Hotter'n Hell, hotter'n the hubs of Hades -- you'd think with such sayings the place down below should be just that, but I know differently. The summer I turned eighteen I wandered into Hell without knowing it. Almost froze my tail off.
Couldn't believe my eyes when I came across the demon down there. I'd climbed around caves most of my life, but never saw anything ugly as that horny, spade-tailed critter who tried to latch onto me. Guess it was my first clue I'd gone a bit too deep.
Being skinny has its advantages in spelunking, and I'd explored nearly every cave around my home in western Virginia. Most times I'd go with my friends, but something about that cave in the North Carolina hills begged me to search a bit farther than the guys wanted to. We'd been down several hours when I told them to go back.
"Aw come on, Marty! You know it isn't safe to stay down alone," Ralph whined. The others joined in until I hollered. Echo shut 'em up real quick. Their headlamps spun around the stalactites and stalagmites like a crazy light-show, nearly blinding me.
"Hey, lighten up guys. Just want to poke around a bit in the far chamber. Won't take long. Besides, none of you could fit through that fissure." I grinned. They all tended to be a bit pudgy.
"Yeah right, Bones. Rub it in," one of them growled. "Just don't stay too long. Don't wanna have to call the rangers to haul your skinny butt outta there."
We settled for a two-hour limit. They left me string, rope, a full canteen, and a soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich in case I got hungry. Never figured that sticky thing would save my life, but it did.
I waited for them to tromp off, then went back to the thin opening I'd spied earlier. The walls glittered with mica, promising some spectacular sights beyond. I hoped to find a clear pool and maybe some crystalline structures. Sucked in my breath to squeeze through the opening, but it all left me when I came out the other side.
Beyond a ledge about six feet wide yawned a black chasm my light couldn't pierce. Cursing my luck, I turned to leave. My eyes lit on hollows carved down one side. Steps going into the pit made me mighty curious. Visions of an outlaw's hoard or Confederate gold leaped to mind. Didn't want to share with anyone unless I had to.
I tied the rope around a stalagmite's base, then held on for dear life as I started down the chiseled footholds. Shivers ran up my spine at the smooth, regular holes. Who could have done such work? And why?
I shrugged off the jitters and moved deeper. Got colder and colder the further I went till I felt like I'd stumbled into Old Man Dryer's meat locker. The steps expanded into another shelf as the rope's end slipped through my hands. Tied a string to it, then went exploring. The ledge curved around, widening into a huge chamber.
Creeps shivered up my arms from more than cold. I didn't need my light here. Weird, gleaming balls flitted around the ceiling and walls. Some formations looked like chairs and tables.
Dark liquid pooled on the tables, slowly dripping onto the channeled floor. Large cracks gaped like screaming mouths at the empty chamber's far end beside a huge throne-like piece.
"Whoa!" I whispered and stepped closer for a better look at the odd creation. Stalagmites and stalactites had formed a definite back, seat, and arms. Hated to think about the creature's size that would use such a thing.
Sulfurous gas billowed out. I backed up, bumped against a table, and got some of the thick, gooey liquid on my hand. Barely choked back a nervous laugh. Stuff looked black until my headlamp caught it. Blood? I shuddered. Naw, just my imagination working overtime. Still, the place smelled and looked fit for the Devil himself.
Should've kept that unthought. No sooner had it passed through my mind than two red, glowing eyes appeared beside the massive shape.
"What is your business here, mortal?" The words rang in my ears. I cringed. Lord, what had I gotten myself into?
"Uh, begging your pardon, I just was exploring this cave and stumbled on this place." Hated the sound of my voice, all tinny and whiny as Ralph's.
"My Lord does not receive visitors, only those destined to remain here." The thing came toward me; bat-winged, scaled, horned, and fanged, like something out of a preacher's nightmare.
"Thanks for telling me, but I'm not ready to pass on one way or the other." I kept my eyes on it and started backing toward the ledge.
"Fool, now that you have come, think you it so easy to leave?" It laughed a horrid, hissing sound. "You would amuse my Lord for a bit. Perhaps you should stay awhile."
I shook my head and scrambled back along the string. Never paid attention to the rope, just clambered up those stairs on hands and knees faster than I'd ever moved. Almost felt the thing's frosty breath on my neck, but didn't want to look down or back. Kept going till I got to the top, then unhooked the rope and threw it down.
The creature flew up out of the dark, leathery wings fanning frigid air around me. Its long, forked tongue flicked out, snakelike; its eyes burned with icy fire.
"A sacrifice must be made, mortal. Else there will be all Hell to pay." The demon lunged. I flattened against the wall, its rough surface scraping my back. The demon leaned so close its breath, stinking like rotten eggs, clouded my glasses. If I could've melted into the rock I would've done it then and there.
"But it's all a mistake!"
"No mistake. Only those whose time it is, stray to my Lord's realm." A taloned finger pointed at my chest. "Did you not have greed, lust, hatred, or some such vice in your soul when you descended?"
I gulped, remembering not wanting to share the 'treasure.' The thing looked satisfied at my expression. Desperate, I groped around in my backpack. If only I could find something to convince it there must be some other way. Its eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"What are you doing?" I didn't answer, just felt for anything that might catch it off guard. What I came up with was the soggy PBJ sandwich.
"All I've got is this. It's not much, but you can have it." I held it out, eyes squeezed tight. Fully expected the creature to rip off my arm.
Nothing happened, but something sounded like a mutt snuffling around a garbage can. I opened one eye slightly and strangled a hysterical chuckle. It sniffed the sandwich with a humming sound. How could it act like something so ordinary as a dog? Then again, maybe an object as ho-hum as a PBJ sandwich might pull my chestnuts out of the fire. The creature cautiously snatched the sodden mass from my hand without touching me.
"Mmm. Most curious. What is this thing?"
"It's food." I wasn't sure if I should lie, but figured it would know if I did. The demon's tongue flicked out to touch the wrapped sandwich. The fiend might eat it, wax paper and all, then blame me if it got sick. I put my hand out.
The monster reared back, its wings expanded.
"What! Would you retract your offering?" It roared.
I covered my ears and waited for the sound to die down.
"No, but the white stuff on the outside there," I pointed to the wrapping. "You can't eat that. It'd make a human sick. I've no idea what it would do to you."
"Hmm. Thoughtful of you to consider that." The demon's wings relaxed. It unwrapped the sandwich, then devoured the entire thing in one bite. Its eyes closed as if considering my
fate. Took my chance to inch toward the fissure.
"Halt, mortal." It didn't sound angry, just like it expected me to do as it said. It hadn't finished with me yet, but I hoped it wouldn't want anything else.
"Was it enough? I mean for an offering."
"I believe so, but my Lord will wish more of this. Next time you return you must bring a greater quantity of these curious food items."
I groaned, pretty sure I'd never go near another cave the rest of my life.
"OK, but can't say when I'll be back. I don't live around here."
The demon chuckled. It wasn't a pleasant sound. A chill seemed to sink right into my bones, especially with its last words.
"Oh, that is all right. I have all the time in the universe. You will be back and if not of your own choosing, a messenger will retrieve you."
It flapped its wings again, blasts of Arctic air blowing me against the wall, then vanished. I shook the entire way back through the fissure, the outer caves and into camp. All I could see was that devilish face's satisfaction and feel certain I hadn't seen the last of it.
Found out I'd only been gone about thirty minutes. Must've looked a sight too, because the guys said I looked like I'd seen a ghost. Somehow I managed to smile and joke about almost falling off a ledge, but I didn't sleep well that night. Kept expecting the sound of leathery wings and the touch of icy breath. Even my dreams didn't give me rest. I woke up with its voice hissing in my ear. Going home appealed to me like it hadn't in years.
Never told the guys what happened. A year passed, but even Ralph's pestering couldn't get me down again. Didn't matter though, because I swore something watched me. Every time I'd think about doing something I shouldn't I'd remember the demon's promise. Someday I'd feel that bone-deep chill again, but I hoped it was wrong. Wished I hadn't poked around down there.
Though I tried to mend my ways, I kept a good supply of peanut butter and jelly around.
When the Devil called, I wanted to make sure he got his due. Never believed before, but figured I'd doomed myself on account of my greedy curiosity and a PBJ sandwich.
Last full moon, something scratched on my window. I fumbled for my glasses. A demon a lot like the one I'd faced off in the caves hovered outside, tapping on the glass. I got up and flipped on my light. Maybe the thing would leave. No such luck.
"Let me in, Martin," ordered my nightmare's voice. I backed away. It laughed. "You cannot avoid me. I will return until allowed entrance."
Might as well get it over. I trudged over and unlatched the window, sure I'd probably end up in its lair. Watched in horror as the creature crammed through. I didn't move, not even blinking. Once inside it stretched, closed its eyes, then within a breath's time, changed. A beautiful naked woman stood in the demon's place.
"Shall we get the food you promised?" Her voice hinted the creature's hiss.
"OK," I croaked and led the way to our kitchen. Hadn't considered a female demon. Fed her PBJ's and milk, which seemed to please her, it, or whatever. The demoness Tzilla stayed till sunup, then vanished without a word. Couldn't help wishing she'd come back.
She returns every night, never asking for anything more. Guess someday I'll have to follow her, but for now I count on her visits. Makes me consider my soul's condition because I think she likes me. Worse, I feel the same toward her. Got a job hanging sides of beef at Dryer's Butcher Shop. Pretty much used to the meat locker's cold. Seems mighty comfortable, more so than it should, but nothing's been the same since I met Tzilla.