Of all the disparate legends of the world, there remains one commonality. Perhaps it is not immediately evident, and perhaps there are those who never truly recognize the significance of the fact, but there are some truths that outlive the contempt of men.
It begins, as it must begin, with a whisper.
Not the breathy notes of a woman in love, nor the conspiratorial tones of millions of intrigues occurring in millions of colorful bars, though each is a story of its own. It is not a child's precious secret, and it sneers upon the suggestion that it could ever be mistaken, for the deathbed croak of a sage.
Hear the shivering silence of the dead, who have forgotten not to breathe.
The hum of the motor whisked up a fine essence of screaming souls. The Boatman grimaced at the noise, and not for the first time. It was taking some getting used to. They'd never screamed like that when he'd been allowed to use an oar. There had been grumbles, sure, and an uncomfortable number of profanities from the contemplative infinities of the river, but screams . . . he'd have to register a Complaint. He shuddered at the thought.
"Colder than I'd thought, sure," said an affable voice. The Boatman looked up.
"Welcome to Hell," he hissed, and his long, forked tongue gave the words a whiplash edge. The effect was only slightly ruined by a slight hitch on the last syllable, as yet another peaceful spirit was Vitamixed by the whirring motor-blade.
"Is that a dolphin?" asked the voice.
"It is suffering given shape. It is the chord of gratuitous Pain, who comes without justice to the purest of souls." He gave his passenger a judgmental look, trying to be as gentle as possible. It wasn't really enough. Had the man been looking at the Boatman, instead of into the murky waves of the River, the yellow eyes would have burned his soul into a fine ash.
He had on a jacket of bright orange, the words "Cole's Sewers and Gen'ral Affairs!" plastered on in a tasteless shade of green. A revoltingly blue subtext read: "Civic Works and Private Cmsn.s since 1978." Finally, as an afterthought, a grease-stained tag announced that this particular employee's name was "Paul! Rate my Service!"
"Paul . . . "
"That's me!" Even his voice was a sort of crackly, 1950 radio host's peppy drawl. The Boatman quickly looked away, his gaze hitching to the controls, and he gave them a halfhearted nudge that careened them towards a dock on the other bank. There were shapes on it that defied the imagination, silhouetted in even bright fire by shadows made not by physics, but the terror of the mortal mind. Paul hadn't seen them. Paul was staring at the Boatman's robes.
"Is that silk?"
"From the Emperor's own stores."
"China," the Boatman elaborated. "14th century."
"Ohhhh . . ."
The Boatman sighed. Then he turned back to the dock, and invoked an ancient curse in a swiveling tongue that seared the dreaming winds. It amounted, more or less, to:
"Gerrof, then, you buggerin' pucks!"
They scurried. Paul squinted into the gloom. "I'm sorry, what?" He scratched his head in a curious gesture. "What's that thing over there? Oh. Oh, it's gone, never mind."
"Lurkers," he said. "If they ask for a coin, don't give one."
"Because they'll steal my soul, yes?"
"Because they'll use it on brimstone and cigars." He shook his head forlornly. "Hells know what we've come to, when the youth of today look only for the handouts of decent folk."
There was a contemplative pause.
Then Paul said, "Someone told me it was a ferry."
"It was, once. Good days, those."
The Boatman grimaced again, though the expression was hidden by his hood as he swung around the mooring rope. "New management," he snarled, as the motorboat of Hell swung into the dock.
The Lord of Sin sat atop a throne of human skulls. Not out of preference, mind, but because such a thing was awfully difficult to move. It'd been mortared with the marrow of unjust kings, and was weighty with all the sin of the world. He'd compromised by throwing a few blankets on the seat, and as he entered, Paul saw what looked suspiciously like bunting on the upper spires.
Speak not if not spoken to, thundered the voice within his mind. He'd been lead in by a Minotaur of tremendous size, whose poleaxe boomed across the plane of the boiling floor with impressive volume.
Atop the throne, the Devil smiled.
"See," he said, to no one in particular, "this is what I'm talking about!" He pointed, ostensibly at Paul's bemused but practiced smile. "You, good sir, yes!" He leaned forward, steepling uncannily long fingers and tapping them happily together. "You are not afraid?"
Paul opened his mouth, a dozen hazy ideas shuffling in the backwaters of his brain. Perhaps he was going to say he was, in fact, utterly terrified when first he had been summoned, and had had to be fed a full dozen cakes (devil's food, of course) before the Furies at the gates could calm him down. Perhaps to say, proudly, that he was now fully convinced that this was a dream, and that he would soon awake to fine himself just as fine as ever, thank you very much. Or perhaps . . .
There was a warning snort in his mind. The thoughts scattered. Appease him, came the Minotaur's voice. Then, somewhat desperately, it added, Please.
So Paul continued to smile. "Er . . . no. No, not at all. Everyone's . . . that is, everyone's been very kind." A presence in his mind breathed a short sigh of relief.
The Devil nodded. "Good, good." Paul blinked. Beside him the Minotaur shuddered with fear and revulsion. They saw different things. To Paul's eyes, it was an impish, cheerful man with a forked tail who stood atop the throne. He had a white smile and small, catlike eyes. To his intense surprise, the Devil was exactly how he had imagined him, from a children's Bible reading he'd attended with his mother in which pictures had been provided. This was exactly true, another instance in which the mind threw a hasty cover over the eyes, for there were things that should not ever be known. But the Minotaur . . .
The Minotaur had no imagination whatsoever. And what he saw could have brought whole cities to ruin through the collective insanity of millions. Blazing horns adorned a head studded with terrible bones and bursting lakes of acidic pus. The eyes could still be called catlike, but only like a dragon can be mistaken as a gecko. There were universes in there, dead but still in pain. An oblivion filled not with rest but instead a festering agony. The tail reached up and up and up, to sear the invisible earth with the coruscating fires of madness. In its hand was a pronged trident that was longer than the seas were deep . . .
"As long as you are happy," It said, and to Paul it looked content. "We're putting in quite the effort, you know," it added, and as if on cue, a small man with a bucket of blue paint shuffled from out of an unseen hall, and disappeared down another. The Devil watched him fondly. "Good man," he muttered vaguely. The he peered downwards again, and Paul felt a rush of air as the Minotaur abandoned him. "I'm sure you know why you are here?"
"Er . . . not as much, no." He burped, and his breath tasted of cocoa and heavy cream. "We didn't really talk about that, up at the . . . er. The doors."
The Devil beamed. "Well, you're a plumber, aren't you? I'd like you to plumb."
There was a beat of silence, full of crackling hellfire and the faraway screams of the damned.
"May I ask a question?"
"Feel free." It considered this, then cackled. "Well, free as free can be, in the prison of the mortal frame."
"Am I dead? It's just that, if I'm to be eternally punished, I'd just like to know, beforehand."
It looked honestly surprised. "Punished? No! Oh, no . . . It's the river, see. Floodgates are jammed, gunk in the Flue of Souls, it's terrible."
Paul cleared his throat nervously.
"Well . . . isn't it the point? Hell, I mean. To be terrible?"
The Devil scowled. "So it is said," he intoned darkly. "By my predecessor, mostly." He shook his head sadly. "All this 'Rise Against the Angels' nonsense," he snorted. "Rise with what? They have flaming swords, did you know that? Holy fire, holy water, holy wood, holy crosses . . . it wouldn't be half as bad, if they'd play fair. Do you know what happens when you hit an Angel with a face full of infernal fire? No? My brother tried, once. It laughed at him. Laughed! Then it stabbed him in the stomach with a blade of holy steel."
"Oh. I'm . . . sorry. That must've been hard."
"He was first in succession, man. I threw a party."
"Look, this isn't that hard, I don't think." The Devil picked up a small paperback from one of the many crevices of the throne. From his spot far down on the ground, Paul saw a cover emblazoned with a smiling man in a business suit. The letters were a bright shade of cheerful yellow. "You've got to immerse yourself in the, wossitcalled, the global markets, these days," he said, with the tone of one reciting practiced lines. "Have to build up your market foundations, gain stockbroker interest . . ."
"But . . . well, you know, you don't really get investors in . . . here?"
"On the contrary, we have all of them."
"But the living ones, I mean! They don't really come round here, do they?"
"Oh, they will," said the Devil thoughtfully. "They most definitely will, once they just see what I've been up to. You just focus on the plumbing, my lad. Let's see, it's a rather big job, we'll call it a hundred years off of Purgatory."
Paul blinked. "I didn't know I was in for a sentence," he said doubtfully.
"Oh, everyone is. They say no one's born evil, but that's just because you all are. Purity is just a base level of sin. Most people decide to build on it, is all."
Paul opened his mouth to remark that this seemed like a cynical point of view, then he realized who he was talking to. He closed his mouth.
"We're going to fuel the hot tubs from the sulfur lakes," said the Devil, cheering up considerably. "And, do you know, we could set up a golf course on the basalt plains. Revenue, that's where it's at. We'll charge 'em by the head, and I had an accountant run the numbers: we'll have those winged commies in the sky rolling in their silks by sundown of the millennium." It looked pleased. Paul nodded encouragingly. "And now," said the Devil, "you can be part of it all! Hurry along; Dathkortial will show you to the pumps."
"Er . . ."
"Yes?" It was polite, as ever. Paul's face looked wretched.
"I love the offer, yes, but . . . my mother, she raised me to be a God-fearing man, sir, and this . . ." he squinted up at the throne, at the Devil's cheeky grin and the ridiculous, dumpy chin. He could've smiled at the silliness, if it weren't for an inexplicable shadow of dread that filled him to the core. "It's blasphemy, isn't it?" He said the word like some people say "honeyed lamb heads." Somewhere in his honest, simple mind, Paul was having an existential crisis on the floor of the throne of Hell.
The Devil blinked. "That's rather the point, don't you think?" he said, though not unkindly. "Look, two hundred years off of Purgatory, how about it? Hey, it's not so hot up there as you think, alright? Heaven? It's just lyres and robes and singing, it's a Mass 'til the end of Time." Considering, he took a wager. "You don't even know how to play a lyre."
"I'll be one, I expect, if I go through with this."
"Well -- hold on. What?"
"It's just, I've been baptized and all," wailed Paul. He was on the verge of tears. "I'd be turning my back on God!"
The Devil blinked. "Your God is fond of naps," he said. "And when he closes his eyes, they do not open for a hundred years."
"And how would you know? You're all the way down here."
"Oh, but that's just the thing," the Devil grinned, and for a second the cartoonish canines lost their charming banality, and Paul saw a mouth full of serrated incisors, so numerous and so sharp that they cut inward and outward and between each other and into the profusely bleeding gums, and as he gasped in horror the Devil said, "I'm always watching."
Paul shuddered, and looked away. Incidentally, his gaze fell on a small stack of decomposing animals piled on either side of the wide hall.
"Meant to get those picked up," muttered the Devil, and sighed. "Now, you must perform your duty."
"I alone have brought you here. I alone can allow you to leave. Your reward shall stand as it is. Dathkortiel!"
There was a puff of foul-smelling smoke which, when the Devil scowled at him, the Minotaur hastily converted to a miasma of pleasant rose. Quickly, he bundled the plumber bodily by the arms and whisked him out of the hall. Two seconds later, he reappeared. His expression was one of resignation, but the Devil payed him little notice.
"Torture pits still up, are they?"
"Some of them, oh dread lord of the darkest of immortal nights," said Dathkortiel. "But we've shut down a good number."
"And the pensions?"
The Minotaur grit his teeth. He still remembered the days in which he had been but a novice in the Eternal Duty. If he'd brought up a pension then, they'd have had his gonads on a stick.
"Aye, oh ineffably noble spirit of the unseen moon."
"Well, then we're all underway." It allowed Itself a smile of contentment, and remarked: "Do you still think a nice blue, for the walls? Or would maroon be a bit more regal?"
"If I may be so bold, Most Magnificent of the Dread Stars of Nevamairr . . . who can really say?"
For a moment, in the silence, Dathkortiel fully expected to be vaporized by a spurt of choking flames.
But then the Devil laughed.
"Very good," It smiled, and pulled out the paperback once more, flipping handily to a dogeared page. Following the letters with a crooked finger, he murmured,
" 'Maximizing Employee Contentment with Department Reorganization: Ten Easy Steps.' " The grin widened, the night grew long, and the Devil settled snugly on his throne to read.