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The state of existence after death is a constant irritation to me, not for its miseries and dangers, but for the endless difficulties it poses for those such as myself who are interested in doing real science. While mankind seemed such the pinnacle of civilisation on Earth, all it takes is a change of circumstances and the whole lot – from Caesar to Mother Theresa – turn to a horde of scrambling beasts. But enough complaining, for with the help of some brilliant dead pioneers such as my colleagues Freya Castlemaine and Karl Hauptmann, many great mysteries have been uncovered. This chapter concerns those things we have learned about the most valuable thing in this life or the previous: The Immortal Soul.

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

 

I can’t go on like this. Andrea Turned yesterday. Hader chopped her to pieces with his pick and we all ate our share. It was just enough to keep us from the brink. I told him it wasn’t worth it anymore – that we should open the gates to the hounds and let it be. But he said he’d done the measurements and we couldn’t be more than twenty feet from the base of the building over which The Maze hangs. He and I are going to finish the tunnel now, no matter what it takes or how long.

I will leave this journal in a safe place, and hope it will remain to help other lost souls who may pass this way. The tunnel lies in the basement of this building, behind Hader’s furnace.

And stranger, if you are passing through here and have yet to see a hound, don’t be fooled: they have seen you. Godspeed.

 

Darla had hardly finished the last sentence before she leapt up on unsteady feet. It seemed too good to be true… until she realised she had no safe way to take the Seer soul with her. The impulse to drink it then and there was strong, but she was an old hand when it came to surviving in hell, and she knew you didn’t count your chickens before they hatched, and sometimes not even then. No, she would go all the way to the end of that tunnel, and she’d get her hand back, cork the bottle, and see if that Hader guy had left anything lying around. The thought of sinking a solid diamond pickaxe into the face of that hound outside made her smile again – the second time that day. Wasn’t she just all sunshine and daisies?

Her next thought was: Wait, did the journal say there was a basement? She found it, eventually, but it took her hours of searching every door and dusty room on the ground floor, moving desks and shelves and piles of rotted blankets aside with her forearms and cursing when the sensitive stumps touched anything. By the time she finally uncovered a heavy trapdoor beneath someone’s table and pulled it open with her teeth, she was literally sweating blood. It oozed from her pores like molasses. Thick with hate, she thought randomly.

But all of that disappeared once she descended the chipped staircase into the long basement that was home to Hader’s forge. She’d never felt so helpless before. The simplest tasks had become efforts of will since she lost her hands, and she had no idea what she would do if anything attacked her. She pushed the thought away, because all it did was raise other questions. Like how did she expect to so much as scratch her ass once she got out of here, let alone track Flay and Will through The Maze without getting herself damned for all eternity? Never mind that now. Burn ‘em as you cross ‘em.

The forge had the uneasy air of a place recently vacated, as though the last strikes of hammer on anvil were still echoing in the small chamber. Hundreds of tools hung by nails dug into the concrete walls, arranged in meticulous order. Of course, none of the equipment, from the anvil to the furnace that was set into the back wall, could have so much as scratched a diamond on Earth. But Hader would have been using Hellfire – the white flames that could burn crisply through rock and metal like tree bark, and through people as if they were made of wax.

Everything was muted, including the light, but thankfully Darla had earned her dark vision after years spent in the deep pockets of The Maze with Dale, where everything depended on constant vigilance. How many times had she stared into a cave or burrow, believing it safe, only to see a movement here, a flicker there, and know that there was something staring back at her in there, waiting?

The memory gave her an idea – something she’d seen The Lost do often. It wasn’t going to be pleasant. In fact, it was going to be bloody excruciating. The Lost weren’t known for their qualities of self-preservation, after all. Ah, hell. Desperate times

She crawled through the opening in the front of the furnace, coughing as she stirred up clouds of old ash and metal dust, and sure enough she found just what she was looking for buried in the deep soot at the back, where Hellfire had burned a considerable hole in the surrounding stone. Diamond chips.

Gritting her teeth, she jammed each one she found into the stump of her right arm, pushing them into the flesh until she couldn’t stand the pain anymore, at which point she crawled back out of the furnace and sat on the anvil for a minute. Bastard, that hurts. But the thought of smashing her diamond encrusted wound into the face of that hound outside brought a mean grin to her face. I’ll kill them all. If I can survive long enough, I’ll hunt every last one of those dirty mutts.

She pushed the thoughts away. There was something about that anger she didn’t like. It was an all-consuming threat, a tidal wave that hadn’t broken. Not for the first or last time she restrained the desperate urge to drink the Seer soul upstairs. Not yet, not yet. Only when you’re on the edge.

The entrance to the tunnel was little more than a crack in the stone where the furnace met the wall. Cursing, Darla pushed her head and shoulders through and then wiggled into the narrow tunnel. Hader must have been a damned skeleton to fit through it. Worse, it was angled steeply downward, so she had no hope of turning around.

At last she pulled herself, scratched bloody and madder than ever, through to the wider tunnel on the other side. She’d thought her dark vision had adapted for anything, but this place was darker than the Void itself. She could see the walls around her, and a couple of meters ahead, but no more. A tingle of unease ran through her. If they’d tunnelled all the way through, shouldn’t there be some light coming in from the far side? It’s just too far away to see from here, that’s all. She got to her feet, stooping slightly from the low ceiling, and crept forward as quietly as she could, being careful not to breathe.

The dense silence made the soft sound of her tip-toeing feet as loud as falling boulders. She measured her steps and tried to remember exactly how far the Maze building had been from hers. Then the tunnel took a wide bend, and when it straightened out again a new, faint sound became audible.

It was a wet sound, and it reminded Darla of someone rolling thick paint on a wall. Even the strokes were the same – evenly spaced, with a pause while the roller lifted his or her arm for another stroke.

A second later the sound was accompanied by a smell that confirmed Darla’s growing unease. There was only one smell like that in all of Hell, and she knew it all too well: it was the stench of dirty skin, acid breath, and blood.

It was the stench of a monster.

The currency in hell is – strangely enough – diamonds. These jewels, so precious for their beauty on Earth, are valued in the underworld mostly for their utility. Nothing cuts better than diamonds, and besides using carats to do business, the demons of Mort City use them in everything from tools to tooth fillings and, most effectively, in weapons. All of these things and every pleasure available in hell can be bought with enough carats, but if one does happen to acquire such riches, beware; for there’s no quicker way to end up on a diamond studded spear – so the saying goes – than to own one.

–           Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 6 (Diamonds Are Forever: Hell’s Sordid Economy)

 

Dale remembered a time when he had been at peace. It seemed so long ago, but the last of his earthly days had come barely three decades previous, when he’d been thirty nine and wise beyond his years. He recalled the conversation with his doctor so clearly – right down to the acrid smell of the office and how he’d felt sympathy for the young man whose job it was to tell him he was dying.

‘There are some, uh, aggressive treatments we could do. The uh, the probability of survival could rise to as much as thirty percent in that case.’

Dale had smiled warmly, and put a steady hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘Thank you for your time, doctor,’ he’d said. ‘You’ve been very helpful.’ And the poor lad had followed him down the hallway as he’d left, not understanding. ‘Sorry, Mr. Lawrence? So we’ll go ahead? I’ll just need to finalise a couple… a couple of details…’

But Dale hadn’t looked back. Death did not hold fear for him, because he had been content with his life, and because of his complete and unassailable faith. He’d believed in an immortal spirit, and perhaps he hadn’t been wrong on that count. But he’d also believed in karma, and that death would bring a payment in all accounts, be they debts owed or credit due. And his credit, after the life of devotion, was well and truly due. He’d spent his last days in sunshine and the company of friends.

And then, as it is wont to do, the truth made itself known to him.

Now, pacing up and down Slater’s surprisingly well kept basement, he’d never felt less at peace, less in control, less certain about everything. Death, it seemed, had only been the beginning of his descent from order into chaos, and he couldn’t help but feeling he wasn’t anywhere near the end yet.

The basement was soundproof, and so he couldn’t hear what was going on upstairs, whether The Angel’s men had paid Slater a visit yet, or what they asked, or if Slater was even now telling them where he was. So he paced. The room was long and narrow and lit by six thick candles that lined a counter top along one wall. A pool table dominated half the room, and piles of books, soul bottles and loose diamonds were scattered across a shonky table in one corner. The basement was subterranean, and the walls, floor and ceiling were all a rough mixture of clay and rock. It was, in other words, the perfect hiding place, and Dale got the feeling Slater was no friend of The Angel.

At last, the trapdoor opened and Slater descended the steep staircase with Weed at his heel. The girl hopped down and came right up to Dale, extending a hand. When he shook it, she said: ‘Weed at yer service. Dunno what you did to The Angel, mister, but he was awfully keen to find you.’

Slater gave a curt nod and then went behind the counter and started opening the cupboards and rummaging through the contents. It wasn’t a soul bottle he set down in front of Dale but a jar full of what looked like crushed purple leaves and root fragments. He poured a small pile of it onto the varnished wood and produced a slip of paper to roll it. Dale had never seen anything like it before, not even in the early years.

‘What is that?’ he said.

Slater paused and raised an eyebrow, amused. ‘You haven’t been in Mort City for a long time, have you?

Dale shook his head, and for a minute Slater didn’t say anything, concentrating on the task at hand. He lit the stub on a candle flame and took a deep drag, wincing at some perceived bitterness. ‘Tastes like dirt.’ When he exhaled, the smoke was black as storm clouds. ‘It’s a drug,’ he explained. ‘Made by one of The Angel’s mad scientists in those dungeons of his. Not very strong. Reminds me of coffee. Meant for the army.’ He grunted, as if that was of no consequence.

Dale waited. The flat faced Slater had a way about him, the slow but sure determination of a steamroller, or a glacier. He took his time, but he got there in the end, and there was no stopping him when he did. Sure enough, he began to ask Dale questions, one by one, and pulled every detail of truth out of him. Not that Dale was reluctant to give it – but he got the disturbing feeling it wouldn’t have mattered if he was. Weed sat on the counter and watched them, occasionally sipping from a silver flask.

‘What’s your business with The Angel?’

‘Hostile.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he is evil.’

Slater scratched his cheek, making a sound like sandpaper on brickwork. ‘Hm. Some would say he’s kept Mort City alive for a long time. Some would say without him most of us would be damned.’

‘I have been in his dungeons,’ Dale said. ‘He is evil.’

Slater didn’t say anything, smoke streaming evenly from his wide nostrils. Dale took the opportunity to ask a question of his own. ‘What are these armies you speak of? And this strange drug? What has he been doing?’

‘Gone power mad, hasn’t he?’ Weed piped from the counter, and then clamped her mouth shut at a glare from Slater.

‘Gone power mad,’ Slater said. ‘Some say.’

‘Wasn’t he always?’

Slater shook his head. ‘Never like this. He’s had control over all of us in Mort City for decades now. Calls himself the Big Brother to all citizens, even while he steals from us. But the City isn’t enough for him anymore. He wants us to fight for him up on Earth. A war with the living. Every day in the Square the chief of the dungeons gives speeches. Recruiting.’

‘Flay?’

‘No. Flay was promoted to General years ago, but the demon that replaced him…’ He frowned, took another long drag. His pupils were dilating, and Dale noticed his hand was shaking almost imperceptibly. ‘She’s a bitch from hell, all right. She came out of the wilderness, claiming to be even older than The Angel himself. She’s a Parasite. Loves nothing more than to cause pain. She heard about The Angel and his dungeons, came from many Leagues and Rises away. She calls herself Witch. Claims she was burned at the stake in Salem. You know that history?’

Dale nodded. His heart sank with every word Slater said, and he hadn’t believed it could sink any more. It tired him out – the evil heaped upon evil. Never did someone or something good emerge from the wilderness to save the people. Never did anything change for the better. All news was bad news, and places like Mort City were like black holes that sucked in good souls and spat out nothing but horror.

In his slow way, Slater went on. ‘Some of us are resisting. Secrets, hideouts,

 

Black markets for trade outside The Angel’s control.’ He met Dale’s gaze, and in a flash Dale understood what was happening. He almost laughed. Of all the crooked bars he could have crashed…

But he would not be recruited – even for this cause. Every time he closed his eyes he saw a new face: Darla, Calvin, Will, Freya… It seemed as if he’d been running since the day he’d died, a leaf pushed helplessly along the current of a gushing river. He couldn’t live a life of Prey any more. Prey did not survive in hell.

He stood up, scraping his chair back, and gave Slater a grim smile. ‘I wish you luck, Slater. But I’m not here to resist The Angel. I’m here to end him. And I won’t be part of someone else’s cause.’

He moved to leave, but Slater’s shovel-sized hand shot out and gripped his arm. The big demon remained sitting, but Dale could feel the immense strength he possessed.

‘You can’t do it alone.’

The memory of Calvin’s form disappearing into the white blizzard was all too fresh in Dale’s mind. ‘I can’t trust anyone else.’ I can’t lose anyone else.

‘He knows your face. You won’t get within a League of Angel Tower.’ Dale almost winced. That was almost certainly true. ‘I have no choice,’ he heard himself say, and that was just as true.

Then Weed’s voice cut through the brief silence, surprising Dale with the calm certainty in her tone: ‘I can get inside,’ she said. And then, before either of them could speak: ‘I already am. I visit there almost every night, y’know.’ Both of them turned to stare at her, shocked. Apparently this was news to Slater, whose jaw hung so low the cigarillo stayed in his mouth by pure magic.

She chuckled at their expressions, and gave a sly wink. ‘Not so useless now, am I? Worth a few more diamonds now, I reckon. They don’t even see my shadow.’

I myself have lived in Mort City for many years, and Magic City before that, and in a few smaller villages and estates spread across the endless leagues and rises of hell during my travels. You will find few demons, in other words, who are as long dead and prosperous as I, save perhaps The Angel himself. By all rights I should live up on Earth, where a rich demon might keep sufficient reserves to keep from Turning. But in time I have come to love the underworld, strange as that may seem, and I have found many ways one can grow wealthy without raping the precious souls of the innocent living. This chapter may provide you, in other words, with a way to be less evil than is necessary.

– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 6 (Diamonds Are Forever: Hell’s Sordid Economy)

 

Philip had never hoped for his own damnation, but as the enormous beast of a demon carried him over one shoulder at terrifying speed across the landscape, he couldn’t help but root for the bloodthirsty hounds that pursued them.

He wasn’t any kind of fool. He knew what was going to happen when they reached that Recall Spot. This Gorrilla – Meal – was going to torture him until he agreed to transport both of them through the portal to Freya’s house, and then he would damn Freya and turn Will’s body – and that of his sister – into mincemeat. Philip himself would be the last casualty, just as soon as he brought Meal back to hell.

Well you’ve got yourself in a fix this time. This isn’t like the war, either. Stakes are higher now. Now you haven’t even got heaven to hope for, ya knucklehead. He was talking to himself the way he used to, back when he was only a lad trying to survive on the front lines. He’d gotten a shrapnel wound once and spent a week or so fighting the infection and chastising himself constantly like a madman: now come on, ya dummy! Why’d you do that to yourself? Any more wise moves trying to be a hero like that and I’ll shoot you myself, y’understand?

He felt like an infant, his upper body bouncing up and down, draped over Meal’s hairy shoulder. Meal was travelling like no demon Philip had ever encountered, making leaps that could have cleared houses. He was weaving in and out of the buildings, and the contingent of hounds that had broken off to chase them down was diminishing with each turn.

At long last, Meal found them safe haven in the rubble of a collapsed building a league or two off course. Philip couldn’t even pretend to be lost – everyone knew that Reapers had an instinctive knowledge of their own Recall spots. When Meal jabbed his meaty thigh with the point of his knife, Philip could do nothing but curse and point the way.

The cries of the hounds grew ever more distant as they moved, and when at last the red star and circle of the Recall spot came into view the concrete fields were eerily silent. Meal dropped Philip in the middle of the star, pinning him on his back with one foot on his chest. He hefted his short sword over one shoulder and Philip couldn’t help but wonder where he’d gotten such a thing: it reminded him so much of the bayonets they’d used in the War. The very same, as it happened, that had taken his life.

‘I won’t do it,’ Philip said, but there wasn’t a hint of fight in him. He knew very well that he would do it, soon enough. But every minute he could delay them was one more for Freya to realise that something had gone wrong and prepare. He’d have to put up with as much pain as he could. ‘I’ll let the hounds have me before I take you back to Earth you damned monkey.’

Meal stared down at him, motionless, and an uneasy doubt entered Philip’s mind. He got the feeling that Meal was waiting for something. Nothing moved behind his large brown eyes, no thoughts flickered – he might as well have been a statue. When he spoke next, his words sounded half formed, as though he was a child reading aloud a book he didn’t understand: ‘You will take me through the portal. Now. Fat worm.’ And his flat face twisted in a goofy fat-lipped grin.

Ah, hell, it’s not worth it. You’re going through one way or the other. But a minute longer was a minute longer. He took his time to answer, and when he couldn’t bring himself to say the words aloud he just shook his head slowly. Then he collected the last of the tobacco flavoured saliva in his mouth and spat onto Meal’s leg.

Meal’s grin faded, and he waited again. His eyes flickered.

The bayonet came down so quickly Philip registered it as nothing but a grey blur. He didn’t even know it had cut him until his head started rolling across the hard ground, stopping only when Meal placed a foot on the side of his face. He screamed, but instead of air only black blood gushed from his open mouth, and that was soon nothing but a trickle. He was in shock. Air whistled through his severed wind pipe, and white spots flashed in the corner of his vision. What? What?

Meal took hold of Philip’s right ear and lifted his head off the ground so that he could see his chubby yellow body lying beneath him. Incredibly, he realised he could still feel the foot on his chest. He moved his left hand to grab Meal’s thick ankle, and felt the wiry hair between his fingers.

But Meal was not done.

While Philip watched, too shocked to notice the stinging flames of pain that crept up his neck, Meal leaned over and slit his belly open like a bursting sack. Black liquid spilled from the wound. It stunk like strong coffee and cigars. Meal sheathed his sword and then reached into the cavity. He searched for a minute until he found what he was looking for and tugged it free with enough force to shake Philip’s whole body. It was an organ: a rotted, barely beating heart.

He turned Philip’s head to face him, almost twisting his ear off in the process, and then forced the heart into his mouth, dislocating his jaw and muffling his screams, deeper and deeper until it lodged somewhere in his wind pipe. Panic rose in Philip like an ocean tide, threatening to drown him. He tried desperately to recall the words of advice he’d once read in Blood Dweller’s Guide, about how a body in hell was not a living body, and that it could be changed and transformed entirely by the mind. It was impossible. He could no more have calmed himself or eased his pain at that moment than he could have sprouted wings and flown away.

Meal held him steadily, observing hi struggle with curious eyes beneath a heavy brow. Then he spoke again in the same, childish slur: ‘You will take me through the portal. Now.’ He paused.

‘Or I eat your body.’

Philip closed his eyes, using every shred of will he possessed to bring his thoughts under control. The idea that things could get worse than this was incomprehensible, but there it was. There was no fighting this thing – this Monster. And, in a horrifying flash, Philip realised that that was exactly what he was dealing with – a true monster. It was impossible, but Philip so the truth in Meal’s blank eyes: The Angel had somehow found a way to harness this thing – this embodiment of chaos itself – for his own purposes. The implications were apocalyptic.

This terrible truth struck Philip in the space of a half second, and was then devoured by the horror of his situation. He was back in the War, in the trenches, in the worst of it with all the blood and screaming, and he was never coming back. His heart sat in the back of his throat like a cane toad, beating fit to burst. Meal watched him, blankly.

Philip did the only thing he could do: he opened the portal, and they soared for Earth.

And so I will conclude this chapter with a piece of advice. Run away from all this. From Mort City, from any demon who turns a mean spirited eye in your direction, from the monsters and the pain. Find yourself a quiet piece of land somewhere in the far reaches of hell. Yes, such places exist – are infinite, in fact. And make a life. Find a few to be your family, and be good to them. Visit Earth as you must, and take only what you need from the living, and remember the suffering of life. Build a house, make a fire, and be content. In this way only can you find peace in hell. All other roads lead to chaos and evil. I know, for I have walked them all.

Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 5 (Hell’s a Bitch, and Then You’re Damned)

 

The strangest thing about them was how human they appeared. The men were battle-scarred and each had a unique feature: one had a cavity and a black gaping hole where his chest should have been; another had a mouth that took up half his face; the one who’d pulled Calvin from the abyss had eyes like emeralds. But besides these oddities, they still looked like men and women. Hard, tough and lean, and as pale as the ice itself, but human nevertheless.

Calvin sat with his knees pulled to his chest on the far side of the cave, close enough to the fire to receive its blessed warmth but as far as he could be from the rest of them. A large pot bubbled over the flames, and it was the only sound to be heard. Every one of the Vikings – and that was undoubtedly what they were – stared stone-faced at Calvin, as if enraged that such a thing as him should exist at all. They’d saved his soul, but he was already beginning to wish they hadn’t. Now he would have to face what he’d done.

The leader – him with the emerald eyes and the largest frame, sat opposite Calvin on a wooden chair draped with the same leathery material that clothed them. One arm was draped over the shoulder of his beautiful mistress – a grey haired Valkyrie with fangs – and the other rested on an ancient sword. His oversized lower jaw worked beneath his red beard, teeth grinding audibly.

Eventually, Calvin couldn’t take it anymore. ‘I appreciate the shelter sir, I do. But if I’m what’s going to end up in that pot, I’d just as soon be back out in the blizzard. I’ve got an appointment with the Void.’

The Chief grunted. ‘It speaks.’

‘It’s not a Draugr,’ the fanged woman said.

‘Let’s eat it anyway.’ This last came from one with the enormous mouth. He had a gap in his front teeth, which were as white and square as the Cheshire cat’s. ‘I haven’t had anything with flesh on it for centuries.’

‘You’d eat a dog’s arsehole, Kjell,’ The Chief said, and they fell silent. At length, he addressed Calvin directly. ‘What are you, Thing? Where did you come from and how did you die?’

Calvin opened his mouth and then closed it again. The truth, he realised, was not going to get him anywhere he wanted to go. It seemed impossible that these people could exist at all. It was rare to meet a demon older than a hundred years, but if these were Vikings in the historical sense – and it seemed from their appearance and weapons that they were – then they had survived here in this hell-within-a-hell for over a thousand years. It struck him that they would be tightly knit. Perhaps telling them that he had betrayed a friend and been thrown off a ship in return was not the right way to go about it.

‘Out with it, or we’ll have you in the pot and be done with it,’ The Chief said, one finger tapping the hilt of his sword.

Calvin had never told Dale – or anyone, for that matter – much about his life. He’d been dead for so long, after all – since the summer of 1958 when he’d died an old man in his bed, tired and even looking forward to the peace and quiet. He’d left five children and thirteen grandchildren to mourn him back in France, a grand estate and sizeable inheritance in Switzerland, and eighty years of pleasant memories to lull him to sleep, but none of these was who he was. No, what had defined him for all his life were stories. In his time he’d written screenplays, novels, scripts for the theatre, short stories, epic sagas, masterpieces. He was willing to bet the humans read them all to this day. They had been everything, once upon a time. His lifeblood and legend.

And so now, when he opened his mouth to tell them another story – the story of who he was and where he’d come from – he slid so easily back into the fiction, back into himself, that it was almost frightening. The words fell out of his mouth as if they’d been waiting there for years, and perhaps they had. Characters announced themselves, a plot emerged, and as he warmed to his old familiar craft Calvin found his voice rising to fill the enormous cavern, commanding the attention of every suspicious eye.

At one point a woman – thin lipped and muscular – got up to fill cups from the big pot, which she passed around. The liquid was rich and steamy, and Calvin demolished his portion between sentences, hardly daring to stop in case he lost momentum. There must have been some souls mixed in to the broth, because as he reached the end of his tale his joints were humming with warmth.

‘So when I realised that I had let my old friend down by failing to reach him in time, I could not live with myself. I threw myself over the side of the ship, and would have gone to the Void when you arrived. I was mad with grief.’ He sighed, downcast, though inwardly he was celebrating. Now that was a tale! He’d cast himself as a bold explorer, searching hell to help a friend find the long lost love of his life and, tragically, failing, though not without plenty of success along the way, as far as fantastical adventures went.

In the brief silence that followed, Calvin was glad to hear the blizzard dying down outside. The first spark of hope, kindled by the delicious soup, lit up inside him. If he played his cards right, perhaps he could get off this iceberg after all…

The Chief was the first to speak. ‘Your story is a strange one, demon. I am not sure I believe it all, but you do not seem a liar. Such a man would not have admitted to failing his friend, as you did.’ The others muttered agreement. Calvin had been careful to weave some truth into the story – the best lies were always half true, after all. He’d made himself flawed, but ultimately heroic. Too capable to eat, human enough to gain their sympathy.

‘I am Lord Halvar, and this is my woman, Ingrid,’ the Chief said, and then proceeded to introduce the other Vikings circling the fire, each one nodding in turn. ‘He with the hole in the chest is Jarl Egil. The one so intent on crunching your bones is Kjell. She who gave you soup is Gull, and him with the axes for hands is Asmund. There are eleven more who live in the shelters in the valley nearby, sheltering from the blizzard. We are warriors, all of us, and all but Gull and another named Frida were slain in battle. You can share our shelter for the time being, but you must help with hunting and building, or you’ll find us less welcoming.’

Calvin nodded slowly, trying to hide his irritation. Weren’t they listening? He’d have to choose his words carefully. ‘I am very grateful for you offer, Lord Halvar. Very grateful. But perhaps you did not understand my tale completely. This land, Niffleheim, is only one small part of hell. There are entire cities, countries, worlds out there, and plenty of souls for the taking. Now, you seem to have many things here, materials, metal – even houses, you say? I can help you build a ship – we could all leave this place together. You could conquer lands beyond your wildest dreams…’

‘Enough!’ Halvar’s voice boomed surprisingly loud in the cavern. ‘It is you who does not understand, demon. Do you truly believe that we have lived here all these centuries by choice? We are brave warriors. We died in battle. We should be in Valhalla!’ There was a somewhat bitter cheer at that. Calvin felt the beginnings of something unpleasant churning in his gut.

‘Not Niffleheim, this place for traitors and cowards. We know about ships. In my life I built the best ships in the world by my own hand. But there is nothing here to make so much as a rowboat, let alone a thing to carry seventeen men and women. We have explored every inch of Niffleheim we could reach, and found its far boundaries, and we lost many souls in the process. This sheltered valley is the only place we may survive and keep from joining the snakes that squirm through the snow. The three spinners of fate have decided ours.’

He stood now, addressing the whole room, an imposing figure with a powerful chest that was more scars than skin. Yet, Calvin noted again, still so human. ‘But we are Danes! And death does not stop us from fighting. We will fight hell itself! Hundreds of years we’ve been here, and we will be here hundreds more. Already we have carved out a home in this evil place. We feed ourselves, we warm ourselves with fire, we hunt. In time, we will feast in a bright hall and have wars and rich souls by day. We will take this Niffleheim and make out of it the Valhalla we deserve.’

He sat down to more spirited cheers, face as red as his beard with zeal, and Ingrid slid her hand down his leg appreciatively. Gull refilled all of their cups and passed them around once more. Since this batch came from the bottom of the pot it was thicker with soul, hotter and full of bone chunks. When the noise faded, Halvar directed his attention back to Calvin. ‘And you will help us, demon. However long it takes, you will live here and labour alongside us. We can always use more hands.’

I’d be better off in the damned void. The words were on Calvin’s lips before he realised there was something else Lord Halvar had not mentioned, but which he read clearly in the eyes of the watching men and woman, and especially in the piercing look that Gull fixed him with now: the Void was no longer an option. They would not let him leave because if he refused to do his part for the good of their damned ‘Valhalla’ they could still eat him. I haven’t had flesh in centuries, Kjell had said. Calvin was valuable to them either as a helper or as food.

All eyes were on him now, as he stared into his hot wooden cup at the milky liquid. The wind outside was nothing but a dull whistle now, accompanied by the light patter of hailstones in the snow.

He looked up at them, and smiled with every one of his razor teeth. ‘To Lord Halvar!’ he said, raising his glass, and the cavern erupted with cheers and laughter.

As a new demon wandering the Blood Lakes (A delightful spot about 200 Legions and 8 Rises from Mort City), I encountered many souls that I took for monsters, so twisted and changed were they by their experiences. They no longer looked human, and many of them were capable of things that seemed to me like superpowers. Feats of endurance, mainly. I made my first friend in the afterlife at the Lakes, Darius Renton, and he would dip his feet in the boiling blood periodically and laugh at the look on my face. I asked him if he felt any pain. ‘Course I does,’ he growled at me with the wink of a blue eye. ‘Fact is I feel more than anyone else. That’s how I know just what to do with it.’ And the phrase has stuck with me ever since.

–           Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 5 (Hell’s a Bitch, and Then You’re Damned)

 

Darla was not knocked unconscious on impact. It was impossible to lose consciousness in hell, no matter how tired or beaten one happened to be. Instead, she experienced a minute of dizziness and vibration, in which the whole of existence seemed to pause and wait for her to recover. When she did, blinking and lifting her head to see where she’d landed, the pain hit her and she rolled over onto her side, weeping helplessly.

The braying of the hounds were perhaps the only sound that could have snapped her back to life – that and perhaps the sound of Flay’s heavy footfalls behind her – but it was the former that reached her and forced her to remember exactly where she was.

It wasn’t good.

The hand, the hand. She blinked the tears out of her eyes and stumbled to a standing position – no easy feat since she had nothing but bloody stumps on the end of her wrists. By the sounds of it the hounds were barely seconds away, but when she checked the horizon they were several buildings distant, a row of shadows with dripping mouths bounding across the land. There was time, yet.

Her hand was twitching in a pothole half hidden from the orange sun, and she managed to scoop it up into her arms without hurting herself again. Later, she would wonder that she’d been able to think at all, but the sight of those damned hungry dogs was a blade of fear that cut right through her agony, and she wasted no time.

She ran full pelt, her severed hand clasped to her chest and her eyes narrowed against the wind. In life she’d been a fast runner, but in death she’d had to run from so many horrors her ability had compounded and ultimately resulted in the strange transformation of her agile reptilian legs.

The hounds let off a series of ringing yowls as she emerged from the shadow of the building behind her, but she paid no attention. She was intent on a narrow structure she’d seen on the way to The Maze: a steel fortress with a three pronged spire at its peak, surrounded by a jungle of barbed wire, metal bars, and spikes. It looked impenetrable from this angle, but when they’d approached it from the other side she’d spotted an opening in the defences, where a narrow gate opened onto a courtyard. If she could get inside before the hounds reached it…

As she rounded the far side of the building, the wall of wire muffled the hounds so that she was aware only of her feet slapping on the concrete and the ringing in her head. She’d learned not to breathe like a human when she ran, because then she would grow tired like a human: instead she sucked her breath in a steady hiss, giving her the odd sensation of flying. And if there was ever a time to fly

She rounded the corner and the hounds came back into view, much closer now. Many of them were still charging in the direction of The Maze, but a pack had broken off from the rest and were come from her. One of these was sprinting ahead of the others: a mean, whip-thin beast somewhere between a greyhound and a werewolf, radiating mad hunger. It had just reached the opposite corner of the building.

I’m not going to make it. Shit, I’m not going to make it. Even if she did, Darla knew she wouldn’t have the time to slow down so she could actually get through the gate. That Thing was going to hit her first and tear her to shreds. She wondered if she’d feel the pieces of herself inside it, dissolving. Would she be aware of herself in a hundred separate mouths and bellies, or would she join the ravenous pack-mind and lose herself completely?

The hissing in her ears ceased as she stopped breathing. Time was up – they were about to collide right in front of the gate.

She did the only thing she could do. Three strides from the entrance, she thrust out her elbows and launched forth her still twitching hand.

The hound saw it coming and leapt for it instinctively, catching it neatly in its jaws even as Darla slid along the ground beneath it, rising to her feet just in front of the half open gate.

She stepped through and slammed it behind her, sliding the metal lock into place. Then she stepped back into the courtyard, hardly able to believe she’d made it and fully expecting the hound to start fighting its way through the barbed wire, inch by inch. But it did not.

Instead, it began to eat her hand.

The small group of hounds reached the entrance, barking and squabbling – but it was hard to know for sure because she couldn’t hear properly over her own screams of agony. They escaped her in uncontrollable fits, as though someone else was using her vocal chords and trying to tear them apart in the process.

It was unlike anything she’d imagined, and it was worse because she lost none of her nerves. They simply became mashed and incoherent – but she felt them all the same. The sensations of being swallowed in small chunks were too confusing for her to make sense of them, but the pain came through loud and clear. There was no mistake about that.

For a time – who knew how long, hours perhaps – she was aware of little but the teeth grinding bones and pulling at ligaments, and the howling. There was a wild scuffling fight outside at some point, but the first hound must have won because she felt no strange jaws digging in.

At some point she managed to drag her weakened self indoors, where she found a wide hallway that spiralled upwards, with the occasional door set in the stonework. Through one of these were someone’s long abandoned living quarters, where a stained mattress lay beneath a barred sunlit window. She crawled onto the mattress and curled up with her eyes closed, waiting for it all to be over.

She tossed and turned in a kind of delirium of waking dreams – the closest to sleep a demon ever got in hell. The pain brought up previous suffering from her afterlife. The time she’d almost Turned when a group of traders she and Dale had stolen from cornered her and set her on fire, for example. It had taken weeks and litres of high quality souls to heal her, and even then she’d changed irrevocably, her burn blisters becoming snake scales. The remorse she’d felt when she’d left that lost child to the mercy of Outer Limit Raiders to save herself. She’d cried until her eyes turned yellow and her tongue forked. You didn’t forget anything in hell. Nothing bad, anyway.

This is not the end of you, Darla. Dale’s voice, coming to her from… how long ago was that? They were the first words he’d said to her when they’d hidden in the vaults of Flay’s dungeons, when he’d broken her out. She’d been hysterical, locked in an endless nightmare, but he’d broken her out of that too, with his words. And he’d been smiling, that was another thing. In the middle of everything, before they even knew how to get out of that hell hole, he’d been smiling. It’s not the end of you because you still have your rage, don’t you? You still have your hate.

And only then, somewhere in the long night, that she remembered the Seer Soul she’d hidden in her arm.

The hound bit down harder, grinding the joints of her ring and index fingers and licking the marrow. She let out another scream, but this time it ended not in weak gasps but in laughter. Hopeless, terrible laughter, but laughter all the same. Perhaps she wasn’t lost, after all.

It is testament to the nature of Hell that the most useful of its resources is also its most dangerous. I am talking about what is known to demons as The Maze. A double edged sword which, when used well, is the most efficient mode of transport in the underworld. When used badly, however, it can result in damnation. In all my existence I have discovered it to be a common theme that those things which deliver the greatest benefit are also those which require the greatest risk and sacrifice. Well, to paraphrase a famous quote: ‘Such is Death.’

– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 5 (Hell’s a Bitch, and Then You’re Damned)

 

Will was weak with despair. For the first time since he’d died he felt dead, allowing himself to be dragged by the surprisingly strong Bone, who gripped the back of his neck with one hand as he scaled the rope with terrifying speed. Will watched his tears fall the steadily increasing distance to the concrete square below. Occasionally one of them hit Flay’s face as he followed them up the rope, but the huge demon didn’t so much as wipe them from his skin.

Then they were at the top, and Bone changed his grip, taking Will under the arms and dragging him backward with feet trailing. They were moving through the lone eye socket of the skull now, and the only visible thing was the orange circle of light at the end of a lengthening tube. Didn’t people always say they saw a light at the end of the tunnel when they died? Perhaps they were simply passing through The Maze on their way to Hell.

He almost laughed at the thought, but not with humour. All those visions of the afterlife, those wishful visions of meeting with the ancestral dead, and heaven and harps and angels in the light… all of it nothing but lies and illusion. It seemed impossible that he could go on in the face of such a bitter truth. But then, where else could he go?

As if to emphasise this thought, the orange circle soon became a bottleneck, then a pinprick, and then it disappeared altogether.

There was a brief period of constriction, when it was hard to breathe, and hot, and cramped. Will had the distinct sensation of being buried alive, but before he had a chance to panic everything dropped away and he opened his eyes to another world.

At first glance it could have been somewhere on Earth: a cave perhaps, made of clay rocks interwoven with vines, and here and there a waterfall flowing into a pond with mushrooms and moss growing on the stones. The structure, however, was not natural but rigid, like a hallway: a straight corridor of green stone and wet grass stretching on into the dark. There was just enough light to see by – but it had no source. It was as if Will had gained the ability to see in pitch darkness in the space of a minute.

Bone dropped him on the moss and stepped back. As Will pulled himself to his feet, the cold point of a sword pressed into his chest, forcing him to push his back against the wet wall behind him.

‘I’m not even armed,’ he said. I’m just a kid.’ He didn’t say anything after that, because those last words had sounded so pathetic to his own ears he couldn’t bear to hear any more. He looked down the dark-light hallway that was not a hallway, but a strange mixture of nature and design his mind couldn’t reconcile. If he were to run ahead, he knew, he’d be lost forever.

Then Flay came crawling through the tunnel after them, moving with the grace and strength of a born warrior. He stood and regarded Will for a moment, one hand resting on his special blade. Will would come to learn that he always had one hand either on the blade or close to it at all times, like a gunslinger with his holster. In Hell guns could be attained but blades were king; on Earth the greatest peril was always death, but in Hell it was suffering, and in that arena blades won out.

‘Bone. Lead the Way. I will walk with the boy.’ Bone gave a curt nod and sheathed his weapon, before starting down the rocky path with measured steps. His hollow eyes scanned the area ahead evenly, and he moved with far more caution than Will would have expected.

Flay tapped Will on the shoulder and gestured for him to follow, and so the three of them walked, Bone in front, checking every shadow and cavern, then Will and Flay behind him. The sound of their steps echoed, giving the illusion they were being followed. Will jumped visibly when Flay spoke.

‘The Seer is one who can see things for what they are,’ he said. ‘The most powerful being in Hell or Earth.’

Will didn’t reply. He was scarred by the pain he had experienced. Hollowed out. That such pain even existed had shocked him to the core, and now all he could think about was escaping. Escaping this evil creature, escaping The Maze and running away to somewhere calm where he could hide and think about how to find Sarah.

‘Now Bone, there,’ Flay went on, jabbing his knife at Bone. ‘Is a monster. The lowest being in Hell or Earth.’ He paused. ‘But Bone could tear your soul apart in strips and suck them down one by one, and he would not need anything more than his fingertips to do it. This is not the nature of Hell, young Will, it is the nature of everything.’

Will didn’t quite understand the point, but what Flay said jarred him for another reason. He spoke hesitantly. ‘Dale told me that monsters are mindless. He said they can’t resist any impulse – or think about anything, and that they just want to feed all the time.’

Flay chuckled. ‘Dale has been living out in the wilderness for too long. He believes that the Angel is the same as he was when the two of them last saw each other. But he is mistaken. The Angel has found a way to control the monsters. That part of Bone which thinks and speaks does not belong to him, but to The Angel. Surely Bone wants only to feed, but he will not unless he receives the order… Such a thing as him has never existed before. That is why The Angel will save us all.’

And he did something then which Will didn’t expect: he smiled, and patted him congenially on the back, as if they were friends. ‘With your help, of course.’

Will’s surprise prompted him to speak against his better judgment. ‘What does he want me for?’ He realised he’d assumed, until now, that Seer souls were valuable only because they were richer, somehow, in the same way that the souls of good people were more nourishing than those of the bad – and that The Angel was probably keeping his sister in some kind of pantry for his own personal consumption.

Before Flay could explain any further, however, Bone gave a short hiss to get his attention. The hallway had been curving steadily to the left, and now it widened out into a larger space, the outer edges of which were obscured by darkness. Bone paused at the entrance and extended one finger towards a deep crack in the rock wall to his right. ‘This one? And then the summit beyond?’

‘Follow the course as you remember it,’ Flay said. ‘If it changes, we will take the problems as they arise.’

The hole to which Bone had pointed was nothing more than a narrow crack overgrown with fungi that stretched who knew how far into the rock – a claustrophobic nightmare. Will supposed it was just like the eye socket, a portal to another part of The Maze. He understood the doubt in Bone’s voice – he’d read all about The Maze in Blood Dweller’s guide, one of the last chapters he’d read in Freya’s house, and it had made him dread the moment he and Darla would have to enter it.

The Maze was infinite, as far as anyone could tell, and ever changing. Not only that, but the environment could depend on the mindset of the one encountering it. Move with steady foot, confident knowledge and awareness of your position, Blood Dweller advised, and The Maze would ultimately deliver you to your destination, or at least near it.

But if you were mad, or lost, or afraid, or any number of other things, you could come out in some far flung part of Hell and come to a nasty damnation. Worse, you might become permanently lost in The Maze itself and Turn, in which case you would be another of the so-called Lost Souls that haunted its darkest corners.

So Will was not overly comforted to see Bone second guessing the route. At least Flay seemed collected – though Will wondered if his thickly scarred features had ever shown fear, in life or death.

‘Wait for us on the other side,’ Flay said. Bone nodded and, doubt or no doubt, crawled headfirst into the fissure. They heard him shuffling and grunting for a minute or so, until the sound was muffled to nothing. Then Flay turned to Will and put both hands on his shoulders, squeezing gently. Now he was the friend giving earnest advice. Either Will was being manipulated, or Flay was so psychopathic that he had no concept of how much suffering he’d caused less than an hour ago. Will wasn’t sure which.

‘The Angel is not like you or I,’ he began. ‘He sees far ahead and far behind. And this is what he knows: The living are nothing but souls locked in the prisons of their lives. They are not free. They do not know pain and suffering, or anything about the afterlife – that which is more real than what they call living. And while we struggle here in the real world, they waste themselves on Earth.

‘You see, young Will, all souls have a responsibility to work for the good of all, and there are only two ways to contribute. Either as a servant of society, as I am. Or as food for demons, as your friend Darla is. To be anything else is to be an enemy of all that is good… as Dale is.

‘The Angel knows this, but he also has a vision for a better future. He will have a great army of monsters commanded by the Seers who agree to aid him in his great plan. Of all souls, only the rare Seers can survive on Earth without wasting away as mere demons and monsters do. Only Seers are fit to watch over the masses of the living, and it is therefore their responsibility to do so.

‘So you will be one of The Angel’s prized Kings, and you will bring as many souls as you can from your Kingdom on Earth to Mort City, to feed the dead and end our suffering. Earth is nothing but a farm being run by animals. You will be the farmer who will harvest the land. And that is how The Angel, with your help, will bring eternal peace to the afterlife.’

Will saw conviction in the blood thick eyes, heard the hope in Flay’s voice, and chills ran the length of his body. He imagined monsters running wild through the streets of New York City, London, Delhi, Beijing. What would that look like to people – those who weren’t Seers? It would be apocalyptic. Hellish. Earth is nothing but a farm

‘And what if I don’t agree?’ He hardly dared to ask the question, but Flay did not react violently. He stepped back and smiled again, this time with a more predatory slant.

‘Then we will put you to torture in the dungeons until you do agree,’ he said.

Then, as the horror of that thought was making itself fully known in the pit of Will’s heart, Flay gestured to the pitch black opening in the rock wall beside them.

‘Now,’ he said. ‘After you.’

 

Monsters are simply demons stripped to their barest essentials, and are in this way both animals and much worse than animals, because they are not only driven by impulse alone, but are also compelled by their soul’s greatest weaknesses. The angry demon is doomed to be an unresting force for destruction once turned; the weak soul by contrast will tend to be more the parasite, who creeps into a host and drains it quietly. If you wish to avoid your own monster, you would do well, first, to know what it looks like.

– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 5 (Hell’s a Bitch, and then you’re Damned)

 

The ship emerged from the darkness like an ominous shadow rising from the depths of the ocean. At first no one paid attention to it, but as it grew closer to the fluorescent smoking mass of Mort City and its course became apparent, that changed quickly.

‘What the Hell is he doing?’

‘Who’s ship is that?’

‘Mad bastard! Get out of the way or you’ll be cut to shreds, girl!’

That last was aimed at the only demon left now standing in Ash Street, a muddy lane that led through Mort City’s less prosperous areas. She was a whippy thing with green skinned limbs like vines and slit eyes so narrow it seemed impossible she could see at all. She was staring up at the ship with her mouth hanging open in slack disbelief, apparently unaware of the danger. To be cut to pieces in Mort City was no joke. A friendly demon might help find your pieces for you, but most would more than likely take what they could and run.

The demon at the helm of the ship looked like a statue – and a nightmarish one at that: his emaciated body was run through with holes and his torn mouth was frozen in a silent scream. Panic was in his eyes, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to change his course. The rudder was up and the ship was headed nose down for the middle of the street. For a long minute the green demon stayed where she was, hypnotised by those mad eyes, and then a gruff voice cut through to her: ‘Get back inside, Weed.’

And, a few short seconds before the ship hit, Weed did.

 

Every fibre of Dale’s being was occupied with keeping himself from Turning, but as he entered the smoke over Mort City and saw the lights and dark alleys rising up to greet him, he realised he was going to lose, after all. He couldn’t so much as move a muscle, and the ship was making right for the middle of a narrow street, where a funny green demon gaped at him. They locked eyes for a minute, as if conceding their mutual damnation, and then the demon snapped awake and jumped out of the firing line.

Oh, just me, then. If only he could have closed his eyes.

The impact was so apocalyptic – a hurricane of breaking wood and screaming metal and snapping wires – that Dale was sure his soul was being torn apart. He couldn’t hold himself together any longer, and in a great wave of terror the monster came rising up to seize him, to send him over the edge once and for all. As he tumbled in a hail of debris down the road he entered the brief no-man’s land between consciousness and whatever lay on the other side of Turning.

He wasn’t aware of jumping to his feet, or of screaming in pain and rage at the large grey demon who came running to his aid – but as he found out later that was exactly what he had done. All he remembered of that time was being in the midst of some terrible nightmare, in which a city full of bloodthirsty beasts crowded all around, hungry for his soul. In the nightmare, one of them clawed his face and shoved a fist full of broken glass down his throat, and then for a few brief minutes he really was dead – dead in the sense of complete oblivion he’d always feared while alive. Now, however, it was more like a precious sanctuary, because when he woke up he could hardly move for the pain.

He was lying in a kind of pantry, and the floor was covered in a brown muck that he gathered was a mixture of his own liquids and street mud. He swallowed something that tasted distinctly like souls and then cried out as a thousand shards of glass grated in his throat. He touched a gash on his forehead and, as his mind cleared, he saw what had happened: someone had hit him over the head with a bottle of souls and then rammed it down his throat, giving him the very thing he needed to bring him back from the brink.

And then they’d locked him in a storage room.

He pulled himself to his feet, knees shaking, and blinked in the dark. The shelves were lined with bottles – full bottles – and when he uncorked one and sniffed it, he hardly dared to believe what he smelled: fresh, untouched souls. He tipped a bottle back and drank, forcing it down despite the burning sourness. They were old and bitter sinners, but he didn’t care – he’d never been so thirsty in all his death.

He’d almost emptied the bottle when a loud knock sounded on the storeroom door and he choked on it, spraying the shelves with the vile tasting stuff. A sharp voice sounded on the other side. ‘Oy, stranger! Damned or demon, what are ya?’

Dale gulped down the rest of the bottle and then put it back. He leaned against the shelf for a second, wincing as the holes in his body filled in and knotted into scars. He felt eggs forming in the knots, and knew his worm friends would soon return. He hadn’t missed them. ‘Demon! I think,’ he croaked.

There was a brief silence, then: ‘What’s yer name and death date?’

‘What do you care?’

‘Don’t. But The Angel’s sending men now, and I bet they’ll want to know what you’re about.’

Shit. Oh, shit. ‘Girl?’

‘What?’

‘Do you own this place?’

‘No, I just work here. The owner’s Slater, the one what hit you with the bottle. Mind saying why you almost damned half the block, eh? Your ship’s spread a mile down the road.’ Dale doubted that. In these parts, it was more likely scavengers had already taken half the debris for themselves. ‘Never mind that,’ Dale said. ‘Just get your master.’

‘Ain’t my master.’ The girl grumbled, and then called down the hallway for someone named Slater.

Heavy, measured steps sounded in the hall, and Dale shifted impatiently in the dark while a whispered conversation took place just outside. The deep, all consuming terror of an hour ago had abated, but now The Angel’s men were coming for him and he was locked in a damned cellar. The souls were coursing through his veins and he needed to run. He’d looked his monster in the face and he never wanted to see it again – that kind of terror was worse than any pain he’d ever experienced.

The storage door swung open. Slater was a block of a man: skin like a Rhinoceros, arms and legs carved out of stone and a flat face that could have met a train head on, and possibly had by the looks of it. His eyes dropped from Dale’s dreadlocks to his pockmarked body and stopped at the knife still tied at his waist. Dale raised his hands. ‘I’m no danger.’

‘Says the man who nearly made a stain out of my bargirl. She’s only been dead two years and she’d have been licked off the pavement by gutter crawlers.’ The bargirl in question was squinting at Dale from behind the mountainous demon, poking her nose with a narrow finger.

‘I’m sorry…’

‘Weed,’ she said.

‘I’m Sorry, Weed. I couldn’t move. I was about to Turn.’

‘Right. Well maybe you will, yet.’ Slater folded his arms. ‘I hear The Angel’s training himself a force of monsters. You could be the next recruit.’

‘Is that right?’ Dale’s mind was ticking over. He couldn’t run. He was at least ten blocks from the district he and Darla had lived in so long ago – and who knew if any of the secret hideouts he remembered were still safe. This demon, Slater, was his only chance at freedom. And he had only one thing left to give him.

‘Let me ask you a question, Slater. Would you rather have a bag full of diamonds, or watch another innocent demon join The Angel’s Army?’

Slater snorted and looked Dale up and down, smirking. ‘Depends where you’re hiding the diamonds.’

‘It’s no bluff, but if you want to keep joking you might lose it before you’ve had it.’

‘Hm. Where is it, then?’

‘The ship’s cabin. The lock box beneath the cabinet marked ‘Tools.’ At least that’s where it was before I crashed.’

Slater turned to Weed, but the little demon didn’t need any prompting – she was down the hall and out of the door before Slater could utter a word.

‘Trustworthy, is she?’ Dale said in the ensuing silence.

Slater shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘She owes me. Comes to the same.’

The two demons stood opposite, both tense, neither wanting to break eye contact or move. Both knew that if the girl came back empty handed there would be a fight. Outside, the street had erupted in chaos. Muffled laughter and screams from the crowd reached them through the walls.

Dale spat a bloody mouthful of broken glass. ‘Thanks for the Souls.’

‘Demon turning into a monster isn’t good for anyone.’

‘Don’t let The Angel hear you say that.’

‘The Angel can take it and shove it all the way up his bony –’

‘I got it!’ They both turned as Weed came thundering down the hall at a run. She was bright eyed and grinning, and to Dale’s immense relief she was cradling the diamond bag in her arms. Everything Dale had in Hell now, except for small caches at Calvin’s and Helmstead House. Slater peered into the bag and gave a stiff nod. ‘You know where it goes.’

With a final suspicious glance at Dale, Weed hurried off down the hall and disappeared, leaving them alone once more.

Slater didn’t move, keeping his steady gaze on Dale, who was listening for the inevitable knock on the front door – if The Angel bothered to knock at all, that was. Dale’s every fibre was drawn tight with tension. Both demons knew full well that there wasn’t a thing that could stop Slater from slamming the storage door and leaving it at that.

‘What did you do to make him hunt you? Besides crashing your ship in one of his most profitable districts?’ Slater said eventually.

‘That’s a long story to tell, with a long history. I doubt I’ll have the time to tell it.’

Slater grunted. He drew in a long breath, tapping his fingers on his forearm. ‘Well,’ he said at length, ‘lucky for you, I like stories.’

And for the first time since he’d left Nifflehiem, Dale found he could breathe again.

The most important demon a freshly deceased should know of upon arrival in Mort City is the one who calls himself The Angel. He is the oldest and most dangerous of all existing demons in the area, and is also the reason for Mort City’s infrastructure and continued existence. In all primitive societies, a feudal system develops, led by the region’s most powerful warlords, as in Medieval Europe, China, Middle East, etc. Like all warlords, he is also ruthless, bloodthirsty and psychopathic. He is somewhat exceptional, however, in that despite his intelligence and shrewdness when it comes to matters of survival and business, he is also utterly insane. I would advise every newly dead soul to avoid dealings with him at all costs.

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

 

Will moved as he had never moved before. The high bars of the fence should have been impossible to scale, but he flew up them as though he weighed nothing. Screams and the sounds of bodies dragging on the ground came to him, but he didn’t look back, his entire being fixed on the empty space just on the other side of the brutal spikes. He was going to make it.

A sword pierced his stomach, the point pushing all the way through his belly button and clanging against the fence. He stared at it for a full second, shocked, before the pain engulfed everything like a thick blanket and he went blind. He didn’t know he was falling until he hit the ground.

When he regained consciousness he was lying face down on the concrete. Whoever had impaled him had removed the sword and planted a tree-root foot over the wound on his back, keeping him down. The white demon stood just where he had a second ago, as if he hadn’t moved at all, but Darla and Phillip were in a bad way. The other demon – the one that looked like a gorilla with big eyes – had Darla pinned up against the fence with his sword pressed to her throat. Phillip stood in the far corner, arms ribboned with cuts and his gutting knife lying at his feet.

‘Kick it over.’ The white demon said in his gurgling voice, and Phillip obeyed, sliding it across the ground. The gorilla also handed over the knife he’d taken from Darla. Will couldn’t make sense of any of it. How had this happened so quickly? They’d been alone just a few minutes ago, and now they were captured. It had been so easy.

The white demon stepped over to Will and crouched beside him, and Will forced himself to meet the blood clot eyes, though he was in tears from the pain. He couldn’t keep from breathing, and each intake was like inhaling needles.

‘Hello, Seer boy. What is your name?’

‘W… Will.’

‘Will. My name is Flay. My friend there with the big muscles is Meal, and him with no eyes and his foot on your back is Bone. We are The Angel’s men, and we left our names behind when we joined him. Do you know of The Angel?’

Will tried to shake his head and ended up wincing instead, hands bunching into fists. It felt like someone was taking a pair of scissors to his liver.

‘Then I will teach you,’ Flay said. He stood up and walked over to Darla, who was still struggling despite the fact that the gorilla – Meal – was leaning most of his immense weight on the blade across her throat. She relaxed her efforts as Flay approached, eyeing him.

‘Darla knows about The Angel,’ Flay said. He took one of her scaled hands and rested his own cruel blade on her wrist. ‘Yet she crossed him. Now I will show you what happens when you cross The Angel.’

‘Screw you,’ Darla said, and those were the last words she spoke for a while. Flay pulled her arm straight and drew his blade across her wrist almost gently, like a man playing a violin, while she screamed. Will wanted to close his eyes, but he couldn’t – he couldn’t so much as blink – and so he watched as Flay separated Darla’s right hand from the rest of her, tendon by tendon, bone by bone, taking his time. Blood spurted from her wound. The ligaments and veiny meat were just what Will would have expected from a living organism, rather than any misty substance a soul might be made of. No, she was as solid flesh as anything alive, and she was suffering, if anything, more. There could be no bleeding out in Hell, after all. Even the relief of death was out of reach.

When he was done, he tossed her twitching hand over the fence. ‘Something to lead the Hounds,’ he said.

Then he moved over to her other hand, and this time Will did close his eyes, and all his own pain was forgotten, drowned by the screams of his friend.

No, it wasn’t that… His pain wasn’t forgotten – it was healing. He wasn’t merely listening to her agony, he was drinking it in – it was filling his own wound, easing his suffering. A line from Blood Dweller came to him, unwelcome and undeniable: Then there are the Parasites – those pitiable demons who must feed on the misery and suffering of others. What a cruel twist, that – to make a good man torture when the rest of us need only eat.

This time, when Flay had peeled her hand free he came to place it right beside Will’s face, where he could smell her blood and see the dirt under her fingernails. ‘This is the second time she has crossed The Angel,’ Flay explained. ‘So I had to take two hands. You understand.’

‘Yes.’

‘If you lie to me, you lie to The Angel. Do you understand that?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good. Who is the Reaper?’

Will’s eyes darted over to Phillip, but there was nothing but defeat in his red eyes. Flay jabbed Will’s shoulder with his blade. ‘Look at me.’ Will looked. No defeat here. No anything.

‘Who is the Reaper, and where did you come from?’

And Will told him. Every word he spoke was more painful than the sword that pierced him, more than Darla’s screams, but he told him all the same, because he couldn’t bear the thought of what might happen if he didn’t. He told him about Phillip, and Freya, and Dale, and everything he thought this gurgling demon in front of him might want to know.

And when he was done, and his tears were dripping into the pool of his own blood that was spreading across the concrete, Flay nodded and patted his head with a heavy hand. ‘There. It is much less painful to serve The Angel. That is your first lesson.’

Flay returned to Meal and tapped him on the back. ‘Throw her to the Hounds. Then go to the surface with the Reaper, to the house of Freya. Raid it, damn her, and kill anything living inside.’

‘NO!’ the word escaped Will, and the demon on his back pressed down on him, trying to squeeze the wound that was no longer there. Will tried to push against him, but something sharp leaned on the back of his neck and he stopped.

‘Don’t stop fighting, Will! I’ll come back for you!’ They were the last words Darla could get out before Meal closed a huge hand around her throat and choked her off. He dragged her, scaling the fence in a second like the ape he was, and hauled her over the side with a grunt. She fell silently, droplets of blood following her down like rain.

Phillip had no words for him: just a faraway gaze and a bitter smile. That’s Hell for ya, kid. And then Meal turned him around and stuck his sword between his shoulder blades and nudged him back toward the stairs. ‘Go slow if you want the Hounds to catch us,’ Meal said with a deep voice that matched his frame.

The weight on Will’s back disappeared and he allowed himself to be dragged to his feet. He was in shock. Darla had gone, just like that. The Hounds sounded awfully close now, their barks and laughter all around, but when Flay growled in his ear he heard his words clear as morning: ‘Now you’re all mine, Seer boy. Welcome to Hell.’

And Bone laughed, his toothless mouth making a sound like wind through dry leaves.

They say death is the great equalizer, and I have found that to be true in Hell. The inhabitants of the afterlife are spread not only across cultures but across time. Travel far and wide enough, and you may well encounter someone born hundreds of years ago – though that is a rare thing indeed. If you did encounter such a soul, you would have no problem communicating with him or her. We have not ascended to get here, but descended: Thus we are stripped bare to our souls, and likewise we are stripped of things that had once defined us – riches, status, even the families and friends who supported us. In death, we die with the same soul we were born with, we feel the same pain and we speak the same language.

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

 

Calvin had nothing left, but he walked. His Monster was a terrifying thing. It loomed in him like a tidal wave looming over a city. An ominous force that seemed to stand still even though it was moving at breakneck speed. When it had him, there would be nothing he was incapable of doing. There would be nothing but a pit of horror in his heart, driving him to purge it out by any means of destruction possible. Desperation, despair, endless grief, for all eternity: these things were just beneath the last layer of his skin, ready to take over when the cold stripped even that away.

But he walked.

He was little more than a charcoal skeleton by now, blown lopsided by the wind. His feet were numb, but he was careful with his steps, giving every snake he saw a wide berth. They were easy to see, each of them with a different colour and pattern of scales, and they were blind and lethargic, sliding through the drifts with black tongues flicking. So little of his soul remained that they couldn’t taste him.

And he walked: he had another fate in mind than to become one of them.

The end of his journey came just as the last of his armour cracked; as the tidal wave began to crest and fall. It emerged as a black wall on the other side of the snow, but he knew what it was, and he smiled when he saw the first stars.

The moment he’d hit the ground, he’d started moving, keeping as straight as he could, using landmark glaciers and snowdrifts to hold his course. He hadn’t looked back, and he hadn’t allowed himself to believe Dale might turn around. He knew the God Man. Once he’d decided on a thing, he didn’t change his mind.

No, it was all over. If it can ever be over. If you’re right about what’s down there…

            Too late for self doubt now. He was here. The wind died and the land flattened out into a long plane. It was like a beach made of snow, but instead of an ocean, there was the Void. He stood at the very edge, shaking badly, his Soul just about ready to give itself to the Monster: The wave was curling over, coming down hard. He had nothing left in him but dread.

He looked down and his heart dropped out of him. It was the first time in his death he’d ever really looked. The first time he’d seen. Floating islands and stars and distant planets stretching on downward as far as they did upward, and beyond them… Nothing. Eternal nothing. Perhaps the cold company of those Souls who had fallen before. Perhaps not.

The last spark of hope left him. He closed his eyes.

‘What is it?’ A gruff voice came from somewhere behind him.

He opened his eyes. Was he hallucinating? Had he lost his mind?’

‘Monster. Kill it before it turns around. We can eat it.’

He didn’t dare turn around. Jump. Jump now. Leave this place on your own terms, or you’ll do it through their teeth. Leave now, coward! He extended one leg out over the edge. His other knee shuddered under the strain of his pitiful weight.

‘It hasn’t turned yet. It’s a Soul.’

‘Get it before it falls. Get it now!’

Here I come, Satan, you cruel bastard. Here I come. He fell forward, his mouth stretching into a scream of horror at what he’d done, the Void whirling to meet him, to suck him down. And a hand – a warm hand – closed around his ankle. It wrenched him back so hard that when he hit the hard edge of the ice bank his lungs emptied, the scream escaping unheard.

The wave came crashing down, despair complete, and he gave in to it. His last thoughts before chaos scrambled his mind were of regret. I’m sorry, God Man. Sorry Will. In the end, it was all for nothing.

‘It’s turning! Hurry!’

And the madness took him.

The Universe is a living thing: as alive as the greenest jungle or the deepest ocean, and as full of energy. Hell, then, is a parasite. Call me dramatic if you will, but consider that everything that exists in Hell has taken its essence from the world of the living – that place which treats us now like the intruders we are. It is a destructive existence, but one which should bode well for us demons, as the universe is a large animal indeed, and full of juicy flesh…

Yet Hell not in fact the Heaven it should be, abundant with stolen treasures – quite the opposite – and it does beg the question: while we feed on the universe, what feeds on us?

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

 

INTERLUDE

The Scared Girl

She comes to Will’s room when it’s after midnight, because she knows Mr. And Mrs. Durmer won’t be as understanding so deep into the witching hours. Will is always understanding. Will believes the things she says, and it is for this quality above all else that she loves him fiercely. He wakes bleary eyed as the light from the hallway floods his room, and stares at Sarah’s silhouette in the doorway blankly for a moment, his mind catching up to his body.

‘W – Will?’ Her voice is pitifully weak in the silence, and he slides out of bed, tiptoeing across the room to her. His hair is mussed and his pyjamas ruffled, but when he sees the look on her face he wakes up quickly.

He puts both hands on her shoulders. ‘Are they back?’ he says.

She nods.

‘I want to see.’

She’s only ever seen the monsters twice before now in her whole life. There was the man in the tall hat and suit who leered at her as she passed him on the sidewalk, tugged along by her mother. They almost collided, and when Mrs. Durmer cast him one of her withering looks he made an elaborate bow. ‘My apologies, Madams. My fault.’ When he took off his hat, Sarah saw the face of a hideous goblin, his face burned and sour, gums bloody and full of teeth like bamboo. He’d grinned at her and winked with a yellow eye, and then he was on his way.

‘Why was he so burned up, mother?’ She’d said later, but Mrs. Durmer had only tittered in the way she did when she thought Sarah was being childish. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

She’d told Will about the burned man on the very night the Monsters had come to their back garden. They’d been allowed to camp out in the backyard on an overcast night, and so of course when the lights went out in the house they turned on their torches and sat opposite each other in the billowing tent, a bag of chocolate buttons between them. The game had been ghost stories, and for her turn she told him what she’d seen. His reaction had startled her: not an eye roll and a laugh, but a steady gaze.

‘You’re not pulling my leg?’ He’d said. ‘You really saw that?’

‘Yes.’

He let the silence drag, light drizzle pattering their tent. ‘I’ve seen one like that, once. You were too young, but we passed a car accident on the highway and I saw one of the policemen hanging over someone on the road. The others were all watching him – but he wasn’t giving him mouth to mouth… He was eating his face.’

She’d wanted to laugh herself, then, except that she knew her brother too well to believe he was playing a prank on her. The revulsion on his face was real. He’d seen it, and nobody else had. ‘They just stood there, watching,’ he’d said, shaking his head.

And that very night, just at the first peep of dawn, they’d heard something climb over the back fence and land in the grass. Neither had had the courage to breathe, let alone stick their heads out of the tent, but they watched its shadow cross the garden, trying to make sense of its shape. It was nearly human, but its proportions were all wrong and its joints were bending the wrong way as it shuffled around the tent and over to the far corner of the garden. They analysed the marks in the mud the next day and counted twelve inchworm toes on each foot.

Now, Will opens his closet door and pulls out his hockey stick. He follows her to her bedroom, or rather he leads the way while she trails anxiously behind him. ‘Don’t move too fast, Will,’ she says. ‘Turn off the light before you go in, or it’ll see you.’

‘Where is it? It’s not in the house is it?’

‘No… I don’t think so. It was outside on the street, looking at me. Just looking.’

He reaches in and flips the switch, making Sarah’s room dark except for the orange glow coming from the window. The curtains are half drawn, and one of them is torn from when she’d hurried to pull them shut.

She can’t bring herself to enter and face what’s on the other side of that glow, what’s standing out there under the streetlight and looking up at her. She hangs in the doorway, helpless, as Will steps into the room, hockey stick over one shoulder, and advances to the window. The words come back choke in her throat, and she’s so sure it’ll come right through the glass, but it doesn’t, and he breathes a sigh of relief when he sees the empty street.

‘Keep looking,’ she says, and dares to come forward, creaking inch by inch until she’s at his side.

She doesn’t look out. If she does she knows it will be there, and it will set its drooling eyes on her and she’ll be dead. Instead, she puts a hand on Will’s shoulder and peels him away, leading him back to his room.

Under the covers of his bed, she feels safer, and she pulls him into a bear hug, which he abides indifferently.

‘They’re not real, Sarah,’ he says. ‘You’ll grow out of them one day.’

‘What about the car crash? Eating his face?’ She whispers.

‘I didn’t see it right.’

This sinks in with a horrible sense of loss and she blinks back tears. ‘Yes you did,’ she says fiercely.

When he doesn’t reply, she asks in a small voice: ‘Do you believe me, Will?’ Do you believe I saw it?’

And his answer is like cool water on a fire: ‘Yes,’ he says, and it’s all she needs.

‘I believe you.’

 

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