A STORM IS GATHERING...
THE DIE IS CAST --
Staring out at the city of death, an exhausted Hannah sat sucking into her lungs the humidity that drifted in through the empty windowpane. On a side table, her dinner plate of raw meat was brimming with life as a cadre of beetles enjoyed her ignored meal.
With an appetite for only one thing, Hannah remembered her hunger. Sipping from a goblet of wine, she watched the fire burn in the distance.
Without anyone in the city concerned about extinguishing the blaze, the fire made an easy feast of the abandoned building. Its shuttered windows and splintered timbers providing the right fuel for the eager flames.
Smoke billowed up into the night sky as a series of new explosions rocketed skyward, sending fingers of death boiling through the surrounding streets. The silhouettes of a hundred riderless horses stood before the blaze, their black shapes stomping at the ground as if they themselves were enraged.
Raising her glass, Hannah finished with a long swallow as the entire city block was consumed in red hatred.
Standing, she removed her stained blouse and soiled leather pants, dropping them on the floor beside the bed.
Her clothing made the room smell of smoke.
The girl labored among the rubbish, moving across the mounds of filth with the deftness of an accomplished thief rather than that of the young child she actually was. Her ability to scamper nimbly up and over the detritus spoke to her eternity of slavery.
No more than nine years old, she had the gait of a woman whose body had seen far more years of labor than it otherwise should have. A dull haze coated once-bright blue eyes revealing her truth — that of having been broken long ago.
Working among the acres of rot, her bared legs and shoeless feet were sucked deep into the mouth of death with each step she took. Navigating the piles of dismembered bodies, the child retrieved one bone after another, scraping into a gore-soaked bucket the remaining meat that clung to each discarded limb.
Paying little attention to the itching on her arms, she continued about her tasks, ignoring the hordes of maggots that swarmed her flesh, turning it into a writhing mass. Such was the nature of her work for the Prince’s harvest in the killing fields.
Hannah walked into the bathroom and flicked on the light switch. The dim bulb set the floor into motion as cockroaches scattered.
Stepping into the shower, the cold stones lining the compartment providing the slightest hint of relief to her aching feet, she turned the faucet with a rusty creak, and a baptismal spray of rank water stung her skin.
Subconsciously, she scratched at the droplets as they beat against her body. As broken fingernails rubbed her arms raw, all she could think of was maggots.
“GIRL!” The deep voice boomed across the field as two sharp cracks from a whip opened red gashes on the child’s bare shoulders.
Cowering, the pain like a slice of ragged glass across flesh, she fell to her knees in the abattoir.
Again, the voice.
“Are you not listening, you insolent little bitch?” More statement than question.
The blade of the dressing knife in her left hand dribbled unknown fluids onto the ground as a swarm of flies buzzed the cage of small human ribs she held in her grime-caked right hand. Hesitantly, she looked up to meet the gaze of her attacker.
Xaphan, the harvest commander and one of the Prince’s recent conscripts stared down at her with serpentine eyes that were the color of jade. He sat atop an armor-clad steed that belched cold mist from its nostrils and kicked at the ground, snapping human remains under its feet.
“Why is it you ignore me, you filthy abomination? Do you somehow think yourself of far more importance than to listen when the Commander of the Harvest addresses you?” Xaphan snarled.
“Forgive me, but I was simply busying myself with the tasks that have been selected for me,” the young Hannah responded, her voice tentative, a single tear clearing a path through the human grime that smeared her face.
Xaphan studied the girl, an air of superiority evident on his face. For an instant, he thought he noticed the familiar spark of hatred in her otherwise darkened eyes. Sure he was correct, he flashed a gratified smile.
“Come here, you little gutter pig,” he ordered, the whip snapping again, striking Hannah’s bare legs where they poked out beneath a tattered dress. “I’ve been instructed to find you among this filth and deliver you to the Great Hall. By the death of me I don’t know what the Prince wants with shit such as you. But you must come. And somehow find some way to clean yourself up!”
Hannah dropped the carcass of the human child from which she’d been scavenging. It landed atop the pile of cleaned bones with a hollow clatter. Retrieving the bucket of harvested meat, she cautiously edged her way toward Xaphan and his steed. Both of the monsters stared down at her – two pairs of matching green eyes.
“But, it’s not for me to question His motives, only to do as He asks. Follow me, girl!”
With that, Xaphan jerked the reins of the great beast, steering him through the human debris. Hannah fell in behind, following them from the killing fields. It would become her last time working Satan’s Harvest.
Running wet fingers through her filthy blonde hair, Hannah massaged her scalp under the blood-tinged spray. The water sluiced off her bare skin, sweeping away the coating of death that was her normal state of being. Hell worked its way into each and every of her pores until she, now, had almost become one with it.
Almost, Hannah thought as she watched the drain at her feet swallow the shit of her existence.
Rubbing the muscles of her arms, Hannah thought about how much she hated the Prince; and how much she despised even more his disciple, Xaphan.
Even freedom following an eternity of torture is incapable of removing the pain inflicted during captivity. Nor does it absolve the actions of one’s tormentors. By now, Hannah knew this all too well, which is why she had spent an age searching Hell for the soul of the murderous human known as the Hunter. She ultimately found him in the last place she wanted to look – the killing fields.
Himself having suffered at the hand of Xaphan when he’d foolishly bargained with his own soul in the human world, the Hunter had spent far more years trolling the boneyard than even Hannah herself. If there was a single one of Hell’s denizens that would be able to get her what she needed, she knew it was him.
Confident in the knowledge that the Hunter was unaware that the shadows following him contained anything more than darkness, Hannah was able to hide within the murk with ease. After years of practiced invisibility living within the Prince’s dominion, she had become highly skilled at navigating the streets of Hell unseen. She now watched as the Hunter, a bag slung over his shoulder, entered the abandoned structure. And, as expected, a few moments later, a dark figure flashing green eyes slipped from the shadows, following him inside.
The time has come, Hannah thought, as she followed them into the building.
From deep within the gloom of the warehouse, Hannah saw the flash of those familiar serpentine eyes. And then she heard the booming voice of Xaphan for the first time in uncounted ages.
“Why you ungrateful murderous deviant, we had a deal,” Xaphan spat the words into the Hunter’s face. “Don’t you remember? In that special spot of yours where you realized so many desires of the flesh?”
“That was then. This is now. And this time, Xaphan, I hold the cards.” The Hunter responded, shaking the sack in front of him, the wound that Xaphan had long-ago sliced into his bare chest visible in the dim light.
“But that’s where you’re wrong, fool. As long as your soul exists, you’re mine. I carry the collateral within me always,” the demon said, patting his stomach.
“But, as we know Xaphan, deals made between liars are likely to be broken. It just depends on which liar strikes first.”
“Give me what’s rightfully mine,” Xaphan ordered, reaching a taloned hand towards the bag.
“Not this time, oh great commander of the Harvest,” said Hannah, stepping from her hiding place.
“Ah, do my ears and eyes deceive, or is it my little scavenging pig?” Xaphan asked, turning in Hannah’s direction.
As planned, the Hunter turned the bag upside down, spilling the contents onto the floor with a clatter. Inside the bag was a pile of bones. Each one meticulously stripped clean, the flesh long ago having been harvested, consumed and then shat out by the denizens of Hell.
Reaching into the deepest pocket of her overcoat, Hannah removed a flare, striking the end and lighting the flame. Sparks flew through the air and bounced along the floor where they landed. For the first time that she could remember, she saw fear in Xaphan’s eyes.
“Go, Hunter. Your work is done,” Hannah ordered.
Having maintained his end of the bargain to locate the demon’s human remains in Hell’s boneyard, the Hunter ran from the building, his footfalls echoing through the void.
Once again alone and facing her demon torturer, Hannah spoke evenly, sure of her every word.
“Funny it is that how an eternity in Hell can change everything, and yet nothing at all…”
The flare in her hand illuminated all that remained of the human man who’d become the demon Xaphan after his own millennia of torture.
Refusing to beg, the demon explained, “Oh Hannah, even with all your years, what you still do not yet know about the ways of existence. It never actually ever ends. Once one is over, the next begins and so we experience yet another in a series of painful paths.”
“Well, if that’s the case, commander of lies, it appears it’s now time for your soul to find that new path. As it’s said: ashes to ashes…”
With those words, Hannah dropped the flare onto the pile of Xaphan’s brittle bones. At first they hissed and then burst into blue flame.
The demon let loose his last blasphemous cry. It was a scream that echoed throughout the city of death. As the last vestiges of his humanity burned, Xaphan’s demonic soul began to melt, pieces of it slapping onto the floor at his feet.
Hannah took a few steps backward as flame consumed the human bones, bringing an end to the demon. Fire licked upward, sparking the rafters and spreading through the building. Hannah turned, walking out the doorway and out into the perpetual darkness.
Far off in the distance, from the direction of Pandemonium, she heard the sound of a hundred sets of hooves as the horses thundered through Hell. The Prince’s dark forces were on their way.
Hannah merged into the shadows and walked away unseen by the lost souls who now gathered on the street to watch the death of one of Abbadon’s greatest angels.
Refreshed from her shower of blood, Hannah poured herself another glass of wine. Surveying her handiwork, she watched as Hell burned. The landscape of decay, bathed in the blood of tortured souls, spread as far as she could see until it melted into the eastern horizon.
Somewhere outside, within the city of death, she knew that a Hunter was running for his life. Perhaps he would find a place to hide. Or maybe he would simply return to the familiarity of the killing fields. To Hannah, it didn’t matter either way. She knew that the angels of death would pursue him far beyond the fields and for time without end, sure that it was he who had been responsible for bringing about the destruction of one of the Prince’s own.
Confident with her plan now in motion, Hannah sat and consumed her victory. One glorious day, she would take her rightful place. It would be the day she re-entered the Great Hall of Castle Pandemonium and claimed the throne of Hell after finally defeating Prince Abbadon himself.
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