Thanks to Tony Noland, Chuck Allen, and Craig WF Smith for looking it over. I was concerned it might be too dialog-heavy.
“Welcome to the real world, kid.” Filth held out his grimy paw, engulfed the newcomer’s in it.
Despair grinned. “Yeah. No more classes. Church bells, but that training was like Limbo — I never thought I’d get outta there!”
“Hey, watch your mouth. You Venals all come outta training thinkin’ you’re Hell on Wheels. Got all the latest techniques, up to date with the modern program and all that shit. Well, I got news for ya, hot shot: your real training begins right here, right now.”
“Oh, come on. You know the saying: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
“And those who can’t teach, administrate!”
Filth glanced around them. “I wouldn’t say that too loud, kid. Some of these walls has ears, ya know. Besides, that’s some human’s idea of a joke. Your instructors, they did their worst with ya. But half of ‘em never been out in the field, and the other half got kicked upstairs ‘cuz they didn’t get the job done. You know? Okay, riddle me this: what’s the best way to get a soul on the road to Hell?”
“Huh, that’s easy. Sex.”
“Bah.” Filth spit, making the stone sizzle. “See, the problem with you Venals is, they pump you up. Yeah, they gotta make you prideful, you’ll never get the job done if you start doubtin’ yerself, but then they fill you up with our own propaganda.” He lowered his grinding voice. “Ya didn’t hear this from me, but the Enemy created those greasy little humans with a sex drive. It’s the way they’re wired, not a whole lot of sin in that. Why do you think the Propaganda Department gets ‘em focused so much on it? Yeah. Humans got a one-track mind. Get the churchies all worried about Lust, and they completely ignore Greed. And we get a big ol’ helpin’ of Wrath and Envy on the side, when other people get what those ‘God-fearing’ churchies are afraid of gettin’ themselves. The problem is, you hear the message we send to the humans, then you get to believin’ it yourself.”
Despair scratched between his horns, leaving shallow grooves in the top of his skull. “So what’s the plan?”
“It ain’t the sex that’s brings in the sin, it’s the disloyalty. Women churchies are great for that. Get ‘er all afraid to enjoy herself, she cuts off the man, the man starts lookin’ outside. He don’t even hafta follow through to bring the sin, ya know!”
“Yeah. I knew that.”
“Sure. Even your instructors can get that much right.” Filth made a dismissive gesture. “Gettin’ a human to do somethin’ they shouldn’t, that’s easy. Oh yeah, get ‘em to do it enough, and it adds up, sure. But there’s lotsa ways to fork a soul. You can get ‘em to wanna do it, without ‘em actually havin’ the fun, and that’s what we call a little coup out here in the field.”
“Uh-huh. We learned that in Advanced Temp, last semester of training. Just not that word for it.”
“Yeah. They told you about keepin’ humans from doin’ stuff they should, right? Usually easier than gettin’ ‘em to do, and usually a better result.”
“Sure. Why you tellin’ me all this?”
“Just wanted to make sure you knew the basics, kid. Some of you Venals sleep through the whole thing and think all ya gotta do is keep a human outta church. Were you payin’ attention in yer Historic Triumphs class? You remember Hideous?”
“Oh, yeah. He’s the one that started the American Civil War, right?”
“Close enough. But you probably focused on all the sufferin’ and hatin’ and all the gravy, and didn’t get down to the meat, right?”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
“That wasn’t the point of that war — or any war. The hate, the pain, the killin’, that’s all gravy. Tasty, but it ain’t fillin’. The real point was turnin’ their virtues —” spit, sizzle — “against ‘em. Makin’ that what brings the sin. Hideous got all them souls on the losin’ side to turn their loyalty to their homes into treason against their nation. That’s the biggest score of all, kid. We call it the grand coup.”
Despair got a faraway look. “Grand coup. Yeah.”
“And Hideous didn’t do it to just one soul, he did it on a grand scale. That’s how he ended up running the furnaces — it usually takes serious connections to get that kinda cushy job. And he made the leap from Senior Venal to Grand Malevolence all at once…. Whoa. Look, kid. It’s an advanced technique. Hideous not only paid attention in class, he had a great field mentor and he got bless’ lucky. It takes years to lay the groundwork for that kind of payoff. Old Plaguepit did most of the work, and left it to Hideous when he retired. Rotheart’s doin’ somethin’ similar with the churchies now, dunno if it’ll pay off. It’s always risky playin’ around with churchies. If some of ‘em get wise to the game…” Filth shook his head. “I seen a century of work unravel in weeks, thousands of souls lost — that always gets the attention of those down-pit.” He shuddered. “You and me, kid, we’ll play it safe. Nibble around the edges. Little challenges, stuff that don’t make trouble if it don’t pan out. You don’t need a grand coup to snag a soul. Slow and steady wins the race.”
“Slow and steady. Sure.” Despair still had that faraway look, and that suited Filth just fine. Like flies to shit. He’d been stuck at Senior Vice rank forever, but there was more than one way to get ahead. Let Despair take the risks, and take the fall if he screwed up — it was on the record that Filth cautioned the kid against big schemes — and it would be easy enough to snag the credit and that promotion to Lower Malevolence if the kid did manage to pull off a grand coup.