“Oww . . . you flippin’ maniac!” Marlo Fauster shrieked. The demon driver, after untying Marlo’s hands, had jabbed his pitchspork in a place just south of cordial. Marlo fell to her knees outside the stagecoach and fumbled to remove her blindfold.
The driver, his shape smudged and cloaked in the murky darkness, stood atop the stagecoach and struck a match across his fangs. The bright flare of light felt like an explosion in Marlo’s eye sockets.
The driver’s nightmarish features burned themselves into the back of Marlo’s retinas. Like most of the demons she had met in Heck, he was a creature turned inside out. But this one was even more inside out somehow: a lanky, walking pizza with everything on it held together by a network of pulsating veins and arteries.
“On second thought”—Marlo gulped—“maybe the blindfold wasn’t so bad.”
A pale horse with shiny pink eyes clomped nervously in place in front of the stagecoach. The demon driver pompously puffed out his disgusting chest.
“Snatched away in beauty’s bloom, on thee shall press no ponderous tomb,” he recited in a wet, snooty tone, like a butler with a bronchial infection.
As if things weren’t bad enough, Marlo reflected, now I have to hear his poetry.
Her eyes adjusted to the light, and she saw she was in some kind of subterranean tunnel. She stood up, brushing gravel off her baggy, sequined #1 grandma sweatshirt and sagging turquoise stirrup pants.
After her brother Milton’s unprecedented escape at the Gates of Heck, Marlo had been forced at spork-point into thisugly Rapacia uniform, blindfolded, and shoved into the stagecoach of some poetic cadaver.
The next thing Marlo knew, she was here—wherever “here” was. “You are so not getting a tip,” she said.
The demon folded his arms together smugly. The mesh of winding red and blue capillaries made him appear as if he were a living, throbbing road map. Watching the creature’s pulse made Marlo’s own pulse quicken.
“My, aren’t we a brave little girl?” the demon mocked before suddenly leaping to the ground.
Startled, Marlo jumped back, hitting something with a clang. “Dang!” she cursed, rubbing the back of her skull. The demon laughed.
She turned to glare at what had connected with her head so painfully.
unwelcome to rapacia, read a sign atop an ornate metal gate. Twin wrought-iron fleurs-de-lis were welded against a gleaming brass serpent, double curved into a shiny letter “s.” At the side of the gate, attached to a crisscross of iron bars, was a large metal box, with a message etched across it: please leave all valuables and expensive personal effects here so that they can be, um, stored and given back to you at the end of eternity.
Marlo peered down the tunnel past the open gate. The passage grew darker in progressively blacker rings that formed a big, black, fathomless eye. She shivered.
“You’d better pick up the pace,” the demon jeered. “The Grabbit doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Marlo turned back toward the exploded, over-microwaved Hot-Pocket-of-a-man.
“The Grabbit?” she asked. “What’s a Grabbit?”
The demon laughed. “The Grabbit is your new vice principal. It’s what makes Rapacia such an . . . interesting place of torment for greedy, grasping little moppets such as yourself.”
The demon turned toward his stagecoach. The creepy white horse “nayed” with a deranged titter.
A wave of panic washed over Marlo.
“What am I supposed to do, you . . . you . . . freaky carcass thing?” Marlo shouted into the dark, her chest tight with fear.
The demon sneered over his sinewy shoulder.
“The name is Byron . . . Lord Byron,” he replied haughtily, his inside-outside body flushed with indignation. “I once wore my heart on my sleeve and now must wear it draped outside my chest, a palpitating medallion for all to see.”
The demon chuckled.
“But at least I’m not a naughty little girl—alone—in the dark.”
Marlo could practically hear Lord Byron’s uncaring shrug as the demon stalked back to the stagecoach, muttering another depressing poem.
After a few long seconds of complete silence, Marlo’s ears were suddenly assaulted with the sounds of hooves clacking, wheels squeaking, and monstrous snorts. Slowly, the noises flattened into fading echoes, leaving behind nothing but Marlo’s frantic panting. The darkness and silence seemed to grip her around the midsection, squeezing out every ounce of her usual bravado.
“This sucks!” Marlo shouted to herself, kicking the wall.
“This sucks!” Her words echoed back at her, whiny and afraid. Marlo tried in vain to hold back the twin gushes of hot, salty tears streaking down her cheeks.
At least there was no one around to see what a total chicken nugget she was, Marlo thought—down here, submerged in darkness, alone, en route from one terrible place to another.
She sighed and tugged straight her sweatshirt—an acrylic travesty the color of old dentures—and hiked up her stirrup pants.
Might as well get this over with, Marlo reasoned as she felt along the tunnel with her hands, reading the walls like braille.
After Marlo’s brother, Milton, had escaped from Limbo—using the buoyant power of freed souls to lift him up, up, and away back to the Surface, the Stage, the land of the living, whatever you wanted to call it—things had gotten a little tense down in the Netherworld.
Bea “Elsa” Bubb, Heck’s hideous Principal of Darkness, had gone ballistic. She had been so angry that she couldn’t so much as look at Marlo due to her sheer Fausterness—those hereditary bits of Milton the principal saw mocking her in Marlo’s face.
Now, here she was, told to scurry in the darkness to meet her new vice principal.
After groping her way along for several minutes, Marlo felt a prickly wave of electricity creep under her skin. She stopped. There was a shimmer of . . . something . . . in the distance. A glint of garish green. A flash of cruel metal. A beguiling glimmer that drew Marlo closer like a moth to a lightbulb. She drifted toward the beckoning twinkle.
Marlo moved forward, the burrow narrowing steadily until, after a few hundred yards, it constricted into a dark, open portal. She sniffed the air. It smelled like ozone, like dust and electricity, like the smell just before lightning strikes.
Closing her eyes, Marlo breathed deeply to calm her frazzled nerves and then crossed the threshold into a humming chamber. Deep rumbling waves rattled her bones. Although she still couldn’t see, Marlo sensed the presence of something even darker than the darkness, a shadow in a nest of shadows waiting patiently for her to come one fatal step too close. Her heart galloped like a rabid, three-legged racehorse.
Dim neon bathed a shape that towered before her at the core of the chamber. A gorgeous spectrum of faraway light leaked faintly from a grate in the ceiling beyond the shadow, daring Marlo to come closer. Its color danced along the edges of the dark shape, making the shadow seem even more sinister in contrast.
“What the bloody heck is this place?” a voice boomed in the blackness.