Monday, December 8, 2014

Brotherly Love

How did demons deal with grief?  How did they cope with the loss of a family member?  I was ready to say a quick "sorry about your brother, dude," and move on.  But Onslaw suddenly became distant and melancholy, like he was starting to coming to grips with Yelvin's death in a very emotional, very human way.

It was unexpected and more than a little uncomfortable.  "You okay?" I asked the big, muscular dark gray denizen of the underworld as he stifled a few sobs.

"Yeah, yeah," he said, turning away.  "It's just…I've had a brother for the last hundred forty-two years.  It's gonna be so different without him."

I patted his bulky bicep reassuringly.  "I'm sorry," I told him.  "And I don't mean to be insensitive, here, but we have kind of an urgent issue to attend to."

"Right," he nodded.  "Making Gavsot suffer."

"Yeah, sure," I agreed.  "And that Leader guy, too.  They're both clearly up to no good."

"Tell you what," Onslaw said grimly.  "We'll go after them together.  Then you can kill the Leader and I'll kill Gavsot."

"You can avenge your brother and I can rescue Tithenai," I replied with a grin.  "Sounds like a win-win."  Then I was struck with a sudden epiphany.

Onslaw watched in concern as my grin faded.  "What's wrong?"

"At this very moment," I explained, "General Gavsot could be marching his troops from the Department of Enforcement through the Department of Assignment to my office to complete a military coup on the Leader's behalf."

Onslaw flashed me a ravenously bloodthirsty smile that stretched wide across his already broad features.  "We better get started, then."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Alliances

"Hey," came an urgent voice.  "Hey, wake up!"

I felt an uncomfortable repetitive pressure against my shoulder.  Someone was prodding me to jar me back to consciousness.  "Hey," the voice said again.  "I need you awake, sir!"

My eyes slid open slowly and I found myself lying on the floor of the same little cave in which Gavsot had unexpectedly betrayed me.  I was completely alone except for Onslaw, who was jostling me roughly.  With stinging clarity, alertness came flooding back.

I sat upright.  "What the hell just happened?"

"I'm not sure," Onslaw said.  He appeared relieved that I'd awoken.  "I came back and found you like this."

"Gavsot stuck me with a knife that had been soaked in human blood," I told him.  "But I don't understand why."

"He also killed Yelvin and Dorvial," Onslaw added with fiery anger.  "I don't understand that either, but I can promise you he'll regret it."

"Yeah," I nodded.  "I didn't see that coming either.  And then he formed an alliance with the Leader of that creepy cult.  The whole thing just doesn't seem like the Gavsot I know."

"An alliance?" Onslaw said worriedly.

"I heard it right before I passed out," I explained.  "The Leader was as surprised by all this as we were."

Onslaw shook his head.  "So it was all the general's idea," he muttered.  "That bastard."

I could feel physical and psychokinetic strength beginning to return to my frail form.  "It looks like we have a common enemy," I said.  "Would you be interested in helping me bring Gavsot to justice?"

"If by bring to justice you mean torture, maim and kill, then yes," he replied soberly.  "Absolutely yes."

I wasn't particularly interested in killing General Gavsot.  He'd been a good friend and a loyal ally for a long time.  I didn't know if he'd acted under duress, been somehow possessed by something else, or if he'd done all of it knowingly and heartlessly, but I wanted to find out before I exacted any kind of immutable punishment.  Sidestepping Onslaw's redefinition of my phrasing, I said, "Wow, you really take an attempt on your life personally, don't you?"


"That," Onslaw agreed grimly, helping me to my feet, "and Yelvin was my brother."

Monday, December 1, 2014

Slipping Away

"Hey!" I said sharply as the general tugged the bloodied weapon from my flesh.  "Ow!"

The reality of Gavsot's apparent betrayal was setting in slowly.  I felt my brain working too slowly to come to an important realization.  I could sense that what had just taken place was shocking in a significant way, but the gears were turning sluggishly and I hadn't processed what I'd witnessed.  Instead, I squinted at him in confusion and whined, "What was that for?"

Gavsot stepped back from me, appearing just as perplexed.  "That certainly had a rapid effect," he murmured.

I slumped against the dirt wall to clear my swimming vision.   The weakening sensation coursing through my body felt very familiar to me.  Even with my cognitive functions in slow motion I realized that Gavsot must have shanked me with a knife that bore human blood.  If this unfolded the way it had when Azraal had done the same thing to me, I'd be unconscious within a few seconds.

Satisfied that I was incapacitated, the general approached one of the masked figures.  The other immediately and gruffly blocked his path.

"I would like an explanation of what is happening here," said the one who must have been the Leader.  He spoke softly, but his voice still carried an unmistakeable air of authority.

"I would like to propose an alliance," Gavsot said.

"An alliance?" the Leader repeated cautiously.  "What would you offer to my organization?"

"I will provide the backing of the full might of the Department of Enforcement," he replied with pride.

The Leader gave a slight nod toward his goon, who immediately afforded the general a little more personal space.  Spreading his arms wide enough to lift the bottom hem of his cloak out of the dirt, the Leader asked simply:  "Why?"

I passed out before the general could answer.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

End of the Line

"Is that it?" I whispered.  "Is that where the cult leader dude is hiding out?"

"Yes," Gavsot affirmed.  "According to Sebrev."

"Do we know anything else?" I asked, suddenly nervous about the impending confrontation.  "I mean, how many of his guys does he have with him?"

"I do not know," he admitted.

"Don't worry, sir," Onslaw reassured me.  "No matter who's up there, we can take 'em."

As we moved closer, we could see that the light was coming through a small circular window ahead of us.

"Is that a door?" Yelvin asked.

Dorvial nodded.  "I think so."

"Who puts a door at the end of an empty tunnel?" I wondered.

"I guess we'll find out when we go through it," Dorvial said grimly.  "Who wants to go first?"

Gavsot and I exchanged a glance.  "On the count of three?" I suggested.  He nodded silently.  I counted off and we surged forward in unison, slammed the door off its hinges, and burst into a small, dimly lit room with only two other inhabitants.

As Dorvial, Yelvin and Onslaw spilled in behind us, the two cloaked demons coolly looked us over.  "This is unexpected," one of them said dryly.  "What can I do for you gentlemen?"  I thought he sounded like the cult leader, but I wasn't positive. 

I was about to demand that the speaker remove his mask when a shower of warm blood splashed across me.  I turned toward the source in time to see General Gavsot's body disappear, leaving Yelvin in gory chunks.  The general reappeared a fraction of a second later, blowing an astonished Dorvial to smithereens.  Onslaw reacted swiftly, teleported away just in time to avoid a similar fate.

I stared at Gavsot in confusion and horror.  "What the hell was that?" I raged. 

"Very unexpected," one of the masked demons responded in amusement.  That was when Gavsot materialized in front of me and plunged a dagger into my stomach.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tunnel Talk 2

"You have actually met an angel?" Gavsot clarified.

"Yeah," I said, a little surprised by his surprise.  "His name's Salabas.  Good guy.  A little eccentric, maybe."  After a little hesitation, I added, "I also met God."  That drew overlapping murmurs of unintelligible shock from all four of my demonic companions.

"You are the devil," Gavsot finally pointed out.  "Why would God ever allow himself to be in your presence?"

I smirked.  "Apparently God and I aren't exactly locked on opposite sides of a cosmic power struggle the way you might think."

"What?" Yelvin said with a frown.  "Of course you are.  You're mortal enemies."

"Immortal mortal enemies," Onslaw agreed.

"Nope," I said, enjoying their confusion.  "He needed my help, so we're working together to repair the door from Hell to Heaven to free the souls trapped down here."

"But souls aren't trapped here," Dorvial protested.  "They're consigned here.  They don't need to get out, they belong in Hell."

"Apparently that's not the plan God envisioned when he created the system," I said. 

"Do you intend to drain Hell of the damned?" Gavsot asked softly.  He seemed almost disappointed in me.

"Not all of them," I assured him quickly.  "Just the ones who've already been punished enough.   Besides, a better demon-to-damned ration will allow smaller class sizes so that each soul can receive greater individual attention, right?"

Gavsot shushed me suddenly and motioned for Onslaw to extinguish his arm.  Once the darkness had settled back in around us, we could see a dim pinpoint of light glowing up ahead.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tunnel Talk

"So," I said awkwardly as we proceeded in total darkness.  "Anybody got a flashlight?"

A small flame appeared nearby.  Once my eyes adjusted to the sudden light in the previously impenetrable blackness, I realized that Gavsot had set fire to his palm to use it as a lantern.  I heard a quiet crackling sound and glanced behind me to see that Onslaw had covered his hand with what appeared to be a purplish electrical current.  It provided a much softer glow than Gavsot's flame, but at least between the two of them I could see the ground I was walking on.

Still unnerved by the silence of the march, I asked, "Anybody know how long this tunnel is?"

"I'm not certain," Gavsot said.

"I've never been here before," Dorvial said with a sympathetic shrug.  Maybe he didn't like the quiet either.  Yelvin and Onslaw didn't seem to mind, as they both declined to speak.

After another uncomfortable lull in conversation, Gavsot observed, "You were in the Living Realm for a long time.  I take it the invaders put up a good fight?"

I was about to answer when I realized how funny the situation was.  "Gavsot," I teased.  "Are you…trying to make conversation?"

"I am unaccustomed to being in enclosed spaces with limited lighting," he said stiffly.  "How were conditions in the Living Realm?"

"Pretty intense," I admitted.  Regardless of whether Gavsot was claustrophobic or just afraid of the dark, I was grateful to have something to talk about.  "Azraal showed up, leading a whole bunch of demons who were trying to destroy my town."

"So that is where he was," Gavsot said.

"And that's where he still is," I replied proudly.  "Well…his corpse, anyway.  We had a pretty rough battle but we kicked ass."

"Then Azraal is dead?" Gavsot asked.

"Yeah, he's toast," I nodded.  "We had some help, though.  Talamur was there.  And an angel, too."

"An angel?" Gavsot said sharply.  He turned toward me as we walked, and he was either strangely interested in this latest announcement or the fire in his hand was throwing some seriously weird shadows on his face.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Over the Edge

"It is not a bottomless pit," Gavsot explained.  "The Department of Waste Management is at the base of the cliff.  Also, the Society of Worshipful Fortitude lives down there."

I turned back to cock an eyebrow at him.  "The society of what now?"

"Worshipful Fortitude," he said.  "They are a small group of demon zealots who exist independently from the normal functions and heirarchies of Hell.  They live a somewhat monastic lifestyle as they faithfully await the return of Lucifer."

"What?" I laughed.  "It's a religious order of demons?  Are you serious?"  Then I remembered who I was talking to and added somberly, "Right, of course you're serious."

"Sir," the charcoal-colored demon named Onslaw murmured in Gavsot's ear.  "Shouldn't we be getting started?"

"Yes, of course," Gavsot said briskly.  He moved away from the Department of Facilities and stepped off the precipice with confidence.  I looked over the edge and observed him disappear as he fell.  A moment later, his arm waved out of the side of the cliff.

"So that's where the tunnel is," I murmured.  The three soldiers were already jumping into the chasm so I followed quickly.  Just as Gavsot had advertised, as I fell I saw the circular entrance situated about fifty feet down.  My four companions were already waiting inside, and I teleported to join them.

It was indeed a narrow tunnel.  There was no proper floor or ceiling and the curve beneath our feet made it difficult for any more than two of us to walk abreast.  General Gavsot and I went first, Dorvial and Yelvin were right behind us and Onslaw acted as our rearguard. 

There was no lighting in the tunnel.  We'd only gone a short distance before it was completely black.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Close to the Edge

General Gavsot returned, thankfully interrupting the awkward silence.  "My squad is ready," he informed me.  "They will be waiting for us in front of the Department of Facilities."

"Good, thanks," I said.  Turning back to Sylnie and Gus, I asked, "Are you guys ready?  You know your assignments?"

Gus nodded uncomfortably.  Sylnie said enthusiastically, "Don't worry, sir, we'll get it done."

"Excellent.  See you soon."  I stuck my arm out for Gavsot.  He gripped it tightly and transported us across Hell in an instant.

We were standing on a flat expanse of dull orange rock a few feet away from the edge of a cliff.  Turning around, I saw that we were also at the base of a cliff, and a huge archway built into the wall behind us led into what must have been the Department of Facilities.  The room behind the archway seemed poorly lit and there was a faint blinking just inside that gave me the impression that some of the ceiling lamps were on their last legs.  Three impressively muscular demons were standing in front of the archway.

Gavsot waved them over.  "This is the squad that will accompany us," he informed me.  Pointing to each of them in turn, he added, "Yelvin, Onslaw and Dorvial." 

"Just three of them?" I asked.  "I was expecting a little more backup."

"Trust me," Gavsot said, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder.  "This is the squad we need."

"Okay," I said.  I wasn't too eager to break into the creepy cult dude's headquarters with only four wingmen, but I had to trust that Gavsot knew what he was doing.  Maybe the tunnel we'd be invading was small enough that there would only be room for five combatants at a time.  "So where is this place?"  He motioned to the edge of the cliff.  I took a few steps toward it and peered over.

"Do you see the entrance?" he asked.  "It is approximately fifty feet down."

I was too distracted by the depth of the chasm to search for the opening.  "Jesus," I gasped.  "Is this a bottomless pit?  Do we actually have bottomless pits in Hell?"  I wasn't sure if I just couldn't see far enough or if there was some kind of mist a few miles down that was obscuring my view of the cavern floor.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Laying out the Plan

Quietly, Gavsot said, “The secondary location of the cult could be in an old, unused cable car tunnel dug by the Department of Development.”

“Seriously?” I said, rolling my eyes.  “An abandoned tunnel?  What is he, the Penguin?”

Gavsot squinted at me.  “You are referring to the flightless bird?”

I shook my head.  “Never mind.  Where is this place?

“The entrance is claimed to be on the edge of the cliff in front of the Department of Facilities,” he said. 

“Okay,” I said.  “Can you take me there?”

He nodded.  “Certainly.”

“Can you provide us with some backup?” I asked.  “If it’s the right place, we’ll need some serious firepower and Jaelin is staying upstairs for a while.”

“I will have a special squad accompany us,” he said.

“Perfect.  Go get them and meet me back here.”  He nodded briskly and disappeared.

“Gus, Sylnie,” I said, “I have to delegate to you two.  Sylnie, I need you to see what you can learn in the Department of Historicity, and Gus, I need you to talk to Zyzyfus in the Department of Developstruction.”

“Sure, Boss-Man,” he said uneasily.  “But neither one of us can teleport.”

I shrugged.  “Find a demon who can and hitch a ride.  I’m going to rescue Tithenai and hopefully kick this cult leader’s ass, so I need you guys to step up to the plate here.  We can’t afford to mess up, so we have to make sure we keep a tight grip on all of these balls.”

Sylnie grinned.

“The balls we’re juggling,” I clarified, blushing.  “Juggler’s balls.  You know, the things they throw to…dammit, don’t you guys have any circuses down here?”

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Moment of Silence

“Sad to hear it,” Gus said somberly.  “Torvin was kind of a pussy, but in an endearing way, you know?”

“Sure,” I replied.  The room went silent for a moment.  Once I figured we’d been quiet long enough to briefly respect Torvin’s memory, I continued, “But there’s nothing we can do for him now.  How are we going to find the door to Heaven?”

“We could do some research in the Department of Historicity,” Sylnie suggested.  “There’s bound to be some book in there somewhere that has something to say about it.”

“Good,” I said.  “That sounds really boring and time-consuming, but hopefully that’ll work.”

“Remember Vilnius said something about a doorway to Heaven?” Gus said thoughtfully.  “Didn’t he promise to send you through if you gave him control over Hell?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And you told me he was lying.”

He shrugged apologetically.  “Maybe there was more truth to it than I realized.”

“It doesn’t really matter anyway,” I pointed out.  “Vilnius is dead.”

Gus nodded.  “But his son isn’t.  Maybe he learned a thing or two from his old man.”

“Who, Zyzyfus?” I said.  “Yeah, sure.  We could talk to him.  It’s worth a shot.”

General Gavsot teleported in suddenly.  He seemed surprised to see me.  “Sir,” he said.  “I didn’t know you were back.”

I spread my arms wide.  “Well, here I am,” I said lamely.  “Thanks for looking after the place while I was out.”

“I have some information you might be interested in,” he told me confidentially.

“Okay,” I said expectantly.  “And?”

“I have occasionally attempted follow-up interrogations with Sebrev,” he said.  “He did not willingly share any information, but his delirious rants during his healing periods revealed something.”

“Yes?” I urged impatiently.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Back to Hell

"Well, at any rate, I need to get back to Hell and get things moving," I said.

"I'd like to stay here," Jaelin offered.  "Talamur and I can keep an eye out for invading demons and I'll come let you know if it happens."  Talamur put his arm around her and she nestled in against his chest.

"Yeah, that's probably a good idea," I replied, grateful that she was volunteering to stay clear for a while.  Despite the services she'd rendered, she'd been getting on my nerves lately.  She'd been a little self-righteous when I hesitated to drop everything to rescue Torvin, which I could understand.  But then she'd killed Niven without my approval and now she seemed to be in opposition to the plan to free the souls trapped in Hell.  I felt like her attitude was growing and causing a bit of rift between us.  It was a relief that she suggested something that would give us a little break from each other. 

Sylnie and I said our goodbyes to the demonic couple and reconvened in my office to gather our thoughts.  Then, thinking better of it, we re-reconvened in my lecture hall with Gus in tow.  I needed the white board to list all the various objectives my little gang needed to achieve.  As Gus and Sylnie watched from the front row, I enthusiastically scrawled out ideas.

"Okay," I babbled.  "So we need to figure out where the door to Heaven is.  Then we need to find all the ingredients for the spell and open it.  We also need to figure out who the leader of the creepy demon cult is and take him out."

"Or her," Sylnie interrupted pleasantly.

"Or her," I agreed.  "And we also need to find out where they're hiding Tithenai and rescue her in the process.  What else?  Did I miss anything?"

"Yeah, you said Jaelin stayed behind with that Talamur guy," Gus said.  "But where's Torvin?"

I'd completely forgotten about that guy.  "Oh, Torvin?" I said.  "Uh, yeah.  He's dead.  Probably dead."  Thinking back to the way he looked when I last saw him, consumed by flames and hurtling across the school property, I added, "Yeah, no.  He's totally dead."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On Sentencing

“I don’t get it,” Jaelin said.  “Hell is supposed to be eternal.  That’s what it’s for—eternal punishment.”

“Apparently that wasn’t the way it was designed,” I said with a shrug.

“Well that was a pretty stupid design,” she retorted.  “It’s a good thing we got that fixed.”

“No, I think it’s broken,” I said.  “We need to fix it.”

“Why would it be broken?” she asked.  “Bad humans die, they go to Hell, they get punished for being bad.  End of story!”

All humans die and go to Hell,” I corrected.   “You guys torture a lot of different people.  Serial killers, rapists, unfaithful spouses, tax evaders… but most of these people don’t actually deserve to be punished forever.  You think a guy that cheated on his girlfriend once when he was nineteen deserves the same duration of torment as a guy that cuts people up into little pieces?”

“That’s why he’d get a lighter sentence,” Jaelin reasoned.  “So his punishment doesn’t involve as much agony as the murderer’s punishment does.”

“Come on, help me out here, guys,” I appealed to Talamur and Sylnie.

Talamur cleared his throat.  “I kind of agree with him, Jaelin, I have to admit,” he said.  “But then again I’ve been living among humans for a long time now and I might have gone a little bit soft over the years.”

Jaelin snorted.  “You think?”

“I guess it make sense, in a way,” Sylnie said slowly.  “I mean, you’d have to do something really bad to deserve endless torment.  At some point, you have to have lived stuff down and paid the price for your mistakes, right?”

“Thank you!” I said.  “That’s what I’m saying!  Don’t get me wrong, God’s plan has its flaws or whatever, but it’s better than keeping every single person trapped down there forever.”  Jaelin seemed unappeased.  “Don’t worry,” I told her.  “There will still be a steady incoming stream of assholes for you guys to sink your teeth into.”

“We should be assuming that last bit was figurative, yes?” Talamur said with a grin.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Back to School

I returned the the gutted high school and found it completely devoid of demonic activity.  Human firefighters were dousing the buildings with water and seemed to have extinguished the majority of the blaze.  Demon corpses littered the ground leading from the gymnasium into the parking lot.  I spotted Azraal’s body if only to reassure myself that he was, in fact, out of my hair for good.

I looked around for any sign of my cohorts but found none.  As I was about to give up and return to Hell, Talamur appeared about six inches in front of me. 

I flinched instinctively.  “Geez…you scared me!”

“Sorry.”  He gestured toward the school’s football stadium.  “We’re over there,” he explained, putting a hand on my shoulder and whisking me away.  We arrived on the twenty yard line.

“Welcome back, sir!” Sylnie said excitedly, providing an eager embrace and pressing her big soft body against me.

“Did you actually meet with God?” Jaelin asked.

I nodded.  “Yeah, God and Lucifer.”

Talamur’s eyebrows went up and let out a low whistle.  “Lucifer?  The original?”

“I think so,” I said.

Puzzled, Jaelin asked, “They were together?”

“Yeah.  Apparently they’re best buds.”

“What did they say?” Sylnie prompted.

I sighed.  “Basically that there’s a tunnel from Hell to Heaven that damned souls are supposed to be sucked through once their punishment is finished, but that some devil a really long time ago blocked it up and God wants me to blow it back open with a spell so that people aren’t stuck down in the pit of fire for all eternity.”

The three of them stared at me in a stunned silence for a few moments before Talamur hesitantly said, “Well…at least that will be solving the problem with overcrowding, then, right?”

Friday, October 24, 2014

Salabas's Rationale

I sat silently for a minute or two, still in shock at the overwhelmingly underwhelming conference I'd just had with God and his buddy Lucifer.

Realizing that I'd probably never really collect my thoughts, I got up and wandered out of the store.  Salabas was leaning casually up against the side of the building, his arms crossed.  "Howdy," he said simply.

"Howdy," I returned.  "So you actually work for those two idiots?"

He grinned good-naturedly and cocked his head to the side.  "Technically, I only work for God, but those two are like peas in a pod.  I sometimes forget I don't work for the both of 'em."

"How do you guys get anything done?" I asked incredulously.  "I'm serious.  After meeting its creator, I'm honestly starting to think that the universe is held together by duct tape and paper clips."

"Perhaps you just don't understand them," he reasoned.  "Their ways are higher than ours.  What seems like madness to a layman is really just the only rational approach an enlightented master can take to an infinitely chaotic world."

I narrowed my eyes.  "Stick with the folksy stuff.  Getting all philosophical really doesn't work for you."

His grin was unwavering.  "As you like it, son," he said.  "Sometimes when I try waxing profound it makes me look like a bullfrog in a bowtie."

I sighed and shook my head.  "You know what?  Maybe the folksy stuff is a bit too much after all."

"Beggin' your pardon, sir," he responded instantly.

"I'm gonna teleport back to my friends at the high school," I told him.  "You're welcome to join me if you're tired of hanging around outside a burger joint looking like a fashion-deficient pimp."

"That is what I believe they call a zinger, sir," Salabas replied.

"Whatever," I said.  "See you around." 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Exeunt Creators

"Great," I snapped.  "So I just have to whip up this spell and free the billions of souls trapped down in Hell, but first I have to find the door myself?  That should be a cakewalk.  Do I have any clues to go on?  Is it next to that big rock by the other rock?  Do I hang a left at the lava and keep going until I hit more lava?"

"Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning!" God said cheerfully.

Lucifer nudged him.  "He's actually pissed, brother," he whispered.  "You're not helping."

God winced.  "Sorry.  I thought you were being funny."

I sighed.  "Well, this has been an enlightening meeting," I grumbled.  What does it say about a god when he seems to have lost control of his own universe?

"Took a bit longer than I expected," Lucifer said with concern, looking around the restaurant for a clock.

God glanced at his calculator wristwatch.  "Zounds!  Look at the time!"

"What time is it?" Lucifer asked.

"It's almost six!  We'd better get going!"

"You have somewhere to be?" I asked dryly, expecting another disappointment.

"It's league night," Lucifer explained, sliding out of the booth and stretching.  "We gotta get over to the bowling alley before our team has to forfeit."

"Bowling?" I said.  "Seriously?  Bowling?"

"It was good to meet you, Jason," God said sincerely, pumping my hand excitedly.  "Really, really good.  I know you'll do us proud."

"Yeah, knock 'em dead, kid," Lucifer agreed.  As an afterthought, he added, "Well...they're already dead, of course, but you know what I mean."

With no warning other than a slight wave, the two of them shimmered brilliantly out of sight.  Nobody else in the restaurant seemed fazed by the fact that two celestial beings had just beamed themselves up.

"Good thing you told me how I can contact you in case I have any questions later!" I raged to an empty booth.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Spell Specifics

“Okay,” I announced hesitantly.  “I guess I’ll do it.”

“Fantastic!” God exulted, leaning over the table to give me a way-too-enthusiastic two-handed handshake.  “I’m so glad to hear it!”

“I mean, with billions of souls at stake, it seems like it would be pretty selfish of me not to do it, whether I have to sacrifice myself or not, right?” I reasoned weakly.

“That’s a good call, kid,” Lucifer said appreciatively.  “You’ll be doing us a huge favor, and we definitely won’t forget it.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said, impatient to get out of there and away from these two supremely powerful doofuses.  “So…you guys have a list of ingredients for the spell or something?”

“Ah!” God said.  “Yes, here you are.”  He produced a small Tupperware container from the seat next to him and set it on the table in front of me.  “We kind of got you started,” he explained.

I stared at the thick, reddish-black liquid sloshing around beneath the pale green lid.  “Uh…that’s great, thanks,” I said.

“Lots of good stuff in there,” Lucifer told me.  “The human blood, of course, a little volcanic ash, ground up petrified wood….”

“Don’t forget the brimstone and the blood of a firstborn lamb,” Lucifer added.

“Right, that too, and the angel hair,” God continued, adding with a self-indulgent grin, “not the pasta, of course.”

“And all that random stuff just gets mixed together and it will somehow blow open the door from Hell into Heaven?” I said.

God furrowed his brow as though I’d asked a particularly dense question.  “It’s magic,” he explained.

“Right, of course,” I said. 

“Here’s a list of the ingredients we haven’t been able to procure,” Lucifer said, handing me a small piece of folded paper.  “You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding this stuff down in the pit.”

“Okay,” I said, shoving the note into my pocket.  “So now I just need to know where the door is, right?”

God and Lucifer exchanged their signature glance of uncomfortable embarrassment.  “We don’t know where it is,” God confessed.

“Are you kidding me?!” I exploded.  It seemed more and more like the universe had been designed by a couple of bumbling godhood-school dropouts.  It’s a wonder the Earth had gone this long without bumping into Mars or Venus…or the Sun.

“To be more accurate,” Lucifer offered, “He doesn’t know where it is.  I just don’t remember.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Staying on Point

I sighed.  I felt like I’d been doing that a lot since I walked into the Burger Baron and started chatting away with the joint creators of my universe.  It was some pretty heavy subject matter, and the fact that I seemed to be the focal point of all of it made it that much more difficult to process.

“Okay,” I said carefully.  “So let’s say I agree to this.”

“But you have to!” God interrupted earnestly.  “You just have to!”

Lucifer put a calming hand on his shoulder.  “You don’t have to,” he told me.  “We’re not going to force you to do anything.  But you’re the right man for the job and a lot of planning went in to getting this far.”

“Let’s say I agree to this,” I repeated.  “So you’ll give me this spell, I take it back to Hell, walk up to the sealed entrance of the tunnel to Heaven, cast the spell on it, and it pops open?”

They both nodded.  “Pretty much,” they chorused. 

God gleefully called out, “Jinx! You owe me a Coke!” 

Lucifer scowled.  “Oh, grow up, man.  You’re revered around the world as a creator and a source of goodness.  You can’t act like this.”

“Who says a god can’t be fun?” God said defensively.

“That wasn’t fun so much as cringe-tastically dorky,” Lucifer shot back.

“Can we, um, stay on point, please?” I asked.

They turned back to me attentively.  “Sorry,” God said.  “Of course.  Do go on.”

“So I open this door,” I continued, “and then what?  Do souls just go flying out on their own?”

“Once both ends of the passage are clear, the previous parameters of Hell should kick in immediately,” Lucifer told me.  “Once the required length of a sentence has been reached, the soul will be sucked out of Hell through one of the tunnels.”

“Sucked?” I said.

He grinned.  “They go flying across Hell like they’re magnetized to it and then they get sucked up to Heaven just like one of those pneumatic tubes they use in bank drive-throughs.  It’s really something to watch.”

Monday, October 13, 2014

Blood Demon Content

"Great," I said weakly.  "And why can I survive this if Conrad couldn't?"

"He tweaked the spell when he made you the devil," God reminded me.  "You still have more humanity in you."

"And being human will help me survive something that being a demon wouldn't?" I summarized.  "That doesn't make any sense."

"Sure it does," Lucifer said.  "The passages between Hell and Heaven were guarded.  We didn't want demons having access to Heaven, so the tunnels induce telekinetic weakness, pain, brain damage…all kinds of things go haywire.  But it only affects demonkind."

"So a human could pass through easily," God pointed out.  "I mean, that's what the passages were designed for."

"Conrad, as the devil, had enough demon blood in him that he almost definitely would have died had he tried to open the door himself," Lucifer explained.  "You should be able to accomplish the task, but if we're right, you'll merely suffer weakness, mental confusion, extreme pain, and a few other things."

"Merely?" I said.

Lucifer shrugged.  "Merely, as in, it sure beats the alternative."

"So because Conrad couldn't do it but he sympathized with your goals," I said, "he chose me to take over Hell because I was the least evil of his descendants?"

God nodded.  "And when he performed the succession ritual, he made sure to give you a little protection against your eventual objective."

I sighed.   "Why couldn't any of you explain this from the beginning?"

"Conrad wasn't sure you were a suitable candidate," Lucifer admitted.  "We didn't want to put all our hopes on you because you weren't exactly the best option, you were just the option that was least likely to be, you know, utterly and completely terrible in every conceivable way."

"Oh, thanks," I said, rolling my eyes.

Lucifer grinned at me.  "Your grandfather simply advised us to wait and not put our plan into action until we'd seen a little more evidence that you were up to the task."

"Don't worry," God told me, stretching across the table to pat me on the forearm.  "You've proven yourself.  We're all on board now."  As he reached, he dipped his elbow in a spot of barbeque sauce that had dripped onto his tray a few minutes earlier.  It didn't look like he'd noticed.

Even though God, Lucifer and my great grandfather were "on board," I wasn't sure that I was.  "What about me?  What if I don't want to do it?"

God waved his hand like he was swatting away a fly.  "You have the chance to free billions from the fate of eternal torture.  I know you've been selfish at times in the past, but I think we all know you're not going to refuse something of this magnitude."

Lucifer tried to give me a warm, reassuring smile.  "And don't forget," he told me, "we're ninety percent sure you won't have to sacrifice yourself."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Conrad's Contribution

"I thought you were working with the old devil," I said.  "You know, my great grandfather?  Isn't he in your little circle or whatever?"

"Definitely," Lucifer nodded.  "Conrad was essential.  He was the first devil we'd had any kind of positive relationship with in…what…a few hundred years?"  He glanced at God for confirmation.

"A long time," God agreed, nodding solemnly.  "Long, long time."

"Centuries, at least," Lucifer said.

"Eons," God added.

"Yeah," Lucifer continued.  "None of this would have been possible without him.  This is the first real shot we've had in…well…you know, eons."

"Long, long time," God repeated earnestly.

I sighed.  There was no way to get a straight answer from these people.  There was too much hemming and hawing and beating around the bush.  I tried to speak calmly.  "Okay, I'm not trying to whine about anything, I'm just trying to understand…why couldn't Conrad do it?  Why do you still need me?" 

"Oh, no, Conrad couldn't do it," God said abruptly.  "It would kill him."

"Okay," I replied thinly.  "I didn't know that."  I paused before asking the question that I wasn't sure I wanted an answer to.  "It won't kill me, though, right?"

The two cosmic buddies shared a nervous glance.  God cleared is throat.  "Well…I don't want to lie to you, Jason," he began.  "Luce and I have gone over this very carefully and there is a lot of risk involved.  It could kill you."

"But we're pretty sure it won't," Lucifer amended swiftly.  "Like, ninety percent sure."  He shrugged.  "Probably."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Limits of Omnipresence

I blinked.  "What? Seriously?  Pasta is an ingredient in the spell that can open the door to Heaven?"

Lucifer cracked a smile.  "Naw," he said, breaking into a hearty chuckle.  "I tried to keep it going, but I couldn't.  Pasta in the spell would be ridiculous.  Get your head on straight, man!"

I sighed.  "Okay, so if you get me a list, I'll try and get the ingredients."

Lucifer glanced at God before saying slowly, "You can help with that if you want, but the ingredients aren't the main problem.  That's not what we need your help with."

"Then what do you need my help with?" I asked for what felt like the hundredth time.

"The spell has to be worked from both sides of the passage," God explained.  "We need you to do it from the Hell side."

"And you need my help for that?" I asked.

"Unfortunately, yes," he replied, glancing downward.

"But there are two of you," I said.  "Why can't each of you take one side?"  Lucifer and God exchanged a shameful look and I suddenly figured it out.  "Don't tell me," I guessed dryly.  "You're not omnipresent, either."

God shook his head and threw his hands up in exasperation.  "Honestly, I don't even know how that rumor got started."

"You guys can't get into Hell," I said.

"It's been sealed off," Lucifer replied sadly.  "That devil worked a spell beyond what we realized was possible and no creature from Heaven can get in.  You either have to be a dying human or a demon, unless you get a demon to give you a lift."

I scoffed.  "Come on…all these thousands of years and you've never been able to convince a demon to take you to Hell?"

"I did a good job creating their kind," Lucifer said.  "They really don't like us Heaven-folk."

"That's why we need an inside man," God added, pointing at me.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

Angel Hair

Now God thought he was being clever. I couldn't help but roll my eyes. 

"I saw that," God said, but he didn't seem offended.

"Okay, so the devil betrayed you and now Hell is sealed off and people don't go to Heaven after they're punished," I summarized impatiently.  "I still don't understand what you need me to do."

"Well, we think we've figured out a spell that can blow the passages back open," God explained.  "It's a pretty complicated one, too, with a whole bunch of different ingredients."

"So you need me to get ingredients for you?" I guessed.  "Like what?"

God frowned as though trying to remember.  "Oh, you know…stuff.  Um, there's some basics, you know, like some human blood, of course, and uh…."  He trailed off, snapping his fingers in Lucifer's direction like that would jog his buddy's memory.

"It's all written down somewhere," Lucifer assured me.

"Some brimstone is involved, of course," God added.  "I don't remember how much, but it's probably not a whole lot."

"Angel hair," Lucifer supplied.

"Angel hair, yes," God agreed.

"Angel hair?" I echoed.  "I guess I would have expected an angel feather or something."

God chuckled.  "Oh, heavens, no!"  He turned to Lucifer.  "Angel feather pasta, can you imagine?"

"Disgusting," Lucifer agreed sagely.

"Wait, you mean angel hair pasta?" I said incredulously.

God busted up laughing, leaning over to wheeze out his glee from his millennia-old lungs. He slammed the tabletop with his fist a few times.

"Oh," I said sarcastically, "you were just messing with me.  Well, you got me!  That was a good one."  I waited for God to recover so we could get the hell on with it.  I even started mentally counting to ten to try and calm myself down.

Lucifer was staring at me somberly.  "It has to be uncooked," he told me.  "Straight out of the box."

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Limits of Omniscience

Oddly enough, despite my implication that God was at fault, he seemed happy to explain while Lucifer sulked in shame.  “After we created the universe and the human race,” God said, “Luce and I took certain personas upon ourselves.  We agreed that, although we were equals and like brothers, I would play the role of God, the benevolent advocate of goodness, and he would take on the identity of the Devil, the corruptive advocate of evil.  It was helpful for our fledgling race to have some kind of personified representation of both sides of the coin.  You know, a devil to blame and a god to pray to.”

“Wait, so you’re both God and you’re both good?” I said.

“Pretty much,” God replied.  “But the problem was that my role was much easier to play.  Lucifer here got pretty tired of pretending to be a horrible person all the time.  He was the first devil, the initial ruler of Hell, but after a while he convinced me to allow him to choose a successor.  We drew up plans and parameters for installing a system of succession and he was able to step down.  Or step up, really, because he joined me in Heaven as soon as he retired,” he amended, snorting a little bit at his own bad joke.

“The problem then was,” God continued, “that his chosen successor was—”

“—was a lying dickweed, that’s what he was,” Lucifer interrupted sourly.  “That asshole took everything way too seriously.  He pretty much method-acted so hardcore that he became convinced that he was actually at war with God and humanity all at the same time.  Before we realized what he was doing, he’d managed to seal off the exits to Hell and trap all of its inhabitants indefinitely.”

God patted Lucifer on the shoulder reassuringly.  “Poor Luce blames himself.  I keep telling him that he made a good choice and that I’d have selected the same successor if I’d been in his shoes.  It’s not Lucifer’s fault.  Nobody could have seen the devil’s betrayal coming a mile away.”

I frowned.  “But aren’t you supposed to be omniscient?  You know, all-knowing?”

He chuckled softly in response.  “I like to think that I’m just all-knowing enough to understand that I can’t know everything.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Limits of Omnipotence

“And you need my help?” I asked incredulously.  They both nodded.  “Aren’t you supposed to be omnipotent?  You know, all-powerful?”

“Well,” God blustered humbly, “I mean, sure, I’m pretty powerful, but I can’t exactly operate outside of the rules of my own universe.”

“That’s true,” Lucifer confirmed.  “I can build four-dimensional objects in theory, but if I tried it here, most of it wouldn’t exist because this universe doesn’t have a fourth dimension.  What I built would be entirely useless.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “That’s very illuminating.  It’s all so much clearer now.”  Either my fear of Lucifer was waning or I was just getting stupider.

Lucifer’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.  God grinned and shook his head.  “I guess it comes down to this:  the way this issue has been tied up, the loopholes that have been used to block off the routine entries to Heaven from Hell are such that the only way I can think of to solve the problem myself is to destroy the universe and start over.  But that just seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so I’ve opted to be patient instead.”

Very patient,” Lucifer emphasized gravely.

“Yes,” God agreed.  “We’ve waited millennia for the right opportunity and here you are!”  He gestured toward me joyfully, as though he were about to scoop me up into his arms and give me a big wet kiss on both cheeks.

I shrank from him.  “I don’t understand how this happened,” I said.  “How can a god lose control of his own universe?”

Lucifer rolled his eyes and leaned back in the booth.  With a heavy sigh, he said, “And there it is.  The most embarrassing question of all.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Three Stages

Lucifer rested his elbows on the edge of the table and leaned forward with an earnest expression.  “So the basic idea was this,” he explained.  “There would be three parts to each human’s life:  mortality, punishment, and reward.  Life is the part you already did, with the whole birth and development business.  You didn’t make it all the way through adolescence, of course, but it happens.”

Thanks for the sympathy, I thought.  I didn’t dare say it aloud for fear of incurring Lucifer’s wrath over a simple sarcastic interruption.

“Stage two, punishment, is where you are now,” he went on.  “Although you got a pretty good deal out of it because all the other dead people are subjected to stuff that is far less pleasant than being the devil.”

He paused, and for a few moments the only sounds we could hear other than “Kokomo” on the radio were the disgustingly loud chewing noises God was making as he went to town on the rest of his burger.  God was a very messy eater.  His behavior up to this point did not befit his status as a creator and an object of worship—and his table manners hadn’t done anything to break that pattern.
Hoping to keep Lucifer talking so I couldn’t hear the way God was inhaling his greasy sandwich, I said, “And the third stage?”

“The third stage is the reward.  The idea is that in life, you operate blindly and hopefully learn the differences between right and wrong on your own, because it’s more meaningful that way.  The second stage punishes you for what you’ve failed to learn, in varying degrees for varying offenses.  And the third stage is where everybody lives happily ever after, with all the learning and the suffering behind them.”

God wiped his sleeve across his mouth and added, “As creators of this universe and all life within it, I care very much about what happens to each and every one of you.”

“We both care,” Lucifer cut in.

“And that’s why we have to fix the system,” the sweating overweight ruler of the infinite cosmos said.  “Because no one is progressing from stage two to stage three.  The punishment is eternal and the reward is nonexistent.  That’s not what we wanted and that’s not what all of you deserve.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

Genesis

"Okay, you know what?" Lucifer interrupted.  "If we need this kid's help, we probably shouldn't bore him to death.  Maybe it would be better if I told him the story."

God frowned.  "Why?"

"Because I'm afraid that two hours later, you're still going to be in the middle of your needlessly detailed epic narrative about the first day of creation and by the time you get to the point he'll be bleeding from his ears."

"Harsh!" God whined.  "Why would you say that to me?"

Lucifer clapped a firm hand to God's shoulder and said solemnly, "Because friends tell each other the truth."

"Your beard looks stupid," God replied instantly.

"There," Lucifer said soothingly.  "Wasn't it nice to get that out?"

"Hey," I said cautiously. "I'm still here and I still have no idea what's going on."

"Right, sorry," God said.  "Go ahead and tell him the abridged version, Luce."

Lucifer nodded appreciatively.  "So in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."  He chuckled.  "Naw, man, I'm just kidding, there was tons of stuff before that."

If I wasn't almost positive that I was in the presence of two beings who were both infinitely more powerful than I was, I probably would have been losing my patience.  But I didn't dare throw a temper tantrum here, and it wasn't because I liked the French fries.

"Okay, so really, in the beginning, it was just me and God, right?" Lucifer continued.  "Super-awesome timeless beings frolicking around in space.  Two young friends with their whole eternities ahead of them.  Anyway, we decided to create our own universe together."

"Both of you?" I interrupted incredulously.  I guess I was still struggling with the concept that God and Lucifer were so friendly with each other.

"Yep," God confirmed.  "Both us.  We created this universe as a team."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Three's Company

"Lucifer?" I echoed nervously.  "Why is he here?"

God shook his head.  "He's not what you think," he assured me.  "We're old friends."  It wasn't very comforting coming from him.

A tall, thin, and strikingly handsome olive-skinned man in a dark suit sat down next to the creator of the universe.  He flashed me a brilliant grin, causing the thin goatee around his mouth to stretch comically.  "How ya doin, man?" he said, extending a hand.  "Name's Lucifer, good to meet you."

I shook his hand mostly because I didn't think it would be a good idea to offend him.  As I limply slipped my fingers into his firm grip, I noticed he had a pair of gold cufflinks that had a pitchforks engraved on them.  I wonder if he got those custom-made.  "Jason," I replied, hearing my dry voice crack a little.

"Alrighty, so here's the scoop," God said, pushing his sandwich aside and leaning forward earnestly.  "We need your help."

"We?" I asked.  "As in, both of you?"

"This kid's sharp," Lucifer whispered semi-confidentially.  "He's already picked up on the nuances of plural pronouns."

God chuckled and slapped him playfully on the arm.  "Luce, be nice.  He's probably a little bit in shock right now.  You'll have to excuse him," he added for my benefit.  "Sometimes he just can't resist the urge to crack wise."

"It's a gift and a curse," Lucifer agreed apologetically.

"Why do you guys need my help?" I said. 

"Because Hell is broken," God told me.  "And you're the first good chance we've had in ages to get it fixed."

"I don't understand," I confessed.

"He doesn't understand," Lucifer told the balding deity. 

"Maybe you need some background, then," God said.  He rested his chin on his palm again and stared off wistfully into space. 

Lucifer rolled his eyes.  "Get ready for a flashback," he warned me.

God gave what was probably a nostalgic sigh.  "It all started when I was creating the universe…."

Monday, September 22, 2014

Introduction

“So,” I said, my voice dry and raspy.  “What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Oh, lots of things,” he said.  “But for starters, I figured we should get to know each other a little.”

“But…don’t you know me already?” I asked.  “You know everything, right?”

“Well,” he said modestly.  “Not everything.  But you make a pretty good point.  So maybe you should get to know me a little.”

“Okay.”

“So,” he began, “I’m God.  I’m several billion years old—I kind of lost track, to be honest.  It doesn’t help that even if I knew exactly how old I was, I’d have to convert it into units based upon the length of your particular planet’s orbit around your particular sun, and that’s a lot of math that I really don’t feel like doing right now.”

“Okay….”

He put his elbow up on the edge of the table so that he could prop his chin up against his palm.  “Let’s see, what else?  I’m a huge Cubs fan.  Not many people know that.  It’s usually pretty surprising to most people because my favorite team hasn’t won a World Series, in, well…just about forever, but I think it’s more exciting to watch the team progress without giving them any kind of divine help.”  He paused, apparently thinking.  “I also really love just about any kind of food with barbecue sauce on it, which is why I come here for the Baron’s Bacon Beast Burger.”  He punctuated his sentence by picking up his half-eaten burger, taking a slow, deliberate bite, chewing thoughtfully, and swallowing with a smile.  He flashed me a thumbs-up.  “What do you think?” he asked.  “I could do commercials for these guys, right?”

I could not believe this babbling dork was actually God.  I kept expecting the big bearded guy in the white robe to walk out of the bathroom and thank Pudgy McTalkative here for saving his seat.  “Yeah, sure,” I said lamely, mostly because there really wasn’t much else that I could have said.

“Okay,” he said with a sigh, using a napkin to dab a spot of sauce from his lip.  “I guess maybe I tried too hard with the introductions and the pleasantries.  Would you like to get down to some business?”

If that meant he was going to bring the real God over, then I was definitely on board.  “Sure,” I said.

The man turned around and yelped toward another guy seated a few tables away.  “Lucifer,” he shouted.  “We’re ready for you.”