Ninth

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As a collection of dark clouds drifted overhead the kirk cast a shadow over the gravestones scattered around its perimeter.

Gravestones of all shapes, sizes and conditions. Fading stones slanted as if under the force of a gale force wind; slightly newer curved additions standing proudly and solemnly in a patch of ground that was never truly available to begin with; more ornate, gothic examples, decorated with cherubs or angels rendered eerily demonic by the strains of weather and moss throughout the centuries. All thrust through the thin soil of the kirkyard, jutting out like a set of jagged, unkempt teeth. The kirk building itself was, by comparison, pristine. Weathered by age, certainly, but it still had that arresting beauty that any churches and cathedrals of its kind, constructed in a certain era, has. Built with care, with beauty and image reigning supreme over practicality. Its location – nestled on the edge of a glistening loch whilst encased by a gorgeous-yet-secluding set of trees and greenery – only added to its grandeur. Had someone, anyone, been aware of its existence then it would certainly have been a must-see on most, if not all, of the local tourist trails. As it was it stood calm, patient, unsullied. Protected from the scars of gentrification, untouched by the hordes of amateur photographers.

A man, slightly on the older side going by his roadside-slush-in-the-winter grey head of hair and his rose-splashed cheeks and nose, ambled slowly out of the shadows, large sweeping brush in hand. His expression was stoic with more than a subtle hint of ‘I’m fed up with this bloody job’. He brushed, swept, pushed at the scattered leaves piled by the side of the path that skirted the kirk’s exterior. He was thorough, complete in his work, ensuring every single leaf, every single stray autumnal splash of deviation was removed from the kirk’s grounds. He had the air of man who knew his work. And who had known his work for many a year. Possibly even decades. He did the work not for the love of it, not for the prospect of attracting visitors, but for the sake of doing a job well. You could never describe him as proud of his work, no, but there was a certain dignity there that is hard to pin down. It was a job and one he would do well. Day in, day out. He stood the brush against the wall of the kirk and cast an eye towards the scattered gravestones. He sighed before stepping out towards them, leaning down to pick up any pieces of ‘litter’ from the base of said gravestones. Of course, with no visitors of the human variety around these parts, any ‘litter’ was strictly limited to the odd stray bit of bracken, a few discarded berries carelessly spilled from the mouths of overflying birds perhaps, or, of course, the aforementioned and frankly mischievous autumn leaves.

The man placed his bundle of ‘litter’ into the antiquated steel bin by the stone wall at the entrance to the grounds. A wrenching screech and clatter followed as he let the lid of the bin perform its duty. He sighed once more, banging his hands together to relinquish them of dirt or other substances, before looking towards the gathering clouds above. The darkness was closing in, he thought. And there’s rain on its way. Again! That’d make it twice as bloody hard to shift those leaves tomorrow, he moaned to himself. Some of those other buggers had it far too easy compared to this place. The scenery is immaculate but, I mean, come on! On the rare occasion that it’s not raining it’s pouring down with that schizophrenic every-direction-at-every-moment rainfall. As if to bookend his internally ranted monologue, he sighed. Again. He turned and trudged towards to opposite end of the kirkyard, caring not for the graves or gravestones he trampled underneath. He arrived at, what was evidently, the grandest gravestone in the kirkyard itself and leaned down. The gravestone – for lack of a better word – towered over him. Ornate, decadent, illustrious. Words fail to do justice to the majesty of its design. Intricately carved, containing symbols, words (in both Latin and English), cherubs, demons even, one could be forgiven for thinking it a monument rather than a burial site. The man strained, cursing beneath his breath, as he seemed to push against one of the larger foundation slabs covering much of the base of the grave. He pushed, his face reddening even further than it originally was which is quite an achievement in itself, his veins bulging and prodding at his skin. Eventually the stone budged. And then completely gave way.
‘Never gets any bloody easier!’ he grumbled to himself as he used his arm to push himself up from his kneeling position.
He casually looked from side to side, his face continuing to show no emotion above and beyond one of severe indifference to all and everything, and stepped into the grave itself. He lowered into the burial plot, as if stepping down a flight of stairs. As he advanced further into the ground he began to pull the slab back over his head, with no little effort, to close up the grave once more. The darkness closed over him as the gravestone shunted back into place. The kirkyard above stood impassively, clean and silent. Silent but for a very quiet, and barely audible, weary sigh emanating from beneath the soil.

‘Another bloody day and what do I have to show for it?’ the man muttered to himself as he walked carefully down the large concrete spiral steps. ‘A freezing cold pair of hands that are only about to get colder! That’s what. I spend all day up there. Cleaning, raking, organising. Waiting. Maybe a little decent conversation wouldn’t go amiss when I get down here. Just maybe. But who do I have to talk to? Bloody politicians, embezzlers, scammers. You can’t trust any of those treacherous bastards. Hence why they’re down here in Treachery of course but still. It hardly makes for good conversation does it!? Someplace the Ninth. What about that sleazy bugger over in Second? Does sod all throughout the day, barely lifts a figure to keep his facade looking clean or tidy, and yet he gets to share his evenings with Helen Of Troy and Cleopatra and those sorts. Lust for goodness sake. He fairly landed on his feet didn’t he! Or even that lucky sod over in Fourth. Yes, Greed is awful and there’s some right awful ones down there with him but he’s underneath Vegas for goodness sake! Whereas I’m stuck here in the arse-end of one of the coldest bloody places on earth. Probably. And that’s the warmest part of my day. A lake of ice for god’s…I mean, for bloody hell’s sake. A lake of bloody ice. I’d put in a transfer request but he’d probably send me somewhere like Third, Gluttony, where it teems down with that horrible sleet constantly! Oh it was far better back in the straightforward ‘fiery pits of hell’ days. We knew where we stood then. All had a job to do, all equal. Torture, fear, shoveling bastards into the fire; easy. Nice. But then he has to go and read that bloody book. Fiction. Bloody fiction. He didn’t have to follow it to the letter though, did he!? ‘A bit of a change would do us good’ he said. Something different after all these thousands of years. A bit like moving the couch somewhere different in your living room apparently, makes you feel ‘different. Good different.’ What a load of bloody nonsense. I tell you, if I ever meet this Dante character I’ll…well I’ll…oh never bloody mind.’

The main approached a large, extremely thick, concrete door and stopped. He hung his head and sighed a deep, tired sigh. He took out a large woolly scarf from his jacket pocket and wrapped it tightly around his neck, allowing it to creep up past his chin. With both now-gloved hands he pushed the door open.

The plummeting temperature hit him immediately. As it did every day. Icicles magically formed around his person almost instantly, hanging from his scarf and earlobes. This time his sigh formed a ice-cold speech bubble of mist in the air in front of him.
‘Ah, my good man,’ came a sharp, booming voice from the centre of the ice, ‘come in, come in. How was your day? Hmm?’
‘The same as always Boss.’ the reply was nothing if not glum.
‘Oh cheer up for goodness sake. Your always so bloody morbid. So dour. You should take some enjoyment in your work my good man. A lot of good men would kill for a position like yours…well, die as the case may be, but you get my point.’
‘Yes Boss, I’m sure those bast…those guys over in Second and Fourth are very jealous of me indeed. Very very jealous, yes. Even whatsisname over in Eighth, with all those fraudulent buggers, I’m sure he’d be desperate to spend eternity working in a sub-zero frozen lake. Yes, I’m fairly certain of that.’
‘Oh stop your whining for goodness sake. You’re here because you’re so good at your job, my man. That facade up there, that churchyard, is spotless. Immaculate. I’ve told you before. That’s what we want. We want to put on a nice clean looking facade. A good show. We don’t want people discovering us after all do we? No, that’s how wars start. And between you and me we’ve got a lot of evil buggers down here but I wouldn’t place much money on them being decent fighters. I doubt even your man over in Greed would either. And he loves a wager. And there’s plenty of insidious sods up there who I bet you would quite fancy a crack at my job. So, no, what you do is very important. And you’re as good as there is or ever has been.’
‘So promote me then, Boss. Even just give me a little secondment over in, hmm let me just have a shot in the dark here and pick somewhere completely at random, Lust maybe?’
‘A promotion? Don’t be daft, man. You’re already in Ninth, there’s nowhere higher you can go. Plus you get to work with me, the Boss, the Head Honcho, each day. No-one else has that privilege, do they?’
‘That’s because you’re frozen into the ice, Boss.’
‘That’s besides the point, my good man. You should open your eyes and see how good things are sometimes.’
‘That’s another thing, Boss. I mean, I get the whole Nine Circles of Hell thing and separating out the evil and so on. And I know you wanted it by the book, as it were. But did you honestly need to go the whole hog? I mean, frozen into the ice? It’s not very practical is it? And I’m fairly certain that Dante bast…that Dante fellow…had you being punished by being frozen into the ice. I just don’t see the point of you permanently being in there if you’ve….’
‘Well erm…’ there was an uncomfortable silence for a good few seconds, filled only by the sound of the freezing temperatures trying their best to form the air particles into ice, ‘ well…yes…there’s just some things you don’t need to know , isn’t there, my good man. That’s why I’m in the chair…the ice…the metaphorical chair…look I’m your Boss, ok. And that’s it. Now, get yourself to work my good man, no rest for the wicked and all that eh. There’s been a few election cycles recently, leadership contests and such, so treachery has been overflowing don’t you know. Busy night ahead my man. So on you go…’
‘Yes, Boss…’

The man glanced round at the frozen tundra surrounding him and sighed. In the distance he could hear very faint blood-curdling screams echoing through the night. Lucky bastards he thought, likely getting singed to a crisp in some place that’s not a frozen sodding lake!
‘What a life’ he mumbled to himself as he shuffled along a path of solid ice, trying desperately not to lose his footing, ‘what a bloody life.’

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