“Can you tell me another story?” they ask laying back on the roof to watch the oncoming display of stars. They are still getting ready, some already eager to step onto the stage and dazzle the world with their brilliance. One is too eager and falls from the stage, a beautiful blue streak shooting headfirst into the audience.
“What kind of story?” I tell them.
They shrug. ” It doesn’t matter to me. The best kinds of stories have a little bit of everything because they are not afraid to shy away from everything.”
I laugh. ” Well then you’ll need the best kind of weaver who knows how to spin all sorts of thread and wool. I am afraid horror and comedy are not the kinds of threads I can work with. But I’ll give it my best shot.”
“Welcome, welcome, to another edition of Sinful Devils!” his voice booms from the television screen, the vibrations causing the beers to jump and crash onto the cavernous floor. “Great, just great,” growled a customer, “I’ll never get the stain out of this suit! You know how much it cost me?”
His companion laughs. “I told you it wasn’t worth thirty souls, let alone fifty. Besides, why did you waste it coming here for?”
“Because” the customer pulls on his suit to better exude the air of confidence he otherwise did not have. “She comes here. And I was hoping to, uh… shit! There she is!”
Strutting sensuously, her dark skin radiating with a pale glow while her full lips pucker and tease, between the tightly packed tables is the most beautiful woman in all of the Seven Earths, or at least beautiful is what those who stare directly into her eyes call her. Because those eyes lasso them in, pulling forth the lust they carry in their hearts. Indeed, to the apathetic there was still an allure of the beauty her fine features did not conjure out of nowhere. They only made them see more than there actually was.
She sidles up to the bar, brushing her long hair streaked with silver over a shoulder, and gives the bartender a lavishing smile. He faints, his horns scrapping the freshly polished floor.
“I’m telling you, you do not want to get involved with a succubus,” the companion gravitates back towards the screen, taking a sip of the frothy liquid sloshing around in his mug.
“Oh, what do you know!” the customer takes his drink and moves away from his companion, his cumbersome legs slamming into the backs of creatures oozing slime and carrying maces; of creatures with grey skin and pinched noses snorting fire; of creatures folding their wings close to their sides while grumbling incoherently in a language belonging to their own kind. No one paid him much attention as he passes, their eyes sticking rapturously to the screen.
“You know the rules: scattered across this dingy planet are seven rings, each designed to bring out the worse in creatures who have been vouched for their goodness,” the host, a pale man with clear blue eyes known as Lucius Ferry, clears his throat and wipes away a speck of dust on his finely tailored black suit. “it is time for us to prove just how flawed these creatures are!”
The camera shifts, and the crowd becomes enraptured. A bright light dazzles the cavern, illuminating each corner of darkness and exposing their own flaws, their own insecurities in which by cover of the night were not heeded with a timid self-consciousness. They are blinded, stunned, by the unexpectedness. Quickly, they shield their eyes but just as quickly the light disappears. In its place is a new scene: a farmhouse in the middle of a snowy field.
The door to the barn slides open, and two men walk out, one carrying a bale of hay over one shoulder and sulking.
“I don’t see why I have to be the one who goes out there. It’s bloody freezing!” the first man grumbles behind a wiry mustache.
“Because it is your job,” the second one replies.
“What is going to happen if I don’t?”
“Don’t be smart with me; you know very well. Do you want to see this place dry up and starve?” The second man stays back, watching the first man trudge slowly throw the snow. From behind a nearby frozen tree, Lucius Ferry smiles as his pale, bony fingers dig inside his breast pocket and pulls out a silver band with a pale blue gem sitting on top.
“Oooh!” the audience cries. The customer inches closer to the succubus, his mouth salivating.
Lucius tosses the ring into the snow. He waits.
The first man continues to grumble between huffs of breath. The snow is dense and wading through it was like wading through syrup. He drops the bale of hay onto a frozen trough, then leans against it, quietly begging for a cigarette.
He goes to pull one out of his pocket when a white light gleams at him from beneath a snowbank. His sharp eyes easily pick it out, a planet among stars. Curiosity compels him forward, and he reaches down and plucks the ring up into the palm of his gloved hand.
“Do you think he will fall for it?” the customer asks the succubus in an attempt to garner her attention. She turns to him, eyebrows raised, and his heart flutters. “I sure hope so. It would be disappointing if he didn’t.”
The customer is smitten by her words, nearly forgetting himself. She presses a finger to his lips, silencing him before he can make a foolish mistake. “Pay attention. This isn’t something you want to miss.”
The first man removes his glove and places the ring on his middle finger. The blue gem hums softly, emitting a warm glow that disappears as quickly as it came, preferring to seek comfort in the snow. He rubs it, his eyes widening at its charm, its simplistic beauty. He could stare at it all day, and in fact that is just what he might do. He sits beside the frozen trough, the hay remaining untouched. Then he pulls out a cigarette and lights it, putting it to his lip as he smiles, his eyes still glued to the ring.
Sleep overtakes him, and he slumps to the side, his cigarette still aflame as it lays across the hay.
The fire burns and burns, destroying not just the hay but melting the fields in order to reach the soil and scorch it dry. It reaches the horses, and they whinny and cry, some of them fleeing and seeking shelter at the next farm over. That farm, too, would be given a ring, one whose stone gleamed blood red.
The second man, pausing in the middle of his own chores as he catches a whiff of smoke crawling through the crack of window, returns to check on the first man. His eyes widen in surprise at the fire engulfing his carefully tended fields.
The first man abruptly awakens, his cheek stinging. “What have you done!” The roar does nothing to dilute the second slap, which stings sharper than before. “What have you done!”
“What-what do you mean?” the first man stammers, then looks around, the wild flames filling his eyes. He immediately shoots up, a rocket soaring across the sky, and runs to fetch a pail of water, although he knew it would not do much good. The fire was deep, and the department would have to be called, but by the time they arrived it would be too late. The horses have scattered, the crops thoroughly crisped to a bone. Now it was a matter of preventing it from reaching the house, for if that went they were surely ruined.
Down inside the cavern the crowd roars with laughter. “Yes, yes! He fell for it! Stupid human, he is no better than us!” A rhinoceros- shaped creature guffaws, thumping a winged creature on the back with his gnarled hand.
“Well, that would be something, wouldn’t it?” the customer spoke to the lovely succubus, his words layered with the sort of intelligence that may curry some favor. “I have yet to see all seven contestants fail. Do you think they will? I mean, that would be something. Because I would love to roam the surface again, sticking my head in those fields of lavender and smelling that sweet smell. You know, I almost have forgotten what they were like.”
She turns to him, and the playful glint is dropped from her gaze, replaced by a wistful mist. “I too, crave for the surface again. I have forgotten what is was like to bathe in the fresh air, to sing without being commanded to, and to be free from the ravenous stares that are quite amusing but become so tiresome.”
Her sadness was unexpected. The customer yearned to reach out, to touch that delicious skin that made all like him tremble, but he refrains. Instead, he removes his jacket and pulls off his tie. He can hear the souls he took screaming at him to take it back, but he ignores them.
“I don’t understand. Aren’t you just as free here as you would be up there? The only difference is you are stuck with the grime and filth.”
She flashes a wicked smile. Her teeth, perfect and straight, gleam white. In a cave full of ugly, she maintains her beauty all the same. “You are quite right on that.” She leans in close, and he can smell her breath, sweet and salty, blow across his cheek. Involuntarily, he trembles. Sweat drips from his forehead and his heart beats, beats, beats, faster than a drum. He wants her like nothing he had ever wanted before.
“Please, keep your shirt on,” she laughs, but it is cold, humorless. “Again, you are quite right. No matter where I go, I am always surrounded by grime and filth.”
He does not feel the blades dig deep into his chest. Before he can cry out, the blood pours out like a river, flowing endlessly. With a loud thump, he hits the floor, his eyes staring one last time at a face carved from diamonds. Then his soul is gone, and he is limp and still, the pool of blood congealing around his heart.
“That was a bit harsh, don’t you think?” his companion sidles up to her, still sipping tenderly from his drink. “I was growing rather fond of the poor chap.”
The succubus licks her lips, her fangs retracting as she savors the blood she had deliciously spilled. “I’m sorry, Adam, but we are not allowed to indulge ourselves. He made sure of that.” She nods to the television screen.
“Come on, Eve,” his grabs her wrist, so smooth and slender, and pulls her up towards the front. The other creatures move aside, their eyes stuck between fear and awe. “Let’s see how the rest of it plays out.”
They sit on two stools, isolated and alone, and watch with eager eyes as Lucius directs the camera back onto the farm. He is as punctual as ever, his pale grey hands straightening the collar around his shirt, however, a faint purple bruise now appears below his right eye. His smile, once calculated and calm, struggles to hide the seething rage rippling like waves across his cheek. “Apologies for the unexpected commercial break. But fifty souls are fifty souls, so what is the harm in letting in one more advertisement. I for one could use a brand-new pair of fire-resistant sneakers.”
The laugher is hollow, forced. He coughs once, then instructs the camera to zoom in on the ring. It glows softly at first, the pale blue barely sticking out from the snow. But soon it grows harsher, shining as a star shines on a clear night.
The first man drops the pail of water and sinks into the snow, his back sliding down the barn wall. It is useless. He watches with lazy eyes as the fire continues to consume everything and anything, a starving child helping itself to large portions of a Thanksgiving meal. Sirens blare from somewhere in the distance, but he pays it no mind, instead his mind drifting to the food he suddenly craved. Working for that one bucket to put out the fire exhausted his muscles, weakening his body so that it demanded sustenance. He smiles, smelling the juicy turkey waiting to be bitten, the wild cranberry sauce jiggling on its saucer, and the steamed carrots and potatoes sitting with their hotness wafting through the air.
“Get up! Get up you sloth! You are coming with me right now!” The second man yanks him to his feet and drags him to a rusting truck parked in the unscathed patch in front of the barn.
“Where are we going?” the first man slurs.
“You are going to help me salvage what I can. The horses ran off to that cantankerous fool Mr. Barrens, and we are going to get them back or so help me!”
The second man opens the truck door and throws the first man inside. A shadow passes over his face, and he turns, spotting a raven sitting on the scorched branch of a dying tree. When he gets in, he finds a green ring sitting on top of the dashboard.
“Finally! Some luck! How much do you think this is worth?” He does not wait for a response. He takes the ring and slides it on is finger, then moves his hand over the clutch and starts of, the engine whining while the wheels squeal across the snow.
The raven flaps its wings and follows, until a voice rings in its ears. “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but, uh, he is being difficult again.”
A plume of black smoke devours the raven, and it disappears, only to reappear in a dark room shut tight against any penetrating beam of light. Sitting in the corner, his wrists bound in chains, is a man whose greying hair and wrinkled face hides away the youth he still possesses. The man, drabbed in equally grey rags, bangs his head against the black wall. With each bang, a crack appears, and a thin line of white breaks through, casting a pale, misty halo in the gloom.
“Why must you keep up this silly routine?” the raven squawks as it flaps its wings in a flurry, the feathers gradually disappearing and unfolding to reveal the tall, pale form of Lucius Ferry. He runs his hand over his long, white hair, smoothing the strands which rebelled against uniformity. “You know you are only going to hurt yourself.”
“If I must hurt myself to ruin your enjoyment, then so be it,” the man says through blood stained teeth.
“Ruin my enjoyment?” Lucius pulls up his sleeves and crosses to the wall. “You cannot possibly ruin my enjoyment, brother. Because, you see, I’m doing this for you.” He yanks his head back, his sharp fingers digging deep into his skin. Blood trickles down, and Lucius scowls.
“Look at what you’ve done! We are creatures of the darkness, living beneath the surface because we dare to be different. Well, I’m here to prove to you that your children are no better than mine. They are just as guilty as you claimed us to be, causing worse destruction, those… those… sinful devils,” he spits the words into the man’s face, and he winces. Lucius slaps him across the cheek, then looks down at his bare hand. Cracks begin to break the smoothness, and the mottled flesh, red and black as burnt charcoal, exposes itself.
“Careful, brother,” the man wheezes between broken teeth. “You begging to ruin your skin care routine.”
The remark earns him another slap. “You speak so much of ruin,” Lucius releases the man, throwing him across the floor where the filth and dust can collect on his once pearly white robes. “And yet fail to take responsibility.” He snaps his fingers and a small screen appears, floating in a fluffy black cloud.
The screen zooms out on the farm, which falls beneath a thick plume of smoke. Voices cry out, demanding more water. A beam creaks, then dislodges, falling into an empty stall. The camera changes directions, following a small rustic dot winding through the barren road and down a hill to the next farm over.
Standing outside, brushing the ash from its once silky coat, is a wiry old man with tufts of white hair poking from beneath a worn yet beloved wool cap. Despite his frame, and the paunch of a belly protruding out of his abdomen, he carried himself staunchly, with a proud gleam reflecting off round eyes that saw beyond what they should. Quickly he knew they would come, and the whispers of the red ring told him they would strike a bargain, a bargain poorly merited.
“I see you’ve lost something,” the old man says, a bite given to each word.
“And I see you found it. I would very much like them back, and all I’ll ask is a little compensation for my troubles.”
“For your troubles?” the old man laughs, and the ring on his finger gleams as it feeds off his mood. “Seems to be you brought them on yourself. If anything, you should be compensating me for the trouble I went through in retrieving these precious beasts.”
“I see,” the green ring in its own turn flashes, and if the poor lazy companion who had been dragged from the burning fields had any strength left to break away from his curse he would have seen thin, spiky tendrils pulsating up his boss’s arm. “Well, if you will not part with them willingly and you continue to negotiate on unreasonable terms, I might just have to call you a thief and take back what is rightfully mine.”
The old man’s eyes widen, and a fire crackles within them, the flames swirling in a ferocious storm. “Thief? Thief? How dare you call me a thief!”
He cranks back his fist and launches it towards the man’s jaw, cracking it. The man stumbles backward, blood dripping onto his shirt while a tooth wiggled loose. His surprise caught him briefly, for he was not expecting the old man’s withered bones to still have any juice left, but he soon retaliates, sending his own punch and putting the old man on his back. The old man hisses, a snake rearing in defense of an intruder, and grabs his shotgun leaning against the newly staked fence.
One, two, three rounds are sent into the man’s chest. Shock spreads across his face as blood stains through his jacket. He stumbles and falls forward, landing on top of the old man and crushing him beneath his weight. Crack. A rib snaps, and the old man gasps for air. The other man, the man who has started it all in the simple act of taking a ring to satiate his curiosity, stands watching, contemplating what to do. The second man is sprawled lifeless, and the old man, stumbling to get to his feet, allows himself to fall backward, his head hitting the fence, before closing his eyes for good.
The other man yanks the ring off his finger. What did he do? Or rather, what did he not do? Never once has such lethargy paralyzed him, the rabbit caught beneath the trap. For such a rabbit he is, young and spritely with a beard not fully grown. What did he do? He stares at his father’s body, the redness soaking the snow. Tears brim his eyes and fall softly, freezing in the air before they can hit the earth.
Steadily, he walks up to the shot gun, discarded and neglected in its lonesome room.
One shot pummels into the back of his skull. He falls backward, the world going black.
“Was that necessary?” The camera pulls away and angles upward into the quiet white sky. A thin stream of words fills the space, the credits rolling towards the spectators. Within the black walls voices jeer, feet slam, glasses jump from their spots and shatter onto the ground.
“Was it necessary?” The cool calm Lucius had possessed fell away like a dirty cloak no longer worth wearing. Within his smooth, pale face cracks appear, the lines a fiery red and orange slowly burning, burning, burning at the soul who has long since been withering, if there was indeed anything left to wither. “Was it necessary for you to curse me and all my children because we had the nerve to defy you, to embrace who we were, exerting our independence and free will in the manner we chose? A manner you disliked so much because it wasn’t beneath your control. We broke your rules because we didn’t want to be your slaves, and now we are slaves to deprivation. Look at us!”
Lucius yanks his brother’s head towards the floor, pushing it close against the darkness which gives way, a translucent window into the cavern where the creatures cram together on bar stools too small to bear their weight or too big to let them see over scaly heads and brutish backs. A circle has been made, a circle surrounding a bleeding body taking its last breath as he lies waiting for the help that is never to come. Instead, he is avoided by all except two pitying eyes who at that moment look up through the ceiling, through the hanging stalactites and pillars wondering if they would ever see the surface again.
“You cursed a young girl for eating a forbidden fruit and the young man who followed her. You cursed a man who wanted to see fire fly from the mountains, waves that rose tall and fell hard, and vines that bloomed into precious flowers with leaves shimmering with poison and colorful delight,” Lucius peels back his skin, the burning cracks folding inward, revealing a mottled, oozing face with sharpened teeth and small horns protruding from the temples. “Look at me, my dear brother, look at me! Why is it that it is you that can have everything while we have nothing! Your arrogance was your downfall, making it so much easier to bring you here, to the field in which you’ve sown. You think we are the only sinful devils?”
He throws his brother back against the wall. His brother scrambles to get to his feet, but falls backward, laying in a heap while clinging to defiance. “Are you expecting me to apologize? You endangered us all. You and the children I gave you. Reckless, the bunch of you.” He fumbles inside his mangled robes, searching for the last thing he took from his garden before he was unceremoniously snatched and put inside a cage.
“Reckless?” Lucius barks out cold laughter that rings around and around the abysmal room. “I think it was pretty reckless of you to make such a deal. Remember, all I had to do was prove to you that your children are no better than mine. It didn’t matter how.”
The haggard man tries not to blush. Foolish he is, for once again underestimating the rules his brother is willing to play at. There are no rules. To match him, he needs to meet him where he is at. He needs to play his game.
He glances over at the wall. Earlier, he had threw his head at it, banging it repeatedly not in the hopes to break the cage and fly to his escape, but in the hopes that a crack would form and there would be a chance. In the middle of the wall a dent appears, and a thin stream of white light waves timidly from beyond.
“All I need now is a few more souls,” Lucius continues, his own arrogance swelling from the spitefulness that wedges between them. He swipes a hand through the air and floating in a puffy swirl of black clouds is and hourglass, the sand filling most of the bottom while a small pinch stood need the top. Lucius smiles a wicked smile. “All I need is a half dozen more contestants. Then I win. I needed to show you, and you kept raising the number. I think a googolplex should suffice, don’t you think?”
“You’re a cheater, you know that?” The man finds the ring and grips it firmly in his damaged hand, scared and burned and missing two fingers as a punishment for his first attempt to disrupt his brother’s plans. This time, it would be different.
“And you’re a self- righteous hypocrite. Sure, I gave them a little push, but the rings only feed off what is only there. You should be thanking me, too, because you get off lightly, unlike the rest of us.”
Lucius glances down through the floor and catches Eve’s pleading eyes. “When will this be over?” she mouths to him.
When he looks back up, the haggard man is at the wall, pushing a white-jeweled ring past the tiny gaping hole. It barely makes it.
“What are you doing!” Lucius roars, then grabs his brother by the collar. His face is broken, the fire erasing the smooth skin completely, and is skull burns, with bubbly charcoal oozing from each orifice. “I should kill you and be done with it!”
“Why haven’t you?” the haggard man gasps, gritting his teeth. He catches something in Lucius soulless eyes, something alive and moving: a silver of pain brought on by a shattered love. Lucius tosses him against the wall and turns, a cloud of black smoke shrouding him as his arms bind to his body and are replaced by black wings. He flies off, following the ring as it continues to fall.
Down, down, down it drops into a crowded street where feet jostle back and forth, back and forth, a steady stream of impatience and short-sightedness merging into one large reservoir. The ring is kicked, and it flies across the pavement, skipping like a stone until it lands in the pocket of a woman, a woman whose angelic face is battered and bruise, whose throat is slashed and scared with thin red lines. The woman flinches at each passerby, fearful she would run into his cold, pale, calculating face. So she moves fast, the ring bouncing inside her pocket and waiting for the inevitable moment where she would slip it on.
The raven gawks in surprise. The woman was supposed to be a victim; she was not supposed to have survived her ordeal against Lust. Yet here she was, and he could hear his brother’s determined voice call out to him:
“Wherever you go, whatever you do, you cannot stop Hope. For as long as Hope thrives, their souls will live. Keep trying, brother, but you will never get to the surface, not while there is yet Hope.”
The raven flutters his wings and takes off, soaring above a foggy city that grew smaller and smaller. It is not over, he thinks to himself. He will find away back. He must. He cannot give up his own Hope, even if it has been taken from him. “You are right brother. As long as Hope thrives, I will never stop getting to the surface. Never.”