Sinners wept. Maidens screamed. The manic gibbering of demonlings drifted on the dark air. The atmosphere was a whirling mess of soot and smoke. It reeked of sulfur spiked with a sharp, metallic scent. Overhead, black clouds rolled, but not a single drop of rain spilled from them. Instead, they staggered along the horizon, swollen and in pain, while the parched earth waited beneath.
The ground itself was a mess of burning black sand and obsidian shards, interspersed with pools of tar. They bubbled and roiled. Every once in a while, the liquid on the surface would shape itself to the contours of a human face. Invariably, their expressions were of agony. Periodically, the ground shook. Volcanoes roared, fumed, and gushed great wads of lava skyward in the chaos outside.
Clancy watched this all dolefully from the window that overlooked his cubicle. He let his eyes drift over the fractured landscape, the tormented souls, the capering demons, and sighed. The air-conditioned office air sluiced out of his lungs in a rush. The underworld was boring.
Turning away from the window, he set his hands back on the keyboard. Then he waited, willing the world to distract him. A word document hung in the middle of the screen, completely blank. He glared at it. After a few moments, his claws danced over the keys and a title appeared. A comprehensive catalogue of the sinners inducted during the sixteenth century of man in the second year of the reign of our esteemed imperor, Gilbert, the demon of treacheries.
Aside from the computer, Clancy's desk was empty. The walls of the cubicle were bare too, without the obligatory motivational posters. On the floor beside the desk, however, was a shoulder-high stack of paper. Clancy delicately lifted the first page from its brethren. It flapped gently in the air as he looked it over. Names written in red ink, font size ten, times new roman, swarmed from the very top margin to the bottom of the page, stopping a hairsbreadth from the edge. He read the first one. Aaron Adams, 1 of 3765.
Clancy shook his head, causing his horns to swivel over the top of his cubicle. He replaced the page on the stack and stared at the screen. To say that demons loved paperwork would be a mistake. While it was true that Avernus relied on a myriad of offices to keep its records straight, no demon voluntarily signed up to work in them. They were all appointed by imperor Gilbert, who loved watching other demons do paperwork.
Clancy had never been a particularly intimidating demon. Born to a succubus and a minotaur, he had neither his mother's perverse charms nor his father's disgusting strength. He was reasonably slim of build, with dark eyes and pale crimson skin. If it weren't for his finely worked black horns and filed teeth, he might have been a mortal with chronic sunburn. Consequently, Clancy had been a target for bigger, more vicious demons since the day he was spawned. His parents, of course, maintained a strictly hands-off policy about raising him. When he staggered home, marked with bruises, he was met only with disapproving stares.
Like most creatures, Clancy gritted his teeth and endured adolescence. He vowed to grow up, find a decent job misleading mortals, and spawn a brood or two. No sooner had he done the first, however, than Gilbert came to power. The imperor recognized a natural weakling when he saw one, and promptly stuck Clancy behind a desk. Which was where he sat now, gazing out the window and brooding. If only. If only. If only.
"Clancy, demon of all-too-convenient twists of fate, what's up, man? Working hard or—"
"Not working at all, Thomas." There was a child-sized seething mass occupying the entrance to the cubicle. It had a dripping, gaping mouth stuck squarely in its center. The mouth tsked, and the blob tried to wave a finger admonishingly. Instead, it ended up shivering like irate jello.
"Gil wants the write-up on his desk in a few hours. Want a hand, man?"
"I had to replace my keyboard last time you helped me."
Thomas looked crestfallen. "I was just offering."
"I know," Clancy softened his tone. "Nothing's going to get this done so soon. Gilbert is going to have my head when he learns about it, but I figure I've got a few hours to live until then. Might as well take it easy."
"Alright, man. It's your funeral." Thomas quivered, the singular mouth wobbling up and down as it spoke. "You know where to find me if you need me."
"I've gotta stay fed somehow. Later, man." Like a slug, the demon slouched off, leaving a faint gelatinous trail behind on the office carpet. Clancy stared at the space it had vacated, wishing their positions were reversed. I'd give anything to not be me. Anything at all.
King Terence paced the castle, his immense shadow sliding over tapestries and the portraits of the men who came before him. Where he moved, torches guttered and went out. The shadow slid over them, smothered them, and the flames died. Where Terence walked, the flagstones groaned like thunder. Servants scattered like raindrops before him, collecting in pools in the cupboards and pantries where they knew he couldn't fit.
It wasn't that Terrence was a big man. Like many kings, he was really quite small. He just had the fortune to inhabit a big man's body. Furthermore, Terrence was a man of great appetites. These only added weight to his immense frame. While a certain amount of wine, women, and song was agreed to be healthy by the best minds of the day, not one of them would be likely to use Terrence as an example of their argument. Besides—they concluded—"song" was the most important part of the equation. Terrence had no patience for music. Instead, he substituted it for equal quantities of wine and women.
At the moment, he was suffering from an excess of wine and a deficiency of women. His usual coterie of mistresses had fallen ill and they were refusing to leave their chambers. On the other hand, his wife was certainly not in hers. During the nightly banquet, while Terrence was still on his seventh cup of wine, Queen Eleanor had quietly slipped away.
Eleanor was a quiet slip of a woman, with gentle doe eyes and a soft complexion. Her hair was blonde to the point of translucence, and prone to snarls. In the mornings, while Terrence was issuing decrees or hunting in the king's woods, she would drag a comb through it for half an hour. He rarely noticed. In fact, he hardly paid attention to her at all as long as his mistresses were around. Begetting a royal heir, Terrence believed, was not as important as being the royal heir.
On that particular night, however, something had changed. During the banquet, one of his courtiers, Damien, had brought up the subject of death. Terrence hadn't given it much thought, at first. As king, he had certainly commanded several executions. They had all been the result of fair trial, though. Or because he was angry. Or bored. He was, he reflected, a reasonably good man. As reasonable as could be expected from a king. He believed he would be welcomed into the hosts of heaven with a haunch of meat and a bottle of holy wine.
Terrence had said as much during the banquet. Damien went suddenly solemn. After a long pause, he had uttered the seven most worrying words of Terrence's life: "I don't think they do that there." It took the words a while to percolate, of course. By the time the king was on his fourth cup of wine, they started to sink in. Heaven is a good place, but you don't get to do anything there. It's gotta be packed full of monks and priests, and they don't know how to hunt, quaff, or wench.
In a panic, Terrence had eaten as much as his stomach could hold and drunk all the wine he could fit down his throat. Unfortunately, the food had taken the edge off of the wine, and he remained mostly sober. Now he was staggering through the halls of his castle, looking for women. If he was doomed to an afterlife of calm and quiet reflection for his pious ways, then he was going to get in all the pleasure he could while he lived.