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.