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To Hell and Back

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Since the beginning of time, creation has been the universe’s greatest mystery. How was the universe created? What was there before? Was there a beginning? An end? Infinity? Meaning ? Was the answer to all those questions really 42?


If you thought about it too long, it drove you crazy. Which was why Rich didn’t.


Rich was just a low level demon, who worked deep in Hell’s hottest pits. He’d never been topside; didn’t even get outside much of what other demons sarcastically referred to as ‘the sauna’. The appropriate term was actually ‘heating room’, but there weren’t many demons that knew the definition of appropriate and those who knew usually didn’t care.


Working down here solved one of the mysteries of life, at least. Where did demons come from? There was, of course, a complex answer for such a simple question, because not every demon was the same and there were different origins for all of them.


Some emerged from the twisted souls tortured down here in Hell. They took hideous wispy, not quite solid forms in Hell and possessed human bodies topside.


Others were bred in Hell. Powerful demonic monsters gave birth to spawn so ugly, not even their parents could look at them. They made up the bulk of Hell’s army, always tied up with the heavenly forces in some skirmish or other.


And then, there were Hell’s own minions. Lowly demons, like Rich himself, born out of Hell’s fumes, wrapped in a shell of ash and soot and fertilized by the screams of the tortured. They hatched from egg-shaped cocoons and it was Rich’s job to make sure they were exposed to enough heat and verbalized terror. For this purpose, there was a giant system of noise amplifying pipes from all the torture dungeons down to the heating room.


Now, the regulations stated exactly how high the temperature and humidity had to be for ideal demonic growth, which components should make up the torture noise in what proportions — screams of physical pain, for example lead to other outcomes than begging for mercy or sobs of despair — but Rich was a demon. Demons generally didn’t tend to concern themselves much with rules and regulations


That wasn’t to say Rich didn’t like his job. He wasn’t bothered much down here, and he didn’t have to deal with a lot of other demons. Demons were, as a rule, unpleasant, rude or downright nasty creatures. Rich might have a mean streak a mile wide and loved to sow mayhem and discord, but he preferred to do that without consequences. So Rich had taken to messing with the eggs. He wasn’t really sure how or when the idea had occurred to him — one day, it was just there — but Rich didn’t think about things like that too much. It just seemed like fun.


He never knew how his actions affected the eggs — like what would happen to the one he froze on occasion in a mini fridge he’d liberated from one of the torture dungeons? Did demonic spunk change the outward appearance of the hatchling? What happened if you drilled holes in the shells and put the scrambled content of one egg into ten others?  There was no way to know, since the eggs left his charge before the little hatchlings gnawed through their shells, but Rich amused himself with thinking about the possibilities, imagining the lives of these demons he’d shaped. Yes, Rich thought himself to be quite the storyteller, not that anyone down here would appreciate that. So Rich kept his little stories to himself.


Sometimes, he ascended the stairs to the big plateau that overlooked the nine circles of Hell where the souls were tortured. It was ringed by the ragged mountains behind which only the old and retired demons ventured — so powerful they didn’t give a shit about their assignments — to engage in violent fights that only ended when one demon ate the other. This was also the realms of the witches and wizards, plotting and scheming for their own gain, manipulating demons, humans and angels alike.


It was not a place where a little worker demon like Rich, or any of the other grunts whose eggs he turned and flipped, should ever go. No, they remained safely within all the land surrounding the plateau; the nine circles, the ancient ruins no one knew the purpose of anymore, and of course, the Factory, where new demons were produced. On top of the Factory, in a glass cube so large it reflected all of Hell’s flames a thousandfold and bathed the whole place in a diffuse red light, sat Administration. Higher demons organized Hell’s regular processes, assigned the sinners to their respective circles winding through Hell’s deepest pit, and appointed newly minted demons to their positions.


This was necessary when the other demons had grown too old, too recalcitrant, and too powerful from all the agony and misery they had inhaled from the souls on their racks and had to be ‘retired’. It was Administration's spin to still claim control over the demons but really, everybody knew the old ones were just too annoyed with pit regulations and went off to do their own thing. If they were too much of a nuisance, Administration occasionally had one of them killed — quite the spectacle — but as long as the old ones stayed beyond the mountains, Administration left them alone.


Rich didn’t have any contact with the tortured humans, he’d be forever stuck with the eggs. It was why he came up here sometimes, to watch all the other demons milling around, and  listen to the souls’ screams without the distortion of the pipes.


Rich’s favorite view to enjoy, with a sulfur margarita spiked with soul gunk, was the old library. It sat atop a giant stair stylobate in the middle of the ancient ruins. Like the rest of the city, it had been burning ever since Rich could remember. Occasionally a building part collapsed, shaking the foundations of Hell, but the ruins itself never seemed to shrink.


Two high towers were flanking the library’s sides, their tops covered by onion-shaped roofs. While Rich watched, a giant jet of flame almost as high as the tower itself shot up. The roof of the tower flew off like an explosive device, and then the whole tower started to shake and to wobble to first one side, then the other. Rich stared in fascination, wondering which direction it would fall, until the tower veered towards the main part of the library, and then finally, almost in slow motion, crashed through the library’s roof.


The sound of crashing stones on tiles was almost noiseless, considering the magnitude of the tower’s fall. Then, from the gaping hole ripped into the main building, a giant cloud of black smoke emerged, billowing out towards Hell’s dark and stony ceiling so high up it was impossible to see on any but a clear day. (Rich remembered maybe two or three such occasions, usually after someone flooded the pits or a witch conjured up a thunderstorm with hail and monsoon-like rain.)


The cloud of smoke emerging from the library filled his sight entirely. For a moment he was surrounded by nothing but tiny floating particles of burnt paper, some entirely charred black, others only lightly singed, the paper yellowish-gray from the heat. Then the shockwave of the collapse hit, and the force of it threw Rich to the ground.


When he had recovered and stood again, the air was filled with the dancing pieces of ash until Hell’s natural wind started to disperse them over the entire plateau. In all his existence, Rich had never seen anything so riveting. One might even call it beautiful, but beauty was a vague concept in Hell that few of its inhabitants ever learned to understand.


Rich remained up on the plateau for a long time, lost in watching the burnt remains of the library flutter to their final deaths on Hell’s blood and gore covered grounds.


While he was still up on the plateau, sticking out his tongue to taste the burnt paper, something peculiar was happening down in the heating room.


No one who’d seen it would think it peculiar, would even notice, because every day, soot and ash filled Hell’s air, just like the screams of the souls and the smell of their fear. But this time, the ash cloud from the library expelled within it the remnants of the ancient books, stories old and now forgotten, about the beginning of Hell. About Lucifer’s fall, about the betrayal and the love that had turned to hate. About the creation of the first demon, about creatures loyal and filled with adoration for their creator and master, long before he‘d disappeared. On the pages of these old volumes, the first scribe had captured a myriad of emotions so raw and honest, they had drenched the pages they were written on.


It wasn’t the first time this tower had collapsed and it wouldn’t be the last. Time, in Hell, was different than anywhere else. The endless loops of repetition, drawn out hours, and absent time for rest were just a few of its particular tortures.


The tower’s collapse and the subsequent spewing of these emotion-drenched pages had happened before. But never before had there been a demon egg laying in wait, embryo already growing into a hatchling, with holes punctured into the shell.


Rich’s latest little experiment was down below, a row of small holes poked into the green-brown shell, through which Rich had pressed in some of the ripped out organs he’d collected from the pits. He didn’t know that one of the little red pieces of muscle he’d forced into the shell had come from a human heart. And he never saw how the charred and burnt pieces of the old books slid down the sound pipes, how they exploded in a whirling spiral into the heating room and circled the eggs. He didn’t see how the ash plugged up the holes in the green-brown egg’s shell.


It certainly seemed like a giant bout of coincidence was at work here that accidentally influenced the growing of this egg - if one were to believe in such things that is.  But if it came to Heaven and Hell and the celestial plan, was there really such a thing as coincidence? You’d have to ask the philosophers. Rich certainly never thought about that and the little green-brown egg kept on growing as it lay in the glowing embers.


And if there was a generation of demons that hatched with a much less developed sense of cruelty and disregard for other existing creatures, no one made the connection, certainly not Rich, who had already forgotten about witnessing the magnificent fall of the library tower.