Wayne Barlowe returns to the epic dark fantasy world of God’s Demon with The Heart of Hell, where rival demons war for control of the infernal domain.
Sargatanas has Ascended and the doomed, anguished souls have found themselves emancipated. Hell has changed… hasn’t it? The demons, wardens of the souls, are free of their inmates…
And the damned, liberated from their terrible torments, twisted and bent but thankful that they are no longer forced to be in proximity to their fearsome jailors, rejoice. But something is stirring under the surface of Hell’s ceaseless carnage…
The Heart of Hell is available from Tor Books on July 2nd. Check out Chapter One below!
The blue star comforted her.
She could not explain the emotion, why its cool hue, so different from the surrounding sky of fire, bespoke salvation. She only knew that it did and that she wanted to embrace it.
She was a brick. Roughly three feet long, two feet high, and two feet wide, she was a block, dense, dark, and dry. Only one of her eyes, exposed upon her upper surface, its brilliant blue iris startling against the deep, raw umber of her rugose skin, gave the oblong form any sense of life.
The soul who had been called by her companions Bo-ad had been made into a brick, identical save for the twisting, puckered textures on her sides to the millions upon millions that she had seen and ignored when she had been able to walk the streets of Adamantinarx.
Lying alongside her fellow souls, incorporated into the steps of a great plinth, she dozed in the oppressive heat, her thoughts turning like the slowest of wagon wheels. Her sluggish mind seemed to take hours to complete the simplest thought, to reason through the most obvious conclusions. The best she could do was to try not to think at all, to let the events of the street that stretched before her wash over her and manage as best she could to understand them.
The memory of her transformation was so traumatic that she tried to evade it, to push it away. But as much as she thought to deny it, it reappeared, blocking any recollection from the past that might offer comfort. And so she was forced to obsess about it, revisiting in painfully slow and excruciating detail the moments before she had become a brick. What else was there to do?
She had stood with the other condemned souls, trembling uncontrollably with the nearness of the demons, aware of what was about to befall them. Her future was to be that which all souls feared the most—a future of eternal inactivity. To become one of the uncountable trillions of bricks that gave structure to the chaos of Hell—this was true damnation. It was the demons’ most efficient, most lasting punishment for souls like her who had not been sufficiently broken by their overlords. Somehow, from the moment she had arrived in Hell, she had always known it was to be her fate. Her awareness had been too great, her anger too sharp, and her resentment too obvious.
He had been near enough that, had she been foolish, she could have reached out and touched him. Near enough, too, that she had seen the countless embers burning in his flesh and smelled the acrid brimstone scent of him—a scent so pungent that it took little effort to recall. And every tiny aspect, every minuscule feature of his fierce and bony face, was, even after so much time, vivid enough that it still frightened her. She had never before been so close to a Demon Major and, knowing she was mere moments away from her fate, she had required every bit of her will to remain standing, let alone confront him. She had hated the shaking, the weakness, before a master. In the end she had known, despite her self-perceived independence, she was no different from each of the quivering souls who stood next to her.
It had taken a very long time for her compacted mind and body to adjust to its new state. She had, at first, felt feverish, then suffocated, had wanted to scream, had wanted to cry, and ultimately had wanted to truly die. But all of that was out of her control and eventually she simply lay heavily in place, breathing, screaming, and crying in her mind.
Around her the city had pulsed, growing until the moment that the Lord of Adamantinarx decided it be torn apart. She had known nothing of the reason for this but had heard a great deal of noise, sounds like the demolishing of buildings, and seen clouds of dust rising into the air. Some time after that, things grew still and then the bright cobalt star had appeared in the sky, its sudden appearance a mystery to her. Beneath it, the great statue of Sargatanas reached some five hundred feet into the sky, its arms held wide, its six wings outstretched, its head engulfed in an immense billowing torch of flame. Because of the position of her eye she was forced to stare up at it for the remainder of eternity, a bitter and unending reminder of the demon who had taken her limited freedom from her. Somehow, she did not think her position a coincidence but more the product of vindictiveness for her temerity.
The statue’s voice—the incessant roaring of its fiery head— seemed like a challenge to the thunder of Hell itself. Even so, with that furnace voice and the ambient sounds of Hell fading into the background, she would most often close her eye and will herself to sleep. And so she thought to pass eternity.
A scuffing sound, sharp enough even with her muffled hearing to seem very near, roused her and she painfully opened her crusted. shut eye. Immediately hot ash and tiny cinders forced her to blink rapidly, their stinging bringing a precious tear to her lower lid. It oozed out and began to pool in her eye, clouding her sight so that all she could see were the molten colors of Hell. For a short time she saw nothing distinctly, straining through the tear shimmer to focus on the limited field of vision that fanned out above her. When the tears had burned away in the heat and she could finally see clearly her world was largely the same as ever—the black statue rising into the cloud-torn sky, embers floating in chaotic, swirling eddies, the tops of buildings that ringed the Forum of Halphas.
A demon’s shape, tall and angular and aglow with burning sigils, could be just seen a yard or so away from her. She strained unsuccessfully to give detail to the vague form, rolling her eye to the side until the compressed muscles behind it seemed as if they would snap. While she was used to the ebb and flow of passing travelers, worker souls and those who stopped to look up at the blazing statue, this was an occurrence the likes of which, after her many months of enervating punishment, she could not remember. No one purposefully came this close—there was no point to attempt to look upon a statue so tall from such a close vantage. A wave of terrible dread spread through her crushed body, a sensation so potent that, for a moment, she almost felt alive. It was a higher demon who approached, she knew not just from her own reaction but from the two adjacent bricks that were to either side of her. Their tiny tremors were unmistakable.
She closed her eye. The pain of trying to see who stood near her was almost unbearable.
Over the roar of the flames she heard the shattered-glass-intonation of demonic words exchanged, and knew there to be more than one of them standing in proximity. She could, with difficulty, understand the demons’ tongue but could only distinguish a few of the barely heard words. One word—a name spoken with reverence—was repeated. Sargatanas—the Lord of Adamantinarx, the Demon Major who had ordered her punishment. How she hated him!
She opened her eye a fraction, trying to draw as little attention to herself as possible.
Both demons were almost atop her. The nearer of the two carried a carved bone staff while she could now make out a winged demon who stood a few paces of. Both appeared to be looking down, searching the plinth for something. She watched them through her slitted eye and with each foot they drew nearer she could see and hear more. The wingless one was darkly robed and had the head of some horrible beast, all moving teeth and hornlets and ridges, while the other, wearing a leather satchel that hung from a buckled baldric, was deep red from head to wings to clawed feet and seemed more well formed.
“I am sure it was the one just in front of you,” she heard the farther of the demons say. “Lord Valefar showed me.” He paused. “Truly, I should have dealt with this sooner.”
“Really, my lord? They all look alike. I cannot recall—it was quite some time ago and did not seem important at the time. It might have been this one,” said the other demon. “Or this one.” And suddenly she felt a sharp stab as the beast-headed demon’s staff was jabbed into her exposed upper surface. Her eye flashed open with the pain of it.
“It is that one! See, Abbeladdur, it is just as I said. Look at that eye!”
The beast-headed demon leaned forward and peered into her eye.
“Your memory is good, Eligor. Better, it would seem, than mine.”
She watched as the red figure approached and knelt, his wings sweeping behind him. The demon called Eligor extended his hand and placed it gently upon her. He began to gingerly brush away the ash that had collected upon her, careful to not let any get into her unblinking eye.
“And,” Abbeladdur said with a tinge of disapproval as he, too, stared down at her, “the expression has not changed either. I remember it now. Pure defiance.”
The demon Eligor said nothing but leaned in even closer to Bo-ad, pursed his bony lips, and blew the remaining ash from her. And then from under his robes he produced a heavy, curved knife and slid it from its sheath. Unreasoning terror gripped her and she closed her eye.
Why have they sought me out among these countless other bricks? Was it because I dared to challenge him—Sargatanas? Will they finally destroy me for it? And why is he not here, himself, to do the deed?
She felt one of Eligor’s hands upon her and the blade of the knife prying her away from her companions on the plinth. With a dull scraping sound she was freed from the step and then lifted easily and placed upended upon the flagstones. She could now see the two demons without straining. For the first time in many transits of the red star Algol she could see the city around her and she was amazed.
What has happened here? Where are the old buildings?
The great infernal metropolis that had been Adamantinarx was no more; in its stead were vast tracts of land adjacent to the Acheron that either were devoid of any structure, had the traceries of foundations upon them, or had new, low buildings rising modestly from the ground.
She was surprised by the more intimate scale of the new city. Gone were most of the more grandiose structures. Here and there a few recognizable survivors stood—tall, solitary buildings that had been, for the most part, constructed of native stone. And in the distance, high atop the Central Mount, stood the palace, changed in small details but essentially the same. These few buildings were the exceptions. The city, as she knew it, was gone.
There was more to puzzle her. She saw innumerable workers laden with bricks or stones, but nowhere to be seen were any of the familiar bone scaffolds that had been such a ubiquitous feature of construction. In fact, she noted, none of the bricks were made of souls either. And, most astonishing of all, the workers themselves were a mixture of souls and demons!
Bo-ad’s thoughts were interrupted by the abrupt sound of the winged demon sheathing his knife.
“It is time to make amends, Chief Engineer. Long overdue, really,” she heard Eligor say.
The demon named Abbeladdur said nothing but came very near and, raising a clawed hand, began to trace intricate patterns in the air around and above her. The thinnest of fiery lines outlined a human form that lingered briefly and then vanished. And then, with a word, he backed away.
She felt a rushing wave of sensation as of countless motes of energy gathering and washing through her. Every cell in her crushed and convoluted body was reawakening, feeling pain and pleasure in equal measure. It was an ecstasy.
It was her resurrection.
In a flicker of memory Bo-ad recalled a moment long ago when she had been working and a cinder storm had descended with little warning, roaring in like a beast and terrifying the souls around her. Unlike her fellow workers she had not sought shelter but had instead remained out in the open, challenging the storm to take her and destroy her. She had been enveloped in a pelting whirlwind of tiny, blazing embers that had burned her skin with a ferocity that made her cry out, a whimper that turned to a shout of defiance. The storm had etched its name upon her, faintly pitting her skin with slow-healing wounds. But it had also made her feel alive.
Her body unfolded in painful twitches and jerks as it warmed and filled and she could feel her desiccated limbs grow supple, the black fluid that served as blood in Hell stirring and reaching into her shriveled fingers and toes. And then she was herself again, lying upon the flagstones at the base of the plinth, a brick no more.
She lay still, eyes closed, barely breathing, hoping that her newfound freedom was not some sad manifestation of her dreaming, imprisoned mind. If it was, she did not want to let go of the wonderful feelings that were spreading through her, the movement of hot air upon her body, the barely perceptible, soft fall of ash upon her sensitive skin. She could hear the two demons moving and speaking in whispers and then she became aware that one of them had knelt over her. She opened her eyes and saw that Eligor was peering into her face intently.
Slowly she raised a hand and ran it over her thigh, her hip, and then over her ribs. She felt different, smoother, and, more than that, she could not feel the orb that had been so much a part of her. Ah, proof… this is, indeed, a dream.
Dream or not, she wanted only to lie there upon the flagstones; she knew anything more would move her forward toward the unknown.
“Soul,” a hoarse voice whispered.
She did not respond. But the voice gently repeated the word.
With great reluctance, Bo-ad opened her eyes. Redolent of brimstone and vast in his steaming blood-hued robes, the demon Eligor loomed above her, hand extended. She did not take it, but instead, propping herself up first with her elbow and then, less steadily, with her hands she managed to sit upright. She ached, her muscles trembled uncontrollably, and her breathing was labored. And with each painful inhalation she began to doubt that she was dreaming.
Eligor rose and straightened his robes.
“Can you speak?”
She looked up at him and swallowed, working her parched throat, testing it, fearing the pain that might come if she tried to talk after having been silent for so long. She made a short, dry sound and found the pain of the effort nearly unbearable.
“I can, demon.”
If Eligor was startled by her obvious lack of respect he did not show it. Nor did she show her surprise at his use of the souls’ language. He reached beneath his robes and withdrew a small flask, unstopped it, and proffered it to the soul. Reluctantly, she reached up and took it, pausing for a moment to look at it suspiciously. She could just see a small glyph floating within the translucency of its carved, stubby form.
“My name is Eligor. And it will help,” he said quietly, his accent minimal.
She sipped it and felt stronger as the warmth of the thick liquid spread through her, reviving the fibers of her body. She put the flask to her cracked lips again and drained it completely. The liquid found its way to her trembling limbs and they grew stronger, more supple, and almost immediately she felt steady enough to attempt to stand. She rose slowly and when Eligor reached out to help her she again avoided him and he withdrew his hand. The trembling continued, but she was, she thought, stronger than before she had been pressed into a brick.
Bo-ad stood, chin down, the hot wind swirling around her, bits of ash and detritus pelting her.
“Why?” she said in a voice firm enough to carry over the sound of the wind and fire. She was careful to keep any bitterness from her tone. Or fear.
“It was Lord Sargatanas’ wish. The lord that you spoke to so… directly before you were reduced. I found his written thoughts about you among his scrolls. And I also found his instructions. They were quite specific.”
“Why isn’t he here himself?”
“He is gone. Or more properly, he has gone back.” A flicker of a smile passed over the demon’s bony face. He swept his hand out toward the city. “There was a great war. And everything changed.”
“Why would I care?”
Eligor stiffened slightly. “Because in some ways he fought that war for you. Because you opened a door into his soul that might otherwise have remained sealed. And because now you are free.”
Bo-ad said nothing. She turned away and looked at the rubble and the scaffolds and the space where she had lain and the distant fire in the sky. When she turned back her expression had darkened.
“This is why you have brought me back? To tell me I am free? In this place?”
“Yes. That was his wish. It is why this structure was not torn down. Until now. He wanted this to happen when things were again calm.”
“In this place, demon, freedom can exist only for you and your kind. It has no meaning for a soul.”
Bo-ad heard the slow, irritated intake of breath as Abbeladdur took a threatening step toward her. It was unclear if he understood the souls’ tongue—he had contributed nothing to the exchange— but it was obvious that he was able to sense her hostility from the tone. She hoped that her unblinking stare masked the fear that suddenly stabbed at her. As if in answer, the fires that laced Abbeladdur’s form flared ominously and her trembling grew perceptibly. With a deep breath and an upraised hand, Eligor motioned him to stop. An unmistakable expression of disdain creased the beast. headed demon’s muzzle, but rather than confront his companion he growled something and walked a short distance of pretending to examine the statue’s colossal foot.
“It has meaning now,” Eligor said, turning back to Bo-ad, “if you choose to let it. You are not the first soul to be told this. In fact, you are among the last. We wanted to make sure there would not be another war… a war of eradication… before you were freed. We needed to know that the souls would not attempt a rebellion of their own.”
Are we always just that close to extinction here? Unconsciously, Bo-ad reached for the small pendant—her statue of the White Mistress—a talisman she had always used to comfort herself. It was gone! And then, through the miasma of recalled pain, she remembered him probing her wounded flesh just after she had been crushed, searching for and finding something. It had been the statue! Why had he wanted it? She knew she could not keep the disappointment from her face and knew, too, that Eligor had seen it.
Without hesitation he reached into his satchel and produced a necklace—the missing necklace—letting it dangle from two curved claws for her to take. She looked with incredulity at it as it moved erratically in the wind.
“In time, he truly regretted taking this from you.”
She took it and slowly tied the fine new braided cord around her neck. Her mind was racing with the shock of rebirth and the newness of what she was learning of the changes to the world around her. There was too much for her to understand and too much that she knew she would never understand about these creatures and, in particular, Sargatanas. Someday she might ask this demon, but now was not the time. Not in her present state of confusion.
A brief wave of regret passed through her. Whether it was his own idea or not, Eligor was trying to do his best to compensate her for her treatment. But centuries of punishment and oppression would not so easily erase the fear and hatred she felt for her former tormentors. As conciliatory as he was, she would make no effort to befriend him.
“You said your lord’s instructions were quite specific regarding me. What were they?”
“To see you walk again, to return your treasured necklace, and to give you anything that you wanted within reason.”
She was stunned; it was an act of generosity, more than that, an act of kindness unheard of in Hell. An act unlike any she ever heard of by a demon. And yet, from what she was beginning to understand, Sargatanas had not been like any other demon.
What do I want? For the first time in Hell, she found her normal decisiveness challenged. As she stood regarding Eligor and his companion she only knew that she wanted to be away, to be anywhere but where she was. So often when she had been toiling in the streets of Adamantinarx, she had burned to know what lay beyond the walls of the city, beyond the Acheron, far out into the Wastes. She had seen many travelers arrive through the great gates and had envied each and every one their ability to move freely about. She had stolen every opportunity to study them, their foreign garb, their strange Wasteborn mannerisms, the goods they had brought with them, and she had formed a thousand questions about them. Now, with this offer from a demon she had never known, she felt it was all within her grasp.
Eligor looked at her expectantly. The wind had died down somewhat and she could hear the shouts of workers and the sounds of their chisels upon rock some ways of.
“Do you know who I am… was?”
“Yes,” the demon said. “Lord Sargatanas knew even while he spoke with you. It was his Art, his special skill, to know. When he gave me my instructions he told me that I could, at my discretion, give you your self back. He gave me a glyph for this purpose, Boudica.”
As she heard that name, she saw the demon raise his hand and from it a simple three-character glyph flared from his palm. This he gently pushed forward and, moments after it vanished against her skin, she felt as if a slight breeze brushed through her chest.
The soul stood transfixed, unable to speak as, for a fleeting moment, she smelled something forgotten, something so sweet and aromatic that it overpowered the acrid pungency of brimstone and set every fiber of her soul alight. It was the unmistakable earthy scent of the forest, and with it, like countless leaves falling in seamless layers, her memories came back to her. She closed her eyes and for a time the faintest smile played upon her mouth and then, quite suddenly, her face grew grim.
When she opened her eyes, she saw that Eligor was watching her very attentively and that even Abbeladdur was peering at her from some distance.
“I want to know about my daughters.” The words came out so plainly that they seemed flat, unemotional.
“This is not something I can tell you about,” Eligor said.
“Can’t or won’t?”
“When Lord Sargatanas concluded that he wanted you brought back it was already too late to discover the truth about their whereabouts,” Eligor said patiently. “While he could understand your life, it would not have been in his power to shed light upon the lives of your kin. The Books of Gamigin—the Books of the Souls— were no longer in Adamantinarx.”
“This means nothing to me,” the soul once known as Bo-ad said.
“These are the soul books that speak of every soul who was ever consigned to this place. If your daughters were here those Books would speak of them. When the city was threatened by the tyrant Beelzebub’s legions, Lord Sargatanas had them as well as what was left of the Library spirited away for safekeeping, fearing that the Fly would, in his rage against the rebellious souls, either have the Books destroyed or, worse, use them in some way unforeseen.”
The soul took a deep breath and slowly turned away from the demon. She could almost taste the newly born frustration in her dry mouth. Though she had only just recovered her lost life, she could feel the upwelling of her maternal imperative to know her daughters’ fate, the urgency to help them in any way she could. Trying to keep her voice steady, she said, “I see the broken bones of a city, demon. When will these Books be returned?”
“The city is being mended,” Eligor said stiffly. The flames of his head grew briefly in intensity and the soul was quick to perceive a more formal edge to his voice. “Three centuries of Zoray’s Archers under the command of my lieutenant, Metaphrax Argastos, are to set forth shortly for the Wastes to recover them. They will be guarding the retrieval caravan. You may join them, if you choose. And, after the Library is brought back and installed and you have learned what you will, you may go where you please.”
Boudica saw the winged demon turn and nod to his companion in the direction of the palace—a sure sign the conversation was at an end—and realized she had pushed him perhaps harder than was prudent, that a potential ally was on the verge of casting her aside. He began to move away.
“Eligor… I will do as you suggest,” she said, allowing a tone of contrition to shade her words. “I’ll accompany them out to the Wastes because I have always wanted to venture out and see them for myself. And when I return I hope you will help me to find out what I seek.”
The demon stopped in midstride and turned to her.
“I know it is hard for you, Boudica, without having been in the Rebellion yourself, to understand that not all of us are your enemy, but it is true. Many of us no more want to be here than you. But, with his departure, my lord, the Ascended Sargatanas, showed us that we have choices in Hell… free will, if you like. It was his gift to us. Let him look upon you from Above, as surely he will, and see that you used it well.”
“I will try, Eligor.”
But even as she acknowledged Eligor’s words and understood the sense of them she could not help but be surprised with the fervor he showed regarding his departed lord. It bordered on a reverence that went well past the lord and subject relationships of Hell. She would have to remember this and be more careful. If for no other reason than to simply survive.
Eligor hesitated, stroking the beard-like bones of his chin, looking at the soul as if reconsidering her, and said abruptly, “Come, we will go to a place where you can stay until the expedition leaves.”
The blood that flowed anew in Boudica rose and, while her daughters’ plight never left her mind, she felt a sense of exhilaration. It was a new world and she was free.
Excerpted from The Heart of Hell, copyright © 2019 by Wayne Barlowe.