“To work!” The demon’s lash fell violently, cracking. “To work, every last one of ye.”
The Souls stirred, sluggishly moving from their torpor. The Sun of Hell glared through the open windows, already bright and hot to the limits of tolerance, burning huge and red in a black sky. From the streets of Dis the sounds rose, mumbles and scrapings and the occasional demonic howl.
“To work!” The demon’s lash curled in the air, cracking.
The Souls shuffled out of their chamber into the street outside. The chamber itself was built of their pain, the streets of their despair, harnessed by the demons and turned into brick and stone. The entire city of Dis was built of and by the Souls, and more flooded into the work gangs by the day. The demons had no shortage of labour.
The streets were already crowded. Gangs of Souls were being led off to labour, guarded by watch- demons of many different types. Among them moved other demons; tall, spindly ones with eyes on stalks, whirling by at the speed of the wind, squat, sluglike blobs with mouths full of needle teeth, giants so huge that their size was beyond guessing, or tiny ones that skittered between the legs of the others. Bent on their own business, they all ignored the watch-demons and the Souls alike.
The Souls all looked alike; grey, virtually faceless and featureless, with only approximation to their original shape as human beings. None of them was entirely complete; some lacked a hand, others eyes, or ears, or mouths. All shuffled on together with an identical gait, heads drooping, into the misery of another slice of eternity as slaves for the demons.
The Souls were alike in another way as well. None of them retained personal memory or a sense of individuality; they had no idea who they had been or why they were here. They were utter automata, serving their demon masters, with their labour and their suffering, until the end of time.
Group by group, parties of Souls began to be separated from the main group, to be taken off to different sites where they would work the day away. Many of these slaved away endlessly on the huge, blocky buildings which never seemed to be finished and whose nature and purpose was known to the demons alone. Many of the others, more than half those remaining, were led off up the winding road leading to the great palace of the Demon Lord of Dis, there to build up the titanic black walls and furbish the gates with carvings.
The remainder, now quite a small group, only a few thousand strong, shuffled on, under the cracking whips of watch-demons, towards the city gates. They towered over the city, huge and black, carved with screaming tortured faces and glaring, terrorised eyes. There were already Souls from other parties hard at work on the gates, carving, rubbing and polishing. They did not look down at the passing Souls, and the passing Souls did not look up.
Outside the gates and the city walls was the broken plain, black rock under the black sky, lit only by the dim glow of the great red sun of Hell.
The road that led from the gates of Dis was raised slightly above the rough stone of the plain, and had been smoothened by countless caravans over the millennia. The road branched within sight of the city walls, the smaller path leading off to the mines. With a crack or two of the whips, the watch-demons led their charges on to this path and began herding them into the mines.
Among the Souls there was one who was confused. This one had been among several which had only arrived in Dis during the night, and it had not yet endured the crushing routine of suffering that removed the last trace of spirit. It had no memory of itself, no thoughts of the past; it, however, thought that there had been some other reality, which it had known. It still retained enough humanity to know sadness, and confusion.
The watch-demons began to lead the Souls down into the mine-pit. It was a hole in the ground, dimly lit by heat so intense that the rocks themselves glowed a reddish hue, and the air would have seared the lungs of any who might have breathed it. But of course neither the demons nor the Souls breathed.
A watch-demon which somewhat resembled a great squat toad glared through reddish eyes at the Souls. “Some of you are new,” it ‘said’. “Some of you may think of trying to escape. Don’t even waste time on the idea. Out there...” it gestured, “are endless distances full of heat and rock, where the beasts of the Abyss roam by night and the Salamander devils hunt by day. Even demons don’t venture to journey to the other cities of Hell except by caravans. You would not last a work cycle there. Now, dig.”
The Soul which was confused followed the others down into the mine. It was a honeycomb of passages, branching and meeting and heading off into blind ends, completely without plan or structure, and the Souls had to scrape away at the rock with nothing but their own substance and their suffering. All through the honeycomb of passages there were only Souls crawling, digging and pulling along the rock the diggers had removed. Watch-demons moved among them, their whips cracking ceaselessly.
The Soul crawled through the narrow passages, squeezing itself through smaller and smaller tunnels, its substance broiled by the heat from the rocks and yet not destroyed. Suffering oozed from it like sweat, and impregnated the rock it scraped at, to be collected later by the Demons and used for their purposes.
The Soul’s confusion pulsed inside it like a live thing, refusing to be crushed out of existence. It scraped at the rock, following other Souls sometimes, going along by itself when it had to, not knowing where or for how long. And then, suddenly, it found a way out.
No doubt the way had existed for a long time, and perhaps might have been used earlier by some Soul or other to try and escape. It was nothing more than a near-vertical chimney leading up through the rock, and at first the Soul simply thought it was more of the same kind of passage it had crawled along for so long. So it scraped its way upwards, leaving its suffering and pain like the trail of a snail on the stone. It scraped its way upwards, ever higher, until it suddenly emerged on the surface.
So sudden was its emergence that it reacted with shock, almost retreating back into the pain-filled but familiar confines of the rock tunnel. It lay on the black rocky plain, under the sullen red globe overhead, the searing heat of which felt almost cool after the mine. It would have gasped for breath, if it could. It lay like that for a very long time.
Eventually, it rose somewhat, though still crouching as though the blazing ball overhead would crush it utterly on the black rock around. It rose, and began trudging off across the plain. Where it was going, it had no idea, just that it had to get away from the city, and the mine. The walls of Dis, the tremendous gates, and the high-domed palace of the Lord Demon fell behind to be swallowed up by the gloom.
Little by little, thought began to return to the Soul. It was no longer merely an it – it had begun to reassume an identity.
I am she, the thought came. I am – I was human. A woman.
She knew this much, now. She did not remember why or how she had got to be here, but the knowledge of her humanity and femininity was enough for the moment. She clutched to that as tightly as she could.
Away to one side, the road stretched, rising over the broken bedrock of the plain. The Soul, now less confused, moved towards the road and walked in the shadow of the embankment, where it was slightly cooler.
Things moved in the shadows by her feet, little things with many teeth that snapped at her but could do her no harm. After the first few attacks she ignored them.
She knew now that there was no way back, that she was to spend eternity here, or perhaps – if the dangers the watch-demon had spoken of existed – there were even worse places, the Hell of Hell itself, which even the demons dreaded. The Soul had no wish to taste of the perils of such a place; and yet she had, now that she had regained some sense of herself, could never return to slavery and suffering in Dis or any of the other cities of the Abyss.
Not knowing where she was going, she trudged on along the road.
The interruption came so suddenly that she was entirely taken by surprise. A gigantic shadow fell over her, so large that it blotted out the red sun. The creature was so huge that it could not possibly have noticed her, its gigantic feet coming down soundlessly on the rock of the road as it passed. And, walking alongside it, were demons of various types, warriors armed with spears of condensed fury and armour of distilled hate. More gigantic beasts followed the first, laden with bundles and boxes, with other demons riding their backs.
The Soul could not even find the time to hide. She stood where she was, beyond fear now, waiting to be recaptured and enslaved again, and this time for good, She waited for the spark of self that had wakened in her to be snuffed out – but she waited in vain. The caravan passed on, uninterested. Some of the demons glanced down at the Soul, the expression on their fanged faces unreadable. Souls were too common to bother tracking down a runaway. She was not worth their time.
Besides, she caught the backwash of a thought, she would be destroyed soon enough anyway.
That backwash gave her the impetus of fear. Waiting until the end of the caravan had passed, she clambered on to the road and followed in its tracks, walking behind the last of the gigantic beasts. Obscurely she hoped that the protection of the caravan might extend to her too, for as long as she might dare to walk along with it.
Overhead the red sun was at the zenith, the heat a live thing now, long past the point where she might have thought it unendurable. Such words had long since passed from her vocabulary. She had no choice but to endure. Therefore, she endured. It was that simple.
Once or twice the beaked demon walking behind the last of the gargantuan beasts looked back at her. It was a fearsome creature, with a beaked face set with many eyes, but it made no acknowledgement of her existence or attempt to stop her from following.
She began to think about the life she no longer remembered. Had she had people who had loved her and still remembered her? Had she had children? How long had she been here? Were her children, if she had any, still alive? Were they down here, perhaps? How could she ever tell?
The journey went on as the red sun began to sink to their backs.
Once in the while something would hold up their progress, and the demons would become excited. The toothed thing at the end would stride to the edge of the road, and crane its neck to see what was happening, and others would stand up atop their beasts to have a better view. The Soul wondered if perhaps it was the Salamander devils the watch-demon had mentioned, but each time the delay was only temporary, and they went on once more.
She never realised just when the red sun finally sank, because the black sky had begun to light up with the dull flames of night. Distant orange and yellow flags of fire played and writhed along the horizon, and the caravan began to move faster, as though afraid. Dim things moved out on the plain, enormous and vaporous, and the Soul could not decide if they were real, or illusions.
The flames began crawling up the sky from the horizon, attenuating, growing dim, but meeting overhead in a flickering glow that cast shadows that wavered and shifted so much that it became impossible to tell what was real from what merely seemed to be. At times it seemed as though great mountains reared up from the horizon, and at other times, as though the road was at the bottom of a well, whose walls were made of fire.
She began to remember, a little of who she had been. She remembered sunlight making rainbows on falling water, the flash of colour of butterflies on the wing, the aroma of a rose on the thorn. She remembered the tartness of lime juice on a hot day, the warmth of a fire on a cold night while torrential rain fell outside. She remembered the feel of kisses and the sting of tears, and the pain grew of knowing she could never have them back again.
But, she thought, at least I have the memories. If they are all I can have, I can at least refuse to let them go.
At some time during the night she realised she was alone. Somehow, the caravan had vanished, and she was walking off the road and over the broken rock of the plain. Try as she might, she could not see the road again.
Something rushed by overhead on many flapping wings, and other things, great and small, stirred among the rocks, felt, but not seen. And now she was frightened, because she had begun to come back to herself, part of the way, and now she had something to lose.
But she had no idea where to go, in which direction to run. All she could do was stumble on as she was, trusting to luck and blind instinct to carry her to safety.
The fires in the sky glowed bright and dull, pulsating, and things moved all around, shapes that might catch a Soul and twist it around like toys, chew it to shreds in their gaping maws, but they brushed past her without noticing. They were not demons, and to them a Soul was an insubstantial wisp, not worth the noticing.
Long before the dawn came, and the red sun came up again, she had found a crevice in the rock, and crouched there, waiting for something to happen, to put an end to this. Almost anything, she thought, would be better, for she had begun to remember the details, the details of her life, and how love had put her where she was.
She wondered where her lover was now, and whether he mourned her. She sincerely doubted he did.
The image of her last moments came to her, lying back in the bathtub while the water turned red with her blood and the ceiling wavered and turned grey.
If she could have wept, she would have. But she didn’t even have eyes to weep or tears to shed.
Alone in a world of pain and suffering, she wallowed in her memories, clutching herself and howling in silence. She could not even scream her pain.
It was there that the Salamanders found her when the dawn came. There were many of them, male and female, and they gathered around her, watching her, not speaking. In their own way they knew something of compassion, though they didn’t really understand Souls. They watched her, and they waited for her to come back from whatever dark spaces she was wandering.
Little by little, her silent howling eased. Soon afterwards, her head lifted.
Still later, she got up and joined them.
At least they gave her a promise of a future.
Painting by Wayne Barlowe
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011