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Hellwalkers, p.13
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       Hellwalkers, p.13

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  LIES, it said.

  No, replied the hanged man, and the shadows contracted like a fist around his head, unleashing a crack like a cannon shot. The man dropped to the ground and the Stranger ripped its hand free, shaking loose pieces of skull and bone.

  LIES, it said again. IT KNOWS HOW I CAN HELP YOU.

  “Never,” croaked Marlow.

  IT KNOWS HOW I CAN HELP HER.

  It waved its other hand and the kitchen blew apart, the walls exploding outward in a hail of shrapnel. Suddenly the cavern was around him, the raging storm overhead, pieces of house bouncing and sliding over the top of the pyramid. Pan was there, Night, too, with no sign of Patrick and his sister.

  The Stranger stood straight, its mechanical parts whirring and grinding, linking it to the vastness of the Engine. Tubes and pipes ran into it from every direction, pumping black blood. It hoisted Marlow, its hand as tight as a hangman’s noose.

  “Marlow!” shouted Pan, running for him then stopping, throwing a hand to her face against the energy that radiated from the Stranger. Marlow hung there, his feet kicking pathetically at the air.

  I CAN HELP HER, it said. I CAN SET HER FREE. I CAN SEND HER HOME.

  “Run,” grunted Marlow, the word too quiet for anyone to hear. He tried again, shouting it louder only to feel those fingers tighten even further. Pan held up her hands, her face full of terror.

  “Let him go,” she said. “Please.”

  COME TO ME, CHILD.

  The Stranger’s other hand unreeled, as long as a tree branch. It caught Pan, lifting her effortlessly so that she was hanging next to Marlow. She pulled desperately at its fingers, choking, her eyes bulging.

  TELL ME WHAT YOU DESIRE, the Stranger said, its hand squeezing. Pan was choking, her eyes rolling up, her body convulsing. TELL ME THAT YOU WANT TO LEAVE THIS PLACE. TELL ME, AND IT IS DONE.

  Marlow reached out for Pan, found her hand. She gripped him and he held her, watching as she fought for her last breath. She shook her head and he knew what she was saying, he knew she was telling him not to make a deal. Because she was stronger than him. She had always been stronger than him.

  All he had to do was say no. Pan would die, but she would come back. He might die, and he, too, would be reborn. Hell was bad, yes, but they could survive it together.

  All he had to do was say no, but Pan was shaking hard, foaming at the mouth. How many times would he have to watch her die here? A hundred? A thousand? It would never get easier. He would never grow used to it. A thousand deaths, and he knew each one would be worse than the last.

  TELL ME WHAT YOU DESIRE, MARLOW, AND IT IS DONE.

  All he had to do was say no, but he opened his mouth and said “Yes.”

  The stranger laughed, a noise like thunder. Marlow fought against the chaos in his head, tried to remember what he’d been told the first time he’d been thrown into the Black Pool, the first time he’d made a deal. He could almost see Seth, the old man who’d shown him the ropes, as he said it: “It is the man who wants everything, and he who does not know what he wants, who lands himself in trouble.”

  And what had Pan told him? To be sure of what you’re dealing for. “The Engine, it will try to trick you, it will try to fool you into making an unbreakable deal.”

  “I want to go home,” Marlow said, dredging the words up past the fingers around his throat. “I want to go home, I want Pan to go home, I want Night to go home. I want us all to go home.”

  He could hear the hanged man moan in despair, and Marlow knew that he was making a mistake. All he had to do was say no, but he was cleverer than that, wasn’t he? He could make this work.

  “But only us three,” Marlow said. “Once we’re through, the passage closes, nobody else gets out. You don’t get out.”

  That would work, wouldn’t it? If the watchmaker was worried about setting the Devil free then surely this would work? He swung from the Stranger’s grip, his thoughts sloshing back and forth, too messy to make sense of. It wasn’t enough. He needed more.

  “No, the gateway is destroyed,” he grunted. “When we’re through, all of us, me and Pan and Night, the gateway to hell is destroyed and it can never open again.”

  AND THAT IS ALL?

  “Just us,” Marlow said. “That’s what I want, I want us to go home.”

  The Stranger laughed again, loud enough to shake the whole of hell.

  IT IS DONE.

  PART II

  WHO HOLDS THE DEVIL

  THE FAST TRAIN HOME

  IT IS DONE.

  Even though she had no oxygen left in her lungs, even though her head fizzed with static, Pan heard those words and knew instantly what they meant.

  Marlow had made a deal with the Devil.

  You idiot, she tried to say, but she never got the chance because the creature that held her—a giant that radiated so much darkness she couldn’t make sense of it—was striding forward, heading for the pool of black liquid that sat in the center of the pyramid. It held her above it and then let go, let both of them go.

  She hit the water hard, and it was eager for her, sucking her deep beneath the surface. She burst out of the top, managed half a breath before the pool caught her again. She reached for the edge, finding cold stone. This time she managed to stay afloat, Marlow paddling furiously behind her. The Devil loomed above them, a phantom dressed in darkness, its face a mess of parts that opened and closed like machinery.

  IT IS DONE, it said again, the words echoing around the cavern, kick-starting a hurricane of sound as the Engine began its work.

  “What did you do?” she asked, looking at Marlow.

  He disappeared beneath the surface, bobbing up again almost instantly and spitting oily black blood. “I made a deal. It’s okay, it’s going to b—”

  And he was gone again.

  “What the hell, guys?” said Night, skidding onto her knees at the edge of the pool. She looked at the Devil, then back at Marlow as he emerged, gargling.

  IT IS DONE.

  This time, when the Devil spoke, the pool began to tremble—ripples spreading out across its surface. The whole cavern seemed to be shaking, chunks of rock dropping from those weird, riblike props above them.

  YOU ARE FREE.

  “Free?” said Pan, and despite everything she felt something shift inside her, an immense weight lifting.

  “We’re going home,” said Marlow, treading water.

  “But what did you give it?” Pan said. “What was the deal for?”

  She saw Marlow frown, saw him shake his head.

  “I didn’t ask.”

  “Idiot!” she said, trying to pull herself out of the pool. Everything was happening too quickly, she didn’t have time to think.

  “What do we do?” Night asked.

  “Come on!” Marlow yelled, caught in the unsettled water. “Pan, please, we can go home!”

  Pan looked up at Night, fumbling for the girl’s hand.

  “What do we do?” Night asked again.

  “I don’t know,” Pan said. “We take our chances in there.” She nodded at the pool, then at the creature of nightmare who stood and watched them. “Or with that.”

  “In there,” said Night without hesitation, ready to jump. Too late Pan saw movement behind the girl, a balloon of burst flesh, its skin split, great lumps of yellow fat and pink intestine hanging from the open wounds. Patrick—the bastard had somehow survived the fall. He turned his mangled head to Pan, one eye hanging loose, swinging like a yo-yo. The other burned with hate.

  “Watch—”

  Patrick’s bear-trap hands snapped shut around Night’s chest with a firecracker pop of breaking ribs.

  “No!” Pan screamed, trying to pull herself free. There was a current now, pulling her toward the center where Marlow floundered. She clung to the rock for as long as she could, then her fingers cramped and she let herself go. The water dragged her under but she fought it, breaking free long enough to see Patrick’s jaw split open, to see his teeth clamp do
wn over Night’s face even as she fought him.

  “Night!”

  The current was too strong. She bumped against Marlow and they held each other, fighting to keep their heads out of the water, spinning in the vortex. Then Marlow disappeared, his hands grabbing Pan’s legs and pulling her under too.

  She sucked in black water that tasted like machine oil and decay, feeling herself wrenched deeper. The pool seemed to tip on its head and suddenly she was tearing upward like a torpedo, screaming against the force of it. Silver specks illuminated the dark, like distant solar systems, and still she was accelerating, the water around her glowing, bubbling, like she was a ship returning from orbit, burning through the atmosphere. The sound of it deafened her, but she could hear the cry of the Devil, echoing through the void.

  YOU ARE FREE. YOU ARE HOME. AND THE GATE WILL BE DESTROYED AFTER THE LAST OF YOU.

  She couldn’t make sense of it, she just thought of Night, Patrick chewing through her face.

  “I’ll come back for you,” she said, her stomach ripped out through the soles of her feet as she was pulled faster still. “I’ll come back.”

  Then the world flipped again and she was falling, falling through water into more water, like there was a pool of denser liquid beneath her. She slowed, stopped, then began to paddle up—or at least what she thought was up, because there was no light here.

  She stuck her hands out, blind, fumbling for anything and finding stone. She pulled herself to it, trying to remember how to breathe, smudging the black water from her eyes. Something erupted from the pool behind her and she turned to see Marlow there, his face alive with panic as he sucked in air. He dropped and she grabbed him, pulling him close, both of them clinging like coral to the wall of the pool.

  She didn’t let go. She didn’t dare. They both rested there, too exhausted to do anything else, too scared to look beyond the steep-sided walls. She just kept glancing back, waiting for Night to burst from the water, to grin that grin of hers as she splashed toward them.

  But the surface of the pool fell still.

  The air was heavy with noise, a mechanical pulse that shook her to the core. It was the same noise they’d left behind them, the soundtrack of hell.

  We’re still here, she thought.

  “Help me,” she said, her voice a witch’s croak.

  She grabbed the edge of the pool above her, planting a foot on Marlow’s shoulder, hearing him yelp as she dunked him. She pushed herself up and over the edge, prepared for hell, prepared for anything—anything except this. Because when she made sense of the chaos in front of her it was a smile that found its way onto her face.

  “No way.”

  “What?” said Marlow, coughing. “Where are we?”

  Pan scrabbled around, offering him a hand and helping him onto solid ground. They were on a platform, tilted at an angle and cracked in a dozen places. The pool beside them was half drained. A control panel sat there, wires torn out and hanging limply.

  She was almost too scared to look the other way, the noise still pummeling her ears. But she couldn’t hide from it forever. She turned, seeing the Engine there, her Engine, stirred into a frenzy. Every single piece of it was in motion, great plumes of fire erupting, engulfing the ceiling. To her side was the staircase, partially melted but still intact. It led up to the vault door and she knew what lay beyond that—stairs, the Red Door, and freedom. Its call was birdsong inside her head, impossibly sweet. Twenty minutes of climbing and she could feel the wind on her skin. No more monsters, no more demons, just the glorious day and the rest of her life etched out in sunshine.

  “It can’t be,” she said.

  “It is,” Marlow replied, struggling onto his knees. “We’re home.”

  “When, though?” Pan asked. “When are we?”

  Because when she’d last been here the Engine had been silent and still, straining against broken time.

  “What did you deal for?” she asked. She rolled onto her side, then somehow managed to get to her feet. The flecks of metal in her skin caught the firelight, like she, too, was burning. She patted her side, feeling the wound there—gummed shut by blood, stitched by those ribs of metal.

  “I … I don’t know,” he said. “It was all so quick. I just asked to go home.”

  “Home,” she said, chewing on the word. “That’s it?”

  “Yeah,” he said. “That’s it.”

  Something didn’t sit right, something niggling at the back of her brain.

  “She’ll come,” said Marlow, staring at the pool, chewing his knuckles, his teeth clacking against the metal there. “She has to.”

  Pan wasn’t so sure, wondering if she should throw herself back into the water and try to return for Night. But nothing, not one single thing, could draw her back to hell—to that creature who had watched her with eyes like burning coals.

  “What happened in there?” she asked. “Who was that?”

  Marlow grabbed her elbow and hefted himself up, standing there stooped and broken. He was about to reply when something crunched out in the Engine, an industrial roar.

  “Ostheim,” she said. The only reason they hadn’t seen him before was because Meridiana had given them the power to step out of time, had locked them here in an infinite moment. When they’d died, when they’d been sent to hell, time had reclaimed this place with a vengeance, and it had freed Ostheim in the process.

  The only good thing was that he couldn’t know they were there.

  She started to walk, her body too heavy, as if the gravity in hell had been weaker than here. She found her rhythm soon enough, running for the stairs. Clambering onto the lowest step, she saw Ostheim at the far end of the cavern, his bulk rolling cautiously over the Engine beneath it. He looked as far from human as it was possible to be, his body bloated to the size of a whale, a dozen or more tentacles writhing. He held something in one of them, something that gave off a metallic glint, but which pulsed darkly, too, an inverse lighthouse beam. Whatever it was, he was slamming it repeatedly against the floor like he was trying to break it.

  “Asshole,” she whispered, then continued to climb. She heard Marlow clatter up behind her, making so much noise that she was amazed they made it to the top undetected. She ducked through the vault door into the security room. It was empty, but the door to the stairwell was open and she thought she could hear voices spilling out of it. Jabbing a finger in her ear to clear it, she tried again.

  Yeah, they were definitely voices.

  She looked at Marlow, his smile the brightest thing in the room. Then she burst through the door, craning her head up the stairwell. She could just about see them, figures illuminated by the emergency lights, three or four flights up and running. From the sound of it they were arguing as they went.

  “Hey!” she yelled. Nothing, just the thump of footsteps and those voices, muted but still full of emotion. She tried again, yelling as loud as she could. “Hey!”

  It was a gamble, of course, because she had no idea who it was. She didn’t even truly know if they were back on Earth. This might have been the next level of hell, just a new way of breaking their hearts, ready to peel away in an instant, revealing a world of ash and bone. It was a gamble, but it paid off, because whoever was up there stopped running and a face peeked over the edge of the banister—old and grizzled and ugly as hell.

  But kind, and wide-eyed, and the most beautiful thing Pan had ever seen.

  “Herc!” she yelled, and she was running, tripping up the stairs in her haste. She heard him call her name, heard the rumble of his feet as he came to meet her. She turned a corner and he was suddenly there, a mess of sobs and scars and Old Spice who swept her up in his arms and hugged her so hard she heard her spine pop. She held him just as hard, pushing her face into him, practically screaming into his neck, “Ohgodohgodthankyouthankyouthankyou.”

  “What the … Pan?” said another voice, and she peeled her wet face from Herc to see Charlie with his eyeballs in danger of popping out and rolli
ng down the stairs. “Marlow?”

  “Hey,” said Marlow, and then he was sobbing, too, breaking down right there, hands plastered to his face. She could hear him muttering, “It’s real, please let it be real.”

  Herc took Pan’s head between his palms, looked her right in the eye.

  “What happened?” he asked. “I saw you die.”

  And he must have noticed the metal striations embedded in her face, the sheen of copper in her eye, because he was suddenly wary.

  “You sure you’re real?” he said. “You sure you’re her?”

  “Of course it’s me, you miserable ass,” she said, smudging the tears away.

  “I don’t get it,” said Charlie. “You died. They tore you to pieces, like minutes ago.”

  “Four days,” she said. “Four days, Charlie. I’ve been in hell.”

  Charlie and Herc shared a look.

  “And you didn’t even get me a T-shirt,” Charlie said, his smile so big that she almost burst into tears again. He opened his arms. “Come here.”

  She did, but he pulled free almost immediately.

  “Jesus, Pan,” he said, putting a hand to his face. “You smell like you just crawled out of the Devil’s armpit.”

  “You don’t know how right you are,” she said. “What happened out there?”

  “In the five minutes between you dying and coming back?” said Herc. “A lot. The moment you went,” he shot this comment at Marlow, although Pan wasn’t sure why he was scowling, “the whole Engine started coming to life. Nearly ground us into mincemeat on the way out. Lucky we weren’t too far in.”

  “And Ostheim came back,” said Charlie. “Popped right out of nowhere. Don’t think he knew we were there, don’t think he’d even noticed time stopping. He’s uniting the Engines, won’t be long before…” He frowned. “Wait, you said you were in hell, right? How’d you get back?”

 
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