The Devil is known for his patience. He will see a ripening sin in our youth and wait all the long years of our life before the harvest. And why shouldn’t he? What is one more soul to the untold billions in his dominion? What is one more year in the infinite span of his corrupted reign? Perhaps by waiting he is even giving us a chance to spend our lives repenting for what we’ve done, but I wouldn’t know.
Sins such as mine are so terrible that no absolution is possible, so I suppose there was no reason for him to wait. He came for me in the woods while the mutilated woman I killed was still in my arms, warming my body with her blood. It’s strange that I cannot remember why I killed her, or even who she is, but this feeling of guilt so permeates my being that I would have walked to Hell myself if I had but known the way.
I will not waste effort describing the Devil. The impoverished words at my disposal have only been designed for this material world. Even as he stood before me, he was more removed from my understanding than the glorious Sun was to a blind worm. It is suffice to say that he could not be perceived with any one sense, but the pressure of his presence so commanded my consciousness that I was aware of nothing else.
Escape was impossible. Words were meaningless. I let the woman slip from my arms and stood to face him with all the dignity remaining to a man so removed from God. When he turned from me and began to walk through the fading light of this dying world, I kept pace with him and did not turn to either side. Where we walked I do not know, but it seemed as though I could have relived my entire life in the time it took for him to stop.
As long as he was beside me, I could not make sense of what else might be. Even the thoughts in my head and the temperature on my skin were insignificant to his companionship. As terrifying as it was to know my fate, I had found certain tranquility in the mindless journey at his side. Now that I could feel him beginning to depart however, my mind revolted as though starting from a nightmare. I forced out the first thought I could muster to delay his departure.
“Who was she?”
“You will suffer more if you do not know.”
And he was gone. And with him the curtain lifted within me to reveal the horror of his empire I now found myself mired within. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call Hell a person than a place however, considering the unceasing sentient screams which pummeled me from the land itself.
Writing shadows sensitive to the touch, grasping endlessly at me with hands that were not hands. Endless cities sprawled before me as open wounds upon the rotting corpse that I stood upon. The sky was unobstructed by stars, instead vaulting endlessly into a timeless abyss, and looking at it I experienced the ghastly sensation of balancing on an eroding precipice which poised to tumble me endlessly into its yawning void. Charnel winds slithered their way into my nose and mouth with tangible substance, forcing me to let oiled coils like a writhing serpent penetrate my lungs with each breath.
Beyond the city in the distance rose the obscured ghosts of monstrous beings and Gods who roared in endless decay which fate had forgotten them to. Through this blasphemous temple to the end of the Universe I went, cowed constantly by half-conceived winged terrors which beat the air with a sound like the ceaseless wet bludgeoning of fists on flesh.
There are two kinds of pain which I had come to expect from the world of the living: the physical, and the emotional. Never had I experienced a physical pain so excruciating as the boils which began to swell across my body, nor a mental burden as debilitating as the taunting echoes which sneered at me from the living tissue beneath my feet. Every good memory of my life was poisoned against me, and each shame and guilt was magnified a thousand times over by the leering specters which narrated my ordeals with intimate knowledge and exaggerated effect.
Worse than either was the spiritual pain I endured however, the gnawing hopeless depression which robbed even my sense of self. I was not a person in Hell; I was Hell. I did not feel pain; I was pain – inseparable and indistinguishable. It was then, in the lowest reduction of my humanity, as I crawled across the putrid ground in a trail of my own ruptured boils, that she took pity on me.
Gentle hands shed my skin from me; not as a torment, but as a release. My disfigured limbs were cut away by her flashing knife, each slice bringing a pain so pure and clean that I welcomed it without question. Layer by layer she flayed me, until at last there was nothing left to cut but my soul. Again it is difficult to describe her without the reliance of my mortal senses now stripped from me, but if you understood me when I told you that I was pain, you will understand again when I tell you she was beauty.
“My husband was wrong about you,” she told me. “You didn’t kill anyone, and you don’t deserve to be here. I’m going to help you escape.”
I couldn’t comprehend how anything could exist outside of this. What universe would accept me, as torn and broken as I was? What universe could I accept, knowing it had the capacity to so punish an innocent soul?
“I don’t deserve it,” what’s left of me replied. “I know I killed her. It’s something you can never cut from me.”
“She killed herself by loving you, and for that you are not to blame. Do you see these hands?”
When she cupped my hands in her own, I knew that she was creating them as she spoke. Clean, strong hands, untouched by the blemishes of Hell.
“These hands could never be used for hurt. These eyes could never look upon such evil as its own creation.”
I didn’t even have a face before she spoke, but my entire body was growing with each word. It was as though the seed of my soul was sprouting new life; shards of bone lanced out and flourished with muscle like thickening bark, organs dropped and swelled like ripening fruit, and the network of veins and arteries blossomed toward her as though seeking nourishment from the sun.
Through the macabre landscape we sped, dancing across the festering world as softly as light through a drop of water. I could see her more clearly the further we traversed, although she never stayed still long enough for me to get a proper look. Bare feet skipped across the rotten land and twirled her through the looming specters which besought us on all sides. It is a wonder that the oppression of this unending night had failed to extinguish her spark, and invigorated by the purity of her wake, I was whole again.
“You are his wife then.” It was difficult to speak to her as we raced, but I managed to slip in a few words every time I was able to draw near.
“We are bound to each other, yes,” she replied, and then she was gone again; leaping fearlessly between fragile grips as she vaulted upward. I followed her up the tortuous, broken hand the size of a hillside which stretched vainly from the ground toward the vacuous sky.
“Of all the madness in this cursed place, that must king.”
“My husband is not mad, and neither am I for being with him,” she replied. She was pulling herself up through the fingers now, stopping to wait for me atop one of their monstrous joints.
“And if I were to love you instead,” I asked. “Would that be mad as well?”
She smiled at me and stretched her slender hand to help me clamber up beside her. We sat together staring upward from the bottom of an endless sky, the slightest brush of her leg against my own intoxicating me with rapture.
“All love is paradoxically mad,” she replied. “It is an assault on reason, but in doing so it creates its own reason. But it won’t do you any good, because this is where you have to leave.”
“And you. Will you leave with me?”
She shook her head.
“You can’t prefer to stay here!”
She nodded, saying: “But you are free now, and that is what matters. All you must do is jump from this point, and with the body I have given you, you will be able to fall all the way back up until you’ve left Hell altogether.”
“I’ve already left Hell,” I said, “since the moment you found me. And if I were to leave you here, then I know wherever I found myself would be Hell again without you there.”
“You’re being silly and wasting time. If my husband finds you with me –”
“He won’t, because you’re coming with me,” I cut her off, preferring not to dwell on the thought of being found.
“I can’t. I’ve made a promise –” she began.
“Then I can’t either, and that’s my promise to you.” To prove my point, I even slipped down from the finger we sat upon and began crawling back toward the massive palm.
“Stop it! If he finds you he’ll –”
“He’ll what?” I shouted back. “What can he possibly do that he hasn’t already?”
I saw in her something I could not live without, and she must have seen something in me which she could not let die. I hadn’t even made it to the giant palm before her hands clasped me and heaved me back onto the twisted finger. We stood there for a long while together, hand in hand, staring up at the terrifying fall. Then the wet, bludgeoning drums of the winged creatures began, and I could feel the tension wash through her body. I watched her, although she could not meet my gaze, and just as the drumming began to close in around us, I felt her coil to leap.
We jumped together, flying and falling simultaneously in a dizzying tumble. The massive hand snatched at us as we began to depart, but it was too slow to prevent our liberation. The entire world screamed with more agony than could be contained, but though the land reverberated with its echoes, even this deafening cacophony was quickly falling behind.
The gut-clenching free fall distracted my attention, but I never let go of her hand as we whirled through the timeless void. It wasn’t until the initial exhilaration began to fade when I could tell that something was wrong. I didn’t have to look at her to feel her hand withering in my grasp. Her skin wrinkled and dried as though years of heat beat into it with every second we passed together. Soon it began to crack and bleed, washing me with her warm blood.
While I still felt healthy and strong, I was forced to watch with helpless terror as her body was devastated by the passage through the void. Her smooth hair began to mold and fall free in greasy clumps. Her face was torn as though blasted by a relentless sand, and though her fingers clutched onto me ever more desperately, I could feel the strength fleeing from them.
No torment in Hell could match the guilt of knowing she was enduring this for me. As the spinning abyss began to slow, I was able to swim through the air and clutch her to me, cradling her in my arms as her body continued to deteriorate. Blood was now flowing freely from a thousand sourceless wounds. When finally the black sky relinquished us back into the woods where I began, I was soaked in her blood and my own freely falling tears.
Staring at her mutilated form, she was completely unrecognizable from before. My head was clouded as though freshly waking from a dream, and though I tried to hold onto the details, they were stolen from my mind with inexorable decay. Soon I could not even remember who I was holding, or how she had gotten there.
All I knew was that it was my fault, and the weight of the guilt which her death bade me carry. When the Devil came for me again, I knew I would follow him willingly. No matter what horror lay in store for me, I knew I deserved it for what I had done.