Dante’s Inferno v. 2.0
Looking for a dark, fantastical journey through Hell full of socio-political commentary? I have just the book for, “Through Fire and Flame,” my debut novel. Read the first chapter below, and buy the full version HERE.
Ashes of My Life
I awoke, ruined and alone, beneath a blanket woven from the ashes of my life. The cool, uneven rock dug into my skin, alerting me to my existence. My head throbbed, as though a man in work boots stood over me driving a jackhammer repeatedly into my skull. I tried to reclaim my vision, but as soon as I opened my eyes a searing pain shot through my skull, and I snapped them shut. I reached out, groping for something, anything to help me understand my situation. I felt only concrete and stone.
Minutes slipped by, maybe hours, as I lay still in unbearable pain, agonizing over my situation. Where am I? What happened to me? Why do I hurt so much? I inhaled deeply. The air was thick and lightly tinged with a burning odor. It stung gently, and I coughed. The sound encouraged me. Could I speak? I said the words aloud, hello, can you hear me? Is anyone there? Absolute silence, penetrated occasionally by the low rumble of distant buildings collapsing into themselves.
Forgoing a second attempt to open my eyes, I hefted myself from a prone position to a sitting one, slowly moving each leaden arm, and propped myself up. The effort exhausted me, and I wanted to cry. What had happened to me? What the fuck is going on? The pain and the confusion were a toxic cocktail, and I felt a surge of hopelessness. I couldn’t recall having felt more terrified in my life. That would change.
I sat with my legs crossed, still blinded, eyes clamped shut as a dam against the pain. I counted the seconds hoping the pain would ebb. I reached 153 before boredom and irritation set in, and having no clarity of action, I pondered a next move.
I ventured another attempt to open my eyes. Again the pain rushed back, but this time more bearable than before, enough for me to take in the totality of my incomprehensibly dire situation. I was sitting in the middle of a small, rectangular courtyard, surrounded on all sides by high brick walls, which had crumbled around me. Rubble, dust, and broken rocks were strewn about, and over the top of the dilapidated facades, I could see the monolithically dark sky, with the pale gleam of the sickly sun barely visible through smoke and smog.
The situation terrified me. Where was I? What happened to cause the ugly scene to which I awakened, and how in the world had I found myself here? What is this, I muttered. I wracked my brain, trying to remember something, anything. I could recall being in the park with friends on a sunny day. We had been having fun, right? I shook my head, trying to clear cobwebs. There had been fire? Rain? No, a rain of fire. Yes, a rain of fire, and then screams and explosions. The stench of smoke as it blotted the sun. Right? Is this all a dream?
Mustering every ounce of energy within, I attempted to rise to my feet and was able to do so with surprising ease. My head still felt like it would explode, and my arms were heavy, but otherwise I was neither maimed nor grotesquely injured. Standing, I patted myself all over, checking for injuries or blood. Upon finishing the process, I checked my hands, which were scraped, cut, dirty, and bloody, but in working order. I had found a gash along my right ribcage that I assumed to be minor. The blood had congealed, and although my shirt was painfully plastered to the incision, when I peeled it away, the wound stayed closed.
I scrutinized my surroundings more closely. The courtyard was an enclosure of stone and twisted steel with no exit. Though the buildings around me were crumbling and dilapidated, they still towered, and I saw it would not be possible to climb out. How did I get here? Am I in jail? The courtyard seemed both a prison and a tomb. I paced around the edges, running my hand along the stones, and felt a slight draft. I paused and peered through the crack into a narrow alley, an egress from my bizarre prison! Clawing at the rubble, I pulled aside shattered bricks, warped metal bars, and fragments of splintered wood. At last, I managed to clear a narrowing just wide enough for me to slip through and make my escape.
Squeezing myself through the opening, I moved as quickly as I could along the path only to find that it trisected after a minute’s walk, one path leading right, another left, and the final lying directly in front of me. I paused, and looked down each route, but all were obscured by haze, and I could tell nothing of what might await me down whichever I might choose.
So I did what anyone would do. I went left. It made as much sense as anything, but it was a poor decision. I had only taken a few steps into the fog when I heard a low moaning from ahead, as well as coughing and retching. Despite the grotesque noises, my footfalls did not go unnoticed.
Hello! A voice cried from the haze. Hello! Help us, please help us!
Heartened by the words of another person, I hurried forward and shortly emerged from the mist into a horrifying scene. A long corridor stretched before me, and throughout, bodies were strewn haphazardly, some writhing in agony, others like rigid statues in their stillness. A ward of pestilence and death.
I wandered down the alley, following the voice that called to me. I pulled the rags of my shirt over my nose to protect myself from the putrid smell of the dying. Many of the motionless bodies were covered in festering boils from which the stench of rotten flesh wafted into the air. A woman knelt along the wall hacking loudly, and I heard the splash of vomit on concrete. I stopped, fearful, and called out, hello!
Slowly a man inched towards me, his hand along the wall for support, wheezing sickly. Please, he called, help us. Save us. As he neared, I saw him more clearly, and was horrified by the pus oozing from abscesses that covered his naked body, and the vomit crusted on his lips, chin, and torso. Stepping back, I nearly tripped over a corpse with no eyes, maggots breeding in its plagued blisters.
Please, the man called again, help us. As he sputtered these words, he fell to his knees and began puking with such violence that his body shook. He rolled to his side, curled in the fetal position. Looking up at me, he used his last breath to force out a whisper, run away from here. And then closed his eyes forever.
I stared at him in horror, and the kneeling woman turned to us, holding her hands up in despair. She was covered in blistering sores too, and she sobbed between heaves that purged her body of strength and dark fluid. I ran, sprinting as fast as I could back to the intersection, and turned to make sure no one had followed me through the mist, but I was alone.
The courtyard from which I had just escaped now seemed more a sanctuary than a prison, but I glanced back at the small hole whence I had emerged, and mustered my courage, determined to try another route. I had two more chances. Maybe one of the others will be clear, I told myself, opting for the middle path. Once more, a haze obscured my vision, but again my footsteps betrayed my presence, and I was greeted by another call, but different than before. Halt! Who goes there? Identify yourself at once.
My initial feeling was elation. An authority! Someone to help! Feeling as lucky as I had since awakening, I prepared to reply, but another voice from the mist preceded mine. We need help, a woman cried. Our party was attacked, and we need medical assistance, quickly. Please! Can you help us?
I crept cautiously to the edge of the cloud, where the mist thinned, trying to identify these new travelers, and spotted ahead of me a small band of perhaps five or six people, one of whom was being carried by the group, his left leg missing from the knee down, an oozing stump of blood and mangled muscle where his shin should have begun.
Beyond them I could make out a group of uniformed men. Wonderful! I had found people and help, but squinting closer, I recoiled. The men were clearly soldiers, and armed to the teeth with guns and weapons I had never seen before. They were clad head to toe in suits of body armor that gave them the appearance of hell-spawn, spikes protruding from their shins and shoulder guards, and wearing masked helmets with demonic faceplates. Authority perhaps, but of what variety? Now unsure, I ducked low, hugging the wall to be less visible, and to observe before making myself known.
The group of soldiers stopped a few feet before the weary travelers, and stood in rigid formation. Counting, I saw that there were six in each group. An officer stepped forward, his authority connoted by his impressive physical stature — a mountain of a man. He inquired again, who goes there?
Please help us! We are fleeing the city, and we were attacked by bandits who stole our food and medicine and injured our friend. Please, can you help us!? Please.
The officer was silent, but the curves of his faceplate began shifting, producing a cruel sneer. Help, the question came with a snort, bandits? The only thing you have to fear here, woman — and as he stepped forward I heard the sound of his knife meet the soft flesh of her gut — is me!
Following his lead, his men rushed forward swinging their furious weapons, hacking and thrusting at the helpless stragglers. Within seconds, the entire group of six travelers who only moments before had seemed my salvation lay dead in the street before me. The road coated in their thick blood, detached limbs forming dams for the coagulating red pools. One of the murderers kicked a man’s decapitated head, and it rolled toward me, balancing so that his shocked eyes met mine, his tongue hanging loosely from a mouth silenced in mid-scream. Somehow I stifled the scream of terror welling in my throat.
The officer stood over the dead bodies and instructed his men to search them for valuables. Otherwise, leave them in the street to rot. He gave an inglorious snort and walked away. His troopers, finding nothing of value on the bodies, soon followed.
This time no one told me to flee; as soon as the soldiers disappeared from sight, I sprinted all the way back to my concrete cell and unleashed the most primal noise I have ever produced, a scream of anguish and fear that shook bits of rubble from the walls around me, and they fell over me like the snowflakes of destruction. My own shriek frightened me almost as much as the events I had witnessed. Were such horrors possible?
As the echoes of my roar faded, lucidity returned. What if the soldiers had heard me and came looking? I was a rat in a cage, clad in bloody rags with a headache that still shot pain through my body. I had just experienced the two most traumatic events of my life within minutes of each other. Hardly the way to start a Tuesday. Was it Tuesday?
I let that question distract me for a moment. What day was it? Did it matter? No, what mattered was investigating the right-most path. I still had one chance at escaping the desolate hellhole, and I was determined to see where it led.
The sounds that greeted me on this exploration were those of a gruesome feast. Through the haze I heard gluttons inhaling their meal, chewing and munching loudly, disgusting smacks emanating from the fog.
I emerged from the mist into the alley but saw no feast, rather another corridor littered with corpses, all badly maimed: arms ripped off; stomachs torn open; ears and noses, fingers and toes bitten away. Over one of the bodies stooped a living woman, reaching her hand like a ladle into the open pit of a man’s stomach, vigorously scooping his innards into her maw. I vomited myself dry and empty. The woman slowly turned her head to look at me, and to my horror, so did the man whose viscera she had just been consuming. Her eyes were bright and interested, his pale and sunken. She reached into his stomach and pulled forth another handful of his intestines, stuffing them in her mouth as his fluids dripped down her face and onto the ground.
Standing slowly, she inched towards me, muttering incoherently. My eyes drifted back and forth between the victim and the zombie, until I honed in on his face. His lips were moving as though trying to deliver a message, but I could not make it out. Finally, with his last bit of strength he managed to shout, RUN!
This warning snapped me out of my stupor, and I heard the zombie’s utterance. Food. I jumped backwards just as she grabbed at me, her fingers grazing the tatters of my ripped shirt. Turning once more, I sprinted back through the mist and into my prison, and this time the sobs came.
I could neither count nor feel the passage of time. There were only tears and agony. I sat in the middle of my courtyard, as the overcast sky darkened further, crying and calling out for help, no longer worried who might hear. Death seemed inevitable now, even a reasonable — and perhaps ideal — solution to my situation.
But it was not death who placed a hand on my shoulder, startling me and rousing me from my despair. The shock of the touch surprised me, but it was firm and soothing, not forceful and threatening. Nonetheless I leapt to my feet and turned quickly, stepping backwards with clenched fists. Through bleary eyes I made out an old man in a long, simple tunic. He was stooped, one arm resting on a gnarled wooden cane, and bald with a long white beard. His eyes were stormy but reassuring.
As I wiped the tears from my eyes and looked at him, I felt a small burst of hope. He stepped towards me and once more placed a hand on my shoulder. His touch had a warmth that eased the ache in my body and calmed the fear in my heart. Still afraid and trembling, I looked directly into his eyes.
Hello, he said, my name is Socrates.