I was in an ambulance. My chest hurt, my arms hurt, and everything was blurry. One of the paramedics said, "We're losing him." Everything turned dark.

After a while, I opened my eyes, and I could see again.

I wasn't in an ambulance anymore. Everything was bright, and there was an old Chinese guy standing over me. "Get up," he said. "Get up. We have to go soon."

I sat up. Honest to God, I was lying on top of the biggest damn cloudbank I'd ever seen.

"Jesus fucking Christ?" I said.

"Hush!" said a young brunette woman standing by my side. She jerked her head to one side, and I looked over in that direction. "Don't make him mad."

The guy was at least eight feet tall. Flowing blond hair. White robes. Beatific smile. Light just pouring off of him. Seven gigantic wings growing out of his back.

"Oh, shit," I said. I was an atheist.

The angel laughed. "Don't worry. I don't mind. Neither does He."

There were seven of us. Well, there were a lot more than seven of us -- there were hundreds, I guess. But there were seven in our little group. I guess there were seven in all the groups. I could see some groups being led away by angels. All kinds of people, a real cross-section of humanity. Well, I guess that would be obvious, wouldn't it?

"My name is Bhauriel," said our angel. His voice sounded like trumpets and bells. "I am a Seraph of the Seventh Host in Service to Gabriel. I'll be your guide, transitioning you from the corporeal plane to the celestial." He looked upwards suddenly and cocked his head to one side like he was listening to something, then he looked back at us and smiled. "Please make yourselves comfortable. Get to know each other. I must commune with the Trinity before we continue, but I'll return very soon."

And he vanished, just like that. Not a flash of light, not a thunderclap, not a slow fade. Just gone.

Well, like I said, there were seven of us. The old Chinese guy was Yun. The young woman was Andrea. There was an old woman wearing a jogging suit named Stephanie, and another old woman wearing a black dress and shawl who said her name was Maria. There was an old white guy in a flashy suit who introduced himself, loudly, as Reverend Rob. And there was Zoe, a beautiful black woman wearing a very expensive dress and gold jewelry. And there was me. I'm Mark.

None of us could remember our last names.

That was just the first mystery. The next presented itself when Yun asked how all of us learned to speak Chinese so fluently. Of course, none of the rest of us spoke Chinese. That got us checking on each other's backgrounds -- Rev. Rob and I were the lone Americans, Andrea was German, Maria was Italian, Stephanie was from Australia, and Zoe was from Ghana. Obviously, languages were different here.

We also started discussing religion. Rob, Maria, and Stephanie were Christians. Andrea, Yun, and I were atheists. Zoe was Muslim. Rev. Rob was most unhappy that there were so many heathens in Heaven. Stephanie asked him why he thought he knew the mind of God. Then they said some more unkind things to each other while the rest of us wondered about all this strife in Heaven.

After a few minutes, Bhauriel reappeared just as suddenly as he'd left. Stephanie and Rev. Rob were still sniping at each other, and Zoe had started adding her own comments directed at both of them whenever there was a lull in the argument. Bhauriel made conciliatory noises all around and got them all hushed up, then suggested we start making our way to something called the Hall of Judgment. He got all of us up on our feet and walking toward a beautiful, ornate spiral staircase that looked a lot farther away than it really was.

"What's a Hall of Judgment?" I asked as we started up the staircase. I was afraid I already knew the answer.

"Every soul must face Final Judgment," said Bhauriel. "You will all be weighed. Some will be found wanting. To tell more would spoil the surprise."

Rev. Rob perked right up. "Hope you kids enjoy Hell," he laughed.

Bhauriel shot him a look. "Cheryl Cunningham," he said. Rev. Rob opened his mouth, shut his mouth, and stayed silent.

"Last names," said Maria. "We can't remember ours anymore. But you can remember them, and they still mean something to us. Why don't we know what ours are anymore?"

"You don't need last names anymore," said Bhauriel. "There are people who associate their identities most comfortably with their last names or even a nickname -- those people would only be able to remember the name they were most used to in life. Of course, Rev. Rob knew at least six different Cheryls on the corporal plane, but he only knew one with the last name of Cunningham."

"You know nothing about her, and I'd like you to keep quiet about her," Rev. Rob pouted.

"Alright, what about our bodies?" Zoe interrupted. "Shouldn't we be spirits? Why do we have bodies at all?"

"Preconceptions," Bhauriel laughed. "You are spirits, but you expect to have physical bodies. That's really fine with us. Bodies make you happy, so bodies make us happy, too." He laughed again, like this was a grand joke.

By now, we were getting close to the top of the stairs. The view was incredible. I'd always been a little afraid of heights, but I didn't feel a bit of fear right now. Aside from the awe-inspiring beauty of the view, it just made me feel so calm and unthreatened. Well, at least until I saw the Hall of Judgment at the top of the staircase. That's all it could've been. It looked like a cross between the Supreme Court building and the Legion of Doom's headquarters on the old "Super Friends" cartoon.

And all I could think of was how I'd been an atheist all my life. What the hell was Hell like anyway? I could imagine some pretty awful stuff.

Bhauriel opened the door for us. "Please come in," he said, smiling. "I know you're all afraid. You all fear your own sins. You fear judgment. But it can't be avoided. Come in."

"God's omnipotent, right?" Andrea suddenly blurted. "Can't he just... scrub the sins away? He's got to show mercy, right?"

"He could, I guess, but he's charged the Seventh Host to remain neutral," said Bhauriel, with only a small smile. "We are under orders to be fair, to judge impartially, to neither cheat nor show favor for either Heaven or Hell."

"Please," he added, with just a glint of extra steel in his voice. "Come in."

The Hall of Judgment, on the inside, looked like a big empty hall, about the size of a football field. Marble floor and columns, with an immense skull pattern laid out on the floor. The ceiling was a big starfield. I don't mean it was a starfield pattern -- I think it was a starfield. The only person in the whole building was another man in white robes, carrying a long black staff. He was shorter than Bhauriel, and pudgier, too, and he didn't have any wings at all. I swear, the guy had a combover.

"My friends, welcome," he said. "My name is Azaranel. I am a Seneschal of the First Host, directly serving the Holy Spirit. I am neither your judge nor your jury. You should think of me as the bailiff. But I am in charge here, and I'll ask for your cooperation."

Azaranel held up a large diamond, about two inches in size. I knew nothing about diamonds, but I knew it was the most perfectly cut gem anywhere, and I would've been perfectly happy just to look at it all day long.

"Everyone please look at this diamond," Azaranel said. "Give it your full attention. Just look at it carefully and -- "

The hall disappeared. I was on a vast grassy plain. Sunlit. Wildflowers. Butterflies. And my whole life started passing by above me, in the blue sky above. And the plain was changing before my eyes. At age six, I asked the old widow from down the street to come eat with my family, and a blaze of roses burst into life at the top of a hill. At age 16, I beat up some nameless freshman during my bully years, and a dungpile was plopped down on the path. I taught my daughter to ride her bike, and a tree exploded with thousands of apple blossoms. I slept with my secretary, and a few acres were stripmined. I shorted the staff's paychecks for two years, and toxic waste rained from the sky.

It went on and on and on. There was so much waste, so much ugliness. And there could have been such beauty. There could have been so much more perfection, so much more beauty. And it was all my fault.

Then I was back in the Hall of Judgment. I was crying like I'd never done in my life. Almost all of us were. I'd never felt such sorrow, ever. I wanted to go to Hell -- no one had ever deserved it more. I was blubbering out incoherent apologies to no one, to anyone, to everyone I'd known and hurt.

Azaranel cleared his throat. "Zoe?" he said.

"What?" she replied. "I have nothing to apologize for. I worked my way up from nothing. So I had to step on some toes. You want me to feel bad about that, don't you? Well, I don't. I treated them better than they deserve. To hell with you anyway."

"Very well," said Azaranel. "Stephanie?"

"It's a lie," she said. "There are scientific studies that show that the Abos aren't even human. You're going to base your judgment of me on a bunch of lies? That's insane."

"The only lies here are the ones you speak," said Azaranel. "You know that your 'scientific studies' are completely fabricated, don't you?"

Stephanie shrugged. "Fine. They're just Abos. Who cares?"

Azaranel made a disgusted "Pfff" through his teeth and turned to Rev. Rob. "Do you have anything to say, Rob?"

Rob kept his lips pursed tightly shut. I don't think I've ever seen more furious eyes anywhere.

"Oh, it's like that?" said Azaranel. "Say what you wish. I won't mind."

Rob kept his silence, but his face was turning an angry red.

"Enough," said Azaranel. "Speak."

"Fag-lovers," Rob spat. "Pansies. Whores."

"Ahh. A name-caller."

"Shut up, you heathen, fag-kissing pussy, I'm not done yet. I spent my whole life following the inerrant Word of God, and now you want to tell me I was wrong? I wasn't wrong. I wasn't wrong. You were wrong. All that crap you showed me -- Damn you, I was doing God's Work. And if God doesn't like that, well, fuck Him, too. This is how He pays me back for all my work? Fuck Him, you hear me?" Here he looks up at the ceiling and shouts, "Fuck You, God! I'm going to get You for this! You and that faggot son of Yours! That's a promise, You shitting bastard!"

"There's no need to shout," said Bhauriel. "He can hear you just fine."

"Now the rest of you," said Azaranel. "The rest of you get to stay."

"Faggots!" Rev. Rob screamed.

"Silence," said Azaranel. "And cease movement." Rob's mouth snapped shut, and he stood stock-still. Oh, but he was getting madder and madder by the second.

"The rest of you get to stay," Azaranel repeated. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But those who regret their past sins are worthy of Heaven."

"Congratulations," said Bhauriel. I think Yun and Maria replied back, but I was still crying, partly from sorrow -- God, how long had it been since I'd thought of how I treated my father? -- partly from relief that I'd been spared Hell, and partly from horror at seeing other people condemned like that.

"May I please see my son?" asked Stephanie.

"No," said Bhauriel. "You may not. Azaranel and I will escort you three to the Pits, but Azaranel will wear his formal Badge of Office."

And at that, Azaranel stretched himself and, like magic, grew another foot and a half taller.

All the pudge around his middle faded away.

His white robes turned black, and the texture changed from cloth to something almost like sludge.

His combover thickened, growing up and out, flowing downwards to join with his robe and becoming a hood over his head.

His skin rotted and fell off in mere seconds.

Wings of ancient dried bone unfolded from his back.

The black staff he carried quivered for a moment, then a gleaming arc of mercilessly sharp steel sprung from the side with a predatory shing.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to run. My heart was pounding like it would explode any second.

Azaranel gestured, and black sludge oozed up from the marble floor, wrapped around Rob's, Zoe's, and Stephanie's legs, coiled up their bodies to hold their arms fast, splattered across their mouths to keep them from screaming.

"Final judgment is rendered," he said, in a voice like a rusted coffin nail, like a crematorium slamming shut, like the howl of a chorus of maggots. "Hell awaits."

More ooze bubbled up from the marble beneath them, forming a carpet of black goo. As Azaranel stepped onto the sludge, it all lifted away from the floor, levitating an inch above the ground.

Azaranel turned his bony face to us. "Come," he rasped. "Come and witness."

I heard it so clearly -- all four of us hitching in a breath, all four of us ready to start screaming. But Bhauriel stepped forward, hands raised slightly. "It is required," he said, "that even those who have been Saved must accompany the Angel of Death and the Damned to Hell as witnesses of the verdict and the punishment. You must see what you have been spared. This is one of the Trinity's most holy edicts, and it cannot be shirked."

So Maria, Yun, Andrea, and I very unwillingly climbed up onto that black flying carpet. I felt a little of that black sludge ooze up over the sides of my shoes to hold me in place, and I was so glad I hadn't died barefoot. And I was glad Bhauriel was there with us -- he was a comforting, friendly presence, and I knew, in my heart of hearts, that he'd never let any harm come to us. And then we all took off, flying over the edge of the clouds and then down, down, down, faster than I'd dreamed anything could travel.

After an hour or so, we found ourselves surrounded by fiery rock, as if we'd entered a complex of caverns deep underground. I'd never even seen any sign that we were nearing the Earth -- but I guess we weren't really anywhere near home anymore, were we? Just an impossible transition from open air to volcanic caverns. Hell.

The carpet settled to a stop on a deep cave floor. There were a few small pools of lava, but nothing like the lake of fire I'd been expecting. It was too dark to see much of anything, but Azaranel's scythe gave off a glow that provided a bit more light than I wanted. Even in that half-light, I saw things that were... well, unholy. Things that had the faces of beasts, that had eyes on their tongues, that squirmed on the ground, that whispered through the air like ghosts.

Something immense started to rumble out of the darkness toward us, but Azaranel rapped his scythe on the cavern floor and said, "Another form, Toxaxas. Obey my word."

There was a shimmer in the air, and a slim woman wearing a black suit and a sharp, broad-brimmed hat stepped out of the shadows. Her hair and skin were black as obsidian, and her eyes glowed like burning blood. She smiled, and her teeth were perfectly straight. "I live to obey your word, Azaranel," she said. "I bid you and our guests welcome."

"We bring the nameless Damned for you to do with as you will," said Bhauriel. "And we bring the Consecrated of the Lord, who will witness the sentence carried out."

The demon made a courtly bow to us. "I greet you, O Consecrated Ones, in the name of Hell," she said. "I am Toxaxas, a Qlippoth of the Crimson Blot, in faithful service to my Lord Belial. May I offer you a tour of our charming realm, perhaps?" The scythe made an ominous twitch in her direction. "Probably not," Toxaxas said quickly. "Instead, let's examine our merchandise."

She turned her attention to Zoe, Stephanie, and Rev. Rob, grinning toothily at each of them. "A hater, huh?" she said, chucking Stephanie lightly under the chin. Stephanie struggled, but Azaranel's ooze held her tight. "A familiar sin, but always one of the favorites around here. You'll be fun, won't you?"

She moved on to Zoe, stepping up onto the carpet with the rest of us. She moved her face up close to Zoe's throat, sniffed deeply and dreamily, her eyes half-closed. "Nice," she said, licking her blackened lips with a long blood-red tongue. "So much vice. Murder, greed, theft, the works." Toxaxas snuggled up close, smiled, and ran her tongue up Zoe's cheek. Zoe flinched away a little, but the demon wrapped her arms around her prize. "Pride, too. So much pride. And hate-sex. My word, you're just dripping with hate-sex, aren't you?"

"And envy, too. The good ol' green-eyed monster." Toxaxas licked Zoe's cheek again. "Ya know how we deal with envy here?"

She luxuriantly ran her tongue higher up Zoe's cheek, higher, higher, flicked the tip of her tongue against her eyeball. Zoe made a muffled shriek and pinched her eyelids closed, but Toxaxas actually managed to brute-force the eyelid open with her tongue. Zoe twitched and jerked frantically, but there was a sickening slurp and a light rip. Toxaxas stepped back so we could see that she was holding Zoe's eye in her teeth by the optic nerve. Zoe screamed louder, almost managing to push the scream all the way through the sludge gag covering her mouth.

Toxaxas slurped the optic nerve up like a strand of spaghetti. She held the eyeball lightly between her teeth, smiled at Zoe, and bit down. The eye popped like a crushed grape, and black liquid dribbled down the demon's chin. "No more green-eyed monster," Toxaxas said.

"So classy, Toxaxas," said Bhauriel, unamused and grim.

"Do you want the other eye, big brother?" laughed Toxaxas. "I could have it out in a moment."

"Complete your inspection, Toxaxas," Azaranel growled.

Toxaxas laughed and wiped her chin off on the sleeve of her jacket. She turned to Rev. Rob and immediately broke into a huge smile. "Hey, look! It's the TV preacher!"

She walked behind him, and Rev. Rob flinched away as hard as he could, his anger forgotten. "A genuine celebrity! The holy man! God's greatest advocate!" she said, her voice rising in excitement. She wrapped one arm around him from behind, and Rev. Rob began crying. "Betrayer of your children, your wife, your lover, and your parents. Sponsor of bigotry, hatemongering, blackmail, and crimes of the most colorful sort. Swindler. Conspirator. Serial rapist. Life-wrecker."

She smiled gleefully and braced her feet, her free arm pushed against Rob's back. "You carried His book next to your heart, but you never cracked it open once. You did everything we asked of you."

She shoved her arm through his back and out through his chest. It wasn't an arm anymore -- it looked like a bloody-black tentacle or a shattered shard of bone. Rob looked down at the spike through his chest, blood dribbling out of his nose and from the corners of his eyes.

"Give them to us, Azaranel," Toxaxas gasped greedily. "We can wait no longer."

Without a word, Azaranel waved a hand, the black sludge withdrew from the damned souls, and the demons pulled all three of them off the carpet. They disappeared into a dogpile of claws and teeth and spines.

After a few minutes, Toxaxas strolled back to the carpet, her black suit and her face liberally coated with gore. She was holding a thick chunk of torn meat in her non-transformed hand and chewing happily.

"Ever seen a deltoid?" she asked, holding up her meal for us to look at. "Now you have. Want a nibble?"

Maria swooned back into Bhauriel's arms. Toxaxas laughed.

"They didn't suffer, at least not too much," she said. "The Damned never do. Eternal torment was a myth invented by your theologians and ministers. I mean, what would be the point? Does your oh-so-merciful Heavenly Father get off on condemning sinners to unending torture? I've met Him, and trust me, he doesn't care about crap like that. Do you think that we'd have some sadistic desire to boil billions of people in lava until the end of time? Just because they didn't follow some outdated code of ethics? Fuck no. I mean, I enjoy inflicting suffering as much as any demon. But eternity? We don't have enough room for us, much less billions of screeching mortals."

Toxaxas took another big bite of deltoid, noisily slurping up a stray trickle of blood.

"The Damned come here because Hell needs food," she said. "That's all there is to it."

She turned to Azaranel. "They've done their witnessing," she said. "Get 'em out of here. They make me sick."

"Thanks for your time, Toxaxas," said Bhauriel, and the carpet lifted off and began flying upwards again.

We all stayed silent until we'd left Hell's caverns. Then Yun said, "That was wrong. They did not deserve that. No one does."

"He's right," Maria and I said together.

"Let the demons starve," said Andrea. "I wouldn't care. You wouldn't care. There's no reason to let something so horrible happen to people, no matter how much they sinned."

Bhauriel nodded. "It's in your natures to be compassionate and empathetic," he said. "That's why you were Saved and they weren't. It's what makes you all such good people. But you're wrong. Things are the way they are because the Trinity themselves insist that it be so."

"Exactly," said Azaranel from behind us. "It makes good sense to the Trinity, and that's all that really matters." His voice no longer sounded like it was coming out of an open grave, and when we all turned to look at him, he was again the pudgy, balding, white-robed angel we'd originally met.

He smiled and shrugged. "Like I said, I have to wear that form for official duties. I never said I liked it. Besides, as soon as we get back to Heaven, I'm going on break."

We laughed at the idea of angels taking breaks, and the tension was broken for the rest of the trip back to our new home.

When we got back to the Hall of Judgment, Azaranel melted his sludge carpet back into the marble floor, and the four of us were directed to a pair of large wooden doors in the back of the hall. They were decorated with ornate iron and alabaster grillwork. Bhauriel seized the handle on one door, and Azaranel took the other.

"The door to Heaven," they said together, smiling toothily. This was clearly a regular ritual for them, one they very much enjoyed.

"This is the end of the life you once knew," said Bhauriel.

"And the beginning of a new day in Paradise," finished Azaranel.

"This is the time to seek communion with the Heavenly Hosts," said Bhauriel.

"Let all of Heaven rejoice and celebrate with God and His angels," Azaranel said.

"For all are baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea," they said together. "All will eat the same spiritual food and drink the same spiritual drink; for they drink from the spiritual rock that accompanies them, and you, my friends, are that rock."

At that, they pulled the gigantic doors open and bowed low. "Welcome to Heaven," said Bhauriel. "Please enjoy your stay."

All four of us walked through the doors and into the most unearthly and beautiful courtyard I'd ever seen. It was filled with a multitude of angels, all glowing with beauty and glory and holiness. All of them smiling so broadly, so happy to see us. Their eyes glittered like stars in the sky.

I was transfixed, swept away, abjectly weeping with joy that any place could be so glorious and wonderful. I could hear Yun and Maria and Andrea, all crying with happiness. This was the greatest place ever, and my mind was completely overwhelmed by the joy and beauty as we walked into the throngs of angels who had turned out to greet us.

"Welcome, brother," said one of the angels. "We are so happy to see you." Behind me, there was a predatory shing, and Maria was yanked backwards out of sight. Oh, how I wept. How magnificent everything was.

Music was everywhere -- the most fantastic music ever, like a cross between Mozart, Brahms, and Stevie Ray. I called out to Andrea to come dance with me, but she was surrounded by angels. They crowded around her and hid her from view. They lifted her up to kiss her over and over and over.

The sun was so much brighter and more brilliant than it ever had been when I was alive. I called out to Yun, but he couldn't hear me over his own sobs and gurgles. Everything was like a big, endless symphony of joy.

I coughed and looked down. There was something like a bloody-black tentacle or a shattered shard of bone sticking out of my chest. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

I looked up at Bhauriel, standing just beside me. We both smiled so happily at each other.

fearquest

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