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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
I extend a hand to hold him back… then pause and let him go.
“No,” I croak, my mind clearing. “I don’t want this.”
Bec hisses, her semi-smile crumbling. “Come to me,” she growls. Not a plea this time. An order.
“Get stuffed!” I snort, then throw myself at the window. The cheated howls of Bec and Lord Loss echo after me as shadowy tendrils shoot towards me, trying to haul me back. But Death is too slow for this fleet-footed wolfen boy. I’m gone before it can grab me, and the darkness—for the time being—is left behind.
KERNEL is already dismantling the window as I crash through and roll across the ground. “I thought we’d seen the last of you,” he says as the window blinks out of existence, securing our safety.
“You wish.” I grimace as I stand. I took a hammering in Lord Loss’s realm, not least to my face. That was fine when I had the magical energy of the demon universe to tap into. I could numb the pain. But back on Earth I feel like I’ve been run through a meat processor.
Shark groans as he pries the remains of the snake from his flesh. Blood gushes from the hole it leaves. Timas makes a tourniquet out of his belt and tightens it around the ex-soldier’s arm.
“I never liked snakes,” Shark wheezes. “Now I bloody hate them! I’ll have nightmares about that.”
“You don’t have enough imagination for nightmares,” Kernel laughs, slumping beside his friend. He runs an eye over me and frowns. “Are you going to be OK?”
“Yeah,” I mumble, coughing up blood.
“The left side of your head looks like it’s been caved in with an iron.”
“Thanks for pointing that out.”
“I could take you to a hospital, but I doubt they’d be able to do much for you.”
I wave away his concerns. “I’ll be fine. A short rest, then we’ll go somewhere magical and I’ll patch myself up.”
“She was a vindictive little wench, wasn’t she?” Timas says cheerfully, as if discussing a cat who’d shown her claws.
“I’d have drowned her if I’d known what she was going to turn into,” Kirilli snarls. “She saved me on the ship when we first met. I thought she was kind. But she murdered those people as if they were ants.”
“We’ve lost her,” I sigh. “She belongs to Lord Loss and Death now. We’ll have to kill her the next time we meet.”
“You think you can?” Kernel asks quietly.
“Over there, no. But here, where they’re weaker? We stand a chance.”
Silence falls as everyone thinks about Lord Loss, Bec, Death. We know we’re done for. I can see it in their eyes. We can talk the good talk all we want, but the demons are stronger than us, even on our own turf. Winning is a dream, not a real possibility.
Kirilli lets out a deep breath and chuckles wryly. “We left Moe behind. I’ll miss that dumb hairball. He might have thought of me as lunch, but I had a soft spot for him all the same.”
“There’s only one of the original werewolves left now,” I nod. “Assuming Larry hasn’t been killed.” I glance at Kernel. “How long have we been gone?”
He shakes his head. “I’m not sure. But it’s too long, no matter what.” He backs away from me, his expression changing. “You know what I’m going to say.”
“You want to leave?”
“It was madness, staying when I did. I have to go.”
“You’re our secret weapon,” I tell him, knowing it’s a waste of breath but feeling like I should go through the motions. “With your help we can make sneak attacks, dart in, strike, nip out again. If you abandon us, they’ll grind us down.”
“They’ll grind you down regardless,” Kernel sighs. “And you’re forgetting, my eyes are no good here. They’re already starting to sting. A day or two and they’ll be gooey blobs again.”
As I’m trying to think of some fresh way to argue with him, Kirilli clears his throat. “Why don’t we ask for help from the Old Creatures? If they told you the truth, they have the power to hold the demons back. If we put a strong enough case to them…”
Kernel shakes his head. “They’re looking at the bigger picture. Earth is just another world, one of untold billions. They don’t care about us. They only want my part of the Kah-Gash.”
“We could barter,” Kirilli says. “What if you promised to help them, but only if they reinforced Earth’s defenses? They used lodestones to deter demons in the past. Surely they could recharge or replace them and erect a ring of magic around the planet through which the Demonata couldn’t cross.”
Kernel looks uncertain. “I think Death has changed things. I don’t know if the old ways work anymore.”
“But we could ask,” Kirilli presses. “If they say no, we haven’t lost anything. There’s no harm putting in a request, is there?”
I seize on Kernel’s hesitation. “Why not try? Even if they turn you down, they won’t punish you for asking, will they?”
“Probably not,” Kernel says. “But…”
“What?” I snort. “Afraid of upsetting them? Will you condemn the rest of us just to make a good impression on your new friends?”
Kernel’s face stiffens. “That’s a cheap shot.”
“Maybe. But it’s not an unreasonable request. Take us to the Old Creature who came back with you. Let us discuss it with him. If he turns us down, at least we’ll have tried. You can go; the rest of us will stay. Where’s the harm in that?”
Kernel shrugs. “I’m sure he’ll reject you, but I guess we might as well try. Let me open a window to the demon universe, then I’ll—”
“Why do we have to go there?” I snap suspiciously.
“It will take several hours to open a window to Atlantis,” Kernel says. “My eyes might not last that long here. Plus it’s easier for me over there.”
“OK,” I growl, but edge to within striking distance in case he’s trying to con us.
Kernel takes us to a few different worlds, trying to find a spot where our enemies can’t track us. Eventually, on an asteroid in the depths of space, he sets to work on building a window to Atlantis, the world where the Old Creature is waiting. Far from being a mythical country that sank beneath the waves, Atlantis is the nearest inhabitable world to Earth. It was once populated by advanced beings. They mastered space travel and visited our planet, influencing mankind’s early progress. Then there was some kind of meltdown, like a nuclear war but worse. The Atlanteans perished.
I’m not looking forward to meeting the creature from the original universe, older than time itself. They’re obviously a superior species, and Kernel thinks they’re much wiser than us, that we’d be crazy not to follow their plans. But by their own admission they’ve messed up before. I don’t have the same faith in them that Kernel has.
Even if the ark they’ve built is the only hope for survival in the future, how can they turn away from the needs of the present? The Old Creatures told Kernel they believe every species has to follow its own path. They protect us in our formative years, hold back the Demonata so that we can develop. But then they withdraw, leaving us to fend for ourselves or perish at the claws of the demons.
What the hell kind of thinking is that! If I had their power, I’d never abandon a world. The Old Creatures won’t live forever. They say they can only hold back the demons for a few billion years. Like that’s nothing! A billion years is an eternity for most civilizations. If they spared us the agonies of the Demonata that long, by the time their power waned, Earth would be a shell of a planet anyway. They could save us all this suffering.
I know they have other worlds to think about. The universe is teeming with intelligent beings, and Earth’s just one small rock among billions. But if we were worth helping in the first place, they should have seen the job through. To me it’s the same as if a parent teaches its child to walk, then drops it into a pit of snakes and says, “You must prove yourself worthy of survival. Good luck!”
I’ve all sorts of bones to pick with the Old Creatures. But I’ll have to hide my feelings, smile big, and play it humble. Because these guys are our only hope. If we can convince them to help, maybe the Demonata can be driven back. I might even avoid the future that Juni prophesied and not destroy the universe. It will stick in my throat, but I have to play up to these cold, ancient life-givers. If I don’t, we’re on our own, and that will truly be the end.
Temper, Grubbs, temper!
It’s taking Kernel ages to open the window to Atlantis. He works hard, sweating with the effort, but apparently there’s no quick way because of the distance involved. When I asked him how far away it was, all he said was far. We can’t get closer to it in this universe either—space doesn’t work the same way here. Kernel has to construct a window that links back to Earth, then on to Atlantis. I’m glad I’m not the eyes of the Kah-Gash. Having to deal with technical issues like this would drive me mad. I’m much happier gutting demons.
The rest of us patch up our wounds while we’re waiting. Shark and I are the worst, battered all over. The brace around his stomach has cracked in several places. He glues it together with magic, but I get a glimpse of the flesh beneath. It’s ugly—purple flesh speckled with a moldy green fungus. There’s blood soaking into his trousers, and bits of his guts are poking out of ragged holes.
“How much longer do you think you can keep going?” I ask.
Shark shrugs. “I should have been dead weeks ago, as my doctors kept telling me. Having cheated death this long, who knows?”
“Has the infection been there long?”
“Who made you a nurse?” he scowls.
“Infection?” Timas barks. “You were supposed to tell me if you got infected.”
“It slipped my mind,” Shark says drily.
“Let me see,” Timas says, reaching for the brace.
“Leave it,” Shark grunts. “I used magic to heal myself. I’ll be fine.” He sighs. “You know what I miss? The ladies. No matter how bad things got, when Meera or Sharmila was with us, I always felt more at ease. Crazy, huh?”
“If they were here now, they’d march you to a hospital and have that infection looked at,” Timas huffs.
“Why don’t you go find a machine to tinker with?” Shark snaps.
“Over here?” Timas replies archly.
“I thought I was supposed to be the highly strung one,” Kirilli murmurs, and we all laugh.
“Seriously,” Timas says, smiling, “that infection will kill you if we don’t have it treated.”
“Seriously,” Shark responds, grinning tightly, “I know it will, but I don’t think it’s the sort of infection any doctor can treat. Just let me battle on and drop when it’s my time. I don’t have much longer whether I push on or go back. I’d rather die fighting than tucked up in a hospital bed.”
Timas considers that, then nods. “As you wish.”
Kirilli chuckles. “That’s the one plus point about not having any women around—we can discuss these things logically. No woman would let Shark get away with reasoning like that.”
“Our kind of women would,” Shark disagrees. “Sharmila and Meera knew the score. They wouldn’t have objected. Or wept. They were tough.”
“Yeah,” I sigh, thinking of Meera on her motorbike, red hair streaming behind her, laughing as she tore past speed signs.
Silence settles over us again as we brood about the friends we’ve lost, the wounds we’ve endured. It’s a relief when Kernel finally opens a window of white light and staggers away from it, exhausted.
“About time,” I grunt. “Let’s go.”
“Wait a minute,” Kernel stops me. “This is a window to a distant place in our universe, not a passageway between realms. It doesn’t work like a normal window. It’ll take several minutes to cross and there isn’t any oxygen. The Old Creature gave me a piece of a lodestone to use.”
Kernel digs out a sliver of rock and studies it. “I’ll use its power to erect a shield, but I’m not sure it will hold us all. If the shield starts to crumble while we’re crossing, I’ll have to cut the rest of you loose.”
I stare at Kernel suspiciously. “If this is some kind of trick…”
“No trick,” he insists. “I wasn’t supposed to bring others back with me. I don’t know if I can swing it.”
“Can’t we erect shields of our own?” Shark asks.
“It’s a different type of magic. You won’t be able to tap into it.”
We gaze uneasily at one another. Shark, Timas, and Kirilli wait for me to make a decision.
“Will there be any fighting?” I ask.
“On Atlantis?” Kernel shakes his head. “No. A few of the slug creatures might attack, but we can easily repel them.”
“Then I’ll come by myself. The others can stay here. We’ll pick them up on our way back—or I’ll pick them up if I return alone,” I say quickly, before Kernel launches into another of his I-won’t-be-coming-back spiels.
“You’re sure you’ll be safe without us?” Shark asks.
“Yeah.” I grab Kernel and settle my fangs close to his throat. “If Window Boy gives me any trouble, I’ll chew through his carotid artery before he can blink.”