Thomas the Doubter

by Patrick Hurley


When the ground burst open and released all the fiends of Hell, humanity did not fare well. Within three days, every person still alive had surrendered to their new diabolic overlords.

With one notable exception.

Thomas Drutchery was a recluse who lived in a basement flat in the middle of England. He’d been trolling a cryptid enthusiasts forum when the Apocalypse began. Truth be told, aside from his power flickering once or twice, he barely noticed.

Thomas’s only noteworthy trait was his skepticism. As a child, after discovering the truth about Father Christmas, a tearful young Thomas had vowed from that day forth never to be tricked by anything again. During the Apocalypse, whenever Thomas came across articles reporting on how Beezlebub had risen or that a mother had sacrificed her daughters to Pazuzu, he’d respond with an all-caps “FAKE.” If doubt were a religion and pedantic questioning a form of worship, Thomas Drutchery would have been the most devout man alive.

Meanwhile, many of the actual devout wondered why there was no answer from Heaven during Hell’s conquest. If Hell existed, surely Heaven must, so where was their divine intervention? Heaven’s petitioners probably wouldn’t have been happy to learn that the Shining City had in fact allowed Hell to invade completely unopposed, all because of the Great Wager.

Having perhaps an ill-considered faith in humanity, Heaven had given their opposition unfettered access to the mortal world provided Hell could convert all its living souls within three days. If Hell failed to do so, they were to forego interfering with Earth for a thousand years. Some on the side of angels felt their superiors had been fools to agree to such terms, but those in the Shining City who had studied humanity closely wondered who was playing whom.

As the end of the third day drew nigh, the legions of darkness began to wonder why they hadn’t yet been acknowledged as the winners of the Great Wager. They sent delegations to Heaven only to be told that their conquest was not yet complete. This caused some consternation among Earth’s would-be conquerors, so they summoned a fiendish council.

The demons met in the Thin Places, whose flexible reality could accommodate their many dimensions. On one side of a long table, made from the bones of saints and puppies and glued together by a mother’s pain, sat Hrundegar, 9th Demon of the 30th Legion of Torturers. It was Hrundegar who had first pitched the Great Wager. He’d chosen to manifest in his classic form, a four-headed wolf carcass with snake eyes, rows of razor-sharp fangs, and pustules bursting throughout his fur.

Across from him sat Vithlerix, one of the Great Old Ones. Shimmering in green curtains of slime with too many tentacles to count, it had been Vithlerix who had helped Hrundegar craft the language in the Great Wager. Around them sat numerous demons of fire and brimstone, horrors of void and hopeless dark.

“Why hasn’t the Other Side conceded?” asked Hrundegar, acidic drool dripping from his third mouth. “The mortals who opposed us have been killed. Everyone else has converted.”

Not everyone, Vithlerix replied with a thought.

“There’s still a hidden pocket of resistance?”

It seems to be just one man. He is an… interesting case.

“One of those noble heroes of old, eh? I thought we’d gotten them all.”

He is definitely no hero.

“A saint? Philosopher king? Ascetic who achieved Nirvana?”

No. His name is Thomas Drutchery, and he’s just a skeptical bastard.

Hrundegar and Vithlerix shared a glance. Had they possessed human faces, this glance would have been described as a “knowing look.” The only provision Heaven had insisted on before signing the Great Wager was that, once on the mortal plane, the forces of evil could only harm those who believed in them. At the time, none of the demons thought this would be an issue. They assumed any mortal who saw them would believe instantly. Mortals who fought back, just by fighting, tacitly acknowledged their foes’ existence and could be put down. Any armchair skeptics would no doubt be swayed by the media confirming Hell’s ascendancy.

Yet it seemed there was still a holdout, and as long as this lone recluse didn’t believe what was happening around him, he couldn’t be touched. The demons felt a rare sense of unease. Usually, they were the ones hiding subtle traps in binding contracts. Was it possible Heaven was learning after all this time?

Hrundegar realized his mouths were hanging open and closed all but one. “Look… for this to work, all of humanity has to believe in our power.”

I know that, replied Vithlerix, sounding somewhat testy for an ageless entity of entropy and chaos. But until we convince this worm, we can’t claim victory in the Great Wager.

“Then we must pay a call to this Thomas Drutchery. When he sees us up close he will have no choice but to accept that we are indeed real. Then, he will be ours.”

***

Thomas nearly spewed beer all over his keyboard when the portals from Hell opened into his living room.

“Thomas Drutchery,” growled Hrundegar. “The time of your reckoning has come.”

Instead of cringing in fear, Thomas checked the ABV on his can of lager.

Odd. 5% shouldn’t cause any hallucinations. 12 perhaps, but not 5.

Thomas was severely nearsighted; there wasn’t a prescription strong enough to accommodate his weak eyes. Though this had put him at something of an evolutionary disadvantage in the past, now it allowed him to remain sane. While most would have gone mad upon witnessing Hrundegar and Vithlerix in all their dread majesty, all Thomas saw were blurry shadows that looked like bad cosplay.

If he’d had friends, Thomas would have suspected they were playing a prank. Instead, he wondered if this was the cryptid forum’s lame attempt at payback for all his trolling.

Tremble and despair, mortal, for now you will experience our hellish powers and—

“Sorry—could you stop that?” said Thomas.

What?

“I don’t know how you’re doing that with your voice, but it hurts my head.”

Vithlerix longed to hurt this silly little man, yet the Great Wager forbade it. Instead, he manipulated his tentacles to approximate a human larynx and burbled, “Is this better?”

“Mate, it sounds like you need a hospital.”

“QUIET!” Hrundegar roared. He used just three of his mouths, as all four would kill any mortal who heard them. Still, three demon wolfheads are quite loud; they nearly knocked Thomas over and cracked his windows.

“Jesus,” said Thomas. “I’m just trying to have a conversation. No need to get emotional.”

Hrundegar had never heard of sea-lioning—as methods of torture went, it had yet to descend from the mortal plane to the infernal—so he was completely unaware he was about to step into a trap that Thomas had laid in many an online debate.

“I’m not emotional!” growled Hrundegar. “I’m just trying to—”

“If you’re not emotional, why are you shouting?”

“Don’t interrupt me!” growled Hrundegar.

“I’m just trying to have a rational discussion.”

“If you’d shut up for a moment—”

“You’re getting emotional again,” said Thomas, beginning to enjoy himself. “If you can’t participate in a civil debate, maybe you should just leave.”

Hrundegar lunged for Thomas, but Vithlerix caught him at the last moment.

He doesn’t believe in us! Vithlerix said. Kill him, and we lose the Great Wager!

Sensing his intruders weren’t going to hurt him, Thomas began to grin. “Did the lads at the chip shop set this up?”

“No one set anything up,” said Vithlerix, his voice still sounding like a swamp. “We are here to offer you a choice, Thomas Drutchery. Either worship our glorious majesty or be tortured for a thousand years.”

Thomas paused to process what he’d just heard. Then he began to laugh. Tears rolled down his eyes. Admittedly, Vithlerix was difficult to understand, and the ultimatum, coming from someone who sounded like a phlegmy asthmatic, was even harder to take seriously.

“All right,” said Thomas, wheezing. “I don’t know who hired you, but I’ve got to admit, your costumes are pretty good. Same with the voices and special effects. You almost had me. Do I need to tip you or something before you go?”

The demons huddled together.

“What do we do?” Hrundegar hissed.

I have an idea. We can’t hurt him, but we can demonstrate our power, can we not?

“What good is that if we can’t hurt him?”

Mortals have a saying: seeing is believing. Perhaps he just needs to be shown… more.

“Right,” said Hrundegar, grinning with all four of his mouths. “Riiiiigggght.”

Suddenly, Thomas stood amidst burning red skies and obsidian canyons, surrounded by rivers of flame and piles of corpses.

“Welcome, Thomas Drutchery,” hissed Hrundegar. “Welcome… to Hell.”

This time, Thomas did spew his beer. All over Hrundegar and Vithlerix.

“All right,” said Thomas. “How’d you do that? Some sort of holographic 3D projection?”

“You are in Hell, Thomas Drutchery!!” screamed Hrundegar. “Look around! Listen! Can you not hear the screams of the damned?!”

The screams of the damned had little effect on Thomas. Post on 4chan or Reddit long enough, and the lamentation of tortured souls sounds almost comforting.

“I mean, as special effects go, it’s impressive. How did you do it?”

Who is this man? Vithlerix whispered to his partner. The sight of Hell has driven saints to their knees!

“He’s no saint,” hissed Hrundegar. “Just a moron too stupid to believe what’s right in front of him.”

“I’m right here, you know,” said Thomas, finishing his lager with a belch. “Listen lads, can we call it a night? It’s been interesting, but I’d like to get back to my forums.”

“We have no choice. We must merge minds with him.”

Vithlerix recoiled. Though he had tortured many mortals, he’d never merged minds with them. Joining a mortal mind was thought to encourage traits like empathy or love.

Not that either demon worried about feeling love for Thomas Drutchery. Though they’d only known him a few minutes, they had no desire to get closer to such a mind. Yet teleporting him to Hell had no effect, so what choice did they have?

Hrundegar approached. Thomas flinched back.

“Whoa, mate. No need to get physical.”

Coward that he was, Thomas didn’t notice that Hrundegar seemed just as reluctant as the demon laid a paw on Thomas’s round shoulder.

When the merging began, it was horror beyond description. The bleakest of existences where nothing was true and nothing mattered. It was, without a doubt, the most horrifying experience ever.

For Hrundegar.

Drowning in existential despair, the demon fell to his knees and screamed.

Pull yourself together! Vithlerix shouted.

The merging was not without some effect. Thomas finally began to wonder if all this was more than just an elaborate prank. Was it possible these two weren’t nerds in cosplay?

“All right. I guess you’re ‘real,’ given that I can see and hear you,” Thomas said with the gracious air of an adult prepared to indulge a child one small point.

Vithlerix could hardly believe it. Ahhh, so you believe in us then!

Thomas stroked his chin. “I didn’t say that.”

“What?” howled Hrundegar from his curled-up ball.

“How do I know you are who you say you are? What if you’re just aliens with illusion tech or the government running some kind of experiment? There’s plenty of explanations for what I’m seeing right now. I could have been exposed to a hallucinogen. I could’ve been kidnapped. I could be dreaming...”

The demons were stunned into silence as Thomas rattled off explanations for how they couldn’t possibly be what they claimed.

“Stop! Just stop!” screamed two of Hrundegar’s heads. “Look where you are! Look at us! Of course we’re real, you bloody idiot!”

Thomas waved a hand dismissively. “Keep up, mate. Never said you weren’t real. Just that I don’t believe in you. It’s a trick—some kind of conspiracy.”

That makes no sense! cried Vithlerix, forgetting to not speak telepathically. Why would we trick you? What’s in it for us?

“How should I know?” asked Thomas. “You know what makes no sense? Your mission. I mean, if you’re so all-powerful, why bother conquering us? Not much of a challenge, is it? Be like me kicking over an anthill and claiming I was its emperor.”

With every word, the demons seemed to shrink, and the sights and sounds of Hell faded. How was this happening? How could this man make them feel so… small?

“Maybe you two are from somewhere else, but have you thought about that? Ever wondered why you do what you do? I mean, do you even have free will? What if you’re just mindless cogs in a machine, plot devices designed to make things happen?”

With every satisfied word, Thomas sounded more certain. With every sentence, the demons felt less sure. They were demons, right? They represented Hell! That certainly existed… didn’t it? This arrogant fool sounded so sure… could it be that they were wrong?

“Enough!” Hrundegar roared, though by this point, his roar sounded like a small dog’s yip. “I’ll not stand here and be insulted. You will witness the power of Hell, Thomas Drutchery! And you will rue the day you doubted us!!”

“There you go again, getting emotional,” said Thomas. “That usually happens when you can’t win a civil debate. Perhaps we should just agree to disagree. The way I see it…”

Thomas never got to expound on how he saw it. Before he could finish, Hrundegar opened all four of his wolf maws and screamed, “WOULD YOU JUST SHUT UP!?”

Thomas Drutchery’s head exploded in a cloud of blood and bone.

It was the most satisfying moment of Hrundegar’s infernal existence.

Until Vithlerix grasped the demon and screamed, What have you done?!

Portals of light pierced the dark skies, and through them poured the armies of Heaven. While the forces of evil were a bit knackered from conquering all of humanity, the forces of good looked fresh and decidedly eager for a scrap.

Hell had lost the Great Wager. Both Vithlerix and Hrundegar realized that if their demonic army remained on Earth a moment longer, it would be erased from existence. As the two demons sounded the retreat, their last thought was to wonder just how in Pandemonium Thomas Drutchery had gotten the best of them.

After Hell ceded the field, Heaven began to undo all the harm that had been inflicted upon the Earth. The dead were raised, destroyed structures rebuilt. Memories were modified on a scale only seen in two of the last six Apocalypses. In the end, it was as if the Great Wager had never happened.

For everyone but one person, that is.

Thomas Drutchery woke to find himself lying in a bed of clouds, head once more intact. For once, he could hear, see, and smell perfectly. Everything smelled wonderful and looked lovely.

A little too lovely, if you asked him.

For Heaven’s victory to be maintained, Thomas’s death had to remain permanent, and though he was a staunch atheist, one cannot save all humanity and not get into Heaven.

Which brings us to now and the problem I found myself in. As an angel of Heaven, it’s my job to welcome Thomas into the Fold after saving all humankind, but alas, despite writing out the whole story for him as you see above, you can probably guess how he reacted.

“So, wait. You’re telling me that because I kept questioning those two pricks, I somehow saved the world?”

“Yes, Thomas, that is what I’m telling you.”

“Well, it feels a little too convenient.”

“You don’t find it plausible? That the Higher Powers had faith in your lack of faith?”

“Hmmm,” said Thomas. He looked out over the Fields of Perfection and managed to find them a bit boring. “You know what? I kind of doubt it.”



Patrick Hurley has had fiction published in dozens of markets, including Factor Four, Galaxy’s Edge, Abyss & Apex, New Myths, and Vastarien.

Patrick is managing editor at Paizo Inc., a graduate of the 2017 Taos Toolbox Writer's Workshop, and a member of SFWA. He is represented by Jordy Albert of the Booker/Albert Agency. Find out more about Patrick’s work at www.patrick.hurleywrites.com.

About the story, Patrick says, “I’d been wanting to write this for some time. It comes from a few different places. The empiricist Andrew McPhee from C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, for one. While the Scotsman is generally ignored or contradicted by his allies throughout that book, I recall how they said he’d be quite valuable if the forces of evil were winning. Secondly, I woke up one morning with the thought that if one truly wanted to torture demonic forces, you could always subject them to an argument with internet trolls. Finally, the idea of Hellish forces conquering everyone save for one lone internet recluse just felt like a story that’s ripe for the telling.”


“Thomas the Doubter” by Patrick Hurley. Copyright © 2024 by Patrick Hurley.

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Comments

  1. My God! This story had me laughing hard. It's beautiful, well-crafted and witty. '...the thought that if one truly wanted to torture demonic forces, you could always subject them to an argument with internet trolls.' this line had me laughing again. It's so inspirational. Well done Patrick Hurley

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