Above them, the cliff stretched up forever; below it dropped sheer into the mists and the flames that glimmered behind them. There was a roaring of beasts, a crackle of abstract noise, and a stench of something disgusting when alive, long dead and gently charring.
The ledge was sometimes slick with ice, sometimes so hot that the soles of their feet smoked and blackened. Every so often the weak chose to leap down into the mist or lost their footing and went down screaming; many newcomers were never allowed to find a place there at all, but sent staggering into a fall the moment they arrived.
This was their place, the place of the strong, and minions and fledgelings of other lesser gets did not belong among them. The Firstcomer in particular regularly patrolled, seizing and hurling from the ledge most of those he encountered as he had thrown those who had arrived with him.
'I like my space,' he said with a charming smile and a flick of his blond mane.
Some even of the strong had gone of their own accord; those who had failed the German before his death had jumped as a group within seconds of his sarcastic arrival.
Except for the Whore whose subsequent eventual disappearance from plain sight formed one of the few subjects of discussion about which any of them bothered to have anything resembling conversation.
There was no food and no water and a constant hunger and thirst that burned to the bone. Those whose hunger and thirst was for blood found no relief from tearing at the throats of the few others; the blood they stole tore at their gullets like acid and the bites they inflicted healed in seconds with a pain like a century of flaying.
The Greek had slumped to the ground in silence after a few decades; few had the strength to even try and move him towards the edge, even before the stone of the ledge had grown up around his cloven feet, his long sinewy legs and his lower body. The sullen stoic expression of agony on his face showed that the stone burned or froze him all the worse for touching more of his flesh.
Mostly, they ignored him; the Firstcomer and the German had always disliked him even more than each other and the speed of his failure against Her and the other one had made him the object of a contempt too deep even to be voiced as ridicule.
If anyone came too close to him, if some pushy arrogant newcomer tried to use him, his mouth was still full of sharpness; he could uproot a whole limb with the tearing force of that jaw and neck muscles like those of a greater beast. Once at least he had torn himself roaring out of the living rock, when he saw among the crowd his former confederate, the Trickster - had torn the creature limbless with four quick vast bites and hurled the living shrieking hulk from the ledge in seconds, before seating himself back among the torn fragments of his thighs and feet, letting them and the rock heal back around him, and eat it him as they did.
They endlessly told their stories to each other, boasting of their near success against Her, or bemoaning their failures. They were those stories, because they had no names they could remember any more, only the stories, only the names they called each other to keep the stories straight. Thus, the Firstcomer, the German, the Whore and the Californian; the Scientist and the Creature and the woman they called the Slut, because they knew she had fallen further than most of them, and they rejoiced in her humiliation.
When the Californian had arrived, full of plans and promises and tiresomely can-do optimism, the Firstcomer and the German had seized him and torn out his tongue. His blood and sprayed saliva had burned their fingers to nubbins; both his healing and theirs had been fast and painful. After that, he chatted folksily and inanely and eternally in the joyful consciousness that for those two at least, his conversation was an additional part of Hell.
'Geewhilikers,' he would say, 'you folks have taken this all wrong. Just because we are all in the Pit of Ultimate Despair is no excuse not to take a Positive Attitude. '
And would smile at them with the infinite superiority of an American looking at the tired world.
They tore at each other when they were bored, or mocked each other for failures against Her which became more hilarious with every repetition of the stories. When they coupled, as they did incessantly and violently, both semen and other juices burned like blood, and release was another fierce urgent pain; if they refrained from coupling, arousal was constant and almost equally painful without that second of mindlessness which was perhaps their only real respite.
For a while, the Irishman had appeared among them - out of time, because the Californian had met him in the world after his time there - and for a while they had enjoyed, enjoyed so much that they almost forgot that they were there to be punished, tearing and torturing something that was Hers. Something that was Heaven's. Something that had a soul to be tormented with mockery and curses and pain and forcing.
'You could have been my favourite,' the German said, 'and now, just see, you are going to be my favourite anyway. Just fancy what that will mean.'
Only the Whore refrained, for what had passed between them in the world - love and betrayal and betrayal and death - held her back. The only mercy shown to him in that place had been her turning her eyes away from what was done to him, the possibility that there had once been moisture in that place and that she had been allowed the mercy of tears.
And punishment renewed itself, because suddenly he was taken away and they had no more toy. No toy except an even greater appetite that would now have to be exercised on each other.
They never forgot or forgave that the Whore had shown mercy to her killer and hurt her the more for it; when she too vanished, from between them, the German and the Californian stumbled into each other and almost fell.
The Scientist never took part and they never raped or tortured her. She stood at the furthest end of the ledge, watching with hungry glittering eyes and if any came to close to her, she would seize them with the red hot metal hands that were part of her and part of her punishment and whisper secrets into their ears with lips that dripped corrosion as she spoke.
It was notable that her whispered secrets left her victims unable to be aroused or tortured by that arousal for a time, and yet none sought her out as a release from that pain.
Every so often, the Creature disappeared from among them, and each time she gave birth to it again, somehow tearing herself wide to release it and somehow healing again. She never acknowledged it or spoke to it, and it ran from her the second it was born to lurk at the other end and glance at her with tortured Boy Scout eyes.
When the others - the Firstcomer and the German and the Californian - approached it, caressed it and whispered endearments in its ill-matched ears, it would stab at them with the swords in its arms. One of them would seize the swords and plunge them into their own body, relying against judgement that the others would help free them from impalement when they were done with the Creature, would take their turn for piercing while he took his pleasure in turn.
Betrayal was their nature; being betrayed was a part of their Hell.
Above all, they tortured the Slut now, gave her that as her name. She had ruled such a place for years uncountable beyond word or thought or mercy. And this was their Hell now, which they could rule over her.
Yet somehow, no dirt stuck to her, no hair on her head ever matted; she was miserable beyond misery and yet she was, even fallen, a goddess still.
And then, the girl was walking among them, a girl they half-recognized as someone they had seen and never noticed. Young and beautiful and thin and tall and smelling of humanity and something else.
The Firstcomer reached out a lazy hand to seize her, and tear at her, and throw her away and found his hand passing through her.
She turned her glance on him and he found himself cowed as never before; she had Her eyes and some green lurking menace lying beyond them.
' You, I never met, which means you'd be Lothos, I'd guess,' she said with a sniff. 'God, this place really is Loser Central.'
'I'm not here,' she went on. 'Not in the way you are. Not being damned and deserving eternal torment just has that effect on me.'
'My oh my, just look how you've grown, Miss Summers,' the Californian said. 'Sunnydale air and water build strong crunchable bones, just like I mean them to. And how is - well, looking at you, I really can't call her your big sister anymore?'
'Oh,' she said, 'she's off doing stuff. You know how she is, being as how she killed you all. And you do know we never met, right.'
'I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Dawn,' he said. 'I can call you Dawn, can't I? hate formality. You curtsied and gave me a posy when I visited the PTA at your Junior High.'
'Damn this is disturbing,' she said. 'Gotta hand it to those monks - they went all the way. Hey, you, bat-features guy. You remember me too, do you?'
The German looked disgustedly at her as she went on,' Well, see, it's all a lie. I never met any of you whatever memories say.'
They crowded round her as if her presence could bring them any more respite than just the break in the boredom of their pain and she ticked them off the list in her mind.
'She's not here, is she?' she said. 'Well, that's a surprise. Just goes to show you never can tell.'
'Very few of those who come here stay, little one' the German said with a leer. 'We use them until we are bored and then we throw them to the flames. As we will you, no doubt, when you come this way in other circumstances.'
'Perlease,' she said. 'I've been menaced by washmops that were scarier than you, Granddad. Master of what? Some lame order of evil monk wannabes that ended up with a loony, two renegades and a sad old hooker. Speaking of whom?'
'Oh,' the Firstcomer said, 'You're looking for the Whore. She left, sweet child, like her feeble offspring. Whoosh! out of here, free as a bird in the wood.'
'Knew that,' she said. 'Boring...So she never came back. Oh well, at least that narrows it down. Thanks for your time. Don't ever work for the Powers, guys - they just love to waste your time.'
She turned and her image wavered as if she were about to go.
Then, from the back of the press of the damned around her, there came a cry of 'Dawnie, don't go' and the Slut pushed herself forward, pinched and scratched and gouged at as she came.
'Oh dear,' Dawn said with an air of weariness she had copied from masters of the art. 'I really had hoped...So, Glorificus, how'ya been?'
'Better,' the Slut said. 'Better...Now just look at you, Dawnie. All grown up, and shiny and green inside. You are your own Key now, selfish little bitch that you are, and no help for old friends.'
'Old friends?' Dawn said. 'As in kidnap me, have scabby minions witter at me for a couple of days, then take me up a tower to be bled dry so you could end the universe. Hey, if that's what you call friendship, you really have come to the right place, Glory.'
'Oh, maybe I was wrong, Dawnie. I'm so impetuous sometimes. I see what I need and I take it and damn the consequences.'
She shook her hair out and licked her lips.
'Yes, seeing you now, cute as the little button between your thighs. I was wrong Dawnie; see, I freely admit it. You don't get a Goddess apologize to you every day, sweetie, so don't waste the offer that goes with it. We could have such a good time together. If you got me the Hell out of this place to somewhere we could be together.'
'You're pathetic,' Dawn said.
'You're my Key,' the Slut said. 'They only made you to hide you from me. You should be grateful.'
Her tormentors laughed aloud; the Californian had a note of sheer hilarity in his joy that did not at all belong in Hell. And the Scientist clapped her red-hot hands.
'Sorry, sweetie,' Dawn said. 'I grew up with smug bitches all around me. And my type is several million years younger. She'd be annoyed if I went with an old wreck like you, you see; she really hasn't forgiven you for trying to eat her brain.'
'I haven't forgiven you either' Dawn went on.'Still, fair point about the rest of it. So I'll do you a favour. You want out of here? The way out is straight down.'
'But there are flames there, and torment.'
'There's torment where you are, and at least flames don't fuck you. Besides, live dangerously now you're dead. Maybe down there you get to end, or maybe down there you get it all burned away and go somewhere else. What are you going to do otherwise? Hang out in Loser Central with Bat-face and His Worship the Ex-Snake for the rest of Eternity bitching and moaning about my sainted sister with helpings of gang-rape on the side. Leap, Glory, you know it makes sense; leap, like my sister had to, to clear up your mess.'
The Slut walked to the edge, looked down into the glowing mist, shuddered and walked back.
The German seized her by the neck and her left breast, and plunged his teeth into her neck again.
'Are you going to let him do that to you for the rest of the time?' Dawn said. 'I thought you were a Goddess, Glory, not wimp helpless vampfood.'
Suddenly, the Slut drew herself up straight, made a fist and batted the German's jaw away from her neck. Reached down and tore his fingers from her, taking a second to break them with cracks that sounded above the laughter of his fellows, above the roaring of that place.
'That's right,' she said. 'I'm Glory. A Goddess of Hell. And I choose to see what comes next.'
She dived off the edge at a run that turned into a perfect dive and spun down endlessly and out of sight.
Dawn blew a kiss behind her.
'Now I forgive her', she said. 'Hey, guys, obscure opera joke instead of puns. Showing class here.'
She looked round at the others.
'Well, at least she had some guts. Not like you losers.'
'And why should we care what you think? For your scorn, or for your pity' said the Firstcomer.'You who are only the Slayer's little, little sister, after all.'
'You think that's all I am?' she said as she vanished, green light glinting from behind her eyes. ' Boy, are you in for a surprise?'