UPDATED 3/22/2010 to clarify some things and improve the ending... I hope.
The demon Samhail had been watching the young street preacher for two hours.
The preacher stood on the corner of a parking lot across from the Atlanta Hilton on a summer afternoon, holding an old leather Bible in one hand, and a megaphone in the other. His impeccable white suit and slick black hair gave him the look of a mafia hitman crossed with a carnival barker.
He blared a seemingly endless, hate-fueled rant against every behavior imaginable, to everyone who passed by. Even from across the street, Samhail, disguised as a panhandler, could hear the whole thing.
"Repent, and believe the good news! I have seen the sin in your lives, you whores, you gamblers, you drunks, you HOMOsexuals. Every single one of you, young and old, white and black, man and woman, deserves the eternal fires of HELLLLLLLLL."
Samhail choked up every time he heard the name. Such passion! Such love for Samhail's homeland!
The crowd was large. Several men and women had gathered to try to argue with the preacher, but he just ignored or dismissed them. Whether they appealed to reason or Love or the Golden Rule, he would never respond except by returning to his megaphone.
"You really think you're not going to Hell? You really think you're not a sinner? Well, you are, and how do I know?" He waved his Bible above his head. "Because I read it right here, and it comes from the hand of Almighty God.
"He will not spare you from even one moment of eternal torment. Catholics--you're going to Hell. Moslems--you're going to Hell. HOMOsexuals--you better believe you're going to Hell. Heaven ain't got no place for you. There's nowhere to go but HELLLLLLLLLLL!"
The crowd would keep complaining, people would drift in and out, and the preacher would keep on going. He tended to repeat himself, but his pure rage and fondness for Hell always earned Samhail's forgiveness.
Besides, Samhail knew the truth. This "preacher" was his cousin.
His name was Malphas, and some Elder Demons had asked Samhail to watch him. Normally Samhail found the very idea of working with the Elders repugnant. As a Junior Demon, he had faced repression and scorn from the Elders for millennia. But when they mentioned rumors of rebellion in Hell, with Samhail's cousin, Malphas, as the ringleader, Samhail agreed. However bad things were for Junior Demons, a rebellion would only make things worse. All he had to do was infiltrate the rebels and report back. Seemed simple enough.
But he had no idea what street preaching had to do with it.
Finally, it was time to make his move. He crossed the street, made his way through the crowd, and approached the preacher. "Excuse me, but could I talk to you for a second?"
The preacher stopped immediately. He looked at Samhail for a moment, and grinned. "Certainly." He spoke into the megaphone: "It's time for me to go. But you--don't forget what you've heard. Repent before it's too late! Praise the Lord! Hallelujah, amen!"
The remaining onlookers muttered among themselves in confusion as the preacher walked across the street toward the hotel entrance with the panhandler.
They went to the bar. Malphas put the megaphone and Bible on the counter. The bartender gave Malphas a funny look; he probably wasn’t used to people with Bibles coming his way. Malphas and Samhail each ordered a tall glass of Tequila. The bartender asked if they were sure, and they were, so he shrugged, and carried on.
"All right, Malphas," Samhail said. "What's going on?"
"I'm just spreading the good word.” The true features of Malphas the demon showed more clearly up close: his beak, represented by a sharp, slender nose; his raven feathers, by his slick black hair; and his manic, glaring eyes, which were unchanged.
"You know what I mean. When did you become Ned Flan-diddly-anders?"
Malphas chuckled. "Surely you've heard of the rebellion by now."
"I've heard, I just don't understand it."
The bartender served their drinks. They each chugged all the way to the bottom.
Malphas kept a confident grin at all times. "We are the Harrowers of Hell--dedicated to promoting the rights of Junior demons, by hitting the Elders where it hurts most."
Samhail knew right away. "Satan's Vengeance."
"Exactly. We block mortals from Hell and kick out the ones already there. Whatever the Elders hope to accomplish with them, it will all come to nothing."
"I wish I could say I was, Samhail. As much as I hate these overgrown monkeys, and as much as I enjoy sinking my talons into their eyes, I had no choice. The sacrifice had to be made." He shot his grin at the bartender, who smiled back. Demons have a gift for disguising their language, so their whole conversation reached the bartender's ears as a simple discussion about baseball. "But think about it. The Elders would give anything to keep damnation going--even, perhaps, seats in Pandemonium."
Samhail shuddered when he took all this in. Everything he had just heard was treason. The audacity alone was staggering. For most Junior Demons, torture was the main pasttime, and no one was supposed to let the damned know they could leave. There was no way around it: Malphas was insane.
Still, Samhail thought, he was part of this, whether he liked it or not. And perhaps some part of him did want to see where this was going.
He remembered one thing the Elders wanted to know. "Who else is involved?"
"Besides me," Malphas said, "there's Belphegor, Baphomet, Rubicante, Barbariccia, Scarmiglione, Buel--but it's not just us. We have members in every circle." He gulped the last of his drink. "You'd make a great addition."
Samhail steeled himself for his response. "If you'll have me."
They shook hands. Samhail briefly thought about what the Elders would do to Malphas.
"I should go now," Malphas said. "There's a tent revival in Arizona in a few hours, and I think a few miracles might liven things up."
"Do you really think this'll work, though?"
"What do you mean?"
"This preaching thing. Doesn't seem like it's really 'saving' anybody."
Malphas nodded. "Maybe you're right. Let me know if you have any other ideas. I'm usually in the Third Circle." Malphas stood up and patted the Bible. "You can keep that." He took a step away, and vanished like a shadow exposed to light. The bartender carried on with his work, serving other customers, without ever noticing anything strange. Demons have a talent for evading a mortal's notice.
Samhail flipped through the Bible. On every page, Malphas had scribbled an obscene joke or doodle over the text and on the margins, including a rather unsavory portrait of the prophet Ezekiel. He laughed, closed the Bible, and faded out.
Sometime soon, some unsuspecting hotel guest would look in that Bible, and have a very interesting reaction. Samhail only wished he could see it.
* * *
It was refreshingly cool in the Garden of Frozen Traitors. Antarctic wind blew constantly from the bottom of Hell, layering the depths of the crater with glacial ice. Up above, the palace of Pandemonium, the Parliament of Demons, hovered like a nail waiting to be pounded down.
From the beginning, the Elder Demons had maintained a stranglehold on Pandemonium. No Junior Demon could hold a seat.
The heads that stuck out from the glacier knew all too well why that was. When they saw Samhail flying their way, they shuddered together in fear. Samhail swooped in and landed, then stomped along on the ice on huge reptilian claws. He was in a bad mood, and was looking for just the right head.
He found it in the big, round, bald skull of an ancient Sumerian priest who had betrayed his king to a band of rebels. Samhail stepped back, got a good running start, and kicked the priest's head clean off.
It sailed through the air in a clean arc, but hit the ground long before it reached the rim. Samhail snapped his fingers. "Damn."
"Your savagery never ceases to amaze me."
The familiar voice made Samhail's skin crawl. He turned to find his father, the Elder Demon Baal, approaching. His lower body was that of a bull, his upper body human, and on his head were the horns of a ram. By his side was Moloch, the father of Malphas. He had massive hooves, the head of an especially ugly old man, and the body of a gorilla.
"Haven't they suffered enough?" Moloch said, regarding the heads.
"Don't they expect this sort of thing?" Samhail said. "Might as well live up to our reputation."
"You make a mockery of our punishment."
"Your punishment, not mine. Just because you got kicked out of Heaven, doesn't mean it's my cross to bear." Samhail had been born in Hell, and never saw the big deal.
"Don't say that word!"
Moloch growled and gnashed his teeth. Samhail enjoyed that sound; it meant he got to him. "Anyway," Samhail said, "it's not like I'm the one who brought them here."
"Don't pretend to any sympathy," Moloch said. "The damned are under enough torment without you acting out your sadistic urges on them."
Samhail wanted to stuff a head down his throat. He had heard this speech thousands of times.
"We are angels," Baal said, his voice deeper than an earthquake's rumble. "We are creatures of mercy who have been unjustly punished. We welcome the humans in our protest, and so should you."
"Look, spare me the lecture," Samhail said, "and just tell me what you want."
"What have you learned from Malphas?"
"It's just as you thought. He's trying to undo Satan's Vengeance. Thinks it'll help the fight for Junior Demon rights. I don't think it'll work, though. He's got this street preacher act going, and it's only pissing people off."
"Be that as it may," Moloch said, "we cannot risk the chance that he succeeds. Already a quarter of the Second Circle has dwindled by half. If he can apply that success to the living, then Hell is finished."
"What are his demands?" Baal said.
"Seats in Pandemonium for the Younger Demons," Samhail said.
Then Baal did something he almost never did: he laughed.
"We should tell Beelzebub. He would enjoy it."
Rattled, Samhail asked, "Where is Beelzebub, anyway? I've heard rumors--"
"False," Moloch said. "Utterly false. Now, do you know what Malphas plans next?"
"I haven't had a chance to dig too deep," Samhail said. "But I'm sure he'll figure out a better way to deal with the living any day now."
"Very well. Keep us informed."
"Sure." Samhail watched the two elders stalk away and vanish--probably to Pandemonium to tell the other Elders. This whole thing started to leave Samhail with a very bizarre feeling, one practically unknown in demons: he felt dirty.
He skulked through the patch of heads, mulling over what he had done. As off base as Malphas's methods were, Samhail still agreed with the goals. But more than that, he utterly hated his father. All these centuries he and the other Elders had pretended to be compassionate, coddling these worthless souls they lured here to get back at the Almighty. Somehow, they were willing to bring them to the realm of eternal punishment, but never to help them suffer. And when the Junior Demons treat the damned just the way they deserve, they get denied their rights and a voice in Pandemonium. So why had Samhail agreed to play for their team?
Eventually, he came across the head of the vizier, lying on its side near the edge of the circle. The vizier screamed when he saw him. Samhail said, "Shut up," and lifted him, holding his hand over his mouth. "You know you can leave whenever you want, right?"
He felt the head's muscles relax, as the eyes bulged.
"I'm serious. You can go to the Other Place any time you want. You want to get away from me, just go. Just imagine yourself leaving."
Samhail dropped the head. It vanished before it hit the ground.
The other heads were looking at him in total disbelief. "That goes for the rest of you, too."
They seemed lost in thought for a moment, but soon vanished, leaving human-shaped holes in the ice behind them.
Samhail stopped to think for a moment, scratching one the claws on his feet against the ice. Then he spread his wings, and flew up toward the Third Circle. Samhail had the idea Malphas was looking for.
* * *
"I don't know why I didn't think of this before," Malphas said, admiring the TV studio Belphegor had rented for him. A single camera stood in the center, pointed at a modest white wooden chair, which was surrounded by an array of lights just out of the camera's view.
Samhail patted Malphas on the shoulder. "I'm glad you like it. Like I said, you need something big for this to work, and this is pretty big."
There is a saying in the human world: the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. So Samhail decided the Harrowers of Hell would prove that wrong. And to prove it to largest number of people possible, they needed television. Samhail put everything together; he even found the studio.
Everyone there was in his human guise: Belphegor, with a handheld camera, as a bearded old man, Malphas as the young street preacher, and Samhail as the panhandler. Rubicante and Barbariccia were in the control room, looking as ordinary as they could manage, with white button-down shirts and black ties.
They had nothing that could send a regular signal, but they didn't need it. Draghignazzo had a magic circle drawn just behind the camera, to ensure that whatever they recorded would reach every television in the world. It didn't matter where or when: people would watch it.
Belphegor came up to Malphas. "I'm ready to go anytime."
Samhail was excited, in spite of himself. He almost hadn't realized it, but he had been waiting for a chance this for thousands of years.
Belphegor faded out, and Malphas sat down in front of the camera. Draghignazzo stepped behind the camera, and Samhail and the others headed to the control room. He looked at Malphas's grin through one of the screens as Draghignazzo counted down.
The spotlights turned on, fixed on Malphas.
"Welcome, friends," he said. "You don't know who I am, but I know each and every one of you very well. I have seen your souls. I have seen you at your darkest. I know what you are and where you are going.
"I'm here to keep you from going there."
"What you are about to see will be shocking. Possibly even disgusting. It may offend you, or horrify you, or drive you to the brink of madness. It does not matter. It is absolutely vital that you see it. The fate of your eternal soul is at stake.
"I turn now to my good friend, Fegg."
Malphas turned to the monitor beside him. The screen switched to Belphegor's signal. Malphas said, "Fegg, where are you?" but Belphegor hardly had to say anything. Right there, on screen, was the gate of Hell itself, wrought in ivory from creatures long extinct. On the arch above the gate was a message. The language was that of angels, but anyone, regardless of native tongue, could understand it.
Abandon all hope, you who enter. Beneath that, a crudely carved motto: Better to reign here, than serve there.
"Mal," Belphegor said, "the viewers at home aren't going to believe this, but I'm in Hell."
"Hell," Malphas said offscreen. "The abode of the damned itself. Ladies and gentlemen, this is no hoax, no special effect. This is Hell. This is your destination, unless you repent."
"Shall I show the viewers what it's like?"
Belphegor opened the gate and went inside. What followed was the most terrible festival of brutality ever captured on camera.
Men and women tossed about like rag dolls by the tempests of lust.
The wrathful writhing in the lake of blood.
Suicides, trapped in the form of trees, but still feeling the pain of the harpies' talons scraping their bark.
Frauds and thieves, mired in shit, swimming with snakes, or marching along endlessly with no destination and no rest.
Finally, the frozen traitors, locked in the ice for eternity.
Above it all, there was the hovering rock that held Pandemonium. Millions of demons flew in circles around the structure, and many more filed up and down the bridges and stairways leading there from each circle.
Malphas and Belphegor gave running commentary, but it was unnecessary. The audience would simply know. Hell is a spiritual realm, and any signal would transmit not only sound and video, but feeling. Most would naturally be disgusted or horrified, but they would also feel a swell of pity, remorse, sadness, or guilt. They would not only see the damned and their punishments, but feel all the agony that tormented them. They would see themselves in the damned, and would do anything to change.
"All terrible stuff, Fegg," Malphas said. "Is that the end?"
"I'm afraid not," Belphegor said. "I can go deeper."
Samhail felt a surge of delight. Here his plan truly came to fruition.
"Then please, show us," Malphas said. "Show us the deepest, darkest evil there is."
Belphegor took the camera further, further, over the cliffs, deeper into the Pit, into a thick mist. There, deep in the very core of Hell, awaited the arch-traitor himself, the one without whom none of this was possible.
As Belphegor continued, a large figure gradually emerged from the mist.
He had three faces, six wings, and a perpetual set of scowls. History's worst traitors were in his mouth, chewed on like jerky. The wings were so broad and powerful that each flap sent a chilling wind, which kept the depths of the crater frozen. Everything below his waist was encased in ice.
He radiated darkness, shone with purest black. He was a living font of unsurpassed pride, depthless despair, and ceaseless anger. Hell did not have many rules, but Rule Number One was definitely to respect his privacy.
Satan himself was now on camera.
The eyes of Hell's Tyrant turned toward the camera, as if a fly had just caught his attention.
Everyone in the studio stood completely still. Demons rarely saw Satan. Some--including Rubicante and Malphas--had never caught one glimpse of him. To do so was to face a power nearly unequaled in this universe. In his eyes were millions of years of pain, regret, hatred, and shame, which all come crashing down worse than an asteroid. His pain becomes your pain, and it is a pain approaching infinity.
Some would say it was like constantly having one's entrails shredded from the inside. Others, like being crushed by the entire Himalaya mountain range. Many, after all, have sinned, but only one has the dubious honor of sinning the way he did.
Now the whole world could get a look. Faced with this, who wouldn't want to turn to the straight and narrow?
Just as the demons in the studio began to regain their composure amid all this, Satan moved. His arm shifted.
Everyone knew this would not be good. Malphas pleaded with Belphegor to leave, but poor Fegg must have been too terrified. The camera stayed in position.
The last thing Samhail saw on the screen were the ridges of the prints on the palm of Satan's hand, as it slammed into Belphegor.
The signal broke. Static, at first, then a cut to Malphas. He was sweating, eyes wide, and fidgeting with his hands. Samhail had never seen him so terrified before.
"I... Well, there you have it." Malphas took a deep breath. "I hope you learned something."
Draghignazzo switched off the camera, and released the magic circle. Malphas leaned back in his chair. The demons in the control room held each other tight. Samhail leaned against the window, short of breath.
If that was their enemy, they were truly in for the fight of their lives.
There was no way to know what would happen to Belphegor. Sure, the body was gone, but no demon depended solely on his body. Everyone merely copied theirs from something on Earth. Belphegor could surely assemble a new one sooner or later. But then what? Surely there were punishments in store that Samhail could not imagine.
But there was no going back now. The Harrowers of Hell had unleashed their all-out assault, and gained their first martyr. Samhail was part of it. There was no turning back. The Elders could go screw themselves. Why did he ever agree to work for them in the first place?
That was what Samhail thought as he stood up straight and turned around, to find Baal towering over him. The control room suddenly felt very small.
"Dad," Samhail said.
"Son," Baal said.
Other Elders appeared: Astarte came for her sons Rubicante and Barbariccia; Chemosh grabbed Draghignazzo; and Moloch loomed large over his son Malphas.
Before they were all taken back to Hell, Malphas said, "It was worth it."
* * *
The Harrowers of Hell were deep within Pandemonium, each locked up in his own cell. The Elders had traced the signal with incredible ease, and had promised them untold retribution for the broadcast. The Harrowers were close enough that they could all yell at Samhail, and seized the opportunity.
"Samhail," Malphas said, "if we ever get out of this, I'm going to rip your head off." He then described all the things he planned to do with it, all of which were deeply depraved. Not very different from the things they did to the damned, really.
"You know something, Malphas?" Samhail said. "I don't care." He sat sulking on the hard stone bench. How did he ever let himself get involved in this? How had he let Malphas sucker him? He should have told the Elders everything right away--even his plan. It would have done about as much good as keeping it secret.
"Samhail, you traitor," Rubicante said, with a cool, controlled tone, "you have no idea how much I want to bite out your intestines."
"I'll bet I don't," Samhail said.
The door to the prison swung open. Azazel, the Deputy Prime Minister of Pandemonium, entered. He had the face of a mountain goat and the legs of a vulture. Except for Samhail, all the Junior demons cried out, gibbering myriad threats even more gruesome than the ones Samhail received.
Azazel shouted them all down, and announced, with a deep, hoarse voice, "I have been sent here by Prime Minister Beelzebub to speak to your ringleader."
"That's me," Malphas said. "What's the matter, was Beelzebub too busy to pay us a visit?"
"Oh, he's here," Azazel said. A faint buzz floated through the room. Samhail noticed a fly drifting in and out of his cell, and going to every other in turn. It landed on Azazel's ear, and he turned toward Draghignazzo. "Your uncle says he is very disappointed in you."
"Bite me," Draghignazzo said.
The prisoners started laughing. The rumors were true! He really was stuck borrowing a body from an ordinary house fly. He must have had quite a nasty run-in with Arachne. His original body--a mixture of equal parts fly, bat, and styracosaurus--was not easy to lose. Even Samhail had to smirk.
Azazel waited for them to finish. "I suppose you are all interested to know how your broadcast went."
Samhail stood up and went over to the bars.
"As we speak," Azazel said, "the humans are gathering on their internet, praising your work. They believe it will go down as a masterpiece of horror, and are busy taking clips and making music videos out of them."
Samhail's shoulders sank. He could hear the rest of the Harrowers deflating. All that effort, and they're ridiculed? It had to be a trick--one more mass deception on humanity by the Prince of Lies.
"I know what you're thinking," Azazel said, "and the Elders had nothing to do with it. Honestly, I'm quite impressed. We couldn't have hoped for a better result."
Malphas shouted. Azazel had a smug grin. "Now, it is my duty to inform you, Harrowers of Hell, that your judgment has been decided."
"Don't we get a trial?" Malphas said. "Some kind of hearing?"
"This judgment comes not from Beelzebub or the Infernal Court. It comes straight from the bottom. He wants to tell you personally."
As he finished, the floor turned black. Shouts came from the other cells, each suddenly cut short. Samhail's legs sank into the floor. He tried to hold on to the bench, but it crumbled, leaving Samhail to fall all the way through. He landed face down with a shock that hit every corner of his body, stunning him.
It was cold. That alone scared him. The mist, the ice, the dead quiet--he could only be in one place.
He lifted himself up and turned around. The other Harrowers were there. Around Malphas, there was a pool of blood, spread out in all directions. Mixed in were bits of flesh and video camera--for now, all that remained of Belphegor.
And up above--so massive that Godzilla would be a dust mite in comparison--was Satan.
Samhail felt his gaze irresistibly drawn up toward the eyes of Satan. All six of them stared blankly down at the Junior demons, who fell right to their knees. Just seeing him was a drain on their strength. Samhail wanted to rip out of his skin and scream and run crying as far from Hell as possible. Many of the others wept. Malphas's wings fell slack. Tears crawled down his face, around his beak.
Satan gnawed on Judas Iscariot for a moment in his center mouth.
And he smiled.
"Now then," he said. "Your verdict..."
* * *
The flaming sword came out of Samhail's chest, and he fell to the ground. The floor was made of white marble, with only the faintest grays. The wall he had been nailed to stood beside a gate of pearl and gold. And the air was so bad he couldn't stop coughing.
As soon as someone came by, he said, "What's in the air here?"
The angel Sandalphon said, "The air here is merely a metaphor for the life-giving flow of the Spirit. It should be clean."
Samhail hacked and wheezed. It burned, and he had no choice but to keep breathing.
He looked over at the wall. Malphas was still nailed in. He was the last one. The others had already been taken down, and Samhail hadn't seen or heard from them since.
"What did you do to them?"
"Your friends? They are in better shape now than at any point in their existence. I must confess, I am still bewildered. The thought of demons intending to promote salvation is one thing, but I don't know what you were thinking with such scare tactics."
"Wait," Samhail said. "It was you?"
"We simply understand human nature. People do not respond as easily to threats as you believe." Sandalphon sighed. "If it were up to me, you wouldn't be here. Of course, Hell won't have you, and Earth isn't safe with you, and we wouldn't destroy you. We prefer to recycle here. Perhaps it's for the best. We had nearly lost hope of any of you returning here."
Samhail wanted to say, "Just shut up and let me go home, you overgrown pigeon," but it was impossible through his incessant coughing. People were gathering to stare, people he recognized--people he himself had tempted. Martyrs from Europe, holy men and women from India, saints, shamans, children and grandparents, kings and paupers. They were all here, standing over him, pitying him. Him, who could have crushed their skulls with his bare hands if they were still mortal, or ripped their souls like paper in Hell. How could he be so helpless?
"Here," Sandalphon said. "Let me help you up."
Sandalphon laid his hands on Samhail's arms. It was the lightest touch, but it felt hotter than the surface of the sun. Samhail shook out of the angel's grip, screaming, "It burns! It burns!" He crawled away. "What is wrong with you?"
"Forgive me. I did not mean to hurt you. Please, come with me, so we may purify you."
Samhail looked at Malphas, still hanging there with the flaming sword in his chest. How he despised Malphas! All of it, all of it was his fault. The rebellion, the broadcast, coming here--all because of him.
Samhail then looked ahead at the city. It shone with its own light, with the Temple resting on the mountain above, in the heart of Everything. A pillar of smoke and fire was just outside it, rising infinitely high, and sending its light out infinitely wide. Samhail had a detestable feeling about that pillar. Something told him it was his next destination.
He stood up. He finally had a break in the coughing, and came to a horrible realization. No more human heads to stomp into jelly. No more living humans to seduce to sin and vice. No more quarrels with his father. Even his hatred for Malphas would soon be gone. He had to cry.
"What's wrong?" Sandalphon said.
Samhail sighed, then coughed one last time. "Nothing. Let's go." He had realized that he would never see Hell again.