In Which This Abruptly Becomes a Comedy Featuring Incontinent Animals, And We Return To Hell

January 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Psych! But who knows about the fuuutuuure?

I do. There will be no incontinent animals, and if there are, then you can be sure I’ll get my best men on it. Yes, not only do I have men, I have tiers of men, allowing me to pick only my best as the situation demands it.

The other one will have to sit this one out.

In other news, my friend pointed out that I had made an error in the first post of this story. Apparently, planes do not fall from the sky at over Mach 1. My bad, but this has since been corrected. You can view the correction here.

Finally, have another chapter!

VII.

Light sparkled in the sky above the coach. Amira was tempted to call it the Sun, but it wasn’t. The Sun, or as his friends call him, Helios, refers to a particular star in a particular solar system in a particular galaxy, in a particular universe.

Namely, ours, which this light was most definitely not in.

Amira rode with Mr. Saturday on the back of a coach pulled by skeletal horses. They rode through peaceful fields where red and yellow flowers waved back and forth in a gentle breeze. Spider rode in Amira’s hair and the occasional brush of one of his legs against her ear sent shivers down her spine. She was not happy with her present circumstances, and trusted neither Mr. Saturday, the blood-drinking Loa spirit of Death, nor Spider, who now rode atop her as though she was his personal coach.

She focused on the fields to distract her from her worries. There was little she could do, in any case. The next morning after the awful party had ended, or at least what passed for morning in Hell, Mr. Saturday burst into her room and opened the blinds. Light slowly trickled in, as though the false sun was loathe to give up it’s bounty. Nevertheless, it was bright enough to blind Amira.

Bon matin, cher! Get up and get going now! We’ve hit the big time, ain’t we just!”

A skeleton, dressed in an immaculate black suit, tails and all, laid a silver breakfast tray across her lap. The smells rising from the platter woke her immediately. There was coffee there. Perhaps Amira did not understand the metaphysical nature of food and nutrition in the afterlife, but such concerns were obliterated by her nose and her gut.

There. Was. Coffee.

She greedily slurped down the dark coffee before answering.

“Did you and your guests finish your business last night?” Amira enquired, Spider’s words about Mr. Saturday’s trustworthiness still in her head.

There was the tiniest twitch in Mr. Saturday’s eyes. “Ah, oui, an’ it was as grand as I hoped it would be. And as a reward, cher, we’re goin’ on a trip today! Pandaemonium, the Free City, ah, she calls to me and it’s been far too long since I called her back. You ain’t seen the sites, no no, you ain’t even begun to imagine what it’s like! The lights! The sounds! The action! It is all the best things in life, and all the best that the afterlife can offer, and it’s all ours, cher!”

His smile was so close to genuine that Amira could almost believe him. But every look at him just reminded her of the horrific scene from the night before, when blood dripped down his chin and his skeletons flayed the flesh from the corpse. The butler stood at attention at the door, and Amira wondered if it was the woman’s skeleton that stood before her, now pressed into Mr. Saturday’s service. She suppressed a shudder.

“So please, enjoy your breakfast and freshen up at your leisure, but don’t lay about! We’ve a city to conquer!’ He patted her knee and Amira’s skin crawled at his touch. She forced a wan smile on her face, and for a second met his eyes. There was nothing but a fierce hunger in them, one that wanted to reach out with a desire that was physical.

But with that, he swooped out of the room and left the butler to watch from the doorway. Amira shuddered and collapsed back onto the bed, breakfast and her hunger momentarily forgotten.

“I wouldn’t do that if I was you, no no no no. That skelly’s got no eyes but it’s watching you. It got no lips, but it’ll tell everything you do back to him, and that would be bad for you.” Spider’s voice, as close as a lover’s to her ear, nearly set her screaming again but she swallowed her fear and surprise and sat up.

“Don’t speak, just do. Eat, cause souls can starve too, and then dress like you going to a ball, because baby, he weren’t lying. Pandaemonium ain’t nothing you ever seen.”

So she found herself in the back of a coach, riding across gentle fields beside Mr. Saturday. He had been quiet, but the hours of silence were driving Amira mad.

“This place doesn’t match any image of Hell I’ve ever heard of. It’s…peaceful. Nice, really. Is it a trick or something?”

Mr. Saturday chuckled. “No trick, nothing like that. Demons ain’t like how you mortals thought they are. They’re just like you, only older and more powerful. A couple are wiser, but most are just plain stupid.” He chuckled again at his joke. “But this ain’t all fire and brimstone because that gets boring. They miss the upside world, just as much as the souls here do. A few flowers an’ a little sun just remind ’em of the home they used to have.”

“Used to?” Amira asked, now intrigued. Religion hadn’t even intrigued her before, but this went beyond fat old men arguing about 1000-year-old texts, and she was tired of being on the back foot. She had come from a design firm, damn it, and she was used to being on the cutting edge. Not knowing what was happening, though she was loathe to admit it, terrified her.

“Yep. Once was a time when the borders ‘tween the realms weren’t so thick and spirits moved through with a little more ease. Most of the demons here remember what the Sun looked like, and what it felt like to have the wind ruffle your hair. But they haven’t able to wander free up there in a long time, so long you mortals don’t even have words for it. The faerie realms aren’t the same, so they made this place to look like home. Not, y’know, Home, cause Lucifer wouldn’t stand for that, but the home they wanted.”

They rode in silence after that. A rabbit made its way through the flowers, while birds sang as they circled among the clouds. It was perfect, Amira thought, but too perfect. Like someone had taken a picture and made it move. When she looked closer, she could tell. The flowers followed a pattern to their movements. First one hill would bend to the wind, and then rushing like a wave it would ripple across the others before starting again. The same rabbits nuzzled at the same flowers, and even the placement was too perfect. Each plant was set in perfect, orderly rows, and the grass was cut as neat as a golf green. Now that she knew, Amira could hardly stand to look at the beautiful field.

A blue butterfly danced along the side of the coach, somehow keeping up with the skeletal horses. Amira reached out and gently cupped it in her hands. It fluttered vainly against her grasp, but couldn’t fight her as she brought it into the coach. Once her hands came back inside, the butterfly stopped fighting. Amira opened her hands, but all she held was a bit of ash.

“You remember that, young one, you remember that well. That’s what happens to dreams down here. They look real nice, and so close, almost exactly like the real thing. So much like the real thing you could grab it and be certain you got a hold of it. But once you do get your hands on it…poof. And there ain’t nothing left but ash.”

Spider giggled in her ear, and Amira threw the ash outside the window.

A moment later, another blue butterfly followed the coach down the road.

Amira, having no concept of how time passed in Hell, decided that it was a few hours later when they spotted the outer walls of Pandaemonium. Time, as it were, did not actually pass in Hell. Time didn’t matter once you died and left all those unfortunate dimensions behind you. Distance, so closely linked to Time that Gravity wondered why the two didn’t just get one with it and marry each other already, also did not matter, but Hell, like Heaven, was populated with things that were intimately familiar with Distance and Time. So familiar, in fact, that they could not completely shake the feeling that they were necessary things. The combined belief of billions upon billions of souls also added to the weight of that feeling. The replica of the Sun came and went because those souls believed that a Sun ought to rise and set in a manner approximating Earth’s. Further, things ought to take Time, because things took Time on Earth.

Distance, remember, did not exist, because the physical no longer existed. Physics has no idea how many Angels could dance on the head of a pin because that is asking the same sort of question as “how much does justice weigh?” A few bitter scientists decided that a court case would be one standard Justice Unit (sju), just to shut up those smug philosophy students, but the question remains and is unanswerable. However, those billions of souls could not, in fact, believe that you could have everything mixed up in a big jumble that thumbed its nose at things like Time and Distance. Those in Heaven wouldn’t know how many Angels could dance on the head of a pin, but if the question came up, there would suddenly be an awful lot of pins and uncomfortably-waltzing Angels.

The remainder of the coach ride felt like several hours of cramped, uncomfortable bucking because Amira, and billions of other souls, believed that coach rides ought to be several hours of cramped, uncomfortable bucking. Mr. Saturday, it should be noted, was distinctly annoyed by the end of the trip. Even the Loa, with the power of millions of believers, have to bow to the combined belief of the billions who believe in Distance and Time.

Time, it should be noted, is a smug bastard at the best of times.

Amira leaned out the window as the light (she still refused to call it the Sun) was setting in a perfect blaze of reds and oranges, and just as it alighted atop of Pandaemonium. The city glowed in the half-light. Buildings of all types soared up to the sky like the arms of a thousand eager students, each trying to outdo the other and impress their professor. Searchlights threw their light on Byzantine palaces, medieval castles, glistening sky scrapers, and thousands of other types of building. Neon signs hung from every conceivable corner, each advertising a stranger experience than the last. Amira gave up trying to figure out why someone would want a “warm worm massage” as opposed to a “Mongolian tickler”, and just let herself be wowed by the sight. It was the best and worst of New York, Rome, Las Vegas, Paris, Moscow, and Beijing rolled together, stamped on, chewed up for a bit, and spat out piece-by-piece.

“Marvellous and hideous, ain’t it? I don’t come here nearly as often as I should, and every time I do, I remember why.” Mr. Saturday gestured with his walking stick. “You could get lost in there forever just trying to sample everything they had to offer. Even myself, I ain’t completely immune to all the charms of Pandaemonium. The Free City, they call it. My, but it’s a dangerous thing to be free. You stay close, Amira, and I’ll show you a good time.”

“Yes,” Spider murmured, “he would want you to stay close to him for now. You need to talk to Yaga. Baba Yaga. Talk to her, and I’ll find us a way out, heehee! Holes and cracks and dark places, that’s what spiders know best, and Baba Yaga knows where all of them are. But first, I must away.”

Amira’s heart began racing. She did not want to be alone again, and most definitely not with Mr. Saturday, but she could say nothing, and not even react. She suspected that Mr. Saturday would not take kindly to her hosting Spider on her body, and so kept her face as calm as she could.

“Don’t worry none, I’ll be back. You won’t recognize me, but I’ll recognize you! Hee hee!”

Amira felt something crawl down her back and saw the little spider scurry out the window. The fact she was alone again plunged her heart into her stomach and made her nauseous with fear. But she folded her hands across her lap and smiled primly at Mr. Saturday.

“I’m looking forward to it, Mr. Saturday.”

She resisted the urge to fidget.

With the sole exception of the inhabitants, Pandaemonium was not fundamentally different from any major human city. Most of the human souls ambled about happily in traditional clothing of one time period or another, but many of the demons enjoyed outlandish appearances. Here, a gigantic worm in a top hat strolled along beside a half-naked half-lion-half-woman, while there, two gargoyles argued in a corner. A tall praying mantis behind a grill served fried something and clacked his mandibles as Amira rolled by.

While certainly the architecture did strange things to her perception, and some of the advertised services were extreme, even by Amsterdam standards, Amira could tell it was the free-market capitalist’s dream. If you had the money, then you could have, well, anything. Amira rolled under flashing billboards that advertised food, drink, sex, drugs, death, violence, fast cars, peaceful scenery, feelings of love and togetherness, and most peculiarly and most commonly, the chance to work at certain jobs again. There was a long line-up of human (souls, Amira supposed, like her), demons, ubiquitous in their impeccable suits, and large troll and fairy things that she assumed were from another realm. Not that Amira actually understood what was meant by “another realm”, but already her mind was categorizing and analyzing, trying to see how the pieces fit without forcing them. What was most peculiar was that they were all in a line-up for the memory of brushing one’s teeth. The tusked trolls, it seemed, never really got the feeling right.

The streets were crowded and the lights seemed perpetually dimmed, like it was always a peculiar twilight. It comforted Amira, for reasons that she wasn’t certain about. Shadows just seemed more comforting to her since waking up in the dark. She was dressed in black again, Mr. Saturday’s favourite colour, and wore a dress any proper American lady of the late 19th century would be proud to be seen in. Excepting, of course, that it was cut to accent her figure, displayed a significant amount of cleavage, and made her feel like an over-dressed stripper. Amira shrugged inside, figuring there was little she could do, but she drew the line at the bonnet. The skeleton butler was nearly implacable, but Amira had threatened him with a lamp and it backed down. It seemed the afterlife was also about the little victories, and that included never wearing a bonnet.

Tall figures in hooded blue robes peppered the streets and nodded to the coach as it rolled by. They seemed to be everywhere and interested in everything; they checked documents of random people and hovered uneasily around rough-looking inhabitants.

Mr. Saturday anticipated her question when he noticed her staring.

“Those boys are the Arbiters. Lucifer runs a damn tight ship here, and they’re his boots on the ground, cher. There is no crime here, period, and everyone is as free as the birds, to stay or to fly or to die. The Arbiters, though, they don’t take kindly to no-one being so much as rude to another here spirit, demon or fey or mortal. They’ll lock you right up if you so much as blink unkindly at someone else.”

“That seems restrictive, for the only “free” city. How does he justify it?”

Mr. Saturday shrugged. “He don’t. It’s his city, and so long as he’s in charge of the demonic parliament, his word is law.”

“Wait, you are seriously going to tell me that the demons have a parliament? As in, they have a democratically elected government?”

“Of course!” Mr. Saturday seemed shocked. “They’re not savages, cher.”

They pulled a hard right and the driver’s whip cracked over the crowd to make way. The crowd parted like water around a fish, but Amira noticed a few people cast dirty looks at the coach. They briefly slowed down, and suddenly, like flies stirred from an open wound, human beggars in rags and demon beggars, both of whom looked thin to starvation, ran to the coach and unleashed their desperation.

“Oh please, m’lady, just a memory or two. Just a little taste of what the sun was like, s’all I ask.”

“Water! The feel of water ‘cross bare skin! Please!”

“What was it like to be happy? I don’t know anymore! I don’t know!”

A clawed hand reached out to stroke her and she pulled back sharply. What was going on?

Arbiters swooped down like hawks on sheep and wordlessly tore the flocking beggars apart. They carried black staffs that they swung with silent ferocity. The beggars, human and demon both, screamed when they were struck and disappeared in a black puff of smoke. It smelt of melting tar and gunpowder; of fire and burnt flesh. The scent stung the back of Amira’s throat and set her eyes watering.

Amira stared at the Arbiters in shocked silence. Were the beggars dead, or did they just go somewhere? What happened to you if you died down here? Could you die here? Was this what the demons thought passed for justice?

One of the Arbiters stared at Amira, and though he was faceless beneath his hood, unseen eyes bored into her, question, probing, raping her mind from the inside out. The feeling of violation was so strong that she wanted to shut her eyes and scream the violence away. She could not.

“Begging. Is forbidden.” It rasped, and floated away into the crowd. A few had stopped to watch the beggars be dispatched and had taken it in like it was a comedy scene. One of them, a minotaur wearing a pin-stripe suit, bellowed, “And I didn’t even have to pay for it!”

Amira shut the window and dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. Mr. Saturday patted her on the knee in a singularly dismissive and patronizing way.

“Don’t you worry none, cher, those poor-boys are in for a drubbing. Amon don’t take kindly to those who disrespect his master. You’ll be safe here, by me. They can’t get you, so long as I’m with you.”

There was the barest hint of a threat in his voice, but that was more than enough for Amira.

The palace or, as Mr. Saturday gently reminded her, “ministerial residence, as Hell ain’t got a King,” was luxurious without being too strongly ostentatious. Certainly there were gargoyles and wrought iron and torches sputtering in sconces, but, Amira reckoned, even Hell had to bow to some formalities. The courtyard, however, was large enough to fit the house she had shared with Patrick several times over. She briefly wondered what would happen to it now that they were gone. Regret filled her like sour wine. It had not been theirs long, certainly not long enough for it to be properly filled with memories, but, dammit, for a while it had been theirs. Now they’d never be able to plant the vegetable garden in the backyard, or get a proper postbox at the edge of the road, or get a doorbell that played the Mexican Hat dance.

Amira did not always agree with her husband’s life choices, but regret only comes in one-size-fits-all.

Black-and-green uniformed guards snapped to attention and helped her down from the coach. They seemed roughly human-sized, but wore masks over their faces. The masks were carved into wondrous and dizzying designs that spiralled and looped and bled off into endless whorls and patterns. Amira wondered what sort of demon huddled behind those masks, but decided not to press it. She received her assistance with an imperious nod, and took Mr. Saturday’s arm as he offered it.

She blinked. It had not been a conscious decision. He had offered his arm, and hers had moved without her say. Now that she noticed, it bothered her. Mr. Saturday’s was thinner than Patrick’s, and more angular. And colder. It felt wrong to be holding another’s arm, formality or no. Amira frowned and gently withdrew her arm under the guise of fixing her hair. She did not give it back to him when she had finished.

The manor was an impressive house that looked like a Victorian mansion had gotten into a fight with a Babylonian palace. Gaudy furniture was strewn around in rooms that featured marble statues the size of mini-vans. Several suited demons nodded as they passed through, but Mr. Saturday walked with determined purpose. He knew exactly where he was going, and the quick tack-tack-tack of his cane marked his progress as he strode along.

Amira hustled to keep up. She wasn’t used to petticoats, and after a few metres, just gave up, bunched up the skirts, and ran after him.

“In a hurry?”

“Don’t wanna keep the man waitin’!” Mr. Saturday’s smile was strained, and Amira noticed he was speeding up.

“What man, Adramelech?”

Mr. Saturday didn’t respond. They had arrived at a double-door, black, and easily three times Amira’s height. Carved into the doors was a scene of a man falling through the clouds. They were forced to stop before it, but Amira could have hardly forced herself to move. The image of the man struck deep into Amira’s heart and burrowed there. It was not his face, though it was beautiful, wracked with pain and anguish and beautiful because of the pain. It certainly wasn’t the way his limbs flailed about, as though the wings on his back didn’t work as he expected them to, nor was it the landscape of a burning sky. What caught Amira’s eye was not the beauty of the man, nor the artistry of the carving.

The expression of his face, now that she could study it, was not actually rage or pain. It was doubt. The agony was too exquisite to be anything but, and Amira understood the feeling.

The doors groaned open as some unseen force drew them inwards. The hall was long and dark, and someone waited for them at the end. Despite Mr. Saturday’s assurances of his democratic status, it was clear what the truth was:

Lucifer sat on nothing but a throne.

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