A susurrus of sounds filled the air. Hopeless whispers, murmurs thick with a desperate longing for salvation and the occasional scream, heart-rending in it’s agony, merged to create a blanket of sound over the plain he found himself standing on.
He’d find it quite enjoyable if he was the one doing it, and didn’t suspect
he’d be next.
In the clear sky over the endless, chalklike plain, Belkar could see thousands of stars. He couldn’t tell if they were familiar or no, he’d never really bothered to look at the night sky, but there didn’t seem to be enough of them.
The plain was empty, but for a few, jagged ruins of cyclopean monuments, great pillars and columns carved with twisted runes. His eyes hurt just staring at them, so instead he lowered his gaze to the figures around him.
He’d appeared some time ago, although it was hard to say how long. At first, for a few seconds, he’d dared to hope he’d dreamed his death, but it was clearly not the case. His body didn’t feel solid, and there was no strength to his arms. He’d tried to hit the first other figure he’d seen, a waxy faced aristocratic looking man with a luxurious moustache, and his limb had been like a dead weight, with no power. Even when he finally managed to work up the effort, the air had seemed to thicken, and he couldn’t even touch the other being.
He was only grateful the other figure hadn’t noticed it. He would have died from embarrassment (figuratively).
“Well this sucks.” He muttered, or tried to, for he found himself mute. No noise came out when Belkar tried to speak. He couldn’t even move his jaw.
So this was hell. Boredom. Well, not great, but better this then the fire that Durkon talks about. Maybe you couldn’t speak, stab things, touch or have fun, but maybe other things were possible. Then a sharp ache began across is skin, as it turned red, then began to disappear in clumps. He felt like he was being eaten alive all over again.
The pain across his body became, by degrees, intolerable. He couldn’t feel his heart labouring in his chest, he wasn’t breathing. There was real pain there too, a deep, knife-like pain that covered his body with tiny, invisible wounds, intimate and unbearable.
He shrieked, and whimpered, but not a single sound escaped his lips. The ember of fear burst, showering fragments of panic across his thoughts. Then he felt burning tears well up in his eyes, but when he tried to blink them away, he found that he couldn’t close his eyelids.
For the first time, looking back at his all to short life, he wished he’d been a better person.
“That’s the one we want.” The shades around him parted anxiously, as a terrible figure came into view. A palpable sense of wrong flitted across Belkars heart, as a hulking pit fiend strode through the throng of souls, The mighty devil stood twice the height of a man, four times his height, with a chest as wide as a stallions, rippling with more muscles then should fit. Its vast black wings mantled it like a cloak of ebon glory, it surveyed the scene with a malignant, measuring gaze, and Belkars heart sank. The fiend had come for him.
“You are sure they want this pathetic worm?” It asked, its voice like a roaring forge.
It took Belkar a moment to realize what the being was talking too, and when it did he started. A small, red bat-like thing was hovering above the fiends tight shoulder, red eyes narrowed intently. Its voice was deep for its size, though it sounded as shrill as a mouse squeaking in the corner beside the massive fiend.
Belkar wanted to scream, but all that came out was a pitiful croak.
With one absent gesture the huge devil conjured up a seething orb of black fire, that arranged itself into a pair of manacles, the interior ringed with spikes. Taking Belkar in its free hand as though he weighed nothing (maybe he did) it snapped them on his wrists. They dug into his flesh, tearing skin and sinew, piercing bone, but more then that they burned his very soul, with cold rather then heat. He was shivering, more violently then he’d ever believed possible, a series of convulsive shudders that built upon each other, his teeth banging together so they bit through his tongue, his limbs twitching and jerking beyond his control.
He felt nothing, the pain that had become omnipresent, not merely confined to the wrists, the places where spikes of cold fire bit into him, but everywhere. He couldn't feel or sense anything, his entire world was the agony of the chains.
They had left the plain, he realized dimly, and were now on a long boat of steel, poled along a river as wide as forever, by a black robed figure who moved with all the grace and surety of an arthritic grandfather. Just the same, the boat sped along. Looking into the flowing water, he realised he could see fragments, snatches of memory, and faces.
Thousands of little betrayals, and murders, lies and cheats, thousands of delusions. He saw the dust of empires, and the pain of millions. At last, it was too much, and instead he looked at the sky, at the cold, unforgiving light of the stars.
Once Durkon had been boring his ears out with theology, and he’d threatened to stab the dwarf if he didn’t shut up. Now he wished more then anything he’d listened.
At last the boat came to rest at a far bank, and the pit fiend stepped off, giving the boatman a bag of coins. The robed figure, his face shadowed in the cloak, carefully counted out thirty pieces of silver, then nodded, returning to his boat and poling off.
Before them was an enormous wall, the gates that would dwarf those of any city he’d ever seen or heard of. Dark and foreboding, they reached into a sky swirling with red mist. Lightning flashed, blood red, then sickly green, and thunder subsided into an omnipresent rumbling, with the occasional bangs and roars like distant bombs exploding in the night. To either side, past the hulking gatehouses, high, pale walls stretched to the horizon. He was too far away to be certain, but Belkar thought the walls were moving, almost as if every brick as shifting constantly, writhing as though it as alive.
All around him, a crowd of whimpering, bawling shades waited, like reluctant steer before a gatehouse, shackled just as he was. No demons guarded them, but just the same, none of them tried to run.
The tower's surface was dark red, and seemed strangely warm. The tower was made with fist sized blocks of… something. It took a moment to figure out what they were, and when he did he almost recoiled. Hearts. Thousands upon thousands of still beating hearts.
Above the gate was a massive sign, containing words he didn’t recognize, but somehow understood. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Beneath it was another, newer sign, in the same script; “you don’t have to be damned to work here, but it helps!”
After the morbid terrors so far, he hadn't known what to expect in the citadel, but what he hadn't expected was a pleasant sitting room, built at enormous scale, with three cloaked figures hooded on a couch. Their robes masked every aspect of them, be could barely make out their shape, and all that served to distinguish them was their terrible eyes.
"This is him?" Said the center one, his voice crisp, efficient, and thick with bubbling corruption, like the death rattle of a god. The sound alone made Belkar feel sick.
"Yes." The imp replied.
"Good. You can go." For a moment, the pit fiend looked as though he was going to argue, then finally closed his moth, muttered some empty respect, and vanished.
The center figure now turned his gaze on Belkar, and the halfling felt something cold and inhuman sliver across his mind. It burrowed into his memories, rooting through them like a rat in so much refuse. Belkar tried to look away, but he couldn't remember how. Then, as quickly as the interrogation began, it was over.
"You are Belkar Bitterleaf, son of Bingo Bitterleaf, pastry chef, and Martha Rattleshirt, seamstress." The voice said, bubbling up from black lungs thick with corruption, as cold and chilling as the heart of space. "Born in The Northern Continent Thirty winters ago, as time is measured here. You have never taken an occupation, your only gift being your skill with your daggers, that you used as a means of instant gratification in enjoying others suffering. You had no goals or aspirations, and the only bond you ever formed was with a housecat. No great happiness touched your heart, nor any real pain." The voice said gurgled, continuing.
"You had no opinion regarding the gods, while you acknowledged their existence you never spared them any thought, and offered them worship only once. Aside from this, you worshiped yourself."
"So one of mine?" Said a voice to left. This voice was rich, like a thousand fluting reeds of the wind, thick with desire and promise. It was cruelly, darkly insane, totally without inhibitions or restraints, the voice of someone who would set fire to the world on a whim.
"Debatable. A year ago he joined an adventuring party. He mad no attempt to betray them or profit from this association, and even risked his own life for their safety. While incapable of real friendship, he has come to appreciate their company, and committed several selfless actions for their sake. Perhaps one of mine, or even one of Lee's."
"It wasn't like that!" Belkar yelled,, but his voice sounded pitifully weak and insignificant. The three beings would have paid more attention to a mouse squeaking in the corner.
"I think, in the end, Cedric's is the best. Intent can be seen as enough in this case." Said the diseased voice at last.
"It's not important." Said the second one, his violet eyes wide. "We're about to cut a deal." All three of them turned and surveyed Belkar again, like a cockroach they were about to dissect.
"We all have the power to do whatever we want to you. Whatever we judge you best fit, you will be placed. And each of us will go out of our way to make you so miserable you'll wish you'd never been born at all. That is hardly unusual in our line of work, but even the souls tormented in the deepest pits of Nessus itself we'll know that you are worse off then them." He shook his head. "Or, you can do as we say. We have an… interest in the gates the people you were previously affiliated with are after. In exchange for total control of your life, we will allow you to skip the petitioner stage, and incarnate as a low level fiend. Skip the being tortured phase."
"You'll still suffer."
"Yes, you will. But think of the alternative."
Belkar stared at them. His first impulse was to take the deal, but he had to wonder. "You're being honest with me."
The left side one shrieked with glee. It was a long, loud laugh, and Belkar found the hair on the back of his neck rise at the alien quality of the sound. "Of course we are. Why would we bother lying to you? You're been and done. You're book is closed. Why should we care? Truth be told, you are all but irrelevant."
The middle one made a coughing sound. "Now. What do you say?"
Belkar drew himself up. "No."
"Yes. If I'm so unimportant, why do you need my permission? You're trying to screw me over. You're all pretty important from the sound of things, and I doubt every soul goes through this. So I'm valuable. And somehow, if you're going to torture me anyway, may as well go all the way."
There was silence. At long last the left one shook his head. "This guy's an idiot."
For the first time, the right hand one spoke. "He's mine." The being's voice was so pure and melodious, he felt lost in the words and their meaning. Only the sharp pain in his wrists managed to remind him of his situation.
"I'd say he's chaotic evil."
"Oh, he is. But you owe me ten souls from that bet. This can be number one. I'll have him broken for you in two days, and willing to do the deal for nothing."
Belkar blinked. "Wait, what?"
"Alright, then, have your fun."
"Oh, I will. Breaking the defiant ones is so much better.