When Avalynn had told me she was taking me to a 'gateway', I had assumed it was a gate figuratively speaking, something magical that could get me out of the Underworld. I was wrong. It was, quite precisely, a gateway.
"Whose castle is this?" I asked, as I followed her through the frontyard.
She didn't answer me.
And I didn't press for an answer. I just kept silent. And then I began to wonder why, as I eyed the statues and plants. Was I losing my edge? I bit my lip.
They were angels, cut of a dull, grey stone. Each had four wings and a spear. Some men, some women. They were posed like guards, amidst the rosebushes. Faces of youth with glass eyes piercing to kill, always seeming to follow us. But as we neared the castle, their expressions were less stoic, making faces at us. Silly faces. Like gargoyles. One was riding its spear like a witch on a broom. Another was carved in mid-swing around hers, as if it were a pole at a burlesque theatre.
As the statues became more outrageous, I began to fear what was behind the castle doors that now loomed before us. Thus, I paid little attention to the doors themselves.
From the shadow of the doorframe, stepped a small, bearded man with horns growing from his forehead and hair that grew thick and black in many points veering away from a bald spot, where I could not bring myself to look closely because it seemed to expose his very brain.
That should not have troubled me. Perhaps because it was alive. I was much more comfortable with exposed innards once the person was dead.
"Greetings," said the demon, with a jump into the air. He was three feet tall, and wore a cracked pair of half-spectacles. In his hairy, grimey hands, he was clutching a leather purse. When he had jumped, I could hear coins jingle there.
I had to look away, as he stood to block Avalynn from the door handles. He was ugly. Too ugly. There was a throbbing wart upon his nose, and I was terribly afraid he'd want me to shake his hand.
"It is I, Avalynn," said Avalynn. "I came in this way. Don't make me pay again. I'll have none of your tricks."
He grinned, exposing plaque-covered yellow buckteeth, and frightenlingly pale gums from which tiny black hairs bristled. I looked away again, at the sight of the centipede crawling along the shoulder of his slim, brown business jacket that ran down to his knees. "He has to pay, not you."
"He's dead!" protested Avalynn.
"He doesn't look dead," said the demon.
"He's fresh," said Avalynn, "but quite dead, I assure you, paymaster."
"Doesn't mean I can let him in," said the demon. "He's not in my master's employ."
"Good riddance!" cried Avalynn. "I'm not dumb enough to steal one of ol' Lucy's slaves!"
"Slaves!? Please, we are above such-"
"You don't pay them, Melchom." Avalynn put her hands on her hips.
He shook his head, then tilted it briefly in my direction. "The man must pay."
"Whose castle is this?" I asked.
The demon snorted. "Does this dead-brain know a damn thing?"
I was now glad I was not the only one capable of making her angry outside of battle.
Her pale face reddened surprisingly. "Look, Melchom, my employer is waiting in an anteroom upstairs. Either you let both of us in, or I'll magic your tail off!"
The demon looked at me. "This is Miss Fair's Castle. Back entrance. Most people come in through the front, but I guess Miss Lavender Spectacular here didn't want to drag you through town."
"Town?" I asked.
Avalynn grimaced. "I would've, to make a killing off selling that y'know-whut."
"Oooh!" exclaimed Melchom with a jump into the air and a flurry of his wings. "Are you trafficking something into my mistress's castle?"
"Other than an unchained dead soul? No. Sorry to disappoint you. Now, step aside!"
The paymaster scowled at us as menacingly as he could, and thrust his purse open. It immediately began to suck air in like a vacuum. "Got any pounds? Or any money from the New World? I really fancy some gold from those Americas."
In a swift movement, Avalynn grabbed the demon by the thick hair on the back of his head, and thrust his head into his own purse.
He uprighted himself, the purse stuck there as it tried to suck him in.
With a kick from Avalynn, he was sent spinning into the left door panel, knocking his head against it. Rupees, pesos and dollars began to slip out but were then sucked in with greater force. The demon now seemed headless, with an open bag sucking against the stub of his neck. He ran off, arms flailing, sideways along the cobbled path and along the grass until, after nearly getting tangled in a rosebush, he ran hard into the back of a stone statue of a depraved seraph trying to swallow its spear.
I was laughing. Actually laughing. In this abysmally depressing place, I was chortling with glee.
Where he had fallen, the demon struggled to pry its greedy purse off its head and neck.
"I'm surprised you are capable of laughter here in Hell," said Avalynn. " I'm not even dead, and even I can't reach such a mood here."
"Maybe it's the ambrosia?" I suggested in a whisper, not wanting to let Melchom hear us.
"Perhaps," she said tersely, turning her attention to the handles of the doors.
They were woven together not by a chain or lock, but by a snake. The most of it was as thick as my thigh.
"Is it alive?" I asked.
Avalynn frowned, without answering my question. "She wasn't here when I left the castle."
"Its eyes are closed. I thought snakes slept with their eyes open."
"She's not a snake," said Avalynn, backing away from it. She had a tiny book out from inside her cloak, and was flipping through the pages maddeningly fast.
I put my hand almost against it. "She's giving off heat. Snakes are cold-blooded."
"This snake is an illusion. Not her true form. She is woman's predecessor. Adam's first wife. Temptress of Eve."
"Lilith!" I exclaimed.
Its eyes flung open.