A thin, cracked voice was quavering out over the bleak dunes of the desert of the soul.
"...amaaaaaziiiing graaaaace, how sveeeeet ze soooul, who saaaaved aahaaha wretch, like meeeee, for I-i-i-i voooss lost, but now am found..."
Lips parched, throat dry, Rasputin was stumbling up a large dune. Pebbles stuck in his shoes. Dust stung his eyes. How long had he been stumbling across the terrible expanse of flat sand, with nowhere to hide from himself?
Eventually he had started to sing, to drown out the voices in his head. They would *destroy* him. Through long years of debauchery and evil, he had become numb to the protests of his weakened, atrophied conscience. Now it had caught up with him, with a vengeance. All those people... men, and the women... He began bawling out again, as loudly as his tired lungs would permit.
"Vooos bliiind, buuuuut now, I seeeeee...."
With this he reached the crest of the dune. Below him, water glinted in a small canyon, carved from a rock outcropping. A patch of white showed up lividly against the ochre hues of the desert. There was a whisper of wind in the airless desert.
"... my son... come to me..."
Forgiveness? Hope dawned in the eyes of the bedraggled monk. He ran, tumbled, fell, rolled down the dune in a cloud of stinging sand, regained his footing and hobbled frantically to the white figure, sitting gazing into the small desert spring. Sweating, gritty with sand and bleeding from small cuts, he stood behind the figure, heaving in deep breaths.
There was a blur of movement, which ended up with Rasputin on his back in the sand, and the white figure kneeling on his chest, gripping his neck and pushing an unfriendly red face into his.
The Devil cast off his white robe.
"Care for another guess?" he spat. Hellfire flared in his eyes.
"Aaahahh..." twittered the monk, "My, ahh, ozzer Lord. I haf been lookink for you..."
I've been looking for you too, monk. You made me look quite foolish, with your little escape-from-Alcatraz stunt."
Rasputin looked blank. "Al-katraz?"
That's not important. You tarnished the reputation of my fine establishment when you skipped out. You made HELL look SILLY..."
The Prince of Lies was literally fuming. Steam rose off his flanks. A heat haze formed in the air. Rasputin turned approximately the colour of really *good* lobster.
My house didn't seem to affect you overmuch, monk. We boiled you in molten sewage - you came out smelling of roses. We cut out your entrails, and made you eat them - you smiled, and swallowed. We stewed you in the odious maw of Azrael the Black Beast for a million years - you compared him..."
And here the heat grew more intense.
...to a jacuzzi! Do you have any idea how much that hurt his feelings? hmm? I'll tell you - he cried like a baby. You arrogant little twerp!"
Rasputin gave a tiny, satisfied smile.
Hell apparently couldn't punish you. We failed. So, Rasputin, you're not going back to Hell"
The monk raised an eyebrow, cracked a grin.
"Vell" he squeaked, "Vell, zat is good news. Haha"
Satan stood up, dusted himself off, smiled.
"I thought so too. Goodbye, monk."
Rasputin was alone again, in the featureless desert. The canyon was gone, the rock was gone. He stood, quite still for a moment, before walking on, heading for the horizon. No wind whispered. No vultures circled. Silence, but for the sound of his footsteps.
... remember that woman who lived on Pokrovskoe Street, who...
Pretty soon, he was going to run out of songs.
Two figures sat at a table in the bright, plastic McDonalds off the motorway, being regarded on all sides.
One was a nervous man with a funny, Chaplin-esque moustache and jackboots, who darted glances from side to side and picked at his box of chips. He had a sneaking suspicion he wasn't welcome here.
The other diner was a sallow, twitching young man in a toga with a crown of laurel leaves, who was messily devouring a cheese-burger with all the trimmings, spraying his neighbours with secret sauce and random gherkins, blissfully oblivious to the hostile attention being focused on the table. He held two pickles up to his eyes, and giggled.
The two Dignitaries had become bored and hungry, and wandered off to find some grub. The Fuhrer had opted for Chicken McNuggets, while Caligula had insisted on getting a Happy Meal.
Now a chair scraped back, and a hush fell over the restaurant as a huge, muscled biker strode slowly over to their table. The entire restaurant held its breath; only the reworked pan-pipes version of 'How Deep Is Your Love?' that was playing on the intercom broke the silence. Leather creaked as he walked, and the tattoos on his arms rippled. This man looked, for want of a better, more polite way of putting it, royally 'ticked' off. He had already been accosted today by what looked like an especially sick creation of HR Giger, and he couldn't take any more upsetting freakiness. He leaned ominously over the table. The Dignitaries leaned back. The biker, whose name, though he would never admit it, was Gerald, cleared his throat.
"I knows you" he rumbled angrily.
The Fuhrer felt his stomach drop into his boots.
"Ent-entschuldigung? Ahhaha... ich-"
But the biker was looking at his dining partner.
"You're the emperor Caligula, incha? Thirty-seven ta forty-one ay dee, right? Who's yer friend?"
The giggling despot looked up and giggled some more.
"Imperator Caligula mea. Qui tu, plebeian insolens?"1
Gerald didn't understand, and just growled.
"Murdered yer sister Drusilla and proclaimed yerself a god, dincha? Made yer horse Incitatus into a consul in thirty-eight ay dee while neglecting the functions of proper government and pursuing a life of wanton luxury, dincha, yew - !"
Caligula had meanwhile stuck a chip up his nose and started singing an obscene song in Latin. It could have gone very badly for him, but at that instant he and his fellow diner disappeared in a lick of flame, leaving only a lingering whiff of brimstone and two half-finished meals.
Hell had claimed back her own, and Gerald finished off the chips, so everything was alright then.
A side-step to the left - through the flimsy dimensional barriers we laughingly call 'reality' - and we arrive again inHell...
The Devil clapped his hands in glee and folding his arms, reclined upon his throne.
"They are all back then?" he asked stroking his chin
"Yessir" muttered a three-legged purple demon wearing half-moon spectacles who was pacing up and down with a clipboard. Pausing he ticked off the last remaining name on the list with a charcoal stick with an officious flick.
"well minus one... er..."
I've taken care of that one myself. He won't be going anywhere soon."
"I see. If that is all?"
Yes. leave me."
The Imp, bowed and exited backwards, closing the impressive black gates behind him as he went.
The Prince of Hell waited a while until he thought he was alone. then unfurling his clawed fist he flexed his fingers once or twice then beating his hand rhythmically on the armrest counted out:
Bah!" he exclaimed in frustration. "Next time we play tiddlywinks."
Now two steps to the right and intoThe Kingdom of Heaven
- which has an unprecedented twenty billion stars out of five in the Michelin Hotel Guide - God, like his infernal counterpart, broods on his throne.
It had been a busy week, and he turned events over in his vast mind, which is in fact, the universe. He was pondering again the reason why he had given humankind free will - all they ever did was use it. Like the monk, Rasputin... a needy child who thought his god should come when he was called. Perhaps he hadn't been Old Testament enough recently: people seemed to be getting uppity all over. Spare the bolt of lightning, save the child... He hadn't waxed his wroth in ages, it must be getting tarnished.
And the ones who weren't denying him, never gave him a moments peace, with their prayers, hymns, dedications, invocations... did they know he had to listen to every one of them? Intolerable. And just on cue, Gabriel's voice came in on the intercom.
"Sir, you're scheduled to create some new suns after lunch, then you'll be receiving a new batch of souls, answering prayers, watching a sparrow fall and posing for Michelangelo, which brings us into the evening schedule... more prayers, I'm afraid... Oh, but first, you'll be appearing in a vision to a hermit named Severinius. The usual clouds parting, heavenly vision, booming voice job. OK?"
"Yes, yes..." he affirmed wearily, already feeling the headache. But now an old memory bloomed in his mind, and he smiled slowly. He glanced around warily... but then who was boss around here? He hadn't had a rest since the seventh day. They could manage without him for a weekend.
Severinius lay in his smoky cave, trembling with anticipation. He had lived as a hermit for twelve years far from any towns, in a hair-shirt the whole time, flagellating himself daily with thorny branches, neglecting hygiene and all worldly things, existing on a diet of slugs and moss. But now he felt some great moment approaching, and had laid himself on the jagged rock that passed for a bed.
And all of a sudden, lo! he felt himself lifted up above the world, leaving his corporeal body behind, and he saw the whole world girt by the sea, and all the lands thereof (and he fought valiantly an inexplicable urge to shout "I can see my house from here!") and then he saw three circles, each within the other, and they were with each other, and they were one, and he saw a golden chariot race across the sky carrying the sun. And it was good. Finally he saw clouds, fluffy white ones tinged with gold from the glorious sun, a choir of angels and the clouds parted, and he saw... a note.
He picked it up. It said:
...Severinius sat up, back in his cave and extremely bloody annoyed. Francis of Assisi never had to take that kind of thing, he fumed to himself. 'Sod this.' Pausing only to kick over the slug barrel, he stomped out of the damp cave and went looking for a stiff drink.