Joey Graham was seven years old and had always loved trains. He spent hours playing next to the train tracks which ran behind his parents' small house, and was always getting into strife for it. His mother would scream and yell at him to get off those damn rails. Joey hated it when his mother used those bad words at him.
He didn't often step onto the rails themselves, anyway - he kept for the most part to the gravelly edges of the tracks, where the best stones could be collected, and he could play 'jungle' in the weeds overhanging the trainline. Today was Sunday, his favourite play day, and he was busily playing army commander when the whispers came. Joey stopped, his right hand clutching a stone, poised ready to throw it at the 'enemy' on the other side of the rails. He listened, but heard nothing. Shrugging, he threw the stone and yelled heartily, running down a few feet to collect more projectiles. Suddenly the noise came again - a low murmur, rising up from the tracks a few metres further down and overcome with curiosity, the boy dropped the stones and slowly approached the strange sound. The whispers became louder, and Joey could just make out the sound of his own name. "Hello?" he asked tentatively, kneeling down to get closer to the sound. At his voice the whispers abruptly stopped, and Joey put his ear to the gravel between the sleepers, straining to hear, his mind full of images of fairies and gremlins he'd heard about at school, the things his mother told him were 'rubbish'. The sounds of the traffic on the nearby road, a dog barking and the twittering of the birds seemed to fade as Joey concentrated on listening for the whispers. They came again, low and soothing, a mixture of children and adults, persuasive and friendly, and he lay down on the tracks, stretching out to get his ear as close to the ground as he could. The little boy's concentration was broken by the sound of his mother's voice, swearing at him to get off the tracks this minute, and get home. His head jerked up, and he rubbed the side of it, blinking in the light. The sounds of the birds and traffic flooded back, and he wondered why everything was so loud, so bright!
His mother called out to him again, and Joey ran back down to the broken-down fence which separated his backyard and the train tracks, and climbed over. Janet Martin watched the little boy play on the tracks from her seat on the train station. She smiled at his antics despite the unease she felt at the possible danger he was in. She was puzzled by his interest in one spot on the ground, in between the tracks, where he remained motionless, listening to the ground, for several minutes. The boy's wavy blond hair reminded her of her own son. David had been her only child, and was ten when he died. He'd been playing, much like this boy had, on these very same tracks when he was struck and killed by an express train. The grief proved too much of a strain, and Janet's husband Peter left a few months after their son's death. Janet applied for a job at a local brewery, working night-shift, leaving late at night and arriving home just after dawn. It was difficult, physically demanding work, and very different to being a house wife, but the busier she kept herself the less she thought about David. Janet didn't think of Joey again that day as she went to the market to pick up the weekly groceries. Her day was uneventful, and she returned to the small flat, ate and retired for the night.
David looked up at her and smiled. Janet could see the gentle blue pools of his eyes glinting in the bright sunlight as he waved to her. She screamed at him to come to her, but no sound escaped her lips. Her son waved back at her, and pointed to the ground. He shouted something about people under the ground - and then the train came. It hurtled past in front of her eyes, and suddenly Janet could no longer see her son. The roar of the train was ear-splitting and she screamed again, covering her ears with her hands. As suddenly as it arrived, the train disappeared, taking its terrifying noise with it. Silence fell across the tracks, and she moved forward, afraid to look but unable to stop herself. The gravel was stained black with her son's blood, and a few tiny pieces of flesh and fabric were scattered on the ground. Her eyes fixed to the earth, Janet followed the tracks and the trail of gore, until she came across her son's tiny arm, which had been pulled from its socket by the impact of the train.
To Janet it seemed that it still held its pose in an obscene wave, and next to it was a large pool of blood. As she watched, the pool slowly drained into the gravel, but didn't seep out into the surrounding ground, instead it seemed to pour deep into the earth under the train tracks. Janet turned, and was about to walk away, when a whisper from behind caught her attention. She turned back in time to see a pale hand appear from beneath the tracks, pushing gravel aside as it strained upwards. It took hold of her son's severed arm, and Janet woke in a cold sweat, shivering with fear. She'd suffered from nightmares for almost a year after David's death, and had thought that they'd finally stopped. Seeing the little boy on the tracks that morning had triggered her grief again, and she lay for many hours, hugging herself and crying quiet, painful tears. If only Peter had stayed - at least they could have dealt with the grief together. Janet was a strong woman, but losing both a son and a husband had taken their inevitable toll on her, physically and emotionally. She'd lost a considerable amount of weight and her previously lustrous and thick blond hair now lay limp and straggly down her back.
The next night, exhausted from lack of sleep, Janet travelled to work. She dozed for several minutes, when she was suddenly jerked awake by a noise. It had sounded just like David's voice - but that was ridiculous, she scolded herself. She shook her head, and put it down to an echo of the nightmare she'd suffered the day before. The train reached its destination and Janet stepped out into the crowd of other late-night commuters and shift workers. She shuffled up to the bored ticket collector and was about to give him her ticket, when the whispers came again. Startled, she whipped round, to see only a sea of puzzled faces waiting for her to pass through the turnstile. Confused and embarrassed, she turned back to the ticket collector, gave him her ticket and rushed off the platform.
During that night, Janet was haunted again by the whispers and the vision of her son. While eating her lunch, she drifted off into a daydream about him. David was standing on the railway tracks, waving to her again. She screamed for him to run to her, as she had done in the nightmare, and this time he heard her, and ran to her side just before the train rushed past. She hugged him tightly, and smiled to herself.
"Yes, David?" she replied, opening her eyes to find herself once more in the empty lunchroom. She stared down at her sandwich, trembling, her appetite gone. Why was this happening? Her son's voice had sounded so lifelike, and so close. Had she fallen asleep? Distracted and upset, she went back to work, but couldn't get the sound of David's voice out of her mind.
The whispers and nightmares became much more frequent over the following week. Janet stopped eating almost completely, and couldn't sleep for more than two or three hours each night. Her nervous and unpredictable behaviour began to disturb her workmates, and after several complaints and comments her foreman was forced to tell her to take a few days off. Janet didn't understand what was happening, and protested, claiming that a good night's sleep would be enough to set her to rights again. She finished the shift, and visited her local doctor. He looked at her for a full minute after she finished telling him about the hallucinations and nightmares, and silently began to write out a prescription. The tranquillisers were strong, and she took one as soon as she returned home, and slept for nearly twelve hours.
The next few days were uneventful, as Janet pottered around the flat, catching up on house work and letter writing. She went for long walks and spent many hours napping. On that weekend, however, the whispers returned. She was watching television in the evening when they came, a constant murmur under the inane babble of the TV show. She curled up on the couch, her hands over her ears, shaking her head to try to make them go away, but they crept inside, and she began to cry. Eventually they subsided, and she took another tranquilliser, but to no avail. The whispers returned later that night, and this time she understood snatches of what they were saying. The voices were telling her to go back to the trainline, to join her son and Janet finally fell asleep, deciding that the next day she would go back to the tracks.
Sunday was a warm, sunny day, and Janet enjoyed her walk to the tracks. She half expected to see the child she'd watched the previous weekend playing games beside the rails again, but the area was deserted. She stared down at the shiny steel lines, and the cracked wooden sleepers between them, remembering the blood and gore from the nightmare to appear before her eyes. She checked up and down the line for trains, and stepped between the rails. She thought about her son, his smiling face and blond hair, as if trying to conjure up his ghost. Janet waited for the whispers to start, but they didn't. She waited for almost half an hour, pacing up and down the tracks. Finally she gave up, and turned to leave when the whispers started up again, a low murmur rising from beneath the tracks. Janet turned back, knelt down, and put her ear to the ground. She could hear her son calling her, along with a mixture of other voices, both adult and child, and listened there, motionless for several minutes. She was so engrossed in the voices that she didn't hear the express train approaching. The driver, unable to stop in time, blew the train's horn several times in a desperate attempt to alert the form that was hunched in the middle of the tracks. Janet was killed instantly, her body shattered by the impact.
The people under the ground were talking to Joey Graham again. He loved to sit on the tracks and listen to them chatter while he played in the gravel between the sleepers. They told him wonderful things, and he became their friend. They told him they were lonely, and wanted him to keep visiting them every day. Janet held David's hand as they whispered up to the small boy sitting on the tracks above their heads. She was finally with her boy, and with others like herself. They all lived under the train lines, and coaxed people from the upper world to join them with their whispers. Suddenly they hushed, as the faint tremor of a train's approach reached them under the earth. They clutched each other with excitement and expectation, as they waited for their next friend to join them under the tracks.
I - PRELUDE TO MADNESS
The date with the dentist's assistant had been disastrous. At various instances Cronos Warchild, mercenary annex hired gun, had put his foot in his mouth and had happily blabbered on about his rather none-too-glorious past and rather not very illustrious exploits, lethally boring the poor girl to death. Somehow it had struck him as odd when the girl had found it necessary to take her coat with her when basically all she'd said she went to do was powder her nose.
He never saw her again. Feeling blue, he eventually left the restaurant when the cleaners had assured him all to be found in the ladies' room was a piece of purple dress caught on an open window, flapping forlornly in the chilly night breeze.
Warchild felt wretched utterly as he walked home along a small river. Willows drooped in it disconsoledly, fog flowing slowly off the pastures onto the water. Autumn's decay made leaves rustle as he moved his feet through them, not particularly caring where he went. Vegetative death was all around him, and at times the sky would clear enough for the pale light of the moon to peep through wanly. Although Cronos would never have admitted it, he was feeling thoroughly melancholic.
It was in such a mood, feeling really sorry for himself as usual, that he found himself reading the classifieds in a fairly recent newspaper. He didn't know what he was looking for, nor whether he actually wanted to find anything at all. Some of the adverts caused him to raise an eyebrow; a few even caused him to raise both. He thought it was incredible to which lengths people would go to get what they wanted. A particular advert, however, got his immediate and virtually undivided attention.
"Bored?" it read, "Bored, strong and talented? Come and help my nephew to become a man and make it in this world that he seems unable to cope with. Martial skills are a prerequisite. Lavish reimbursement to be expected."
Small glowing stars lit up in Cronos' eyes. Had someone bothered to take a much closer look at the little starlets that glowed in those virtually measureless depths, he would have seen that in fact they were two almost infinitely tiny dollar signs.
The driveway looked almost like an interstate. Somewhere near the horizon was a huge mansion, looming ponderously, speaking real estate's body language of a man radiating vast wealth, almost right up to and including the Rolly Royce key hanger. A gardener was mowing the lawn with a nail clipper. When Cronos moved up the driveway to the house, the garderer looked up as if apologising for daring to exist.
It took quite a while until he finally arrived at the mansion. Up close it looked much huger than he had anticipated. The front had a lot of pillars. Around it were sumptuous lawns that, he now saw, were kept by a veritable army of gardeners. Someone had a lot of money here, and he guessed rightly that this particular person was not among those wielding the nail clippers.
He stood before the huge doors, which hung on huge shiny hinges that looked like - and most likely were - gold. The mercenary annex hired gun could not help but hold his breath for a while, in awe. Beauty and ugliness can be fascinating, and so can hard-core wealth such as was blatantly on display right in front of him. Above the doors was a huge, ornately fashioned coat-of-arms. It consisted of a spear, a ball and a dog, embraced by red branches.
Cronos made to knock on the door when it opened as if on its own accord. Behind it stood, so Warchild thought, the human equivalent of a penguin. The man wore tails and a bow tie, and looked as if, freshly pressed and starched, he'd just been delivered back from the dry cleaner's.
"Sir?" the butler inquired politely.
"No," Warchild said, brushing the man aside, "Warchild. Cronos Warchild. I am here to see Anthony Hepplewhite Saintjohn Thurny."
Cronos made a nondescript sign with his left hand, leaving behind him the butler and stepping inside something like a glossy 'Houses of the Rather Absurdly Rich' magazine, quite oblivious of the highly polished marble, the tasteful arches and the countless displays of exorbitantly expensive antiques that would probably have made many other individuals cause to sweat and salivate vehemently and simultaneously.
He stepped through a vast hall or two, followed by an embarrassed butler mumbling humble apologies, before almost walking into a old man that he rightly reckoned might be the lord of the mansion.
The man had a large, drooping nose and eyes that slanted down to the outsides. What little hair he had left was combed back to attempt to cover a huge bald patch, the long strands held in place by what seemed like litres of gel and which were, in fact, litres of gel. More ample supplies of hair, however, seemed to sprout forth from the man's nasal cavities.
Behind the man stood a boy no older than twenty. There was a certain family resemblance, undeniably, although the youth still had more hair on his scalp and rather less of it protruding from his nose.
Cronos raised an eyebrow and said, "He is your nephew?"
Anthony Hepplewhite Saintjohn Thurny - pardon, Lord Anthony Hepplewhite Saintjohn Thurny - nodded.
"That is the young fellow in question, Mr. Warchild," he said. "Like I said over the telephone, he has some difficulty coping with the world around him. He needs to become a man, and methinks you seem pretty much up to the job."
Warchild looked at the boy. Maybe the rough working material was there, but he'd first have to do some chiselling to get it exposed.
"What's your name, son?" Warchild asked.
"Trom," the boy said, stepping forward. There was a spark of defiance in the lad's eyes, Cronos saw. No problem. It might, in fact, make this potentially boring job a more interesting one. He loved children, and not necessarily for breakfast, even.
"Would you mind stepping into the library with me, Mr. Warchild?" Lord Anthony Hepplewhite Saintjohn Thurny beckoned, walking past Warchild and vanishing through a pair of huge swinging doors into semi-darkness. Cronos followed, to find himself entering a huge library with shelves upon shelves of books, the upper tiers accessible only by means of a ladder that stood in a corner. It looked like it hadn't been moved for quite a while, though.
"Mr. Warchild," Lord Anthony said, his voice down to slightly more than a whisper, "I am worried about my nephew."
"Oh? Why?" Cronos said, "He seems like a strapping young fellow to me."
"Hmm," Lord Anthony hmm-ed, "Hmm. You see, I think something is wrong with him. You see, we come from a lineage of fine army officers. Trom's father was actually a general and most of his uncles are colonels at the least. You see, the boy shows no desire to fight at all. He doesn't want to command, he does not want to rule. He does not want to slay natives or something. He is not the kind of boy that our Great Empire became a Great Empire with in the first place. You see, on his eighteenth birthday I offered him a hundred naked women. And you know what, Mr. Warchild?"
"No," Cronos said, after some genuine thought on the matter, "I don't believe I do." He thought of the dental assistant. Hell, even one woman would be just fine and dandy to him, let alone...
"You see, he simply didn't mind them," the man said, rolling his eyes, "He never looked at them. Instead, he looked past them to discover if perhaps they were some trick to hide from him some other gift, a chemistry set or something. I recall he was pretty disappointed. The women, too."
"So what do you want me to do?" Cronos asked.
"I want you to expose him to discipline," Lord Anthony said firmly, looking around for a handy table to hit with his fist and failing, "teach him the ropes, nose on the grindstone kind of thing, train him into the martial arts, get him in touch with the real dog-eat-dog world outside this estate. And maybe, just maybe, get him in touch with, er, the fairer sex, too."
Cronos mulled it over for a while.
"Why me?" Warchild wondered, "And don't tell me Julie Andrews wasn't available."
"Funny you should mention that..." Lord Anthony mused, trailing off somewhere within his head and barely remembering to come back. "Er," he recuperated, "because you have what it takes. Whatever it is, my instincts tell me you have it. Knew it the very instant I heard your voice on the telephone. And I always trust my instincts."
Warchild mulled that over for a while, too. "What's the pay?" he inquired.
"The reimbursement, you mean?"
"What about having a go at a hundred of my aunts and nieces," an inanely grinning Trom interrupted, who turned out to have entered the library not too long after they had, "all of them sexually thwarted not too long ago?"
His uncle gave him a killer look. "No," Lord Anthony said, smiling with the soft-hearted air of one who will soon be dealing out a good spanking, "I had a more conventional reward in mind in the shape of a chest of Hepplewhite Saintjohn Thurny family gold."
"What are we looking at here?" Cronos asked, the little dollar-shaped starlets in his eyes swelling and throbbing.
"Well," Lord Anthony surmised, "I think it would be safe to assume that we're looking at perpetual wealth here."
That sounded good.
"Deal," Cronos said, grinning. The boy looked up at him for no particular reason. A bell tolled in the distance, but that was just coincidence.
The sun had barely dared to show itself above the horizon the next day, when Cronos and Trom were out already on one of the estate's sumptuous lawns, preparing for a training session. Warchild had suspended a straw puppet by means of a primitive gallows, and from somewhere within Lord Anthony's impressive collection of World War I souvenirs he had retrieved a bajonetted rifle.
"Today you're going to learn all you wanted to know about gutting," Cronos said with some relish, "but were afraid to ask."
"Yuck," Trom said, with some feeling, "sounds disgusting." He prodded the straw puppet tentatively with the rifle. It seemed heavy in his hand. He wasn't sure he was going to like this training stuff that his uncle had somehow thought necessary. Somehow, however, he felt like this might be a part of him, or of something that used to be him.
The world began to go all floppy and swirly...he wanted to embrace it, be one with it and its past, his past. He flopped to the ground, limply, and for a while he dreamt...
The dog ran towards him, aiming to make of him a tasteful dinner of sorts. He didn't know what to do; the only thing he could think of was grabbing his playing ball and throwing it at the dog with all the force that was within him. It entered the dog between its jaws and came out through its tail. Happy for having accomplished this feat, he threw one of his warrior's fits. His hair stood out like nails, and his eyes crossed gruesomely. He then picked up a stick and threw it away as far as he could, then ran like the wind to catch it himself.
The dog's master - who was now the owner of about 80 pounds of dead meat - came outside. It was Culann, the smith. He was angry at the boy for having killed his dog.
"I am sorry, sir Culann," he said, "but the dog attacked me and I didn't know what else to do. But if you'll let me, I will be your guard dog until I have made enough money to buy you a new one."
"You OK, son?" Cronos asked, slapping Trom's face, "It seems you had some kind of fit there."
Trom shook his head, entering reality again.
"I have these dream fits occasionally," he said, rubbing his eyes, "it's almost as if there is someone else living in me, waiting to escape or something."
Cronos nodded. He was no psychiatrist, so he reckoned it would be best just to nod at regular intervals. Always worked. Did this time, too.
"You OK?" Cronos asked again.
"Yeah, sure," Trom said, "Give me that rifle again."
"Wait a minute," Warchild interjected, fumbling in his pocket and retrieving a red piece of cloth, "I've got to tie a ribbon around your head."
"Why?" Trom asked.
To Cronos Warchild it seemed the most stupid question possible. It simply wasn't done not to tie a ribbon around your head prior to heroic exploits of sorts. Preferably a red one.
"Just because it's supposed to be like that," he said.
At that very instant, taking Trom quite by surprise, a cloud of acrid smoke signalled the entry upon the scene of a demon. Cronos, by now, had met these so often that it really didn't startle him at all.
It grinned with fangs that had be dontocured perhaps once too often. Unceremoniously it zipped open Warchild's fly, slid in a warty green hand, fumbled for a brief instance or three, then came out again, having retrieved a Battery Pack.
With a sound like a dinosaur's handclap and another cloud of smoke, it - and the Battery Pack - disappeared. There was a smell of sulphur, like someone had just lit a match factory.
Hands hung limply, like Cronos' flabbergasted lower jaw. The ribbon flopped to the ground uselessly.
"What was that, master?" Trom had never laid eyes on a demon in his life before and, by the grimace on his face, was pretty sure he never wanted to again.
"That, Trom," Warchild said, deep in thought, "was a demon."
"One of the Dark Lord's minions, you mean?"
"One of those very ones."
"What did it...er...do with its hand down your trousers?"
A recollection of intensely nauseous pain raced through Cronos' groin and belly.
"I am afraid it, er, borrowed," he sighing painfully, "my Mega Absorb Groin Protector's Battery Pack."
"O," Trom said.
"And," Warchild added in a half-hearted attempt at an ominous voice, "the bad thing is that it didn't ask."
Cronos looked around to see if perhaps the demon was looking at him from behind a bush or a conveniently placed tree. There was no sign of any such thing, however. The world around him had returned once more to a kind of peaceful tranquillity. Still..you never knew where a potential groinal threat might come from. Not a female in sight, however. He was quite safe. For now, anyway. He flinched again as if at a particularly painful recollection.
"Er...Mr. Warchild?" Trom ventured carefully.
"Hmm?" hmm-ed Cronos.
"Those Groins...er...are they dangerous?"
"Well done, oh Flattus," Satan grinned.
Flattus moved his feet uncomfortably, causing him to appear very much like a shy schoolgirl would in front of a school principal wielding a cane.
"It was nothing, oh Dark One," he said, absent-mindedly fumbling a piece of paper in his pocket.
"You did remember to leave the note, didn't you?"
He stopped fumbling, abruptly.
"Er...sure I did, oh Jet-Blackest of Lords."
There was another cloud, yellow-green, smelling even more horribly than the previous one had. It appeared right in front of Cronos, who just about panicked and quickly used both his hands to protect his vitals. He was once more reminded of how many pores he had.
Before him, as the smoke lifted, appeared once more that vilest of the Dark Lord's Minions. In its warty green hand it now held a crumpled note, which it deftly rolled up and put into Warchild's mouth, what with it hanging open conveniently anyway.
Within the few instances that Cronos laid eyes on the demon, he could have sworn that it looked somehow different. Yes, indeed, he could have sworn...sworn that it had a black eye.
With another puff of smoke, however, the demon swiftly disappeared back to whatever dark retreat in the deepest hells it had originated from.
Having ascertained that the demon had properly vanished, Cronos relinquished the protective grip on his gonads and took from his mouth the note. It tasted like burnt sulphur. He'd never quite tasted that before but he was pretty sure that, if he'd ever taste it, it would taste like this.
"Yon Batterye Pakke hath been Pilfered," Cronos read, "See thee in Helle (Dont Bee Late)." There were some numbers on it, too, that didn't make much sense at all.
"Turn it over," Trom said, "there's stuff on the back, too."
"Conseyled too Alle, Reveyled too Nonne, Lye Helles Infernalle Gaytes," Cronos continued after flipping the note, "Heyr the Deymons Calle from the Crymson Waterfalle...Where the Blod Weepes from the Skye."
Warchild's face spelled thunder and lightning.
"Does that mean..." Trom said.
"Yes," Warchild cut the boy off. "Yes, Trom. It looks like your training might be a bit more rigorous than expected. We're going to hell."
"You are going to hell, certainly," Trom retorted quickly, not quite wishing to get into situations where his life would be flashing before him, "there's no reason why I..."
Warchild showed Trom the note, pointing out one more short sentence in somewhat smaller handwriting, apparently scribbled on it as an afterthought.
"Bringe the Boye," Trom read. His heart sank, his knees went all jelly.
"Do you know of a waterfall around here?" Cronos asked, in thought. He had to shake Trom up a bit; the boy was feeling too sorry for himself to have heard the question. Instead, Trom was whimpering about fire, dirt, sweat, heat, fear and functions of the colon.
"Come on," Cronos said, pocketing the note, "get your act together! Do you know a waterfall here? On the grounds of the estate perhaps?"
In between the pathetic whimpering, there came out a barely discernible "yes".
"Where?" Cronos insisted.
"To the south of the mansion," Trom said, breathing irregularly, in the forest where my uncle usually does his hunting."
Cronos considered it apt to lose no more time. What with his Mega Absorb Groin Protector being useless now, he felt much too volatile, too exposed, for his own good. He felt like he was walking around naked or something. He simply had to find the Battery Pack again; the Protector had been manufactured on Ambulor Eight and, similarly, the Battery Packs were only available on that planet and selected of its moons.
"Come on," Cronos said, resolutely, pulling Trom by the arm in the direction of Lord Anthony's hunting grounds.
It wasn't a big forest or anything, but they were practically falling over pheasants and constantly running into startled deer. Was Lord Anthony the kind of person to hunt with an M-60 or something?
"It's in that direction," Trom said, pointing to a particularly dense bit of forest from behind which the sound of falling water seemed to be coming. He was beginning to get a feel of elation. Obviously, contact with nature did him good.
The patch was particularly dense indeed. Cronos had to try his best to tear away branches and push aside deer that had gathered to see what was happening. Until, suddenly, shoving aside a natural curtain of leaves and ivy, they beheld the waterfall.
It was pretty huge, crashing down at least 60 feet into a shallow lake with rocky sides. It indeed seemed to be the fabled Crymson Waterfalle referred to on the note: The water was a deep dark red and had a thicker quality, like blood. Curiously, all that watery torrent did not blank out the sound of cries, now distinguishable, that seemed to come from whatever lay beyond it.
"That waterfall wasn't red last time I looked," Trom shuddered. He was getting ever more convinced that whatever it was they were getting themselves into, it would be well over their heads. Needless to say, he didn't like things one bit.
"Come," Cronos beckoned, stepping into the shallow lake towards the waterfall.
"I was afraid you might say that," Trom said. He stept in carefully, horrified.
It wasn't water, no si-ree. It was blood all right. It stuck to their boots and soaked their trousers, feeling uncomfortably warm as if from a vast source of the freshly dead.
"The cries," Warchild said, "you hear them?"
Trom nodded miserably. He'd been trying to ignore the soppy sounds his boots made in the redness, to block out the wailing cries that were indeed quite clearly audible.
"They come from behind the waterfall," Cronos affirmed, "'Heyr the Deymons Calle from the Crymson Waterfalle'." He seemed alight with zeal. Trom wasn't.
Cronos had always dreamt of this, standing knee-high in blood, wading through soft entrails, things like that. This was almost like mercenary's heaven as far as he was concerned. Had Trom known Warchild's thoughts on the matter, he would surely have begged to differ.
Warchild halted in front of the waterfall, of which the sound was now close to deafening but still didn't block out the cries and wails that came from beyond. He looked up at it, felt dwarfed by it. The warmth radiating from the cateract of warm blood made his skin glow. Trom, for his part, found he had to swallow rather a lot. He was beginning to smell it too, now. Horrible.
Rather unexpectedly and unceremoniously, Cronos stepped through the waterfall. Trom panicked. What to do now? Before he could make up his mind to return to the mansion and face his uncle - and another hundred of his scantily clad relatives, if need be - Cronos' hand reached out to him from beyond the warmly red curtain and pulled the boy through.
Trom uttered a terrified cry, which died on his lips when he looked back and discovered that the waterfall in fact consisted of water and, miraculously, both the crazy summabitch mercenary annex hired gun and himself were completely dry. The demonic sounds that had previously been impossible to ignore had vanished similarly. What the hell was going on here?
"It must have been an enchanted waterfall or something," Trom said, voice hushed, feeling himself now slowly filling with a sense of adventure. He breathed in deeply, which was a bad idea. He gagged as the centuries of collected debris and rotting animal remains that had gathered behind the waterfall made his olfactory acquaintance.
"Yuck," Trom said, and he meant every word of it.
Cronos, apparently insensitive to the noxious fumes, had in the mean time discovered a kind of cave. He signalled Trom to come closer to help investigate. They probed the cave walls for signs of a lever or a button, but failed to find them. "We're close," Warchild said, frustrated, "we're close. Damn it, I know we're close!"
Trom looked around as best he could, but continued to fail to see anything other than rock and yet more rock. And rats, of course, especially rats. Dead rats. They lay rotting there, god knows for how long they'd been lying there. He prodded one with his foot and got scared out of his wits when the creature sprang up and legged it. It disappeared through a fairly small hole.
"Hey, there's a hole here," Trom pointed.
Cronos immediately investigated it. The rat had vanished completely. Warchild probed the hole with his hand until he felt something like a button. He pushed it.
II - THE SEVEN GATES OF HELL
Part of the cave wall, making the awfulest noise, opened up to reveal a gathering of approximately a dozen human skeletons clad in armour that ranged in age through a great many centuries. They stepped closer to check the skeletons - and the means through which they had died - out. Without as much as a stony warning groan, the cave wall closed behind them smoothly and soundlessly. They heard and saw nothing.
"I think we can at least guess what they died of," Trom said, pointing roughly in the pitch darkness at the direction where the skeletons lay. It was amazing how quickly the air got stale and oppressive when you're in a confined space with about a dozen dead knights.
"Despair not," Warchild said, fumbling in the utter darkness, "I think I found a lever."
There was the rusty sound of a lever being pulled, followed by that of several dozen razor-sharp metal things being rapidly pulled from their sheaths. Something sliced through a piece of Trom's clothing, and he could feel the wind of something very cold and very, very sharp flying past his ear.
The far side of this tomb-like cave now opened up and let a certain degree of light stream in. As it turned out, several dozen razor-sharp lances had appeared from holes in the floor and had connected themselves to the ceiling. One had nearly impaled Trom, who began very much to feel uncomfortable when that realisation hit him. One of the lances, directly beneath Cronos' genital area, seemed as yet hesitant to spring forth; probably a rusty mechanism. It groaned softly, ticking, as if waiting for an inopportune moment to finally let go.
"I think we should leave this place," Trom said, worming himself through the lances to the far side where Cronos was sweating like a pig at the prospect of that one lance colliding with his Mega Absorb Groin Protector without a Battery Pack inserted.
Trom reached Cronos and pulled at the man. The mercenary annex hired gun was frozen to the spot, however, totally paralysed with fear (though, of course, he would never have admitted that).
"CRONOS!!" yelled Trom, tearing the potentially gonad-less mercenary annex hired gun from his stupor of fear, "JUMP!!"
Before anyone could have asked how high, Cronos took an almost instinctively giant leap and brought himself and his glockenspiel in safety. Breathlessly, he looked at the one lance that was still stuck in the floor, battling its mechanism with silent determination. It stayed put. Cronos let out a deep sigh.
"Look there," Trom said, pointing, "would that be the First of the Gates of Hell?"
Cronos looked in the direction where Trom pointed and saw what didn't much look like a gate at all, really, let alone one of the proverbially famed Seven Gates. It was, in fact, more like a porch.
They opened it and walked through.
"That wasn't half as bad as I thought," Cronos said, "It's probably not the First of the Gates at all."
Trom, wiping some perspiration off his brow, was about to tell Warchild to knock wood when a man with quite a long beard and a staff of lapis lazuli in his hand appeared as if materialising from the very darkness around them.
"It is I, Nanna, guardian of the First of the Seven Gates of Hell," the man intoned, in a manner of voice that made them realise that, no matter how countlessly often he had repeated these exact words, they were not to take whatever he said lightly.
"I possess the secret of the tides of blood," the bearded man continued, completely ignoring the sound of the last of the lances boring itself into the ceiling behind them, which startled hell out of Cronos, "my colour is Silver and I am also known to mortals as Sin. What is my number?"
The man looked as if he would take offense at them not knowing whatever his number might be. Trom had the impression that the man would not simply slap them on the cheek and tell them to head back home, no, this was definitely the kind of man to use that lapis lazuli staff of his and hit them on the head with it until they would voluntarily take the shortcut, one-way route to hell. Although the man as a whole looked friendly enough - like a leaner version of Santa Claus with different clothing - his eyes looked the exact opposite. They were "don't fuck with me" eyes.
Cronos was racking his brain. There wasn't much to rack, so he looked at Trom hopefully. Trom looked back, exasperatingly.
"How the hell should I know?" he said.
The bearded man named Nanna - what a silly name for a guardian of the First Gate of Hell - was becoming impatient. All adventurers and questers alike had at least had the courtesy to know his bloody number when they had the audacity to come here. He was thinking of something particularly cruel to do to these poor bastards - it had been quite a while since he'd been visited and he'd thought long and hard of what to do next time someone came - when the chunky dude suddenly looked up.
"Wait a sec'," Cronos suddenly said, as if some subliminal hand had brushed by him and had awarded him with one of his traditionally rare moments of True Lucidity. He took the demon's note out of his pocket. There were several numbers on it, numbers that had initially not made much sense at all but now suddenly just might.
Trom looked at Cronos. He hoped he may have misjudged the mercenary annex hired gun. He wished the hastily scribbled numbers indeed bore some relevance to the situation at hand, for this Nanna character seemed not too keen on letting them guess more than once.
Warchild scanned the note. There were Seven Gates but only six numbers. He'd have to take the chance, however. The first number was thirty.
"Thirty," Cronos said.
There was a pause, during which time could have passed and tipped its hat, but didn't.
"Thirty is my number indeed," the guardian named Nanna enunciated, nodding solemnly, "you have spoken rightly."
"Cool," Trom said, suddenly again more confident and courageous. The sense of adventure came flowing back into his veins.
"There is no reason for relief yet, I can assure you, young man," Nanna said, condescending, "for now there is the Test."
Somehow, the way in which the guardian made the word "Test" actually sound as if it started with a capital made Trom feel queasy.
"A test?" Cronos asked.
"Indeed, noble adventurer," the guardian said, somewhat smugly, "a Test." He clicked his fingers.
A broad-shouldered Gorilla, Warchild's even more primitive alter ego so it seemed, appeared from behind a bush as if it had been hidden there all along. It licked its lower lip as if it was craving for a banana, and in its hands it held a knife that looked very sharp indeed.
The Gorilla grinned. A knife flashed. An upper lip was licked.
At around that instant, it became no longer apparent what happened. A cartoonesque cloud of sand evolved around the human and the primate, grass flinging off in several directions. The occasional sounds along the lines of "BASH", "WHACK" and, indeed, "THUD", were hurled at the guardian and Trom.
Few moments later the dust settled upon the unconscious form of the Gorilla. Its fur was wrinkled, it had a black eye and its nose seemed broken with a tiny stream of blood pouring out of one nostril.
It was dead, too.
Cronos brushed off some grass and sand, then snorted derisively. He had just been hit by a Gorilla and the most acute sense of deja vu he had ever experienced. He could have sworn he had been through this virtually exact experience before. He suddenly had to think of a white kangaroo wearing a clock, a guy called Cranium and a most nauseatingly terrible smell.
He shook the memories off and looked at the guardian, who was impressed. It was clear that he was the kind of man that would have liked to place bets on this sort of thing. You could see he didn't like the fact that there had not been another hellish inhabitant to place bets with.
"The second gate," Nanna said, "is due south. Have a nice day."
Trom and Cronos walked off in the direction that the guardian of the First Gate of Hell had pointed out. It was not until after an hour's walking or thereabouts when they spotted it.
They stood before the second Gate of Hell. It looked a lot more like a gate this time. It had wrought-iron hinges and looked made of some kind of really solid wood, aged by many, many centuries. In it was a peephole, below which hung a formidable door knocker in the shape of a goat's skull with some ancient inscriptions neither of them could ever hope to decipher.
Cronos lifted the knocker. It was black, heavy, and really cold. He knocked the door with it once, twice, thrice, four times. A twisted sound, almost embodying darkness, reverberated off the door and echoed beyond and before them, forming the eerie words "In...Madness...You...Dwell" that seemed to echoe for an unnaturally long time in their minds.
Trom shivered. This was seriously scary stuff. His nanny had never told him things like this happened in the world outside the Hepplewhite Saintjohn Thurny estate.
The door opened slowly, and out of it stepped a man wearing a long priestly robe and a crown of thorns. Although he had no beard, he appeared ancient on every account. He was bent, had an unhealthy-looking complexion, hollow cheeks, and leaned on a cane that looked as if it was bought as a souvenir from the Mull of Kintyre.
"It is I, Nebo, guardian of the Second of the Seven Gates of Hell," the man said, his voice sounding like a broom going through a porcelain store that a rabid elephant had just been in.
"I am the keeper of the knowledge of Science," Nebo continued, "my colour is Blue and I bear the sign of Mercury. What is my number?"
Cronos hoped the list of numbers would continue to be correct. He took out the note again, uncrumpling it. He knew there were only six numbers on the note, yet seven Hellish Gates. He fervently hoped the one missing would not be that of one of the earlier gates. Not this one, at any rate. He wondered who in hell was helping them, who actually wanted him and Trom to succeed this quest and enter Hell itself.
Nebo was a man of infinitely more patience than Nanna, maybe on account of his name not being half as silly as that of the previous guardian. Still, Trom reckoned Cronos should not wait too long with the revelation of the number, because you never knew. It's best to be on the safe side, especially on your way to Hell.
"Twelve," Warchild said, holding his breath until Nebo nodded slowly, the joints of the ancient man's neck creaking sickeningly.
Trom let go a sigh of relief, but caught himself.
"Of course," the old man revealed, "there shall have to be a Test."
Another one of those capitalised words, Trom noticed. Dratted drat.
Nebo took from a pocket a stopwatch. He flicked a switch that had so far been quite invisible, upon which a couple of spotlights went on. The spotlights shone on an audience stand on which sat about a hundred demons and other assorted minions of hell. They were all cackling, making ghastly noises and waving at where they supposed had to be a camera.
"You have one minute..." the guardian said, smiling, "...to get 10 toothbrushes from our esteemed audience!" He pressed something on the stopwatch. A hand began to rotate.
Trom and Cronos both ran up the audience stand. From somewhere there came music, the kind of music that makes you ever more nervous, it ever gaining more speed, ever becoming infinitely more irritable. Some of the demons fumbled in their handbags, looking if they had perhaps brought a toothbrush with them. Miraculously, quite a few of them actually had. Some other demons found the tooth brushes and ate them before Trom or Cronos could come close enough to attempt to snatch them from their ugly, warted paws.
"30 seconds..." Nebo said in the tone of one with all the time in the world.
Trom had found a couple of tooth brushes already. Some of them were shaped like bones, some others like bat's wings.
"Look, Trom," Cronos said, showing a toothbrush, "this has a really clever eye-of-newt design!"
Trom signalled him to hurry and not to bullshit. He saved a toothbrush from a demon's fangs, almost losing a finger or two in the process. The music was becoming louder; the tuba started humphing ever faster.
"10 seconds..." Nebo said, appearing bored.
Cronos grabbed a last toothbrush on his way out. This particular one had a pair of artificial fangs hanging onto it. He shook them off. "Sorry ma'm," he apologised.
Right in the nick of time they arrived back at where Nebo stood, waiting patiently.
"Zero," the guardian said. "Let's count those toothbrushes." The demonic audience applauded.
Trom and Cronos handed the assorted oral hygiene devices to Nebo. They both wondered why in hell demons needed toothbrushes, but the fact that apparently they did had saved the day.
Nebo finished counting them.
"Eleven," he said. "Strictly taken, that means you've handed me one too many..."
Trom and Cronos looked at each other. So this was where it would end. Well...
"...but I'm in a good mood today! Haven't had this much fun since Aleister Crowley came here, a century or two ago." The demonic audience clapped, whistled, woo-woo-ed, yelled and generally made a lot of noise, like some sitcom audiences tend to do.
"So we may pass?" Trom asked, hopefully.
Nebo nodded, "Sure, son, you and your friend may pass."
Cronos and Trom both shook his hand gratefully.
"If you walk south-east for approximately an hour," the guardian said, switching off the spotlights, "you will find the third of the Seven Gates of Hell. Now go."
So, after another hour's walking, they found themselves standing in front of the third Gate of Hell. This particular one again didn't at all look like a gate. It looked, rather, like the entrance of an Eastern boudoir of sorts, the kind made of bead-stringed curtains that really only serve to keep out flies. It wasn't located in a wall, at least not one to be seen. Everything around it was just darkness, a darkness so intense you could bump into it. From through the beady curtain came inviting light, though, soft to the eyes and enluring.
Trom held it open to allow Warchild in. "After you," he said, a smirk on his face.
"After you," Cronos said, grinning, simply shoving Trom inside. Trom was sick to the back teeth of Warchild telling him what to do, but felt powerless to do anything about it.
They found themselves enveloped by the scent of a thousand sticks of incense. There were candles and tea lights everywhere, casting a beautiful glow over the room, which was large and, well, cosy. Pillows lay everywhere, and drapes of priceless damask lay all about the place and hung off the ceiling. It seemed like they had entered a place straight out of some ancient Eastern faerytale.
Fantasies about huge amounts of available women, such as those invariably featured in those Eastern faerytales, were put on hold by a huge, heavy-maned lion that introduced itself into the room from a shadowy corner. It walked gracefully, a true king among beasts, sniffing the air.
"Don't sweat," Trom said, who was trying to keep his pores shut himself, too, "for it may smell it if you are afraid."
"That's dogs, silly," a woman's voice came from that same shadowy corner. Into the light stepped a woman of insurpassable beauty, with long curly black hair, a voice like an aural sprinkle of silk and a skin tanned like some California beach goddess who had insisted upon there not being any bikini lines.
Trom thought he had seen her - or something pretty damn much like her - before, though he couldn't for the life of him put a finger on it. Again he felt a really peculiar sense of deja vu, strong and omniscient, taking control of his body as if lead was being poured in his veins and directed from some other plane of reality.
"Gosh," he said, his voice dreamy and far-off, "that is surely one hell of a babe..."
With those words, he embraced the swirlingly twirling earth and threw another dreaming fit...
She had black hair. She wore a vari-coloured cloak with a golden pin in it and a hooded tunic with red embroidery. She had shoes with golden fastenings. Her face was oval, narrow below, broad above. Her eyebrows were dark and black. Her beautiful black eyelashes cast a shadow on to the middle of her cheeks. Her lips seemed to be made of partaing. Her teeth were like a shower of pearls between her lips. She had three plaits of hair: Two plaits wound around her head, the third hanging down her back, touching her calves behind. In her hand she carried a weaver's beam of white bronze, with golden inlay. There were three pupils in each of her eyes. The maiden was armed and her chariot was drawn by two black horses.
Trom woke up with Cronos slapping his face again. He realised he had dreamt, the same dreams he'd had before. It was almost as if he was remembering bits of a life that had happened before him. It was all seriously surreal but in a way like it was part of himself, unmistakably. He now noticed the beautiful lady again, who sat by him to see if he was recovering from his fainting fit. It struck him how much she looked like the girl from which he had dreamt, invariably, ever since he could remember. When Trom turned out to have recovered sufficiently to erect himself, she, too, got up and spoke.
"It is I, Inanna, guardian to the Third of the Seven Gates of Hell," the insurpassably beautiful woman said, "I am the Goddess of Passion, both of Love and War", she continued, "my colour is Purest White and in my armour no Priest need fear to tread in the Underworld. What is my number?"
Trom reckoned this woman had been using plenty Oil of Ulay if she was aged anything close to the other guardians they had met so far. He was virtually struck breathless. Just imagine...a woman with such an amazingly young body yet the experience of someone aged by centuries or even millenia... He couldn't believe she would do either of them harm, but the thing was that she was one of the guardians of the dread Seven Gates. He decided he'd rather not put it to the test.
Trom grabbed the crumpled note from Cronos' hands, and said the next number in line.
Inanna's face darkened. The lion lifted its nose and bared a few fangs that Trom decided he'd prefer looking at through solid steel bars in a zoo, if at all. He suddenly felt extremely nauseous. Even Cronos cringed, though he'd never have admitted it.
"Gimme that note," Inanna said, walking up to Trom and snatching it away from him. She looked it over.
"They left out my number," she said, sounding hurt, giving the note back, "they left out my number. Twenty is the next guardian's number." The lion looked up at her, brushing against one of her godly legs and purring reassuringly. Her hand stroked the beast's mighty manes.
"Oh, well," she said, "it can't be helped, I suppose. Where would I be without you, my dear Kittecat?" The lion purred a bit louder, sounding like a distant avalanche.
"I'll cut you some slack," Innana said, pacing her boudoir, addressing both intrepid adventurers, but particularly Trom. She came closer to them now, and Trom noticed that she smelled more heavenly than any of the women he had ever come into contact with, most certainly his aunts. It was a heady fragrance that conjured up visions of beds soft, pastures green, flowers ablooming and passion immeasurable. Weirdly, it also had a faint tinge of weapon oil and gunsmoke, which in turn slightly enraptured Cronos.
"I can't tell you my number," she told them, "but it is..." She mouthed it.
"Fitting?" Trom said.
She shook her head.
"Flitting?" Cronos guessed.
She shook her head once more.
"Vivideen?" Cronos conjured.
Innana gesticulated wildly now, pressing her index finger against the side of her nose, then making rotating gestures with her hand.
"Er...erm...fifteen!" Trom shouted gleefully.
"Yes!" the raven-haired beauty said, her face lighting up with joy, "You guessed it right, young master!"
"And I suppose now," Cronos interposed, getting kind of irritated at the attention Trom was getting and he wasn't, "we have to do some sort of Test, right?"
The lady Innana appeared to be in thought about that.
"Yes," the said, solemnly, "there shall be a Test indeed."
Trom and Cronos waited for the lady to utter the words, for her to formulate what further dreadful ordeal would lay immediately ahead of them on their way to a place where, frankly, neither of them would otherwise ever have wanted to go.
"I shall require the young master to kiss me," she breathed, rather huskily. The lion looked at her accusingly, "you've gone all soft, Innana" readily readable in its large black eyes. Innana didn't see it, though, for all she had eyes for was Trom, who couldn't believe his ears and stood rooted to the spot.
"Well?" Cronos said, "Come on, Trom, let's get this over with." How come he always got the short end of the stick? He was beginning to dislike all of this very much.
After a few seconds, during which there was an almost audible crackle of lightning between Trom and the Passion Goddess and a lot of chemistry to top if off, Trom regained the principle of motion. Feeling on top of the world and not minding the lion, which was growling indignantly, he strode forward the few steps that were needed...and kissed her.
They both turned away and blushed heavily, like they'd just found out they'd been sucking in the same strand of spaghetti.
"Come on, Trom," Cronos said, not at all pleased and sounding it, "we haven't got time for all this dilly-dally and stuff. We have four gates ahead of us, need I remind you?"
Trom and the lady Innana were torn from their moments of Complete Bliss.
"He's right, you know," she said, "you two do have to go." Trom nodded, but didn't like the way reality had checked in again.
"Remember," Innana said just before she released Trom's hand, "the next guardian's number is twenty...and remember, too, Trom...remember the warrior inside you!"
They left her boudoir - Trom with a sense of loss - and walked in whatever direction seemed most fit. Sometimes you have to consult your brain, but some other times you have to listen to your heart. Trom's heart felt there would be but one direction to walk into, so that's what he did. Cronos followed, cursing and muttering below his breath about the way things had gone so far and how he wasn't happy with them at all.
So, after another short stroll, they found themselves facing the fourth of the Gates of Hell. This time it looked most impressive once more; it was a huge portcullis that Warchild wouldn't be able to lift nor Trom would be able to crawl through. Far above them, barely discernible above the blackened portcullis from beyond which no light reached them, was a plaque that read, curiously, "Zapfest". Under it, even harder to read, were two initials, "J" and "M".
Just as they were about to give up their search for something to press or pull in order to get the guardian's attention, they heard a faint humming sound to their right. They turned.
Into view floated a giant throne of gold, upon which sat a man wearing a crown of two horns, holding a sceptre aloft in his right hand and a flame disc in his left. The flame disc sent off rays in every direction.
"It is I, Shammash, guardian of the Fourth of the Seven Gates of Hell," the Lord said, "I am..."
"And your number is twenty," Trom interrupted, grinning, thinking back of the lovely lady Innana, "Stop beating around the bush and lay the Test on us."
The Lord Shammash, who had just been about to impress hell out of the adventurers by telling them he was also sometimes referred to as Uddo, was taken unawares by the young man's boldness. So was Cronos, actually, who had not expected Trom suddenly to go courageous after a mere kiss from a Passion Goddess. Well, he had to agree that she'd been quite a babe...
The guardian grinned back at Trom - an icy cold grin in which there was no pleasure. He liked a challenge. For centuries - What?! Millenia! - people had been seeking him out and only the smartest among them had ever passed his test. These two didn't look smart enough at all. The young man was just an insolent youth, and the squarely built guy looked like he'd been standing last in line where god had been dishing out the brains.
"Yes, young man," the Lord Shammash spoke, "there is a test. It is a test of tremendous mental skill."
"Yeah, come on, come on," Trom said, impatiently.
"Well," Lord Shammash said, "it is a question. And the question is...name 10 song titles with 'hell' in it, as well as the bands who recorded them."
There was a moment of profound silence.
"Hell," Cronos said, "I'm not into music."
"Neither am I, particularly," said Trom, "but a cousin of mine is." He was thinking hard.
"And..." the Lord Shammash said, "at least four of the bands must have had Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 hits, though not necessarily with the specific 'hell' song!"
Trom looked at the guardian, wishing the nasty old man would vanish or something. They would probably be having difficulty enough with this question without this extra condition.
"Is that all?" Trom asked, tersely.
The guardian nodded. He grinned; that last modification usually cooked their goose.
"Lemmesee," Trom said, thinking harder than he could ever recall, in his mind leafing through his cousin's album collection.
"'Alison Hell'," he said, "by Annihilator."
The guardian nodded.
"Three of the top 10 hit bands are easy, too," Trom continued, "Black Sabbath's 'Heaven and Hell', Kiss' 'Hotter than Hell' and Pink Floyd's 'Run Like Hell', right?"
The guardian just nodded. Still six to go.
There was another silence. Cronos felt pretty useless. He realised he'd spent his life totally devoid of culture whatsoever. Maybe that ought to change. He only knew a few songs by the Beatles, really.
"'My Hell'," Trom said, a sense of triumph gleaming in his eyes as he reached half of the test, "by Nokturnel."
"That's a pretty obscure one," the Lord Shammash said, "well done, young man."
"'Gates to Hell'," Trom added, "by Obituary."
He's actually alphabetically browsing through his cousin's metal CD collection, the guardian thought. Any minute now he'll arrive at...
"'Cowboys from Hell' and 'Holy Hell'," Trom said, "by, er, Pantera and Possessed respectively."
The guardian nodded. Two to go. And they'd never guess the fourth Top 10 hit one. It was too outright devious. He was actually quite proud of it himself. He couldn't wait to see the look on their faces when he'd have to tell it to them.
"'Hell Awaits'," Trom sighed, "by Slayer".
"Well done indeed, young man," the guardian grinned, "but now the fourth one by a band good enough to have had a Top 10 hit."
"Damn, triple damn," Trom grunted. Here they were, up pop trivia creek lacking the necessary theoretical background to paddle with.
Cronos was reciting Beatles songs that occurred to him, "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, I Wanna Hold your Hand, Michelle, A Hard Day's Night, The Yellow Submarine, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band..."
Trom looked at Cronos, grinning the grin of the triumphant.
"What did you say?" he asked Cronos, "Just now?"
"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," Warchild repeated, which was quite a feat in itself, "I Wanna Hold your Hand, Mi..."
"MICHELLE!" Trom cried, "MICHELLE! That has 'hell' in it." He looked around at the guardian, who was not having a good time any more. The Lord Shammash nodded. He felt he had to lie down for a bit. He signalled them to pass through his gate. Had he left the gas on at home?
They wiped sweat off their brows. They'd pulled it off again; four down, three to go.
"We sure showed him, didn't we?" Cronos said.
Trom nodded. He wondered how long their luck would hold. So far, though, they seemed to be a pretty good team.
Feeling quite good and chatting almost merrily despite what they know was still ahead of them, they nearly walked into a chest.
It was a fairly large chest that, Cronos guessed, might contain a stupendous treasure. Trom reckoned it would not, because it was a luggage chest, the kind that people used to drag aboard ships in the older days. As a matter of fact, he pointed out, there was even a label attached to it. "Anything but Ankh-Morpork," it read.
They looked at it, not quite daring to open it, while it stood there, simply, not moving, like luggage is supposed to do. Then, quite suddenly and to considerably dropping of jaws, it acted very much unlike luggage. It sprouted a couple of dozen chubby legs, lifted itself up and gently trudged off in the distance before either Cronos or Trom knew what was happening.
They both shook their heads in disbelief. Instead of pondering over it for a long while, however, they quickly realised why they were actually here and went about their business again.
And so it happened that, before they knew it, they encountered what they assumed must be the next guardian, the guardian of the Fifth of the Seven Gates of Hell. It was a lion - which made Trom once more reminisce fleetingly of the beauteous lady Innana - a lion with a man's head, bearing a sword and a flail.
"It is I, mighty Nergal, guardian to the Fifth of the Seven Gates of Hell," the wingless gryphon said, interrupted quickly by Cronos.
"We haven't even discovered your gate yet," Warchild said, "aren't you supposed to introduce yourself until after we've found it?"
Nergal thought about that for a while.
"Yes, ho-hum, yes, indeed," he muttered, embarrassed, retreating somewhat, "indeed, dear adventurers, it seems like that is in fact, ho-hum, standard procedure, as it were."
Cronos and Trom looked around for the mystic Fifth Gate. The problem was that it was nowhere to be seen. Around them was just impenetrable darkness.
"Ho-hum, dear sirs, if I may be so bold as to venture," mighty Nergal said, "I think I've gone for my afternoon stroll and wandered a bit too far off, actually."
"Are you saying," Trom said, chuckling, "that you are actually, well, lost?"
"Ho-hum, well," the wingless gryphon replied hesitantly, "I wouldn't quite put it like that, er, ho-hum, but, not too put too fine a point to it, yes, I think I am." He shuffled his paws insecurely.
"Some guardian," Warchild muttered below his breath, derisively.
"What does the gate look like?" Trom asked.
"Promise you won't laugh?" Nergal said.
Both adventurers nodded in a kind of noncommittal way. That sufficed for Nergal.
"Ho-hum, well," he explained, "it's actually, ho-hum, a hole in the ground. Quite embarrassing, really, but it was all they hadn't yet assigned when I applied for the job. I was too late, you see; got lost somewhere between the Styx and Hades, upper East Side, ho-hum."
It was really too pathetic to be laughed at, so both Cronos and Trom refrained from doing so, or at least tried to. They looked around instead, Trom biting his tongue with some vigour, searching for what looked like a hole in the ground.
"Oh, ho-hum," Nergal suddenly said, grinning embarrassedly, "there it is, ho-hum, seems like I never wandered too far off in the first place. Mayhap I should put a flag on a stick in it next time, ho-hum."
Standing next to his Gate - well, the hole in the ground at any rate - Nergal took a deep breath.
"It is I, mighty Nergal, guardian of the Fifth of the Seven Gates of Hell," Nergal said to the slightly bemused questers, "I am sometimes thought to be the agent of the, erm, Ancient Ones, ho-hum. I dwelt in Puta...er...no, Cutha for a time and my colour is, ho-hum, deep purple? No, ho-hum, Dark Red, I am pretty certain about that, ho-hum. Er...what was that last question again?"
"What's your number?" Trom ventured, sighing.
"Eight," Nergal said, immediately covering his mouth, "Grmmbll."
They left the absent-minded guardian, this mighty Nergal, to his musings and mutterings - which mainly involved the topic of early retirement, and what the hell that test was supposed to be - and jumped in the hole.
After a rather long sliding experience down a rather claustrophobic length of almost gut-like tunnel they dropped onto a large mound of sand that looked like some kind of dune. It cushioned the impact sufficiently, though Trom was surely glad he had jumped in second; "Made it beyond the Fifth Gate of Hell but then died because a dimwit mercenary flattened him" would not quite have made too satisfactory an epitaph to his taste.
Whereas so far the stretches of wasteland between the Gates of Hell had been primarily dark and ravished, this time they had appeared to arrive in what was definitely a desert. Sand stretched out in all directions, and the only thing other than a black starlit desert night sky and dark grey sand to be seen around them was the thing from which they had just fallen. It mostly resembled a black hole sun.
They decided they had to rest for the night. They had no sleeping bags or tents, so the desert sand would have to do. Even if they had had something with which to light a fire, they wouldn't have done so. You never knew which creatures might be attracted by the light, creatures which might somehow find it comfortable to roam in the domain between the Fifth and Sixth Gates of Hell. Now Cronos came to think of it, he did have a hunch, which was all the more reason to keep things as dark as possible.
They slept like logs. Trom woke up, somewhere way past what he reckoned must have been midnight, to the sounds of an insanely witty person shouting "Oh Beth! Beth!", but didn't heed it any more than Cronos, who continued to snore peacefully.
They woke up to the sound of steps in the desert sand and the heat of the sun on their faces. There was no telling how long they had slept and it wasn't important either, for in a true Mohammed-and-the-Mountain fashion it seemed that the Sixth Gate and its guardian had found them during the night.
"It is I, Marduk Kurios, guardian of the Sixth of the Seven Gates of Hell", said the guardian, not even waiting until Cronos and Trom had rubbed their eyes clean, "bestowed on me were Fifty Names and Powers by the Council of Elders, and I have put the Queen of the Ancient Ones beneath my foot, though she is not dead yet dreams. My colour is Purple. What is my number?"
They both looked up at the Gate. It was a most formidable construction although, granted, they had both seen better and less dated ones. It was a tremendously large, round stone, of the kind that were used in ancient Palestine to close cave graves off with. It was, basically, a big wheel made of rock. There was a name tag attached to it, which read "University of Turin".
The guardian looked exceedingly grim and moody, as if it hadn't been him who had awoken the others from their slumbers but vice versa. He had been waiting for aeons upon aeons for the occasion to arise, for no mortals had actually ever made it this far. He'd been rolling around this stone through the desert for an endless time. He had repeated his lines dutifully every morning, hoping that some day someone would actually arrive to have them recited to. He had had millenia to think of a really nasty Test, too, and now there were not one but two mortals to toy with! He'd be a having a field day... Well, OK...a desert day, for the pedants among you.
But for now they would first have to know his number. There were preciously few who knew it: Satan, of course, who knew all those things, and the Mad Arab, of course. But the Mad Arab lived no more on earth, and last thing he heard the Arab's writings had been lost forever. Granted, he hadn't been in touch with reality a lot of late, so as far as he knew the whole world might be in the know with regard to his number. However, if they didn't know it he'd have a really interesting thing waiting for them, involving flying chains and fluked hooks and rather a lot of pain.
"Ten," Cronos said after consulting the ever more crumpled note, confirming Marduk's worst suspicions about the world and the time he had not been in touch with it. He who put the Dark Queen beneath his foot was suddenly no longer so convinced that the Test he had concocted was all too brilliant nor too impossible to solve.
"You have spoken rightly," Marduk said, a bit unsure of himself, beginning to feel really silly and as dated as his Gate, "and now, as you probably now, there shall have to be a Test."
The adventurers nodded. Although they'd been lucky a few times so far, there was no way they would continue to be. They knew the numbers for all the Gates' guardians now, but all luck has to end some day. They both had a distinctly nagging feeling that today, like any other, might be it.
"My test is particularly difficult," Marduk said smugly, adopting a somewhat friendlier tone of voice out of sympathy with these people that, in little more than a minute, would be burning forever in the effervescent fires of hell.
"You see," Marduk continued, "I have been assigned to this post thousands of years ago. Hells, I lost track of the time, to tell you the truth. On the brighter side of things, that means I've had all that time to use my philosopher's mind to think of what is conceivably the most difficult question ever to be posed in the history of the universe." He could help but chortle.
"Well, it's been nice so far," Cronos said, "get on with it." He had committed suicide once and lived to tell about it. This could hardly be more difficult.
Trom just thought of that passionate flame in his life that he would have to leave behind, the Passion Goddess Innana. In his mind he once more smelled her delicate perfume and beheld her beautifully tanned skin and her eyes...damn, he'd never even know what colour her eyes had been. Still, he'd go out like a man. He'd make her proud of him. Or proud of his memory, anyway.
Marduk was regaining his previously dented confidence when he looked at the positively despondent faces of the adventurers before him. For not much of an apparent reason, Trom had found it necessary to bare his chest, as if expecting a sword to be thrust into it.
"This is not a test of physical skill," Marduk said, "rather an intellectual one. The question is..."
Marduk waited a bit. Trom hated guardians with a sense of dramatic impact. Cronos began to hate guardians in general - barring Innana, of course, who somehow he found quite impossible to hate.
"Come on, man," Trom said, "say it!"
"OK, at your behest," Marduk said, still taking his time, "here is the question..."
Trom felt his heart beating in his temples. Cronos felt every of his pores opening and excreting that most natural of scents.
"What is the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything?"
There was a silence broken only by the sound of molecules adhering to the Brownian motion. The guardian nor the two questers dared breathe. Suspense was so thick you would have needed a blowtorch to cut it.
So heavy was the weight upon their shoulders that it took almost a full minute before Trom's mind in some weird and possibly arcane way started to function again, connecting a few simple facts. Cronos had already given up and was wondering if perhaps there was a way he could apply his carefully trained pain-blocking skills to somehow live through the eternal fires of his hellish destiny. He ought never have allowed that demon to steal anything in the first place. Maybe this was fate telling him to retire. Well, this time he'd listen to its inaudible voice. But first he had to shut up this rich kid who was vigorously nudging him in one of his floating ribs.
"I think I know it," Trom whispered enthusiastically below his breath, nudging the mercenary annex hired gun once more.
"Er?" Cronos said. He had accepted forthcoming death with such abandon that his body temperature had already been dropping slowly.
"I know it, I know it! The answer!" Trom insisted. He looked at the guardian, who was looking any way but theirs, whistling some Ditty From Hell.
"Sure?" Cronos asked. Already he felt his body temperature rising again. The boy had better know it for sure, for else all hope would be shattered once more. There are only so many things a man can take, even when it concerned such an indisputably manly man such as himself.
Trom just nodded. Cronos couldn't recall ever having seen such a smug grin plastered on anyone's face. Then again, Cronos in generally didn't remember much. Nonetheless, it can be said that Trom grinned pret-ty smugly. As a matter of fact, he was having a pretty hard time to not burst out in almost uncontrollable peals of laughter. Biting his tongue did the job, though.
"Come on then," Cronos said, nudging the boy back in return, "say it."
"Er, Mr. Marduk, sir?" Trom ventured, sniggering. He clicked his fingers to get the required attention.
The guardian turned around slowly to look at them, pity in his eyes. The mortals were going to give it a try. Well, you couldn't blame them, really. Humans could sometimes indeed be a fairly courageous breed, you'd have to hand them that. They'd give it their best shot - of course they'd not know the right answer - and then he would deal with them swiftly and surely. Painlessly, even. No need for useless violence, no matter how long he had waited for this, no matter how alone he had been, alone and bitter, in these long, long millenia. Maybe, some day, someone else would come along and he'd treat them like real shit, the way he had intended to treat these two.
"You think you know the answer?" Marduk inquired.
"Yep, Mr. Marduk, sir."
They couldn't, could they? The boy did seem pretty sure of himself. No, they couldn't. Marduk was pretty confident of that. Still..
"Well, boy?" Marduk said.
"Forty-two, Mr. Marduk, sir," Trom said, smiling the smile of a saintly little angel.
For a moment, the guardian felt as if the earth had disappeared from under his feet and he was now floating amid a vast wealth of nothingness, without oxygene and doomed to die of suffocation.
How the hell had the little brat known that?! There was a virtually limitless range of answers to his question, varying from "your cousin's left sock" and "wednesday next" to "a darker shade of dark" and "E minor", but no, no, they, they had to come up with the right answer! He promised himself to be particularly violent on the next mortals that would - hopefully - come his way in what would likely be another four millenia or so. Suddenly feeling very tired, he leaned on his Gate.
Cronos was hugging Trom. Not a very manly man thing to do, he reckoned, but nobody would ever know about it and Marduk was too busy feeling wretched and would, incidentally, most likely never meet anyone of Warchild's acquaintance.
When the general merriment of the two adventurers had ceased, Warchild cleared his throat.
"Say, Marduk," Cronos said, "might you be inclined to tell us whereabouts the Seventh Gate can be found?"
"Inclined, no," replied Marduk, "Obliged by honour, yes." He pointed somewhere behind them. They turned around.
"If you look carefully," Marduk said, still baffled by the disappointing fact that these two mere mortals could so easily have solved that most difficult of questions, "you will see the Seventh Gate there."
Trom and Cronos stared in the distance, where lay a huge mountain shaped like a goat's skull with the horns knocked off. From its top vomited forth thick, black, bulging, genuinely evil-looking smoke. It looked like one of those "look what's happening to the environment" warning adverts by Greenpeace.
"Thanks, Marduk," Cronos said. Trom and him walked in the direction of the mountain, in pretty high spirits despite their hellish destination.
Marduk was not feeling really happy with himself. Now he had to find an even more difficult question for whoever would next arrive at the Sixth Gate of Hell. He hoped he'd be in time, for, now he came to think of it, if lucky morons like these two could get so far he was pretty convinced so could almost anyone else.
When Trom and Cronos came closer to the mountain shaped like a goat's skull with the horns knocked off, looming ever higher before them until at a certain moment it almost blocked out all the light from that side, they could see that before the mountain there was the largest of the Gates they had seen so and by far.
So this was it, then, the Seventh Gate. The Mother of all the Gates of Hell, as it were. It sure looked it. It was almost an exact replica of those large "Jurassic Park" gates, only now even much bigger and a pair of giant stag's horns instead of the "JP" logo. The actual doors were made from a material unlike wood or metal, or anything else they knew. When Warchild knocked on them once, there arose a curiously resonant "boom" sound that carried far and lasted uncannily long. For a moment he cowered, fearing that he might have announced their arrival to every single of hell's cursed inhabitants.
Not so, apparently, because the only person who eventually reacted was a man wearing a crown of thorns and a long sword, clad in a cloak of lion's skin. He seemed to have appeared from through the Seventh Gate. He looked very old, too, which is what they had expected. He must have been very patient, what with them being the first people ever to come here. Nonetheless, no anger or frustration seemed to radiate from him.
"It is I, Ninib called Adar, guardian of the Final of the Seven Gates of Hell," he said, "I am the one whose essence is found in burnt embers and things of death or antiquity, whose symbol are the horns of a stag. My colour is black. What is my number?"
For the last time, Cronos took out the note. It was now crumpled to such extent that the numbers were difficult to make out. Nonetheless, the last in line was clearly a 4. Or was it a 9 with the top not properly closed? Damn. He'd just have to chance it, trusting his initial instinct.
"Four," he said.
"You have spoken rightly, noble adventurer," Ninib called Adar proclaimed, "my number is four, as in the quarters of the earth."
A silence ensued in which Cronos and Trom waited for the inevitable - the last and probably truly most difficult of the Tests. None, however, seemed forthcoming. The guard merely seemed a trifle bemused and volunteered no further remarks.
"What about the Test?" Trom eventually asked, hoping for the best. They had come this far, so it would be a most extreme bummer if they'd fail this last one. Close but no cigar and all that stuff. An extreme bummer indeed.
"Test?" Ninib called Adar asked, frowning.
"Yes, sure," Cronos fell in, "all the other guardians had tests. Surely you have one, too?"
"Actually," the guardian said, "I don't think any of us are supposed to have tests." He seemed genuinely disconcerted.
"They surely had 'em," Warchild said.
"Be that as it may," Ninib called Adar said, "I have none. I suppose the others did it quite of their own accord. I shall have to take this up with my superiors some day." He sounded ominous.
"Innana had no test, though," Trom hastened to add, at which Ninib called Adar's face broke in a smile.
"I will make sure to pass that information on to my superiors, young man," the guardian said.
"When will that meeting with your superiors be, if I may be so curious as to ask?" Cronos inquired.
"On August 28th 1997," the guardian replied, pressing a button that had hitherto been totally invisible, "the day before Judgement Day."
The huge gates swung open soundlessly, almost sucking them in due to the differences in air pressure on either sides. They now had an unobscured sight of that ghastly blackest of foul mountains.
They stepped through.
"Godspeed," Ninib called Adar said, which was an odd thing indeed to hear so far down in the bowels of the earth, so close to hell that it almost singed your hair. Before they could reply, though, the doors closed and Ninib called Adar had disappeared.
III - INTO THE LUNGS OF HELL
They found themselves now at the beginning of a tunnel that was hewn out of rock in a most crude manner. A flickering orange light could be seen at the end of it, and a variety of sounds emanated from there - evil laughter accompanying the anguished cries of tortured souls. Bats flew towards them, flitting around their heads and disappearing in the sudden darkness they had left behind. The bats seemed impervious to the force fields of Hell. Some of them, Cronos could see in short flashes, had faces like ugly fat babies with moustaches.
In front of the tunnel entrance was a doormat that had "Welcome" on it. Welcome to Hell. Yeah, right.
Cronos almost tiptoed through the tunnel, that was gradually becoming hotter and lighter. Trom followed him, which Warchild reckoned was a brave thing to do. The sounds became louder, and genuinely sliced through Warchild's bones, so he guessed it might be even worse for the boy. What in all the Netherhells were they doing to those from whom wailed those anguished, long-wound cries? And which creatures could utter such profoundly evil laughter in the face of such agony?
Cronos had an idea of what the answers to those questions would be, but blocked out their implications. He found himself shivering despite the ever mounting heat.
Before them, the tunnel now opened into a wide hall that seemed the setting of some weird and diabolic rite. There were hideously ugly creatures jumping left and right, with their winged counterparts bobbing in the air above them, spitting and cursing. There was, as it were, not a very friendly atmosphere.
Amidst these ghastly creatures of hell and flickering flames of glowing fire there was a large black throne that seemed made from bones - human bones. Several blackened skulls gaped at Cronos and Trom lifelessly from the back of the throne, the flames of life quenched from them and replaced by those of purgatory.
Someone sat on the throne, laughing evilly along with those around the throne. Whoever it was, he had to be impervious to the flames that seemed to lick and consume, caressing the throne and everything around it.
Cronos should have kept his head low, for a demon spotted him, immediately pointing at the mercenary annex hired gun with a warty, long-nailed claw. It opened its jaws and let go a drawling sound that almost seemed to ooze from between its fangs. Cronos was pinpointed by dozens of pairs of red eyes, red eyes gleaming with unholy joy. Trom hid quickly behind the mercenary's huge square form, liking all of this even less than he had liked the whole stuff of going down to hell through its Seven Gates in the first place (though, of course, he had liked making acquaintance with the spitting image of the girl of his dreams in the form of the lady Innana of the Third Gate).
An intricate mechanism set to work to turn the Darkest of Thrones around with agonizing slowness. The demons hushed up while their master's throne turned to face the damned intruder.
This was it. He had bested the Seven Gates of Hell, had ridden Hell's Stallions and had had a Disagreement with Death. Now he would face Satan, Baphomet, the Fallen Angel, Azagtoth, the Dark One. He closed his eyes. He wasn't actually afraid as such, but wasn't feeling too confidently secure either. The ground throbbed from the inner workings of whatever mechanism it was that turned the vast, blackened, skeletal throne around.
When the throbbing stopped, around him was a virtually complete silence. The tortured souls, wherever they might be, seemed to have turned mute. The evil demons seemed no longer to have the urge to utter their cursed laughter, nor even a chuckly guffaw.
There was only one person - creature - who made - dared make - sound, and did - a deep kind of restrained chuckle. Cronos opened his eyes; he'd have to face this sooner or later anyway.
His eyes instantly opened a lot wider, and his jaw dropped deeper than it ever had. Nobody had ever mentioned to him the fact that Satan might not be like the way he is commonly described. Well...she was quite different indeed.
"You are...er...are...a...a...woman?" Warchild stammered.
He looked at her extremely tight leather outfit with the sexy tail and perhaps rather too high heels that, somehow, she must be able to balance on. How the hell did people get into those clothes? It seemed like a physical impossibility to him, especially because there was not a zip in sight anywhere.
"Now let's not get all male chauvinist pig on me, my dearest Cronos," she tut-tutted, wagging a finger, "I am not known to take too kindly to that sort of thing."
Within his mind, Cronos suddenly had irrepressable visions of being strapped to a bed, this woman towering above him, about to do to him very unspeakable things indeed. He swallowed. His eyes crossed.
Satan smiled. It wasn't her usual grin, no, it was a true smile. One of her minions, standing by her, couldn't believe its eyes. It blinked them and shook its head, only to discover that the smile was still there when it looked again. Actually, though you wouldn't normally think these kind of things, Satan was a distinctly attractive...
Her head abruptly twisted around to face her minion. It twisted the wrong way around. All thoughts vanished from the demon's mind entirely. It felt very small indeed, exceedingly insignificant and altogether more uncomfortable than it'd ever felt before in its almost eternal life.
It expected her to vomit.
She continued turning her head, completing the 360 degree turn, facing Cronos again.
"Cronos, baby," Satan purred, wagging her tail enluringly, "I shall cut to the chase. I need you. I want you. I need a man without a conscience. In the day-time you can reap souls; tempt people to sell them, promise anything, and then, well, kill them." Her eyes flashed; she licked her lips almost as if subconsciously. "And when night falls, well..."
Warchild thought he was going to faint. Not a very manly thing to do, but every muscle in his body told him it might be a good idea anyway. Satan ought not to be looking at him like that, woman or not. It made him feel strange, insecure, vulnerable. It also made his scrotum contract.
He spotted the Battery Pack on one of the arms of Satan's blackened throne. Maybe, just maybe, if he leapt for it he just might be able to grab it, quickly slip it inside where it ought to be, and then beat them all silly. He had a vague hunch that there might be one or two flaws in this theory, the most important of which was that there were rather a lot of demons in the direct vicinity, including a few between him and the Battery Pack.
"Your timing is a bit off, er, Mrs Satan," Warchild said.
"Do call me Lucy, please," Satan said, then asked, "Why? I do hope you're not, er, spoken for, as it were?"
"Well," Cronos said, "not as such, but, you see, I've got an apprentice to train."
He stepped aside and pointed at Trom. Trom wished he didn't, and prepared to cower to the best of his ability. Not a very heroic thing to do, he reckoned, but that would just be, as they say, tough titties.
Satan threw back her head and laughed loudly. The minion who had previously observed her smiling now felt reassured again: It was one of those typically evil, echoing bouts of laughter, the kind that made the inhabitants of hell cringe, that could impale people due to stalactites spontaneously tearing loose from ceilings.
"The boy?" she said, sneeringly, "The boy will no longer need you."
Trom had not the slightest reason whatsoever to like that tone of voice. Instead of waiting for whatever was going to happen, he took matters in his own hand. Displaying a skill he had not been taught by anyone in his life, he dashed for Satan's throne, agile like water, cleverly dodging demons that slashed at him with daggers, wanted to impale him on their lances and strove to run him through with their swords. He had love in his heart and in his head, which gave him the strength he had never known was somewhere within him.
He seemed made for this kind of thing. Something in his mind had gone "snap" and he now finally felt in touch with whatever it was that ruled his dream fits, whoever the hero was that sometimes gave him glances of a distant past but that had so far refused to come out. Trom barked like a dog, fending off whatever weapons threatened him with his bare hands. Just to see if he could, he took from one particularly surprised demon a lance and threw it away with all the power that was in him. He then ran, faster than the wind, to catch it himself.
"Ha!" he cried, triumphantly, "Ha!"
"Are you crazy?!" Cronos shouted.
"Provided I be famous," Trom cried, pride and deep emotion throbbing in his voice, "I am content to be only one day on earth!"
Trom - or whoever he was now - again pursued his way to Satan's throne. More and more of the Dark One's minions joined in the fray, and some of them were getting seriously injured. Young Trom seemed invincible and, indeed, as it would later go down in the Hellish Annals, he was.
He reached the throne. Satan warded the young boy off, afraid that she had now finally met someone who was clever and quick enough to assassinate her, like so many creatures of Heaven and Hell had attempted in vain in those many millenia that had gone before. It was not her, however, that Trom was interested in. Instead, he snatched Cronos' Mega Absorb Groin Protector Battery Pack off the arm of Satan's throne where it has been standing, and tossed it to the mercenary annex hired gun. Warchild quickly slipped it into the designated cavity.
Trom's hair looked all funny now, like nails, just like in his dream fits. His eyes crossed and he looked around wildly for more hostility to quench.
Satan could but sit back and watch. With a subtle sign of a professionally manicured, red-nailed hand she told her servants to allow this boy, this hero, to live. She had for him a worthy reward in store, a worthy reward indeed to praise one of such heroic stature.
"Be still, young Trom," Satan intoned in as much a voice of authority as she could muster. Trom looked around at her, feeling relaxed but not devoid of the tremendous strength that he had discovered within, the well of force that he had learned to sip from.
"That's better," Satan now said, almost purring, "because I have in store for you something befitting a hero like you." She signalled to somewhere behind the throne, from which now stepped Innana, his Passion Goddess and now former guardian of the Third Gate.
Trom felt his heart pounding in his chest, and now he felt his eyes cross and his stomach knot, not from one of his warrior's fits but from the most sincere feelings of love that any man could ever feel for a woman. Sometimes you meet someone that is really meant for you, someone that is your person. Innana was his person, and to Innana he was hers.
And they called each other by different names henceforth, Cu Chulainn and Fedelm, and they walked off in the wings, started a life of love down there in the very wombs of Hades. And the last words he uttered before disappearing with her forever to a distant outpost of the Dark One's domain, as recorded in the Hellish Annals, were, "Leave me in Hell".
All the excitement having abated somewhat, Satan stepped down from her throne and strutted up to Cronos. She was wearing a really weird kind of perfume, he noticed, something he'd never smelled before. Was it perfume actually? He now also saw that she was actually rather a tall woman, standing almost half a foot higher than him.
She bent over, her infernal breath tickling his ear.
"Spank me," she whispered under it.
"What?!" Warchild said, incredulously. Obviously, the phrase must have meanings he was quite unaware of.
"You heard me," Satan continued, taking one of Cronos' hands and laying it on the patch of leather that covered one of her buns, "spank me, loverboy!"
Her breath is his ear, her raspy voice in his mind, her scent in his nostrils and one of his hands on what he had to admit was a particularly gorgeous and very tight pair of buns, he could only but succumb to her wishes. Reluctantly, of course.
Satan was smoking a low-tar cigarette, blowing pentagrams to the ceiling. Cronos was exhausted. His hands ached and throbbed. And not just his hands.
"Darling?" Satan purred.
"I heard on the grapevine that you're thinking of retiring?"
Cronos thought about it for a bit. He'd had a fruitful life. Had his share of fun, his share of violence. Now it was time to settle down. Lead a quiet life. Devote himself to a more peaceful hobby or two. What's more, he'd like to disappear from public life, as it were.
"I will," he said, a bit drowsy, "and I think I already have."
"Hmmmm," Satan crooned, "I like the sound of that."
"I do, too."
"Now kiss me...there."
"And now I'd like you to kiss me...there."
AND THAT IS, AS THEY SAY,
OF THE LAST OF THE CRONOS WARCHILD STORIES
Written on February 21st and November 25th-27th 1995, just for the hell (pun!) of it. Based on an idea written down May 27th 1991. Inspiration was partly supplied by the legend of Cu Chulain, ancient Irish hero.