The cops kicked Urfirer’s ass—and it wasn’t a pretty ass. Scales, stray hairs an inch thick, and a bleary blind eye on the left cheek.
The thing that was pretty, though, was Urfirer’s face. He had the face of a teen idol: magazine material. But the cops left Urfirer’s pretty face alone.
Urfirer and the three cops were demons. This ass-kicking took place in Hell.
One cop pinned Urfirer down while the other one pummeled his ribs and abdomen with his nightstick. He was surprised when one cop hissed “Don’t hurt his face!” but he figured it out in a hurry. They wanted him for the Arena. They wanted to make money off his pretty, untouched face getting torn apart for an audience.
He could expect no mercy for his grotesque, monstrous body, though. And he was monstrous, from below the chin to his vaguely hoof-like feet. His body was a bizarre mess of lumpy muscle. Two arms, two legs, one head, yes. But from the chin down he was a monster. He wore baggy camo pants and a wife beater tank top. He wore combat boots and had a lot of tattoos.
He was a Pretty. Pretties were a special kind of demon. They had human faces — and beautiful ones, at that.
Demons come in an infinite variety of forms. But whatever their personal forms — demons shared a lust to have that form mutilated, destroyed, killed, ripped to shreds. Pretties were different. Pretties loved violence, but they had an obsession with keeping their beautiful faces intact. Pretties also had a fear of death, a fear that they would not regenerate, or that if they did, they would no longer be Pretties. A Pretty’s highest priority was his hideously, decadently beautiful face. Urfirer was a typical Pretty: violent and almost fearless, but maniacally protective of his handsome, human face.
Other types of demons—who far outnumbered the Pretties in this section of West Hell—wanted to tear a Pretty’s face apart and suck it right off them. All demons had an innate lust and hatred for the human form. Urfirer was grateful he had a monster’s body to protect his pretty face with. Most demons born with human faces were devoured within minutes of their birth.
The cops hated Urfirer doubly when his shirt ripped open while they were beating him. They saw his tattoos. There were two, identical, of the head of the Christian “Savior” on his chest, one centered on each nipple. The horrible twin heads, each with a crown of thorns, gazed out from behind rusty piercings. Only the boldest of demons, only the most impervious to pain, could stand to wear Christian iconography on their flesh. And they were painful, they burned Urfirer constantly, like cigarettes being ground out into him. But that was how you showed demons who wanted to slice and rip and devour your face that they weren’t going to do without paying a price—
The cops raised the level of the ass-kicking several notches when they saw the two awful twin heads, with their crowns of thorns and all.
The cops left Urfirer shaking and crying in his room. One had made a joke about “is this still under warranty” right before slamming Urfirer’s computer into the wall—plastic cracking, fuse board spilling out, useless. They tore down his posters, took his drugs, kicked in his stereo speakers, and seized all the weapons they could find. They poured a pot of hot coffee on him. They said they’d be back on Saturday night to pick him up for the Arena, and he’d better be there, waiting.
If he won, he’d get to come back home and go about his business. They’d even throw him a few bucks. But from now on, he’d be going to the Arena once a week.
By dusk, Urfirer felt a little better. He made his way out into the neighborhood. The duffel bag he carried was heavy with homemade and store-bought weapons. His midsection was thumping painfully beneath his leather army jacket—broken ribs, at least, and the hot coffee had raised a mass of blisters on his thigh. He still wore the wife beater shirt the cops had torn open. The sides of it flapped in the wind.
Urfirer was thinking about the Arena. Would they make him fight a regular demon or would they have him fight another Pretty? That would be twisted; they’d go for that. Urfirer pictured an opponent coming at him with an aluminum whip, high-speed steel ribbon ends flailing.
Urfirer usually waited until he’d joined the others before he shot up the crystalgaga. But the beating had shaken him. He found an abandoned grocery store with crumbling walls and arthritic old birds plucking at the fallen shelves. He loaded the triple syringe by the patchy light of sunset. He had just enough of the crystals—red, yellow, and green—to load the three chambers. All three needles sank into the flat of his forearm at once, as his other hand pressed the wide grip of the plunger. Did it hiss, or did he always just imagine that it hissed?
The crystalgaga vaporized as it entered his blood, as the three streams collided and the different-colored crystals met and potentiated, and his arm lit up twitching. His vision wavered, and there was a moment of absolute quiet and stillness. He felt like he had just arrived from a long way off. Then the broken floor focused in hyped-up super clarity, and the sound of the birds’ movements amplified, as all the noise of West Hell kicked back in.
He hooked up with two other Pretties, Heymikey and Skoal. They drove around in a battered wreck of a car. They listened nervously to his account of what the cops had done to him. They worried they might be approached in the same way for the next Arena. They drove faster and faster. They turned the radio up loud, yelling Pretty bravado.
But they all were terrified of involvement with the cops. Once the cops had a use for you, they owned you. Pretties hung out together, but they weren’t a gang. There was no loyalty. The cops were dangerous because they were organized, but that had nothing to do with loyalty, either. They were like an army held together by common hatreds. They worked together, which was rare among demons of any sort.
There was no way Urfirer was staying in town. In the morning he was getting out.
Urfirer knew a demon called Belnick, Belnick the Historian, and Belnick claimed that the police force had once been dreaming demons. They alone of the lesser demons had been able to temporarily enter the human world. They did it through dreaming. When dreaming demons slept, they could ooze into human lives and human consciousness, and engineer vivid and cruel scenarios.
They prolonged their trips by performing over-the-top acts of violence and cruelty. This would hold their attention, and root them in the human world for a longer period of time.
Demon cops had been Centurions and SS Officers, serial killers, and lunatics. They tormented humans –and tormenting humans is an incomparably better high than the tormenting of other demons.
Now, there was no reaching the human world. This was late-period Hell. That was over. The dreaming demons were stuck here, the way other types of demons had always been stuck there.
When the dreaming demons had been able to dream, there were no police in Hell. The police force appeared only after contact with the human race had been lost. (Thus said Belnick the Historian.)
Crystalgaga in full swing:
White blare of light on bulletproof Plexiglas in the cramped liquor store, bottles and cash register, a clouded scene semi-safe behind it. A chain-smoke of internal dialogue behind the ears of the Pretties. Heymikey, perhaps the most handsome of the Pretties, had a chiseled face and perfect Elvis lips. His fur didn’t start till below the cleft chin, where the neck tapered into his black and gray muscled German shepherd body. Heymikey is almost all dog from the neck down. Unclothed but for vest and medallions, his cigar-sized dog wiener jiggles as he puts paws up on the counter and points out what they need. Skoal fusses over the oiled locks of blonde hair on his forehead, staring into the curvilinear mirror that shows the counterman what’s going on in the corners of the little room. Urfirer gets looks from two demon chicks as they walk out of the store with paper sacks full of booze, the usual furtive glances of disgust and intrigue. Urfirer wags his Jesus nipples at them, pinching them between thumb and forefinger. They make obscene gestures back, with quilled hands and clawed nails, and yell insults over the music they have booming out of their tricked out car.
Crystalgaga makes your head talk. Non-stop. Sometimes for days.
Urfirer’s head was talking his head off.
At the center of the four Hells — West, East, North, and South — was The Cow. It was a city-sized carcass, festering on its back day and night beneath the scaly, silver-brown sky; smoking and putrefying, a delirium of bovine rotting. Incinerator flames burned inside the hollowed out cavern eyes of the thing, infernal rings that could be seen for hundreds of miles at nighttime. Once factory-efficient, crowding the sky with the black smoke of burnt souls, the fires still burned high—but there were no more souls to pitch into them. The architecture of The Cow’s eyes had been designed by thousands of medieval triptychs, their flames described into being by the fevered warnings of centuries of priests and prelates, their horrific personnel cast by the zealous fears of the darkest corners of those very souls that were, indeed, to be one day hurled into it—but now the eyes had exhausted their human fuel. It was the demons themselves who jumped into their walls of ravenous flame, who immolated themselves in roaring St. Vitus dances of self-destruction to feed the hungry sockets.
The emaciated neck of The Cow, well steeped in boiling, oily fluids, ran for scores of membranous miles, its sides crammed with the sizzling tenements of the lesser demons. The heat from the eye sockets caused the walls of the tenements to sweat and drizzle constantly with frying sebaceous juices and gray liquefied fat that sloughed itself off the ceiling in sluggish burning clumps. Hot slag rivers formed streets beneath the crowded, slumping buildings; occupants often spilled, in entire floors, out of the building fronts into the hot mire. Baby demons played in the cooler sections of the ripe ooze, scrabbling for food and covered with flies. Above, the dim ceiling of the throat, its pinkish canopy illuminated in flickers high up . . . from here belched down lava rains of fermenting greases. Clumps of dried tissue fell like black snow, and huge scabby avalanches built up at the sides of the esophageal tube, and came roaring down in unpredictable gushes. In the streets, gondolas and taxis tried to plow through the muck, often sinking.
The interior of the rib cage was the center of industry—confused, noisy, smoky, dotted with upward shooting jets of flame and the vast stroboscopic flickers of giant spotlights. Vats of lava poured; steam blasted out of furnaces; slow cranes and lumbering drills crawled along the sides of the bowed and blackened ribs. Factories lay in grimy piles along the dried up, deflated organs and entrails. Cliffs and gullies and huge burping pockets formed and puckered in the roasting gloom.
Beyond the factories were the long fetid miles of the intestines, horrible tubes a thousand feet high, filled with lice-covered hills of excrement. Gases produced in these vile chambers would cause the stomachs of The Cow, of which there were seven, to fill up with methane; the stomachs would bloat into veined balloons filled with the gathering gases, bringing a false dawn to the sagging cities that had lain covered by the sacks before their inflation. Horrid winds would wreck and ravage the storefronts and sweep demons up off the street, blowing them around in vicious eddies of flaming stench. The stomachs would reach their capacity by midday.
Then the gases that had swelled them to near bursting would roar in firewalls through the deflated intestines, crumbling all beneath them. Blowing at tornado speeds toward the constricted hoop of The Anus, breaking free in a flame-laden blast of sulfurous brown release that incinerated all in its wake, this foul and acid fart-wind had dug out the cracked valley that ran between East and West Hell. Seven times a day did this happen, one blast for each stomach, one blast in mockery of each of the seven trumpet blasts of the angel Gabriel.
Few could follow the cobra trail of the tail, stripped of all flesh and winding out into the toxic valley that had been carved out by eons of the Seven Blasts.
Urfirer was taking a cab through the toxic mire that ran between the tenements. His destination was the nearly forgotten Library that lay somewhere in the middle ribs. He looked out at the lunatic chaos of the esophagus and worried for the safety of his pretty face.
He was on his way to see Belnick the Historian. Belnick was his only chance of hiding from the cops and the Arena.
The inside of the cab was a cacophony of leopard skin upholstery, mirrored tiles, jiggling fringe and hanging purple macramé. There were worn decals and stickers on the window and a filthy Ninja Turtle blanket thrown over the torn backseat. Plastic icons of earthly rock stars hung swinging from the rear view. On the dash, the driver had glued open bottles of cheap cologne to the crusty strip of green shag carpet that ran across it. The cab was gunning its engines, a deeper roar above the roar of the radio, as it tried to plow through the mire of an esophageal avenue. The driver was a frenzied creature, a skeletal sort of thing made of foam rubber covered with horse vomit, knobby hands wrenching the steering wheel this way and that. Urfirer watched from the back seat as the cab got caught on something under the road’s surface. The driver gunned the engine with even more ferocity, and they swung in a series of tight, nauseating spins.
It was almost more than Urfirer could take, the spinning and the craziness on top of the crystalgaga and all, and at the height of the spinning the glove box popped open and a mildewed human tongue rolled out of it, bouncing under the drivers seat to land by Urfirer’s toe. Urfirer’s stomach lurched like he was about to be sick—but at the same moment he bent down, scooped the tongue up into his handsome, young boy face, and ate it.
Hell made even the foulest of them sick sometimes. When that happened, you had to push past it and make it worse.
The taxi lurched suddenly and sank in, then nosed up out of the ooze, moving again.
Urfirer’s thoughts were tunneling in bright orange spirals.
Outside the cab, crowds of demons were heading deeper into the carcass of The Cow. The driver told Urfirer that these crowds were going out to scale the walls of the intestine, to be incinerated and carried out to the desert by the approaching First Blast. Then they would reform from scattered dust, in a slow painful process, beneath the scorched ground of the desert.
Urfirer was in the Library with Belnick the Historian. It was a garish place, with bulging cardboard walls stapled haphazardly into rooms and corridors. It was noisy. Bursts of loud jazz music shook books off their shelves, cartoon funhouse noises blared out of nowhere. Rooms wouldn’t hold still, and they groaned and wheezed and shrieked and sobbed as you walked through them.
As Urfirer followed Belnick down the tunnels lined with bookshelves, klieg lights blinked on and off on the ceiling and jets of steam shot up from the floor.
Belnick, scaly and mouse-like, large eyes crouched behind thick plastic shades, filthy robe, was sliding down the junk-strewn halls ahead of the younger demon. Belnick was ranting, as usual:
“This was a significant find! I thought these pages were gone forever. They were downstairs in the map room . . . The maps scream and cry all night, but I heard a scream that was different, and when I looked, I found these pages . . . ”
“Dude, I’m glad for you, but can I hide here until —”
“Hide from who?”
“The cops. They want to use me in the Arena.”
“Listen to this,” Belnick said, scuffling through the bunch of pages in his hand. (Belnick usually had a bunch of papers in his hand.)
“I have watched the dwindling of the masses of human souls that once arrived in screaming, shabby trains by the millions . . . I have watched the walls of flame in our torture mills weaken. I was there to see the last train, which arrived empty, and hear the wail of the torturers, who were forevermore to be deprived of their business. In the smoky twilight of my world . . .
“Cool, but about hiding me, can I stay here?”
The crystalgaga is screaming non-stop in Urfirer’s ears, it puts pictures in his mind then crumples them up again high-speed, he sees a Pretty he used to know, the night his face got cut, Urfirer watching him sob from between hanging dreads.
Belnick was flipping pages.
“There’s more, there’s more … This comes later, but listen:
“I remember stone effigies a hundred feet high, stained dark with blood, a gravy of mashed entrails squeezing out from between their blunt granite toes . . . lizard-fin stair steps that ascended to oily thrones on which four winged arch-demons sat and ruled . . . I stood in the shadow of horned Pazuzu, grand and covered with flies . . . I remember the elegantly horrible towers, and smoking billows of sheer and pure evil that filled our skies and seeped through the crust of our own world, into the human world, where it made them both drunk and fearful — “
“That’s good shit!” Belnick enthused. “Urfirer, that’s what Hell used to be like!”
Urfirer wasn’t listening, he was wondering how long he’d have to hide before the cops forgot about him. Right now the only thing he could think of was staying out of the Arena.
“And there’s more . . . ” Belnick continued to dig through the pages, ripping some of them in his enthusiasm.
Urfirer knew that bullying Belnick into letting him stay was not an option. Belnick didn’t look like much, but he was actually a demon of considerable power. That’s why he’d come here. He was useful to Belnick, so Belnick might protect him. He did favors for Belnick, he went out into the wastelands past The Tail, and brought him back things like these pages he was so excited about.
There weren’t many around like Belnick, though he didn’t look like much. He was from a very old line that were the top dogs in Hell once, long ago.
Plus, the Library was protected by lots of old school spells that actually worked. There was a honeycomb of rooms beneath the Library, and Belnick had fortified all of them with deadly curses and misdirection fields.
But Belnick was powerless now outside his home, the Library. This was the connection between Belnick and Urfirer. He paid Urfirer to get things for him. Books that he needed from some abandoned building in a violent slum, or artifacts from the Unstable Territories.
Some of the UT’s were great if you were on crystalgaga. There were patches of super-high density, where he’d see mountains pulled into floating globs of stone by the bending of the light . . .
“It’s Time, you see, Urfirer. That’s what’s ruining Hell. Time’s got in. We never used to have Time here, not like this. Not Time that changes anything. Time’s gotten in, and it’s making Hell old, and it’s making us think. And the more we think, the more we go crazy. It’s madness for a demon to think, Urfirer, and now we can’t help doing it—”
Belnick had led them to the Map Room. At its center was a mess of tilted computers arranged on exposed, dripping pipes, and stuck between the funnels of a rumbling unseen furnace. Huffing rubber tubes bulged from the hard drives, and fat cables covered the floor.
“I get it, Belnick, but can I stay here, at least until the cops—”
“You can stay for as long as I need you. There’s still more things out there I want to get my hands on. But the stuff that Hell runs on won’t be coming here anymore. We’re severed from the human world. We’ve already started turning on each other. And it will only get worse.”
Urfirer nodded, relieved. He could stay here till the heat died down. But he knew, eventually, Belnick would run out of jobs for him. And what he was saying was true. Demons had nothing left to feed on but each other. He could stay here, but eventually, one of them would have to kill the other.
But he was here, and his face was pretty. He wouldn’t be going to the Arena in a week.
And he had plenty of crystalgaga in his duffel bag.