Chapter 1: The Arrival
Hal coughed and blinked open his burning eyes, breath stuttering as a wave of heat and nausea rolled over him. Holding his position bent forward against the steering wheel of the intercity transit bus, he took several deep, ragged breaths, focusing down at a mustard stain on his outsized middle as he attempted to regain his bearings.
Another blast of heat assaulted him, hot enough to cause him to wince beneath the cover of his folded arms, and he rolled his head from side to side. Hazy memories began to cohere with his rational mind, and as they did, the distant sound of screeching began to rise in his ears.
Screeching—the screeching of tires… the pain in his arm and chest… the impact…
Jerking upright, Hal clutched a hand to his heart, gasping and squeezing at the meat of his chest.
He was still in the bus. He had been driving, but then…
Blinking furiously, he tried to make sense of his surroundings.
A second wave of screeching wails met his ears and he frowned, turning to squint out through the glass doors. Where was he? He had been driving through the tunnel, but that didn’t look like concrete they were wedged up against… And that sound… That wasn’t tires against pavement. It almost sounded like—
“—A great wailing and gnashing of teeth…”
Hal spun in his seat, searching for the source of the unfamiliar voice.
His eyes fell on a man—a priest, by the collar at his throat. Black of hair with gray at his temples, he stood, staring out the window before him, a distant and troubling expression on his face.
Hal grunted a bit as he leaned to unfasten his seatbelt, then turned the rest of the way to take in the state of his passengers.
Staring back, he paused. Where were the rest of them? There had been at least eighteen passengers at his last stop—where were they?
Only three people remained on the bus: the priest, still staring through the window, a young woman, maybe eighteen at most, dressed to the nines in the thickest goth glam Hal had ever seen, and a young man wearing dark-rimmed glasses and sea-green scrubs. Both of the latter two were finding their feet, beginning to stare about at their surroundings, a look of confusion, similar to that which Hal, himself, was feeling etching their features.
“Is everyone alright?” Hal rasped. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Saved…” The priest’s voice was quiet and distant.
Hal waited, but no further explanation followed. Shaking his head, he turned away. Sounds like EMS must have already started getting folks out. Just as well—Hal really didn’t feel like dealing with a shellshocked priest just now.
Reaching his hand out, he fumbled to open the door, but it was jammed hard against the wall of the tunnel. Heaving himself up and out of the driver’s seat, he started walking down the center aisle toward the other exit a the rear of the bus.
He stopped short when he made it to the priest. The man hadn’t moved as Hal approached, just stood there like a statue, staring out the window. Heat pressed hard against the side of Hal’s face, and he turned to follow the priest’s gaze.
Flames glowed against the outside of the bus, stuttering and flaring in unsteady bursts, fighting against the interior lighting for dominance against the thin pane of tinted glass.
Shit—we’re on fire! Hal caught a momentary glimpse of his own stunned face in the reflection as the fire wavered and disappeared once again.
Pushing past the priest, he hurried to the rear exit, throwing his shoulder hard against the glass-paned door when it wouldn’t immediately open. It budged, but only by a small crack, and through it, Hal was able to glimpse a mangled, soot-covered mass of corrugated steel, the remains of what looked like a shipping container wedged tightly against the outside. He pushed against the door once more, then gave up, turning back to try the emergency exit instead.
Glass imploded from the opposite side of the bus, and a shriveled, smoking form hurtled in through the broken window.
“Shit! Shit—oh shit!” The man in scrubs was shouting, scrambling over the back of the seat in an effort to distance himself from the burned and twisted body writhing in the aisle, right next to where he had been sitting. A few seats forward, the goth chick began screaming.
A sigh of relief passed over the lips of the burned man, and Hal watched in shock as he relaxed against the filthy floor in what looked like rapture, nuzzling one blackened cheek against the rubber aisle.
What the hell is going on?
The rush of searing heat from the broken window brought Hal’s attention back up, and the sound of screaming and screeching increased.
Dammit, we’ve gotta get out of here. “Alright, everyone—off the bus, now! We’ll send EMS back for this guy, let’s go!” Crossing to the emergency exit, he jerked the lever up with one thick fist and threw it wide. Glass crunched underfoot as he waved the passengers forward.
Goth chick was the first to jump ship, skirting around the smoking and sizzling man with a squeamish twist of her fishnet-clad legs, leather boots notwithstanding. The man in scrubs, casting one hesitant glance downward on his way past, quickly followed.
“Yo, padre, you coming?”
The priest, unmoved from his distant attentiveness, even through the entrance of the burning man, blinked at Hal as if coming back to himself and then nodded, turning to follow the others through the small exit.
A scorching gust hit Hal as he stumbled heavily to the ground, and he lifted an arm protectively in front of his face. Squinting through the caustic, sulfuric wind, he found the others just a few feet away, hovering close together far back in the space between the bus and the wall.
Light flared from directly beside the huddled group and they all cried out as the nearest set of tires ignited and burst, dropping the bus in their direction.
Goth chick threw herself against the wall of the cave but then immediately jerked away again, as if burned, heavy streaks of black mascara running down her cheeks as she began to hyperventilate.
“Where are we?” she cried, staring around the dark space with wild eyes. “What happened?”
Hal held both hands out toward her, palms out, hoping to stave off any more hysterics. He really didn’t have time for hysterics. “Look, just calm down. Nobody panic. Miss, what’s your name?”
Frantic eyes found his face. “A-Amelia.”
Hal nodded, then turned to the man in scrubs.
“Doctor Benjamin Turner,” he answered at Hal’s raised brows. “I’m a resident at County General.”
We’re in the middle of a freaking emergency and this guy’s going to make sure I know he’s a doctor? Hal shook his head, spitting out a globule of ash-tasting saliva before turning to the priest.
The father furrowed his brows. “Who I was doesn’t really matter now. My judgement has been passed.”
Judgement? The hell’s wrong with this guy? Ignoring his words, Hal asked instead, “You said the others were already rescued. Where’s EMS? The cops?”
The priest just stared at him. Hal stared back, the expression on the father’s face making him think there was something he wasn’t catching on to. Another blast of heat pressed against him, and he scrunched his eyes shut.
He shook his head. “Whatever, Padre. Come on, we’ve got to get out of this tunnel before the whole bus blows.”
“I wouldn’t.” The priest’s voice held a note of warning, and Hal paused in his motion of turning toward the rear of the vehicle where a small gap remained between it and the wall.
“This cave, this… crevice, of unnotice—this is likely our last reprieve before final judgement throws us eternally into the fiery furnace. Whatever breath of the Kingdom we carried here with us… it will not abide long, not here.”
Fiery furnace? Judgement? Hal blinked hard at the man, shaking his head in frustrated bewilderment. “Dude, what the hell are you—” but then he broke off, slapping a hand to the side of his face as, with a painful flash, he remembered.
His vision shrinking to a small, bright haze; passengers and tires screaming in equal volume as the bus spun sideways; the oncoming semi careening through the freeway tunnel…
Shaking his head, Hal cleared his spinning brain. “Are you telling me…” he began, a sinking drop plummeting from the pit of his stomach all the way to his toes. Then he shook his head again, scoffing at the ridiculous notion. This guy must have hit his head something fierce. “You’re crazy. How could a priest and a doctor end up in Hell?” He cast a momentary glance at Amelia but said nothing, earning a reproachful look in return. He ignored this, though; clearly, she hadn’t been going to church in those platform boots…
Doctor Benjamin Turner, MD looked slightly uncomfortable, but it was the priest who replied. “It’s not simply a matter of our deeds that save our souls.” Then he took a ragged breath, staring out past the rear of the bus at the dim glow of light filtering in. “And it would appear that some sins truly are unforgivable…”
Hal spared him one last incredulous look before turning away. “Whatever you say, Padre. I’m getting out of here.” He motioned to Amelia. “You coming? Doc?”
Doc Turner nodded and moved to follow Hal and Amelia toward the dim light at the end of the tunnel.
The bus had halted crookedly in the narrow space, and there was only a small crack between the rear of the vehicle and the wall in which to pass through. Sucking in his gut, Hal squeezed his body through the narrow gap, wincing as the heat of the stone burned his skin. His thoughts unconsciously slid back to the priest’s ominous statement as he felt it sear across his back.
Another gust blew past him as he emerged around the bus, and he spun away from its heat, blinking to find the others following through the gap with much less difficulty. Clearing the ashy grit from his eyes, he turned back to the red glow at the end of the tunnel. The sound of screaming was louder, nearly overwhelming, and Hal found himself adamantly denying the priest’s words. Again. And again. And then again.
A horn blast, deep and thunderous, shook the tunnel with its basso call. Slapping his hands over his ears, Hal ducked his head, cowering against the heated wall. Through his squinted vision, he saw the red light at the end of the tunnel begin to flash.
Firetrucks! Thank God! But did they have to blare the horn like that?
He turned to the others. “Looks like EMS is straight ahead,” he shouted over the remaining echo. “Likely thought it was too dangerous to enter the tunnel or something.” That would do it, right? They were worried about the integrity of the tunnel, so they didn’t drive the vehicles in? He choked and coughed on another lungful of caustic smoke, surprised at the worry he felt when he realized… it didn’t smell like diesel fumes. A tendril of flame shot up the wall to his right and he shied away.
Amelia peeled her hands away from her ears. “Something’s not right,” she whimpered, staring around at the confining space.
“Look,” Hal maintained, “you can see the flashers—they’re less than fifty yards away.”
Doc Turner moved around her, staring at the mouth of the tunnel as he wiped his forearm across his face. A streak of black remained in its place. “No, she’s right.”
“I’m telling you—” Hal argued, motioning to the light, now a dim, steady red again, and he hesitated. Not flashing?
“Look at this place,” the doctor hissed through a choked cough. “Does it look like a traffic tunnel to you?”
Hal stared at him, squinting against the caustic air, the smell of sulfur and hot iron thick in his nostrils.
“Look!” And as the young resident’s arm shot around in a frustrated attempt at illustration, Hal looked. Really looked. He blinked through the haze of heat, searching the walls, the ceiling, the floors.
Where were the lamps? No lines on the road? Those walls were made of stone, jagged and rocky, not concrete… Where the hell…? But he stopped that thought dead in its tracks.
“Look, it doesn’t matter where we are! We need to get out before that whole bus goes up in flames!” Not waiting for an answer, Hal spun and began marching down the tunnel, skirting sporadic bursts of flame as he moved purposefully on, trying to ignore the rising sense of dread growing in his middle as the sound of cries and wails increased with every step, trying to keep his pace steady as the blistering wind blew with increasing fury against the exposed skin of his face and hands… trying not to think of the priest’s words.
But as he emerged through the mouth of the tunnel, all thoughts of denial or rescue or redemption left him.
Towering walls of rock and flame extended out from either side of him in an endless stretch, curving around until they faded into the distance amid a rippling haze of smoke and heat. Slowly, his gaze followed the concave arc of jagged rock as it plummeted downward to form a fiery, gaping basin.
Hell was a bowl… Hell was one giant, inescapable bowl filled with writhing bodies, all screaming and scrambling over each other in a bid to climb to the higher reaches. Hal followed the rise of the sloping walls, his eyes tracking the burning escarpments up to where they terminated, high above them, their peaks shrouded in a glowing black event horizon of brimming darkness. The darkness sucked at him, pulling at his clothes, his duty vest, whipping the burning heat over his face until he was forced to turn away from the boundless expanse before him.
A scream from right beside him caused him to jump, and he spun to find a body, crusted and blistered, climbing over the edge of the cliff at their feet. One smoking hand was clasped around Amelia’s leather-clad ankle.
She screamed again and kicked out at the body, breaking its grip and causing it to fall backward from where it had emerged. Shocked, Hal stepped to the brink. Leaning cautiously out over the edge, he watched as it tumbled, crashing against rocks and other bodies in its descent, those bodies joining the first to create a grotesque cascade plummeting to the center of the fiery bowl where they disappeared with agonal shrieks into a vast, burning lake.
Hal stumbled backward, tripping over his own feet in his haste to escape the precipice. Suddenly, the horn sounded again. In a panic, he ducked beneath the shelter of his arms, pressing his forearms hard against his ears when his hands overshot their goal. He felt a rumbling begin in the soles of his feet as the droning blast reverberated over the increasing volume of cries and screams. And as he looked up, his frantic gaze sweeping the ledge, torrents of writhing bodies burst from the walls in all directions, flowing over each other in macabre rivers of flesh, oozing from cracks and crevices as if the walls themselves were bleeding.
Hal flung himself backward into the passage right as the bodies began tumbling over the mouth of the tunnel in a sickening waterfall of limbs and twisted faces. The heavy, repetitive sound of flesh smacking into stone made Hal’s gorge rise and he backed away, deeper into the darkness; back into the safety of Hell’s inner caverns.