Part of Apex of Creation
Kevin moved his mouth to speak. Before any sound came out, I instinctively grabbed onto time. Kevin froze, but the dark tendrils of smoke emanating from the floor did not.
“The pit’s open.” I announced to Emily.
It took a few moments of silence to remember that Emily was frozen too. Oops. I took her hand - I certainly wasn’t going to complain about that - and pulled her into the instant between moments with me.
“The pit’s open.” I repeated.
Now she was staring at it, her eyes wide.
“Is that... Hell?” she asked.
“Oh man, I wasn’t ready for this!” Emily looked from the pit, to me, and back to the pit.
“Me neither. But we have a Scroll to steal back.” I said, as I closed the closet behind me, and reopened it to the normal version. “We’ve got the climbing gear, and an entrance to Hell right in front of us.”
Emily looked back to the pit. She seemed to be hesitating. Then she suddenly made eye contact. “What’s Hell like?”
I noticed that her skin was starting to glisten from the heat, adding to her attractiv- No, stop it James. “Well, it’s hot and smelly, there’s blood and sulfur everywhere, and damn near everything is constructed out of the souls of the damned.”
“Sounds like a lovely place.” Emily said, sarcastically.
“And you can’t get hurt, at least, not physically. And you can leave whenever you want to, just by wanting to go.”
“Alright.” Emily said, working up the nerve. “Let’s do this.”
I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. I could only hear the rush of the hot air blasting past me, and feel the smoke and ash stinging my eyes and burning my lungs. Emily’s hand was clamped firmly around mine.
And then the ground came rushing up to meet us. We landed with a crunch that would have shattered bone and pulverized organs, if that fall had been done on Earth.
After a few moments, I sat up, my head spinning, and looked around. Emily was crumpled next to me, her dress already streaked with soot. She sat up too.
“That hurt my mind” Emily said. “How many times have you done that?”
“Just once, when the Scroll was stolen.” I answered. “But I had the luxury of landing on a demon.”
I stood up, and shed my suit jacket and button-down shirt. I would worry about explaining their loss later. I gave Emily a hand up. “Welcome to Hell.”
“Very funny.” Emily looked down. “Aaaand my dress is ruined.”
“It’s ok, I think you’re cute anyways.” I said. I felt bolder after the kiss, but it wasn’t just the heat making my face red.
Emily smiled. “Aww, thanks.” She looked around. We were in a hellish countryside. The ground and sky were red. Small sheds and other structures dotted the landscape, and Lucifer’s castle was visible in the distance. “So what now?”
I pointed. “That’s the castle. The Scroll will be there.”
Emily had picked up the climbing equipment. “Then let’s go.”
We started walking. It was hot, dry, and windy. Gusts of wind ripped across our path, filling our noses with sulfur and death. Blood flowed like water through ditches. The shacks, it turned out, were low-grade torture cells, for the souls of the moderately wicked. Their howling screams could be heard in every direction.
Even though I had desperately wanted Emily to accompany me to Hell, I was also worried that she wouldn’t be able to deal with the stress and heat. But Emily seemed unfazed by any of it, pushing towards the castle with a single-minded determination that made me slightly envious.
As we got closer, we could see the demonic guards, posted at the sole entrance. “There’s no way we can get past those.” I said to Emily, as we hid behind an empty torture shack. I looked at the climbing gear, and had a sinking realization. “And Cael gave us gym equipment. Not actual rock climbing gear. Crap.”
“One second.” Emily replied. She opened the shack door, and found several wicked-looking metal hooks. A few moments later, she had tied them to the end of our rope. “Grappling hooks.”
“I am impressed.”
“Don’t be too impressed yet. We have to make sure it works, first.” Emily said, as she tightened the knots. “We can make it up the backside of the castle, if the hook holds.”
The new hook in hand, we circled around to the backside of Lucifer’s castle, out of sight of the guards. A moat of molten sulfur separated us from the castle wall. “I’m not sure we can throw that high.” I said.
“Nonsense.” Emily said, confidently.
“What do you mean?”
“The world map floor in the lobby of Heaven. Your ability to move and do things even when time isn’t flowing. Even the fall just today - we should have broken something, but we didn’t. Math and physics don’t need to apply here.”
I remembered our earlier conversation, lounging in comfy chairs in the Library and sipping on self-refilling coffee. I could tell where Emily was going with this and grinned. “So I might be able to defy gravity?”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
I took the grappling hook and started an underhand spin. The hook whirled faster and faster, until I let go with a grunt. The hook flew into the air - and came crashing back down at our feet.
“Or not.” Emily deadpanned. “Now what?”
And then it hit me. “Remember how I said nearly everything is made out of the souls of the damned?” I asked.
“Look at the wall.”
Emily squinted, looking through the heat haze of the sulfur. “Are those… faces?”
“So what, we climb them? Like a rock wall?”
“That’s what I was thinking. If we can get across the moat, that is.”
We backtracked to the empty torture shack, and soon returned with several boards. Using the climbing ropes, we tied the boards together to make a crude bridge. It floated on the sulfur, and although the edges immediately caught fire, we quickly darted across to the opposite bank at the base of the wall.
“And now we go up.” Emily announced, as she jammed her fingers into one of the mouths.
“Wagtcsh magh fashe” the face said, clearly objecting to the use of its jaw as a handhold. Emily paid it no mind, grabbed another jaw, and began climbing.
I followed. We ignored the protests of the entrapped souls, as we made our way up the wall. The wind howled, and Emily’s hair was soon a mess. Neither of us were in particularly great shape, but I soon found myself falling behind Emily, as she powered onward and upward to the top of the wall.
My arms burned - I needed to go to the gym more - and my lungs felt full of ash, but eventually I reached the top. Emily pulled me over the rampart, and I flopped down on the walkway in exhaustion. Emily slid to the ground herself, also tired from the climb.
“Now what?” she asked, after catching her breath.
I looked around. The rampart walkway led to towers at either end. Across the courtyard was the gate, and to the right was the huge keep. Last time I’d been here, I had been so caught up in the panic of saving Emily that I hadn’t appreciated how truly enormous it was. “We have to find Lucifer’s throne room. He keeps all his artifacts on display around his throne.” I said, pointing to the keep.
The tower staircase spiraled downwards, and we descended cautiously. If a demon came up, it would be difficult or impossible to hide. But there was also no other way down from the ramparts.
From a lower level, we were able to access the outer wings of the keep, where we sneaked through servants’ quarters, dining rooms, and private chambers. Each door was a risk to open, and twice we had to backtrack to avoid detection.
Eventually, we reached a hallway junction, with something that I wished we had found sooner: a sign.
“Let’s go” I whispered to Emily, and turned to the left.
But Emily didn’t move. She stared at the sign, seemingly transfixed. I realized she was looking at something right below:
“Omega cells” she said, her voice dreamy and distant.
“Omega torture cells. It’s what Alocer said my father had a reservation for.”
Emily’s voice suddenly filled with determination. “I want to see them.”
“Emily, we’re on a mission here.”
“I need to see what he has coming.” She turned to me, desperation in her eyes. “I need this, James. I need to know.”
“...alright.” I couldn’t argue with those beautiful eyes.
We turned right, away from the throne room, and followed the Omega signs. They led us through a convoluted maze of corridors and ramps, to a winding staircase descending into a dark dungeon.
We climbed down the stairs, and found a large, wooden door emblazoned with a black Ω. We pushed, and it swung open with a loud creak.
With just the slightest trepidation, we entered the Omega dungeon.
To the left and right, a long hallway stretched off into the distance, with many side hallways coming off of it. An eerie moan came from all directions at once, permeating the dungeon. It didn’t take long to realize what it was: the screams of untold numbers of evildoers, muffled by their cells, but combining and reverberating throughout the halls in an unearthly chorus of agony and pain.
The walls of these side hallways were packed with doors leading to individual cells. On each door was a plaque, detailing the occupant’s name and sins. Serial killer. Child predator. False prophet. I noticed a pattern: these were people who had hurt not only themselves, but also either the bodies or souls (or both) of others.
It went on: Human trafficker. Drug kingpin. Genocide participant. Pimp. Emily was entranced. I was too, though I didn’t really feel like reading about the crimes of the worst dregs of society.
The cell layout was roughly organized by name, and it didn’t take Emily long to find what she was looking for.
Emily touched the plaque. “Fuck you, dad.”
“That’s what you wanted?” I asked.
The answer was obvious, but Emily nodded anyways. A single tear was rolling down her cheek. “I could have had a normal childhood, but no. He took it from me. And I hate him for it. What I needed, what kept me going, was the idea that someday, he would pay.”
“You really hate him.”
“He really fucked me up, James. Like, I never had a good family; I’ve only ever seen them on TV. I can’t trust anyone, I just can’t. You have no idea what it’s like.”
“I suppose I don’t.” I said, trying to sympathize. I felt for Emily, but I really didn’t know what it was like. I’d always had a kind, stable family.
“I’ve never had normal.” Emily continued. “I’ve seen normal, in other families, I feel like I know what it’s supposed to be, but I can’t do normal. Like, I can’t imagine my dad taking me out for a friendly dinner. Hell, the night you busted him, he was threatening my tuition. I’m a mess.”
“Not to m-”
“And it’s *all your fault!*” Emily suddenly shouted, punching the plaque as hard as she could. Then she collapsed on the floor, crying. Her sobs echoed and reverberated in the hallway,
For a moment, I was paralyzed with shock. What to do?
I did the only thing I could do. I sat down by Emily, and rubbed her shoulders. “It’s alright, Emily, you have me. You have me.”
After a few moments, she turned to bury her face in my shoulder.
How did one deal with a victim of childhood sexual abuse? I had no idea. I’d have to read up on it, after we got out of here. But for now, I ran my fingers through Emily’s hair, and let her cry into my shoulder.
“I’m here, Emily. You have me.”
This chapter was produced with the support of my Hybrid patron:
- Olli Erinko