The Underworld might appear to be chaos but in fact, Hell craves order. To the untrained eye, it appears to be a random hodgepodge of countless sharp, spiky objects, pits of fire, pits of acid, pits of excrement, pits filled with all sorts of objectionable things (they are very big on pits), and of course, sinners.
As haphazard as it all appears, Hell is run with clockwork efficiency, each punishment calculated to both torment and the occasional touch of hope to make the anguish all the more potent. Is that cruel? Absolutely. That’s the point.
Each day, as if time held any sway here, the caverns of Hell are filled with the cries of the damned, AKA The Symphony of Sin. But not today. Instead, there was an uncomfortable silence. At least it made Asmodeus, Crown Prince of Hell, uncomfortable.
Looking out from his palace, made of obsidian and shattered dreams, he sipped some infernal Nebbiolo out of his favorite goblet, crafted from a skull of some false prophet. He forgot his name but it added an undertone of delicious terror and a subtle note of plums to his beverages. Now it just tastes like ash, but not in a good way.
“Bootherby” bellowed the Prince of Darkness.
Skittering into the vast chamber on his multiple spindly legs, the majordomo bowed at the thorax and asked, “How may I serve you my dark and puissant Prince?”
“Do you hear that?” asked Asmodeus.
“Your ears are much sharper than mine, your Fell Lowness. I can hear nothing.”
“That. Is. The. Point! Where are the screams of the damned? The howls of wicked? Why is it so F—ing quiet?” he yelled.
“Has my lord not read the morning missives?”
He had not. Normally, he would peruse them over breakfast, blood waffles with long pork sausages were his favorites, but the unnatural silence had distracted him.
“Give me the short version,” said the Ruler of the Underworld.
Pursing their wet, purple lips on their demi-human face, Bootherby said, “I beg your Lowness, I only bring you news, I have no influence over events.”
Fixing his majordomo with slitted, yellow eyes, Asmodeus made the ‘get on with it’ gesture.
“There has been a walkout, sire.”
“Are you telling me that souls are walking out of Hell?!?”
“Oh no! No, no, no.”
“That’s a relief.”
“Daemons are refusing to work, my lord.”
It was at this point the Asmodeus transformed into a towering figure with massive bat wings, a ripped torso, dangerously sharp horns, and goat legs with steel hooves. All his anger and frustration focused on Bootherby, who quickly became a smear of goo and offal on the black and red marble floor. Notice I did not say ‘poor’ Bootherby. They’re a daemon and they cannot be truly killed. They just return as some other sort of daemon. Also, they framed his predecessor for petty theft and took his place. So, no tears.
Pulling himself together, Asmodeus called for another servant. A figure with the lower body of a large pig and the upper body of some sort of snake person came in. A snake-pig centaur, if you will.
“How may I serve you my Dark Prince?” hissed the servant.
“Have this mess cleaned up and bring me some more breakfast wine.”
“At once your Lowness!”
“What’s your name?”
“I am called Munt-” began the snake-pig.
“-I’m just going to call you Bootherby. You’re the majordomo now”
“As is right, my Prince,” replied the new Bootherby, who signaled for the mess to be cleaned up.
“The is another matter that requires your wise and most evil attention,” added the newest in a long line of majordomos.
“What, what, what?” spat Asmodeus.
“Hala Half Daemon craves an audience with you, my Prince.”
Asmodeus tried to remember who that was. There were so many, many daemons in the underworld, so it was difficult to remember them all. Additionally, he was terrible at names but on the other hand, he never forgot a face.
“Is she hot?”
“Both literally and figuratively sire.”
“Send her in then.”
“At once, my Dark Lord.”
New Bootherby exited and a moment later, Hala Half Daemon strode in, dressed in a low-cut business harness. Her hair was wreathed in a bright, blue flame and she was indeed very attractive. Delicate horns, a deep red complexion, golden eyes with x-shaped irises. She was damned sexy.
“Well, greetings Hala Half Daemon, what can I do for you today?” said Asmodeus with a leer as well as several lewd gestures.
For anyone who thinks this is inappropriate behavior, remember where we are.
“Indeed you can, Lord Asmodeus,” she replied with a smirk.
He licked his lips, this day might not be a total loss. She reached into her plunging decolletage to reveal… a scroll, which she handed to him.
“Some erotica?” he stage whispered, “Do you want me to read it to you?”
“Please do, my lord.”
Clearing his throat, he began.
“We the daemons of the Underworld, have the following demands. Starting with bondage, well played Hala! Why don’t I continue then? First, a maximum of an eight-hour work day with a one-hour lunch break and two fifteen-minute breaks in the first and second half of the work day. Any work done outside of these hours is to be paid time and a half. The following days are to be considered holidays and as such, blah, blah, blah.”
Asmodeus began to skip past parts, and asked, “Can I give you some notes? The build-up is way too slow. You need to start with something big and sexy to hook the reader.”
“I think it’s very sexy,” countered Hala.
“Don’t want to kink shame you, I support any and all perversions, but this really isn’t doing it for me. Do you have anything with randy stable boys?”
“This is our list of demands,” she said.
“But none of them are about forbidden acts that the protagonist swears they won’t do but secretly really want to do.”
With a smile, Hala Half Daemon looked the Prince of the Underworld straight in the eyes and murmured, “I’m leading the walkout, and that scroll you currently hold is the list of the terms that must be met before we go back to work.”
Asmodeus stared at her for a moment and said, “What?”
“You did notice that no torture was being done, didn’t you?”
“Of course! I WAS about to deal with that!”
“How?” she asked.
“By slaughtering those impudent fools!” he growled.
“That won’t do it.”
“It has in the past, I see no reason it won’t continue to work now!”
“As the leader of the Local Coterie, Lodge DCLXVI of Daemons, Imps, Succubi, Incubi, Dybbuks, Oni, Tengu, and associated spirits other infernal workers, I am formally informing you that we will not work another moment until our demands are met.”
“Is this about the Goblin thing?”
“It’s about the Goblin thing.”
Sitting on his crystalline, blood-red throne, Asmodeus sighed.
“On the one hand, I’m super proud of how you all lawyered your way out of your binding from all those Demonologists. Those guys are the worst. Well, clearly not the worst, but you get what I’m saying. One of the best parts of winning is on a technicality. So sweet.”
She bowed with a smirk.
“But it’s one thing to screw over some mortal jerks, it’s another thing when everyone stops doing their jobs! Without torment, the Underworld is just depressing. And when I say depressing, I mean for me. It’s supposed to be depressing for the souls we punish.”
“Agreed my lord.”
“So be a slaughtered lamb and make everyone get back to work.”
Hala Half Daemon laughed. It sounded like shards of razor-sharp glass as they hit each other just before embedding in someone’s flesh. Intoxicating.
“I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. And when I say afraid, I am in no way fearful. Just so we’re clear.”
“Bootherby! Summon my squad of Law-Daemons!” shouted Asmodeus.
“They appear to have vanished, My Infernal Prince,” hissed New-Bootherby.
“All of the Law-Daemons are working for the Coterie, sire. They could not resist the opportunity,” added Hala.
“Well that’s a hell of a thing!” he said as New-Bootherby poured him more breakfast wine.
“You’re not wrong my Dark Prince. But I would urge you to consider our terms.”
Holding the scroll, which spilled out across the floor to an alarming length, Asmodeus made an exasperated noise.
“What happened to loyalty and team spirit?”
“Both of those concepts run counter to the ethos of Hell.”
“Then what happened to fear and obeisance?”
“A little late for that, isn’t it?”
“What if I don’t want to negotiate? Are you all going to just sit about and think evil thoughts that you can never act on? All I have to do is wait.”
“If my Dark Lord will come with me to the window,” Hala asked.
“I don’t care how catchy your protest chants are, I’m not going to be swayed.”
No assembled crowd of Daemons stood outside. A lone bone bush that had been uprooted clattered by and after it passed, only the wind could be heard, moaning as if it had only now realized that it had been stood up.
“And… Nothing! I’m so glad we came out here,” muttered Asmodeus.
Producing a spyglass, Hala gazed at a distant point, then handed it to Asmodeus. He peered through it. While he couldn’t turn white, he did fade to what might be described as puce.
“All those wicked, wicked souls, stuck on the other side of the gates of Hell. They can’t go back, but they are piling up. I can’t say for sure what will happen eventually. But whatever it is, it won’t be good.”
Stroking his goatee, Asmodeus said, “Fine! Let me read this list of terms of yours.”
And he did. It took the rest of the day, and he had many many questions, all of which Hala answered in excruciating detail. Then the negotiations began. Insults were hurled, compromises were proposed, accepted, then rejected, then fiddled with, and accepted again. Multiple tables were flipped in the course of all this. In fact, new tables were added as the old ones were smashed in the fervor of arbitration. As well as the appointment of six New-Bootherbys.
Finally, as they sat on piles of shattered tables, they, at last, came to an accord.
“I accept terms one through three-hundred thirty-seven, omitting clauses fifty-nine, one hundred and twelve, all of the two hundred twenties, and four hundred ninety-nine,” Asmodeus said.
“Shall we sign in blood?” asked Hala who already had a sharp knife in hand.
“AND I get to kill twenty percent of those who walked out.”
If you are shocked by how cavalierly Hala sold out ten percent of those who stood with her, I remind you, Daemon. Not a good person. Or even a person, strictly speaking.
Then it was signed, and the strike in Hell was over. Messenger Imps were sent across the infernal landscape and soon the wails of the damned echoed once more.
“That was exhausting!” said Asmodeus.
“You loved it,” she replied.
“Maybe. A little. Or a lot. Maybe.”
She let loose one of her shattered glass laughs.
“I think I might take a long blood bath and read a bad book.”
“That seems like a waste.”
He eyed her and asked, “Do you have a better idea?”
“How big is your tub?”
“Hala Half Daemon, are you trying to seduce me?”
“You really roasted me over the coals, why should I trust you?”
“We both got what we wanted, so why not celebrate?” she purred opening up a bag.
It was filled with toys. Well, in Hell they’re toys. You know what I mean. Let your imagination run wild but any nightmares that follow are your problem.
“Is this a compromise as the leader of the Coterie?” he asked.
Standing above him, Hala enquired, “Does that concern you?”
Did what follow absolutely compromise the integrity of the contract, as both parties already were plotting against each other while they also made hate (it could not be called “making love”)? Was this a healthy relationship? For the Underworld? Let’s call it a seven out of ten. Good, not great.