The quickest way for a fresh demon to survive in the early days is to make friends with a Reaper. Reapers are the only demons who can move between worlds without the use of Hellmouths or The Maze, and they are also capable of extracting souls in their liquid forms and storing them. One may organise a raiding party without a Feeder, Parasite, or Visitor, but one would be a fool to go without an experienced Reaper. There is no surer way out of a tight spot, and no better way to accumulate souls of your desired quality.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 4 (Life After Death)
This part of Hell was like nothing Will had seen so far. Instead of waking up in soft grass, the three of them rolled over on hard cement, and there was nothing but more of the same for miles in every direction. At first Will thought they’d landed in some kind of city, but the resemblance was short lived. The huge towers he’d taken for skyscrapers were spaced hundreds of meters apart from each other, and each one was constructed differently. Some were covered in windows of different colours and shapes – most of which were broken. Others spiralled endlessly skyward, their peaks impossible to make out from ground level, with metal stairways on the outside; others were monstrous blocks of cracked rock covered in barbed wire and spikes, with tunnelled entrances.
But besides these structures, the land was empty – nothing but flat concrete all the way to eternity. Even the sky was different – the multi-coloured stars barely visible in a bright yellow mist, illuminated by a kind of sun. A kind of because the sun in question couldn’t have been larger than a football stadium and was barely a kilometre above the land. The only island in sight was a strangely shaped meteorite floating over a distant building. It looked like an iceberg with horns.
‘That’s The Maze, boy.’ Phillip dropped his cigar and stomped it out on the cement with a cloven foot that seemed designed for the purpose. ‘It’s a skull with one eye socket and two horns. You go in through the socket.’
Will accepted this without question. The only way to function in chaos, he was learning, was to accept everything blindly and then move on. The alternative was to drown in the madness of it all. If anything, he found he was relieved to be back in Hell. Safe in Freya’s house, thoughts of his family had too much time to creep on him.
‘At least we’re close,’ Darla said, dusting herself off and squinting around the empty cityscape. After a minute, she seemed to recognize it, and she cast Phillip a sly look. ‘Hey, Reaper? We’re not in Houndsville, are we?’
Phillip nodded. ‘Back when I made this Recall, we didn’t call it that. Used to be Magic City.’
‘Magic City?’ Will said, captivated. He stared around at the empty monoliths that surrounded them and tried to imagine what they might once have been to deserve such a name.
‘Uh huh. The original Mort City before Mort City was around. Kicked the bucket in the forties I did, and woke up right around here. Place was full of the dead. Could get Souls without even trying.’
‘What happened?’ Will said, as much to keep talking as anything. He wasn’t used to Hell being so quiet – there was no maddening wind here, only a creeping stillness that was in many ways more unnerving.
This time it was Darla who answered. ‘There was an invasion. Dogs and wolves and wild pack animals started spawning somewhere nearby. They could survive on the souls of demons, and because they hunted in packs… There were too many of them. Everyone left and went to Mort City.’
‘That’s right,’ Philip said. ‘Was just a village when we went across, with The Angel being the Chief. Stayed that way – just got a lot bigger. But the Hounds took this place for their own. No one comes here, anymore. Not a good way to get damned, having your soul torn apart by Hounds. Saw plenty go myself. Sometimes they bark, and you can hear the screams of the ones they ate coming out of their jaws.’ He sniffed, his jaw working as though his beloved cigar was still between his teeth. ‘Good place for a Recall Spot, though.’
‘Hm. Well, since you mention it,’ Darla said, hefting her backpack over one shoulder. ‘Better get moving.’
The three of them started out across a vast expanse of empty concrete, the only sounds those of their feet slapping the ground. Will’s shoes were starting to feel weak at the seams, and it occurred to him that if they came apart he’d simply have to go on without them. Most demons wore nothing but rags, if anything at all, but their bodies were so uniquely transformed it didn’t matter. You had what you died in, and that was that. Will wondered how blisters would feel in Hell.
‘So how’d you die, anyway?’ Darla said. As they moved, her snake neck twisted and ducked, slit eyes scanning every window and doorway. Here and there, Will saw signs of Magic City, though now they were nothing more than ruins: A broken shop stall leaning against a building or a pile of shattered Soul Bottles. He could almost hear the shouts and laughter of the demons that had once walked these endless roads.
‘World War Two,’ Phil said, and then sighed, answering her next question before she’d asked it with the tired air of someone who’d told the story too many times. ‘Six of us ran at a trench with only a couple of boys. At the end, four of us and one of theirs. The nut killed all of us. Ran out of bullets, ran me through with a bayonet, after I shot him three times.’ He massaged his forehead as he walked. ‘Crazy German kid. Couldn’t have been twenty yet.’
Will shot Darla a look, expecting her to laugh, but she just shook her head and kept walking.
‘What about you?’ Phillip asked a minute later.
‘Plane crash,’ she said.
‘Easy death.’ he said, and even though he was walking behind them, Will could sense the smirk on his face. ‘Instant.’
She put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around, and Will could see the rage boiling in her, already. It made him tired, the way she was so angry all the time, like a kettle that was whistling and whistling but no one ever turned it off.
‘Yeah, it was instant,’ she said. ‘The engines blew mid flight, and everyone heard them go. Bangs loud enough to make your ears ring. Then the lights went out and the oxygen masks came down, and the kids were crying and screaming. The plane started dropping a minute later, in bursts. Going down with the kind of speed that makes your stomach flip up into the back of your mouth. So I was holding my baby sister in my arms and my father was beside us, telling us it was going to be alright with a tough face on, even though he knew it wasn’t. Plane turned nose down a bit after that, and then we were going so fast half the people came out of their seats and flew on up the aisles, and everyone was screaming then, except for me because I was too scared to open my mouth. Then we hit the water. So yeah, I guess you’re right. It was instant, at the end.’
And she left them, stomping ahead so quickly Will had to run to catch up, leaving Phillip staring after them with his brow furrowed. ‘Is that true?’ Will asked her when they were side by side.
‘Every word. I get so damn sick of death snobs like him. It’s always a contest with some people. Who died the hardest, or who had the hardest life, or who achieved the most when they were alive. Like it makes anyone better than anyone else, in this place. We’re all dead, aren’t we? It’s what you do here that counts for anything. How you treat souls out here, not how much of a damn saint you were when you were living and everything was peachy.’
She sighed and then cast him a sideways glance, the venom leaking out of her. ‘Like you, Will. Coming down here. You could have said no back at Freya’s. You could have stayed alive another eighty years, mourned your family. Pretended Hell wasn’t real.’
Will shook his head, remembering the look on Sarah’s face as she lay on Freya’s bed. ‘No I couldn’t,’ he said. To his surprise, Darla gave him a rare smile and put her arm around him, pulling him close for a brief scaly second, yellow eyes flashing.
‘That’s why I like you, Will,’ she said. ‘You’re not a shit head.’
‘Uh, thanks,’ he said, but he was unable to keep the grin off his face. He looked back over his shoulder and saw Phillip huffing after them, pointing a chubby finger at something up ahead. When Will looked, he saw a slender building lined on all sides with perfectly round windows, many of which were broken. The Maze skull hung over the top, but from this angle and distance it was impossible to see any of its features.
Just then, Will recalled the question he’d asked Darla before his death, and put it to her again in the moments before Phil caught them up. ‘Hey, what did you steal from Freya? And where did you hide it, anyway?’
She chuckled, and tapped a thick scar in her right forearm with one claw. It took him a moment to realise she must have cut herself open and hidden something in the wound. ‘Only the most valuable thing in Mort City right now,’ she said. ‘I knew that bitch had it somewhere in there, and I was right, too. Got it before that yellow bastard found me.’
‘What was it?’
‘A brand new, freshly taken… Seer Soul,’ she said with relish. Before he could reply Phillip was there, no longer breathing hard – no doubt remembering there wasn’t any air to breathe – and they were at the foot of the enormous building.
The entrance was a rusty gate that screeched when Phillip pulled it open. He moved to enter but Darla stopped him with a hand on his chest, cocking her head to one side. None of them moved while she listened, Will tensed mid-stride, but a second later she shook her head and sighed. ‘Sorry, thought I heard something.’
No sooner did she speak the words than they all heard something, and it was a sound Will would never forget: distant howls, like those of dogs or wolves perhaps, except that these had a desperate quality to them, and were accompanied by the manic laughter characteristic of hyenas.
All three of them spun around to scan the vast fields of cement and tilted spires. Will saw them first: a pack of dog-things emerging from the shadow of a building somewhere close to their Recall spot. They were too far away for him to make out any specific features, but what he saw was disturbing enough. They ran like dogs, but their silhouettes had hunched backs and wide jaws. Their eyes were tiny red dots in their heads, bouncing up and down as they loped straight towards Will.
Phillip grunted when he saw them. ‘Was only a matter of time,’ he said. ‘They always find my Recall spot if I leave it in one place too long. I’ll have to move it, now.’
‘How are you going to get back, once we’re in the maze?’ Will asked, trying to sound normal while his internal voice screamed at him to get moving, to put as much distance between himself and those howling terrors that were even then sprinting towards him.
‘I’ll manage. Been around here enough, haven’t I? Come on, don’t have time to waste, obviously.’
They entered the building, Darla pulling the gate closed behind them with a clank, and then started up a stone staircase that extended through the centre of the structure like an elevator shaft. As they reached each new floor they had to pass several doors, and Will couldn’t help but peer into the open or broken ones. He saw rotted mattresses, charred firewood, broken bottles, piles of paper covered in handwriting, and a million other everyday objects that seemed so out of place here. He thought of all the things that he’d lost in his life and wondered how many of them had simply been stolen by a Reaper and ended up in Hell.
Then there were the pieces of people’s lives: children’s drawings and toys scattered on a dusty floor. An empty bottle of souls on a table with a birthday card beside it. An old mirror with the words DO IT FOR THEM written across it in something black.
Thirty stories later they reached the top of the building, a vacant square with a spiked fence around the perimeter. A rope hung down from The Maze, which Will could now see was indeed an enormous skull. It was human except for three defining features: It had a single eye socket, two horns like those of a goat, and its teeth and jaw looked more like those of a hog than a person.
‘Some say it’s the head of God,’ Phillip said. ‘All that’s left of him after the devil killed him.’
‘Shut up,’ Darla said – but it wasn’t his words that bothered her: she had her head cocked to the side again, her eyes narrowed. ‘I swear I heard something this time.’
Will listened, but all he could hear were the far away howls of the approaching Hounds. Darla must have heard something else, though, because she dropped her backpack and unzipped the front pocket, drawing out the two gutting knives Phillip had packed for them. She tossed one to Will and he gripped it with both hands, staring at its brutal edge. What am I supposed to do with this? Somehow, he’d been unable to comprehend the idea of violence – everyone was dead, weren’t they? But now the concept was all too real. Fear washed over him like a bucket of ice water.
‘What are you doing?’ Philip said, but a second later they all heard it: The heavy clunk of boots on stone steps, echoing through the exit from the second or third-to-last floor.
‘We should surround it,’ Darla said. ‘I can stab them in the neck as soon as they come out, and we’ll see who it is.’ But none of them moved, and then Will looked up at The Maze and saw two demons descending the rope. They were dressed in torn black rags with swords strapped to their backs.
‘Don’t fight them, Darla,’ Phillip said. ‘They’re the Angel’s men. It’ll be worse for us.’
Instead of answering, she spat at the ground and then seized Will by the elbow, pulling him over to the corner of the building. Phillip followed, pulling his own knife from his satchel. ‘Listen, Will,’ Darla said, ‘When they try to take us, we can hold them off for a bit. You just try to get over this fence. Don’t worry about the drop – it won’t hurt you. Then just get to the closest building to The Maze. Freya or someone will get curious and try to find you. Eventually.’
Will said nothing. His mind was numb with terror. The two demons landed lightly one after the other and spread apart, bracketing the half open door to the stairway. The one on the left resembled a starved gorilla with enormous brown eyes, and the other could almost have been human except that instead of facial features it had only round holes, and its fingers and toes were long and multi-jointed.
The footsteps continued onto the last floor. Clomp. Clomp. Clomp. Echoing.
‘Remember, they can’t kill you,’ Darla hissed.
‘No, just damn you for all eternity.’ Phillip said. He slid his knife into his pocket.
‘Take that out,’ Darla snapped. He ignored her, instead producing a fresh cigar and a lighter. When it was smoking liberally, he jammed both hands into his pockets. ‘Hell with you, woman. We’re done.’
‘We’re done when I…’ She trailed off, because just then the demon with the heavy boots had clomped his way all the way to the top of the stairs.
He was tall and thickly muscled, and his skin was whiter than paper. His eyes were lidless, beady, red; they reminded Will of blood clots. He carried a brutal blade, hand crafted with twirling patterns etched into the metal, and the edge was twisted and hooked and sharp. It was a tool made for pain.
His voice, when he spoke, was a horror in itself: It gurgled, as though his throat was full of boiling tar. ‘Darla,’ he said. ‘It has been so long.’
Darla turned to Will, her snake eyes as scared as he’d ever seen them, and said the most terrifying word in the world.
END OF BOOK 1
If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. In fact even if you didn’t enjoy it, I’m going to keep posting these weekly chapters for my own enjoyment. I’ve got some dark shit in store, you better believe it.
In other news, I will take this opportunity to plug my Patreon presence, and invite you excellent people to support a starving writer. In time, I plan to put keep that page one chapter ahead of Free Nightmares for the more dedicated fans of DHB, and whatever else I feel like. (More excerpts from the Blood Dweller’s Guide, maybe?)
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