As a new demon wandering the Blood Lakes (A delightful spot about 200 Legions and 8 Rises from Mort City), I encountered many souls that I took for monsters, so twisted and changed were they by their experiences. They no longer looked human, and many of them were capable of things that seemed to me like superpowers. Feats of endurance, mainly. I made my first friend in the afterlife at the Lakes, Darius Renton, and he would dip his feet in the boiling blood periodically and laugh at the look on my face. I asked him if he felt any pain. ‘Course I does,’ he growled at me with the wink of a blue eye. ‘Fact is I feel more than anyone else. That’s how I know just what to do with it.’ And the phrase has stuck with me ever since.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 5 (Hell’s a Bitch, and Then You’re Damned)
Darla was not knocked unconscious on impact. It was impossible to lose consciousness in hell, no matter how tired or beaten one happened to be. Instead, she experienced a minute of dizziness and vibration, in which the whole of existence seemed to pause and wait for her to recover. When she did, blinking and lifting her head to see where she’d landed, the pain hit her and she rolled over onto her side, weeping helplessly.
The braying of the hounds were perhaps the only sound that could have snapped her back to life – that and perhaps the sound of Flay’s heavy footfalls behind her – but it was the former that reached her and forced her to remember exactly where she was.
It wasn’t good.
The hand, the hand. She blinked the tears out of her eyes and stumbled to a standing position – no easy feat since she had nothing but bloody stumps on the end of her wrists. By the sounds of it the hounds were barely seconds away, but when she checked the horizon they were several buildings distant, a row of shadows with dripping mouths bounding across the land. There was time, yet.
Her hand was twitching in a pothole half hidden from the orange sun, and she managed to scoop it up into her arms without hurting herself again. Later, she would wonder that she’d been able to think at all, but the sight of those damned hungry dogs was a blade of fear that cut right through her agony, and she wasted no time.
She ran full pelt, her severed hand clasped to her chest and her eyes narrowed against the wind. In life she’d been a fast runner, but in death she’d had to run from so many horrors her ability had compounded and ultimately resulted in the strange transformation of her agile reptilian legs.
The hounds let off a series of ringing yowls as she emerged from the shadow of the building behind her, but she paid no attention. She was intent on a narrow structure she’d seen on the way to The Maze: a steel fortress with a three pronged spire at its peak, surrounded by a jungle of barbed wire, metal bars, and spikes. It looked impenetrable from this angle, but when they’d approached it from the other side she’d spotted an opening in the defences, where a narrow gate opened onto a courtyard. If she could get inside before the hounds reached it…
As she rounded the far side of the building, the wall of wire muffled the hounds so that she was aware only of her feet slapping on the concrete and the ringing in her head. She’d learned not to breathe like a human when she ran, because then she would grow tired like a human: instead she sucked her breath in a steady hiss, giving her the odd sensation of flying. And if there was ever a time to fly…
She rounded the corner and the hounds came back into view, much closer now. Many of them were still charging in the direction of The Maze, but a pack had broken off from the rest and were come from her. One of these was sprinting ahead of the others: a mean, whip-thin beast somewhere between a greyhound and a werewolf, radiating mad hunger. It had just reached the opposite corner of the building.
I’m not going to make it. Shit, I’m not going to make it. Even if she did, Darla knew she wouldn’t have the time to slow down so she could actually get through the gate. That Thing was going to hit her first and tear her to shreds. She wondered if she’d feel the pieces of herself inside it, dissolving. Would she be aware of herself in a hundred separate mouths and bellies, or would she join the ravenous pack-mind and lose herself completely?
The hissing in her ears ceased as she stopped breathing. Time was up – they were about to collide right in front of the gate.
She did the only thing she could do. Three strides from the entrance, she thrust out her elbows and launched forth her still twitching hand.
The hound saw it coming and leapt for it instinctively, catching it neatly in its jaws even as Darla slid along the ground beneath it, rising to her feet just in front of the half open gate.
She stepped through and slammed it behind her, sliding the metal lock into place. Then she stepped back into the courtyard, hardly able to believe she’d made it and fully expecting the hound to start fighting its way through the barbed wire, inch by inch. But it did not.
Instead, it began to eat her hand.
The small group of hounds reached the entrance, barking and squabbling – but it was hard to know for sure because she couldn’t hear properly over her own screams of agony. They escaped her in uncontrollable fits, as though someone else was using her vocal chords and trying to tear them apart in the process.
It was unlike anything she’d imagined, and it was worse because she lost none of her nerves. They simply became mashed and incoherent – but she felt them all the same. The sensations of being swallowed in small chunks were too confusing for her to make sense of them, but the pain came through loud and clear. There was no mistake about that.
For a time – who knew how long, hours perhaps – she was aware of little but the teeth grinding bones and pulling at ligaments, and the howling. There was a wild scuffling fight outside at some point, but the first hound must have won because she felt no strange jaws digging in.
At some point she managed to drag her weakened self indoors, where she found a wide hallway that spiralled upwards, with the occasional door set in the stonework. Through one of these were someone’s long abandoned living quarters, where a stained mattress lay beneath a barred sunlit window. She crawled onto the mattress and curled up with her eyes closed, waiting for it all to be over.
She tossed and turned in a kind of delirium of waking dreams – the closest to sleep a demon ever got in hell. The pain brought up previous suffering from her afterlife. The time she’d almost Turned when a group of traders she and Dale had stolen from cornered her and set her on fire, for example. It had taken weeks and litres of high quality souls to heal her, and even then she’d changed irrevocably, her burn blisters becoming snake scales. The remorse she’d felt when she’d left that lost child to the mercy of Outer Limit Raiders to save herself. She’d cried until her eyes turned yellow and her tongue forked. You didn’t forget anything in hell. Nothing bad, anyway.
This is not the end of you, Darla. Dale’s voice, coming to her from… how long ago was that? They were the first words he’d said to her when they’d hidden in the vaults of Flay’s dungeons, when he’d broken her out. She’d been hysterical, locked in an endless nightmare, but he’d broken her out of that too, with his words. And he’d been smiling, that was another thing. In the middle of everything, before they even knew how to get out of that hell hole, he’d been smiling. It’s not the end of you because you still have your rage, don’t you? You still have your hate.
And only then, somewhere in the long night, that she remembered the Seer Soul she’d hidden in her arm.
The hound bit down harder, grinding the joints of her ring and index fingers and licking the marrow. She let out another scream, but this time it ended not in weak gasps but in laughter. Hopeless, terrible laughter, but laughter all the same. Perhaps she wasn’t lost, after all.