Monsters are simply demons stripped to their barest essentials, and are in this way both animals and much worse than animals, because they are not only driven by impulse alone, but are also compelled by their soul’s greatest weaknesses. The angry demon is doomed to be an unresting force for destruction once turned; the weak soul by contrast will tend to be more the parasite, who creeps into a host and drains it quietly. If you wish to avoid your own monster, you would do well, first, to know what it looks like.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 5 (Hell’s a Bitch, and then you’re Damned)
The ship emerged from the darkness like an ominous shadow rising from the depths of the ocean. At first no one paid attention to it, but as it grew closer to the fluorescent smoking mass of Mort City and its course became apparent, that changed quickly.
‘What the Hell is he doing?’
‘Who’s ship is that?’
‘Mad bastard! Get out of the way or you’ll be cut to shreds, girl!’
That last was aimed at the only demon left now standing in Ash Street, a muddy lane that led through Mort City’s less prosperous areas. She was a whippy thing with green skinned limbs like vines and slit eyes so narrow it seemed impossible she could see at all. She was staring up at the ship with her mouth hanging open in slack disbelief, apparently unaware of the danger. To be cut to pieces in Mort City was no joke. A friendly demon might help find your pieces for you, but most would more than likely take what they could and run.
The demon at the helm of the ship looked like a statue – and a nightmarish one at that: his emaciated body was run through with holes and his torn mouth was frozen in a silent scream. Panic was in his eyes, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to change his course. The rudder was up and the ship was headed nose down for the middle of the street. For a long minute the green demon stayed where she was, hypnotised by those mad eyes, and then a gruff voice cut through to her: ‘Get back inside, Weed.’
And, a few short seconds before the ship hit, Weed did.
Every fibre of Dale’s being was occupied with keeping himself from Turning, but as he entered the smoke over Mort City and saw the lights and dark alleys rising up to greet him, he realised he was going to lose, after all. He couldn’t so much as move a muscle, and the ship was making right for the middle of a narrow street, where a funny green demon gaped at him. They locked eyes for a minute, as if conceding their mutual damnation, and then the demon snapped awake and jumped out of the firing line.
Oh, just me, then. If only he could have closed his eyes.
The impact was so apocalyptic – a hurricane of breaking wood and screaming metal and snapping wires – that Dale was sure his soul was being torn apart. He couldn’t hold himself together any longer, and in a great wave of terror the monster came rising up to seize him, to send him over the edge once and for all. As he tumbled in a hail of debris down the road he entered the brief no-man’s land between consciousness and whatever lay on the other side of Turning.
He wasn’t aware of jumping to his feet, or of screaming in pain and rage at the large grey demon who came running to his aid – but as he found out later that was exactly what he had done. All he remembered of that time was being in the midst of some terrible nightmare, in which a city full of bloodthirsty beasts crowded all around, hungry for his soul. In the nightmare, one of them clawed his face and shoved a fist full of broken glass down his throat, and then for a few brief minutes he really was dead – dead in the sense of complete oblivion he’d always feared while alive. Now, however, it was more like a precious sanctuary, because when he woke up he could hardly move for the pain.
He was lying in a kind of pantry, and the floor was covered in a brown muck that he gathered was a mixture of his own liquids and street mud. He swallowed something that tasted distinctly like souls and then cried out as a thousand shards of glass grated in his throat. He touched a gash on his forehead and, as his mind cleared, he saw what had happened: someone had hit him over the head with a bottle of souls and then rammed it down his throat, giving him the very thing he needed to bring him back from the brink.
And then they’d locked him in a storage room.
He pulled himself to his feet, knees shaking, and blinked in the dark. The shelves were lined with bottles – full bottles – and when he uncorked one and sniffed it, he hardly dared to believe what he smelled: fresh, untouched souls. He tipped a bottle back and drank, forcing it down despite the burning sourness. They were old and bitter sinners, but he didn’t care – he’d never been so thirsty in all his death.
He’d almost emptied the bottle when a loud knock sounded on the storeroom door and he choked on it, spraying the shelves with the vile tasting stuff. A sharp voice sounded on the other side. ‘Oy, stranger! Damned or demon, what are ya?’
Dale gulped down the rest of the bottle and then put it back. He leaned against the shelf for a second, wincing as the holes in his body filled in and knotted into scars. He felt eggs forming in the knots, and knew his worm friends would soon return. He hadn’t missed them. ‘Demon! I think,’ he croaked.
There was a brief silence, then: ‘What’s yer name and death date?’
‘What do you care?’
‘Don’t. But The Angel’s sending men now, and I bet they’ll want to know what you’re about.’
Shit. Oh, shit. ‘Girl?’
‘Do you own this place?’
‘No, I just work here. The owner’s Slater, the one what hit you with the bottle. Mind saying why you almost damned half the block, eh? Your ship’s spread a mile down the road.’ Dale doubted that. In these parts, it was more likely scavengers had already taken half the debris for themselves. ‘Never mind that,’ Dale said. ‘Just get your master.’
‘Ain’t my master.’ The girl grumbled, and then called down the hallway for someone named Slater.
Heavy, measured steps sounded in the hall, and Dale shifted impatiently in the dark while a whispered conversation took place just outside. The deep, all consuming terror of an hour ago had abated, but now The Angel’s men were coming for him and he was locked in a damned cellar. The souls were coursing through his veins and he needed to run. He’d looked his monster in the face and he never wanted to see it again – that kind of terror was worse than any pain he’d ever experienced.
The storage door swung open. Slater was a block of a man: skin like a Rhinoceros, arms and legs carved out of stone and a flat face that could have met a train head on, and possibly had by the looks of it. His eyes dropped from Dale’s dreadlocks to his pockmarked body and stopped at the knife still tied at his waist. Dale raised his hands. ‘I’m no danger.’
‘Says the man who nearly made a stain out of my bargirl. She’s only been dead two years and she’d have been licked off the pavement by gutter crawlers.’ The bargirl in question was squinting at Dale from behind the mountainous demon, poking her nose with a narrow finger.
‘Weed,’ she said.
‘I’m Sorry, Weed. I couldn’t move. I was about to Turn.’
‘Right. Well maybe you will, yet.’ Slater folded his arms. ‘I hear The Angel’s training himself a force of monsters. You could be the next recruit.’
‘Is that right?’ Dale’s mind was ticking over. He couldn’t run. He was at least ten blocks from the district he and Darla had lived in so long ago – and who knew if any of the secret hideouts he remembered were still safe. This demon, Slater, was his only chance at freedom. And he had only one thing left to give him.
‘Let me ask you a question, Slater. Would you rather have a bag full of diamonds, or watch another innocent demon join The Angel’s Army?’
Slater snorted and looked Dale up and down, smirking. ‘Depends where you’re hiding the diamonds.’
‘It’s no bluff, but if you want to keep joking you might lose it before you’ve had it.’
‘Hm. Where is it, then?’
‘The ship’s cabin. The lock box beneath the cabinet marked ‘Tools.’ At least that’s where it was before I crashed.’
Slater turned to Weed, but the little demon didn’t need any prompting – she was down the hall and out of the door before Slater could utter a word.
‘Trustworthy, is she?’ Dale said in the ensuing silence.
Slater shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘She owes me. Comes to the same.’
The two demons stood opposite, both tense, neither wanting to break eye contact or move. Both knew that if the girl came back empty handed there would be a fight. Outside, the street had erupted in chaos. Muffled laughter and screams from the crowd reached them through the walls.
Dale spat a bloody mouthful of broken glass. ‘Thanks for the Souls.’
‘Demon turning into a monster isn’t good for anyone.’
‘Don’t let The Angel hear you say that.’
‘The Angel can take it and shove it all the way up his bony –’
‘I got it!’ They both turned as Weed came thundering down the hall at a run. She was bright eyed and grinning, and to Dale’s immense relief she was cradling the diamond bag in her arms. Everything Dale had in Hell now, except for small caches at Calvin’s and Helmstead House. Slater peered into the bag and gave a stiff nod. ‘You know where it goes.’
With a final suspicious glance at Dale, Weed hurried off down the hall and disappeared, leaving them alone once more.
Slater didn’t move, keeping his steady gaze on Dale, who was listening for the inevitable knock on the front door – if The Angel bothered to knock at all, that was. Dale’s every fibre was drawn tight with tension. Both demons knew full well that there wasn’t a thing that could stop Slater from slamming the storage door and leaving it at that.
‘What did you do to make him hunt you? Besides crashing your ship in one of his most profitable districts?’ Slater said eventually.
‘That’s a long story to tell, with a long history. I doubt I’ll have the time to tell it.’
Slater grunted. He drew in a long breath, tapping his fingers on his forearm. ‘Well,’ he said at length, ‘lucky for you, I like stories.’
And for the first time since he’d left Nifflehiem, Dale found he could breathe again.