Finally, he reached the Surface after all this time. He felt the sizzling touch of the Sun on his cheeks…
The Honey-Addled Author shook his head. No, that doesn’t sound right. Does it? He couldn’t tell anymore. He crumpled up the page and tossed it onto the ever-growing pile of failure. His failure. He needed inspiration.
He looked up from his cosy little perch on the roof of his home, looked up at the false-stars glimmering high above him. What did sunlight feel like, again?
“Maybe just a drop…?” he whispered to himself. It’s a terrible idea. He knew it was. But perhaps…
The Honey-Addled Author’s home was in a state of finely-tailored disuse. He could barely even afford food these days, let alone cleaning staff. He hasn’t sold a book in ages. Had his people forgotten him already? Are his Bohemian friends enjoying honey in Veilgarden without him, not sparing him a single thought? He wanted to join them in their revels. Who’s to stop him?
“Sorry, M’Lord. Just doin’ what I’m told,” the Burly Guardswoman blocking the entrance said. Since when were there guards in the honey-dens?
“You don’t understand, I’ve been coming here for a very long time,” he tried.
“I don’t make the rules. And you bein’ here is against one of ‘em,”
The Author felt his cheeks heat up in anger. He could almost hear his friends giggling at him inside. He stormed off before the guard decided to forcibly see him out.
Not allowed in honey-dens! The outrage! Was he caught honey-mazed the last time he was there? Did he do something even the Bohemians couldn’t tolerate? They didn’t tell him what he did. What a complete load of-!
The Author found himself sprawled on the ground. Several small jars were scattered onto the cobblestones, one or two broken, and a darkly-dressed stranger was busy fumbling about between them. The Author spots a pair of darkly tinted glasses amongst the jars. Does it belong to the stranger? He reaches for them the same time the stranger did. Their eyes meet.
By god. His eyes seemed to glow in the darkness. A yellow so bright, it almost seemed like…
“Sunlight,” he whispered. The Devil took his glasses and put them back on.
“‘Scuse me,” the Devil mumbled and proceeded to pick up what’s left of his fallen jars. Is that Prisoner’s Honey? Does Hell export honey? He seemed a little somberly dressed for a devil. Not to mention a little clumsy and awkward.
“Ah, excuse me, is that Prisoner’s honey?”
The Introverted Devil stiffened, then locked eyes with the Author – tinted glasses slightly askew. His lips moved but no words formed. He got up, clutching his jars, and hurried away.
But the Author wasn’t done with him.
“Wait! You missed one!” he lied, rushing after the Devil. The Devil didn’t seem to notice or perhaps even care what the Author had to say. He didn’t even change pace. The Author managed to grab him by the shoulder and pull him back.
“I said wait!”
The Introverted Devil stopped, stiff as a rattus-faber corpse during sackmas. How can a devil be so mousy?
“Where are you going with those?” the Author asked.
“None of your business”
“Actually, it is. I am a very well-known official in the honey-dens,” – not a complete lie – “I would’ve recognised you if you were a delivery boy.”
From this close, the Author could smell the sulphur on the him. There was no doubt that this man was a Devil – at least, no doubt in heritage.
The Introverted Devil shrugged the Author’s hand off his shoulder and started walking again, a bit more casually. He didn’t attempt running when the Author matched his pace.
“The Forgotten Quarter,” he finally says.
The Author’s eyebrows shot up and disappeared in his bangs. The Forgotten Quarter? What the hell would you need Prisoner’s Honey there for? Why would you need it there? The Author opened his mouth to ask as much, and the Devil interrupted him.
“I don’t know what it’s for. I’m just doing what was asked.”
The Author kept walking alongside the Devil. The Devil, no doubt uncomfortable with his entourage-of-one, pulled his shoulders up to his ears. They got all the way to Daughtry’s Passage before the Devil finally spoke again.
“Why are you following me?”
“Am I not allowed to?”
“That’s not what I asked.”
The Author shrugged and offered him a wistful smile.
Another good distance of silence. The Devil still didn’t chase him away. The Author took that as an invitation.
“I noticed that you were not particularly bothered with those broken jars earlier…”
“You may not have any of these,”
“Not even a drop?”
Finally, the Devil stops walking, right on the side of the street. He was looking about, left and right.
“Do you need a cab?”
The Devil ignored him. How was he going to hail a hansom cab when his arms are full and he was trying his best to disappear into his own coat? The Author hailed them a cab, making sure the Devil gets on first. Mostly so he won’t just run away.
The Devil furrowed his dark eyebrows together.
“I don’t need help”
“That doesn’t mean you do not deserve it,”
The Devil pressed his lips into a tight line, but didn’t protest.
“You’re very easy to push around. Rather uncommon for a Devil”
The Devil continued to ignore him. The Author started grinning.
“You’re not dressed as flamboyantly as your hell-mates, either,”
The entire ride to the Forgotten Quarter kept on like this. The Honey-Addled Author asked question after question, all very innocent and polite (in his opinion). The Introverted Devil made a point of staying quiet, hiding deep into his own coat.
“Alright, I know you’re just ignoring me out of spite, but we’re already here and you’re about to burn a hole in your seat. Why are you so nervous? Surely it can’t be me, I’m a human!”
“It’s not you,”
The Author waited for an elaboration with barely-concealed impatience. The Devil sighed and shook his head.
“It’s the devils waiting for me,” he said, then got out of the cab, barely waiting for it to stop properly. The Author, obviously, followed.
Turns out, devils aren’t only unkind to humans. They also seem to enjoy bullying their own. The weak and the vulnerable. Like the Introverted Devil. It still wasn’t apparent what the honey was for, but the rowdy bunch of devils took every single jar. They were roughly grabbing, shoving, and teasing the Introverted Devil, and the Devil didn’t even attempt fighting back. The Author knew better than to directly interfere. Mostly.
“Excuse me, what is the honey for?”
The devils stop their teasing to stare at the Author. As if just now realizing he’s there. The Author cleared his throat.
“Just out of curiosity, you s-”
“Oho, what’s this? Brought a friend with you?” the Churlish Devil taunted. The Introverted Devil looked away.
“He’s not my friend. I just met him,”
But the Churlish Devil was still smirking. He approached the Author, and the Author attempted to avoid that. The Devil grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Not a bad soul, I must say,” he said.
The Honey-Addled Author didn’t know whether he was flattered or afraid.
“My good sir, my soul is not for sale!” he said.
“We’ll see about that.”
Now, the Introverted Devil rarely ever speaks up. Normally, this is the part where he would play hero by breaking out of his shell and saving that oddly annoying fellow he came to adore. Just like in the Author’s books. Instead, the Introverted Devil was staring at them, somewhat mortified.
“I assure you, you do not want my soul,” the Author tried.
“It’s not stained. A little lost, but not stained by any means. Kind. Well loved, once. A hint of sorrow even,” The Churlish Devil said.
The Introverted Devil hated this part. With some willpower, he forced his legs to move..! Backwards. He bumped into one of the other devils, the one now holding the honey.
Well… used to hold the honey.
Almost every jar of honey slipped from his arms, crashing onto the floor. Tiny shards of glass scattered. Some particularly sticky ones got stuck on their trouser legs. Prisoner’s Honey treacled between glass shards and cobblestones. The Introverted Devil felt his heart do a pirouette in his stomach before springing for his throat.
All eyes were on him.
The Introverted Devil held his breath, counting the seconds.
One, two, three…
They’re all staring at him. The Author’s green eyes, wide as saucers. The Churlish Devil’s sulfur-fire blues…
Seven, eight, nine….
There was not a sound in the Forgotten Quarter. Not even the whispering wind that never fails to unnerve newcomers. Even the horse statues seemed to be staring at them.
Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…
“What… did you do…?” the Churlish Devil asked.
The Introverted Devil forced himself to suck in a lungful of air. The Churlish Devil had released the Author who was, frankly, surprised to be alive. With his soul.
“It was an accident!” the Introverted Devil said.
“An accident is one or two jars breaking. You already lost a few before coming here,”
The Introverted Devil looked just about ready to run. The Author was already doing so. The Introverted Devil watched the Author dart past dead trees and horse-head statues. He chuckled sheepishly, barely making any noise.
Then he sprinted after him.
The Introverted Devil had absolutely no reason to follow the Author. None at all. Not even a little bit. The Author wasn’t that far ahead.
“Wait for me!” he yelled. The Author stumbled, jerked his head back so fast that the Devil feared his neck would snap, then slowed down for him. Despite his better judgement.
“You’re not taking me back to them, are you?” the Author asked in between huffs of breath. The Devil merely shook his head and kept running. If they were worth chasing, the other devils will catch up to them in no time, after all.
The Devil ended up leading the way out to some side streets of the Bazaar. It was safer than the Forgotten Quarter. For now, at least. They slowed down to a walk and the Devil bit his lip. Where do they go now? What is he going to do now? Those devils knew him personally. They’ll find him and get their revenge. They’ll… where is the Author? The Devil looked around wildly, searching for the by now familiar shape of the Author. He spotted him staring at a stall selling jewels. The Devil rushed over and pulled him away.
“This is no time for shopping! Just… don’t look at anything!” The Devil said, dragging the Author away by hand.
“I’ve never been here before,” the Author said, awestruck.
“You’re not important enough,”
The Devil sighed. He didn’t feel like explaining this to him right now. He has other matters to worry about that doesn’t include watching someone of very little importance get lost in the crowd. He had to warn him, though…
“Also…” – The Author stops his pouting and looks at him – “Don’t fall in love.”
The Author followed the Devil down Blackfinger Street, past the Bridge Without and countless stalls of all sorts of wonders he has never seen before.
“Is that a… what is that?” The Author asked. The Devil followed his gaze.
“What? The whirring contraption?”
The Author’s eyes seemed to sparkle with curiosity. The Devil was smiling, despite himself. He made sure to hide it as soon as he realized he had it. The Author, despite the Devil’s low-effort attempt of restraining him via hand-holding, was absorbed in his surroundings. Pointing out curios and oddities, asking about things he’s never seen before… The Devil found it increasingly difficult to focus on his own problems.
“You live in Veilgarden, don’t you?” the Devil asked while the Author was fawning over some wines. The Author looked at him, seeming a little dazed. As if his mind took a moment to catch up with his words.
“What..? Oh! Yes, Veilgarden. Are you taking me home?”
“Yes. Well. Just somewhere not here.”
“What’s wrong with your home?”
“I don’t want you there.”
The Author gave him that look again – an offended pout with brows furrowed together – and the Devil still didn’t feel like explaining to him how that wasn’t meant as an insult.
“Yours is just… easier,” he muttered after a little while. The Author didn’t say anything. The Devil was biting his lip again, fangs digging into his skin this time. He knew exactly what was happening. It was completely normal for a devil. It’s their nature.
“Deep breaths, don’t fall in love…” he said. He could almost feel those spires looming over him, watching him. Could almost feel the crowd pressing closer, threatening to keep him here forever.
The Devil pulled out his handkerchief and covered his mouth and nose. The Bazaar Side-Streets were packed with brilliant souls, and he could smell each and every one of them. It’s too much. Other devils don’t go through this, of course. Other devils don’t get overwhelmed by the very thing they should be yearning for.
Just a little bit more, he promised himself. Veilgarden isn’t that far…
They squeezed past a particularly dense crowd and the Devil held his breath. He doesn’t know why he’s so sensitive to souls, or why no one else wasn’t. He doesn’t-
“Are you alright?” the Author asked. The Devil shook his head, stifling a sneeze. The Author pulled his hand free from the Devil’s, earning him an annoyed scowl. As if he would disappear the moment he lets go.
“What are you…?”
“What’s wrong?” the Author said, “Is something bothering you?”
The Author eyes the handkerchief still pressed against the Devil’s face. The Devil shook his head again and grabbed his hand.
The Devil’s head was pounding by now. There’s just too many of them. He surges onwards without any mind to direction. Eventually he became aware of the Author pulling him forward, instead of the other way around. He didn’t even try focussing on his surroundings anymore.
It’s just too much for him…
The Author led the Introverted Devil to his own home. Even when they were well away from the Side-Streets and the worst of the crowd, he was still rather disoriented. It was only when the Devil was seated in the Author’s favourite reading chair, his handkerchief forcefully pulled away from his face to allow him fresh air, that the Devil managed to regain his senses. The Author brought him a glass of Amanita Sherry. The Devil hesitated.
“You’ll probably feel better,” the Author said. The Devil, still unsure, took the glass anyway. It’s not like the Author could drink it.
“I’m… more surprised that you’d have it, to be honest.”
“Friend of a friend,”
The conversation went stagnant. The Devil awkwardly drank the sherry. The Author fiddled with his sleeves. Itching to start up a conversation. They sigh in unison. Then they smiled.
“Well…” the Author started, “It wasn’t a boring day,”
“It’s only noon,”
They smiled at each other, partly out of politeness, partly out of fondness. Struggle brings people together, even in cases like theirs. The Devil put his empty glass on a nearby table and got up, wiping away his smile.
“I should go,” he said. The Author sprang up and grabbed his arm.
“Wait! Are you sure? You seemed just about ready to pass out a moment ago,”
“I was not!”
“Consider it repayment then. For the trouble I caused,” the Author snagged the open bottle of Amanita Sherry, smiling sheepishly.
“Of course, I will be indulging in cheap Greyfields,” he continued.
The Devil looked at the Author, then the cheap sherry, then glanced back at the door. He sighed.
“Alright, fine. But after this I’m leaving,”
Three hours and two bottles later, and the Devil was still there. He was draped languidly over his chair, legs dangling over an armrest and an empty glass balanced on his stomach.
“Why… am I still here?” he drawled. He was supposed to leave ages ago. But now he’s here. With the Author. In relatively close proximity.
“Because you’re my guest and that’s just good manners,” the Author said. He was lying on his stomach, peering at the devil from over the edge of the couch’s armrest. Not the most comfortable of positions, but he enjoyed the view.
“You’re blond,” the Author remarked. The Devil, with his hat and tinted glasses tossed carelessly onto a coffee table, raised an eyebrow. He didn’t comment. The Author kept on, already accustomed to his silence.
“Like sunshine,” the Author said, reaching out as if to touch it. The Devil sat upright, out of reach. The Author didn’t seem particularly bothered. The Devil was already wondering what would’ve happened if he didn’t flinch away.
There was a moment of dizzy silence as the Author checked for remaining wine, and the Devil quietly contemplated society norms. Disappointed, the Author slumped back onto the couch. Staring at the Devil.
“What are souls like?”
The Devil stiffened.
“Do they taste a particular way, for instance?”
“Don’t be silly. We don’t eat souls,”
The Author thought for a bit, sitting upright.
“What do they look like?”
An idea occurred to the Devil. An awful one, yet an excellent one. It could answer all his questions, the ones just barely buzzing to the surface. Every…
“Why don’t I show you?” he said. He joined the Author on the couch, elbows rubbing together. It may be rather ill-taught to do this on a living room couch, but the Devil doubted he’d get the Author all the way to his bedroom and still manage to be charming.
“Do you know how this works?” the Devil asked. The Author’s throat bobbed. Nervousness, but not reluctance.
“On the couch?” he asked. The Devil smiled at him.
“Don’t worry about it,”
The Devil took his hand and leaned close, remembering all those lessons, all those well practiced words… The Author seemed surprised. Was he expecting something else? The Author was swallowed up by his words in no time at all. Warm, golden light, swimming behind his eyelids…
And then the Devil was gone.
The Author woke up in his bedroom, a small package on his bedside table. It was morning, and he was alone. What happened last night? He didn’t feel particularly troubled. Or happy. Or particularly alive.
The Author rolled over and grabbed the package. Logically, he thought he should be alarmed, scared, heartbroken. He felt none of that. Just a vague emptiness, deep within him. He opened the package. It was a few handfuls of jewels, bits of Nevercold Brass and a Devilbone dice. There was a piece of paper on his bedside table. A contract. His very own infernal contract.
He had lost his soul.
Should he go look for it? It’s certainly an odd sensation, to not have a soul. Not unpleasant, he supposed. But odd.
He wrapped up his jewels and brass and made way for the door. He should look for the Introverted Devil. He will have his soul. Won’t he? He certainly didn’t expect an Abstraction when the Devil sat so close to him yesterday, but he’s the only one that could’ve done it. He thought about last night. Drinking with the Devil, getting to know him… somewhat.
He didn’t feel anything…
Did his home always look this grey and dismal? The Author got dressed in cleaner clothes. He’ll check the honey-dens first. He met the Devil there, after all. Maybe someone saw him. Maybe someone knows where to find him.
The same Guardswoman stopped him from going in this time around.
“You don’t understand, I-”
“Yeah, yeah, you said the same thing yesterday,”
The Author felt a somewhat… muffled sense of unease. A knot in his stomach where anger used to be. It feels kind of… cold, now.
“I don’t need to go inside,” he says.
“What do you want, then?”
The Author pulled a piece of paper out of his pants pocket. He had attempted a sketch of the Introverted Devil from memory before coming here. It wasn’t half bad, really. Very detailed, too.
“Have you seen this devil? He’s blond, wears all black.”
The guardswoman looked at the picture for a while, then at the Author. Then back at the picture. She jerked her chin to the alleys off to her right.
“Yesterday. That’s all”
The Author looked towards the alleys. That’s where he and the devil had met. He’s no closer than he was when he left his house. He sighed, disappointed, but thanked the Guardswoman nonetheless.
The next place to check would be the Forgotten Quarter. The Author took the exact same route he took with the Devil. Waited for a cab on the same corner. Got off at the same desolate street.
The Forgotten Quarter was quiet. But not ‘quiet’ as in a lack of sound – there was screaming in the distance, for one – it was the kind of quiet that instantly silenced your own thoughts. The kind that allowed even the slightest sounds to press in on your ears and burrow into your mind.
The Author put one foot in front of the other. A muffled sense of fear was creeping into his heart, as if by habit instead of genuine feeling. Is it safe to travel alone here, where Devils prey on humans? What would they do to someone who’s soulless? Does he even know where he’s going?
Would he be able to find the Devil again?
“Here we go again…” he whispered. He tried his best to remember the road he took yesterday. He hadn’t been focussing on the way at all. He was too busy asking questions and watching the Devil’s reactions.
He had passed four horse statues (or the same statue four times?) and finally admitted to himself that he had no idea where he was going. Perhaps he should’ve looked for a guide instead? He sat on the edge of what might’ve been a broken statue. Or a fancy rock. He didn’t care, he was too busy moping.
He unfolded the little sketch he drew of the Devil. He had only met the man yesterday. Do the soulless normally get this attached to the devil that takes their soul? Do devils usually rush an Abstraction? He had a friend who got hounded by a devil for weeks before he finally attempted an Abstraction. The devil failed, of course.
A shadow passed over his sketch, making it hard to see. Someone was standing before him. The Author’s gaze shot up, and he locked eyes with a pair of sulphur-fire blue eyes. The man was grinning cruelly at him. It took the Author a moment to recognise the Churlish Devil, who had nearly made him an Infernal Hunt participant the day before.
The Author sprang to his feet but the Churlish Devil planted a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back down.
“Now, now, no need to rush…” he purred. “Where’s your little friend?”
The Author didn’t say anything. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t, he didn’t want to. The Churlish Devil tightened his grip.
“It’s not nice to stare,” he said. It almost sounded like a threat.
The Author attempted to weasel out of the Devil’s grip. An awkward roll of the shoulder, a little shimmy to the side. The Devil didn’t hold on, instead watching him with idle interest. Like a cat watching a lizard wriggle and run before he tears its skin off with his fangs. He grabbed the Author by the collar before he could get too far away.
“I seem to recall your little friend breaking something of mine…” the Devil said, pulling the Author close. The Devil’s chest pressed to the Author’s back, and his free hand grabbing on to the Author’s bicep.
“Please let go of me…” the Author said. The Devil leaned his face close to the Author’s neck and took a deep breath. Every muscle in the Author’s body was telling him that now would be an excellent time to run, perhaps. Only for self-preservation purposes, of course.
The Churlish Devil hesitated… then started laughing.
“He took your soul, eh? Ha! Didn’t know he had it in him.” He roughly pushes the Author away, sending him stumbling. He caught himself, barely.
“Well, I no longer have any use for you. But that doesn’t mean my time would be wasted…” the Devil said. “I’ll give you a five second head start. If you get away, you’re safe. At least for some time. But if you don’t…” the Devil only smirked. The Author didn’t waste any time. He bolted before the Devil could say ‘go’.
The Author couldn’t breathe.
It was an oddly curious sensation, really. He supposed the lack of a soul explained his general lack of fear. He also didn’t remember being such a weak runner. How did he even get out yesterday? Perhaps the lack of fear made him self-conscious, which in turn was slowing him down. He pushed those thoughts out of his head. No time for thinking.
He had a good rhythm going, jumping over rocks and rubble and ill-maintained roads. He could hear the Churlish Devil laughing in the distance. He had no doubt in his mind that even the slightest rest could be the end of him. He wouldn’t dare look back.
The Author vaulted over the ruins of a wall and immediately regretted it. His foot caught the edge, and he went sprawling into dust and cobwebs. Cobwebs? Oh no. Long sheets of sticky grey webs stuck to his clothes like tomb colonist bandages. Clumsily he got to his feet, continuing his run with prayers on his mind.
Except he didn’t get much farther. Where previously he could’ve sworn was an open courtyard, was now an unnecessarily sturdy stone wall. And to his left. And his right! He was boxed in, and the Churlish Devil was almost on him. Part of him hoped that the Introverted Devil will save him. The rest of him knew that was unlikely.
He was faced with an awful ultimatum: attempt to fight back, or succumb to his fate? The latter sounded less painful. But the former…
The Author leaned against the wall that now trapped him. Covered in sorrow spider webs and dust. Soulless and lost. Is this what they meant by ‘curiosity killed the cat’? If he had left the Introverted Devil alone, would he be any safer? The Churlish Devil jogged over, grinning smugly. The Author squeezed his eyes shut and turned his face away…
It was another curious sensation. The Author assumed the Devil must’ve crushed his windpipe, because his throat hurt considerably. That, and he couldn’t breathe. The Author felt like crying. Felt like cursing his luck and screaming in frustration. He didn’t, of course. He just knew that’d be something he’d do. He was vaguely aware of the stone wall scraping against his back. Oh, he was falling. He had fallen. Ah yes, and he was feeling cold now. He remembered dying before. Perhaps once or twice.
The Author woke up in a slow boat passing a dark beach on a silent river.
“What…?” he said. “But I’m soulless…” It sounded more like a question than a statement.
The other two passengers eyed him, but said nothing. The Boatman was grinning at him (not that he had a choice, otherwise).
“The Soul is complicated” the Boatman said. He was too preoccupied playing chess to further elaborate.
The Author found himself feeling… bored. All that drama and an echo of despair, for the same old result. Is getting his soul back worth it, when it’s seemingly most important function turns out to be false? What’s the point, then? The Author’s gaze fell onto the far bank. The far country. Death. He squinted, trying to see details. He could almost see…
“Bah!” the Chess-Playing Passenger said. The Author jumped and sat up straight. Perhaps not. The Passenger decided that now was a good time to take a break, catch their breath, and not smash the chessboard. The Chessboard… That’s how he got back, last time. Would the Boatman remember him? The Author took a seat and started setting up the board. The Boatman was only half caring.
It must’ve been a dozen games now. The Boatman didn’t care, even if he lost every single one of them. People of little importance do not matter to him, especially those as inexperienced as the Author. With each win, the Author felt a little stronger, sat up a bit straighter. Then, a sudden light! The Author nearly fell out of his bed, gasping. Everything hurts. But he’s alive. The Author tried to make sense of his surroundings: squeaking bed, dusty shelves, faded carpet… How did he get back home?
There was a note on his bedside table. No, not a note; a poster for Dante’s Grill. ‘Devilishly Delicious,’ was written in the strange, flat and rigid-yet-flowing style that devils are so fond of. Nothing had serifs, and it just seemed… off. Nevermind that. There was handwriting on the back.
‘Try harder next time,’ it read. ‘The moment you wake up, meet me here.’
It was unsigned.
Now, a sane man might be wary. Even some insane men might be wary. The Author, however, was already forgetting what suspicion felt like. He had no reason to be scared. Even if he had, he couldn’t remember what feeling scared felt like. Might as well, right? He had nothing better to do. Perhaps this person knew where the Introverted Devil was.
That person was… the Churlish Devil.
The Author had never been to Dante’s, first and foremost. It’s relatively exclusive and the only way gentlepersons such as himself can afford it is by being invited by a more important gentleperson. The Churlish Devil had been waiting for him outside, grinning. His brilliant Infernal Hunter’s uniform was replaced by a ‘simple’ navy suit and a rather bright cravat.
“Quite a long nap you took,” he commented.
“You’re the one who invited me?”
The Devil didn’t answer. He walked into the building, feeling that should be indication enough of his intentions. It worked, at least. The Devil found them a seat near a window, and the Author sat opposite to him.
“Why am I here?” he asked. The Churlish Devil gazed at him with those sulphur-fire-blues (he wasn’t wearing any dark tinted glasses, as Devils often tend to do). A fanged smirk. His eyes flickered to a menu on the table.
“Because I’m curious as to what sort of man you are. Coffee?”
The Author ignored the question.
The Devil didn’t answer him. A Devilless had arrived to take their orders, and the Churlish Devil decided for the Author. The Devilless left, and the Devil turned his gaze to the window.
“What is your opinion on sorrow spiders?”
“You didn’t answer my question,”
“How about poisons or venoms? Which is worse, in your opinion?”
“Please answer my question…”
The Devil finally turned his gaze back to the Author.
“It’s related to your soul,”
“What about it? Do you know where it is?”
“How do you like snakes?”
For perhaps an hour (perhaps more), the conversation continued in this fashion. They had lunch (it certainly was as devilishly delicious as advertised) and the Devil kept asking questions relating to the Author’s fears. When they finished up, the Devil was the first to leave his seat.
“Ladybones,” was the last thing the Churlish Devil said before they parted ways.
Ladybones Road; A district and a street in the West end of Fallen London. Most notably known for attracting spies and detectives, and is the center of Hell’s businesses. It houses the base of operations for devils in London: a Hell away from Hell in the Brass Embassy, not too far from Dante’s Grill…
“Why didn’t I think of checking here first…” the Author asked no one in particular.
The Brass Embassy stood tall and brassy, with glowing windows of emeralds, rubies and topaz. Abstract patterns, strange dials and springs, winding pipes… It looked like a massive, vaguely building-shaped engine of some colossal machine. Devils walked the streets, gossiping, shopping, going about their own business in their flamboyant fashions. Oh dear lord. How was he supposed to navigate around here?
At least, he supposed, the Introverted Devil will stand out in the crowd.
The Author aimlessly wandered down the streets around the Brass Embassy. Devils, on multiple occasions, approach him with confident smiles… only for their interest to falter once they realize that his soul had already been taken. He left a trail of disappointment wherever he went. At least that didn’t change.
“You seem lost, dear,” a Curious Devilless purred. He waited until it was clear that she wasn’t going to leave, despite his lack of soul, then he answered.
“I’m looking for a friend,” he said.
“Oh? Perhaps I know them.”
Somehow, the Author doubted that. But he told her all identifying information he knew. At least, what he remembered at that moment.
“Are you sure he’s a devil? Did he have a fork?”
“He doesn’t sound like a devil, are you sure?”
“Madam, I’m very sure of it. His eyes shone like brass,”
The Deviless considers the information for a moment longer. A slender finger tap-tapping a soft cheek.
“Could it be the fellow I saw before?” she asked herself. The Author waited – patiently – for elaboration.
“You know, I may have seen someone like that heading for Clathermont’s Tattoo Parlour just a few moments ago!”
Clathermont’s, known for being the spies of London’s favourite haunt. The Author never pegged the Devil for a player of the Game.
“Thank you,” the Author said, “I’m sure I’ll find who I’m looking for.”
The Author turned to leave, straight to Clathermont’s… and the Devilless followed him. The Author ignored her for now. Perhaps she’ll go away? The Author had more pressing matters than wondering why a Devilless is following a soulless man. Like finding his soul.
Soon, the giggling devillesses and flamboyant devils were replaced by couriers, aspiring detectives, and (unsurprisingly) more dull-faced citizens who had recently lost their souls.
There. Clathermont’s Tattoo Parlour. The Curious Deviless giggled behind the Author. They crossed the road. There. He could see people inside. He opened the door. A bell clinked above him. No one paid him any mind. There. A figure dressed in all black, his back facing the door.
It had to be him. Blond hair curling out from beneath a hat (the devils called them fedoras). Narrow shoulders. Slender fingers. But the Author hesitated. No, there is no time for that. He took a breath, readying himself to speak as he approached the Devil. The Devil followed one of the ladies he had been talking to around a corner. The Author jogged after him, but what is this? As soon as he rounded the very same corner, they were already out of sight.
How fast…? A hand on his shoulder. A big one. It’s Mr Clathermont.
“Can I help you, sir?” he asked the Author. He got the impression that Mr Clathermont didn’t expect business from him.
“I thought I saw a friend of mine…” he muttered in monotone. Mr Clathermont let him go.
“You must’ve been mistaken,” he said. “Tattoo?”
The Author had left without further word. The Curious Deviless was still following him. The Author stopped and sighed.
“Madam, why are you still following me?” he asked.
“Because I want to see the love story unfold!”
The Author furrowed his brows. Love story?
“This isn’t a love story,”
“Sure it is!”
“You just don’t realize it yet!”
“Look out for the hansom cab, dear”
The what…? The Author looked to the side, and surely there was a cab speeding towards him! His breath got caught in his throat and he squeezed his eyes shut. He was still in the middle of the road! That’s very careless of him. Shouldn’t the cab have hit him by now? The Author opened one eye, parting of him expecting the Devil to have stopped the cab in the nick of time. Just like in the novels he likes to write.
Disappointment. The cab had simply went around the Author. The Deviless was grinning.
“I know what you were hoping for,” she taunted. Normally the Author might’ve found something to throw the Deviless with by now. This time, he simply sighed in dismay.
“I can’t feel anything…” he said, and got off the road. The Deviless placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder.
“You will,” she promises.
The Author knew he could believe her. He knew he should believe her. That’s how getting your soul back works. But his thoughts kept turning back to the Introverted Devil, and the fear of never catching up to him. Well. Suppose one can’t exactly call it fear.
The Author spent the rest of the afternoon wandering to and fro, over and around Clathermont’s Tattoo Parlour. He didn’t see the Devil again. The Devilless followed him, tirelessly, with that little grin on her face.
“Perhaps you should hide in the shop overnight, waiting for him tomorrow? Oh, oh, or you can leave a few fake secrets and clues for him to follow! You’ll lure him out like that if he’s a spy. He did rather seem like a curious sort, at least. How about-”
She went on. He ignored her.
The Author must’ve walked all over Ladybones road that afternoon, trying to think of any possible places where the Devil might’ve gone. Even the Devilless got tired of talking after a while. She didn’t leave, sadly. Eventually the Author’s shoulders sagged and his footsteps stilled. He ran out of ideas. It’s time to go home.
A gentle nudge. It was the Devilless.
“Here. My calling card. If you need information on devils,” she said. She gave a curtsey, then left for her own home. Leaving the Author alone again.
It felt like ages.
For the next few days, the Author had paced his study, wandered around Ladybones Road, and annoyed the guards at the old honey dens. When he wasn’t in London, he was searching for inspiration elsewhere. But by now he was getting antsy, and he had a feeling that it was related to the ever-growing piles of empty honey jars. A lack of soul clearly doesn’t impact a bad habit. He stood by his desk, brooding at a small sulphur-scented square of paper.
He couldn’t do this alone.
And several hours later, he wasn’t doing it alone. The Curious Devilless was waiting for him outside, smiling.
“You’re fast,” the Author remarked. The Devilless flashed a fanged set of teeth at him.
“I was in the neighbourhood,”
The Devilless strolled down the street without another word. She took him all the way to Spite before the Author finally thought to ask.
“About the letter…”
“I can help you, yes. I have my theories, but I think I know where your infernal paramour has gone,”
“He’s not my paramour,”
“Have you ever heard of Mt Palmerston?”
“Is that the mountain-monster that some of the zailors whisper about?”
“That’s Mt Nomad, dear”
The Devilless stayed silent for a few moments, smiling wistfully for dramatic effect. She spoke as the Author opened his mouth.
“It’s a place in the north, where devils often go to retire,” she said.
The Author thought of the Devil. He was younger than most devils, that was clear. Perhaps even naive.
“Why would he want to go there?” he asked.
“Because zailors often smuggle their best souls to Mt Palmerston. That, and it has a nifty volcano, if you understand me correctly,”
The Author’s blank stare told her that he did not, in fact, understand her.
“He’s not going to sell your soul,”
More staring. The Devilless’ smile faltered, blown away by a sigh.
“Do you want me to spell it out for you? He’s going to throw your soul into the volcano.”
The Author watched the road, wordless.
“I can arrange a ship for you,” the Devilless offered. “Passenger fees aren’t particularly expensive. But it’s a long journey, and a terribly treacherous one at that.”
Still, not a word. The Devilless’ smile had returned. She had him now. She knew what was coming next.
“Is getting your soul back worth it? For a demon you met a few days ago?”
The answer was immediate.
“Of course it is.”
A satisfied grin. A brief silence. For dramatic effect, of course.
“I’ll speak to my contacts. You’ll have a captain willing to take you to Mt Palmerston and back in two days’ time. You can meet me at the Wolfstack Docks then.” She scribbled a time and a name onto a loose piece of paper in her purse and handed it to the Author. And then she was gone, as quick as she arrived.
The Author was alone again.
She was waiting for him when he arrived.
“Are you ready for your trip across the zee?” she asked him. He had two large suitcases with him. He didn’t seem particularly excited.
“I’m not sure,” he drops his luggage and looks around. The Devilless was alone.
“Where’s the captain?” he asked. A voice much deeper than the Devilless’ greeted them.
Someone rather tall and scarred came from somewhere behind the Author. Arms like pigs’ thighs, a chest as broad as the unterzee… This Captain surely knew more than the average swashbuckler. And If they didn’t, they most likely wrestled whatever stood in their way.
“Darling, this is Captain Hardt,” the Devilless said. “They will be taking you to Mt Palmerston. And back home, if need be.”
The Captain grunted in agreement. A person of few words…! Lovely.
Brief introductions, luggage hauling, excitable zailors yelling or singing (or both) followed, and in seemingly no time the Author was in a cabin all by himself. This was going to be a very long trip.
The Author barely got absorbed in one of the penny dreadfuls he brought along before he heard yelling and commotion outside.
“What the hell…?” he asked as he swung his legs over the edge. Cannons fired. The Author jerked and covered his ears too late.
Three… four… five… six seconds of silence. Is it over? The Author crept to the door, ears still covered, just in case. He nudged the door handle with his elbow. No luck. It wouldn’t open. He had to let go. His thungering heartbeat made his hand shake as he pried it away from his head, and dropped it to the handle. He turned. The moment it budged he covered his ears and shouldered the door open.
He stumbled into the hallway as another blast of cannonfire shook the ship. The captain was yelling orders at the zailors. The Author couldn’t figure out what the crisis was. All around them is pitch black, with only the false-stars above and the ship lights ahead cutting through the darkness. But the cannons weren’t firing to where the light shone. There, near the coast. Something large jutting out of the black Unterzee. It seemed to be… moving?
“I bloody hate Lifebergs!” the first officer grumbled as she passed the Author to join her crew.
“Can’t we just go around it?” the Author whined. A nearby zailor laughed.
“Captain doesn’t just go around a zee beast!” another said, before unleashing another blast of cannons. The Author barely covered his ears in time.
The Author’s head was pounding and his ears were ringing by the time the blasted thing was defeated. The crew was terribly jolly. The Author was somewhat less so.
“So, ah… how long is this trip going to take, exactly?” The Author asked while zailors worked on fishing out the remains of the previously sentient zee mountain.
“Good question!” a zailor answered. No one continued for her.
“Does the question have an answer?” the Author pressed.
“Technically. It depends on where Mt Palmerston is,”
“Do you not know?”
The zailors laughed. Something told him that was a question frequently asked by the inexperienced.
This was going to be a very long trip.
It took three stops and seemingly infinite days.
They’ve stopped at Venderbight, the Tomb Colonies north of London. Some dreadful, cold place where people kept asking questions (Weather? Weaver? Wither? What was it called?). A rock full of Correspondence (the Author didn’t even leave his room).
The trip included frequent visits from sentient ice mountains and giant zeefood. They were almost never friendly, and the captain refused to simply go around them. The crewmembers were skittish and sleepless by the time they reached the Unterzee volcano.
They could see it from miles away. The occasional glowing red flicker at the top mountain, the sullen green lights at the jetty’s edge. The port at the base of the volcano smelled of brimstone. Past the port, there was a knee-deep layer of ash. The Author had to go through this alone. The captain and the crew were busy with their own business.
“Up the Brimstone Convention,” the Curious Devilless had told him before he left. “He’ll be there. Waiting”
The Author was putting a lot of trust in the Devilless’ words.
Up the mountain. Warm earth. An endless climb. Soft ash beneath his feet, on his knees, covering his hands and in his mouth. He was barely halfway when he got tired. The Author sat down on a disturbingly warm rock, spitting out ash and shaking the rest out of his hair.
A gentle, sweet voice spoke up behind him.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” she said. The Author nearly threw himself off of his perch. The Wistful Devilless was standing on the disturbed ash trail that the Author had left behind. Not sinking in.
“I’ve never been here before,” the Author finally said. The Devilless looked up the mountain. There was a low, complex drone. Like the buzzing of millions of insects, deep in the earth.
“This way is… unwise for humans,” she said. His eyebrows furrowed as she watched the Author. “And you are soulless. Hmm,”
The Author looked up towards the volcano. “Someone is waiting for me,”
The Devilless crossed her arms. “Well. You look like you could use some rest. Come to my cottage, at least to wash the ash out of your mouth.”
The Author might’ve turned down the nice offer. He didn’t have much time to waste. But the Devilless practically dragged him to her cottage. He’s starting to see a pattern here. The Devilless cleaned him up, even offered him tea.
“Why are you going up there?” she asked him while pouring tea.
“Who do you expect to find up there?”
The Author stared at his cup, wondering if he should answer the question or not.
“He has my soul,” he said at last.
The Author took a sip of tea. He thought of the Devil who so easily snatched his soul. Not just his soul, but something deeper. Something he remembered at the very edges of his consciousness. An old familiar feeling, now lost to him without his soul.
“Someone I think I’m in love with.”
“And this person is a Devil?” the Devilless asked. The Author nodded. A moment passed.
“He might not love you,” the Devilless finally said. “At least, not in the same way.”
“That’s my own problem. I just need my soul back.”
Another moment, longer this time.
“I suppose I can’t stop you, then. Do yourself a favour, however…” she puts her cup down. “Don’t listen.”
The conversation, unsurprisingly, went stale after that. The Author finished his tea, thanked the Devilless for her hospitality, and went straight back out to face the volcano once again.
Buzzing. Buzzing, burning, complex and overwhelming. A constant droning only getting louder and louder. The ash was even thicker here, sticking to his sweaty skin. Slowly, he made his way to the top.
The Author looked up. He was getting close. He could feel the buzzing deep in his bones, rattling his very being. He searched along the faintly glowing edge for something. Anything. A silhouette, a sign, an end, anything.
There! The Introverted Devil, standing with his back turned to the Author. Staring into the volcano. He held something in his hand… a bottle of sorts? It glowed faintly blue. But he’s here. He really is here. The Curious Devilless was right.
Keep going, the Author urged himself. So close… so close. The buzzing was making his teeth chatter. He could almost hear words now. So close… The Author opened his mouth. He was yelling but he couldn’t hear it. And then his vision faded to red and grey.
He woke up in the Devilless’ cottage. But it wasn’t the Deviless looking at him. Another pair of eyes stared at him, the colour of…
“Sunlight…” the Author mumbled. The Introverted Devil smiled in relief.
“Strictly speaking, I should burn your ears off,” the Wistful Devilless said, pouring them some tea. “But I suppose you didn’t get a chance to hear something you shouldn’t have.”
She cast a disapproving gaze at the Devil.
“And you. You are an idiot. But I suppose wisdom comes with age, and you clearly have neither,”
The Introverted Devil gave her a sheepish grin and shrugged his shoulders lamely. “Sorry, ma’am.”
The Author sat up. He felt different. He felt. His heart was thundering in his chest, his hands were shaking. What is this? Relief? Fear? Uncertainty? …Love?
He threw his arms around the Devil.
“If you ever snatch my soul again, I will push you into that volcano!”
The Devil laughed and returned the hug. The Wistful Devilless sighed.
“The Embassy looks down on Devils who fall in love. I advise you to find your own way somewhere else. Might I suggest down in the Port? I hear Port Carnelian is also nice. As are a number of places out in the Unterzee. Or you could become zailors and explore together.”
The Devil and the Author looked at each other, smiling.
“Should be better than doing errands for the fellows in London,” the Devil said.
“I bet there’s a story out there,” the Author added.
The duo finished their tea and made their way back to port. Together this time. The captain merrily invited them back onto their ship of Endless Battling, and the Author actually looked forward to it this time.
He has a Sun-Filled Story to write.