“You’ve got to believe me!” shrieked Forrester. “That clicking sound behind the door is a Demon Bomb! Don’t you see?”

The officers who had responded to the call shook their heads in a mixture of disgust and pity. Forrester Might once have been a respected member of the community, but his recent actions had made it clear to them–and clear to the judge who had issued the order–that he had suffered a psychotic break. They wrestled him to the ground as gently as they could in order to get him to psychiatric help.

“The Demon Bomb will unleash the wailing hordes of the damned upon the world!” Vorrester continued, struggling to get to the nondescript loading door in the side of a downtown building. “Those who aren’t blasted to Hell by it will be posessed and spread misery amongst the living!”

“It’s just a faulty door motor,” one of the officers said. “It needs an electrician, not an exorcist.” With great difficulty, they carried Forrester away from the loudly ticking door, and his cries were drowned out by the wail of sirens and normal street traffic.

Behind the door, Hazdrupal the Scourger exhaled in relief. “Continue with the countdown,” he barked. “We drop in 24 hours.”

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Drops of the endless frigid rain beat upon the windows of the tiny cabin, whose fire offered no warmth and whose dryness only inflamed the misery of being sodden with dryness a dim and fading memory.

“I’d have thought,” said Ellis, “that the rain would somehow be better than the snow. But, somehow, it’s worse.”

The man of the cabin, who had not offered his name, shook his head. “That expectation is exactly why the rain exists and why it never ends,” said he. “The promise of relief only makes the suffering keener for being unexpected and felt in place of relief.”

“It seems like a waste,” Ellis replied. “If suffering is what they want, why cloak it? If they want me to ache, put me on nails and pour acid in the wounds and be done with it.”

“Don’t you see?” the cabin-man sputtered. “Suffering is the why, and the how. It’s the only reason the route to the down below exists, because our suffering is the most exquisite draught, and it is carefully cultivated with the patience and skill of a master vintner.”

Ellis shook his head, thoughts of his wife and child close by. “Suffering can be withstood. There’s always hope.”

“Always hope! That’s the carrot that leads people down here, and before they know it they are in the unseen hands of a craftsman who has been making misery since the earth cooled to embers.” Ellis’s host raised his voice, speaking with the sudden conviction of a street preacher in the throes of a sermon. “Shall I tell you about the woman who found her husband, returned this way with him, only to have him dissipate into mist within sight of the Mount? Or the man who was attacked by what he thought was his son, forcing him to kill who he most loved?”

“They were fools,” Ellis said, faking a certainty he did not feel. “I’ll do better.”

“Against a foe that can move mountains, sink canyons, and extract the rarest suffering from any of us like a gourmet sucking marrow from a split bone? No. For every angle you think you know, they know a dozen you don’t. For every strategy, a dozen countermoves.”

Ellis glared at his host. “If you feel that way, why are you here? Why not leave?”

“Because if I leave, I cannot warn others. I cannot relate the stories of the lost. I am a sin eater of sorts here, resigned to my suffering in hopes of lessening that of others. It is the only succor I have found in this place, and at times I fear that even that is but another illusion.”

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“All right,” said Qrglr, Feaster of Souls. “This is your Soul Cube.”

I looked inside. “It looks like a normal cubicle to me,” I said. “Doesn’t really scream ‘Department of Infernal Affairs’ to me, you know?”

“It’s true, we have had great success getting Soul Cubes adopted as an industry standard, but the idea was ours first!” snapped Qrglr, burbling what smelled like lighter fluid from the largest of his maws.

“Sorry, sorry!” I said, holding up my hands. “It was probably more impressive in 1965, that’s all I’m saying.”

“Interns are confined to their Soul Cubes unless called for,” said Qrglr, gesturing into the space with one slimy, horrific psuedopod. “There, they will work in advancing the cause of the Other Side. This includes both inflicting and receiving suffering.”

“Inflicting?”

“The terminal is equipped with a computer and telephone. Annoy people, steal their personal information for your own gain…use your imagination. As long as somebody somewhere suffers, and every action is detailed in triplicate Form #97-32b, it’s acceptable. Just be sure to meet your quota, or you’ll be slain and consumed by the Beast of Revelations.”

I took a step back. “The Beast is here?”

“It’s a species, not a single organism,” sighed Qrglr with a gout of flame and a belch that sounded like the distant wailing of infants. “Naturally, being in the Soul Cube will also subject you to torment. This torment is used strictly locally, to maintain lower-level and supervisory demons without taking resources from the Great Stream of Agonized Souls that we send south every day on a dedicated fiber optic line.”

I was already beginning to regret my decision to intern the Infernal Affairs. “What kind of torment?”

“Triplicate forms to use the bathroom, lunches stolen from the fridge, random Soul Cube invasions by Glrktr the Taker of Hostages, and of course no pay,” said Qrglr. “Also the coffee sucks. But it’s what you’ve got to do if you want to sell your soul in a buyer’s market.”

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The shadow’s voice dripped with irony-laced joy, its words battered with equal parts honey and poison. “Do you really think that such a thing is possible? The ritual of key and coin is a farce, a trap! You came willingly to the down below, as have many before you, seeking the impossible, only to find yourself in the same trap as those you would rescue.”

“That’s not true!” Ellis growled between teeth clenched against the chill of the down below. It was no only a cold that knew no warmth, it was a cold that suggested warmth was a lie, that it had never been, that it was a pleasant dream scattered upon the winds of wakefulness.

“It howls at you, doesn’t it? Tears at your very soul, ribbons it into threadbare rags, this idea of yours that there’s something that can be done for your lover, your brat,” continued the shadow, ever in the periphery of Ellis’s vision and never in the center. “But every lead, every whisper, every ley line you followed was just a way to bring you into the down below. To rip at you with ice and rock unending, to cut at you with wind that will bear no warmth and light that is neither day nor darkness.”

“You would have me lay down in the snow and subject myself to this forever?” spat Ellis, the moisture condensing to ice upon his very lips.

“I would have you face reality. It was all just a way to bring you to the despair that never would have been yours had you allowed things to proceed as they were, to take your rest as it came. In trying to reach beyond it and break the order of things, you have condemned yourself as surely as those you seek to save.”

“I still have hope.”

The shadow laughed gleefully amidst the flurries and driving snow. “And that, that false and misguided hope, is as the sweetest of rare wines to me, to mine. Do you not see? Whether you suffer, whether you hope, or whether you do both, it matters not. You are but a battery, a soul in chains, and every move you might make will only bring us pleasures untold.”

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I took my proposal to the Department of Infernal Affairs. Never heard of it? There’s always one nearby if you know where to look. Someone’s got to coordinate for the Other Side, after all, and what could be more hellish than bureaucracy for which the normal human meanings of time and space don’t apply?

That day, I had a modest proposal all typed up with the proper forms filled out in quadruplicate and properly stamped and sealed with blood. I was ready to pledge my soul to the Other Side in exchange for something in the here and now, like many people (more than you’d think) have done in the past. I was ushered in to see the local Department Manager after a wait of only 97 hours; that they sped things along, I thought, was indicative of how important the issue was.

Unlike most of the workers for the Other Side, the department manager wasn’t a human sympathizer or required to wear a disguising glamour. He was all raw and evil, leaking noxious fumes and fluids. The only concession for my sake was a business suit, which must have been made out of teflon to withstand all that Other Side hellish ichor.

“It’s a nice proposal,” he said in a voice that sounded like two concrete blocks being ground together. “But I’m going to have to turn you down. We don’t want your soul, not for this or any other bargain.”

“What?” I said. “Why not?”

“I’m going to be honest with you,” the Department Manager said, tenting the clawed pseudopods that served him for quasi-arms. “Fulfilling wishes, making changes to the physical world from the spiritual? It has costs. Effort, time, and soul energy. In the old days, when souls were pennies a gallon, it was no problem. But things have changed, and the arithmetic isn’t always as good.”

“But it’s a small request,” I said. “Hardly anything needs to be changed, and you get my soul forever!”

“That’s the other thing,” said the Department Manager in his ruinous voice. “We on the Other Side have quite the actuarial staff, and we’ve done a few calculations. Turns out that the kind of person who’d sell their soul, or even consider it, is usually a right bastard in their own way. 90% of them, they’re ours anyway in the fullness of time; we get the whole soul without having to expend any effort at all.”

“So what are you telling me?”

“No more soul deals anywhere, ever. Only exceptions are for mass cults, business leaders, and politicians. That one comes from the Big Guy himself, incidentally, so don’t try going over my amorphous eyestalk to the District Manager either.”

“Then why see me at all? Why make me wait just to shoot me down? why have the forms in the first place? I wasted almost a year of my life getting this ready, all for nothing!”

The Department Manager grinned with all six of his tooth-ringed mouth-suckers. “We’re still the Other Side, kid. It’s what we do.”

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The few that had gone and returned left tales, naturally, and those tales spread far and wide on the lips of tellers who never had and never would see the place with their own eyes. They said that what you found down there reflected who you were as a person much more than any external, metaphysical reality.

Ellis wasn’t sure what a vast wasteland of frozen mountains and snow said about him. Maybe he didn’t want to know.

In the world above–say, in Antarctica–trekking through such a wasteland would have required more supplies than Ellis could possibly have carried, and far more survival training than he possessed. But that wasn’t the way down below. He got hungry but never had to eat; got thirsty but never had to drink; got cold but never had to build a fire. One might have thought that the removal of those things would have made the journey an easy one.

Instead, Ellis found his pain and suffering focused to a thin, white-hot edge. If there was no death at the end, no unconsciousness, then the pain simply brooded and grew far beyond what was possible–or even conceivable–above. Forget the stories of torments unnumbered, or even other people. The suffering of an unforgiving environment with no company but memories was infinitely worse.

There was no night and day, only a constant gray haze. As Ellis struggled through waist-deep snow and up naked rockfaces savaged by high winds, he occasionally tried to take shelter in a crevasse or eat a little snow to dull the pain. It didn’t work; the snow quenched no thirst, the deepest caves and crevasses were canvassed by the same howling polar winds, and the memories were omnipresent above them all.

Those same dilettantes, seated by cozy fires above, said that the pain down there wore away at a soul until it obliterated every trace of memory and left them to wander infinitely in their own personal “down below.” Ellis wouldn’t let that happen. He’d had no inkling of what was ahead when he had performed the ritual of key and coin to venture down below, even after all the interviews and research and preparations.

But even as the pain threatened to devour him, even as the snow and solitude made him question whether he had ever really seen another living being, Ellis pressed on.

Annemarie and Cassandra were out there, somewhere.

And he had to bring them back.