Chapter 3: The Ascent
cThe climb was impossible. A fact which Hal kept reminding himself of every burning, scraping inch, pulling himself hand over hand up the jagged rock face. Checking above him, he found Amelia and Doc Turner, younger and with much slimmer bodies, not having nearly the difficulty he was with his slightly-more-than-middle-aged, overweight frame. The heat billowing up from the lake below kept him moving though, one blistering handhold after another.
They climbed for what seemed an hour, the updrafts ever worsening as they licked up the concave walls of Hell’s outer reaches. Hal kept his gaze fixed upward, gritting his teeth against the burning ache in his limbs as he pulled himself higher, the pain in his muscles a dim shadow against the scorching wind constantly racing over his flesh.
Amun had reverted to the struggling, wailing creature they had first met him as, and he scrabbled over rocky cliffs and rises with the single-minded determination of one who was running from oblivion—and finally had the end in sight.
Suddenly, Amun’s grotesque form disappeared over a rise. Doc Turner, closest behind him, soon followed suit. Eventually, Hal slapped a meaty forearm over the edge, the cracks and blisters across his skin giving him a moment’s pause as his eyes focused on them. Beyond this disturbing sight, Amelia and the doctor worked to drag Amun into the shelter of a dark crevice, its entrance narrow and jagged against the harsh light from the spurting flames.
Levering himself the rest of the way up, Hal struggled forward on hands and knees, breath heaving and lungs burning. Turning his head, he spit the grit from his mouth only to watch the globule of saliva hiss and immediately sizzle into nothing.
A sharp tug beneath his arm brought his gaze up from the smoking ground to find the priest trying to pull him to his feet. Desperate, Hal clasped at the hand and heaved himself up, leaning heavily on the other man as they struggled away from the edge.
He knew the instant they passed into the crevice. It was like a cool breath of spring washing over him, and he suddenly realized just why Amun had been nuzzling the dirty rubber aisle mat when he’d first crashed upon them. It must have been bliss. Is this what just the memory of mortal life feels like to the damned?
Doc Turner was holding a hand to Amun’s head as if in benediction as Hal and the priest struggled toward them. Flesh and sinew squirmed and spread beneath the doctor’s hand—but not as quickly as it had before, with Amelia. Were they losing their protection so quickly?
Amelia turned at the sound of them approaching, giving them an unsteady smile. Rubbing her hand against her arm, she asked, “Where are we?”
“Hell,” was Amun’s immediate, hoarse response.
Amelia took an impatient breath and kicked one of her heavy-booted feet. “Thanks, Sherlock. I mean, why does it feel so nice here? Nice isn’t supposed to be part of Hell, I assume?”
“The gateways into Hell are eternal,” he explained, bliss radiating from his voice as he continued lapping up energy from Doc’s touch. “But, just as with me, the residue of the mortal coil leaves its mark. Frequently, the tunnels sleep, clogged and sullied by the taint of humanity left by the multitude passing through their walls.” He tipped his head slightly to look up at Amelia from beneath the cover of Doc Turner’s hand. “You four are fortunate. The gateways vomit the souls bent for eternal torment down to the lower levels without prejudice. Had your …contraption… not become lodged in the tunnel’s gluttonous throat, you would be burning in the pit with all the others.”
Hal gave himself a mental shake, pushing away the memory of the writhing masses of bodies. Motioning to the priest still at his arm, they staggered farther back into the cave.
“That one deserves to burn here,” Hal grumbled as he flopped down onto the blessedly cool cave floor.
“But not you?” The priest’s voice held a questing note, and Hal turned to look at him.
The priest was watching him, eyes tipped upward beneath his brows from where he sat slumped against the opposite wall. The space was small, and Hal could see the streaks lining the priest’s face where sweat had tried and failed to linger.
Hal shrugged, trying to appear as if the idea didn’t bother him as much as it did; it freaking terrified him, now. “Dunno. I never masterminded any evil regimes… but, I suppose I never really worked that hard at staying out of here, either. There’s retrospect for you, huh?”
The priest gave a dark laugh. “I suppose so.”
Hal rested his head back. “How about you, Padre? What lands a priest in the fiery furnace?”
The priest didn’t immediately answer, but Hal could see in the way he sat silent, brows wrinkled together, that the question bothered him. “I believe our crispy friend over there said it best,” he finally began, making a subtle motion with his head over toward Amun and causing Hal to chuckle a bit, despite himself. “I was an unworthy servant. My great sin was doubt. I doubted the gospel, doubted the resurrection… But what was worse, I encouraged others to doubt, as well.”
Hal sobered at his words. “Isn’t that a good thing, though?” he asked, running his fingers back through his thinning hair. “Shouldn’t you encourage people to think for themselves?”
“Perhaps,” he agreed, voice hesitant. “A healthy amount of doubt from the average person can, certainly, strengthen one’s beliefs. But when that doubt is coming directly from your church leader… Well, it tends to have a much greater impact. Especially on those who had a shaky belief to begin with. My colleagues found out, of course, and I was taken away from my parish to be reassigned to the city hospitals where my work primarily consisted of administering the last rites.” He gave a deep sigh then, the regret heavy in his voice. “Who knows how many souls I helped deliver to this place.”
Hal could only stare at the dismal figure in front of him. And I thought my hindsight was screwed.
Hal turned at the soft voice. Amelia was standing there, her cheeks and shoulders showing angry red blisters, as if she had spent the day frying in the sun. What Hal wouldn’t give for this all to be just one bad sunburn…
“Amun says we need to keep moving. He’s able to walk again now and, well… it’s time to go.”
Hal hung his head for a moment and nodded, taking in what little bit more of the crevice’s reprieve as he could. “Alright.” Hefting himself off the cave floor, he reached a hand down to the priest.
Glancing up, he nodded once and took it, allowing Hal to pull him to his feet. He kept ahold of Hal’s hand, though, even after he was fully upright, and Hal glanced down at this before checking the priest’s face.
Hal blinked. “Pardon?”
“Before, at the bus, you asked my name, and I very rudely refused it.”
“Oh, uh… right, um—Hal. Hal Richardson.”
Father Donahue didn’t release his hand. “Hal. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this—as you seemed to be the only other one among us who has reservations about this plan—but, don’t trust Amun. He needs us, now. But will he later?”
He released Hal’s hand with a meaningful squeeze, and Hal followed his gaze over to the three figures silhouetted by the red glow beyond the crevice. Amun stood erect and strong once more, but Doc Turner and Amelia seemed… less. Slouched, tired… drained.
With a nod to Father Donahue, Hal moved to join them at the entrance. “How much farther?” he asked as he reached them, his shoulders tensing as he eyed the light coming from outside.
Amun looked at him with distain. “You were fortunate, my rotund friend. Your gateway was quite high, relatively speaking. You have but a day or so’s journey ahead of you, as you are right now.”
“What do you mean, ‘as we are’?” Though he thought he already knew.
Amun gestured broadly to the scene outside. “Imagine, if you would, making this climb blinded with pain, your skin peeling from your flesh as you drag yourself up the escarpments. Your bones charring away, only to regrow in a perpetual cycle of torment. And yet, you climb—climb from the lake burning below, from the uncertainty of whether falling will lead you into oblivion or an even greater, inescapable torment.”
Hal didn’t meet Amun’s gaze as he went on.
“I’m sure you could imagine it taking quite some time, in this state. As you are, though, the journey is swift. Likely only several weeks from the lake to the ridge, but I—I have been climbing for forty-five years, and I have climbed for much, much longer. Alone, stealing from sleeping gateway to sleeping gateway, the remaining journey might take me months—years even. And that’s assuming I don’t fall…”
Amelia cast a nervous glance out through the opening. “What—what happens? If you fall in the lake, I mean.”
The first notes of disquiet marred Amun’s practiced façade. “I do not know. But those who do, do not reemerge.”
A horrible prickle ran up Hal’s back, and he looked away. “Let’s go then, before this temporary buffer wears off.”
The climb was worse this time. Much worse. Hal could feel baked skin splitting over his knuckles. Blisters rose and burst over the flesh of his back, and the hair on his head and arms slowly diminished to crisp, blackened shrivels. He could feel the fire now when it burst through the crevices surrounding him. He could feel his body cracking and peeling and the terrible hiss of skin on stone that rose beneath every passing grip.
But still, they ascended the barren rise, creeping ever closer to the terrible, black event horizon obscuring the upper reaches. Hal cowered against the sucking draw of it pulling waves of heat upward from the lower levels in a turbulent blaze, drawing in everything, even the light, dim as it was from the lake below. All disappeared into its ravenous maw.
By the time Amun sniffed out the next gateway, Hal was having serious doubts as to whether or not this climb would be physically possible. With a tight-jawed moan, he collapsed into the mouth of the small, round tunnel, inching forward on his elbows as he held his blistered palms away from the stone. Then, he simply lay there, shaking, weeping, sucking deep gasps in and out through gritted teeth.
When finally he was able to lift his head again, he looked forward. Doc was laying hands on Amun again, though he, himself, seemed not too much further behind the wretched creature. His scrubs bore large, blackened holes, revealing scorched and blistered skin beneath. His breathing was labored, and his shoulders seemed too heavy for the young doctor to carry.
Father Donahue, Hal saw then, had abandoned his polyester jacket, though the melted remnants of it still marred the once-white cotton of his shirtsleeves, and Amelia, who hadn’t had much in the way of protective garments to begin with, showed bright red, cracked skin from her fingertips all the way across her back and over her face. Her hair, once long and shiny, had been singed nearly to her scalp and now stuck out in twisted, spiky tendrils.
Recognizing he must not be in any better state, Hal fumbled out of the melted remains of his duty vest and tossed it aside, brushing away the last bit of charred sleeve from one arm. Rolling onto his back, he breathed deeply of the life-tainted air.
A sucking gust rushed past him, and his vest was suddenly ripped from the tunnel, swept away by the constant draw of the dark nimbus looming outside their refuge.
Amelia’s hushed voice drifted up through the distant chorus of wailing. “Amun, what happens if we’re sucked into that black hole up there?”
Hal listened carefully. He had been wondering that, himself.
“Thinking of an escape, my sweet?” Amelia didn’t answer, so Amun continued. “I wouldn’t advise it. Though I have never attempted the feat myself, I have, in the past, crossed paths with one who has. You are not erased, nor spit back out on Earth, nor out into empty space. You are simply regurgitated back through the gateways to take your chances sliding down the river of souls when next Charon calls you home. There is no escape from Hell, you see.”
“Except for you?” Hal croaked, the act causing him to cough nearly to convulsions.
He looked back up in time to see Amun smiling at him in a chilling sort of way. “Yes. Except for me. And those fortunate enough to have crossed paths with me early enough in their journeys.”
Because otherwise, you’d have no use for them, he thought darkly. A glance at Father Donahue told Hal the priest was having a similar thought.
Seconds later—or maybe hours? Hal couldn’t quite swear to which—Amun shot to his feet, posture hunched in the small space as he crouched with his head slightly tipped, as if listening, his whole body rigid and still. “We must flee.”
Hal’s gaze sharpened on him, and then flicked rapidly around to Father Donahue and the others. “What?”
“We must flee!”
And before Hal could question him again, Amun darted for the cliffs.
Then a sound met his ears—a sound like boiling thunder emanating from the deeper reaches of the cave. It was quickly followed by a blast of fetid wind, putrid enough to make Hal’s eyes water.
“Climb, you fools!” Amun’s furious voice echoed back. “The gateway—it wakes!”
Realizing, then, what the horrible sound must be, Hal scrambled toward the opening, desperately racing ahead of the wave he knew was sure to come.
The horn sounded, and Hal cried out as it echoed through the passage, rattling his eyes and traveling down the darkened tunnel like a beacon calling home the souls of the dead.
The burbling sound grew louder, and the rush of air increased. He was right on Father Donahue’s heels, but they weren’t moving fast enough. The burbling was growing to a rumble, a roar. Hal threw one terrified look over his shoulder at the dark mass racing toward them.
He swung himself out of the tunnel just as the tide of bodies gushed past him. Catching his balance, he braced himself against the burning cliff face, turning his face away and closing his eyes. He couldn’t escape the sound though, that stomach-churning scrape and squelch of battered flesh.
Chest heaving, he blinked his eyes open. The others were on the ledge next to him, all pressed tightly against the rocky wall.
“We climb,” came Amun’s ragged voice from the opposite end of the group. “Before the flow ebbs and someone tries to follow.”
Hal was about to ask why Amun didn’t want anyone following them, but the heat was rapidly growing oppressive, and he simply ducked his head to follow.