According to Charles Darwin’s Encyclopaedia of Hellish Landscapes, written before his disappearance early this Era, almost any part of Hell’s geography can be traced in the mythology of living humans, suggesting that demons may have influenced Earth in more ways than initially thought. These areas exist on separate planes, some completely inaccessible and distant from others, and it has been posited that to fall is to travel from one plane to another indefinitely. I personally view this as ridiculous as the notion once held that Earth was flat and balanced on the back of a turtle.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 2 (So Where is Everyone, Anyway?)
Things were not going well. The ship groaned and creaked and the sails threatened to tear with each gust, and before long rusty bolts and sections of old wood had torn out of the low deck, where the four cots were kept. No one would be sleeping there for a while, not with the howling void just under your bed. The holes were creating an unwelcome drag on the bottom of the ship, and Dale struggled to keep his footing in the turbulence.
‘I hate to say it, God Man,’ Calvin called down from the midsail. ‘But if we don’t double speed in the next hour they’re going to have anchors in our stern.’
Dale swore, subconsciously touching the knife he kept strapped to his belt. It was a mean looking thing, the edges carved with tiny hooks. Fighting in Hell was more about pain than damage; unless you separated a demon’s limbs and threw them into the void, anything was survivable. Pain, on the other hand, could incapacitate – a lesson Dale had learned from the very bastard on their tail that very minute. ‘Turn the back fin hard up!’ he said as Calvin dropped down beside him. ‘I want to take a dive, see if the currents are stronger lower down.’
Calvin hurried to the stern, and a moment later Dale’s stomach dropped as the ship descended into a quiet patch. A heavy gale caught them a moment later, but he knew it would only be a matter of time before their pursuers caught the same wind and made up the distance. He saw as much in Calvin’s face when he returned from the back of the ship. ‘You remember what I said? About jumping the side?’
‘Yes. But who is he, Dale? The demon with the blood clots for eyes?’
He took his time answering. There were so many unpleasant memories there, memories that still lived in him, like the worms that burrowed in his soul. ‘They call him Flay,’ he said. ‘He was the one who taught me about Hell. When Darla got me out of the Maze and showed me how to survive in Mort City, I still believed in God. I thought she was operating under divine grace.’ He chuckled, but couldn’t hide his bitterness. ‘Then The Angel got hold of Darla. She’d been protecting me, keeping me alive while she did most of the real work, stealing from him. I managed to break her out, but I got myself caught in the process, and he had me in his cells for… A long time. Flay was the cell master, then, and he only had one job. In The Angel’s words: “Teach them to fear me”.’
Calvin swallowed. ‘I suppose Flay wasn’t his given name.’
‘No. No it wasn’t. But he earned it.’
The ship caught a harsh cross wind just then, causing it to turn hard starboard and tilt madly, forcing them to grab the nearest piece of ship to keep from sliding all the way off the deck. When they levelled out, Dale managed to steer them beneath an enormous, flat island, using its mass for shelter. Calvin steadied himself on the mast and put the telescope back to his eye. Dale held his breath.
‘I’m sorry, Dale.’ Calvin’s voice was clear and light – ever the stiff upper lip of the English Doctor he’d once been, but Dale wasn’t fooled. His heart sank. ‘We’re not going to make it. They’re double our speed, at least.’
The island above shielded them enough from the wind that Dale could let go of the wheel. He stepped away from it and went to stand by Calvin, who had lowered the telescope. It wasn’t needed to see the enemy ship anymore – it was close enough that he could read the hate in the eyes of the demons who now stood at the prow beside their master. Beasts all of them, their souls made of hulking muscle, built by rage. Dale laid a hand on Calvin’s skeletal shoulder. ‘Best get the Good Stuff, my friend.’
They drank in the dusty cabin out of chipped glasses, which they clinked before each gulp. Dale guessed they had an hour at most before they’d have to make the jump and hope for the best, or else face Flay in a battle they would certainly lose.
‘At least the boy’s safe for now,’ Calvin said. ‘Their accuracy can’t be that good if they sent Flay here instead of to Freya.’
Dale grunted, and took a deep swig. It had been a long time since he’d had the Good Stuff, and it flooded him like molten lava, every part of him dancing and jumping. It was like having a heart again – one that beat two hundred times a minute.
He drew his knife and placed it on the table between them. ‘We should fight them.’
Calvin smirked and swallowed a mouthful big enough to make him gasp when it hit him. ‘Good God, it’s like waking up from a deep sleep, isn’t it?’ He shook his head. ‘But there’s no point, God Man. There’s no King or Country to fight for, now. Besides, we can’t kill any of them. They’ll torture us until one of us breaks and tells them where Will is, and then they’ll find a way to damn us properly.’
Dale knew he was right, of course. Part of him was relieved, but mostly he was filled with the horrible prospect of what they were about to do.
‘I always liked the idea that there were endless planes below. Fall off this one and you can start in another, fresh. On and on, new lives. But I don’t think it works that way, does it?’
Calvin shrugged. ‘No one knows. But I think… I think the devil is real, and he lives at the bottom of that drop. And I think he eats the souls of the fallen. Sorry, God Man. But it seems the only thing that fits in with…’ he waved the bottle. ‘All this. Never was religious, myself. I wasn’t optimistic enough to believe in the idea of heaven.’
Dale finished his glass, perhaps the last he’d ever have. ‘Maybe. Well, infinite worlds, none at all, or the devil himself, we’ll find out soon enough, if there’s no land under this ship.’ He met Calvin’s white eyes and gave him a grim smile. ‘Thank you for everything. You’ve come further than I’d ever have asked you.’
‘Ah, what can I say? You converted me. I believed in it then, and I still do. Peace in Hell.’ He tipped the bottle back and, in several long gulps, emptied it. When he set it down, his hand was shaking from the sudden rush.
Dale sat back in his creaky chair and enjoyed the feeling of soul intoxication. He’d forgotten how powerful it could be. It was like accelerating onto another plane of existence: you were still rooted in this world, but everything moved differently – you saw it all so clearly, your senses primed on hair triggers. Calvin’s milky eyes swivelled in his head, his jaw clenching and unclenching as it did when he was deep in thought, long fingers tapping a drumroll on the table.
‘Dale, what route were you going to take to Mort City?’
‘The long one – the one we’re already on. Straight down into empty space, then on below the Hadean Isles until we could navigate above the city.’
‘I see. And what if we were to take a quicker route. The quickest?’
‘You know there’s no time for that. We’d have to go around…’ He stopped. Calvin had the hint of a smile on the corner of his mouth, razor teeth shining through. Impossible.
‘No. They’d follow us.’
‘Would they? Even if we flew right into the centre, and dropped low into a blizzard?’
‘We’d wreck ourselves.’
Dale stood, something like hope burning in the pit of his belly, a welcome warmth against the dread that had threatened to consume him a minute ago. Calvin watched him, no longer tapping on the table, his smile widening into a grin. ‘We could do it, God Man. They wouldn’t dare, not when they know we don’t have the Seer on board. There’s no guarantee we’d make it out again, of course, but then… There wasn’t to begin with, was there?’
Dale was gripping the back of the chair, deep in thought. ‘I always hated snakes, when I was alive,’ he muttered. ‘Don’t tell Darla I said that.’
‘If anyone can keep the ship steady in that place, it’s you, Dale. It’s the only chance we have.’
He locked eyes with Calvin, and saw the same hope, the same soul crazy fire he had in himself. They had another half bottle in the cupboard. Enough to keep them sane and warm, if they rationed it. And it was going to get cold.
‘When we leave the shelter of this island,’ he said eventually. ‘Pull the back fin to send us up, and then rig the sails to make use of any crosswinds.’
Calvin slid out of his chair, grinning, and gave him a mock salute. ‘Aye aye, Captain. God be with us.’
‘Pray to God if you like,’ Dale said. ‘I doubt it’ll do any good.’
Because they were going to Niffleheim.