The newcomer had been in there for quite a while, which meant that something had probably gone wrong. Fair be it to say that Vaggie had a paranoid streak about her; it wasn't paranoia because she was literally in Hell and everything was literally trying to ruin her. Instead, it was a quiet expectation that the old litany said, as above, so below. Anything that could go wrong, would. And thus, she left her nook of an 'office', which more served as a waiting area for Charlie's actual office, and started toward the showers. She knew those showers were terrible. The only one worth luxuriating in was Charlie's, and that was because Vaggie put the elbow-grease into making it that way.
How much of the hotel still wasn't in working order, she wondered? She knew that the ground-floor had its plumbing intact, but anything from floor two or higher that became less of a guarantee and more of a laughable implication. Eventually, they'd have the time and money and will to fix it. Until then, patch-jobs abound. When she rounded the corner, she found Niffty, standing there outside the showers, her usual madcap smile not in attendance. That was something which warranted a moment's consideration, but just a moment. Because when she rounded the next corner, she came upon a ruined shower.
"Yeah, I kinda... made a mess," Sam said, his form changed rather drastically. It was an odd thing about Sinners, even if their bodies changed, you could still recognize them in whatever new form they took. It probably was because what they were 'seeing' was a soul, and the soul could wrap itself in whatever it wanted, and still be that same soul. She held a blocking hand out to not have to look at his groin, and then turned her attention to the rest of the showers. A mess, he certainly had made.
"Wh... why did you do this?" Vaggie demanded. The newcomer gave a guilty shrug.
"I had some shit I needed to get out of me," he said, as he bent a pipe straight in his hands, before holding it in place, and welding it by pinching the torn metal lightly with his fingertips. "Damn that's handy."
"This behavior is unacceptable," Vaggie pointed out.
"I know. That's why I'm fixing it," Sam said, moving to another section of shower pipe, which had been impaled into a wall. He had to put a foot on the wall to get leverage to yank it out.
"Are you going to keep doing this?" Vaggie demanded.
"Probably not?" Sam said, he winced at the state of this pipe. It wasn't one that looked like a bit of twisting and welding would fix. "I don't like to burn the bridge I'm standing on. I'd like to think I know at least that much."
"Could you... put on a towel or something?"
"I would have, but the tiny one ran off with the only towel," Sam shrugged.
"NIFFTY!" Vaggie shouted. And to a squeek of rubber on tile, the little hell-sprite skidded into view, a towel dragging behind her. "Did you steal Sam's towel?"
"No, I would never do such a thing," Niffty said, possibly not even aware that she was currently holding said towel. Vaggie just stared at her. The one-eyed micro-fiend then looked to her hand. "Oh my word! What's this! I should bring this to our new guest!"
"Just... do it," Vaggie said. She turned and left the showers behind her. Just her luck. Not only did they gain two new cases in a single day, but one of them had an explosive temper and superlative strength. She didn't make it far before she saw a shadow bleed and flow, crisply outlining a tall, lanky figure, before the shadows warped and the fine red suit appeared in their midst. Alastor turned, the broad grin on his face a fixture as always it was.
"Where's that smile, my dear?" Alastor asked as she stalked past him. "You can't run a proper business if you constantly look down-in-the-dumps."
"Like you'd know," Vaggie muttered. To her immense annoyance, the Radio Demon started to stride along with her, his very long legs easily keeping pace with her at anything less than a sprint. "Why are you even here? Shouldn't you be lurking in the halls and trying to corrupt our guests?"
"Now now now, little girl, that isn't why I took my place in this ridiculous experiment. I am here purely for the entertainment value. Boredom is the kind of torment that I would not wish upon my enemies. There are far better, more interesting forms of torment, use one of them instead!" he then broke into laughing at his own joke.
Vaggie wished she had the ability to strangle him. She could try. She would fail. "Charlie, the new one is going to be a problem."
"What? Why?" Charlie asked, a concern that few other creatures in all of Hell could even comprehend on her face.
"He just trashed the showers in a rage," Vaggie said, pointing behind her.
Husk, leaning against the welcome-kiosk/bar, just nodded. "Yup, I figured," he said.
"You figured What?" Vaggie demanded. Husk didn't react to her raised voice, just took a deep swill of his liquor.
"He's a bottler," Husk said. "The kind that takes life's bullshit and packs it down. Packs it tight. Then, when he's not payin' attention, ka-boom."
"We can't have somebody who's going to trash the Hotel living here," Vaggie pointed out the obvious.
"Vaggie, he's had a rough day," Charlie said, too forgiving by a half. "We can't judge a soul based on how they are at their worst..."
"Yes! Yes we can!" Vaggie now thrust both arms, gesturing toward the showers which were going to take time and money to fix, whether or not this Sam fellow actually could do any good with them. "Some people's worst is entirely too bad for us to deal with!"
"Vaggie, I can't turn people away. You know that," she said, with her 'I'm trying to be patient' voice. "We have a responsibility to those under our roof. We're trying to open the doors to heaven. If we can't make sacrifices for them, how can we expect them to make sacrifices for others?"
Vaggie stared at Charlie, but didn't have a good way to answer that without calling the Princess a lunatic. And because that was a line that Vaggie wasn't willing to cross, she let her complaints die in her throat.
"Yeah, I've done as much as I could with my bare hands, but if I had a few tools..." Sam's voice came from behind her, and she turned to see him at least wearing the towel. His new look was noticeably more 'human', despite its flattened nose and very sharp teeth and burning hair. Husk took one look at him and spit out his liquor, a hitherto unprecedented occurrence.
"Fuck that shit, get him out!" Husk demanded.
"Holy shit he's Elemental! Boss, you gotta curb this guy!" Angel Dust agreed whole-heartedly.
"What?" Charlie asked. Vaggie could only shrug her shoulders. Alastor, standing nearby, said nothing, but his grin grew wider.
Sam, to his credit, only leaned back at the first two's vehemence. "What?" he asked.
"If you don't kick his ass out, we're gonna get fuckin' stomped," Husk swore.
"Yeah, we'd be better off ridin' a rolla-coasta' with a crate of nitro than dealin' with this bullshit!" Angel said. It was striking that the two of them were agreeing on something, even if Vaggie didn't see exactly what the problem was.
"You don't know that's the case," Charlie said. "And besides, he signed our papers, which means that until HE!" she pointed at where Sam was still standing, a nervous look on his face, "decides that he's going to leave, he's welcome here."
"Um... what?" Sam asked.
"You're gonna get us all killed. Fuck all this, I'm takin' the day off!" Husk stormed out. Angel just shook his head at her.
"You're bettin' on the wrong horse, boss," He said, before heading for the elevators. Vaggie turned to Charlie. What wasn't being said here?
"What is going on?" Vaggie asked.
It was Alastor, leaning in like the shadows of twilight, who answered that one. "What she has done, little girl, is put a target on the hotel's roof. Elemental demons are targeted by Exorcists above every other type," he said. "I was going to do you the favor of taking a day out in the country when the next Purge came, but if you're going to let another Elemental stay here, I think I'll cool my heels," he turned to Charlie, the grin that never completely left his face growing cruel. "Do you really think you can bring him redemption in less than three hundred and thirty days? Because if you don't... well, that will be a very interesting day for this hotel."
And with a raising laugh that began in his belly and worked its way past his black heart and out of his throat, he faded back into the darkness and slipped into the bowels of the hotel. His laughter continued long after he left, breeding echos that faded and attenuated until the ones left in the lobby could only share concerned looks.
"...what's an Elemental?" Sam asked, having not moved since Husk and Angel Dust's outburst. He probably hadn't even seen Alastor.
"Long story," Charlie said, visibly, and audibly, deflating.
Sinners Shall Not Leave Pride
His room was high in the building, affording a long look-out over the cityscape of Hell. He still had nothing to his name but a towel around his waist and a red business card in his hand. His mind still swirled, even with the revelations that he'd been party to downstairs. When he had been dragged in, the cat-bird and the fuzzy spider hadn't so much as batted an unkind eye toward him. But after that burning instant in the showers, when his temper was finally definitively lost, they immediately stared at him like... well, like he was a hand grenade with no pin that'd landed at their feet.
What even was an Elemental? He could see the ember-like hairs on his arm, a glance down showed the same on his chest. So to the bathroom he went, and though the mirror was cracked, he could see that yes, his hair looked like it was made out of solidified flame, drifting and flicking like the surly last embers of a bonfire. The face staring back at him wasn't his own, or at least not the one he'd had in life. It was narrow, the nose flatter and the nostrils tall, almost like a snake. And those teeth, like a shark.
He opened his mouth, to see if there were more than one row of them. But when he did, he found the back of his mouth uncomfortably well lit, as though an orange glow was working its way up his esophagus.
He moved back to his bed, and sat on it. For the first time that he could remember, he had a goal. A wonderfully stupid and impossible goal, but one that he would pursue until the end of eternity. The god which allowed such cruelties as his life would be made to reckon for them now that he was dead. No more hiding behind 'mysterious ways', no more appealing to a 'greater design'. Suffering was not a means. And any who said otherwise would find suffering their ends.
There was a knock on his door. Either his sweet-natured benefactor making the smart decision, or the two men at the bar taking matters into their own hands. He rose and cracked the door. And had to look down a bit. "Yes?" he asked, to the one person he hadn't expected.
"So... uh..." the all-grey cyclops woman said. She gave a limp gesture down the hallway which twisted along its length such that the far end had its two doors situated on the floor and ceiling. "I guess we're neighbors."
"I guess we are," Sam said. He glanced down the hall to the elevator, which still flickered and hummed, sounding utterly identical to the one in the building he'd lived in when he was alive. So familiar it was as to be uncanny. He then turned to the woman in front of him. "...Do you need something?"
"I don't know," she said, voice distant. Hollow. Like she had used up all of her will just to walk the dozen steps down the hall to reach his door, and now was at a loss.
"My name's Sam," he said, offering a hand. She stared at it numbly for quite a while, before she reached up and took it, giving a weak shake.
"Wendy Wasted," she said.
"Good to meet you," he said. She just stared through him, as though past his head and the walls of the hotel were something grim and terrible that she couldn't shake her gaze from. "If you need help with anything, let me know."
"...sure," she said, and then with utter silence went back down the hall toward her own room. Sam watched her go for a moment, wondering why none of those tremendously squeaky boards offered any protest for her.
He shook his head, then glanced down. Damn it had he done all of that wearing nothing but a towel? Of course she was weirded out by him. He started to look around the room, digging through drawers and throwing open dressers until he found something... well, borderline acceptable. The fit of the pants was appropriate enough, but the shirts made him look like he belonged in the background of a mafia movie. And the jackets would have been fitting for a 70's pornstar. So those he left out. So it was then, with black slacks and red suspenders and an ash-grey shirt that had a handkerchief poked out of its breast-pocket. He wondered who VG was, or had been. In the end, it probably didn't matter.
All told, he was better dressed now in death than he'd ever gotten a chance to be in life. A sign of things to come or the wages of sin? He'd figure that out in time. He puffed out a sigh, and looked at the card. What even was he down here? Another lost soul, obviously. It irked him that death had given way to taxes being the sole inevitability of existence. And if there was an economy here, that meant he had to get another fucking job.
What could he even do? He was about as useful a salesman as a particularly dusty shelf, had a head for numbers like a broken calculator, and was about as knowledgeable about the business of Hell as an empty piece of paper. The card pulled his attention again. Sam obviously wanted something out of him, as all people in this piece of desolation would. Even Charlie had her own ends, one that she was doubtless hiding behind that impossibly sweet exterior. After all, she'd done something to end up in Hell just like he had. While he still didn't know what it was that damned him, if she was here, she was damned too.
"Fuck it, why not?" Sam said, and plunked himself down in the over-stuffed chair that sat beside a rotary phone. Twelve long rattles later, and the buzzing of a call trying to connect entered the handset.
"This is the goat, who are you?" Apoc's voice cut in after five rings.
"It's... um, Sam," Sam said.
"Of course," Apoc said. "You certainly bounced back quick. Can't say I'm surprised, you had that kind of look about you."
"What do you want from me?" Sam asked.
"What I want?" there was a moment of silence, as though Apoc moved away from his own phone. When he came back on, he was lightly chuckling. "What I want, Sam, is to stop getting shanked in the spine. Are you up and about? Able to walk?"
"Yes. I'm fine," Sam said. "You..."
"I'll swing by and pick you up, then. No reason not to get the most out of today," Apoc said.
"Wait, what are..." Sam said.
"Be by in about ten minutes. Dress up nice. Or don't, I'm not your father," Apoc said, and then a dial-tone.
Well, it was going to be 'that kind' of day, was it? Fine.
As he was already together, he spent those ten minutes leaning on the wall beside the front door, pointedly ignoring the concerned look that the hotel's ashen guardian drilled into him as he went. Whatever her problem with him now was, he could not say. Maybe it had something to do with his being 'Elemental'. He'd have to ask Apoc about that.
As he waited, he could only watch the byways of Hell, and was struck at how... familiar... it all was. Drug-dealers skulking on street corners, trying to surreptitiously proffer their wares because they were probably in a place they weren't supposed to be. Prostitutes and their pimps in clothes that were ridiculous in what they showed and what they considered fit to conceal. A fist-fight between two disheveled ape-men who were both currently inside a pair of dumpsters, a turf-war in microcosm.
Hell was other people, clearly. If this place'd had no people, would it still even be Hell? Thoughts like that made him wish he had something to do with his hands, or something to distract his attention, or even just something to smoke. He didn't smoke consistently in life, because cigs were fucking expensive. Down here, why shouldn't he? It wasn't like they were going to kill him again.
The car that screeched to a halt in front of the hotel as though it were trying to throw somebody off of the hood was a taxi that notably had something akin to a fang-filled maw for its grille; the door opened to the back. Sam waited for somebody to come out, but noone did. "Well?" Apoc's voice came from inside the car.
Sam shook his head, sighed, and ducked into the cab. The inside was very different from the outside, in that it was... well, honestly too big. The interior of the cab had to have twice the floor-area as the outside, not even including the glassed-off section where the driver was out of sight. The seats were covered in pale leather, and the whole thing smelled of champagne, cocaine, and condoms, barely sneaking out under the scent of borax. He seated himself on the far side of the rear bench-seat that had to be nine feet wide from the small, well dressed goat. "What the hell is this cab?"
"Bathin's transportation services are a splendorous thing," Apoc said. "Did you know that he has the power to trigger a migration in the Mortal World with but a snap of his fingers? I guess that parlays well into the moving of the Damned within his homeland."
"I'm guessing that a lot of the highest demons have some pretty boring day-jobs," Sam said.
"Exactly so," Apoc said. "From Buer's hospitals, to Andrealphus' architectural studios, to Vassago's great network of intelligence services, all of Hell works. From the lowest to the highest, all serve Hell, and to serve Hell is to serve Lucifer Magne."
"Magne," Sam asid, as he instantly recalled the portrait that hung on the Hotel wall. "He's got a daughter..."
"Who runs a hotel that tries to free the Damned from their shackles and see them through the back door into Heaven," Apoc said. He sighed, pulling a cup of tea from a tray that sat on an arm-rest. "It's a pity she had to get that thought into her head. Few indeed are the people who even want to get rid of their worst aspects. Fewer still are those who have the will to actually do it."
Sam sighed. "Even if it's foolish, I think it's noble that she tries," Sam said. "What do you want from me?"
"Honestly, this morning was another reminder to me that I am not as impervious as I thought I was," Apoc said.
"What did I do to..." Sam began, but Apoc shook his head.
"Not you, Sam. I was doing an early collection. Got stabbed in the back a few times. And as you can attest, that's not pleasant," Apoc said, taking a sip of his tea. "So, I got myself a notion as I found you pinned to that wall. Why not do something about my problem and your problem at the same time?"
"So what, you want me to be your muscle?" Sam asked.
"No, what I want you to do is to prevent people from getting behind me, by whatever means you deem necessary," he said. "This is an offer of employment."
"How would those two differ?" Sam asked. "They sound awfully 'the-same' to me."
"'Muscle'," Apoc said, gesturing vaguely outside with his tea-cup, "is an operative I use to give myself plausible deniability for insidious actions. You would be something more akin to a 'bodyguard'. Specifically, you would be tasked with protecting the quarter of my person I can't directly see at any given time. And I would of course be willing to pay properly for that level of protection. Twenty five percent of my person protected, for twenty five percent of the collections fee."
"That seems suspiciously generous," Sam said.
"It would be, if there weren't certain prerequisites," Apoc agreed. "Doctors aren't given the same rate-of-pay as laborers, even here in Hell, and why is that?"
"Because Doctors know things that laborer's don't," Sam said.
"Not exactly. It's that Doctors can do things that laborers in particular and the population in general cannot," Apoc said, taking a sip, then refilling the cup from a small kettle. "It is illegal at worst and frowned upon at best to be elbows-deep in a person's body when it isn't via a hole they were born with. Yet it is expected that surgeons do so as part of their remit. I am not paying particularly because anybody could stand in the way of my spine. I am paying because I need somebody in particular who will do so."
"And what... prerequisite... is it that I have that others don't?" Sam asked.
"We're going to find out if you actually do have it before I actually hand over paperwork," Apoc said.
"We're going somewhere for this test?" Sam asked. Apoc nodded. "So, when are we leaving?"
"We've been driving since you closed that door," Apoc said. Sam turned and looked to the window, but it was so black he couldn't see out of it. There was a console of so many buttons. One of them was just 'clear', so he hit that, and immediately flinched back, because apparently they were tear-assing through hell with the kind of furious intensity that usually only happened in ridiculous movies about muscle-bound idiots in impossibly rare cars. And he didn't feel any of it. He turned a look to the goat on the far side of the bench-seat. "Like I said, Bathin has a particular specialty when it comes to moving people around."
"You don't..." Sam said, watching in confused alarm as the vehicle appeared to drift sideways into a hobo-demon pushing a cart full of body parts. The whole affair, hobo and all, were catapulted over and out of sight without so much as a thud, "...say."
"Don't get too used to this sort of thing. Bathin's services ordinarily cost an arm and a leg. And he's willing to be literal on that aspect; he has a particular weakness for certain kinds of meat," Apoc said.
"So why are we riding in style today? While I can't say I know your style too much, you don't strike me as the kind of person to butter a man up."
"Twenty minutes with someone is plenty of time to come up with a useful opinion of them," Apoc said.
"And is that true of you?" Sam asked. Apoc turned a very flat look to him. "You didn't answer my question."
"Indeed I didn't," Apoc said. There was a moment of silence, as the Bathin-Cab drove straight through the side of a bus, if the view from his window was to be believed.
"I'm not going to work for you if you're jerking me around, bud," Sam said.
"You're going to have to get used to people trying to jerk you around," Apoc said. "As for why we are riding in style, it's because you caught me at an opportune time. I had just overseen an agreement between the V Triarchy. Outsiders would be surprised that people as close as Vox, Velvet, and Valentino would need a contracts-middleman. Outsiders would also be stupid."
"And Bathin's just alright with you commandeering his cab?" Sam asked.
"My agreement with the provider was 'until I stepped out of the cab, it was under my remit'," Apoc said.
"I take it I'm also going to have to get good at twisting people's agreements," Sam said.
"Gold star for not being an idiot," Apoc said sweetly, finishing his second cup of tea and shoving the whole thing into a cubby next to him. Sam scowled at him. "You wholly underestimate the gargantuan number of idiots that populate Hell, Sam. Smart people go to heaven. Clever people end up in Hell, and clever people tend to be fools in a great many ways."
"It's still damning with faint praise," Sam said.
"I'm not used to having to praise people," Apoc said. "The opportunity so seldom comes up."
The pandemonium came to an abrupt halt with some sort of checkpoint in view ahead of them.
"That would be our stop," Apoc said. He opened his door and hopped out, landing on his hoofs and straightening his suit. Sam must have taken a moment too long, because he felt the direction of down shift, and he outright plummeted out of the taxi and landed in a pile directly beside Apoc. The taxi, stately as ever, immediately pulled away, making what was likely an illegal u-turn, sideswiped a minivan, and drove back toward the city in the distance.
Sam picked himself up, striking off some dust, as he looked at what most closely resembled a border crossing over yonder. "Okay, what is this?" Sam asked, as Apoc turned a tight-lipped smile to him and started to walk down the sidewalk. "Apoc?"
"Just walk with me," Apoc said. The cars here were less shitty than the one's he'd seen in the city behind him, and significantly less weaponized. And the people inside those cars were significantly different. Most of them were tiny, varying in height from as short and puny as Niffty had been, to at most the same height as Apoc, all of them bearing horns and smooth skin, often of several colors. Other cars were outright glamorous, and had long-limbed, sharp-grinning beings behind their wheels. "Tourists," Apoc said.
"Excuse me?" Sam asked.
"A bunch of lookie-loos from Greed, which is our destination," Apoc said. "They come to Pride to remind themselves how bad Hell can get. Or to indulge appetites that the hell-born can't manage on their own."
"So what...?" Sam began.
"Imps and fiends, mostly," Apoc completed. "You'll find the occasional hellhound in there, but mostly they work for the hell-born, and they don't get to sit in the front seat. Hell is not big on social justice, after all."
"The fuck is a hell-born?"
"Do you think that all of hell's myriad populace spent time in the Mortal World?" Apoc asked, shaking his head slowly. "No, the overwhelming percentage of Hell's populace were born and raised here in Hell. Of all the beings in the Durance Vile, the only group which aren't 'fruitful' are the Sinners. Part of their damnation, I believe."
"Wait, so there's things down here which just... were always here?" Sam asked.
"Of course. Your benefactor Charlotte Magne is one such," Sam leaned back at that. "It's true, her mother was the first human Damned; she was actually here in hell long before Lucifer was cast down. Charlotte only came about a couple centuries ago."
Sam frowned. "Wait a minute..." he said, dredging up the nearly faded memories of once-zealous biblical study. "Lucifer the Morningstar, and..." Apoc provided the name for that very tall woman from the portrait on the wall, "Lilith, the first of the Damned. That means that Charlot... that Charlie, is a Nephilim."
"A scholar I have beside me," Apoc said with another tight-lipped smile. "That does accord to some interpretations of scripture."
"Well now I feel like an idiot," Sam said.
"How so?" Apoc asked.
"I was treating Charlie like she was just another doomed asshole because she was in Hell. Turns out she's half angel. No wonder she's so obsessed with getting into heaven," Sam said.
"Possibly half-angel," Apoc said.
"Is or is not Lucifer a fallen angel?" Sam asked.
"Bear in mind that in some interpretations, Lucifer is the Nephilim, because in those interpretations it refers to those who fell," Apoc said. He then came to a halt in the center of one particular block of concrete. The booths were abreast of them. "But I digress. This is the line that marks the end of Pride and the beginning of Greed. It can be a bit... well... taxing, to go through the first time."
"Taxing?" Sam asked.
"I find it helps to brace yourself and lean into it," Apoc said. He then started walking again. There was a... warping... of space as though either Pride was struggling to hold him inside, or Greed was straining to keep him out. Then, there was a strange sensation, like a pop but without sound, and Apoc stumbled a couple steps to stand on another concrete block in the pathway, about three yards ahead. "Well? Come along then."
Sam scowled at him, then took a few steps forward. When he did, he immediately felt like he'd walked into a brick-wall. He rebounded back, feeling a strange tingling sensation in his face and his hands. Apoc just stared, his hands holding his satchel in front of him with a look of unwavering patience.
Sam glared at the space ahead of him, and walked forward again, this time his hands preceding him. They reached the edge between Pride and Greed, feeling something... hot, and deeply uncomfortable. Every moment his fingers touched that barrier bore the same sensation of banging his elbow on a metal table, only spreading further and further from his fingertips with his lengthening contact. He pushed on that wall, angry effort lighting a grunt, and he felt his hands press in, the barrier giving him an inch.
And then an inaudible snap, and Sam was pushed back again, his hands feeling like they were made of airwave-static. He spent a few seconds flapping some sensation back into them, and turned a look to Apoc. The goat was still standing there, not showing the slightest indication that this was anything other than normal. Fine. If this thing wanted to keep him in 'Pride', it was going to have to work for it. He rolled up his sleeves to the elbow and kept his arms at his side. A scowl on his face, he started to walk.
This time, there was no impact, because Sam hadn't walked in quite so blithely, but he very quickly found himself caught and restrained, his forward motion curbed. The heat pressed against his face, his chest, and his leading knee, the static-y discomfort spreading, but Sam was having none of it. He was going through this barrier. He was entering Greed. He felt that furious defiance that now glowed in his soul, a cinder awaiting kindling, and he bid it stronger, brighter. He arrayed his will against the barrier.
And with a grunt, he stumbled to a halt next to Apoc.
"Congratulations. You're hired," Apoc said, offering a hand.
"Just like that?" Sam asked, reaching out to take the hand. The hair on his arms slowly cooled from bright yellow to cinder red as he gave Apoc the shake he was looking for.
"Just like that," Apoc said. "Now come on. We've got a collection to take care of."
He started walking, and Sam took a moment to flex his hands. The static feeling was fading fast. He turned a look back, and saw that there was a flame hovering in the air, right where he had strode forward. The flame was white, but didn't seem especially hot, and it was growing smaller by every passing second. Finally, with a strange click sound, the flame was gone.
Insulated in his ignorance of what he had just witnessed, Sam gave a shrug, and followed after the Goat of the Apocalypse.
The inboxes of Hell's grim tyrants were eternally full, a million things that needed doing all the time, all with varying degrees of urgency. Most things clamored for a chance to the top of the pile, because those relegated to the lower had a chance of becoming compost long before they were ever seen and acknowledged.
Thrust into the middle of the pile was a seemingly innocuous notice. 'Integrity of Greed-Pride barrier compromised briefly near West Pentagram exit.'
To most, a piece of minutia that deserved to be eaten by the worms that made their home in the bottom of the inbox stack. To those in the know, a very, very worrying sign of things to come. Those in the know would know to burn the edge of the notice, and reveal the message hidden there. 'A Sinner has left Pride'.
Greed's sky was different. It was obvious the moment he'd crossed the barrier, the indigo giving way to a jaunty pale green, the suns – and there were several of them – standing stolidly at various points, never setting, seeming to cast a shadow behind them that hinted at terrain. He was told that other places in Greed had a more normal day-cycle, but here on the coast, Apoc referred to this as 'looking up and seeing Wrath'. The place had a different feel than Pride as well. Where Pride was heedless and bold, this ring felt paranoid and grasping, a tingling of the hairs on the back of his neck at all times, a whisper just under the edge of his hearing.
"This place looks just like Pride," Sam lied.
"You're not blind, and you should pick a better lie than that one," Apoc said.
"In the broad strokes, it is," Sam said. "Just this place has tiny demons instead of were-everythings."
Apoc chuckled at that. "The other rings play host to things that Pride would not dare to host. Wrath is our breadbasket. Lust hosts the headquarters of our major companies. Greed, meanwhile, is famous for its amusements, its parks and arenas and theatres. There's a few gardens of earthly-delights for those of a more libertine bent, and markets for those with the money to spend at them. 'All joys come from Greed' it is said."
"Yet another thing I don't believe for a second," Sam said. "So why exactly did I have to walk through that deeply uncomfortable wall back there? Who's the client?"
"A fiend who has been given ample opportunity to fulfill his end of a bargain that's been in place for quite a long time. Technically, it's older than I am, but you'll soon find that time is a bit... strange, down here in Hell. We have new Damned arriving who died in the Nineteen-Fourties, and I even once met a man who claimed that he'd died in the year Twenty Eighty-Two."
"So a year down here isn't a year up there? Figures," Sam said.
"Of course not. Hell is meant to be eternal. The easiest way to manage that within a closed time-like curve is to make it incredibly warped," Apoc said. The tight-lipped smile on his face lost something for a moment, still on his lips but not getting anywhere close to his eyes. "I don't even know how long I've been in Hell. It could be centuries, now."
"Sinner, like me?" Sam asked. The question shook Apoc free of his reverie, and he gave a chuckle.
"Something like that, yes," he said. He raised a finger. "The fiend in question was given certain benefits from the one whom I now play proxy, and after numerous requests to make repayment, he has refused. Thus, I am making collection. And you, of course, will be present to keep anybody from getting behind me."
"What kinds of things do people get themselves on the hook for, anyway?" Sam asked, relieved that finally a taxi was stopping to pick them up. They'd been waiting here for ages, it felt like.
"All sorts of things. Some change their forms through service. Others want wealth, or power, or to see somebody else lose one of the former. The one we're after was a wealth-seeker," Apoc said, entering the taxi first. "664 Harbor Drive, Port Dispater, if you please."
"Doesn't it seem a bit on the nose for a greedy fool to live in Greed?"
"Where else are you going to be able to burn through the kind of money he owes Prince Stolas than in Greed?" Apoc asked.
"Lucifer has a son?" Sam asked.
"Prince Stolas is one of the Goetia, Lucifer's aristocracy, not related to the King of Hell directly. Remember what I said about Bathin and Buer? They too are part of the Goetia. As well as several dozen other Kings, Princes, Dukes, Marquises, and even a handful of Presidents."
"Nixon?" Sam hazarded.
"No, he got Purged about two decades ago," Apoc said. "I mean 'Presidents of Hell'. They tend to be... hmmmm... snippy, about their status in the grand scheme of things."
"You said something about changing forms," Sam said. "I think I did that..."
"Yes, you went from Beast to Elemental in your first day. Usually takes a while longer for people to make that swap," Apoc said.
"What is an Elemental?" Sam asked.
"You," Apoc said. Sam glared at him. "They are Sinners who gain some trifling command over the element they manifest. Fire and heat for you, I would presume. There's also Ice, who control cold and water, and there are Stone, who can be a real bother in the 'concrete jungle'. Also, Wind, controlling air and tending to fly everywhere. There's even more obscure elements. I understand there's one who controls gamma radiation who Lucifer uses as a living power-plant to light up Pride, and even one who can manipulate radio waves."
"So why were they so nervous about me being one?" Sam asked.
"Beasts are the most common type of Sinner. Bear, lizard, sheep, spider, they have numbers but nothing inherent to them," he paused. "Well, that's not true. Some of them gain abilities. I understand there's a gang-lord who can literally produce explosives ex-nihilo. But Elementals, being a far rarer breed, always have some sort of abilities, coded to their type. And those abilities can be rather stronger."
"So what? Someday I'll be throwing fireballs?" Sam asked with a chuckle.
"Maybe. Or maybe you represent a more esoteric form of flame, like the spark of inspiration or eternal flame of technology. Demons are strange things, I know this all too well," Apoc said. There was silence again.
"You didn't answer my question again," Sam pointed out.
"So I didn't," Apoc said. "We're almost there."
It was starting to get annoying, how Apoc kept swerving from answering questions. Even when he did, he tended to give an answer to something adjacent to his question, enough to not feel ducked, but still not... all of it. The taxi skidded to a halt with a set of failing brakes that made Sam wince as they reached a standstill.
As he stepped out of the car, the air tasted faintly of sugar as it caramelized over a flame, and a strange saltiness, quite unlike the sea. He had lived in a hovel two streets away from the waterfront, when he was young. When the wind would catch the foam and blow it onto the land, it would clear his nose and bring with it a stink of rotting seaweed. There was no seaweed here. Just the sugar smell. And the water was red.
"I don't recommend taking a dip if you're not ready for it," Apoc said, interrupting Sam's concerned look to the sea. With two suns in the sky here, he couldn't even tell which compass direction he was staring. "It's a bit... bracing."
"What is it?" Sam asked.
"Call it the overflow of Lust," Apoc said. "Our man is just in that building over there."
"How bad do you think this will get?" Sam asked.
"That depends entirely on how angry Stamatis is that the clock has struck midnight for him," Apoc said. The building was four stories tall, dwarfed utterly by the bent, black-concrete monstrosity which was right next door to it that took its best shot at swatting down one of the suns in the sky. Sam was glad he wasn't going into that one. It looked... cursed.
Apoc had to stand on the tips of his hoofs to hit the buzzer for one of the higher rooms. The label just said S.P.. There was a long silence. Then "Whad'y'want?"
"It is time, Stamatis. Let me in," Apoc said, his voice gaining a strange timbre to it. Silence again. "Do not run from your debts, because they will find you."
Another silence, followed by the buzzer sounding. Sam turned a concerned look to Apoc, only to find the goat no longer wistfully smiling. His expression had given way to a cold scowl. When he moved through the building, Sam could hear deadbolts locking in their passage, and even furniture being wedged against doors.
The stairs brought them up to the highest floor, which hosted a drunk who, upon seeing the Goat of the Apocalypse approach, decided to not even bother his his keys and instead took a dive out the window at the far end of the hall. Sam would have been a bit more alarmed if he hadn't learned how 'survivable' a four story fall was in Hell. Apoc came to one door in particular, and gently pushed it open. Sam didn't even need a cue to take his place at Apoc's back.
Beyond, the apartment lacked the brutes and thugs that Sam had been expecting. Instead, there was just a long-limbed fiend of some description, lounging on a disintegrating sofa, across from a large, CRT television. Sam looked around, trying to find the ambush that was likely waiting. He found no gaudy decorations. No vulgar displays of wealth or status. The only relevant door revealed a bathroom with a dripping, cracked sink. No ambushers. Sam said nothing, though, as Apoc stood front and center.
"The time has come, Stamatis Parastamatis. You have held your debts as long as the contract would allow, even by the grace and lenience of your lender. Will you repay, or will you forfeit?" Apoc asked, his voice joined by many others, a legion erupting from his throat.
Stamatis didn't look afraid, or angry. He just looked tired. "The money is gone, goat," he said. "It is gone and I can't reclaim it. It doesn't matter how hard you squeeze this rock, there's no blood left to get out of it."
"Then you will forfeit," Apoc said.
"Do you ever really wonder about what you're doing?" Stamatis asked, leaning forward somewhat, his long arms crossed in front of his knees. "Ever think about the pain you cause to people like me? The agony of it?"
"You cannot sway me in this, Stamatis Parastamatis," Apoc said, perhaps even gently despite his thunderous voice.
"It doesn't matter," Stamatis said. "The cash is spent. The favors, spent. You'll not get them back. All you can do is kill me, and that still won't get back the amount I owe."
"You forget that I am given remit," the Goat of the Apocalypse said. At that, the resigned look on Stamatis' face started to curdle. He wasn't afraid of oblivion, that was clear. But there was something worse than that. "By the authority vested in me as agent of Prince Stolas, Goetia, and the Most Ancient Laws of Hell, you, Stamatis Parastamatis are hereby BOUND."
There was a thud, a shaking in the ground that caused the single plate that sat on the table to skitter along its surface, before finding an edge and cascading off to a tinkle of exploding ceramic. The floor under Stamatis grew... darker. He noticed it, and tried to push himself off of the threadbare sofa, to get somewhere less obviously awful, but chains made of utter blackness raced up out of the pit which was forming, fettering his ankles, shackling his arms.
"For the crime of Breaking Oath for Prize and Service, you are remanded to the Legatus Damnatii for Legio CDXXXIV. There you will serve until manumission by your Legate, by his Lord Prince Stolas, or the individual pardon by King of All Hell Lucifer Magne; otherwise, until the end of the Next War For Heaven, which ever event occurs first," Apoc intoned, as the chains continued to spread across him, forming a hauberk of chain and a helmet made of rough, black metal. "May there be a God capable of mercy upon you. For in the Forever War, you will find little."
Stamatis tried to scream, but the silence from his side of this event was thunderous, draining all hope and light from the room, until he was dragged slowly, agonizingly, down and through his floor. When his hand, grasping upward, finally disappeared, the last part of him in view, there was a snap, and the lights returned to normal; the shaking stopped. The air was warm again.
"What the fuck just happened?" Sam asked.
Apoc cleared his throat, then turned. When he spoke, his voice was his own again. "The Four Hundred Thirty Fourth Legion gains a new conscript. Do not break faith with the Goetia, Sam. That is advice I'll give you free of charge."
"Good god," Sam couldn't help himself from saying.
"This is Hell. God has very little to do with us anymore," Apoc said. "Now, let's continue the rounds."
The room was ill-lit, furnished simply, and only had a single occupant. One could have guessed that this belonged do a low-level functionary at any of Hell's many, many businesses, but for the fact that the room positively radiated dread. Nobody ever wanted to enter this office. Nobody was ever quite the same when they left.
The phone rang, an old-fashioned sound, literally a bell ringing on a receiver that spun a rotary dialer. The hand that slid out of the shadows to take the handset lacked the thick-bedded claws of most of Pride's demonic populace, and was a faded pinkish hue, not garish or bold by any measure. The phone was allowed to ring exactly twice, then the hand pulled it back into the dark.
"Birch," he said, voice soft, with a Georgia drawl he didn't even try to hide.
"Still in the office? Why am I not surprised," the voice on the other side did not respond to the dread that would even reach through the telephone wires. That individual was one of vanishingly few people in all of Hell who did not fear him, and rightly. The voice on the other side was also smooth, like golden wire, a playfulness to it that Birch could understand. "There's a bit of panic amongst the hens. Somebody says that something... unusual... has entered my domain."
"Unusual?" Birch asked.
"A Sinner has left Pride," the voice on the other side of the wire said, the gold gaining an edge. "Find him, or find her, and when you do, bring them to me. I don't care how, or in what state."
"Of course. I will begin with the dawn," Birch said. Without another word said, the line went dead. Orders from on high needed to be obeyed. Birch tapped the button on his desk. After exactly as much hesitation as he would allow, the door to the office opened, showing a Damned woman with draconic features wearing a garbage bag. She was huddled in on herself as though she wished she could collapse on herself and disappear. "Have my car brought about. Tonight has left me weary," Birch said.
"Yes, Mister Birch," the once-Overlord whispered, turning away.
"Draw a bath for me at my house, and once you do, get back on the chain," he said. She once had been one of the power-players of Hell. Now, she slept in the dirt next to his hound with a length of chain around her neck. Not even locked, because there was no need for such crude implements; she remained chained all the same. All it had taken to break her was a few words. And to keep her broken, a few words more. Nathan Birch – Lucifer's Proxy in Pride – did not smile, as the dragon-woman tried not to cry as she left, knowing she had nothing she could do to salvage her obliterated pride. He outright grinned.
Readers be advised, that you can keep up with the story as it's being written at Spacebattle's Forums, specifically /the-gift-of-rage-hazbin-hotel-helluva-boss.931213/
That is all.