The scream had a particular quality to it, one that stood out from the almost constant background wailing of the damned that only occasionally had the basic decency to shut the fuck up. Of the screams that always sounded here in Pride, most were pain, as Sinners were brought low again and again, their never-dying flesh brought to ruin only to recover, and be brought to ruin again by those who had the sadism for such patient cruelty. Others were despair, the low but unending wail of those whom there was no active torment left, but they'd had enough that they didn't need it anymore. There were a few of anger as well, those who refused to passively accept being victimized by the worst that all of Humanity and the Will of God could muster. Those ones didn't tend to last.
This scream, though, was one of shock. Surprise. And it ended abruptly, with a faintly wet thump.
That wettish thump was the landing of a new soul in Hell, fresh from the living world, laying in a pool of fetid blood and slowly retreating entrails. The new Sinner stared up, at the moon which bore a symbol of Hell's dominion etched into its surface. Large, round ears picked up the many, many other screams which were not his, the garish, foul-intentioned music, the laughter of thirsting demons. He raised his arms, one of which was painfully broken and at unnatural angles, and could not hold in the loud yelp of pain as he felt and watched it pull itself back into a more usable angle, the burn of muscles reaffirming themselves. There was something intruding on the corners of his vision, and when he reached up, he felt something hard, smooth there.
"I swear I 'eard it, roit 'round 'ere!" a voice came, somewhere between gurgling snot and rattling a mug full of gravel. He tried to fight the pain, to focus, but all of this seemed like a dream. A nightmare.
"If you're bullshitting me again, Rog, I swear to God..." another, higher and fluteier and likewise male.
"The fuck are you swearing to God for? D'you forget where we are, hombre?" a third cut in, deep and smooth.
"Eh, old habits die hard," the second said with a laugh that called to mind throwing plates at a wall.
Where... Pain was obvious. He'd been shot. At least twice. The blood was coming out slow, and his hands had burning pain in them. He'd crawled through the streets, through the slums, trying to reach ... who was he trying to reach? What city was it? Somebody shot him. Why did they shoot him? And where was he now?
"Well ho-lee-fuck you were right, Rog," the third said from somewhere behind the broken Sinner.
"A' would y'look a' tha'?" Rog, as he had been named, asked. "'E's even a feckin' Sloth, s'like."
"No better eating than a Slothful soul, you're right on that," the third noted.
He rolled, feeling the pain of now on a ruptured chest, and saw... demons. A part of his mind tried to deny the existence of such fiends, that this was another nightmare that fit into a lifetime of nightmares, but he had an unshakable feeling that there was no such mercy. This was not a dream. That didn't mean that there was no room for nightmares.
The three were lizards in the broad strokes, scales on their flesh and eyes that were narrow slits, many needle-like teeth behind thin, almost vestigial lips. The largest of them, red of scale, began to walk toward him, a knife appearing in his hand. His eyes widened as he beheld the broken form there, and an unfriendly grin. The squattest, green with a wattle that hung almost to his navel was practically glued to his hip. "So you figure we're going to have some loin or chuck?"
"Maybe 'e's got 'imself a big fuckin' brisket?" the green lizard, Rog, offered.
"Welcome to hell, kid. You're going to be delicious," the last one, orange and wiry, said as he pulled a cleaver from a pocket of his coat.
The Gift of Rage
Chapter 1: Flesh Follows Soul
The scream that ripped through the side-street was fairly familiar, one that the goat knew from years of living in this debauched place. He could even pick out by the variations the exact nature of it. This was the scream of somebody new to hell being vivisected by cannibals. The goat sighed, giving his head a shake. He was tired. It had been a long day, he'd already done two collections, and he was pretty sure his suit was a total write-off after the stab wounds in his back. It was fortunate that he was in Hell. Such wounds that would have ended a mortal life now didn't even slow him down. Still hurt, though. And still ruined a nice suit.
He considered just keeping on walking. There were no taxis in this little slum of Upper Central. The population was too low, and that population was too feral to bother wasting cars on madmen, ever since the last Purge. The Exorcists had pounded this once-metropolitan district so hard that now it was more rubble than building, and only the most basic services had reestablished themselves. The goat didn't care. The Exorcists could do whatever they want, so long as the goat could do as he needed to. Exorcised Sinners made for simple contracts. He considered walking on. And then, there was that little voice in the back of his head, breaking out of the little box that he'd spent a long time locking it in, telling him... do something. Be something better than hell.
"I hate my conscience," the goat muttered, then sighed, and walked to the mouth of the alley. True to his expectation, there was a gagged Sinner – bovine, so probably damned by his sloth – nailed to a wall, naked as he had Fallen, and in the process of being butchered. He considered walking on, but there was something that arrested him. Whatever it was, it put a word out of his throat. "Hey," the goat said, simple as you please. The three of those victimizing the Newly Fallen were all lizard-like. Gluttony was probably their sin in life, thus their forms. A wet pop sounded as the red one pulled off one of the Sinner's horns, to the muffled scream of pain of the Sinner.
"Wha'fuck you want, shit-stain?" the long-wattled Glutton Sinner demanded, brandishing a bloody cleaver at him.
"You do realize there's a grocery store about two blocks that way?" the goat said.
"Fuck you! This meat's better," the tall, red one said.
"Really? Mind if I sample it?" the goat asked, eyebrows thrown up.
"This is ours. Go find your own,"
"How much is it worth to you?" The goat asked, walking easily toward the Sinners who towered over him. Even the flabby green one was at least twice the goat's height, and weighed probably four times as much.
"The fuck you mean?" the last one asked, whereupon the goat immediately disregarded him as unimportant to the conversation.
"Well he's obviously worth more than walking two blocks and worth at least fifteen minutes of labor for butchery, plus the nails you used to pin him to the wall, plus lost-wages for whatever you were doing before you came here and found him," the goat said, setting his satchel on the ground just behind him. "Now, I gather since you're covered in filth in ill-fitting attire, with the big one's exception, you're probably local, and given the state of Upper Central likely employed either in drug-distribution or gang-warfare, which don't have great compensation packages, but still, they represent income. Income you're jeopardizing by running around to practice cannibalism. Jeopardizing doubly because those," he said, pointing at the runes running down the red one's jacket, "don't match those," he pointed to the graffiti on the walls declaring this neighborhood to be the Ganglord Furious George, "indicating that you are poaching in another gang's territory."
"Who is this guy, Rugger?" the one he wished he could ignore said.
"Rugger?" the goat asked. "Your name is... Rugger."
"Got a problem with that?" Rugger asked.
The goat rolled his eyes.
"'oo the fuck is this twat?" the wattled-one demanded.
"You don't know who I am? That does happen," the goat said. "Look. How about this. I pay you a decent price for the Sinner over yonder, and you walk away from this without having to worry about Furious George. Who, I will remind you, did not die in the last Purge."
"You wanna pay for that? Fine. What's your offer."
"You get to walk out of this alleyway alive," the goat said.
The three lizards looked amongst themselves, then laughed uproariously. The least interesting of the three loomed over him, crowding and trying – and failing – to intimidate him. "How 'bout we have some goat along with the beef, huh? How you like that offer?"
"I take it that's a no to my offer?" the goat asked.
There was now a knife in front of his face, bloody from the Sinner's head.
"Been a while since I had goat. You like goat, Rugger?" the insignificant one asked.
"I like all kinds of things," Rugger said. "Now why don't you turn yourself around, promptly go FUCK YOURSELF, and leave us to our fun?"
The goat let out a 'hmm'. Well, so much for diplomacy. He pulled the crossbow from the satchel directly behind him, and snapped it into the gap between him and the next murder-victim in the alley. The lizard stared down at the thing, confused at how an empty crossbow could be a threat. The goat didn't even smile as he pulled the trigger, causing the string to instantly pull back, a blazing white quarrel appearing in its nock, and then send that arrow into the chest of the lizard whom the goat would now never need to think of as anything other than landscape.
"The fuck did you–" wattle-lizard demanded, and with a flick of the wrist, the goat turned the crossbow to the fat one, launching another blazing white bolt into the face of the Glutton. He went down like a sack of shit, smoking grey hole where his eye used to be. The red one lashed out, slashing at the goat with his cleaver; because he was out of reach, and the goat was not exactly slow, he was able to dance back with it grinding along his curled horns, then launched a third bolt into Rugger's knee.
Down he went, howling with incredible pain while the white quarrel dissolving into white dust that wafted away. He clutched at his leg, watching as the flesh around the wound began to crumble and collapse. Terror now filled those eyes which had been until now nothing but disdainful. "You can't –," he began.
The goat didn't even bother to gloat. He just shot the lizard Rugger in his other arm. Within seconds, his right arm fell off, not even bleeding properly. He considered leaving the Glutton like that, without an arm and without a leg. It was the nature of Sinners to recover. Eventually, any harm done to them would inevitably heal, even if you were to reduce them to a red mist which you blew across the whole of Pride Ring. Only the wounds by an Exorcist, or more specifically the Heaven-wrought weapons that they carried, would be permanent. Only by such weapons could a Sinner be unmade. The goat's crossbow had once been alabaster and gold, but time in hell had damaged it. One day, it wouldn't work at all. Until then, well...
Another bolt pinned Rugger to the street, his desperate breathing starting to fail as he died his second true death. "So," the goat said, blindly plunking the crossbow into his satchel alongside the dozens of contracts that were his livelihood as he turned to the bovine Sinner. "You, look like you're having a doozy of a day."
He had little option but to stare at the anthropomorphic goat who now stood over the faintly smoking corpses of his tormentors. With a flick of the much smaller creature's wrist, his gag came free, and the first thing he did was swear, loudly, because of the amount of pain he was in. The next, though, was to catch his breath at long last. It took a while, because every breath hurt. Not as much as it did a minute ago, but it still hurt. The well dressed goat just stood there, hands clasped before him, with an inscrutable look on his face. When the pain subsided a bit, he finally put words to question. "What... do you want... from me?" he asked.
The goat gave an expression as if he were going to have to hide a wince. "I want you to grit your teeth for a second, because this is going to hurt a bit,"
"This being whaaaafuck!" he asked before being cut off when the goat ripped the spike that was pinning his unflayed arm to the wall. The goat stared at the spike for a moment in distaste, before tossing it over his shoulder.
"What's your name, bub?" the goat asked.
He was stunned at the question. Like it took a moment to dredge up. Trying to remember a dream of childhood, but like so many of his nightmares, they were vivid enough to recall. "Sam," he said. The goat turned a mildy reproachful look at him. "What?"
"You're going to have to rethink that one," the goat said. "Down here, you're not supposed to cling to who you were up top."
"Down... here?" Sam asked, before letting out a light yelp of pain as the goat pulled the nail from his other arm and let him slide down the wall. When the goat turned to him, tossing the other spike over his shoulder, the wince was clear.
"Oh, you'd best brace yourself for this one, because there's no easy way of putting it," the goat said, as he pulled a second bag out of his satchel, one that was far too big to fit inside its conveyance. What? The goat didn't bother explaining that impossibility, though; he just cracked open what turned out to be a medical kit and started to unfurl gauze. "You, my fine unfortunate friend, are in the uppermost ring of Hell, the Pride ring. Home to between two and twenty billion damned Sinners depending on the day of the year and how narrow old Saint Peter is feeling about his entry requirements."
"I'm in hell?" Sam asked, incredulous. He looked around. This place was a shithole, sure, but he'd been in shitholes before. "But... Hell isn't real."
"Oh, you poor, poor, foolish, atheist," the goat said, slowly shaking his head as he wound the most grisly of Sam's wounds in fabric and cut off half of his vision as the gauze staunched a head-wound. "God doesn't care if you believe it's real. He'll still send you here."
"B... wh..." he asked. God wasn't real, hell wasn't real, and even if the former two weren't stories told to make people afraid of their own dicks, he had done nothing to earn that kind of damnnation! But then again, he had horns on his head, and he was being bandaged by a small goat in a slightly shredded suit jacket and slacks. He took a breath. "Hell. Fine."
The goat gave him a look. "Hmm. You're taking this a lot better than most who land here. Most are either in outright denial, or think that this is some sort of cruel joke."
"Whatever. I was in hell before, now I'm in hell again. Nothing changes," he said. Honestly, he wasn't sure what to believe. So instead of believing, he just focused on what was around him. Survive, first. It had served him well... until it didn't, as it turned out. Still, old habits. "What... what did you do to them?"
"Killed them," the goat said.
"You can do that? You can die in Hell?" Sam asked.
"If you've got the right tools, anything can die. Even the devil, and even God," the goat said, with a knowing smile. Sam wasn't sure what to make of that. But one thing did return to him now that he wasn't in constant pain.
"And what... was that about buying me?" he asked, his voice as humorless as the situation he found himself in.
The goat offered a tight-lipped smile. "Sorry, sometimes my job sneaks up on me."
"Job being?" he asked with a tight voice, as the goat began to wind the ruined arm. Even now, he could see that a bit of the muscle which the lizards had scraped off was already regrowing.
The goat stared at him for a moment, before he chuckled, staring first at the ground, and then back up and into Sam's eyes. "Why am I surprised, you've literally been down here for half an hour. They call me the Goat of the Apocalypse. Those who are lazy or don't have that kind of time just call me Apoc. I am in the business of enforced agreements. I create contracts between parties. I maintain those contracts against tampering or nullification. And in some circumstances, I collect on them."
"Contracts are a big thing down here, ahhhhhrg... then?" Sam asked, as he finally got his maimed arm into a position which hurt marginally less.
Apoc smiled a bit. "I like you, you're not a stupid as most people I meet."
"You've known me for five minutes," Sam said.
"That speaks volumes to the kind of people I spend most of my time around," Apoc said. "Can you stand?
"They... ah..." Sam said, looking at his calves. One was still skeletonized. "I can hobble?"
"That... won't do," the goat said, tying off the last of the gauze. He rubbed at the sprig of fur which formed a beard off of his chin, before snapping his fingers. "Just wait here for a second. I'll deal with this."
"Deal with what?" Sam asked. Apoc reached into his pocket and pulled out a red business card, which he promptly tore in half. From the tear came a pane of fire which rose up between Sam and Apoc.
"What do you want you little pissant?" a harsh voice came from that pane of fire. If Sam were standing where Apoc was, he'd probably see a face on the other side, he figured.
"Nice to see you too, Buer. I'm willing to forgive one of your many, many debts if you arrange a pick-up and a drop-off for me."
"I'm doing nothing unless you wipe the slate. Remember always who I am!"
"Remember also who most of those debts are owed to," the goat said with an utterly flat tone.
There was a long, audibly angry silence.
"Fine. Clear a debt, goat. You will get what you wish."
"I hope all of our business in the future is as smooth as this was," Apoc said.
"Go fuck yourself."
And the pane went away.
"What?" Sam asked.
"Hailed a taxi," the goat said with a distant smile. "Now I apologize for what is about to happen to you, but I can't do anything for you, or with you, if you're suffering from gutterpox from infected wounds. So take this..." Apoc handed another red business card to him, sliding it into the folds of the bandages across his torso when Sam didn't take it from him, "and call me when you're healed."
"Why not now?" Sam asked.
"Because you're going to be falling asleep in about ten seconds," Apoc said. Sam stared at him, and Sam waggled an empty syringe in one hand, before tossing it over his shoulder. Just like the spikes that had been tossed first, it landed right in the empty lizard eyesocket with a tink.
"What do you..." Sam began to demand, but by that point, his tongue stopped working properly. A cool sensation began to work its way up from his hip, where he'd been stuck, until he flopped forward onto his chest on the alleyway tarmac. Apoc leaned down, a look almost wistful on his face.
"Take a chance to heal, Sam. I'll talk to you once your feet are back under you."
Cheap booze went a long way to shortening boring days. Husk had certainly seen his fair share of boring days, once Alastor finally simmered down and started reaping amusement from the antics of the pervert and the rest of the clowns under this roof. To Husk's chagrin, he was included in that circus. Still, working for the Heir of Hell had its perks. For one, he'd had more consecutive days of not being stabbed since he came to 'volunteer' here than he had in any given year since he landed down here in Hell. Another? Cheap booze, flowing like water. It was swill, rotgut that he wagered would turn a mortal inside-out the instant it touched the poor bastard's tongue, but it was strong. That was what mattered.
"Heeeey~" the pervert made himself known, leaning around Husk's kiosk in an unexpected angle. Husk didn't react to the spider-demon's words, just blankly staring at the doors and drinking. "Don't be like that. You've got to have something better to do with your time than just staring at the doors. Come on! This place us boooring!"
Husk again didn't answer, just letting Angel Dust pace and gesticulate wildly with his many arms.
"I mean, I came here lookin' for a cheap roof over my head, but if you'd'a told me I'd be doin' nothin' but sitting around being 'charitable' and 'opening up to my feelings' – her words not mine – I would have just sat out in the town-square during the last Purge! This place is ridiculous!"
"Uh huh," Husk said, not justifying the weirdo in the slightest.
"Ehhhh fine. Got some spare liquor?" Angel switched gears almost instantly, and without bothering to listen for an answer, he was thrust over the desk and rummaging through the drawers. The only one which mattered was locked, so Husk let him. "Where do you keep gettin' yours? Does it just teleport into your hand?"
"Uh huh," Husk said.
"You're killin' me here, Husk! Come on, cough it up!" Angel said, leaning uncomfortably close to Husk as he begged. Husk rolled his eyes, then gave the pillar that stood at the side of the kiosk a thump. A few seconds later, a bottle slid down the spiraling filigree of that column, coming to a halt, stoppered with cork and wax, near the center of the kiosk's desk. Husk didn't know where the bottles came from, and he certainly didn't care.
"Now go away," Husk said, continuing to stare at the doors.
"Come on, ain't any fun in drinkin' alone," Angel said.
"I enjoy it plenty," Husk said.
"Did-I-Hear-A-Bottle-Dropping?" Niffty's words preceded her into the room, skidding to a halt in the middle of the rug with a dustpan and broom in her tiny hands. She glanced around with her one, large, frantic eye, as though disappointed there wasn't anything broken to clean up, then let out a chipper noise and departed just as suddenly as she appeared.
"So... ah... What's the boss doin'?" Angel asked.
"When'd they decide you needed to know?" Husk asked. Angel's attempted wheedling was cut off when there was a pounding at the door. "It's open," Husk said, thoroughly failing to do his job. The door swung open, revealing a fairly unexpected face. "Well I'll be damned."
"Definitionally, most people down here are," the Goat of the Apocalypse said, straightening his suit somewhat. "Would you mind giving me a hand? I can't actually move this fellow."
"Move?" Husk asked, rounding the kiosk and heading out to the doors that faced the street. Just as he reached a point where he was before the goat and able to see, he beheld a large, bovine Sinner being shoved out of the back-seat of a fancy car and dumped onto the curb. "Ya mind explaining this one, chief?"
"Yes, while I was at work, I came across this poor fool in a state of... let's say distress. When I pulled him out of it, he kept muttering about 'the hotel', which given his state and the fact that he had no money on him when I found him, would probably have to be this living thought-experiment," he gestured to the venue of the 'Happy Hotel' that reached precariously into the sky. "I do hope you've got the capacity for one more wayward soul?"
Husk glanced back at the hotel, which which was positively brimming with absolutely fucking noone. "Yeah, I think we've got room," Husk said.
"Excellent," The Goat said. "Apropos of nothing, I do have some business to deal with you, as it turns out."
"Hey, Husk, what's goin' on out heeee... why's there a naked minotaur on the curb?" Angel asked, leaning around Husk to take in the absurdity.
"Long, boring story," Husk said. "I hope this ain't bad news, Goat."
"Apoc, please. We've known each other long enough for that," the goat said.
"Whatever," Husk said.
"Ftagn," the minotaur slurred.
"First of all, your gambling IOUs," the goat said, digging through his satchel until he was shoulder deep in it, and pulling up a ream of folded papers. "Twenty thousand from Krix Bixpin, owed to Husk? Well, that's nullified de facto and de jure, Krix is dead."
"Wait, that money..." but the goat was already tearing the contract apart.
"I can't collect from a Purified cadaver, Husk, you know that," the goat said, dropping the contract's tatters, which burst into flame as they fell. He then moved on to another. "Let's see, you, owing five thousand to Torkel Torkelson, yeah, you're off the hook for that one, he's dead too."
"O...kay," Husk said, as the goat ripped another contract apart. "Is there any good news?
"One 'major favor' owed to Husk from Rusty Shackleford, sorry, no dice," another contract torn. "And... oh, this one, a 'blood price' owed by Husk to King Crab, off the hook for that as well."
"Right," Husk said. "Can I just get an overview of this?"
"llll'egg... Fib'sh." the minotaur babbled.
The goat turned to him, then nodded. "Alright. Overview, you came out ahead during this most recent Purge by the order of fifty bucks and a bottle of Ardbeg, but still owe a favor to... help Rebecca Ravenous move a couch upstairs," he said, holding up the three contracts that still held water.
"Fuck. I'd rather have been on the hook for the five thou'," Husk said. That couch was huge, and the stairway was bullshit. The goat could only innocently shrug.
"You made the agreements and decided on the wording," he said. "If you'd been putting thought into it, you could have put an annihilation clause to recoup your losses. I know that there's an emoluments-agreement you could have put in with Beelzebank that could would have liquidated their holdings to..."
"I didn't ask," Husk said. "'Sides. Better to keep contracts simple. Makes suckers more willing to take them."
"That it is, Husk, that it is," the goat agreed.
"Mibph," the minotaur offered, eyes open to different degrees.
"You should help the poor fellow up at some point. He isn't going to get healthy lying in the gutter next to his destination."
"I suppose he ain't," Husk said. "Poker Saturday at 'Beccas?"
"The same answer I always give, Husk. Maybe," he said, picking up his satchel and starting to walk away.
"Got a knife stickin' out," Husk said.
"Where?" the goat asked. It spoke to how tough the little demon was that he didn't seem to notice a murder implement dug into his lung. Husk reached over and plucked it out. Just a sharpened piece of scrap. Still he kept it. He could use it as a bottle opener. "Ah. I was wondering why that was so stiff."
"Sure," Husk said. He turned to Angel and waggled that knife toward the minotaur on the curb. "Ya mind?"
"Ehhh he's not really my type," Angel said, looking at the essentially mummified Sinner. Whoever got ahold of him ran him through a meat-grinder. Perhaps literally. Husk glared, flatly, at the arachnid pest. "Ffffine. Get his other arm."
It was awkward work to haul to drag the babbling bovine through the lobby of the hotel, depositing him face-down on the chaise-lounge that was tucked up against a wall. The Sinner did nothing but offer a blathered 'kweh?' at being dumped.
"Good news, everybody!" the boss's enthusiasm, as usual, entered the room ahead of her, washing over Husk like water over a duck-demon's beak. He just stared as the Princess of Hell strode grinning into the room, hustling a withered, hunched, tired looking cyclopean demon ahead of her. She was grey in all ways, her clothing only slightly more gray then her skin, her hair paler gray, her one great eye a pale but drab shade of gray. Husk had seen its like. Somebody just... used up. "We've got another guest at the hoteeeee~l!"
"Uh huh, well, you might wanna turn your eyes yonder, toots." Angel said, moving directly to the bar and starting to drink from the bottle that Husk had abandoned. Not kosher, buddy. Husk's annoyance was interrupted by Charlie Magne turning from the new arrival to the even newer arrival.
"Oh. Um. Who's this?" Charlie asked, her usual beaming enthusiasm stalling a bit. The cyclops just took the opportunity to vanish from the scene and scram toward the elevator.
"The Goat dropped him off," Husk said.
"What?" Charlie's other half barged into the room, harpoon practically appearing in hand. Vaggie was as severe as Charlie was bubbly, as paranoid as Charlie was naive, and despite her proven ability to harpoon a demon from the far side of a room, she was the fourth best fighter in this room, even knowing nothing about the minotaur. Fifth, if the god-damned Radio Demon was doing what he usually did, lurking in the shadows. She was like the yet un-introduced cyclops in that her palor was grey and she had only one eye, but it was obvious that Vaggie'd had two at some point either in her life or her damnation. Now, she wore an eyepatch."Is he still here?"
"Oh my word, look at him. What happened?" Charlie asked over Vaggie, and Husk decided to answer that one.
"Cannibals, I guess," Husk said. Angel, who had never clued in to that, let out an honest wince. "Worked him over a bit, and the Goat brought him the rest of the way here."
"So he's not here, though," Vaggie interjected.
"Vaggie..." Charlie said, which got the stern demoness to relent, just a bit. "Did he say if he wanted to stay here?"
"Goat said he did," Husk said. "And that's all I know. Get the rest from the Goat if you care."
With that, he pointedly ignored anything else that was being said behind him, brusquely shoved Angel Dust out of his chair, and started drinking in earnest. Today had been too damned busy. The sooner noon came and he could clock out to get plastered, the better.
Sam's eye snapped open with the haste of a mouse-trap onto a fingernail. The pain had receded to a dull ache, which was nice, but he found himself... somewhere he didn't recognize. Well, sure, he could tell it was inside a building, but the place was in a weird state between decrepit and pristine, like anything not broken was buffed to a mirror sheen, and anything broken ignored. For a moment, just a moment, he considered that the last thing he remembered might have been a particularly unpleasant nightmare. He could feel pain in his dreams, after all. Needless to say, he had trouble sleeping.
That hopeful thought was dragged into an alley and shot a few seconds later, as the first portrait he saw hanging on a wall nearby showcased an obvious demon woman, towering over a blond man with a serial-killer grin and a blond girl who looked like she wanted to hug puppies for a living.
"What...?" he asked. His voice didn't sound right. And now that he looked, he could see one horn peeking into his vision. He reached up, and found that yes, he had one horn. And another that should have been there had been cut at the root. That one still stung.
"Well," a voice came from somewhere in the room, sounding every inch of him like he was in old black-and-white movies. "This ought to be interesting."
"Who's there?" Sam asked. He could feel the darkness growing stronger, like the shadows were actively swallowing more light, reaching toward him, leaning over him. As though the ill lighting in this room were inspecting him, and grinning.
"Is he awake?" A woman's voice sounded, and in that instant the shadows snapped to their original places, leaving Sam wondering what the hell just happened. The darkness was replaced by what seemed like that little girl from the portrait, grown up. She smiled brightly, showcasing teeth that weren't nearly as sharp as the grins of lizards or a goat in a business suit. "Yes! Welcome to the Happy Hotel! Hell's number one spot for the rehabilitation of Sinners!"
"Not... so loud," Sam said, trying to cover his ears only to find them situated higher on his head than he remembered.
"He was in pretty bad shape, Charlie. Give him a bit of breathing room," another woman's voice came, this one clearly the anchor to Charlie's untethered enthusiasm. Sam saw her and instantly knew her to be the protective type, always a twitch away from pulling a knife, if not a gun. And the way she watched him with her one remaining eye made him think that she expected him to shake the building down at any moment.
"He's fine! You're fine aren't you?" Charlie said, motioning toward him. He looked down at himself, and found that now he had a pair of boxer shorts on, festooned with smiling apples for some reason, as well as his many bandages.
"Um..." he offered.
"See? He's right as the rain in Lust," Charlie said.
"If you say so. All Pride ever gets is acid rain," the sallow, yet-unnamed woman said.
"So you're interested in Redemption, are you? Well you've come to the right place!" Charlie said, puffing out her chest and getting the proudest look on her face. The other woman sighed, smiling despite herself, and shook her head lightly.
"More like the only place..."
"Vaggie!" Charlie said. She turned to Sam once more. "We will do whatever we can to help you right the wrongs you did in your last life, and put you on a path to heaven."
"Right," Sam said. "So... why am I here?"
"I thought you wanted to come here. Husk said the Goat of the Apocalypse said that you kept talking about our hotel," Charlie's expression started to wilt, which made Sam feel like he'd just kicked a puppy, soothed it, then kicked it again.
"Sorry, I meant 'how did I get here'?" he lied. He was still in the dark as to all of this. Was this Purgatory? Or the closest thing to Purgatory that Hell would allow? It certainly seemed in keeping. Depending on which parable you listened to, Hell was other people. And other people, like crabs in the bucket, would hate to see somebody suffering less than themselves.
"Oh," Charlie perked back up. "You were dropped off at our door. You were in a bad state, so we just let you pep up for the afternoon."
Right. Apoc had said something about that. He pulled the card out, turning the thing over in his fingers. It had no name, just a number with twelve digits and the words Promissis Fidem stamped, black against red. Vaggie, as her name was, reached for it but he pulled it away.
"You're better off getting rid of that, trust me," she said.
"Vaggie, Mister Apoc is not that bad."
"He's a Dealmaker!" Vaggie countered.
"He's not like the Radio Demon; he just makes sure people can be held to their word. I'd rather have him in my hotel than Nathan Birch," Charlie said, shuddering slightly at the last name, which left Sam wondering but not strongly enough to ask.
"I still don't trust him," Vaggie crossed her arms in front of her chest, an expression of stone-stubbornness on her face.
"You'll have to forgive Vaggie. She's a bit..." Charlie began.
"Protective?" Sam asked.
"Sure, let's go with that," Charlie said. "Do you mind if I put that somewhere safe for you? You don't have pockets, after all."
"Sure," he said. "So... what's the procedure here?"
"Well, we have a check-list we need to do. Razzle?" Charlie asked. And to Sam's incredible dismay another goat popped out from under the chaise-lounge Sam was sitting on, this one wearing a fancy tux, and handed Charlie a clip-board with a bunch of papers on it. Without a word being said, this 'Razzle' goat ducked back under the sofa. Sam leaned down, looking under it, but saw nothing there, not even dust-bunnies. What? "Alright, let me see," she said, running her finger along forms until she flipped to one that seemed correct.
"Should we do this in the front lobby?"
"I don't see why not. We welcomed Angel Dust in while he was vomiting behind a dumpster," Charlie said. Vaggie could only tweeze the bridge of her nose at that. "Alright. Your name?"
"Sam," he said.
"Okay. And your deadname?"
"My what?" he asked.
"The name you had when you were mortal," Vaggie said, starting to recover from the absurdity.
"Oh. Sam," he said.
"You're not supposed to use your deadname," Charlie said, her tone... slightly disappointed? Like he'd done something elementary just a little bit wrong? "This is Hell and clinging to things from Before is bad for you."
"My name. is. Sam," Sam said, not budging on this.
"Ffffine," Charlie said, pulling out a pen from a back pocket and starting to write. "Length of time in Hell?"
"Uh, I don't know," Sam said.
"How many times have you slept?" Vaggie asked.
"So far? One-ish," Sam said.
"Do you... you know... need to sleep?" Charlie asked, concern painting her features.
"Do you?" Sam asked.
"Then I probably do, and the number is still one-ish," Sam said.
"You landed here today?" Charlie asked.
"I guess?" he said.
"Wow, that's really..."
"Lucky for him," Vaggie cut Charlie off.
"Okay," she said. "Are you involved in any ongoing Turf Wars... No, 'cause you just got here. Are you a known associate of... again, probably not because you just got here. Are you a... no, no, no... no. No, no, and no."
"There's a lot of things I'm not, it seems," Sam said flatly.
"Charlie, box eighty two," Vaggie said.
"He's not..." Charlie began.
"He was literally dropped on our doorstep by the Goat of the Apocalypse, out of one of Beur's cars," Vaggie said.
"Alright, fine," Charlie had a long-suffering tone for a moment. "Are you associated with any of the Goetia Families?"
"I don't even know what those are," Sam said.
"Okay. Do you promise that you're not lying about any of your hell-bound associations?"
"Sure?" he said.
"Fine-and-dandy!" Charlie said, and then flipped to a new sheet. "Now just a few bookkeeping things. During your life or afterlife, did you ever have possession of one of the Shards of Ruin?"
"A what?" Sam asked.
"No then," Charlie said. "Are you in possession of a Stand?"
Sam turned a baffled look to Vaggie. "It's a ghost that punches things," she said. His continued bafflement seemed to answer that question. "Probably not."
"Have you been in possession of an Apple of Eden?" Charlie asked.
"No," he said, fairly sure of that one.
"A Glass Candle?" she asked, not glancing up.
"How can candles be made of glass?" he asked.
"No then. Have you made a pledge to one of the Broken Gods or Manifested before your demise?"
"How many gods are there?" Sam asked.
"One, technically," Charlie said.
"The other ones are broken," Vaggie said. "That's a no."
"Were you taught The Words That Shape?" Charlie asked.
"No," Sam said.
"Signed your name to any of the six known Watchtowers?" she continued.
"I'm starting to hear capital letters everywhere. Should I be worried?" Sam asked.
"Yes," Vaggie said. "And that's a no."
"Do you have a Quirk?" Charlie asked.
"I can crack my neck so hard I go blind for a few seconds. Does that count?" Sam said.
"...no," Charlie said. "Have you worked for any group in the Living World with established connections to Hell?"
"Probably not," Sam said. "You get your share of weird, here, don't you?"
"Gotta cover our bases. Okay. Just one more. Are you directly responsible for the demise of anybody who would have come to Hell before you?" she asked, finally looking up from the clipboard.
And that was a question he wasn't sure how to answer. He had the same flashes he always had, of the trail of blood that reached to his door, the man collapsed at his stoop. He opened the door, looked the desperate, bloody man in the eye... and closed the door.
"I... don't know," Sam said.
"That's a no then," Charlie said with her enthusiasm undampened, unaware of the stab of regret that Sam still felt in his heart. Did he even still have a heart? He was some sort of bull demon now. Come to think of it, what even were the rules of this place? "Alright, I'll just get a few things cleared away, and then you can take your pick of rooms. We've... uh... got a few to pick from."
Sam turned a look from the cheery woman to the sallow one, and then past them to where a... a fuzzy spider man, was trying his hardest not to laugh about something. "I need a shower," he said, tinny and flat to his ears.
"Well we've go the showers attached to the pool, they're right over there. Oh Niffty!" Charlie called. With a noise not unlike a car skidding to a halt on concrete, a tiny, sprite-like creature with one large glowing orange eye and wearing a circle dress straight out of the fifties joined them. "We've got another guest!"
"Oh wow, you're biiiiig," Niffty said, sounding exactly like the tiny, hyperactive thing that she was. Her grin showed a slightly disconcerting amount of very sharp teeth. "And maaanly."
"Niffty, no!" Charlie immediately said, producing a spray bottle and letting Niffty have a couple of blasts. The tiny cyclops hissed and swiped in Charlie's direction, "no scaring the guests."
"Fine, I'll be good," Niffty said. "Stop it with the bottle! It takes forever to get this bob right!"
"Good," Charlie said primly. "Now please show him to the pool showers, and hook up the pipes to the upper floors."
"The upper..." Sam began, but he then found himself being ushered out of the room, shoved by a tiny she-pixie with a maniacal grin.
Bureaucracy was the life-blood of hell.
Deals were its blood vessels, hierarchy its heart. To be a part of hell, was to be bound by a thousand-weight of parchment and oaths, if not voluntarily, then inevitably. Everything had its place in the seven remaining rings of Hell. The hordes of hell-born saturated Greed, Envy, Sloth, Gluttony, Lust, and Wrath with billions of black-blooded beasts, all climbing over each other for a chance to become something less petty and pathetic. Some of the oldest of the hell-born remembered the oldest Rings, they remembered Despair and Betrayal, before those lands were lost. Those oldest fought hardest. They knew how much they had to lose.
Pride Ring was the outermost of that onion of misery, the only Ring by Lucifer's Law that the Sinners could inhabit. There, the hell-born were scarcer, for the Damned took their place. And just like the hell-born, they fought endlessly for the slightest scrap of advancement, the tiniest rise up the hellish hierarchy that began in the gutters and ended at Lucifer's desk.
Through all of that came the Dealmakers. Some Sinners, risen in stature either through their own deeds or those of their patrons. Others were hell-born, who had managed to carve a niche for themselves out of the flesh of their fellows. Some were... stranger. From places neither living nor dead, but instead Outside, but they valued Oath and Service enough that their word could bind as well as any other. Like the valves of a vein, they kept commerce flowing in the one thing which could not be printed or devalued; living reputation.
Thus it was, that a notice began to circulate. Just a scrap of parchment with a few words on it, passing from hand to hand, until it was in the gaping in-box of the demon lords of the Goetia Families, buried with its brothers and sisters of a million pleas and supplications, invitations and death-threats and solicitations toward business or pleasure. Just a few words, given by somebody of known and proven reputation.
'Something Unexpected Is In Hell'.
One day, somebody would read it. And if they knew anything about it, they would sweat.
The showers weren't particularly hot. But given his circumstances, he actually was glad of that. Sam was in Hell.
His wounds were closed, now, which was good, but he still stared at raw, hairy flesh, far hairier than he'd ever had in life. The only bandages still on him were the ones staunching where they'd cut away one of his horns. Every now and then, he would reach up, confirming again, and again, that there was a bull's horn affixed to his own head. Sam was in Hell.
The water did nothing to soothe him, for it wasn't hot enough, nor shock him because it wasn't cold enough. He just let it wash away what remained of his blood from his hair. Fur? Fuck. And as he did, he kept clenching his hand, again and again. How? How was this real? Sam was in Hell.
God was real, after everything he'd been through in his life. All the prayers offered, for two decades, for something – anything! – to get better, only to have something far worse than silence answer. Almost as though God had decided 'fuck you Sam in particular' at some point in Sam's childhood. From desperate poverty to homelessness, to... well... Sam was in Hell.
At some point, Sam 'caught wise' to the lie of God, to the apathy of above. He stopped praying. What offered no solace gave no pain to stop. He stopped trying to be the good soldier, the good neighbor, the Good Samaritan. He just... stopped. And life got worse and worse, whether he tried to change it or not. Madness on top of stupidity on top of cruelty, until it was all he had in him to do what work he could, limp home, and collapse asleep in his chair, the only furniture that nobody felt like stealing. Sam was in Hell.
His fingers hooked around the pipe which ran up parallel to the wall, fist clenching tight. It didn't burn nor freeze his fingers. He just clenched, as his eyes pressed shut and his heart began to hammer. How dare this be his fate? What had he ever done to deserve this? He had tried to be a good man, and his reward was cruelty. He tried to be a good son, and his reward was abuse. He tried to be a good worker and his reward was exploitation. Sam was in Hell.
And he had been in hell before. The outrage of it, the sheer, unmitigated fury began to well up, breaking the bonds of learned helplessness and tearing through his body like a tidal wave of magma burning through his arteries. With a roar, his clenched fist wrenched and tore the pipe from one wall, hurling it into another wall hard enough to embed it. He stormed back a few steps and hurled the bench which had been bolted to the floor so hard into the line of showers opposite him that they too broke and began to spray water throughout the room.
Sam was in Hell, and he punched a wall, all bricks and mortar, hard enough to crack the bricks and hurl powdered mortar as far as it could get before the water dragged it down, swirling down the drains in a grey spiral. Even seeing that ignited Sam's rage even higher, another reminder of his life that had brought him here, a symbol of all the future he could ever hope for. A spiral drifting down a drain. No. Sam was in Hell, but only for now.
Now, with a new scream, he felt his wounds open, blood the color of magma spreading out of his limbs dripping down his face, and instantly blasting any water that came within a foot into steam. The stench of burning hair filled the showers, as the scream raised an octave, raised in volume, and he gave himself over entirely to the anger, to the rage that made his heart beat with thunderous rhythm.
The scream ended when Sam fell to his knees, but the water still didn't fall on him. It still boiled before it reached him. He glared, staring up as though through the ceiling, through the roof, through the heavens themselves.
"I know what I have to do," Sam said, his voice finally sounding right to his ears.
Niffty was beside herself with glee at the thought of a real MAN in the building. Angel Dust didn't count because he was... well, Angel Dust. Husk was a crusty old fogey, someone who reminded her uncomfortably of her father. But this new one? This was a MAN.
She found herself waiting outside the showers, the only towel within a hundred yards in her hands. When he came out, she'd have herself a bit of a look and let him go on his way, but dang it all, she would get her look. Who knows, maybe he would be up for other things, later on? There were only so many hours that she could dedicate to the building. After that, there was plenty of time for movies or trips to the restaurants. He seemed like the kind who knew how to dance, too, oh, that'd be fun.
The smile on her face didn't diminish when she heard the clear ping of metal ripping, followed by a series of apocalyptic crashes coming from the showers. Oh, he was a feisty one, then? Her grin grew even wider. She liked her men feisty. There was a final roar, as he got what seemed to be the last of his tantrum out, and she could no longer contain herself. She rounded the corner, to see the newcomer, but... changed.
He was staring upward, and the changes to his face were obvious. No longer had he a snout, instead a more normal human mouth, if one filled with a row of very sharp teeth. His skin was the color of wet ash now, and he no longer had the ridiculously top-heavy proportions of a Minotaur. Now, he had a lean build like a lumberjack or factory laborer. Oh the wonders never ceased. Instead of fur, all of the hair on his chest and arms was glowing faintly orange-red, as though they were embers stuck to his skin. The hair on his head was casting orange light, shifting and warping as though it were burning even now. His horns now swept backward, connecting point-to-point near the back of his skull.
"I know what I have to do," Sam said, his voice having a timbre that actually shook her free of her man-lust for a moment. She looked at his eyes, eyes which didn't seem to see her, glaring upward as they blazed gold and red, casting light as much as his hair now did.
His gaze swept down, taking her in, and an unhappy smile came to his face. As his grew, hers withered, as though he were stealing it from her. "I have to kill God," he said.
With my previous project done, now I'm going to do something a bit different. Consider it a challenge; tell a story where I have an ending, and no plan whatsoever about how to get there. This will be a different kind of beast than AoV was, in that it will be fewer chapters, the chapters themselves will be shorter, and it's almost entirely character-driven. There is one instigating action for all of what follows, and the various characters react to it. In a way, it's like I run my RPGs; everything has consequence, and I remember what y'all did.
Have a seat, enjoy the ride. Let's see if Sam can make good on his promise.