The Shal Mari Blues
The Shal Mari Blues is terribly naughty, with bits of sex, blood, creatures eating human beings, and worse throughout. Of course, it's a story about Hell, isn't it? So, there's potentially offensive material here, and if you find yourself offended because of it, it's really not my fault because I've got this warning on it. Neener neener neener.
Four months, three days. Dave had felt every second of it. It was one of the things he hated about Hell. Nothing ever helped you pass the time. Nothing ever made even a second of it better. It was like a paper cut -- it didn't incapacitate you, but no matter what you did you just couldn't ignore it.
You don't sleep in Hell. Rest doesn't seem restful, and it's not like a Damned Soul can find a bed or even a mat. Most of them huddled around stoops or doorsteps or even the ground and tried to pretend they were sleeping. Others -- the ones who bought into the Shal Mari package -- hustled or scrounged or stole Essence, so they could get into one of the hotels or brothels and enjoy the thrills that lay before them, only to get thrown out when their essence ran dry.
Dave had been told he had it good. The souls in Abbadon wandered the blasted plains and waited to be torn to shreds. The souls of Hades were chesspieces -- pawns of the lowest strata of demon. You just didn't talk about Gehenna. Shal Mari was supposed to be the 'good' choice. The lucky souls ended up there.
Dave kept his eyes down as he walked, hands in his pockets. Don't make eye contact. Don't draw attention to yourself. Just keep moving. Don't let the demons know you had Essence. Don't be drawn into the Casinos or the Brothels or the Theaters. Don't don't don't look distinctive. A few more days, and he'd be full up with Essence. That's what he wanted. He could do things with Essence. Some of those things even some of the demons couldn't do.
You asked for this, he thought bitterly to himself. You chose your own damn Fate.
He wondered sometimes what had happened to the others. Not the Soldiers. He knew what happened to them. He'd shot Skip and Warren himself. He'd watched the Djinn tear Abby's head off. All dead, in the service to the Lord. Either they made their Destinies and even now were enjoying the eternal delights or they didn't and they were put back to the head of the queue, waiting for their chance to try again.
Chance. Dave had a chance, and he bought into propaganda. He'd be a big shot one day, they said. And he'd enjoy eternal pleasures, at the hands and mouths of Andreaphulus's finest.
Enjoy eternal pleasures, he thought, stepping around a drunk Calabite on the street who had a death lock on a female damned soul, who looked battered and bloodied and despairing. So long as you can pay for them. So long as you can enjoy them.
Dave blinked and looked up. A Djinn, long bodied and beaked, ratlike with some hint of bird in there, was glaring at him. "I was eating that."
Dave looked down. He'd walked through something. Organs of some sort. One of his fellow souls, torn to bits by the Djinn's attentions. But not torn apart to his Forces. Oh no, that's too simple. He'd get better. He'd probably felt Dave walking on his small intestines.
Fuck him -- Dave had worse troubles. "A thousand pardons, bold Lord," he said, bowing slightly. "I would be happy to pay you for your lo--"
The Djinn snarled forward, tossing his head to one side and throwing Dave into the wall of the tenement they were next to. "Shut up, you pig -- what are you? Oh -- you're a lustie, aren't you? One of their little pets. I hate lusties!"
Dave spat out blood. His body'd been cut up and drained of fluid and burned at the public expense, probably three months back, but down here he had blood and bones that could break. Break and get better. Blood that wouldn't stop flowing, and only a scar would remain. "I--"
The Djinn slammed a hoof-like foot into Dave, then another, and spun and kicked him back into the wall. There wasn't much force behind the kick -- Dave was probably more powerful than the Djinn. He almost certainly knew more Songs. But that was a loser's game. You didn't try to pull rank on demons. You endured. Oh God don't let him eat me....
Something warm slopped onto Dave's back. Warm and slick and smelly. The Djinn was expressing his opinion of lusties it seemed. His warm, brown opinion. Dave could hear the Djinn laughing as he walked down the street.
Eternal pleasure. An eternity of pampering, hand and foot. The rewards of betrayal. The fruits of Fate.
New clothes, a bath, perfuming... this would cost Dave a fortune.
"I don't get why we can't sleep."
Dave stared down into his coffee cup. New guy. Sure, he'd only been in Hell a few months himself, but he knew more than the average, and you soaked the lessons up fast.
"What would you want to sleep for," Fast Johnnie said. "You know how many nights I wished I didn't need to sleep, back topside? There's so much you can do when you're not sleeping...."
"I like sleeping." The new guy pouted, eating his burger. Idiot -- meat cost a lot, and there wasn't any reason to eat it. You didn't get hungry after all. Well, not physically. Maybe he hadn't figured out what they made hamburger out of, down here. Cows don't go to Hell, you know....
"Well, stop worrying about it. There's no damn good for it. So shut up." Fast Johnnie slurped his soup. The cafe was one of several along Fecundity Way -- "human joints," a Balseraph once told Dave derisively. "The greasy spoons of the damned."
Dave liked the Spread Legs Cafe. Sure, there were nude dancers on the platforms, but they were damned souls, not demons, and they couldn't care less if you tipped or even watched. The owner was an old lustie soul named Miranda. She claimed Shakespeare wrote the Tempest about her. Dave thought she was full of shit but who cared? He liked places demons felt above going into. That's why he spent precious drops of Essence on coffee. You had to be a customer to be in the Spread Legs.
"I thought they were supposed to torture us," the new guy was saying. "It's like they only notice us to beat us, but if we have Essence we can get anything. They'll fuck us, they'll perform for us, they'll give us work...."
"Bible-thumper," Fast Eddie snorted. He turned away from the New Guy, putting him out of his world, and walked over to the stage where Amber was dancing. He got out his sax and started playing along with the music. Amber grinned and danced to his beat.
"Bible thumper?" the guy asked. "What did he--"
"You a Christian?" Dave asked, finally.
"Huh? Well, yeah. I mean, I didn't really believe, but now that I'm in Hell... I mean, you can't--"
"Look. Let's say God or Jesus or whoever did write the Bible or inspire it to be written. In what way do they speak for Hell? In what way does Hell have to do what they say?"
The guy stuck his lip out. "What about those Angels? I saw them when they were herding me in--"
"Last angels you'll ever see," Dave said. "They keep the riff raff out, and it would take a Prince to tear them down, and they're not about to. Look -- if you really want to be tormented you could ask to be transferred to Abbadon or the right parts of Hades. If you want someone to torture you in Shal Mari you'll have to pay for it like everyone else. The demons have better things to do than pay attention to you."
"Damn straight. If we're lucky." Dave finished his coffee and rattled a spoon against the mug. Tina walked over with the hot pot and refilled it.
"So why can't we sleep, if they care so much."
"Sleep is an escape."
"But you said--"
"Shut up and listen." Dave was annoyed. He didn't have time for this. "Sleep is an escape. Not of your sad sorry life but of Hell. When someone sleeps, they go somewhere else. Purgatory, or dreamland, or whatever the Hell you want to call it. The Marches, the demons call it. The angels too. So of course we can't sleep, and neither can the demons unless they work for the Princess of Nightmares or they're up on Earth. It would be a way out, and there's no way out."
The guy stared, and looked down at his burger. "Oh."
"'Oh.' Je-sus Christ." Dave sipped more of his coffee.
"So... how do you know so much?"
"Fast Johnnie's right. You're an idiot." Dave finished this cup. "It'll cost you."
"You've got Essence coming out of your ears, or you wouldn't be eating a burger. Or you're really stupid, but either way -- I want some. One note'll do."
The guy looked a bit horrified. "I... I thought only the demons could--"
"You want an answer or not?"
"Then fork it over."
They touched, celestial hand to celestial hand. Dave felt it... the soft touch of luck and creativity, flowing to him like drops of water falling on the forehead of a fever. He withdrew his hand slowly. "I worked for them, back topside."
The guy blinked. "What? You worked for demons?"
"Ultimately. Most of the time I worked for angels. Learned a lot from them. About the nature of the universe, ways to change it... what Essence is and what it's for. Lots." Dave leaned back. "So I got the naked truth, kid."
The guy looked stunned. "Then... why are you here?"
"The demons made a better offer. Or so I thought at the time."
"You... betrayed angels?"
"Knife right in the back, yup. It was a slaughter."
"How could you do that?"
Dave laughed. It was a bitter laugh. "Destiny and fate, boy. Destiny and fate. They made it seem worth my while at the time. What did you do to come down here, mm? Must have been pretty good."
The guy flushed. "I shouldn't be here. I went to church, I gave to the United Way, I held doors for old ladies--"
"I thought you said you didn't believe. So what bad thing did you do?"
The guy's voice was soft. "He was bleeding to death and I let him die. I was scared of AIDS. I don't know why that was so bad...."
Dave snorted. "He was probably destined to cure AIDS or something. So, nice and selfish act, coupled with whatever the guy could have done if you saved him, but you didn't. Good bye."
"Wait! You promised me answers--"
"You asked how I knew so much. I told you."
"But -- my Essence... that was my last--"
"My heart bleeds." Dave headed for the door and pushed through, waving at Tina as he went. Not bad. One Essence for coffee. One back from a moron who'd be torn into Forces before too long. Not bad at all.
They found Dave on the steps of a flophouse, staring up into the eternal reddish ceiling. It was always night in Shal Mari -- the lights of the city reflecting off a roof that was Christ only knew how far up. One big cavern. Three of them. A Balseraph leading a couple of female Impudites. Good looking ones -- well built, one in a leather thong and bikini, the other in some kind of black toga thing.
Dave sat up, then bowed his head. Servitors of Lust -- technically, he worked for them. As much as anyone worked for anyone in Shal Mari. "I am honored, Lord."
"Polite. You are wise. You were a Soldier of Hell, yes?"
"That was my honor, Lord."
"I'm certain it was." He judged Dave. "Mm -- seven Forces, it seems. Where did you get that extra one?"
"My Lord, if it pleases, it was part of the deal I struck with my Masters on Earth."
"Deal? But the sixth would be -- oh... oh, you were a Soldier of God, and they converted you to the cause...." the Balseraph slithered a bit, managing to look smug and gathering his wings about himself. There were rubies set into them at regular paces. This one was powerful. "Excellent. You have been summoned."
"Mm. Yes. Yes, and I believe I know why now. But never no mind. Come."
Dave rose. The two Impudites of Lust bracketed him. Maybe he'd offended the wrong person and was about to learn just how Hellish the accommodations could get. Maybe he'd be torn apart -- or have his sixth and seventh Forces pulled from him. They'd remembered them now. That had to be a bad sign....
"Mm," one of the Impudites purred. The toga one. "You're a handsome one, aren't you? I can see why you were made a Soldier."
"Thank you, Lady," Dave murmured.
"I could just eat you up," she continued, smiling slowly. Impudites. They were what had gotten Dave into this mess in the first place. She'd be after his Essence. He had to....
No, they hadn't touched him. Not yet, anyhow -- so they were working for someone Badder than they were. That scared Dave. But everything made him at least a little nervous. That was part of being sane in Hell.
They were inside of one of the Casinos now, walking past the gambling and the damned souls and occasional out of favor demoness in the bits of lace serving drinks. Dave could hear the joys and lights and sounds all around. The desperate damned screaming and rolling the dice -- feeling just for this moment like winners, like they're on top of the world, like the demons work for them. In here, you didn't say Lord or Lady to the help. It's what tripped you up outside -- the rules kept changing.
"Come on baby!" a damned soul shouted, pumping his hand at the Roulette wheel and shouting at his victory. The Balseraph that had draped herself over him licked at his neck contentedly and he cuddled her. Snake or not, they were alluring... because they weren't snakes. Dave remembered that every time he really looked at one. And they could make you believe they were just what you wanted....
They went through a skybridge over the alleyways. Below, Dave could see a bunch of Calabim tearing at someone. The new guy -- the one from the cafe. He must have pissed them off. It's not hard. How he'd wandered into one of the inner circles, Dave didn't know. Shal Mari was all one layer of Hell, but you could go deeper and deeper into it... where the damned were worth less and less, and the demons were uglier and angrier and meaner and hungrier.
"Eyes forward," the Balseraph purred. "You're not interested in that, are you?" And Dave wasn't. Not at all. He absently wondered if he ever had been or not -- with a Balseraph, belief was slippery and so was the truth. And it wasn't worth fighting for. Not now. Not ever. What good is truth in Hell. Truth just gets you depressed.
They were in what looked like an office complex. Right down to cubicles and middle management. The damned souls in here wore collars of silk or leather, and skimpy clothing. Well, the demons weren't much more dressed. Servitors of Lust, Dave thought. I'm in Andrealphus's domain.
"Master," the Balseraph hissed to an amorphous Shedite, flowing out of a cubicle at their approach. "We found him."
"Took you long enough," the Shedite giggled. "What's the matter, Ippy? Mm? Get... distracted?"
The Balseraph bristled. "He doesn't work and he rarely spends time amusing himself. He's rather anti-social. We had to ask around."
"Well, go on then. I'll bring him to the Captain."
Dave took a deep breath. He didn't know much about the upper hierarchy of Andrealphus's Servitors, but there was a noble structure in Hell. You soaked it in with every boot-kick. Knights serve Captains, who serve Barons. If a Captain were interested in him....
What if it were the Game? When he'd first arrived, the Game had... Soldiers know things, and he had betrayed Heaven. They told him he'd been there for less than a week, but it'd felt like years before he'd been given over to the Lusties.
Why would the Game care about him? He was nothing and he knew he was nothing. He deferred to demons and he didn't use his Songs for anything but healing and to--
The door opened. He knew her at a glance. The black leather wings, the red horns -- they didn't change the face that had burned itself into him six months before. Her lush body, her bright blue eyes, that golden hair.
"Julie?" he whispered.
"Captain Yuliya," the Shedite said. "Is this the one you wanted?"
"Mmm," she looked him up and down. "Well, he's looked better. Never could match his shoes to his shirt, but what can you do, mm? That will be all."
Dave stared at the Impudite for a long moment, mouth open, as the Shedite made his way out, leaving the pair alone in the ornate office. "Well, Dave -- it has been a while, hasn't it."
"Yes," he swallowed, his lips dry. "Four months and three days. Nearly four now, L-lady."
"Oh, don't call me Lady. We're old friends, aren't we Dave? Mm?" She ran her hand along his shoulders. "Well, you've been hoarding Essence, haven't you? Oh -- no no. Don't be so flinchy. I'm quite well off that way for the moment." She smiled a hair.
"L-- Julie... why... do you--"
"Please -- Yuliya. After all, we're not on Earth now, are we?" She laughed a touch, smiling. A predator's smile. "And why? Well, can't I want to see you, mm? I like you, Davy-boy. After all, you got me my Captaincy. Well -- your assistance did. Besides, I have some work for you. You'll like it." She paused, pursing her lips. "What is that smell?"
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