By the time she stepped out of the labyrinth with Rella, Danielle wanted nothing more than to collapse. It had, in all likelihood, only been a few hours since she had left the hotel room, but it seemed an eternity. Maybe that had something to do with the time disparity between the Underworld and Earth, or perhaps the way the sky seemed to stay the same general shade of gray. Mostly, it was the stress. Even when Rella wasn’t talking, she carried herself with such a purposeful stride that Danielle found it difficult to keep up. She saw herself sinking further and further behind as her steps grew heavy and Rella’s didn’t.
“Hey,” she finally called out, unable to bear the silence. “Can we maybe stop for a second and talk about our plan? A lot just happened really fast, and I’m a bit...I mean, I’m not sure exactly where we’re going.”
“You mean you can’t already tell what I’m thinking? How refreshing.”
There was a smile in Rella’s voice that wiped Danielle’s clean off. With a great huff she picked up her pace, hands white-knuckled into a vice around her purse strap. “I could guess,” she said, unable to eliminate an edge of grumpiness to her words, “but it would be easier for both of us if you just told me—especially if you still want my help persuading Hayden to work with us.”
Rella’s stride slowed to a crawl before she stopped altogether, her body stiff and uninviting. Danielle caught up and closed her eyes to focus her energy on breathing. Rella tapped one of her heels with impatience.
“I don’t have a plan for us,” Rella said, not sparing the younger woman so much as a single glance as she clicked open her clutch and withdrew a compact mirror. “I have a plan for me.”
It was a bluff, or at least part of one, but Danielle knew better than to say so. She was willing to believe that Rella had ideas, but much like herself, Rella had never been great at chess. “Fine,” Danielle said. It wasn’t fine. Rella wasn’t going to help her figure out how to get back home—and as unsurprising as it was, that left Danielle up the Styx without a paddle. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to leave Rella to her own devices. There was a knot at the pit of her stomach that convinced her it would be a bad idea. For which one of them, she couldn’t yet say. “Tell me?”
Rella sighed and stared at herself hard in her small mirror for a long moment before putting it away and beginning to walk again. Danielle scurried forward to prevent herself from falling behind again, the heels of her shoes clopping like horseshoes against the pavement.
“Death’s being a man,” Rella stated, tossing her hair. “He needs to nurse his ego a little before he seeks me out.”
“And you’re sure he’ll seek you out?”
“Of course.” Rella barked a harsh, humorless laugh. “I’ve given him a taste of something interesting—and that makes me irresistible, even if he hasn’t realized it yet.”
Danielle opened her mouth to ask another question before stopping herself with a frown. She could feel the color drain from her face. If Rella’s plan wasn’t to go to Death, that left only one other being for her have set her sights on.
“It’s about time I paid my father a visit,” Rella said. Danielle could hear the corners of her mouth tug upward in a sly sort of smile.
“That’s exactly what I hoped you wouldn’t say.” Groaning, Danielle ran her hands through her hair and looked up at the skyscraper that loomed in the distance. Being clean on the other side of the city didn’t make it seem any smaller. Satan was in there, somewhere, and he wasn’t going to want any visitors. Not even if one of them was his own daughter.
Kevin sat and gnawed on the inside of his cheek. Horace laughed as he emptied the contents of the box they had given him, key-by-key, into the chains covering his body. He paused only to pick at a piece of burned, flaking skin on the back of his hand. Kevin was content with waiting; there was plenty to stare at on the ceiling, but Derek and Silex were growing rapidly more impatient. Not wanting to risk either of his characters completely demolishing the building, Kevin cleared his throat before they could begin interrogating the man.
“So, deal’s a deal, right?” Kevin slid off of his chair and onto his feet, shoving his hands into his pockets.
“Hold your horses, boy.” Horace closed the box’s lid and shook it so the keys rattled inside. “This’ll make a good dent, though it isn’t close to enough to get me outta these damn things.”
Kevin’s stomach churned as Horace went back to work, coughing and wheezing like his insides were full of ash. Silex slammed one of his armored hands against the bar’s countertop. A hush went over the rest of the Blind Pig as its scattered patrons looked up from their glasses to the source of the noise. Kevin wiped a hand across his forehead, gulping down a nervous knot in his throat. Horace only snorted.
“A deal’s a deal,” he agreed, “when you’ve got the muscle to back you up. C’mere, kid.”
He leaned forward, supporting his weight on his elbow, and Kevin resisted the urge to do the opposite. Bringing his face so close to Horace’s that he could see each and every blackened crack, Kevin pressed his lips into a tight line. He could feel Derek and Silex hovering close on either side of him.
“The door past the bar,” he said, “Knock three times and say afterlife.”
“To get into the…poker game?” Kevin asked.
Horace shrugged, leaning back again and putting his attention back on the keys in the box. There was a grin on the lips that were all but burned away, though it was somehow cruel. Kevin wasn’t too sure it would be good to invest in the stock Horace was selling, but they’d gone through a lot of trouble to get that information and it wouldn’t make sense to turn back now. He looked at Derek, who nodded and started toward the door behind the bar. It was thin, had no knob, and hidden so far back in the shadows that it blended seamlessly into the surrounding wood.
With a grunt, Silex crossed his arms. “Don’t tell me: too small for me to fit?”
Kevin’s eyebrows came together, and he shot a glance at Derek, who hid a laugh behind his hand. “Sorry,” Kevin said, shaking his head. “It’ll probably be crowded in there, anyway. Just wait here? This shouldn’t take long.”
“Right, whatever.” Silex turned away, planting himself against the wall, his entire form creating a makeshift barricade in front of the secluded entrance. “Humans. Tch. Inconsiderate cretins, the lot of them.”
“He’d only slow us down, anyway,” Derek said, already knocking on the door. Kevin hurried to his side as Derek spoke the password. The door slid open and a slender arm ushered them forward. Kevin didn’t have time to get a good look at the new room before the door slid shut behind them and he found himself spinning.
A young woman had her arms around him, her wrists adorned in chains as if they were bangles. “Well, golly,” she said with a laugh, resting her chin on his shoulder, “I can’t remember when I last saw a fella with a ticker still ticking—and sure as I can see you ain’t no stiff! Got a name, Bucko?”
“Uh—Kevin. It’s Kevin.”
“A swell name, Kev! Folks call me Birdie. If there’s anything you need, I’m your gal!” She shot him a playful wink with her hands on her swinging hips. “Just shoot!”
When she took a step back, Kevin managed to get his first real look at her. From what he could tell, she was exactly what he’d find if he searched for pictures of a flapper. Her sequent dress hugged her boyish figure and her hair laid flat against her cheeks in a sleek bob. If it weren’t for the bruise-colored handprints that hugged her neck, Kevin wouldn’t have thought her to be dead. His own throat tightened. Birdie looked younger than him.
“We’re actually just trying to get some ideas on how we could get out of here—out of Nothing, I mean. Horace said we might learn something in here. Do you know anything about that?”
Birdie only laughed again, her smile widening from ear-to-ear. “Gee! That old letch’ll tell anyone anything if he thinks there’s something in for him! How much money did you give him? More than you had on you, I’d bet!”
“So we’ve been had, then.” Derek frowned, uncrossing his arms and putting a firm hand on Kevin’s shoulder and pulling him back toward the door. “Let’s get out of here before we waste more time.”
“Aw, now, come on!” Birdie darted around them, blocking the entrance with a pout. “Just ‘cause I don’t know nothing doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” She paused to tap a finger against her chin in thought. “You could ask Nicky. He’s been here longer ‘n dirt. If anyone knows anything around here, it’ll be him.”
She stuck her thumb over her shoulder. Kevin followed the gesture, past the laughing, dancing bodies and dense atmosphere. There, a man sat alone at one of the shadowed booths. Derek was headed for him before Kevin could even look back to Birdie.
“Sorry,” he said, shooting her an apologetic smile as he shuffled past her to follow Derek. “Thanks for your help.”
Derek invited himself into the seat opposite their target, his hands balled into fists against the tabletop. Kevin hesitated before doing the same. He tried to ignore the way the cushion squeaked under his weight.
“Ah.” The man looked up from his newspaper and folded it delicately in front of him. He wore a pleasant, if tired, smile. The bold letters on the face of the paper announced it as The Hell Hound. “I don’t believe I need to ask if I can help you.”
He extended a hand forward. “My name is Nicholas.”
When Derek pointedly ignored the gesture, Kevin reached forward and shook it. “Kevin,” he answered. “This is Derek. We were told you might know how we can get back home?”
Nicholas’ smile became sympathetic. “I regret to tell you you’ve been misinformed.”
“Bull.” Derek’s lip curled as he snarled, leaning forward on his fists. Nicholas didn’t flinch as Derek fixed him with a glare. “We heard you’ve been here a long time. That you’ve seen some things.”
Kevin frowned, glancing at Derek. That wasn’t exactly true; Birdie hadn’t said anything so specific—but he knew better than to say anything. Derek, more than any of his characters, knew how to lie through his teeth to get the answers he wanted. Unfortunately, Nicholas struck Kevin as the sort of man who was very good at seeing through lies.
A shiver raised the hair on the back of Kevin’s neck. He cleared his throat, causing both sets of eyes to turn his way. Heat filled his face. To save it, he opened his mouth. “You’re the first person we’ve talked to who doesn’t have any chains or injuries.”
Nicholas offered a nod, his expression softening. “I paid off the debt my sins left me with long ago.”
To avoid the way that Derek was glaring at him, Kevin kept his eyes on Nicholas. He gave a short laugh, scratching the back of his hand. That sympathetic edge returned to the corners of Nicholas’ mouth.
“I wasn’t lying. I really, really can’t tell you.” Nicholas leaned forward as he spoke, lowering his voice and tapping a finger against the newspaper’s headline without looking down. The word his finger touched read mortals in bold capitals. Kevin didn’t notice himself scoot forward to the edge of his seat. “Even if I could confirm that mortals have come here before and managed to escape back to their worlds, I couldn’t tell you how they were able to do it. I could only tell you that in such an event, Satan would make sure that he’s the only one with access to the details.”
“And how would we get access?”
“We wouldn’t.” Derek frowned, running a hand down his face. “We’d have to break in.”
Hayden suppressed a whimper as a splinter lodged itself underneath his nail. He dropped the gray wood he was holding to cradle his hand to his chest. It clattered heavily against his foot. Stumbling backward, Hayden’s eyes watered. He stuffed his hands in his mouth, sucking the tips of his fingers, and looked down at his handiwork. It wasn’t much. The members of the faith had managed to set up a good foundation for the new building, but because of all the dissent everyone was refusing to work with one another. Hayden had hammered together a few brittle pieces of the wood from the wreck, but the result was flimsy and mostly unusable.
His heart dropped into his stomach. Looking around him, Hayden saw nothing but nothing—gray buildings and chained, squabbling people. Some of the more dedicated souls were hard at work clearing rubble from the sight of the destruction, but they were few and in-between. Heaving a sigh, Hayden abandoned the hammer and nails he’d wrangled and took a seat on a fallen, Romanesque column that was cracked into several pieces. He nestled his chin between his knees, rubbed his nose on his sleeve with a sniff, and thought.
Mostly, he thought about his meeting with Ballas. The demons who had accosted him when he first discovered the cathedral’s collapse had taken him to a dark room with a single light where he had been given a choice: to help catch the mortals that were loose in Nothing, or die. Neither option sounded very nice, but the promise of death had edged out his apprehension, so Hayden had promised to do as he was told.
Ballas had eyes everywhere. Hayden had been seen with the mortals he had taken to the labyrinth. They had trusted him to take them there safely, and Ballas believed this was evidence enough that they—and all the other mortals—would trust Hayden to lead them elsewhere, too. Hayden didn’t know where to start. He didn’t want to start. His tail curled around his legs, the point scratching against his shin. Hayden thought about Danielle—about her colors and her warmth. She had been nicer to him than anyone had ever been before. It would be mean to lie to her. What if she got hurt?
As his eyes began to water all over again, Hayden drew his legs even closer to his chest and tried to steady his breathing. When Ballas had let him leave, he had returned to the cathedral hoping maybe the something would be back and it would give him the hope he needed to get through this. The something would help him make the right decision.
But the something wasn’t back—and it had left Hayden hopeless.
“That’s crazy. You’re suggesting we steal from Satan—literal Satan,” someone said.
Hayden looked up at the sound of his boss’ name, as if even that much would cause Satan to know he was slacking off. His heart thumped as he caught sight of the one who had spoken. A mortal—three mortals, all male, were talking amongst themselves as they walked down the sidewalk in front of the Cathedral. None of them paid Hayden any mind as he slipped off his seat and took careful footsteps through the rubble closer to them.
“Yes, I am.” One of the other two men frowned, his steps tense. His voice had the texture of sandpaper. “What would you rather do, ask him nicely? If you think that he’s going to hand us the file straight from his archives you’re stupider than you look. You heard what Nicholas said—there’s no way Satan’s letting that information get loose.”
“Don’t call me stupid,” said the mortal who had spoken before. He was plainly dressed and much younger than his companions. His lips were turned down in a wounded scowl. “I just don’t know how that’s going to work out any better for us, is all. What if we get caught?”
“You focus on the risk and you’ll never get anywhere,” said the third. Looking at him, Hayden couldn’t stop himself from shivering. This one was bigger and bulker than the other two—his shape was barely humanoid, and he was covered so thoroughly in armor that Hayden couldn’t make out anything beneath it. “This is war. If you get caught in war, you’re dead. So we don’t get caught. We get in and we get out, simple as that.”
“Simple,” the youngest repeated. He snorted a laugh. “Maybe it’s that easy for you, Silex, but if you haven’t noticed I’m not exactly a solider.”
Silex turned toward him. “Tell me about the file, again.”
Holding up a hand to count facts off of his fingers, he recited, “it’ll be old, plain, unmarked, filed alphabetically under C for CANNON in the incident reports, and guarded in the Records Office.”
“So we get in,” Silex said, holding up an arm and flexing his fist, “grab it, and get out. We’ll have the element of surprise. As long as we’re fast, we’ll be fine.”
“But what if he comes after us?” asked the first mortal.
Hayden didn’t hear the response. The blood pounding in his ears drowned it out. He stood at the edge of the construction site, wiping his clammy hands down the front of his shirt, staring at them until they rounded a corner and vanished from view. They were going to try and steal from Satan—this was likely impossible, but now that he’d overheard their plan, it was Hayden’s responsibility to report it. Hayden whimpered. If he did report it, Satan would probably be upset with him for interrupting important work. These options were almost as scary as the ones Ballas had given him.
Before Hayden could make up his mind on what to do, a voice calling his name caused him to turn with a yelp. Down the road, Danielle waved an enthusiastic hand over her blonde head. Her smile looked so easy. Hayden took a step toward her, paused to give a nervous glance all around him, and then darted the rest of the way. Rella was next to her. Her big pretty eyes were just as cold as before so Hayden made sure to avoid them.
“Yes, hello,” Hayden said, trying to be polite despite the butterflies in his chest reminding him of Ballas’ terms. “You got out of the labyrinth without getting hurt, that’s good!”
“Yeah.” Danielle’s smile softened as she paused, pushing up her glasses. “I’m sorry about what happened. I know you probably took it to heart…but you’re not hurt, and that’s what’s important.”
Hayden shifted on his feet. In the corner of his vision, Rella’s dark form reminded him of Satan’s. “Um,” he said, “I think maybe you should stay with your other mortal friends! It might be safer that way!”
“Actually, we were looking for you. Oh! Maybe you could help us!” Danielle’s blue eyes widened as the thought lit up her face, but Hayden shrieked, throwing her off before she could speak again.
“Not you, too! You can’t break into Mr. Satan’s records! I’m sure he kept the file secret for a reason so it wouldn’t be nice to take it! Stealing’s very, very mean and you’ll get in trouble if you do it!” Hayden raised his hands up in front of him, forming a defensive wall. Danielle wrapped her hands around them, warming his cold fingers.
She looked up at Rella, whose frown had turned thoughtful. “We were planning on getting in touch with Satan,” Danielle said, “but I don’t know what we’d steal. What file are you talking about?”
“Oh.” Hayden took a step backward, his face coloring in a sickly shade of embarrassment. “Pretend I didn’t say anything, okay? Hey!” His face brightened. “If you’re just going to go talk with Mr. Satan I can take you there! It’ll be faster than walking, and now I know I can take people with me through portals! Isn’t that neat? I’d never done it before today!”
“Uh, yeah.” Danielle blinked. “That would be great.”
Rella cleared her throat, stepping between them. Hayden made to recoil, but she trapped his jaw between her slender fingers and forced him to look up into her face. “Tell me what you heard,” she commanded in a voice like silk and honey. “Who is going to break into Satan’s records, and why?”
Hayden looked into her eyes without thinking. As soon as he did, he couldn’t look anywhere else. His hands dropped to his sides as her words sunk into his brain. She was so pretty. Prettier than anything he’d ever seen. The more he looked, the more he found her eyes weren’t cold at all. They were refreshing and so was she. Hayden opened his mouth to answer her question, because it wouldn’t be right to keep things from someone so nice and so pretty.
Rella let him go. Hayden blinked. Closing his mouth, he felt he’d told her every detail of what he’d overheard, though he couldn’t quite remember saying anything at all. He scrunched up his face in confusion, and looked up at her again. She was smiling sweetly at him. Hayden couldn’t decide if it made him happy or put him on edge.
“Was that really necessary?” Danielle asked, frowning up at the other woman. Rella only laughed politely.
“You should thank me. Not only am I doing your job for you, but now you have a lead.” Her gaze went from Danielle to Hayden, and she extended her hand in an invitation. “Now, I’d like to take you up on your offer. I’ve grown tired of walking.”
Hayden reached for her hand on instinct, but stopped. He looked at Danielle. Her face was still full of concern. He wanted to know what Rella had done. Why had he felt so weird when she looked at him? Why had he felt so compelled to tell her what she wanted and why couldn’t he remembered what he’d said? Had she done something? The more Hayden looked at Danielle, the more he thought about Ballas, and the less he felt he had the right to ask any questions.
“Okay,” he said, wiggling his hand into Rella’s. It wasn’t as warm as Danielle’s but it was still warm, and that made him smile. He stretched his free hand out in front of him, and a black crack formed from the ground up until it was tall enough for all of them to step through. It widened next, flickering and warbling and dark.
“You’re sure you can do this?” Danielle asked. Hayden shook his head before quickly correcting himself with a nod.
“It’ll be good, I promise,” he said. “You go first, and we’ll follow! I can’t hold it for too long so please hurry!”
Danielle hardly looked appeased, but she stepped forward until she was just in front of the portal. She didn’t show any indication that she planned on moving further. At Hayden’s side, Rella sighed—and as she did, Danielle fell forward as if she had been pushed, disappearing into the portal. Concerned, Hayden ran to meet her, all but dragging Rella behind him.