The circle of life, then, is unfortunately not as cleanly defined as we thought. A baby is born and, if all goes well, is inhabited by a soul. The body and soul grow together for a time, and then the body is destroyed and the soul is separated in parts, devoured by demons, vanished altogether, or is damned in some horrible way. Perhaps then the distinctly corrupt, feudal and medieval nature of society in the underworld should come as no surprise. Just as it was when warlords ruled and men fought with swords, people are desperate to go on existing; ever starving, suffering, fighting, struggling, and ever stooping to new lows in a neverending quest for escape. It is no wonder that of the billions who’ve ever lived, so few of us remain here in this demon land. Nature, it seems, is as cruel a mistress to the dead as she is to the living.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 3 (Can’t We All Just Get Along?)
The cold must have been eating away at him, because despite all he’d had to drink Dale could feel the pull of his monstrous self tearing at his insides. It whispered words of rage and hate in his ears, and he was all too keen to listen.
The object of this hatred stood shivering on the far side of the railing. The back rudder of the ship was level, the spur flat and narrow, extending three long meters into the blizzard. From where Dale was standing Calvin looked like a stick figure on the brink of being blown into the white abyss. It was doubtful he’d make it all the way to the end of the rudder before he fell. After that it wouldn’t be more than a day or so before he joined the legions of snakes that lived on the surface of Niffleheim. Lost Souls every one, doomed to an eternity of ice and madness.
It’s what he deserves, the hungry voice snapped. Kick him off and curse his soul. Better yet, eat him yourself! Suck him dry, feed on his evil essence. But there were things he needed to know. He stepped forward, his blade loose by his side. Not that he needed it – Calvin knew well enough it was either jump or be thrown. ‘Answer my questions and you might earn your right to stay on the ship until we reach Mort City,’ Dale said. His torn lips were raw in the wind and his thick hair blew across his face. Tear drops froze as they formed and dropped to the deck like pebbles.
Calvin didn’t turn around. ‘I know you too well to believe that, God Man,’ he said. He spoke so quietly Dale had to take two steps closer to hear him better. ‘Loyalty has a dark side, too. You can’t bear betrayal, even when it’s justified.’
‘Betrayal is never JUSTIFIED!’ He screamed the last word and the Monster chuckled somewhere inside him.
Calvin sighed, resigned to his fury. ‘Ask your questions, then.’
‘What did the note say? I want to know every last word. Leave out a single one and you’ll lose a piece of yourself to the snow.’
‘No need for threats, old friend… I told them where to go to find the Recall spot Freya’s Reaper uses. I told them if they wanted their missing Seer, that’s where they should wait.’
Dale closed his eyes. ‘You didn’t tell them where his body was?’
‘No.’ So there was still hope. The Angel would want to keep Will, just as he did his sister, Sarah. Then he thought of Darla and his rage returned, fresh and hot. She wouldn’t be so lucky. The Angel would want to make an example of her. He would most likely damn her in the most horrific way possible. Because of Calvin.
‘Second question,’ he said, his voice rough. ‘How long have you been talking to them? How much to they know?’
‘They know what I had to tell them to make them believe me. Our location – they would have found us, anyway, if they had reason. I told them about your plan to build a force of Seers to take Mort City. I made you sound mad, irrational. It wasn’t hard. I told lies about Darla too, that she was too stupid to string words together, that she was just the muscle. I told them Will was even dumber, and a coward as well.’ He paused. ‘Not sure if I was too far off the mark on that one.’
‘And yet you sent him to the Angel. Third question: why?’
The silence stretched out, and Calvin didn’t move. He swayed in the wind, hands loosely gripping the railing behind him. He had his own monsters feasting on him, whispering their words into his ears, but when he spoke Dale couldn’t hear them in his voice. He heard only sadness.
‘Because it was the only way,’ Calvin said.
‘The only way to do what?’
‘To end The Angel’s Reign and take Mort City for ourselves, Dale. To do the thing you wanted to do.’
‘How could giving him Will and Darla do that? Or sending us here? It was all part of your plan, was it?’
‘Well, maybe not this part, I admit… But I don’t think Will is as helpless as we think, Dale – he is a Seer after all. And we have a friend in the Angel’s dungeons. I don’t know if he’s in any position to help us, but…’
Dale brought the knife down as hard as he could, the point sliding through two of Calvin’s knuckles and deep into the wooden railing beneath. Calvin leaned back, screaming at the empty sky with his eyes squeezed shut. Dale stepped aside and waited for him to stop, and when at last the sound was nothing more than a hiss through gritted teeth, he stepped forward and spoke into Calvin’s pointed ear: ‘I warned you not to leave anything out. Tell me what you know. Tell me his name.’
He waited, but for a long time Calvin didn’t move. Pain worked on a man differently in Hell, and it could drain and damage the soul, if it was bad enough. Perhaps that was what The Angel planned to do with Darla: torture her until she became a monster, and then send her after Dale. The thought made him want to take hold of Calvin’s head and press his thumbs into his eye sockets and show him what real pain was. Show him the way Flay had shown him all those years ago.
At last, Calvin regained his composure. He turned slowly, twisting so that he didn’t move his impaled hand. When he faced Dale, his white eyes appeared like holes in his head, as if he was already a ghost. ‘I’m sorry, God Man,’ he said. ‘I can’t tell you that.’
Dale watched, shocked, as Calvin pulled the blade from his hand with hardly a grimace, and tossed it on to the deck at his feet. He saw tears in his friend’s eyes, but they might have been flakes of snow, blown instantly from his face. Calvin let go of the railing. If the ship hit a rough current or met an updraft now, he would fall for sure.
‘Tell me or I’ll tear you apart,’ Dale said, but his voice was dull and the threat held no weight.
Calvin shook his head. ‘If you were caught, and tortured by Flay, can you tell me now, in all honesty, that you wouldn’t give it up? Could you?’
Dale opened his mouth, but those beady blood clot eyes were all too clear in his mind’s eye and he couldn’t speak the words. He looked away.
‘I didn’t think so. That’s what you don’t understand, Dale. The reason evil always wins is because they’re willing to do anything, commit any crime. If you want to win, you have to play the game, and the only way to beat them is to become them. You weren’t willing to do what’s necessary. I was.’
‘You’re wrong, Calvin. You’re no better than they are.’
‘Goodbye, Dale. Maybe we’ll see each other…’ He smiled, and there was real humour there, real warmth – the smile of a friend sharing a joke. ‘In another life.’ And with that he turned and walked the length of the rudder, steps becoming ever more careful as the shaft narrowed and the wind buffeted him from all sides.
‘You threw them to the wolves!’ Dale called after him. ‘You threw us all to the wolves!’
But Calvin either didn’t hear him or paid no mind, and in the end he proved Dale wrong: he made it all the way to the last inch of the rudder and then he spread his arms and stepped right off without a moment’s hesitation. Just like that, he was gone, and Dale was alone on the ship in the endless blizzard, probably not long to meet the same fate.
There was work to be done – Sails to tie, a course to be mapped out, a fire to rekindle – but for the moment Dale could only fall to his knees and mourn his friend in the way only a demon can, who has only a few good things in a miserable existence and treasures them beyond all else, and pebble after pebble rolled along the decking and out into the unforgiving wilderness.
And, at length, when his monster began to whisper abhorrent things to him, he went to the cabin to slake his thirst.