Devil in the Dollhouse: A Sandman Slim Story

BOOK: Devil in the Dollhouse: A Sandman Slim Story
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DEVIL IN THE DOLLHOUSE

A Sandman Slim Story

RICHARD KADREY

 

DEVIL IN THE DOLLHOUSE

T
he Unimog bounces down a shattered freeway that looks like a set from
Crackhead Godzilla Goes on a Bender and Fucks up Everything
. Exit signs and overhead lights are melted to slag. Buildings along the edges of the road look more like the stone skeletons of giant fish than settlements. We have to inch our way down and then back up collapsed overpasses like arthritic grasshoppers.

And it gets worse. This thousand-mile-long ribbon of shit? Technically, I own all of it. All of Hell is falling apart and one of my jobs is to put it back together. But not today.

Let’s back up and get a look at the big picture.

There are just as many assholes in Heaven as there are in Hell. The only difference is the ones in Hell aren’t slick enough to hide it. Therefore Hell is a kingdom of assholes, and thus the Devil is the king of the assholes.

Hi. I’m the Devil. No, seriously. I used to be James Stark or sometimes Sandman Slim, but then the Lucifer 1.0 pissed off back to Heaven and stuck me running Hell. I thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. That was three days ago. Today things got worse. Today I’m in a truck convoy heading somewhere I never heard of to find some place that scares even these evil fallen-angel pricks. Plus, I can’t eat the lunch they packed for me. I never could stand unicorn salad.

Here’s how it all started: I was hanging out in Lucifer’s library—my library now—when a bookcase opened and two Hellions came in, looking at me like I was a two-headed rattler in the reptile booth at a Texarkana side show.

“So, this is him,” said the smaller Hellion.

“I guess so,” said the big one.

“He doesn’t look like much of a monster.”

“He’s the monster who kills monsters, so naturally he’s a lesser monster.”

“He still looks like any other mortal to me.”

“You know I’m standing right here, right?” I said.

The smaller Hellion raised his voice, like maybe I was hard of hearing.

“I was saying that you don’t look like much of a monster.”

“I look better covered in blood. You never saw me fight in the arena?”

Big Boy shook his head.

“Merihim there is a priest. He can’t go. Me, I don’t like to go. Fighting for fun doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Trust me. It wasn’t fun.”

The smaller Hellion was in sleeveless black robes. Every inch of visible skin was tattooed in sacred Hellion script, like he’d been mugged by the tiniest graffiti crew in the universe. Big Boy looked like the Hulk’s runt cousin in rubber overalls. Dangling from his thick leather belt were enough vicious-looking tools to give Torquemada the vapors.

“I’m Ipos,” said Big Boy. He hooked a thumb at the tattooed squirt. “He’s Merihim.”

I recognized the names. Samael, aka Lucifer 1.0, left me a note with their names. They’re a couple of his spies and sometime advisors.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m the Devil.”

Merihim nodded. Pursed his lips.

“Yes. That’s what we’re here to talk about. You’re not, entirely, quite Lucifer.”

“Then you better tell whoever is Lucifer, because I’m living in his palace, wearing his clothes, and peeing in his shower.”

“Yes,” said Ipos. “You have all the trappings of Lord Lucifer. And you certainly have the title.”

“What you lack is the belief,” said Merihim.

“I seem to remember killing Mason Faim and stopping a war with Heaven.”

“And those facts are what earned you the title. But the title is a thing of the mind. Belief is a thing of the heart. And that you don’t have.”

“Not yet,” said Ipos.

“In a conversation like this when someone says ‘not yet’ it makes my balls ache. You know why? Because that’s where the knee is going. Because ‘not yet’ means I have to do something and it’s going to hurt. Am I right?”

“Your balls are very wise indeed,” said Merihim. “But you need to see our problem.”

“You need to see mine. I don’t care.”

Ipos held up one of his big hands.

“We’re here to help you become what destiny has led you to.”

“To become the Lord of the Underworld.”

“Don’t call me ‘Lord.’ I don’t like it. So how are you going to do it?”

Ipos said, “There’s something Samael was going to do before he left us. A kind of quest.”

Perfect. Not only does Samael stick me with Hell, he leaves me to clean up his last job. And I know him well enough to know that this is one he didn’t want to do.

“Fuck you both. I never wanted this gig. One of you can play Lucifer. How about you, preacher?”

“I’m a simple priest, unsuited for a life in politics.”

“What do you say, Mighty Joe Young?”

“I’m head of maintenance. Your palace would fall apart without me.”

“Well, I’m not Sir fucking Galahad out looking for adventure. I’m a schmuck who wants to go home.”

“You have to be alive to do that,” Ipos said.

“Not all of Hell is willing to accept a mortal as Lucifer. Considering that you are going to be with us for quite some time . . .”

“Forever maybe.”

“You might want to consider ways to minimize your chances of being murdered.”

“Not being killed is pretty high on my agenda. What kind of quest are we talking about?”

Merihim idly picked up a book from a nearby table.

“It’s really more of an exorcism. Not much more than clearing out a haunted house.”

“Maybe a bit more like a fortress,” Ipos said.

“With a coterie of unpleasant residents doing mischief with travelers.”

“What’s a coterie?”

“A somewhat large group.”

“How large?”

“Some say an army,” said Ipos. “But a minor one.”

“Why didn’t you say so? It sounds completely reasonable.”

“Good.”

“No, it doesn’t. I was being sarcastic.”

Merihim frowned.

“You don’t do it as well as Samael.”

“My wise balls are telling me to pass on the offer.”

“But they know you can’t.”

He was right. If I’m going to survive I need some juice, and the fastest way to get that down here is to kill something.

So now here I am, bouncing along in a truck with concrete shocks surrounded by a Hellion legion that smells like a fish-market Dumpster. I’m not usually the dragged-along-for-the-ride type. Usually, I’m the one doing the dragging, but I’m a little out of my depth here. Like Marianas Trench out of my depth. I fought in the arena long enough to know that sometimes the best strategy is to shut up, go along with the game, and make sure that someone is standing in front of me when the tentacles hit the fan. So far though, all my Cool Hand Luke plan has gotten me is a numb ass from sitting and a ringing in my ears from the engine noise. Worst of all, the unicorn is starting to smell good.

U
p ahead, the whole world is on fire. Our three-truck convoy is off the freeway and in open desert plains following a narrow winding road to fuck all.

“Ah. The first ring of suffering,” says Geryon, the scholar. “Henoch created three before we reach the Breach. They’re designed to break the spirit of anyone approaching.”

“I thought we made the suffering. We don’t do the suffering.”

“If you think Hell isn’t Hell for every creature in it then you’re blind, False Lucifer.”

“That’s getting annoying.”

“No more so than being ruled by a usurper.”

“A usurper has to want the job. I want to be home, drunk and breaking hotel beds with a girl named Candy.”

“Of course, False One. You merely fell into the lordship of Hell. It’s happened to all of us.”

“Then you admit I’m head of the pit crew down here.”

He looks away. Geryon loves me. The conversation has been like this all the way out from Pandemonium.

“If you’re unhappy you can walk back to Pandemonium. It shouldn’t take more than a week.

“Merihim should be doing this,” says Geryon.

“Merihim and Ipos are too chicken to leave the capital, so they gave me you, sweetheart. Start talking or we’re going to see if you can dog-paddle through fire. I wonder if fried Hellion tastes like spicy or original recipe?”

Geryon looks at me like I’m a moldy ham sandwich someone forgot in the back of the fridge at work.

“What is it you want of me?”

“The rest of the story. You were telling me about Henoch Breach.”

Lucifer got me into this Hell mess and deserted me. Then Merihim and Ipos got me into this haunted house bullshit and they deserted me too. If you can’t trust a fallen angel, who can you trust? Geryon is supposed to have the lowdown on where we’re going but he hates me more than Aelita and Marshall Wells combined. Maybe Merihim and Ipos are smarter than I thought. Maybe they stuck me with Tiny Tears here to show me how much some of the townies despise me. Maybe I can even learn something from this guy if I don’t get bored and make his guts into a new fan belt for the truck.

“Before the Breach there were the beasts. They were here when God threw us from Heaven’s walls. Few remember them and those who do think of them as nightmares. Nightmares from the terror of landing in this place. Some of us though, we still remember the truth. Great, fat obsidian snakes like blind worms and rats with fur like steel spikes.”

I look out the front window. The air shimmers over the heat like waves on a lake. Molten rock flows in thick streams around burning boulders. Blackened bones of hellbeasts stick up from black patches of cooled lava like slaughterhouse stalagmites.

“How in fuck’s sake are we supposed to get through that?”

Geryon glances at the window and looks away. He’s scared but he doesn’t want to look bad in front of the mortal. Cry me a river.

He says, “The rings are cruel. They are designed not to kill, but to break our spirits. We turn back now or we go through them, stopping for absolutely nothing. The choice is yours, thief.”

The Unimog driver slows down and stops, waiting for me. He looks almost human, if the human summered in a trash compactor. His head is twice the size it should be and roughly the shape of a rotten pumpkin. His back is hunched and one of his arms looks like it was chiseled out of concrete. I nod to him.

“Pour on the horses, Elephant Man, and don’t stop for anything.”

The heat hits hard and fast, like one minute we’re fine and the next some bastard has dumped a ton of burning compost on our heads. Hellions might be fallen angels but they’re still angels, and seeing angels sweat like rotten meat is the kind of thing that can make a person tense.

The ribbons of heat turn the air to Jell-O. It’s hard to breathe and I can barely see anything out the window. The driver inches us along the road at a crawl. The engine whines like it’s about ten seconds from melting down. I swear I can hear the tires sizzling underneath the truck. The troops in the back of the truck are getting restless, and by getting restless I mean pressing their ugly Hellion noses to the window, trying to see who’s going to panic first and do something incredibly stupid.

Geryon sticks his head in the back and speaks to them.

“We can make it. Others have and in lesser vehicles than this. We just have to be strong.”

Geryon might be smart but he doesn’t have the best timing. Just as he finishes, both rear windows crack in the heat. One begins to fall apart but the other holds. Some of the troops grab their guns like they can shoot the heat away.

The truck lists to the right and then lists more as we hit a patch of melting road. For a minute it feels like we’re going to roll over. Elephant Man shifts hard. Gears grind and scream like they’re about to pop out through the hood. Slowly the truck rights itself and just like that we’re clear of the flames. Like closing a window, we’re out of the smoker and onto a nice cool plate with cornbread and potato salad. The other two trucks are moving slow. I go to the back and look out the broken window.

Truck Two is where we just were, leaning to the side on the soft road. The driver inches forward and the truck starts to right itself. Then with a
crack
like God’s own cannon going off it’s gone. All that’s left is a molten rock void in the road over a river of streaming lava. I press myself against the ceiling, and through the window I can just see the edge of the truck’s front bumper sinking into the thick orange flow. Then that’s gone too. The driver of the third truck takes a big chance and drives off the road onto the rocky shoulder, taking the long way around the hole. It’s a smart move. They take it slow and in a few minutes pull up behind us, the truck’s body steaming, the undercarriage glowing bloody red. There’s nothing to do about the other truck. I tap Elephant Man on the shoulder and we drive on.

“You were talking about monsters.”

“Yes. I was.”

I fish a pack of Maledictions from my pocket, take one and offer him one. He shakes his head. I hold one out to Elephant Man and he takes it. I light it and then mine.

“Monsters.”

Geryon nods.

“The story isn’t about monsters. It’s about Henoch. He, like you, was a traitor to Lord Lucifer and was exiled in the outlands with other traitors in a wretched town made of tunnels carved from the barren landscape. Traders from Pandemonium traveled from there along this very road to bring back their goods. Most never made it home.”

“The beasts?”

He nods.

“But not the old ones. These were new beasts. Henoch mated with the creatures and created an army of unnatural horrors. If he couldn’t return to Pandemonium, he was determined that no one and nothing would ever get there. His monsters attacked even the smallest groups of travelers.”

“And you want me to go up to this demonic freak show that no one even believes in but scares you all shitless.”

“I’m afraid so, King of Liars.”

“No wonder Lucifer took a powder.”

“Lord Lucifer isn’t a coward,” Geryon shouts. The soldiers in the back of the truck look up at Mom and Dad fighting.

“I didn’t say he was a coward. I said he was smart.”

Geryon turns away, staring out the back window.

“What’s that up ahead?”

The terrain is changing again. A lush forest along the banks of a river. Trees dripping with fungus and moisture. Then the smell hits. I’m glad I skipped the unicorn. Geryon doesn’t turn around.

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