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Tag Archives: Horror

There’s nothing I like better when consuming some good fiction than to feel that cold thrill run through my body when a particular scene strikes me. It’s a rare experience, of course, and it’s often hard to tell exactly what kind of thing is going to get to me enough to elicit such a response. I enjoy the element of fear so much – be it in books, movies, songs, even my own nightmares – that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various ways it manifests itself.

See, the sensation I mentioned above is only one of many types of fear that anyone in the horror genre strives to create in their reader/viewer/listener etc. I prefer some more than others, and some are more difficult to inspire, but all of them are delicious, and so I will do my best to list all I know about them here, as a scotch enthusiast records tasting notes for his favourite single-malts.

 

  1. The Shocks (Also known in movies as Jump Scares).

Not my favourite flavour, since it can be (and has been in a lot of recent movies) overused for cheap screams. It’s an easy way to give people a jolt, and over the years some directors and writers got lazy and forgot that the jolt should be only a part of the experience, not the whole package. Whenever I see this type of thing used over and over again in a movie I’m reminded of the old Goosebumps books. Don’t get me wrong, I loved those as a kid. But R.L. Stine did have an annoying habit of ending chapters with a jump scare: ‘And then I turned, only to see that Billy’s throat was horribly slashed!’ only to start the next chapter with something like: ‘Gotcha! Billy said, wiping the ketchup from his fake wound.’ Also seen in a million movies where someone is facing away from the camera, and the protagonist slowly approaches them and puts a hand on their shoulder, preparing to spin them around to face the camera as quickly as possible and reveal the horrible Face of Death!

But it can be done well, and when it is, a good old fashioned Jump Scare can deliver a pleasant adrenaline rush that rivals the best roller coasters.

  1. The Dreads

The Dreads are very difficult to accomplish, because they are mostly to do with atmosphere, and the instilling of an idea without ever quite stating it. It an ominous, vague presence, a back of the mind monster lying in wait, or a fate too terrible to imagine but which is inevitable nevertheless. The best horror always has at least some element of The Dreads, and they often use it as a solid foundation on which to build the other elements. Three movies that come to mind which do this well: Deliverance, Event Horizon, and The Shining. You know shit’s gonna go down, and that it’s gonna be really bad, but this is all communicated to you in only the most subtle of means, so that it speaks more to your subconscious than anything else.

  1. The Creeps

God damn I love me some Creeps. I don’t know what it is, but to me The Creeps are as addictive as Nando’s hot sauce. The Uncanny Valley, spiders pouring out of eyeballs, heads that do 180 degree twists, the buttons in Coraline’s eyes, etc. You get the picture: The Creeps are the bread and butter of horror. You can even, as Tim Burton does, stick them in as extra decoration in places that have nothing to do with the story. The spindly, big-eyed paleness of his characters is creepy. Edward Scissor hands’ scissor hands are creepy, even though he isn’t a malicious person and only kills one person with them in the whole movie. I really should do a whole separate post on this, because there are so many different ways to create Creeps for different effects, but I’ll leave it for now. Suffice to say that if a horror has nothing else, I’ll be satisfied with even two or three scenes that give me a solid dose of Creeps. It’s my heroin, baby.

  1. The Icks

The first resort of horror amateurs and the last of pros, the Icks are definitely a part of horror, and neglected only by the careless. I associate them most with the horror movies of the eighties, when a casual knife to the throat was likely to result in ten meter blood sprays. Wounds with maggots in them, extremely detailed dead bodies, intestines spilling from the open belly of a screaming soldier, etc. Done badly, the Icks are nothing but a cheap gross out. Done well, and they can be the icing on the cake of a truly horrific scene, and make something that would have been merely off-putting seriously disturbing.

  1. The Horrors

This is an interesting category, because it is concerned mostly with concepts rather than types of scenes or techniques. The Horrors are what you get when you realise a truly awful truth, or contemplate a terrible fate. See Stephen King’s ‘The Jaunt’, Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream’ and Winston Smith’s Fate in ‘1984’. It’s a difficult effect to create, but it has a high potential for resonance, which is why you’ll most often find it at the end of stories. But you can have it in small tastes, too, in little scenes over the course of a novel or movie that stick with you, long after it’s over, even if they were only mentioned in passing. You can even include it indirectly: perhaps a character gets The Horrors so badly that he or she goes completely insane (ie. Pretty much any Lovecraft story). Which brings me to the next flavour, one of the most valuable of all in the horror writer’s arsenal…

  1. The Unseen

This is not so much a flavour as a base. It is a versatile tool, and the principles that govern it can be adapted to enhance the scare factor of just about any scene. Why do Harry’s friends never speak the name Voldemort? Because to acknowledge the evil, to face it in some way, immediately diminishes its power over you. There is nothing more terrifying, when faced with a horror, than to turn one’s back on it.

Besides that, all fear ultimately stems from the unknown, so it makes sense that horror does best when it capitalises on mystery as much as it can. Just as the best books give you just enough for you to complete the scene in your mind, the best horror stops just short of showing you the source of the fear. The Unseen complements all the other flavours of horror, and that is what makes it so good. Here is someone banging on a door as hard as they can to get out. Nothing strange, but you happen to know that door has only ever opened on a brick wall since you bought the house… The fear lies entirely in the question, and vanishes the moment you answer it.

 

So, these are Horror’s tasting notes, the things we all seek so hungrily as we flip the pages of Dracula or It or Ghost Story (and in those cases, find in abundance). Why such tastes are so delicious is, I think, as pointless as asking why one enjoys the taste of pickles. That’s just how my tastebuds work. The more important question, as far as I’m concerned – and you too, if you enjoy the craft of horror fiction as much as I do – is how do I create such things myself?

That’s a question I can only answer in the vaguest terms, but I think it begins with understanding the nature of the feeling, and how other authors have so masterfully created it in us in the past.

Until next time, I urge you to seek your favourite flavour – whether you like the jolt of a Shock or, like me, the crawling itch of The Creeps. Seek it out and when you find it, take a minute to savour it. Look for clown faces in drains and red balloons in odd places. Listen for the howl of a werewolf on the full moon. Go and stand in forest at midnight. Find an abandoned house, open the front door, and turn your back on it. Laugh, and listen to the sound of your voice.

And when you feel it… smile.

Happy Halloween ‘17

– Ben Pienaar

I had this on here briefly a while ago, but took it off to try to get it published. Alas, the word counts are strict and, like Out of Hell, it was either too long or not thematically related to any magazine that would have considered it. It’s too bad – this story was a lot of creepy fun to write, and I think it’s one of my best. But enough about me – let the tale creep for itself.

Enjoy

 Her Dark Paradise

 

The day Harry Yorker fell in love was the worst in his life.

At least, so far.

That was the thought on his mind as he lay in the middle of Plunder Road, blood streaming from both nostrils, face swollen, lips cut, and ten dollars poorer. He’d begged his father not to give him the money, knowing exactly what would happen to it, but Mr. Yorker was not one to give in to bullies. ‘It’s only one kid?’ he’d said, eyeing Harry from across the table. ‘You just hit him back, son, you’re big enough. Goddamn, you let some little bastard push you around, you deserve what you get. It’s a tough world, you gotta learn to fight.’ With the word fight he’d plunged his fork down into the rib eye on his plate as though it had done him personal harm, spraying juice over the front of his shirt.

Well, Miles Braider had learned to fight, and Harry got the distinct feeling he enjoyed it a hell of a lot, too. He never reacted to anything, Miles, but he had an intensity in his eyes when he hit Harry, an internal fire that no amount of pain would ever quench.

It was four thirty now, but Harry didn’t want to go home. Better to stay out as late as possible, come back pretending he went for takeaway. When his father commented on the wounds, Harry would tell him. Yeah, you should see the other guy.

For now he just wanted to get out of the world, away from Miles, away from his father, and away from himself – this weak friendless boy who could hardly think of a reason to go on living if, well, his life depended on it. As he dragged himself to his feet, awakening a whole world of aches and pains, he thought it would be real nice to get away from his body, too.

So he went to the park.

Anderson’s Reserve was an enormous basin like a meteor crater, and the trees were thickest right in the middle, at the bottom. In the past, Harry would lie on his back and stare up through towering Pines and Gums at the sky, and drift away. But as he descended into the shade and silence he wondered if he had the balls to stay there ten minutes, let alone all night. True night was at least an hour away, but down here it had come early, and even the crickets no longer chirped.

But God, it was good to be free. When he reached his spot, a soft circle of grass beside a manhole cover, he sat cross legged and closed his eyes, hands resting on his knees like a monk. The blood dried on his swollen face, and though he still felt pain with every movement, somehow it didn’t seem so bad anymore. He breathed the rich scent of pine needles and autumn leaves and listened to the gentle creaking branches and the occasional flutter of batwings.

He spoke to himself in a low voice, a habit long nurtured as an only child with no friends. All of his deepest conversations had been with himself, and now he had more serious things to consider than ever. Suicide, for example.

‘It doesn’t have to be bad. We both know there’s no heaven or hell. It would be just like this, now. Total peace. That has to be better than this world.’

‘No way. I’m not killing myself, not if Miles gets to live. It would just confirm I’m a coward.’

‘Not if you do it in a cool way. You could go out with a bang. Get a big knife, stab Miles to death. Run at the cops so they shoot you dead. That’d be a way to go. You could write a note, blame your dad.’

‘That’s twisted, man.’

He chuckled to himself. ‘Yeah. Think about it, though. Suicide, man. If it wasn’t so great, why would so many people do it?’

He fell silent for a long time, playing his Final Stand out in his mind, savouring the way it would feel to sink a screwdriver all the way to the hilt into Miles Fucking Braider’s neck, when the unmistakeable sound of leaves crunching beneath a foot made his eyes snap open.

It was a girl.

Holy shit, she’s beautiful. She was standing half behind a tree a few meters away, one bare foot in a patch of old leaves, watching him with wide eyes and biting her bottom lip as though guilty for disturbing him. She had hair the black of deep ocean, large eyes in an angular face, and a firm, slender body clothed in a torn black dress. Even from his sitting position Harry could tell she was nearly a head taller than him.

So stunned was he by her beauty that he didn’t notice what was wrong with her hands until she came a step closer and curled one arm around the thick trunk of a pine. It was a large tree, so that she shouldn’t have been able to encircle it completely, but encircle it she did – with a hand and fingers at least four times the length they should have been, silver pointed nails scratching the bark.

He scrambled to his feet and took one step back, wanting to run but not wanting to take his eyes off this strange girl. There was something about the way she looked at him – head cocked to one side, curious – that made goose bumps rise on his skin.

‘Uh… Hi. I’m Harry,’ he managed. She took another step forward and then hesitated when she saw him move away again. Gave him a small frown, then shrugged as though it didn’t matter.

What she did next pushed him as close to the limit of his sanity as he’d ever come, an act so effortless and yet so earth shatteringly impossible that he would leave the forest that night doubting everything about reality as he knew it: Uncurling her arm from around the tree, she used one of her delicate fingers to cut through the air, a black line appearing in the wake of her sharp nail as though she’d used it to slice open the fabric of a camping tent instead of empty air. Then she gave him a sideways glance and whispered, in a voice as light and dry as the wind, ‘Please don’t kill yourself, Harry,’ and in one smooth motion stepped through the opening she’d created and sealed it shut behind her. Besides a slight shimmer, flashing and gone in a second, it was as though she’d never been there.

Harry did not dare approach the spot, and turned and hurried through the trees as fast as he could, faint with terror and casting frequent glances over his shoulder as he went. ‘Never again,’ he muttered, weaving through trunks and hopping over low bushes, ‘I am never coming back here again.’

He couldn’t have been gone long, but the park was deserted and dark, and as he ran across the great football over it was starlight and not sunlight which illuminated his way. His father was going to be mad, but that was okay, because that was something normal and real, something that made sense. ‘Never go back. No way, no way, no way.’

But he knew he would, because for the first time in his life, Harry Yorker was in love.

 

*

 

His father was too bug eyed to notice, but Mr. Salander wasn’t. Harry had made it to the last period without anyone saying a word, but Salander did a double take when he entered the classroom with his hood up, and put a hand on his shoulder after class as everyone was leaving. ‘Hang around a minute, Yorker.’ Someone stomped on Harry’s foot on their way out and when he looked up he saw Miles flash him a deadpan look. Even if I don’t say anything, he’ll assume I did. Shit.

Salander was a good guy, but he didn’t know how things worked. He was young, clean shaven, and he always wore a suit to school. He had a sense of humour, but he tried to hide it by talking in a stern serious voice all the time and not smiling much. He was probably the main reason Harry had managed to get away with skipping school for so long.

When the door clicked shut after the last kids and the room was quiet save a ticking clock and the distant sound of laughter and banging lockers, Salander leaned against the blackboard with his arms folded and raised his eyebrows. ‘So, wanna tell me what’s going on?’

Harry shrugged, hands in his jacket pockets.

Salander sighed, eyed him over his reading glasses. ‘Look, if it’s your dad, there are places you can go for help. And if it’s another student, there’s plenty the school can do for you.’

‘Oh yeah? Like what?’

‘I’d take a photo of your face right now, for starters. Then I’d go about trying to get Miles Braider expelled.’

Harry stared at him, terrified. ‘You don’t know it was him.’

‘Just because I’m a teacher doesn’t make me blind, Harry. I teach two of Miles’s classes besides this one, but I only had to talk to him for about five minutes to understand he’s got some serious mental problems. In my opinion, he belongs in a school that specialises in the treatment of, ah, special needs kids.’

This is bad. This is going to be bad for me. Harry knew he should get out of there now and pray Salander didn’t do anything about it, but he couldn’t help his curiosity. ‘What makes you say that?’ he asked.

‘Come on, Harry. I majored in psychology at university, but you don’t need a degree to see he’s on a one way path to jail unless his parents get him medicated. I don’t have much hope for that, though – I met his parents. All the staff here are concerned about Miles, but we haven’t really been able to catch him doing anything too bad.’

‘It was him that broke all the windows last month.’

‘You can prove this?’

The principal had arrived early one morning to find every single one of the P – Block windows shattered, a smouldering pile of tables and chairs in the quadrangle, and the word DEATH TO SCHOOL spray painted over and over on the brickwork.

‘He told me.’

Salander winced. ‘Sorry, not enough. What he’s done to you now, though… we can expel him for that, Harry. That’s assault.’ He sounded eager, and Harry wanted so badly for him to be right. He was a good guy.

‘That’s not how it works,’ Harry said.

‘Oh? How does it work?’

‘I say he beat me up, he says he didn’t. His parents won’t want to pay for any special school, so they’ll back him up, say he was at home with them. The principal won’t be certain either because I’ve been to school twice before with bruises from my Dad. Can’t expel a kid without solid proof.’

He watched Salander deflate as he spoke, almost felt bad for the guy. Then he remembered the look Miles had given him on the way out and hardened. Whatever Miles was going to do was Salander’s fault, now.

‘There’s gotta be something…’

‘Yeah. Just leave me alone. I’ll be okay.’

He left the classroom for the fast emptying halls, where mean words followed him, friends talked in groups about a life of parties and girls of which he would never take part, and deodorant hung so thickly in the air it made his eyes sting. He wondered if he’d ever make it out of this place alive.

 

*

 

Harry never went home when he could help it. At least his dad had eased up about him skipping, but as long as the two of them were in the same room the tension was there, stretched taut like the skin of an overblown balloon. Dinner was the crunch of chicken bones between teeth, evening was the glug of scotch down a rough throat, bedtime was a blaring Television and drunken mutterings through a thin wall. Harry had become a ghost.

It’s better this way. As long as I’m a ghost, I can be free. This thought, coupled with the idea that he might see her again, buoyed his step and put a dark smile on his face as he turned off plunder road and hopped over one of the Private Property signs that bordered the park. On the nights he couldn’t sleep he would stare out of his window at the distant stars and wonder if she was looking up at the same constellations or if she was away, in her other world.

By the time he reached the clearing at the centre of the forest he was tiptoeing, breathing light puffs of vapour into the cold air, unable to shake the feeling that he might scare her away with his movement. He settled down cross legged beside the manhole, just as he’d done that first time, but he didn’t close his eyes. He wanted to see her arrive, tearing through reality as she’d done.

He waited.

Twice he closed his eyes and reopened them, but she didn’t appear. Night fell, the cloud cover blocking the moonlight so that even his dark adjusted eyes could only make out dark lines of trees and black ground. He got up and paced, abandoned. He jammed his hands in his pockets and started back through the trees, choking back tears. She hadn’t been real, after all. I’ll hang myself right here. Get a rope from Dad’s garage and tie it to a tree branch right over where I first saw her. No one will ever find me.

‘Don’t do that.’

He spun around, air catching in his throat, and there she was, standing in the clearing he’d just left, long fingered hands by her side, mouth turned down at the corners, concerned. Her black dress was badly torn at the hem, revealing a perfect white leg.

‘You’re real.’

She nodded, coming forward tentatively as though afraid he’d run again. But he couldn’t have run if his life depended on it – he was hypnotised. When she was a meter or so away she stopped and regarded him. Her neck was twice as long as his, and she looked down on him with as much curiosity as he did her.

‘W… Where did you come from?’ he asked, his dry mouth struggling to form words.

She looked confused at his question, and without answering turned and walked back to the manhole cover. He followed, terrified that she would leave him again, but she turned when she reached the clearing.

‘Would you like me to show you?’ she said.

When he nodded, heart in his mouth, she bent down and, with a single finger, flipped the manhole cover from its opening. It spun around in a lazy circle and then landed in the grass with a dull phum. The hole it left was blacker than the forest, as black as the opening she’d made. He knew immediately that this was it – an entrance into that place, wherever it was.

To his horror, she stood aside and gestured for him to go first.

‘Don’t…  don’t you go first?’

She shook her head. ‘I have to close it.’

He leaned over it, but there was nothing to see but void. She waited beside him patiently, a smile on her face that was half knowing and half challenge. Go on, it seemed to say, I dare you. That, coming from a girl like her? Harry would have jumped off a cliff.

He extended one foot over the opening, held his breath, hesitated. Fuck it. You were going to kill yourself anyway. He tucked his chin and dropped.

 

*

 

The first seconds were utter terror. The circle of dim light vanished above him as he fell, his stomach dropping out of him the way it did on a rollercoaster. He tumbled, tried to orientate, but there was no wind resistance, and the sensation of falling was replaced with one of floating. How is she going to find me? He thought with a rush of panic. I’ve gone too far – this place is too big. I’ll be here forever.

But just as that unsettling notion took hold she appeared, floating gracefully beside him with a wide grin. Her teeth were pearly white, small, and neatly tapered to points, but somehow he was no longer afraid of her. She put a reassuring hand on his back and he broke out in pleasant goose bumps.

‘Where are we?’ he asked. He searched for a source of light, but couldn’t find one. How could he see her so clearly?

‘Home,’ she said. Before he could press her about where home was, she tugged at his shirt and he experienced a strong sense of deceleration, though he hadn’t realised they were moving at all. They’d been spread eagled, like skydivers in freefall, but now their feet swung underneath them and they descended slowly. She pointed into the blackness below them, and an enormous landscape materialized from the nothingness – not emerging, but being created – fields and lakes and even a castle popping into existence on a giant floating rock about the same size as the reserve from which they’d come.

‘Oh my god. Are you doing that?’

Instead of answering, she waved her hand and the entire landscape disappeared without so much as a sound, and in its place she made a lake, its calm waters extending as far as Harry could see. An island of white sand and palm trees floated in its centre, and it was here the two of them landed, floating gently down to its narrow shore.

Harry went to his knees and dug both of his hands into the cool sand, hardly able to believe that it existed. But the island was real alright, though the sand was softer than any beach sand he’d ever felt, and the waters of the lake didn’t lap at the shores the way they did naturally – the ripples travelled instead away from the island, perhaps to lap at some other distant shore.

As he took everything in, from the palms illuminated with that otherworldly light to the bright green moss covered boulders, the word heavenly came to mind, and on its tail a worrying thought. ‘Am I dead?’ he asked.

She laughed, a high cold sound that struck him as mean until she said, ‘You are funny, Harry Yorker. I like you.’

He stood up, trying not to betray his relief that he hadn’t been beaten to death by Miles and come to such a lonely, if beautiful place. Not entirely lonely. I wouldn’t mind being dead if I could be with her forever. She’d turned away from him and was standing with arms folded, looking out over the lake, and he came up beside her. ‘I like you, too,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’

‘I don’t have a name.’

‘Oh. Do you… were you born here?’

‘Yes. I floated for a long time, until I learned to make things. I made my body, too, when I went to your world for the first time and saw people. I added some things, though…’ She raised a long hand and waved her fingers, smiling. ‘Do you like them?’ But before he could answer, she ran one nail along his face, the light touch enough to make him shiver.

‘Yeah. You’re beautiful.’ He could never have said such a thing in the real world, but in this dreamlike place, anything seemed possible. Maybe he was losing his mind?

She didn’t reply, far more comfortable with silence than he was. A million questions fired through his mind, but he restrained himself. He had a feeling that he was here only because she was curious about him, and if he disappointed her in any way she would take her world and vanish from his life for good. He made himself wait until she spoke again.

‘Do you like this place? I can never make the things I want. I don’t know what they look like. That’s why I always visit your world. To find beautiful things.’

‘It’s… It could use some sunlight. And like, maybe a breeze?’

She nodded, and a moment later a ball of burning red appeared in the sky, bathing everything in a pleasant orange glow, though not quite like sunlight. A warm wind blew in across the lake, making her long hair flow. Harry stared up at the makeshift sun, trying to guess how large it was, and how far away. ‘Can you do that with anything?’

‘No. Only in this world. And I can’t make anything alive. Nothing like you.’ She stared at him for a long time, and when he met her gaze she reached out and touched him again, her hand running the length of his arm. ‘I’ve never seen one of you up close before. I’ve been visiting your world for a long time. I was always too afraid.’

‘You don’t have to be afraid of us. Uh, no, that’s not true – but you don’t have to be afraid of me. I mean, you’re like a goddess in this place. No one would…’ he swallowed, a thought occurring to him that jarred him as much for the evil at the core of it as for its potential. ‘No one would stand a chance against you.’

‘A goddess,’ she said, turning her chin up and smiling. ‘I like that word.’

‘I can tell you anything you want about my world. I could show you things – stuff you don’t have in this place.’

‘Really?’ her eyes lit up, childishly hopeful, and another jarring thought came to him, this one not so unwelcome: Sex. Holy shit, I’m going to lose it to a supernatural being. The thought terrified him almost as much as it excited him. For all her additions she was still the most stunning girl he’d ever seen. ‘Yeah. And I could bring more living things here, if you wanted. Animals – maybe even people, if I could find the right ones. Good ones.’

‘You would be my guide to your world? And bring life?’

‘Anything you want.’

‘How can I repay you?’

Say it. Grow a pair and say it. You’re in another universe, talking to an all powerful goddess, who wants to give you something. If you don’t say it I’ll make you cut your wrists tonight. He said it, with an expression of the deepest seriousness and only the hint of a smile. ‘You could kiss me.’

She furrowed her brow. ‘I don’t know what that is.’

‘It’s good – you’ll like it. It’ll be the first thing I show you. But you have to let me touch you.’

She took a half step back, wary. ‘It’s good?’

‘Definitely.’

She nodded and let her arms hang by her sides, waiting to see what he’d do. Heart racing madly, he stepped in, one hand settling on the back of her head, and kissed her before he lost his nerve. Her whole body was rigid, but she relaxed and opened her mouth for him, passively allowing him to explore with his tongue. He pulled back after a moment, watching for her reaction. She considered, shook her head as though uncertain, and then to his amazement pulled him in and kissed him again. This time, she bit down on his tongue just as he got going, hard enough to draw blood, and held him there for a second or two before letting him withdraw.

He staggered back in the sand, shocked, and she licked her lips with a mischievous smile. ‘What the hell?’ he said. She laughed and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘It was nice. But I liked the second one better.’

‘You almost took my tongue off.’ But he found he was laughing along with her, and soon the pain faded to a mild throb.

‘Thank you, Harry,’ she said, turning back to look up at the burning red sun. Though it hadn’t moved or changed at all, she must have read something on it because the next thing she said was, ‘It’s getting late. I should take you back.’

‘Oh, okay. I’ll be back soon, though, won’t I?’

‘Of course,’ she said, smiling. ‘You’re my guide, remember?’

And with that pleasant affirmation reverberating in his mind, she took his hand and the two of them flew back through the empty sky for home.

 

*

 

Harry was not his usual alert self the following day at school, and he kicked himself for it later, thinking how he’d wandered so carelessly through the school after fifth period, aware of nothing but the impossible memories playing through his mind. He deserved what he got, really.

The sunlit parking lot was so close, just a few steps to the end of the hall, when a door opened behind him and a hand took hold of his backpack and wrenched him off his feet. A second later Miles was pushing him against the back shelves of a janitorial closet, door swinging closed behind them.

‘What you tell him, Yorker? Did ya tattle on me?’ He mimicked a child’s voice.

Harry didn’t reply. He dropped his bag and stood with clenched fists, hoping a beating was the only thing Miles had in mind. His teeth were still loose and his bruises would be there for days yet.

‘It’s okay if you did. It wouldn’t change anything. You can’t get away, Yorker. Even if they expelled me you couldn’t get away.’

‘Yes I would. I’d call the cops on you. You could go to jail for assault.’

‘Ooooooh, I didn’t think of that. Assault, huh? Wow, that’s a serious crime. I bet I’d be in jail for a whole week.’ It was unnerving, the way he spoke. His voice was condescending, animated even, but his expression void.

Harry held his gaze, looking for a flicker, a sign that anything was in there besides whatever evil cogs and screws kept him turning. ‘What are gonna do, beat me up for my lunch money your whole life? Is that how you’re gonna make a living?’ He tried to inflect a mocking tone, but his heart was beating too fast, muddling his words and making his voice shake. He swallowed. Just hit him. Get it over with.

‘You know what you don’t get, Harry?’ Miles took a small step forward, hands dropping loose by his sides. ‘I don’t do this shit ‘cos I hate you. I don’t do it ‘cos I want your fuckin ten dollars either. I do it ‘cos I’m a dog and you’re a rabbit. It’s just who we are.’

He took another step and now he was in striking distance, but Harry was leaning back against the shelves, couldn’t do it yet, couldn’t overcome that formidable barrier between speech and violence that Miles crossed with impunity. ‘You’re not a dog, you’re just an asshole,’ he said, but he felt the truth of Miles’s words in his heart.

‘You wanna fight me, little rabbit?’ He was real close now, breath blowing in Harry’s face with each word. ‘Cos you know what’ll happen, you try to fuck with me? I’ll come back with a blade, and I’ll fuckin’ kill you.’

He spoke the sentence with such calm, the tone sharing none of the threat that the words held, that Harry didn’t see the strike coming. It was a gut punch, as shocking for its suddenness as its power. Harry’s legs buckled but Miles didn’t let him go down, one fist gripping his collar while the other unleashed slug after slug into his abdomen until his body revolted against the onslaught and he vomited. Miles saw it coming and took two quick steps back in time to avoid it. Harry collapsed and lay on his side, mouth opening and closing while his diaphragm spasmed, huge black waves passing across his vision, flashes of death.

As he was taking his first desperate gasps of air, Miles came forward again and crouched on a clean patch of floor beside him. His words would repeat themselves in Harry’s mind in the days that followed, while he waited to see if Salander did anything. ‘I know you think I’m threatening you, rabbit, but I’m not. I’m just telling you. If I get expelled, my Dad’s gonna chop my pinky off and tell people I got it stuck in the blender. And if that happens, I’m going to kill him and mum too, and then I’m gonna come find you. So if I was you I sure wouldn’t be telling anyone anything. Bye, rabbit.’ He gave Harry’s hair a playful ruffle and then stood up and slid out of the room, leaving him to suck in precious lungfuls of air until he was fully conscious.

Luckily, he had everything he needed to clean up his vomit.

 

*

 

He brought her the neighbour’s dog – a plump beagle named Rusty that liked to yelp at possums at three in the morning. As an afterthought, he also brought a dead magpie from the roadside, folding its soft body into a plastic bag. Once they landed, in an ocean of wavy green hills and fields, he let go of the Rusty and watched him go tearing across the grass at top speed. She followed him with comically wide eyes. ‘A real live thing,’ she whispered, ‘in my world.’

‘I brought this, too. I dunno, I thought maybe you could do something with it.’ He dumped the magpie onto the grass at their feet and she stared at it for a long time, glancing from it Rusty, jumping around with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

‘Why doesn’t this one move?’ she said.

‘What? Oh, it’s dead.’

‘Dead?’ She knelt beside it and prodded it with a long finger, her nail sinking disturbingly deep into its feathers. ‘What is dead?’

‘You haven’t… well I mean it’s, it’s like the opposite of what we are. It’s like if I stopped thinking and talking and moving and just became a piece of meat. Just a thing, a dead thing.’

She held it up by one limp wing, analysing it. ‘I didn’t know things could go from living to not living.’

‘Yeah. In my world, it happens to everyone eventually. If you damage a living thing enough, it can die as well.’

She looked up at him, alarmed, as though he might drop dead at any moment. ‘Will you die?’

He nodded, then shrugged as if it were no big deal. He supposed it wasn’t, but she made him feel brave all the same. ‘Yeah but not for ages. Years and years.’

‘I don’t like that,’ she said, and didn’t smile when he broke out laughing a second later.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just. I dunno. I don’t like it either.’

‘I don’t want the living things in my world to stop living. Then I’d have to find more to replace them. Can it be undone?’

He opened his mouth to say no and then stopped himself. ‘Not in my world,’ he said at length. ‘Not by people. But maybe here, with you?’

Rusty, tail wagging madly, yapped at them from a few meters away, wanting their attention. She twirled her finger and the sound stopped, though Rusty wasn’t fazed. Harry wondered if he could still hear his own noise. ‘He might want food in a bit,’ he said, considering for the first time that he might have made a mistake bringing the dog here. She didn’t reply, her attention fully on the dead magpie in her hands.

The bird’s wings fluttered and Harry’s heart skipped a beat, but just as he was about to ponder the implications of knowing someone who revive the dead he realised that she hadn’t done that at all. The bird was moving alright, but its wings turned strange circles and its head nodded and twisted unnaturally, its body jerking unnaturally, handled by external forces. The frustration was clear on her face. ‘I can’t make it move by itself,’ she said. ‘It’s just like all the other things, not like the dog at all.’ She let it fall to the grass with a wet thump.

‘That’s alright,’ he said. ‘I can get you more living things. As many as you want.’

She smiled at him and then kissed him with the casual ease most people gave hugs. ‘That would be nice,’ she said.

 

*

 

Harry stayed invisible for a fortnight. On earth, he was quiet and obedient until even his father struggled to find reasons to punish him. He took side streets and went the long way round to his classes. He made no eye contact, nor did he speak, except to answer questions. He stole pets from back gardens and tore pages out of National Geographics in the library, so he could show her different parts of earth.

He was a mouse living a grey, empty life. With her, though…

They travelled through galaxies together, floated across warm oceans, explored caverns that extended, for all he knew, forever. She asked him questions, and he told her everything he could. He told her about Miles, and his father, and how he’d wanted to kill himself the night he first saw her. Those long nights were the best he ever spent, and if only he could have gone on living like that he might have been happy. If only.

Then one night she showed him what she’d been doing with the animals.

She took him there without warning – hardly able to contain her excitement as they flew through the dark, yet she refused to answer any of his questions. They landed in a place unusually bare for her: a wide stone slab, empty but for a single house. It had an oak slab of a door and no windows at all. It was made entirely of wood, and stretched for at least hundred meters over the flat land, one long hallway.

‘What is this place?’ he asked her when they touched down in front of the huge door. This time she relented, facing him with a certain light in her eyes he didn’t like any more than the answer she gave him.

‘It’s my collection,’ she said.

‘Right. Your collection of what?’

Instead of answering, she pushed open the door and gestured for him to enter. He hesitated. A long hallway stretched before him, a scarlet carpet aligned down the centre and candle chandeliers along the ceiling, casting shadows across walls of rich mahogany.

Only when he’d taken a few steps inside did he see the doors. They lined either side of the hall, spaced several meters apart, each with a golden handle and a carved wood sign hanging above the threshold. The signs bore only a single word, and they followed a disturbing trend. Drowning; Crushing; Bleeding. One said simply: Knives.

‘What are these? Where are the animals?’ The doors stretched all the way along the hall, though he couldn’t see what was at the very end. He stopped in front of one marked Burning, halted by a sound from within: a crackling fire, a sizzle of bacon in a pan.

‘That’s my favourite,’ she said. ‘Do you want to open it?’

He didn’t. He wanted to turn and run from this place. He wanted to fly back to the sunlit beach with the soft sand and the palm trees and drink cocktails with her and forget that this place existed. But he found himself placing a hand on the gold handle. It was curiously warm. He pulled.

It was a possum he’d taken from the primary school. Each of the grade one classes had a pet animal: hamsters, a rooster, a mouse, and each child got a chance to take it home with him or her during the term. He’d been planning to steal at least one or two more from the other classes, but hadn’t got a chance yet. The walls and ceiling of the room were made of sticks, and straw covered the floor. The possum crawled towards him, staring with its enormous brown eyes, but a thick wall of glass divided them.

Harry was about to ask her what she was feeding it when the straw in the back corner of the cage burst alight, flames licking the back walls and spreading across the floor. The possum panicked immediately, scurrying into the far corner and huddling there, paralysed with fear. Oh, no. It can’t be what I think.

Only when the flames licked its fur alight did it move again, pelting around the room at full speed while hair melted and skin fried. Here was the sound he’d heard outside, the sizzling and cracking of meat in a pan. Harry’s stomach turned, but he couldn’t look away. Something still didn’t quite add up in his mind. The picture wasn’t complete.

When the room was filled with smoke and charcoal, the fire burned out, leaving the possum’s charred corpse in the middle of the room, a twitching heap of crispy skin and white eyes. She rested a hand on his shoulder, her fingers hanging over it like vines, and said, ‘Watch.’

The process that followed was not quite a reversal, though the result was the same. First the smoke and ash disappeared, replaced with fresh straw and sticks. The corpse shivered, then twitched again. Its skin loosened, new grey hair sprouted from fused pores, ligaments stretched and flexed, and a minute later the possum returned, squeaking, to life. ‘If they die in this world, I can make them come back,’ she said. ‘They can live on forever here.’

They watched the fire light up again, but before it reached the quivering possum Harry shut the door. He stared down the long corridor, wondering how many rooms there were, and how many were yet to be filled. ‘Why do you kill them?’

She frowned. ‘I have to kill them. You told me so. Everything alive has to die. If it didn’t die, it wouldn’t be alive.’

‘So this….’ He squinted down the corridor, trying to read more of the signs in front of the doors. ‘This is a collection of deaths?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s a collection of lives. Endless, beautiful lives.’

 

*

 

Harry vowed he would never go back. This world, he told himself, made sense, for all its ugliness. It had taken that possum, burning and being reborn – perhaps even with a memory of all its previous deaths – to bring home to him how utterly helpless he was in that other place. Did she have a room there for him? If you don’t go back, maybe she’ll make one.

But he couldn’t really believe that, either. Sometimes he caught her looking at him with a warm smile and soft eyes. She wasn’t sick, he knew that – not the way Miles was sick. Miles had nothing inside of him, but she did. It was just she’d had no one to bring her up. She’d simply existed, with unlimited power and a lonely soul. She was only curious.

He wanted to help her, but he was afraid of her.

So he went to school. He ignored Salander’s meaningful looks, and made sure he knew where Miles was at all times, every bit the frightened rabbit Miles told him he was. He told himself this would be his life for the next few years, at which point he could get a job, any job, and move far away from his father, from the dense forest, from her.

But as each midnight rolled around he found himself wide awake, eyes fixed on the moon, and his mind in another world. Thoughts of a different future, one in which he didn’t work an empty job in the big grey city, worked its way into his mind.

In his dreams, he saw the two of them driving down a seaside road somewhere in Europe, exploring, hunting. She could make anything they needed, money, food, a house. He would help her finish her collection of lives (and deaths), and teach her to take only those evil people from the world who had no right to exist in the first place – those who deserved a place in her great hall. With power like hers, nothing could stop them going where they wanted, doing good things – great things, even. He would teach her how to love, and earth would be their endless honeymoon. Sometimes he was still awake at sunrise, heart slamming in his chest, his head full of dreams.

It was only a matter of time before he started getting ideas.

All he needed was a single phone call.

 

*

 

Harry hitched up his school bag and headed back around the gym, wind blowing dead leaves against his ankles as he walked. He left the school via the back gate – the gate he always took. The one Miles would be watching.

Streetlights flicked on as he turned onto Plunder road, but he didn’t need their dull glow to know he was being followed. He didn’t look yet, though – he needed to keep up the pace until he could see that familiar, comforting sign.

‘Hey.’ He didn’t turn. The tone of Miles’ voice chilled him more than the night air, and that alone was enough to tell him his plan had worked all too well. Quick feet crossed a road behind him. ‘Rabbit.’

There it was: a low wooden sign in front of a narrow grass causeway. The path led a steep downhill, and there were no lights in the park, but that would be to Harry’s advantage. He turned at the entrance, heart slamming in his chest. All those long midnight hours spent dreaming and wishing, and here he was. No turning back.

Miles slowed to a stop, silhouetted by a streetlight. A truck rumbled by, but a row of trees and bushes separated Plunder Road from the highway. They were alone. Just as promised, Miles had a long knife in one hand. He let it hang there in full view. His eyes were wide and empty, and Harry found they reminded him almost of hers.

‘You told,’ Miles said. ‘I heard Dad talking to Salander on the phone last night. Telling him about things I’d done. I had to sneak out the back before he could get me. Slept in the fuckin’ bushes last night.’

‘Yeah. You’re gonna go to prison for sure. Assault, vandalism. Some boys home at least.’

‘No, I’ll definitely go to prison,’ Miles said, eyes flashing. ‘But it’ll be for murder.’

The next minutes were primal. Harry’s past and future vanished, and all that existed for him was the subtle shadows that showed him humps and ditches in the ground, the heavy thumping behind him, and his destination. He rushed, cold wind in his face, and for endless seconds that was all he knew.

Miles caught him on the football field, his long strides thumping with mechanical persistence. Harry could see the edge of the oval, but before he could throw himself down the slope Miles slammed into him and the two of them tumbled through the leaf strewn grass to the trench at the bottom. Miles buried the blade to the hilt into Harry’s back on the way down, but when they hit he lost his grip and rolled away. Harry got up first and staggered, dazed, into the trees.

For the next minute, the only sounds were loud breaths and thumping feet. No time for screaming, and no point. Harry dragged himself deeper into the woods, trying to suck air into a deflated lung, feeling hot blood soak his shirt. It was darker than it should have been, and when he laid eyes on the clearing it was barely visible, the corners of his vision closing him out.

But a moment later, he smiled.

Because she was here, after all.

The manhole stood open in the clearing, and her head hovered at the opening, watching him. Harry reached for her, but Miles’s arms closed around his legs in a rugby tackle and brought him down, winding him. Unconsciousness crept a shade closer.

Harry met her eyes, and reached.

He was too far away, but that was alright: her arms were long, and she had the strength of a goddess. She took his hot hand in her cold one, gave him a small, perfect smile, and pulled.

Miles didn’t even have time to scream.

 

*

 

Universes blurred past as she wrenched them through space, but Harry was oblivious to all of it, wrapped up in the agony of healing. She pulled out the knife and fused his flesh together where it had been parted, a crude but effective solution, though the process hurt far more than the wounds had, a hot melting pain that left no room for thought.

It stopped when they landed, and he gasped and rolled over onto his hands and knees, blinking. Floorboards. We’re in the collection hall. He scrambled to his feet and almost fell over, half expecting Miles to fall on him with the blade, but of course he was gone, whisked away in an instant. She alone stood in the middle of the hall, watching him.

‘I thought you weren’t coming back,’ she said. He rubbed his head and fought a wave of nausea as his stomach settled. He leaned against the nearest door. It was marked FALLING. He wondered how she’d managed that one.

‘I’m sorry. It took me a while to get him to follow me. But I got him. You got him. Where is he?’

Without smiling, she extended one of her black nailed fingers and pointed down the length of the hall. He followed the gesture, but the last door was too far away for him to make out the sign. A nervous chill ran through him. Is this really happening? He pushed away from the wall and started towards it. She padded behind him on pale feet.

‘The others won’t take that long, will they?’ she said.

‘No. No way. I’ll get better at it, I promise. Especially now he’s out of the way. I’ll be unstoppable.’ He half whispered this, as though to himself, and it gave him another thrill. His future was dawning on him. He would never return to his father’s shitty asbestos riddled unit. School was out forever, and the only job he’d ever have was to rid the world of monsters like Miles and send them to a hell of his own devising.

He turned to her before they reached the door and smiled, heart full to bursting. In that moment she looked more stunning than ever, rich dark hair hanging over the loose black rags she wore for clothes because, as she’d told him once, she liked to wear the darkness. He wanted to tear them off her then, but she wouldn’t understand. He’d have to explain it to her, later. ‘Do you love me?’ he said before he could stop himself.

She didn’t reply at first, searching his eyes for meaning. ‘Love you?’

‘Do you want to kiss me?’

She considered that, then nodded, and this time it was better than before, her tongue more eager and her teeth less so, letting him go with only a nip. ‘Did you like it?’ he said when she pulled back, still watching him so curiously.

‘Yes.’

‘That’s love.’

‘Oh.’

‘And there’s more we can do. Stuff that feels a lot better. I can show you.’

‘I’d like that,’ she said, and for the first time since he’d met her in the forest he found he had real hope that things were going to turn out alright, that he could teach her to love him and that his dreams might come true after all. Her eyes left his, darting to the door at the end of the hall and then back again.

‘Can I see?’ he said.

‘Yes. You’ll have to help me think of new deaths, later. I don’t have your imagination.’ At the last word, she traced a finger in a circle on his forehead, as though imagination was a physical thing, a liquid perhaps, locked in Harry’s skull.

This door was larger than the others, and made of a kind of wood so dark it was almost black. The sign above it read STABBING. He hesitated, something in his soul telling him not to do it, the same thing that had made him feel so sick and horrified when she’d shown him the Possum. This is different, he told himself. Miles deserves it.

‘Go on,’ she said, her voice high and breathy. ‘Open it.’

And God help him, he did.

 

*

 

Miles stood in the centre of a steel room. The left and right walls were lined floor to ceiling with bright blades, steeply tapered; they made for minimal internal damage and maximal flesh wounds. Miles didn’t so much as glance at these brutal instruments, arms loose by his side and head up. He faced the doorway, expressionless, not a hint of fear in him.

He really is empty. The thought jolted Harry, though he wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Even in his wild imagination Miles had never begged for his life or whimpered in fear – it just didn’t fit. But surely there should be something – an animalistic rage, some cold words of defiance. No, Harry saw now that Miles was not even an animal. Animals, at least, had souls.

A mechanical grinding sound started up, so deep Harry felt the floor vibrate. It was enough to make his adrenaline surge as if he were the one inside that death room, but Miles kept his steady, blank look, his eyes unfocused. Maybe he’s in shock.

The walls shuddered into motion and the blades began their slow progression. Still Miles didn’t move. Harry watched him with clenched fists, wanting him to scream, to beg, to threaten or plead or anything at all, but Miles didn’t so much as twitch, not until at last the razor points touched him for the first time, piercing his arms and shoulders first, instantly raising spots of blood like red beads on his skin.

And he smiled.

‘No,’ she said. So small a word, and whispered, but to Harry it seemed to freeze the universe. The walls certainly stopped moving, though the tips of the blades remained just inside Miles’s flesh, centimetres away from pinning bone and piercing vital organs, seconds from entering his twisted brain and severing whatever abnormalities existed within to make him the way he was.

His eyes, Harry realised, hadn’t been unfocused after all – they’d simply been fixed on something over Harry’s shoulder. Her. Harry knew this even before he turned and saw that she was staring right back at Miles, hypnotised.

‘He’s just like me,’ she said, and smiled a real smile. Harry would think of that smile often, trying to work out exactly what was behind it. In the end, he couldn’t believe it was real love. It was something else, something more like recognition.

There was time for Harry to feel his stomach drop out of him as he saw his future change. Not much time – the space of a few heavy heartbeats – but in a way it was eternity, because he left a part of himself in that space. He left his hope.

She sighed, and waved a long fingered hand.

 

*

 

Death wasn’t so bad, once you got used to it.

In a way, it was like sleeping. His days were short, compressed to the space of a minute or so, in which he stood in an empty room; in which he watched the walls closing in; in which he braced himself for six seconds of agony, followed by the blink of an eye, a single instant of oblivion which he learned to cherish.

He yearned for more of that, in time. If only he could be dead for a day, or a year, free from this reality. He yearned for that almost as much as he yearned for her.

She came to visit him, sometimes with Miles, who never tired of watching him die, and sometimes alone. She rarely spoke, only stood at the glass and looked, with a distant sadness in her eyes, but also, he told himself, fondness. He was after all the agent of her happiness, the one who’d brought her her soulmate.

‘Are you happy?’ he asked her the last time she’d opened his door – years ago, now.

She cocked her head to one side, considering, and he wondered if she really knew what happiness was. But the smile she gave him left no room for doubt. She was happy.

And that, he often thought to himself, as he was reborn in the bare room for the thousandth time, and the familiar grinding of unseen machinery began, was all he needed.

He closed his eyes and waited for death.

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?’

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