Violence had a reputation for being the more popular of the Nine Circles. If Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun weren't trying to beat their top scores in the Phlegethon, Caligula's rave parties always got people talking.
It was the abundance of drugs and fornication that made the Seventh Circle popular among the demons. You could trade in a hair from the tail of a centaur for a bump of ketamine, while a shot of morphine was worth a blowjob from a harpy (only a select few chose the latter). Once you'd had your fill, you could partake in one of the orgies, which might last several days depending on how much of a tomcat you were in the sack.
A popular face in the Seventh Circle was Asherah, a demon famous for her cocktails and her troupe of pole dancers. Since her visits had become more frequent over the centuries, she'd set up a kind of nightclub in the Inner Ring where her fellow demons could mingle with souls of the damned.
Scantily clad men and women swung on hot iron poles, the desert flames accentuating the contours of their athletic bodies as they twisted and writhed. The air was thick with the pungent smell of alcohol, and there were guaranteed to be at least one or two attacks from pissed-off centaurs who demanded people stop plucking their hairs in exchange for horse tranquilizer.
Asherah smiled as a forked tongue tickled the side of her neck. Smooth coils caressed her bare, tanned shoulders, and a pair of yellow eyes looked at her expectantly. Opening her hand, she produced a mouse, which she held suspended in mid air, its tail pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Within seconds, a pair of jaws snatched up the squirming rodent with staggering precision.
"Ravenous as ever, I see."
With a slight roll of her eyes, Asherah turned to see a strikingly handsome man with long, dark hair and alabaster skin seated at the bar. He smiled, his crimson eyes aglow behind a pair of sleek, black-framed glasses.
Asherah gently stroked the head of her serpent Tanith, while acknowledging the man severely. "You took your time, Ba'al."
Ba'al tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. "Yes, sorry about that. Been a bit stressful finding someone to command the two hundred legions in Paimon's absence."
"Usual?" said Asherah.
Ba'al took a drag on his cigarette. A silvery stream of smoke drizzled from his lips. "I thought I'd shake things up a bit... I hear your blueberry mojitos are particularly good." That smooth bass voice made the request sound far more enticing than it needed to be.
Asherah retrieved a small, hexagonal bottle from behind the bar. After removing the stopper, she tipped the bottle forward, and a single drop of dark liquid fell. The moment it hit the surface, it transformed into a chalice filled to the brim with succulent mint leaves, limes, blueberries and chunks of ice swimming in a rich, purple concoction.
Just as Ba'al was about to take a sip, Asherah cleared her throat and made a beckoning motion with her hand.
The male demon sighed. "Really?"
Asherah cocked an eyebrow. "Just because you're one of the big boys around here doesn't mean I'm obliged to make an exception."
"Come, come now, Ash. Don't be a square." Ba'al's tone was infuriatingly light and teasing.
"Were you not a King of Hell, that drink would be in your lap by now," warned Asherah, before turning to serve Emperor Hadrian (who'd been stealing glances at Ba'al for the last minute since he sat down).
Ba'al just smiled, holding his cigarette daintily between two long, pale fingers. "So pretty 'til she opens her mouth," he muttered to Tanith, who'd curled up on the bar beside him. A sizeable lump protruded from the reptile's stomach where that poor mouse now had the misfortune of being digested. Tanith merely blinked at the red-eyed demon, flicking her tongue as Ba'al puffed another cloud of smoke.
"Oh, by the way," said Asherah, draping her wavy black locks over one shoulder, "Al Capone stopped by. Apparently you owe him."
"Well, he can sod off as far as I'm concerned." Ba'al fished out a mint leaf from his mojito and ate it. "I've told him a hundred times, this isn't 1920's Brooklyn, and Hell is not a cunt to fuck at one's leisure." The Demon King tapped his cigarette into an ashtray. After having another swig of drink, Ba'al pursed his lips slightly and furrowed his brow. "You're still angry, aren't you?"
Propping herself up against the bar, Asherah averted her gaze, focusing instead on her immaculate, blood-red fingernails. "Well, considering I declined a date with Amurru because you said you'd take me to dinner, only to stand me up, I'd say I have every right to be."
"I'm afraid I can't take full responsibility for my absence. You see, you will not believe how many newcomers we've had over the past week, on top of all the candidates for Paimon's replacement. I've been up to my ears in paperwork," Ba'al grumbled. "Shax is manning the desk 'til I get back."
"Poor, poor, slighted Ba'al." Asherah leaned forward on the bar, chin resting on her fist, and feigned a look of pity. "That's what happens when the sacrificial well runs dry. You get demoted to admin."
Just then, Ba'al's eyes flashed with vehemence. He let out a condescending laugh. "Says the one with a mere four hundred followers!"
Standing tall, Asherah placed both hands on her hips. "Demean me all you like - it's still four hundred more than what you were left with when your lot had that encounter with Elijah."
"Those guys were morons. I didn't shed any tears for them." Ba'al produced a small cloth from his pocket and gave his glasses a quick clean. "You know, I seldom side with the opposition, but Elijah did us all a favour that day. That's four hundred and fifty less embarrassments in the world."
Putting out his cigarette, Ba'al casually reached forward to pet Tanith.
"Piss off!" the serpent spat, baring her fangs.
He retracted his hand to smooth back his hair, that vulpine smirk dancing across those aristocratic features.
"A venomous beauty," he mused. "Like your mistress."
Tanith glared at him and slithered down from the bar.
"You are keen, my lord," Asherah remarked sardonically, pouring a goblet of wine for Queen Boudicca.
"It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge," purred the Demon King, lightning another ciggy and reclining on the stool.
"You'll have to try a lot harder than that if you're ever to lay in my lap again." Asherah tapped the end of Ba'al's nose coquettishly.
Boudicca was caked head to foot in blood from the River Phlegethon - Asherah was not looking forward to wiping down the seat later, that's for sure.
"So, who's in the gold league right now, B?" the female demon enquired.
"I came very close...." The Iceni Queen reached around to extract the arrow protruding from her left shoulder. "Alas, I wasn't quick enough to evade Chiron this time."
Taking the arrow from Boudicca's stained hands, Asherah broke the shaft against her knee. She watched it burst into flames and disintegrate to a thousand tiny embers.
"Still, I bested Ivan the Terrible," Boudicca added, drinking her wine with a triumphant grin.
"Well, if you need a little boost before going back in..." Asherah glanced around, and murmured, "I've got Lady Caine next door."
Just as Boudicca was about to answer, Emperor Hadrian piped up, "Asherah! A refill, if you please!"
"Roman scum!" roared the Celtic woman, springing to her feet and knocking her drink over in the process.
Hadrian was understandably taken aback. Nevertheless, he stood his ground. "Majesty, I have no quarrel with you," he said evenly.
It was no secret that Boudicca was a fearsome warrior. Even in the afterlife, surrounded by demons, harpies, and all manner of horrible beings, her violent temper was frightening to behold. The addition of boiling blood upon her towering frame only served to make her more alarming.
"Do you wish to take this skirmish elsewhere, or shall I cut you where you stand?" Reaching into the folds of her cloak, Boudicca drew her sword.
Despite his reputation as a peacekeeper, Hadrian reluctantly brandished his own weapon. "You leave me no choice," he declared, bracing himself as Boudicca struck the first blow.
"Cur!" she growled through clenched teeth, her matted red hair swishing over her back as she lunged at him.
Ba'al ducked as the opponents commenced their duel right above his head. Asherah snickered into her fist as he shot her a look of annoyance.
Suddenly, the Demon King rose from his seat, and pushed Boudicca and Hadrian apart with such force, he sent them both flying backwards across the desert. After sweeping his hair from his face and adjusting his tie, he calmly sat back down.
"Now," he said with a debonair smile, "where were we?"
"You were saying how much you love defensive borders," teased Asherah.
"Poor Hadrian," Ba'al chuckled. "All it takes is a bit of Italian blood, and a sound bollocking from the Iceni is almost certainly guaranteed."
"Can't say I blame Boudicca for hating the Romans so much. I mean, look what they did to her and her daughters." With her two feuding customers several miles apart in the burning desert, Asherah set about cleaning the spillage of wine from the bar.
"Besides," she added with a playful smirk, "what have the Romans ever done for us?"
"Well, apart from give us an excuse to mock Dante whenever one of them ends up here," Ba'al jested, inhaling another lungful of smoke. "By the bye, how fare the gluttons?"
Asherah would be lying if she said she wasn't a little surprised by this question. After berating him earlier, she assumed Ba'al wouldn't endeavour to make even the vaguest allusion to their botched date in the Third Circle.
"Same as always," she replied, shrugging indifferently. "Henry VIII sends his regards."
"Excellent," said Ba'al. "Who's on dog duty?"
"The Sheriff of Nottingham." It was at this point that Asherah really decided to rub salt in the wound. "He actually started pulling the moves on me when I realized you weren't coming."
Ba'al's red eyes narrowed to slits. "Was there a spoon involved?"
Asherah could've sworn she heard the faintest trace of excitement in his voice when he asked this.
"No, but I did say I would've considered his offer were he not... y'know, dead."
"That's exactly what I told Helen of Troy," Ba'al confessed, downing the rest of his mojito.
"You still haven't paid for that." Asherah nodded to the empty glass, arching an eyebrow sternly.
"Would a frenzied roll in the sludge suffice?" Ba'al didn't even attempt to conceal the lust dripping from his honeycomb voice.
The demon plucked Ba'al's cigarette from between his fingers and brought it to her scarlet lips. "You had that chance already," she stated softly, tilting her head back to exhale.
"That's alright. We can just... do it right here if you like?" he suggested.
She leaned in closer, her face only millimetres from his. "Nice try," she said, "but I'm working a late night shift."
Asherah let her amber eyes linger on Ba'al for a moment, regarding him as though he were a statue in the Louvre. It was the sensuous shape of his lips and his high cheekbones that stood out to her the most. It was so easy to fall head over heels for his good looks and charm, even for a demon, hence why she often played hard to get. Anyway, the chase was much more fun.
"Elbows off the counter," she commanded calmly, wiping away the last spot of wine.
Chaos erupted as several centaurs stormed the club. Souls of the damned darted in all directions, as Chiron's squad charged into the Inner Circle, pursuing one of the druggies they caught trying to steal their tail hairs.
Asherah was indifferent to the carnage unfolding in her establishment. After all, this was the Seventh Circle of Hell. When a centaur's arrow ricocheted off one of the poles and headed straight to her, Asherah caught it deftly in her hand before it could take her eye out.
In the midst of the fray, Asherah heard a metallic clatter behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to see five silver Babylonian coins on the counter. Smug as ever, Ba'al pushed them towards her, his rings glinting in the firelight. Not taking her eyes off his, Asherah slipped the coins into her black velvet purse. Her tongue glided salaciously over her red lips, and she moved to curl a lock of Ba'al's dark hair around her finger, eliciting a low, guttural laugh from the Demon King.
Asherah trailed her fingertips down his arm and over his hand, as she turned to walk away, but not before stealing one last smouldering glance at her lover.
"Meet me in the back room in five minutes. Wear the cat ears."
Ba'al watched her disappear through a door behind the bar. "With pleasure, my dear." He rose to his feet, that devilish smile never straying from his face.