A strong, sudden sting of stale and hot-humid air forces its way into his lungs. It’s bitter and sour, strong, and yet sweet. His eyelids pry open. One by one, like too-strong velcro, he feels eyelash after lash ripping away from one another. He suppresses the urge to inhale, buy up his throat scratches a cloud of dust and mould. Then, gagging and croaking, his is the first staggering gasp of the dead waking up.
He awakens in a pile of dead bodies. Not dead-but-awake like him, but true dead, gone and done-for. Dead-dead.
Coming back from being dead-dead always sucks. Every muscles feels like cement breaking from between old layers of bricks. Likewise, the first full rotation of shrivelled eyes in dry sockets grinds with the punch of a ripe migraine. It thrashes against his skull, tightens and pierces his neck as if put between a closing monkey wrench wrapped in barbwire.
He struggles to find a grip to pull himself out. The bodies around him are either spongy and soft, or hard like a cock on one-too-many blue pills. Stiff, but not secure. One of them, another dead and damned to the underworld body, crumbles at his very touch. The ankle he sought to use as leverage to pull himself from out the pile breaks loose. A foot hits him in the face. Barely crouching already, he tumbles back and slips on some of the more greasy and bloating cadavers. His head hits something not quite completely rotten. It makes the sound a boot pulled out of mud would make. Then he begins his decent downwards, headfirst, soaking up the oozes and stenches from the dead-dead he’s surfing on. The foot’s still tight in his clutch.
For a moment he becomes airborne, just to then land on another rotten corpse. Once upon a time, she must have been a beautifully young woman—torn too early from her young life by tragedy. Now she’s but a shrivelled husk of dried bones and skin wrapped tight around them. A shadow of her former life. A stinking, decaying shadow, at that.
This, or something like this, is how he always comes back.
Isn’t there a easier way to do this?
The air around is thick and weaving, like the heat in a desert. Like a phantasm wanting to be touched before disappearing. Yet, a shiver runs along his back, cold and eery. Sickly-green torches illuminate the caverns—the endless stretches and holes of caverns over caverns, filled with dead and dying men and women, children, and animals.
Welcome to Hades—where not even your death is final.
Souls are whaling and whining. They cry like an everlasting choir of misery, accompanied by the orchestra of decay and infinity.
He forces himself to his feet and takes a deep breath of this life-defying air. Then he dusts himself off. His naked skin, tormented by many wounds long crusted over, violated by bruises and tears, throws up a a fine mist of ash with very clap of his bare hand. Then he adjust his only belonging, a simple gold band on his left ring-finger.
From out of nowhere, a deep, daunting voice appears. It shakes the walls in every direction, trembles the ground. Some whaling souls silence, but most whale more and louder at the sound. Cracking in a deep bass, incomplete as if all vowels are missing from this speech, he can’t understand a single word. The trembling bass echoes in his ear, causes a crackle in his left ear. Like an earthquake inside of his skull, shaking his jaw, vibrating his sinuses.
An ancient tongue, far from any mortal comprehension—dead or alive.
“You really need to work on your hospitalities here, boss. And, again, I don’t speak demon.”
Before him, using the fading trails of uncounted souls as source, a mist appears. First it’s fine, then growing denser and thicker. Until through it puffs a man, standing not even six feet tall. Wearing a velvet coat over simple, but expansive linens. A relic from the past, dressed in casual wear for the aristocrats. He sports a thin goatee and not a speck of stubble anywhere else. Boyish, almost, the way his raven-black hair frames his face.
He says, “I’m a demon, not, Adam. You know that.”
Adam waves him off. “Sure.”
The man with goatee walks around Adam. Pacing, with one hand behind his back, the other using to gesture with his words. “What happened up there, Adam? You lost control.” He stops in his tracks and glares. “Again.”
Adam’s least favourite part. The talk about responsibility and contracts. About deals and quotas. About the value of life, and the necessity of death.
Through hairline cracks by his feet, a ghostly flicker of a soul reaches up to Adam. Translucent, merely more than a whisper of fog above a lake in the morning, the soul begs for his attention. Adam kneels down. He lays his hand around the ghostly cloud as if he was caressing its face gently. He says, “I do my job, and I do it well. Have I not brought you every single escaped soul you asked me to bring?” He waves his hand through the ghost and forces it to disappear. “But I won’t kill for the sake of killing. No matter how much my own life-force dissipates during my stay.”
Adam knows the game. He’s read the contract. Consuming life—living beings, their flesh and their essence—is the only way to stay afloat in the world of the living. Should he refuse, his body would fall into a state of decay, until not even his brain function can be sustained anymore. Until the hunger for the living grows to unbearable heights. This is the burden of the champion—the bounty-hunter of the dead-dead that refuse to stay, well, dead. All that in return for another shot at life, and the promise to eternal rest—and therefor peace—when his term is over. Whatever that exactly means in a world contradicting the mortal workings of time.
Funny, how time can be such a different concept in the underworld.
“Come with me,” the boss says and turns around towards a big, black gate. A gate made not from wood or iron, but from bones and dried blood.
Still playing with what little trail of lingering plasma’s left between his fingers, Adam follows.