This is an excerpt from one of my longer works; chapter one of Malum Eternum, a story where the protagonist must face the seven princes of hell in order to prevent his own eternal damnation.
When I was a young boy, my father told me that there was no such thing as a fear of the dark. He explained to me that since the dawn of mankind, man had found ways of driving out the darkness: whether it was through the use of fire or the use of lamps, they sought to drive out the darkness around them. But this was not out of fear of the darkness itself – it was out of fear of what lay beyond it. Man’s alleged fear of the dark was nothing more than the fear of the unknown, a fear we all share up until this very day.
My name is Tobias Clancy. I was born September 17th 1772 and sentenced to death for several crimes, to be hanged on August 5th 1806. I remember that day as if it was yesterday; one tends to remember the day of their own death. The bells of Saint Paul’s cathedral rang in the distance as I approached the gallows in Newgate Prison. A heavy rain cloud hung over London and numerous puddles had gathered around Newgate Street, like a small crowd of civilians had gathered in front of the gallows. Every step I took from my cell to the platform became heavier with each time my feet hit the ground, and breathing became harder each time I inhaled. The executioner shoved me every now and then, just because he could, and it’s not like I was in any position to complain.
So there I stood, noose around my neck, rain trickling down onto the cobblestone street, the end of a life. And it meant so little. To the spectators, it was a source of morbid entertainment – a display of society’s infallible justice system. If my father could have seen me then… I was sure my mother was looking down upon me from Heaven, sobbing and shaking her head in shame. I had had about enough of the ‘high society’ people’s pretence of superiority; I would gladly suffer in Hell for an eternity just so I wouldn’t have to look upon their smug grimaces. Or so I thought, at the time.
A man standing next to me announced the crime that had brought me here, as if I hadn’t been told dozens of times before, and gave me the chance to speak my last words. I had been waiting for this moment. And oh, had I prepared for it. When you’re stuck in a cell with no other prospect than that of your own demise, stuck with your own thoughts, you tend to want to get your frustrations out. I looked up and regarded the crowd with a cold, hateful expression.
“Look at yourselves! You think you’re all so clever. You think you’re all so… just. Honest, upstanding citizens. But I know what you really are. He knows it too, He’s seen it all, yet you hide it. You are all sinners, to the bone, but you have all forgotten that there is no worthier judge than the Lord! Fear not, for I will be judged for these final words as I will be judged for my many crimes and sins. My so-called evil nature. Evil, my dear plebeians, evil is immortal. It is eternal. You cannot kill it by hanging a few criminals. It is in every one of us. It cannot be killed, and it will never cease to be in the very fibre of our being. So go ahead, kill me, but know that it is a useless blood-shed. Evil is eternal, as is my soul.”
The crowd had started booing, as I expected. My words didn’t fit their self-righteous puzzle of life. If what they hear doesn’t please them, they ban it from their mind and start wailing like the cows they truly are. The executioner put a filthy linen bag over my head and then walked away. I could still see the crowd through the threads of the bag. I heard a clunk, after which the hatch beneath my feet opened, and I followed its downward trajectory. My neck, however, refused to follow.
The sight of the crowd disappeared, and everything around me became pitch black. I still felt the noose around my neck and heard the rain splashing on the street, but the crowd had gone completely silent. I didn’t feel a single raindrop fall onto my soaked hair. I heard a roll of thunder, but the lightning was nowhere to be found. Then I heard a high-pitched, horrifying noise that sounded as if someone was continuously opening a creaking metal door that dragged across a stone flooring. While the sound continued, the sound of the rain faded.
Suddenly but surely, the noose disappeared, and I felt like I was falling downwards. I felt that the bag had disappeared, but my surroundings remained black as night. I quickly noticed that my clothes had gone too, and that I wasn’t falling towards anywhere in particular. I feared this would be my punishment: falling eternally, completely naked, nothing to see and only that horrid sound in the background.
Then I stopped falling. I didn’t land or crash into the ground, I had simply ceased falling and felt like I stood on some kind of invisible floor. Right when the noise stopped, I saw him. In front of me was an old man, dressed like a nobleman, or perhaps a funeral director, leaning upon a black cane that hardly contrasted with his dark brown attire and the pitch blackness behind him. I didn’t know why I could see him – there wasn’t a single light source around – but it was as if we were both bathed in a the light of a grey afternoon.
The strange, wrinkly man fumbled inside his chest pocket and revealed a pocket watch that was made out of a shiny white metal. He looked at the watch and nodded.
“Ah, yes. You are right on time, mister Clancy.” he spoke sincerely, with a deep and chilling voice, void of any emotion. It was the voice of a very old man, for whom the world no longer had secrets. The man needed no introductions, I knew exactly who he was. The pale rider. The grim reaper. Death incarnate.
“Is anyone ever late?” I replied, genuinely curious.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he walked up to me, while his cane ticked every time it hit the invisible surface they were standing on. The tick made it sound like the cane was hitting a marble floor, but there was no reverb.
“You’re a lucky man, mister Clancy.” he said as he stood in front of me and put his hand on my naked shoulder, “You see, every once in a while, I come across an interesting individual with controversial opinions – opinions he isn’t afraid to speak.”
“Someone like me.” I said a little enthusiastically.
“Someone like you, mister Clancy,” he confirmed, “The people I pick out are headed towards eternal damnation; Hell, as you call it. Now, I like some controversy in paradise, so I’m giving you a chance to go there. But you’ll have to win my little game.”
“I’ll do anything, you just name it!”
I had lost all hope for ending up in Heaven, but this was my chance. Lucky me for being ‘interesting’.
“I expected nothing less. Tell me, have you ever heard of the seven princes of Hell?”
“Can’t say I have… Um, sir.”
“There is a prime hierarchy in the netherworld. Seven princes, demonic or otherwise, theoretically equals, each aligned with one of the seven deadly sins. There is Belphegor, patron of the lazy, the opportunists, the prince of sloth. There is Leviathan, the jealous; he represents envy. Asmodeus, the elitist, the pervert, the icon of lust. Mammon, the wealthy banker, and the symbol of greed. Beelzebub, the fat one, the drunkard, the gluttonous thief. Then there is Lucifer, the fallen angel, the lost sheep, the prideful. And who can forget the one your kind likes to call ‘the Devil’? The choleric, the most irritable, vengeful, sullen one of them all – Satan, the prince of wrath. And you – your task is to acquire seven tributes, the ice to their fire, one for each prince, and bring them to me. Then I will open the Golden Gate and allow you into the Elysian Fields, the kingdom of Heaven.”
Though Death spoke without emotion, he conveyed his message with a sense of grotesqueness, as if performing in a theatre.
“If you don’t mind me asking, sir… what do these tributes look like? And where do I find these princes?”
“The tributes are trophies of some sort… an object that is completely out of place, the complete opposite of the sin you are dealing with. The light to their darkness. The virtue to their sin. There is no single option, no holy grail mounted atop a pedestal, but there will always be one. The universe feeds on contradictions. It is up to you to judge what will suffice.”
He hadn’t answered my second question, but I dared not repeat it. Even though I was already dead, I feared the pale rider’s undoubtedly limitless power, understanding that he could condemn me to an eternity of torture and suffering with but a snap of his fingers. “Now, get on with it. Let the game begin.”