Demon Haunted Boy: Chapter 38

One cannot study souls without studying Seers – at least to the extent that such a thing is possible; Seers are extraordinarily rare, and even more so because they are just as susceptible to damnation as the rest of us. As to the questions of ‘What makes a Seer?’ ‘Why do Seers exist?’ and ‘What happens if one drinks a Seers soul?’: I cannot say much besides I don’t know, I don’t know, and it varies. As for ‘What can Seers do?’… Much more research has been done on the topic (though nowhere near enough). So, let me stop waffling on and get right to the facts of what we know of this incredible phenomenon:

Fact One: Seers can, if open minded enough, see the universe for what it truly is.

– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 8 (On the Nature of Souls)

 

The Faces of Mort City: tired, angry, mad. Many people walking the slanted streetways and alleys breathed smoke, many of them puffing wide-eyed at cigarillos full of the same purple substance Slater had consumed in the bar’s basement.

Some glanced at the strange trio as they made their way along pavements and through parks made of rubble and steel instead of grass and trees. A sly green-skinned girl with two large demons, one with a face like a tombstone, the other rotted and scarred, face hidden beneath a cloth hood and a curtain of dreadlocks. All three of them had knives tucked into their belts at their right hip and a small bag cinched at their left. The message was clear: Yes, we have souls, and no you can’t take them.

Dale did not think anyone recognized him, but then it was impossible to know who The Angel’s informers were. Could it be that weasely demon with a girlish laugh and a cane? Or the scaly crocodile looking bastard in a striped suit with a low hanging hat, dropping a full house beside a pile of diamonds at a dingy casino? Hadn’t his buttery eyes slid Dale’s way for an instant?

Weed’s pointed elbow dug into his side. ‘Stop doing that.’

‘Doing what?’ he grunted back, briefly meeting the stern gaze of a fat boil ridden demon in a top hat.

Looking at everyone. Try and act like you live here.’

But it had been a long time since Dale had walked the streets of Mort City, and it had changed so much. Smoke was thick in the air and everything was hot and cramped. Pollution and overcrowding didn’t matter a whole lot when you had no lungs and no biology. But that wasn’t it, either. The atmosphere had changed. The people had changed.

He recalled his first day out in Mort City. Darla had literally held his hand as they walked the neighbourhood, not trusting this slack-jawed blue demon ‘whose corpse is probably still fresh as a daisy’ to be on his own. Even then, in the roughest part of the city, the people hadn’t seemed so on-edge. So hostile.

No city on earth could ever have matched the dirt of Mort City, nor the dirtiness of the human souls ensconced in it. Every vice was alive and well, and everyone had a job to do. They moved constantly, a seething mass of multi-coloured flesh with claws and mean slit eyes. There was harsh laughter here and there, loud chatter, and in the soul bars and casinos and theatres they danced and drank and cheered. Buskers played old instruments on street corner for diamond-chips or a sip of soul. The only vehicles were rusted bicycles moving through the narrow roadways. But beneath all this were the eyes, moving here and there, searching as if with a single mind for an imposter, for an outlaw, or for someone who wanted to take their citadel away from them along with the great promises that had been made to them from their great king. How wide did The Angel’s influence stretch, these days? How deep?

‘This is a mistake,’ Dale muttered, and Weed nudged him again. ‘Shut up.’ Then, in a louder voice to Slater: ‘Oy, Flatface. How much longer to Tanner Court?’

They weren’t going to Tanner Court, but to Dale’s surprise, Slater said in a low voice: ‘Quiet, Anne. You don’t know who’s listening.’

And then, a second later, Dale saw her: a tall demon with red fur and a velvet cloak draped over her shoulders. She wasn’t looking at them, but one pointed ear had turned their way as Slater had spoken. A shiver ran up Dale’s arm. They’re everywhere, he realised. The Angel had his blood crusted fingers in every nook and cranny of Mort City, pulling its strings like an evil puppet master, poisoning it like a slow growing cancer.

Weed took them along an indecipherable route. Dale didn’t think even Slater knew where they were, and only the occasional sighting of Angel Tower rising above the smoke with its flaming spire gave any indication. Eventually they reached the river Styx, but not at the stone bridge that Dale remembered. No doubt, Weed explained, The Angel would be watching that one.

They left the rows of cramped flat-roof shacks that lined the river and descended the muddy bank near a bend, out of sight of anyone. The sand was grey ash and the water black tar. No one knew much about the river Styx – not where it came from or where it went; only that it was poisonous to drink, very deep, and that if you went under you were unlikely to come up.

Weed stood for a moment, appraising Dale. ‘You might be too heavy,’ she said eventually.

‘Two heavy for what?’ Dale said. He was looking around the banks on their side, hoping to see a small boat or raft stowed away.

‘To swim it.’

‘What? We can’t swim the Styx! There must be another bridge – a secret one. Or a boat we can rent.’

‘There are all of those things,’ Slater said. ‘But The Angel will surely be watching them all. He doesn’t care so much about the black market trade conducted across the river, but he likes to know who’s doing what. Safer to cross this way.’

‘The current’s not strong here,’ Weed added.

Dale looked across the river. It was perhaps fifty meters to the opposite bank, which was a gentle slope lined with red and green thornbushes. The thick sludge swirled and bubbled ominously. For the first time, Dale found himself grateful for how much his starvation in Niffleheim had reduced him. He was smaller and weaker, sure, but he doubted he’d have a chance at keeping his head above the surface in his old body.

Slater must have been thinking the same thing. ‘I can’t follow you,’ he said.

Weed shot him a quick look that Dale nearly didn’t catch – it was gone so quickly – but in that moment the confusion was clear on her face: Huh? She hadn’t been expecting it. Slater was moving away from the plan. ‘There is no point both of us escorting him to the Surgeon, and I’m needed this side of the River. Resistance business.’

Weed shuffled her feet and shrugged as though it didn’t bother her. ‘Well… we’ll have to come back across here after, so maybe you should stay this side anyway. See if you can’t get a boat to help us back over.’

Slater grunted. ‘That won’t be hard. But I’ve got other things to do. Once we’re back, we’ll need a place as close to Angel Tower as we can get. Somewhere to make it easy for you to slip in and out while Dale and I work on a plan.’

Dale turned away from the dark river to face him. He didn’t like this at all. It seemed every time he got a group together to fight the Angel – Darla, Freya, then Calvin and Will, and now Slater – hell conspired to split everyone apart. ‘And if you’re caught?’ he said. ‘If you’re put under torture? What will you tell them, then?’

Slater narrowed his eyes as if insulted. ‘I will lie,’ he said.

‘You told me The Angel has Seers working for him. Seers can see through lies.’

‘They can torture me all they want. I will never give you and Weed up.’

‘Why not? What would stop you, when you’ve been in the dungeons for thirty days, or fifty? What will keep you honest?’

They were practically nose to nose. Dale was challenging him directly, almost accusing him, but he had no choice. For all Slater’s intentions, he had no idea what he was really up against. His great resistance had only been passive up until now, secret group meetings and a subtle undermining of The Angel’s power. He didn’t know what it meant to be in the bad books of hell’s most powerful soul.

But Slater squared his shoulders and looked evenly at Dale. ‘I am a man of honour. I would never betray anyone in the resistance for any reason. I would rather have the Witch cut me into a thousand pieces and scatter them in the river Styx than break my word.’

He has no idea. Dale couldn’t help but sneer at Slater’s self-assurance. ‘It isn’t your word that will break, but you.’

He turned away from Slater’s burning eyes. ‘But I wish you luck. I doesn’t have to come to that, after all.’ He nodded at Weed, who’d watched the exchange with a look of mild exasperation. ‘Let’s go,’ he said.

But instead of leaving, Weed strode past Dale and extended her hand to Slater. He shook her hand stiffly. ‘You have the diamonds with you, don’t you?’

She patted the satchel tied to her belt. ‘Oops, forgot to pack souls. I’ll have to borrow Dale’s.’

Slater grunted, but he was unable to hide his smile. ‘You turned out to be slyer than I’d have ever believed, Weed. But I’m glad you’re on my side.’

‘Heh. Same to you, Slater. I guess we’ll see you when Dale’s got himself a new face.’

‘That you will. The Angel won’t see us coming.’

She gave him a nod and turned away at last, gesturing for Dale to follow her to the riverside. ‘Alright, Dale. You’ve got more holes than wormy cheese but I reckon you’ll keep afloat. Better get moving before someone sees us here and remembers you.’

Dale raised one arm in a half farewell, half salute to Slater, and he returned it with his characteristic stony face. Again, Dale felt a twinge of unease, which only deepened when he once again faced the gurgling stretch of river.

‘It’s not much further after this, is it?’ he said, as Weed tightened the knot securing the diamond bag to her waist.

She shook her head. ‘Other side of the Styx is nothin’ but ruins for the most part,’ she said. ‘Easy travelling.’

That, Dale thought as he took his first tentative steps through the muck in Weed’s wake, was something to look forward to. By the time the river reached his waist, he was starting to get worried about the question of his buoyancy. By the time it reached his chest, the black ooze pushing gently through the wormholes in his beaten body, the worry had become something closer to deathly fear. ‘Weed,’ he said, trying to keep his voice even. ‘I’m not floating very well.’

Weed was doing fine, her light body easily moving over the topmost layer of mud, lithe tail swaying back and forth like a crocodile. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said.

He looked back over his shoulder. The shore looked so close, but already he could feel the way the tar sucked at him, every movement an effort. It would require all of his strength to haul himself out of this mess. The spot Slater had stood a minute ago was empty now, the shore vacant. They were alone. ‘Sure about that?’

‘Sure,’ Weed said, and took a moment between strokes to cast a toothy smile over her shoulder. ‘Only the bad souls sink down in the Styx, Dale. Everybody knows that.’

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