The hot breath of the unseen beast sent shivers up and down Henry’s spine. “Please, can you help me?” His voice was barely over a whisper, but the slight compression of the muck that cast a perfect mold of Henry’s body shifted just enough for him to realize this was no human nor creature he knew bearing down on him. This was something unholy and unimaginable.
He let out a shuddering breath. “God on high, please help me. What have I done to deserve this torment, oh Lord?”
The hot breath that threatened Henry’s neck became wider. The monster has opened its mouth. But, wait. With Henry’s eyes closed, his skin became his second-sight. He felt three distinct and uneven breaths on his neck, hair, and side of his face. What beast has three mouths? Oh God, what hell is this? Am I to be eaten; devoured by a devil of three heads?
The hot breath and the footsteps came achingly closer. Henry braced himself and curled into a ball as much as his girth would allow. Just as he was sure it was all over, he heard a loud bark. A bark? Is it a dog? Then the ground released as the muck that surrounded him eased. The creature ran off behind him. He could hear the muddled barking of three dogs and a rhythmic pounding of the ground.
His body was still half-submerged in thick and foul excrement, but Henry felt a wave of relief. Something had called the demon’s attention, and now he could concentrate on something else; anything else–like how to get out of this mess. Henry lifted his arms. His weight had returned ten-fold and made maneuvering difficult, but he managed to touch the surface and use force to lift his body by a couple inches.
“Do not fight it, Henry. Your fate is sealed.”
“Who are you? What is this?”
Slowly, Henry’s vision unblurred and he saw he was surrounded by a red, burning light. It completely enveloped him and scorched his eyes. He tried to shield himself with his arm, but the weight made it sluggish, so he squinted hard.
“My name is Dante Alighieri. And you are in hell, sir.”
“Hell? That cannot be!”
“Oh, but I assure you, it can.”
“Why cannot I see you? Face me!”
Henry yelped when he felt a large poke in his back. His skin singed in a fiery pain as he felt his flesh sizzle in the shape of a small circle, but the pole helped turn his massive body toward this Dante man. Henry wanted nothing more than to face the man who dare speak down to him, but he realized his need to see another human face.
“Open your eyes, Henry.” Henry forced his eyes open to stare at the man before him. He was a strong figure, hooded and holding a long staff. His features were sharp and Roman. He had a blackness in his eye that looked hardened and dead, like what he had seen in his life was meant for no man. “I am facing you. What do you want, sinner?”
“Sinner? How dare you.”
“That is what you are, are you not?”
“And you are so pure?”
“No, King Henry. I am a sinner, like you. But unlike you, I reside in Paradise for I have repented my sins unto the Lord, and He has forgiven me.”
“Is that what this is? Paradise?” Henry looked around him. This was far from any sort of Paradise he had imagined.
It was then Henry noticed the three-headed demon creature behind gnarling on what looked like rotted meat. The thought of it sent Henry retching, but there was nothing left to come up. The sound of gagging caught the attention of the beast, and it looked directly at him. Henry froze.
“Do not worry about Cerebus. He is cautious and unfamiliar with you. Once you are here for a while, he will get used to him and you, he.”
“What is your meaning of ‘a while’?”
Dante left this question unanswered, and picked up a handful of muck. It dripped from his hand and landed with sickening plops. He tossed it to Cerebus and the middle head reached into the air and grabbed it. He shook his head side to side violently and the two faces on either side fought for a taste.
“Dante, sir,” Henry’s voice was barely over a whisper, but through clenched teeth. “Where am I? You say this is not Paradise. Surely this is not Hell. I repented for my sins each day, like you. How can I be destined to reside in this much for all eternity? Help me understand.”
Dante kneeled down. Somehow the weight of his body did not cause him to sink into the foul pond. “King Henry, you are known throughout Europe as a tyrant and a ruthless ruler of England. You have caused much heartache and anguish to not only your people, but your neighbors. You have conducted years of war and death, killing thousands of men, women, and children. You have murdered your own wives and committed adultery. You are a traitor to His Lord and His Savior and have no concern for anyone but yourself.”
Henry listened. Every word this man said was true. “But I have repented for each of those sins. I have given much reflection and prayed for each horrible and distasteful thing I have done. I have confessed and felt true remorse for each death done by my words and by my hand. And, lest you forget, I have done a great deal of good in your Lord’s name.”
“While that is true, King Henry, you have done some good with your wealth and power. And yes, you have repented for your sins of violence, lust, anger, and treason, what you never repented for what your gluttony. Never once did you see that as a sin.”
Henry furrowed his brow and looked down at his blubbery frame. How was enjoying food and drink was a sin?
“It is not the enjoyment that is a sin.”
Henry’s head whipped up. “How can you know what is inside my head?”
“You forget where you are.”
Henry looked around and saw nothing but scorching red light. “If enjoyment is not a sin, why am I here?”
“You ate and drank while people starved outside your palace gates. You did not give to the poor when you had copious amounts to share. Instead, you added to your waistline ruining your own health and tormenting your wives. So now, you swim in your own shit, destined to wallow in your excess.” Dante stood up with the help of his staff. “Do not worry, King Henry. You are not alone in this Hell.”
Henry looked around and saw no one. “What do you mean? Are there other sinners?”
“Some are below you. Some are near you. But you will never see them. They hear nothing, they see nothing, like you when I leave here.”
“Leave? Where are you going? How do I get out of here?” Henry’s words bunched into a single breath with the desperation of losing the only person he could speak to.
“There is no way out. This is your punishment.” Dante turned away and started to walk toward the vicious Cerebus.
“Dante! Wait! What am I to do down here?”
Dante stopped without turning around to face the disgraced king. Henry’s eyes fixated on Cerebus, now having devoured the slop and sleeping soundly on a boulder above the filth. “You are to eat. What else?” Dante continued on and pet the heads of the three-headed dog. A soft growl of approval escaped its lips, and then the world went dark and deaf. Henry was alone.
From deep inside his belly, he felt the familiar pain of hunger. How could I be hungry when I am surrounded by such disgusting and retched…? But the pain in his stomach did not forgive. It continued on and urged Henry to pick up a handful near him. It was a force that could not be stopped.
He brought his full hand to his mouth. The stench was unimaginable, but without thinking and without further hesitation, he brought it to his lips and swallowed.
To be continued…
To read more of Dreadful Dantes including about Marie Antoinette and Greg Abbott, click here.
(c) Copyright 2016, Alison C. Wroblewski. All rights reserved.