In order to fully comprehend the magnitude of hell, one must first consider the dead. Countless billions of souls, human and otherwise, have entered hell, and yet… How many are still here? Those you see in such crowded places as Mort City, home to as many as a million souls by my estimation, are not even one hundredth of one percent of those who should be here. Where have the others gone? To the Void, the Nihilists say (and there are as many of those in hell as there are religious believers on Earth). They’ve been damned, eaten, lost. Billions and billions. I choose to believe, however, that most of these souls are simply spread out across the infinite landscape of hell. It is too bitter a pill for me to swallow, you see, to think that such heroes as Alexander the Great and Leonidas and Shakespeare have simply succumbed to damnation in the afterlife. No, I think that they are out there, all of them, along with many of those you knew and loved in life, existing, fighting, and making stories. Billions, and billions.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 7 (A Brief History of Hell)
Darla stopped herself a moment before the vial unloaded its precious liquid down her throat. She was tipping her head back, the neck clenched in her teeth, when she paused. This could be a mistake. She lowered it back onto the rotted dresser and let go, causing it to wobble precariously on its base. She wouldn’t be able to replace the cork with no hands, but she could leave it open here for the time being. It wasn’t as if there was anyone around to steal it. Better not to drink it until you’re really starving. Until you can’t take it anymore – the Rage.
It was impossible to tell how much time had passed: the orange sun was a constant presence in the hazy sky, and Houndsville had no days, orbits, or seasons: It was the land of eternal summer. The heat clung to everything, a welcome relief from the usual chill air of hell, but Darla was finding it more and more suffocating. Time was running out, but it wasn’t by the hands of a clock that she knew this, or by crossing off days on a calendar. It was in the growing madness, the turning of her blood from cold to hot. It was the sighting, again and again, of Philip’s Recall Spot from the topmost spire of the building, empty. Empty. Still Empty.
Space was twisted in hell, and as a result time was, also. It was impossible to know how fast or slow things were moving on Freya’s side, or in The Maze, or anywhere else. But twisted or not, time marched only forward.
It was in the growing chorus of howls that sounded at Darla’s gate, and the hunched shadows that stalked the concrete acres surrounding her.
She hadn’t known exactly what the Seer soul would do for her besides feed her, but she decided early on to try to save it, if she could. The agony of being torn apart by the hound outside finally faded to a kind of mild burning that effectively numbed her. By the feel of it, nothing at all had touched her other hand, and so for the time being she could clear her mind. She could think.
And if there had ever been a time she’d needed to use the whole of that razor sharp snake mind she so liked to boast about, she figured this was it.
Step one: climb the building.
That had been no easy task with stumps for hands, but the three spires that made up the peak of the structure were thin enough that she could wrap her arms around them, and close enough together that she could brace her feet and walk herself upward. At that staggering height, she’d been able to see everything from the hovering Maze – the bloodstained rooftop now vacant – to the faraway red symbol that marked Philip’s Recall Spot. A faint smoky mist hung over it – a residue that marked recent passage – and it was this that she would so determinedly wait for, later.
The Hounds lurked in every shadow and enclave, and groups of them could be seen roaming in their endless search for food. When she looked down to the base of her own building, she saw the lone hound that had eaten her hand, pacing near the front entrance. Waiting.
Step two: search the building.
Most of the rooms had been cleared out, but there were enough remnants to discern that this had once been a kind of apartment building, a living space for hundreds of demons. She knew that wasn’t the case for all structures – some had been trading centres like shopping malls, others had large spaces cleared out for plays or dancers or music. Darla felt a faint pang at the thought. She’d always loved music when she was alive. She missed it. As she moved from one apartment to the next, sifting through the abandoned ruins of old lives, she grew more and more overcome with nostalgia.
And then she found the journal.
It was nothing but a sheaf of tattered yellow pages, so rotted that her first thought was she might use it to build a fire and roast that damned Hound at the front… but when she pulled it out from under an old crib and read the opening lines, she knew she had something far more valuable than kindling at her disposal.
We’ve started tunnelling towards The Maze, it began. No one knows how long it will take, or how long it’s been. The Great Clock in Town Hall is unreachable, and as far as we know everyone else in the city has either eaten or run away. Tina asks me in her childlike innocence why the Hounds have come. I can’t tell her what I think – that they’re all the dead dogs and cats and predators from Earth transformed in hell, starving like everyone else. So I say it doesn’t matter what they are. Only that we destroy as many of them as we can and get out of here.
I don’t know what we would have done without Hader and his diamond forge. His pick is the only tool strong enough to tunnel through the dense concrete. Yesterday I looked out from the spires and saw the building Danny West and his family had lived in. It was full of Hounds. There are no more screams, just barking and that terrible laughter.
We were so close to living again. So close.
Family. She closed her eyes and tears welled behind her lids. She wasn’t thinking of her own family – the ones so quickly torn away from her at the brutal end of Flight GR985 – but of Dale and Will, and her friends who’d saved her scales more than once in her Mort City days – Warren and Freddy and Vera. Demons learned to make their own brothers and sisters in hell. It was the only way to get by.
She looked around the apartment she was in now, seeing everything in new light. Imagining a young demon curling up to rest in the cot, while a surrogate mother and sister (Tina?) prepared strips of wriggling Hound on the counter in the adjacent room. The father perhaps hunched over that three legged desk, scribbling in his journal with a dark scowl.
It was only when she reached the end of the page titled Starving that she realised the significance of what she was reading. Holy shit. This could be it. This could be the ticket.
The paper was stained with dark brown blots.
The tunnel is narrow, but sturdy. Hader and I take turns digging until our hands bleed and blister and transform. It hurts all the time. When we are not digging, we take up swords and axes with the other men from the building to keep away the hounds while the others set up a barrier around the courtyard. The hounds may be as vicious as any monster, but they don’t like tearing themselves to pieces on barbed wire any more than we do. If we can only get safe…
But two of the children have already Turned, and everyone else is inching closer to that horror by the minute. Everyone agrees that to be consumed by the ones who love you must surely be a better fate than whatever evil existence the monsters experience. We ate them.
Something about this place makes the Turned take on the look of the hounds. Grace, so pretty and delicate in the golden years I knew her, was drooling like a rabid dog at the end. She bit Hader’s face when he got too close, and chewed his eye.
He went to back to the digging before the last of her was even gone. With a man like him fighting for us… we just might make it.
She dropped the papers, swore, and then spread them out over the floor so she could read them more easily, leaving smears of congealed blood over some of them. If she could get back to The Maze she was sure she’d be able to reattach her other hand and climb the rope. If she just had one hand, there would be hope.
A fit of rage seized her and she gritted her teeth so hard she heard a crack in her jaw. She wanted to tear those damned hounds to pieces, stumps or no stumps. She’d bite them in half if that was what it took; kick them until they were broken beyond repair. Children, innocent families doing nothing but trying to get by in the afterlife – ruined. Who knew how they’d suffered, or if they were still suffering now?
She took a deep breath. She was so thirsty.
But she read on, because there was one thing she needed desperately to know, just one last thing, and she was sure she would find it.
Sure enough, it was there on the very last entry. That page was written in a shaky hand, the rushed scrawl of someone scared and desperate. The title lit a mean grin on her face. Yesssssss. I’m coming for you, Flay. You think you can get rid of me that easily, you blue bastard? I’m coming for you.
It read: Breakthrough.