On his first day in Hell, a man called Strife walks naked and confused through a desert. He misses his stolen lover, but he will not be lonely for long because there are cannibals in Hell. Strife remembers only his name and two other things. First, that Rise is the woman who was taken from him. And second, that Yaw is the man who stole her, and who by this condemned Strife to Hell. The first realm of Hell is one of flesh, anger, and bare-fisted combat. The lord of this realm is the hulking Yaw, a muscled behemoth with bleached bones woven in his beard. Yaw holds Strife’s lover, Rise, as prisoner. To free Rise, Strife must master this primal realm which favors those who live brutally and instinctively waging war against their neighbors like how lizards do. Can Strife defeat the Lizard King? If so can he survive Hell’s other realms, those of the wolf in the forest, the dog in the city, and the eagle circling above the sky-tower? Will he finally reunite himself with his lost lover?
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PART ONE: THE LIZARD KING
Hell is waking up buried in the earth like a worm. Hell is being weak and numb except for your hammering heart and your burning want for breath. I writhed like a maggot through the mud until my panicked face broke the surface of the earth. My mouth opened a red hole in the floor of Hell and I sucked air into my reborn lungs. I opened my eyes and saw a cloudless sky. The sun was high and bright and it dried the mud on my cheeks, tightening and cracking across my skin. I rolled my eyes which were like shiny stones and I saw a baked plain either side of me, stretching away until it touched the sky at the horizon.
My body was numb, buried and forgotten so that I was just a face discarded on the plain. But before I could consider that I might spend eternity suffering alone like this, Hell provided me with a companion. It was a fly and it landed on my nose. It was a little black creature with shining wings. It tickled as it walked across my skin.
I watched the fly walk down the side of my nose before it visited the corner of my mouth. Then it journeyed across my lip to my nostril, which was a cave to it, and where its preliminary explorations caused me to sneeze.
My sneeze shot the fly away, and that exploded breath also sent a jolt through my body and enlivened my limbs so that they were no longer numb. Feeling the earth binding my arms and legs brought back the panic that I was buried alive. I struggled and pushed my arms up out of the earth which erupted like great horns either side of my face.
After snatching at the sun once, I turned my hands back down at the earth which I scratched and pulled at. I kicked and stamped my buried legs, and after a battle against the mouth of the earth I dragged myself sucking up out of it.
I was exhausted and I lay upon the dry plain panting. The hole beside me filled itself in with mud before forming a skin from the drying sun.
I saw the fly land on the ground beside my cheek. It explored its landscape of giant pebbles before it was pounced upon by a little lizard. The lizard swallowed the fly and then looked up at the great orb above it which was my eye. The lizard took fright and scurried away to hide in one of the many cracks in the baked earth. After recovering some strength I stood up frail and dizzy. I looked out at a pale and flat landscape beneath the sun and a cloudless bright sky. I remembered only three things. The first thing I remembered was that my name was Strife which means to search for. The second thing I remembered was that Rise, which means to know, was the woman that had been stolen from me. The third thing that I remembered was the man called Yaw, which means lame or thief, and who had taken Rise from me and had thus condemned me to Hell.
It was with the knowledge of these three things that I set off in search of Rise. But I discovered that Hell was designed to frustrate men. Even my first steps were sore from little sharp stones. The sunlight and the bright landscape hurt my eyes. The sun was high and hot on my skin. I walked for some time burnt and parched, and I imagined Rise at a distance just over the shimmering horizon. I thought that she carried a shining bowl of bright water that I could drink from. Or that just her mouth would be wet enough to slake my thirst when I kissed her.
They were giddy fantasies but before I was carried away up over the horizon by them, I became dizzy from the heat and I fell back down to the earth again.
I was thirsty and the sun was burning me. From my vantage point, with my cheek and my cracked lips touching the ground, I could see a little lizard hiding in the shade of a crack in the earth. I was jealous of the lizard because the sun which burned my skin and dried my breath was now my enemy. I probed the lizard’s shelter with my fingers and sent him scurrying away. I discovered that the earth was cooler just beneath its surface. I lifted a plate of baked earth away revealing a darker print of mud the size of my outstretched hand.
I dug my fingers into the mud and then rubbed that cool stuff on my face and shoulders. My burned skin was soothed by the damp earth. I felt the mud tighten and crack as it dried which left a pale covering on me like scales in protection against the sun. I noticed that the earth was thinner the deeper that I dug. At a depth past my elbow I lifted up mud which was thin and wet enough to drink. I gulped down mouthfuls of silty water. I raced to drink as much as I could because the hole was filling itself back in.
I drank too quickly and I retched and vomited a great dark stain of silt over the pale earth. I had absorbed enough water so that I was no longer addled by thirst, and so after I had recovered from my heaving spasm I calmly dug another hole. I drank more slowly until I was satisfied. I had won a victory against Hell – I knew how to find water and how to clothe myself in mud against the sun. I looked up at the bright orb of the sun and sneered at it.
While I rested I watched a nearby lizard patrol its territory of cracked earth. It hunted the occasional fly, snatching at the black insects and swallowing them down when it caught them.
The little lizard was a king in its own land. I watched it as it prepared to defend its realm against an imposter. It saw another lizard and the two of them threatened each other by posturing and by displaying red marks on the underside of their necks. The two lizards took careful steps towards each other until they reached some signal distance. I saw them run at each other and then crash together in a knot of reptilian bodies. They fought so fiercely with their needle teeth and claws, that the sight of this violence startled me.
With a tiny splash of scarlet blood upon the pale earth I saw one of the lizards as the victor. He stood over the corpse or shocked body of his enemy. If he was the defender of his realm or the usurper of his enemy’s I could not tell. By either he was proud. I had an uneasy feeling as if the lizard’s violence should remind me of something. I stood and left the little lizard king and continued on in my search for Rise. I felt my want for Rise something like the nagging hunger for food that I felt in my belly. It was a primal desire that I had woken with, that I carried with me on every step across the desert plain. My desire for Rise was a craving for which I felt worse for the longer I left it unsatisfied.
And then I saw her. She was a distant figure in the wavering horizon and my heart hammered at this vision of her. I forgot my weariness, my thirst, my hunger and the sharp pebbles at my toes. I ran towards her.
It was not Rise. As I drew closer to the shimmering figure I saw that it was a man instead. I was disappointed at first and I slowed my pace down to a jog. Then I realised that I had discovered a human companion in Hell, and by this I was heartened.
Was I cruel to find joy in the thought that another man had been condemned to an eternity of torments? I do not think that Sisyphus would have turned away another pair of hands to help him roll the boulder. I called out to the stranger. I waved my hands and laughed as I ran towards him. He paused in whatever journey he was on and turned to see me. I saw that he was glad for human company as well because he started running towards me. But as I ran I thought – what kind of man is condemned to Hell? What company would I find in a realm of sinners? I slowed to a walk and saw that the stranger kept running towards me.
He was running hard, almost desperately. As he approached me I could see that his naked skin was spattered with mud. His hair and beard was long and matted and his face was twisted in a grimace. I stopped walking towards the stranger when he was close enough that I could see his eyes. His eyes did not have that kind of expression as if to welcome a new companion. His eyes were strange and by them I realised that he did not recognise another man, but that he saw me as a different kind of creature – an enemy, an alien in his realm. He looked at me with lizard eyes.
I was stunned by the sight of the expression in the stranger’s eyes. Even if I had sense enough, I had no time to turn away and flee. The stranger kept sprinting hard towards me and then he struck me with all the force of his body.
I was thrown backwards through the air and even before I fell upon the earth the stranger railed at me with his fists and elbows. When I landed skidding across the earth on my back, I was already beaten, though the stranger kept hammering at me. I was pinned between the earth and the weight of my attacker. I tried to cover my face with my arms but this only exposed my belly to blows from the stranger’s knees. When I drew up my own knees in defence, the stranger resumed his wild attack at my face.
I was becoming senseless from the wild beating, but a horror imparted a single moment of clarity upon me – the sight of my attacker’s face rearing back. Between his teeth I saw that he had a piece of flesh that he had bitten out of my neck. He swallowed the red morsel and then his open mouth came at me for more.
My blood wetted this man and the earth about me. There was so much blood that the rind of the baked earth beneath me was softened by it. My attacker’s blows were so persistent that I was hammered back down into the earth. I was beaten into unconsciousness and pushed down into the ground again.
About John S. Donnelly:
I grew up on the beach on the east coast of Australia in a town which was a fantastic place to be a child. I spent many days leaving home in the morning to join a juvenile gang of adventurers who explored varied environments including beaches, rivers, forests, and swamps. We lunched on what we could scavenge including oysters, mulberries, and fish which we cooked on open fires. We returned home exhausted and with the sunset.
I moved to the city of Brisbane to complete my schooling and to study at university. While enrolled in a veterinary course I became deeply affected by the practise of intensive farming, and I changed my study to a degree in biotechnology which I completed.
I fell in love with a sad girl with beautiful eyes and I followed her into a library career where I continue to work. I discovered philosophy and comparative religion and I devoured the stories of moustachioed philosophers scowling at god, or of peaceful Jain monks carefully sweeping ants away so they would not tread on them, or of gentle Cathars teaching secret knowledge before being burned at the stake.
I have always loved science fiction and fantasy, at first as an entertainment while Conan or the Eternal Champion cleaved the limbs off twisted monsters, then as an escape from suburban life into a universe where giant living ships drifted between the stars, or where men and women changed sex depending on the season, or where people rode giant worms across the dunes.
Where Mercury is the messenger between worlds, he is also a rising silver thread in a glass tube. That is I try to use speculative fiction as a tool. When I write I hope to understand the world better especially when I twist it around alien planets, or burn it with dragon’s fire, or run across it in chase after men wielding swords.