Chapter 2: The Guide
Hal stared, unblinking, back into the darkness of the tunnel as the river of bodies fell outside. All three of the others were there—including the priest. Doc Turner and Amelia, twin expressions of horror flashing in and out of sight as the light of hellfire flashed across their faces, seemed lost to a state past mental endurance. The priest however, just stared, gazing out at the gruesome torrent of fire and flesh, a grim acceptance edging his features. The muscles in his jaw tightened suddenly, and he began to edge forward.
“Father!” Hal shouted, gagging as a wave of fear-ridden nausea clenched his gut.
“I am undeserving of that title,” the priest murmured, waiting for the cascade of bodies to ebb before moving closer to the lip of the cliff. The wind whipped about him as he stared down toward the roiling lake of fire, the intense heat rising from the pit causing his outline to ripple like a mirage.
Hal coughed and gagged again, shielding his face with a forearm as a blast of air smelling of brimstone and burning corpses rose from the depths below. “Father, get back!”
But the priest kept inching forward, eyeing the lake with a terrible intensity. “The fire already grows hotter. If I commend myself now, before the torment truly begins, will I meet oblivion? If I seek my second death, rather than flee it, will it still be eternal fire that awaits me?”
Hal watched in horror as the priest inched a toe over the edge. Perhaps it was simple instinct that caught him—for Hal truly believed, in that moment, the priest was about to commit to that second, irreversible step. But, instead, he stumbled, wheeling an arm out to catch his balance before he could slip fully over the edge.
Amelia, eyes wild, darted forward and grabbed the back of his jacket. “What are you doing?” she cried, clutching at his sleeve, pulling him back toward the mouth of the tunnel where he stumbled and fell against the inside wall.
He was breathing heavily, and there were deep furrows in the center of his forehead. He didn’t seem capable of answering her, though. He just sat there, staring out at the infinite space, listening to the cries and struggles of the multitude, now once again climbing the burning escarpments.
“We need to get back to the bus.”
Hal looked around. It was the doctor who had spoken. “What?”
“The bus—didn’t you hear what the priest said before? He knew where we were the moment we came to. We weren’t getting burned back there—we need to go back!”
Sure enough, Hal could see the skin on Doc Turner’s face beginning to redden and chap from the blistering wind that was a constant plague outside the tunnel. Nodding, Hal heaved himself up and staggered after the others, back toward the bus.
He collapsed against the tires when they finally reached their goal. Had it been this hot here before? He was breathing heavily, gasping against the rawness of the heat, tears cutting paths through the soot and smoke on his face as they leaked unbidden from the corners of his burning eyes. Hal wiped a hand across his face, absently surprised when his fingers didn’t come away slick with sweat and tears; the heat had cooked the moisture right off his skin.
A sudden memory of what had befallen the last set of tires they'd stood near flashed through his mind, and he quickly pushed himself away, moving instead to the open emergency exit.
“Jesus Christ!” Hal leaped back, clutching a hand to his heart as he met the raw and blackened gaze of the burned man.
He sat crouched in the opening of the small door, blocking Hal’s way and grinning down at him with a lipless leer. “Not anymore,” he rasped, “but once, yes.”
The priest shuffled near, peering around Hal as he blocked the heat from a nearby burst of flame with his arm. “Blasphemy!”
The tormented soul chortled in low, gravelly tones. “Oh, yes. Plenty of that around here, as well.”
“Ignore his words. He is one of the damned.”
“And here, too, you stand, priest—unworthy servant.”
Hal felt another wave of nausea rise up when a globule of flesh ripped away from the body’s half-formed lips as he spat out his words. The doctor suddenly looked as sick as Hal felt, but Amelia was staring at the creature with a look of morbid fascination. Perhaps a similar fascination as what landed her here in the first place.
“Who are you?” she asked, inching closer, her voice just audible over the rush of flame and wind.
“I am old and again, and your histories know me well,” he hissed. “I have been named Nero, Vlad, Khan, Himmler… I have ruled you, conquered you, taught you, and enlightened you. I have been your king, your council—I have even been your pope.”
The priest curled his lip at this last but did not speak.
“Amun, you may call me, as that was how I lived first.”
“Amun,” Amelia echoed.
But then Doc Turner pushed his way forward, causing Amelia to stumble even closer. “You’ve been all those people—you’ve gotten out?”
Suddenly Hal was paying very close attention.
“Mmmm,” the soul crooned, “oh yes, there is a way out…” But then he struck like a snake, darting his hand out and catching Amelia by the throat, jerking her close.
Hal and the others leapt forward, but they were brought up short by Amelia’s terrified squeak when the charred fingers abruptly tightened their hold. Amelia was squirming and whimpering, but Hal’s gaze was drawn, transfixed, to the creature’s hand and arm, where, in the manner of flames coruscating over burning wood, new flesh was beginning to ripple and bloom over the once scorched and peeling extremity.
“There is a way,” Amun continued, inches from Amelia’s shuddering face. He tipped his head slightly as he took in her porcelain features. “And if you take me there, I will deliver you from an eternity of torment.” The grinning face moaned, and Hal watched in horror as a slender tongue slipped out and licked Amelia from neck to hair.
She screamed as a streak of red blisters erupted in the wake of his sadistic kiss.
Functioning on an instinct that even surprised him, Hal swung at the burned man’s face—missing, but causing Amun to lose his grip as Amelia twisted away at the same time. She dove to the side and hid, sobbing, behind the priest, who held one protective arm out in front of her.
This thing is vile, twisted… Hal thought, backing up again.
In contrast to Hal’s abrupt retreat, Doc Turner pushed forward, moving farther in front of Amelia and the priest, though admittedly, still keeping a safe distance from the crouching figure of Amun. “Tell us how to get out,” he demanded, a look of violent single-mindedness creasing his heat stained face.
Lips and tongue were fleshing out from where Amun had licked Amelia, and he seemed to be tasting her, still, as he spoke. “Descensus Christi ad Inferos. I was here when Christ descended and delivered the righteous from their perpetuation in Sheol. I was here when the Son of Man touched the fiery ground of Hades. And where the light of the Kingdom exists, the fires of Hell, cannot.”
Muscle and tissue were beginning to rope backward over face and arm, lending Amun features, fullness… and definitely lending him strength.
He uncoiled from his crouch just inside the door, keeping his motions deliberate and measured as he lowered one leg to the smoking ground. It hissed where his foot made contact, but Amun seemed not to notice, gradually rising to his full height, shoulders straight and back erect.
“I alone followed the wailing of the damned who were blinded by the image of that which is holy—singing for eternity, trapped in a paradox of light and darkness.”
“I’m with the padre on this one,” Hal announced, growing more wary by the second as Amun spoke. He shook his head, squinting against the sulfuric fumes. “This guy’s just trying to use us—look at what he got just from touching Amelia.”
“Oh, I most assuredly am going to use you,” the burned man agreed, one newly formed brow ridge lifting in an expression Hal couldn’t quite read. “The torment of Hell is a bit distracting, see, and the climb can prove difficult whilst having the flesh burned from one’s bones.”
Amelia, finally regaining herself a bit, peered around from behind the priest’s sleeve. “Climb where?”
Amun grinned at her. “To the ruins of Sheol, where the fires cannot touch. There dwells an entity who, if reached, will grant a soul one wish.”
“A wish?” Hal barked, not believing what he was hearing. “This isn’t a fairy tale, you twisted piece of shit! This is goddamn Hell!” …Oh God, this is Hell…
“Which is why I require the likes of you fine specimens to see me to the top. And you need me, as well. Only I know how to reach the ridge, but only those with the lingering aura of…” he sniffed deeply, “…Mmm… life, about them are capable of reaching it without succumbing to the fires and falling into the abyss. Once that—how did you put it Father? Breath of the Kingdom?—fully fades,” he gave a low, mocking bow at this point, gesturing to himself as a whole, “you will be as bare to the fires of Hell as all the rest.”
Hal exchanged a nervous glance with the other three, watching the decision solidify in their expressions as they studied each other.
Only the priest seemed to still hold reservations. “Nero? Himmler? And you just expect us to allow you to pass back into the world unchecked?”
A sudden clarion horn blast interrupted the priest’s reproach, and Hal turned to see the glow at the mouth of the tunnel begin flashing and flickering again. Not rescue lights… bodies. Bodies leaking from the walls of Hell like an infection, their purulent flow coursing over the mouth of the tunnel in rapid, fleeting shadows cast from the light of hellfire beyond.
Amun tipped his head in a motion of complete disinterest. “This portal will only sleep for a brief time. Before long, it too will begin to flow again with the souls of the damned, drawn to the call of Charon’s horn. What choice do you have?”
The priest’s face hardened. “There is always a choice.”
“—I’ll take you,” Doc Turner interrupted. “I’ll take you myself. Just get me out of here.”
The father turned his gaze on the doctor. “You would visit that level of evil upon the world? The last time this demon walked the Earth he fueled the Holocaust—”
“—I don’t want to burn!”
Amun gave a dark chuckle at the argument playing out before him. “Do not fret, Father. I am hardly a demon. But my knowledge of the occult is unsurpassed. You will not make the journey without me. Our time here grows short. Climb? Or burn.”
“Climb,” the doctor said immediately, stepping around Hal to stand closer to the tunnel entrance.
Amelia appeared uncertain, but soon, she too gave a hesitant nod and moved out from behind the priest to stand beside the doctor.
Hal hesitated for a moment, staring at the priest as he weighed his own soul against that of thousands. At the next burst of fire and heat, though, his resolve faltered. Why start caring about other people now? You had your whole life for that and look how you screwed that up.
“Stay, if you wish—”
Hal looked up from where he had ducked below the cover of his arm, drawn by the indifferent tone of Amun’s voice. He wasn’t where Hal had last seen him. He now stood placidly between Doc Turner and Amelia, unaffected by the raging storm of heat swirling around them.
“—It matters naught, to me. These two are enough to see me to the ridge. I wish you well… for your sojourn in Hell.”
Dammit, he’s going to this ridge whether I help him or not. I don’t care what the padre has to say, I’m getting out of here.
Ducking beneath his arm once more, Hal turned and stepped toward Amun. The burned man gave him a wicked leer but turned without a word and headed for the mouth of the tunnel.
They emerged to the press of burning, fetid wind, the cries of the multitude nearly deafening. Amun hesitated as the full brunt of Hell’s sweeping blaze washed over him, the exposed muscle fibers above his blackened jaw flexing and bunching in a poorly disguised shudder. “The way is treacherous,” he began, his voice—far rougher now than it had been inside the tunnel—barely audible above the drone of screams. “If you fall, there is no return from the lake of fire.” He turned a searching gaze over his shoulder and up. Taking a deep breath through the hole where his nose should have been, he went on. “We must ascend to the next sleeping portal before you are lain bare to the fire.”
Amun moved to begin scaling the wall, but when no one immediately followed him, he jerked to a halt, curling in on himself as he apparently reached some sort of invisible limit. He turned back to them with a frustrated stare. “If it is your intent to linger until your flesh ignites, do tell me now, and I will abide a while longer in the peace of the portal while I watch you burn.”
That was enough to get Doc Turner moving. Hal followed once Amelia began climbing, and to his surprise, he saw the priest emerge from the mouth of the tunnel as well.
“Change your mind, Padre?” Hal called over the howling, but the priest didn’t respond, only gave him a grim look and took to the wall beside him.