Ruling the underworld is a crap job, but somebody has to do it.
He’d been flicking through tv channels for two hours by then, so the bell was a welcome summons back to reality.
The dressing gown was long in need of the laundry, but it was gone midnight and the thought of getting into the full regalia was just too much, so in that disheveled state he made the long walk to the gates of the abandoned city.
His city. The city of Dys.
Klang. Klang. Klang. The atonement bell never stopped klangging.
“Enough.” He shouted. The massive bronze gateway took all his strength to drag open. On the other side, waiting in the blasted wastelands, was just one. Naked, alone, and it looked like, burnt.
The last few had come alone. Once they had arrived in numbers so great, the crowds had taken weeks and months to make their way beneath the gate. The city had been built for them, a booming metropolis of the dead, waiting to be processed. Now it was empty.
This one had fallen to its knees, curled into a ball of agony. He offered it a hand. But the creature slapped it away, snarled.
“Am I the last?”
It was a good question. The job had dragged on for so long, Dys had lost sight of even the possibility that there might be an end to it. The scrollwork was all back at the office. But it hadn’t changed significantly for an aeon or more.
“Who are you?” He asked it.
“Who am I?” Even the agony in its words didn’t hide the insulted pride.
“I am the final messenger of God. Last of his prophets.”
“Fascinating,” Dys said, “which god?”
The creature glared at him, it’s ruined face disbelieving.
“The God.” There was an edge of desperation in that “the”, Dys thought.
“He, who waits in the beyond, with the ledger of our accounts, to determine the final balance of each soul. The God who speaks to me. The god who demanded I bring the last souls to him, through the doors of flame.”
Dys could not imagine any god wasting its time keeping account of humanity. You may as well catalogue ripples in a puddle.
“Flame, you say?” Those last few million at the gates had been rather…charred.
“Yes! Fire is the path to God. I ushered my people onto the road of flame. Then I followed them. Last of all am I.” The creature looked at its red raw and charcoaled hands.
“Oh. That god.” Dys said, failing to keep his groan inaudible.
“You will take me to him?”
“No.” Dys said, a little too urgently. “No. Sorry. He’s…not in.”
“Not.” The creature questioned, “In?”
“Anyway. That’s a relief.” Dys said. “For a moment there, I had a horrible suspicion you meant me.”
They walked together through the empty city. Once the parties had burned through the night. The dead had nothing urgent to occupy them, so they spent their time on drink and song. Most of humankind’s greatest poets and philosophers had been nothing of the kind before they died. Dys had quite enjoyed the place, for an aeon or two.
Governing the underworld had never been his thing, really. For a start it wasn’t so much under as other, and it annoyed him having to explain the difference over and over again. But the real problem was he just wasn’t the vindictive type. He’d much preferred overseeing the harvest. But Ceres had shouldered him out of that niche, and here he had landed, among the vacant eyed towers of his very own empty, lonely, desolate city.
The bunker was far under the city. They went down many, many stairs to get to it. Its doors where vast. A cliff-face of dark iron. Unseen motors roared, the wall split open, as Dys and the creature approached.
“God promised eternal safety for his faithful.” The creature’s voice had turned doubtful.
“Well. Clauses like that are always open to some interpretation.”
Beyond the doors, glimpsed through the doomstruck shadows, where a host of the creatures. Men, women, the old and the young. The burnt, the patterns of their scars woven from shadow and light. The butchered and bombed. The dead from disease. The shot, stabbed, hacked, mangled and otherwise mutilated. They were all there, in the bunker.
“An infinite sea of men.” The creature said.
“Infinite? Oh no. Not even close.” Dys replied.
“Let me see.” Dys cast his mind back to the scrolls on his desk. “Twelve billion, seventy seven million, seven hundred and seventy six thousand. And, one.” He nodded to the creature, who didn’t seem to see the humour.
“Every human that ever lived. Not so many. You will learn all their names. There’s no end of time.”
“Time?” The creature blinked at Dys, as he gently herded it through the doors, to join the others where they stood, packed shoulder to shoulder. The screams began as the doors ground back together, narrowing the light black to darkness, then cut short as they closed.
Dys flicks the channels of his television.