Chapter 23: Ye Who Enter Here

The story finished as the four of us arrived at the far end. Eumaeus whistled softly. “It was you who freed Promethea? I’d had no idea. I’d always heard Heracles had been the one responsible. Certainly, that was the way the stories all told it.” He was quiet for a moment. “Though the man himself was always reluctant to discuss the venture, I’d been told.”

“Did you know Heracles?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.

“I met him only once, and very briefly. He was an admirable man, though. Everyone tended to be fond of Heracles, save those who had an axe to grind against him. Even those more often became his friend than his enemy.”

“Yeah,” said Nash. “Good guy, all around. And as to who really saved her… It’s hard to say. Shit, my whole timeline tends towards the confusing. When I started all of this, I got given three different spiels about the nature of the Horsemen, the Sisters, gods, monsters, heroes. I’ve heard dozens more since. Fucking Nyarlathotep was supposed to be a god that Lovecraft made up, and now I find out that he had an ancient rivalry with the goddess of cats. So… Did he have an ancient rivalry with you, Betty, before Lovecraft wrote about him?”

“The Discworld thing.” I nodded. “Horace read the books to me. ‘Was that shop here for years yesterday’.” I paused for a moment, and frowned. “I don’t honestly know. What’s it matter?”

“Maybe it’s a human thing. Hell, maybe it’s just aschizophrenia thing. When you can’t be sure of what’s real, and what’s not, it gets… worrying. Because maybe it’s a part of someone’s devious plan. Hell, me thinking I had schizophrenia was part of someone’s devious plan.”

“Goodness,” said Eumaeus. “It seems to me that you had best start laying some devious plans of your own.”

“I’ve considered it. The problem is that so many of these things have been scheming for centuries. They’re long-lived, immortal even. They can afford to set up contingencies and counterplans so far in advance that there’s not much I can do that would let me catch up. But…” He paused for a moment. “Have you ever heard of chess boxing?” There was a moment’s silence as Eumaeus and I exchanged a look. “It’s exactly what it sounds like. Two ways to win chess boxing. You can win chess, or you can win boxing. The point is that you have to be good enough at one to survive, and good enough at the other to win. We just finished the chess round. They’ve got us pinned, and we’re a couple of moves away from checkmate.”

“Nash, please,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “Save that kind of thing for the Circle of Lust.”

“The point is…” He pointed. For a moment, the thick mists in the air ahead cleared, giving a good view of the way forward. The vast stretch of the Inferno lay before us, in a series of slopes leading deeper, and towards the center. It was a long way. “The boxing match is about to begin.” He gave a broad smile, and I couldn’t help but return it.

“Good. I hate chess,” I said, and stepped off the boat.

Charon looked after us for a moment. “What do you have planned, Nash?” he asked, his voice soft, and a bit nervous.

Nash was quiet for a moment. “Why are you here, rather than in Greece?”

“Come on. They’d never forgive me.”

“When I visited Tartarus… I don’t know. It was disconnected from the flow of time that the other places in Hades followed. Hades himself was a softer person than he was in the old days. He locked me away, but I’m not going to hold a grudge against him for it. He had his reasons. But he was a soft-hearted person, ultimately. I think you should ask for your old job back, Charon.” Nash noddedhis head at the far side of the river. “I think that he’d appreciate having you back on the job. Especially if you were to bring some of those in need of succor.”

“This ain’t a charity,” Charon growled.

“Oh, come on. You charge a pittance for that crossing, Charon.” Nash smiled. “I read about you, too. This has always been a charity you’re running.” He looked back at the path, which sloped gently down into the mists.. “I’ll leave it up to you.” And he took the lead, walking forward across the gray, misty moors. I looked back as Eumaeus jumped off the boat, and saw Charon’s frown.

“It’s survival,” he said, defensively. “I just want to survive. Okay? I don’t want to stick my damn neck out. This is what I can do.”

“I don’t care,” I said, and smiled. “But ‘surviving’, so far as I’ve seen it used, just means ‘dying, but slower’.” I paused for a moment, and considered Nash. “Charon… What’s your happy ending?”

He was quiet for a moment. His head hung. “I used to like being a ferryman. You know? I helped people. I did it dirt cheap. I used to toss the obols I got for it onto the shores, and when someone came without any payment, I would say ‘Well, why don’t you see if someone spilled some change’, and…” He was quiet for a second, and leaned heavily on his oar. “Can you promise that?”

“No,” I said.

He sighed and nodded, straightening up.

“But… I think Nash can. I know he’s sacrificed enough for it. I think you’d be making his sacrifice a waste if you didn’t trust him with your happy ending.” I grinned. “Come on. You want to spend the rest of eternity doing this job?”

“I’ve seen great monsters and heroes fight Michael. They didn’t stand a chance. Couldn’t even touch him. There’s no hope, Bastet. Not here. That’s the whole point.”

“Yeah?” I pointed at Nash. “He’s done it twice.” Then I turned and followed after Nash and Eumaeus.

I didn’t know how much I believed Nash that the crow was a sign from Pearl. It was a pretty loose connection, even with the timing of my dream. Humans had a tendency to view such things as indicators of some great plan, rather than random coincidence. And yet, considering that my dreams of Nyarlathotep had started when I’d entered Paradise, perhaps they were on to something. It didn’t mean that Horace was okay, though. It didn’t mean I’d made the right choice.

But that, itself, was kind of the point. It certainly wasn’t the right choice to sit and wait. And I had to trust Horace to be able to protect himself, while I hurried home as quickly as I could. The anxiety wasn’t helping anyone. I did my best to believe that, for all the good it did.

“So, this is technically Limbo, too?” asked Nash. He and Eumaeus were setting a good pace, and I had to run a little to keep up.

“Technically, it is all of Limbo. Here was the place where the worthy of those who lived before Jesus were supposed to be. Of course, Prester John offered them a choice with the Second Harrowing of Hell. Those who would follow his word and become part of his Vemana were allowed into Paradise. Those who refused to serve him were placed deeper in Hell, as punishment for their arrogance. The area you saw before is… Call it a borderlands. Hell is like a sinkhole that appears flat. It takes much longer, and much more effort to climb out than to climb in.”

“Like a black hole. So what else is out there?”

“Other underworlds, I suspect. If you travelled far enough, for long enough- probably longer than anyone could bear, mentally- you might run into Yomi, or Hades, out there. But it is a journey great and terrible in its tedium. And all it would take is a moment’s hesitation, one step back towards this place, to return here.”

“Doesn’t seem right,” said Nash.

“What the gods demand of us is often beyond our understanding, and their punishments often seem overly harsh,” said Eumaeus, smiling apologetically. “But they are the gods. They have different rules.”

“Not with me,” said Nash. “So. Minos guards the way to the second Circle?”

“Yes. I doubt he will do us any particular harm. This would be Minos the Lesser, the descendant of the great king. This is the one whose lack of wisdom spawned the Minotaur. After that is the Circle of Lust. It will be a dangerous place. There are three areas of Hell after Limbo; The Circles of Incontinence, the Circles of Bestiality, and the Circles of Malice.”

“Bestiality?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.

“More in the sense of ‘acting vicious’ than ‘sex with animals’, said Nash.

“Just so,” agreed Eumaeus. “Incontinence is the circle of appetites. Desires. Appropriate, healthy things which have been taken to excess. Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Wrath. Bestiality is the circle of harm done to others intentionally. Heresy, and violence. And last, the Circles of Malice. Fraud, and betrayal. The darkest of sins, using man’s gift for reason to diminish the world, rather than make it brighter.”

“What do you know about the circles?” I asked.

“They are tarpits. Designed to burden down those who are weighed down by their sins. If you allow yourself to be caught up in the place, if it digs its hooks into you, you will not be able to continue. Dante was protected by the grace of God. We are not so lucky.”

“Lust.” I smiled. “That might be tricky for you, Nash.”

“Nice,” he muttered. “I’ve got to trust that Pearl’s gift can help.”

“Ah, yes, the gifts. I’ve heard a little of your talents. Rare for someone to get one of the Sister’s gifts, let alone all of them. You said it…?”

“It lets me be calm. Lets me control my emotions.”

“Hmmm. And the others?”

Nash shrugged. “They’re weird. A bunch of things. I was never really sure exactly how they worked. The Sisters explained them in terms of martial arts. It was…” He closed his eyes, and there was a slight breeze. I frowned. It was the first time I could remember the air stirring since we’d entered this gray place. “Movement. Stance. Reading. And Passion.”

“Hmm. That’s usually the way. A theme, or an idea, or something. The Sisters are massive sources of power, of potential- But without a human idea, they aren’t anything. Odd power, though. Just… controlling yourself? Doesn’t sound much like passion.”

“They gave me enough power that I could hurt someone badly. Kill them. Even among the gods. It’s the one I’m most grateful for. There are some things you don’t want to feel, you know?”

“You told me the other powers had more than one facet. They don’t just do a single thing. They work together. And twice now, when you’ve been really angry, you did… something. I’m not sure what it was.”

“I don’t want to kill anyone. Passion, emotion, feeling things…” Nash waved a hand at the sloping pit ahead. “This place is designed to prey on that.”

“Yeah. Why do you think that is, Nash? Both time you’ve set your hands on Michael, you were filled with emotion. It let you grab Raphael.” I was quiet for a second, as we walked. The gate was visible ahead. “Consider it. Emotion is a double-edged sword, Nash. Might as well cut someone else with it, and not just yourself.”

Nash was quiet as the three of us approached the gate. There was no one standing in the line here. He frowned at that. “I would’ve expected more people arriving.” Eumaeus didn’t venture an answer.

The gate itself was massive. Black stone rose up in the air. I frowned. If I tried to follow the wall up with my eyes, it seemed to rise forever, but the moment my gaze flickered or my attention turned away, the wall was merely a modest fifteen feet high. It was, from one side, a very meager barrier. From the other side, it was insurmountable. I suspected climbing it, or attempting to fly over it, would be a fool’s errand.

In a great keystone arch stood Minos. Twelve feet tall, he was largely humanoid, pale olive skin bared, brawny, muscular. A long and slender serpent’s tail writhed behind him. He lounged in a way that exposed entirely too much of himself to our vision, his eyes settling on our small group. I stepped forward first.

“Mighty Bastet.” He yawned, holding a hand over his mouth. “You have finally arrived here, have you?” He tilted his head, leaning forward to examine me. “Finally went bad, and earned Michael’s ire?”

“Sure,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Your wife fucked any bulls lately?”

“You don’t have to get personal,” he said, studying me, frowning. “Hmmm. A smidgen of incontinence, a smattering of bestiality, a meager helping of malice. Not really anything overwhelming there. You’re not a bad person.” He sighed, and his tail looped loosely around his waist. “You may stay in Limbo or venture forth. I do not particularly care.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes. “We’re not going to be staying long.”

“That’s what they all say.” Minos’ eyes fixed on Eumaeus. “You again, old man? You know where you belong.”

Then Nash stepped forward.

Minos stared for a moment. His eyes narrowed. “You. You’re the one who broke Tartarus. The one who…” His eyes dropped down towards Nash’s neck, and the slender iron rod that dangled from it. I looked to my side, and saw Nash was standing, seemingly unconcerned, arms crossed, his eyes on Minos’. “Prester John has said he wants that. He’s willing to grant freedom and a full pardon to any inhabitant of Hell who is able to take it from you.”

“You are free to try,” said Nash, very softly. I was getting better at reading him. He was good at the poker face, but that in itself was a giveaway.

“I have heard legends of you. They say you defeated my grandfather. Humiliated him. You escaped from Tartarus.You come here with hope in your eyes, and your soul. That is forbidden.”

“You are free to try to take hope from me, too,” said Nash. He still hadn’t assumed a fighting stance.

“The Princes of Hell know you have it. They will take her from you. You might as well give up both Hope and the girl, now. The moment you set foot in Hell, you will be pursued. All of Hell seeks an egress, and if it goes through you, that will not stop them.”

“They can give it a try, too. But I am never going to surrender willingly.”

Minos was silent for a moment. His tail coiled nine times around his right arm. Nash smiled.

“Oh, good. That’s where I was going anyway.” He stepped forward, and Minos stepped out of his way, his eyes on him.

“The Princes of Hell will not let you pass freely.”

“That’s fine,” said Nash, already stepping through the gateway. I followed after, and gave Minos a jaunty little one-fingered salute.

The second circle struck almost immediately. A ferocious wind blew here, racing through my hair. Stinging dust bit at my eyes, forcing me to lift an arm to render it merely unbearable. I felt Nash grab my free hand, pulling me along after him, forging the way forward. He seemed marginally less effected by the wind, able to break some of it for me. That was annoying. I could see figures passing in the gray light, obscured by the dust that whipped through the air. The ground was scoured bare, little more than bedrock below our feet.

Eumaeus’ hand wrapped tightly around my tail, and I let out a sharp yowl, turning to give him an angry look. He smiled apologetically, and I could see that he was having even more trouble with the winds than I was. The wind whipped through his hair violently, and he looked as though he could barely keep his feet, staying low to the ground, very nearly blown off his feet. I reached back, grabbing his shoulder, and hooked elbows with his, pulling him forward, and Nash grabbed his other elbow. The three of us, anchored tenuously by combined weight, pushed into the teeth of the gale, through the ruined landscape, among the broken stones.

It was a strange wind. No matter which direction we faced, no matter where we turned, the wind was always opposing us. It made each step twice as hard as it had to be, arresting our forward momentum. And yet, above us, I could see some souls being pushed in the same direction we were moving. It had to be deliberate.

The air was not something I could cut. It was not something I could intimidate. In many ways, it was one of the most frustrating foes to face, because it was functionally insubstantial, yet it could still affect me. It was the same kind of terror that Jack and Jill must have felt when they had fought Ariel. It was the same kind of terror that had filled those who had fought Michael. To be unable to touch something, and have it all too able to touch you. It set my teeth on edge, being helpless to strike back..

After much too long, the wind died down. I looked up, to find we were sheltered behind an outcropping of rock. This area was more jagged than most, marred by splits and cracks in the earth below, and jagged plates of bedrock thrust up into cliff-faces in front of us. Nash stood against the wall, frowning. Here, the howl of the wind had died down to the point where we could talk if we shouted.

“You holding up okay?” I asked Eumaeus, straining to make myself heard.

“Fucking hate when people control wind!” he shouted hoarsely. I nodded sympathetically, and turned to look at Nash. He was peering around an outcropping, frowning.

“What’s the matter?” I asked him. He winced slightly, and it occurred to me that the storm might not be as loud for him, if the wind wasn’t pushing him as hard. This place seemed to be designed to make communication difficult, even impossible for those lost in it. I supposed that’s what kept Lust from becoming Love.

“Don’t like the look of this.” He tugged me forward, and pointed.

The circle had calmed before us. The furious winds and storms had become a softly drifting zephyr. Warm pink mist filled the air, blown in slow and gentle patterns. Alluring shapes drifted in and out of focus. There was grass, here, plant life, even greenery, though it was verdigris. “Any way around?”

He pointed higher. From here, we had a view of the rest of the circle. I couldn’t see the areas closest to us, obscured by the mist, but on the far side, the pink mist was also in evidence, a narrow strip that shaded towards purple in the haze of distance. “I think it goes all the way around. Could be anything, in this place.”

“Hmmm. I think that Horace writes stories with that kind of plot device in them sometime. If you start to notice how pretty I look, Nash, just remind yourself that War’s waiting for you, and it’d break her heart if you cheated on her.”

“Yeah, and then she’d break my heart.” Nash gave me a smile. “Well, if you start to feel overcome by my rugged charm…” The two of us paused for a moment, and then broke into laughs. “I’ll give it a try. If I start dying of a seizure or something, take a deep breath and save my ass, alright?” He stepped forward into the mists. They shifted gently around him, and he took a slow, deep breath, the mists rising and falling. He frowned for a moment.

“Well?” I asked, watching warily.

“Smells like… strawberry shampoo.” He took another deep breath. “That’s the extent of its horrors, though. Let’s keep close, though.” He waved for me to join him.

I frowned as I walked into the mist, Eumaeus following shortly after. “It does smell like strawberry shampoo. What the hell? Is one of the Princes of Hell a thirteen year-old-girl?” I asked, turning my head towards Eumaeus. He shrugged.

“I made it my business to avoid the Princes of Hell. They have been here longer than very nearly anyone, and the experience has been… hard on their sanity.” He sniffed softly. “Smells rather nice, though. I’d take it over the winds.” He frowned. “I think we should not get sepa-”

“ty”

“ty!”

“be-”

I turned my head sharply. In that moment, there was a sharp tug, as though Nash and Eumaeus had been tugged sharply away from me. I went still, my tail fluffing out, my eyes opening wide. I spun quickly. The voice had been familiar.

“betty”

“**BETTY**!”

I raced through the fog. And I saw him, there, sitting, his head in his hands. Tears ran down his cheeks, his messy black hair around his head. He was naked, shuddering softly. I felt my heart sink into the pit of my stomach. He didn’t deserve here. He wasn’t supposed to be here. I’d been promised. I’d fought so hard. And I was too late.

Horace sat on the stone of hell, tracks of tears running down his cheeks. I felt it all break down for just a moment inside of me. I collapsed down, onto my knees, setting my hands on his shoulders. He let out a sharp cry, and pulled back, pulling his hands up, as though expecting an attack, cringing and curling into a ball. “Horace! It’s me! It’s Betty!”

He lifted his head slightly, shaking violently. All of the confidence, all of the control he’d tried so hard over the last year to build, everything shattered. How long had he been here? Hadn’t Eumaeus said that time passed differently in here? If he’d been dead only a few hours, it could still be- Who knows how long?

Who knows what had been done to him?

“Betty?” he asked, and his voice was heartbreakingly weak. “No. Please, you can’t be dead too.”

My heart shuddered a little bit at that. ‘Too’. I opened my arms to embrace him, and he flinched, which hurt even worse. I let my arms drop. “It’s okay, Horace. I’m not dead. I’m here with someone. We’re going to get you out. We’ll…” I swallowed hard. “We’ve got a plan to escape. We can take you… with…”

I stood up sharply, my eyes narrowed. “Oh, you fucking bitch.”

Horace’s face shifted, from heartbroken pain to annoyance. “Oh.” He stood up, his form shifting as he did, flowing like water, cheekbones becoming softer, rounder, body shifting. Still naked. The woman stood before me, her expression faintly irritated, a hand on her hip. On one shoulder hung the rotted head of a bull, on the other the meatless skull of a goat, horns curled. A pair of leathery wings spread behind her, a serpent’s tail waving behind her slowly. One of her legs ended at the knee in the scaly, taloned leg of a rooster. She sighed, her head tilted to the side. “How could you tell?”

“Fuck off,” I said, my eyes narrowed. “Do you have any idea how sick I am of shapeshifters?”

Asmodeus shook her head lazily, tossing dark hair behind her. Her skin was a few shades lighter than mine, and she had the kind of body- monstrous inhumanity aside- that most women would sell their soul for. I thought she looked a bit cheap, myself. “Bastet. Don’t you want to embrace him again? I would like to be free. I know a way we can both be free. Take that rod from Nash. Steal Markov’s daughter from him. Prester John will reward us both richly. And you can have your human back, before you are too late.”

“What part of fuck off do you not understand?” I asked, my claws extending as I raised my hands, a low growl building in the back of my throat.

“You love that boy, Horace. Don’t you? Your heart yearns for him. I can feel the way it burns in you, though you do not admit it.” Her eyes met mine, and they were dark. Not dark like brown, not even dark like simple glossy black. They were dark like the emptiness that hung between worlds. They were dark like a black hole. They were the kind of dark that drew everything into itself, and made it dark, too. “Love is precious. Love prioritizes one thing over everything else. Do you not love Horace, Betty? Does he not matter to you? Is that why you love humans, because you can so easily discard them? I can sympathize.”

“Choosing is for lesser beings,” I said, smiling. “I will take everything that I want. I will help Nash, and I will save Horace, and there is not a thing you can do to stop me.”

A look of utter fury spread across Asmodeus’ face, the mask of serenity shattering into an ugly snarl. Her lips curling, the tendons in her neck standing out, her teeth shining. “You are far from your place of power, goddess! You are starved! You are without love, without support!” She lunged at me, and brought her fist down in a great overhand swing.

She did not fight like an expert. Her blows were telegraphed, obvious, full of wind-up. She fought more like an angry child, moving by instinct and whim. An easy fight, normally. I sidestepped the blow.

Her fist struck the ground, and it shattered. The bedrock all around us sheered and buckled. It rose in a great wave, and it blew apart into shards as it reached its apex, breaking apart under the strain. The wave caught my feet in mid air, sending me flipping and bouncing. The stone split and shifted, erupting up out of the ground in some places, sinking down in others, fissures opening up from the single blow. She shook her hand, and turned towards me, her eyes full of anger. I jumped back to my feet easily. “Get back here, cat!”

I sprang back from her again, further this time, as she lunged once more. She was untrained, over-passionate, but she was strong beyond all reason. Her second blow caught an outcropping of rock, and it was simply gone, a fine rain of stone powder descending through the air around us. My ears rang from the blow, something hot and wet dribbling down the side of my head, and onto my chin. I looked down, and saw a spot of blood appear on my shoulder. She’d cut my ear. My eyes narrowed, and I swept my hands up, claws flashing in the light.

“Stop avoiding me!” she shouted, petulant, and stomped her heel against the ground. The stone buckled again, writhing and arching as it shook beneath her feet, sending another wave of force through the ground. It caught me by surprise, this time, and whipped me off of my feet, sending me twirling through the air. I was stopped midway by one of the cliff faces thrown up by her blows, and struck hard, pain lancing through my tail and my back. I hit the ground just as hard, groaning softly as I landed. On all fours, despite the shock of pain.

“Do you know what happens when you are away?” Asmodeus asked, her voice soft, her eyes narrowed. “When you are in here? They forget about you. Mortals have such short memories. Even now, your human is forgetting about you. He is falling in love with another. That is what happened to me.”

“Please,” I grunted, and spat. A bit of red splattered across the stones. “As though he’d ever find someone better than me.”

“There is always someone closer, if not better,” murmured Ishtar. “Absence makes the heart go wander. Do you want to see her face?”

There was a moment’s silence. I narrowed my eyes. “You shouldn’t.”

There was a moment’s flash. Then the pink fog coalesced, taking on a shape, its color shifting. A face that was soft, eyes large and black. A nose that was barely there, two small slits. Skin that was pale, and dozens of sharp teeth. It was not a human’s face. It was not a face I recognized. Her arms were around Horace, and there was no mistaking the tenderness of the embrace he was giving her in return.

The pain vanished. I let out a shriek of rage, and threw myself forward. Asmodeus was surprised by the violence of the movement, stepping back in shock. My first slash tore the goat’s skull from her shoulder. The second one ripped the rotting bull’s head from the other. She turned, trying to strike me with the tail, a blow that could split a mountainside. My claws scythed through the base, and she shrieked, red blood flowing from the stump. Her wings flared, flapped, tried to gain altitude, but I was on her back, delivering bite after bite into the muscle and bone, piercing through muscles as hard as iron. The hot taste of foul blood filled my mouth.

She hit the ground, hard, and I landed atop her. My mouth opened, my eyes fixed on the back of her neck. The spine. One sharp bite. I’d kill her.

I’d kill her.

I stared down at her as she shivered and whimpered on the ground. I should kill her. She was a Prince of Hell. The embodiment of Lust. A monster.

Like me.

I felt a little wave of dizziness pass through my head. I wasn’t Nash. The only way I could stop the monsters was by killing them.

Wasn’t it?

I slowly stood up, breathing hard. I felt strong. Healed. Not much, but enough to restore some of my vitality. It was Horace. I couldn’t think about that now. I turned my head down to Asmodeus, giving her my best glare. She looked up at me, expression bemused. Then her eyes widened slightly, fear appearing in her gaze.

“You didn’t kill her,” said Nash, from behind me. I turned. He wasn’t panting, though a few traces of sweat were visible on his brow. Eumaeus was stumbling out of the pink mist behind him, coughing. The fisherman bent forward to gasp for air as Nash looked down at Asmodeus, and then around at the cliffs. “You know I wouldn’t have blamed you.”

“I don’t think you would have blamed me. But you would have thought less of me. And…” I looked down at her, and felt a little heaviness in my heart. “She just wanted to be free.”

“Everyone who is here is here for a reason,” said Eumaeus, frowning. “Do not pity the Princes of Hell. They occupy their positions because they are powerful, and heartless.”

“I don’t think anyone deserves this,” said Nash. “This punishment. I don’t think I could trust anyone who believes that locking someone away for eternity is a just punishment for anything.” He was quiet for a moment, and looked down at Asmodeus. He crouched down, and rested a hand on her bloodied wing. She flinched, but seemed to calm slightly, her body tensing. “What’s your happy ending? Why do you want to be free?”

She looked up at him, and then looked down. “I just want to be loved again. I want to be among humans again. I want to be touched again. Is that so wrong?”

Nash was quiet for a moment, and stood straight. “First, do no harm.”

She looked up at him, and frowned. “What?”

“Those are my conditions. First, do no harm. Second, work to make right what harm you do, and what harm you have done. Third, try to help other people. Do your best. If you swear to these three things, then when we escape, you can come with us.”

She was silent for a moment. “No one escapes Hell without submission to God.”

“No one ever has before. It’s an important difference.”

“And if I should come with you, and break this oath of yours?”

“Then you will be punished. Betty here will kill you. Or I will take away your power, and leave you to suffer. Or any number of many other terrible punishments that come to those who do harm to others carelessly. Being a better person isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s a survival mechanism.” He leaned forward. “This isn’t a second chance. It’s a last chance.”

“I can’t help you against the others, if I were to accept this agreement. You would not prefer me to be your slave? Your servant?” She tilted her head. “That is what most men desire of those in Hell.”

“I don’t need it,” he said, standing up straight. “Do you want it, or not?”

“I was beautiful, once,” she said, her eyes clouded, staring into the distance. “I wasn’t always this thing. I wasn’t always a monster. I’ve been here so long.” She closed her eyes, and breathed in. “I remember… a city.”

She was quiet for a moment. Then, there was a soft sussurus. The pink mist fell, like sand, into drifts on the ground, clearing the air, of the ring. We could see to the horizons as the winds quieted, growing soft behind us in the circle, the damned raining from the sky. There was a great cry that reverberated through Hell, from countless throats. The damned began to move, racing towards us, converging from all sides, visible in the distance like a kicked anthill swarming with activity. “I have stopped the winds. I am doing no harm, as you asked.”

“No good deed goes unpunished,” said Eumaeus. Nash grinned.

“Guess that makes me a masochist, doesn’t it? Let’s move.”

The three of us ran. Asmodeus followed, limping slightly, but keeping pace, letting us lead the way. And we descended deeper into Hell, the damned on our heels.

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