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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
As Lord Loss wipes the blood away, Shark, Moe, and Kirilli jump him. Timas starts to follow, then hesitates and turns instead to Bec. “Are you good at chess?” he asks.
Bec frowns. “I—”
He strikes before she gets any further, lashing out with his right foot. He looks like a gangly, awkward man, but he can move swiftly when he wishes. His foot connects with the side of Bec’s head, knocking her sideways. She cries out with surprise.
As my jaws unlock, I scrabble after Bec, desperate to finish her off. Timas steps aside. I claw closer. Bec hears me before she sees me. She focuses on my hate-filled eyes and hisses like a cat. A phrase of magic bursts from her tongue. A split second later, her severed hand shoots across the floor, flicks onto her wrist, and dances feverishly as tendons, bones, and blood vessels fuse at a furious pace.
I throw myself at her, roaring wildly, but Bec flies out of reach, sliding across the floor to the nearest webby wall. When she hits it, she shimmies several feet up the wall, then glares at me from a safe height.
Lord Loss has cleared the mess from around his eyes and is back in business. He looks annoyed. Shark reaches into the demon master’s chest cavity to kill a few more snakes. This time one of them darts from the gap and wriggles up his arm. He tries to slap it away, but it slides over his elbow, bites a hole in his biceps, then sinks its head into his flesh. Its body follows and it starts to disappear beneath his skin. Shark yelps and grabs the snake’s tail. He falls away, tugging on the snake, screaming with pain and horror.
Moe howls louder than ever and digs his fangs into the doughy flesh of Lord Loss’s stomach. He chews a chunk loose, then rips a twelve-inch strip of skin away. Lord Loss groans and half turns. Another two snakes dart from the hole in his chest and shoot at Moe’s eyes. Their fangs hit before the werewolf can whirl aside, puncturing the globes. Moe shrieks and hits the floor, blind and in agony.
Kirilli backs up, isolated and trembling, looking from Moe to Shark.
“What now, little man?” Lord Loss whispers, rising in the air before the stage magician, all eight arms extending to their fullest length.
Kirilli gulps, takes a few more steps back, then stops. “I guess this is where I pull off my masterstroke.” He grins and whips out a couple of knives. He tosses them at the demon master, and they strike either side of the beast’s right breast. As soon as they hit, they turn into weeds. Lord Loss laughs, then chokes as the weeds spread and burrow into his flesh. Within seconds his entire chest is a bed of suffocating greenery. The weeds wrap around his throat and climb his neck to his face, which is turning a beautiful purple color.
“Master?” Bec calls from her perch, looking troubled. I should go after her, but I’m transfixed by the sight of Lord Loss. It’s incredible that he’s struggling like this, especially at the hands of a Disciple as insignificant as Kirilli Kovacs. But maybe Kirilli is the ace up our sleeve. Nobody expected him to be a threat. Lord Loss probably didn’t bother to shield himself as fully as he would have against the rest of us. If Kirilli can take advantage of that…
But even as I’m thinking the impossible, Lord Loss shudders, then smiles. The weeds die and peel away in dry clumps. Moments later only a thin rash remains.
“Impressive,” Lord Loss acknowledges, “but hardly enough to bring down one such as I. Was that your best shot, Master Kovacs?”
“Pretty much,” Kirilli sighs.
“So again I ask, what now, little man?”
Kirilli manages a shaky smile. “You kill me?”
Lord Loss nods and points a couple of arms at the mage.
“No!” I bellow, and hit the demon master with a burst of magic.
Lord Loss is knocked aside. Steadying himself, he glares at me. “Are you still alive? I thought you would have dealt with him by now, Little One.”
“It’s hard,” Bec says softly. “They were my friends.”
“I understand,” Lord Loss purrs. “But you must kill at least one of them for me. To prove you are truly on my side.”
My heart gives a hopeful leap. It seems Bec might still be torn between her original loyalties and the new vows she made. If she’s wavering, there’s a chance to save her. She hasn’t crossed the final line yet. Maybe I can draw her back.
“Help us,” I plead, locking gazes with the troubled-looking girl, letting my face soften and become more human. “If the three of us unite, we can kill him.”
“I came back!” Kernel shouts. “I didn’t need to. But I returned. For you.”
“To kill me,” Bec says sullenly.
“To rescue you,” I disagree. “You haven’t passed the point of no return. You can be one of us again. It makes sense to stick with your own. No matter what you do, you’ll never be a demon.”
“No,” Bec says. “But I’m not really human either. I’m an agent of Death. I’ve passed beyond the ways of the living. This is all that’s left for me.”
“No!” I cry. “You can—”
“My people are dead,” she interrupts. “Those I owed loyalty to died many centuries ago. Bran was the last. You’re not part of my world. I’m tired of trying to do the right thing. When my soul didn’t pass on, I unleashed Death. In a weird kind of way, I’m its mother. Now I need to fully pledge myself to it.”
Bec stretches out a hand towards the Board. It flies into her fingers and glows. Lord Loss sighs happily and rises above Shark and the others. As he floats, he waves at the walls around us and they dissolve, the strands of webs unraveling and dropping, revealing the areas previously walled off.
There are humans in the rooms around us. Thousands of people, standing frozen in place, eyes blank, arms by their sides. For a few seconds I think they’re dead, but then I see their chests rising and falling as they breathe in unison.
“This looks ominous,” Timas remarks.
“The Board!” Kernel yells. “Their souls are in the Board.”
“Neatly tucked away,” Lord Loss says, moving closer to Bec, a perverse smile lifting the corners of his mouth.
“Wait,” I gasp, seeing the dark intent in Bec’s eyes. “Don’t do this. You’re still one of us. Beranabus would hate you if he saw you now. Those are real people. There are children…”
“You’re all children in my eyes,” Bec says quietly. “I’ve lived for more than fifteen hundred years. Even your eldest are babes to me.” Her face hardens. “And it’s time to put the babies to bed.”
“No!” I scream, feeling the bonds between us snap forever, seeing the last trace of humanity blink out of her eyes. I try to stop her, to jump and knock the Board from her hands. But Lord Loss waves and subdues me.
As Kernel lurches forward and Shark struggles with the snake… as Kirilli stares at Bec and a frown creases Timas’s forehead… as Moe writhes blindly on the ground and Lord Loss floats next to his protégée and nods encouragingly…
Bec places her right hand on the Board and sends waves of fire burning through the layer of crystal. I sense the flames billowing through all sixty-four zones. It’s almost infinite inside, each zone the size of a galaxy, but the fire scorches through faster than the speed of light, destroying all in its path, demons, worlds, skies… and the souls of the people around us.
They fall in lines, bodies slumping and twitching, butchered by the sad-faced girl from the past. Thousands of innocent, defenseless humans—all murdered without mercy by pale, warped Bec.
AN UNHOLY QUARTET
I roar wordlessly, filled with horror and hate. Bec’s face is lit by the glow of thousands of burning souls. She looks awestruck and damned.
“My beloved,” Lord Loss gurgles, running a sticky hand down the side of Bec’s face. She doesn’t respond. She’s staring into the flickering glow of the Board, transfixed. She does nothing to stop the massacre, even as the bodies topple and writhe around us. I’ve never seen someone consciously turn to the path of evil. If it wasn’t so sickening, I’d be fascinated.
“What the hell’s going on?” Shark yells. He’s torn off the snake’s tail and sucked out its entrails. It’s dead, but most of its body remains stuck in his arm.
“She killed them!” I scream, trying to climb up the wall after Bec. It’s the only stretch of wall left, standing like a pillar in a huge, corpse-strewn room.
Shark looks at the falling humans. “No,” he moans, struck hard by the appalling tragedy of it, even though he’s seen so much in his time.
“We have to stop her,” Kirilli says, stepping forward and flexing his fingers.
“I think it’s passed beyond that,” Timas says, squinting up at the Board. “A most remarkable device. I’d love to know how it works.”
“I’m going to kill you,” I vow, pointing a trembling finger at Bec. “You can’t stay up there forever. As soon as you come down, you’re dead.”
Lord Loss laughs. “You’re such a brute, Grubitsch. You think mindless violence is the answer to all the universe’s troubles.”
Bec blinks, then stares into the Board again. I don’t know if she’s heard anything we’ve said, if she’s even aware of us. She watches the souls burn but takes no pleasure from the slaughter. This is destroying her. Her human emotions are burning away with the spirits of the dying.
“Why?” Kernel mutters. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“She wants to prove herself to her new master,” I snarl.
“But Lord Loss didn’t ask her to kill them,” Kernel presses. “He asked her to kill one of us. There must be another reason why she targeted them instead of you or me.”
“You were always smarter than your burly companion,” Lord Loss says. “Not as clever as sly young Bec, but definitely several rungs higher up the IQ ladder than the somewhat dense Master Grady.”
The last of the humans hits the ground, but the Board is still glowing. It’s a dark glow and it pulses steadily, a gloomy, grey, shadowy throb.
“It’s Death!” I shout, realization coming too late to be of any use.
Wispy tendrils rise from the Board and snake into the air around Bec. From a distance you might mistake them for smoke, but this close I can see that there’s nothing natural about the sinewy strands. They have the same consistency Death had when we faced it before. It looks like our shadowy foe has found its way back. The humans were slaughtered so that Death could stitch together a new body from the fabric of their souls.
With a scream of failure, I unleash all of my power in a ball of magic. It roars towards Bec like a missile. Nothing should be able to halt or divert it. Bec should be smashed to pieces.
But Lord Loss intervenes, slides between Bec and me, and absorbs the blast. It slams him into Bec, who falls to the floor. But it doesn’t destroy him. This is his realm. He can take all that I throw at him here and still bounce back.
Shark and Kirilli hurl themselves at Bec as she falls, murder in their eyes. But she’s on her feet before they strike. With a lazy gesture, she sends them flying. She’s still clutching the Board. More shadowy tendrils rise from the sixty-four squares and wrap themselves around her, caressing her, sliding up her throat, brushing across her lips. Her mouth opens and she inhales. The shadows slip down her throat, and her eyes take on a darker, more menacing color.
“Grubbs,” she says, and the word rolls flatly from her mouth. “Come to me.”
There’s something commanding and seductive in her tone. I know she plans to kill me, but that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. If I give myself to her, it will all be over in an instant. No more pain, guilt, or suffering. One hug from the girl encased in shadows and I can join with her, become part of that gloomy subworld, seek refuge in oblivion.
“Grubbs!” Kernel shrieks. I frown at him and start to tell him not to disturb me. But then I spot a window of red light. He’s opened a way out.
“I don’t think so,” Lord Loss snarls. He tries to intercede, but although I didn’t seriously injure him when I unleashed the ball of energy, I stung him. He’s slower than normal. Shark and Kirilli flee ahead of the demon master and stumble through the window. Timas takes his time, watching the Board and the way the shadows stream from it and dance across Bec’s flesh. A cloud of shadows is forming around and behind her. Timas looks like he’d be happy to dive into the heart of that cloud and lose himself in it.
“Come on!” Kernel roars. “I won’t wait any longer. Come now or stay and die.”
Timas sighs, his shoulders slumping. He shoots Kernel a scowl, then slips through the window instead of into the cloud of shadows, choosing life over death. It’s a choice I haven’t made yet.
“Come to me, Grubbs,” Bec whispers, and staggers forward, raising a dark hand. She tries to smile, but it’s as if she’s forgotten how.
“Don’t kill him,” Lord Loss pleads, real longing in his voice. “You said you’d let me murder this one. You gave your word. It was all I asked for.”
“Grubbs!” Kernel yells warningly.
We can keep him, the voice of the Kah-Gash says. We can block his retreat and hold him here. Take him into the cloud with us. All three pieces reunited by Death, a union of the most powerful forces in the universes, a quartet instead of a trinity. It would mean power beyond all measure. You’re the trigger. You can make it happen.
“Power…,” I murmur, eyes wide, torn in ways I don’t fully understand.
“To hell with you,” Kernel sobs, then steps up to the window of red light.