While it is nearly impossible to keep track of time in Hell in relation to Earth, it is possible for an adventurous historian such as myself to learn much by talking to those who’ve witnessed tragedies on the surface not as a victim, but as a demon. One such subject recalls walking in the aftermath of Nagasaki. ‘I’d been getting by in the Bone Deserts, far away from the nearest city. I hadn’t known about any revolutions against Earth – I only heard there were souls to be had up top, so I went. What I saw there was more than horror. Demons were everywhere, peeling the skin from people and drinking their blood like looters. Raiding Cities and devouring the souls they didn’t send to hell. But it wasn’t just looting – it was organised.’
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 7 (A Brief History of Hell)
It was far too dangerous to attempt so soon after landing in full view of The Angel and his informers, but Dale insisted. Slater threatened to lock him in the basement from the outside, and might have succeeded, too, if Weed hadn’t taken Dale’s side.
‘I can get yer all the way there. Never mind the demonstrations in the square, we could go to Isis Plains. It’s forbidden to anyone not part of the army. They do all the training there, and The Angel doesn’t want anyone to know what’s going on. Practically a city all by itself, now.’
‘Can’t take him there.’ Slater said flatly. ‘It’s only a rumour the place exists at all. No one ever goes there. Or at least they don’t come back.’
She rolled her eyes, rounding on him. ‘You don’t know jack, boy.’
‘Boy?’ He coughed on his smoke and she chuckled, sliding off the counter with easy grace. It wasn’t hard for Dale to imagine her being able to sneak around in Angel Tower or just about anywhere she wanted with that nimble body, but as for him and Slater…
‘That’s right. Just because I died when I was only a girl, you think you’re wiser than me, smarter. If that’s the case then why don’t you know where your precious diamond stash is now?’
‘It’s in the…’ He paused, seeing her sly grin, and this time it was Dale who wanted to roll his eyes. Perhaps Slater wasn’t as sharp as he’d taken him for. ‘You bloody rat!’
‘Calm down, Slater. We both know I owe you, and I’ll pay when the time comes. Point is, you might not see what Dale here means for us and the resistance, but I do. And I say we have to get him up to speed before he decides to go marching up to the front door of Angel Tower with nothing but that stupid knife of his.’
Slater glared at her. ‘How old are you, Weed?’
She winked. ‘Fourteen, just like I told you. And I always will be, too. I ain’t been here long, but I learned plenty, old man.’ She tucked her flask away and set her hands on the table between them, shrewd green eyes moving from Slater and then settling on Dale. When he met them an electric thrill ran along his spine. There was intelligence there, and a kind of bright clarity that struck him because he’d only seen its like in the eyes of one other: Will.
‘Are you a Seer?’ he said.
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I was dead before I ever saw a demon, and The Angel’s never caught up with me to tell me one way or another.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Slater cut in. He stood and stubbed out his cigarillo on the table, apparently having made up his mind about something. ‘If we’re going to Isis plains, we’re going now. Most of The Angel’s men will still be searching for Dale around here. We’re going to need a disguise.’
‘I know how to keep my head down,’ Dale grunted. The truth was, he was eager to get going, to have a proper blade in his hand and a purpose in mind – to be attacking for once, instead of running like a coward. The memory of Flay’s ship fading into the white persisted, the cold red eyes watching him as they drifted apart, both demons knowing who was the predator and who was the prey. He felt a bitter twist of shame, seeing the stony look on Slater’s face, and the fire in Weed’s eyes. He’d been like them, once, in life. What happened?
‘No disguise is gonna fool anyone, Slater,’ Weed said. ‘Look at him!’ It was true. Dale’s size alone tended to make him stand out even in a city full of demons, and his torn lips and long dreadlocks were noticeable. He wouldn’t make it half a League out of Slater’s home before one of The Angel’s men rescued him.
‘One way or another,’ he said slowly,’ I’m going. I need to see everything. I need to know everything there is to know about The Angel and what he’s doing – and this Witch demon, too. And I need to know the names of everyone he has in his dungeons.’
Weed sucked a sharp breath and exchanged a nervous glance with Slater. ‘You’re talking some dangerous words there, Dale. The Angel doesn’t want those things seen and known, and he’s awful careful about doing nasty things to them that try.’
‘Exactly. He’s protecting himself because if we knew, we could do something about it. He was only ever a demon, after all. Whatever he has – whatever he knows, we can use it for ourselves, if we can get to it. But we can’t play the game if we don’t know where the pieces are.’
‘Well you can’t play the bloody game at all,’ Weed said. ‘You’ll have to stick here in this basement until we can get The Angel looking somewhere else.’
‘There might be another way.’ Slater said. He sized Dale up for a moment. ‘I know someone that could help, but… It’s extreme.’
‘Who?’ Dale said, thinking he might know the demon in question. As it happened, he did – at least by word of mouth – but it wasn’t a name he wanted to hear.
‘Karl Hauptmann is his human name. Mort City knows him mostly as The Surgeon. He knows how to change people’s souls, make them look different.’
‘How come I’ve never heard of him, then?’ Weed said. ‘I know everyone in this district.’
‘He’s not in this district,’ Dale said. ‘In fact he’s on the other side of the River Styx, about as far away from Angel Tower as you can get on this island.’
Weed wrinkled her nose. ‘But that’s the dumps! That’s even worse than here!’
Slater nodded. ‘That’s the only way you can be the richest man in Mort City without being under The Angel’s thumb. If The Angel ever got a hold of Hauptmann, he’d tear his soul to shreds. He’s been looking for him for decades, but no one’s better at slipping under the radar.’
Slater appraised Dale’s emaciated body – still a long way from recovering from Niffleheim, if it ever would. ‘But it’s not going to be pleasant. It’s going to hurt.’
That was an understatement. From what Dale remembered, no one came back from a visit with The Surgeon quite the same. That was, he guessed, the point.
The thought raised an unpleasant memory from the murk of Dale’s mind, something he’d tried so very much to forget in the years that followed it. Dale’s neck locked to a stone wall, his screams so loud in the tiny cell he didn’t think he’d ever hear anything else again, while Flay patiently peeled the skin down his left arm with a white-hot blade.
He shuddered at the thought, and looked away from Slater’s steady gaze.
‘I’ve felt pain before,’ he said.