‘Yes, dear reader, hell is a despicable place, full of evil and horror and fates worse than the death you were once brought up to fear. But it is also full of beauty and wonder and mystery. If you allow me to be your guide, I promise not to shy away from an inch of any of it: not the misery nor the light. What you will find in these pages, to your benefit I hope – is no more or less than the truth.’
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Introduction (So, You’re Finally Dead).
After crossing the narrow walkway from the house at a terrifying pace, Will struggling to keep up without slipping over the side, they passed through the garden in which he had arrived, and he noticed a symbol painted red in the grass: a star inside a circle. ‘Is that the Mouth?’ he asked Darla, pointing.
She snorted. ‘You’ll know the Mouth when you see it, don’t worry. That’s Calvin’s recall spot. That’s how Reapers like him steal souls. They make one of those – it’s easy, just a bunch of painted symbols and sprinkled blood – and then go up to earth, get their hands on someone and then teleport back to the spot. Heart attacks, brain aneurysms, any instant death is usually a reaper. Convenient.’
‘Oh.’ He glanced ahead and saw a barrier of weeds and bushes at the end of the field, beyond which was the void. ‘So where are we going?’
‘Don’t worry, it’s not far.’ She grinned. ‘Walking, at least.’
They stopped at the barrier, and she motioned as if to say you first.
‘I don’t get it,’ he said.
She hissed, and then as if explaining a basic concept to an infant, said: ‘You fall. Into the void. It goes down a way, but eventually you’ll land on a big island that looks like a desert. Then we just walk to the Mouth.’
‘What if I miss it?’
‘You won’t miss, it’s huge. And if you do, then I don’t know. No one knows how far down it goes.’ She smirked. ‘Maybe forever.’
He craned his neck over the bushes as far as he dared, but all he could see on the other side was pure darkness, with the occasional floating piece of debris – some of which looked very far down indeed.
‘You won’t land hard,’ she went on. ‘Souls have weight, but it’s not like on earth. Anyway, it’s all sand down there. Just go, damn it, I don’t have time to baby you.’
‘Can’t you go first?’
‘What, so I can spend the next five hours waiting for you to get your cowardly ass after me? You got ten seconds to jump.’
‘Wait. This doesn’t make sense. Calvin should be taking me – he’s the one who can manipulate souls – the Reaper, right?’
‘What if the island’s moved since last time?’
‘Could be, but big things move slow. Four.’
‘We should be going as a group. How are we supposed to keep my sister’s body cold?’
‘Tell me about it. One.’ He tried to pull away, but she was viper quick, and she had both of his arms in a tight grip in a second. Will had never been so terrified in his life. The prospect of falling into that darkness was worse than anything he could imagine. ‘Wait, wait!’
‘Stop struggling! Bastard.’ She slipped in soft dirt, then shouldered him in the chest, pushing him backwards over the low bushes. The void, full of distant lights and dark islands, spun madly around him, and then he was falling, twisting through nothingness with wind whistling in his ears like a scream.
It took a few seconds to orient himself, but by then the island was so far above him it was lost in space, and he couldn’t see anything below him at all. Every now and again, other islands passed him by, haphazard structures built along their slopes. He wondered if anyone was watching him fall, pitying him. Please, please, let it be there, let it be there. And at last, after several excruciating minutes, by which point his fingers and face were numb from cold, he saw land.
It was enormous, a Saharan desert with rolling dunes like tidal waves, some of which were spilling over the edges of the plane in an endless waterfall made of sand. Will was unnerved to note that he was heading awfully close to one of those edges, and he waved his arms in an effort to push himself as far over the land as he could. He made a mental note not to trust Darla’s reassurances again. Coming down fast, oh no, oh no, oh –
He hit hard enough to knock the wind out of himself, which made no sense, since he wasn’t breathing. But there was no time to think of that – he dug his heels and hands into the dune as he slid along in the avalanche he’d created, all too aware of the drop-off less than twenty meters or so away, then ten… Until he came to a stop at last, half of his body buried.
When Darla landed easily on the top of the dune a minute later, he was curled up in the sand, trying desperately to suck in air which didn’t exist into lungs that he didn’t have. It was the worst sensation he’d ever experienced – like drowning without the final relief of unconsciousness. Darla descended to where he was and leaned over him, yellow eyes narrowed. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
He pointed to his mouth and tried to suck in another breath, but it was as though his throat was packed with cotton wool.
‘Ah. Can’t breathe?’
He nodded. Darla gripped him under the arm and wrenched him to his feet. She held up her left hand, dirt yellow claws and mottled skin. ‘Can you see this?’ He nodded again, retching, praying for just one full breath… And she slapped him so hard he spun around and hit the sand face down.
‘Ow! Shit! He stared at her, surprised, and she folded her arms.
He got to his feet, rubbing his face. He still wasn’t breathing, but now it didn’t matter – the urge was gone. Darla took his hand and led him up and over the dune, and then down the other side, where they were shielded from the wind. She ran a finger across his neck, tracing a shallow trench that hadn’t been there before – a bloodless cut. ‘The beginning of your transformation,’ she said. ‘You should be proud.’
It took him a second to take in what she meant. ‘You mean I’m becoming a demon? Does that mean I’m – ’ she cut him off with a wave of her hand. ‘Nothing serious yet, but it does mean your body’s starting to rot.’
He probed the wound with his finger and winced. Nothing serious, she said, but a gash like that would have opened arteries in a living body. You expected blood, so blood there was, Dale had said. That changes. ‘I didn’t even land on my neck.’
‘You don’t get it, do you?’ she said. ‘This place doesn’t work like Life. Up there, things happen to you. You get hit by a car, you break your legs. Not your fault, it’s just physics. Down here, only you happen to you. It’s not any easier, just different. This cut?’ She jabbed his neck, making him cough and step back involuntarily. ‘Wouldn’t have got there if you didn’t get so scared on the way down. The fall didn’t do it to you. You did. Understand?’
‘I guess. But I thought you said it was because my body was…’
‘It is. You can’t avoid changing. Hell corrupts us all, in one way or another. But you can control how you react to it. Next time, don’t be such a sissy. Now come on. We don’t have time to waste.’ She grabbed his arm again, but this time he pulled free before she could yank him forward. ‘I’m fine. I can keep up.’
Neither of them said anything for a while, and Will just stared at the reptilian tracks she left in the cool sand, following them over dune after dune after dune. They’d summited five of them before he put away his rage about her sissy remark and realised she’d never answered any of his previous questions. ‘Hey,’ he said, coming up beside her. ‘Why isn’t Calvin taking me, anyway? Don’t you eat souls like me to survive?’
‘Ha! Funny, isn’t it? I’ll tell you why. Dale trusts me, but no one with any brains trusts that spiky bastard. He took Calvin to Mort City so he could keep an eye on him.’
‘Why does he trust you so much?’
‘Because.’ She glanced sideways at him, as if measuring whether or not she should tell him the truth. ‘I saved him from The Maze. He was lost and starving.’
Her voice carried a tone of sadness that made Will hold his tongue. They walked on in silence, and before long the dunes flattened out and they arrived in a great flat plain in the centre of the landmass. An oasis lay ahead, surrounded by thorny trees and clumps of green grass. The pool in the centre simmered, the colour and thickness of blood.
‘That’s it,’ Darla said. ‘The Mouth. It comes out on Drader Street, not far from your house.’
‘I know it,’ Will said – and in fact he was hardly surprised: Drader street was the ‘haunted house’ part of his neighbourhood, a place full of drug addicts and abandoned plots and generally to be avoided. Murders and overdoses and rapes happened there on a regular basis – of course it was a Hell Mouth. How many times has Darla fed there?
‘Well?’ she interrupted his thoughts. Grinning with her pointed, steely teeth, at one of her nasty private jokes.
She nodded at the pool. ‘You first, remember?’
The only sounds were the soft bubbling of the pool and the breeze through the grass. ‘What do I do?’ Will said, swallowing.
‘You just dive in, and swim straight down until you black out. It ain’t pleasant.’
‘Why would I black out if I don’t have to breathe?’
‘That’s just how it works. And don’t let go of that book. Those things are impossible to get hold of ever since Blood Dweller went into hiding.’
He tucked it under his arm and stared at the pool. The mere thought of swimming in that muck made him want to gag. Think of Sarah, he told himself. Think of home.
She checked an imaginary watch on her scaled wrist. ‘You got ten seconds, boy. Get moving.’