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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
One of the ancient Old Creatures took Kernel on a trip to the center of the universe, explaining the origins of life along the way. Apparently there was one universe to begin with, divided into sixty-four zones, half white and half black, like a chessboard. The Kah-Gash held it all together, keeping the demons and Old Creatures apart. Then law and order broke down, the Big Bang shattered everything, and life as we know it began.
The Old Creatures protected us from the Demonata as long as they could, but they’ve been fighting a losing battle. Unlike the demons, they can’t reproduce, so when the last one dies, we’ll be left to the devices of the inhuman armies. That spells curtains for this world and all the others in our universe.
To deny the demons their triumph, the Old Creatures created an ark. Like Noah’s, only this is an entire world, staffed by a variety of the universe’s more magical creatures. They want Kernel to captain the ark. As the eyes of the Kah-Gash, he can find shortcuts between any two points in the universe. By keeping him alive forever, the Old Creatures hope that he can steer the ark one step ahead of the pursuing Demonata, ensuring that a small section of our universe survives until the end of time.
It would have been easy for Kernel to accept their offer. But he came back and pitched in with us for one last assault. The Old Creatures said we couldn’t beat Death, that it’s invulnerable, but Kernel refused to write off our chances. He joined with Bec and me, and we confronted the Shadow.
We managed to destroy Death’s body, but it’s only a matter of time before it returns, bigger and badder than before, to lead its followers to victory. Seeing this, Kernel chose to return to the ark. I asked him to stay and fight. Bec had been captured by Lord Loss and I wanted us to free her, then unleash the full force of the Kah-Gash on Death when it returned.
Kernel refused. He thought Bec had switched allegiances and sided with Lord Loss. Even if she hadn’t, he couldn’t see any way of defeating Death. He got ready to open a window and take off for pastures unimaginably distant.
That’s when I lost my cool and tore out his eyes. I needed Kernel to find Bec for us to stand any sort of chance against Death. If I had to blind and imprison him to force his hand, so be it. The human Grubbs Grady could never have acted so viciously, but the new, wolfen me… Well, I don’t sleep with an easy conscience, but I can live with it.
“How does he look?” Kernel asks Kirilli. “Ashamed? He should. What he did to me, I wouldn’t have done to a dog. Or a demon. Not even a werewolf.”
“He looks tired,” Kirilli says, offering me a slight smile.
“Poor Grubbs,” Kernel sneers. “Are you overworked? You should take a week off, treat yourself to a vacation.”
“That’s right,” I sigh. “Go on hating me. It’s not like you’ve got anything else to hate, is it?”
“The Demonata?” Kernel shakes his head. “I don’t hate them. They’re doing what they were born to. Nature spat them out as foul, heartless killers. That’s the way they are. You, on the other hand, chose vileness over humanity. We were friends. I trusted you. But then you did this to me and keep me here against my will, even though you know it’s wrong. I despise you more than I ever thought possible.”
I sniff away his insults. “Whatever,” I deadpan, echoing the girl with the yo-yo. “We’re staying here the rest of the night, then moving out at ten in the morning. If you want anything, ask a nurse.”
“I want new eyes,” Kernel snarls. “Can a nurse fetch me those?”
I start for the door.
“Grubbs,” Kernel stops me. I glance back wearily, preparing myself for more insults. “Why are we still here?”
I frown. “I told you, we’re staying overnight, then—”
“I mean on Earth,” he interrupts. “When you blinded me, you said you needed me to find Bec, that we’d wait for our wounds to heal, then rescue her. But it’s been a month and we haven’t gone after her. Why not?”
I’m surprised Kernel hasn’t mentioned this before. I kept waiting for him to ask and had all sorts of responses lined up. But now my tongue freezes. I flash on the dreams I’ve been having, think about sharing them with him, then shake my head.
“We’re not ready. We’ll go for Bec when the time is right. We can do more good here at the moment.”
“We?” Kernel replies archly. “All I do is wait around in hospitals for you to return from the killing fields. If you’re not going to use me, set me free.”
“I will use you,” I mutter. “When it’s time, I’ll take you back to the demon universe and let you build new eyes.”
“And then?” Kernel prompts.
“We’ll find Bec.”
“Find her?” He pounces like a cat. “Not rescue her?”
I gulp, then nod at Kirilli. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Not if I see you first,” Kernel calls after me, then raises his voice as I exit, to make sure I hear his parting shot. “Not that that’s very likely!”
I find an unoccupied room on an upper floor of the hospital and make a bed out of some balled-up surgical gowns. I’d rather not sleep, but rest is vital, even for a creature like me. I have to be at my sharpest to keep on fighting demons.
I think about my conversation with Kernel, and about Dervish, Juni, Lord Loss, Bec. I recall the prophecy again, the way Juni cackled, her delight as she described seeing the world explode, the universe burning beneath my twisted hands.
It’s too much. Guilt, fear, and loneliness overwhelm me. I’m not in close touch with my human emotions these days. I’ve become a detached, brutal excuse for a person. But tonight, for a few brief minutes, my defenses crumble. I become an awkward teenager again. I feel the weight of the expectations that ride upon me… the awful price the world will pay if I fail… those who’ve been lost… the lives I’ve taken, like the confused little girl tonight… the fear of what might be waiting for me when I cross to Lord Loss’s realm… Juni’s prophecy.
As my face contorts and becomes more human, my chest heaves and I weep. Hot, thick, salty tears run down my cheeks as I sob and beg for help from the dead—Dervish and Beranabus, Mum and Dad, Meera and Bill-E. I’ve blinded a friend. Hidden terrible truths from those who’ve placed their trust in me. Killed and lied. And, if Juni’s to be believed, there’s worse to come.
I wail and mumble madly, biting into the gowns to stifle my cries, pounding my chest and face with my fists. I curse the universe, God if he exists, the Old Creatures, the Disciples, Lord Loss, and all the demons. But most of all I curse myself, poor, pitiful, apocalyptic Grubbs Grady.
Then, as the tears dry… as the werewolf regains control and my features harden and transform… as I bury my humanity deep again… as the Kah-Gash whispers and tells me I’m not alone and to stop behaving like a child… I gradually calm down.
I turn and readjust the gowns. Make myself comfortable. Breathe more slowly. Mutter a short spell. And fall into what should be a pure and dreamless sleep—but isn’t.
IN DREAMS I WALK WITH YOU
THE spell I use when I want to sleep is supposed to stop me dreaming. It’s designed to provide me with a good night’s sleep, free of nightmares, so I can wake fresh and bright in the morning. But it hasn’t been working since Bec was abducted. I’ve tried different spells, having asked a number of Disciples for advice, but nothing keeps the dream at bay. The same disturbing scenes unfold every time, and they’re the real reason why I haven’t tried to rescue Bec.
As the dream kicks in again, I flow along with it as usual. I’ve tried fighting, struggled to change the sequence or details, but without success. Tonight I accept my lack of control with as much grace as a savage beast like me can muster.
I’m in a room made of cobwebs, staring down at a sleeping girl—Bec. She lies on a bed of thick webs, covered by a blanket of much finer strands. She looks pale and exhausted but bears no wounds and breathes easily, calmly.
Her left hand moves upwards and brushes her cheek, as I knew it would. Her nose twitches and again I’m not surprised. I’ve seen it all a dozen times. When you experience the same dream over and over, you start paying attention to the details, to stop yourself going mad. I try to find something new tonight, a little movement or quiver that I missed before, but everything is exactly the same.
Bec’s eyelids flutter open. A moment of panic—“Where am I?”—then her look of alarm fades and she rises. She’s dressed in a beautiful nightgown, the sort I’ve only seen in old movies. It’s not made of webs. I guess Lord Loss took it from one of his victims—I can’t imagine him going shopping for it.
Bec walks to a small, round window and gazes out over a landscape of cobwebs. This is Lord Loss’s realm, a world of countless sticky strands, a massive network of despair and sorrow. The air is thick with misery and suffering. I can sense that thousands of people have died here, crying out for their loved ones, alone and separated from all they’d ever known.
Bec turns to a table and chair, both carved out of webs. There’s a mirror set in the wall over the table. The girl sits and studies her reflection. She looks tense but not scared. She reaches out to touch the face in the mirror, as if she’s not sure it’s really hers, then pauses and lowers her hand.
Standing, she walks to a wardrobe on the other side of the room. The doors open as she approaches, and a clothes rack slides out. Long, frilly dresses hang from it, the sort a princess or movie star would wear. I don’t think they’d suit a plain girl like Bec. She must think the same thing because she smiles at the dresses and shakes her head.
“You do yourself a disservice, Little One,” says a voice. Bec stiffens, then turns slowly and regards Lord Loss. He’s hovering in the doorway, blood seeping from the many cracks in his pale red skin. His dark red eyes are as kindly as I’ve ever seen them. Even the snakes in the hole where his heart should be look harmless, hissing playfully, seeming to smile at the young girl by the wardrobe.
“Of course you deserve such finery,” Lord Loss continues, floating into the room and running a couple of his eight arms over the dresses. “You are a priestess of high standing. You should expect only the best from your world and its people. They exist to serve your pleasure and revere your beauty.”
“You flatter me,” Bec says shyly.
“No,” Lord Loss says. “Power is beauty, and as you are the most powerful of all humans, you must be the most beautiful. Wear these dresses and think of them as rags. We shall find finer robes for you later.”
He picks out a green dress and smiles. “This matches your eyes. Will you try it on, to please me?”
“Very well.” Bec sighs and slips out of her nightdress, not embarrassed to be naked in front of the demon master. Bec’s nudity made me uncomfortable at first, but I’m used to it now. What I find more unsettling is the fact that she seems to want to please Lord Loss. Why should she care about his wishes, or dress to impress him? This is our enemy, a vile, twisted monster. Yet she’s letting him treat her like a doll.
When Bec has dressed, Lord Loss leads her to the table and applies makeup as she sits patiently. It’s obscene, watching his mangled hands brushing across her face. I want to knock him away and slap Bec back to her senses. It wouldn’t be so bad if he was controlling her thoughts, brainwashing her to do his bidding. But I don’t get any hint of that. Bec looks nervous, but her mind appears to be her own.
When Lord Loss is finished, he drifts back a few feet and studies her. He nods with satisfaction, as he does every time, and murmurs, “What a vision.”
Bec blushes, unable to hide a timid smile. I’ve grown to loathe that smile. It’s wrong. This should be a place of tears and heartache, not shy smirks.
“Come,” Lord Loss says, offering Bec an arm. “Let me show you more of my palace.”
Bec gulps, then takes his arm and lets the demon master lead her out of the bedroom. They descend a staircase of webs. Some of Lord Loss’s familiars scurry past as the pair walk gracefully down the steps. The lesser demons scowl at Bec but steer clear of her, afraid of angering their master. Bec knows they hate her, but she doesn’t care. She’s safe as long as she stays by her protector.
They stroll through the castle, Lord Loss polite as a prince, the perfect host, pointing out features of special interest. Bec admires the chandeliers and statues, and coos when Lord Loss modestly admits to designing them himself.
“You’re so creative,” she says.
“That is kind of you, but untrue,” he replies. “They’re modeled after objects I have seen on Earth. I have a certain workmanlike skill but no real artistic streak. Unoriginality is the curse of my kind.”
They descend farther, to a cellar deep beneath the ground. In my sleep I tense. I know what’s coming and I hate it. This is one of the worst parts of the dream. If I could skip it, I would, but it draws me on as it always does, an unwilling viewer, unable to pull back or look aside.
We enter a chamber of torture. Savage implements of torment are strapped to the webby walls. Brands glow red in burning fires. The air is pierced by the screams of the dying. Bec flinches and her fingers tighten on Lord Loss’s arm. He pats her small hand, comforting her. She gulps, then takes a trembling step forward. Lord Loss nods approvingly and leads her on.
I’ve never been able to count all the people in the cellar, since many are hidden behind walls or cabinets. There are at least thirty, probably a lot more, to judge by the volume of shrieks and moans.