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Hellwalkers, p.22
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       Hellwalkers, p.22

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  I am not real.

  He opened his mouth, fired out a single word that shook the street, that exploded the windows of his house and ripped open the door.

  “Mom!”

  CHASING DEVILS

  Pan burst out of the stairwell into the lobby, stopping for a moment to catch her breath. She was in a home improvement store, people either streaming out the doors or hiding in the aisles. The air was drenched with smoke and screams.

  What did you do, Herc?

  Thinking about him was too painful—she almost hadn’t been able to stop crying, almost hadn’t been able to get back up. But she had to see if it had been worth it, if his sacrifice had blown the Devil to pieces.

  She burst into the parking lot, half of it erased by the Devil, half by Herc. The fire was moving quickly, devouring the Walmart where Marlow had hidden. There was a mass of shadow in front of it, a pocket of darkness that seemed to fight with the flames. She squinted, seeing a broken figure there, patching itself together again. Then she had to turn away, momentarily blinded.

  A scream, nothing human about it. She peered through her fingers, seeing somebody explode from the side of the same building. It moved like a demon, too fast, but when she managed to focus on it she understood it wasn’t a demon at all.

  It was Marlow.

  He opened his mouth and screamed again, a shock wave of sound ripping across the street. There was something wrong with his skin but she couldn’t work out what. Then he was moving again, dropping onto all fours and galloping down the street. He was moving so fast that by the time she’d called out his name he was gone.

  She saw it, though. She saw the thing that had burrowed into the flesh of his arm.

  The heart.

  Behind Marlow, the Devil was pulling itself free of the wreckage, of the flames. It loosed a roar that threatened to shake the city to dust, a column of darkness rising into the sky, flickering tendrils of inverse light winding through it.

  The bastard was still alive.

  “You idiot, Herc,” she said, fighting her way through the panicked crowds. Somebody grabbed at her, clutching a handful of her shirt—a man, his eyes on the verge of madness.

  “Please, please, what’s wrong?” he said, and then he took her in, the copper filaments of her eyes. “What’s wrong with you?”

  She had her mouth open to answer but she never got the chance. A mass of rippling pink muscle thumped past her and slammed into the man, ripping him away in a shower of blood. The demon pinned him to the ground and tore him in half with a single snap of its jaws. It didn’t even stop to eat, just looked back at Pan.

  “Come on, then,” she said.

  It charged for her and she threw herself behind a parked car, the vehicle shunting into her as the demon shouldered past it. There were too many people here, all of them screaming, and it rampaged among them. She knew what it felt like, to be torn in two, and the thought of those claws inside her neck, the teeth crunching her skull like it was an ice cube, drove her back onto her feet.

  She punched her way through the maelstrom, leaving the shadow of the buildings, the highway coming into view again. From the look of it Marlow was still heading south, the Devil on his tail. Pan put her hands to her head, another cold, dark vortex spinning inside her. She was powerless here, no weapons, no contract, no backup. Herc was dead, Night was in hell, Truck was a thousand miles away. For all she knew, Charlie had been torn to pieces as well. And Marlow, Marlow was something else, something bad.

  She had never felt more alone.

  More demons were appearing; she could hear the ugly uhuhuh of their laughter as they went to work. There was nowhere left to run, and even if she did make it out of the city, what then? She’d have to keep moving as those waves of darkness chased her. The East Coast would fall in hours; how long would it take for the Devil to devour the world?

  She swore, looking at the storm again as it moved south. Where the hell were they going?

  Think, Pan.

  But it was impossible, because even now somebody behind her was pinned beneath two demons. Another appeared, running past her like she didn’t exist. More were stampeding that way, as if they’d spotted something over there, spotted prey.

  Or as if they’d been called.

  Think.

  The Devil was moving south. The demons were flocking the same way.

  Think!

  “Pan!”

  The sound of her name was so alien she wasn’t sure it was real. She turned, looking through the crowds into the mess of Walmart. Was that Charlie there? He was so covered in blood and dirt that he didn’t even look human. He clung to the wall, limping, and she saw the tear in his pants, the bone poking out of his leg. Checking the coast was clear, she bolted to him.

  “What happened?” she asked.

  “The heart,” he said, grimacing against the agony. “He got it free.”

  “Where’s he going?”

  Charlie shrugged, staring at the shrinking cloud of darkness.

  Pan’s mind was a mess of noise, of blood, of smoke. It was like she was back in hell, back in that hurricane of confusion. She watched the buildings burn, she breathed in that choking cloud of ash. She might as well still be there, sitting on that damned pyramid as the Devil or the Stranger or whatever the hell it was strode from the ruin of Marlow’s house.

  A thought flickered right at the back of her head, blown out as another demon bounded past, its muzzle spraying. She tried to ignite it again, her mind soaked through with blood and sweat.

  Hell. The Devil’s lair. The impossible building that had sat right in the middle of it all.

  She looked up, everything still swarming, that cyclone of darkness almost on her. She stared at Charlie and he’d obviously had the exact same thought, because they said it together.

  “Staten Island.”

  Marlow was heading home.

  “Come on,” she said, but Charlie didn’t move.

  “Not this time,” he said, looking at his mangled leg. “Go get him, Pan. Be careful, yeah?”

  Pan took a breath, pushed herself forward. The crowd was moving in every direction now, and she put her head down, charging through them, wishing she still had her electromagnetic charge so she could scatter them like pigeons.

  She scanned the lot, searching the cars. Somehow or other, she’d get to Staten Island, she’d get to Marlow.

  There was only one thing she was sure of.

  She was going to be there when it ended.

  CONFESSION

  “Mom!”

  Marlow howled her name again, and this time his voice was strong enough to rip down the porch, scattering wood. The whole house seemed to shudder in fear, the front door flapping on its hinges like a mouth.

  Goawaygoawaygoaway, it seemed to say.

  The heart pulsed against his skin, its echo inside every cell as it called to its master. Somewhere behind him, the Devil was coming, driven by the last of Ostheim’s blood. But there was time. Marlow wasn’t going anywhere until he heard the truth,

  Barking, from inside. A shape appeared in the doorway. It was Donovan, the dog worked up into such a frenzy that he was spitting foam. He threw himself from wall to wall, his hackles raised, his eyes boring into Marlow. The sight of him was almost enough to break through the fury, a beam of sunlight in the storm.

  Then she appeared, staggering up behind the dog, and a supernova of emotion boiled his heart to dust.

  His mom stood there, a shadow of herself. Even from here, in the middle of the street, he could see her trembling. Donovan ran from the house, standing at the top of the steps, barking at Marlow like he’d seen the Devil himself. And the dog was right, wasn’t he? Marlow might have had him fooled for all these years, but the truth was he was the spawn of something infinitely evil. Who else could stand here with the Devil’s heart fused to his body, with the Devil’s blood pounding through his arteries?

  “Mom!” he yelled again, his voice a weapon that blasted shingles fro
m the roof, that sent Donovan skittering back. The dog barked again, then launched himself down the stairs, teeth sharper than they had ever looked. Marlow held out a hand, those black veins pulsing. “No!” he said, and the force of the word hit Donovan like an invisible boot, kicking him down the street.

  The gears of his rage seemed to stick, his head roaring as they ground, strained, then burned into motion again. He ignored the whining dog, started up the stairs. His mom was backing away, screaming at him, but there was nowhere for her to go. She couldn’t escape it. She had to have known this day would come sooner or later. You couldn’t make a deal with the Devil and not expect to pay the price.

  He had to duck to get through the door, his body growing, swelling with the volume of infernal blood that pumped through him. His mom backed into the living room, bouncing off the wall. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. She was muttering prayers beneath her breath but it wouldn’t do her any good. The only god here now was him.

  He followed her through, punching the wall and showering her with bricks and dust. She was too scared to scream this time, tripping on an empty bottle and falling onto the couch. Her mouth opened and closed like a landed fish, like she was trying to call his name. He walked toward her, his head hitting the light and filling the room with sweeping shadows.

  It was here that it had happened, he realized, right here. Ostheim had sat on this very couch, his mom had fallen prostrate before him, and together they had conjured him into being. His anger, his hate for them both, didn’t even need a voice anymore. It radiated from him, shaking the walls so much that plaster dust rained down from the ceiling, gathering in his mouth like ash. The heart thumped its demented rhythm, the loudest sound in the world.

  “Why?” he said, his voice filling the room like a thunderclap. His mom clamped her hands to her ears, still mumbling those prayers. Marlow leaned over her, resisting every urge to just pick her up and throw her into the wall.

  Wait, part of him said, but it was a part buried so deep that it was nothing more than a whisper, quickly forgotten.

  “Why?”

  She sobbed, holding a cushion to her face like she meant to suffocate. He bent down and pulled it away, the fabric tearing, spitting feathers. His mom moaned, scrubbing at her eyes with her fists. She said something but it was lost behind the jet engine roar of Marlow’s emotions.

  “Why?”

  “Danny!” she screamed at him, and the last trace of doubt burst from his head. Here was the truth, right here, written in her tears, in the lines that etched her face, in the defiance as she stared up at him. “Danny, I need you. Please! Please!”

  Marlow shook his head, grabbing his face like he could just tear it off to reveal something else behind it. An inferno was raging inside him, the pressure of it too much. It was going to detonate, and he felt like he might take the entire world with him. And what did it matter if he did?

  I am not real.

  Because he’d never truly been a part of it anyway.

  “I loved him so much,” said his mom, curling her legs up beneath her, her eyes big and wet and frightened—a child’s eyes. “I don’t understand…” She groaned again, as if the truth were being physically ripped out of her. “I don’t understand what you are. It was never supposed to be this way, It would never have been this way if Danny had still been alive. Please, Ma—”

  She stopped, like she couldn’t speak his name. She had to be lying—or maybe she didn’t remember. Maybe the years of drink had just washed the shame and the horror away. But there was no denying it, was there? His mom might not have forged a contract with the Engine, but she’d traded with the Devil, it had used its tainted blood to build Marlow from darkness.

  “I thought I could love you,” said his mom. “I thought it would make it better, I thought I could love you like you were … you were my son. And I did love you.” Again, his name got caught in her throat like a chunk of rancid meat. “I did love you. I did love you.”

  She glanced up at him and her face seemed to slide off the bone.

  “But I couldn’t love you as much as I loved him. I couldn’t forget where you’d come from, and what…”

  She burrowed her head into her legs, sobbing, but he could still make out her muffled words.

  “Or what you would become.”

  The pressure inside his head was so great that it was whistling, a shrill sound that might have been his skull about to shatter. The scream rose like vomit and he turned, opening his mouth and loosing it toward the window. It ripped out of him, a fist of sound that tore away the entire front wall, blasting wreckage into a street that had turned twilight dark. The house moaned, the ceiling cracking above his head. He didn’t care. Let it bury him, let it be done with them both.

  “I always knew it,” she said. “I always knew I’d lose you, too, but not like this, not like this. I loved you, I loved you almost as much, I swear it. But I knew…”

  “What?” he asked.

  “I always knew you’d raise hell.”

  Marlow reeled, reaching for the wall to steady himself. His hand punched into the bricks and he squeezed them into shrapnel, ripping them away and blasting them out into the street like bullets. It couldn’t be real. Ostheim had known everything, he’d planned everything—everything Marlow ever was had been orchestrated for one simple purpose.

  To open the gates of hell.

  To let the Devil step out into the world.

  He saw the way he’d been kicked out of school, the way that Pan and Herc just happened to be battling demons across the neighborhood. What were the chances of that? Ostheim had sent them there for one reason, to draw him in. He remembered the way he’d stumbled into that parking lot, gun in hand. Why would anyone sane, anyone real, step out of the daylight and walk toward chaos? It had been inside him all this time, the part of him that somehow knew he’d be raising hell. And everything that had happened since—telling Charlie he couldn’t join them, setting him up to meet Mammon and infiltrate the Engine. Then working out where Mammon was and leading Ostheim right to him, paving the way for him to unite the Engines and open the gates. Finding Meridiana, sentencing her to death, and getting a contract that would expire in minutes. Hell, too. He’d always been destined to go there, to meet his maker firsthand, to broker one final deal that would open the gates and allow the Devil to come home.

  Every single thing he’d done had been programmed into him.

  He was a puppet, a shadow thing, soulless and corrupt.

  The Devil’s heart thumped, still swelling, as big as a football now. The veins that stretched from it, that had burrowed into his skin, were as thick as fingers and as hard as steel, still pumping him full of blood.

  And there was a good reason for its excitement.

  Outside, the world was gripped by night, as if the sun had been shot from the sky. The room was juddering, and across the street the houses were caught up in a frenzy of dark light, tearing themselves to pieces. The air pulsed with a voice, with its voice. Marlow stumbled toward the ruined wall, out into the fury of sound and violence.

  The Devil was walking up the street.

  It was almost impossible to look at it: the world seemed to blister as it approached, pockets of reality burning away. But its blood still blazed through Marlow, through every cell, and he peered inside that bubble of black light with his new eyes. That too-tall figure was there, its face opening and closing like origami, its eyes like black holes, pulling Marlow in. It unfurled those insect arms as if it meant to embrace him, and as it did so he understood the final piece of the puzzle, he understood the last thing that the Devil needed him to do.

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

  The Devil’s voice wrapped itself around Marlow. It threatened to shake his bones to dust, but there was no pain—the heart saw to that. Marlow smiled as the Devil stepped closer. The world hadn’t made him. The world had never wanted him. But this thing, this god, had given him life, and giv
en him meaning. And all it asked for in return was his love.

  YOU ARE MY CHILD.

  “I am your child,” he said, the shock wave from their voices cracking together, opening up a crater in the earth, splitting the clouds. The sheer power of it made Marlow’s smile stretch even farther. He thought of his mom, of his principal, of Patrick and Ostheim and everyone else in his life who had told him he was weak, told him he was not worthy of love.

  But wait till they saw him now. He would be a king here.

  YOU WILL BE A GOD.

  The Devil floated forward, cradled inside its storm. The closer it got, the more Marlow could see of it—those mechanisms still turning inside its skin, the empty space in its chest that screamed for a heart. It looked different from the last time he had seen it, its skin ragged, oozing dark blood, its movements hesitant. Despite its fury it was weak, and Marlow knew that without him it would die. Then let it die, he screamed from inside the well of himself. But even as he spoke the words he was walking, then stumble-running into the hurricane.

  ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS SAY YES, the Stranger said.

  All it wanted was his love, and that was all he had to give.

  Smiling at the thought, Marlow reached out, opened his arms.

  And said yes.

  THE END OF EVERYTHING

  The Devil’s arms uncurled, the cracking of its joints even louder than the howl of the storm. It held them out, threatening to swallow Marlow whole. There was a moment when he almost heard his own voice, his old voice, as weak and pathetic as a kitten’s mewl—nonono what are you doing?—then it was gone again, drowned out by the thunder of the Devil’s heart, by the roar of its blood.

  He took a step toward it, close enough to touch. Its whole body was made up of parts, a mix of organic and inorganic that moved as one. It was an engine of flesh and machine, one that stank of blood and oil and something ancient, something awful. He watched as pieces of it peeled loose, more of those black veins sliding from its greasy torso, angling at Marlow, feeling for him. The heart that beat against his flesh reached out tendrils of its own, black threads that mingled with those from the Devil.

 
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