Inferno section 21: Virgil and Dante come to the center of the bridge that crosses the fifth pouch of the Eighth Circle where they find the Barrators-those who profited from their positions in public office-mired in a river of boiling pitch. Malebranche (Evil Claws) demons approach the poets with a new spirit from the city of Lucca who they throw into the chasm below. Virgil tells Dante to hide from the demons while he secures their guidance across the river. The demons start to attack Virgil but he holds them off by asking to talk to one of them. Malacoda (Evil Tail) steps forward to ask Virgil why he wishes to speak to them. Virgil explains that the demons cannot hurt Dante because their journey was willed in Heaven. Malacoda orders the other demons not to attack and instead calls ten of his sidekicks forward to escort the poets to the next chasm while they prod and torment the sinners in the pitch to ensure that they do not escape. The rebellious demons taunt Dante but do as they are told. The group proceeds to the next pouch.
Inferno section 22: As the noisy party marches up the river, Dante's attention turns to the sinners in the pitch. He notices that most of the sinners stay submerged but some leap out like dolphins while others sit like frogs with only their heads breaking the surface of the sludge. As the demons approach, all but one sinner dives beneath the surface. The demon Graffiacane hooks the remaining sinner and drags him to shore. The demons flog and claw the shade. Dante asks to know the name of this unfortunate soul. The hapless shade replies that he was from Navarre and served King Thibaut. He reports to Dante that he used his position to sell political favors and now must suffer the consequences in Hell. As the demons attack the Barrator from Navarre, Dante asks if any Latian sinners reside here. The tormented shade replies that both Friar Gomita of Gallura and Don Michel Zanche from Sardinia lie below. Continuing to claw and jab at the spirit, the wild demons begin to quarrel amongst themselves. The shade from Navarre seizes his opportunity to escape by diving back into the pitch. Furious, two demons fly after him. One demon pulls up just as it reaches the surface of the pitch. Angry with his compatriot for missing the shade, the other demon attacks his colleague and the two battle like birds of prey in midair. As the demons fight they too fall into the pitch and cannot fly. Dante and Virgil walk quietly away from the chaotic scene.
Inferno section 23: Dante feels uneasy as he and Virgil leave the demons. He fears that the demons will blame them for their fight and pursue them as a hawk would pursue a mouse. In fact, the demons are chasing them so Virgil quickly scoops Dante into his arms and descends down to the sixth pouch. The demons cannot leave their realm so they watch helplessly from above as their prey escapes. In the sixth pouch, Dante and Virgil find spirits walking very slowly. Cloaked in hoods and garments that appear dazzling but are lined with lead, these shades-the Hypocrites-must spend eternity bearing these deceptively beautiful instruments of torture. Dante crosses paths with spirits who belonged to Jovial Firars, men who were supposed to govern Florence. The Friars discuss the rationale behind some of the punishments bestowed upon their brethren. Virgil asks where they will find a bridge to cross this chasm. The Friars respond that all the bridges were destroyed at the same time. Realizing that Malacoda had lied to him about the bridges, Virgil storms angrily away.
Inferno section 24: Somewhat stunned by Virgil's anger, Dante follows his master downcast and wary. Virgil puts his pupil at ease, though, when he turns to him wearing a calm and benign expression. Virgil finds a place where they can climb out of this chasm. Since he is weightless, Virgil pushes Dante from behind as he struggles up the rocky and treacherous cliff. When they reach the top, Dante falls to the ground in exhaustion. Virgil implores him to keep moving so the two travelers continue to the next chasm-seventh pouch. This new chasm holds the Thieves who must spend eternity running naked through the darkness as serpents chase them. Dante spies a gruesome sight: thrust through the loins of a shade, the head and tail of a serpent clasp in a knot about the body of the shade while the rest of the serpent's body coils around the shade's hands behind its back. Another serpent sinks its fangs into the neck of the shade that then turns to ashes, only to take shape again and repeat its misery. Dante finds that this spirit belongs to Vanni Fucci of Pistoia, a man who robbed the sacristy of a church. Vanni prophesies that Dante's White party will lose a battle at Pistoia.
Inferno section 25: Vanni Fucci curses God and makes an obscene gesture. To silence him, a serpent wraps itself around Vanni's neck and Dante believes that the sinner has gotten what he deserves. Chased by a horrible monster, Vanni runs away. Virgil identifies the monster as Cacus, the creature that was killed by Hercules for stealing his cattle. Five Florentine Thieves approach Dante-three of them humans and two of them serpents. Of the encounter, Dante writes, "As I kept my eyes fixed on those sinners, a serpent with six feet springs out against one of the three, and clutches him completely. It gripped his belly with its middle feet, and with its forefeet grappled his two arms; and then sank its teeth in both his cheeks.Then just as if their substance were warm wax, they stuck together and they mixed their colors, so neither seemed what he had been before; just as, when paper's kindled, where it still has not caught flame in full, its color's dark though not yet black, while white is dying off." Dante vividly describes this metamorphosis as snake and human become one being and then trade forms. He goes on to describe other similar scenes including that of a reptile creating smoke by biting one of the human spirits.