- Write a lot of books.
- Make sure that each one is edited, has a good opening, and with a decent cover.
And there you have it.
(with thanks to South Park)
And there you have it.
(with thanks to South Park)
Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t read the novel, then I would suggest you stop reading this now!
(My editor asked me to cut out a scene in the middle of this chapter, which detailed Valerie getting over her own guilt. My philosophy on why Hell existed for the novel was due to humans feeling guilt more than anything, and I felt she needed to complete her character arc by finally overcoming her own demons, so to speak. But my editor demanded I cut it out since she felt that poor Valerie had already suffered enough. Anyway, here it is!)
Valerie Mendoza sat at the bow of the boat as she continued to stare into the murky waters that surrounded them. Not long after they reached the riverbank, a small wooden boat had approached them. It looked like a rowboat that was made out of gnarled, rotting bark. A being stood at the back while it guided the boat using a long pole. It was a man and looked very similar to the wanderer, with his unkempt beard and tattered black cloak. For a brief moment Valerie almost thought they were identical twins. The wanderer produced a silver coin from the folds of his cloak and offered it to the ferryman just as the boat touched the shore. Soon enough, they were helped onboard and were now travelling slowly across the calm, dark waters. Time had seemed to pass, but Valerie was unsure since the river drifted endlessly onwards as the distant mists obscured the surrounding lands.
She turned and took a look at the old man who was sitting behind her. “The ferryman, is that Charon, the boatman who travels the underworld?”
The wanderer shrugged. “He goes by many names. But your description is correct so I must assume that you are right.”
“Where is he taking us now?”
The old man looked out into the fog shrouded horizon. It was not quite daytime, but it wasn’t night either. It seemed like a perpetual, grey twilight. “This river travels and branches out in multiple tributaries, it is probably the best way to travel the wastes.”
“Where did you get the coin to pay Charon with?”
The old man smiled slightly. “Oh, one does find coins and other things every now and then. Sometimes these things just get washed up on the shores since the ferryman throws them over the side once his service is done. He really doesn’t have much use for coins or other riches, you know.”
Valerie stared past the old man and looked at Charon. “He seems to look just like you. You’re not brothers or anything?”
The old man giggled a bit. “Once you’ve been here long enough, everybody starts to look the same. The people that you see are nothing more than mirrors to your mind’s eye. You may recognize a few souls here that you may have met in your previous life, but it may very well be your mind that projects an image of someone that you want to know.”
“So all the people here might be someone else, depending on who is looking at them?”
The wanderer nodded. “Correct. Many have drunk the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. They lose all memories of their past lives, but there is a spark in them that retains some sort of primordial essence, a small piece of themselves that remembers what they have done to deserve eternal punishment. It is what motivates them to relive their own suffering as they are constantly killed and then resurrected in order to renew the cycle.”
Valerie looked away. “This is all just so insane. I worked for the police when I was back on earth. I enforced the law. I brought criminals to trial and then the judges mete out their sentencing. But nothing back there is like the masochism that is all over the place here. Every single punishment here is totally cruel and unusual. That would be against the very laws I swore to uphold.”
“You are correct,” the old man said. “The endless punishments here are worse than anything beyond imagining. But perhaps there is a purpose to all of this.”
Valerie frowned. “You said it yourself. A punishment cannot be endless or else it really serves no purpose other than continuous torture. Where’s the purpose in that?”
“Perhaps it is a reminder to always obey the gods, yes?”
Valerie shook her head in frustration. “But don’t you see? These people are all dead. Whether they deserve punishment now is pointless since they can’t affect the living on earth. Maybe if they get born again, but if they forget all the memories from their previous lives then how can they possibly learn their lesson? Punishment ought to be temporary and it ought to mean something.”
“One must look at the nature of suffering,” the old man said. “One must ask if suffering is caused by the gods, and if it is true, then one must ask why. In my life, we were taught to serve the gods. We were instructed to keep quiet lest our noise bring upon another great deluge that would kill us all. My people would enact many rituals on a daily basis to placate the gods. We believed that the gods created us in order to serve them. There were many times that we would pray to the gods for a bountiful harvest or to spare us from the ravages of disease. The gods served us just as we served them. When I was struck down by illness and all my friends turned against me I asked if I had done anything wrong. One of the gods answered me and brought forth a sorcerer to heal me. It was then that I praised Marduk.”
Valerie as confused. “Marduk? I thought you were Job?”
“Job? Who is he?”
“I read the Book of Job a long time ago,” Valerie said. “It’s about a kind old man who had a big family and lots of possessions. God makes a bet with the devil to see just how righteous Job is. Then God kills Job’s family, kills his animals and puts a disease on him but Job never falters, he refuses to denounce his god. In the end, God restores Job’s possessions and gives him a new wife and family.”
“This God you claim to be in this story, what kind of god is he?”
Valerie pointed to herself. “In my religion there is only supposed to be one god. He is lord and ruler over everything. I thought you were Job.”
The old man shook his head. “Oh no, the story of my life is different. I worshipped many gods and I thought I placated them all equally. But it seemed that I offended Marduk and he cursed me with an affliction and made me lose my job, among other things.”
“Marduk? What city were you from?”
“I was born in Sumer.”
Valerie’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re Sumerian then? Oh, I thought you were Job, a Hebrew. Paul told me that the Sumerians were considered to be the world’s first civilization. Many stories from the bible were transplanted from Sumerian sources, he said. I guess it makes sense then.”
“What makes sense?”
Valerie sighed. “That the story of Job was copied and then changed over the centuries. So I guess you’re the original Job. Or the Sumerian version, at least.”
The old man stroked his beard. “Yes, I can see the similarities in the story. It seems that these Hebrews you mentioned changed the story so that instead of multiple gods there is only one. But that begs the question, why would a single god inflict that kind of cruelty to his most loyal worshipper?”
“Like I said. It was a bet. A wager.”
“So in this story my entire family was killed over a wager? That seems even more cruel and pointless.”
“Yeah,” Valerie said softly. “It just shows that the gods can do whatever they want and we just have to keep suffering for it.”
“In my world we have many gods,” the old man said. “We can pray to one god if another is cruel to us. We can ask another god to intercede on our behalf in order to right the wrong. But if there is only one god, then it is he who is responsible for everything. Tell me, what did this Job learn at the end of his story?”
“Nothing,” Valerie said. “God tells Job to suck it up and that’s it. Yeah, it’s a pretty sad story. And if there is just one god behind all of this I can see that he isn’t a just god at all. He’s a brutal and evil monster is what he is.”
The old man pursed his lips. “Yes, that is indeed a very cruel tale. But that brings us back to the nature of suffering. Cause and effect. When I suffered, I asked myself many times and I assumed that I was guilty of some sort of offense against the gods. That there must have been a cause as to why these cruelties were afflicted on me. But there were no signs as to what kind of offense I had ever done, and as to which god I had done it to. I had thought perhaps that I had offended Marduk since it was he who sent a healer to cure me. But as I think of it further, perhaps it may be another god that I had offended and it was Marduk who took pity on me, that it was his magic that overcame the curses of the other. In all my time travelling these wastes, I have never found the reason for the offense. It is all a mystery to me, the ways of the gods are ever mysterious, their own motivations impossible to understand. But if you look at it from the point of view of our own existence, then it becomes clear.”
“What becomes clear?”
The old man pointed to her. “People can be evil and good, because the gods made us this way. Perhaps the reason they made us is because we are so much like them. You see, the gods need us too. They need someone to worship them, to placate them, to acknowledge their presence. They are prideful creatures and that is their weakness. Without us, they are but forgotten and pitiful. They may have the power to rule the earth, but to rule over nothing is not in their nature. Perhaps that is the reason why these hells were created. To fulfill our own inner desires.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you remember what Beelzebub said? He said that his world is a reflection of human desires,” the old man said. “Perhaps it is not the gods who want to inflict the endless cruelty on us. Perhaps it may be just us.”
Valerie looked down at the wooden floor of the boat. She thought about it for a minute. “Are you saying that all this, all this unlimited torture is being done on these sinners because they feel that they themselves deserve it?”
“It does make sense if you think of it this way,” the old man said. “Almost every one that I encounter in these forsaken lands doesn’t want to leave. A part of them seems to think they deserve to be here. Could the gods have created this blighted place to serve their worshippers innermost desires for self punishment? Perhaps they must go through an endless cascade of pain in order to experience something before they are reborn again? Or perhaps as a way to cleanse the stain on their souls?”
“You’re saying that it’s humanity’s collective guilt that’s created Hell? Surely people don’t want this. I just can’t believe that.”
“Perhaps they say they don’t want it. But deep in their hearts they feel that it is what they deserve,” the old man said.
Valerie snorted. “That doesn’t answer why the righteous ones suffer though.”
“Perhaps the righteous ones were never fully righteous.”
Valerie looked at him blankly. “So even the most pious of people still deserve punishment because of some deep down desire of being guilty of something? What about children? They get killed all the time. They don’t know any better yet they suffer as much as adults. Where do you draw the line?”
The old man looked down. “I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that. And that is why I am still journeying across these planes.”
Valerie crossed her arms. “Good luck. If you haven’t found the answer up until now then I really have doubts that you’ll ever know.”
Loud clanging noises could be heard out in the distance. The sound of banging metal and trumpets were punctuated by howls of derision and screams of pain. They could see that there was a riverbank in the distance. The fog had given way and an endless shore of blackened sand revealed itself. The far horizon was an endless wall of fire, it was as if the borders of the world was a gigantic furnace, and one that traveled far enough would be burned by the flames that reached out into the sky.
Not far from the riverbanks were endless armies of half dead creatures. They looked like blackened, burned out corpses but they were clearly alive as they moved and screamed like men. Each of them were armed with swords, spears and every weapon known to man. Hordes of them would continually form up and attack each other, using their blades and clubs to tear into one another. Valerie gasped as she saw one of the creatures get decapitated by another, only to see the headless creature bending over to pick up its severed head and place it back onto its shoulders before turning around and fighting once more.
The wanderer stared blankly at the carnage by the shore. “We have now passed into Acheron, the river of woe. This is a place of endless bloodlust, of constant battles between armies of what were once men.”
Valerie shook her head in disbelief as she kept staring at unceasing butchery that unfolded. “My god, what are they fighting for?”
“They fight for the sheer pleasure and anger of it,” the old man said softly. “The ones who die will get reborn in a vast smoking pit of ash not far from here. After that they will try to find weapons before rejoining the battle. There are plenty of armor and swords lying around. The ones who lived and ruled by violence are condemned here.”
“None of them ever want to get out of this?”
“A few,” the old man said. “Occasionally one does lose their nerve and tries to get away. But the others sense the cowards in their ranks and they will torture the victim for a long time before killing them. Once the victim returns to the pit his memories have been forgotten, and the seasons of murder shall begin again for him.”
High above them was a stone city that seemed to float in the air, hundreds of feet above. Valerie could see smooth walks of black basalt that formed a sort of outer wall. The city seemed to be attached on top of a gigantic boulder that was several hundred miles across as it lay suspended in midair. Valerie immediately had a tingling sensation at the back of her neck as she stared at the city above them.
“Oh my god,” she said. “Paul’s up there! I can sense him! We need to get to shore so we can find a way up there!”
“That is the city of Dis,” the old man said. “It is a place of torment for those with malice in their hearts. Cruel words and malignant lies all have their place within those floating walls.”
Valerie’s heart began to beat rapidly. Sweat started to form on her forehead. “We’ve got to get up there! I have to get to Paul!”
“If we get there, you will be subjected to the cruelty of words. These will be like daggers of sound and they will be aimed at your heart. You will be consumed by despair and guilt,” the old man said.
Valerie grimaced. “I don’t care! All this, this whole nightmare of a trip is nothing if I can’t get to Paul! I’m not leaving Hell without him!”
The old man gestured at Charon to take them closer to the shore. “Your dedication to your loved one is admirable. I felt the same way when I searched for my second wife here.”
Valerie kept staring at the shore as they got closer. Her determination was building up. “Oh yeah? Did you find her?”
The old man nodded slowly. “I did. But it was too late. She had drunk of the river Lethe and she had forgotten about me. She didn’t want to travel with me, despite my insistence. So in the end I let her go and moved on. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
As soon as the boat touched the shore, Valerie immediately jumped out and started running towards the floating city, only to stop in mid stride. She realized that she had no idea on how to get up there. Valerie turned and looked back at the old man who slowly placed one foot onto the sandy shore and then another. Valerie’s impatience nearly caused her to lose her temper but she was able to hold it in check. She had managed to calm down by the time the old man got closer to her.
Valerie kept looking up at the city in the sky. “Please, we have to get up there.”
“Very well,” the old man said as he started a low whistling tune that she didn’t recognize.
Two black dots appeared in the ash colored sky. Within moments these objects started getting larger. Valerie saw that they were creatures that vaguely resembled men, but they had bat-like wings and naked, muscular torsos. Their man-like faces were twisted and deformed into perpetual fanged grins of hatred. What was most horrifying of all was that they didn’t seem to have any eyes, just a blackened depression beneath their skull-like foreheads. The two demons landed less than ten feet away. Strange, glowing symbols that signified some sort of infernal writings were magically suspended at the top of their heads, as if they were written on air. Every time the creatures moved, the luminescent symbols would follow.
“Ah, who is it that calls upon us but our old acquaintance, the Righteous Sufferer!” the first demon said.
Valerie turned to look at the old man. “Is that what they call you?”
“In this world, yes,” the old man said. “But I do have many names. These two beings standing before us are the Malebranche, part of the order of the fallen ones who attend to the souls in this plane.”
“What is it that you wish of us, o Sufferer?” the second demon asked.
The old man pointed to Valerie. “My companion here has a loved one that is trapped in the city above. I must ask you to take us there.”
“A task requires a price,” the first demon said. “And we are sick of gold coins.”
Valerie took out a small plastic bottle of holy water from her jacket and offered it to them. She had been keeping it with her ever since the demon Dantalion pulled her and Paul into the underworld. “Here, maybe this would be worth something.”
The first demon took the bottle into the palm of his clawed hands and laughed. “Ah, water from the earth! How foolish is it that men think that the fallen would be vulnerable against such a liquid. Very well, I shall carry you up to the city of Dis.”
“And don’t forget to wait there for her, for she will come back down once her task is completed,” the old man said to the demon before turning to look at Valerie. “I am sorry, but all I have is another gold coin. It will mean that I shall have to stay here and wait for you.”
Valerie nodded. “I understand. I’ll be back soon.”
“And now it is time for us to depart to the walled city of Dis,” the first demon said as it grabbed Valerie by her shoulders and leapt up in the air. Valerie shrieked at the suddenness of the demon’s flight and nearly pulled at her gun before she was able to calm her nerves. The demon laughed maniacally as its flapping wings made them both ascend hundreds of feet in the air in a matter of seconds. The second demon waived at them from the ground before it began to converse with the old man. As Valerie and the first demon flew higher up, the ones on the ground soon became nothing more than dots on the landscape.
Within moments, the demon had flown parallel to the dreaded black walls of the floating city. Valerie thought that the city walls were featureless at first, but as they got closer, she could see human like forms and faces were etched on the façade of the rock itself. Valerie immediately sensed that they were lost souls of the damned that were somehow embedded within the rocks.
The demon that carried her sensed her curiosity. “The foundation of these walls are what we call soul slabs. The city of Dis had its walls carved out from the souls of doomed men. It is through their suffering that allows the city to float above the lands below us.”
Valerie pointed to a distant black tower that looked like a stone skyscraper. “Over there, take me there.”
The demon laughed as it shifted its body so that they changed direction as they headed for the tower. “Oh, you will like that one, mortal. Your agony will help power the city.”
“We’ll see about that,” Valerie said as they hovered above the tower. “Put me down slowly on the top level.”
The demon giggled as it let go of Valerie as they floated thirty feet above the apex of the black tower. Valerie screamed as she fell but she was able to hold out her arms to angle herself. She landed at the edge of the top part and her momentum nearly made her roll off the side of the roof. Valerie grimaced as she dug her fingers into the blackened stone so she wouldn’t slide off. The demon continued to laugh as it circled above her. Valerie stood up and gave the creature her middle finger before looking around the roof for a possible way inside.
Sure enough, there was an opening in the middle of the top floor. It was a smooth hole with steps that led downwards. Valerie hunched her shoulders and started to make her way down. The stone steps were winding and it made her dizzy as she descended deeper into the building. The walls around her started to change as she continued on. The blackened soul slabs were suddenly transformed into white painted concrete as she heard the pitter patter of rain and sirens out in the distance.
She had reached some sort of landing and as she turned around, Valerie realized that she was back in Baruch Houses, an apartment block in Manhattan. The whole place was dark and abandoned. She could see the corridor where she had run into, just before the cult of Aztec worshippers had attacked her and scarred her face. Did she go back in time somehow?
Valerie pulled out her Glock pistol as she remembered the incident. The demon must have transported her back into New York City, and now the events of the past must unfold again. She could see that the city was bathed in a rainy night as she looked out the window near the stairwell. This time she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. She would go back down and tell her partner that there was an ambush waiting for them up here.
“Val,” a nearby voice said. It seemed to be coming from one of the corridors in the same floor she was in.
Valerie’s mouth hung open in shock. She recognized the voice. It was her partner, Myron Jones. He was already here! She needed to warn him before it was too late. She turned and started running towards the corridor where she heard his voice. “Myron! We gotta get out of here, it’s a trap!”
As she made the turn into the corridor, she saw him just standing there at the far end of the passageway. He was still wearing his long raincoat and his back was towards her. The flashlight was in his right hand. A tinge of hope began to seep into her body. It was so good to see her old partner again. Perhaps everything that had happened was all just a dream.
Valerie walked closer to him. “Myron, I think I just had some sort of weird premonition. Something bad is gonna happen so we have to go back down and wait for backup.”
Myron turned to face her. That was when Valerie let out a strangled gasp. The skin on his face had somehow been loosened and he wore it like a mask. She could see the bloody musculature underneath as the folds of skin hung loosely over his face. She was too late. Myron had already been skinned alive and wore his own flesh as a mask.
Valerie took a step back. “Oh god, no.”
Myron moved forward until his loosely hung face was a few feet away from hers. His voice was like a plea. “Why didn’t you listen to me, Val?”
Tears started streaming down Valerie’s face. “Oh, Myron, I’m so sorry! I didn’t know!”
Myron held his hands up. The skin had been scraped away, leaving his bloody, skeletal talons exposed. The peeled skin hung limply along his wrists. “I was your mentor. I taught you everything. But you didn’t listen. You just didn’t listen.”
Valerie sobbed as she fell down on her knees. The Glock pistol fell from her hands and clattered on the concrete floor. “Please, Myron, forgive me! I-I just didn’t know!”
Myron stooped lower so she could smell the blood that stained his suit and coat. “If you hadn’t been so rash, I would still be alive. Now here I am, in the land of the damned. And it’s all thanks to you.”
Valerie shook her head violently. Trails of mucous poured out of her nostrils and her cheeks were wet with salty tears. “Noo! I tried to help them, I was doing my job! You told me to protect the innocent, Myron, and that’s what I tried to do!”
Myron’s voice was like a soothing whisper, though his words were anything but. “If you had just listened to me, Val. Everything would have been fine. I would have gotten back to my wife that evening. I just wanted to hear news about my boy. Now, it’s all gone.”
Valerie clenched her shaking hands but the emotion was too intense. The feelings of guilt that she had repressed gushed over her like a waterfall of bitter bile. Her constant crying was making her lungs heavy. “I told you I was doing my job! Just like you taught me to do! How can you blame me for this?”
“Because I’m dead, Val,” Myron said. “I told you that you should always listen to my advice. But you ran up the stairs and so I followed you because you were my partner. You were not mindful of the danger not just to you, but to me as well.”
Valerie’s mouth trembled as she tried to come up with the words to defend herself. “H-how could I have known? I was trained to respond to trouble and that’s what I did. How could I have known?”
Myron tapped his foot lightly on the floor. Valerie remembered his habit of doing that every time he got angry. “I’m dead, and I’m not the only one. A whole bunch of others. Paramedics, other cops. They all died trying to save you.”
Valerie moaned as she closed her eyes in despair. As the sadness overwhelmed her, she sensed something else. It seemed nothing more than an inner spark in her subconscious, but then it started to intensify. The image of Paul Dane began to form in her mind. That was when reality came back to her.
Myron’s voice was a continuous drone. “Val? Are you still listening to me? Can you not hear the screams of the others who tried to save you?”
Valerie opened her eyes, wiped away her tears and stood up. She looked at the thing with the loose skin in front of her as she dug her nails into her thighs. “No. I won’t listen to you anymore. You’re not Myron.”
Myron seemed shocked as he took a step back. “It’s me, Val. Look at me. Who else could it be?”
Valerie’s voice now had a renewed confidence. “You’re one of these demons. The Righteous Sufferer warned me about this. He told me that the ones who are stuck in these godforsaken hells are the ones who still have a form of guilt over what they did and what they could have done. But I’m through with all that. I got over this already. The real Myron is dead, you’re right about that, but he isn’t in Hell. If there is a heaven, and I hope to god that there is, then he’s up there, and not down here.”
Myron’s once soothing voice turned to anger. “Do not deny your guilt! It is your fault, Val! You deserve to be here, just like the rest of us!”
“That’s not for me to decide,” Valerie said as she crouched down and picked up her gun before placing it in her hip holster. “I’m still alive. And I’ll find Paul and get him out of here too. Whatever happens after that ….well, I guess we’ll have fate decide on that later.”
Myron howled with frustration. The darkened corridor began to blur as he turned around and started walking away from her. Valerie could no longer sense the night air as everything began to swirl and change shape. Within moments, the world around her changed and she was now standing in a small room.
The walls seemed to be made of mud and brick. It was daytime, but she couldn’t tell where the light was coming from. As Valerie looked around, she saw that she was in fact standing on where the ceiling was. Her shoes crunched the dried straw roofing as she took a step forward. Up above her was a wooden table and two chairs that seemed to be stuck up at the top. A bowl of fruit was on the table, but it was suspended above. It seemed like a part of some ancient house, but everything was upside down.
Valerie saw a wooden doorway and she made her way towards it. As she entered the adjoining room it looked like a sort of bedroom. A rickety wooden cot was suspended in the ceiling along with a small table and crude blankets. Sitting in the middle of the room above her was a man. He had his back turned to her as she could see he was wearing a modern day sweater. His thinning hair had streaks of grey in it. That was when she knew.
“Paul!” she screamed out loud. As she tried to reach out to the top of his head, her hands were too far. She tried to jump but it seemed that she couldn’t launch herself. Her feet seemed to be stuck.
“Paul!” Valerie said again. “It’s me! I’m here!”
Paul Dane looked up at her briefly before turning away. He had been sitting on the edge of the cot. His arms were crossed over his chest. His face seemed expressionless, his body language had an uncaring sense about it. “Go away,” he said softly.
Valerie was confused for a moment. “Why? What’s wrong, Paul?”
Paul just stared out in the distance. “Elizabeth will be coming back soon. I have to wait for her here.”
Valerie sighed. “But Paul, Elizabeth’s dead! You’re still alive!”
Paul shook his head. “No, you’re wrong. She’s nearby. I saw a glimpse of her every time I turn my head. It’s like she’s hiding from me, just around the corner of my eye.”
Valerie frowned. It looked like he was under some form of spell. She needed to break him out of it. “Paul, you’ve gotta listen to me. Elizabeth is dead. She died a long time ago. You and me, we got sent to Hell because of that demon. This place is playing with our minds. It somehow increases the guilt we feel and turns it against us. That thing you’re feeling about your dead wife is part of the power in this place. You’ve got to be free of it.”
“Go away,” Paul said softly. “Just leave me alone.”
A sudden sense of despair swept over her and Valerie tried her best to get it out of her mind. For a brief moment, she sensed that Paul was already lost and she might as well give up on him. But the flood of her memories with him was able to turn her dark thoughts around and it thrust her back into the present once more. “Paul, I know it’s hard to think about anything else but you’ve got to try. You need to let go of the past and focus on what’s happening now. You remember being pulled into the darkness don’t you? Right after you summoned that demon. You remember now?”
“It pulled us in and it killed us,” Paul said. “It sent me into this place. There was fire all around me and I was in pain. It’s over. We tried and we lost. Time to let it all go.”
“No! We can still fight this! You’re a mythology professor for chrissakes! If there’s somebody who can find a way out of Hell, then it’s you,” Valerie said.
Paul seemed to be in a daze. “Dante. When he described the inferno it gave me nightmares. But now that I’m here, it’s worse than I ever imagined. If this is where we end up, then what’s the point of it all?”
“We’re not dead yet, Paul! I came from another part of Hell just to find you! I traveled across so many different worlds, along a river pulled by Charon just to get to you! If I can do this, then so can you!”
Paul just stared blankly into space. “But it’s all hopeless. In the end we will be here again. So what’s the point of going on? The only guarantee in life is death. That will bring us back to square one.”
“The point is that we keep fighting, Paul! People are depending on us! The whole country is in big trouble and we can help them,” Valerie said. “You remember the two kids that you saved from that wendigo? They’re with my mama and they need us. They need you.”
Paul shook his head slowly. “I…I remember. But what good am I to them? I haven’t done anything to help anybody. Everybody is dead because of me. Sometimes they come into this house to visit me. All of them. My graduate assistant, that professor I met in England, even those two guys from the embassy. Let’s not even mention all the cops and soldiers that were under me in the museum. All gone. Because of me.”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Valerie said. “You tried your best with the limited facts that we had at the time. But it’s not too late yet. We can still help the country out.”
Paul looked up at her. Hs mouth began to tremble. “I-I can’t do it, Val. I don’t want the responsibility of having all those people risking their lives for something that I may get wrong. Then once the crap happens, the blame will go to me. It always does.”
“All we can do is try,” Valerie said softly. “And you won’t bear this burden alone. I’m with you. I didn’t come all this way to give up now. And I wanted to tell you something.”
Valerie smiled at him. “That I love you. And I will go to wherever you are just to find you and be with you. Not even all the demons of Hell could stop me from doing that.”
A spark of hope was in his eyes. She could feel it. Paul smiled back as he stood up. Valerie pushed her heels as high as she could go and stretched out her arms. Paul hesitated at first, but somehow he was able to summon his inner reserves as he pulled himself up from the cot and reached out to her. The moment their hands clasped the room began to swirl around them. The wind suddenly picked up and a monstrous howl seemed to come from everywhere. Valerie grimaced as she used all her effort to pull herself closer to him. Paul sensed her devotion as his own willpower picked up and he held on tighter. This time they would not be separated, he swore to himself. The vortex intensified as everything around them began to lose cohesion. But by that time they both were in each other’s arms, their love had developed its own kind of power that shielded them from the increasing chaos all around.
When they both came to their senses they found themselves lying on a white sandy beach. Paul got up first as he pulled Valerie to her feet, their clasped hands never loosening their grip. The sky above them was a multitude of colors that swayed like a daytime aurora borealis. They both could feel a soft breeze that came from somewhere in the endless blue skies above.
“I must congratulate you,” a voice behind them said. “I have never witnessed this before.”
They both turned. Valerie realized that the old wanderer had been standing behind them. The old man’s bony hand held his tattered cloak closer to his body as he smiled at them.
Paul still wore his glasses and he adjusted them slightly as he stared back at the old man. “Who are you?”
Valerie giggled as she hugged Paul tightly. “Now that’s a long story.”
Spoilers ahead! This article discusses the events that happen in the book Pagan Apocalypse, so if you haven’t read it yet, I would suggest you stop reading at this point. But since the e-book itself is FREE, then what are you waiting for? Go ahead and download a copy so you can read it already!
I’ve been to many museums, but back in 2015, I had a particularly moving experience while visiting the National Roman Museum (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme) near Rome’s Centrale train station. In the basement area was a wing devoted to Roman tombstones.
On one particular tombstone, I found the following inscription:
For the souls departed. Alexander lived 3 years, 4 months, and 19 days. His father, Quintus Canuleius Alexander, and his mother Clarina, saw to the making of this tomb for their dear devoted and well-deserving son. He is buried here! I beg you, when you pass by to say, “May the earth not weigh upon your remains.”
I found that entry to be fascinating and I stood there for a long time, thinking about this. During the Roman era, medicine was primitive and life expectancy quite low. Many children died while still at a young age so it was prudent to have as many offspring as possible. But the fact that these grieving parents made sure that their own child was remembered shook my own world view to the core. Here it was, even in a time of pragmatism, could the love of a parent to their child be truly appreciated. It struck me that the people during those times were really not much different than the parents of today. Despite the fact that children easily succumbed to all sorts of illness in that distant past, they still made an effort to remember him.
To me, this is a perfect example that no matter what age or what part of the world one lived in, the love of a parent to that of a child will always be a universal, human trait, one that is constant through the annals of time.
Before I left that gallery, I made a silent prayer to 3-year old Alexander.
“May the earth not weigh upon your remains.”
Your parents did a wonderful job, for you have not been forgotten.
Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t read the novel, then I would suggest you stop reading this now!
(This is how I originally wrote the chapter concerning Pastor Erik Burnley and his breakaway dictatorship in Kansas. My tough-as-nails editor didn’t like it and she demanded changes to the ending. This is from my original, unedited manuscript and as you can see, the ending of this chapter is very different than what was in the novel, enjoy!)
CHAPTER 26: A CRISIS OF FAITH
Pastor Erik Burnley immediately stood up as soon as the private elevator opened its doors. The self-styled President of Christian Kansas walked around his office table and stood in front of the three men. One of them he already knew as Lloyd Mallory, former United States Governor of the state and now his vice president. The two men from the south were strangers to him but he hoped that by the end of the meeting that they would be good friends by then.
After his handshake, Mallory gestured at the shorter man with his open palm. “This here is Clay Sheldon, he is the newly elected Grand Wizard of the new, Southern Klan of America.”
Pastor Erik smiled as he shook the man’s hand. “Welcome to the Republic of Kansas, Mr. Sheldon. First time in our great state?”
Sheldon smiled back. His teeth were crooked and had major gaps in between them. “First time I’ve ever been away from the south, Mr. President. I must congratulate you in the founding of your new country. It’s been an impressive achievement.”
Mallory pointed to the second, taller man wearing a cowboy hat. “And this here is Lemuel Winger. He represents the Klans of the Midwest.”
Pastor Erik shook the second man’s hand as well. “And a hearty welcome to you, Mr. Winger. Gentlemen, why don’t we sit over by my couch there, I think it will be more comfortable rather than those stuffy office chairs by my desk.”
Both men laughed as Pastor Erik led the way. Within minutes, all four men were sitting happily on the leather couches and chairs in the center of the vast office. Lloyd Mallory quickly poured a glass of bourbon for everyone before taking out his cigar and lighting it.
Sheldon raised his tumbler as he smiled at the pastor. “To the great new country of Christian Kansas. May she last a thousand years.”
Mallory chuckled as he drank to the toast. “Let’s hope Jesus comes back sooner rather than later, we’re being deluged by non-stop problems now.”
Pastor Erik waived a finger at his vice president. “Now, now, Lloyd. The pressing problems of running a brand new country are miniscule when compared to our security,” he said before turning his attention at the other two men. “Now gentlemen, I hear that the Klans are uniting, is that true?”
Sheldon nodded energetically. “That is indeed true, Mr. President. I’m proud to be part of a new organization and we are officially calling ourselves the Southern Imperial White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan. Since these ancient gods came storming back to the world, the various different Klan organizations began to meet and recruit new members. As you well know, the reason why there have been so many independent organizations in modern times is because the Federal Government of the United States was able to infiltrate our ranks with impunity. The only way we could have survived during those years was to stay small and secretive. But now that the Feds have been dealt numerous blows, we feel that it was time that the different groups unite and bring back the Klan into prominence. So far, we have been very successful. Our membership has increased by over a thousand percent and we can now openly display our allegiance to the one true race, and the one true god. And I must say, we owe quite a lot of our success to you.”
Pastor Erik beamed. “Why I’m flattered. But surely you can’t really give me any credit for the rebirth of the Klan, could you? You ought to pat yourselves on the back for doing all the hard work.”
“You were and remain a great influence to us, Mr. President,” Sheldon said. “You have become a de-facto independent state in the heart of what was once the United States, and you have your own army to protect it. You proved to us that such things are possible. And that’s why we’re here. We want to negotiate an alliance with you.”
“Before we go on, I must say this, gentlemen,” Pastor Erik said. “My allegiance is to the teachings of our lord. The Rock of God Church is the one true church and our actions have proven it. We are a holy sanctuary against the forces of Satan. I cannot, with good faith, enter into an alliance of any kind with people who are not part of the word of God.”
Sheldon put his palms up. “Mr. President, we are fully prepared to be part of your great church. The inner circle of leaders has given me full authority to say this. We all want to join your flock. We know that it is the one true path to salvation in these terrible times.”
Pastor Erik raised his eyebrows in both surprise and satisfaction. “Are you fully prepared to accept the church’s teachings as well as to proclaim me as the personal prophet of our Lord Jesus Christ?”
“We’ll be more than happy to do that,” Winger said. “Like Clay here, I too was chosen to represent the various Klans of the Midwest for this meeting, and I can tell you that we are also fully prepared to be under your church. There’s a lot of survivalist enclaves that my people can recruit from and spread the word of your church.”
Mallory grinned as he adjusted his white leather hat. “I told you this would be a productive meeting, Pastor.”
Pastor Erik nodded in assent as he kept looking at his two guests. “Both your offers are very generous and enticing so far. What kind of an alliance do you propose?”
Sheldon drank the last of the whiskey in his glass and set it down on the coffee table before continuing. “Well, for starters I can tell you that my organization has set up a new Klan Bureau of Investigation. In the last few months we’ve had many Fed agents from the FBI and other agencies who have secretly joined up with us and pledged their allegiance. This means that we now have a network of spies that can function as an early warning system in case of specific threats against your country. The Klan can function as an ally in that regards.”
“That’s wonderful,” Pastor Erik said. “But can you trust these so-called new recruits to tell the truth? How do you determine whether or not that they might be double agents or something?”
Sheldon laughed. “Oh, we’ve been testing them for loyalty every now and then to make sure that they stay true to our cause. For example, I ordered a whole batch of FBI agents to murder their own director. As a sign of faithfulness to the Klan, so to speak.”
“I think I might have heard it over the news a few days ago. What happened?”
“About six of them got close and shot the director,” Sheldon said. “He’s in a coma from multiple gunshot wounds from what I last heard. Four other agents balked at the operation and so the Klan inner circle had the rest of the group execute them.”
Mallory giggled. “You guys sure don’t mess around.”
“I admit that our numbers are few right now,” Sheldon said. “But we will keep on growing. The South is pretty much a giant swamp thanks to the constant rains and the Fed government can’t help. The Klan now has a number of enclaves all over the place and we can increase our territory but we need your help.”
Pastor Erik rubbed his chin. “What kind of help do you need?”
“Guns,” Sheldon said. “Lots of guns. Preferably military hardware. And maybe even a nuke or two. We’re gonna need technical specialists to set up those nukes though.”
“I can supply your group with guns, that won’t be a problem,” Pastor Erik said. “The nukes, we have to be very careful with how we deploy them. If we started to freely give those away then the Feds might come down hard on us. I heard over the radio that one of their generals had to be restrained because he wanted to nuke the whole of Kansas after we set off our nuclear device in Cheyenne Mountain. It’s a very tenuous situation right now.”
“Oh, but we’re not planning to nuke the Feds left and right. We just want a couple for our own protection, just like what you’re doing. We figure that once the Feds know that the Klan has nukes which we will detonate should they come after us, we figure that they will leave us alone too.”
Pastor Erik sighed. Just days ago he had talked to a Senator from Virginia. The Feds were secretly trying to negotiate with him to put an end to the conflict. They were willing to cede him de-facto control over Kansas, provided that he stayed where he was and not to attempt an expansion. The Feds also demanded the return of the President and Admiral Zimmerman as a sign of good faith. But with this new alliance, then the war against the Feds would enter into a new and more dangerous phase. “Let me think about it,” he said softly. “I can offer you all sorts of assistance but as far as the nuclear issue goes, I can’t give you an answer at this time.”
“Fair enough, Mr. President,” Sheldon said. “We can spread the word of God using our influence and I feel we can ultimately make America white again. Who knows, if we can keep this up then perhaps you may ultimately become president of the entire country.”
Pastor Erik smirked. “That really is my one dream right now. If I can just bring the entire country under one church- my church- then we will be an unassailable beacon of light and hope throughout the rest of the world. First, Kansas. Then, the United States. And finally, the rest of the world. I truly believe this. If all of humanity can embrace the teachings of my church then we can throw these demons back to the hell that spawned them. I think that’s the reason why Jesus hasn’t come back yet. He is waiting for me to fulfill my destiny.”
“And we’ll be with you every step of the way,” Mallory said.
Winger raised his glass. “Amen to that.”
The elevator doors opened again. Steve Van Dyke strode into the room, he kept moving until he was directly behind Pastor Erik and began to whisper in his ear. Mallory just shrugged as he poured himself another glass of bourbon.
Pastor Erik’s face was flushed as he stood up. “Gentlemen, you must excuse me. I have some matters that need attending. Lloyd, can you continue the meeting? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The other three stood up as he walked with Steve back to the elevator. The moment they got into the lift and the doors closed, Pastor Erik slapped the steel walls with an open palm. The clanging noise reverberated for a few seconds before subsiding. Within a few minutes they were on their way down, heading for the basement sub level.
Pastor Erik let out a deep breath. “You told me he was tightly guarded by two teams on constant rotation.”
“Yes,” Steve said softly. “The men were handpicked by me.”
“So how in the hell could he have disappeared then?”
Steve just stared at the closed elevator doors. “I don’t know.”
“Goddamn it! He was our bargaining chip. Now our chances of being attacked by the Feds have increased exponentially.”
“I don’t believe it was an inside job. Nobody saw the President leave his cell.”
“What about the video? Isn’t there a constant surveillance on his cell?”
“Yes, there is.”
“So what happened then?”
“I think it’s best if I show it to you.”
The elevator doors opened and they were greeted by an armed escort of five heavily-armed SOL troopers. They walked for several minutes until they came upon a steel door that was labeled Security Room. There was no doorknob so Steve just knocked twice and looked at the video camera above them. Seconds later, the door opened and they walked inside. The soldiers that accompanied them stayed in the corridor.
There was only one technician in the room and he was trying to adjust the video quality on a number of video feeds. When Steve and Pastor Erik entered the room he instantly stood at attention.
“Play the recording again,” Steve said.
The technician sat down at his console and pushed a button. The central monitor immediately began a replay of the last few minutes of the President’s disappearance. It showed the US head of state sitting on a chair in his cell. For a few seconds nothing seemed to happen until a black mist suddenly appeared behind him. Then it seemed that the President looked directly at the camera and began screaming.
Pastor Erik leaned over the console as he tried to look at every minute detail on the video monitor. “Is there any sound to this?”
“No, sir,” the technician said. “We only have it available for video.”
The President seemed to be in obvious pain though they couldn’t determine if it was the mist that was causing it. Within less than a minute, two shadowy hands came out of the black fog and drew him into it. Then the mist rapidly dissipated until there was nothing left but an occupied cell. It was as if he just walked out.
Pastor Erik looked away. His face had turned white as snow.
Steve tapped the technician on his shoulder. “Leave us.”
The man got up and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him. Steve turned and looked at the pastor, who slumped down on the chair and had a blank look in his eyes.
Steve crouched so he was at eye level with his superior. “Are you alright?”
Pastor Erik’s chin began to tremble. “Oh my god, it was a supernatural force that took him away. I-I can’t believe it. It looked like a d-demon of some sort.”
“We know there are demons in the world, but Jesus is on our side.”
Pastor Erik placed his hands over his eyes and whimpered. “Oh my god, we’re damned. We don’t stand a chance against forces like that. We don’t have a prayer!”
Steve frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Pastor Erik started sobbing. “All this, it was just a sham.”
“What do you mean it was all a sham?”
“This whole thing. When I asked for donations and I made a prophecy that Jesus would return… I just made it up! People were believing in me so I kept it up. I-I mean I had a g-good life and all since I never really had to work in my life. All I had to do was say I was doing it all for our lord and everybody fell for it. But … seeing that, t-that thing just take him away as if he was never there … I’ve never seen anything like it before. I-I only half believed the news reports b-but there it is, that demon… I saw it!”
“You’re not making any sense,” Steve said. “You know that these ancient gods have returned and they are destroying the planet. We should have expected something like this to happen.”
Pastor Erik shook his head rapidly. “No, don’t you see … those demons out there are real. That video proves it. B-But Jesus … oh God. He never spoke to me! Can’t you see? I’ve been lying to everyone all this time! I told you all that God is on our side, b-but I lied! I never even heard his voice! I was just making it all up as I went along.”
Steve closed his eyes. He couldn’t believe it. The man who was the leader of this new country was now unraveling before his eyes. All those promises that Jesus Christ would come back for them. All those reassurances that they were the chosen people. All lies. If the people got wind of this there would be mass panic. Their military would desert. The Feds would probably have them all arrested. It was at that moment that he knew he had to do something before it was too late.
Pastor Erik had his head down. “I want my daddy! Please, make it go away, daddy. Make this horrible dream all go away. I promise I’ll be a good boy from now on.”
Steve clenched his teeth in rage as he grabbed the pastor by his collar and stood him up. “Shut up! Pull yourself together!”
Pastor Erik kept crying. “I-I can’t do this anymore, Steve! I don’t want to die! Help me!”
“Goddamn you!” Steve shouted as his hands clenched the pastor’s throat. “Shut up! You can’t break down like this! Think of your followers!”
“No, no,” Pastor Erik said nervously. “I-I’ve had enough. You can have it all, I just want to get out of here! I give up!”
A white hot rage swept over Steve as his big, strong hands tightened around the pastor’s throat.
Pastor Erik began to gag. His kegs soon buckled and he was down on his knees. Steve’s grip was like an iron vise that wouldn’t let go. He tried to struggle but it all felt so hopeless. All he wanted was to sit on his dad’s lap and cry, just like when he was but a boy and did something bad. He wanted daddy so badly that he stopped fighting the pain in his throat. That was when everything began to get blurry. Pastor Erik tried to breathe but his gullet just wouldn’t let any air in. Then everything started going dark. There was no more pain, no more feelings, just a long sleep, a slumber that would last forever.
When it was all over, Steve stood upright and breathed heavily. After catching his breath, he punched in the commands to delete the surveillance video in the security room as well as that of the President’s disappearance. Then he activated the intercom system.
“I need a medical team to the sub basement Security Room right away,” he said softly. “There’s been an accident.”
When you order a pizza, it’s usually the size of a dinner plate and you eat it with a knife and fork. Unless you get a pre-made pie on a per slice basis, most pizzas are made to order. The crust is thin, chewy and tossed by hand. By far the most popular flavor is the Margherita, a simple pie that uses nothing but cheese, tomatoes and a fresh sprig of basil. The cheese in particular is always fresh, so it has a very distinct flavor as opposed to buying franchised pizzas back home. Pair it with some house wine (vino de la casa) or beer (called birra in Italian).
This place was virtually empty when I visited it last year. Too bad though, because I think it’s quite simply the best museum in the city. It’s a little hard to get to, but it’s worth the trip.