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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
“What are you grinning at?” Shark asks.
“You wouldn’t like it if I told you,” I chuckle. To hell with the odds—at least they’re my friends. If things go bad, I’d rather die in the company of this bunch of misfits than with anyone else.
Kernel’s still working on his eyes. They’re starting to come together. At the moment they look like a runny egg that’s been poured back into the two halves of its shell. The rest of us are sitting nearby. Moe and Curly lie by my feet, panting after their playful chase.
I’m in the middle of telling Shark and Timas about Beranabus’s soul, how we found it inside the Shadow and freed it, what he told us before he departed. I’m interrupted by choking noises. Glancing over, I spot Curly shaking her head and retching. I grin, figuring she swallowed a bone the wrong way, but then Moe growls and edges away from her. I sense something’s wrong.
“Move back,” I tell the others. They shuffle away, Kernel too, knowing better than to question me. Moe is snarling, his teeth bared, eyeing Curly darkly.
The female werewolf rolls around, whining and gasping. I howl a question, but she either doesn’t hear or can’t respond. She’s clawing at her face. I howl again, trying to calm her, but she staggers to her feet and whirls away, making horrible sounds. She crashes into a tree, rebounds, and picks up speed. She’s unconsciously heading for the pool. I see the liquid draw towards the edge closest to us. It senses a victim and is getting ready to pounce.
I race after the distressed werewolf and tackle her. She lashes out at me, but feebly, no power in the punch. I get a glimpse of her face and shudder. Her flesh is bubbling as if she’s been dunked in a bucket of acid. Her eyes bulge, and her tongue swishes madly from one side of her mouth to the other.
“What’s wrong with her?” Kirilli yells.
“Damned if I know,” I mutter, nudging her away from the pool, ready to defend myself if she attacks.
Curly lurches to her knees, then throws herself down and buries her face in the soil. She thrashes wildly, sending clouds of dust shooting into the air. She slams her face harder into the ground, as if she wants to destroy it.
Curly screams, squeezes her head, then slumps. Her hands fall away. Her legs shiver, then go still. She lies facedown, breathing shallowly, silent. I edge closer, wary, expecting her to leap up and attack. But she’s not playing possum. She doesn’t move as I poke her with my right foot, or when I kneel beside her and pull her head up by her hair.
There are gasps from the others when they see her face. I frown at them, then rotate her head. As her face swings into view, I see what disturbed them. Her features have altered. There’s another face poking out of the flesh and bones. It’s still forming, the skin around the cheeks bulging and warping. But I recognize it in spite of all the blood and goo.
Her eyes snap open and focus on me. I almost drop her and stamp her head into the ground. But that wouldn’t achieve anything. This isn’t the real Bec, merely a projection. I might as well hear her out. If I do any damage, I’ll only hurt Curly.
Bec’s lips move and she spits out clumps of Curly’s hairy flesh. She tries to speak. Blood gurgles in her throat and she chokes. Spits it out, then retches. Curly’s hand twitches and rises towards her mouth. It’s probably just to wipe blood away, but I’m taking no chances. I pin her with a wrestling move and clamp her hands behind her back. There are now only inches between my face and Bec’s. I draw back slightly, in case she bites.
“You don’t look worried,” Bec says, her voice rougher than usual, a bit of Curly’s growly tone mixed in with it.
“I’ve seen a lot weirder than this,” I shrug.
“Is that really Bec?” Shark barks.
“Quiet,” I tell him.
“We should kill her if—”
“Shut up!” I roar.
Bec smiles crookedly. “You’ve been spying on me. I thought I sensed you, but I wasn’t certain until now. You’d be more concerned if my appearance had come as a complete surprise. Will you try to kill me, Grubbs, or do you still hold out hope of reassembling the Kah-Gash?”
“What have you done?” I growl. “Have you pledged yourself to that foul hunk of rotting demon meat?”
“We can’t beat them,” she sighs. “Everybody realizes that except you.”
“So we join them instead?” I sneer. “Never. I’d rather die than fight beside the likes of Lord Loss.”
“I tried death,” Bec says. “It wasn’t much fun.”
“Are you having more fun now?” I want to pound her face to bits, but it wouldn’t change anything.
“Enjoyment isn’t an issue any longer,” Bec says. “I won’t become a shrieking harpy like Juni Swan. I take no pleasure from this. But I want to survive. There’s no point sacrificing ourselves when the fight has already been lost.”
“Of course there is,” I protest. “Dying for the people you care about has always been the ultimate point.”
“But who do you care about?” Bec asks softly. “Your parents and Dervish are dead. Your sister, Bill-E, Meera, Sharmila. Who’s left? Who are you fighting for? I think you’re only resisting because it’s expected. You’ve never looked around and said, ‘I don’t have to do this.’ Try it, Grubbs. Ask who you fight for. Then tell me I’m wrong for choosing life over a pointless death.”
I shake my head. The scary thing is, it’s tempting. I could easily accept everything she’s said, choose the same way she has, abandon the post of protector that Beranabus saddled me with, ride off into a gleeful, savage sunset with Bec and Lord Loss. I never wanted to be a hero. Why die miserably when I could live triumphantly? All it takes is a slight adjustment in the way I think, and…
“No,” I whisper, putting temptation behind me.
Bec smiles. “I almost had you for a moment, didn’t I?”
“Almost,” I admit, chuckling wolfishly.
“Grubbs,” Kernel says.
“Not now,” I snap, staying focused on Bec. “What else do you have to say? I doubt you went to all this trouble just to tempt me.”
“I wanted to warn you,” Bec says. “I feel I owe you that much.”
“Warn me of what?” I frown.
“Grubbs!” Kernel yells. “A window is opening. I can feel it.”
“That,” Bec says sadly. Then her face freezes, turns a paler shade, and starts to disintegrate.
I drop Curly’s head, lurch to my feet, and scan the surrounding area. I can’t see anything, but I don’t doubt Kernel. “Your eyes!” I shout.
“Not finished,” he says.
“Do I have time to open a window back to Earth?”
He shakes his head.
“Then get ready to fight.”
As soon as I’ve said it, a dark, grey window snaps into existence and hordes of Lord Loss’s familiars spill through. They overrun the oasis in seconds, screaming and spitting, bearing down on us in a blast of frothing, demonic hellfire.
I’M driven to the ground by gibbering demons, but back on my feet moments later, scattering the beasts with a burst of magic. I look over their heads, searching for Lord Loss. The familiars don’t bother me—I’m far stronger than them—but their master is a different matter. If he crosses, we’re in real trouble.
But there’s no sign of the eight-armed sentinel of sorrow. Demons are spilling through the window, but only underlings. Maybe he’s saving his grand appearance for the end, to make more of an impression. Or maybe he’s wary of Kernel and me, and wants to see how we fare against his familiars first.
Several small, furry demons attack the blind teenager. They have long snouts with suckerlike mouths at the end. I think their orders were to focus on his eyes if he’d reconstructed them.
“Kernel!” I roar.
He bats most of them away and smashes the snouts of another pair with a karate kick that Bruce Lee would have been proud of.
An octopus-like demon launches itself at me and wraps its tentacles around my throat. I bite through a couple—sushi… yum!—then grab one and yank the demon in hard. I head-butt it and send a thousand volts of magical electricity crackling through its brain. The octopus drops, its remaining tentacles withering. Stepping onto its carcass, I bound into the air and rain a sheet of fire down on the demons closest to me. Their screams are music to my ears.
Kirilli is warding off monsters, firing weak bolts of energy at them, yelping and staggering around anxiously. He’d be a good fighter if he could forget about his fear and just focus. Even in this agitated state, he’s powerful enough to drive back the demons who attack him. His biggest worry will be tripping over his own feet and leaving himself open to assault.
Timas and Shark are fighting side by side, with their bare hands and feet. Shark prefers the old-fashioned ways, punching, kicking, throttling. He likes to get his hands—well, thumb!—dirty. Timas isn’t able to do anything magical, but he’s fast and sharp, and although he can’t kill the demons, he repels them artfully and calmly. He wouldn’t last long by himself, but with Shark by his side he holds his own.
Moe is slaughtering the stampeding creatures with delight. It’s Christmas come early as far as he’s concerned. He rips throats open, tears off limbs, disembowels viciously. His only regret is that he can’t stop to feast on the spoils.
Curly staggers to her feet, her face a broken mess. She lasts about three miserable seconds, mewing painfully and trying to push the pieces of her cheeks back into place. Then demons drag her down and finish her off. A sad end for a fine warrior.
Five large, burly beasts slide through the window. They’re giants, twelve feet tall. I get the sense that they’re tough as rocks, but not much on the magical front. If these are the fiercest foes we have to deal with, it will be a breeze. It’ll take a while, but we can wipe out this crowd without having to go into second gear.
I don’t get it. There must be more to come, or maybe there’s a hidden threat among the smaller, yapping demons. Lord Loss wouldn’t waste his familiars on us. He’d happily sacrifice them if he thought they could wear us down and leave us ripe for the picking, but these guys wouldn’t even test a run-of-the-mill mage.
As I’m trying to figure out the method behind his apparent madness, the giants grab the smaller demons and lob them through the air into the pool of living liquid. It bubbles and seethes, swiftly stripping the skin and burning through the bones of the familiars, dissolving the shells of the more heavily protected.
“What’s going on?” Shark yells, throwing a poodlelike demon with four heads at one of the giants, who grabs it like a frisbee and spins it off into the pool, where it only has time to bark twice before its tongue is fricasseed by the foaming liquid. “They’re doing our work for us.”
“Maybe they’re on our side,” Kirilli squeals happily. “They think we’re going to win the war, so they’ve betrayed their master and are trying to prove themselves worthy of our mercy.”
“I doubt it,” I mutter, head-butting another octopus demon, watching warily as more demons are thrown into the pool. The liquid’s glowing with different hues of demon blood. I’ve a bad feeling about this.
As another demon is tossed into the ravenous pool, the liquid throbs. The giants kneel in front of the pool and bow their heads. Some of the demons attack them spitefully, but the giants ignore their blows and wait patiently, like monks praying at an altar.
The liquid throbs again, then rises up in a circular sheet of dripping darkness. It looms over the kneeling giants and lesser demons. For a mad moment I think it’s going to form legs and stride towards us. But instead it crashes down over the giants and those around them, breaks like a wave, then re-forms and rises again, even larger than before.
The sheet of lethal liquid sloshes forward several yards, by means I can’t work out, then collapses over another pack of demons, smothering and dissolving them, expanding again as it pulls itself up to its full, majestic height.
The pool is getting closer to us. Most of the demons have realized they’re in trouble. Some try to attack the moving pool, only to be scorched and torn apart. The smarter beasts flee for their lives.
Shark, Timas, Kirilli, and Moe have clustered around me. They’re all staring with disbelief at the aqueous, mobile tower. I call Kernel to our ranks, then prepare a ball of energy, taking power from Kernel and the others. I unleash it at the sheet of liquid. The ball punches a hole through the sheet and sizzles angrily as it shoots out the other side. But then the liquid oozes shut over the rip, and the pool sways on, undaunted.
“Bloody Beranabus!” I howl. “He told us the master of this realm had left or been killed. He was wrong. The pool is the master. It’s been dormant, lacking the power to move, but now that it’s been fed enough demons…”
I try a freezing spell, but although part of the pool half-frosts over for a couple of seconds, it doesn’t take hold and the killer sheet presses on, destroying more of the demons, which I now realize were sent here for the sole purpose of empowering the slumbering behemoth.
“We can’t defeat it,” I huff, backpedaling.
“Perhaps an evaporation spell?” Kernel suggests.
“Nothing will work. It’s a demon master and this is its realm.”
“Surely we can outrun it,” Kirilli says.
I laugh. “You can always rely on Kovacs to opt for a hasty retreat. But this time he’s right. Let’s make like sprinters and…”