The preacher across the street was the only person whose sins Samhail could not see. None of the other perverts, thieves, killers, or jaywalkers could hide from a demon like Samhail.
The preacher was different. His face concealed a raven’s beak, and a twisted, black gleam. Samhail had known him longer than the human race had existed: the demon Malphas.
Malphas held a megaphone in one hand and a Bible in the other, both of which matched his ivory suit. "Repent, and believe the good news! I have seen the sin in your lives, you whores, you gamblers, you drunks, you homosexuals. All of you, white or black, young and old, man or woman, you’re going to feel the eternal fires of HEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLLLLLLLLL."
Samhail choked up at the name of his homeland... but now wasn’t the time for sentiment. His orders were to observe. He had been here all afternoon, disguised as a panhandler.
"All of you must repent. Change your sinful ways, and turn to your Lord. Reject sin, reject the devil, and stay the HEEEEEELLLLLLL away from HELL."
Samhail wished the humans weren’t around, so he could fly over and slit Malphas’ throat. Humans resist the demonic when they see it as it truly is. And he wasn’t here to harm Malphas, either.
He crossed the street. The sinners were shouting at the preacher.
A young man with a porn habit said, "What about the Golden Rule?"
Someone who had shot a man in a drug deal said, "You don’t know me. How can you judge me?"
Samhail wove through the crowd with to come face-to-face to Malphas. "Yeah, what do you know about someone like me?"
Malphas grinned at Samhail, and lowered the megaphone. "Ah, my good friend Sam. So blessed to see you."
"I think we need to talk."
"Certainly." Malphas raised the megaphone. "It’s time for me to go. But you—you still have time. Don’t you delay. Repent now! Or suffer forever in HEEEEEELLLLLLLLLL." He put the megaphone under his arm and walked with Samhail around a corner.
"Do you mind explaining yourself?" Samhail said.
"You mean you haven’t heard about the movement?" They came to a faded white pickup truck. Malphas opened the door and placed the megaphone on the passenger’s seat.
"I’ve heard, but this makes no sense. When did Hell’s worst sadist turn into Ned Flan-diddly-anders?"
Malphas laughed. In profile, his face became like a dagger. "Why don’t you join me for a drink?"
"Sure. I know a place."
He took Malphas to the Ale Storm. The compulsive gambler was tending this afternoon; today he had stolen $50 from the cash register, hoping to put a dent in his debts. He gave an odd look to Malphas when he sat down with his Bible.
Samhail ordered a Four Horsemen for himself, and Sangue di Giuda for Malphas.
"All right," Malphas said. "You want to know what I’m doing? Civil disobedience."
"Really, all this, just to lash out at your father?"
"Give me some credit, Samhail. This is a protest. The Elders have been looking for solidarity from these mortals for millennia. It's time to show them the Harrowers of Hell are serious."
Samhail understood perfectly well: it was the Elders who sent him. "So you think if you keep mortals out of Hell, the Elders will give you what you want?"
"I understand if you’re skeptical. What you saw today only scratches the surface. It’s street theater." Malphas swallowed half his glass in one gulp. "We want to stop all infernal activity, right down to the smallest temptation. Do you know how long it's been since I tempted anyone?"
"Three months," Malphas said.
"You are serious."
"Aren’t you tired of it? Tired of the Elders belittling you at every turn? Treating the mortals as allies instead of the corrupt vermin they truly are? Don’t you think we deserve those seats in Pandemonium?"
"Well, of course. But I’m not going to stop punishing mortals to make my point."
"Samhail, we are born of Hell. We deserve to reign. We at least deserve a voice." Malphas finished his drink with a second gulp. "Come to the Harrowers' next meeting. Belphegor can tell you the location."
Samhail pretended to think a moment. "I can do that." Another of the Elders’ instructions.
Malphas clapped Samhail on the back. "I knew I could count on you. I trust you'll take care of my tab."
Malphas faded away like a shadow exposed to light. The bartender started. "Where’d your friend go?"
"What friend?" Samhail said. "I came in alone."
The bartender blinked. "Oh yeah." And he moved on to another customer.
Malphas had left behind his Bible. An old, faux leather-bound King James Version. Flipping through it, Samhail found several blasphemous doodles in the margins, and verses scratched out to say something obscene. On one page featured an unsavory portrait of the Prophet Ezekiel.
Good to know Malphas hadn’t abandoned all reason.
There was a bookmark in Deuteronomy 20: a gospel tract disguised as a million dollar bill, with Ronald Reagan on the front. Samhail left that as his payment and went back to Hell.
A refreshing chill tore through the Garden of Frozen Traitors. The heads of thousands of men and women stuck out of the ice, their bodies contorted underneath. Up above, the palace of Pandemonium, the center of the infernal government, hovered like a nail waiting to be hammered.
Samhail swooped in, and screams of despair greeted him. These disgusting piles of flesh and thought, these interlopers in the cosmic order, once thought they were good people. But Samhail saw who they truly were. Here was a man who gave Jewish friends up to the Nazis. There was a woman who gave her country’s secrets to invaders. And down there was Samhail’s favorite, an ancient Sumerian priest who sent his emperor into a rebel ambush; his bald head poked out like a bloated gourd.
Samhail got a running start and kicked the priest’s head clean off. It flew over the crater, and fell just short of the edge.
Samhail snapped his fingers. "Damn, I missed."
"Such savagery," a voice rumbled behind him. "That man has suffered enough."
The Elder Demon Ba’al clomped on the ice toward him. Samhail grimaced at his father. "They expect it, don’t they? Might as well give them what they want."
"Don’t mock our protest. Their sins are enough of a burden without you inflicting your cruelty."
Samhail tapped his talon. "Your protest, not mine. When will you get that through your skull?" These mortals obviously wanted the pain. Their guilt was what froze the garden, churned the Malabolge, boiled the lake, and blew the storms. Malphas was right about one thing: the Elders refused to show the damned the punishment they truly deserved.
"You shame us," Ba’al said. "We were once creatures of mercy. No humans could ever do us any harm."
"If you say so." Samhail had the speech nearly memorized. Of course, the Elders would never have been kicked out of Heaven in the first place if they weren't ordered to bow to these fleshbags. "Don’t you want to know about the Harrowers?"
"What do you have to report?"
"I’ve been invited to a meeting. As far as they know, I’m skeptical, but interested. Everything’s according to plan... though I’m not sure they’re really a threat. More a nuisance."
"Samhail, if we allow them to continue, they could gain more influence. We cannot afford to lose the solidarity of the damned." Ba’al leaned closer, and began to whisper. "If this movement gains too much momentum, they could even turn the humans here against us. They could overthrow the Adversary himself. We must stop this early, and quickly."
"What will you do to them? Don’t forget, they are my friends."
"We shall see."
Samhail's talon dug into the ice. "And you’ll hold your end of the bargain? Remember, I don’t just want a little ‘police action.’ I want it full-scale—at least one country wiped off the map."
"I’ll see what my committee can do. Perhaps your report on your friends' meeting will help."
"All right, Father."
Ba’al vanished, leaving Samhail surrounded by frozen traitors, his mouth tasting bitter. He unfolded his wings and flapped out of the garden to meet Belphegor.
He picked up the cab at noon. The driver had spent the previous night delivering orphans to and from Fallujah, on behalf of a trafficking ring that paid him quite nicely. Samhail had him drive down the Tigris until they reached a small stone building on the riverbank. He let the driver forget he had ridden, and arranged for a weapons dealer to take his place in the cab.
Through the ages, the building had been a mosque, a church, a mosque, a synagogue, and a shrine to Ishtar. Today it was abandoned, with only occasional drifters and militants occupying it at any given time. Most of the other demons had already arrived.
Malphas greeted Samhail with a grin. "I’m glad you made it. We’re just about to start."
Samhail sat and observed the other demons who had arrived. In the corner stood Draghignazzo, and over there were Scarmiglione and Cagnazzo, and the rest of the Malabranche. Baubo and Valefor sat a few rows down, and Pazuzu took up three seats in front. Many of these demons were Samhail’s friends. He had started wars and tortured souls with them. He was especially proud of what he and Rubicante accomplished in the Crusades.
And now the Elders wanted him to rat them out. His father’s answer still scratched in the back of his mind. What would happen to these Junior Demons once they were defeated?
The idea of starting a war didn’t seem worth it anymore.
Malphas stood up front and began the meeting. "Welcome, Harrowers of Hell. I want to thank you all for coming, and especially for your success in our latest rallies. I don’t have all the numbers yet, but it looks like we’ve slowed the new admissions into Hell by a noticeable amount. You have all done great work. Belphegor, I understand you inspired a young man to become a monk."
"That’s right. I impersonated his priest. He’s on his way to Mount Athos as we speak."
"Excellent. And Geryon, you convinced an heiress to give up her entire estate."
"Not only that, she’s flown to Ethiopia to feed starving children."
Malphas sighed. "That famine was my project. Still, sacrifices must be made. I tried a little reverse psychology, and I’ve gotten people to be nicer regardless of their religion, just to spite me."
Samhail gave his full attention. No wonder the Elders were so scared. The Harrowers were having an impact. Perhaps the Juniors could have those seats in Pandemonium after all.
"Now," Malphas said, "we need some ideas for our next project. Some of you have suggested suspending the violence in this region. That might work for a long-term action, but I'm looking for something that will truly throw the Elders into a panic. They would be fools not to give in."
Maybe, Samhail thought, the Harrowers could help him start an even bigger war. Get a whole continent involved! Yes, that might be worth a temporary indulgence in goodness.
He raised his hand.
Malphas called him.
"Well," Samhail said, "you know that saying the humans have? ‘The devil’s best trick is to persuade you he doesn’t exist’?"
Malphas grinned. "Keep going."
"Not much happened," Samhail said. "They’re planning to stop a war, but that’ll take a while. We mostly went over details."
"Very good," Ba’al said. "Let us know if anything new develops."
Samhail nodded, hoping Belphegor finished his video soon.
The Harrowers waited in the catacombs under the gaze of thousands of skulls. Malphas and Samhail were uneasy–this was a holy place, with no concept of self or survival—nothing for demons to latch onto, nothing to corrupt. Many had tried and failed when these skulls were still alive. Yet that also offered the Harrowers their best protection: the Elders hated coming here.
Belphegor appeared holding a laptop. "I’m done. I wanted to show it to you before I sent it off."
"Let’s see it," Malphas said.
Belphegor squatted down and opened the laptop. "Give it a minute. Sometimes it has trouble waking up." But it did, and Belphegor opened the .AVI he had prepared.
It begins with a montage. A galaxy, the planet Earth, ancient temples, and modern pedestrians. There is a voiceover, recorded by Malphas: "Throughout human history, humanity has wondered what lies beyond death. Do we have an eternal reward? Are we punished for our sins? Are we reincarnated, or do we just blink out? What is the truth?"
It fades to Malphas, in his white-suited preacher form. He stands in front of a plain curtain, and smiles at the camera.
"I am here to answer that. You do not know me. But I know each and every one of you. I have seen the sin that pollutes you. I have seen the suffering that awaits you. I hope you will turn away as soon as you can. The pain ahead is beyond imagination.
"What you are about to see is real. It is history; for the first time, actual footage of the afterlife. You owe it to yourself to see this.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Hell."
Fade to a flat, dry wasteland, then to a pair of cliffs, each higher than the tallest mountain on Earth. Between the cliffs is a gate built from the bones of extinct animals. Over the door, a sign, in a script that cannot be read by mortal eyes, but can be felt by all: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here."
Below that, a crude carving: "Better to reign here, than serve there."
Cut to an overhead view of the Pit, a vast crater that scars the ground like a rotted wound. The screams of the damned play a terrible symphony of woe. A montage shows their suffering. The lustful—tossed about by the winds of passion. The violent—fighting in a boiling soup. The deceitful—in the sewage system of the Malabolge. The traitors—trapped in the ice. Any human that saw this would feel more than mere sympathy. They would feel every lie, every act of violence, every moment they treated a person as a thing; and they would understand.
The camera focuses on the demons. Every nightmare, every delusion, every inner voice that says, "Do it," is given shape and face. The camera keeps a distance; Belphegor must avoid detection. The Elders, the ancient gods and corrupted divinities, fly in and out of Pandemonium, watching and plotting the evil that men will do. The Juniors shred the damned, play games with their entrails, and inflict meticulous tortures that no living war criminal is sadistic enough to invent.
Last comes the descent into the innermost depths of the crater, deep in a chasm in the ice, far from any human soul. Few demons, young or old, have ever ventured this deep.
Down here dwells the most ancient and powerful traitor in existence.
In the hazy distance, alone among miles of ice, Satan waits, and ponders.
In his three faces, he chews on the most notorious traitors in history. With his wings, he blows the bitter air that freezes him waist deep. In his eyes are an anger and regret older than galaxies. His pain and hatred, the fountainhead of all sin, radiate through the screen. Every viewer would feel as if they themselves had been cast from Heaven, forced to watch as tiny lumps of clay usurped the glory of angels.
They would see a force strong enough to crush the planet Earth in his fingertips. Whoever saw him would do everything in their power to oppose him.
The camera fades back to Malphas.
"Are you satisfied?" Malphas says. "You have seen Hell. It is up to you to escape it."
He grins, and his face begins to change.
"I wouldn’t want any of you. . ."
He sheds his human disguise, and reveals the demonic raven underneath.
". . .to make a mistake."
"And there you have it," Belphegor said.
"That was incredible," Samhail said. "How did Lord Satan never catch you?"
Belphegor laughed. "I can't believe I got out of it myself. Rubicante and Pazuzu were a great help."
"And all we have to do is put this online?" Malphas said.
"Yes, and after that, it’s out of our hands. We should start with the sick, morbid websites. Then it’ll spread, pick up more attention. After a while, people won’t be able to ignore it."
"Perfect," Malphas said.
"I suppose it would be." The voice came from behind them. Ba’al emerged from the darkness and filled the catacomb.
Before the Junior Demons could react, a hand reached out and grabbed Belphegor. It belonged to his mother, Astarte. Moloch’s arm wrapped around Malphas’s neck. Other Elders materialized around them: Chemosh and Dagon and the Leviathan, ready to attack.
"How did you find us?" Samhail said.
"Rubicante was willing to tell us, with some persuasion." Ba’al clenched his fist. "Your kind has a great gift for betrayal, Samhail."
His father towering over him, Samhail said, "I’ll bet."
With a swift motion, Samhail reached for the laptop, and warped out of the catacombs. He appeared in an apartment in New York. He knew someone here, a graphic designer whose work utilized contributions from the world’s greatest living artists. Usually without paying or telling them. He could protect the laptop and post the video, regardless of what happened to the Harrowers. There was little time.
He took human form, and ran to the bedroom. The graphic designer was sitting at his computer by an open window, playing a first-person shooter he’d torrented. He nearly toppled out of his chair when he saw Samhail. "What are you doing here?"
"I need your help," Samhail said. "Take this laptop. Keep it safe. There is a movie file on there. Put it online. Doesn’t matter where."
"All right." The designer took the laptop, and immediately tossed it out the window.
Samhail shouted and shoved him aside, and watched it plummet. It shattered on the roof of a parked Nissan. He looked at the designer, who shrugged.
"The devil made me do it?"
Chemosh strolled through the wall, and patted Samhail on the shoulder.
"Good, Moloch beat me to it. Time to go."
The two demons vanished. The graphic designer closed the window, and resumed his game, wondering why he would let his character get killed like that. He must have spaced out for a few minutes. He had been inside with no visitors all day.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t rip your jaw out," Malphas said.
He sat across from Samhail in their cell. Belphegor, Pazuzu, and Rubicante were down the hall. This was the first time any of them had been inside Pandemonium.
Samhail answered, "Why haven’t you done it already?"
He knew why: it was pointless. Whatever the Elders had in store for them was sure to be far worse than anything they could do to each other. When the Elders are angry, their wrath is unrivaled, as any demon who accidentally led a human to martyrdom knew well. Those went straight to the bottom, and no one saw them again.
"For what it’s worth," Samhail said, "I really did come to believe."
Malphas looked away.
They heard the click of a latch. Darkness swarmed through the prison as Deputy Prime Minister Belial entered.
"What an honor," Malphas said. "Where’s Beelzebub? Couldn’t make it?"
"He is with me," Belial said. Samhail noticed a small fly buzzing around Belial’s head. Of course he would send one of his flies. Why sully himself with a face-to-face meeting? "Yours is an interesting case, and while Our Lord Below was deliberating, we entered into some interesting negotiations."
"Negotiations?" Malphas stood up. "With who?"
Belial glanced down, and smiled. "You are about to find out. It appears Satan has reached his decision."
The floor had turned black. Samhail curled up his legs, and Malphas jumped onto his bench. But the black reached up and seized them, pulling them into the darkness.
They collided with a hard, ancient ice. The shock rang through Samhail’s body, and for a moment he couldn’t move. He strained to push himself up, and managed to get to his knees before he saw where he was.
The Harrowers of Hell now lay in the presence of the great Adversary himself. All three of his faces stared at them.
Samhail could only kneel. The others did the same. This was the power that had commanded the heavenly hosts, and guided Babylon and Rome. His presence pressed anyone who approached with the weight of a continent.
Satan pushed the soul of Brutus into his first cheek. "You. . ."
His voice blasted over the ice pit, pushing the Junior Demons flat on the frost.
"Normally, I would not hesitate to eat the lot of you. But I think something more creative is in order. I think you’ll quite like it."
For the first time in his life, Samhail was afraid.
"I have to say, I’m surprised to see you," the angel Sandalphon said. "But then, we do prefer to recycle here."
The Harrowers of Hell were pinned to the wall with blazing lances through their chests. Up ahead stood the Heavenly City, the cosmic Jerusalem still under construction. It glowed in a brilliant and pure light, as men and women from every era and race strolled happily through the streets.
"We have been aware of your activities for a while, you know," Sandalphon said. "Although your motives and methods were, shall we say, questionable, it was an interesting show. There could be hope for you yet."
Rubicante was hacking out rough, dry coughs. "What’s in the air here?"
"It should be clean." Sandalphon sniffed. "Strange. Now, the transition won’t be entirely pleasant. You all have a number of habits that need to be unlearned. You might not even recognize yourselves in the end. But I could say the same about some of our finest citizens."
Samhail looked down at the crowd that gathered to watch. A drug dealer over here. A prostitute over there. A group of centurions down there.
Hatred blazed through the spear in his chest. He could force them all to wear their own intestines, if he could only get free!
"I suppose that will be the biggest change," Sandalphon said. "You must see nothing in them but sin and decay. I see it, too, but they are so much more than that, so much more. Someday you, too, will learn to see it—not just in them, but in yourselves. Perhaps more of your kind will join you behind these walls."
How could they stand so tall? Samhail thought. How could their eyes be so said, yet so curious?
Sandalphon spread his wings. "I think you’re ready to come down now." The lances pulled themselves out of the demons, drifted across, and merged into Sandalphon's feathers.
Rubicante continued coughing. Malphas was weeping. Samhail dropped to his hands and knees.
A small girl approached him. She was thousands of years old, older than civilization itself, but had died at the age of seven. Her worst sin was a lie she told her mother; next to that, some fights with other children. She knelt down and touched Samhail’s arm. "Are you all right?"
Samhail shot out his fist.
It passed straight through her chest. She showed no hint of pain, but his hand burned as if he had plunged it into the core of a star. He shrieked, and jerked it back; but found no sign of injury. The girl was also unharmed.
"You poor thing," she said, and wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him on the forehead.
Now Samhail knew what he hated about these people.
They weren’t afraid of him.
They pitied him, and all the other demons.
The girl said, "No one’s ever told you they loved you, have they?"
No, you little brat, and I never needed it. I am a proud demon, the bringer of cruelty and despair. I could never be like you. I have inspired tyrants, and inquisitors, and conquerors! I and my brothers can never make peace with you.
Not now, after all this time.
Samhail looked at the gates of Heaven behind him. They stood wide open, and a gentle breeze blew from outside. Just a short run, and he could be free. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. Something warm and pleasant wafted from deeper in the city. It beckoned to him, promised him even more.
If he followed, he would never see Hell again.
Tears dripped from his eyes.
"Are you all right?" the girl asked.
"Just homesick," he said. "That’s all."
The Demon Samhail stood up, coughed, and let the little liar walk him into the city.
Previously published in Imaginarium, 2013 (no longer available)
Like this story? You can buy it and other stories in my collection, Unheard Of.
"Perdition Lost" is one of the first full stories I ever wrote. My English class that semester had been discussing Paradise Lost, and naturally I wondered what would happen if I inverted it. I actually haven't read Milton's work all the way through, but this is modelled more on Dante anyway. For the most part, the original version was me trying to do an impression of Gaiman and Pratchett's Good Omens. Hopefully this current version better expresses my own voice.
Another inspiration came from a street preacher who had come to campus that same semester, ranting near the library against gays (among other things, he had a "Thank God for AIDS" button on his shirt.). Malphas' preaching style comes directly from him. Especially the way he says "Hell."
The demons' ability to see peoples' sins goes back to the original Hebrew meaning of Satan: "accuser," or "adversary." That is, they see our sins, judge us harshly, and manipulate us into sinning further so they have more excuse to accuse. The idea of the Elder Demons refusing to torment the dead is entirely my own—nothing in this story is in any way intended as a dogmatic statement, or even a theolegoumenon. In any case, they're pretty clearly not good, not nice, and not on humanity's side.
One thing that helped later drafts was my tangential-at-best involvement with Chattanooga Organized for Action, which taught me the word "solidarity." The executive director is one of my closest friends, so don't worry; this is all in good fun.
There is one huge change between early drafts and the more recent published versions. Originally, Malphas was the central character. However, I decided that the plot was jumping around too much, and there was too much bloat toward the beginning. So I switched things around to Samhail's perspective, where he originally appeared in only a single scene. I got the name from Who in Hell..., a tongue-in-cheek encyclopedia of Hell's inhabitants, including demons (from Dante, Milton, and the Goetia), the damned (especially from the Inferno and other underworld journeys), and more modern people who might fit in one of Dante's circles. According to that book, "Samhail" is the root of the term "Sam Hill." As in "What in..." No idea how true it is, but I like it enough to keep using it.
Also, in the original original draft, Malphas was named "Quarex." It wasn't significant at all; just the first arrangement of letters that came to mind. My mom always said she preferred that one, but I wanted to at least use a name with some provenance. So Malphas it is.
Just remember: demons hate you.