The most capable soul I ever met on my travels was a demon named Marcus. He was quiet and stoic, but he possessed a smile that could light the world and an aura of supreme calmness that could flatten a raging ocean. He moved through hell as a peaceful observer, always alone; never lonely. At the time I met him, he claimed to have been dead for ninety years, and I could believe it too, for I’d never met anyone with such a mastery over their undead self. He never breathed nor bled. He could run faster than any demon without making a sound, and leap over entire buildings. He could see through the back of his head, and smell souls from leagues distant. He said he’d been a famous historical figure while alive, and I could believe that, too, though he wouldn’t tell me his old name, preferring to call himself after the old emperor of Rome – Marcus Aurelius. I told him I was writing a book about exceptional souls, and asked him to tell me his secret…
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 8 (On the Nature of Souls)
There is no dark. Darla calmed herself, recalling the famous chapter from Blood Dweller’s Guide, the one that had made him so famous in the years before his disappearance. So many demons had been inspired by his work, herself included, and hell had never been the same since. Demons no longer resigned themselves to a fate of suffering, fear and despicable acts; a movement for hope and promise arose, and for a time she’d believed Dale would be the hero Mort City needed to change the afterlife.
It was hard to regain any semblance of the wild optimism she’d once had, but Blood Dweller’s lessons stuck with her nevertheless. She found that the tunnel wasn’t so dark after all, and she could pick up enough blue light from the surroundings to see properly.
The wet sound kept up its mysterious monotony: whip sliiiiide flop! Whip sliiiiiide flop! Paint on a dry wall. She rounded a narrow bend and paused when she caught movement. Her vision was better than it had been, but she could still only see ten or so meters down the tunnel, and it was on the edge of this darkness that the thing shuffled, its motions corresponding with the sound. It was hunched with its back to her, half leaning against the tunnel’s curved wall.
Darla had no business being here – not without hands – but she couldn’t help it. She was feeling a little monstrous herself by now, the hunger nibbling in her stomach and making her madder by the second. The prospect of violence didn’t scare her the way it should have – it excited her.
She took another step forward. Her foot kicked a loose pebble, and it hopped and cracked along the rough ground. When it came to a stop, the tunnel was ominously silent. She gritted her teeth and waited.
The monster turned, sniffing the air, and now there could be no going back. If she ran she might keep ahead of it, but there was no way she’d be able to squeeze back through the entrance before it got her. Her excitement rose to fever pitch, blood boiling from the heat of her hunger-rage. She felt it behind her eyes, a great force gathering, preparing to let loose.
No matter what happens, don’t Turn.
That was the last coherent thought to pass through her mind before it came for her. She didn’t see it at first, just heard its mad rush down the tunnel. She didn’t budge. The monster had a stained black eyepatch over one side of its face, and a diamond axe swung wildly in one hand. Hader. The other eye, reflective and large as a billiard ball, bulged from a squashed head. Its body was bulky and thick boned, its movements heavy. A dog mouth drooled eagerly as the monster lunged toward her, scenting a long awaited meal.
Darla didn’t wait for it to reach her. She ran forward, light on her feet, sure of herself for the first time in years. There was barely a hand’s-breadth of space between any meaty part of the thing and the surrounding walls, but she found what she needed. In the moment before impact, she dove head first between its legs, mid stride, sliding smoothly out on the other side.
It tried to turn but couldn’t. Darla launched herself onto its back and wrapped her arms around its neck. Not to choke it out – that would never work – but to chew through to its jugular and separate head from body.
She might have done it, too, if the bastard hadn’t opened its mutt mouth and bit into the stump of her right arm. She screamed, her mouth full of sour-yogurt flesh, and raked its back with her feet until she could pull away. She hit the ground hard, her head bouncing off the rock. Shooting stars flew in all directions.
The monster managed to turn its huge body. Unhurried, it came to finish her off, ponderously chewing a sizeable chunk of her arm – her arm! Darla staggered to her feet, dazed but madder than ever. The last five inches of her forearm bone were exposed, glowing dull white in the dark.
Looks just like a knife, doesn’t it? the voice of rage – her monster voice – whispered in her ear.
The monster was close now, axe sparking against the wall as he raised it for the killing blow. It would only take one, Darla knew. The blows that followed the first would only be butchery, necessary to reduce her into edible bites for that wet mouth.
She watched it come up. It paused, the monster reaching for her with a bloody mess where its free hand should have been, its eye fixing on her as if taking careful aim.
She kept dead still. Her whole world consisted of nothing but that carved edge. It came for her.
And sunk to the hilt in the cold concrete. Darla had stepped neatly to one side at the last moment. Even now she didn’t move. She waited until she saw the monster heave back with all its weight to retrieve the axe, drawing out the tension in its wrist and arm like a tightrope.
Then she cut it. Her forearm bone had splintered in the monsters mouth and its edge was keen as a blade. Two, three forceful strokes and the last tendon snapped, sending it pin-wheeling backward onto its chunky ass. She was on top of it in a moment, skewering its eye, tearing at its neck, unzipping it like the rotting carcass it should have been by now, and letting the poisonous stew within spill out onto the ground.
But it wasn’t enough to wound, in hell, and so Darla did not stop her furious assault until the thing that had once been a good man named Hader was nothing but a heap of quivering rubber and sponge – or at least that’s what it felt like. She picked up the mewling head and tossed it aside.
Body aching from the fight, not quite believing she’d survived it at all, Darla walked on down the tunnel, to the place she’d first heard the monster. Once again the darkness closed in and became all consuming. She kicked a pile of rubble, swore. Tried to step over it, and found she couldn’t, nor could she seem to get around it. What the hell?
She extended her arms and they connected with a wall. Not a sheer wall, but a broken, partially hacked away wall. Using her elbows as feelers, she tested every inch of the blockage in front of her, desperately going over the same patches over and over, pushing against them in the hopes it was merely a cave in that could be removed.
But of course, it wasn’t a cave in. The tunnel had never been completed.
Not that it wasn’t for lack of trying, of course. Now, as she touched the long, wet groove to one side, she recalled the meaty stump on the monster, and the sound she’d heard earlier made sense. Hader had continued to dig at the concrete even after he’d Turned, as if driven by a strong but long forgotten incentive. But he’d been digging with the wrong fucking hand – the one without the axe.
Yeah, the axe, the one lying just back there in all that mess.
The one she couldn’t hold, because she had no hands, because that fucking. Bastard. Flay had cut them off.
All around the three spired building in magic city, a hundred roaming Hounds stopped what they were doing and pricked up their ears. It sounded, just faintly, like the howl of another animal. But it was gone too soon to tell.