On melancholy days, I consider the notion that all of the diversions that might be found in hell – all the pleasures and diamonds and material goods they bring – are nothing but blinders we put up against the truth. The truth, in this case, being that all of this bustling industry is only there to hide the fact that everything we have in the afterlife is ultimately stolen. We are all thieves, and we are all responsible for more earthly suffering than we would like to believe. The living accept suffering as par for the course, but I wonder what they would think if they knew that their long dead loved ones cause their misery, just so that they might continue to exist in a miserable world of their own.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 6 (Diamonds Are Forever: Hell’s Sordid Economy)
They crawled through the tunnel: Bone first, then Will, then Flay. And here again was the terrible sensation of being buried alive. Three minutes, five, ten – Will suffocated, his lungs seeming to seize in their death throes… and then Flay would prod him with the point of his knife and he’d scrape on in the pitch darkness, tearing himself on the sharp edges and mixing dirt into the wounds.
They emerged, finally, stepping out onto a grassy precipice. Sheer cliffs stretched out on all sides, broken here and there by cracks and caverns. Their platform joined a narrow ledge to Will’s left which followed the wall upward. It was the strangest thing: a landscape so vast it hardly seemed possible that it was contained within a cavern. It smelled like soil and smoke, and Will saw the cause of the latter just as Flay was pushing him onto the shoulder-wide path after Bone: somewhere far below them in the dark, a campfire glowed. Other travellers, taking a rest? Or Lost Souls desperate for a feed? He heard laughter a minute later, echoing throughout the cavern, and thought he had his answer.
The ledge maintained a shallow incline up the side of the cavern’s curving cliff wall, so that as they traversed it they were corkscrewing their way to a distant ceiling. Soon nothing remained but these three things: The flat wall to their left, the chipped path beneath their feet, and the black gulf to their right, as empty as the Void except for the lone campfire so impossibly far below them.
Flay, like a dog gnawing at the last shreds of gristle on a bone, continued to preach to Will in a low voice that occasionally quickened with emotion. He did not seem concerned whether or not anyone was listening, but though Will did his best not to hear, there was some presence in that dry voice that demanded attention.
‘I was a boy like you when I met The Angel. He’d been dead a long time even then, though it was just the beginning of Mort City. When you see that place, you will believe, boy, and you’ll see the truth. We are in the dark ages now, and only someone such as The Angel has the power to deliver us to an immortal future. A future where even damnation holds no threat for us. Imagine.’
But Will did not want to consider such concepts as damnation just then – he still had death to worry about, after all. It was too dark to see much, but he suspected his body was changing in subtle ways. Did that mean that the other monster – Meal – had killed his body? Would he feel it when it happened? And what would become of him, when his soul revealed itself for what it was: a Parasite that had relished the pain of a dear friend as she was tortured in front of his eyes? How could he exist as something so horrific? Why couldn’t he be a Reaper, like Calvin? Or at least a Feeder – there was something honest in that, at least.
No need to worry. You’ll be the only one feeling pain, soon enough.
‘He was known to be ruthless,’ Flay went on. ‘And that reputation only grew in time, and he was known to be mad, also. But I was close, and I saw what he was, truly: a genius. I saw how he built a City from nothing but death and ashes. I was by his side as he collected the lost and desperate together and showed them how to make a life after death. And I saw that he was ever driven, not by evil or madness or even greed, as so many are – but by Love. The highest good. You know something of this, don’t you, Will? You seek to save a lost one, don’t you?’
Will surprised himself with his own bitterness, the words forcing themselves out of him against his better judgement: ‘Love? Is that why he kidnaps people and hides them in his torture dungeons?’
Flay was silent for a long minute, and Will braced for the inevitable blow, but it never came. Instead, he answered his question, and with such plain certainty it gave Will chills. ‘Yes, of course. Do parents not punish their children for their own good? Do they not set an example? If you want to avoid the dungeons, the choice is simple. A general in the Army of Light is the most honourable position any demon could hope to have. A force for good in the universe.’
But Will knew he could never join The Angel’s army. And it had nothing to do with morals, or the end of the human race, or any of Dale’s notions of good and evil.
‘What did The Angel do with my sister?’ He asked.
Flay sighed. ‘You see how you are blinded? I do not know who your sister is, but The Angel no doubt did with her what he does with every Seer he can find.’
‘You will not like it.’
‘I have to know. P – …’ He’d been about to say please but held back at the last second. He’d seen enough of Flay to understand that he responded to weakness only with cruelty. ‘I have to know,’ he said again.
‘If you insist. First, he would speak with her, to see if she would join him. If she refused, she would go to the dungeons. And if she still refused, or if he sensed deception, or if he thought her to be too weak to lead the army… he would find a reaper to tear her apart and bottle her, so that she might feed him and his Generals. Or…’ He trailed off, suddenly unsure.
Will seized on that uncertainty, because he was certain that if those were the only options… Well, Sarah was a weak soul. She was still a baby, scared and vulnerable and all alone. The thought of her being ‘torn to shreds’ made him sick with dread. She’s just a little girl. Just a six year old girl. He lunged at the unspoken words at the end of Flay’s sentence like a drowning man for a lifeboat. ‘Or what?’
They were high up, now, and currents of stale cave air occasionally buffeted them against the wall. Bone had arrived at a break in the path, a gap between two footholds with nothing in between but smooth rock. He hesitated, measuring it, and Will turned to face Flay, searching his thick red eyes for anything he could see, any lie he might read in his answer.
‘Sometimes, the Seers go missing.’ The big demon said eventually.
‘Go missing? You mean they escape?’ Will felt a spark of hope, but Flay’s next words were enough to keep it from catching.
‘No. They do not escape. The Angel takes them away, and no one sees them again. I do not know what he does with them.’ And Will saw something in his features which made him uneasy, because it didn’t fit with what he thought of Flay. It was a softening around his red shark-eyes, a downturn at the corners of his mouth, a slump in his broad shoulders. It was something like pity.
And Will made the vow that would drive him from then on, a thought so blind it was as certain as any religious faith. She will live again, I swear on everything, I’ll see her alive again, and I won’t give up on her. Not ever.
Bone leapt across the gap with the grace of a mountain goat. He barely stirred up dust on the other side, stepping ahead to leave room for Will to follow. Will stared over the side. He knew he could make the jump, especially in Hell’s strange gravity, where knowing you could make it was almost as good as making it. But something else was bothering him. He turned his back to Bone for a moment and faced Flay.
It was the first time he’d really looked into those red eyes, it seemed. Every other time he’d glanced at them momentarily, or looked at his feet, or cringed away. But now he stared straight into them, those pools of blood like little Hell Mouths, because he needed to see what was there when he asked his question.
Flay folded his arms and stared impassively back, bemused. What, boy?
‘If I helped you and the Angel. And – and if you guys just got everything you wanted and won the war. What would it be like on Earth? For the people? The living ones? What would life be like, for them?’
Flay might have said something that changed Will’s mind about it all. It was possible that The Angel’s big dream wasn’t so bad at all, and that Sarah was even now training to fight for their cause. Perhaps a utopia was possible after all – something more than just the peace in Hell that Dale had fought for all these years.
But what Flay said, with no hint of lie, was this: ‘The living? What do you care of them? They are only destined to join the dead, or be consumed by them. What happens to them in life doesn’t matter.’ And the look on his scarred face was not one of malice but of confusion, as if he didn’t understand why Will would even ask such a question.
And in that moment, Will knew that he had to get as far away from this thing in front of him as he could, because whatever Flay was now, he was so far removed from a human being that he was as much of a monster as Bone was, with his empty eye sockets and skeletal body.
Will took the only path there was to take: he closed his eyes and let himself fall backward, hands crossed over his chest like the corpse he was.
Please God I hope this doesn’t hurt.
His stomach lurched horribly as he plummeted through empty space, and then he hit the first thick bough in an unseen forest and felt his spine snap and everything after that was one mind numbing impact after another until there was nothing left inside him to break and his head was spinning like a Ferris wheel.
It was, Will thought as he lay twisted on the hard ground hundreds of meters from where he’d stood a minute ago, the last time he would ever ask God for anything.