I bent down and picked up a stone. I had noticed its shape was right, so I whipped my arm and skipped it out across the water. The dark sea’s surface rippled with the skips, the ripples reaching back to me standing on the black sand. The sky was a deep maroon vault. There were pale naked bodies on the sand, streams of crimson blood running from them.
We sought the living among the dead. No androids were with us, Hasami, Ash, Anna, Odessa, and I, walking the beach. We’d left our ship back on the rocks, behind us. There was no south or north to guide us, we’d have to return from memory. Signals weren’t working for navigation or for Aku to communicate, either.
This hell was disturbingly silent, without grief or weeping. It was a tomb already, its tortured all seemingly dead. But that wasn’t supposed to happen. Hell was a place of eternal, unwanted, life. For those that misuse a gift, it becomes a curse. But, somehow, this hell had died?
That didn’t seem a mystery we were capable of solving, but I did wonder. There had to be a reason, right? No matter how supernatural, magic too always had a cause and effect. I’d be very worried if ever it didn’t.
We had to clear this area. We’d taken a day of rest and now we were back to our job. Today we were investigating. Tomorrow we’d do the same. Clear. Had to keep clearing. We kept making headway, seeing new hells, and it didn’t seem to end.
Ash, the only one not wearing a helmet, rolled over one of the bodies with his foot. “All this blood just keeps gushing,” he said. “I don’t think these are dead.”
We all walked up to the one he’d turned over. The bloated man’s eyes were wide, his mouth gurgling out blood. Those eyes, they darted back and forth between us.
“Fuuuck,” Anna swore. “None of these are just corpses.”
That makes a lot more sense.
“What’s the protocol for agony states, as opposed to environmental torture?”
“If they are only capable of agony, then we must destroy them,” Hasami answered her. “It can usually be done by Aku.”
There was a moment of silence as the damned man tried to feebly grab ahold of Odessa’s leg. She stepped back, we all did.
“Deus, miserere animae tuae.” She took breadcrumbs from her pocket, sprinkled them on the damned, blessing them.
“We’re done here, either way,” I said. “Let’s report back.”
I didn’t mind it, this place, but I wanted to get on to another realm before we turned in. That was the thing I actually did like about this job. Even though bleak and morbid, there was a beauty to every new hellscape. I preferred not to linger, but to see as much as possible. I was still readjusting.
Our ship was up on a cliff overlooking the water. Its doors opened as we neared, the cargo room seats, half of them were occupied by androids. I followed Hasami up to the front. He sat in the pilot’s chair and I grabbed hold of one of the straps overhead to balance myself. He interacted with the displays and charted a course. The rest did itself.
The ship picked up and raised into the cloud layer. Up, up, until we’d ascended into the complete darkness outside the design of hell. From there we sped faster until we could break into the non-reality that would take us anywhere.
The ship rocked. “Something wrong?” Hasami looked over our stats.
Aku replied, “No, only the natural resistance of leaving.”
“Notify me if anything is out of the ordinary.”
After a while, Hasami called to me and everyone in the back. “Hold on, full stop.”
The ship dropped back into reality, turbulence and roaring wind immediately hitting us. Snow washed over the windows. We continued to lower until the compound was in sight, down to the landing pad for a relatively soft touch.
Hasami flipped the switches and powered down the systems. “I’ll file the report, the rest is on our helmet recordings.”
“I know,” I said.
“Ah, just making sure. You’ve been away for some time, of course. I’ll see you back here after lunch, yes? And we’ll clear another sector.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
I turned and stepped down into the back with the others. The doors lowered and we ran out into the wind. It was a long trek across the courtyard to the door. Once inside, we set our helmets aside.
We usually skipped out on lunch, if we ate at all. Instead, we were heading for the recreational area. Shortly we’d walked down the halls and found it, passing only one magus. The compound was under capacity, as it was. In the recreational area, there was basketball, tennis, and tabletop games. We wandered separately, Odessa to a book, Ash to an arcade game, and I and Anna to the pool table. I set up and went first.
We played for a while, talking absently about politics. The usage of force.
I liked Anna for that. Unlike Ash, who refused to carry a serious conversation, and Odessa who bound herself strictly to religion, Anna could follow my wanderings. We spoke frequently, and her Utopian education had equipped her to cover complex topics. I, on the other hand, just knew things.
It was always pleasant.
I turned away from my shot to see what I had sensed. A familiar strong-jawed set of young men, with a dark girl at their front, followed afar by Hasami. The brothers went to basketball, Hasami, and Catherine approaching. Ash nor Odessa cared enough to stop what they were doing, so they gravitated to Anna and me.
“The Beaulieu’s are here,” Hasami said. “They met me in the cafeteria and asked where you were. I hope you don’t mind. I’ve brought my lunch.”
Catherine walked up to me, got close and grimaced. “Wow. You just pop in from being dead to play pool, you little shits?” she asked. It was rhetorical. I almost laughed out loud but decided against it.
She had been stronger than Kendall, starting out. I recalled the time we narrowly escaped fighting her brothers. Now, though, Kendall’s resourcefulness had pulled him through, again. He’d dug deep to stay in the running after we’d died, now we weren’t dead and he was far more powerful. Hehehe.
“Sorry we’re not suffering in a lower hell,” Anna shot back. “But we’re not mortal. Ain’t nothing stoppin’ us.” She smiled pleasantly.
“Burn, bitch!” Ash called from far across the room, from what should have been out of earshot. Her brothers looked but assumed he was talking to his game.
Hasami had gone to sit beside Odessa and eat.
Catherine sighed. “How was your quest?”
“Took us further than we liked. Months in the wilderness. We found the source, finally, and it was a being too powerful for us to try and fight,” I said. “A long nothing, really.”
“Odessa killed a giant snake,” Anna added.
“Oh yeah.” I’d forgotten. The Primordial was weighing on my mind.
“Sounds perilous,” Catherine sarcastically said.
She picked up a ball from the table. I made note of where it had been so I could fix it. She spoke. “You four are old news for Kendall, you know.”
I sighed. “You know it doesn’t even matter.”
“But I guess it is good that he’s over the whole slave army idea, yeah?”
“I don’t judge him for it.”
“I kinda do,” Anna interjected.
Okay, a little bit.
Catherine changed direction. “Porter finally decided that he’s reckless. First, the fishing spell idea, now self-binding. He’s an idiot.”
She was looking for information, I decided. She was curious what Kendall had actually done to convince Porter. I wouldn’t talk magic with her, though. I’d learned that lesson.
She smirked. “You know, he’s almost as nonhuman as you are, now… Anna, right? And yet he’s given freedom while you’re treated like an animal. Huh.”
Anna cringed and put a hand to her face. I could smell the sizzling flesh.
“You.” I put my stick down on the table. “Leave.”
I wasn’t putting up with that antagonistic bullshit.
“Aww.” She tapped her fingers twice on the pool table surface. I could see the connection between her and her brothers form. She was alerting them. They kept playing but watched, paying attention now.
I knew what game she was playing at. She wanted a fight. A push for Kendall to get rid of us.
I realized, too, that it could work. I was still a risk to Kendall. But now I was a risk he didn’t need. He didn’t need any of us.
That was a big problem. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it.
Catherine needed to be defused.
I could call Ash. He was good with manipulation, but he was less so with using that to stop a situation. He preferred starting them. No, I had to do this.
“We’re going to walk away now.” I put an arm around Anna, who was in pain, and we were going for the exit.
“Don’t you think it’s unfair, Anna? Or are you too eager to go fuck?”
Anna pulled away. “You know what? You are a bitch.”
“Don’t,” I tried, reaching for her. She slapped away my hand. She thought I was only looking out for her. Didn’t know she was being baited for a purpose.
“You disgust me. Seriously, what you’re doing is overtly amoral. Don’t you get that? I thought people like you weren’t supposed to exist anymore, honestly…” Then for extra measure, she added a “fuck you!”
Cat laughed loudly, openly mocking Anna’s indictment.
Her brothers were coming. Hasami realized what was happening and stood. He did not, however, have his katana with him anymore.
No weapons inside is an idiotic rule when half the weapons can’t be parted with.
The pool table burst into flame, sending Catherine stumbling back into her brothers. Hasami was moving now to get between everyone and Anna stared at the fire she hadn’t intended to start. Odessa readied her sword, Ash had vanished.
“No!” I shouted, the pool table’s fire flashing out. “We are leaving!”
This couldn’t happen. If it did, everything was over. I wouldn’t let that be.
Odessa was up and had reached my side. I didn’t look away from the Beaulieu’s when I told them to go. Catherine stepped close to Hasami who stood in her way. But he couldn’t stop her brothers from going around him.
“You are no longer clever,” Hasami told Catherine for everyone to hear. “I will testify against you to the Sensei. This room is watched.”
“You failed,” I said. “If you attack now, you’re the aggressors.”
Odessa, Anna, and I were backing out of the room. The brothers had stopped advancing, heeding the risks. Hasami briskly turned and strode past everyone to hold open the doors. “Get out,” he told us.
“Point’s proven!” Catherine yelled as we exited. It was.
Ash was waiting for us in the hall.
“I wonder if we could kill them,” he mused.
“Let’s get back to the ship,” was all I said. Before anything else goes wrong.