The currency in hell is – strangely enough – diamonds. These jewels, so precious for their beauty on Earth, are valued in the underworld mostly for their utility. Nothing cuts better than diamonds, and besides using carats to do business, the demons of Mort City use them in everything from tools to tooth fillings and, most effectively, in weapons. All of these things and every pleasure available in hell can be bought with enough carats, but if one does happen to acquire such riches, beware; for there’s no quicker way to end up on a diamond studded spear – so the saying goes – than to own one.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 6 (Diamonds Are Forever: Hell’s Sordid Economy)
Dale remembered a time when he had been at peace. It seemed so long ago, but the last of his earthly days had come barely three decades previous, when he’d been thirty nine and wise beyond his years. He recalled the conversation with his doctor so clearly – right down to the acrid smell of the office and how he’d felt sympathy for the young man whose job it was to tell him he was dying.
‘There are some, uh, aggressive treatments we could do. The uh, the probability of survival could rise to as much as thirty percent in that case.’
Dale had smiled warmly, and put a steady hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘Thank you for your time, doctor,’ he’d said. ‘You’ve been very helpful.’ And the poor lad had followed him down the hallway as he’d left, not understanding. ‘Sorry, Mr. Lawrence? So we’ll go ahead? I’ll just need to finalise a couple… a couple of details…’
But Dale hadn’t looked back. Death did not hold fear for him, because he had been content with his life, and because of his complete and unassailable faith. He’d believed in an immortal spirit, and perhaps he hadn’t been wrong on that count. But he’d also believed in karma, and that death would bring a payment in all accounts, be they debts owed or credit due. And his credit, after the life of devotion, was well and truly due. He’d spent his last days in sunshine and the company of friends.
And then, as it is wont to do, the truth made itself known to him.
Now, pacing up and down Slater’s surprisingly well kept basement, he’d never felt less at peace, less in control, less certain about everything. Death, it seemed, had only been the beginning of his descent from order into chaos, and he couldn’t help but feeling he wasn’t anywhere near the end yet.
The basement was soundproof, and so he couldn’t hear what was going on upstairs, whether The Angel’s men had paid Slater a visit yet, or what they asked, or if Slater was even now telling them where he was. So he paced. The room was long and narrow and lit by six thick candles that lined a counter top along one wall. A pool table dominated half the room, and piles of books, soul bottles and loose diamonds were scattered across a shonky table in one corner. The basement was subterranean, and the walls, floor and ceiling were all a rough mixture of clay and rock. It was, in other words, the perfect hiding place, and Dale got the feeling Slater was no friend of The Angel.
At last, the trapdoor opened and Slater descended the steep staircase with Weed at his heel. The girl hopped down and came right up to Dale, extending a hand. When he shook it, she said: ‘Weed at yer service. Dunno what you did to The Angel, mister, but he was awfully keen to find you.’
Slater gave a curt nod and then went behind the counter and started opening the cupboards and rummaging through the contents. It wasn’t a soul bottle he set down in front of Dale but a jar full of what looked like crushed purple leaves and root fragments. He poured a small pile of it onto the varnished wood and produced a slip of paper to roll it. Dale had never seen anything like it before, not even in the early years.
‘What is that?’ he said.
Slater paused and raised an eyebrow, amused. ‘You haven’t been in Mort City for a long time, have you?
Dale shook his head, and for a minute Slater didn’t say anything, concentrating on the task at hand. He lit the stub on a candle flame and took a deep drag, wincing at some perceived bitterness. ‘Tastes like dirt.’ When he exhaled, the smoke was black as storm clouds. ‘It’s a drug,’ he explained. ‘Made by one of The Angel’s mad scientists in those dungeons of his. Not very strong. Reminds me of coffee. Meant for the army.’ He grunted, as if that was of no consequence.
Dale waited. The flat faced Slater had a way about him, the slow but sure determination of a steamroller, or a glacier. He took his time, but he got there in the end, and there was no stopping him when he did. Sure enough, he began to ask Dale questions, one by one, and pulled every detail of truth out of him. Not that Dale was reluctant to give it – but he got the disturbing feeling it wouldn’t have mattered if he was. Weed sat on the counter and watched them, occasionally sipping from a silver flask.
‘What’s your business with The Angel?’
‘Because he is evil.’
Slater scratched his cheek, making a sound like sandpaper on brickwork. ‘Hm. Some would say he’s kept Mort City alive for a long time. Some would say without him most of us would be damned.’
‘I have been in his dungeons,’ Dale said. ‘He is evil.’
Slater didn’t say anything, smoke streaming evenly from his wide nostrils. Dale took the opportunity to ask a question of his own. ‘What are these armies you speak of? And this strange drug? What has he been doing?’
‘Gone power mad, hasn’t he?’ Weed piped from the counter, and then clamped her mouth shut at a glare from Slater.
‘Gone power mad,’ Slater said. ‘Some say.’
‘Wasn’t he always?’
Slater shook his head. ‘Never like this. He’s had control over all of us in Mort City for decades now. Calls himself the Big Brother to all citizens, even while he steals from us. But the City isn’t enough for him anymore. He wants us to fight for him up on Earth. A war with the living. Every day in the Square the chief of the dungeons gives speeches. Recruiting.’
‘No. Flay was promoted to General years ago, but the demon that replaced him…’ He frowned, took another long drag. His pupils were dilating, and Dale noticed his hand was shaking almost imperceptibly. ‘She’s a bitch from hell, all right. She came out of the wilderness, claiming to be even older than The Angel himself. She’s a Parasite. Loves nothing more than to cause pain. She heard about The Angel and his dungeons, came from many Leagues and Rises away. She calls herself Witch. Claims she was burned at the stake in Salem. You know that history?’
Dale nodded. His heart sank with every word Slater said, and he hadn’t believed it could sink any more. It tired him out – the evil heaped upon evil. Never did someone or something good emerge from the wilderness to save the people. Never did anything change for the better. All news was bad news, and places like Mort City were like black holes that sucked in good souls and spat out nothing but horror.
In his slow way, Slater went on. ‘Some of us are resisting. Secrets, hideouts,
Black markets for trade outside The Angel’s control.’ He met Dale’s gaze, and in a flash Dale understood what was happening. He almost laughed. Of all the crooked bars he could have crashed…
But he would not be recruited – even for this cause. Every time he closed his eyes he saw a new face: Darla, Calvin, Will, Freya… It seemed as if he’d been running since the day he’d died, a leaf pushed helplessly along the current of a gushing river. He couldn’t live a life of Prey any more. Prey did not survive in hell.
He stood up, scraping his chair back, and gave Slater a grim smile. ‘I wish you luck, Slater. But I’m not here to resist The Angel. I’m here to end him. And I won’t be part of someone else’s cause.’
He moved to leave, but Slater’s shovel-sized hand shot out and gripped his arm. The big demon remained sitting, but Dale could feel the immense strength he possessed.
‘You can’t do it alone.’
The memory of Calvin’s form disappearing into the white blizzard was all too fresh in Dale’s mind. ‘I can’t trust anyone else.’ I can’t lose anyone else.
‘He knows your face. You won’t get within a League of Angel Tower.’ Dale almost winced. That was almost certainly true. ‘I have no choice,’ he heard himself say, and that was just as true.
Then Weed’s voice cut through the brief silence, surprising Dale with the calm certainty in her tone: ‘I can get inside,’ she said. And then, before either of them could speak: ‘I already am. I visit there almost every night, y’know.’ Both of them turned to stare at her, shocked. Apparently this was news to Slater, whose jaw hung so low the cigarillo stayed in his mouth by pure magic.
She chuckled at their expressions, and gave a sly wink. ‘Not so useless now, am I? Worth a few more diamonds now, I reckon. They don’t even see my shadow.’