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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
“Another minute or two,” I tell her. “Then it will all be over.”
Except for the impending apocalypse, the voice of the Kah-Gash adds inside my head, but I ignore it.
“Abe?” Bo asks quietly. “My dad?”
“You haven’t seen them here?” She shakes her head. “Then they didn’t make it out of Slawter.”
Tears well in her eyes. “You’re sure? There’s nowhere else they might be?”
She nods sorrowfully and I marvel at the strength of humans. Despite all that she’s suffered, her first thoughts are of her dead relatives. I thought I grew stronger when I became a wolfen beast, but in some ways maybe I lost more than I gained.
“It’s open,” Kernel calls, and ushers the first of the prisoners through a window of yellow light.
“Come with me,” I tell Bo and the others, leading them towards the window. “There’ll be people on the other side. They’ll help.”
“Aren’t you coming with us?” Bo asks.
“He’ll find you if you stay,” she whispers. I don’t need to ask whom she means.
“He won’t have to. We’re going after him.”
“You think you can fight him?” She stares at me as if I’m mad.
“We’ll give it a good shot.”
She shakes her head wordlessly. Then we’re at the window. Before she can think of anything to say, I gently push her through. I don’t need thanks. It’s enough to see her to safety. A small, unimportant triumph—but to me, it matters a lot.
The prisoners continue filing through, but some are beyond help. A grim-faced Shark takes care of those, breaking their necks, freeing their souls swiftly and painlessly. Sometimes that’s the most you can do for a person.
The blond-haired Disciple pauses at the window and looks at us. “I should stay with you and fight,” he mutters. “It’s my job.”
“You wouldn’t be much good to us the state you’re in,” I say as kindly as I can.
“But I know how to do things.”
“You’ve done enough,” I smile. “Go home. Rest up. Recover. Take a long vacation. God knows, you’ve earned it.”
“Before I leave,” he says. “The war… who won?”
“Which war?” I frown.
“The World War.”
“One or Two?”
His face blanches. “There was a second?”
“Go home,” I tell him, insistent this time, feeling sorry for this confused man who’s going to have to learn to adapt to what’s left of life in the twenty-first century.
Soon they’re all gone or beyond the reaches of pain, and it’s just us in the dungeon. I look from Shark to Timas to Kirilli. “If you want to leave, I’ll understand. This is probably the end for anyone who pushes on with me.”
“Do we look like cowards?” Shark snorts.
“Well…” I was about to say Kirilli did, but one glance at his determined face and I button my lip. The time for mocking Kirilli Kovacs has passed. He’s truly one of us now. “Sorry. I guess I’ve seen too many movies. Let’s go.”
I start for the door.
“Aren’t you even going to say goodbye?” Kernel asks.
“Why?” I grunt. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“You said I could leave,” he snarls.
“You can,” I chuckle, “but you won’t. Walk out on a showdown with Lord Loss? Abandon us when there’s still hope we can beat this thing? Leave Bec to ruin the world, knowing you could maybe have stopped her if you tried? Nuh-uh. You’re going nowhere.”
Kernel grumbles darkly and I feel his scowl burning a hole in the back of my neck. But I know, as I step through the doorway, that he’ll follow. They all will. Hell, we’re heroes—this is what we do.
WE creep through the corridors of the high-ceilinged castle, our footsteps muffled by the thick strands of web that serve as floorboards. We still haven’t seen any demons. Maybe Lord Loss’s familiars are with the demon army we fought the last time we were in this universe. But it’s strange that he should choose to face us by himself. As a master, in his own realm, he can be confident of success, but it would be easier if he had hundreds of his henchthings to throw against us. Lord Loss doesn’t usually take chances. Why do so now?
Kernel’s busy juggling patches of light as we walk, putting the framework for a window together, so he can complete it quickly and make a swift getaway if he has to. I’m stunned that he came with us. I was bluffing when I said I was sure he’d stay. I totally expected him to leave. He’s spent the last month going on about how he needs to return to the ark. Why the sudden change?
Guilty, the Kah-Gash murmurs inside my head.
“You did this?” I growl.
I’m able to nudge when the wish already exists, the Kah-Gash says. I can’t make any of you do something you don’t want to, but I can tip the balance if you’re in two minds. Kernel knew he should leave, but he wanted to stay. I played on his wishes and turned him from the path of reason.
“I bet this isn’t the first time you’ve manipulated us,” I accuse it.
It’s not manipulation, the Kah-Gash protests. I merely give you the confidence, from time to time, to do that which you truly desire.
“But it’s what you desire too, isn’t it? You want us to join. You’re using us.”
Such a suspicious mind, the Kah-Gash sighs, then falls silent.
I think about telling Kernel what the Kah-Gash said, offering him the chance to leave. That would be the decent thing. But I’m a slime-covered, hairy, mutated, wolfen beast. What the hell do I know about decency?
We push on until we come to a huge room, the largest in the castle. The floor is littered with toys, dolls, clothes, and other bits and pieces from Earth. In the center a huge chandelier hangs above a massive spider-shaped throne, both carved from webs. There’s a painting of Lord Loss done in the style of Van Gogh pinned to the wall to the rear of the throne.
Lord Loss squats at the base of the throne, not quite touching the floor, head bent over a chessboard. Bec is his opponent. She sits cross-legged with her back to us. She’s making a move as we enter, engrossed in the game.
“A moment, good people,” Lord Loss mutters without looking up. He purses his bloodred lips, studies the chess pieces, then moves one of them. He smiles at Bec and says, “To be resumed.” Then he straightens and Bec turns to face us.
“Hello, Grubbs,” Bec says quietly. “Kernel. Shark. Kirilli.” She nods at the tall redheaded man and the werewolf. Timas beams at her, but Moe just snarls. “Are these all you brought? I thought you’d come with an army.”
“These will do,” I tell her, moving closer, scanning the room for hidden threats. But it seems to be deserted except for this pair.
“Welcome back, Cornelius,” Lord Loss says. “It seems like an age since your last visit. What a shame young Artery isn’t here to greet you.”
Kernel says nothing, but he looks like he’s about to be sick. This is hard for him. Maybe the persuasive power of the Kah-Gash has faded and he’s wondering what the hell he’s doing here.
“No greeting for me?” Shark asks.
“You require none,” Lord Loss says calmly. “You were always a bit player. One does not waste pleasantries on pawns.”
“You’re hurting my feelings,” Shark sniffs. His gaze falls on Bec and he draws his thumb across his throat, trying to freak her. But if she’s worried, she doesn’t show it. Her expression hasn’t changed in the slightest.
“This place is amazing,” Timas says, squinting up at the chandelier, then at the painting behind the throne. “That’s woven out of colored cobwebs, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Lord Loss says, smiling with genuine warmth. “You’re the first visitor to notice. It looks like oil on canvas from a distance, but in fact…” He draws to a halt and coughs into a fist. “We could be friends, Timas Brauss, if circumstances were different. You strike me as a man after my own heart.” He runs a hand over the snake-filled hole in his chest. “So to speak.”
“We freed your prisoners,” Kirilli growls, brushing slime from the sleeves of his jacket.
“How daring of you,” Lord Loss murmurs. “I am devastated. What shall I play with now in my idle moments?” His eyes twinkle viciously. “Perhaps I’ll focus my attention on you, Master Kovacs.”
Kirilli produces a playing card out of thin air, then rips it in two. “That’s what I think of your attention.”
Lord Loss frowns. “I was told you were of a cowardly nature. It seems I have been misinformed.”
“No,” Kirilli says. “The reports were accurate. But I’ve changed.”
Moe growls at me questioningly.
“Yeah,” I reply. “You’re right.”
“About what?” Lord Loss frowns.
“Moe thinks there’s been too much talking and not enough killing.” I slam my hands together and send a wave of magic shooting at the pair in front of the throne. I race after it, fangs and claws extended, readying myself for battle.
The wave of energy ruffles Bec’s hair and sends a few drops of blood spraying from Lord Loss. But that’s all. The demon master tuts and waves a hand at me. I crash to my knees, my mouth sealing as if glued shut, the hairs in my nostrils knitting together. I can’t breathe. I slash at my lips with my claws, ripping them open, then dig a couple of fingers up my nose, breaking through the web of hairs.
As I draw a welcome breath, Moe, Shark, Timas, and Kirilli bound past. The werewolf’s howling, Shark’s roaring, and Kirilli’s shrieking. Timas just whistles softly, as if heading out to work.
Lord Loss could repel them easily, but he lets the quartet close on him, then grapples with them, slapping them back, playing, letting them think they have a chance of defeating him. I know better. I felt his power as he stitched my lips and nose shut. I was wrong to think we had even a sliver of hope. This is his kingdom. He’s unbeatable here.
I glance at Kernel. He’s still working on a window, but he pauses when I catch his eye and raises an eyebrow, asking if I want him to fight. I shake my head, letting him know that he’s fine as he is. Then I face Bec, who still hasn’t moved. She’s observing the fight with calm disinterest.
“Why?” I snarl, moving in on her, sure Lord Loss will intervene, tensing myself against whatever he throws at me.
“What option did I have?” Bec asks quietly. “The demons have won. There’s no profit in dying heroically but uselessly.”
I’m drawing closer. Lord Loss hasn’t made any move to stop me. My mouth is wet with saliva and blood. I spit to clear it, then growl at her. “You fought in the past when it seemed hopeless.”
“I was younger then,” Bec sighs. “I believed in miracles. Now I know we can’t win. Bran knew that too at the end. You can’t defeat Death.”
“But he didn’t give up,” I remind her. “He tackled the Shadow and bought us time. He sacrificed his life to save you. And now you’ve pledged yourself to the beast he hated most of all.”
“If I could save humanity by sacrificing myself, I would,” Bec says quietly. “But nothing would be gained.” She stands, picks up the chessboard, and holds it out to me. “This is the Board. It’s what the universe was like in the beginning, and what it will soon be like again. Sixty-four zones, half for the Old Creatures, half for the Demonata. No room for humans. I don’t think that’s a good or a bad thing—it’s just the way things are.”
“No,” I snap. “That will only happen if we let it. And we won’t. I won’t.”
I’m within striking distance. Making a fist, I lash at her. I expect her to duck, but instead she swings up the Board and deflects my blow, then slams it into my chin, knocking my head back. That stuns me—I hadn’t anticipated the small girl standing up to me in a fair fight. Before I can recover, she touches my stomach and sends a shock wave of magic crackling through my flesh.
I collapse in a ball, howling with pain. Bec cracks the Board over my head. I raise a hand to swat it away, but it smashes down hard on my knuckles, breaks the bones in my wrist, and hammers my face into the ground.
If the floor was concrete, my skull would be crushed and my brains pulped. But the webs give beneath me, so although I come up with one side of my face feeling like it’s been caved in, my eye shut, blood pumping from any number of wounds, I do come up. I should be dead, but I’m not. And that’s bad news for Bec.
Springing to my feet, I snap my teeth around her wrist. She didn’t expect this rapid response. She thought she’d have time to attack me again. As Bec prepares a spell to repel me, I bite down hard and chew her hand off. She gasps and falls away, using the magic that was on her lips to cauterize the wound and numb the pain. Before she can reattach the hand, I drive for her throat, meaning to bite her head off as smoothly as her hand.
My jaws freeze and an electric shock courses through my veins. I fall away, spasming. As I thrash on the floor, I spot Lord Loss waving a stubby finger from side to side. “No, Grubitsch,” he admonishes me. “I lost one assistant when Juni Swan was killed. I shall not lose another.”
Shark roars and jams a hand into the hole in Lord Loss’s chest. The snakes bite him, but he keeps his hand in, grabs a couple of the serpents and squeezes them to death. He tosses the corpses into Lord Loss’s face. Blood spatters the demon master’s eyes, momentarily blinding him.