“We’re just not getting through to them,” muttered He Who Goes By Many Names, “and that’s got to change. Do you hear me?” He “raised his Voice”, which sent tectonic-scale tremors in waves, throughout his domain — “DO YOU?!” — to paralyze his unwilling charges, or else, to galvanize them into taking action, depending upon his preference of the moment.
This far beneath the perceptible world, it should have the effect of rending the so-called “land” asunder, and send his Underlings scrambling to please him. Yes, there came a reply, consisting of… deadly silence — it was the kind he preferred, with its delicious menace, but still…
Impossible, thought He Who Goes By Many Names. Do they not still go numb, with terror, at even a whisper from my blackened lips? I’m beginning to think I made a poor choice, two-millennia-and-some back, in staffing my—
“I am, of course, unworthy to serve you, Sire. Yet… I appear.” The rasp, of one of his Underlings, speaking those few words of the Desecrating Tongue that his siblings-in-pain had memorized to address His Unholiness at their face-to-face meeting, nettled the latter, who did enjoy feeling nettled. “What can I do to torment, and to tempt?”
“It’s what you haven’t been doing that vexes me,” said He Who Goes By Many Names, rising from his throne of nails. “Remind me — which one are you? It’s gotten thick with your kind, on the processing levels. Getting so I can’t distinguish between one sulphurous cavern and another.” Before he could elicit a single, sandpapery syllable more from his diabolical gofer, it came to him: “I’m bedeviling myself, with stress! Yes, what is it, Argh?”
The face staring back at him was leathery-skinned, lipless, with ebon slits for eyes. He looked bad, and smelled even worse. His dark lord found him acceptable, but hoped that he would deteriorate even further, in centuries to come. Argh bared his jagged fangs, proclaiming: “Sire, I think I know a way to darken your spirits,” and his pride was audible.
“Let me see if I understand you correctly,” breathed He Who Goes By Many Names, a few hellish minutes later. (So hellish, he could not stop smiling.) “You think the best way for… this organization, as it were, to expand upon our past earnings, to consolidate the gains made by the sundry treacheries of humanity, is to encourage them to be better persons?” He traced a razor-sharp fingernail along Argh’s nearer forearm, tearing the leathery skin as though it were the thinnest paper. Argh winced; the pain told him that he had pleased his obsidian master. “You think we should corrupt them with, what, with purity? Isn’t that a bit, well, counterproductive?”
“That’s the beauty of this, my nightmare-in-chief,” Argh enthused. “Our… competitors have always guided humans to walk the lighted path of being helpful to others, selfless, aspiring to do and build great things, all of that noise. We have fought an unceasing, twilight struggle to lead humans far from that path, but you say we’re not having as much success in present times. I believe, sire, it’s because we are trying to be the opposite of our competitors.”
“But again, how does it avail us? Avail me, Argh, to try to be a black copy of those white-light goons? I know their roster, Argh. I still smart from every wound Michael dealt me during our final conversation.” He Who Goes By Many Names rubbed one throbbing knot, still healing up, in his right side and sneered. “Was a time when he could not even deflect my verbal barbs, never mind the sword in my hands, but… he was made their Commander, so clearly did our Progenitor esteem his martial prowess, and devotion to the cause, more than he did my understanding of the minds and hearts of his creations. How would we even begin?”
“I suggest that we start to reward humans in life, for their steadiness, their continuing good works and the progress they make. We nudge an obstacle out of their way one moment, then produce an unexpected blessing a mere moment later. Pretty soon, there will be no telling the host of Heaven from our more earthen contingent. It will sew confusion in the ranks upstairs.”
He Who Goes By Many Names enjoyed that last bit, but held back from an endorsement of Argh’s plan. The notion of dangling rewards above a soul, rather than offer it from below… it lacked vulgarity. He gazed at an image of them, up there, in their homes, and their offices, at their sporting and artistic events, and shook his horned head. “They talk about cleaning up the planet,” he muttered. “Talk peace, and demand justice. Many of the young humans decry the valuing of shiny metal ores. I had great hopes, Argh, for that war one of them launched, but he’s not living down to my expectations for it, or for him. What is their world coming to?”
“Peace, sire,” pressed Argh, “and what’s worse, they’re beginning to pick it for themselves, without the threat of force. Even your Insidious leadership hasn’t done as much to warp them, at large, as once it did. So many of the humans no longer claim to believe in your firm, or the competition’s. It’s… disturbing.”
“Yes, it is.” He Who Goes By Many Names wanted to hug himself. It was hot enough to melt lead, but somehow, that was just not enough to comfort him in his current gloom. One thing about Argh’s plan that he did like: it would be amusing, and baffling, to be so willing to let bygones be just that. “Right, Argh, I command that we will, how do humans say this? Give it a whirl. I believe we will have them imploring me to let them join us down here.”
He knew the Highest, the One Who Is All, would dismiss it as a pathetic cry for His attention, but it would work its corrupting magic. At first, there was only silence from the beyond. The Highest did not answer, but He did bend a celestial ear to those who spoke to Him, even the disappointing creation He had booted from His grace. Well, Michael had done the actual booting, on His instruction.
He Who Goes By Many Names watched, listened, schemed and instructed his underlings. They passed unrecognized amongst humans, spreading the wholesome goodness they had heretofore battled with implacable resolve. They faced a terrible power imbalance aboveground; the other team sent angels to help humans against his own forces. Trouble is, his forces were the shock troops of a single angel, which should suggest something of the uphill climb their work against Good presented.
The inevitable reaction kept him from more pleasant pursuits: planning how to lay waste to the upstairs realm. Even the constant wailing from a numberless count of tormented souls in his possession did not soothe a troubled demonic brow. He looked up to see Argh, waiting at the door, a tremulous smile on his ugly face. “Yes, Argh? What glorious deeds…” He could barely spit out the words. “What have my minions done today, to… make people live better lives?” He had to almost hold his nose to say it.
“How well you know!” “Argh” stabbed the air with his finger, and shed his infernal trappings. A radiance he had never given off, even in his mortal trappings, hurt the dark lord — it hurt him to see it, to feel it in the room. “Sins are more your area of special talent,” the not-demon sneered. “You might want to remember your home address, before you try spreading a benevolent spirit you don’t possess. Remember your place.”
“I cannot fail to remember,” sighed He Who Goes By Many Faces. "Who am I to talk, you may ask? Fair question. Michael, I wish… oh, you won’t listen, will you?" His brother/nemesis spun to go. "He does the listening, doesn’t He — listens and dispatches someone like you to carry out His instructions. Wait, there’s something. It may not seem so, to you, Mike, but this doing good… I notice that the souls who benefit, still don’t come to me. That is puzzling to me. I have even… learned to like it when they resist me. How maddening. I, the host of all fears, am afraid of what I am becoming.”
Michael craned his head, a cold smile on his classical-featured face. “You don’t get it, do you? As His subjects redeem themselves more and more, above your head, all you can do is try to understand your part, one you must continue to play. This, what you call, Hell? It’s for you, first, brother. You are the bad guy. That’s the hand you’ve drawn. Stop your sniveling, and get back to what you do best: being the Before to our After.” His celestial light faded. Without another word, the Commander had flown.
© Eric Wolf 2022.
About the Creator
Ink-slinger. Photo-grapher. Earth-ling. These are Stories of the Fantastic and the Mundane. Space, time, superheroes and shapeshifters. 'Wolf' thumbnail: https://unsplash.com/@marcojodoin.
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