The former sage Gahaziel smacked down the tankard on the rough wooden table, and wiped his drooping grey moustache with the back of his hand. “More wine!” he bellowed. “More wine, by the horns of Beelzebub!”
A dowdy serving wench dressed in a rough brown smock scurried over with a tall earthen pitcher. As she poured the dark red fluid into the tankard, the ex-sage focussed his bleary eyes on her nearest dangling breast, and finally made a grab for it. But his coordination was off, and the serving wench had already skipped smartly back by the time he raised his hand, so he ended up pawing the air. Everyone sniggered.
It didn’t improve Gahaziel’s temper any. His heavy eyebrows crunched down over his bloodshot eyes, and his nostrils flared alarmingly. We who knew him well were aware that he had just attained the Second Highest Level of Drunken Rage. When his flowing beard began to bristle, that was Top Level, and time for bystanders to prepare to abandon ship.
“What’s so funny?” he rumbled, the words bouncing around inside his immense frame. “What’s the goddamn joke?”
“How’s the wine, Gahaziel?” we asked, trying to head off his blowing his top. “Is it good? Should we order more?” Several bronze coins rattled on the filthy table, competing for the honour of buying Gahaziel more wine. It didn’t calm him down, but did seem to put a lid on his fury.
Balefully muttering something under his breath, he took a mouthful of the wine and swallowed. It was really terrible stuff even by inn standards, but Gahaziel was far past the point of being able to taste anything. Glaring around the table, he took off his peaked cap and swatted at a fly with it.
“Someone should burn this place down,” he announced grandly. “In fact, someone should burn down the whole blasted world. I’ll probably do it today if I feel like it.”
We all relaxed with an audible sigh. When Gahaziel began threatening ruin and destruction, it meant he was not going to actually attempt any, so we wouldn’t have violence on our hands. I glanced over my shoulder at the inn door. The pair of huge men who had appeared there earlier, probably summoned by the innkeeper, apparently picked up our relief. One even leaned against the wall, laying down his staff on the floor at his side.
I could have told them that their muscles and staffs wouldn’t have stood a chance against Gahaziel in full flow. In all the years I’ve known him, I have yet to see anything which could.
I looked back at Gahaziel. He was gazing into the depths of his tankard with a puzzled look, as though wondering where the wine had gone. Suddenly he jerked his head up and glared into my eyes. “Holes!” he yelled.
I jerked back, as much out of shock as to evade the cloud of wine-smelling spittle. “Holes, Gahaziel?”
“That’s what I said, didn’t I?” Gahaziel was leaning across the table, screaming into my face. “Are you bloody deaf?”
I’d go deaf at this rate if he didn’t pipe down. “What holes, Gahaziel? Tell me about the holes.”
“What holes?” Gahaziel said, sitting back and crossing his heavily tattooed arms on his chest. “Holes here and holes there, holes, holes everywhere. But what’s the point of telling you lot. You wouldn’t know a hole if you fell into it.”
“Well, you see,” one of us said, “you’re a sage, and we’re just nobody. So of course you’d know better about these things than we would.”
“I’m not a sage,” Gahaziel grumbled. “I’m an ex-sage, and don’t you forget it.” He looked speculatively at the window, outside which the rain fell in a freezing downpour. Riding through the muddy tracks in that would be no fun at all, what with the night coming on, as even he must have realised. “And it’s all because of those holes to hell.”
We glanced at each other, wondering if the alcohol had driven Gahaziel suddenly senile. “Um – Gahaziel? Did you say holes to hell?”
“Looks like we’re stuck here till the damned rain stops.” Gahaziel belched mightily and reached for another tankard. “You might as well listen, then,” he said.
This happened a long time ago (Gahaziel said), when I was a young man, not much older than you lot. It was just after the Great Collapse, and people were still picking up the pieces. Nobody had much of an idea of what was coming, only that everything had changed, forever. In times like that, sages are much in demand.
I was coming up north through the areas where the industrial units had stood before the Great Collapse. Now, of course, they were piles of rusting ruins, full of angry and lost people looking for their lives.
Back then, you must understand, there was no Gang Government, no local barons enforcing the peace. Everyone had to pretty much fend for themselves, and any stranger was an enemy unless he could prove that he could be useful in some way. Of course, each group had different requirements, so that anyone who could satisfy one lot wouldn’t necessarily pass unscathed through the next. Only a sage could give everyone what they wanted, which was hopeful words, even if the hope was utter bullshit. So I became a sage.
Even though I’d only adopted the profession as a necessity of survival, I found I’d a definite flair for it. Of course, I wasn’t the only sage moving through the country – many others had had the same idea, and each one was in direct competition to all the rest, looking for a unique selling point. What made me successful, I think, was that I didn’t really care.
See here – I’d had a bad time in the Great Collapse. I’d lost everything I had, including a nice thing I’d set up with a girl. I was moving north, but without a specific destination in mind, and without really caring if I got there or had to turn back. So I wasn’t particularly trying to please anyone. I just told them what I really thought.
I didn’t fully qualify as a sage, of course, until I’d acquired a retinue of disciples. There weren’t that many of them, four or five at most, and it doesn’t matter who they were because none stuck around for very long. But having a few disciples gave me credibility – each time I arrived at a new town, retinue in tow, I didn’t have to establish all over again that I was a sage and nobody should kill me or drive me away.
Actually, things were going so well that I didn’t head north right away as I’d originally planned. As I said, there wasn’t anything really important up there in any case. So I spent a couple of years meandering back and forth through the belt, earning my way by offering my sage’s wisdom, and I didn’t really see any reason why things shouldn’t go on like this for decades to come.
Of course, we did hear the talk of the gang bosses setting up regional governments, but in the former industrial belt there was only chaos and total social breakdown. People had to go about with knives and homemade spears, and those who were fortunate enough to have houses to live in made them into miniature fortresses. Any source of food or clothing was a vital asset, to be guarded at all costs. And there wasn’t even a hope of getting help if one fell ill. It was a perfect time to be a sage, better than it ever has been before or since.
Then one night I was leaving a town on the industrial zone when it first happened. I’d spent several happy weeks in that town – the inhabitants hung on to my words with pathetic eagerness and the women...well, let’s say the women threw themselves at me in such numbers that I was spoilt for choice. But, as always happens, one of them began growing clingy and talking of settling down, and some of the local young men began getting jealous, and I decided to leave while the leaving was good.
At this time I had only three disciples – two men and a young woman – and they had their own little jealous triangle on. It didn’t matter to me what they did with each other, of course, and this particular trio had got on my nerves so completely that I didn’t really mind if they chose not to tag along with me. But I needed them to establish my sage credentials, so I went and hunted them up. I arrived just as the two men were about to go for each other, knives drawn, while the woman squawked shrill encouragement and advice impartially to both. Total idiots, as I said, and once again I was tempted to leave them all behind.
Instead I just cuffed the two of them, lightly, only hard enough to make them drop their knives and sit down for a bit. After they’d stopped looking dazed and rubbing their heads, I told them how matters stood.
“Any day now, a mob will be after us with bludgeons and flaming torches,” I finished. “Are you planning to wait for them, assuming you haven’t killed each other before that?”
“Any day now, a mob will be after us with bludgeons and flaming torches,” I finished. “Are you planning to wait for them, assuming you haven’t killed each other before that?”
After a great deal of muttering and darting venomous looks at each other, they decided to accompany me, and I sent them off to pack. I’d always kept my own belongings in a small bag slung over my shoulder, so I could leave at a moment’s notice, and while waiting for them I went outside and made sure there was no assassin lying in wait. The three of them seemed a long time coming, and I’d begun to think they’d decided to have another go at each other, so I turned back to roust them out, and I stopped, astonished.
The building wasn’t there. It was a pretty substantial building, too, which must have been a warehouse or something back in the old factory days. All right, it was night, but it wasn’t so dark that I could miss a building five times the size of this one at twenty paces. And it hadn’t been blown up, because I hadn’t heard a sound and there was no rubble, apart from the fact that since the Great Collapse there hadn’t been any explosives anyway.
As I stood pondering this, I heard a slight sound to my right, exactly as might be made by a man running lightly at me with a knife in his hand. I turned quickly and saw that the sound was made, of course, by a man running lightly towards me, with a knife in his hand. I broke one of my cardinal sage’s advice points at that moment. I didn’t call a halt to proceedings to ask him what he wanted and try and work things out like civilised people. For some reason I didn’t think it would quite work. No, I jumped to once side like a scalded cat and whacked him as he rushed past.
He was huge, but extremely fast, that man. My fingertips had hardly touched him before he threw himself to the side. He was up again almost before he’d hit the ground and was coming back at me, swinging his knife, so I had to jump to the side and swat at him again. Even as he ducked under my hand and fell, I saw something strange and bizarre out of the corner of my eye – something so strange and bizarre that it took all my attention.
What was it, you ask? Simply this – the world was blotting out.
It didn’t happen all at once. Bits and pieces began to disappear like a jigsaw puzzle, leaving the darkness smeared across the face of the night, until – in far less time than it takes to tell it – I was surrounded by a whirling tube of darkness. Even the ground beneath was growing dark and fuzzy. Only, above, was a circular patch of sky, sprinkled with stars. One of these stars glinted on the knife as my antagonist scrambled to his feet and drove it into my heart.
I died, of course. I died immediately, and fell into that tube of darkness, along with my killer, who realised too late what was happening. His terrified scream followed me all the way down until my life drained away.
Let me tell you what happens when you die. You die, you fall a long long way, and then you open your eyes and see a devil looking down at you and scratching his ear with a thoughtful hoof.
He wasn’t that big a devil – say, the size of an elephant. Later I was to see devils the size of blue whales, and devils even larger, devils so large that they literally had lost the power to move. He looked at me this way and that, with a distinctly puzzled expression on his face – if a face vaguely like a lizard’s, with huge faceted eyes like those of a dragonfly, can be said to have any expression.
“What are you doing here?” the devil asked at last, turning his head to scratch at his shoulder with the tip of one horn. Later, I noticed why he, and many of the other devils, always seemed to be scratching themselves; their skin was crawling with small, scuttling parasites. “I was not expecting you.”
He seemed to expect an answer, and I couldn’t think of one that wasn’t along the lines of “Whom did you expect, the Queen of Denmark?” I looked around for inspiration and found my killer, sitting up rubbing his head. The knife was still in his other hand.
“He killed me,” I said, pointing. “I didn’t exactly want to come here.”
“Yes, I see.” The devil sounded thoughtful, like someone who has just realised that things happen which are not strictly under his control. “Well, come along.”
“Where to?” I asked. “And what about him?”
“We’ll have to decide what to do about you,” the devil said. “As for him, well...” He turned one of his jewelled eyes on the killer, who was staring back at him in open-mouthed horror. “You stay right here till you’re called for. Don’t go wandering, no matter how long it takes – not if you know what’s good for you. Understand?”
Without wasting any further time on the murderer, the devil led me up a long staircase which rose along the side of a great stone wall. The wall, of black rock dark as night, rose overhead as far as one could see, and plunged into invisible depths below. To the right, red and yellow mists coiled, and there were flashes of violet and white, for all the world like silent lightning.
“What will happen to him if he does go wandering off?” I asked.
“Nothing at all,” the devil said cheerfully. “But I couldn’t resist the temptation. He can sit there for a few thousand years for all I care. After all, we aren’t bothered about him.”
“But you’re bothered about me?”
The devil was silent for a while. “Let’s put it this way,” he said eventually, “I personally don’t care who you are or what happens to you. But there are more important things than what I think or care.”
We rose further in silence, until I couldn’t bear the silence any longer.
“So,” I asked, “is this hell?”
The devil moved his heavy head until one of his eyes swivelled towards me. “You could call it that,” he said agreeably. “Or you could call it anything else you want. Just don’t call it heaven, that’s all.”
“Something wrong with heaven?” I asked.
He merely shuddered in reply, so expressively that all his scales rattled together and parasites went jumping away as if on springs.
At length we came to a kind of plateau. It was actually a vast flat space on the side of the wall, the stone cracked and fissured, and filled with bubbling pools and puddles of liquid fire. And the space was filled with devils – devils of all shapes and sizes, from little devils which scuttled around our legs to brooding masses so huge I took them at first to be part of the wall itself. A lot of them gathered around us, jabbering and grinning. If I hadn’t been dead I might almost have been scared.
My devil led me all the way through that mass of grinning, gibbering fiends for so long that I thought we’d keep going for the rest of eternity. But at last we came to a devil so huge that I couldn’t even see all of him – he vanished into the distance to left and right, and his body merged into the substance of the wall. Very, very far overhead, I could make out a pair of dim red eyes and a gaping mouth full of serrated yellowish teeth. From way up there came a distant rumbling.
My devil turned towards me. “This is His Holeyness the Infernal Pope, Demon CLIV,” he said. “He wants to know what you’re doing here.”
I repeated everything that had happened since I’d first noticed the disappearance of the building. The gathered devils all stared at me, and the laughter fell off to a murmuring full of consternation.
“And that’s all I know about it,” I finished. “I can’t tell you any more than that.”
“And you’re dead,” my devil repeated. “You’re sure?”
“Of course.” I pointed to the wound over my heart. “I’ve been stabbed right there, haven’t I?”
“Um, well.” The devils all looked at one another, and there was some rumbling from overhead. “That is a problem.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I died, so I came to hell. I suppose that’s pretty much standard, isn’t it?”
My devil shook both his horns in vehement denial. “The problem is,” he explained, “that dead people do not come to hell. No dead person has ever come here – except you.”
I goggled. “Then – what is hell for?”
“It’s our home, of course,” the devil said. “Do you want dead people cluttering up your home? Hell, we don’t want death here – there’s...” he spat a little molten fire, “...heaven for that kind of thing.”
“How did I end up here, then?” I demanded.
“We were running an...operation.” My devil hesitated. “I can’t dumb it down enough for you to understand, but one of the side effects was a temporary tunnel between the worlds. You happened to fall into the tunnel.” He paused. “And dead,” he added morosely. “Why did you have to be dead?”
“It wasn’t my choice,” I reminded him.
“Yes, but you’ve given us a double problem now,” he replied. “You’re here and dead, and meanwhile, you’ve blocked our tunnel, so the thing we were waiting for is still out there, somewhere.”
Everyone looked overhead, into the swirling yellowish mists, as though some kind of package would come floating down. “Now we have no idea where it is,” the devil said pathetically. “And we need it, more than you’ll ever need anything in your whole miserable life.”
“I don’t have a life,” I pointed out gloomily.
“That’s right,” the devil said. “You don’t. So now what?”
And then I had my Great Brainwave. “Why,” I asked reasonably, “don’t you just send me back?”
They all looked at each other, and a frenzied rumble came from above.
“It could work,” my devil conceded. “It just might work.”
“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t,” I pointed out. “If you send me back, your tunnel’s open again, and your problem with having death here’s all over.”
“But,” my devil pointed out, “you’d still be dead.”
“Not if you make me alive again,” I said. “Can’t you do that?”
“Where do we get a life to make you alive again?” my devil asked.
“Where do you think?” I gestured. “Didn’t you ask someone to wait until he was called for?”
“Oh no,” my devil said. “Oh hell, no.”
“Oh hell, yes,” I said.
“And so,” the former sage Gahaziel concluded, “I came back. Along with me, of course, came a corpse, because Hell didn’t want a thing to do with death in any form or shape. Serves my killer right, too.”
The serving wench poured him some more wine, in complete safety because he was so drunk now that he hardly realised she was there. “I came back just in time to find my disciples looking here and there for me – apparently, as time passes in this world, I’d only been gone a few minutes. I had to hide that corpse double quick, I can tell you, before they noticed and began asking questions I didn’t want to answer.
“Now do you understand what I meant about holes? Any time now, that lot down there might start with another of their projects, and if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time...well, you’d better hope you have a convenient killer with you to help you come back.”
I glanced again at the window. It was dark outside, and the rain was coming down harder than ever.
“And that was the end of my career as a sage, of course,” Gahaziel continued, sipping wine moodily. “I’m sure you can understand why.”
“Um...” I ventured. “Is it because there’s no point in being a sage if you already know what lies beyond death, and that there’s no meaning to the concept of heaven and hell as a reward of earthly actions? Is that it?”
Gahaziel peered at me as if he’d never seen anything like me before. “You,” he said solemnly, “are an idiot.” He glared around the table. “The reason,” he yelled, “was that I came back in my killer’s body, of course. This is my killer’s body. How could my own body be alive? I had a knife through my heart!”
There was a moment of silence. It stretched to minutes of silence.
“More wine!” Gahaziel bellowed. “More wine, by the winged boots of Mercury!”
The men at the door were looking tense again. I could sympathise with them.
It was going to be a long night.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013