Will didn’t struggle, not even when Calvin’s fingertips dug deep enough into his neck to draw blood and the darkness throbbed. He was only living because of this demon anyway, and if this was a lie then maybe so was Hell, and only peace waited for him. He surrendered to it.
And opened his eyes.
A sky full of coloured stars stretched above him. Most were red or white, but there were all colours, entire galaxies extending into infinity in the clear sky. Huge shapes, near and far, floated through the air, but he couldn’t tell what they were.
As his vision cleared, sensation returned to his body and he realised he was lying on his back, in a field of soft grass. Wherever this was, it was painfully cold, but his breath didn’t steam from his mouth, and it took him a moment to realise that was because he wasn’t breathing.
He sat up quickly, one hand moving to his neck. Was he choking? No, he felt fine. No air was coming in or going out, but he didn’t seem to need it. Calvin, who was crouching beside him, put a steadying hand on his shoulder. ‘Sorry, boy. I could have made it easier, but I wanted it to be quick. I didn’t know if you’d fight me. Sometimes they fight.’
‘It’s okay.’ He rubbed his eyes as though he’d woken from a deep sleep, and then staggered to his feet, almost falling down as he was hit with a strong sense of vertigo. The sky was moving too fast. He reached out for support and found Calvin’s arm.
In all but one direction, the field extended with hills and valleys and scattered trees, like a golf course, and then… Just dropped away into space. The sight jarred him, and he looked the other way, where a spit of land narrowed and dipped like a drawbridge, and then widened out to join with a floating island that was around the size of a football stadium. Its base tapered off, like an iceberg made of soil and rock instead of ice. At its peak stood a house – if you could call it that. Really, it was a shipwreck: wood, metal and clay haphazardly piled into a sizeable dwelling. The orange glow of flame flickered in the misshapen windows.
‘What is… What is this?’ It was strange to talk, the words leaving his mouth in a dry voice as he thought them, without air. The cold had already numbed his hands and bare feet, but he found himself incapable of shivering.
‘That structure is my home,’ Calvin said.
Will steadied himself and then let go of Calvin’s arm. The demon was smiling with something like admiration. ‘Standing already. You’re doing a lot better than most souls, you know.’
‘Most souls… So I’m dead, right now?’
He nodded. ‘Your body is rotting as we speak. But don’t worry, things move a little slower, here. You’ll have plenty of time to get back to it before it becomes… unliveable.’
Before Will could ask him exactly what that meant, Calvin started down toward the drawbridge. Will hurried after him, sticking both arms out for balance. He found the source of his disorientation had a lot to do with the strange gravity here. It wasn’t as strong as he was used to – more like what he imagined it would be like on the moon.
‘Be careful,’ Calvin said, coming up behind him. ‘There’s a wind at the base of that bridge, and it can push you if you’re not careful.’
There was a wind, but though it was icy it wasn’t strong, and soon enough Will was up the other side and standing in front of the patchwork mansion. The front door was a bunch of nailed boards he could have broken apart with his bare hands. When he reached up to push it open, Calvin gripped his wrist. ‘I suppose I should tell you about the others, so you aren’t alarmed.’
‘Two others, yes, although only one of them is home at the moment.’
‘Not at all. But they won’t kill you.’
‘I thought I was already dead.’
Calvin chuckled and pushed open the door with a big hand. ‘Yes, well. There is death, and then there is death…’
The room they entered was nothing like what the outward appearance of the house suggested. Whoever lived here with Calvin had gone to great lengths to make the place appear as… earthly as possible. A candle chandelier hung from a rafter, lighting a kind of living room which consisted of a moth eaten couch and a coffee table. The floor was red carpet, with only the occasional brown stain. The room adjacent was a dirty but very neat kitchen, full of knives but absent a refrigerator. A peeling archway separated the main room from what might have been a sitting room, only there was nowhere to sit – it was just a roaring fireplace and a hole riddled blanket.
And then there was the girl, sitting on the couch with her feet up on the coffee table.
At least, she might have been a girl, once. Now she was undoubtedly a demon. Black hair hung in tendrils that twitched like snakes, her eyes were yellow slits, and though her body was shaped like that of a human, her skin was tight and scaled. She’d been reading some tattered book, but she looked up as he came in, and smiled with a mouth full of teeth the colour of dull steel. ‘Allo, darlin. What’s this then, Calvin?’
Calvin put a reassuring hand on Will’s shoulder. ‘This is a Seer, darlin.’
She put the book down on the table – the title was Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld – and fixed him with an unnervingly fascinated look. ‘Really?’ She licked her lips with a very red tongue.
‘Yes. After all this time,’ Calvin said.
‘And what’s your name, Seer?’
‘Will,’ said Will. ‘What’s yours?’
‘Darla. He seems very calm for fresh meat.’
‘I just killed him a few minutes ago. His family was murdered. It was very disturbing, you know. Or have you already forgotten?’
The smile faded from her face. ‘No,’ she said, ‘no I haven’t. I think young Will here wouldn’t mind a drink, don’t you reckon?’
‘I’m not thirsty,’ Will said. Truth was, he wasn’t much of anything. The whole world seemed like a dream. Maybe there had never been any demons at all, and he was at that moment lying in a hospital bed somewhere in a coma, his family sitting around him and reminiscing. An unnerving thought.
‘Trust me, you’ll like what I’ve got.’ Darla interrupted his thoughts, taking his hand and leading him into the gungy kitchen. Her skin was cold, like Calvin’s, but softer – more fleshy. She opened a cupboard and began fishing for something, clanging pans and glasses. ‘Why do we have so many of these damn – ah!’ She pulled out two bottles of what looked like clear spirits. Someone had pasted duct tape by way of a crude label: The Bad Stuff and The Good Stuff. She unscrewed the latter and then returned to the cabinet to get a couple of glasses.
Calvin, leaning up against the wall behind Will, hissed as she filled one of them almost to the brim. ‘Not so much. Don’t forget where it comes from.’
She shrugged, filled the second glass barely a finger. ‘Woman’s gotta eat sometime. I’m hungry.’ She grinned at Will with her terrifying teeth and slid the glass over to him with a wink. ‘Drink up. It’ll do ya good.’
Will watched her drink half of her glass in one swallow and then smack her lips, satisfied. ‘Ahhhh, when it’s good, it’s good.’
He sniffed it, and smelled cinnamon. Then he sniffed it again and there was no cinnamon at all, only mint. He tipped the glass and swallowed it.
It was like being set on fire from the inside. He dropped to his knees, wanting to scream but unable, and the heat consumed him, bringing with it every emotion he’d been unable to feel: horror, pain, the grief for his dead family, all the madness flooding his mind in an unstoppable tidal wave.
Then it passed and he returned to his senses, coughing and crying at the same time, dripping tears onto cracked and mouldy tiles. His emotions dulled, but not to the level they’d been before. He felt real again, and by extension, so did the world around him. It wasn’t a good feeling.
Darla, cackling, patted him on the back. ‘Didn’t say it was gonna be a walk in the park, did I? Ah, the God Man is here.’ She stepped over him and went to open the front door.
‘Sorry,’ Calvin said. ‘She doesn’t always make the best first impression.’
Will rolled onto his side and curled up into a ball, shivering. ‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘She seems nice.’