Previosuly published in Nova Audio Series ©2003
Most people did not have the imagination to see anything other than flames. True, as time spun along endlessly they incorporated their own variations on the eternal theme—rivers of lava, belching pits that hurled smoke and magma and burning oils into the air, fiery rains, volcanic animals that vomited fire—human beings could be quite clever. But, the grand majority of the damned persisted in seeing their personal eternities in simplistic terms of licking red tongues that merely charred their flesh and consumed their vitals endlessly. For the keepers of the abyss, most of their charges did not offer much in the way of entertainment.
The man currently wandering the western heights of the Stygian depths was different, however. Throughout his centuries within the infernal regions, he had rarely suffered from any type of combustion whatsoever. His was usually a more interpretive picture of damnation, one that forced the punishment to fit the crime—over and over—an endless replaying of his sins with him on the receiving end of a trillion variations.
His name, by that point, he had forgotten. What he had done to deserve the torments of the pit had mostly faded from his memory as well. During his imprisonment, he had come to understand that he did belong where he was, that his lifetime of contemptible behavior had rewarded him with an eternity of constant pain in the name of celestial retribution. He had also—finally—come to the absolute end of his ability to care.
The man had suffered in every way possible that he had been able to imagine. His feet had rotted away so that he walked on leprous stumps, eating and drinking from slime-coated pools where he fought unidentifiable things for every crumb and droplet. He had been torn apart by beasts, dropped from galactic heights into rivers of spikes, lived with the shade of his mother constantly whispering into his ear, been eaten, digested and left in the sulfurous weeds as food for the insects.
Time and again he had been destroyed and reconstituted. Time and again he had made his humble apologizes to a God he had finally come to realize not only could not hear him, but was not interested in anything he might have to say. For years on end he had thought that perhaps he might have some chance at redemption. After he had realized that his sins and his sins alone had brought on his dire situation he had determined to make up for them.
Every torment had been suffered gladly. Every infliction visited upon him had been endured with a stoicism unseen in the annals of Hell for centuries. But apparently, it mattered not. He had known the rules—good behavior took you to Heaven. Wrong thinking was punished—forever.
He hadn’t realized, hadn’t thought, hadn’t bothered ... had done as he pleased. And now, he was paying the price. For eternity. Forever—
Yes, he thought, he deserved punishment for what he’d done. He did. Even for the horribly terrible times in which he had lived—when human life didn’t mean much to begin with—he had been a monster. Considered one in the past and considered one still in the present, his was a name unforgotten and unforgiven by humanity even if he himself could no longer recall it.
For the longest time, though, still he had believed there could be redemption. That somehow the past could be made up for, glossed over, ignored. That somehow the shame could end and what he once was could finally be undone by what he had become.
He no longer believed that.
There was no relief. He knew that now. He was damned. People had said the words—damn you—and it had been done. Bound to the pit by the righteous indignation of those who survived him. Doomed to forever watch the shadow of Great Satan rippling over the landscape, knowing that its terrible shape would mottle his back day after day, hour after hour—
“Don’t give up.”
The words sounded tiny and thin, more a trick of the wind than any actual voice. The man had heard many great and pitiful noises since eternity had begun to stretch out before him, but this was something new. There was pity in the tone that swirled around his ear, encouragement ...
“Don’t give up.”
The man turned his head, searching for the source of the whispers he had heard. He had wandered onto a sparse and blasted plane, a thing of burnt stumps and crumbling dark rock. Sulfuric smoke rose like pollen from the mangy scraggle weed littering the landscape to the horizon. The man’s eyes studied every twig and shadow, but he did not see anything that could have been speaking to him.
“Salvation is still possible.”
The man’s form froze in terrible hope. There was no madness in Hell—he knew this. The man had found eternal damnation to be a great equalizer that freed all minds. If they accomplished nothing else, the torments of the Stygian depths taught their students truth. The man knew that someone, something, was speaking to him. And that, maybe, just possibly, they might even be worth listening to.
“How can I believe that?” he still asked, however. Closing his eyes, he raged to the smoke and heat, “I’ve been here so long...”
“You were condemned for eternity. Eternity knows no end. You just have to believe—”
“Believe?!” he snapped.
“Believe,” the soft voice continued, “that God is forgiving, that redemption is possible. That you can be lifted up.” There was a short pause, then the voice came to him one last time.
“You cannot give up. You can not.”
The man looked about himself once more, the chains of despair cracking within him. Suddenly, he felt the resolve which had been ebbing from his heart for so long now springing full blown within his breast anew—once again a thing of weight and substance.
And then, off to his side, hidden in the shadowy trunk and branches of a broken tree, he saw the form of one of the demon spirits that plagued the captives of eternity. Smaller than those he knew, it was a soft beast, almost colorful. It was also—the shape of its stance declared—a cowardly thing. And yet, its words had rebuilt his confidence, reminding him of what he had always believed.
Redemption was possible. The God of miracles had sent a son that threw out the laws of old. Things were not set in stone. There were no absolutes. Each soul got to negotiate its own passage. He could wipe away the ancient marks on his soul’s slate.
He just had to believe. He had to keep going. He had to persevere.
The man smiled. He would beat Hell. He would reach Heaven. God would hear his call, would see his mighty suffering. He would be redeemed.
And then, the shadow of Great Satan fell across the land once more. The small demon put a finger to its mouth and stole away quickly—fearfully. The man understood. He even smiled as the loathsome creature scurried off into the steaming darkness.
A demon that came to him in his hour of despair—that found him in his blackest moment of need and encouraged him on—surely that meant there was a God. Surely that proved he had to but try harder. Longer. For as long as it took.
From his mighty height, the Lord of Darkness and Lies noted something new stirring on the plane below. Focusing his vast attention, he saw his invisible hosts gathering around a particular soul. They were there to watch as it began a new series of torments. The foolish thing still believed in the escape clause.
That a deal wasn’t a deal.
And then, to his delight, Satan noted that the soul in question was one of his favorites—an exquisite torturer that had spared itself nothing. Of recent, the Dark One had been almost saddened by that one’s seeming final acceptance of its fate. But now, now it was like unto reborn. Satan thought for a brief sliver of time, and then sniffed the air. The odor was unmistakable. His favorite demon, Hope, had been there spreading its terrible misery.
His great mouth curling with delight, Satan stopped to watch the folly of optimism as it once more did its horrible work. His demons were laughing already. It was going to be another great show.