Theoretically one could exist forever in Hell, but in this case, theory and reality are very far from one another indeed. The truth is existence here is too fragile, even more fleeting than on the surface. Between threat of the void, starvation, monsters and all other forms of damnation, the dangers prove too great: the best anyone can do is to prolong their time here as much as possible, lest the next realm (if it exists at all) be even worse.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 2 (So Where is Everyone, Anyway?)
Nothing could be worse than this. Dale had never known such brutal, whipping cold was possible, not even after all the agonies and horrors he’d suffered in all his afterlife. It was supernatural, worse than any cold on earth because it didn’t induce numbness, nor the illusory warmth of hypothermia. It was never ceasing, skin tearing ice.
He stood rooted to the spot at the helm with both hands on the wheel, eyes frosted over and joints too stiff to move. The wounds that covered him hurt worst of all, the moisture in them frozen solid so that they became like daggers of ice in his body. Who knew what Calvin felt up there in the crow’s nest – he didn’t have the luxury of insulating meat between his skin and bone.
‘Can you see a way?’ Dale managed to call up to him, hoping his cracking voice wasn’t lost in the wind. Calvin took a long time to answer, sounding just as faint: ‘There’s nothing but White! White and Blue!’
Dale had watched Flay’s ship from the stern as they’d entered the blizzard. It was so close he heard the voices of the demon crew when they’d erupted in argument, Flay alone standing silent and holding his gaze, furious, until at last he gave the order to pull back. He hadn’t looked away as they drew apart, and neither had Dale, until the snow blew between them and Flay became merely a pair of red dots in the white, and then nothing at all. Then he’d turned to face the reality of the decision he’d made, and begin to wonder if, maybe, it would have been a better bet to jump the side after all.
He scanned the mist, eyeballs cracking in his sockets, and saw the shadows of crags and glaciers on either side of the ship. They were floating low, but it was the only way to stay shielded – the winds high above Niffleheim were wild enough to tear a ship like this to pieces. He was dwelling on this prospect when Calvin dropped to the deck far harder than he should have and collapsed at the base of the mast, groaning.
‘Everything hurts. Damn it, God Man, we need Souls. And warmth!’
‘We have to ration the souls,’ Dale said without the slightest hint of conviction. ‘We don’t have much of the Good Stuff left.’
‘Right. Eh, well, it’s not so much good stuff, anymore.’ Calvin scratched his head with a claw.
‘I mixed it all together into one bottle. It makes more sense to have an even mix,’ he added. ‘So we can ration it better. Otherwise it’d be like eating a plate of steak to begin and saving crackers for later.’
Dale grunted. It made sense, but now that he’d had a taste of the Good Stuff it would be hard to adjust – it reminded him more of mixing wine and urine: neither was improved by the combination. ‘Well, you’re right about the warmth. We could light a fire in the cabin, even, and there’d be no danger it could spread, if we could even keep it burning.’
So against his better judgement, he set the course straight for the clear white and joined Calvin back in the cabin to make another dent in their precious store. He shuddered to think what would be left if Calvin had let him give what he’d wanted to Darla. It hadn’t been long since their shared glass, but already the early symptoms of hunger were clawing like monsters in his belly. It was the cold, he was sure of it, sapping their strength through their pores and letting the forces from within take control.
They snapped one of the chairs into pieces and Calvin took a yellow paged notebook from one of the drawers to use as kindling. Dale snatched it from his hand more aggressively than he meant. ‘It could be important,’ he said, flipping through the pages – but he knew it wasn’t. It was his own notebook, and as he read some of the notes and measurements he was met with an unwelcome stab of sadness, and a vision: Darla at the ship’s wheel, glancing over her shoulder at him with a sly smile. Don’t look so down, God Man. We’re in heaven, aren’t we? They’d been coasting along the great land Blood Dweller had dubbed ‘The Fields of the Unborn.’ Here were trees bearing the fruit of souls that had never quite lived nor been devoured – newborn babies, or souls of those that had been born without, whose bodies walked empty on the surface. It was damn near impossible to reach, and too many fruit could poison a demon, but it was a place he’d never forget. It was how Darla had saved him, barely a day before he might have turned.
The last page was missing, which struck Dale as strange – he’d never been the careless type – but then it was an old book, and hell was not a place for anything to age intact. He handed it to Calvin with a sigh. ‘Burn it,’ he said.
So with the lucky strike of a single match, Calvin lit the crumpled pages, and when they had the bottle open – no glasses this time, they sat on the floor beside the table – it was burning well enough to warm them. Dale took the first swig and grimaced, conflicted. The liquid had all the warmth and euphoria of the Good, but all the bitterness of the Bad. He passed it to Calvin. ‘It’s better than nothing.’
‘Yes, and nothing’s all we have besides, isn’t it?’
They were silent for a while, the door rattling and the wind outside howling, and Dale edged closer to the fire. ‘I don’t think it will be long until we find the way out. Niffleheim hasn’t ever been explored, but everyone knows the shape of the island. It’s not large. As long as we keep to a line, we’ll last.’
‘Hmm.’ Calvin smacked his thin lips and shivered as the bitterness hit him. ‘Tell me, Dale, have you ever seen someone turn?’
Dale watched the fire. It wasn’t like Earth fire. Fire in hell burned redder, and the flames licked a little slower, and there wasn’t so much smoke. It hurt more, too. He shook his head.
‘I have,’ Calvin said. ‘I was barely two years dead at the time. You remember how I bit the bullet, don’t you?’
Dale did. Calvin had been a psychologist for the criminally insane in the nineteen fifties, and made the mistake of admitting to one of his patients, a schizophrenic who believed he received orders directly from God, that he was an atheist. The patient had escaped soon afterward, and paid Calvin and his family a visit.
‘Well I was still very bitter about that, and I ran with a gang of what I thought of as vigilante demons operating out of the outskirts of Mort City. The problem is, when you are so idealistic as to target only the evil, you have to either adjust who you define as evil, or you starve. I adjusted, but my Feeder friend James O’Donnell was an idealist. I watched him fight it for a long time. We tried to give him souls, but he wouldn’t take them unless he knew they were bad.’
‘What happens?’ Dale said, reaching for the bottle. He made a mental note to stop before they made it halfway to the bottom.
‘It starts as a hunger, and the hunger turns to pain. You waste away at first, and then you start to change. I think of the process as a caricature: your big nose becomes a snout, or your long hair becomes a mane – in a way just like becoming a demon. The ruling emotions are desperation and rage, and they overwhelm you until all rational thought is gone. You’re left with panic and murderous hatred, and nothing else. That’s when they start to eat, anything and everything. And they never stop moving, like a lion in a cage. At least that’s how it was with James. Poor boy.’
‘What happened to him?’
Calvin shrugged. ‘We knew he was going to change. So at the end we took hold of him and threw him over into the void. I thought it was cruel.’ He chuckled. ‘As though such a thing exists at all in this place.’
‘It does exist,’ Dale said. ‘That is why we fight, Calvin. Think of The Angel. Think of Flay! They’re more evil than any monster.’
‘That’s your problem, Dale. It’s not your fault – you haven’t been in Hell long enough to know any better. You say you’ve left your religion behind, but in reality you’ve only changed it to suit your circumstances. You still see everything in terms of good and evil, but that isn’t the way of it.’
‘Of course it is. Look at me. Look.’ He extended an arm for Calvin to inspect, ignoring the maddening burn of the fire. His dark flesh was pockmarked, twisted with scars and black bloody cuts. A maggot feasted on the back of his right palm – it had been there for years. ‘You think the things that did this to me had an ounce of goodness in them?’
Calvin nodded. ‘Yes, God man, I do. And I believe that their evil lies in us all. Let me tell you what I think.’ He took the bottle out of Dale’s hand, sucked a mouthful, and thrust it back, his white eyes burning. ‘I think no one really becomes a monster. I think the monsters live inside of us, just the same as demons live inside human beings. And I think starving ourselves of souls merely allows those monsters to take control. But whether we let them or not, they’re in us. Even now.’
‘You believe that?’
‘Then what do you make of our mission?’
He held up his claws as if in surrender, grinning. ‘Oh, now. Don’t be like that, Dale. I agree with your goal, lofty as it is. Perhaps not so much with your methods.’
‘You have a better plan?’
‘As a matter of fact, I do.’ He leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘I think the Angel cannot be attacked from the outside. Think about it, Dale. When I died, he’d already been a demon for centuries, and yet he’s maintained power over all of Mort City. How did he do that? Walls. No one can get close to him, because the moment he sees a threat, he squashes it. He’s made a fortress to keep himself, and like all fortresses, the best attack is not a mad charge for the walls. The best attack, my friend, is from the inside, with someone he doesn’t register as a threat.’
Calvin clapped his hands and rubbed them over the fire, grinning, enjoying the warmth. ‘Yes, well…’
He didn’t say the end of the sentence, but Dale heard it all the same: We’ll see. Innocent enough, but it struck him as out of place. He took another gulp of souls and, his mind buzzing with pleasure, he leaned back and looked around their cramped room. His eyes roamed from the fire, the torn pages of the notebook still visible, to the shelf on the wall, where the second bottle was curiously absent. Two dots connected, but led to nothing, until he spied the ink stained quill lying on the small counter in the corner of the room, where he would never have left it. Calvin was watching him, and when their eyes met Dale saw quiet laughter in the other demon’s eyes, and a deep sadness, too. Sorry, old friend.
A great helplessness descended over Dale, as he imagined the note rolled in an empty bottle, floating through the voice until Flay reached out and snatched it from the air. He was almost certain he knew what the message said, but he was in no position to do anything about it – he was as far from Will as he could have gotten.
No, that wasn’t quite true. There was something he could do.
Ship creaking under his weight, he got to his feet, and as if waking the monsters inside him that Calvin had spoken of, a bloody rage rose up in his chest, a roaring fury at this smug, false traitor across the fire that would have made Flay himself doubt.
He could only manage a single word, but it was enough to make every drop of smugness vanish from Calvin’s face, replacing it with an expression of cold terror.
The word, spat through gritted teeth, was walk.