The bell’s toll rang through the claustrophobic pass, its weight trapped and reverberating in our tight space, rattling me through.
The darkness was complete. Ash was leading our way, the ragged breathing the three of us emitted was only interrupted by the deafening bell. Odessa and Ash were without breath and beating heart. We were packed closely together, locking hands, with our back and fronts scraping across the stone walls. I could swear they were tightening.
When the bell subsided, there was only breathing again, until Anna spoke. “Guys, I’m having trouble… getting air.”
“There is air, there is space. Stay calm,” Amanda ordered.
“That… isn’t going to help… I think.”
You can’t simply tell a stressed person to calm, or a depressed person to cheer up.
I squeezed Anna’s hand. “You can feel it easing up, can’t you?” I tried.
“Can you? Feels like it’s… getting tighter,” she said, panic creeping into her tone.
“I can see,” Ash called from the front. “It’s not getting worse.”
I was almost certain he was lying.
A few minutes passed before she spoke again. “It is not getting better, alright? Don’t fuck with me! This is…” she heaved a breath, “getting worse.”
“Calm down… soldier,” Amanda admonished. “Nobody’s hurt.”
“My name is Anna Canton…” she reminded Amanda. “We have to turn back… we’re going to get stuck!”
“That is not an option, Anna…” She had to stop talking for a moment as she struggled past a rough patch on the wall. She was stuck for a moment but freed herself. “We keep pushing or we are dead. Die or move forward, those are the options.”
Anna didn’t respond. I could feel the heat pouring off her, beginning to burn my hand. Odessa felt it too. “You mustn’t fear, dear girl.”
“Guys…” Anna started. I could hear and smell her burning skin. She had fallen silent and her hand shook slightly.
She’s not just air, she’s wind. Wind does not exist in a trap. Fire suffocates.
She was going to burn us alive in this crack in the rock. You couldn’t even call it a hall anymore. It was becoming a fucking press-oven as the stone heated.
“Can you turn your head to me,” I asked.
She didn’t respond, she had stopped moving.
Amanda shouted at us to move, but I barked back, “stop!” I removed my hand from Anna’s and reached up to touch her cheek, her face turned to me. “I need you to know, Anna. I love you. I care about you, I mean.” I bit my tongue. Fuck. “You have to move if you care about us. You’re killing us.”
If reason didn’t work, I prayed emotion would.
There was a long, breathless, moment.
Anna unfroze and started moving.
Not surprisingly, a light appeared ahead only a few minutes later. The passage’s opening appeared. Through it, we stepped out onto uneven ground. There was a wood fire a few paces out, embers rising up into the vaulted ceiling.
Around the flame were two Damned. One was a man, the other, an indistinguishable corpse, lipless and rotting.
Anna fell to her knees once free, sucking in air. We each stumbled apart, getting some space. I laid down and stretched, feeling heavy and constricted. I was glad that nightmare was over. Odessa looked to me down at her feet. She and Ash were unaffected.
“Sorry, Anna,” Amanda said. “I don’t know you well enough, apparently.”
“I’m okay now,” Anna responded, talking to everyone, really.
“Doga sob hedio mahnda?” the Damned man spoke, still sitting.
The corpse seemed to reply, mumbling out, “Oen creel.”
They were talking about us, wondering what we were. I could hardly make out their meanings, though. Most of the words they used were from a language they barely remembered. Eventually, they would lose even that.
“What do they say?” Odessa asked.
They’re not interested in anything, really. They just try to stay sane. But even sanity has an object. Even sanity stops being ‘right’, here in the absence.
Amanda was antsy to keep moving, of course, so Odessa helped me up. Anna was being a little despondent, but I wasn’t worried much. She needed space.
This room had two doors on its back wall. The cut stone became craggy further back towards the thresholds, devolving into cave-like rock.
“Can we get any of that fire?” Amanda wondered aloud.
The Damned man’s hand moved to a rusty dagger in his lap.
“It’s an ember of divinity,” I said. “We shouldn’t take from it, I think.”
“Thaga theus, aj,” the corpse whispered, angry. He caught her intention.
Amanda looked at the two door choices ahead. “Can we, is what I asked. You were the one who said we needed fire. There it is.”
“Hell is the absence. We don’t want to disturb what grace there is, here.”
She gave me a look and I knew what it meant. Again, not what I asked.
When I didn’t say anything, she reached down and grabbed the unburning end of a piece of wood from the fires. “There. Our mission comes first.”
The corpse lunged with a screech towards her but fell dead before he could fully rise. The entire thing happened in a second. Ash’s reaction had been too fast to see. A knife stuck up from the dead’s head, his hands continuing to grasp at her feet. The Damned man cursed at us but stayed sitting, put away his dagger.
“Our duty is to these people,” Amanda told me. “We can’t let them stop us.”
“It’s a stairway down this one,” Ash called, poking his head in the door. Then in the next, “This way’s a bunch of jail cells.”
“That way,” Amanda pointed to the latter door. “We can’t go down. We need to gain height. Find daylight.”
We followed her lead now, as she had the fire. Ash was close behind her, with Anna and me following, Odessa covering our back. We left the Damned man watching us from his safe fireside sitting place.
With Amanda setting the pace, we jogged past every cell. As our torchlight passed, it cast a moving shadow of bars across skeletally thin and haunting Damned. They lay lifeless in blood and shit, some rolling their heads to cast eyes set deeply in their skull at our passing. The cells ran on and on, easily for thirty minutes, after which there were fewer and fewer occupants in them. We’d soon gone far enough for the fire’s light behind us to fade, and were walking the seemingly endless chain.
Hell was full of so much monotony, that it almost felt lazily constructed. Without thought to building costs or purpose to the architecture, elements were repeated with abandon. Miles of jail cells and carelessly placed bottomless pits.
An hour or more passed before Anna asked Ash, “see anything?”
We slowed some and he pushed Amanda’s torch away, squinting past it into the black. “No, it fucking doesn’t end.”
“There should be something getting back to us, but I don’t see anything out there. It’s gotta be some kind of trick. I see in the dark. I can even see Doran in the dark. It has to be a trick.” Ash turned around and looked back the way we’d come. “Can’t see the fire, either. We’re fucking snared, girls.”
“That’s not how this works,” Amanda said.
I had an inkling. I pulled up my silver pistol. I fired down the hall a green bolt which went on out of sight. I had a thought. Shit. “Get down!” The bolt zipped by overhead as we ducked. It made one more pass and we waited. After several minutes, we knew it had fizzled out somewhere.
“It’s a loop,” Odessa stated.
“Perceptive,” Ash derided.
“Amanda, what did you do last time?” I asked her.
She responded, “I didn’t. It didn’t do this last time. Honestly, it didn’t do any of this. It was testing me to my ability last time, this time, I think that it’s testing us. We have to keep going or we fail.”
“But going straight is literally going nowhere. Look!” I pointed to the cells on either side. Stepping further to the next, you could see. They were each identical. Exactly and perfectly the same, down to the last stain of blood. The floor, too, had run into a pattern of cobblestone. It repeated, and had been losing details since they’d begun. “I know what this is. It’s a complexity descent. Reality is deteriorating around us! We have to get out.”
“We get out by going forward, that’s how this works. Hell is a choice. That’s the fundamental of it. You take what you have into the afterlife, and can only lose, not gain. If we lose our direction, we will never get it back. This is a test like everything else here.”
“No…” I told her. “This is cosmic fucking witchcraft.” A hush fell on the others as I said it. Amanda was only stunned for a moment before making up her mind.
“You’re wrong, Doran. Listen to me, I’ve done this before-”
“But you didn’t see anything like this,” I cut her off. “Are you Attuned, Amanda? Looking at this, it’s like we’re walking down the sides of a pit. Sense it.” I apparently wasn’t as Attuned as I thought I was. I should have seen this for what it was at first sight. Was it me, though, or was it subversion?
This is terrifying work, I realized. A seamless perversion of metaphysics.
Amanda knew better. “I’m ordering you. Keep moving.”
“No,” I told her. I had to do it. “I have to act according to the best of my knowledge, or else I would be acting in bad-faith. The mission comes first.”
“I will leave you behind.”
“Will you leave us behind?” I had faith in my friends.
Funny, I had never used that word before, thinking of them. They were my friends.
“Doran knows what he’s talking about,” Ash ratified. “We know it.”
“We have to go back,” I said.
Amanda grabbed at her hair in frustration but there was nothing there. She didn’t know what to do for a moment, and then she did. She drew her pistol.
“I can’t let you. I know you’re wrong.”
Two people acting rationally, with good will, yet one of us would cause evil. Only one was right. “I’d rather kill myself, thanks.” I put her behind me and walked.
A bolt of energy was fired over my right ear, shrieking past. I wouldn’t stop.
“You’re killing them, too!” she shouted. “Please!”
I took a breath and turned around. “Please,” I repeated her. “Please come with me. I know manipulation when I see it. This isn’t natural, this loop. If you stay, you won’t be able to use your spell to get out. We’ve gone too deep. We have to go back.”
“Don’t,” she pleaded. I couldn’t make her trust me.
“We can afford to get lost, Amanda. This trap, though? You can’t escape from it. Please, risk the mission, don’t risk your life.”
“I’m not failing. I have my duty.”
I had never put back my pistol, from firing a shot into the dark. With my thumb, I switched it to stun and considered my decision. She was aiming directly at me and set to lethal. I didn’t know if I was fast enough, but I knew what would happen if she went on.
It would be my fault.
I threw my arm up and fired. There were two flashes of light and in an instant, Amanda fell and so did I. The world overturned as I twisted and crumpled into the dirt, everything blurring away.