Axiom 7: Remain positive.
Once Vinrael had agreed to help us, he didn’t spend any more time sitting around his office. As soon as he shook each of our hands (“Devil’s handshake,” he said with a grin to us that made me feel like he was about to take a bite), he immediately headed for the door.
“Well, are you lot coming?” he asked over his shoulder, as we all turned to him. “We can’t hang around here! Do you know what sort of trouble I’d be facing if someone finds out that I’m consorting with mortals? Or worse, him?”
“I feel quite the same way,” Eremiel replied stiffly, looking back with distaste at the finger the devil pointed towards him. “The sooner this ends, the better.”
Clearly, neither of our allies felt quite comfortable with each other. Alice and I shared a look of commingled frustration, and then nodded.
“Great, let’s go,” Alice said, and she breezed forward, through the door to the devil’s office. Of course, none of us, besides Vinrael, knew what was on the other side, but that didn’t stop her from acting confident and in control.
Hell, as it turns out, has a lot of different areas, all of them with lots of doors.
And strangely enough, those doors don’t seem to connect to each other in a logical manner. Our travel through Hell consisted mainly of entering an area, crossing through a few rooms or down a corridor, and then going through another door, which would open up into an entirely different area. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the place, and it just felt like a huge rabbit’s warren of interconnected passages.
Vinrael set a brisk pace, but this didn’t stop Alice and I from looking around with interest as we entered each new chamber. Hell, it seemed, had really branched out from the whole “pools of fire and brimstone” act. Since Dante had visited, there had clearly been some upgrades to account for all the new horrors that entered the human subconscious.
Most of the rooms that we passed through, however, seemed to look like offices, with rows of cubicles stretching off into the distance, the rooms filled with the hubbub sound of many people all doing their best to talk quietly but clearly over each other.
After moving through a few of these office areas, I began taking a closer look, peering into some of the cubicles and trying to figure out what their occupants were doing. The answer soon become apparent.
“Call centers?” I asked aloud.
Vinrael glanced back at me as he opened another door. “Surprisingly popular choice of Hell, it is,” he nodded. “Of course, most of the time they’re just calling other folks who are cursed to spend an eternity getting calls from strangers, but sometimes we mix it up, throw some Earthly numbers into the mix.”
He paused. “Although not now, obviously. No one left to take the calls.”
I thought that I caught the slightest note of wistfulness in the devil’s voice, as if he’d really enjoyed listening in on some of those calls to Earth from his damned telemarketers. “Maybe that will come back,” I offered.
He shrugged, reaching out for the handle of the next door. “Eh, I always told my superiors that it was to keep on spreading wickedness. You know, each call leads to a little more anger and rage building up, which tips those souls a little more towards our side. Strategy, that’s what I said.”
Somehow, I didn’t believe that Vinrael’s only reason for those calls was for Hell’s grand strategy – and I suspect that he knew it, too.
After a moment of heavy silence, the devil just shrugged. “Whatever. We’re almost there now – just a couple more spaces.”
I started. “Really? It feels like we’ve only been walking for a few hours! This has gotten us almost all the way to the other side of the world?”
The devil grinned back at me, once again highlighting his resemblance to the star of Jaws. “What can I say, Hell’s got all the connections.”
For a moment, I pictured how advantageous something like Hell could have been for the shipping industry of Earth. Want to take an international trip? No need to get on a plane for hours; just take a little stroll through a few rooms of cursed telemarketers, and you’ll come out at your destination – plus, you’ll also have a newfound determination to do good deeds and avoid that horrible eternal fate! This could have turned into a whole business, if it weren’t for the whole Apocalypse thing coming along and mucking it all up.
“Anyway,” Vinrael went on, “We just need to make a quick detour through the main cavern again, and then the door to Megiddo is just on the other side-”
He reached out, opening the next door, and then froze. “Oh. Shit.”
Vinrael still stepped forward through the door, but just as he passed through, I thought that I saw his face go pale, the drained color standing out even more against the dark color of his suit.
Alice and I were next, and we glanced over at each other. “That doesn’t sound good,” Alice said.
I shook my head. “But from the sound of it, our destination is right on the other side – and I don’t think we can just circle around and take another route.”
Alice nodded, racking the slide on her shotgun and making sure the thing was loaded. She looked over at me, and then after a second, reached down to some hidden location on her person and withdrew another gun, a small pistol, which she held out to me.
“You might need it,” she said softly. “And at least one of us needs to make it through, see this thing to the end.”
I nodded, accepting the gun and feeling a lump well up in my throat along with it. “I’m sure it will be fine, and Vinrael just saw something he didn’t expect,” I said, even though neither of us really believed it.
Alice nodded, not challenging my flimsy lie, and glanced back at Eremiel. “What do you think?”
I’d hoped that Eremiel would be the calm rock of reassurance, but he looked even more nervous than I felt. He’d been a bit jumpy ever since we started trekking through Hell, I’d noticed, although he hadn’t said anything about what might be bothering him. Now, he shook his head.
“There are many demons in Hell, still,” he said softly, reaching for the burning sword that he kept tucked in at his belt. “Many of them are much scarier than Vinrael could ever be.”
Well, that certainly didn’t fill us with confidence. Alice gritted her teeth, and then turned to the still slightly ajar door.
“Oh, wait – one more thing,” she said, looking back at me. She reached towards me, and for one wonderful moment, I thought that she might be about to kiss me.
But instead, she reached down and flipped a little switch on the side of the pistol in my hands. “There. Now, be careful – the safety’s off. Don’t point it at anything that you don’t want to shoot.”
And then, before I could man up and just grab her to initiate the kiss myself, she pulled the door open and plunged through.
Eremiel and I had no choice but to follow, my hands squeezing the gun so tightly that my fingers were pure white.