The state of existence after death is a constant irritation to me, not for its miseries and dangers, but for the endless difficulties it poses for those such as myself who are interested in doing real science. While mankind seemed such the pinnacle of civilisation on Earth, all it takes is a change of circumstances and the whole lot – from Caesar to Mother Theresa – turn to a horde of scrambling beasts. But enough complaining, for with the help of some brilliant dead pioneers such as my colleagues Freya Castlemaine and Karl Hauptmann, many great mysteries have been uncovered. This chapter concerns those things we have learned about the most valuable thing in this life or the previous: The Immortal Soul.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 8 (On the Nature of Souls)
I can’t go on like this. Andrea Turned yesterday. Hader chopped her to pieces with his pick and we all ate our share. It was just enough to keep us from the brink. I told him it wasn’t worth it anymore – that we should open the gates to the hounds and let it be. But he said he’d done the measurements and we couldn’t be more than twenty feet from the base of the building over which The Maze hangs. He and I are going to finish the tunnel now, no matter what it takes or how long.
I will leave this journal in a safe place, and hope it will remain to help other lost souls who may pass this way. The tunnel lies in the basement of this building, behind Hader’s furnace.
And stranger, if you are passing through here and have yet to see a hound, don’t be fooled: they have seen you. Godspeed.
Darla had hardly finished the last sentence before she leapt up on unsteady feet. It seemed too good to be true… until she realised she had no safe way to take the Seer soul with her. The impulse to drink it then and there was strong, but she was an old hand when it came to surviving in hell, and she knew you didn’t count your chickens before they hatched, and sometimes not even then. No, she would go all the way to the end of that tunnel, and she’d get her hand back, cork the bottle, and see if that Hader guy had left anything lying around. The thought of sinking a solid diamond pickaxe into the face of that hound outside made her smile again – the second time that day. Wasn’t she just all sunshine and daisies?
Her next thought was: Wait, did the journal say there was a basement? She found it, eventually, but it took her hours of searching every door and dusty room on the ground floor, moving desks and shelves and piles of rotted blankets aside with her forearms and cursing when the sensitive stumps touched anything. By the time she finally uncovered a heavy trapdoor beneath someone’s table and pulled it open with her teeth, she was literally sweating blood. It oozed from her pores like molasses. Thick with hate, she thought randomly.
But all of that disappeared once she descended the chipped staircase into the long basement that was home to Hader’s forge. She’d never felt so helpless before. The simplest tasks had become efforts of will since she lost her hands, and she had no idea what she would do if anything attacked her. She pushed the thought away, because all it did was raise other questions. Like how did she expect to so much as scratch her ass once she got out of here, let alone track Flay and Will through The Maze without getting herself damned for all eternity? Never mind that now. Burn ‘em as you cross ‘em.
The forge had the uneasy air of a place recently vacated, as though the last strikes of hammer on anvil were still echoing in the small chamber. Hundreds of tools hung by nails dug into the concrete walls, arranged in meticulous order. Of course, none of the equipment, from the anvil to the furnace that was set into the back wall, could have so much as scratched a diamond on Earth. But Hader would have been using Hellfire – the white flames that could burn crisply through rock and metal like tree bark, and through people as if they were made of wax.
Everything was muted, including the light, but thankfully Darla had earned her dark vision after years spent in the deep pockets of The Maze with Dale, where everything depended on constant vigilance. How many times had she stared into a cave or burrow, believing it safe, only to see a movement here, a flicker there, and know that there was something staring back at her in there, waiting?
The memory gave her an idea – something she’d seen The Lost do often. It wasn’t going to be pleasant. In fact, it was going to be bloody excruciating. The Lost weren’t known for their qualities of self-preservation, after all. Ah, hell. Desperate times…
She crawled through the opening in the front of the furnace, coughing as she stirred up clouds of old ash and metal dust, and sure enough she found just what she was looking for buried in the deep soot at the back, where Hellfire had burned a considerable hole in the surrounding stone. Diamond chips.
Gritting her teeth, she jammed each one she found into the stump of her right arm, pushing them into the flesh until she couldn’t stand the pain anymore, at which point she crawled back out of the furnace and sat on the anvil for a minute. Bastard, that hurts. But the thought of smashing her diamond encrusted wound into the face of that hound outside brought a mean grin to her face. I’ll kill them all. If I can survive long enough, I’ll hunt every last one of those dirty mutts.
She pushed the thoughts away. There was something about that anger she didn’t like. It was an all-consuming threat, a tidal wave that hadn’t broken. Not for the first or last time she restrained the desperate urge to drink the Seer soul upstairs. Not yet, not yet. Only when you’re on the edge.
The entrance to the tunnel was little more than a crack in the stone where the furnace met the wall. Cursing, Darla pushed her head and shoulders through and then wiggled into the narrow tunnel. Hader must have been a damned skeleton to fit through it. Worse, it was angled steeply downward, so she had no hope of turning around.
At last she pulled herself, scratched bloody and madder than ever, through to the wider tunnel on the other side. She’d thought her dark vision had adapted for anything, but this place was darker than the Void itself. She could see the walls around her, and a couple of meters ahead, but no more. A tingle of unease ran through her. If they’d tunnelled all the way through, shouldn’t there be some light coming in from the far side? It’s just too far away to see from here, that’s all. She got to her feet, stooping slightly from the low ceiling, and crept forward as quietly as she could, being careful not to breathe.
The dense silence made the soft sound of her tip-toeing feet as loud as falling boulders. She measured her steps and tried to remember exactly how far the Maze building had been from hers. Then the tunnel took a wide bend, and when it straightened out again a new, faint sound became audible.
It was a wet sound, and it reminded Darla of someone rolling thick paint on a wall. Even the strokes were the same – evenly spaced, with a pause while the roller lifted his or her arm for another stroke.
A second later the sound was accompanied by a smell that confirmed Darla’s growing unease. There was only one smell like that in all of Hell, and she knew it all too well: it was the stench of dirty skin, acid breath, and blood.
It was the stench of a monster.