Toil and Trouble
by Joe Greenslade
Trouble waited on the bridge. He watched the train hurtle towards him on the tracks below. He licked his red lips and heaved the boulder. It teetered on the edge, ready to fall. He estimated around four hundred people on board. Most would die. At least a third, he thought. A good number to add onto a healthy score.
He’d heaved the boulder before time. Now he had no choice but to hold firm and wait. He imagined the lead car derailing, along with the sparks and fire and squealing death a train wreckage brought. He’d caused many in his lifetime. A relatively modern mode of ensuring high casualties. Airplanes were better, more people, more victims, bigger score. Yet harder to bring down. For all his skill in the stealthy, deathly arts, he could not fly.
A puff of red smoke surprised him, and he almost toppled the boulder. He tutted. Too soon and the train would have time to brake. Not enough time, but long enough to save some people and diminish his score.
Trouble turned to see Toil standing beside him. She looked resplendent as always. Her little red tail twisted in the air, and she laughed at Trouble stuck with the boulder. ‘Need help?’ she asked.
‘Come now, Toil. You know the rules. I found this opportunity first. Let’s not have a repeat of the Great Fire.’
She sidled up beside him. ‘They counted as mine. The Master ruled such himself.’
‘It doesn’t matter...’ — Trouble looked around — ‘It doesn’t matter what the Master said. We both know what happened.’
‘All’s fair in death and war, Trouble.’
They were silent for a moment The noise of the train’s rumblings got louder, and Trouble prepared for one last push. ‘Do you ever think...’
‘Go on’ — Toil peaked over the railing, using her tail to prop herself up. — ‘you have time.’
‘Do you ever... get bored of this?’ Trouble finished.
‘Yeah. It’s been an eternity of chaos and destruction. Our competition’s old, Toil. I’m almost tired of it all.’
‘Because I won last year?’ she asked, mischief in her eyes.
‘And I, the year before. I feel he plays us against each other.’
‘Careful, Trouble.’ Toil whispered. ‘Remember what happened to Strife?’
Trouble shivered. The third Imp had gone a way most cruel. His tail ripped off and used to strangle him. Slowly, of course. Over two centuries.
‘Besides,’ Toil continued, ‘we have the tally in twenty minutes.’
‘I know,’ Trouble countered. He used his tail to take the strain off his arms before switching back again. He could see the pain in her eyes too. The tiredness. She looked back at the train and sighed. It was just business. No pleasure remained.
He heaved, judging the time to perfection. The boulder fell... and got caught on a ledge, between two metal girders.
Toil saw him and said, ‘There’s still time to tip it over. You’ll get a few. Maybe fifty.’
‘No,’ Trouble said, maybe too harshly, ‘Fate has decided otherwise.’
‘If you give up, I can take over. They’ll be mine, though. The rules are clear.’
‘Do what you want, Toil.’
She didn’t tip the boulder over. Instead she stared at the train below and watched the lead car pass into a tunnel beneath the bridge.
‘I’m weak,’ she said.
‘No,’ Trouble said. ‘I think it’s the opposite of weak. I think letting the train go was astoundingly brave.’
‘He wouldn’t think so.’
Trouble reached out and took her hand. ‘It’s been too long, my oldest friend. A good year?’
‘I won’t reveal my tally yet. It spoils the fun. But yes, a good year. Yourself?
‘Naturally. Shall we go?’
Toil nodded. ‘Where is it this year?’
‘Top of a tower. One of those skyscraper things.’ Trouble said.
‘On three then?’
The pair counted down. After a flash of pink and blue, the train’s echoing faded into the distance, and the sound of a city at night came to the fore. Sirens blazed, traffic rumbled and hooted. A helicopter roared over thousands of twinkling lights, set against the inky backdrop of sky-high towers. Toil and Trouble stood on the tallest. Right at the edge. Hand in hand.
‘You really aren’t yourself,’ Toil said.
‘I know,’ Trouble replied. He hadn’t felt the same for a few years now. Increasing the tally wasn’t as fun as it used to be. He believed Toil felt similar, not that she’d ever admit it. ‘How long do you think he’ll be?’
‘Seconds, minutes, hours. What does it matter? He’ll come, and we’ll wait. It’s not like we’re against the clock.’
Trouble nodded and continued watching the city below. Years ago, he would have been thinking up devilish ways to inflict the most casualties on the city’s people. He saw a gas main. A little spark would do the trick. Or he’d bring the helicopter down in the sports stadium. Easy points. But not now. No. Now he looked over the city and saw nothing but the beauty in it all. He almost cried. A fierce burning behind his eyes, like nothing he’d felt before.
‘Seconds, this time.’ The voice came from behind, and in that moment, Trouble knew Lucifer was standing a few paces behind. They met only once a year. Trouble used to look forward to it. Crave it. He would want nothing more than a pat on the back or kind words of appreciation from his Dark Lord. Now he dreaded it. Every damn second.
Toil and Trouble turned at the same time. Both sank to their knees and prostrated themselves before the creature.
He appeared as a man. A handsome man in a dull white suit. Stereotypical in some ways, but Trouble knew he liked appearing as such. Lucifer pushed an errant lock out of his eyes and told both to rise.
‘Another year, my skulking friends. Another good year, I hope. So, tell me, what do my minions of the dammed have? Who’s won? It had better be good.’ Lucifer lent right, as if against a bar, and in his other hand appeared a crystal glass which filled with whiskey. He took a sip, savoured the taste, then said, ‘Toil, go first. Let’s see how Trouble trembles. Besides, he’s winning overall; you’ve got a point to prove.’
‘Yes, Master.’ Toil bowed again. ‘I made five million, eight hundred and eighty thousand.’
Lucifer frowned. ‘I saw your Ebola outbreak. Very clever. And the Tsunami. Nice touch.’
Trouble licked his lips. He’d won. Again. He was better at it, he knew. Better at finding ways to kill and maim and wound. Toil quaked. Lucifer always punished her something terrible for losing.
‘Well, Toil, you improved on last year, though it couldn’t have been hard,’ Lucifer said. ‘Trouble. Don’t keep me waiting. I have a kingdom to run.’
A kingdom of fire. Of molten ash spewing into a dull sky full of doomed souls. The ground littered with brimstone, too hot to walk upon. A kingdom in name, but truly, hell in practice.
‘Of course, Master.’ Trouble said and Toil blinked, her pretty eyes wide and worried. ‘I made less, this year.’ The lie came as a surprise even to Trouble, but it came so easily. ‘Five million, four hundred thousand. Apologies, Master.’
Lucifer’s eyes glowed red for a moment, and he sipped his whiskey. ‘I’m not angry, Trouble. Just disappointed. You both have no clue how to cause maximum casualties. I’ll tell you the secret. You need to get them fighting each other. Cast human against human and you can lie back on the beach with a drink and watch them go at it. That’s the secret right there.’
He swiped his hand through the air, and Trouble felt a searing pain upon his face: a sword, slicing deep from cheek to forehead. ‘I don’t think your heart is in it anymore. I really don’t. You don’t want to go the same way as Strife, do you?’
The two imps stood straight, neither willing to meet their master’s eyes.
‘I know you’re better than this. Look, I’d love to stay up here and help. But things aren’t going so well down below. We’re running out of souls. It’s up to you two. Keep them dying. More and more and more.’ He jumped up onto the ledge, and walked around its rim, ignoring the wind that buffeted his suit. Toil and Trouble retreated onto the roof.
‘I’ll strive to do better next year, Master.’ Trouble cradled his face; black blood pattered onto the floor.
‘I know you will.’ Another hand slash. Another dark line on Trouble’s face. ‘Because, if you don’t, I’ll have to send other imps up. You can spend the rest of your days in Hell’s dungeon.’
Toil said, ‘We’ll do our best, Master.’
‘Quiet. You win an average of one year in a hundred. You’re the worst.’ He slashed her tail, right along its length and she screamed like a baby.
Trouble bent down to help her, but Lucifer waved his arm and Trouble was pulled right up toward him. ‘What are you doing, Trouble? Don’t tell me you care for your opponent here.’ He began walking again. ‘I think the next loser dies by the other’s hand. A replacement is needed. Young blood. Eager, ambitious. What do you think? Your immortality was given by me, I can take it away.’ He hurt Toil again; her tail slammed down into the hard roof.
‘Whatever you say, Lord of the Damned.’
‘And damned you are!’ Lucifer screamed. Black, tattered wings were illuminated against the glowing city, horns punched through his forehead and a forked tongue hissed between green lips. But then he was a man again. ‘Damned you are.’ He shook. ‘For all eternity. Just like me.’ He turned around to face the city. ‘I need more souls. More power. You saw my wings. I have to ride that damn beast around. Give me the souls I need to make myself whole once more.’
Lucifer’s shoulders slumped. ‘Yes. One more year. Winner takes all. Loser dies by the other’s hand. Slowly, over a millennium. The worst torture known to man. Known to demon. Torture that will make Strife’s passing look a blessing. That and that alone will get the best out of you. Like I said. War’s the key. Sure, natural disaster and disease have their place. But war bears the most fruit. Especially war over religion...’
Lucifer went on for some time. Trouble thought about beating Toil next year. He couldn’t watch her die. He’d be the cause of her demise. Yet, he didn’t want to die either. She’d known he’d beaten her this year. He’d seen her face scrunch in surprise when he’d lied. Lucifer kept ranting, and Trouble began to wonder what would happen if he pushed the Dark Lord from his perch. The wings he’d saw were tattered; they wouldn’t hold the demon’s weight.
If Lucifer survived, Trouble would die terribly. But that might happen anyway. No, he knew it would. Whether tomorrow or in a thousand years. Toil kept her head down, bowed in the face of Lucifer’s verbal onslaught.
He paced across the ledge and said, ‘I should put you both in the arena and watch you fight to the death. With your bare hands, perhaps. I could do better than five million with my eyes shut. With my hands tied behind my back.’ Lucifer mimicked the action and swung back around to face the city. ‘Yes. You’ll fight all right.’ He quaked as the rage coursed through him. ‘Tonight. I’m not waiting another year for this nonsense. You’ll be replaced—’
In a moment of frightful fear and a sense of hopelessness that Trouble had not felt since the beginning of time, he used both tail and legs to throw himself toward Lucifer. He pushed the Dark Lord. And the Dark Lord fell. Both Toil and Trouble watched him tumble. His wings beat helplessly, and the last thing he saw were his two imps watching him fall to earth.
Lucifer bounced off the concrete. The ground shook with violence. The skyscraper juddered, and the vibration shot through the city, knocking out streetlights and causing a hellish confusion. Then all was still. The body had gone, in its place was a black smoke, twirling around until it dissipated into the air.
Toil and Trouble held onto each other. They looked about them, worried Lucifer was playing a cruel trick. Nothing happened. Trouble gulped. ‘I think we’ll be all right.’
Lucifer’s steed bucked on its hind legs before taking off into the night.
‘You killed the king of Hell,’ Toil said. ‘You did it!’
Trouble nodded. ‘I had to. He was going to kill us. I’ve seen him in moods like that before. He rages and rages before he calms himself by hurting the nearest living thing. Us.’
The streetlights relit, and the city came back to life. Toil didn’t move from Trouble. She gripped him closer. ‘What now? Do we go... do we go up there?’ She looked to a crack in the clouds where moonlight streamed through.
‘Up there? With... them?’ Trouble shuddered. ‘No. We wouldn’t be welcome.’
‘Shall we continue our competition?’ Toil mused.
Trouble thought hard. The competition was what made him so sad. So angry. So used. No, he wouldn’t go back to it. Not even as his own master. Then, with a spark of thought, he lifted Toil’s head and kissed her once on the lips. ‘We can start a new one. A new competition.’
Toil smiled and shyly turned her head away. ‘What?’
‘I’m not so sure you’re up to it,’ Trouble teased.
‘I am. Tell me!’ Her little face rumpled.
Arm in arm they walked from the ledge. Trouble said, ‘Well, here’s the plan. You have to save the same number of people you’ve killed.’ Trouble kicked an errant pebble across the roof. ‘You know, stop people from dying.’
Toil stopped. ‘That’ll take an age.’
‘It’s lucky we’re immortal.’ Trouble faced her. ‘We’ll meet here once a year to compare scores.’
Toil nodded. ‘Fine. If you beat me this year, I might let you give me another kiss.’
Trouble laughed. The first time in eight hundred years. His cheeks hurt, his skin split, but he laughed with true happiness. ‘Deal.’ They clasped hands.
Toil left first in a puff of pink. Trouble took another look at Lucifer’s resting place before snapping his fingers. He’d decided to move the boulder trapped on the bridge. It could drop at any time. The first wrong undone in a list longer than he could remember. The first good deed of many, in a new world of bliss where the shadows, for the first time in all history, were as safe as the light.
Copyright © 2019 by Joe Greenslade