Will twisted away, ducked into a tilted hallway, and sprinted for the lopsided screen door at the far end. Darla shouted something – curses – and heavy footfalls thundered after him, but Will had no intention of letting them catch him, and he shouldered the door open hard enough to rattle the frame. This side of the island sloped more steeply than the front, and Will almost fell twice as he ran, eyes watering with the speed, and air whistling in his ears.
The base of the hill levelled out and formed a small garden, where a twisted red barked tree hung over a blue pond, and beyond that a rotten pier extended out into the void, the same kind of pier Will had seen at countless beaches in his childhood. There was nowhere else to go, and as he skirted the pond and made for it he saw that there was hope there, after all – a hefty boulder was floating by. If he ran fast enough he might just be able…
‘NO!’ Dale’s huge arms wrapped around his middle and brought him down face first onto the rough planks that made up the pier. Will’s head snapped back from the force, and this time instead of stars he saw supernovas, red giants exploding in his mind. He tasted blood.
Dale released him and got to his feet, but Will couldn’t stand. The pain was unbelievable. He rolled onto his side, clutching his face and choking. ‘Aaaaaaaah! W – Why is it so bad?’ He blinked back tears and watched blood that shouldn’t have been there drip onto the dry wood.
‘In Hell, pain comes all too easily. Especially when your soul is fresh.’
‘What about the blood?’
‘Much of the body you have now is as much to do with your mind than anything else. You expected blood, so blood there was. That changes.’ He offered an enormous hand and Will took it, wincing as the demon pulled him to his feet. He swayed for a second, head buzzing, and Dale steadied him. ‘Be careful. It wouldn’t do to lose you to the void.’
At the mention of the void, the insanity of what he’d been about to attempt hit home. What if I’d fallen? He looked up into Dale’s dark eyes and saw nothing evil in them… until a little white worm poked its head out from his tear duct and then retreated. If your body here really represented your soul, what did that say about Dale and his rotten wounds?
‘I want to go home,’ he said.
‘I want to go home the way it was.’
Dale sighed. ‘I’m sorry. That isn’t possible. If it was, I wouldn’t be here myself.’ He rested a hand on Will’s shoulder. ‘Listen, those souls – it isn’t what you think.’
Will pulled away. ‘Yes it is. You said it was human souls and I believe you. I felt it.’
‘I’m sure you did. What I said was true, but it wasn’t the whole story. We caused no harm to obtain those souls, just as any scavenger does not need to harm its food. Someone else did the job for us. We merely consume what we need to survive.’
‘You don’t need to survive. You’re already dead – everything here is.’
Dale smiled, but the expression did not touch his eyes, and his shoulders drooped as though under a great weight. ‘I am sorry to be the one to tell you the things I am about to tell you, Will,’ he said. ‘But there is so much, and we don’t have much time. Will you walk with me, and hear what I have to say? When I’m done, you are free to do what you like. You can have Calvin restore you to your body, and live the rest of your days on Earth. Perhaps I’ll still be here when you return.’
The phrase jarred Will unpleasantly: when you return. Even if he lived to be two hundred, if what Calvin had told him about there being no heaven was true, he really would be back here, no matter what he did. The thought filled him with helplessness. He wiped his bloody nose and nodded. ‘Okay. Tell me, then.’
Dale turned and waved at Calvin and Darla, who were standing halfway between the pier and the house. Calvin nodded and started back up the hill, but Darla stayed where she was, munching on the dead rat that Dale had given her as though it was an apple.
He turned back to Will, who still had his hands in tight fists because of the pain. It was as though someone had broken every bone in his face. Dale gave him an understanding smile, and then gestured for him to walk beside him. The two of them started down the pier, keeping close to the centre. Every time he looked over the edge, Will saw himself sliding off the boulder and falling, falling, falling. He shivered.
‘I will tell you what the first demon I ever met told me,’ Dale said. ‘He was a trader who lived in Mort City. His was the first shop I stumbled into, when I was raw as living meat. He looked at me with his eye – he only had one – and he said: Welcome to hell, boy. The place where all your nightmares will come true, and everything hurts ten times more… but at least it lasts forever.’
He chuckled, but somehow, Will couldn’t find the humour.
‘Anyway. He was wrong – at least about it lasting forever. Do not think that just because we are all dead that we fear nothing. In fact, we have much more to fear than the kind of death the living are so afraid of. We have damnation.’
‘Yes. If you stay here for long enough, one of three things will likely happen to you. Either you will become a monster, you will be eaten by a monster, or you will be claimed by the void.’
‘What’s the difference between a monster and a demon? Calvin told me before – he said only demons come from Hell, so where do monsters come from?’
‘Ah. Well, Calvin has a theory of his own. He believes that some monsters are birthed straight from the Devil himself, some place beyond the void. I don’t believe there is a Devil, personally. I’ve seen the process too many times. Living humans die and become demons. Demons transform and become monsters. Darla, Calvin and I exist in the in-between place, along with many others… and the only thing that keeps us here is a certain amount of human souls.’
They were halfway down the pier now, and exposed to the cold air. All it would take was a small push, and yet, Will didn’t feel vulnerable. There was something about this big, sad demon that rung true. He was a good thing, whatever he was. His words might not be pleasant to hear, but Will was certain they were honest, and under the circumstances that was everything.
‘Are monsters what killed my family?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Perhaps they had orders, or else they were acting on instinct. Not the same instinct, you understand, that animals on earth have: to survive – it is an instinct to destroy. To eat, to kill, to cause pain.’
‘And you – any demon – can become like that?’
‘Yes. After death, the only way a soul can maintain itself – its humanity – is to consume souls, or parts of souls. The Bad Stuff, as Darla calls it, is the combined souls of evil people. The Good Stuff is from good, innocent folk, which is why we only scavenge for it. The difference between the two is like the difference between grey nutritionless gruel and rich meat and vegetables. You can only live off gruel for so long, and the latter makes you strong.’
They reached the end of the pier, and leaned up against the shaky railing, looking out over the empty space of Hell. Far away, lit by a bright star, Will thought he could see the shape of a man falling, arms flailing. Maybe it was just an illusion.
‘It’s not all bad, Will,’ Dale said. ‘There is a life to be made, here. But there is evil, too, and Calvin, Darla and I are in the business of ending it.’
It took Will a second to register that. It didn’t seem to make sense. ‘You’re trying to end evil in Hell?’ he said.
‘Yes. Just imagine if there were no monsters. The amount of soul a demon needs is so little. We could be helping the living instead of just feeding off them – improving their way of life above so that they are grateful to supply us with whatever souls we need. This land doesn’t need to be Hell at all – it could be a paradise, if only we could end the horror. That is my mission here.’
Will nodded slowly, but it sounded like madness. This was Hell, wasn’t it? How could you rid Hell of evil? It seemed to him like trying to rid the Sahara desert of sand. And it raised a new question, one he should have asked Calvin the moment he saw him. ‘Why do you want me, then?’
‘You’re a Seer, Will. That means you are a living person who can see demons for what they are, unlike most other humans. That wouldn’t mean much, normally, but the thing about Seers besides being rare is they have very powerful souls. Hell’s history is littered with champions and leaders who were Seers. Since I began my quest, I’ve made it my mission to find and recruit as many Seers as I can. To my mind, souls like you are the most powerful weapon for the war against the monsters.’
Will looked down at his body – or rather the thing that appeared as his body in this world. It was still his own fourteen year old, pale skinned self. Nothing special. He didn’t look like a weapon in anyone’s war. ‘I just want to find my family,’ he said.
Dale nodded, but his expression was strained. ‘I’m afraid they won’t be here, Will. I saw everything. No one knows what happens if a monster eats your soul, but we know it doesn’t end up here in Hell. It’s one of the reasons Calvin believes in the existence of a Devil, and another plane of existence beyond this one. Ever since he died he’s had trouble accepting death at all. Strangely enough.’
Will put his head in his hands. He’d known he’d never see his family again, but seeing a life after death had given him some hope that he might find them. Now it was as if they had died all over again.
And then Dale said something that changed everything.
‘I’m sorry, Will. But… there might be hope for your sister, yet. You put her body in the freezer, didn’t you?’
‘Well, the monsters took a living soul – another Seer – most likely to trade on the black market. It was your sister.’
If Will had a beating heart, it might have stopped just then. He stared up at Dale, hardly daring to believe his ears. ‘You mean… She could still be alive? Like me?’
Dale nodded. ‘Yes. In fact, I’m certain of it. And I need you to help get her back.’