If you are reading this, you are lucky on two counts. One, you have survived long enough in the underworld to procure a copy – and have found a safe place in which to read it. Two, you are most likely near a large city, most likely Mort City, since that is where I wrote this. Take a moment to be grateful for this fortune. If one takes into account all those who’ve ever lived, and then witnesses the utter barrenness of Hell, it is easy to see how lucky one really is. Now, prepare yourself: If you are in your fifth year or less A.D. (After Death), you will likely come to a horrifically miserable end within the next decade. (Hell time, that is.)
In other words, my friend – read this chapter very carefully.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld (Chapter 4: Life After Death)
After a good swig of souls, Darla passed out on the bed like a drunk, muttering and tossing madly in her sleep, but Will stayed true to his word. He made it half way through Blood Dweller’s Guide, then paced the room for an hour, deep in thought. He had a long hot shower and cried harder than he ever had in his life for a family lost, such grief he didn’t think possible – yet it retreated almost as soon as it came on, as though it was giving him a taste of what was to come. He went to stand on the balcony, and for the darkest hours of the night he stood motionless, staring at the stars above the black ocean, breathing night air. My last night alive. Maybe.
When the first streaks of dawn creeped above the horizon he felt his first burst of nerves. Everything up until now had been like a dream, but he was well and truly awake – if tired – and soon he would be dead. Death was supposed to be an end to pain and fear and grief, but Hell had seemed to him nothing but those things, amplified a hundred times. He ran a finger along his neck, but there was no scar there – that blemish was on his soul only, a reminder of the pain he’d felt. He wondered what horrors Dale had had to endure to gain the festering wounds that covered his soul. What had happened to Darla to turn her into the scaly thing that lay on the bed now?
He was still out on the balcony, frozen to the bone but nowhere near as cold as he’d been in Hell – when Darla choked on her own saliva mid-snore and rolled off the bed in a coughing fit. It was an hour or so past sunrise, and by now Will was too terrified to move a muscle. All he could think was that he was going to be dead soon. As stone dead as the bodies buried six feet under – and it didn’t matter a damn that he’d done it before. He hadn’t had a choice, then – he’d been so numb.
‘SHIT.’ He turned to see her dragging herself to her feet, scowling at everything.
‘She put something in that damn bottle. Did you have any?’
‘I’m alive, remember?’
‘Right. Bitch. Thought I was going to steal from her in the night.’
She blinked sideways, like a crocodile, and gave him a sly grin. ‘No need. I already stole from her yesterday, before that yellow bastard interrupted me.’
‘Oh. What did you…’ He stopped when she put a finger to her lips, nodding at the door. In the brief silence Will heard the unmistakeable click of heels in the hallway.
‘Don’t worry. It’s in a safe place,’ Darla hissed at him, and before he could consider what that actually meant the bedroom door swung open without so much as a cursory knock.
Freya waited in the hall, though Will only knew it was her at all because of the look in her eyes and the way she stood lopsided with one hand on her hip. She was now inhabiting the body of the girl they’d seen the day before, tall and angular, pretty in a severe kind of way. When she smiled, with rows of perfect white teeth and healthy gums, the effect unsettled Will more than it had when she’d smiled with the rotting mouth of the last body. At least that was honest, in a way. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling very refreshed. Phillip wants to know if you’re ready to die yet.’
Will looked across at Darla, but she shrugged. ‘Got nothing to pack, do we?’
Freya shook her head. ‘No. Phillip has kindly filled a travelling backpack with bottles of souls – mostly criminals and the like, but that’s the way it is. He also added a pair of gutting knives in the front pocket. Although, considering just who is hunting you, he might as well have given you toothpicks.’
Darla grinned through gritted teeth. ‘We appreciate it all the same, don’t we Will?’
Will nodded, wondering what good knives were in Hell, anyway.
‘You’re most welcome. Now, if there’s nothing else… Phillip was altogether too eager to get the job done.’
As they followed Freya down through the house to the chilled rooms below ground, Will found the nerves of the night before had vanished. He wasn’t calm, either – just heightened: conscious of every breath he took, of their echoing steps through the hall, of the icy air touching his skin as they entered the now empty storage room. Freya’s old body lay in the corner, waiting for disposal, and the sight of it jarred Will. He looked over her slack face, tongue hanging from shrivelled lips, and wondered who the body had belonged to before Freya took it. What had she done in life? What had she dreamed to do?
But then they were standing in Freya’s bedroom and the time for reflection was over: his sister lay white as paper on the bed and Philip, smirking all across his greasy face, was standing by her side with a needle in one hand and a cigar in the other.
‘It’s nothing painful, Will, don’t worry about that. Just enough to stop your heart for good. Be a lad and lie down there on the bed beside your sister.’
‘Where will you sleep?’ Will said, as much to delay as anything. The bed was hard, and the liquid in Phillip’s needle looked thick as syrup.
‘I will happily set up a bed in the storage room and lower the temperature a few degrees,’ Freya said. ‘It won’t be easy, of course, I do like my comforts. But the thought of you and your sister side by side in your deathbed warmed my heart. Besides, it’s safer for you there.’
Will lay on his back and Phillip took his right arm and began to tie a tourniquet above his elbow with a piece of cloth. ‘Damn, boy, where are all your veins?’ He grunted.
‘What do I do?’ Darla said. ‘Only Reaper that ever transported me was Calvin.’
Phillip kicked over a backpack that had been lying at his feet. It rattled when she hefted it onto her back with a grunt. ‘All you gotta do is hold my hand when I cross over,’ Phillip said. ‘Think you can do that, darlin?’
Freya looked to the ceiling as though she were making a silent prayer. ‘Honestly, you are like children. They aren’t mature like us, are they Will?’
Will didn’t reply. He was too busy keeping himself from panicking at the idea that he was about to have a syringe of poison injected into his body. He met Darla’s eyes as she stepped over and, grimacing, took hold of his free hand – his left poised to jab Will as soon as he saw a suitable vein. Darla winked at him and he was instantly comforted. Darla never got scared – she just got angry.
He turned away from her and Phil, whose wormy tongue was protruding from his mouth as he concentrated on Will’s arm, away from Freya, who waved at him from the foot of the bed with a faint smile as the needle went in, and over to his sister. Sarah, who’d once showed him where their mother kept the icing sugar, and who’d play stupid games with him all day until they were both laughing themselves hoarse. Dead now, her face slack but not empty of emotion as Freya’s discarded body had been. She looked… afraid.
Don’t get scared. Get angry. ‘We’re gonna get her back, aren’t we Darla?’ He said. He hadn’t meant to say it out loud, but whatever was in the syringe must have been working on him because his head was buzzing now, making the whole room hum and his body loose and weak.
‘We’ll get her,’ Darla said, not a hint of doubt in her voice, and Will smiled.
‘We’ll get her,’ he said faintly. ‘And then we’ll get them, won’t we? We’ll get them all.’
And her dark chuckle was the last thing he heard in that world.