The depth of Hell may be a mystery, but many bold explorers over the centuries have mapped much of its breadth – enough for us to know that it is truly vast beyond imagining. The dead tend to amass around various spawn points, creating populous areas such as Mort City, although it isn’t known how many of such places exist, or even how many demons and monsters inhabit Hell at any given time. Such comprehensive exploration would require someone to delve deep into the Maze, and so far no one has proved brave or capable enough to return from such a journey.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 2 (So Where is Everyone, Anyway?)
Freya’s house wasn’t a house as far as Will was concerned – it was a mansion. Curling gravel roads led away from the highway and up a steep driveway that culminated in this outpost: a great white block that could have passed for a beached cruise ship. It sat right on the edge of a spit of land, one side towering over sheer cliffs of volcanic rock that broke the enormous waves rolling in from the open ocean. It looked like the holiday home of a playboy millionaire.
They were shielded from the wind and ocean once the metal gates pulled open and Darla rolled into a terracotta courtyard, full of potted forest plants and ferns and ornate tiles. When Will stepped out of the ticking car and stretched, his nostrils filled with salt and soil, sending him back to the distant days the family had spent by the sea. A memory of Sarah came to him out of nowhere: carefully constructing an elaborate tower, sand all over her sunburnt face, beaming at him as he walked up to see what she was doing. Look! she’d said. I put in a swimming pool!
‘Unless you want your sister losing a finger or two, I’d wake up and give me a hand,’ Darla’s voice shook him out of his daydream and he turned to see her pulling at one of his sister’s arms, grunting with effort. A bag of frozen peas fell out onto the gravel.
‘What about Freya? Is she even here?’ Will tried in vain to be gentle as he grabbed Sarah’s legs and unearthed them from the frozen goods.
Darla chuckled. ‘Don’t worry about that. She’s watching us right now. Probably chomping at the bit to get her hands on a fresh body.’
Will decided to keep his mouth shut. No matter what he or anyone else thought of Freya, she was the only one with a freezer, and the sight of sunlight on his sister’s blue lips was enough to make him cringe. What if flies had already laid eggs in her?
Just as Darla had suggested, the oak door flew open just as they reached the front step, and they were greeted by a tall, glamorously dressed lady, who might have been attractive if she wasn’t so obviously dead. Her skin had turned a sickly yellow and some of her fingernails were missing. When she smiled at them, her teeth were stained black and her breath reeked of sour garbage. ‘Darla, baby. What an unexpected surprise,’ she said. Her head wobbled on her neck as she swept her gaze from Will to the girl they were struggling to hold up. ‘And you brought me a present.’
‘No time to waste, then,’ Darla said, pushing past her and forcing Will to stumble in, dropping one of Sarah’s legs and then recovering it at the last second. The inside of the house was as majestic as the outward appearance suggested – a roomy white tiled lobby with a chandelier and a spiral staircase, archways leading into plush and spacious rooms full of crystal and polished wood. When Darla made for one of these, Freya made a clicking sound with her mouth and drifted passed them toward what looked like a broom closet under the stairs. ‘This way, please.’
It was in fact a broom closet, but it had a smaller door tucked away in the back, and that one led to a steeply descending staircase and a narrow hallway, all white walls and bright fluorescents like a hospital. Freya’s heels echoed as she led them to another door: reinforced metal with a window in the centre. ‘This is my cooling storage,’ she said as she pushed it open and they carried Sarah’s body into the refreshingly chilled room. The refrigeration machinery hummed in the walls.
The space was empty except for a single piece of furniture: a hospital gurney equipped with a drip and some basic biomonitoring systems, which were connected to the body of a tall, anorexic woman, who Will assumed was dead until he noticed the way her chest was rising and falling. Freya cast them a smug glance as she led them on to the next metal door at the end of the room. ‘Beautiful, isn’t she? I can’t wait to see what she’s like inside. This room’s not for dead bodies, though. Your girl will have to sleep with me.’
She winked and pushed through to the next room, which was larger and much, much colder. Will’s body erupted in goose bumps, although he was grateful to note that his earth body dealt with the discomfort much better than his soul had in Hell. He managed to lift Sarah onto the four poster bed in the middle of the room before his numb fingers lost their grip.
‘You sleep here?’ Darla said, eyeing the room with a mild hint of disgust. It was as luxurious as the rest of the house, complete with silk linen, soft carpet, and a walk in closet. The fans were loudest here, blowing freezing air out of vents near the ceiling, and despite the furnishings Will couldn’t help but be reminded of a meat locker.
‘Oh yes, it keeps my bodies longer. This one barely has any soul left in it, but I’ve had it for weeks now.’
‘Right, well. Speaking of soul, all I’ve had since I got up here is a dog, so…’
Freya made an elegant gesture with her green tinged arms. ‘Of course. You know where the kitchen is, I’m sure. Why don’t I show Will around and let him tell me the reason for this unexpected visit?’
‘Sure, whatever. Won’t be long.’ And to Will’s dismay she left the room, licking her lips eagerly, and left him with this strange, loopy eyed demoness. She gave him a crooked smile. ‘She doesn’t like me much, does she?’ Will tried to stutter some excuse, but she only laughed and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘That’s alright, you poor boy. I can only imagine what you must have been through. But first, let me give you the grand tour, shall I?’
She took him out of the icy storage room – much to his relief – and through another door in the adjoining hallway. ‘This one is my favourite,’ she said as they entered the largest room yet: ‘My laboratory.’ It certainly looked like one – spacious and pristine, though the counters and basins that lined the sides were packed with various beakers and jars full of all kinds of substances. A long bench stretched down the middle of the room, and it was piled with stacks of papers and scribbled notebooks. The smell of cigarette smoke hung in the air, and the reason why sat at the far end of the bench, a yellow skinned demon with saggy skin and a tight belly, chomping a cigar. He was glaring into a laptop screen, clicking the mouse rapidly.
Freya clapped her hands together. ‘Oh, there you are, Philip. Don’t you know we have guests?’
He looked at Will with eyes that seemed to sit in wells at the back of his head, and grunted. When he spoke, it was with a voice so raw Will winced, imagining a throat full of blood and dry smoke. ‘I know. I can see one of ‘em drinking us dry of souls in the damn kitchen.’ He swivelled the screen so they could see: A series of black and white CCTV footage, and a game of minesweeper in the top corner.
Freya let out a high, indulgent laugh. ‘But that’s what I have you for, Philip. You’re the best Reaper I’ve ever come across, don’t you know.’ She leaned over to Will and stage whispered in his ear. ‘Philip died of lung cancer at a young age. Hounded by Visitor demons just like myself, you know. He’s still bitter about it.’
Will nodded and gave Philip a polite smile, but the demon merely stared him down, chewing his cigar. After a second, he said. ‘The boy’s a Seer.’
She blinked, surprised. ‘Oh, yes, I suppose he must be. Will, dear. Please sit down, you have to tell us all about it. It’s so rare I get to have a good conversation with a real living person.’ She clasped his hand as if in gratitude and then raised it to her nose, inhaling deeply until he recoiled, stepping back and bumping the counter behind him. ‘I’m okay standing,’ he said.
She smiled and glided over to the far side of the room, where a kettle was plugged in at the end of the counter. She switched it on and pulled some tea cups out of the cupboards. ‘And why wouldn’t you be? With a healthy body like you have. But I have a very strong feeling that your pretty sister isn’t the only one who’s paying a visit to the underworld. True?’
‘Ah, brilliant. Once again, Dale has come in need of my unique services.’ She sighed. ‘When will he give up this impossible mission of his. Tell me.’ She haphazardly emptied some loose tealeaves into the two cups, spilling half of them onto the floor. ‘What does he look like, now? Is he still so wounded? Are his eyes still so haunted by the horror of existence?’
Philip had returned to his game of minesweeper at last, but Will caught him smirking at something, and for the first time since the start of his mad adventure, he was struck with something of his old self – of the boy he’d been before: his sense of humour.
‘Yes,’ he said, and then, looking down at his feet so she wouldn’t see his expression: ‘He talks about you a lot, too.’
‘Does he now?’ the kettle boiled and she filled the cups until they overflowed, drops mingling with the spilled leaves on the bench.
‘All the time. Calvin says he never recovered from…’ He trailed off, not sure if he was on the right track, but she was nodding, stirring the tea vigorously.
‘Of course not.’ She chuckled. ‘Who would? Such a tragic soul.’ She spun around, sloshing more tea onto the floor, and came to set the cups down on the bench. ‘I’ll help him, of course,’ she went on. ‘But I won’t let him pull me into his doomed mission. It should be enough that I let one of his…’ She grimaced as the sound of smashing glass came from somewhere upstairs. Philip swore and pushed away from the bench, shaking his head.
‘Yes, see to that, Will you? I want to talk to this… what’s your name again?’
‘I want to talk to young Will here in private for a minute, anyway.’ But the fat demon had already waddled furiously out of the lab, muttering and huffing cigar smoke as he went.
Will shifted uncomfortably in his chair while Freya took a long sip of scalding tea. It was probably boiling her oesophagus. When she’d swallowed, she rested her head in one hand and stared at him for a long time in silence. He had so many questions to ask her, but for some reason all he could think of was the Blood Dweller’s Guide, sitting in the passenger seat of his parents’ car. He hoped he would have time to read before he had to go back to Hell.
But when she next spoke, in a voice curiously low, and lacking the charm and lightness of a minute ago, everything else was wiped from his mind.
‘So, young Will,’ she said. ‘Tell me why I shouldn’t climb into that delicious body of yours and, and eat your precious soul?’