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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
Kirilli helps Kernel as we climb down a steep wall. Moe and Curly flank them, growling softly, wary of this underground den. I’d be happy to descend in the dark, but Kirilli creates a ball of light. “There,” he beams. “That’s much better.”
As he says that, his prosthetic foot slips and he drops. A yell escapes his lips, and his eyes widen with alarm. But before he can plummet to his death, Moe grabs his left arm. The werewolf braces himself and clings to the wall as Kirilli jolts about. Once the startled magician has regained his wits—along with his grip—Moe lets go.
“He saved my life,” Kirilli gasps, looking like he’s about to be sick. “These beasts are becoming more human every day.”
“Don’t bet on it,” I grunt. “He only kept you alive in case he gets hungry later.”
Kirilli chuckles weakly. “You’re joking, right, Grubbs?” I carry on climbing down. “Grubbs?”
The cave hasn’t changed since the night Bill-E died. I can still appreciate its spectacular beauty, the amazing array of stalagmites and stalactites, the unusual formations, the waterfall cascading from one of the walls. That surprises me. After everything that happened, and all the wonders I’ve seen in the demon universe, I thought I’d be immune to the charms of the cave. But it thrills me almost as much now as when I first discovered it with Bill-E and Loch.
“Impressive,” Kirilli murmurs, strolling through the fields of stalagmites. “I did a bit of spelunking in my younger days. This is a splendid fissure. I’m sure it’s the start of a chain of caves. If I had the proper equipment, I’d love to explore fully.”
“We’re not here to map cave systems,” I growl, marching over to the waterfall. I squint at the wall around it. There’s a thin crack that was once much larger. That was where the tunnel would have opened if the demons had been successful.
“Kernel,” I call. He approaches warily, guided by Kirilli. I gouged out his eyes in a cave. I’m sure he’s thinking about that now, wondering if I plan to slice off any more body parts. “I want to link up with you again. Do I have your permission?”
“You’d do it even if I refused,” Kernel sneers, but sticks out a hand.
Using the Kah-Gash, I power up, then roar at the cave wall, the same way that I roared at the picture of Lord Loss in the cellar. The rock quivers, like it would in an earthquake. The crack splits further, widening until it’s a six-foot-high chasm. I let the roar die away, and the wall stops shaking, but the gap remains.
“Do you think this might be part of Bec’s plan?” Kernel asks as I step forward. I freeze and glance back. He’s smiling angelically. This isn’t something he just thought of. He’s been saving it to hit me with at the most distracting moment.
“What are you talking about?” I snap.
“Maybe she orchestrated the dream,” he says sweetly. “For all we know, the other lodestones might not be suitable. Maybe they can only manipulate this one, and she needed you to clear the way.”
I stare hatefully at the bald teenager. Right now, I’m glad I popped his eyes. I just wish I’d ripped his tongue out too.
“I guarantee one thing,” I say stiffly. “If they attack, and I think all is lost, I’ll toss you to my werewolves before I die.”
Kernel laughs, then sticks out his hand again. “Lead on, sweet prince.”
“Get stuffed,” I spit, leaving him for Kirilli. Tensing, I crouch, then jump and grab hold of the bottom of the crack. Dragging myself up, I peer into the darkness. I can’t see or hear anything, but Kernel’s warning has unsettled me, and I stand guard as the others climb, not wanting to venture farther without backup.
When we’re all gathered in the mouth of the tunnel, we advance. It’s hotter than the cave, and even though it’s wide enough for a couple to walk side by side, I keep imagining the walls grinding shut, pulping us to mincemeat. Kirilli and Kernel are nervous too, while Moe and Curly whine unhappily as they trudge along reluctantly.
Eventually the tunnel opens out into another cave. There’s a lake of calm, clear water covering most of the floor. In the center stands an island of bones, on top of which rests a large, jagged chunk of rock—the lodestone.
“I’m not a good swimmer,” Kirilli says uncertainly.
“I doubt if it’s deep,” I say, striding into the water. Even with my hairy legs, it feels cold.
“Should we undress?” Kirilli asks.
“But if we have to walk around all night in wet clothes…”
“You’re a mage,” I remind him. “You can dry them off once we get out.”
“Oh,” he says brightly. “I forget sometimes.” Chuckling, he leads Kernel into the lake. His chuckles turn to yelps when he feels the icy bite of the water, but he presses on. Curly and Moe start to follow. Then Moe splashes Curly. She yelps and splashes him back. Within moments they’re involved in a water fight, rolling around, wrestling and dunking each other, barking like a pair of puppies.
I reach the island and climb onto the mound of bones. A brittle skull cracks beneath my feet. I almost apologize, but there’s no point. The person this belonged to passed far beyond the need for apologies centuries before I was born.
Kernel and Kirilli climb out of the lake as I study the rock in the middle of the bones. It’s rectangular, rough around the edges. A skeleton is propped against it, kneeling, its skull resting on the top. I guess these are the remains of someone whose throat was slit over the rock—lodestones need blood to thrive.
“What’s it like?” Kernel asks.
“Nothing special. I’ve seen better in the local quarry.” I push the skeleton out of the way and rub my hands together. “Down to business. Beranabus simply broke the lodestone on the ship, right? No spells or magic required, just brute force?”
“This might be different,” Kernel says. “I think it’s a more powerful stone.”
“Only one way to find out.” I grab hold of the rock. I’m expecting a shock of energy to shoot through me, but although I can feel the buzz of Old magic in the stone, it doesn’t affect me. I let my fingers wander and find cracks and holds. Then I take a firm grip and strain, trying to snap the rock in two.
Nothing happens. I release the stone and scowl. “Think you’re tough?” I growl. “You won’t get the better of Grubbs Grady.” I get hold of it again and strain once more.
“He’s talking to rocks now,” Kernel says.
“A definite lunatic,” Kirilli purrs.
I ignore them and brace my muscles. The stone continues to resist. Losing patience, I pick it up, look around, then plow into the water, holding the rock over one shoulder. My legs buckle, and I use magic to steady them. Moe and Curly gape at me as I stagger past. The lodestone weighs me down, even though I’m using magic to support it. A few more seconds and it will drive me under the water. That wouldn’t be the best way to go—pinned beneath a stone to drown.
With a savage curse, I swing the lodestone around, raise it over my head, then hurl it at the wall of the cave. The rock slams into the wall and shatters. Shards litter the floor, and chunks bounce off and rain down on the underground lake. The werewolves howl at the echoing retorts, and the cave fills with waves of noise. I crawl out of the lake, pick up the larger fragments of the lodestone, and hammer them into the wall or off each other, reducing the rock to dust. This is one stone Bec and Lord Loss won’t be able to use. No tunnel will ever be opened in Carcery Vale again.
When I’m done, I lean against the wall and look around, panting. Kernel and Kirilli are wading through the lake. Moe and Curly have climbed out and are drip-drying. The island of bones looks far less menacing now. I think about dismantling it and scattering the bones. I don’t have time to bury them all, but I could hide them in the lake, grant the dead at least that small measure of privacy.
As I’m deciding whether or not to set to work on the island, I hear footsteps in the tunnel. I spring away from the wall and land in the lake close to where Kernel and Kirilli were about to step out. “Wait!” I hiss, holding up a hand for silence. I listen closely, hoping I was wrong about the footsteps. But a few seconds later I hear them again. Two sets, edging closer slowly, cautiously.
“Company?” Kernel whispers.
“Trouble, most likely.” I bark softly at Moe and Curly. Obeying my command, they move to the mouth of the tunnel and take up position, one on either side.
“Shall I douse the light?” Kirilli asks. He’s trembling. It might be from the chill of the water, though I suspect fear plays more of a part.
“No,” I tell him. “When I give the order, intensify it and direct the rays at whatever comes through. If they have eyes, maybe we can blind them.”
“You’re good at that,” Kernel mutters sarcastically.
We fall silent. The footsteps draw closer. Then I see shadows. Two separate figures, one tall and skinny, the other shorter but broad. The tall, skinny one might be the shadow of Lord Loss, but the other can’t be Bec. Not unless she’s chosen a new form, like Nadia Moore did when she joined the demon master.
Their feet come into view. I see boots and the hems of trousers. They both look human. Soldiers perhaps, sent to assassinate us? Mages? Spelunkers, like the young Kirilli Kovacs? Some chance of that!
The pair pause, perhaps sensing trouble. Then the broader one shrugs and steps forward quickly, the taller one taking a hasty stride to keep up. Curly and Moe howl and leap, claws extended.
“No!” I roar, and they wheel away instantly.
The two humans were raising guns in self-defense, but now they lower them and stare at us.
“Who is it?” Kernel hisses, fingers twitching. “What’s going on?”
“It’s me,” the broad one says.
“And me,” the lankier one adds.
“Shark?” Kernel gasps.
“Yeah,” the soldier grunts.
“And Timas Brauss,” the computer whiz says.
Shark looks at the werewolves, the island of bones, the shattered lodestone, and the three of us shivering in the water. Then he grins. “So,” he drawls, “have you missed me?”
THE last time I saw Shark was just after we escaped from Wolf Island. He’d been mauled by werewolves. Any normal person would have died from his wounds, but Shark is as stubborn as they come. He refused to roll over and die.
He’s still in bad shape. His left ear was bitten off and a raw-looking stump remains. He can see out of his right eye, but only just—the flesh around it is scarred and pink. All four fingers on his left hand were severed, leaving the thumb looking lonely and strange. The thumb and index finger on his right hand are gone too. And he’s wearing a brace from his waist to just beneath his chest.
“You look like hell,” I roar happily, picking him up and swinging him around.
“Mind the ribs,” he wheezes, and I immediately put him down. He scowls at me. “You don’t look any great shakes yourself. Haven’t you heard of razors?”
“No time for shaving. I’ve been too busy killing demons.”
“That’s no excuse,” he says, then winks with his good eye.
“Hi,” Kernel says, shuffling forward and extending a hand.
“How you doing, kid?” Shark asks with unusual kindness, ignoring the hand and giving Kernel a hug.
“Surviving,” Kernel sighs.
“I’m Kirilli Kovacs,” the stage magician introduces himself, straightening like a soldier presenting himself to an officer. “I’m a Disciple.”
“That so?” Shark grunts, running a bemused eye over Kirilli’s costume.
“Nobody has to bother with me,” Timas says cheerily. “I don’t matter.”
“Of course you do,” I chuckle, moving forward to shake the hand of the tall, thin, red-haired computer genius.
“I was eagerly looking forward to seeing you again,” Timas says. “Primarily, I must admit, because of the chance to renew my relationship with the delicious Meera Flame. But I understand she has been taken from us.”
“About a month ago,” I nod, my smile fading as I recall her grisly death. “She took Juni Swan with her. Blew her into a thousand lumpy pieces.”
“Some small comfort,” Timas says. “I have been seeking solace in the world of computers, but since Meera I find it hard to summon up the same enthusiasm as before. I think I might be in mourning. Or perhaps it’s just that I changed my diet recently.”
Kirilli raises an eyebrow. I smile and whirl my finger around beside my head.
“What have you two been up to?” I ask. “It feels like years since Wolf Island.”
“I’ve been recovering,” Shark says gruffly, hating to admit to his wounds.
“And I’ve been playing nursemaid,” says Timas.
“I wanted to join up with you earlier, but my doctor wouldn’t let me,” Shark complains. “She kept me sedated. I’d be there still if she hadn’t been eaten by a demon. Her replacement was less concerned about me.”
“Are you sure you’re OK?” I frown. “I don’t want you dropping dead on us.”
“Some hope! I’ve been in a couple of fights already. I wanted to limber up before I tracked you down, make sure everything was in working order. As dozens of dead demons would tell you if they could talk—it is.”
“How do you fight with so few fingers?” Kirilli asks.