A small lizard looked up at me. “Hello there!” It had bright yellow eyes and beautiful scales that turned from green to orange at their tips. It spread its lips in a reptilian smile. “I think you’ll like it here.”
As the little creature talked, the world around us resolved from blackness into a hazy orange, like dense fog lit by fires raging on the horizon. The entire horizon. In every direction, the glow of blazing flames met my eyes. Cozy.
Featureless gray dirt stretched from beneath my feet into the miasma. Or maybe it was ash mixed with dirt. A hint of brimstone hung in the air. It was remarkably refreshing.
“This place gets a bad rap, but for a few of us, it’s a really great retirement locale.”
I frowned. Retirement?
“Yes. Well, more or less.” The lizard’s front legs bobbed in what could have been a shrug. “I mean, yes. You’re obviously dead. But it’s smooth sailing from here, pal.”
My companion turned and legged off toward a barely visible outcropping of rocks. “Follow me,” it said. "Also, I’m a ‘he,’ not an ‘it,’ " it said. I mean, he said.
Wait a second, I hadn’t called him an it out loud. In fact, I don’t remember having said anything at all.
“Not out loud, no,” he said. “But I can hear you all the same. There are no inner monologues in this place.” He stopped and turned to me. “You may have noticed my lips aren’t moving, but you understand me nonetheless.”
My eyebrows jumped. That’s true. He wasn’t talking at all. I strained to hear anything, but everything was eeirly quiet. A small pressure weighed on my ears, the silence almost painful. But I do hear a voice. Oh, a voice in my head… That can’t be a good sign.
The little lizard chuckled and returned to his hike toward the rocks. “C’mon, you’ll like this.”
A few minutes later, a group of sharp rocks jutted out of the dusty terrain in front of us. The little guy picked up the pace. Calling him little guy seemed a bit inappropriate. I wonder if he has a name?
“I don’t have a proper name,” he said. “Each of the denizens of this realm calls me something unique. You may call me Zethuriazub.”
My eyebrows got more exercise.
“OK, Zet for short.”
Everybody calls him something different? Sounds like it’d be hard to keep track of all that.
Zet hopped on the rocks and shimmied up several meters to the top. “Not really. It’s actually quite useful. I always know who’s summoning me by what name they use.” He turned and looked down at me expectantly.
I made my way up the nearly sheer rock face. Climbing was never my strong suit, really. I preferred–
I don’t know what I preferred. I felt my brows wrinkle as I concentrated. I, uh… Don’t seem to remember anything about myself.
“Don’t worry, that’s pretty common. Especially with greenhorns,” Zet said. “Hurry up, or you’ll miss the show.”
After a few grunts, abrasions aplenty, and a lot of cursing, I made it to the top. I flopped onto my back to catch my breath, but it turned out I hadn’t lost it. I wasn’t breathing hard at all. Wait, was I even breathing?
“Only out of habit,” Zet said. “Your lungs really don’t need oxygen anymore. Which is good, of course. As there isn’t a whole lot down here. What little there is, the fire eats.”
The top of the outcropping was wide and flat, a little plateau that provided an excellent view of the chasm that plunged down and away from them.
“Yeah. But just you wait. It’s nearly midnight,” Zet said.
“What happens at midnight?” I asked.
“Oh, you remembered how you use your mouth for talking. What a quick learner you are!” Zet said. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not. “Only a few more seconds, and you’ll find out what happens at midnight. Just keep looking over there.” He waved to his left with a foreleg.
“The witching hour…” I mumbled as a distant memory flickered through my brain.
At the stroke of midnight, the air ripped open. A jagged portal tore through the fabric of our dark realm, casting everything in a sickly green glow. Wails erupted from the opening as lost souls tumbled out, colliding with the hard ground.
Zet’s calm demeanor shifted, his scales bristling. “Right on time,” he muttered.
No sooner had the souls spilled forth than hideous, misshapen demons burst from the cracked earth. They descended upon the souls, claws and fangs rending mortal flesh from ethereal spirit. The sounds of their suffering were crisp and vibrant, amplified almost, like the sound on a cold winter’s day.
I staggered back, bile rising in my throat. “What is this madness?”
“Reprisal,” Zethuriazub said simply, his eyes fixed on the horror before us.
Compelled yet repulsed, I stepped closer to the ledge. One demon clutched a wailing soul, its clawed hands plunging into his stomach and pulling out ropes of intestines.
“What did he do to deserve this?” I whispered.
Zethuriazub’s face was impassive. “That one beat his wife and newborn child to death in a drunken rage.”
My unease dissolved. As the demon continued its gruesome work, I understood this was justice. The show below was not just pain, but righteous punishment for mortal sins.
As the demons finished their gruesome work, the now freed souls drifted skyward and disappeared through the swirling portal above.
I exhaled, a grim satisfaction settling in my chest. “So there is justice after all.”
Zethuriazub shrugged. “That’s not really my department. We just make sure the reprisals fit the violations.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Violations? You mean sins.”
“If that’s what you want to call them.” Zet sighed. “Your type do seem to relish all this though.”
I looked out over the ledge again as the portal swirled closed and the demons retreated into the cracks.
As the last echoes of screams faded, I turned to Zethuriazub. “What is my purpose here? Why am I in this place?”
He tilted his head, regarding me with those bright yellow eyes. “No one arrives by accident. Each soul has a role to fulfill, once they shed the trappings of their mortal life.”
I waited, expecting more. But the lizard merely stretched his legs and began descending the rocky outcropping.
After a moment, I followed. “And what is my role?”
“That remains to be seen.” He glanced back with a toothy grin. “But I have a feeling you’ll fit right in here. We have need of souls who understand the necessity of rules. And of enforcement.”
His words lingered as we picked our way down the rocks. Enforcement? As I pondered what that meant, and what I must have done before, like a half-remembered dream I felt flashes of grief, righteous anger, and pride. Perhaps I was an enforcer of some kind before, and now I’m meant to ensure the order of things in the world beyond. To mete out punishment and retribution to the damned.
Here, justice reigned eternal. And I would be its agent.
He looked at me, amused. “I think you’ll do fine here. Remember, with great responsibility comes great power.”
I furrowed my brow, both confused and filled with a sense of familiarity. “I think that’s the wrong way around.”
Zet turned and scampered toward the nearest remnant of a rendered soul. “That’s just absurd. How can you be responsible for anything if you don’t have the power to correct it? No, no. As you assume responsibility, power is imbued.”
I watched him scavenge bits of flesh and bone. His words resonated within me, though I did not fully understand why. But as I gazed out upon the bleak, fiery world that was now my home, I knew my role here would soon be revealed. And with it, whatever power necessary to carry out my duties would follow. I would ensure order prevailed in this realm.
Justice would be served.
Zet rolled his eyes.