Content Note: Threat of Sexual Assault, Casual Violence
“Ooh, let me show you the pictures.” Bayzoth the demon scrolls through his cell phone and holds it out with pride, raising his voice over the noise of the party. “She was the runt of the litter—only two heads—but she’s just the sweetest floof.”
“Awwww,” Asphos croons appreciatively. “No pets for me, but here’s a picture of an amazing sandwich I made using some leftover crispy skin from the hot oil pits.”
Bayzoth waves a dozen people through the entrance, freshly damned souls by the look of them, still cowering and blinking in confusion, stumbling a little. Unlike an ordinary bouncer, Bayzoth’s job is to bring in as many partygoers as possible. So far, that has not been a problem. Steady streams of the condemned flow past him, and whenever it seems to be getting crowded inside, the venue expands: another floor of the club opens, another balcony appears, doors materialize in walls and lead to captivating new rooms. Every once in a while, someone balks and tries to turn away before they enter, or some of the humans inside make a valiant attempt to escape the party, and then Bayzoth has to step in with a touch of mind control to keep them there. “You still work over in the burning and boiling circle?” he asks Asphos.
“Only part-time,” she says with a shrug, stirring her drink. “It’s pretty dead over there. No pun intended, haha. Not like over here. This place is where it’s happening.”
It’s true; the newest circle of hell is a sensation. The damned have been flocking to it in droves, eschewing old standbys like fire and brimstone, the skinning racks, the scorpion tanks. Contrary to what the living believe, the residents of hell always have a choice as to where to spend their eternity of torture. An important principle of perdition is that suffering is always worse when it’s the result of one’s own decisions. Many damned souls choose the relatively new “soul-sucking dead-end minimum-wage job” circle thinking that it’ll be pretty much identical to their lives on earth, only to regret it deeply once they learn what an actual soul sucking process entails.
“Dress code is lot more relaxed over at hot oil pits, though,” Bayzoth points out. Here, he’s expected to maintain a human guise; one of the features of the party is that the hosts blend into the crowd just like everyone else. At the moment, Bayzoth has donned the identity of a Wall Street banker. Asphos is posed as a Bitcoin farmer.
“Sure,” Asphos concedes. “But this job is so much easier. Compared to all the physical labor—heating the oil, wrangling the chains, lowering the thrashing humans, pulling them out again—this is a cakewalk. We barely have to do anything except keep the vibe going and the humans do all the work for us. I’m really hoping to get a permanent transfer.” She sets down her empty drink glass and surveys the activity. “Speaking of which, we’d better do the rounds; it’s starting to feel a bit calm in here.”
Bayzoth hadn’t really noticed any lull. The party is always shifting and changing. One door might take a wandering soul into a packed and pulsing dance club; at other times that same door leads to a rooftop garden brunch. The party continues nonstop at all hours, not that there’s such a thing as real time in hell. At this moment, they’re in a sprawling penthouse banquet room with classy black cocktail tables and clusters of comfortable red furniture around which the guests mingle and converse. The longest buffet table anyone has ever seen is laden with every sort of food, and servers in waistcoats bustle efficiently to deliver drinks and offer canapés on silver trays. Red wine flows from the mouth of a serpentine crystal fountain, and glass wall scones burn with bright white light that masks the opaque, sickly green glow of the underworld fog that swirls in the oblivion on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows.
The partygoers, it seems, are having a grand time. Laughter and boisterous chatter fill the air. Guests pose to show off their outfits, which change immediately with a mere wish; the physical rules of the living don’t apply here, after all. Old friends greet each other and new acquaintances strike up conversations. Only a closer look at the faces of the humans reveals the terror lurking in their eyes, the twitchy animal fear behind their smiles. Many of them move and talk with unnatural deliberation, their glances darting from side to side, often freezing or flinching like electrified mice.
On the stage, the five-piece band finishes a set. Some guests applaud, others shout praise and throw money onto the stage. Then someone yells, “Your drummer sucks!” A pistol is fired at the offending band member from near the front of the audience. The keyboard player tries to pull the drummer to safety while drawing a semi-automatic from his waistband to return fire. Another guest mows the keyboard player down with a short burst of machine gun fire. The remaining band members flee. The grenade that explodes on the stage behind them turns the vocalist and both shooters into sauce.
“Oh, thank Lucifer, that’s more like it,” Asphos says over the screaming.
“Shall we mingle?” Bayzoth jerks his thumb toward a group of guests in Confederate flag bandanas. “Head that way and see what we pick up along the way?”
As the demons move unhurriedly through the crowd, dozens of giant screens suspended from the ceiling flicker in a rapid-fire onslaught of sound and images. Everything that’s happening in every corner of the boundless and constant underworld party is being recorded and replayed, far too fast for humans to keep up with, which is why infernal caretakers manipulate the screens, keeping the party mood going like DJs spinning dance tracks. Bayzoth passes a man telling a story about losing an epic eating contest. Immediately, the images of carnage from the band stage are gone, replaced by the storyteller’s face, rendered gigantic, every mole and hair follicle visible in high definition as his hilarious tale booms from the speakers. Everyone laughs and applauds. The man flushes and waves. “Thank you, everyone!” Then he blurts desperately, “Please, help me, someone—” but Bayzoth moves on and the sound cuts out.
“Bayzoth! Asphos!” A young woman with blue hair in pigtails glides into their path before they can turn their attention to anyone else. “Fancy running into you again so soon! Not that any of us can leave, so, no surprise.” She giggles a touch manically, then her voice turns sultry and coy as she shimmies between the two demons. “By the way, did you know I was voted to the Hell’s Most Fashionable list a second time?” She’s wearing a corset made of human skin, an ivory tiara made of rhino horn, and thigh-high boots that are literally on fire; flames scorch the floor where she walks. She turns in a circle, well aware that her image is now flashing on all the screens.
“Ainsley,” Asphos says congenially. “Forget it.”
Of all the countless damned souls present, only a few guests have been granted VIP status by the hosts. They’re haloed in a cold blue glow that sets them apart. Hell’s eyes focus on them and ignore others. They supposedly get better service from the waiters as well as other perks, although no one is entirely sure what those perks are.
Ainsley Chu is not a VIP, although she wants to be. Her large posse of hanger-ons come up behind her and hiss and make angry faces at Asphos. Ainsley wraps an arm around the waists of the two nubile young women on either side of her and turns to Bayzoth with a pout. “Come on, what’s a girl got to do for some recognition?”
“Yo Ainsley, we’re going to gang rape you later!” cheer the neo-Nazis.
Ainsley’s face twitches spasmodically and her smile wavers for an instant before she looks over her shoulder and waves to the crowd casually. She turns back to Bayzoth. “Just tell me,” she begs in a whisper. “Why won’t you make me a VIP?”
Bayzoth shrugs. “You’re not important enough.” The woman flinches, and the demon grins. When she was alive, Ainsley Chu was a media influencer and aspiring actress. That was before she lost her battle with depression and committed suicide. It never ceases to amaze Bayzoth how easy it is to torment humans simply by allowing them to act in hell as they would in life. To make his point, Bayzoth points to the Eating Contest Man, who has retreated to a corner. Instantly, a blue glow surrounds him from head to toe. The party cameras zoom in on the man’s stunned face as he stares down at his hands and realizes what’s happened. “WELCOME TO OUR NEW VIP!” boom the speakers before Rick Astley music starts blasting over the crowd.
Angry shouts start up over the Rickrolling.
“Oh, come on! What did that asshole ever do to deserve VIP status?”
“He lost the eating contest but gets rewarded for being a fucking loser??”
“It wasn’t even a funny story! He’s just desperate for attention!”
“Well, it worked, didn’t it? Worst wannabe comedian thinks he’s better than us!”
Eating Contest Man lets out a terrified squeak and flees, pursued by a pack of people throwing steak knives. Several of them sink into his back as he runs through a door, disappearing for less than a second before he bursts through an identical door on the other side of the exact same room. Bayzoth shakes his head and Asphos rolls her eyes. Silly humans; they ought to know by now that escaping hell isn’t simple. Eating Contest Man dives behind the bar and barricades himself into a corner with bar stools.
“Still want to be a VIP?” Asphos asks Ainsley Chu.
Ainsley huffs. “That guy was obviously asking for it, showing his ass with that ridiculous story. I mean, such a bad look. Why would you tell on yourself like that? And then to take a condescending attitude with his fans.” She scowls prettily at the two demons. “Even if you make anyone into VIPs these days, some people just aren’t cut out for it. Take it from a professional: If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Ainsley Chu’s followers nod and gaze at her admiringly. “We know you’d never let us down, Ainsley,” one of them declares. “You’re one of the best people in hell.”
“Thank you, my dear friends,” Ainsley says solemnly. “VIP status is meaningless anyway. I’m here to genuinely connect with people, and I don’t care about anyone else’s recognition so long as I know you’re all with me.” They share a group hug.
“Let’s go back to the buffet and get some sushi,” someone suggests.
Ainsley glances over at the buffet table where pink lobes of beautifully arranged mystery flesh pulsate gently on a long bamboo platter. Several pieces of sashimi undulate feebly toward escape off the edge of the table. They are delicately captured with chopsticks and returned to their rightful places by the watchful sushi chef.
“Ew. Honestly, I never really liked sushi even when the fish were dead instead of me.” Ainsley laughs and starts to walk away. “How about the salad bar instead?”
She stops in mid-stride as her own voice booms over the party. “Ew…Ew…Ew.” Ainsley looks up to see her own enormous image say, “I never really liked sushi. Ew. Sushi. How about the salad bar instead? Sushi. Ew.” The replay flickers over and over again, the spliced repetition of the words strung into cacophonous poetry.
Ainsley spins to face her devoted followers. One of them volunteers, “I don’t love sushi either,” and another nods in agreement, but others stand and stare at their idol with expressions ranging from confusion to shock, disappointment, and anger.
“Ainsley,” one of them exclaims, “you hate sushi?”
“No!” she exclaims, panic beginning to swell in her voice. She takes a step back. “It’s not my favorite food, but I don’t hate it! I was only looking at what was—”
Asphos lazily flicks a finger and the party’s cameras instantly whiz over to a random guest on the other side of the banquet floor, sipping a fruity cocktail from behind a mask of black feathers and glitter. “Ainsley Chu says she’s disgusted by sushi! She hates it so much that she literally prefers salad. That is so racist.”
A tsunami of outraged shouts rises at once. Bayzoth and Asphos exchange a high-five and work quickly to capture and amplify as many of them as possible.
“I can’t believe I voted her Hell’s Most Fashionable. Huge mistake!”
“The absolute disrespect to my favorite food. I’ll never forgive her.”
“Isn’t she half-Korean? Or Chinese? So awful to find out she’s racist against Japanese people, but being Asian doesn’t excuse you from being anti-Asian!”
“There was always something off about her. This one time I met her, she…”
Ainsley’s face is frozen in horror. She spins wildly, her fiery boots leaving a blackened circle on the ground, with her in the center of the scorched area. “I wasn’t talking about sushi in general,” she wails. “I love Japanese culture! I…I watch anime and I’ve visited Japan and one of my best friends is Japanese, and, and I do like California rolls and also tempura!” She sobs and hides her face in her hands.
“Oh my god, California rolls aren’t even Japanese,” another guest chortles.
“She got called out, and then doubled down on the racism!”
Voices drown out Ainsley’s crying. Several of her followers flee the scene, but others meld into the encircling crowd and tell her with cold regret in their voices, “You messed up, Ainsley. You ought to simply apologize for the harm you’ve done.”
“The…the harm?” Ainsley whimpers in miserable confusion.
“To the Japanese people.” There are no Japanese people in the immediate area, so Asphos helpfully cycles through the camera views until the screens display some yakuza members in the club lounge two floors beneath them. They look extremely serious and worried because whoever loses the game of cards they’re playing will be sent to the hot oil pits for three hundred subjective human years, but it’s also conceivably possible they might be culturally offended by slander against sushi.
“You attacked Chef Yamato,” another interlocutor intones, one of the girls that was last seen with Ainsley’s arm around her waist. “How do you think he feels?”
The sushi chef is an eight-foot-tall unsmiling blue-skinned oni whose white horns poke through the top of his chef’s hat. At the mention of his name, Yamato looks up briefly from behind his prep table before returning to skinning baby dolphins alive.
Bayzoth and Asphos head over to the bar to get themselves a celebratory drink. Their work is done and Bayzoth leans back to enjoy the show. He loves this part.
Ainsley drops to her knees. “I’m sorry,” she moans. “I didn’t mean it.”
Low growls erupt into snarling, magnified throughout the room.
“That’s it? You call that an apology?” A plate smashes over Ainsley’s head.
“No acknowledgement of what you’ve done wrong and absolutely zero sense of how you’re going to change in the future! Aren’t you in hell to try to better yourself?”
A crab fork is jammed into Ainsley’s eyeball and she lets out a bloodcurdling shriek. She staggers to her feet, tiara askew, blood streaming down her cheek as she tries to run. She doesn’t make it far before she’s pulled to the ground and hacked apart with machetes. The Nazis wander over, lamenting that they did not get to gang rape her, but agree that watching an orgy of her dismemberment is the next best thing. Gory bits and pieces of Ainsley Chu are scattered across half the penthouse banquet room. They land in the punch bowls and the chocolate fountain, are kicked under the armchairs and tables, and end up squashed underfoot or piled into corners by bored participants. All the blood vanishes into hell’s highly absorbent red carpeting.
Once the activity begins to die down, Bayzoth set down his drink glass but Asphos motions considerately, “I’ve got this.” She brings the images on screen to guests hanging out in the karaoke bar five floors down. “I’m so disappointed,” one of them sighs. “I was really rooting for Tinsley Cho. I knew she was on some sort of list, I can’t remember which. Can’t have been very important. Anyway, when I heard she was problematic, you can bet that I stopped supporting her right then and there.”
The faces of the two supporters who initially expressed less-than-enthusiastic opinions of sushi appear on screen next. They try to stammer out that they never even knew Ainsley, but they are chased down and beaten to death with tire irons.
The camera pivots to Eating Contest Man, who had been surreptitiously crawling out from behind the bar, still holding one of the stools for protection. A pause of one and a half seconds descends as the party waits to hear the opinion of its newest VIP. Eating Contest Man freezes like a wide-eyed rabbit, not making a single sound.
“We see you being silent!” yells the guest in the ballgown and black mask holding Ainsley’s right elbow joint. “Cowardly VIPs failing to condemn bad behavior!”
Eating Contest Man dives back behind the bar and curls up in fetal position. He doesn’t seem about to do more than quiver helplessly for a while, so Asphos sets the cameras to automatically monitor the Star Wars fan gathering on the far side of the penthouse floor. “The Last Jedi was a good movie,” screams one man as he skewers another through the throat with a fireplace poker. He’s unable to gloat over the other fan’s body because an axe splits his skull down the middle, spilling his brains.
“That’s for saying Rogue One is overrated,” snarls the axe wielder.
None of the dispatched guests are dead, of course. Or rather, they are all already dead, so nothing that happens to them here is real in the physical sense. Ainsley Chu can be killed over and over again and still return. Already, her head, neck and one shoulder have glommed back together, although she looks quite grotesque. “Stop,” her disembodied top quarter of a body wheezes weakly. “It hurts so bad. Please stop.”
“Ugh.” A man-sized frog steps around her and kicks away the ribs that were rolling their way toward the spine. “What do you have to complain about, Miss ‘Hell’s Most Fashionable?’ I’m a fucking frog. Stop playing the victim already.”
“As I was saying earlier,” Asphos say, “this is the easiest job I’ve had since I was spawned. Whoever came up with this new circle is a genius. Was it Asmodeus?”
“Nah, it was that new guy,” Bayzoth corrects her. “Jack.”
“A genius,” Asphos repeats. “Bright future in hell for him. I truly can’t believe I’m being paid to do this. Oh wait, never mind, I’m not!” The two of them laugh.
“We do it for the pure love of the work,” Bayzoth says. They laugh harder and clink glasses. “Oh, hey, I have to show you another picture. My hellhound puppy did the cutest thing the other day, you’re going to love this.” He takes out his phone.
© 2022 Fonda Lee