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Fantasy Horror Drama

As I descended deeper into Hell, I tried to ignore the thin wisps of black smoke that whistled past me on their way to the mortal surface. I knew from failed early expeditions that they carried Satan’s wicked whispers. His was the most effective style of power: one which needn’t be physically enforced—to which fearful men giddily kneeled.


The Dark One had my Elizabeth.


I marched through winding tunnels for what might well have been months, with nobody to talk to but the angel Azrael, whose spirit I’d sealed in my iron plate armor. With my blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) garments, I would not burn or freeze in Hell’s tempestuous climate. More importantly, I stood a chance against the horde of demons who would obstruct my crusade. I would deal with the consequences of betraying God later...


After he tired of giving me the silent treatment, Azrael turned out to be an excellent guide to the underworld. He assured me that Dante’s concept of distinct circles was nonsense, but conceded that the poet had successfully identified the gist of the structure. It is true that the depth of the soul’s resting place in Hell is partly determined by the severity of their mortal sin, and it is true that frauds and traitors endure ironic torture at the deepest reaches.


I’m down here, Jules. Way, way down. Come to me and take away the pain.


Elizabeth’s words were trailing whispers in the echo of my every thought.


I first heard the call on the surface in the wake of the accident which took her life. A lot has happened since then—I was one of a few lost souls who were keenly aware of every single sin that brought them under. What my Elizabeth could have done to incur such wrath, didn’t matter to me. I would save her from Him.


---


“I don’t know, Az. I feel like we’re not making any progress.”


Sitting at the mouth of a blackened passageway, I looked down at my armor. The enchanted iron, dull and pockmarked with dents made along the tumultuous journey, vibrated softly as Azrael spoke with his warm voice.


“Poppycock,” he said, and it was as if the sound were coming from inside my head. “The tunnels are messing with your mind. We’ve taken a few detours, to be sure, but we’re making progress nevertheless. In fact, I’m certain no mortal has ever come this far.”


“That’s reassuring.”


“It ought to be. Think of all you’ve accomplished.”


“I have kicked a lot of ass, haven’t I?”


“In no uncertain terms. I was especially impressed when you fashioned that hellhound’s bleeding corpse as a mace and neutralized those cyclops brutes.”


I smiled at the memory. I thought, you know, under different circumstances, I might allow myself to consider this fun. Then I frowned, remembering the price I’d paid for the experience. I wonder what Heaven would have been like. 


“Az, where would Dante say we are—in terms of the circles I mean?” I felt stupid asking about the circles again. They were a crude approximation, but my mortal mind found it helpful to track landmarks.


Azrael paused, apparently performing some calculations. “Roughly speaking, I believe we’re sitting at the mouth of the eighth.” 


I craned my neck and squinted uselessly into the pit of darkness. “Fraud, right? Is that why it’s so dark? To keep you from seeing who’s who?”


“Say what you will about God, but they clearly have a sense of humor.”


“And I imagine that, if one found themselves in that darkness for long enough, they could quite easily lose track of who they are?”


“I believe that’s the idea, yes.”


“And it’s the only way down.”


“Indubitably.”


I had to laugh at the misfortune I’d earned. “Well, why not? What’s two more circles of Hell to a pagan like me?”


I steeled myself and walked into the darkness. As I crossed the threshold, my torch was immediately extinguished. I turned around to leave, but the opening was gone.


“Your torch won’t work,” whispered Az.


I replied with fear-masking frustration. “I’d be doomed without your analytic—”


I froze mid-sentence, noticing an odd phenomenon as the words came out of my mouth. Something was missing. Something often taken for granted, but without which speech does not feel complete.


“Az,” I whispered, shoulders tensing instinctively. “Where has the echo gone?”


The base of my skull buzzed as he replied. “First, I want to say it’s important that you don’t panic, alright? Okay, I’ll cut to the chase. There’s only one reason you wouldn't be hearing an echo right now.”


“What is it?” I asked with more than a little urgency, gripping the hilt of my sword tight and slowly drawing the blade. 


“Something,” said Az, “or more precisely, a lot of somethings, are absorbing the sound.” I detected a hint of fear in his voice as well.   


I felt a gust of wind at the back of my neck. Whipping around to face it, I swung my sword out in a sweeping arc. I struck something, feeling a rush of satisfaction before bright lines of pain clawed their way across my back. That the invisible creature’s claws had penetrated my skin surely meant that they had torn the armor asunder.


The seal!


I called for Azrael, but he did not respond. I didn’t have time to think about what that meant. For the next several breaths, I listened intently for signs of movement and swung my sword wildly in their direction. Some landed with a thwack and a squeal, and some kept accelerating across my body, throwing me off balance. The claws of the creatures reached me twice more: once in the lower left leg, once across the right half of my abdomen. As the pain immobilized me, a smattering of white spots appeared against the overwhelming black.


As I collapsed to my back, I felt large hands clasping my shoulders, wrists, and ankles, pinning me to the floor. It took everything I had left to keep my mind running, to keep from falling under. I thought of Elizabeth, the way she was always looking for a movie that would make me cry, and how excited she would be when I saw her again, because I would surely be crying then.


Suddenly, the room was filled with golden light, as if the sun was rising all at once.


I saw the misshapen black figures standing over me, shielding themselves. They retreated to the edges of the cave, but this was useless, for no dank corner was safe for these souls distorted by their eternity in darkness. The cool stone beneath me was wet with blood, some of it mine. I lifted my head to look at the source of the light, but the effort required to do so proved too much for my failing body. I fell back to rest, my world spinning until it faded away altogether.


---


I awoke to the crackle and flicker of torchlight.


“Good morning! Well, it might be morning, I don’t know. Good waking.”


A figure stood before me, tall, broad, blond, and beautiful. I wouldn’t normally describe a man that way, but this one qualified. It was a puzzlingly cheery Azrael. He’d returned to the physical form he was in when I fooled him into bonding his soul with my armor.


I felt between the tears in my armor and found that my wounds, though still extremely painful, were closed.


“How long was I out?”


“Oh, I should think no more than a few hours. Don’t worry, I’ve cauterized everything for you.”


I blinked at the angel, searching his eyes for what I should say next. “Thank you for saving me, Az,” I began. “You had no reason to, you know, after everything I’ve put you through.”


He laughed heartily at my blubbering. “Save it, Jules. You’re going to need every last bit of energy you can muster if you’re going to get through this.” He scratched his head coyly. “Besides, we angels are accustomed to treachery.” He gestured to his right. “Speaking of which…”


I looked down an enormous black hill at what could only be the last circle of Hell. The distance between the eighth and the ninth was less than that between any of the previous circles. As such, I could see it all clearly: the great frozen lake of blood and despair, and the beast half-trapped within, a gargantuan crimson dragon. 


Satan.


Before we set off, I gave Az a meaningful nod. I couldn’t bring myself to vocalize a single decibel of the deafening gratitude I felt. When he floated down the hill, I plodded after him like an anxious servant. We never discussed why he was helping me, but I suspect he didn’t need any reason beyond the opportunity to help a desperate soul find peace.


The moment I set foot on the ice, Satan shook free of his slumber. Everything below his neck was submerged in the ice, thank God. He turned to us and bore his blackened teeth, most of which were as long as one of my arms.


I drew my sword, stepped firmly forward, and presented it hilt-up to the beast, revealing the sharp iron cross I’d soaked in the blood of his demons. I steeled myself and began reciting the words I’d been preparing in dull moments since my journey into the underworld began. “Look here, you-”


The beast snorted, and his booming voice drowned mine. “You’re looking for Elizabeth, is that so?” As he spoke, wisps of black smoke spiraled from his angular nostrils.


“Where is she?” I cried, shrugging away Azrael’s comforting hand. “What have you done to her?”


“Fret not, boy. I haven’t touched a hair on your precious Elizabeth’s head. I couldn’t if I wanted to. She’s waiting for you behind that door,” he said, turning away to send a plume of black smoke into a door behind him.


“What’s in there?”


“Your freedom, Jules. So long as you can offer me something in return.”


“Don’t talk around it, beast. What do you want? We’ve been through much to get here.”


“My sympathies. Sincerely. But my request is not complicated. All I ask, in return for the restoration of your mortal soul and the return of your lover, is the soul of your companion, my sometime acquaintance, Azrael.”


I was in the early stages of protest when Az’s hand squeezed firm around my upper arm. He looked at me, and his jovial expression drooped into something darker, more serious. He shook his head, let me go, and walked toward Satan with open arms.


He’s surrendering? And I’ll be responsible for the death of an angel? 


My mind was racing, but then I saw the satisfied grin stretching Satan’s face. Upon seeing this, I felt a call somewhere deep down. My decision was made. Elizabeth would forgive me. I wielded my sword properly and dashed toward the beast, moving as quickly as I could across the slippery surface of the ice. I came even with Azrael, shouting a cry I was all but certain would be my last.


Satan inhaled smoke through his nostrils, dropped his jaw, and spit fire in my direction. The sweltering blaze rolled over the unmelting ice before him, and I closed my eyes as it drew too near to bare. Just in time, Azrael raised his glowing hands and the flame halted as if it had hit a wall.


Satan roared, coiling his neck away from us and swinging his head out in a sweeping arc over the ice. I was yet too far away, but he succeeded in striking Azrael, sending him into a pile of jagged rubble at the coast of the lake. I yelled impotently after Az, acutely aware of my insignificance in this epic battle.


Before I realized what was happening, I heard a clanging very near to me and felt crushing pressure against the armor around my torso. Suddenly, I was a couple dozen feet in the air, breathlessly bracing myself against Satan’s jaws. He coiled up again and whipped me across the cavern into a wall, leaving me writhing in pain beside the door which he claimed led to Elizabeth. I thought about crawling in, but my attention was drawn to Azrael.


Azrael was back on his feet. He thrust his hands forward forcefully, sending a brilliant beam of light at the beast. The beast, in turn, spit a stream of fire which met with the light, frustrating both attacks and creating a blinding orb which hovered between the two combatants.


Azrael shouted, “go!” At first I thought he was casting away the beast, but then he turned and repeated directly to me, “go!”


“No!” I cried.


“You have to, you idiot!”


“I won't leave you!”


He did not reply, and the battle raged on, but his gaze remained on me. I saw a change in his face, so I squinted to discern exactly what that had been. To my great surprise, he was smiling, every bit the joyful, naïve looking man I’d once seen fit to take advantage of.


Azrael dropped his hands, allowing himself to be turned to ash by Satan’s unholy flame.


I screamed a scream of despair as the beast blew another jet of fire onto the ashes for good measure. I felt welling in my eyes the tears I’d been saving for Elizabeth. Then, seeing Satan turn to me, I winced and crawled heavily through the door, feeling the heat at my back as I crossed the threshold.


---


I was blinded by tears, so I didn’t notice where I was until the door slammed shut behind me. 


Solid beige ceramic tiles beneath my hands and knees. Small, round tables and ergonomic chairs. Mismatched thrifted clothes and hideous antiques. Click-clacking laptops, fast-talking young people, and a bittersweet smell. I jumped to my feet before anybody could see me crawling. Nobody gave me and my mangled armor a second look. This was the sort of place where anachronisms were expected. The hipster coffee shop just off campus, where I first met Elizabeth.


I slumped down at a table, suddenly feeling all the fatigue of the last few weeks. One pensive half-hour later, a barista approached me.


“Hello, sir! What can I get for you today? It’s October, which means we’ve got gingerbread spice, cinnamon maple, lavender honey, vegan caramel, and it goes without saying, pumpkin spice.”


“Elizabeth!” I gasped, and now the tears were streaming unhindered. “Elizabeth, it’s you! And it’s me! I heard your call and I came for you!”


“How did you—oh, duh, I’m wearing the tag. And I’m awful sorry, mister, but I never called anyone. I don’t have a phone. I like to stay off the grid, you know?”


I do know! I know everything about this woman, and she’s saying she has no idea who I am!


“Elizabeth… it’s me, Jules. I've been through Hell, woman!”


“Good for you,” she said, each syllable sharper than the last, and I felt a searing pain in my chest. She sighed. “Now are you going to order something, or not?”


I paused, remembering what I had ordered the first time we met, then said, “I’ll have a black coffee, please.”


“I’m sorry, sir, we don’t have that. Would you like me to repeat the menu for you?”


“Uh,” I said, at a loss. “No, why don’t you just give me a minute, Liz.”


She snapped her notebook shut and went around greeting some of the other customers in the shop. She seemed to be a lot nicer to them than she was to me. Perhaps this was the price I’d have to pay to see her, that I’d have to make her fall in love with me all over again. Or perhaps I was doomed to watch her from afar, pretending I never loved her. There was at least one way of finding out.


Intending to deliver an epic romantic speech, I rose from the table. As I did, every single patron stood and turned silent steely gazes toward me, while Liz hid her face and moved away. 


That settles that, I thought, and everyone sat down in unison.


---


Josh Groban is playing. Hipsters are droning on about how taut their screenplays are. The love of my life won’t look at me. I’m seriously considering ordering a pumpkin spice latte. 


I realize where I am.


The tenth circle.

October 10, 2020 04:51

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23 comments

Rachel Macmorran
16:29 Oct 17, 2020

yay! I love what a substantive story you pulled from this prompt. Autumn's transformative dissolution is much better served through an epic tale of sacrifice than pumpkin spice lattes. I had to go dark with my story as well. The season demands it. Kudos!

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A.G. Scott
17:02 Oct 17, 2020

@ anyone who reads this comment, go check out Rachel's latest! Really good read, not nearly as much exposure as it deserves.

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Rachel Macmorran
17:25 Oct 17, 2020

Hey thanks! This is only my second submission on this platform, and honestly, I have no idea how to get eyes on my story. Any tips (beyond continuing to plug away) would be appreciated.

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Zilla Babbitt
23:19 Oct 17, 2020

Critiquing a piece well and then politely asking for a read/comment never fails. The only reason I wouldn't do that if someone asked is if I had no time to do so.

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A.G. Scott
17:43 Oct 17, 2020

Find active people (perhaps using the categories to filter for genres you like), follow them and share a balanced critique. Other than that I dunno, but you shouldn't have much trouble picking up traction

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21:00 Oct 17, 2020

Rachel, I'm new just like you--only been on for this week. However, I noticed that a lot of people were getting very good exposure, even if they didn't have very good stories. I looked at their profiles and noted that all of them had mediums to large amounts of people they followed. I immediately went and followed each of the people on the "Top 100" billboard. (and many, many more people) It's given me plenty of attention on what I write--even if my stories aren't always that great. :P And, just doing this--what Scott suggested. Read stor...

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Andrew Krey
00:13 Oct 12, 2020

I really liked this, a gripping tale of peril, and then a great twist, which is expected in hindsight, but we don't even think about it as the story is so gripping. Never trust a deal with the devil! I really liked the elements that are alluded to; what Liz did, how he tricked Az, is Az truly dead as an immortal angel, and all the dents Jules already had in his armour when we join his story. p.s. ditto with your prompt plight. None spoke to me this week so I've decided to take a week off.

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A.G. Scott
00:16 Oct 12, 2020

I dunno... it seems to me that spite is just as good a prompt as any lol

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Andrew Krey
00:19 Oct 12, 2020

ha yeah I chose sulking instead...classic fight or flight, and we went different ways! Also - loved this line and forgot to include in my comment. Brilliant description, showing the variety of success and failure with his attacks, and a strong image. "Some landed with a thwack and a squeal, and some kept accelerating across my body, throwing me off balance."

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P. Jean
10:39 Oct 11, 2020

Not having tasted coffee anything in 50+ years, I could not slip into this prompt and I liked that you got your story totally told almost without the prompt but then with the cunning of Satan you sprung it on us at the end! Good writing.

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Molly Leasure
01:31 Oct 11, 2020

Hahahaha, I love this! This is a great rebellion against the otherwise basic prompts! And, it has to count, because there IS a coffee shop haha. The twist at the end is brilliant! What a good way to end a triumphant story. Well done ~

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Rayhan Hidayat
00:11 Oct 11, 2020

Same here man, this week just isn’t doing it for me. I’m glad you managed to pump out this adrenaline-fuelled, hyper-kinetic, movie-esque piece regardless. The back and forth between Az and Jules is really fun. And of course the idea that the tenth circle of hell is a hipster coffee shop—I love that so much. Keep at it! 😙

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Sue Marsh
18:43 Oct 10, 2020

This was a very interesting story. The storyline had me on the edge of my seat. It did not really fit the prompt but I thought it was a very good read. Prompts are just that prompts, some of my stories don't really follow the prompts either. Good Job A.g. Thank you for reading For the Blood of Scotland, I am glad you enjoyed it. Sue

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A.G. Scott
19:13 Oct 10, 2020

Ha! There's technically a coffee shop so I've done all I can! As I alluded to in my other comment, I was a little frustrated by this week's prompts, so I decided to play with their mundanity. What's less mundane than a journey through Hell? That's where this story came from. Thank you for the read! Glad you liked it.

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Ben Franklin
01:18 Oct 18, 2020

There IS a coffee shop, I knew it! Cool story! Lol. No hot, black coffee served in hell, probably only iced beverages. Gotta consider the demographic.

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Lani Lane
19:36 Oct 12, 2020

I never would have thought of something this creative for the prompt, well done! Nice act of rebellion. ;) "As such, I could see it all clearly: the great frozen lake of blood and despair, and the beast half-trapped within, a gargantuan crimson dragon." You did such a nice job at vivd imagery throughout and I think this sentence really shows that. Excellent work. Some thoughts: "I struck something, and felt a sliver of a moment of relief before bright lines of pain clawed their way across my back." "sliver of a moment of relief" is ...

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A.G. Scott
19:44 Oct 12, 2020

Thanks! The other one's a little more tame lol. Thanks for the read and pointing those things out!

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Lani Lane
20:15 Oct 12, 2020

Of course!

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A.G. Scott
04:51 Oct 10, 2020

Author's note: Consider this story an act of rebellion against the tepid nature of this week's prompts -- but, I suppose, all's well that ends well. If you've scrolled down here to check the length, I promise there's a coffee shop, so please bare with me. I think it'll be worth it.

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Andrew Krey
00:05 Oct 12, 2020

*stands on his classroom desk and salutes

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Andrew Krey
21:00 Oct 16, 2020

I sold out in the end and wrote a story for this week after all! Lol

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06:50 Oct 27, 2020

If you had not explained right from the beginning that this was hell the character was going through it would have been more interesting. I would rather have been surprised. Also, I felt like I had missed a previous story, or maybe more than one, the way the character kept talking about what he did in the past.

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Sue Marsh
20:36 Oct 10, 2020

It was really a great story, When I wrote for the story about For the Blood of Scotland I was having almost the same issue. I just could not wrap my head around the prompts this week. That is why For the Blood of Scotland sounds sort of like a fairy tale in the beginning but then I decided it needed a twist. I think maybe after I thought about I may have been thinking about Hamlet when he sent Ophelia to the convent. Historically there were several at least that were queens and princess that were to become nuns. Prince Philip's mother i...

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