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A MOMENT COMES in pretty much everyone’s life, or afterlife in my case, where they can’t help but wonder, What the fuck am I doing here? I have more of those than most people (a couple a week, on average) but I’d never had one quite like this before. See, I was just about to walk into Hell. Voluntarily.
My name is Bobby Dollar, or sometimes Doloriel, depending on the company I’m keeping. I’d arrived at this ugly spot by elevator—a long, long ride down that I may or may not tell you about at some point. I was also wearing a body that wasn’t my own, and all my information about the place came from a rogue guardian angel whispering in my mind while I was sleeping. Not that I had learned much useful stuff from her. In fact, most of it could be summed up with the simple phrase, “You can’t even guess how bad this is going to be.”
So there I stood, just outside Hell, at the foot of the Neronian Bridge, a featureless, flat span of stone that stretched over a chasm so deep that, if we had been on ordinary old Earth, the hole would probably have gone all the way through the planet and out of the other side. But Hell isn’t on ordinary Earth and this pit wasn’t bottomless—oh, no. See, at the bottom, impossible miles and miles below me in the darkness, the really bad shit was going on. I could tell that because of the faint sounds of screaming. I couldn’t help wondering how hard those folks had to be screaming to be heard that far. Also, what exactly was being done to them to make them scream like that? Already I was asking questions with answers I didn’t want to know.
Just in case all this isn’t weird enough for you, here’s another interesting fact: I’m an angel. So not only was I headed to the worst possible place anyone could ever go, I was doing it as a spy and an enemy. Oh, and I was going there to steal something from one of the cruelest, most powerful demons that ever existed, Eligor the Horseman, Grand Duke of Hell.
What was I trying to steal from Eligor? My girlfriend, Caz. She’s also a demon and she belongs to him.
Oh, and when I said I was an angel, I didn’t mean the avenging kind with wings and the Lord’s Righteous Fire to wield against my enemies. No, I’m the kind who lives on Earth, pretends to be human most of the time, and advocates on behalf of human souls at judgement. In other words, I’m pretty much a public defender. So what I brought to the conflict was just enough information to know I was in serious trouble. Me against a Grand Duke of Hell on his home turf—great match-up, huh?
I was in what was, without question, the biggest enclosed space I’d ever seen—that anyone had ever seen, probably. All those medieval artists who’d pictured the place, even the really inventive ones, had never thought big enough for this. A wall of rugged stone surrounded me, extending straight up beyond sight. It seemed to be ever so slightly curved on either side, as though the vast cavern itself was the casing of a monstrous engine cylinder. Presumably there was another wall in front of me on the far side of the bridge, the piston inside that bigger cylinder and the point of my visit, the endless tower that is Hell. The bridge itself was narrower than my arms could stretch to either side, a walking surface only about a yard and a half wide. That would have been plenty, except for the fact that beneath the narrow span lay nothing but emptiness—a pit that extended down farther than I could see or even understand, with just enough flickering hell-light to let me know how very, very far I’d be falling if I took a wrong step.
Trust me. Like any sane being, I would have rather been anywhere else, but as I’ll explain later, I’d worked hard to get even this far. I had learned how to get here, found an entrance nobody remembered to guard, and I was even wearing a brand-new demon body (because that’s the only way I could travel safely in Hell). I might have been an unwanted guest, but I had already paid quite a bit to take this ride.
As I approached the span I gulped a deep breath made gritty by sulfur smoke and the faint but unmistakable tang of crisping flesh. A stone skittered away from my foot and bounced into the pit. I didn’t wait to hear if it made a noise, since there wouldn’t have been much point. You can only stall something terrible so long before all the courage just leaks out of you, and I knew that things would only get worse from here. Even if I made it across this whisper-thin span and managed to sneak into Hell, the whole place was jam-packed with creatures that just plain hated angels in general and me in particular.
The Neronian Bridge dates back to ancient Rome, and it’s named after the Emperor Nero, the one who supposedly fiddled while Rome burned. Nero wasn’t the worst emperor Rome ever had, but he was pretty much of a horrible bastard anyway, and one of the ways we know this is because he had his own mother murdered. Twice.
His mother Agrippina was the sister of another, even nastier little bastard you may have heard of—Caligula. He married one of his other sisters, but he humped them all. Still, despite all the creepy stuff with her brother, after Caligula was stabbed to death by his own guards Agrippina was rehabilitated and eventually married Caligula’s successor, old Emperor Claudius. Somehow she even managed to convince Claudius to put aside his own beloved son and instead make Nero, her son by a previous marriage, his heir. Once Nero was the emperor-designate, she bumped off poor Claudius by feeding him poisoned mushrooms.
Clearly grateful for his mother’s assistance in becoming the most powerful man in the world, Nero promptly turned around and ordered her killed. He first tried to do it with a trick boat that was supposed to break apart so she’d drown, but Agrippina was a tough old bitch and made it back to land, so Nero sent some of his guardsmen over to her house to stab her to death with swords.
Family values, Roman Empire style.
Nero did a lot of other pretty terrible stuff during the rest of his reign, including burning a buttload of innocent Christians, but that isn’t the reason he got his own little highway project in Hell, the bridge I stood in front of now. See, what Nero didn’t realize is that his mother’s coup in getting Claudius to marry her and raise Nero above his own son was the result of a little bargain she’d made with one of Hell’s more influential inhabitants, a powerful demon by the name of Ignoculi. Now, Ignoculi and his infernal pals didn’t give a (literal) damn about Nero killing his mother—in fact, they rather admired it. But they did expect him to live up to the terms of the bargain his mother had made to put Nero on the throne of the Roman Empire, because Hell had big plans for Rome. But Nero refused to play along. To be honest, he probably didn’t realize how big an operation Hell really was—the Romans had a different religious picture of things, Pluto and the Elysian Fields and all that stuff. It was probably a bit like that movie producer in the Godfather who thought he could tell Don Corleone to fuck off, then woke up to find a horse’s head added to the bedroom decor.
Pissing off Hell is not a good idea. Things went downhill rapidly for young Nero, and within a short period of time he found himself off the throne and on the run. He eventually wound up committing suicide. However, the real surprises were still waiting for him.
Ignoculi, like most of Hell’s executives, was extremely good at bearing a grudge. When Nero arrived in Hell it was to discover a special entrance had been built just for him. Yep, the Neronian Bridge. A thousand demons dressed in the finery of Roman imperial guardsmen were already there, waiting to accompany Nero across it in the splendor to which he had become accustomed in life. The great procession set off in single file across the abyss, drums pounding and trumpets tootling, but when Nero reached the other end his retinue abruptly vanished, leaving only the emperor and the one who was waiting to greet him—not Ignoculi himself, but Nero’s late mother, Agrippina.
She must have made a pretty awful sight, crooked and broken and soaking wet from Nero’s first attempt on her life, streaming blood from the sword-thrusts that killed her. Nero, suddenly realizing that he was going to receive something less than a hero’s welcome, tried to flee back across the bridge, but now Ignoculi himself made an appearance on the bridge, a huge, quivering glob of eyes and teeth that blocked the ex-emperor’s retreat like a ton of angry snot.
“Caveat imperator,” the demon reportedly said. In Hell, bad puns are considered a particularly ripe form of torture. Then Agrippina grabbed her son in her bloody, mangled fingers and, with strength she’d never had in life, dragged him shrieking through the gate to Hell and the less-than-imperial fate prepared for him. And of course, from what I’ve heard he’s still there, probably down at the bottom with the rest of the screamers.
After that, the Neronian Bridge was largely forgotten until I got there, just another monument to why you never, never, never get one of hell’s high rollers mad at you—something that I had already managed, big time. Do you think the universe might have been trying to tell me something?
I stepped onto the bridge and started walking.
I had been putting one foot in front of the other for what seemed hours when I noticed that the screams wafting up from below seemed to be growing louder. I hoped that meant I was finally nearing the center of the bridge, but it might just have been that lunch break was over downstairs. I looked down, steadying myself against a dizziness that wasn’t just physical but existential. Perspective turned the flames issuing from cracks in the pit walls into shrinking, tightening rings of concentric fire like a burning bull’s-eye.
Leathery wings flapped past my face, startling me badly, and I realized how close to the edge I was standing. I moved back into the middle of the bridge and began walking again, still in the wrong direction by any sane standard. The winged thing fluttered past me again, brushing against my skin, but the light was too faint to make out what it was. I don’t think it was a bat, because it was crying.
Hours and hours later, the smoldering bull’s-eye was still more or less right beneath me. When you’re crossing a Hell-moat that could be as wide as South Dakota I guess the idea of “near the middle” is fairly relative, but it sure was depressing.
But this was all for Caz, I kept reminding myself, for the Countess of Cold Hands, the beautiful, ruined young girl trapped in an immortal body and sentenced to Hell. No, it wasn’t even for Caz, it was for what we had together, for the moments of happiness and peace I had felt lying in bed with her while the infernal hordes harrowed the streets of San Judas looking for me. Yes, she was one of those infernal minions herself, and yes she had all but told me that I was turning an incident of straightforward battlefield sex between two enemies into some absurd, juvenile love story . . . but oh my sweet God, she was lovely. Nothing in my angelic life had made me feel like she did. Even more, my time with her had showed me that my existence up to this point had been hollow. If it hadn’t been for that, maybe I could have believed it was all demonic glamour—that I had simply been seduced, that I’d fallen for the oldest trick in the Adversary’s book. (There was another reason I didn’t think I was simply being played for a chump. It had to do with a silver locket, but I’ll tell you more about that later.) Anyway, if what I felt for Caz was just a trick, an illusion, then nothing else mattered, either.
Love. Tired old jokes aside, a real, powerful love does have one thing in common with Hell itself: it burns everything else out of you.
Hours in, hypnotized by endless, flickering shadows, it took me far longer than it should have to realize that the spot of darkness on the bridge ahead of me was not simply another shadow or a floating spot in my vision but something real. I slowed, squinting, my dreamy half-life suddenly cracked into pieces. Was it waiting for me? Had Eligor found out I was coming and prepared a welcome for me, something like that horned Babylonian nightmare that I had barely managed to survive back in San Jude? The only thing that had stopped the last one was a precious piece of silver, Caz’s locket, but I didn’t have anything like that now. My new demon body was naked and I didn’t have a gun. I didn’t even have a stick.
As I got closer I saw that the shape wasn’t standing erect like a man but was on all fours like an animal. Closer still and I could see that it was crawling away from me, which gave me my first moment of relief since I’d stepped onto this bloody bridge. Mama Dollar’s baby boy is no fool, though, or at least not in the obvious ways; as I began to catch up to the solitary crawler I slowed down so I could examine it.
It was manlike but unpleasant to watch, like a blind, clumsy insect. Its hands were clubbed and fingerless, the body distorted, and even by the standards of that miserable place it reflected very little light: it seemed less like a solid thing and more like a smudge on the surface of reality. I was right behind it now, but it seemed unaware of my presence, still crawling like a crippled penitent, drawing itself along as though each movement was miserably difficult. The very slowness of its progress made me wonder how long it had been on the bridge.
I didn’t want to walk around it, not on that narrow span. Just because it looked slow and stupid didn’t mean it wouldn’t turn on me. I considered simply jumping over it, but I didn’t trust the footing either.
“What are you doing?” I said. “Are you hurt?”
The sudden noise of my new, raspy demon-voice startled even me, but the crawling thing gave no indication it had heard. I tried again.
“I need to get past you.”
Nothing. If the crawling thing wasn’t deaf, it was sure acting like it.
Frustrated, I finally reached down and yanked on its leg to get its attention, but although the man-shape looked solid, it was as brittle as a dessert meringue. The entire limb broke loose underneath my fingers in flaky shards, leaving nothing below the knee. In horror, I dropped the substantial piece of leg. It broke into pieces, many of which bounced slowly over the edge of the bridge and vanished into darkness. The thing finally stopped crawling long enough to turn toward me, and I caught a glimpse of a gray face with empty hollows for eyes and an equally empty hole of a mouth stretched wide in surprise or horror. Then it tilted to one side as if the loss of the leg had overbalanced it and toppled off the bridge without a sound.
Shaken, I stepped over the greasy flakes that remained and walked on.
Whatever the crumbling horror might have been, it was not the only one of its kind. I caught up with the next gray thing before too long, another man-shaped blob creeping toward the still invisible walls of Hell. I tried to poke this one gently enough to get its attention. It seemed as fragile as sea foam, but just the feel of it on my fingertip made me queasy. How could something with no substance hold a shape, let alone crawl forward with such blind determination?
But this is Hell, I reminded myself, or at least the suburbs. Nothing normal applied here.
I poked it again. Like its predecessor it turned, but this one reached for me with its shapeless hands; in fear and disgust I stepped back and kicked at it, catching it square in the hindquarters. With a whispering crunch it broke into several large pieces. I waded through them, though they were still slowly squirming, and kicked several of them into the abyss. I didn’t stop to watch them fall.
As hours passed, or would have anywhere else, I encountered more of the hideous things. I’d given up any idea of communicating with them and simply kicked them out of my way, wading through the sentient scraps. When I had crushed several of them I began to notice an odor on my skin, like faint traces of lighter fluid in the ashes of a barbecue pit. The things were slow and mindless as dying termites, and disgusting in a way I can’t even explain. I wanted to grind each one of them to powder, to scatter their very atoms to the void. In fact, I was losing what little remained of my mind.
What saved me, strangely enough, was Hell itself. After fighting my way through an entire squirming pack of the things, showering myself and the emptiness on either side of the bridge with ashy fragments, I bent over in a cloud of the last swirling bits and realized that the bridge no longer narrowed to nothingness in front of me. The terrible span had an end point, something I had only believed because I had to. Now I could see it ahead of me, a wall of broken black stone with a titanic gate of rusted iron in the middle of it, tall as a skyscraper. But thousands of the gray, mindless things still squirmed between me and that gate.
I’m betting that some of you can’t imagine what was so bad about having to fight through things that offered no resistance of any kind, that collapsed under my touch like fireplace ash. Try thinking about it this way: there might have been nothing left of them but crude shapes, like the dead of Pompeii preserved in the fiery ash that spewed from Vesuvius, but they had all been people once.
You see, as I came up that last span, fighting my way through the creeping shapes, making a storm of floating, powdery fragments until I couldn’t see my own feet or the bridge, I finally realized what they were. Not damned souls—that would have been bad enough. These weren’t prisoners of Hell, they weren’t trying to get out, they were trying to get in. The shapes were souls who had been sentenced to Purgatory, the essences of countless human lives—failed lives but not irreparably evil. And for whatever reason, these things, once men and women, were so consumed by self-hatred that they crawled forever toward the place where they felt they truly belonged.
I should have pitied them but understanding only made it worse. As I neared the walls of Hell the things flocked as thickly as insects swarming around a hot light bulb, driven by a self-destructive urge they couldn’t understand. I was too exhausted to say anything, but inside I was screaming. I thrashed through the clotted mass as if I were swimming, until everything I was and had ever been dissolved into a madness of greasy flakes and swirling, kerosene-scented dust, until I no longer knew where I was, let alone where the bridge was—the only thing between me and oblivion. The fact that I did not fall is the only testament I will ever need that something or Someone bigger than me wanted me to survive.
Grunting, gasping, I stopped to suck in air and realized abruptly that nothing stood before me now but the massive, rusty entrance and bare black stone: I had reached the shadows beneath the gate. The swarming crawlers were now behind me, confined to the bridge as if by an invisible fence. The pathetic, self-loathing things didn’t belong in Hell, they just believed they did. They would not be admitted.
But Bobby Dollar? Apparently I was different. No guards and nothing to keep me from walking in but the good sense I had surrendered a long time back. By Hell’s charming standards, they’d pretty much put out the welcome mat. But I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I tell you it wasn’t going to prove anywhere near as easy getting back out again.