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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
“Charming,” Kernel sneers, then creates a tight, invisible barrier around us, and we shuffle into the window of light.
Crossing has always been instantaneous, like stepping from one room to another through a doorway. Not this time. I find myself floating through a weird zone of lights, all sorts of shapes and colors. I cling to Kernel like a child to his father, ogling the lights, feeling completely out of my depth. I try to ask a question, but no sound comes from my lips.
“We could speak normally,” Kernel’s voice says inside my head, “but it would mean more work on the shield. It’s easier this way.”
“Bloody telepathy,” I grumble silently, then nod at the lights. “Is this what you see all the time?”
“These are different from the normal lights,” he says. “But they’re similar.”
“How do you concentrate on normal stuff?”
Kernel laughs. “For me this is normal. The only time I was unable to see lights was when I entered the Board in Lord Loss’s palace.”
“How are we moving?” I ask. “What’s propelling us?”
“I’m not sure. I think the lights draw us on. As long as I bear Atlantis in mind, they steer us towards it.”
“What if you black out or go crazy?”
Kernel sniffs. “There’s no telling where we might end up.”
I’ve never felt so helpless. At least in the realm of demons, no matter how bad things got, I was always able to fight. Here I’m relying on Kernel for everything. I feel useless. On Earth I’m a magician, a leader of werewolves. Here I’m nothing. If Kernel cast me adrift, I couldn’t do anything about it.
I get tenser the farther we glide. I want to go back and take my chances without Kernel. I don’t mind dying on Earth or in the demon universe. But not here, in this unnatural zone of lights. It was a mistake asking him to bring me. I should have stayed where I belonged.
I fight my hysteria as long as I can, but eventually it threatens to overwhelm me. I’m about to demand that Kernel take me back, but before I can he says, “That patch of green light is the entrance to Atlantis.”
I fix on the green panel and smile eagerly as we draw closer. The other panels seem to slide away from around us until the whole universe looks like one giant patch of green. Then we slip through and land on a hard floor.
We’re in a chamber made of stones. The air is foul, acidic, painful to a nose as sensitive as mine. Squinting against the discomfort, I look around and spot a fat black man sitting close by. It’s the Old Creature in human form, disguised as Raz Warlo, a Disciple who fought with Dervish many years ago.
“Hello, Kernel,” Raz says stiffly, eyeing me beadily. “I did not expect you to bring another piece of the Kah-Gash.”
“This is Grubbs,” Kernel says. “He has something to ask you.”
“Yes,” Raz says. “I can read it in his thoughts. The answer is no.”
“Hold on a minute,” I growl. “You don’t know what—”
“You want my help,” Raz interrupts. “You want me to return to Earth, recharge the lodestones, and provide you with the means to repel the Demonata.”
“Well, OK, maybe you do know what I want,” I smile, trying to make a joke of it. “But you can’t refuse before I have a chance to—”
“I can see all of your arguments already,” Raz says. “None will persuade me to return with you. The threat of withholding Kernel won’t work either, since he is determined to travel to the ark with me. He has a greater calling he must respect. Your world is unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”
“It might not matter to you,” I snarl, “but it means everything to us.”
“No,” Kernel says sadly. “It doesn’t. I’d save it if I could, but if it’s a choice between dying meaninglessly or helping others survive… I’ve got to go, Grubbs.”
“Nobody has to go anywhere,” I hiss, trying to rein in my temper. “Come with us. Give us the power to defend ourselves. You made the lodestones work once—why not again? Time means nothing to you guys. Give us a million years. That won’t kill you, will it?”
“It would go against all that we believe in,” Raz says. “We protect developing worlds in their infancy, but your people have outgrown the need for us. You had the power to evolve and move ahead of the demons. You failed to nurture that talent. That is your problem, not ours. If we interceded in this case, we would have to intercede in all of the others.”
“What’s so wrong with that?” I explode. “You have the power to save lives, to save worlds. Why don’t you bloody use it?”
“We cannot save everyone,” Raz says patiently. “The universes do not work that way. Losses are unavoidable.”
“Listen to me, you ignorant son of a—”
I freeze. I’d been taking a step towards Raz, but suddenly I can’t move. My hand’s outstretched, one foot raised, mouth open. I must look idiotic, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
“Grubbs?” Kernel squeaks, then turns on Raz. “What have you done to him?”
“Merely halted him,” Raz says. “He is not harmed. When we move on, he will be freed. Come, Kernel, it is time to return to the ark.”
“But he won’t be able to go home,” Kernel says.
“We will send him back with a piece of a lodestone to protect him,” Raz promises. “He will be safe, at least until he faces the demons and is destroyed along with the rest of his kind.”
“You’re sure?” Kernel asks.
“I give you my word.”
I want to tell Raz what I think of his word, but my lips are frozen along with the rest of me. I have as much control over myself as a concrete block has.
Raz gouges a bit of rock out of a lodestone, presses it into my right palm, and closes my fingers around it. Then he turns into a ball of light and starts to pulse. The stones of the chamber throb around us. Kernel casts me a shameful look and shrugs. Right now, I almost hate him more than Lord Loss or Bec. How can he turn his back on us? I might be a werewolf, but I still remember what it means to be human, and I fight for the things that mattered to me before I changed.
As I struggle to break free of the spell holding me captive, Kernel half turns and sniffs the air. His eyes narrow. He focuses on a spot a few yards away, then says, “Raz…”
“Please do not interrupt. This is very—”
“A window’s forming.”
The ball of light stops pulsing. “Are you certain?”
Kernel nods. “Over there.” He points. “It’s not one of yours?”
“No.” There’s a sighing sound. “How much time do we have?”
A window of grey light opens and Bec steps through.
“—much,” Kernel finishes glumly.
Bec looks taller than before, but that’s a trick of the shadows billowing around her. They encase her from head to toe, rise above her in clouds, and trail behind her like robes. Her eyes are pools of shadowy flickers. Vapors dance across her lips. The shadows move constantly, sometimes covering her completely, then parting to reveal a glimpse of her pale face. There’s something of Juni Swan about her, but she looks more of a menace than Juni ever did.
“I can’t let you leave, Kernel,” she says, and there’s the same flat tone to her voice that I noted before. She doesn’t sound evil, merely determined. There’s even a hint of sadness mixed in somewhere, as if she’s sorry she has to do this.
“How did you find us?” Kernel mutters, backing away from her.
“I’m the memory of the Kah-Gash,” she says. “I remember everything I see or absorb. When we were in contact, I shared your recent memories. I can’t see the lights but I can mimic your actions and go where you’ve gone, and also where the Old Creatures took you. I can go everywhere you’ve been. I can even find the ark.”
“No!” Raz gasps, sounding more human than he did before.
“Yes, my ancient friend.” Bec smiles thinly. “You hid it masterfully, but your hiding place has been exposed. I will lead the demons to the ark and set them loose on the creatures you have gathered. Without Kernel, they’re doomed.”
With a shriek, the ball of light shoots at Bec. She laughs and swats it aside as if it were a fly. As Raz smashes into the wall of the chamber, his spell over me shatters and I regain control. I launch myself at Bec and land on her back. I bare my fangs and snap at her neck, but the tendrils of shadow thicken around her and send a wave of electricity shooting through me. With a choking noise, I’m flung against the wall like Raz.
“You cannot fight me,” Bec says calmly. “I am two now. Death has joined with me. I am its vessel and mouthpiece. When you attack me, you attack Death—and that is a foe no one can defeat.”
Raz recovers and throws himself at Bec again. This time the ball of light engages with the shadows surrounding the small girl. The air fills with high-pitched crackling noises, so shrill that blood trickles from my ears and nose. There are blinding flashes and disorienting blackouts. Bec stands immobile at the center of the warring forces, fingers twitching but otherwise motionless as the spitting shadows swirl around the pulsating ball of light.
I try to wade in, but the air close to Bec is hotter than I can stand. I get to within a couple of yards of her, then the hairs on my arms catch fire and I have to retreat and roll in the dust to quench the flames.
Kernel’s staring at the battling pair, jaw slack, eyes wide. “We have to help!” I roar, staggering to my feet, wiping sweat and blood from my face.
“We can’t,” Kernel whispers. Blood is seeping from his ears and nose too.
“There must be something we can do,” I snarl, shaking him roughly.
“Unite our magic. Hit Bec hard. Unleash the Kah-Gash.”
“Are you mad?” he scoffs. “Bec’s part of the Kah-Gash, but now she’s also part of Death. If we join, we’ll link up with the Shadow. Do you want to put the power of the Kah-Gash in Death’s hands?”
I stare at Kernel, then at the waves of shadows writhing around Bec. Maybe this is when I make the move that damns the world. Perhaps this is how it ends, with me handing Death the force it needs to reduce everything to ash. If it gains control of the Kah-Gash, it can use me as a puppet, pull my strings as it’s jerking Bec’s, send me to Earth to wreak havoc.
“We have to get out of here,” Kernel pants, dragging me towards the window of green light, which is still open.
“What about Raz?” I growl, breaking free.
“He’s lost,” Kernel says. “It’s over. Bec knows where the ark is. She can find it. The plans of the Old Creatures are ruined. Raz can’t help us now. Nobody can.”
“Then let’s die here,” I say softly, and Kernel pauses. I search his bright blue eyes for acceptance. “If this is the finish, let’s go out with a bang. You and me, alone against Death. What do you say?”
Kernel licks his lips. His features soften and I think he’s going to agree. I ready myself for the final battle, looking forward to the relief of oblivion that failure and death will bring. But then Kernel shakes his head.
“I don’t want to die so far from home. If we can’t make a difference, let’s at least perish on our own world, not on a dead planet.”
I sigh heavily, accepting the fact that relief isn’t to be mine just yet. Nodding, I edge to the window of green light with Kernel, but stop there and study the warring giants. I don’t want to quit until the fight’s been decided. If Raz can surprise his foe and chalk up an unlikely victory, there’s still hope.
But it soon becomes clear that victory isn’t to be ours. The snakes of shadows rip into the heart of the ball of light, tearing chunks out of it. The dislodged scraps drift through the air like bits of plastic, then crinkle away to nothing. There can be no doubt that Raz is going down for the three count.
“Go, Kernel,” the ball of light whispers. “You can do no good here.”
“I’m sorry,” Kernel moans.
“I regret it too,” Raz says. “We tried so hard to prevent this, but it seems our efforts were in vain. Please forgive us. If we could…”
Whatever he was about to say is lost in a terrible screeching sound, like two huge metal plates being scraped together. There’s a flash of light so intense that for a few seconds I think I’ve been blinded, and fire breaks out all over my body. As my sight returns and I thrash at the flames covering me, I see dozens of shards of light floating through the air. They’re all that remain of the Old Creature.
The shadows settle around Bec, and her head moves, eyes following one scrap of light to another, watching with grim satisfaction as they blink out. She blows on one that drifts close to her mouth, laughing softly as it catapults through the air.
Kernel grabs my arm and makes a wheezing noise. The flames didn’t take hold on him—one of the advantages of having no hair—but there are ugly scorch marks across his face, and a hole in one of his cheeks where the heat burned through his flesh. He tries to drag me away, but I pull against him and lock eyes with Bec.
“I’ll kill you before this is over,” I vow.
Bec shakes her head. “No.”
“I’ll rip your head from—” I begin, but she cuts me off.
“The fight with the Old Creature drained Death, but it’s recovering swiftly. If you don’t leave now, it will destroy you, seize all three pieces of the Kah-Gash, and claim victory early.”