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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
I draw to a halt. The trees around the perimeter of the oasis are snapping together, bones and flesh linking, forming an unbroken ring. Demons screech and hurl themselves at the bony, fleshy fence, or try to scale it, but are swiftly speared by some of the longer, sharper bones.
“So much for running away,” Shark sniffs. “What now, oh wise and noble leader?”
“We could offer Kirilli as a sacrifice and hope it leaves the rest of us alone,” I murmur, drawing a satisfactory yelp from the terrified stage magician. “Kernel—any luck with those eyes?”
“It’ll be a while,” he says.
“What’s taking you so long?” I growl.
“Bite me,” he retorts.
The pool breaks over another group of demons. This time when it rises, it splits into two sheets, which glide apart—double trouble.
“A multiplying demon,” Timas says. “Fascinating. Based on those it had to devour in order to divide once, and on those who remain… assuming it can split again…” He does a quick head count of the remaining demons. “We might have to face as many as eight clones within the next six minutes.”
“We could do with a plan,” Shark barks.
“I’m working on it.” I look around, weighing up my options. Trying to punch a hole through the wall of bones and flesh is probably our best option. Maybe we could explode a demon against it. But I’m not convinced that will work. Demon masters make many of the rules in their own realms.
If we link, Kernel and I might get the better of it in a fight to the death, but again I’m dubious. Even Beranabus avoided direct confrontation with the stronger Demonata on their home turf. We’ll be taking an awful risk if we pit ourselves against it.
There’s one other option. The words “frying pan” and “fire” leap to mind as soon as I consider it. But if it’s a choice between facing a firing squad and jumping off a cliff, I’ll always opt for the jump because you might get lucky on the way down.
“Follow me!” I shout, grabbing Kernel’s hand and darting forward. I narrowly dodge the pillars of liquid, racing past them as they crash to the ground less than a yard to my left. I head for the spot where the pool used to rest, and where the window that the demons crossed through is still hanging in the air.
“You’ve got to be joking!” Shark roars. “That leads to Lord Loss’s realm!”
“That’s where we were heading anyway, wasn’t it?” I yell back.
“But the plan was to take him by surprise. If we jump through a window that he made…”
“Hell,” I chuckle, “if I was in his shoes, and some nutcase jumped through my window and straight into my arms, it’d sure take me by surprise!”
Before Shark can argue, I hit the window of light and throw myself at it, bursting through, bellowing wildly, relishing the insane buzz of my suicidal lunge.
KNIGHTS IN SLIMY ARMOR
NOTHING but cobwebs. I whirl wildly as the others crash through after me, sure Lord Loss and his minions are hiding in the shadows. But we’re alone in a large, bare room. No time to wonder at that. I don’t know if the mobile pool can cross after us, but taking no chances, I cast a spell over the window, establishing a shield to block anything else from following.
“Where is he?” Shark growls, casting an uneasy eye around the room.
“I don’t know.” I try sensing the demon master’s presence, but I’ve never been good at that type of magic.
“Let’s get out of here,” Kirilli moans.
“Don’t be stupid,” I snap. “This is where we wanted to get to.”
“But it’s different now,” Kernel says, taking Kirilli’s side. “Lord Loss herded us here. It’s obviously part of a plan. We’d be crazy to go on.”
“That’s the way it always is,” I shrug. “Lord Loss sets a trap—I blunder into it and hope for the best. So far I’ve got the better of him. My luck’s bound to run out eventually, but there’s nothing else I can do. I don’t have the brains to outwit him, just the brawn and guts to fight back.”
“So you want to walk into his den and take things from there?” Kernel asks.
“Yeah,” I grin.
“Maybe. But in my experience, the cleverer you are, the more ways you find to shoot yourself in the foot. Juni, Davida Haym, and Antoine Horwitzer were way smarter than me, and each set me up for an elaborate fall. But I’m here and they’re dead. Sometimes it pays to be simple.”
Kernel frowns. “In a strange way, that almost makes sense.”
“Stop talking!” Kirilli shrieks. “Get us out of here!”
“We’re not leaving,” I growl. “Kernel, how are those eyes coming along?”
“I reckon another ten minutes if we aren’t distracted.”
“Coolio.” I crack my knuckles. “We could wait here, but I think we’re better off taking the fight to them.”
“Knowing you as well as they do, that’s probably what Lord Loss and Bec are counting on,” Kernel warns me.
“Good. I’d hate to disappoint them. But there’s a personal matter I want to settle first.”
“What are you talking about?” Shark scowls.
“You’ll see,” I mutter, then head out of the room and set off through the castle that I’ve explored a few dozen times in my dreams.
Timas is intrigued by the webby mechanisms of the castle. If he had his way, we wouldn’t move on until he’d made a full study of each room. But I ignore his pleas to slow down and instead plow on until I find a corridor that I remember from my nightmarish meanderings with Bec and Lord Loss.
Once I’ve got my bearings, I pick up speed, leading the others through a series of corridors and rooms, down into the dungeon. We encounter none of Lord Loss’s familiars. That’s weird—this place should be packed with nasty little demons—but I’ve no time to worry about it. If I don’t do anything else right, there’s at least one wrong I’m determined to fix. It’s a minor matter in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important to me.
I’m nearing the door when Kernel stops and says, “Peekaboo!”
I face the bald teenager with the caramel-colored skin. His bright blue eyes are back in place, little flickers of light dancing across his pupils. He stares at the air around me, smiling widely.
“You can still see the lights?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” he breathes, extending a hand to caress an invisible patch. He parts his fingers and stares at me through the cracks. “This is where I say goodbye.” He says it warily, expecting me to argue.
I nod shortly, then jerk my head at the corridor ahead of us. “Around that bend is the door to a dungeon. Lots of humans are imprisoned there. Lord Loss tortures them in his spare time. I’m going to free them. Want to help?”
“You told me I could leave,” Kernel says guardedly.
“You can. But if you do and we fail, you’ll condemn these captives to suffer at the hands of Lord Loss, maybe for thousands of years.”
Kernel licks his lips and frowns. I almost have him.
“One of the prisoners is a girl called Bo Kooniart. She helped Dervish and me break out of Slawter. She could have left with us, but she went back to find her father. And her brother.” I smile crookedly at Kernel. “She risked all to save her brother. You and I know what that’s like, don’t we?”
Kernel nods unhappily.
“You can tell where Lord Loss and Bec are,” Shark says. “Search for them. Check if they’re waiting in the dungeon for us.”
Kernel studies the invisible lights for a few seconds. “They’re on one of the higher levels, at the center of the castle.”
“Then what are you scared of?” Shark grins.
Kernel glares at me. “One last favor, then I’m out of here. Agreed?”
“Do whatever the hell you want, baldy,” I sniff and press on, hiding my smile behind a bloodstained, hairy hand.
The door, like everything else, is made of cobwebs. It’s the only door we’ve encountered in the castle. Timas bends to study the hinges as it swings open. The rest of us move forward, me first, followed by Shark, Kernel, Kirilli, and Moe. We hear the victims before we spot them, low moans, pained weepings, soft cries for mercy and death.
We fan out and Kirilli edges ahead of the rest of us, eyes widening as he studies the humans strapped to the walls and tables, the implements of torture lying like toys across the floor and webby shelves.
“This is despicable!” he splutters.
A man with half a face lifts his head at the sound of Kirilli’s voice and stares at him through one eye. “Have you come to kill us?” he wheezes.
“We’ve come to save you,” Kirilli says, hurrying to his side.
The man sneers wearily. “Don’t make fun of me. Lord Loss sent you to give us false hope.”
“No, honestly,” Kirilli insists, “we’re here to—”
“Watch out overhead!” Timas shouts behind us.
I look up and spot a huge spider-shaped demon descending on a strand of web, fast as an eagle swooping on a rat. I lunge forward to protect Kirilli. Shark and Kernel react a split second later. But the furious stage magician doesn’t need our help. Neatly sidestepping us, he points a finger at the spider and screams a phrase of magic, unleashing twin lightning bolts from his eyes.
The bolts strike the spider and it explodes, showering us with goo and slime. As I spit out the mess and wipe it from my eyes, I stare at Kirilli. He’s standing rigid, finger still outstretched, features contorted with contempt.
“Nice work, Kovacs,” I murmur. “But next time, try not to splatter us. If you’d waited till it was lower, you could have killed it and spared us the splash-back.”
Kirilli blinks and stares at me, then realizes I’m joking and smiles tightly. “The way you smell, it wouldn’t make much difference,” he says.
“I’m liking you more and more,” I laugh, slapping his back. “Now, shall we free these poor devils and send them home?”
“Hell, yes.” Kirilli sets to work on the bonds imprisoning the skeptical half-faced man.
As the others dart about the dungeon, freeing the tormented humans, I hurry to the spot where Bo Kooniart has always been. My stomach lurches when I don’t find her—the shackles that held her in place lie open on the floor. I turn to the captured, blond-haired Disciple whom I saw every time I trailed Bec and Lord Loss here. His expression is torn between hope and disbelief.
“Bo—the girl who was here—where is she?”
He doesn’t respond, only stares, still not sure I’m real.
“The girl,” I growl, pushing my face up to his.
“You’re not… a demon,” he croaks. “But you’re not… human either. What… are you?”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m here to rescue you. But where’s the girl? Did Lord Loss…?” I don’t finish, not daring to voice my worst fears.
“Back… there,” the Disciple wheezes, nodding at a barred door behind me.
Hurrying to the bars, I spot Bo and two others chained to the floor. It’s a small room filled with insects made of fire. They slither slowly across the helpless captives, leaving small, flame-filled channels in their flesh. Bo is gagged—they all are—so she can’t scream, but I can see the pain and terror in her eyes.
Cursing, I rip the door off its hinges and toss it aside. Bursting into the room, I stamp on as many of the fiery insects as I can, then pull Bo and the others free and toss them out into the dungeon. Taking a deep breath, I blow on them, quenching the flames and killing the insects still burrowing across their chests, faces, and limbs. With a quick swipe of a claw, I cut the gags from their mouths. As they whimper and sob, I find clothes nearby and toss them to the naked prisoners. While they pull them on, I do what I can to heal their wounds. Then I turn to free more of the inmates.
“Wait,” Bo croaks. “I’ve seen you before, but I don’t know where.” Her voice is surprisingly strong for one who’s been through hell. Then again, remembering how she went back into the bedlam of Slawter to search for her father and brother, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.
“Grubbs Grady,” I grunt, letting my face change back to the way it was when she knew me.
Her eyes widen. “Grubbs? What happened to you? You look like…”
“… something from the cast of Slawter,” I grin.
“Is it a curse?” she asks. “Did the monsters do this to you?”
“Yeah,” I mutter. “Something like that.”
I help her to her feet. “Are you OK?”
“I don’t know,” she sighs. “It’s been so long… years… yet I don’t look old, do I?” She stares at her hands. Although they’re rough and scarred and stained with blood, they’re the hands of a girl, not an old crone.
“You look fine,” I tell her. “You’ll look even better once you’ve had a hot bath.”
Bo frowns. “A hot bath? Here?”
“No,” I say softly. “You’re going home.”
She starts to tremble. “Don’t say it, not if it isn’t true.”
“It’s true,” I promise, then shout, “Kernel, where’s that window?”
“Working on it,” he calls back.