Chapter 1: The Hall of Souls
~~ Some notes on mortality ~~
If just one more person asks me for hug I think I’m gonna scream. It’s bad enough being trapped in this corporeal meat sack twenty-four-seven without having to endure the sheer nastiness of all that physical contact. I mean, don’t you humans realise how bad you smell? Even after you bathe you still stink of mortality. It’s...nauseating. And why you wanna foist yourselves on each other a thousand times a day is a complete mystery to me. I can smell myself right now. Why on Earth would I wanna get close enough to smell the rest of you as well?
And all those bodily functions!
I don’t even want to talk about the stuff comes out of my lower orifices. Euw! It makes my skin crawl just to think about it. I suppose you’re used to it. Personally it makes me wanna chuck. Oh, and that ‘skin-crawly’ thing...not a big fan of that sensation either. I tell you, the whole plethora of physical sensations that you have to endure is just, well, they’re just not natural!
In retrospect, I suppose coming to the AA meeting was a bad idea. All these sweaty, nervous people jammed in a small room in the local community centre. Confessions, recriminations, tears and the inevitable round of incessant hugging. I’m sure it has value and I’m sure it helps. I’m just not sure it’s the right thing for me. Not to mention the smell – indescribable. But it keeps me out of jail. At least for the time being.
And it’s given me an idea.
~~ An apology – of sorts! ~~
Okay – perhaps I should start with something a little less vitriolic. Say an introduction perhaps?
My name is Valefar and I specialise in stealing. You name it and I’ll steal it – or rather I’ll tempt someone else to steal it for me. That’s my forte you see, thievery and its encouragement. At least it used to be. I’m one of the Dukes of Hell...In case you hadn’t guessed.
And if you hadn’t then – Erm, “Hello people!”
You really need to pay more attention to what’s going on in this world of yours because I’m here to tell you – All hell is breaking loose on the mortal plane and if you’re not careful you’re gonna be in for a very very bad time.
Now, sadly that could prove to be my fault. Though I’m gonna take the fifth on that one for the time being. You have no idea how much trouble I could be in should it turn out to be true. You see interference in the mortal plain is allowed. In fact it’s positively encouraged. I mean, how can the great battle continue without the interference of both sides in mortal affairs?
Active participation however?
Well, that’s a different matter entirely. That can be punished. And I’m not talking about immediate cessation of chocolate rations here. Oh no. I’m talking oblivion – and not the nice one. Not the one where you just cease to exist.
You humans think Hell is scary? You should see where they put us if we break the rules!
And if my suspicions are correct; and they usually are, then I may have broken the biggest rule of all. That means one of two things.
~~ The options ~~
1. Oblivion – see above.
2. Continued mortality – see below.
~~ Critique of ‘The options’ ~~
Now don’t get me wrong, almost anything’s better than oblivion. I think I may have mentioned that before – or at least alluded to it. But continued mortality is not something that fills me with the desire to run around waving my arms in the air screaming ‘Wheee – I’m so happy I could dance forever.’ On the contrary, the thought of it makes me wanna run around waving my arms in the air screaming ‘Argh! Get me outta here before I go stark raving mad!’
I hope you can appreciate my dilemma.
Still, despite my clear objections to the state, mortality does have some advantages. Not many, granted, but enough to provide me with sufficient distractions. For example, let’s take my favourite pastime. Stealing.
Now, believe it or not, there’s not much worth stealing in Hell. And to be honest, those things that you can steal are usually not worth the effort. Add to this the fact that stealing any of the few really desirable items will virtually guarantee you an eternity in that very special brand of oblivion I spoke of earlier and you should pretty soon reach the obvious conclusion. As Duke of Hell in charge of theft I lead a fairly vicarious existence.
So being on the mortal plane, and actually being able to steal stuff myself is pretty much like a holiday. Trouble is I keep getting caught. You see I also like drinking – a lot. My parole officer says it’s my biggest problem after the compulsive stealing and my tendency for self-destruction. In fact he’s convinced that ‘alcoholic’ ranks just below ‘sociopath’ on the list of my Top Ten problems. He’s a real positive kinda guy is Matt – we get on great. He tells me what he thinks of me by day and I’m secretly doing his girlfriend by night. It’s a dynamic I can handle, I don’t have to like him and he appreciates that.
The upshot is that my stealing, though fun, is most definitely in the realm of the ill conceived and might reasonably be referred to as amateur. I break in – drunk as usual – steal stuff and get caught. I’ve managed to get the whole process down to an even five minutes. And the police thank me for it. I help to make their statistics look good and I seldom give them too much trouble. Okay – the incident with the WWII grenade got a little heated. But what was it doing in that safe deposit box anyway? It’s not like I brought it with me!
The AA meetings are, therefore, the latest in a long line of rehabilitation exercises designed to help me overcome my criminal tendencies. The assumption, pathetically inaccurate though it is, is that I steal because I am drunk. And they actually pay people to come up with these ideas! Never the less, if I show up I stay out of jail. And since jail has fewer things worth stealing than Hell, I come to the meetings. But really I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s time for a history lesson.
My first real attempt at actual stealing was probably my biggest mistake.
~~ A brief history of stupidity ~~
It was shiny.
So very, very shiny.
I couldn’t resist.
I reached out and took it.
~~ Software ~~
I swear to you there was a sign that said “Back in 5 minutes”. It was just hanging there on the door of the Hall of Souls. Well, when I say hanging there what I actually mean is that it was written in letters of flame six feet high. They hovered, just in front of the door, and they wavered slightly from side to side. Occasionally one of the letters would dim momentarily only to burst back into brilliance with a bright pop. It was pretty impressive, if you’re easily impressed and like that sort of thing. It was also very curious. For the first time in living memory the Hall of Souls was unguarded. That was a very long time indeed. A very, very long time.
I waited. Five minutes passed – then another five. Then a week.
Still the sign made it’s now wholly inaccurate claim. And still the door remained unguarded. My curiosity could take it no longer. In fact my curiosity was already through the door and making itself at home. It had redecorated and was currently looking at soft furnishings in a trade catalogue. My curiosity was never one to think twice – sometimes even once was too much. But my courage took a little while to catch up. About a week actually.
Looking back I’m surprised at how easy it was. The door swung open on silent hinges that must have been oiled to perfection. There was a strange satisfaction to the feel of the door as I pushed against it and set it in motion. Once moving, its momentum did the rest. I smiled and stepped neatly over the threshold. Turning quickly on my heels, I stuck my head back out and, after a brief glance in both directions, closed the door behind me. My curiosity put down the catalogue. There were other, more interesting things to see now.
Now, as I’ve been careful to point out already, my main responsibility is to tempt people to steal. And it has its moments believe me. There is something almost exquisitely satisfying in the corruption of mortals. A gratification that, from my point of view, could only be enhanced by the sure and certain knowledge that they know how much celestial trouble they are getting themselves into. Sadly, most are too stupid to realise; and those that do, tend to be disappointingly stoic about the whole thing. But up until the point that the door closed behind me, and I turned to see the wonders contained in The Hall of Souls, I’d never actually done any stealing myself. There is a perfectly good reason for this – as follows.
One of my other responsibilities is to punish thieves when they get caught. Oh yes! Hell is not without a sense or irony from time to time. First I dangle the carrot and then I beat them with the big stick it’s attached to.
Call it karma if you wish...I just call it a day’s work.
Being judge, jury and executioner for the wayward thief therefore, I have more than just a passing familiarity with the rules. In fact I think it’s fair to say that I wrote the book. Not literally you understand - it’s a figure of speech. There is no book. This means, of course, that there are no objections, no precedents and absolutely no appeals: though I have been known to allow a little quid pro quo from time to time - if the offer was appealing enough. But appealing offers are rare. There’s seldom much that interests me more than the punishment I’m about to administer.
I suppose I should take a moment at this juncture to make something clear. It’s not just mortal thieves that fall under the scope of my purview. Oh no! I get to punish thieves both foreign and domestic. Angels, demons and a whole host of celestial beasts also come before me if they’re stupid enough to get caught breaking the rules. As I said, I’d never actually done any stealing myself – I knew all too well what would happen if I got caught.
But there I was. Three steps further into The Hall of Souls than anyone was allowed to be and no one knew I was there. I tell you – it gave me the most delicious tingly feeling.
Now the best analogy I can use to describe a soul is to say that it’s like software. Your body – the physical bits that make up who and what you are is the hardware. Your soul, the spark that animates your body, is the software. Okay – it doesn’t get installed in quite the same way as software on a computer, but as analogies go it works well. If you disagree – tough!
All souls start out in The Hall of Souls where they simply drift around. It’s a big place; it has to be, it contains all of the souls that there will ever be. As I stood there, wide eyed in wonderment, I couldn’t actually see the far side of the room. To either side of me, the walls seemed to stretch out forever and the roof, if there was one, lay beyond my perception. Oh yeah, this was one big room. And it smelled funny.
The souls were all around me. They looked like nebulous globes. They glowed faintly, for the most part, and some were brighter than others. Mostly they just drifted. Occasionally one would disappear with a faint popping sound. That’s how it works. When they’re needed, when a new mortal creature is born, one of the globes blinks out of existence and reappears in a body. There really is nothing more complicated about it. Nothing, that is, unless you get a hitch-hiker.
~~ Thermodynamics of transference. ~~
It’s cold in between...and dark. And, like the Hall of Souls, it smells funny. But the void also has a taste. It’s the taste of mortality; kinda metallic - with a gritty texture.
Not exactly unpleasant, just...odd.
Not at all what I expected. But then I never supposed I’d be travelling the void...so I didn’t really have any expectations!
~~ The maternity ward ~~
I’m not really a morning person. That whole transition from sleep to wakefulness just sits ill with me. I’m grumpy, I usually have a hangover and lately I’m increasingly unfamiliar with my location. Waking up is bad enough. Waking up somewhere unfamiliar is worse.
But worst of all is waking up to find yourself suspended by your ankles, in an unfamiliar location, as someone smacks the shit out of you. That’s enough to make you cry.
It did! Which I later discovered was the whole point.
At the time it just seemed cruel and unusual. But at the time I was very disoriented. Being born does that to you. It’s unsettling and violent and it makes you cry. I’m told that mortals don’t tend to remember much about their birth. You should take some comfort from that. I wish I could forget. Hell, I wish I’d never been born. But I’d rather not go into that now. It was done and I couldn’t immediately undo it. At the time I just wanted them to stop hitting me. When they finally did a though suddenly occurred to me.
I’m in so much trouble.
It took a moment to realise exactly what had happened. It took slightly less time to realise the consequences. And by the time I was ninety-four seconds old I’d already formulated my first plan as a mortal.
I was going to hide until it all blew over.
And the best place to hide was here. Strangely enough, the one place I thought I really didn’t want to be was the place where I would be safest. I had a soul now – okay, I shared a soul...it’s complicated but bear with me I will explain it all soon – and that gave me some protection. Like stealing, there were rules. The rules were protecting me for now. I needed to make sure they kept on doing that. I needed to keep my head down. In short, I needed to stay mortal until I could work out how to fix this.
~~ A nought-year-old’s ‘To Do’ list ~~
4. Avoid detection by agents of Infernal Affairs
5. Repeat as necessary
~~ Mind the gap ~~
So - there I was, standing in The Hall of Souls with temptation on one shoulder and enticement on the other and a big smile on my stupid face. I was totally mesmerised, and I knew I was about to do something dumb. In the back of my mind a small voice was telling me to take a good long look around and then get out as quickly as I could – faster if possible. I should most definitely...most definitely not, it was saying, touch anything. Small voices annoy me. Accordingly I tend to ignore them. I was just about to tell this small voice what it could do with its advice when...
...suddenly, there it was - the brightest, most beautiful globe of all. It hovered, tantalisingly right in front of me. Had there been words printed on it they would have been words of encouragement. They would undoubtedly have read – Go on! Take me. You know you want to.
It was shiny.
So very, very shiny.
I couldn’t resist.
I reached out and took it.
Of course I now realise that it was so shiny because it was about to cross the void. It was ‘next in line’ so to speak. It would have been good to have known that in advance. Some kind of warning sign might be in order, or a claxon that goes off when a soul is about to depart, or better still an announcement like the one they have on the underground in London – some kind of variation on ‘Mind the Gap’ only more appropriate to the situation. I think I’ll suggest that...if I ever get back to Hell.
As my hand closed around it I heard once again that faint but distinct popping sound that I had noticed occasionally punctuated the silence in the hall. Everything went dark. A gritty, metallic taste scraped across my tongue.
Bugger! I thought.
Someone slapped my backside. I started to cry.
That was 32 years ago.