Tales of monsters, werewolves, gods, vampires, zombies, and all the most popular horrors myths of mankind, in almost all cases have their origins in the underworld. When two worlds as different as Hell and Earth must exist so close to one another, such influences are inevitable. The real mystery is how little the living know about the dead. My own answer, besides the obvious truth that only the elusive Seer can see things for what they are, is that it is very much in the interest of the living to ignore the terrible reality. It is in the interest of their sanity and their will to live, and so such legends as zombies were created, for example, to explain the fact of a Visitor inhabiting a corpse – or Werewolves to explain the nature of Feeders. Of all traits that separate humans from animals, one of the greatest is their capacity for delusion.
- Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 3 (Can’t We All Just Get Along?)
By the time he’d told his tale, Darla and Philip’s raised voices were echoing in the halls – not that Freya seemed to care. She was leaning across the table with her chin in her hands, milky eyes intent on Will. The longer he’d spoken, the more her features had softened and her brow furrowed in sympathy. When he ended with: ‘So, yeah, that’s why I’m here,’ she leaned back with her hand on her heart, shaking her head.
‘You poor boy,’ she said. Upstairs, something else smashed and Philip swore. Freya went on: ‘Your whole family murdered by monsters before your innocent eyes. And I thought my own death was tragic – suicide, I’m afraid – and yet here you are.’ She laid a too-soft hand over his and he barely resisted the urge to pull away. ‘Willing to enter the depths of Hell to rescue your poor sister and restore a few precious years of life.’ She drew a finger across dry eyes. ‘I would cry,’ she explained in a broken voice, ‘but I think my tear ducts have rotted.’
‘I’m… sorry?’ Will said. His skin was crawling where she gripped him.
‘No, no, it is I who am sorry, dear boy. Why, here I was ready to feed the bitch upstairs to Philip and swallow your soul just to get back at Dale! And then I hear that not only does he still love me, but he needs my help for such a noble quest.’ She released him at last, and he moved to clasp Blood Dweller’s Guide in his lap. ‘I don’t agree with his quest, of course – I think it’s no less than sheer madness.’
She paused, smiling distantly. ‘Not that I’m anyone to judge madness,’ she added. ‘Still, if ever there was a man who could inspire a host of demons to do good, I suppose it would have to be Dale. So.’ She stood up briskly and extended her hand, which Will forced himself to shake. It was like touching the swollen skin of a fruit that had turned to liquid inside.
‘Good boy. Now, let’s see what on earth the ruckus is.’
By now the voices had mysteriously stopped, but hurried footfalls sounded on the stairs just outside, and Darla burst through the door with eyes blazing before either Will or Freya could reach it. ‘Can you tell your bloody Reaper to leave me alone for five minutes?’ She said. Before Freya could answer, Phillip’s voice sounded in the hall behind her, out of breath. ‘She’s robbing us blind! I’ll have to harvest a whole kindergarten if this goes on.’
He appeared behind Darla, red faced and tense. He had a carving knife clenched in one fat hand, and he raised it above his head with murderous intent. Darla, standing with arms folded, was oblivious, but Freya put a hand on Will’s chest before he could move and said in a bored voice: ‘Plan’s changed, Philip – we’re helping them. And as good hosts it seems only fair that we feed them and supply them with all the souls they need. They have a very long journey ahead, after all.’
Philip’s bulging eyes darted to Will, then back to Freya. He hid the knife behind his back just as Darla turned to glare at him. ‘I told you. Just because you have a Sugar Mummy to look after you on the surface doesn’t mean we all do.’
‘Why don’t you go eat a rat?’ He spat, the cigar almost falling out of his mouth. Darla ignored him, turning back to Freya. ‘We can’t go now, anyway. We have to stay overnight. Will’s body should have some food in it before we freeze him, and I have to go over some things with him before we get going.’
‘Of course, of course,’ Freya said with an indulgent smile. ‘Why, he’s hardly had time to process the death of his family. You may rest in my guest bedroom upstairs.’
‘But Darla, won’t they – can’t they track me or something?’ Will said.
‘They can track Seers, Will, but I don’t think they have a clue which Seer’s which. They might turn up here if we hang around for a week or two. We’ll be safe one more night.’
‘Excellent. I haven’t had houseguests in twenty years!’ Freya said. ‘Philip, set the table for – ’
‘No need,’ Darla cut him off. She reached over and took Will by the arm, her claws digging into his skin. ‘Just show us the room. Send Will’s dinner up by in a couple of hours, and I could probably use a glass or two of the Good Stuff by then, too.’
Freya’s eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say a word as she led them up two flights of stairs to the second floor above ground and showed them their bedroom. It was as luxurious as her own, full of red velvet and smelling of incense, a stone balcony overlooking the ocean, and she stood at the door while Darla inspected it and Will sat on the soft bed. She was going to kill us, he thought. She was going to suck our souls down her throat without a second thought. Darla folded her arms and gave their hostess a tight nod. ‘It’s alright.’
‘Excellent. I’ll send Philip to get you at dawn.’ She stepped over to Will and caressed the side of his face, her expression soft, even loving. ‘I will keep you and your sister safe here, dear Will,’ she said. ‘But the bodies won’t remain fresh forever, so try not to take too long. Beyond that, I have only my own humble advice to offer you. There are only three kinds of soul who survive in Hell for long: Those without fear, those without mercy and,’ she smiled, ‘those without sanity.’
She drew back to the threshold, Philip glaring in the hallway behind her with his hands behind his back. She fluttered her fingers at Darla, who offered her a flat smile. ‘Thanks for the room, Freya. I’m sure Dale is very grateful.’
‘Send him my love, won’t you?’ she said, and then, eyes moving from Darla back to Will: ‘And watch out for snakes.’
When she shut the door at last, heels clicking down the hall, Will flopped back onto the bed, exhausted beyond belief. It was as though the world’s longest and most terrifying roller coaster had just come to a stop and the operator was pulling him out of his seat so he could stand on solid ground again. Hurry, hurry, Will imagined him saying, the next ride is just about to begin. Don’t waste any time.
Darla was saying something, but he didn’t hear her – he was listening to the sound of his breathing, feeling the thump of his heart in his chest and warmth in his blood. He decided he wouldn’t sleep tonight. He’d stay awake and savour every second, just like Darla had told him. He wouldn’t miss anything, not the stars outside or the softness of the bedsheets. Yes, tonight was for being awake and alive.
Because tomorrow he would die, and he wasn’t sure he’d ever be back.