They say death is the great equalizer, and I have found that to be true in Hell. The inhabitants of the afterlife are spread not only across cultures but across time. Travel far and wide enough, and you may well encounter someone born hundreds of years ago – though that is a rare thing indeed. If you did encounter such a soul, you would have no problem communicating with him or her. We have not ascended to get here, but descended: Thus we are stripped bare to our souls, and likewise we are stripped of things that had once defined us – riches, status, even the families and friends who supported us. In death, we die with the same soul we were born with, we feel the same pain and we speak the same language.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 4 (Life After Death)
Calvin had nothing left, but he walked. His Monster was a terrifying thing. It loomed in him like a tidal wave looming over a city. An ominous force that seemed to stand still even though it was moving at breakneck speed. When it had him, there would be nothing he was incapable of doing. There would be nothing but a pit of horror in his heart, driving him to purge it out by any means of destruction possible. Desperation, despair, endless grief, for all eternity: these things were just beneath the last layer of his skin, ready to take over when the cold stripped even that away.
But he walked.
He was little more than a charcoal skeleton by now, blown lopsided by the wind. His feet were numb, but he was careful with his steps, giving every snake he saw a wide berth. They were easy to see, each of them with a different colour and pattern of scales, and they were blind and lethargic, sliding through the drifts with black tongues flicking. So little of his soul remained that they couldn’t taste him.
And he walked: he had another fate in mind than to become one of them.
The end of his journey came just as the last of his armour cracked; as the tidal wave began to crest and fall. It emerged as a black wall on the other side of the snow, but he knew what it was, and he smiled when he saw the first stars.
The moment he’d hit the ground, he’d started moving, keeping as straight as he could, using landmark glaciers and snowdrifts to hold his course. He hadn’t looked back, and he hadn’t allowed himself to believe Dale might turn around. He knew the God Man. Once he’d decided on a thing, he didn’t change his mind.
No, it was all over. If it can ever be over. If you’re right about what’s down there…
Too late for self doubt now. He was here. The wind died and the land flattened out into a long plane. It was like a beach made of snow, but instead of an ocean, there was the Void. He stood at the very edge, shaking badly, his Soul just about ready to give itself to the Monster: The wave was curling over, coming down hard. He had nothing left in him but dread.
He looked down and his heart dropped out of him. It was the first time in his death he’d ever really looked. The first time he’d seen. Floating islands and stars and distant planets stretching on downward as far as they did upward, and beyond them… Nothing. Eternal nothing. Perhaps the cold company of those Souls who had fallen before. Perhaps not.
The last spark of hope left him. He closed his eyes.
‘What is it?’ A gruff voice came from somewhere behind him.
He opened his eyes. Was he hallucinating? Had he lost his mind?’
‘Monster. Kill it before it turns around. We can eat it.’
He didn’t dare turn around. Jump. Jump now. Leave this place on your own terms, or you’ll do it through their teeth. Leave now, coward! He extended one leg out over the edge. His other knee shuddered under the strain of his pitiful weight.
‘It hasn’t turned yet. It’s a Soul.’
‘Get it before it falls. Get it now!’
Here I come, Satan, you cruel bastard. Here I come. He fell forward, his mouth stretching into a scream of horror at what he’d done, the Void whirling to meet him, to suck him down. And a hand – a warm hand – closed around his ankle. It wrenched him back so hard that when he hit the hard edge of the ice bank his lungs emptied, the scream escaping unheard.
The wave came crashing down, despair complete, and he gave in to it. His last thoughts before chaos scrambled his mind were of regret. I’m sorry, God Man. Sorry Will. In the end, it was all for nothing.
‘It’s turning! Hurry!’
And the madness took him.