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Hellwalkers, p.21
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       Hellwalkers, p.21

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  The helicopter rose, circled clumsily, then dropped fast, its angle too steep, heading right for the cloud of darkness that stepped up to the shopping mall. She held out a hand to Herc, wanting him to pull up, to race back to her, to grin that toothless grin out the chopper window and say “I’ve got another plan.” She just wanted the Devil to curl up and die, to falter and fall like it had done last time.

  But it wasn’t going to happen.

  The helicopter thumped into the Devil, seemed to pause for a second, then erupted into fire. The air around Pan shook, as if the entire world had taken a breath in shock, and she took a breath in shock too because she couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. A peal of thunder broke out, rolling toward her like a physical thing. It knocked her to her knees, to her elbows, and she did the only thing she could think to do. She put her head on the rooftop, whispered Herc’s name, and started to cry.

  ONE LAST DEAL

  The darkness sluiced into Marlow’s head, deeper than the night, worse even than the Black Pool. It filled his skull, his heart, his lungs, it occupied every cell, drowning him from the inside out. But it wasn’t a close darkness, it wasn’t suffocating. There was something different about this because he knew, somehow, that this was all there was—an endless void of nothing. The thought of it, of that gaping absence, made him open his mouth and loose a silent, deafening howl.

  He could feel the poisonous arteries of the Devil’s heart burrowing into him, working their way up his arms, searching. But he couldn’t fight them, he couldn’t move. They wriggled beneath his skin, beneath his muscles, coiling around his bones, as cold as ice and as hot as molten lead. He screamed as the first of them brushed against his spine.

  A voice that wasn’t really a voice filled his head—a language without words bursting inside him like a lightless firework. There was somebody there, something, a shadow against the night. Marlow understood that this thing was as old as time, older, even—a creature that had burned its way through reality before there was even a reality to explore, a creature that had created reality as it went.

  The wordless voice showed him things he couldn’t even comprehend—explosions that birthed universes, played out in the blink of an eye he couldn’t actually blink, stars forming from the chaos, and planets forming around those stars. And even amid all this light, there was darkness, its darkness, that pulsing core of inverse matter that stalked the unthinkable distances between the galaxies.

  And it was not alone, this thing. It was not safe—Marlow could sense an emotion that was unlike anything he had ever felt, so powerful he might melt beneath the sheer force of it. It was terror, the terror of a creature who knows that soon it will die.

  More churning motion, and Marlow watched as this shape of infinite darkness split itself—not through space but beyond it, separating into seven shards of impossible light that scattered through the universes. It was the only way, the voice showed him, the only way to stay safe, and to stay hidden. Seven pieces of the same being, hiding in seven alternate realities.

  Seven Strangers, that unvoice said. Because in dividing they lost one another, they lost themselves.

  The scene shifted again, bringing Marlow home—to a place he knew so well now, a burning watchmaker weeping for his lost children, and one of the seven Strangers coiling out of the smoke. It had been hiding there for so long, waiting for the right time, for the right person. It had watched, it had learned, it had a language now and Marlow heard that voice again.

  IT IS DONE.

  And he saw the creature’s blood—blood that had boiled in its veins since the very start of everything—bubble and blister its way into the watchmaker. The man’s scream was so loud it shattered the vision to pieces but Marlow could still hear his voice, his desperate pleas.

  Give them back to me. Bring my children home.

  THE LOVE FOR A CHILD IS THE MOST POWERFUL THING IN THE UNIVERSE.

  Marlow wasn’t sure if the voice came from the memory or from somewhere else. It was a whisper rather than a shout, sliding into his ear like a needle. He tried to turn his head but he had no control, and there was nothing to see, just that infinite void.

  Until something began to swim out of it, a scene like a movie in fast-forward. He saw Ostheim, the boy who wasn’t really a boy, the boy who was born from the Stranger. Marlow saw him live in the Engine with his true father, with this serpent of smoke and shadow. He saw him feed on blood, saw him grow into something monstrous, something that wore its human face like a mask. And that face changed, losing its hair, its vitality, its youth—but never losing the darkness that swam just beneath the skin.

  “I don’t understand,” Marlow said in a voice made of silence. “I don’t know why you’re showing me this.”

  YOU WILL, said the voice.

  Time and matter imploded again, Marlow’s stomach flipping like he’d been launched from a catapult. He fell into more light, so bright it was like a blowtorch held to his retinas. For a moment he didn’t understand where he was, then he saw the stones, arranged in perfect lines, one for each dead body resting beneath the earth, and he understood.

  Arlington.

  He heard her before he saw her, sobs that echoed off the stones, which rose into the sky like doves. And when he turned his head there was his mom—so much younger, so much healthier. Only her face was the same, warped with an expression of grief that she’d tried to hide in the years since Danny’s death, but which she’d never managed to remove. She was holding on to somebody Marlow didn’t recognize, somebody in full ceremonial uniform. There were dozens of people there, all clustered around a small, dark hole in the ground. Marlow knew who was inside the coffin that lay there.

  His brother.

  Danny, he said, reaching out for him with a hand he didn’t possess. He scanned the crowds, looking for himself. He didn’t remember the funeral, he’d been too young, surely. Or maybe it was because he hadn’t been there, because he couldn’t see himself. His mom wouldn’t have let him go, he realized. It would have been too traumatic. He reached back into the fog of his memory but he couldn’t recall her even talking about it. There was nothing there at all.

  The scene scrubbed forward, his mom alone now, inside their house—the walls freshly painted, the carpets clean, photographs hanging on every wall. He tried to make out who was in them, seeing his mom, seeing Danny.

  But no photographs of Marlow.

  He squirmed against the memory, wanting to go to his mom as she opened up a grocery bag, as she pulled out a bottle of Bacardi, sobbing uncontrollably as she unscrewed the cap. And in the moments that followed—a hundred days bunched into one awful, endless swallow—he saw her age, saw her deflate into herself, saw her home crumble into ruin.

  And there was still no sign of him.

  It didn’t make any sense.

  The memory shuddered back into real time with the sound of a knock on the door. And even here, bodiless and alone, Marlow felt that pinch of terror at the base of his spine. He wanted to tell her not to open it, just to sit in the dark and wait for the caller to leave. But his mom wobbled to her feet and called out a word that broke Marlow’s heart.

  “Danny?”

  She rushed from the room, down the hall, bouncing off the wall. A silhouette filled the glass panel, something that looked too big to be a man, shadows squirming there like they were trying to find a way in. But they didn’t need to, because his mom wrenched open the door, letting them flood forward, drowning the house in darkness.

  A man stood there.

  A man with an impossible face.

  A man who pushed lank strands of hair back over his balding head and flashed his mom a vicious smile.

  Sheppel Ostheim.

  No, said Marlow, trying to pull the memory inside himself, trying to rip it away from the man at the door. But he was powerless here, and all he could do was watch as Ostheim strode into his mom’s house, walking into the living room like he owned the place. And his mom
just followed him. She didn’t call the cops, she didn’t ask him to leave, she just trod in his shadow like a beaten dog, collapsing onto her knees before him.

  Leave her alone! Marlow screamed, watching Ostheim run a hand down her face, cup her chin. His fear was like an ocean in a storm, enough to pull him to pieces. But he couldn’t fight the paralysis, couldn’t help his mom, couldn’t even turn away. He could only watch as Ostheim leaned in, brushed his mom’s greasy hair from her ear, and whispered.

  “I can give you back a son.”

  No, Marlow said.

  “I can make you a mother again.”

  No.

  “It won’t be the one you lost, of course, but he will be just as good, and just as kind.”

  No, please.

  “And you will love him as if he were real.”

  Please, God, no.

  “All you have to do is say yes.”

  Please, Mom, don’t.

  “All you have to do is say yes, and your house will no longer be empty, it will no longer be sad.”

  Mom!

  “All you have to do is say yes.”

  Say no! Marlow screamed, but it was pointless because all of this had already happened. It was pointless because he already knew what his mom had said. Hadn’t he always known it, somewhere in the very deepest part of him? Because there had never been any memories, there had never been any childhood. There had only been that one, awful word.

  “Yes.”

  Ostheim lifted his head and howled his laughter out into the memory, shattering it. When it reformed Marlow saw a bedroom—his bedroom—the floorboards bare, wallpaper hanging like peeling skin. One corner was shrouded in darkness, sinkhole-deep, but something was walking out of it—a boy, maybe five or six, his eyes two black marbles. They were doll’s eyes, looking like they might just roll out of their sockets.

  His mom ran into the room, her sobs the loudest sound in the world. She dropped to her knees before the child and swallowed him up in a hug. The boy didn’t react, he just rolled those dead eyes to where Marlow floated and smiled.

  Nononononono, Marlow screamed, fighting the memory, watching him as he watched back and feeling the fury like a cold, dense explosion inside him.

  THE LOVE FOR A CHILD IS THE MOST POWERFUL THING IN THE UNIVERSE, said the voice, that scalpel-sharp whisper.

  There was no escaping the truth, it sat in Marlow’s head like a beacon. But the Stranger spoke it anyway.

  YOU ARE MY CHILD.

  The boy was him.

  YOU ARE MINE.

  And the creature that had begun its life before the universe had been formed, before the stars, before worlds, before time.

  The creature whose blood had corrupted countless souls, whose touch had reduced men to monsters, and children to something even worse.

  The creature who was tearing its way through the world, who wanted to turn the living to dust, who wanted to make this place into hell.

  It was his father.

  PART III

  THE DEVIL’S IN THE HOUSE

  LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

  His rage was powerful enough to blow away the last scraps of the memory. It picked him up in a fist of sound and fury and dragged him back to the world.

  It was like waking from a nightmare, and he opened his mouth and screamed—a noise that roared from him like fire, which ripped through the shelves of the aisle, which tore loose the steel beams from the ceiling. He was on his knees and he clenched his fists, pounding at the ground, filling the air with dust. There was no pain, there was just anger, cold and infinitely deep.

  He was born from a deal with the Devil.

  No!

  He had been forged with the blood of the Stranger.

  No!

  He was not real.

  No!

  He was not real.

  He screamed again, searching for anything in his head that might undermine the truth. But there was nothing there, nothing to remember. Because everything he was, everything he had ever been, had begun when he was five years old and he had stepped from that web of shadow.

  “Marlow?”

  He looked up, the world swimming in shades of black and silver, like he was watching an old-fashioned movie. Somebody was standing in front of him, a rabbit caught in the dark light of his rage. It took him a moment to remember a name—Charlie—but he didn’t speak it. There was no point. How could he have had friends, real friends, when he was not real?

  “Marlow!” Charlie yelled, holding out his hand. “Just hang on, I can help…”

  But his words were insect-small and Marlow waved them away, seeing the Devil’s heart still hanging from his fist. It threw out sickening waves of dark light like a lighthouse, thrumming so loudly that the vibration traveled through every one of his bones. A dozen thick, ropy veins had penetrated his skin and more were shivering up his wrist, stretching like plant fronds. He saw that they were inside his shoulder, they’d bridged the gap to his chest, his neck. He could feel them inside him, probing, reaching, the disgust dwarfed by that same violent tide that roiled inside his skull.

  I am not real.

  He growled like an injured dog, but there was nothing weak about him now. The Devil’s heart was pumping, the arteries bulging with the force of some new circulation. His own veins had turned black, straining against his skin, that poisoned blood hurtling through his system like a drug. He arched his back and screamed again, a wordless cry that flew from him like a weapon.

  Charlie dived away, head in his hands. Marlow stood, took a step. The heart swung from his wrist but the stringy tendons that connected it to him were retracting. It was reeling itself closer, resting wetly against his skin, pumping, pumping, pumping.

  Somewhere, in some distant part of his mind, he knew he should tear it loose, knew he should grab a knife and saw at those veins until this rancid piece of the Devil fell to the ground, knew he should stamp on it until it was jelly.

  But he didn’t.

  He felt stronger than he had in years, stronger than ever—stronger even than when he’d burst free from the Engine after his first deal, with the strength of ten men. He felt like he had the strength of a hundred men now, a thousand. He had the strength of the entire human species. And he knew why.

  Because I am not real.

  Another sound forced its way from him, a guttural, choking laugh.

  I am not real.

  It should have terrified him, but there was still only anger, his skull full of the dark horror of it—only anger, and a flicker of something else, something he hadn’t felt since the last time he made a deal.

  Excitement.

  The Devil was on the threshold of Walmart, but something had happened to it, pieces of machinery scattered across the blackened ground. The world was burning there, the creature squirming inside the flames. It was hurting. It needed its heart more than ever now. The corrupted organ beat against Marlow’s skin and he put a black-veined hand to it. Somewhere he could hear Charlie screaming at him.

  “Destroy it! What are you doing?”

  Marlow’s rage burned too fiercely, too brightly. He couldn’t see anything past it.

  Except one thing.

  He ran through the ruin of the store, punching out of the side wall like it was made of paper. The Devil’s heart clung to him, beating out a frantic rhythm, filling him with cold fury. It must have known that its master was close because it was twitching, the veins in his arm tugging at him like a horse’s reins.

  No, he said again, but his own voice seemed farther away than ever—like he was drowning inside himself, sinking into an ocean of blood. He bunched his fist and struck himself on the head, screaming get out get out get out. But the call of it was too loud, too powerful.

  I am not real, I am not real. He chanted it, because surely it was easier if he just accepted it, if he accepted that he had never been born, that his mom had never loved him, that he was just the terrible union of loss, grief, and a deal with the Devil.

&nb
sp; I am not real.

  The heart was pounding so fast its beats were just a blur, Marlow’s vision pulsing red and black. He was growling, a noise that sounded as far from human as anything he had ever heard. It was the sound made by a monster.

  Because he was a monster.

  He thought of his mom, the way she’d never looked at him like she’d looked at those photographs of Danny, the way she’d always compared him with Danny, the way she’d said she could never love him like she loved Danny.

  His mom had made him a monster.

  He loosed another animal howl that rocketed over the city. The darkness behind him was growing deeper, the Devil recovering.

  But it wasn’t the Devil he wanted answers from.

  Snorting like a bull, he turned south. He sniffed the air—smoke and blood and burning flesh—then started running again, away from the darkness. He galloped on all fours, his fists gouging holes in the asphalt as he bounded through the parking lot. He vaulted onto a burning car, leaping onto the roof of a van, leapfrogging his way through the carnage. The world tore past him in a blur, like it, too, was no longer real.

  Ahead was a bridge, clogged with traffic, and he carved a path through it. People swarmed like ants, their mouths open as if they were screaming, but all he could hear was the roar of the Devil’s blood in his skull, and the endless howl of his own rage.

  He ran, and he ran, and he ran, until, at last, he began to slow. Each ragged breath was like a grenade going off, sending plumes of dust out across the street. The houses to either side of him were shut tight but he could sense the people inside, watching him.

  He didn’t care. It meant nothing to him. He was only interested in one house and he had reached it now. It sat there, slumped and miserable, its blue paint peeling. The curtains were closed the way they had been since Danny’s wake.

  Since the moment that Marlow had crawled from the shadows.

  He stood in front of it, trying once again to remember anything, trying to remember one scrap of truth that would make the Devil’s story a lie, finding nothing.

 
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