A Trick of Light
by Hamilton Perez
Issue 7: Horror | 2,805 words
© Kaselmeyk/Adobe Stock
It’s not like you could blame the demons or the damned. Between the castles made of kidney stones, the squirming pool of faithless spouses, the human teeth piled into long, rolling hills, Hell has little room for saints or good Samaritans. That was always the first thing they taught you in the Nine Circles, but Eligor was beginning to wonder.
His days were spent auditing the complicated pain-yields of tormentors, and lately, he found himself distracted. He’d gazed over the angry tops of the Molar Mountains, past the fire and the smoke, into the wide-open valley of the Shadow of Death, and feel a pang of longing for such a cold, dark place.
Without end… That was the most essential part of Hell’s creation, everyone knew. If Hell had no end, then Hell had no borders. This meant everything, in some way, connected back to Hell. It seemed like sound logic, but this was a place where rivers flowed into themselves.
Eligor didn’t want to be here. None of them did, probably, but the damned couldn’t very well torture themselves. Actually, he reflected, they could. His presence in the Nine Circles was demanded, nonetheless.
Before him, Alastor cranked the winch, grinning madly. Alastor took pleasure in his work—possibly because he blamed the damned for his own place in damnation. The human soul tied and stretched over the plank squirmed pathetically, moaning.
“I hear ya,” Eligor murmured, etching another symbol into his clay tablet. Paper and pen would be more convenient, but Hell is a place of tradition, so clay tablets it was. Once registered, the damned would receive a detailed receipt of their torments and sins.
Hell is also a place of accounting.
Eligor let his mind wander while he worked. Without end… The thought spread like a fog over everything else. Anyone could make a run for it, of course—it was almost encouraged. Demons love a good chase, and to get past the hounds and hordes, beyond the whistles, whips, and woes—that would require something more than fast legs, no matter how many you had.
“Worm piss!” Alastor’s guttural voice cut in. Eligor snapped to attention. “Well, is that it? Are we done yet? My arm’s getting tired!”
“Ah, hmm…” Eligor tallied up the day’s work. “Ah, yes!” he declared and gulped. “We’re actually over by about two screams and a moan.”
“Over! Well, it’s coming out of your skin, not mine! I’m going home.” Alastor spit at Eligor’s feet as he left.
Without end…, thought Eligor passively.
Hell has one other secret that he’d figured out: nobody likes each other. That, on its own, wasn’t such a secret. In fact, it was sort of the go-to complaint for the crumbling Hellscape infrastructure. The real secret was that if the enemy of one’s enemy is your friend, then everyone was an ally in waiting.
The imps delighted in mischief, they just needed a bit of guiding. Gorgons would work with anyone in their fight against the fine-winged Furies. And the marching hordes that patrolled the Nine Circles loved violent uprisings even more than they loved runners. And they did truly, hungrily love their runners.
“Are you going to take me down from here?” asked the poor soul stretched before him.
“Sorry,” said Eligor, turning his back. “I have work to do.”
A pilfered tail feather here, a bruised ego there. Soon, talons and swords spilled demon blood across the brimstone, and the marching hordes abandoned their posts to squash the latest insurgence. Just outside the conflagration, the Sowers of Discord fanned the flames, while the pale, pruning demon that started it all crept past the Molten Gates and into the dark valley below.
Eligor braved the burning bridges. He crept the carapace canals. He pressed on through shadow and smoke and the craggy land that closed in around him tighter and tighter like a cave mouth—or just a mouth, he feared. Eligor ran without stopping, into black ruin and beyond, until he found himself slinking through street gutters, drainpipes, and mouse holes.
He emerged in a house, warm and well lit. That would be a problem. But from the shadow behind the couch, he could see the portal—the vessel—that would allow his full escape, and he thanked whatever cruel god hadn’t snatched this away from him yet. There was hope—the possibility of change—with all the magic of maybe and perhaps, and for a demon raised in Salt-Water Squalor, that wasn’t a thing to slough off.
He wasn’t free yet, though. He’d only found the way. There was still much work to do, and he could only pass through shadows to get to the vessel that would allow his escape. Not until she dripped with fear could he fully materialize, and it took finesse to properly terrorize a mortal. If successful, he would be free to roam this side of creation and never see Hell’s chewing castles or floating fornicators again.
Eligor recognized her predicament immediately—after all, Hell is the home of broken hearts. It’s fair to say he pitied her. He’d seen firsthand what heartache looks like to the soul. Those grinding gears, wet with dark fluids, tearing pitilessly against the heart’s inner walls. Those feelings would do him no good here. It was best not to think of her as a person.
She’s just a portal, he reminded himself. She’s my way out.
The birthing process was never meant to be easy for anyone.
Elizabeth drained the last of the beer, which had grown warm and bitter in her hand. Her finger idly circled the bottle’s wet lip. All the boxes and plastic-wrapped furniture had been moved into the house. The truck and driver were gone. Now she was just alone in that place, licking her wounds after another failed relationship and praying the Damned would give her the night off.
She sat on the cellophane-wrapped couch, contemplating another beer from the pack she’d bought to entice the driver into staying. He’d been too smart for that, though. Knew better than to trust the kindness of strangers, or the flirty touch of a woman too eager to invite him into her home. Some people just have a sense for these things, she lamented. Good for him.
Outside, a neighborhood cat meandered between shrubs, stepping on browning begonias, looking for mice. Elizabeth watched through the window, feeling she could relate.
This quiet wouldn’t last. She knew it with the same calm certainty as she knew she would someday die. She didn’t know why they came, or what they wanted—aside from scaring the shit out of her. She didn’t know much, really. Nature abhors a vacuum, and apparently, so does Hell.
Perhaps a maniacal laugh would chase her out of dreams and into her bed, making small waves in the sheets. Maybe their hot breath would brush her neck while she undressed. Elizabeth was ever haunted by the possibility of maybe and perhaps.
No one believed her growing up, not her parents, not her brothers, not her friends. Mostly, she kept her experiences to herself, but over the years, she’d sought out countless experts of the paranormal, looking for answers.
Ultimately, she found the palm readers were liars, the witches were more interested in prayer circles than spells, and the priest told her in a condescending tone that demons only trouble troubled people.
“Is that so?” she’d said, wiping an imaginary fleck from her eye with her middle finger.
At the end of it all, the only thing she really knew was they knew less than she.
She got up for another beer, and as she passed the hall, the light of the master bedroom blinked off. Elizabeth stopped dead. There was, after all, one other thing she knew: demons first hint at their presence. That’s how it always starts.
Elizabeth told herself the bulb just went out, a common enough occurrence. A frequent point of argument with Matthew, her very recent ex, had been that she kept the lights on in every room. He never did learn why.
Poor Matthew. He deserved better than what she gave him. Elizabeth didn’t know why she did it, chased them away only to catch them again. Maybe, after years of torment and terror, she just bored easy.
From one of the opened boxes scattered about the living room, she found a fresh bulb and walked it slowly down the hall. Her steps were deliberate and soft. She held her breath, afraid of what might hear her. Elizabeth knew better than to disturb calm waters.
Just outside the bedroom, she stopped. The room was still as alien to her as the rest of the house. The sight of the dead bulb hanging from the ceiling by wire and chain made her think of swinging nooses.
It was just five steps. She’d already counted.
Her hand searched the wall for the switch, praying she wouldn’t find a clawed hand waiting in the dark to catch her. She touched something hard and angular and jumped. It was only the light switch, she realized. The bulb had died after all. Nothing to be afraid of, she told herself. She stepped inside, moving quieter than dead mice. Elizabeth was almost to the bulb when she heard a voice:
For Eligor, the unlit room was full of opportunity. Elizabeth was half in, half out, searching the wall with her hand while her wide eyes searched the dark. She was trying to be quiet as she passed the threshold, and it felt to Eligor like a good time to be encouraging.
He could see her flesh prickle under his hushed tone. She just stood there, helpless and shivering, making him stronger. Eligor’s clawed hands materialized out of thin air. His scarred face breached the cool surface. He nearly collapsed in relief.
Then, to Eligor’s chagrin, Elizabeth reached up to unscrew the bulb. She was more resilient than he’d expected. Perhaps too many demons had gotten to her; she’d become accustomed to their games and knew she was safe in the hallway light that spilled into the room.
Eligor, however, had already bested the fiery quagmires and depraved denizens of Hell. The hardest part was so far behind him; he almost forgot the smell of sulfur and burning flesh. He was confident he could get under her skin.
As Elizabeth went to install the fresh bulb, he came up behind her and knocked it from her hand. She startled and turned sharp, but found no one.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she said, and as Eligor’s right hand disappeared, he realized this would be more difficult than he’d hoped.
The quiet only lasted a moment. Skittering feet echoed down the hall, followed by a slamming door somewhere in the house. Elizabeth recognized the scare tactics. She knew them well, had used them herself, too. There was something intimate about it all, not that anyone else could see it. Certainly not Matthew. The demon was isolating her, claiming the rest of the house so that she was trapped. What could be more intimate?
Elizabeth shifted on her feet, her shoes brushing against the bulb. The demon was preoccupied. She could change the bulb before it returned, then reclaim the house, room by room. But something inside her grumbled like an empty stomach. She was indeed afraid—afraid of what she really hungered for. Elizabeth stepped from the bulb. She stood firm, waiting for the demon to come for her.
There was a time when she wondered, Why me? and cursed herself for being born this way, for being a portal to their dark needs. They would come at night, use her, haunt her, terrorize, until her fear was so potent they birthed right in front of her—her unholy, unwanted children, free to creep across creation.
All through growing up she told herself she couldn’t fight back. She could only hide in the light until even that abandoned her. Then things turned around.
She adjusted, mostly.
Glass shattered in another room. Out the sliding door behind her, she saw the light from the kitchen blink off, and then, Click! The hallway light died, leaving her blind. The bedroom door slammed shut, shaking the walls like an exclamation that said: You’re alone in the dark!
Thinking quickly, Elizabeth fumbled for the remote hanging off the side of the bed. Click. Click. Click. The television flashed on, casting the room in pale blue light. That would limit the demon’s movement.
On the screen, a comedian chuckled at his own jokes. The audience went wild. In the midst of their clamor, the demon giggled in her ear, so close she tasted the decay on its breath.
Elizabeth flinched and swatted at air. The fear scraped up her spine like a dirty needle searching for a vein. Dropping to the floor, she splayed out her arms until her hand brushed against the bulb. She jumped to her feet, set the bulb in the socket, and turned it as fast as her quivering hands allowed.
Just as the light began to flower—
Click. The light-switch went down.
Eligor couldn’t let her take back the room. Not if he hoped to escape Hell with his skin—or without it, for that matter. Already, he could hear the crack of fire and whips growing closer. The marching hordes were on his trail; he was running out of time. Elizabeth was positively bristling with fear, the beads of perspiration across her body making him tingle. He was so close. He could feel it, could feel his body pushing near.
In spite of her terror, Elizabeth bolted for the switch. Eligor had to move fast to stop her. He did not come this far to be rebuffed by a mere mortal. The games weren’t working; he needed to throw everything he had at her.
Before she reached the wall, he phased across the room, grabbed the television, and launched it her direction. The laughter died as the screen—and the rest of the room—went black.
Have I let it go too far? she asked herself as the television splashed against the wall, mere inches from her face. Elizabeth always asked this. She asked because she enjoyed the terrible possibility of a Yes.
Her hand searched the wall for the switch, and she gasped relief when she found it. But the switch resisted going up. She pushed and it pulled from the wall. A clawed hand gripped hers, twisted it, and threw her against the wall so that the switch now poked her in the ribs. Elizabeth cried out in pain. She’d let him become too powerful. She pressed her back against the switch as hard as she could and rose onto the balls of her feet.
Light flashed. Sparks rained from the ceiling.
Before the darkness could take her, Elizabeth saw two lidless eyes and a wide grin—all teeth. The body was pale and pruning, like a corpse pulled from a river. Its arms were open and trembling, waiting to embrace her. Elizabeth reeled back her right arm and swung with all her might, just as the room turned black. There came a hard, satisfying crunch.
Then silence in the dark.
Bending down, Elizabeth reached toward the head of the fallen body. She hit it again, wetting her hands. There was no laughter now. Her whole body was trembling with fear, excitement. She was electric—alive. She struck again. And again. She wanted to scream, but she didn’t want the neighbors to hear, so she bit her lip and hit it again.
The demon thumped lifelessly beneath her—again, again, again—until Elizabeth collapsed in exhausted relief and grinned.
In her spot in the woods, surrounded by dozens of unmarked graves, she dug. Where do demons go when they die? she wondered still. Was it the same place as people? They never did tell her. Elizabeth looked to the fresh, upturned soil of the mound beside her. She still missed Matthew.
She’d promised him the world but gave him to the earth instead. There were just too many secrets, too many locked doors to her heart. He wanted to explore her inky alleyways, to probe her warm darkness. She was always a firm wall, until she wasn’t. “Okay,” she’d finally said and sent him running. Matthew deserved better. This she knew.
But this was her life. She’d accepted it. She’d adjusted.
Elizabeth finished the ugly work, her body glistening with sweat and raw earth. The woods around her, normally full of hoots and howls, were unnaturally quiet. She wasn’t alone, but she was never alone.
As Elizabeth pat down the grave, she smiled at the glinting pairs, trios, and quintuplets of eyes watching her from the dark, afraid.
Hamilton Perez is a writer, freelance editor, and aspiring creature from the black lagoon. His stories have appeared in Mad Scientist Journal, Metaphorosis, and The Dark, and he is an associate editor at Podcastle.