovering that Brian took notice that what he had gripped - a turnstile? - was not made of anything he'd call normal matter. He looked around, and went over to a nearby desk. The corners were smoothed, and shone softly, as if a thin layer of moisture had recently been applied to it. Carefully, he stroked the top of the desk.
'Ivory?' he frowned. Bunu watched him, but did not reply. Brian looked at the floor, at the ceiling, then at the escalators. Slowly, it dawned to him. Suspiciously, he closed in on the escalators, looking at everything around him. He sunk through his knees, and watched the stairs roll down. From afar, he had noticed they had been dark red, as most of the back wall was, and parts of the floor. What he had not seen, was that the material was not steel, or plastic it was flesh. Organs. Muscles.
This room was alive.
His eyes widening, he stood up and backed away from the hole in the ground that swallowed the endless stream of soul carrying steps.
'Yes.' Bunu affirmed his unspoken realization. 'Hell is, for the most part, a living being.'
They stood there for the largest part of an eternity, before Brian's mind filled with a peculiar sort of resolution. Silently, he moved up to the escalator he had backed away from, looked at it, and stepped on. Bunu shrugged - a gesture which Brian luckily missed in his current focus, for it would surely have ruined his attempt to salvage his mind - and followed.
There's darkness, and then there's darkness. You've got the thick, heavy kind, and the lingering, almost alive blackness, sticky darkness, bloodshot darkness, soothing, gentle darkness, blissfully quiet darkness, jittery darkness The darkness that slowly swallowed Brian and Bunu was, of all darknesses, the trickiest kind. Once they entered it, it seemed to lift, and become normal light; and the light outside, in the entrance hall, suddenly seemed far too bright to bear. This darkness seemed to suggest it was best not to look back.
The escalators went down together, side by side, for the longest time, before Brian noticed that there were slight differences in their paths. Some gently started to lift away from theirs, some dropped more steeply than theirs did, while others still just plainly broke away in a curve to the left or right and, after a while, disappeared out of sight. The ones near the centre looked like they were trying to do all of those things at the same time.
'Fourth circle,' Bunu finally observed. 'Not a bad choice.'
Brian realized, all of a sudden, that he had not counted how many escalators there were, exactly - indeed, at first, he had thought it was just one big escalator. Frantically, he tried to picture the large hall, the desks, and the number of escalators, but all he could do was replay the horror of Bunu's appearance from the shadows in his mind, and relive the bone shattering experience of his true voice. He did not believe in Hell, he really didn't, but whatever this place was, it wasn't some corrupted Disneyland attraction.
'Bunu?' he asked, more to keep his mind from idle contemplation - which seemed a bad thing to indulge in, here - than out of real curiosity, 'Didn't you have wings?'
'Yes, I do.' Bunu patiently replied.
'How come when you I didn't they weren't there, I think, in the lobby. Unless we have two very different definitions of what "wings" are, exactly. Perhaps you have a lot of "wings". In which case, Bunu,' Brian babbled, but the demon's voice cut him off.
'I'm not sure I want to...'
Hesitantly, Brian turned his head to where the demon was on the escalator. He saw the now non distinct shape outlined against the aggressive light from outside - he could make out the legs, the torso, and the main head with its manes and, emerging from its flanks, two really, really big Rorschach blots, wide at the end, but quite narrow at the point where they were connected to Bunu. "Butterfly," Brian's trained and tested mind immediately responded to the stimulus. They were not as solid as the rest of Bunu, but they still filtered out most of the light, luckily, for facing it was almost as difficult as staring directly into the sun.
'How come I couldn't see those up there?' Brain asked, turning away again. 'I mean, they're huge. Did you fold them up?'
'No,' Bunu explained, 'they don't fold, or ever disappear. They are, in fact, the only real way in which you can distinguish an otherworldly being from a human. The stuff my wings are made of is not inherent to your reality, and can only be seen in the absence of a certain light - that of logical necessity.'
'Otherworldly being?' Brian inquired, 'is that the politically correct term your "management" wants you to propagate to hide your evil ways?'
'It's my own term, actually,' Bunu riposted, proudly. 'I believe the same set of rules holds true for certain types of being.'
'For a creature of Chaos, you certainly have a logical way of thinking.'
'Chaos? I'm evil, yes, but that does not necessarily make me chaotic. As for logic, I feel that only in Hell it can truly prosper and reach its fullest potential. Logic is wasted on you humans.'
'You're joking, right? We invented logic. It's in the very way our minds are constructed.'
Bunu laughed. It was not as unsettling as when he had spoken out loud, but Brian wished dearly he never had to hear it again.
'You have obviously not been paying attention to what I have told you.' The escalator swayed gently to the right, and started sinking faster, away from the others.
'Logic is in the light, not in the mind.' The temperature was infernal, and rose steadily. This somehow did not affect Brian.
'It is in the way you are able to look at things.' Nothing could be seen in the vast expanse of the cave but the slow dance of the air in the heat.
'Only here, where no light exists, can such fallacy be overcome and can you truly think logically.' the demon concluded solemnly, adding, in a rather more mysterious tone, 'You'll see.'
Brian didn't know what to think, let alone how to think, so he left it at that. It was hard to tell if his eyes were open or shut, whether he was seeing things, and hearing words, or making them up, but none of that mattered. What mattered was that there was a narrowing up ahead, at the end of which was some sort of landing strip. As far as Brian could make out, the escalator just stopped, a few feet above a protrusion that led into a door-sized hole from which a red glow emanated. He could not tell what the strip was protruding from, or if the hole was in a wall or just floating about in space, but he thought the cave still went on behind and beyond their destination.
Coming closer, he noticed a small queue of three or four shapes - souls, he assumed - in front of the hole. They were of a greyish colour, and shifted constantly, and randomly, between a gaseous state and a firm one, vapour turning into limbs, or a piece of a face, or a few strands of hair, and back again.
When they arrived on the strip - the drop had been less steep than Brian had estimated - only one shape was left. It was much smaller, almost half the size of what he vaguely remembered judging the ones in the entrance hall to be.
'It's a child,' Bunu offered.
'I thought children were supposed to be innocent,' Brian frowned.
'We do not judge, Brian. We measure. If the amount of evil in a soul is too great to be erased in Purgatory, no matter what age the human is, it will be processed by us.'
'What did it do?' Brian wanted to know. No further explanation was forthcoming, and the soul passed through the hole - sucked through it, Brian saw. It did not enter willingly. He walked up to it, but could feel no draft, no tugging sensation.
'There are two things you should know. Hell has no effect over human flesh, and human flesh cannot survive here. You have been granted protection from the latter, as long as you are with me. Should we get parted, you will be devoured, and your immortal soul will be trapped here, forever.'
'Oh,' Brian said, and stepped through.
Curiously enough, there was no rush of wind as he saw the now vast floor approach, nor did he seem to be accelerating, at all. Having reached ground level, he just stopped, and there was Bunu, just a few yards from him, talking to something smaller. Well, talking; they were gesticulating at one another. Bunu moved his body parts in what seemed to be anger, while the smaller creature seemed to try and fend him off with apologetic gestures. Just as Brian decided to approach his guide, the Imp, which is what he had decided it was, flew off. It did not have wings like Bunu's, Brian saw as it fluttered over head, but much smaller and more solid ones, which seemed more decorative than useful, yet the Imp managed to gain enough height to disappear in the darkness overhead.
'Was that a Demon, too, Bunu?' Brian asked, as he watched the empty space above them carefully.
'No, not at all. It was a
started a buzzing guttural sound, but stopped, and seemed lost for a word.
'Yes. Perhaps, Imp is not a bad name. Their kind looks after Hell, cleans it, feeds it, you know, they keep an eye on the general tidiness of the place. They can be quite annoying in their thoroughness. They do not have the intelligence of a Demon, or even a Half-Demon.'
'Did it try to clean me up?' Brian asked, but Bunu was already moving toward the centre of the room, so he stopped gazing in the air and followed.
Bunu stopped, and turned. Behind him, Brian could see, hovering some three feet above the ground, a black hole. Coming closer to investigate it, he saw that it actually wasn't a hole, but a sphere, and that it wasn't sucking light, but radiating darkness. The darkness filled the entire room, but for the spot that he was in. Only then did it occur to him that the dim light, that allowed him to see, came from himself - it seemed for the most part to pour out of his very eyes. Surprised at this thought, he closed his right eye, and watched half the room fade into blackness. He wondered what happened to his shadow, in this dark light.
'QUID FLAGRAT' the dark sphere bellowed, its shape distorted with the words, 'NON HABET' - it was not the ground that shook with every sound, Brian noticed, but he himself - 'UMBRAM'. The room was quiet again, and the sphere returned to its former state of smoothness.
'Jeez,' Brian muttered. 'What was that all about?' Like so many of his questions, it went unheard, or at least, unanswered. Bunu, who had not been moved by the outburst of the sphere, reached out towards it, and touched it. Brian almost crouched, expecting another blast, and diverted his eyes. He had developed an almost instinctive knack for looking at Bunu through the corners of his eyes, allowing him to see the Demon without having his mind frantically hitting the panic button, and he did not lose track of him while he turned his head to the right, remembering his words about getting separated. He ducked as closely to the small grey tiles on the floor as he could without sitting down, as he did not trust Hell's physics for one minute.
He looked up again, and the sphere was gone. So was Bunu, and the room. He stood up between the desks of a classroom - a grade school classroom, if the posters of animals and charts of the alphabet on the walls were anything to judge by. He turned round, and there was a chalkboard with things written on it in a language he could not make out, and at the teacher's desk, a single soul was hovering. This one had lost all recollection of its body, apparently, because it was just a white cloud of thick gas, that stretched for about five feet above the ground. Just as Brian looked, it shrank till it was about three feet tall, and moved silently to a desk on his right, in the third row. He felt Bunu approach on his left.
'Where are we?' Brian asked.
'Inside its punishment,' Bunu said, pointing at the soul, which was now violently moving and shaking. Neither the desk nor the chair responded to its distress, but remained immobile. Brian said nothing for a while, only looking at the soul, which continued its behaviour. 'This circle of Hell is reserved for those who disobey the Sixth,' Bunu continued, as if reciting something, 'to a degree where they are not considered mindless, zealous, or purposely efficient.' Brian had moved closer to the soul, and was now mere inches away from it, trying to analyse its slowing movements.
'It was shot?' he asked, not really expecting a reply, after which another possibility dawned on him. 'Or was it shooting?' He carefully reached out to the soul, who had become almost as still as the scenery now, when there was suddenly a delighted groan, and the whole setting vanished. Another Imp appeared instead of it in front of his face, grinning widely. It blocked his view, but they were definitely back in the room with the sphere, for he could see it radiate behind the Imp's face, surrounding its head with a dark corona. Its amber eyes glowed slightly and it occurred to Brian that it was not really grinning, but it simply did not have anywhere near enough lips to cover its rather large and protruding teeth. It growled. Brian inhaled and started to back off, not sure of the Imp's intentions.
A massive whoosh of Bunu swept past Brian's vision, hitting the creature in front of him with an audible smack like a passing train. It let out a high-pitched yawp as it was torn up and scattered, parts of it landing on the floor all the way to the edge of Brian's sight. As Bunu composed himself again, the Imp's remains were slowly but surely being consumed by Hell itself, the bits and pieces and slimy fluids sinking into the ground, and disappearing without a trace.
'Like I said,' Bunu said, turning to Brian, 'very annoying.'
He moved towards the sphere again, and reached into it. For a brief moment,
it radiated intensely, covering Brian's sight with a silken void, which
was quickly filled with another scene.
A dense fog stretched out to all sides, covering what seemed to be a tropical jungle. Muffled sounds could be heard - screams and explosions, mainly from the left, and water flowing around from behind them and stretching out to the right. There was something like heavy breathing and stumbling footsteps up ahead, but nothing stirred in the limited distance Brian was able to see. The sounds stopped, and started again just as suddenly. Frowning, he reached forward into the mist, to see if anything was hiding there. He hesitatingly waved his hand about, peering into the wall of cloud, when suddenly he felt something hard something cold. Metal.
With a hungry roar, all the fog was sucked to the spot in front of him, as if by a huge machine, condensing into a shape that grew into a person, who started advancing on him. With the fog gone - it now only lingered at the edge of sight - Brian could see they were in the middle of heavy fighting: parts of the landscape were on fire, and on the banks of the river bodies - or parts of bodies - could be seen lying scattered.
It was clearly a human being that came limping towards him - not a very tall one, but a man, with broad shoulders, and a grin of pain on his face. Judging by the dark green clothing he had on, he was a soldier, and a badly wounded one. There were very serious wounds in his upper left arm, and his sides; it was a miracle he was even standing, let alone moving about. He had a gun in his hand, which he raised at Brian while he staggered from the tree he had been leaning against to the next, along the path they were standing on. As the soldier passed, Brian saw that he was not exactly holding the gun, but it was melted to his hand, the flesh sticking in strands to the grip and trigger. His eyes were bloodshot, and he stank of vomit, crusts of which seemed to be clinging to his shirt and face.
Half way along his intended path, the soldier spun around, looked wildly at Brian and shouted at the top of his voice: 'Alright, start snowing you badgers!'. He swayed his gun around, coarsely laughing, turned around again and merrily shot off his own foot. Screaming in agony, the man dropped to his knees, muttering things under his breath - curses, perhaps, though none in a language Brian understood.
'What what was that?', Brian turned to Bunu, trying to see what the soldier had shouted about, or to whom, but nothing in the scenery had changed since the fog had retreated.
'I believe,' the Demon answered, 'it was something about badgers.' Brian stared at the soldier, who was trying to crawl onward along the path. 'Remember, you are not really hearing words; you're listening to the utterances of a soul, which has an entirely unique manner of communication.'
'Are you saying "Start snowing you badgers" is the language of the soul?'
'You'd be surprised.'
The soldier, in extreme pain from the many wounds - which, Brian saw, were rapidly infecting, and must have been burning intensely - dropped to his side, and with difficulty turned over to face the way he had come. The blood and dirt on his face mingled with tears, and his voice was trembling as he wheezed, barely audible: 'The leering is more car'. He lifted the gun up to his head, and blew his face off. Flesh and bone debris flew into the bushes behind him, but most of his brain landed with a wet smack against the tree the soldier had been trying to reach, a few feet further on.
Brian felt his knees turn to jelly and his stomach twist - he had been able to convince himself this was all a show up to now, fake, nothing worse than he had seen in movies or games - but his senses were telling him differently, and just as the vision faded, his overly meticulous mind pointed out to him that, even though the man should have been very dead from that blast, the hand with the gun had not dropped limply to his side, but had stayed exactly where it was: pointing at his faceless head.
'The flesh the soul was made of is not real,' Bunu explained, releasing the orb. 'Neither was the jungle, the war, or the death he sought. Only the pain is real here. Pain, suffering, hate and the Imps; do not look for anything else beyond this point.'
There was an opening in the wall behind Bunu, not unlike the hole they had stepped through to enter the place, only this one was, surprisingly enough, white. Or at least, it pushed out a clear, fluctuating stream of light, that met the looming darkness inherent to this part of Hell with frantic little dancing movements, as if trying to stay out of its grip. Bunu motioned Brian to enter it, and for a brief moment Brian thought he saw Bunu's wings again, but it was hard to tell with the dark air hardening around him to ward off the intrusion of brightness. With a quick lunge, he reached the opening and passed through it. There was no antechamber this time, nor did he experience any physical discomfort while his body was torn up and reassembled neatly again in another place.
'That passage way is actually meant for Imps, as you call them. It would be most . . . distressing . . . for you to travel through hell like a Demon does, what with your body still intact and all.' Bunu met him, patiently waiting for him to stop falling to the floor every time he tried to walk. 'The effects will soon wear off.'
'Is that how you got here before me? Air Demon?' Brian smirked, scrambling to his feet once again. His legs seemed to be steadying already.
'How then? You came in after me, and I'm positive I saw no bits of you overtake bits of me.' His eyesight was either playing tricks on him, or the room they were in was growing and shrinking steadily. It was not as large, when at it's largest, as the Fourth circle, but at it's smallest it still made for a decent place to hold a rock concert.
'Actually, I never went in. I took the long way here.' Bunu turned, and sauntered off towards the far left of the room.
'Rather walk than use the common folk's ride, eh.' Brian took a few shaky steps, felt confident, and took a few more.
'That still doesn't explain how you got here first, if you took the long way.'
'It took you over three hours to get through, Brian. It seems that Imp physiology is more apt to accept de- and reconstruction than yours.'
'Oh.' Brian said, and tumbled.