"Now, all of the other new fiends were already picked up. You are the last one of the day. They made me wait all evening for you to wake up. The Chop Shop is only open during the 'day'. Even demons like to have some time off. Can’t say I know exactly why.” Shards shrugged. “And before you ask I volunteered to stay behind I thought you looked interesting. Well, that is enough chitchat for now. Hold out your hand and let me see that trial piece."
Clutched tightly in Mason's left hand was a chess piece carved out of a coal black stone. It was a horse, the knight.
"Okay, your new name is Knight. Not very original, I know, but I did say fiends as a whole are not very creative. Now we need to get back to camp quickly. I know you can't tell yet, but this is the time when the demons start getting uneasy. If they torture a few fiends now and then no one really cares. You are in Hell now."
He pointed to the sky that had blazing red stripes all across it. “When the red streaks appear in the sky, that is when it is ‘night’. We call it 'true dark.'”
They followed a broken path of asphalt and Mason could see mountains in the distance. They were made of shale and obsidian and they scraped at the sky like bony fingers clawing for freedom.
Mason stumbled numerous times as the added weight on his back affected his balance. Each time Shards would utter a bark of laughter before offering his hand. One time, Mason took his hand for Shards to pull him back up, before he was shoved back down again. Shards responded to this with several more hoots of laughter.
"I'm sorry Knight, that was just too easy! Here I will help you up this time. No tricks."
He held out his hand again, but Mason slapped it away. "I can get up by myself just fine, thank you very much."
Shards responded by uttering another chortle of laughter. They wandered for another mile and Mason's feet began to ache. Periodically, he would stretch his wings trying to get used to the feel of his new muscles. He extended them as far as he could before the chains ceased his efforts. All in all, his wings were about twenty feet long and seven feet tall; however, he could extend his wings only two feet from his back. The wings were beautiful, but he didn't think he would ever be able to use them to fly.
After two more miles they had reached the base of the mountains.
"Now here the path gets tricky," Shards said, "so stay close to me. Over these mountains is the place we fiends call home."
They walked up the steep side of the mountain, passing crows, kites, and vultures. The scavenging birds watched them climb with hungry eyes.
"Be careful about what you say around those birds; they answer to demons we call scavengers. The birds listen to our conversations and take the new found knowledge back to their masters. But here is the weird part, we have only seen one of their masters... She was wearing a dusty brown cloak and her eyes shone amber in the dark light. We saw a kite land on her right arm and whisper our secrets into her ear." He gestured toward the birds. "All we know for sure is that if we talk too freely around them, the leader of Division Y, Cherin, comes and pays us a little visit. A very painful visit, too, I might add."
"Here is the truth, plain and simple. There are certain fiends who like to think that this camp I am taking you to is a haven. But no matter how much these fiends want to believe that there is a safe place in Hell, there isn't. Our little camp is out of the way and hard to reach, so we don't get visitors very often, but the demons still know we are here." Shards continued.
"In other words, no one and nowhere is safe."
"Exactly, kid. Keep your head down and try to stay out of trouble."
They climbed to the summit of the mountain where Mason stood at an altitude that was higher than most of the mountains in the Himalayas. From this vantage point he could see the layout of Level 1. Far below he saw the Chop Shop, to the east he saw the line of souls and the river, and in the far western corner was an ancient forest. The trees appeared to be massive. All of their leaves were either vibrant shades of gold, orange, or red and the whole forest looked as if it was on fire.
Shards stopped and looked at Mason. "It's called The Grove of the Ancients. It's true the forest is quite beautiful and all new fiends are lost in its magnificence. But be warned, Knight, the forest is not a kind place. Many fiends have wandered into it and none of them have ever returned. A beast lurks in the tree's shadows."
"I understand, but there is something enchanting about the forest. I can't seem to look away."
Shards took hold of his shoulder and pulled him along. "It's time to go to summer camp, Knight. Look." he pointed to the camp below. "That is our destination."
Mason caught his first view of the camp. It was located in a valley that was nestled between the mountains. The ground was a barren stretch of land. Fiends were walking across it, looking for all the world to him like a colony of ants, without organized efforts though, of course. There were two small buildings constructed on either end of the camp and the closest one had a small red cross on the door. The camp was protected on three sides by a cluster of mountains whose massive walls wrapped around the camp; however, one side of the camp was open to the elements. A large desert that stretched out to the horizon on the southern end was at the camp's doorstep.
As Mason descended the mountain, he started to notice some of the details of the camp's layout. Tarps and tents were constructed around small campfires. Some souls were playing a game of cards while others kicked around a plant that resembled a tumbleweed.
"Where did you get these materials?” Mason asked.
"The demons gave us some equipment. They thought that since we still have our human emotions that we should have some basic necessities. They agree that causing the fiends to go insane before we have even transferred to a different level wouldn't be as much fun in the long run. We have two simple buildings: one," he pointed to the building in the far corner, “is the base for our own special scavengers. While that one over there is our asylum.”
"So the demons are just treating this like some sick game where we are the pieces."
"Yes and we are playing a game where our opponents are always two steps ahead."
They walked into the camp and Shards gestured to all that it contained. "Welcome to Dieman Camp. Where fiends are your friends."
“Is that some kind of joke?" Knight inquired.
"Yeah, there isn't enough humor in Hell so we make a few jokes every now and then."
Knight glanced around the encampment. It was a huge space filled to the brim with fiends. He could instantly locate the new arrivals. They were all huddled around a small campfire away from the games and chatting of older fiends. He looked into the eyes of the closest one and saw a blank stare. It was the empty look of one who was devoid of any emotion. The fiend had retreated into a shell to protect what was left of her conscious. It reminded Mason of distant memories that were better left untampered. He tried to lock the memories back into the recesses of his mind, but they rushed forward without his consent.
He was probably six years old. He had just moved to a new town and all of the neighborhood kids were outside playing. He was sitting on the window seat as he watched the kids through the window lattice.
"Mom, can I go play with them?" He pointed to the children.
"Honey, you know you cannot go out until your arithmetic is finished."
The simple worksheet sat unfinished on his desk.
"Can I go play after I finish it?"
"Yes honey, but what do I always say: strangers are...?"
"Unpredictable" he finished remembering her daily quote. "I'll be careful."
The scene dissolved and a new one took its place.
He was outside playing in the sunshine. A little boy with smoky brown hair approached him timidly. "Can I play with you?"
"Sure." He held out his hand. His mom was very clear on how he should introduce himself even at a young age. "My name is Mason."
The boy looked at his outstretched hand and gave him a high five. "My name is Grayson. Nice ta meetcha."
The days went by and Mason continued to meet and play with Grayson after school. Mason's father was delighted that his son had a friend, but his mother only tsked unappreciatively when he went to see Grayson. The father turned to speak to his wife.
"Mason and Grayson." he mused, "those boys will be the best of friends."
"I don't know," she replied. "We have yet to meet his parents. And you know I don't trust strangers."
"Dear, you fret over the most inconsequential things and we both know it."
"Let's go for a walk. We have been here nearly two weeks and you have yet to whisk me away on a magical stroll." She held out her.
He looked from it to her face. He took her hand in his and together they walked out of the house.
"You're up to something," he said to her.
"No I'm not."
"You want to check on Mason. He is fine I assure you."
"What...why would you think that?"
"Don't lie to me."
"Okay, okay. I wanted to check on Mason."
It didn't take long to find him. Mason had a soccer ball tucked under his arm and he was standing in front of an empty house. It was the only empty house on the street. In the front yard was a solemn sign that read Sold in big red letters.
"He's gone." Mason muttered under his breath.
"What's wrong, honey?" Molly asked.
"Grayson. This was his house. He didn't even say goodbye."
"Hey son, let's go to the park this afternoon."
A shuddering sigh left Mason. He turned and followed his parents to the park, confusion clearly seen in his eyes.
The next memory flooded forth and he winced inwardly remembering that fateful day.
It was one week later.
"Molly," Stanley called, "did you see the front page of the newspaper. It's beyond words. Who would do that? I can't even begin to imagine the problems those parents have."
She walked wordlessly over to the kitchen table, strewn across was that day's newspaper. The front page read "Boy Found Dead in Motel Apartment".
Six-year-old Grayson Tyro was found dead in a motel apartment. He had multiple knife lacerations, broken bones, and bruise marks on his legs and arms. The autopsy confirmed he died from a knife wound on his chest. The medical examiner stated that the boy has been dead for about ten hours. The leading suspects are his parents. The hotel clerk stated she saw them leaving the motel early this morning. The maid found the boy when she went to clean the room. The suspects are still at large and are considered highly dangerous. If you have any information please contact the county police station at 576-2146.
It showed a picture of the victim when he was alive. It was Grayson's first grade photo. He was smiling, but it was the smile of a timid schoolchild still unsure of how life unfolds. It was a crooked smile with two front teeth missing. It was a smile that filled his eyes. The smile only a child could have, a smile uncorrupted by the incivility of life.
It was the same little boy Mason knew.
"Little Grayson is dead." Molly whispered shocked.
"Poor Mason. He is going to be so sad."
"We don't have to tell him. He would never see Grayson again anyway. Why should he have to go through that pain?"
They heard the door slam shut. Mason was running across the front lawn. He had heard the entire conversation.
"Mason come back! We were only thinking of what would be best for you!" Molly yelled after him.
They found him on the front doorstep of Grayson's old house. Earlier Mason had pounded his fists on the door.
And he had screamed, "Why, Grayson?! Why won't you come out and play? Why? Can't you hear me? Open the door!" He had sobbed and his words had been broken by the muffled crying, but now he sat on the doorstep soundlessly and glassy eyed.
"Mason," Molly called softly. "It’s time to go home now."
He looked at her but he didn't recognize her. His gaze was that of the empty eyed fiend. He was only a shell now: a ghost of his former self. And maybe, although Mason would never admit it, he had stayed that way all through life. Maybe only now after he had died could the shell be broken.
Shards waved his hand in front of Mason's eyes. "Hello? Anybody home?"
Mason blinked, returning to the current world around him. Returning to Hell. "Sorry, I was momentarily lost in thought. What were you saying?"
"Well before you lapsed out of reality, I was discussing the lack of humor in Hell, but now on to the next subject. We round up new arrivals every day and lead them to this camp. We usually bring them all at once after the Krocodilians close up shop for the day. I would have carried you, but you are pretty heavy and my strength has been deteriorating as of late. You need to seriously think about laying off all the Twinkies.” Shards poked him in the stomach. “So you got the special treatment of having a private escort."
"Do you have any idea on how many fiends are on this level?"
"No. We used to try to keep count but with so many new souls arriving each day and so many fiends failing the trials and being cast into a different level it was very confusing," Shards answered.
"Oh, well isn't that just a little depressing."
"Actually it is really depressing. It just makes you want to die." Shards broke into laughter at his dark joke.
"Well, I have had a long day." Mason replied without laughing. "Is there any place I can get some shut eye?"
Shards pointed to some sleeping mats. "Make your own bed, and you might want to make it close to the fire. Surprisingly, it gets rather chilly in Hell."
Mason unrolled a sleeping bag beside the fire. Shards settled in close and began to tinker with a few pieces of broken glass next to his bed. He built a small but intricate structure before he destroyed it with a sweep of his hand.
Mason tossed and turned for a while trying to get into a comfortable position, but he was trying to sleep in Hell. The ground was hard and bumpy with small sharp rocks. Mason kept rolling over them when he moved around. He thought about what had happened to him today. This morning, at least he thought it was the morning, he had woken up in a jail cell and now he was lying next to a fiend in Hell. It was so different. As if he was living another life and the events that were happening to him now were happening to a different person. But eventually, because sleep is patient, Knight fell into its soft embrace.
In his dream he was on a grassy hill. The night was dark and still. The stars shone brilliantly from the heavens. It was first time he had seen stars since he had arrived in Hell. A woman stepped forward and approached him. She wore a dress as dark as the sky. She appeared young, about late twenties, except her hair was completely white.
"Hello, Mason. The time has come for you to succeed me." her voice was soft and light, similar to a breeze caressing the grass.
"Wha-" Mason started to ask, but she silenced him with a raised hand.
"My time has come and gone and I do not have enough strength to answer your questions. I can only tell you what is necessary, but first a gift that will comfort you in the long years to come." She held out a bronze locket. Mason took it carefully in his hands. He opened the clasp and saw a picture of a beautiful woman with copper skin and striking charcoal eyes with streaks of silver. On the other panel was the word Hope.
"You have been chosen for a task and your destiny has already started to unfold. You cannot refuse the task that is presented to you. There have been very few of our kind. A person is born with the potential of becoming one of us only once in a thousand years. The original three still live in a suspended state, as was their wish. Now you will join our ranks as I leave it. Mason you are . . . "
"Knight wake up! Earth to Knight, do you read me? WAKE UP!" Shards was yelling into his ear and shaking his shoulder roughly. They sky was dark, but it no longer had red streaks. True night was over.
"Okay, I'm awake. Stop with the yelling in my ear." Mason grumbled.
"Get up quickly. They’re coming."