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Time means nothing in hell's fourth circle. The punishment repeats eternally: a coveter punches a hoarder, a hoarder pulls out a coveter's hair, a coveter breaks a hoarder's ankle. And on and on. All the greedy bastards form a shifting, grunting landscape. First a hill here, then a mountain, then a canyon as the remnants of men and women's souls tear and rip at one another. The dull moonlight makes everything shadowed. Colorless.
A form, currently in the shape of a man, strides down the path which curves between the writhing masses. He wears a gray suit with a red tie. His hair, a deep blond around the horns, which recede with every quick step, is combed and controlled. He is clean-shaven. He ignores the chaos around him. His focus is on the screen of a smartphone, the glow casts a luminescent sheen on his pale skin. A leather laptop bag – expensive enough to capture the attention of combatants as he passes by – hangs from his shoulder. He doesn't glance left or right, despite the constant cacophony around him. He moves ever steadily forward, even as the path before him waxes and wanes as the damned battle.
"Aqrabuamelu!" At the sound of his name, the demon in the gray suit looks up from his cell phone and searches the infinite pile of fighting souls.
Appearing from the melee comes a short, stocky demon with a round head sporting thick horns. The demon smiles. His teeth are a series of sharp, black points layered together like a shark.
"Dave. Hello," Aqra says. He lowers his cell phone. The glow falls away from his face. "What are you doing in the fourth circle?"
"There was some...restructuring...in the sixth circle, and here I am."
Aqra nods, almost to himself. The he lifts his phone and starts down the trail, which now has a new curve due to the shifting of the coveters and hoarders.
Dave falls in step beside Aqra.
"You left the sixth yourself, not long ago," Dave says, his black shark teeth making a clicking sound as he speaks. "We had no idea where you went. Up, down. Left, right." Dave takes in Aqra's gray suit, his polished wing-tipped shoes. Aqra's scorpion tail stinger peeks out the hem of his trousers. "I've been looking for you for ages. And now, here you are. Aqrabuamelu! In, of all places, the fourth circle."
"You sound surprised."
"Not surprised. No, no, no. You always did what you wanted. Hey, look. Let's just stop and chat. You can't be headed anywhere in a real hurry. We're eternal, after all. Eternal infernals!" And Dave does a quick tap number, kicking up gray dust from the trail.
As he dances, Dave keeps his insect eyes – as black as his teeth – on Aqra. He stops when Aqra stops. It is hard to keep the curiosity and awe out of his expression. The need comes through despite his best efforts.
"Fine. I have a moment." Aqra stops in the middle of the trail. He turns his considerable height toward Dave, who now feels shorter than he normally does. "Well?"
Dave practically jumps up and down in glee. But he can't put words together for a moment.
Then: "I've missed you," Dave says finally.
"Don't start," Aqra says, again picking up his smartphone. "You finished the training course. You didn't need any more coaching sessions. I'm done with training sessions...time to get out...make a name for myself again. Staying down here's a dead end. Literally. Time to collect souls. That's my art – collecting – not punishing."
"But look at you."
"Looking human is the gig. Mankind – and womankind – respond to a well-formed face."
"It's against our nature, spending so much time with up-worlders. They smell... To see you as one of them –"
"And here you prove how shortsighted you are," Aqra says. His face glows green-blue in the phone screen light. His eyes, still deep black, look over the phone at Dave. The screen casts a bright rectangle of light in the middle of all that blackness. Aqra's eyes practically look through Dave. "You're simple. You think staying down here in the depths is some kind of paradise." He almost spits the word. "Babysitting these vermin. You think putting scorpions in a man's ear canal is artistry. That pushing paperclips underneath fingernails is the epitome of torture. And you're right to admire me. I'm good at torture. I have legions of idiots like you thinking I'm some kind of god. I don't begrudge your admiration. I've worked hard to get where I am. There is a certain satisfaction to exsanguination with a Kenmore 1700 Series Pet Friendly Lightweight Canister Vacuum with Extended Telescoping Wand. And holding dry ice to genitalia. But none of it compares to taking a pristine soul as clear as glass-grade methamphetamine and breathing those seductive words...wealth...glory...orgasm...and watching that soul cloud over like a fog of methane. You just don't get it."
"Yeah, I get it."
"Don't lie to me."
"I'm not lying!" Dave shrieks. "You wanna go and trap some dumbass humans? Fine. But you could have at least taught me to really torture. They laughed at me on six. Called me your 'babbling idiot brother.'"
"Brother –" Aqra laughs to himself. "Dave, we may have exited the same succubal vagina, but we are not brothers. I have aspirations. Goals. You sit on your ass watching humans punish each other." He gestures at a coveter biting the nipple off a hoarder who refuses to release a diamond necklace. "You couldn't even come up with something as simple as that, Dave. Get your shit together."
"You could've taught me!" Dave's teeth clack together when Aqra slaps him.
"I tried, you crazy bastard. Remember the guy who left grammatical errors on every single Facebook post? Remember how I told you to carve 'their,' 'there,' and 'they're' onto his foreskin for a decade with cactus needles? Instead you created a tiny guillotine and perpetually cut off his fingertips. I gave you a simple job which was both appropriate and painful. You went with the mundane. The everyday. Why ask me to teach you if you're not going to hang on my every word or follow every instruction?"
Somewhere in the distance a man screamed the long, moaning scream of the damned. Then he fell silent as the crush of coveters and hoarders rolled over him.
"Is it really that terrible for you here?" Aqra asks.
"There's just not much to do. The next demon guard
is six hundred miles away. If a fight breaks up, I just push them back
together. And on it goes."
The demon brothers stare out at a nearby hill of bodies. A hand holding a Gucci bag – both hand and bag sans owner – sails over the heads of two bankers dressed similarly to Aqra. The hand falls into the crowd.
"I heard Hedetet took your place on six," Dave says.
Aqra looks down at his phone.
"I guess little sister made the cut."
"Jealousy doesn't suit you. But maybe you’re learning more from these greedy bastards than you did from me. I'm leaving. I have to at a 3:00 o'clock meeting in New York."
Aqra hitches his laptop bag higher onto his shoulder. His eyes now shifting to white along the outer rims. Dark irises formed in the center of his eyeballs, and he doesn't look up from his phone.
"Are you ever coming back?" Dave asks.
"Not if I can help it. There's nothing and no one here to interest me. There are fresher souls to be found. But...we are eternal infernals – so I imagine I'll see you around."
"See you around, Aqrabuamelu."
Aqra waits for a pair of combatants to clear the narrow trail before stepping forward. His wing-tip leather shoes seem to repel the gray dust as he moves along. Dave watches him move through the underworld with his phone and his busy gait. His brother's scorpion tail disappears beneath his trouser leg. Just as he is about to vanish behind a grappling pair, Aqra stops, as if he has forgotten something. Then he turns.
"Look...if you’re bored…" Aqra says. His eyes are fully human now. Calculating.
Aqra walks back. He puts his free hand in his trouser pocket and pulls out a handful of baby scorpions, translucent in the dull moonlight. He hands the scorpions to Dave, who takes them. He nods to himself, as if he agrees with what he has done, then walks away.
"See you around, Aqrabuamelu," Dave says again.
Aqra leaves, moving quickly now. This time he doesn't turn back. The coveters and the hoarders – the greedy bastards of the earth – fall away in front of Aqra. Dave watches the demon in the gray suit until he is indistinguishable from the other human forms. And then Aqra is gone, a gray shadow among the colorless throng.
"See you around, Aqrabuamelu," whispers Dave, hypnotized as the scorplings flit and flurry between his fingers, hypnotized as they skitter up his red skin, hypnotized as they start to sting.
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