There are two hazards you must avoid at all costs: Starvation, and Monsters. Ultimately both of these represent the same threat – damnation in the most horrific way. Every Demon needs a certain amount of souls to avoid becoming a monster, and the quantity required depends on a number of factors including size and the amount of stress their soul is under. Once one has become a monster, there is no going back. One is consumed by one’s psychic pain, be it in the form of rage or horror or bloodlust, and can no longer think as they once did. At this point their soul – or what remains of it – is in the hands of the devil. We will get to him in a moment.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 4 (Life After Death)
Dale had been in Hell for long enough to have experienced much pain, but even in the depths of the Angel’s Dungeons, even at the hands of Flay, he’d never come so close to turning as he was now.
He’d done his best to ration the remaining souls, glad to have Calvin’s as well as his own, but when he tipped the last fiery drops down his throat the end was nowhere in sight. In fact, he thought as he let the bottle drop to the deck and roll away, nothing was in sight at all. The world was a white blue hiss that tore at him as if it had claws.
For a long time, he’d kept his eyes open for an overhanging glacier or cave in which to shelter, but when he’d seen one he’d sailed on passed it, realising just in time the danger of such a thing. Waiting out a blizzard on Niffleheim was the same as just waiting. No warmth could be found in this place unless he burnt his ship. No help would come for him, and every second spent was paid for with pieces of his soul.
And the Monster was feeding.
Dale brought the ship up to just below the lips of the glaciers and then levelled the course. As he locked in the rudder and tied off the sails, his motions were slow and deliberate. Not because he was cold or uncertain, but because it took every ounce of his energy to keep himself in check. Simply existing in this place was like setting yourself on fire and then standing under a dripping tap. It was unsustainably agonizing.
Mad impulses churned inside him: to throw himself, laughing madly, over the side. To hunt through the snow for the snakes of Niffleheim and eat them as though he could survive on their paltry shreds of soul. A soft voice whispered in his ears: Pull out your eyeballs and eat them! You don’t need eyes to see in Hell. It’s all in the mind, all in the mind. Eat your tongue. Set fire to the sails – you can’t use them in this wind. On and on.
He headed back to the cabin, hoping some of the heat from the fire lingered there. It didn’t, but he sat down all the same, cross legged and teeth gritted. All he had to do was last long enough. It couldn’t go on forever, could it? Niffleheim was big, but it wasn’t infinite. If only he could see further than his hand in this madness.
Howling, howling wind. The maggots and creepy crawlies that had lived in his wounds for so long wasted away, and the wounds themselves hollowed out so that his soul was punched through with holes. The largest was in his left shoulder. He could put his index finger through and feel it scratch his back on the other side. His skin drew tight and his hair frayed like raw silk. Dale closed his eyes and tried to meditate. When Flay had tortured him, he’d found ways to go away in his head, to turn blank and escape for precious minutes at a time.
It wasn’t working.
The Monster was winning. It had found a sore spot, a place it could dig into him: his Fear. No matter how hard he tried to empty his mind, the whispers would find their way in: images of himself turning into some twisted drooling beast, mindlessly following the Angel’s orders, tearing Will or Darla limb from limb and chewing them down; throwing himself into the void at the last second and falling, falling, falling. Fear was turning to terror, and that to panic.
Maybe if he burned one of the sails to keep warm a little longer? If he ate his hand, would it feed him or deplete him?
Time flowed on without meaning. Dale told himself that his fear wasn’t real, that there was no heart beating in his chest, that the sharp breaths he was drawing in did him no good. It was as though, faced with damnation, his soul sought to reclaim its humanity. But there was no going back. The battle raged on.
Perhaps he’d already lost. What then? Will would have to find his own way in Hell, and perhaps he would find his sister, yet. But the dream of peace would be damned along with Dale, that was certain.
‘I’ll never turn!’ He screamed with such force his eyes bulged, breaking his quiet endurance. The madness was beginning. He grabbed the table and threw it with all his force into the side of the cabin, splintering it. The urge to stake himself and end this misery was irresistible, until he had the sobering thought that being a monster might be even worse than this.
I have to get out. Snatching the telescope from its shelf, he pushed open the cabin door and staggered out onto the deck, teeth clenched tight enough to crack. His joints were so stiff they may as well have been filled with concrete instead of cartilage, but he made the journey to the wheel step by step, and raised the telescope to his eye. He would find a way out of this, one way or another.
He didn’t know how long he stood with the ice whipping his soul away by hair strips, seeing nothing but white despair. But though he felt the urge to scream and throw the scope over the side a hundred times, he held his ground and stared intensely into the blinding snow, searching for the tiniest glimmer or speck to get his bearings.
And there it was: a ridge of blue flashing behind the gale. A landmark. He was on the point of reaching for the wheel when he noticed something that made his mind go blank with shock.
The wheel was turning all by itself.
As the ship rocked and bucked in the air currents, the spokes of the wheel turned almost imperceptibly clockwise. How long had it been doing that? How long, while he argued with Calvin and raged on the deck – how long had the wheel been quietly directing his ship to the right, following the curve of a giant circle?
Filled with bitter dread, Dale allowed the ship to turn naturally toward the ridge he’d seen, and as he grew closer he saw something familiar about the shape of its peak. Hadn’t he seen that blue edge shining through the snow before he’d seen Calvin out? He lowered aching hands to the wheel and steadied it, drifting straight ahead, keeping the ridge on his right.
Strength drained out of him, until he didn’t think he had enough to lift a finger, and so he coasted alongside the ridge’s ice wall, out of the wind at last. It’s too late, the voice whispered. Your soul’s more whole than hole, heh heh. You’re a holy spirit, arentcha? Gonna die with hate in your heart and frost in your eyes, and not much in between. Tell me, how does it feel to be this close and know it’s coming? How does it feel to face the void – not the one out there, but the one inside? Tell me, God Man?
But Dale didn’t answer, because though his neck was too stiff to turn his head, he could see the ridge’s ice wall drifting by the boat to his right and there were faces on it. There were forms, too, faint outlines of bodies, but it was the faces he could make out most clearly from the corner of his vision. Many were fixed eternally in screams of terror or pain, or had mouths turned downward in utter misery, or eyes wide with desperation. Souls who’d wandered into Niffleheim and been claimed by the cold, too frozen to move an inch and doomed to stay that way for the rest of eternity. They almost seemed to laugh at him as he went by. You won’t get out, they said. You’ll be one of us, soon. We know. We’ve seen it before. He could see the intelligence in their tortured eyes.
They were the faces of the Damned. They were the faces of Horror.
In the silence afforded by the ridge’s shelter, Dale’s ship drifted on, and he stood rooted to his spot at the wheel, staring straight ahead, the captain and the ship, bound for nothing but the white. He only wished he had a voice with which to scream.