As I open my eyes, the mist clears and I find myself in a monumental spa, fully covered with black marble. Basins with gold taps line the sides, and I can just make out the labels, recognizing some of the finest Bordeaux vintages. My eye lights on an artisanal Black Forest gin, while my nose picks up the distinctive peaty aroma of a Talisker whisky.
I step out of the Olympic-sized pool, cosily wrapped in a fluffy black bathrobe, my feet shod in jewelled slippers. A figure in a dapper black uniform with slicked-back black hair glides up, wheeling a gold-plated drinks trolley. With a fixed blank smile, he proffers a huge triangular glass filled with vivid red liquid and two black olives on a cocktail stick. I eye it dubiously and he bows slightly. “Demon’s Blood & Balls”, he rasps metallically, “everyone’s favourite down here.”
I hate to be so rude as to refuse a drink, so I raise the glass to my lips and sip cautiously. “Not bad, you must give me the recipe for my next Halloween bash.”
A door opens somewhere, and my ears pick out the thumping chords of a hard rock anthem. Sounds of merriment rise above the music – raucous laughter, loud clapping and stamping of feet. My nostrils catch a pungent whiff of strong drink and smoke, and I cough.
“Sounds like the mosh pit on a manic Saturday night.” I glance anxiously at the robot demon as the music gets louder, accompanied by head banging, shouts and crashes as if a fight has just broken out. He shrugs boredly: “Dudes rocking out down in the Dives.”
Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to. (Martin Luther)
At this moment something catches the corner of my eye and I turn, gasp and splutter at the vision of a strikingly attractive woman emerging from a circle of fire. A halo of flaming red curls sparkles round her face, accentuating her white skin and piercing emerald eyes. Her long black robe clings and swirls round her hips as she sways forward.
“Woo hoo! Hi Sybil, I’m glad you’re impressed. I’ve been perfecting this party trick for a while. Welcome to Club Hellzapoppin’!”
“What? Where are we? Is this Hell? It doesn’t seem so bad really, a bit flashy but I could enjoy a luxury spa break. And who are you, witch or demon?”
She looks slightly offended. “I am the Lady Morgana. Once I was a powerful shaman in your land, but now I work down here.”
“The Gods were displeased that I banged up my master Merlin in a crystal cave. I thought it was a cool trick to pave the way for my overdue promotion, but the Gods took a dim view of this abuse of my magical powers, which were taken away from me as a punishment.
“I languished down here for quite a while, cooling my heels. Then this job opportunity came up under the massive reorganization. Now I’m a guide and trainee chthonic deity. It was a hard fall, but I enjoy my new work and I’m certainly learning a lot about the dark side of human nature, which is useful.
“I feel terrible about what happened, but I was young and arrogant, at the height of my powers. So it was move over, daddy-o. Luckily Merlin’s forgiven me and came out of it better than me. He was getting a bit bored guarding the entrance with only the Dog for company, so he selflessly volunteered as a counsellor down in the Dungeons. It’s a challenge working with those you somewhat harshly and erroneously call the Damned. The spell has to run its course, but he now gets a reduced sentence for good behaviour. I’m eternally grateful to Merlin who taught me everything I know, except I learned Defence Against the Dark Arts from Hekate.”
“Aha, nothing like a horrible hag to teach you hexing 😉 ”
“We’ve all seen brighter days, but don’t diss Hekate. She has a high lineage and many talents. Her first job was assisting Lord Ra’s daily rebirth as midwife. Do you think he would have got out of bed every day without her ministrations? From the stellar realm to the netherworld is a long journey (and a longer story), but let’s just say I learned my craft from the best badass sorceress in the land. A girl needs to look after herself in a place like this.”
“What do you mean?” I ask nervously.
“It’s hard out here for a bitch. Oh, but don’t you worry, Sybil, you’re our guest. Besides your guides are all around you, even though you’re paying them no attention.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Morgana. Even so, it’s a bit gloomy down here, and what about all the scary stories?”
“Let’s curl up together on this brand new black leather sofa and finish our drinks, then I’ll tell you some new stories.”
Already legless, I sit down carefully beside her, somewhat overpowered by her heavy perfume (Poison, at a guess). She whips out a slim black cigarette holder, inserts a cigarette which spontaneously combusts, inhales deeply and blows perfect smoke rings round my head. “Cheers,” she raises her glass, downing it in one. “Hot damn, my special is good, though I say so myself. It is said that in Paradise the wine flows freely, while in Hell you mix your own poison.”
“Oh really? And what do they drink in Heaven?”
Her lip curls sardonically. “The healthy option of course: mineral water, or a kale smoothie if you must. Oh and in the Pureland Paradise they serve aloe vera juice for the hardcore yogis. Dullsville! Have another drink?” I shake my head vigorously, now totally rat-arsed. Morgana pours herself another large one and knocks it back like there’s no tomorrow.
Demon Drink glides up and collects our glasses. I lie back on the sofa, trying to concentrate as Morgana begins her discourse.