“Who’s that scary guy?” Arthur giggled with the toddler in his arms while he pointed at his husband, Eric. “Who’s the scary man?” he repeated while Eric got emergency contact information from the child’s parents.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” Debbie, the baby’s mom asked for the twentieth time in as many minutes. The men seemed like a nice couple but she wasn’t sure ‘nice’ was what her baby needed. They were a far cry from what she expected when the Satanic temple offered her a child-free date night. She and her husband desperately needed to reconnect and she jumped at the chance.
The well-dressed, obviously in love, couple that showed up at her door instantly put Debbie’s mind at ease. That only lasted a moment before guilt took over. These men had no idea what they were in for; how frightening her child could be.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Debbie turned to her husband. “You know how grumpy Set can be,” she added. Murray sighed at his wife, but shook his head. Then, he looked up at Arthur and Eric.
“You boys are from the temple, you know the situation with Set, don’t you?” Both men nodded, Arthur bounced the baby in his arms while he did.
“They’ll be fine,” Murray grabbed Debbie by the arm and pulled her toward the door.
“Bye honey,” Debbie waved at Set while Murray opened the door. A small whine escaped from Set’s mouth as if he realized what was happening. Debbie stepped through the door; before it closed Set let out a demonic, gravelly wail. A faint cloud of yellow sulfur flowed out of the baby’s mouth. It’s soft skin darkened, hardened, and cracked into crimson scales.
“Oh no,” Debbie turned around to walk back into the apartment, but Arthur shook his head.
“We got this,” he said with a comforting smile.
“RAWAAAAWWWR!” Eric’s tan face was covered with red scales and his eyes glowed orange while he made devil faces at the demonic child. Set giggled. He was so distracted that he didn’t notice his mother turn around and leave.
“It’s not uncommon for a boy growing up with a single mother to hear that his father belonged in Hell,” Eric began his speech. A gentle laugh ran through the small crowd of familiar faces. Despite being a very lavish wedding, the guest list was kept to a minimum. “Though, it is more rare to learn that your dad is Satan,” Eric turned and smiled at the giant red man sitting next to his wife: Eric’s mother. The red man in a black suit smiled at Eric and held his wife’s hand.
“What can I say about my dad? He’s an evil, conniving, snake of a man that left his wife as soon I was born. But…,” Eric smiled at his dad to let him know there were no hard feelings. “…He’s also a man that learns from his mistakes. A man that learned how to keep his job and his home life separate. A man that is giving up his limitless power to get back together with the woman he loves because he now knows what’s important to him. Because of his example, I know what’s important to me.” Eric reached down and grabbed Arthur’s hand to encourage him up. Arthur stood next to his husband proudly.
“You showed up kind of late, but you’ve been the number 1 dad ever since. You’re Satan,” Eric chuckled. “Everyone has something bad to say about you, but you don’t let what others think get in the way of you doing what you have you to do. You taught me how to be happy with who I am and I wouldn’t be standing here next to the man I love if I never learned that lesson. Even on my Earth people are a little backward about things like this,” Eric leaned over and kissed Arthur on the cheek. A soft cheer ran through the crowd. “Not a lot, but enough to deter me, if I didn’t have the role model I did. Thank you, dad. For being the most loving demon ever. This may be Arthur’s and my wedding, but we’re celebrating you too.”
The sharp scent of too much fresh peppermint woke Jared. He sat up in a panic; his last memory was struggling against his friends. He thought Mundo and Eric were his friends up until the moment they stabbed his heart with an obsidian dagger. As he took his last breaths, Jared felt them using the blade on his arm. He hurriedly turned his arm to check and found a number two scarred over.
“What the hell?” he asked as he checked his surroundings. Jared sat on a soft mound in an emerald field of peppermint plants under a red sky.
“Correct on the first try!” a man said behind him. Jared hopped to his feet and whirled around in one motion to see who was behind him. It was a tall man with perfectly parted white hair and a well-groomed white beard. He wore a green suit that blended in well with the peppermint field, with a white vest and white bow tie. The number 37 was tattooed on his right cheek under a rotating glass eye painted like a globe.
“This is Hell?” Jared asked. “Are you the devil? I thought you’d be more…,” he gestured with his hands over his head alluding to horns. “…devilish.”
“Indeed he is. I am not him. My name is Peppermint and I am able to function as his representation. That being said, how exactly did you get here?”
“I chose my friends poorly,” Jared sighed.
“Well, that’s hardly enough to get you here,” the man smiled. “Let’s try to be more specific, what are your last memories?”
“My so-called buddies sacrificed me.” he turned enough to show the stranger the number two on his arm. “I don’t even think I’m the first guy they did it to, and they must have thought it was hilarious to do it on my birthday.”
“They gave you that as part of the sacrifice?” Peppermint asked with sudden interest.
“Yeah,” Jared nodded.
“Before or after?”
“What does it matter? I’m in hell while they’re getting their laughs,” Jared looked around. It surprised him that Hell was so pleasant. There was actually a cool breeze blowing across his skin. His nose got used to the peppermint smell enough that he was thankful it wasn’t brimstone and sulfur.
“It’s quite important. Did they scar you with the number before or after they killed you? And for that matter, was one of your friends named Eric?”
“I wasn’t dead yet I guess, but they definitely stabbed me first. And yeah,” Jared nodded. “How’d you know about Eric?” Peppermint smiled but shook his head.
“I wish that boy would stop abusing his knowledge,” he said under his breath. “Anyway, that explains everything. Congratulations, you’re on our team.”
“What do you mean? I still don’t know what’s going on. I’m working for Hell now? I don’t want that!” Jared whined.
“Working for is a bit strong. As I said, you’re on our team. You’ll be going back to Earth to live your life as you see fit. We don’t tell you what to do, but all your actions are considered to be performed by a member of Hell. Before you return, I need to explain your powers to you.”
“I get to go back?!” Jared grinned. “With powers? Yes!” Jared took a moment to pop his knuckles. “I can’t wait to teach those ex-friends of mine a lesson. Can I shoot fireballs at them?” Peppermint shook his head.
“You are Unique Soul #02, El Diablito. You can infect people with a microbe just by touching their bare skin. Anyone else they touch also becomes infected. The microbe gives you control of their minds. You cannot innately throw fireballs, but El Diablito does have a certain affinity for magic. If you’re not in a hurry to get back, I can arrange a magic tutor for you.”
“Yeah!” Jared growled. “Give me all the magic you can, my revenge is going to hurt.”
“Revenge? For what?” Peppermint asked.
“They KILLED me on my BIRTHDAY!”
“It seems to me that they did you a favor. You’re going back to Earth any time you want. You’ve got powers now, and you’re going to learn magic. Don’t you think that brief stabbing pain in your chest is worth the powers you’ve been given?”
“Bullcrap, they didn’t know what was going to happen. They’re just a bunch of crazy Satanists; I’m the one that lucked out. They wanted to send me to burn in Hell forever, I can’t forgive that.”
“Don’t let Eric hear you say that, he’s surprisingly sentimental. You’ll hurt his feelings. Sometimes people do favors for us without us realizing it.”
“So, what? They did know?” Peppermint nodded.”No matter how long you stay here to master your magic, you’ll never be able to…,” Peppermint added air quotes. “…teach Eric a lesson. That boy is the literal son of the Devil. He knew exactly what he was doing and what would happen. Knowing him, he probably meant it as a birthday gift.”
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Mona complained while she studied herself in the mirror. The mid-50s woman looked young for her age with dark hair and very few laugh-lines. She twirled this way and that to test how much her pink poodle skirt flared. “He walked out on both of us, not just me.” Mona turned to face her son, Eric, sitting on the bed; he shrugged.
“He made a poor choice. He knows that now. And, you know, keeping the universe running is kind of a demanding job. It seemed like the only choice at the time.”
“Pfft. He’s not God.” Mona replied with an eyeroll.
“No, he’s not. But the universe needs both of them.”
“But Julie is Satan now, right?” Mona asked. Deep down she was looking forward to the date but she was still wary. She had a wonderful fling with Satan when she was younger. He abandoned her once she got pregnant, but managed to show up again for Eric’s 14th birthday.
“Technically she isn’t yet, she’s still completing her trial. But, dad has more free time now because Arthur and I are helping him until Julie’s done.”
“Arthur too? That’s surprising,..” Mona wandered to her jewelry box and began combing through it while she spoke. “…last I heard he couldn’t handle the truth of the universe.” She turned to look at Eric with a raised eyebrow. “I can’t either, apparently, because you never explain it to me.” Eric shook his head with a chuckle.
“Julie helped bring Arthur around. He’s still squeamish about some things, but,…” he grinned and stood from the bed. He crossed the room to stand next to his mother. “…we are talking about marriage now.” Her face lit up with a broad smile and her green eyes sparkled.
“Eric! That’s wonderful!” she hugged her son.
“Thanks, mom. But, if you want to know the secrets of the universe, you’ll have to ask dad.” Eric squeezed her tighter. “But, please don’t. You’re trusting me enough to give dad another chance. Trust me when I tell you: you’ll wish you didn’t know.”
“This is your last chance to back out,” the giant-red-skinned man said. He stood between a group of three college kids and an enormous obsidian gate that dwarfed the 10-foot tall demon. “There is no going back after this.”
“Wait,.. but that’s just for Julie, right? I’m just here for the ride,” a young man with a light brown beard asked. He was holding hands with the third one of the group; a lean, dark-haired man. The tall demon looked down at him.
“Yes, Arthur,” he said with an exaggerated eye-roll. All three kids chuckled at his playfulness. “You and Eric can go off and neck or whatever it is kids do on your Earth if you get bored watching her kill people.”
“Daaaad..,” Eric whined at the devil with a raised eyebrow; he lifted his hand to show their intertwined fingers. Satan flinched out of embarrassment then cleared his throat. “
“Right! No, sorry,” he shook his head. “They’re not people, they’re Zeros. Julie’s going to kill-,”
*AHEM* Eric cleared his throat. The devil shrugged and gave up.
“Forget it; the point is Julie’s the only one in any real danger. You guys can quit or join her any time.” He looked down at Julie. The short girl with a bright orange faux hawk was less than half his height; she stared up at him with a defiant smile.
“Start cleaning out your desk, old man,” she said playfully. “I’ll be back for your job real soon.” The devil grinned.
“Don’t worry too much it if you’re not. You cut to the front of a long line; there are more and better candidates after you.” Her smile turned into an annoyed scowl.
“I’m ready,” she said. Satan dropped a pitch-black dagger; it buried itself in the ground in front of Julie. It was as large as a claymore compared to her petite frame.
“Whooooaaa.” Arthur and Julie marveled at the sword. The weapon looked like a shadow trapped in a blade. The outer edges gleamed like steel in Hell’s red sunlight but the interior was an impenetrable black. The hilt was made from the same black material wrapped with red leather. Julie grabbed the handle with both hands; it immediately shrunk to a size that was easier for her to manage. She waved the black bowie-knife around to get used to the weight.
“You must get the kill-,” Satan glanced at Arthur, then back to Julie. “You must eliminate all your Zeros with this weapon. If you make even one mistake, you fail. Eric can show you how to use it.” Julie looked up at Satan. She stabbed the air in front of her several times.
“I think I got the hang of it,” she said. Satan shook his head. “Eric can show you how to use it once you get going. For now…,” the devil stepped out of the way to let them see the black gate. There was a young woman that looked exactly like Julie strapped to the bottom of the bars. “…get going. There’s your first Zero.” Julie sprinted across the short distance to charge at the bound girl.
“By the way,” Satan said offhandedly. Julie did not slow down to listen; she was on her way to ruling Hell. She plunged the shadow knife into the girl’s chest. “It’s going to hurt,” the devil finished his warning. Julie screamed in pain. Her voice matched her victim’s and overtook it once the Zero slumped forward in silence. Julie let go of the dagger and fell to her knees. She hunched forward holding her head and screaming at the ground.
After almost a minute of nonstop screaming and writhing her voice began to quiet. It happened slowly at first; then all at once. Julie sat up on her knees and looked around.
“Whooooaaa…” she said and stood up from the ground. She walked toward the three men.
“Whoooaaaa…” Arthur repeated. He was surprised that her smooth pale skin was now slightly red. She had two black baby horns growing out of the top of her head. He pointed at her, then excitedly patted the top of his head with both hands while laughing. Julie reached up and her eyes went wide when she touched the horns; she giggled.
“What did it feel like?” Arthur asked.
“What color are these?” she asked and pointed to her head.
“Black,” he said. “Like portal black.”
“Okay, touch one,” she grabbed his hand and brought it to one of her stubby horns.
“Hey, it’s not smooth,” he said. “It feels like…,” he rubbed his finger up and down one of them. “…like it has spirals or something. Like a screw.” Julie nodded.
“Yep, that’s what it felt like; they were screwed out from the inside.”
“One down, several thousand to go,” Satan said. He pointed to the gate; it was open now. The woman’s corpse was in the process of being dragged away by a three-headed dog. The black dagger lay on the ground in front of the gate. “Step through the gate to find the next you.”
“Looks like I win,” Satan winked at the young woman in front of h”Very well come with me.”
“Yes!” Julie cheered and gave Satan a high-five. Her other two friends, Eric and Arthur both grumbled at the loss.
“Wait!” Arthur interrupted. “How did you win?” Satan turned around; his tall black horns scratched the low stone ceiling. He smiled at Arthur.
“You set a win condition for your team…,” he gestured at Arthur and Eric. “…and a lose condition for mine,” the red giant patted Julie on the shoulder. “If you didn’t win, you lost. If we didn’t lose, we won.” He looked at Julie, then back to Arthur. “If you don’t want to watch what happens to her I can arrange someone to take you and Eric shopping. You can come back when it’s your turn.”
“No thanks,” Arthur said. He stepped forward and grabbed Julie’s hand. “She’s not leaving my sight.”
“Arthur,” Julie whined with a whisper. “Don’t be rude,” she said.
“It’s okay, Julie,” Satan said. He turned again and walked toward the office door. “Arthur just needs time to come around,” he said over his shoulder as he led the three friends out of the office. Satan led them through a narrow maze of similar looking office doors. Each door had a small window next to it and Arthur peered inside each room as they walked by. The rooms appeared to be cramped cubicles; each occupied by a person in a suit sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen.
“Are they keeping score? You talked about that earlier. And you said something about rules too,” Arthur asked. The devil stopped in his tracks and turned around to face the trio. They were huddled together in the narrow hall with Julie between Eric and Arthur. Satan smiled at all three of them.
“Only Hell’s employees get that information,” he said. Eric cleared his throat and pointed upward. “And some of the MiddleMen too,” Satan grumbled.
“Who’re the MiddleMen?” Julie asked. She did not have as much concern as Arthur, but the name piqued her interest.
“Okay, one thing at a time,” Satan held his hands up in front of him in a “whoa” gesture. He pointed at Julie.
“Our team won the coin-toss so you get the first pick. That was just to pick out your Unique Soul, but I have a better offer.” He stepped forward and wrapped his arm around Eric.
“My boy’s gonna take over and he needs reliable support. How would you two like to be demons?” he asked with a large grin. “You still get to choose first,” he said to Julie.
“No way!” Arthur responded first and took a step back. He tried pulling Julie back with him, but she did not move.
“Can we still be Uniques?” Julie asked. Satan nodded.
“Not only that, but you’ll get all the answers,” Satan said.
“You’re not gonna like them,” Eric added with a somber tone.
“This is a special case,” Satan said. He nodded through the tinted glass window at the room on the other side. Two very different people sat on a red couch in warm, welcoming living room. Sunlight poured into the room through the windows. A short, waif-like girl with dark hair cuddled next to an older woman with salt and pepper hair. They watched a cartoon that Arthur did not recognize. This was the last stop on the tour before Satan turned him, and his best friend Julie, into Unique Souls. He assumed everything he didn’t recognize was from an alternate universe.
“A few lives before they hit the Celestial tier…,” Satan began to explain to his son Eric and his friends. “They started asking about each other. It’s kind of weird, but you get used to weird in this job,” Satan chuckled. “They asked if there was an upper-limit on points,” Satan looked at his son. “There is, but we’re not supposed to tell them that.” He brought a red finger to his lips and winked at the three friends. “So they kept going back down then asking for each other after they died. They used so many lifetimes they earned enough points to get all the perks. We couldn’t send them down anymore so the only option was to bring them together to find out what they wanted.” Satan shrugged.
“They want to be born as Unique twins. Both of them want, and have enough points, to become Sols. We have no idea how to do that.”
“Wow… so they’re just waiting until you figure it out?” Julie asked.
“Yes,” Satan nodded. “But, they don’t know they’re waiting.” He nodded through the glass. The inviting living room became a white padded cell. Instead of the girl and woman, two teenage boys were now seated, unconscious, against opposite walls. Julie watched one of them stir. He lifted his head as he came-to and looked around the padded room. Fear washed across his face until she noticed the other boy. The first boy scrambled to his knees then scurried across the floor toward the other kid. As he reached the other wall a door opened in the padding and a nurse dressed in red walked into the room.
“The nurse is going to tell them they were in an accident and after some more tests, they’re free to go home. We can’t send them to Earth anymore but we can keep them distracted here until we know how to give them what they want.”
“Wow,” Arthur said. “I never thought Hell would go out of its way to help someone.” Satan smiled at Arthur.
“This is your first time here, right?”
“As far as I know.” Arthur shrugged and nodded.
“It’s a bad habit to judge things based on other people’s opinions,” Satan said with a smirk. “Who’s to say they know any better than you?”
“Why can’t they both be born? I more or less get what a Unique Soul is, but I don’t see how being twins makes a difference?”
“Twin Uniques isn’t a big deal, we’ve done that before. The problem is both of them want to be Sols. We can only do twins if they’re different Uniques.” Satan shook his head, “Aside from that rules say one Sol per universe.”
“Rules? What rules? Whose rules?” Arthur asked. Satan laughed and shook his head. Then, he turned to lead them out of the room.