While time zones and historical records may vary, there is one place where such considerations are meaningless. Once you enter it, you leave history, you leave the records, and in many ways you leave existence itself, until such a time as you escape – if you ever do. Of this place there is no record, no evidence, and no real knowledge, for even those who have entered it repeatedly know that whatever occurs there is gone forever, non-existent in time and at the same time eternal. I am speaking, of course, about The Maze. This very quality, however, did allow me in recent (years?) times to use The Maze to study such history as is inaccessible to anyone ever before: these are the stories of The Lost.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 7 (A Brief History of Hell)
Will lay in excruciating pain, every bone in his non-existent body broken, trying his best to remember what Darla had taught him an eternity ago with a slap to the face. Her words returned to him in a moment of clarity, down to the impatient snarl with which they’d been delivered: Down here, only you happen to you. It’s not any easier, just different. This cut wouldn’t have got there if you didn’t get so scared on the way down. The fall didn’t do it to you. You did. Understand?
And as he listened to her words, spoken so clearly even across all that time and space, a very interesting thing happened. When he thought about his bones, and about how they’d cracked and splintered as he’d come smashing through the thick tree canopies in darkness – it occurred to him that he was actually a long way from where his real bones were. They were inside his dead body, which was lying peacefully in a chilled bed beside his dead sister, whose bones were also unbroken. And this led to the ultimate question – one which he could not answer, but which, in the asking, solved the problem.
If my bones didn’t break on the way down, what did?
The pain poured out of him like boiling water from a kettle, leaving the parts of him that had broken sore and tender but in some way also stronger. He rolled over onto all fours, wincing, feeling as though he’d been taken apart and put together in only a rough approximation of what he had been, but unable to take stock of himself in the darkness of the jungle.
He knew it had to be a jungle despite his blindness: from the flurry and chirp of insects in the undergrowth, the slap of wet leaves as critters moved through them, and the smell of green leaves and rich soil. Then another sound reached him – one far less promising than the safety of the deep cover: Flay’s voice echoing from somewhere not too far above him, as the demon made his way down the cliff side: ‘Return to me now, boy, and you won’t feel the touch of my blade. You have my word.’
Following this, as if in answer, came another peal of mad laughter – the same that they’d heard when they first entered the cavern, and now that he was on the ground Will could hear exactly where it came from.
He had time for a single thought: Flay will expect me to run away from the laughter. And it was enough to get him going straight for it, blundering through the mossy trees and vines as fast as he dared, and all too aware that he wasn’t going to find anything good on the other end of that laugh. Has to be better than the dungeons, he thought feverishly. Has to be better than the knife.
The dense plant life punished him for every step of progress he made, tearing his skin, stinging him, whipping him, even biting him with tiny insect mouths, stealing pieces of his soul he didn’t know he would ever replenish. Yet the further he went the more his eyes grew accustomed to the dark (and the more he considered he wasn’t seeing with his eyes in the first place, after all), and he must have made some progress, because when the laugh sounded again it was much closer than before.
Will slowed his pace, as worried about falling into a ditch or trap as he was of the laugh’s owner. He was moving differently, his legs bending and reaching in ways they hadn’t before. After another minute or so of picking his way through a prickly bush, he stopped, holding his breath (what breath?) so he could listen. Only in the ensuing quiet did it occur to him how much noise he’d been making, and a worrying thought struck him: what if the laugh had sounded so much closer not because he was approaching it, but because it was approaching him?
But then he became aware of the smell of smoke and the faint glow of firelight nearby, and he realised he had been heading straight for the very campfire he’d seen from the ledge. The Lost.
Maybe they didn’t know he was here. If he could just sneak around the outskirts of the clearing where the fires were, he was sure he could lose Flay. Even if the demon tracked the broken twigs and bushes this far, he couldn’t search every tree. All it would take would be twenty meters or so of careful movement and covered tracks and he’d be invisible. And then – the thought sparked a grim smile on his muddy face – then he could stay out of sight and follow Flay all the way out of The Maze. He’d be free in Mort City, and it would just be a matter of getting hold of some souls before he starved, then tracking down Dale and Calvin.
It was not a good plan. There were a thousand ways it could go wrong, and a thousand more that ended in damnation, but it was all he had, and so he crept closer in to the clearing and circled it, stopping at the foot of a bent tree trunk. From there he could get a look at the campfire, and its manic creator.
The demon sat cross legged by the fire with his back to Will, rocking back and forth and occasionally throwing in a log from a dry pile beside him. His left forearm had been severed halfway down, and instead of a hand he had jammed the top half of a small axe into the stump and sewn the excess skin around the handle. His broad, muscled back was covered in crude ash tattoos that depicted caveman-style pictures of stick figures and animals. From this angle the demon looked like a caveman himself: his hair was matted in a solid block on his head even more disgusting than Dale’s dreadlocks, his physique dense and efficient, as though he would feel the loss of a single cell of himself. As Will debated whether it was safe to approach, the demon chatted to himself incessantly, muttering and singing and yes – once – letting off that familiar laugh. It was as though he were deep in conversation with the fire itself.
Will stepped out from around the tree and crept closer, crouching just inside the clearing, ears straining to make sense of the demon’s gibberings. Unhinged he may be – but if this was a traveller in The Maze and not one of The Lost, he could be the difference between Will’s capture and escape.
‘Little voices, little voices, tell me where to go,’ he sang in a low voice. He gargled his words, but somehow Will understood everything he said perfectly clearly. ‘I follow the paths of my heart, and seek not the way out, but the way further in.’
And then his tone switched from singsong to businesslike, as though he were having a serious conversation with another traveller. ‘But I’ve been here in this damn cave for too long, haven’t I?’
‘I’d say so, yes. Might be there’s no way out on ground level except that waterfall – you know the one – the one that goes straight down there in the middle like the biggest well of all time. Could be a drop straight to the void, of course, but the alternative is a long, long climb straight up the sides. I don’t have the soul for it. I’ll need to hunt, won’t I? Build up my strength, feed the many mouths.’
He’s not a monster, that’s for sure. Not like Bone was, and not like any other kind, either. Whatever was going on in that twitching head of his, this was a conscious, thinking demon, and the thought gave Will hope. Still, he couldn’t wait here forever: Flay wasn’t far behind. Just a minute longer. Just to be sure. He came closer, leaving the tree cover and feeling the welcome warmth of the fire. He wanted so badly to be able to lie down beside it and close his eyes for an hour or two and just sleep…
The demon moved constantly as he talked, shoulders rolling and head nodding up and down, side to side, toes curling, wrists twisting. His voice changed again, becoming high and sharp, and when the words reached Will they froze him in his tracks and made the hair on his arms stand rod straight.
‘Young Will, there you are, don’t be shyyyyyyy.’ He – It – cackled wildly. ‘I’ve got her down here with me, now. Dear little sister, so precious and innocent. She didn’t know such pain existed in the world. But it’s not her world here. Not her woooooooorld…’
It was The Angel. It had to be. Using the voice of the demon by the fire with whatever he used to control Bone and Meal and his armies. Will would have turned and run right then if it had stood up, but it didn’t move from its place by the fire.
‘She proved very brave for such a small girl, so she did. Very brave and strong, too. Too good for the bottles, but too good for the armies, also. Potential there. Same potential in you, I think, don’t you, young Will Durmer?’
‘Just tell me where to go,’ Will said, his mouth as dry as the white ashes in the fire that spat forth now and then. One of these landed on the demon’s thigh and sizzled there, but it didn’t so much as flick it away. It had its head cocked to one side, and Will got the impression it wanted him to say something else.
He kept talking. Maybe he could learn something about The Angel. There had to be something it wanted, some way it might be willing to let Sarah go. A voice in the back of his head was screaming she’s not gone, she’s not gone! so loud he wondered if the demon could hear it. ‘I could pay you. I – I could get souls for her. You could even…’ He swallowed. ‘You could even have mine instead. I’d work for you then, if you let her go back to her body.’
‘Hmmmm.’ The demon raised the hand that was an axe and tapped it on the side of his head, eliciting a wet sound like ripe fruit falling from a tree. ‘Would you give up The God Man?’
‘Yes,’ Will said immediately, knowing he couldn’t possibly give The Angel Dale’s whereabouts if he wanted to.
The demon snickered. ‘No fool, young Will, Hehhhh.’ There was that gargling sound, obscuring his words as though he had his mouth full. ‘No fool. You have only offered me all the things I already have. But I will set you a bargain of my own. Help lead my army to victory, or I will feed your sister’s soul to you in bowls of dungeon gruel. Those are the terms Haaaaaggghhhh.’
And mad hatred boiled up inside Will, more than he believed he was capable of, more than he could contain, and even as the demon began to get to its feet he didn’t run but came forward, unable to think of anything else but a vision of his sister, crying when their father yelled at her for breaking a teacup. ‘She’s just a baby, you BASTARD!’
He grabbed the demon by the shoulders and spun it all the way around, shaking it while it laughed his howling head off. He started to hit it in the face, and his eyes were so blurred with tears that it was only when he felt the quick legs running across his left arm that he blinked his vision clear and saw its face.
His blows had split the demon’s mouth wide open and dislodged an eyeball in its sickeningly soft head. The reason for this softness lay in the crude tattoos Will had noticed from before: there were plenty more across its chest and neck, but the stitches along their lines had split open and tiny spiders were pouring out of the wounds and running across yellow skin.
‘What’s the matter, young Will, can’t make up your mind? Maybe a year with The Witch will change your mind, HAAAAAGGHH.’ And it threw back its head, as if for another shriek, but instead of laughing its mouth only split wider open like a burst seam and a thousand spiders came flooding out.
Will stepped back, almost falling over in his rush to wipe the nipping things from his body. They crawled uniformly upward, and Will was sure that if he hadn’t grabbed a whippy branch from the nearest tree and raked himself with it they would have gone straight for his mouth and once inside, they would have bred.
The demon staggered backward, one finger outstretched at Will’s panicked struggle, and fell into the bonfire. The spiders kept pouring out of it as it burned, and Will was sure, until the last of its rotten fruit head was ash, that it was still laughing.
Too late did he realise the significance of what he’d just witnessed. That he had spoken to The Angel; that The Angel had seen him.
Too late, because it only struck him when he felt the weight of a heavy hand on his left shoulder and Flay’s familiar voice spoke in his ear.
‘I said if you returned to me, boy, you would not feel the touch of my blade,’ he said, and then, Will felt the cold weight of his special knife come to rest on his other shoulder.
‘But you did not return.’
Will wept, but not for long.