The Girl Who Conquered Hell
After eight years on earth and to the surprise of no one, even her mother, Ashleigh found herself on the outskirts of limbo, where the shades of mothers too sinful to see their departed children calmed the screams of the unbaptised. Ashleigh stood before the gates of hell, which were wrought in damnation’s flame from black pearl to mirror those other gates, and which was guarded by two hundred score angels and thrones in permanent camp and siege before the only official entrance to perdition.
A soft, bright voice seemed to call to her, and Ashleigh’s face twisted with all the mad, black fury of an eight year old girl, undiluted by subtlety or fine distinctions, unconstrained by wisdom or experience of the world. The girl’s shade vibrated, resonant with anger, and she turned her face from the light and strode boldly into hell.
There is a force of personality to the young which it tempered only with age, and beyond the gate of Dis this force is no less powerful or inexorable as gravity. Each step Ashleigh took brought her closer to hell, but each step also brought hell closer to her. The stream of shades thinned as their lesser sins were caught in the girl’s aura; the wings of angels scorched in the endless war greyed a little as she passed, and even the archangels cried strange, sweet tears as their burning gaze caught her between the shoulder blades, and Ashleigh carried a bit of their bright rage in her wake.
She stepped past the gate without looking back, the soft voice less than a whisper, but its memory drove her on like a nail in the skull. The breath of hell blew through the gate like an oven, a hot, poisonous exhalation that eroded spiritual substance, but she weathered through the gale, drawn on and in to the welcoming darkness.
On the other side of the gate, she paused for a moment, backlit against the gate, to survey the antechamber of hell. The light from heaven burned her; the soft young skin on the back of her body and limbs crisped to craggy charcoal, broken here and there by volcanic veins to show the fires burning within, but she did not scurry from it as the lesser shades did.
Now did Ashleigh meet her first demons, the wardens and jailors of that place, the idle speculators in souls and the merely cruel who wished to spend a while inflicting eternal torments, the artisans searching for raw materials, and the few free shades who had won the freedom of their souls, but not escaped their damnation. Perhaps they paled a little as she surveyed the sorry lot, demons of fire and shadow and cruelty, for all were older than the world and a little tired, and the greatest and angriest of them could not match the rage of an eight year old girl. She smiled, and perhaps a few of them shuddered. One warrior stared into her eyes, fingering the cruel barbed hook at its side, but its gaze slipped. Her eyes narrowed and darkened. Ashleigh drew in the hot air of hell in great gasps.
There are no insubstantial ghosts in hell, for it is as real a place as any world where pain and fire and darkness may exist, and hell is a realm of rock and ice, iron and foul waters, and the shades of hell are clothed in durable bodies which rend and tear and repair themselves. They must be durable, for the strength of a soul is not just in their limbs but their inner fire, the hate that drives men to become demons, the lust of succubi, which is sapped by sorrow and loss that twists and hollow them out until there is nothing left…and that nothing may last to eternity, or until the cold, bleak promise of forgiveness for those that would allow themselves to be forgiven, if they could ever forgive themselves.
Ashleigh’s scream heralded her rage. Unmitigated, heedless of the cracks that webbed her skin, she vented forth the full force of her young life on those wretches there. The blazing souls were extinguished as candles in a hurricane, then were lost and blown away as tiny sparks from the forge. The demons lasted longer, each a pillar of dark power, but the young girl’s anger was as the wind of ages, and they could do not but weather that sheer elemental power. They stood as statues as their outer forms crumbled away, the temporal masks discarded as her rage literally ate away at all the pretense and flaws that had brightened and shaped their darkness for millennia. Pillars of black rock crumbled, and the black earth of hell cracked as though itself wounded by Ashleigh’s rage and pain.
When she stopped, the demons were little more than molded stumps, black glassy statues in vague parody of their former shape, against which surface a stark face could sometimes be seen reflected, looking out from their dark prisons.
So Ashleigh walked through hell, and hell fled before her. The generals of hell at first tried to match her darkness with darkness, but the armies they sent were swept before her by the black wind that flew from her soul. Darkling spies reported the cruelties she inflicted on those shades she knew in life, who were chained and made to follow her. The Queen of Whores thought to find a shred of innocence in her, a crack in her shell to exploit and humble the girl and so sent succubi and incubi despoil her with terrible lusts, or let themselves be despoiled if it would ease her fury. Their carcasses were found nailed in obscene positions along the main avenue of hell, and the armies of the damned retreated before her.
Lucifer met Ashleigh on the steps to his imperial palace, a dark giant surrounded by the nimbus of a star. The trek through hell, the battles with his legions, had left their mark on her—skin the color of dark smoke, black scars where infernal blades or fire had kissed her, the wounds leaked ugly, thin black fluids that left streaks in the ash that clung to her naked body and hair. She carried a long-handled axe of black steel, the weapon of some great general fallen in battle, longer than she was tall. Lucifer drew out his own blade, a ghostly and beautiful thing, curved into a gentle crescent more reminiscent of a sickle than a sword.
She threw the axe at the fallen angel’s head; he batted it aside, but by then she was upon him. There was no grace to her combat, no bravado or ego, only a brutal and vicious skill that reminded Lucifer of nothing less than the ancient Erinyes. Ashleigh bit and clawed and howled and screamed, and the storm of her fury tore at the dark giant as much as her nails and teeth did. He could not grapple with her properly, as his size was to his disadvantage, and her force was all the more concentrated for her small body. So he struggled and scratched and stabbed, and they scrabbled on the steps of the palace while hell looked on. She found his unmentionables, and sought to unman him; she gouged at eyes, ears, nostrils and armpits, wherever a vulnerable spot might lie. It was the combat of a young girl, and all the millions of years of battle with his brother angels had not prepared Lucifer for this simple ferocity.
So finally he yielded. The black wings stooped and the black halo’s radiance grew dim, and he who had not bended knee since before the fall bent full at the waist, and presented his sword to that rebellious spirit that outshone his own.
Ashleigh took the blade in both hands, for it was taller than her, and marveled at it for a heartbeat – and then swung it back at the fallen angel full force, and his stately head rolled in the dirt of hell, blinking in surprise.
Now the throne of hell sits on a peak, the westmost and tallest hill in that city, which was laid on the bones of Azazel before the fall of man, and it was known as Golgotha, for there Azazel’s skull was laid, to stare forever at the gates of heaven, even as Lucifer’s palace went up over and around it, until the encroaching construction cut off even that sight. Ashleigh sits there now, and terrorizes hell with her fits of pique. Above the throne she has set the head of Lucifer on a pike.
She dresses his locks in painful braids with black ribbons, and painted his face like a whore, and pierced his ears with her own hands, and cut off his eyelids so he could no blink. Sometimes she sets it too look once more at that eternal glory evermore denied it, and else she turns it about so that Lucifer can see what has become of his kingdom. But never was there a tomboy that tortured an insect who was more cruel and disaffected than Ashleigh with her great plaything, and never did any of the devils in hell ever once think of rescue, for the long hours she spent at play with her toy were the only respite they had from that unholy terror, the girl who conquered hell.
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