Fifteen. I sighed and drew back to inspect my work. It was not up to my usual standard. My fatigued arms screamed for a break, and against my better judgment, I dropped the axe and soon followed it to the ground. I sat dejectedly, flicking pebbles just to see how far I could. It was not very far.
“How many have you done?”
I turned. It was 1260. 1260 was the closest thing I had to a friend down here, but we really didn’t know anything about each other.
1260 laughed. “Fifteen’s good. But it doesn’t seem like you’ve actually done much.”
I scowled. “Shut up.”
1260 plopped down next to me and sighed. We sat in silence, staring at the vast hordes of workers, hacking, mining, running. It was a terrible yet powerful sight.
“I wish we could just turn all of it around,” 1260 said wistfully. “Undo everything, y’ know?”
I didn’t answer. 1260 stood up. “Time to get back to work. See you around.”
1260 sauntered off, whistling a sad tune. It sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
I scrambled to my feet and hacked another time at the tree in front of me, then turned around. “Yeah? I just dropped my axe.”
The speaker smiled thinly. “I’m not here about you slacking off.”
The speaker’s brow darkened. “But you will still speak to me with respect.”
“That’s not,” I muttered under my breath.
“What was that?”
“I said, okay. What are you here for?”
The speaker didn’t answer immediately. “Is there something special about you, 4104?”
I blinked. “Special? About me?”
“No, about the tree behind you. Is that 4104, too?”
I retorted, “I guess it’s just my overall brilliance. Why?”
The speaker bared two sharp fangs. They reached down to a point which resembled a fleshy chin and curved slightly to end at two sharp points. They were without blemish; flawless in their shape and polish.
“The Devil has asked to meet you. Again.”
It felt like I had stopped breathing, even though I didn’t really breathe. I had met the Devil just once before, and it was not a pleasant experience.
The speaker shrugged. “I guess you’ll find out soon enough.”
“Don’t call me darling.”
“Anything you say, dear.”
I gave up. “For the Devil,” I growled, “you sure know a lot of sweet nicknames.”
The Devil smiled innocently. “Just the annoying ones, honey. How much sugar do you take?”
“From you, none.”
“I see you still don’t trust me.”
“Of course not,” I snapped. “You’re the Devil.”
The Devil winced. “Please don’t call me that. It’s not a name I prefer.”
“Okay, sweetheart,” I snarked.
The Devil laughed. “I like you. You’re a funny one.”
They poured the tea from the kettle into the cup, making a soft hissing sound. I sat at my place at the table, resolutely staring away from the thin, almost-womanly figure at the counter.
Look at the fireplace, I told myself, a warm, nice red, isn’t it? I wonder if Santa comes here. Santa. Rudolph. Blitzen. Reindeer. Anything but that. Anything but that. Not that.
The Devil turned to me. The apron around Their waist-area slithered back into nothingness, exposing a rather gaudy pair of floral pants. “Tea’s ready. I hope you don’t mind, I took the liberty of putting two sugar cubes in yours.”
I didn’t answer. I continued to look away. The Devil tutted softly. They put the tea down on the table and snapped their fingers. My chair groaned and sprang to life. It whirred and creaked and crawled closer to the head, where They were sitting. The large oak table seemed to shrink in size till it became a rather cozy center-table, with the two chairs almost touching each other. In vain, I tried to pull my chair away; it was stuck firmly to the ground.
“So,” said the Devil, sipping Their tea. “How do you find my home?”
I resisted the urge to nod for a full thirty seconds before I gave in. “It’s nice,” I said grudgingly.
“Isn’t it?” said the Devil. I detected something like pride in Their voice. “I built the entire thing myself. From scratch.”
I nodded. “Good for you.”
The Devil sighed happily, taking a long look around the room. The walls were a brilliant maroon, the translucent bookshelves at one end shimmering from the light of the fireplace. The table was located at the center of the room, not far from the kitchen. It was rather a warm place, but I still had a thick coat on.
“Have some tea.” The teacup floated up to my face, hovering a few inches from my lips. It tilted ever so slightly, sending a cloud of steam up to my glasses. I wiped them with the sleeve of my coat and the teacup blew another cloud of steam.
“It’s going to keep doing that unless you drink,” said the Devil serenely. “I’d advise against getting it more than a few times on your face. It might contain poisonous gases.”
“You’re joking,” I waved another cloud of steam away and snatched the cup. I glanced suspiciously at the tea one last time before emptying the entire cup down my throat. It stung a little, but it was a pleasant sort of sting; like the pain in the fingers after playing the guitar too much, I thought, or the pain of a hangover, or the pain of leaving the body at death.
I blinked. That turned dark quickly.
“What do you want?” I demanded, once the discomfort had subsided.
The Devil didn’t answer.
“What do you want from me?” I nearly shouted.
“Do you know what you have to do to return to life?”
It took some time for the question to sink in. I thought for a moment, back to our first meeting. “You told me I needed to chop off the entire tree. The one near the Garden.”
The Devil nodded. “How much have you done till now?”
I laughed bitterly. “You don’t think I’ve known? It’s an infinite tree. I hacked off fifteen branches today in the last two minutes; that’s how good I’ve become.”
The Devil looked both surprised and proud. “Your arms say you’re not lying,” They said admiringly.
I looked down at my biceps and loosened the coat so that it didn’t stick to the muscles. “What’s the point of this?”
“What if I tell you,” said the Devil, “what if I tell you, that you might have another chance?”
“To cut off another infinite tree? No thanks.”
“No,” the Devil giggled. “Not to cut off another perfectly-finite-but-very-big tree. I meant another chance at life.”
I dropped the cup. It shattered, but the Devil waved it back. “Careful, dear,” They admonished.
“At life?” A shiver ran up my spine. The word sounded strange now, foreign; it had been such a long time since I had said it out loud.
The Devil smiled. It was a mix between a sad smile and a mischievous smile. I didn’t like it.
“Yes, at life.”
There again. The shiver. An icy hand crawling, creeping its way up my back, till it hits the base of my brain. It rendered me ineffective; unable to think.
“So,” said the Devil, with the same smile on Their face, “what do you say?”
The icy hand retreated. I forced my shallow breathing to slow down; forced myself to think. It seemed far too golden to be true.
And then it hit me. “What’s the cost?”
“What’s the price?” I raised my voice. “What do I need to do to take the shot?”
The Devil grinned slyly. “Why would you assume there’s a price?”
“With you,” I said bitterly, “there’s always a price.”
“It’s nothing much.” The Devil refilled my teacup. “I’m afraid it might be rather shocking, but…” They shrugged. “C’est la vie.”
It was a cruel joke.
“What’s the price?”
“Before I tell you, my darling, I must remind you that this is non-negotiable. You have to do what I say.”
“Unless I refuse,” I reminded.
The Devil nodded. “Unless you refuse, but, then again, why would you?” They smirked knowingly.
They took a sip of Their tea and dabbed at the corners of Their mouth before continuing. “I understand you and 1260 are particularly close?”
“Not particularly, no.”
“Oh, there’s no point in lying, dear, surely you know that by now.”
I sat silently.
“Very well, we shall continue with that assumption. If you were to accept life again, any and all sins you are currently paying for will be transferred to 1260. Furthermore, any sin you commit in your future life will also be added immediately to 1260 here. So maybe try and be a bit better behaved, eh?”
I blinked. That’s it? A new life and no worry about sin? It was a brilliant opportunity; one that I was sure would come only once. I opened my mouth to say ‘Yes,’ but somehow, the word shriveled up and died in my throat.
I didn’t know 1260. I certainly didn’t care for 1260. So why did I feel hollow inside? Why did I suddenly feel suffocated? Out of choices?
“I… I don’t know,” I heard myself say.
“I thought you might say that,” said the Devil. “Which is why you have exactly fifteen seconds to decide.”
I blinked. Fifteen seconds? I couldn’t relieve myself in fifteen seconds; never mind make a life-changing decision.
Another bad joke.
“Think fast, dear,” purred the Devil.
“What happens if I choose life?”
“What happens? You get life, duh.”
“No, I mean what are the rules?”
“Rules?” The Devil looked sincerely puzzled.
“The caveats. The stipulations. Maybe it’s just a half-life, or I can’t think, or some such absurd condition.”
The Devil put an affronted hand to Their chest. “My dear, it’s hurtful to me that you would even think of such a thing! Why would you-”
“Cut the drama!” I said irritably. “You’re the Devil. You must be used to such questions.”
“There are no rules,” said the Devil. I couldn’t be sure whether They were serious or not, but They looked quite serious. “Honestly.”
I wasn’t supposed to think twice about such an offer. It was a brilliant deal; there was no denying that. But there was still that aching in my chest. It only got worse as the Devil continued to chatter away.
They spoke of the horrifying new ways of torture the Modern Era brought. They spoke of the terrors that powerful people inflicted on their people.
The back of my head pounded.
They spoke of the gruesome, grotesque murders; an almost monthly occurrence in some parts of the world. They spoke tenderly of the destruction of the world.
My vision swam. Purple spots blossomed in front of my eyes.
They spoke of such things I could accomplish if I chose life. I was to be Their servant, I realized. Nothing more, nothing less.
At the end of just over six minutes, They stopped, breathless with excitement, “So, are you up for it? What do you choose?”
I stood up, holding my teacup. My vision blurred and I leaned on the table. “I choose…” And then I raised the teacup, took a quick step forward and smashed it against the Devil’s head.
I don’t quite remember what followed, but I woke up with my axe in my hands, sleeping in front of my infinite tree.
“Hey,” said a voice next to me. It was 1260. “They’re coming for inspection. Better act like you were chopping all this time.” There was genuine concern in 1260’s voice.
I blinked and stood up, taking a good look at 1260 for probably the first time. “Yeah.” I hacked at the tree, counting each stroke under my breath.
“1260,” I said, after the inspector had left, “I just realized that I’ve never asked you.”
“Asked me what?”
“How did you come to be here?”
1260 grunted as the axe hit the tree. “Well…”
“Yeah?” I prodded.
“It’s probably best if we go somewhere else. Just for this bit.” 1260 looked a little uncomfortable. I glanced around; there were no inspectors in sight.
I turned back to 1260 and took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”