Krivoth gestured with two folded black claws and his mandibles clicked a hard, wet rhythm as he spoke. “In here is the break room. Coffee, snacks, suffering-sticks, fresh fruit, ichor, the usual.” Ms. Pollibutton’s sagging, chinless face reflected a thousand times over in Krivoth’s faceted red eye. “You get one fifteen minute break every four millennia.” The tone in his lubricated clacking voice suggested he expected some resistance on this point. Ms. Pollibutton remained stoic and pushed her glasses back up her nose.
After a somewhat disappointed pause, Krivoth’s hind legs drummed in sequence creating an agitated, impatient air. “Anyway, moving on,” he said. The tour continued, Krivoth being sure to tick off the points of interest: The Floundering Abyss; The City of Pain; Dyre Labyrinth; Nightmare Valley. Ms. Pollibutton nodded politely at each, never slowing her short, rapid strides. The soft clink of her Cromwell buckles steadied into an incessant grate against Krivoth’s nerves.
“So here’s your workstation,” he said after an age. The loose folds of Ms. Pollibutton’s throat wobbled ever so slightly as she ran a white glove along the dusty outcropping of red stone. A massive anthropodermic book lay on the slab desk.
Krivoth flipped the book open to a page marked with a bone hook using his spiked foreleg. “It works like this: an entrant will arrive at processing. Once Foharr is finished with intake and cleaning, Sinestine will usher it in here. You record the data and let Nesti know which plane is next in the rotation. This is important, okay? If you start double- or triple-stacking the Murdergrounds or whatever, you’re going to have some very grouchy underdaemons. We can’t torment properly if we don’t have time to do the orientations.”
Ms. Pollibutton said nothing, but flattened her lips as a silent means of inviting Krivoth to proceed.
“Index the entrants at the end of your shift in the Dark, over there,” he gestured to a sturdy bookcase made of corkscrewed humanoids encased in amber. “Make sure you get it right. Everyone uses the Dark, and I’m sure it’s no secret why you were brought in. Last guy missed a line and threw everything off for a dozen eons.”
The short cloud of Ms. Pollibutton’s white hair remained static as she gave a tiny tilt of her head and lift of her pencil-filled eyebrows.
“Maybe we should go see our old Bookkeeper real quick,” Krivoth suggested, “so you understand what’s at stake.” He narrowed his eyes at her, awaiting her reaction. She pulled the corners of her mouth down further than they already were and glanced at the exit. Krivoth opened his slime-caked mouth to speak, but stopped himself and sighed instead. “This way.”
They exchanged no words en route to Dahar’s Wracking Void. They ducked into the low entrance and Krivoth held Ms. Pollibutton up with a claw. “Wait until he notices us,” he warned.
Looming overhead was a mountainous daemon standing waist-deep in a vat of boiling pus and blood. The caked remnants of the standing bath left copper and milky stains up Dahar’s expansive gut, the sunken chest outmatched by the writhing but thickly muscled arms. Dahar’s head was a blurry swirl of black void inset with two bleached bone eyes holding the vacuum left behind by remorse and pity’s abandonment. A steady trickle of lava flowed down the back wall of Dahar’s cavern into a cistern. Four long chains ran from shadowed corners and held a splayed figure suspended in the air near the daemon’s head.
“Krivoth,” Dahar said, its voice telegraphed into their heads in a piercing shriek of overlapping agony. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“Apologies, master, but I’ve come to acquaint the old Bookkeeper to the new.”
Dahar’s cold white eyes pawed at Ms. Pollibutton. “I hope you are not such a…” Dahar reached out a taloned thumb and forefinger and squeezed the chained prisoner in the middle, as casual as excoriation, until it screamed and burst. While the chains slackened, the daemon finished, “…disappointment.”
Krivoth waited for Ms. Pollibutton’s reaction. Seeing none, he leaned closer and said, “That was your predecessor.” As he gestured, a swarm of buzzing imps collected the ruptured halves of the tortured soul and dragged it back together, weaving its whimpering and agonized form back into a semblance of unity. Ms. Pollibutton’s expression never changed. As the imps released the figure, he slouched against the chains and his shrieking began again. The new Bookkeeper pulled a small pocket-watch from her apron and checked the time.
With a pointed exchange of breath Krivoth stalked out of Dahar’s chamber with a curt, “Let’s go.” He walked the whole way back without checking to see if the recruit had followed. It was no surprise to find her standing with placid impatience behind when he arrived again at her station.
“All right, then, have at it.”
His huffy walk slowed several dozen paces down the magma-lit corridor. He turned back to see Ms. Pollibutton had already begun writing in the book, the bone quill twitching under the rapid fluttering of callused fingers. She paused to refresh the blood-ink and snapped her gaze at Krivoth so abruptly he recoiled, something he hadn’t done in his entire, infinite existence.
He returned to his normal duties, but the new Bookkeeper’s attitude gnawed at him. Toward the end of his shift he could take it no more and shredded the souls he had been toying with in a spasm of anticlimactic violence. He blustered down the hall.
“Now look here, Ms. Pollibutton, the least you could do is show some—“
“You’ve made a mistake,” she cut him off.
“I beg— What?”
She tapped the book in front of her. “Your soul count is wrong. The report is incomplete.”
“Unlike you—and my predecessor—I do not make mistakes.” She peered over her glasses. Krivoth thought he saw a smile play at her lips. “Dahar will see you now.”
Another of Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge pieces, this one from the Random Story Title Generator.
Meh. Not crazy about this one, but I wrestled with it all week and couldn’t come up with anything better so I went with this in lieu of not completing the challenge.
The other story titles I had to choose from may have, in retrospect, yielded more fragrant bouquets:
Queen of Hearts
The Jewels of Moonlit Salvage
The Mozart that Shall Not Kill Heist Job
But I’m not sure you can put a title in front of me that has the words “Dark” and “Book” in it and not expect me to at least try.
LOL that was not the ending I was expecting! Great little twist there 😀