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If you are reading this, you are lucky on two counts. One, you have survived long enough in the underworld to procure a copy – and have found a safe place in which to read it. Two, you are most likely near a large city, most likely Mort City, since that is where I wrote this. Take a moment to be grateful for this fortune. If one takes into account all those who’ve ever lived, and then witnesses the utter barrenness of Hell, it is easy to see how lucky one really is. Now, prepare yourself: If you are in your fifth year or less A.D. (After Death), you will likely come to a horrifically miserable end within the next decade. (Hell time, that is.)

In other words, my friend – read this chapter very carefully.

 – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld (Chapter 4: Life After Death)

 

After a good swig of souls, Darla passed out on the bed like a drunk, muttering and tossing madly in her sleep, but Will stayed true to his word. He made it half way through Blood Dweller’s Guide, then paced the room for an hour, deep in thought. He had a long hot shower and cried harder than he ever had in his life for a family lost, such grief he didn’t think possible – yet it retreated almost as soon as it came on, as though it was giving him a taste of what was to come. He went to stand on the balcony, and for the darkest hours of the night he stood motionless, staring at the stars above the black ocean, breathing night air. My last night alive. Maybe.

When the first streaks of dawn creeped above the horizon he felt his first burst of nerves. Everything up until now had been like a dream, but he was well and truly awake – if tired – and soon he would be dead. Death was supposed to be an end to pain and fear and grief, but Hell had seemed to him nothing but those things, amplified a hundred times. He ran a finger along his neck, but there was no scar there – that blemish was on his soul only, a reminder of the pain he’d felt. He wondered what horrors Dale had had to endure to gain the festering wounds that covered his soul. What had happened to Darla to turn her into the scaly thing that lay on the bed now?

He was still out on the balcony, frozen to the bone but nowhere near as cold as he’d been in Hell – when Darla choked on her own saliva mid-snore and rolled off the bed in a coughing fit. It was an hour or so past sunrise, and by now Will was too terrified to move a muscle. All he could think was that he was going to be dead soon. As stone dead as the bodies buried six feet under – and it didn’t matter a damn that he’d done it before. He hadn’t had a choice, then – he’d been so numb.

‘SHIT.’ He turned to see her dragging herself to her feet, scowling at everything.

‘What?’

‘She put something in that damn bottle. Did you have any?’

‘I’m alive, remember?’

‘Right. Bitch. Thought I was going to steal from her in the night.’

‘Weren’t you?’

She blinked sideways, like a crocodile, and gave him a sly grin. ‘No need. I already stole from her yesterday, before that yellow bastard interrupted me.’

‘Oh. What did you…’ He stopped when she put a finger to her lips, nodding at the door. In the brief silence Will heard the unmistakeable click of heels in the hallway.

‘Don’t worry. It’s in a safe place,’ Darla hissed at him, and before he could consider what that actually meant the bedroom door swung open without so much as a cursory knock.

Freya waited in the hall, though Will only knew it was her at all because of the look in her eyes and the way she stood lopsided with one hand on her hip. She was now inhabiting the body of the girl they’d seen the day before, tall and angular, pretty in a severe kind of way. When she smiled, with rows of perfect white teeth and healthy gums, the effect unsettled Will more than it had when she’d smiled with the rotting mouth of the last body. At least that was honest, in a way. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling very refreshed. Phillip wants to know if you’re ready to die yet.’

Will looked across at Darla, but she shrugged. ‘Got nothing to pack, do we?’

Freya shook her head. ‘No. Phillip has kindly filled a travelling backpack with bottles of souls – mostly criminals and the like, but that’s the way it is. He also added a pair of gutting knives in the front pocket. Although, considering just who is hunting you, he might as well have given you toothpicks.’

Darla grinned through gritted teeth. ‘We appreciate it all the same, don’t we Will?’

Will nodded, wondering what good knives were in Hell, anyway.

‘You’re most welcome. Now, if there’s nothing else… Phillip was altogether too eager to get the job done.’

As they followed Freya down through the house to the chilled rooms below ground, Will found the nerves of the night before had vanished. He wasn’t calm, either – just heightened: conscious of every breath he took, of their echoing steps through the hall, of the icy air touching his skin as they entered the now empty storage room. Freya’s old body lay in the corner, waiting for disposal, and the sight of it jarred Will. He looked over her slack face, tongue hanging from shrivelled lips, and wondered who the body had belonged to before Freya took it. What had she done in life? What had she dreamed to do?

But then they were standing in Freya’s bedroom and the time for reflection was over: his sister lay white as paper on the bed and Philip, smirking all across his greasy face, was standing by her side with a needle in one hand and a cigar in the other.

‘It’s nothing painful, Will, don’t worry about that. Just enough to stop your heart for good. Be a lad and lie down there on the bed beside your sister.’

‘Where will you sleep?’ Will said, as much to delay as anything. The bed was hard, and the liquid in Phillip’s needle looked thick as syrup.

‘I will happily set up a bed in the storage room and lower the temperature a few degrees,’ Freya said. ‘It won’t be easy, of course, I do like my comforts. But the thought of you and your sister side by side in your deathbed warmed my heart. Besides, it’s safer for you there.’

Will lay on his back and Phillip took his right arm and began to tie a tourniquet above his elbow with a piece of cloth. ‘Damn, boy, where are all your veins?’ He grunted.

‘What do I do?’ Darla said. ‘Only Reaper that ever transported me was Calvin.’

Phillip kicked over a backpack that had been lying at his feet. It rattled when she hefted it onto her back with a grunt. ‘All you gotta do is hold my hand when I cross over,’ Phillip said. ‘Think you can do that, darlin?’

‘It’s Darla.’

Freya looked to the ceiling as though she were making a silent prayer. ‘Honestly, you are like children. They aren’t mature like us, are they Will?’

Will didn’t reply. He was too busy keeping himself from panicking at the idea that he was about to have a syringe of poison injected into his body. He met Darla’s eyes as she stepped over and, grimacing, took hold of his free hand – his left poised to jab Will as soon as he saw a suitable vein. Darla winked at him and he was instantly comforted. Darla never got scared – she just got angry.

He turned away from her and Phil, whose wormy tongue was protruding from his mouth as he concentrated on Will’s arm, away from Freya, who waved at him from the foot of the bed with a faint smile as the needle went in, and over to his sister. Sarah, who’d once showed him where their mother kept the icing sugar, and who’d play stupid games with him all day until they were both laughing themselves hoarse. Dead now, her face slack but not empty of emotion as Freya’s discarded body had been. She looked… afraid.

Don’t get scared. Get angry. ‘We’re gonna get her back, aren’t we Darla?’ He said. He hadn’t meant to say it out loud, but whatever was in the syringe must have been working on him because his head was buzzing now, making the whole room hum and his body loose and weak.

‘We’ll get her,’ Darla said, not a hint of doubt in her voice, and Will smiled.

‘We’ll get her,’ he said faintly. ‘And then we’ll get them, won’t we? We’ll get them all.’

And her dark chuckle was the last thing he heard in that world.

The circle of life, then, is unfortunately not as cleanly defined as we thought. A baby is born and, if all goes well, is inhabited by a soul. The body and soul grow together for a time, and then the body is destroyed and the soul is separated in parts, devoured by demons, vanished altogether, or is damned in some horrible way. Perhaps then the distinctly corrupt, feudal and medieval nature of society in the underworld should come as no surprise. Just as it was when warlords ruled and men fought with swords, people are desperate to go on existing; ever starving, suffering, fighting, struggling, and ever stooping to new lows in a neverending quest for escape. It is no wonder that of the billions who’ve ever lived, so few of us remain here in this demon land. Nature, it seems, is as cruel a mistress to the dead as she is to the living. 

 – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 3 (Can’t We All Just Get Along?)

 

The cold must have been eating away at him, because despite all he’d had to drink Dale could feel the pull of his monstrous self tearing at his insides. It whispered words of rage and hate in his ears, and he was all too keen to listen.

The object of this hatred stood shivering on the far side of the railing. The back rudder of the ship was level, the spur flat and narrow, extending three long meters into the blizzard. From where Dale was standing Calvin looked like a stick figure on the brink of being blown into the white abyss. It was doubtful he’d make it all the way to the end of the rudder before he fell. After that it wouldn’t be more than a day or so before he joined the legions of snakes that lived on the surface of Niffleheim. Lost Souls every one, doomed to an eternity of ice and madness.

It’s what he deserves, the hungry voice snapped. Kick him off and curse his soul. Better yet, eat him yourself! Suck him dry, feed on his evil essence. But there were things he needed to know. He stepped forward, his blade loose by his side. Not that he needed it – Calvin knew well enough it was either jump or be thrown. ‘Answer my questions and you might earn your right to stay on the ship until we reach Mort City,’ Dale said. His torn lips were raw in the wind and his thick hair blew across his face. Tear drops froze as they formed and dropped to the deck like pebbles.

Calvin didn’t turn around. ‘I know you too well to believe that, God Man,’ he said. He spoke so quietly Dale had to take two steps closer to hear him better. ‘Loyalty has a dark side, too. You can’t bear betrayal, even when it’s justified.’

‘Betrayal is never JUSTIFIED!’ He screamed the last word and the Monster chuckled somewhere inside him.

Calvin sighed, resigned to his fury. ‘Ask your questions, then.’

‘What did the note say? I want to know every last word. Leave out a single one and you’ll lose a piece of yourself to the snow.’

‘No need for threats, old friend… I told them where to go to find the Recall spot Freya’s Reaper uses. I told them if they wanted their missing Seer, that’s where they should wait.’

Dale closed his eyes. ‘You didn’t tell them where his body was?’

‘No.’ So there was still hope. The Angel would want to keep Will, just as he did his sister, Sarah. Then he thought of Darla and his rage returned, fresh and hot. She wouldn’t be so lucky. The Angel would want to make an example of her. He would most likely damn her in the most horrific way possible. Because of Calvin.

‘Second question,’ he said, his voice rough. ‘How long have you been talking to them? How much to they know?’

‘They know what I had to tell them to make them believe me. Our location – they would have found us, anyway, if they had reason. I told them about your plan to build a force of Seers to take Mort City. I made you sound mad, irrational. It wasn’t hard. I told lies about Darla too, that she was too stupid to string words together, that she was just the muscle. I told them Will was even dumber, and a coward as well.’ He paused. ‘Not sure if I was too far off the mark on that one.’

‘And yet you sent him to the Angel. Third question: why?’

The silence stretched out, and Calvin didn’t move. He swayed in the wind, hands loosely gripping the railing behind him. He had his own monsters feasting on him, whispering their words into his ears, but when he spoke Dale couldn’t hear them in his voice. He heard only sadness.

‘Because it was the only way,’ Calvin said.

‘The only way to do what?’

‘To end The Angel’s Reign and take Mort City for ourselves, Dale. To do the thing you wanted to do.’

‘How could giving him Will and Darla do that? Or sending us here? It was all part of your plan, was it?’

‘Well, maybe not this part, I admit… But I don’t think Will is as helpless as we think, Dale – he is a Seer after all. And we have a friend in the Angel’s dungeons. I don’t know if he’s in any position to help us, but…’

Dale brought the knife down as hard as he could, the point sliding through two of Calvin’s knuckles and deep into the wooden railing beneath. Calvin leaned back, screaming at the empty sky with his eyes squeezed shut. Dale stepped aside and waited for him to stop, and when at last the sound was nothing more than a hiss through gritted teeth, he stepped forward and spoke into Calvin’s pointed ear: ‘I warned you not to leave anything out. Tell me what you know. Tell me his name.’

He waited, but for a long time Calvin didn’t move. Pain worked on a man differently in Hell, and it could drain and damage the soul, if it was bad enough. Perhaps that was what The Angel planned to do with Darla: torture her until she became a monster, and then send her after Dale. The thought made him want to take hold of Calvin’s head and press his thumbs into his eye sockets and show him what real pain was. Show him the way Flay had shown him all those years ago.

At last, Calvin regained his composure. He turned slowly, twisting so that he didn’t move his impaled hand. When he faced Dale, his white eyes appeared like holes in his head, as if he was already a ghost. ‘I’m sorry, God Man,’ he said. ‘I can’t tell you that.’

Dale watched, shocked, as Calvin pulled the blade from his hand with hardly a grimace, and tossed it on to the deck at his feet. He saw tears in his friend’s eyes, but they might have been flakes of snow, blown instantly from his face. Calvin let go of the railing. If the ship hit a rough current or met an updraft now, he would fall for sure.

‘Tell me or I’ll tear you apart,’ Dale said, but his voice was dull and the threat held no weight.

Calvin shook his head. ‘If you were caught, and tortured by Flay, can you tell me now, in all honesty, that you wouldn’t give it up? Could you?’

Dale opened his mouth, but those beady blood clot eyes were all too clear in his mind’s eye and he couldn’t speak the words. He looked away.

‘I didn’t think so. That’s what you don’t understand, Dale. The reason evil always wins is because they’re willing to do anything, commit any crime. If you want to win, you have to play the game, and the only way to beat them is to become them. You weren’t willing to do what’s necessary. I was.’

‘You’re wrong, Calvin. You’re no better than they are.’

‘Goodbye, Dale. Maybe we’ll see each other…’ He smiled, and there was real humour there, real warmth – the smile of a friend sharing a joke. ‘In another life.’ And with that he turned and walked the length of the rudder, steps becoming ever more careful as the shaft narrowed and the wind buffeted him from all sides.

‘You threw them to the wolves!’ Dale called after him. ‘You threw us all to the wolves!’

But Calvin either didn’t hear him or paid no mind, and in the end he proved Dale wrong: he made it all the way to the last inch of the rudder and then he spread his arms and stepped right off without a moment’s hesitation. Just like that, he was gone, and Dale was alone on the ship in the endless blizzard, probably not long to meet the same fate.

There was work to be done – Sails to tie, a course to be mapped out, a fire to rekindle – but for the moment Dale could only fall to his knees and mourn his friend in the way only a demon can, who has only a few good things in a miserable existence and treasures them beyond all else, and pebble after pebble rolled along the decking and out into the unforgiving wilderness.

And, at length, when his monster began to whisper abhorrent things to him, he went to the cabin to slake his thirst.

Tales of monsters, werewolves, gods, vampires, zombies, and all the most popular horrors myths of mankind, in almost all cases have their origins in the underworld. When two worlds as different as Hell and Earth must exist so close to one another, such influences are inevitable. The real mystery is how little the living know about the dead. My own answer, besides the obvious truth that only the elusive Seer can see things for what they are, is that it is very much in the interest of the living to ignore the terrible reality. It is in the interest of their sanity and their will to live, and so such legends as zombies were created, for example, to explain the fact of a Visitor inhabiting a corpse – or Werewolves to explain the nature of Feeders. Of all traits that separate humans from animals, one of the greatest is their capacity for delusion.

  • Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 3 (Can’t We All Just Get Along?)

 

By the time he’d told his tale, Darla and Philip’s raised voices were echoing in the halls – not that Freya seemed to care. She was leaning across the table with her chin in her hands, milky eyes intent on Will. The longer he’d spoken, the more her features had softened and her brow furrowed in sympathy. When he ended with: ‘So, yeah, that’s why I’m here,’ she leaned back with her hand on her heart, shaking her head.

‘You poor boy,’ she said. Upstairs, something else smashed and Philip swore. Freya went on: ‘Your whole family murdered by monsters before your innocent eyes. And I thought my own death was tragic – suicide, I’m afraid – and yet here you are.’ She laid a too-soft hand over his and he barely resisted the urge to pull away. ‘Willing to enter the depths of Hell to rescue your poor sister and restore a few precious years of life.’ She drew a finger across dry eyes. ‘I would cry,’ she explained in a broken voice, ‘but I think my tear ducts have rotted.’

‘I’m… sorry?’ Will said. His skin was crawling where she gripped him.

‘No, no, it is I who am sorry, dear boy. Why, here I was ready to feed the bitch upstairs to Philip and swallow your soul just to get back at Dale! And then I hear that not only does he still love me, but he needs my help for such a noble quest.’ She released him at last, and he moved to clasp Blood Dweller’s Guide in his lap. ‘I don’t agree with his quest, of course – I think it’s no less than sheer madness.’

She paused, smiling distantly. ‘Not that I’m anyone to judge madness,’ she added. ‘Still, if ever there was a man who could inspire a host of demons to do good, I suppose it would have to be Dale. So.’ She stood up briskly and extended her hand, which Will forced himself to shake. It was like touching the swollen skin of a fruit that had turned to liquid inside.

‘Good boy. Now, let’s see what on earth the ruckus is.’

By now the voices had mysteriously stopped, but hurried footfalls sounded on the stairs just outside, and Darla burst through the door with eyes blazing before either Will or Freya could reach it. ‘Can you tell your bloody Reaper to leave me alone for five minutes?’ She said. Before Freya could answer, Phillip’s voice sounded in the hall behind her, out of breath. ‘She’s robbing us blind! I’ll have to harvest a whole kindergarten if this goes on.’

He appeared behind Darla, red faced and tense. He had a carving knife clenched in one fat hand, and he raised it above his head with murderous intent. Darla, standing with arms folded, was oblivious, but Freya put a hand on Will’s chest before he could move and said in a bored voice: ‘Plan’s changed, Philip – we’re helping them. And as good hosts it seems only fair that we feed them and supply them with all the souls they need. They have a very long journey ahead, after all.’

Philip’s bulging eyes darted to Will, then back to Freya. He hid the knife behind his back just as Darla turned to glare at him. ‘I told you. Just because you have a Sugar Mummy to look after you on the surface doesn’t mean we all do.’

‘Why don’t you go eat a rat?’ He spat, the cigar almost falling out of his mouth. Darla ignored him, turning back to Freya. ‘We can’t go now, anyway. We have to stay overnight. Will’s body should have some food in it before we freeze him, and I have to go over some things with him before we get going.’

‘Of course, of course,’ Freya said with an indulgent smile. ‘Why, he’s hardly had time to process the death of his family. You may rest in my guest bedroom upstairs.’

‘But Darla, won’t they – can’t they track me or something?’ Will said.

‘They can track Seers, Will, but I don’t think they have a clue which Seer’s which. They might turn up here if we hang around for a week or two. We’ll be safe one more night.’

‘Excellent. I haven’t had houseguests in twenty years!’ Freya said. ‘Philip, set the table for – ’

‘No need,’ Darla cut him off. She reached over and took Will by the arm, her claws digging into his skin. ‘Just show us the room. Send Will’s dinner up by in a couple of hours, and I could probably use a glass or two of the Good Stuff by then, too.’

Freya’s eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say a word as she led them up two flights of stairs to the second floor above ground and showed them their bedroom. It was as luxurious as her own, full of red velvet and smelling of incense, a stone balcony overlooking the ocean, and she stood at the door while Darla inspected it and Will sat on the soft bed. She was going to kill us, he thought. She was going to suck our souls down her throat without a second thought. Darla folded her arms and gave their hostess a tight nod. ‘It’s alright.’

‘Excellent. I’ll send Philip to get you at dawn.’ She stepped over to Will and caressed the side of his face, her expression soft, even loving. ‘I will keep you and your sister safe here, dear Will,’ she said. ‘But the bodies won’t remain fresh forever, so try not to take too long. Beyond that, I have only my own humble advice to offer you. There are only three kinds of soul who survive in Hell for long: Those without fear, those without mercy and,’ she smiled, ‘those without sanity.’

She drew back to the threshold, Philip glaring in the hallway behind her with his hands behind his back. She fluttered her fingers at Darla, who offered her a flat smile. ‘Thanks for the room, Freya. I’m sure Dale is very grateful.’

‘Send him my love, won’t you?’ she said, and then, eyes moving from Darla back to Will: ‘And watch out for snakes.’

When she shut the door at last, heels clicking down the hall, Will flopped back onto the bed, exhausted beyond belief. It was as though the world’s longest and most terrifying roller coaster had just come to a stop and the operator was pulling him out of his seat so he could stand on solid ground again. Hurry, hurry, Will imagined him saying, the next ride is just about to begin. Don’t waste any time.

Darla was saying something, but he didn’t hear her – he was listening to the sound of his breathing, feeling the thump of his heart in his chest and warmth in his blood. He decided he wouldn’t sleep tonight. He’d stay awake and savour every second, just like Darla had told him. He wouldn’t miss anything, not the stars outside or the softness of the bedsheets. Yes, tonight was for being awake and alive.

Because tomorrow he would die, and he wasn’t sure he’d ever be back.

Theoretically one could exist forever in Hell, but in this case, theory and reality are very far from one another indeed. The truth is existence here is too fragile, even more fleeting than on the surface. Between threat of the void, starvation, monsters and all other forms of damnation, the dangers prove too great: the best anyone can do is to prolong their time here as much as possible, lest the next realm (if it exists at all) be even worse.

 – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 2 (So Where is Everyone, Anyway?)

 

Nothing could be worse than this. Dale had never known such brutal, whipping cold was possible, not even after all the agonies and horrors he’d suffered in all his afterlife. It was supernatural, worse than any cold on earth because it didn’t induce numbness, nor the illusory warmth of hypothermia. It was never ceasing, skin tearing ice.

He stood rooted to the spot at the helm with both hands on the wheel, eyes frosted over and joints too stiff to move. The wounds that covered him hurt worst of all, the moisture in them frozen solid so that they became like daggers of ice in his body. Who knew what Calvin felt up there in the crow’s nest – he didn’t have the luxury of  insulating meat between his skin and bone.

‘Can you see a way?’ Dale managed to call up to him, hoping his cracking voice wasn’t lost in the wind. Calvin took a long time to answer, sounding just as faint: ‘There’s nothing but White! White and Blue!’

Dale had watched Flay’s ship from the stern as they’d entered the blizzard. It was so close he heard the voices of the demon crew when they’d erupted in argument, Flay alone standing silent and holding his gaze, furious, until at last he gave the order to pull back. He hadn’t looked away as they drew apart, and neither had Dale, until the snow blew between them and Flay became merely a pair of red dots in the white, and then nothing at all. Then he’d turned to face the reality of the decision he’d made, and begin to wonder if, maybe, it would have been a better bet to jump the side after all.

He scanned the mist, eyeballs cracking in his sockets, and saw the shadows of crags and glaciers on either side of the ship. They were floating low, but it was the only way to stay shielded – the winds high above Niffleheim were wild enough to tear a ship like this to pieces. He was dwelling on this prospect when Calvin dropped to the deck far harder than he should have and collapsed at the base of the mast, groaning.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Everything hurts. Damn it, God Man, we need Souls. And warmth!’

‘We have to ration the souls,’ Dale said without the slightest hint of conviction. ‘We don’t have much of the Good Stuff left.’

‘Right. Eh, well, it’s not so much good stuff, anymore.’ Calvin scratched his head with a claw.

‘What?’

‘I mixed it all together into one bottle. It makes more sense to have an even mix,’ he added. ‘So we can ration it better. Otherwise it’d be like eating a plate of steak to begin and saving crackers for later.’

Dale grunted. It made sense, but now that he’d had a taste of the Good Stuff it would be hard to adjust – it reminded him more of mixing wine and urine: neither was improved by the combination. ‘Well, you’re right about the warmth. We could light a fire in the cabin, even, and there’d be no danger it could spread, if we could even keep it burning.’

So against his better judgement, he set the course straight for the clear white and joined Calvin back in the cabin to make another dent in their precious store. He shuddered to think what would be left if Calvin had let him give what he’d wanted to Darla. It hadn’t been long since their shared glass, but already the early symptoms of hunger were clawing like monsters in his belly. It was the cold, he was sure of it, sapping their strength through their pores and letting the forces from within take control.

They snapped one of the chairs into pieces and Calvin took a yellow paged notebook from one of the drawers to use as kindling. Dale snatched it from his hand more aggressively than he meant. ‘It could be important,’ he said, flipping through the pages – but he knew it wasn’t. It was his own notebook, and as he read some of the notes and measurements he was met with an unwelcome stab of sadness, and a vision: Darla at the ship’s wheel, glancing over her shoulder at him with a sly smile. Don’t look so down, God Man. We’re in heaven, aren’t we? They’d been coasting along the great land Blood Dweller had dubbed ‘The Fields of the Unborn.’ Here were trees bearing the fruit of souls that had never quite lived nor been devoured – newborn babies, or souls of those that had been born without, whose bodies walked empty on the surface. It was damn near impossible to reach, and too many fruit could poison a demon, but it was a place he’d never forget. It was how Darla had saved him, barely a day before he might have turned.

The last page was missing, which struck Dale as strange – he’d never been the careless type – but then it was an old book, and hell was not a place for anything to age intact. He handed it to Calvin with a sigh. ‘Burn it,’ he said.

So with the lucky strike of a single match, Calvin lit the crumpled pages, and when they had the bottle open – no glasses this time, they sat on the floor beside the table – it was burning well enough to warm them. Dale took the first swig and grimaced, conflicted. The liquid had all the warmth and euphoria of the Good, but all the bitterness of the Bad. He passed it to Calvin. ‘It’s better than nothing.’

‘Yes, and nothing’s all we have besides, isn’t it?’

They were silent for a while, the door rattling and the wind outside howling, and Dale edged closer to the fire. ‘I don’t think it will be long until we find the way out. Niffleheim hasn’t ever been explored, but everyone knows the shape of the island. It’s not large. As long as we keep to a line, we’ll last.’

‘Hmm.’ Calvin smacked his thin lips and shivered as the bitterness hit him. ‘Tell me, Dale, have you ever seen someone turn?’

Dale watched the fire. It wasn’t like Earth fire. Fire in hell burned redder, and the flames licked a little slower, and there wasn’t so much smoke. It hurt more, too. He shook his head.

‘I have,’ Calvin said. ‘I was barely two years dead at the time. You remember how I bit the bullet, don’t you?’

Dale did. Calvin had been a psychologist for the criminally insane in the nineteen fifties, and made the mistake of admitting to one of his patients, a schizophrenic who believed he received orders directly from God, that he was an atheist. The patient had escaped soon afterward, and paid Calvin and his family a visit.

‘Well I was still very bitter about that, and I ran with a gang of what I thought of as vigilante demons operating out of the outskirts of Mort City. The problem is, when you are so idealistic as to target only the evil, you have to either adjust who you define as evil, or you starve. I adjusted, but my Feeder friend James O’Donnell was an idealist. I watched him fight it for a long time. We tried to give him souls, but he wouldn’t take them unless he knew they were bad.’

‘What happens?’ Dale said, reaching for the bottle. He made a mental note to stop before they made it halfway to the bottom.

‘It starts as a hunger, and the hunger turns to pain. You waste away at first, and then you start to change. I think of the process as a caricature: your big nose becomes a snout, or your long hair becomes a mane – in a way just like becoming a demon. The ruling emotions are desperation and rage, and they overwhelm you until all rational thought is gone. You’re left with panic and murderous hatred, and nothing else. That’s when they start to eat, anything and everything. And they never stop moving, like a lion in a cage. At least that’s how it was with James. Poor boy.’

‘What happened to him?’

Calvin shrugged. ‘We knew he was going to change. So at the end we took hold of him and threw him over into the void. I thought it was cruel.’ He chuckled. ‘As though such a thing exists at all in this place.’

‘It does exist,’ Dale said. ‘That is why we fight, Calvin. Think of The Angel. Think of Flay! They’re more evil than any monster.’

‘That’s your problem, Dale. It’s not your fault – you haven’t been in Hell long enough to know any better. You say you’ve left your religion behind, but in reality you’ve only changed it to suit your circumstances. You still see everything in terms of good and evil, but that isn’t the way of it.’

‘Of course it is. Look at me. Look.’ He extended an arm for Calvin to inspect, ignoring the maddening burn of the fire. His dark flesh was pockmarked, twisted with scars and black bloody cuts. A maggot feasted on the back of his right palm – it had been there for years. ‘You think the things that did this to me had an ounce of goodness in them?’

Calvin nodded. ‘Yes, God man, I do. And I believe that their evil lies in us all. Let me tell you what I think.’ He took the bottle out of Dale’s hand, sucked a mouthful, and thrust it back, his white eyes burning. ‘I think no one really becomes a monster. I think the monsters live inside of us, just the same as demons live inside human beings. And I think starving ourselves of souls merely allows those monsters to take control. But whether we let them or not, they’re in us. Even now.’

‘You believe that?’

‘I do.’

‘Then what do you make of our mission?’

He held up his claws as if in surrender, grinning. ‘Oh, now. Don’t be like that, Dale. I agree with your goal, lofty as it is. Perhaps not so much with your methods.’

‘You have a better plan?’

‘As a matter of fact, I do.’ He leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘I think the Angel cannot be attacked from the outside. Think about it, Dale. When I died, he’d already been a demon for centuries, and yet he’s maintained power over all of Mort City. How did he do that? Walls. No one can get close to him, because the moment he sees a threat, he squashes it. He’s made a fortress to keep himself, and like all fortresses, the best attack is not a mad charge for the walls. The best attack, my friend, is from the inside, with someone he doesn’t register as a threat.’

‘Impossible.’

Calvin clapped his hands and rubbed them over the fire, grinning, enjoying the warmth. ‘Yes, well…’

He didn’t say the end of the sentence, but Dale heard it all the same: We’ll see. Innocent enough, but it struck him as out of place. He took another gulp of souls and, his mind buzzing with pleasure, he leaned back and looked around their cramped room. His eyes roamed from the fire, the torn pages of the notebook still visible, to the shelf on the wall, where the second bottle was curiously absent. Two dots connected, but led to nothing, until he spied the ink stained quill lying on the small counter in the corner of the room, where he would never have left it. Calvin was watching him, and when their eyes met Dale saw quiet laughter in the other demon’s eyes, and a deep sadness, too. Sorry, old friend.

A great helplessness descended over Dale, as he imagined the note rolled in an empty bottle, floating through the voice until Flay reached out and snatched it from the air. He was almost certain he knew what the message said, but he was in no position to do anything about it – he was as far from Will as he could have gotten.

No, that wasn’t quite true. There was something he could do.

Ship creaking under his weight, he got to his feet, and as if waking the monsters inside him that Calvin had spoken of, a bloody rage rose up in his chest, a roaring fury at this smug, false traitor across the fire that would have made Flay himself doubt.

He could only manage a single word, but it was enough to make every drop of smugness vanish from Calvin’s face, replacing it with an expression of cold terror.

The word, spat through gritted teeth, was walk.

 

The depth of Hell may be a mystery, but many bold explorers over the centuries have mapped much of its breadth – enough for us to know that it is truly vast beyond imagining. The dead tend to amass around various spawn points, creating populous areas such as Mort City, although it isn’t known how many of such places exist, or even how many demons and monsters inhabit Hell at any given time. Such comprehensive exploration would require someone to delve deep into the Maze, and so far no one has proved brave or capable enough to return from such a journey.

 – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 2 (So Where is Everyone, Anyway?)

 

Freya’s house wasn’t a house as far as Will was concerned – it was a mansion. Curling gravel roads led away from the highway and up a steep driveway that culminated in this outpost: a great white block that could have passed for a beached cruise ship. It sat right on the edge of a spit of land, one side towering over sheer cliffs of volcanic rock that broke the enormous waves rolling in from the open ocean. It looked like the holiday home of a playboy millionaire.

They were shielded from the wind and ocean once the metal gates pulled open and Darla rolled into a terracotta courtyard, full of potted forest plants and ferns and ornate tiles. When Will stepped out of the ticking car and stretched, his nostrils filled with salt and soil, sending him back to the distant days the family had spent by the sea. A memory of Sarah came to him out of nowhere: carefully constructing an elaborate tower, sand all over her sunburnt face, beaming at him as he walked up to see what she was doing. Look! she’d said. I put in a swimming pool!

            ‘Unless you want your sister losing a finger or two, I’d wake up and give me a hand,’ Darla’s voice shook him out of his daydream and he turned to see her pulling at one of his sister’s arms, grunting with effort. A bag of frozen peas fell out onto the gravel.

‘What about Freya? Is she even here?’ Will tried in vain to be gentle as he grabbed Sarah’s legs and unearthed them from the frozen goods.

Darla chuckled. ‘Don’t worry about that. She’s watching us right now. Probably chomping at the bit to get her hands on a fresh body.’

Will decided to keep his mouth shut. No matter what he or anyone else thought of Freya, she was the only one with a freezer, and the sight of sunlight on his sister’s blue lips was enough to make him cringe. What if flies had already laid eggs in her?

Just as Darla had suggested, the oak door flew open just as they reached the front step, and they were greeted by a tall, glamorously dressed lady, who might have been attractive if she wasn’t so obviously dead. Her skin had turned a sickly yellow and some of her fingernails were missing. When she smiled at them, her teeth were stained black and her breath reeked of sour garbage. ‘Darla, baby. What an unexpected surprise,’ she said. Her head wobbled on her neck as she swept her gaze from Will to the girl they were struggling to hold up. ‘And you brought me a present.’

‘No time to waste, then,’ Darla said, pushing past her and forcing Will to stumble in, dropping one of Sarah’s legs and then recovering it at the last second. The inside of the house was as majestic as the outward appearance suggested – a roomy white tiled lobby with a chandelier and a spiral staircase, archways leading into plush and spacious rooms full of crystal and polished wood. When Darla made for one of these, Freya made a clicking sound with her mouth and drifted passed them toward what looked like a broom closet under the stairs. ‘This way, please.’

It was in fact a broom closet, but it had a smaller door tucked away in the back, and that one led to a steeply descending staircase and a narrow hallway, all white walls and bright fluorescents like a hospital. Freya’s heels echoed as she led them to another door: reinforced metal with a window in the centre. ‘This is my cooling storage,’ she said as she pushed it open and they carried Sarah’s body into the refreshingly chilled room. The refrigeration machinery hummed in the walls.

The space was empty except for a single piece of furniture: a hospital gurney equipped with a drip and some basic biomonitoring systems, which were connected to the body of a tall, anorexic woman, who Will assumed was dead until he noticed the way her chest was rising and falling. Freya cast them a smug glance as she led them on to the next metal door at the end of the room. ‘Beautiful, isn’t she? I can’t wait to see what she’s like inside. This room’s not for dead bodies, though. Your girl will have to sleep with me.’

She winked and pushed through to the next room, which was larger and much, much colder. Will’s body erupted in goose bumps, although he was grateful to note that his earth body dealt with the discomfort much better than his soul had in Hell. He managed to lift Sarah onto the four poster bed in the middle of the room before his numb fingers lost their grip.

‘You sleep here?’ Darla said, eyeing the room with a mild hint of disgust. It was as luxurious as the rest of the house, complete with silk linen, soft carpet, and a walk in closet. The fans were loudest here, blowing freezing air out of vents near the ceiling, and despite the furnishings Will couldn’t help but be reminded of a meat locker.

‘Oh yes, it keeps my bodies longer. This one barely has any soul left in it, but I’ve had it for weeks now.’

‘Right, well. Speaking of soul, all I’ve had since I got up here is a dog, so…’

Freya made an elegant gesture with her green tinged arms. ‘Of course. You know where the kitchen is, I’m sure. Why don’t I show Will around and let him tell me the reason for this unexpected visit?’

‘Sure, whatever. Won’t be long.’ And to Will’s dismay she left the room, licking her lips eagerly, and left him with this strange, loopy eyed demoness. She gave him a crooked smile. ‘She doesn’t like me much, does she?’ Will tried to stutter some excuse, but she only laughed and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘That’s alright, you poor boy. I can only imagine what you must have been through. But first, let me give you the grand tour, shall I?’

She took him out of the icy storage room – much to his relief – and through another door in the adjoining hallway. ‘This one is my favourite,’ she said as they entered the largest room yet: ‘My laboratory.’ It certainly looked like one – spacious and pristine, though the counters and basins that lined the sides were packed with various beakers and jars full of all kinds of substances. A long bench stretched down the middle of the room, and it was piled with stacks of papers and scribbled notebooks. The smell of cigarette smoke hung in the air, and the reason why sat at the far end of the bench, a yellow skinned demon with saggy skin and a tight belly, chomping a cigar. He was glaring into a laptop screen, clicking the mouse rapidly.

Freya clapped her hands together. ‘Oh, there you are, Philip. Don’t you know we have guests?’

He looked at Will with eyes that seemed to sit in wells at the back of his head, and grunted. When he spoke, it was with a voice so raw Will winced, imagining a throat full of blood and dry smoke. ‘I know. I can see one of ‘em drinking us dry of souls in the damn kitchen.’ He swivelled the screen so they could see: A series of black and white CCTV footage, and a game of minesweeper in the top corner.

Freya let out a high, indulgent laugh. ‘But that’s what I have you for, Philip. You’re the best Reaper I’ve ever come across, don’t you know.’ She leaned over to Will and stage whispered in his ear. ‘Philip died of lung cancer at a young age. Hounded by Visitor demons just like myself, you know. He’s still bitter about it.’

Will nodded and gave Philip a polite smile, but the demon merely stared him down, chewing his cigar. After a second, he said. ‘The boy’s a Seer.’

She blinked, surprised. ‘Oh, yes, I suppose he must be. Will, dear. Please sit down, you have to tell us all about it. It’s so rare I get to have a good conversation with a real living person.’ She clasped his hand as if in gratitude and then raised it to her nose, inhaling deeply until he recoiled, stepping back and bumping the counter behind him. ‘I’m okay standing,’ he said.

She smiled and glided over to the far side of the room, where a kettle was plugged in at the end of the counter. She switched it on and pulled some tea cups out of the cupboards. ‘And why wouldn’t you be? With a healthy body like you have. But I have a very strong feeling that your pretty sister isn’t the only one who’s paying a visit to the underworld. True?’

‘Yes.’

‘Ah, brilliant. Once again, Dale has come in need of my unique services.’ She sighed. ‘When will he give up this impossible mission of his. Tell me.’ She haphazardly emptied some loose tealeaves into the two cups, spilling half of them onto the floor. ‘What does he look like, now? Is he still so wounded? Are his eyes still so haunted by the horror of existence?’

Philip had returned to his game of minesweeper at last, but Will caught him smirking at something, and for the first time since the start of his mad adventure, he was struck with something of his old self – of the boy he’d been before: his sense of humour.

‘Yes,’ he said, and then, looking down at his feet so she wouldn’t see his expression: ‘He talks about you a lot, too.’

‘Does he now?’ the kettle boiled and she filled the cups until they overflowed, drops mingling with the spilled leaves on the bench.

‘All the time. Calvin says he never recovered from…’ He trailed off, not sure if he was on the right track, but she was nodding, stirring the tea vigorously.

‘Of course not.’ She chuckled. ‘Who would? Such a tragic soul.’ She spun around, sloshing more tea onto the floor, and came to set the cups down on the bench. ‘I’ll help him, of course,’ she went on. ‘But I won’t let him pull me into his doomed mission. It should be enough that I let one of his…’ She grimaced as the sound of smashing glass came from somewhere upstairs. Philip swore and pushed away from the bench, shaking his head.

‘Yes, see to that, Will you? I want to talk to this… what’s your name again?’

‘Will.’

‘I want to talk to young Will here in private for a minute, anyway.’ But the fat demon had already waddled furiously out of the lab, muttering and huffing cigar smoke as he went.

Will shifted uncomfortably in his chair while Freya took a long sip of scalding tea. It was probably boiling her oesophagus. When she’d swallowed, she rested her head in one hand and stared at him for a long time in silence. He had so many questions to ask her, but for some reason all he could think of was the Blood Dweller’s Guide, sitting in the passenger seat of his parents’ car. He hoped he would have time to read before he had to go back to Hell.

But when she next spoke, in a voice curiously low, and lacking the charm and lightness of a minute ago, everything else was wiped from his mind.

‘So, young Will,’ she said. ‘Tell me why I shouldn’t climb into that delicious body of yours and, and eat your precious soul?’

According to Charles Darwin’s Encyclopaedia of Hellish Landscapes, written before his disappearance early this Era, almost any part of Hell’s geography can be traced in the mythology of living humans, suggesting that demons may have influenced Earth in more ways than initially thought. These areas exist on separate planes, some completely inaccessible and distant from others, and it has been posited that to fall is to travel from one plane to another indefinitely. I personally view this as ridiculous as the notion once held that Earth was flat and balanced on the back of a turtle.

  – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 2 (So Where is Everyone, Anyway?)

 

Things were not going well. The ship groaned and creaked and the sails threatened to tear with each gust, and before long rusty bolts and sections of old wood had torn out of the low deck, where the four cots were kept. No one would be sleeping there for a while, not with the howling void just under your bed. The holes were creating an unwelcome drag on the bottom of the ship, and Dale struggled to keep his footing in the turbulence.

‘I hate to say it, God Man,’ Calvin called down from the midsail. ‘But if we don’t double speed in the next hour they’re going to have anchors in our stern.’

Dale swore, subconsciously touching the knife he kept strapped to his belt. It was a mean looking thing, the edges carved with tiny hooks. Fighting in Hell was more about pain than damage; unless you separated a demon’s limbs and threw them into the void, anything was survivable. Pain, on the other hand, could incapacitate – a lesson Dale had learned from the very bastard on their tail that very minute. ‘Turn the back fin hard up!’ he said as Calvin dropped down beside him. ‘I want to take a dive, see if the currents are stronger lower down.’

Calvin hurried to the stern, and a moment later Dale’s stomach dropped as the ship descended into a quiet patch. A heavy gale caught them a moment later, but he knew it would only be a matter of time before their pursuers caught the same wind and made up the distance. He saw as much in Calvin’s face when he returned from the back of the ship. ‘You remember what I said? About jumping the side?’

‘Yes. But who is he, Dale? The demon with the blood clots for eyes?’

He took his time answering. There were so many unpleasant memories there, memories that still lived in him, like the worms that burrowed in his soul. ‘They call him Flay,’ he said. ‘He was the one who taught me about Hell. When Darla got me out of the Maze and showed me how to survive in Mort City, I still believed in God. I thought she was operating under divine grace.’ He chuckled, but couldn’t hide his bitterness. ‘Then The Angel got hold of Darla. She’d been protecting me, keeping me alive while she did most of the real work, stealing from him. I managed to break her out, but I got myself caught in the process, and he had me in his cells for… A long time. Flay was the cell master, then, and he only had one job. In The Angel’s words: “Teach them to fear me”.’

Calvin swallowed. ‘I suppose Flay wasn’t his given name.’

‘No. No it wasn’t. But he earned it.’

The ship caught a harsh cross wind just then, causing it to turn hard starboard and tilt madly, forcing them to grab the nearest piece of ship to keep from sliding all the way off the deck. When they levelled out, Dale managed to steer them beneath an enormous, flat island, using its mass for shelter. Calvin steadied himself on the mast and put the telescope back to his eye. Dale held his breath.

‘I’m sorry, Dale.’ Calvin’s voice was clear and light – ever the stiff upper lip of the English Doctor he’d once been, but Dale wasn’t fooled. His heart sank. ‘We’re not going to make it. They’re double our speed, at least.’

The island above shielded them enough from the wind that Dale could let go of the wheel. He stepped away from it and went to stand by Calvin, who had lowered the telescope. It wasn’t needed to see the enemy ship anymore – it was close enough that he could read the hate in the eyes of the demons who now stood at the prow beside their master. Beasts all of them, their souls made of hulking muscle, built by rage. Dale laid a hand on Calvin’s skeletal shoulder. ‘Best get the Good Stuff, my friend.’

They drank in the dusty cabin out of chipped glasses, which they clinked before each gulp. Dale guessed they had an hour at most before they’d have to make the jump and hope for the best, or else face Flay in a battle they would certainly lose.

‘At least the boy’s safe for now,’ Calvin said. ‘Their accuracy can’t be that good if they sent Flay here instead of to Freya.’

Dale grunted, and took a deep swig. It had been a long time since he’d had the Good Stuff, and it flooded him like molten lava, every part of him dancing and jumping. It was like having a heart again – one that beat two hundred times a minute.

He drew his knife and placed it on the table between them. ‘We should fight them.’

Calvin smirked and swallowed a mouthful big enough to make him gasp when it hit him. ‘Good God, it’s like waking up from a deep sleep, isn’t it?’ He shook his head. ‘But there’s no point, God Man. There’s no King or Country to fight for, now. Besides, we can’t kill any of them. They’ll torture us until one of us breaks and tells them where Will is, and then they’ll find a way to damn us properly.’

Dale knew he was right, of course. Part of him was relieved, but mostly he was filled with the horrible prospect of what they were about to do.

‘I always liked the idea that there were endless planes below. Fall off this one and you can start in another, fresh. On and on, new lives. But I don’t think it works that way, does it?’

Calvin shrugged. ‘No one knows. But I think… I think the devil is real, and he lives at the bottom of that drop. And I think he eats the souls of the fallen. Sorry, God Man. But it seems the only thing that fits in with…’ he waved the bottle. ‘All this. Never was religious, myself. I wasn’t optimistic enough to believe in the idea of heaven.’

Dale finished his glass, perhaps the last he’d ever have. ‘Maybe. Well, infinite worlds, none at all, or the devil himself, we’ll find out soon enough, if there’s no land under this ship.’ He met Calvin’s white eyes and gave him a grim smile. ‘Thank you for everything. You’ve come further than I’d ever have asked you.’

‘Ah, what can I say? You converted me. I believed in it then, and I still do. Peace in Hell.’ He tipped the bottle back and, in several long gulps, emptied it. When he set it down, his hand was shaking from the sudden rush.

Dale sat back in his creaky chair and enjoyed the feeling of soul intoxication. He’d forgotten how powerful it could be. It was like accelerating onto another plane of existence: you were still rooted in this world, but everything moved differently – you saw it all so clearly, your senses primed on hair triggers. Calvin’s milky eyes swivelled in his head, his jaw clenching and unclenching as it did when he was deep in thought, long fingers tapping a drumroll on the table.

‘Dale, what route were you going to take to Mort City?’

‘The long one – the one we’re already on. Straight down into empty space, then on below the Hadean Isles until we could navigate above the city.’

‘I see. And what if we were to take a quicker route. The quickest?’

‘You know there’s no time for that. We’d have to go around…’ He stopped. Calvin had the hint of a smile on the corner of his mouth, razor teeth shining through. Impossible.

‘No. They’d follow us.’

‘Would they? Even if we flew right into the centre, and dropped low into a blizzard?’

‘We’d wreck ourselves.’

‘Maybe.’

Dale stood, something like hope burning in the pit of his belly, a welcome warmth against the dread that had threatened to consume him a minute ago. Calvin watched him, no longer tapping on the table, his smile widening into a grin. ‘We could do it, God Man. They wouldn’t dare, not when they know we don’t have the Seer on board. There’s no guarantee we’d make it out again, of course, but then… There wasn’t to begin with, was there?’

Dale was gripping the back of the chair, deep in thought. ‘I always hated snakes, when I was alive,’ he muttered. ‘Don’t tell Darla I said that.’

‘If anyone can keep the ship steady in that place, it’s you, Dale. It’s the only chance we have.’

He locked eyes with Calvin, and saw the same hope, the same soul crazy fire he had in himself. They had another half bottle in the cupboard. Enough to keep them sane and warm, if they rationed it. And it was going to get cold.

‘When we leave the shelter of this island,’ he said eventually. ‘Pull the back fin to send us up, and then rig the sails to make use of any crosswinds.’

Calvin slid out of his chair, grinning, and gave him a mock salute. ‘Aye aye, Captain. God be with us.’

‘Pray to God if you like,’ Dale said. ‘I doubt it’ll do any good.’

Because they were going to Niffleheim.

Being back in his own body was equal parts jarring and comforting. For the first twenty minutes or so he’d felt horribly sick – his skin was ice cold, his mouth dry as coffin dust and all his joints were stiff. Once the nausea faded and his body warmed up, though, it was like slipping on an old pair of shoes – except that a demon was driving him along the highway at terrifying speeds and his dead sister was lying in the trunk amongst piles of frozen bread and steaks.

‘So,’ Darla said, winding up her window to block the sound of the roaring wind. ‘How’s it feel to be alive again?’

‘Okay. I’m hungry.’

‘For food, huh? Lucky shit. Well we don’t have time. Freya will have food for you when we get there. Can’t guarantee you’ll like it much, though. She’s always on some strange diet, trying to keep her current body alive as long as possible.’

Will didn’t want to ask what she meant by that, but after all he’d seen he knew he had to. Hell was sickening, terrible, evil, and unfair. But it was also unavoidable. Now that he’d been there he sensed it lying just beyond the folds of reality all the while, just a single death away, a few missed heartbeats, a long stifled breath – his bruised throat was a permanent reminder. The more he could find out about demons and the afterlife, the better. He sighed. ‘What do you mean, keep her body alive?’

‘She’s a Visitor – same as Dale. The way they feed is they get into a living body and just set up shop. The longer they’re in there, the more soul they absorb – that’s why Dale never comes up here if he can avoid it. Part of the reason his own soul’s in such bad shape, among other things – he just doesn’t feed it enough. But Freya’s not so thoughtful. She’ll climb in a body and just stay there until there’s no soul left and it just starts rotting all around her, and then she’ll go get a new one.’

Will stared at her, but she didn’t meet his gaze, just stared determinedly through the windscreen. She weaved between two cars and then stepped on the accelerator as they rounded a soft bend. At this rate they’d reach the coast in less than an hour. ‘She gets a new one?’ He repeated.

‘Look, we all do our best, alright? I didn’t have to eat a bloody dog earlier – I could have nabbed a baby. Then at least I’d have had enough to last me the rest of this trip, and I wouldn’t feel so sick, either. Freya’s no saint, but she takes the worst off she can find – drug addicts and suicidals and criminals. You’ll get it when you’re dead too, and you have to go find your own souls – then you can judge all you like. Till then, just shut up and help me save your damn sister.’ She took a breath and accelerated again, the force pushing them both back into their seats. Will had an unnerving image of her careening into a wall and then pointing a finger at his dead body and crowing: See! See!

‘Okay, I’m sorry,’ Will said.

She shrugged. ‘Don’t worry about it. I can’t say I didn’t have the same thoughts when I was younger. Crossed my mind to throw myself into the Void once or twice, but I never could do it. Something about seeing Hell makes you wonder that there might be no end to it, after all. Maybe you just move from one world on into the next, each one worse than the last. Horrible thought, isn’t it?’

Will didn’t reply. He rested his head against the window and watched the farmland drift by, acres and acres of green and yellow grass, home to all kinds of cows, sheep, horses, insects, birds… Life. ‘If you ate that dog,’ he said, ‘animals must have souls, too. Where do they go?’

‘Same as us. They just don’t last as long. Small souls get corrupted quicker. Or eaten… Listen, there’s some things you should know about Freya. She’s very rich, very smart, but most of all very off her nut. In other words don’t believe a word she says. There’s eccentric, and then there’s fucking crazy, and she’s the latter. Dale’s banking on her keeping you and your sister safe in her freezer room – the one she uses to keep her host bodies cool – but as far as I’m concerned it’s asking a bit much. If you want to live, I’d try not to stay dead for too long.’

They drove on in silence, leaving the farmland behind and taking a turn up a steep curve as the ocean came into view. As they climbed the winding roads, Will craned his neck to see the waves crashing into the base of the cliffs far below. Further out, the ocean was calm and shimmering with morning sunlight – the sky clear blue. It struck him as completely fake.

‘What’s the point?’ He said quietly. ‘Why live at all – if I’m going to end up in Hell with everyone else, anyway? Why bother living?’

Darla stomped on the break so hard the car nearly skidded through the barrier – which would have made his question meaningless in a few terrible moments – and they screeched to a stop in a gravel inlet by the side of the road. A truck whizzed by them, honking its horn. The smell of burnt rubber permeated the car.

Before Will could say a word, Darla had him by the collar, yanking his face so close to hers he could see – and smell – the shreds of dog meat between her snarling teeth. ‘Do you know what I would give for a single day of life? For an hour? Do you want to know what I’d do if it meant I could have an afternoon with my family again, and see everyone I left behind? Do you?’ Her slit yellow eyes burned with fury, and yet somehow they were the most human Will had ever seen them. He didn’t trust himself to answer her.

She pulled him closer, and lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. ‘We’re going to freeze your pathetic ass, and then you’re going to get your shit together and we’re gonna drag your sister’s soul from the depths of hell if it ends both of us. Every minute of life saved is a spit in the face of Hell. Understand?’

He nodded, and she let him go and settled back into her seat, breathing hard. Will supposed she was so worked up she’d forgotten she didn’t have to breathe at all. Neither of them said or did anything for a minute or two, and then at last she turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life.

‘Besides,’ she said, as they pulled back out onto the road. ‘You won’t want to be up here in the real world for a while, at least.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Haven’t you worked it out, yet? Your family was murdered, and you’re in a stolen vehicle with your sister’s dead body in the back.’ She shot him a grin with the slightest hint of bitter humour. ‘You’re a wanted criminal, Will. By the end of the day, the whole country will be looking for you.’

‘Both life and the afterlife are infinite, and that border between them that we call Death is not as clear as we’d like to believe. In fact, it is as indefinable as the point at which the beach sand ends and the waves begin. The borders constantly overlap, constantly interfere with each other, and yet remain separate.’

 – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Introduction (So, You’re Finally Dead).

 

 

Will crawled, spluttering, out from under a moth eaten bed, into a room with peeling wallpaper, no carpet and a broken window. He couldn’t stand yet – the vertigo of moving from one world into another too much to take, and so he sat up against one wall and waited for his head to stop spinning.

Darla emerged a few seconds later, tumbling out of a rotted closet up against one wall and almost tripping over the bed. ‘Jesus, damn it.’ She steadied herself, then stomped across the room and yanked Will to his feet. He pressed his lips tight, heroically resisting the urge to vomit until the last of the spins left him.

‘Good job. We’ll make a real demon out of you yet,’ she said, patting him on the back roughly. ‘Now come on, we don’t have much time, I reckon.’

She led him through the house, a two story junk heap that appeared to be home only to rats and squatters: the kitchen sink was green with mould and what had once been a living room was now a mess of ragged blankets, empty beer bottles and discarded needles. Everything smelled like urine. Will welcomed it – after Hell, anything that represented the concrete real world was a breath of fresh air to him. Even the sight of the dirty street, when they stepped out through the front door, with its dumpsterss and litter and barbed wire fences, was a sight for sore eyes.

‘You know the way from here?’ She asked him. ‘It’s near your neighbourhood, right?’

Will nodded. He looked up and down the potholed street and recognized it immediately. ‘It’s Drader Street. My house is a few blocks over, this way.’ He started walking. It was strange to be the leader for once, but he was comfortable here, glad to be back. Darla, on the other hand, walked with her head low, snake eyes darting in seven directions at once and tongue flicking nervously behind her teeth.

‘What’s wrong?’ he said. ‘No one can see us, right? We’re like ghosts.’ Not that there was anyone to see them, anyway – it was early morning, the dawn light only just touching the chimneys and roof tiles of suburbia.

‘Yes and no. People see us, but they only see what they expect. Probably a couple of homeless junkies stumbling down the street. How far is it?’

‘Ten minutes, if we hurry. Why, what’s wrong?’

‘It’s not healthy for the dead to walk with the living. It takes a lot of soul to survive up here for long. Like breathing poisonous gas.’

‘What happens if you don’t eat?’

‘You get more… Monstrous. Or else you fade away and wake up somewhere in Hell. So hurry up, unless you don’t mind sparing a chunk of your shoulder any time soon.’

They left the shadier streets and Will took a few turns down the laneways that led into his own middle class suburb, all neat trimmed lawns and painted fences. Darla shook her head as a new BMW passed them on the street. ‘Every time I come up here it’s the same, you know that? Different styles, better tech. But same people doing the same shit. I bet it’s been the same since the start of time. People. Don’t know what life is, do they? Don’t know what they missed ‘till they’re dead.’

Will didn’t say anything. He was trying to work out how long it had been since Calvin ripped him out of his body. A siren sounded nearby and he jumped. What if the police were already there, loading his sister in a body bag? Or him? They reached his street – Whitely, and he started running.

But, despite the broken front window, there wasn’t a cop to be found. He let out the breath he’d been holding. ‘This is it, he said.

‘Nice place.’ She stood looking up at it, thoughtful. ‘Someone’s gonna see that window, though. Probably soon.’

‘I know. Darla – where’s Freya’s house? Did you say it was on the coast before? As in, the beach?’

She frowned. ‘Yeah. Shit. We need something to keep your sister cool for the drive. You got any ice?’

He was about to say no when he remembered the enormous stocks of frozen milk, meat and bags of peas his father had kept in the same freezer Sarah was now. If they kept all of that along with Sarah’s body, it might help to preserve her. ‘Um, close enough,’ he said.

‘Good. Okay.’ Darla glanced up and down the street. An early morning jogger was headed their way, but he rounded a corner several blocks down. She clapped her hands together and smiled. ‘I’ve got a plan.’

‘Okay?’

‘You get into your body, then grab as much ice stuff as you can in bags or whatever, right? I have to take care of something real quick. What car does your dad drive?’

‘A land rover.’

‘Nice. Find his keys, then load up the trunk with all the ice. Don’t take your sister out of the freezer until I get back. I won’t be long.’

‘Why? Where are you going?’

‘That depends…’ She turned away, scratching the scales on the back of her head. She seemed to be scanning the other houses on the street for something, and when she looked back at him there was something like guilt in her expression. ‘Which one of your neighbours has pets?’

‘Yes, dear reader, hell is a despicable place, full of evil and horror and fates worse than the death you were once brought up to fear. But it is also full of beauty and wonder and mystery. If you allow me to be your guide, I promise not to shy away from an inch of any of it: not the misery nor the light. What you will find in these pages, to your benefit I hope – is no more or less than the truth.’

– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Introduction (So, You’re Finally Dead).

 

After crossing the narrow walkway from the house at a terrifying pace, Will struggling to keep up without slipping over the side, they passed through the garden in which he had arrived, and he noticed a symbol painted red in the grass: a star inside a circle. ‘Is that the Mouth?’ he asked Darla, pointing.

She snorted. ‘You’ll know the Mouth when you see it, don’t worry. That’s Calvin’s recall spot. That’s how Reapers like him steal souls. They make one of those – it’s easy, just a bunch of painted symbols and sprinkled blood – and then go up to earth, get their hands on someone and then teleport back to the spot. Heart attacks, brain aneurysms, any instant death is usually a reaper. Convenient.’

‘Oh.’ He glanced ahead and saw a barrier of weeds and bushes at the end of the field, beyond which was the void. ‘So where are we going?’

‘Don’t worry, it’s not far.’ She grinned. ‘Walking, at least.’

They stopped at the barrier, and she motioned as if to say you first.

‘I don’t get it,’ he said.

She hissed, and then as if explaining a basic concept to an infant, said: ‘You fall. Into the void. It goes down a way, but eventually you’ll land on a big island that looks like a desert. Then we just walk to the Mouth.’

‘What if I miss it?’

‘You won’t miss, it’s huge. And if you do, then I don’t know. No one knows how far down it goes.’ She smirked. ‘Maybe forever.’

He craned his neck over the bushes as far as he dared, but all he could see on the other side was pure darkness, with the occasional floating piece of debris – some of which looked very far down indeed.

‘You won’t land hard,’ she went on. ‘Souls have weight, but it’s not like on earth. Anyway, it’s all sand down there. Just go, damn it, I don’t have time to baby you.’

‘Can’t you go first?’

‘What, so I can spend the next five hours waiting for you to get your cowardly ass after me? You got ten seconds to jump.’

‘Wait. This doesn’t make sense. Calvin should be taking me – he’s the one who can manipulate souls – the Reaper, right?’

‘Seven.’

‘What if the island’s moved since last time?’

‘Could be, but big things move slow. Four.’

‘We should be going as a group. How are we supposed to keep my sister’s body cold?’

‘Tell me about it. One.’ He tried to pull away, but she was viper quick, and she had both of his arms in a tight grip in a second. Will had never been so terrified in his life. The prospect of falling into that darkness was worse than anything he could imagine. ‘Wait, wait!’

‘Stop struggling! Bastard.’ She slipped in soft dirt, then shouldered him in the chest, pushing him backwards over the low bushes. The void, full of distant lights and dark islands, spun madly around him, and then he was falling, twisting through nothingness with wind whistling in his ears like a scream.

It took a few seconds to orient himself, but by then the island was so far above him it was lost in space, and he couldn’t see anything below him at all. Every now and again, other islands passed him by, haphazard structures built along their slopes. He wondered if anyone was watching him fall, pitying him. Please, please, let it be there, let it be there. And at last, after several excruciating minutes, by which point his fingers and face were numb from cold, he saw land.

It was enormous, a Saharan desert with rolling dunes like tidal waves, some of which were spilling over the edges of the plane in an endless waterfall made of sand. Will was unnerved to note that he was heading awfully close to one of those edges, and he waved his arms in an effort to push himself as far over the land as he could. He made a mental note not to trust Darla’s reassurances again. Coming down fast, oh no, oh no, oh

He hit hard enough to knock the wind out of himself, which made no sense, since he wasn’t breathing. But there was no time to think of that – he dug his heels and hands into the dune as he slid along in the avalanche he’d created, all too aware of the drop-off less than twenty meters or so away, then ten… Until he came to a stop at last, half of his body buried.

When Darla landed easily on the top of the dune a minute later, he was curled up in the sand, trying desperately to suck in air which didn’t exist into lungs that he didn’t have. It was the worst sensation he’d ever experienced – like drowning without the final relief of unconsciousness. Darla descended to where he was and leaned over him, yellow eyes narrowed. ‘What’s wrong with you?’

He pointed to his mouth and tried to suck in another breath, but it was as though his throat was packed with cotton wool.

‘Ah. Can’t breathe?’

He nodded. Darla gripped him under the arm and wrenched him to his feet. She held up her left hand, dirt yellow claws and mottled skin. ‘Can you see this?’ He nodded again, retching, praying for just one full breath… And she slapped him so hard he spun around and hit the sand face down.

‘Ow! Shit! He stared at her, surprised, and she folded her arms.

He got to his feet, rubbing his face. He still wasn’t breathing, but now it didn’t matter – the urge was gone. Darla took his hand and led him up and over the dune, and then down the other side, where they were shielded from the wind. She ran a finger across his neck, tracing a shallow trench that hadn’t been there before – a bloodless cut. ‘The beginning of your transformation,’ she said. ‘You should be proud.’

It took him a second to take in what she meant. ‘You mean I’m becoming a demon? Does that mean I’m – ’ she cut him off with a wave of her hand. ‘Nothing serious yet, but it does mean your body’s starting to rot.’

He probed the wound with his finger and winced. Nothing serious, she said, but a gash like that would have opened arteries in a living body. You expected blood, so blood there was, Dale had said. That changes. ‘I didn’t even land on my neck.’

‘You don’t get it, do you?’ she said. ‘This place doesn’t work like Life. Up there, things happen to you. You get hit by a car, you break your legs. Not your fault, it’s just physics. Down here, only you happen to you. It’s not any easier, just different. This cut?’ She jabbed his neck, making him cough and step back involuntarily. ‘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?’

‘I guess. But I thought you said it was because my body was…’

‘It is. You can’t avoid changing. Hell corrupts us all, in one way or another. But you can control how you react to it. Next time, don’t be such a sissy. Now come on. We don’t have time to waste.’ She grabbed his arm again, but this time he pulled free before she could yank him forward. ‘I’m fine. I can keep up.’

Neither of them said anything for a while, and Will just stared at the reptilian tracks she left in the cool sand, following them over dune after dune after dune. They’d summited five of them before he put away his rage about her sissy remark and realised she’d never answered any of his previous questions. ‘Hey,’ he said, coming up beside her. ‘Why isn’t Calvin taking me, anyway? Don’t you eat souls like me to survive?’

‘Ha! Funny, isn’t it? I’ll tell you why. Dale trusts me, but no one with any brains trusts that spiky bastard. He took Calvin to Mort City so he could keep an eye on him.’

‘Why does he trust you so much?’

‘Because.’ She glanced sideways at him, as if measuring whether or not she should tell him the truth. ‘I saved him from The Maze. He was lost and starving.’

Her voice carried a tone of sadness that made Will hold his tongue. They walked on in silence, and before long the dunes flattened out and they arrived in a great flat plain in the centre of the landmass. An oasis lay ahead, surrounded by thorny trees and clumps of green grass. The pool in the centre simmered, the colour and thickness of blood.

‘That’s it,’ Darla said. ‘The Mouth. It comes out on Drader Street, not far from your house.’

‘I know it,’ Will said – and in fact he was hardly surprised: Drader street was the ‘haunted house’ part of his neighbourhood, a place full of drug addicts and abandoned plots and generally to be avoided. Murders and overdoses and rapes happened there on a regular basis – of course it was a Hell Mouth. How many times has Darla fed there?

‘Well?’ she interrupted his thoughts. Grinning with her pointed, steely teeth, at one of her nasty private jokes.

‘What?’

She nodded at the pool. ‘You first, remember?’

The only sounds were the soft bubbling of the pool and the breeze through the grass. ‘What do I do?’ Will said, swallowing.

‘You just dive in, and swim straight down until you black out. It ain’t pleasant.’

‘Why would I black out if I don’t have to breathe?’

‘That’s just how it works. And don’t let go of that book. Those things are impossible to get hold of ever since Blood Dweller went into hiding.’

He tucked it under his arm and stared at the pool. The mere thought of swimming in that muck made him want to gag. Think of Sarah, he told himself. Think of home.

She checked an imaginary watch on her scaled wrist. ‘You got ten seconds, boy. Get moving.’

Will allowed Dale to lead him back up the hill, his mind spinning. A spark was alight somewhere deep inside him. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give him hope, to keep him alive. I can save Sarah. It was the mantra he could use to build a wall against the tide of despair in which he’d been drowning. I can save her. She needs me. At last, it was as though he was himself again, instead of a zombie. The dreaminess of the world he was in thinned another inch.

When he returned to the house, Darla greeted him with a pat on the back and a sheepish smile, snake tongue flicking from her mouth. ‘Sorry about the souls, darlin’. I forgot what it was like. Damn near had a fit myself when I found out I was a Feeder.’

Calvin, settling down on the couch with a glass of the Bad Stuff, answered Will’s unasked question: ‘It means she needs to eat living flesh in order to feed on souls.’

‘Living flesh?’ The image of the beast that ate his father flashed across his mind, but before anyone could enlighten him any further Dale’s deep voice cut in.

‘Quiet, quiet. It’s enough for the boy to deal with in one day. And besides, every minute we spend talking, the girl gets farther away.’

‘Her name is Sarah,’ Will said.

Dale nodded. ‘Thank you, Will.  Please, sit down. Darla, give him Blood Dweller’s Guide. You’ve read it enough times, and he needs it more than anyone in Hell right now, I imagine.’ Will took a seat on the rickety couch opposite her and Darla slid the leather-bound tome she’d had in her lap when he’d met her across to him. ‘Required reading for fresh meat,’ she said. ‘Saved my Soul more than once.’

‘Thanks.’

When they were all seated, Dale stood before them like a general addressing his soldiers, opaque eyes swivelling from one to the other, one hand resting on the rusted knife in his belt. Something about him reassured Will immensely: the simplicity of Good Versus Evil that he embodied. This land doesn’t need to be Hell at all – it could be a Paradise… Then something black fell from one of Dale’s dreadlocks and scuttled down his body, disappearing into the rags around his waist. No one seemed to notice. Could that happen to me? The thought made Will want to hurl. He made a mental note to read through the book Darla had given him at the first opportunity.

‘With all due respect to Will and his family,’ Dale began, ‘I think the attack on that house is the breakthrough we’ve been looking for. Not just because we’ve found two Seers, but because they found them. I wasn’t sure at the time, but the more I think about it the less likely it seems monsters would have selected Will’s house by chance, and that they would have had the restraint not to eat his sister’s soul.’

‘You think it was Him?’ Calvin said, teeth clicking against his glass as he took a sip. ‘The Angel?’

‘Course it was him,’ Darla said. ‘Monsters don’t follow orders from anyone. Not unless they’ve been trained well by someone.’

‘Who says they were following orders from The Angel?’

‘Who else?’

‘Darla’s right,’ Dale said. ‘Rogue monsters don’t survive for long this close to Mort City, and they definitely don’t conduct organised attacks on houses which just happen to have two Seers under one roof. This has The Angel’s fingerprints all over it.’

Will couldn’t help himself. ‘Who’s The Angel?’

An awkward silence followed. This time it was Calvin who answered. ‘He’s the oldest resident of Mort City. He claims to be the founder, and no one’s survived long enough to dispute the claim. In any case, he might as well be. He runs everything, behind the scenes. Every soul, every demon, every monster. I met him once. He’s the closest thing to evil I’ve ever seen. Completely corrupted by Hell.’

Darla snorted, picking rat out of her teeth. ‘Jesus.’

Dale cleared his throat. ‘That covers it, thank you, Calvin. Yes, he’s a gangster. Ruthless.’

Darla nudged Will and whispered in his ear. It’s Chapter Four.

‘Thanks.’

Dale continued. ‘We must act as if it was The Angel, even if it wasn’t.’

‘But why?’ Will said. ‘What if you’re wrong?’

‘If it was him, we might have a chance of catching up with Sarah, and if it wasn’t, we’d never catch her, anyway. A rogue group of monsters would be impossible to trace, and they’d have eaten her by now.’ Will stared down at his clenched fists and tried not to cry. Everything felt so raw here, as though the skin had been stripped from his body to reveal the sensitive meat beneath. He hoped Sarah was okay.

‘Luckily for us,’ Dale continued, ‘that simplifies things. If The Angel took her, it explains why the second group entered the Maze.’

‘To shake off any tails,’ Darla said.

‘Yes. And we know something else, which makes everything far more urgent. The Angel has some way to find Seers. Which can only mean one thing.’

‘He’s on his way here,’ Calvin said. Will’s stomach clenched.

‘Maybe not now, but soon,’ Dale said. ‘So there are measures to take. We need to move the bodies to Freya’s house, and we need to leave this place.’

The other two demons erupted immediately.

‘You can’t let her take care of the bodies!’ Darla said, yellow eyes narrowing. ‘She’s a bloody maniac.’

‘If we move, they’ll follow us, anyway,’ Calvin put in. ‘Better to hide, and come back here when they’re gone. They’ll think we ran.’

‘You’re forgetting that they can detect Seers,’ Dale said. ‘They could track us by following Will’s soul, no matter where we go. As for Freya, she may be… less than stable. But if anyone has an idea of where to store two dead bodies in sub zero temperatures for any length of time, I’m open to ideas.’

They were silent, and for a minute all Will could hear was the sound of endless wind rattling the door in its frame. Wind from the void: coming from nowhere, going nowhere.

‘Good,’ Dale said. ‘Besides, I’m not here to run and hide. I did enough of that while I was alive. I’m here to fight. So this is what we’re going to do: Darla, you take Will back up to his body and help him move his sister to Freya’s house. Calvin and I will go in to Mort City and find out what we can about The Angel’s movements, and why he’s taken such a shine to Seers all of a sudden. I have a bad feeling there’s more to it than their market value. When Will and Sarah’s bodies are safe, don’t come back here. Go through the Maze and meet us at Helmstead House. Even if The Angel does have a way to track Will, it should take him a while to find us there. Questions?’

All three of them raised their hands. Dale sighed. ‘Yes, Darla?’

‘How the bloody Jesus am I supposed to transport two dead bodies all the way to the coast without getting caught?’

Dale dismissed her with a wave. ‘Will can help you. Who knows what marvels exist now, in the future?’

‘I died in 1986, God Man. I’m telling you they ain’t done shit since then.’

‘Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to take the boy?’ Calvin asked. Will thought that was an extremely valid question. He didn’t exactly know Darla, but she didn’t strike him as ‘stable’ herself. And besides, couldn’t Calvin transport souls to and from Earth? Hadn’t he called it his special talent?

But Dale shook his head. ‘No offense, Darla. But I need someone with stealth and cunning in Mort City. We’re on a scouting mission, not an ambush. Yes, Will?’

‘What does he want my sister for?’

Dale took a deep breath, and the other two demons tensed – a sure sign that he was about to tell the painful truth, which as Will was learning, he was in the habit of doing.

‘There are only three reasons anyone would want a Seer soul,’ he said. ‘To put them on a wall or in a cage as a sign of prestige, to sell them for a high price to hungry or ambitious demons, or to eat them.’

‘Oh.’ Will said. Then he stood up, tucked Blood Dweller’s Guide under his arm, and said: ‘Well, what are we waiting for then?’

‘Good lad,’ Dale said. ‘Let’s get moving.’

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