Part of Apex of Creation
I stood still, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness before continuing. The air reeked of sulfur, and the heat was oppressive and stifling.
I was standing on a dark red brick path, leading off into the distance. With no other obvious cues to follow, I set off down the trail.
Progress was slow, and this part of Hell appeared to be sparsely populated. The road seemed to be going nowhere in particular, meandering by burning lakes of fire, pits of sulfur, and rivers of steaming blood. I hoped that Heaven had angels that were more tactful than Cael, because I was going to need some therapy after this.
Then something spoke and I tripped over myself in shock. “You’re living!” a gravelly demonic voice said. It wasn’t English, but I understood it just fine.
“Yeah, I am.” I said, as I picked myself up and looked around for the demon. It was standing on the side of the path, tending to a pit of tormented souls. “I have an appointment with Lucifer, if you can point me towards wherever that would be?”
“Uh…. Castle. That way.” He pointed farther down the path. Sure enough, I could see the faint outline of a castle in the distance.
“Thanks,” I said, as I knelt and re-tied my shoes.
That was when I noticed that all of the paving stones had faces. The road was paved with the souls of the damned, and I’d just spent the last however many hours treading all over them. At least everyone here deserved it. Right?
Yeah, I was definitely going to need that therapist. One thing was for sure, though - I definitely did not want to end up here when I died.
For what felt like another eternity, I made my way to the castle, walking just off the edge of the road whenever possible. As the castle grew closer, my philosophical concerns about the penalties of hell diminished, as a much more pressing issue presented itself: What exactly the hell (heh) was I going to say to Lucifer?
After what seemed like another eternity, I neared the castle. It was an impenetrable fortress, surrounded by a moat of molten sulfur, with exactly one entrance. The castle itself was, like the road, built out of damned souls.
The drawbridge lowered, and I stepped across.
Two demon guards emerged from the gatehouse, and patted me down for weapons. They found the pocketknife, but let me keep it. “It’s a mortal weapon. We don’t care about those.” they explained.
Then, I was escorted through the palace. It was luxurious, opulent, and gruesome. Blood-red carpets - that had probably been dyed with actual blood - covered the floors. Portraits of demons lined the walls. Adjacent plaques credited the demons with their various achievements in tempting humanity.
And then we arrived at the throne room. The demon guards opened the doors, and I was taken aback. The palace was perhaps comically macabre, but the throne room was downright beautiful in all the wrong ways. Ornate fountains of blood were embedded into the walls. Channels of molten sulfur streamed between the stones of a polished soul-brick floor. Great pillars of bone and sinew rose on each side to support a high, arched ceiling that I could barely see. Between the pillars were enormous statues of infamous humans, bathed in jets of flame. As I walked along, I recognized the statue of Adolf Hitler. At the far end of the room, hellhounds laid on carpet-covered steps leading up to the throne.
And what a throne it was. Constructed out of the same soul-bricks as the rest of the castle, it was built into the wall with rivulets of blood and sulfur running down from the ceiling, around the seat, and into the floor. Mounted all along the wall were armor and weapons, casted in a deep blue metal that I didn’t recognize. Interspersed among the weapons were artifacts: a large metal nail, a silver tray, a plain rock, and more.
Lounging on the throne itself was someone who could only be Lucifer. I did not envy whoever had become the stone under his crotch.
“Well, well, well. James Exosia. I have heard so much about you. So nice of you to come see me. I was almost insulted when you declined Alocer’s invitation to my kingdom, but I’m quite glad that you came around.”
“What do you want?” I spat out.
“Skipping past the formalities, I see.” Lucifer smiled. “It’s nice to meet you too. I was hoping that we might be able to come to some type of working relationship. I scratch your back, you scratch mine, that type of thing.”
“By ‘scratching my back’ do you mean ‘calling off Aamon’? Because that seems to be very much your responsibility in the first place.”
“You are right about that, of course. I was just trying to get your attention. But while we’re at it, maybe a favor?”
“Such a hard line negotiator. Look at it this way. There are a few things I’d like - things I can’t do, what with being barred from Heaven and all. If you can help me out, I can return the favor. In fact, I would be in your debt. I am the King of Hell, and it is rare for me to be in debt to anyone.”
“Before any deals get made, you need to call off Aamon.”
“Stubborn. I like that about you humans. Always so sure of themselves. It makes the fall that much sweeter. For me, of course.”
“Call off Aamon.”
“There is a book I’d like.” Lucifer seamlessly continued. “As you may have noticed, I’m a collector. Not only of souls, but also of interesting curios and artifacts.” Lucifer gestured to the wall behind him. “Generally, I prefer things that are divine in origin, but there are a few human artifacts that I like. This rock, for instance-” Lucifer pointed to the ordinary stone on display on the wall “-is what Cain used to kill Abel. Humanity’s first murder.”
“So what’s the book?”
“Ah yes, I digress. It’s a book, or rather a scroll, written and sealed by the apostle John. A historical artifact. Unfortunately, it’s currently located in Heaven, beyond my reach. But not beyond yours.”
I eyed Lucifer warily. “And why do you want it so much that you’d be ‘in debt’ to me?”
Lucifer smiled. “Human collectors often go to great lengths to add desirable pieces to their collections. Why should the same not be true of me?”
I thought about that. It did kind of make sense. “Fair enough.”
“Now, what would you like in exchange? Wealth, power, success, influence, it’s all yours if you like.”
“You haven’t called off Aamon yet.”
“Even love, if you want it.”
That sounded distinctly rapey. I’d give just about anything for a shot with Emily, but I’d been raised well enough to know better than to take up Lucifer on that particular offer. And there was still the problem of her being trapped in the bank.
I stared at Lucifer. “You really have no idea what I want, do you? When Cael introduced me to all this divine drama, I thought he was an insensitive prick. But you really take the cake. There’s more to life than money, power, and sex.”
“James, the only people who say that are poor powerless virgins.”
“See, Lucifer, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m leaving.”
The castle seemed to warp around me. With a gut-wrenching yank, an unseen force dragged me out of the building, and through the hellish countryside to the portal.
In a matter of moments, I’d gone from Lucifer’s throne room to the coffee shop. I checked my phone - time was still stopped. I left the shop and slowly biked back to the bank. This time, however, I approached from the rear - Cael and Aamon were still engaged in battle at the front.
I snuck up to the rear door, and used my pocket knife to open the door latch from the outside.
Once inside, I surveyed the situation, looking for anything I could use. There were two robbers, one guarding the hostages, and one looking out the front window. One robber had a shotgun; the other had a handgun.
I turned my attention to the hostages. I recognized Emily, of course. But then I noticed one hostage in an awkward stance, with an odd bulge at his waistline. I lifted his shirt. Sure enough, the bank patron had a concealed gun, and he’d apparently been trying to discreetly draw it when time had stopped. That gave me an idea. I checked his wallet and confirmed that he was legal.
Then I approached the robbers. I hadn’t done much with firearms since Boy Scouts, but I was able to remove all the ammunition, and reload it all backwards. These robbers would, someday, be featured in lists of “dumbest criminals” by (supposedly) loading their guns with all the ammo facing the wrong way. But the more important thing was that their weapons were now useless.
As I replaced the handgun magazine into the pistol, I briefly made skin contact with with robber - and I felt Aamon. The demon had strong influence over the robber.
Unfortunately, Aamon felt me as well. Abandoning his fight with Cael, he burst into the bank, staring at me in disbelief.
I took a few steps out of the line of fire, closed my eyes, and concentrated. I focused, and let go of my grip on time.
A lot happened in the next few seconds. I shouted to distract the robbers, and both of them turned their attention and weapons to me. The bank patron with the gun took the opportunity provided by the distraction, drew, and fired. The robbers attempted to shoot back, but their weapons clicked uselessly. The police, upon hearing the gunshots, burst into the bank, just as the two robbers collapsed. The bank patron, it seemed, was a good shot.
“So, the weakling Hybrid actually does something.” Aamon said, in a condescending tone, as the police secured the bank lobby. I would have responded, but I was busy keeping my hands in plain sight. Aamon walked over to the bodies of the fallen robbers and scooped out their souls. “Maybe you’ll amount to something someday.” With that, Aamon disappeared through the floor.
Once the police cleared the hostages and took everyone’s statement, Emily practically tackled me. “I had no idea you were here too!”
“Yeah, I came out of the bathroom, noticed that guy over there had a gun, and waited for an chance to distract the robbers.” It was the same story I’d given to the police. It wasn’t completely false.
“Well I’m just glad you’re safe. I can’t be losing my study partner!”
“Hey, same to you.”
The police ushered us towards an ambulance where paramedics took our vitals. We were alright. They passed out information on local PTSD counselors, and turned their attention elsewhere.
The bank patron who’d shot the robbers came over. “Hey man. I’m Daniel.”
I’d already seen his name on his driver’s and gun licenses, but had forgotten it in the subsequent chaos. “James.” We shook hands. “Thanks for getting us all out of this mess”
“Yeah… Um, thanks for providing the distraction. I overheard the police saying something about the robbers’ guns being loaded backwards though so… I dunno.” Daniel’s eyes glassed over and he slumped down on the ambulance bumper next to us.
“Look, Daniel. We’ve all been through a lot, you most of all. You need to go home, get some sleep, and talk to a lawyer and a therapist.”
“The police said it was a clean shoot. No charges.”
“Just the therapist then.”
“Yeah. I should probably do that.”
“Hey man. You did the right thing. All of us get to go home safe because of you. You had no way of knowing that the ammo was all backwards. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
“I suppose. You know any good therapists?”
I chuckled weakly. “I could ask the same to you.”
Then another police officer came over and whisked Daniel away for something else.
“Hey, Emily, I’m sorry you had to go through that for as long as you did. I made a move as soon as I could.” Again with the half-truths.
“Don’t worry about it.” Emily took my hand, and rested her head on my shoulder. I had just escaped Hell. Now, sitting on the back bumper of an ambulance outside a grisly crime scene, I was in Heaven.