Dante says that, although he has seen horsemen and soldiers and other military crowds advancing and marching, he has never seen as strange a sight as the troop of devils marching along with Virgil and him. While walking, Dante looks into the pitch, where he occasionally sees sinners try to come to the surface and get some part of their body out of the boiling liquid. Others cower in the shallows of the pitch. But when a devil comes near, they jump back in out of fear.
The procession of devils is stranger than anything Dante has experienced on earth, emphasizing hell's radical difference from the world of the living.
One of the demons hooks a sinner by his hair and pulls him out of the pitch. While the devils gleefully consider flaying him, Dante asks Virgil if he can possibly know who this is. Virgil asks the sinner where he is from and he answers that he is from Navarre. He begins to tell about his life, but is interrupted by the devils prodding and stabbing him. While the devils squabble over who will do the torturing, the sinner asks Virgil if he has any more questions.
The sinner's punishment is a part of God's justice, but the way in which the demons delight in torturing him is still frightening. The sinner never tells Dante and Virgil his name but is eager to talk with these two souls while he still has the ability to.
Virgil asks if he knows of any Italians in the pitch. The sinner says that he was recently next to one, but as he continues his reply demons rip his body apart. While the soul looks upon his own mangled body, Virgil asks him who this body belonged to, and the soul answers that it was Fra Gomita and begins to point out others in the pitch. He tells Virgil that he could name many more and call up seven Italians, if the devils would not flay and torture him.
Virgil and Dante are mainly concerned with finding other Italians in hell. Their journey is cosmic and grand in scope, but their focus often seems provincial and local.
The demons are skeptical of the sinner's attempt to escape their punishment. And indeed, while they are distracted, he escapes their notice and dives into the pitch in what Dante calls "a merry prank," (22.118). The angry demons try to pursue him, but he has already gone down deep into the pitch where they cannot see him. The demons are frustrated and blame each other for their mistake. One of them attacks another, and the two of them accidentally fall into the pitch, where they are stuck. Virgil and Dante leave the band of devils behind.
The sinner's "merry prank" is a rare instance of comic relief amongst the suffering of hell. While he escapes the torture of the devils, he does not escape the punishment he has earned in hell, as he dives back into the boiling pitch.