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.