This is, indeed, hell. Not one of your `philosophical' infernos, no frozen lakes with sinn

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This is, indeed, hell. Not one of your `philosophical' infernos, no frozen lakes with sinners buried up to their necks in the ice, no `woman trapped in a small room with an impotent gay'... this is the real, painful thing. One long row of foundries... a huge black wall, extending as far as one could see in all directions, left, right and up... set into the base of this wall, at intervals of about five metres, the mouths of furnaces, some of them smoldering red with a soft haze of gentle heat, some blazing white-hot with a roaring gust of air which scorches the lungs, sears and bakes the skin, glazes the eyeballs until blinking is agony. Any movement here is painful, but inactivity is worse, because that attracts the attention of the Overseers. They don't tolerate slothfulness. Not here. And if you thought breathing in this environment was bad, just try slumping to the floor in exhaustion (it's easy, just go ahead and let yourself fall...) and just see how far you get, trying to snatch a few moments' respite from the endless labour. At each furnace, three figures stand, two spindly, wasted once-mortals, and an Overseer, a huge, bronzed statue, powerfully muscled, with eyes that drip crimson fire, almost as if they are weeping blood. Incandescent tears run down their noble faces, diverted around the wide, leering mouths full of glittering crystal teeth, and drip from their chins to fall, hissing, to the gritty floor. Each Overseer carries a single white dove's feather; a touch to a mortals' body elicits the most horrific agony imaginable. This work is an endless balance between working as slowly as your pain-wracked limbs will allow, gradually sliding into utter exhaustion and falling to the floor, face pressed into the obsidian, dusted with dried flecks of blood, only to be jolted upright again by the Overseer. I have been working at this furnace-mouth ever since I had been Judged, and it was only recently that Marcus - my partner - decided that he couldn't take any more. He just fell down and not even the Overseer could get him up again. He had been here much longer than I. A couple of nearby Overseers joined in, delicately stroking his shuddering corpus with their feathers, occasionally kicking him, but it was apparent that he had been pushed too far. The Overseers stepped back suddenly, bowing and pressing their foreheads to the floor in supplication. I kept working, dragging ashes, dried bones and the other detritus of the flames from the furnace-mouth with my hoe. Occasionally, I caught something still living, horribly burned but still moving and usually screaming. I never showed any reaction, just kept working, dragging the fragments, even the moving ones, into the long declivity that ran back from the furnace mouth, filled with some sort of black fluid, like oil. The remnants then sank into the thick liquid which occasionally bubbled, giving off the most revolting smell imaginable. I avoided looking at it, but I was sure that I could sense something moving about in its depths, something that fed on the ash and bone; something that delighted in the occasional morsels of still-living flesh that we passed to it. There was a sound like huge leather wings flapping, and a breeze that stirred the ashes flying about in the updraught from the furnace. Something landed with a thump near where i was shovelling cinders, and despite the searing radiance from the furnace-mouth, I shivered from the first sensation of cold that I had felt since coming down here. It wasn't a relief; this coldness had a taint that you would associate with morgues, refrigerated filing-cabinets full of dead meat. I heard Marcus whining something in his german-dutch dialect, and although we weren't in the habit of gawking down here, I concentrated on deliberately working steadily, all thoughts of exhaustion gone, gritting my teeth when my hoe caught on the rib-cage of something that still had most of its internal organs. I tugged again, and it came free with a rush and a spray of ashes, almost spilling me to the floor. It was most of the upper half of a woman, still living somehow. I stood and regarded her with blank horror, for despite the fact that she was missing most of her scalp and everything else from the waist down, she had obviously been beautiful once. Pausing to look at her was my first mistake; my second was being stupid enough to make eye contact with her. Her expression jolted me out of my pain-wracked exhaustion. I made as if to bend down and take her hand, when a long scaly limb reached past, clamping on to her face. With a muffled scream, she was lifted off the floor. I didn't turn around; that cold sensation had increased when the hand appeared from behind me. I slowly turned back to the furnace, eyes directly ahead, shoved the hoe back in and resumed work. I could hear the sounds of bone snapping and popping behind me. There was a muttered conversation between two of the Overseers, in Latin (which I could not follow), and then Marcus gave a horrific shriek. He continued to scream, and as the Overseers laughed behind me, I felt him push past me and throw himself into the furnace. Just before he disappeared, I spotted a glowing red hand-print on his back, four fingered and as wide as a shovel. He writhed in agony as the white-hot flames cut into his withered flesh, but he kept struggling further in, until only his feet protruded. They kicked for a few seconds, and then he was drawn in with a rush, as if something in the fire had grabbed him. For almost a minute afterwards, sensuous moans came from the depths of the furnace. I kept working, raking fragments of skulls and pelvises with greasy tatters of flesh wrapped around them. Then Marcus emerged again, his head and shoulders poking out of the furnace. He was horribly burned, hardly better than the fragments that we had been assigned to raking out, but he was obviously still alive and in agony that made my weary discomfort seem almost pleasant. His arms clutched at the edges of the furnace, his mouth gaping open, his tongue twisting and pale pink in his scorched face. Something had an arm around his waist, and was trying to tug him back into the flames. He was trying to say `please'; not an easy task without lips... then, a sultry female voice came from the depths of the furnace: `Come to me, my love.' He half-turned, renewed his frantic efforts to climb out of the fire, but suddenly, an arm wrapped around his neck, and with a choked squawk, he vanished. At this point, I was standing no more than two metres from the furnace... the flames flared white-hot again, scorching my face, but I stood there, almost in shock. I knew that voice. Something touched my arm. I turned and stared up into the fire-streaked visage of the Overseer. In a smooth, sweet basso, it asked me, `Is something the matter, my friend?' and ropy saliva drooled from its transparent teeth. Its breath was like a five-day-old corpse that had been left out in the sun and then slit open. It touched its feather to my chest, and the shock threw me back against the wall, next to the furnace. With my skull against the metal brackets that edged the furnace mouth, I could hear... voices... her voice... in the fire... The overseer held out my hoe, smiled kindly and said, `You had best get back to work. Hmmm?' I nodded my assent, and accepted the hoe. The Overseer turned and stalked off to see how the Judged at the next furnace were going. I walked back to the oil-filled pit, tossed the hoe into it, turned, ran to the furnace and jumped in. Now, this was more like it! It was pain, of course - that was all one could expect, after Judgment - but whereas the drudgery of clearing the furnaces was an eternity of tiny, annoying aches and mind-dulling fatigue, this was pure, a continual, torrential stream of sensation at the same sense-obliterating level. And where before, my movements were an endless repetition of bending, scraping and bending again, here I was immediately snatched up in a stream of white-hot air, thrown about senselessly, a burning leaf at the centre of an atomic blast. Sharp fragments - of bone, glass, chips of stone, I had no way of telling - sliced through my flesh, punching holes in me until I began to resemble a pianola roll. I had hesitated, but now I found that I had to draw a breath - It was as if the howling wind that I was suspended in had rushed down my throat, a thousand tiny pieces of shrapnel accompanying it, scouring the passage, tearing my tongue and vocal cords out on their way down. The wind didn't stop when it reached my lungs, but streamed out through hundreds of holes in my front, back and sides. For a moment, I gave vent to a shriek that had nothing to do with my voice; I was the reed in a tortured woodwind instrument. The sound tore me asunder, my limbs spinning away, emitting steam as my blood vaporised - I was on the floor again, the bedclothes twisted firmly around my legs. For a moment, I lay there gasping, until I recovered my senses, and fully awakening, realised where I was. I slump to the floor in exhaustion. `Nikolai?' `Oh, look, don't worry, it was just - that, ah..' `What, again?' I smile wryly. `Again.' She sighs sympathetically, and supporting herself on one hand, holds the other out to me. `Come to me, my love.' I freeze - that voice...


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