On the third day of the new year I found myself standing on a reef overlooking the forgotten part of the ocean, bait in hand, summoning the oldest, most terrible leviathan our world has known.
The captain spent our final days together explaining exactly where I was heading in great detail. It was impossible to believe – I would have thought him mad, except for a stubborn sanity in his eyes that made it all the more unsettling. With a deep apology and expression of faith, he deposited me on the lonely reef with enough food to last for ten days and a sack of raw souls. The latter was bait. Walking the circumference of the tiny reef for days, souls bobbing in the water behind me, I began to question whether the serpent could be summoned and instead began succumbing to doubt: doubt of its existence, of the old man being more than a prolonged fever dream, of this entire journey being anything more than an elaborate prank my psyche played on itself.
Then late on the seventh afternoon, I felt the blood pooling at my feet. I shot up at once, peering into the unnaturally still waters below. A swath of reflected light. Gradually it grew, until at last I could make it out – her abominable teeth, visible from miles below, growing larger as she picked up speed. The blood drained from my entire body as she crawled up the spine of the world, faster and faster, an impossibly gargantuan worm even from far below. After a lifetime of lying dormant, my fear began surfacing with her. Before it overtook me, Gehenna shot out of the ocean, her mile-long jaw wide open, swallowing me. For a moment she must have been suspended in the air, eclipsing the sun, baring her terror to the world. Then with a seismic splash she plunged back into the water, the rest of the planet silent in her wake, holding its breath. And so I entered hell.
The swamp that was her tongue was as interminable as the captain had described, and littered with new corpses. The darkness and the stench were nearly overpowering, but slowly through the long slog I became acclimated, until finally I could see a hazy red glow in the distance. The echo of my sludging feet reverberated dismally down the seemingly endless cavern, and this more than anything filled me with a ripening despair. I walked the trembling muck for hours. Finally, with spasms of terror, I made my way to the enormous, membranous gates guarded by what any mortal would consider a demon.
Gaunt and bald and gangrenous, Asmodeus delivered what was supposed to be a wicked smile of recognition. He was expecting me. His speech oozed from his mouth, a bitter glee I could not understand. Long-calcified fingers caressed each other as he spoke, pointing at me from time to time to enunciate some point. That I could not understand him seemed impossible to him, and he continued for some time, eyeing me as his grin encroached on the rest of his face. He then spoke what must have been a question, full of finality. I nodded tersely, as the captain had instructed, and the fleshy gates creaked open for me.
Walking through the first city I sunk my dread by marveling at the complex symbiosis Gehenna had developed to prolong her life, and at the misconception that created our most enduring myth. The landscape was biological, but the heat was very real. And while the smell wasn’t brimstone, its stale sulphuric stench was far more sickening. There were the “demons” atop each organ’s promontory, the oldest victims, their pre-human sanguine skin taut against their emerged skeletons. In a dull, hypnotized state they processed the more recent victims – something that those allowed escape would describe as endless torture. Farther back the oldest humans rammed processed victims into the walls of the inferno, feeding Gehenna through her skin. There she would at once eat at their flesh and feed them nutrients that would keep them alive interminably, allowing them to heal before feeding on them again. Eternal damnation, as it were.
Past the industrial pits, the intestinal city snaked onward, its inhabitants long ago succumbing to the heat and the acrid air, crawling along the sides of the yellowing Lethe, seeking they knew not what. Behind them clusters of tumor-like growths suggested structures that some would liken to a city of the damned. I walked, head bowed, until I found my way past the first city and began my descent into the bowels of the underworld, where few living things were brought.
The heat magnified further down and the darkness became more menacing. Waiting in it were prehistoric monsters, kept alive by Gehenna to add color to the inferno and keep the slaves working. I proceeded silently amidst the deepest shadows, hoping even they could not sense me. After seeming eternity I arrived at my destination. The Tower, the enormous pillar-shaped growth nestled between Gehenna’s organs, was even more vile than described. Gastric juices flowed around the base, and as my gaze climbed higher I noted all the diseases that inflamed it, giving it a yellow, decaying facade. Hesitating for only a moment, I stepped into the shallow, gastric moat and made my way to the entrance.
The long, winding ascent up the growth was made more difficult by the fleshy floor and quivering walls. To either side were cells hosting its oldest, most important prisoners, or what was left of them. I kept my eyes fixed on the floor ahead, as seeing them in this state would likely destroy me. Rounding the last corner, I entered a long room and found him there. My companion hung lifelessly, half-submerged in a veiny wall, as an impossibly tall woman spoke sternly at him. And here was the most improbable part of the tale I’d been told. I was staring at Lucifer.
The order and character of what came next is difficult to express. Whether Lucifer spoke, or I was made aware of her message otherwise I know not. Whether she lashed out at me violently or took pity and held me in a long embrace I am equally unsure. Moments or hours later I found myself submerged in the wall alongside my companion, aware of a few things. It was Lucifer who had chased us across the world. It was Lucifer who brought the old man here. It was Lucifer who operated in an ancient symbiosis with Gehenna as the author and arbiter of the underworld.
“I am happy to see you.” I nearly choked at the old man’s words, that he wasn’t dead. Then recalled our situation.
“Happy that we are to die together?”
“We will not be prisoners here forever. The worm is transporting us, not holding us captive.”
“Where is she taking us?”
“To her employer. To the one I have been avoiding since the beginning.”
After some time, Lucifer returned and sat wordlessly in front of the old man expectantly. A storyteller’s pause; the slow recollection of what tales were left to tell. Then he began, telling Lucifer stories of the sisters.