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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
I move among the apprentices, taking the place of the mace-wielding old lady. There aren’t many Disciples left, so they’re spread thinly across the world, one or two per group of mages. I see the men and women around me flinch as I pass. They know who I am. They’ve seen me kill more demons than anybody else. They know they’re safe when I’m around. But I’m a fearsome sight, and most find it hard to suppress a shudder when they find themselves beside me.
I could change back if I wished, resume my human form. But I prefer it this way. It’s easier to lead people to their death if you’re not truly one of them.
A girl, no more than twelve or thirteen, is playing with a wooden yo-yo. As a demon comes within range, she snaps the yo-yo at it. The wood splinters and the shards puncture the demon’s eyes. She replaces it with another yo-yo, this time a plastic one.
“Nice work,” I grunt.
She looks up at me and fakes a yawn. “Whatever.”
Magic isn’t a natural part of our universe. But some humans—mages—are born with the ability to tap into it. When a demon opens a window from its universe to ours, magical energy spills through. If you’re a mage, you’re in business.
In the past, very few mages got to unleash their power. Windows weren’t opened often. It was hard for the Disciples to find new recruits. Now that demons have gone into overdrive, and two or three windows open every day, it’s simple. When a window is forming, we arrange for crowds of people to wait close by, then test them for magical prowess. Those who show promise are thrown into the fray after a quick burst of training, to perish or triumph.
I see a window in the near distance. A child, even younger than the girl with the yo-yo, stands to one side. A man and woman are behind her. I guess they’re using the girl. She probably had no choice in this. But, innocent or not, the Demonata are working through her, so she has to die.
As I push through the battling demons, werewolves, and humans, I marvel at the greed of mankind. I should be accustomed to it, but I’m still astonished every time it happens. Most mages use their powers for good, especially now that people can clearly see the full, destructive evil of the Demonata.
But there are others who side with the demons. They seek power, wealth, a longer life. They scent an opportunity to get ahead and sell off their souls to the highest bidder without a second thought. It never seems to occur to them that there will be no place in a demon-run world for any humans, even the most evil. Demons don’t do coalitions.
The woman behind the girl spots me. She taps the girl’s shoulder and mutters in her ear. The three of them edge closer to the window. Uh-uh! Can’t have them slipping away early. That wouldn’t be fair. I bark a phrase of magic and erect an invisible barrier between the trio and the window. Panic shoots across the faces of the adults. The girl simply looks confused.
The man hurls himself at the barrier, trying to smash it with his shoulder. The woman curses and draws a gun. As she trains it on me, I turn it into a posy of flowers. She stares at the petals, sadness filling her eyes as she realizes this will serve as her death wreath. Then Moe barrels onto the scene and knocks her to the ground. Her screams excite the wolf in me and I fall on the man, snarling. He just has time to beg for mercy. Then my teeth are around his throat and the sweet taste of human flesh fills my mouth.
I gulp the man’s blood, then toss his carcass aside and loom over the girl. She gazes up at me, that confused look still crinkling her features. She’s even younger than I thought, maybe seven or eight. She’s clutching a small teddy bear in one hand.
“Are you the boogey man?” she whispers, eyes round.
“Yes,” I croak, then take hold of her head with my huge, scarred, blood-soaked hands and crush.
Thoughts of Juni Swan flicker through my mind as the girl shakes and drops the teddy bear. Juni was Lord Loss’s assistant. She could catch glimpses of the future. We fought on Wolf Island. She had me beaten, but then let me go. Because, in a vision, she saw me destroying the world.
I’ve tried to dismiss Juni’s prophecy, but I’m sure it’s true. I often think that I should throw myself off a cliff or let the demons kill me. The world would be a safer place without me. But I can’t do it. Life’s too sweet. So I lie to myself and cling to false hope that she was wrong, even though I know it’s selfish madness.
As the girl goes still, I set her down and wonder if I’ll crush the world as easily as her head.
The window flashes out of existence, stranding the demons. With screams of despair, they battle furiously, eager to kill as many humans as they can before this universe rids itself of their ugly stain. But they’re already weakening, robbed of the magic they need to survive.
I feel my strength fading too. I’m a magician, so I can operate in the absence of a window. But I’m nowhere near as powerful as I am when the air’s thick with the delirious energy of the Demonata.
It doesn’t matter. I’m not essential in this final stage. Nor are the mages. This is where the werewolves and soldiers come into their own. They rip apart the weakened demons with fangs, claws, bullets, and machetes. The demons don’t die, but they no longer have the power to put themselves back together, so they can only lie there in pieces and wait to dissolve as magic drains from the air.
Moe cocks a deformed eyebrow at me and grunts questioningly.
“Go on,” I sigh, wincing at the pain in my leg. That’s the downside of using magic to heal a wound. It’s fine while there’s magical energy in the air, but once that passes, pain kicks in with a vengeance.
As Moe joins the bloodletting, a pale, thin, icy-looking woman approaches me. It’s Prae Athim, head of the Lambs, a group that once acted as executioners of Grady children who’d turned into werewolves. Now they supply me with fresh recruits from Wolf Island.
“That looks nasty,” Prae says, nodding at my leg. It’s purple, and pus seeps from the cuts that have reopened.
“I’ll be fine,” I mutter. “I got rid of all the poison before the window closed.”
“Does it hurt?” she asks.
“Yes. But it won’t kill me.”
“Still, you should have it looked at.”
I grin. Prae loves to mother her wolfen wards, even a semi-werewolf like me. She’s cold with humans but has a soft spot for those who’ve turned into savage, mindless killing machines.
“Will you look after the others?” I ask.
“Of course,” she snaps. “Don’t I always?”
Prae can’t directly control the werewolves—only I can do that—but she’s had years of experience and commands a team of specialists. When I’m tired or don’t have the time to round up the pack and settle them down, she moves in with her troops. They use electric prods, nets, and shackles where necessary, though having feasted on so many demons, most of the werewolves are happy to do as ordered.
“Will I see you later?” I ask. After a battle, Prae often spends the night with me, looking ahead to the next assault, discussing tactics.
“No,” she says. “We’re accepting a new shipment from the island. I want to make sure the transfer goes smoothly and get them quartered close to the others.”
“Do you want my help?”
She shakes her head. “I’ll make them comfortable first. You can give them your pep talk in the morning. I’m sure they’ll be impressed.”
Prae leaves and I chuckle softly. I’ve grown fond of her in recent weeks. She reminds me of Dervish. He could be a distant customer too, when he needed to be.
Thinking of my dead uncle wipes the smile from my lips. I spend a few minutes remembering some of his finer moments—when he came to see me in the asylum after my family was killed, fighting Vein and Artery in the cellar at Carcery Vale, battling Lord Loss in the town of Slawter, dying with dignity in the desert.
Then I recall his love for Juni, when we thought she was on our side, and that reminds me of her dire prophecy. Sighing miserably, I shuffle off to the hospital, wishing I could avoid quiet, human moments like these. Life’s a lot easier when chaos is erupting all around and the beastly wolf within me rises to the fore.
I’M not going to the hospital to have myself tended to. Prae’s concern was touching but unwarranted. I’ll be in a lot of pain until the next attack, but as soon as a window opens and magic floods the air, I’ll revive spectacularly. No, I’m going to look in on a patient. A guy not much older than me, whose eyes I clawed out a month ago.
As I enter the ward where I left Kernel before the battle started, I fill with guilt, as I do every time I face him. My stomach still gives a turn when I recall the callous way I blinded my friend, ripping his eyes from their sockets the way a bully might swipe a bag of sweets from a child.
The doctors and nurses are rushed off their feet trying to deal with a flood of wounded. Abandoning the more seriously injured to chance, they focus on those most likely to respond to treatment.
Nobody pays much attention to me as I pad through the corridors. I’ve made myself a bit smaller, but I still cut a sinister sight. I’m taller and broader than any human, naked except for a pair of torn, tattered pants, hairy, bloody, and foul-smelling. I’d inspire terror if these were normal times. But we’ve passed way beyond the bounds of normality. These days, in the cities and towns where the war takes me, I draw nothing more than curious glances.
I stop at the door of Kernel’s room and study the bald, brown-skinned teenager through the glass. He’s sitting on a chair in the corner. I left him lying on a bed, but he’s given that up to one of the recently wounded. Kirilli Kovacs is by his side, chatting animatedly, making sweeping gestures with his hands. I smile at the ridiculous Kirilli. He still wears a stage magician’s costume, though he replaced his ruined original suit with a new one a few weeks back. It didn’t have gold and silver stars down the sides, but he found some and has been stitching them on in quieter moments.
Two fingers on Kirilli’s left hand are missing, he’s scarred and bruised all over, and his right foot was bitten off at the ankle—he wears a prosthetic. Kirilli is proud of his injuries. He whined to begin with, but when he saw the impression they made on people—especially pretty nurses—he adopted a stoic stance. He loves telling exaggerated tales about how he lost his various body parts.
Kirilli’s a natural coward, but he came good when we last fought the demons in their own universe. He was a hero that day, surprising even himself. He hasn’t been called into action too often since, but has handled himself capably when required. I think he’s over the worst of his cowardice, though he’ll never be an out-and-out warrior.
I push the door open. Kernel is smiling at whatever tall tale Kirilli’s spinning. The pair have become good friends. Kirilli helps Kernel forget about his missing eyes. I should really set the Disciple more demanding tasks—he’s too important to waste on babysitting duties—but guilt over what I did to Kernel stays my hand.
There’s a growl to my left. It’s Larry, crouched in the corner. I leave one of my most trusted werewolves with Kernel whenever I’m not around. Officially they’re here to protect him. But the truth—as Kernel knows—is that I don’t trust my blind companion. I’m afraid he’ll create a pair of eyes when a window is open and slip away. Larry’s instructions—hammered into him with difficulty—are to watch over Kernel and disable him if the teenager ever starts fiddling with his sockets.
Kernel and Kirilli glance up when Larry growls. Kernel’s expression instantly changes, even though he can’t see me. I guess the smell gives me away.
“Here comes our triumphant general,” Kernel sneers. “Kill many demons today, Grubbs? Blind any of them?”
“How is he?” I ask Kirilli, ignoring the taunts.
“Blind!” Kernel snaps before the Disciple can answer. “In agony. A doctor had a look at me earlier, before the window opened. Infection has set in. I used magic to clean it—carefully, so as not to arouse my guard’s suspicions—but the rot will return. I’ll probably drop dead of some disease of the brain any day now. Give me back my eyes, you son of a wolfen hound!”
“Does he ever change the track?” I sigh.
“He only gets like this when you’re around,” Kirilli murmurs. “And, as I’m sure you acknowledge, he has genuine cause for complaint.”
I grunt sourly and step aside as a patient is bundled past by a couple of nurses. “We’ve had this conversation too many times. I won’t restore your eyes until we rescue Bec. If you promised not to take off, I’d let you fix them now.”
“I promise to kick your ass every day for all eternity in hell,” Kernel snarls. “How about that?”
I scowl at the blind magician, hating myself more than him. Kernel’s part of a demonic weapon known as the Kah-Gash. I am too. It can be used to settle this war, handing ultimate victory to us or the Demonata. The third part is in a girl called Bec, currently a prisoner of the demon master, Lord Loss.
The original plan was for the three of us to unite, unleash the power of the Kah-Gash, destroy the Demonata, and ride off into the sunset, champions of the universe, the greatest heroes ever. Easy.
Then Death came along and complicated matters. Death used to be a force, the same as gravity or light, without thought or form. Now it has a mind and it created a body from the souls of the dead that it reaped. We christened it the Shadow before we found out its true identity.
Death doesn’t like us. Life’s too abundant in this universe. It wants to go back to the way things were, when only demons and the Old Creatures were around. It’s thrown its support behind the Demonata. Under Death’s guidance, the demons have banded together and launched an assault on Earth. Their reward if they triumph will be the obliteration of mankind, control of our universe, and immortality. Not a bad little package!