It is testament to the nature of Hell that the most useful of its resources is also its most dangerous. I am talking about what is known to demons as The Maze. A double edged sword which, when used well, is the most efficient mode of transport in the underworld. When used badly, however, it can result in damnation. In all my existence I have discovered it to be a common theme that those things which deliver the greatest benefit are also those which require the greatest risk and sacrifice. Well, to paraphrase a famous quote: ‘Such is Death.’
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 5 (Hell’s a Bitch, and Then You’re Damned)
Will was weak with despair. For the first time since he’d died he felt dead, allowing himself to be dragged by the surprisingly strong Bone, who gripped the back of his neck with one hand as he scaled the rope with terrifying speed. Will watched his tears fall the steadily increasing distance to the concrete square below. Occasionally one of them hit Flay’s face as he followed them up the rope, but the huge demon didn’t so much as wipe them from his skin.
Then they were at the top, and Bone changed his grip, taking Will under the arms and dragging him backward with feet trailing. They were moving through the lone eye socket of the skull now, and the only visible thing was the orange circle of light at the end of a lengthening tube. Didn’t people always say they saw a light at the end of the tunnel when they died? Perhaps they were simply passing through The Maze on their way to Hell.
He almost laughed at the thought, but not with humour. All those visions of the afterlife, those wishful visions of meeting with the ancestral dead, and heaven and harps and angels in the light… all of it nothing but lies and illusion. It seemed impossible that he could go on in the face of such a bitter truth. But then, where else could he go?
As if to emphasise this thought, the orange circle soon became a bottleneck, then a pinprick, and then it disappeared altogether.
There was a brief period of constriction, when it was hard to breathe, and hot, and cramped. Will had the distinct sensation of being buried alive, but before he had a chance to panic everything dropped away and he opened his eyes to another world.
At first glance it could have been somewhere on Earth: a cave perhaps, made of clay rocks interwoven with vines, and here and there a waterfall flowing into a pond with mushrooms and moss growing on the stones. The structure, however, was not natural but rigid, like a hallway: a straight corridor of green stone and wet grass stretching on into the dark. There was just enough light to see by – but it had no source. It was as if Will had gained the ability to see in pitch darkness in the space of a minute.
Bone dropped him on the moss and stepped back. As Will pulled himself to his feet, the cold point of a sword pressed into his chest, forcing him to push his back against the wet wall behind him.
‘I’m not even armed,’ he said. I’m just a kid.’ He didn’t say anything after that, because those last words had sounded so pathetic to his own ears he couldn’t bear to hear any more. He looked down the dark-light hallway that was not a hallway, but a strange mixture of nature and design his mind couldn’t reconcile. If he were to run ahead, he knew, he’d be lost forever.
Then Flay came crawling through the tunnel after them, moving with the grace and strength of a born warrior. He stood and regarded Will for a moment, one hand resting on his special blade. Will would come to learn that he always had one hand either on the blade or close to it at all times, like a gunslinger with his holster. In Hell guns could be attained but blades were king; on Earth the greatest peril was always death, but in Hell it was suffering, and in that arena blades won out.
‘Bone. Lead the Way. I will walk with the boy.’ Bone gave a curt nod and sheathed his weapon, before starting down the rocky path with measured steps. His hollow eyes scanned the area ahead evenly, and he moved with far more caution than Will would have expected.
Flay tapped Will on the shoulder and gestured for him to follow, and so the three of them walked, Bone in front, checking every shadow and cavern, then Will and Flay behind him. The sound of their steps echoed, giving the illusion they were being followed. Will jumped visibly when Flay spoke.
‘The Seer is one who can see things for what they are,’ he said. ‘The most powerful being in Hell or Earth.’
Will didn’t reply. He was scarred by the pain he had experienced. Hollowed out. That such pain even existed had shocked him to the core, and now all he could think about was escaping. Escaping this evil creature, escaping The Maze and running away to somewhere calm where he could hide and think about how to find Sarah.
‘Now Bone, there,’ Flay went on, jabbing his knife at Bone. ‘Is a monster. The lowest being in Hell or Earth.’ He paused. ‘But Bone could tear your soul apart in strips and suck them down one by one, and he would not need anything more than his fingertips to do it. This is not the nature of Hell, young Will, it is the nature of everything.’
Will didn’t quite understand the point, but what Flay said jarred him for another reason. He spoke hesitantly. ‘Dale told me that monsters are mindless. He said they can’t resist any impulse – or think about anything, and that they just want to feed all the time.’
Flay chuckled. ‘Dale has been living out in the wilderness for too long. He believes that the Angel is the same as he was when the two of them last saw each other. But he is mistaken. The Angel has found a way to control the monsters. That part of Bone which thinks and speaks does not belong to him, but to The Angel. Surely Bone wants only to feed, but he will not unless he receives the order… Such a thing as him has never existed before. That is why The Angel will save us all.’
And he did something then which Will didn’t expect: he smiled, and patted him congenially on the back, as if they were friends. ‘With your help, of course.’
Will’s surprise prompted him to speak against his better judgment. ‘What does he want me for?’ He realised he’d assumed, until now, that Seer souls were valuable only because they were richer, somehow, in the same way that the souls of good people were more nourishing than those of the bad – and that The Angel was probably keeping his sister in some kind of pantry for his own personal consumption.
Before Flay could explain any further, however, Bone gave a short hiss to get his attention. The hallway had been curving steadily to the left, and now it widened out into a larger space, the outer edges of which were obscured by darkness. Bone paused at the entrance and extended one finger towards a deep crack in the rock wall to his right. ‘This one? And then the summit beyond?’
‘Follow the course as you remember it,’ Flay said. ‘If it changes, we will take the problems as they arise.’
The hole to which Bone had pointed was nothing more than a narrow crack overgrown with fungi that stretched who knew how far into the rock – a claustrophobic nightmare. Will supposed it was just like the eye socket, a portal to another part of The Maze. He understood the doubt in Bone’s voice – he’d read all about The Maze in Blood Dweller’s guide, one of the last chapters he’d read in Freya’s house, and it had made him dread the moment he and Darla would have to enter it.
The Maze was infinite, as far as anyone could tell, and ever changing. Not only that, but the environment could depend on the mindset of the one encountering it. Move with steady foot, confident knowledge and awareness of your position, Blood Dweller advised, and The Maze would ultimately deliver you to your destination, or at least near it.
But if you were mad, or lost, or afraid, or any number of other things, you could come out in some far flung part of Hell and come to a nasty damnation. Worse, you might become permanently lost in The Maze itself and Turn, in which case you would be another of the so-called Lost Souls that haunted its darkest corners.
So Will was not overly comforted to see Bone second guessing the route. At least Flay seemed collected – though Will wondered if his thickly scarred features had ever shown fear, in life or death.
‘Wait for us on the other side,’ Flay said. Bone nodded and, doubt or no doubt, crawled headfirst into the fissure. They heard him shuffling and grunting for a minute or so, until the sound was muffled to nothing. Then Flay turned to Will and put both hands on his shoulders, squeezing gently. Now he was the friend giving earnest advice. Either Will was being manipulated, or Flay was so psychopathic that he had no concept of how much suffering he’d caused less than an hour ago. Will wasn’t sure which.
‘The Angel is not like you or I,’ he began. ‘He sees far ahead and far behind. And this is what he knows: The living are nothing but souls locked in the prisons of their lives. They are not free. They do not know pain and suffering, or anything about the afterlife – that which is more real than what they call living. And while we struggle here in the real world, they waste themselves on Earth.
‘You see, young Will, all souls have a responsibility to work for the good of all, and there are only two ways to contribute. Either as a servant of society, as I am. Or as food for demons, as your friend Darla is. To be anything else is to be an enemy of all that is good… as Dale is.
‘The Angel knows this, but he also has a vision for a better future. He will have a great army of monsters commanded by the Seers who agree to aid him in his great plan. Of all souls, only the rare Seers can survive on Earth without wasting away as mere demons and monsters do. Only Seers are fit to watch over the masses of the living, and it is therefore their responsibility to do so.
‘So you will be one of The Angel’s prized Kings, and you will bring as many souls as you can from your Kingdom on Earth to Mort City, to feed the dead and end our suffering. Earth is nothing but a farm being run by animals. You will be the farmer who will harvest the land. And that is how The Angel, with your help, will bring eternal peace to the afterlife.’
Will saw conviction in the blood thick eyes, heard the hope in Flay’s voice, and chills ran the length of his body. He imagined monsters running wild through the streets of New York City, London, Delhi, Beijing. What would that look like to people – those who weren’t Seers? It would be apocalyptic. Hellish. Earth is nothing but a farm…
‘And what if I don’t agree?’ He hardly dared to ask the question, but Flay did not react violently. He stepped back and smiled again, this time with a more predatory slant.
‘Then we will put you to torture in the dungeons until you do agree,’ he said.
Then, as the horror of that thought was making itself fully known in the pit of Will’s heart, Flay gestured to the pitch black opening in the rock wall beside them.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘After you.’