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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
“Like you care what it—”
“Get the hell out of here, fool!” she screams, and the fear in her eyes hits me harder than any threat. With a heavy heart, I wrap an arm around Kernel and dive through the window of green light, roaring with rage and frustration, knowing all is truly lost.
SHARK, Timas, and Kirilli are waiting for us on the asteroid, sitting close to the window, talking in low voices. They don’t spot us immediately. It’s only when Kernel groans and staggers away from me that their heads shoot up and they leap to their feet.
“Well?” Shark barks hopefully, figuring Kernel’s return must be a positive sign.
“We’re sunk,” I tell him, and the hope flickers out in an instant.
“The Old Creature wouldn’t help?” Kirilli asks.
“No. But even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered. Bec followed us. She’s in league with Death. They crossed shortly after we did and killed the Old Creature.”
“What are you talking about?” Shark frowns. “Kernel’s the only one who can build a window that quickly.”
“Not anymore,” I chuckle mirthlessly.
“You mean she could come here at any moment?” Kirilli gasps, eyes flicking from one stubby outcrop to the next, searching for unnatural shadows.
“No,” Kernel says. “She can’t see the lights. She said she could only mimic what I do, and go to the places I’d been to when she touched me and absorbed my memories. She can’t track me.”
“Thank heavens for that,” Kirilli smiles.
“She can find the ark,” Kernel tells him. “She’ll lead the demons there.”
Nobody looks unduly upset. It’s hard for us to care about the ark. Earth’s in trouble. People we know and love are going to die. So what if some spaceship trillions of miles away faces the same threat? Our world is what matters most. To hell with the rest of the universe. We can’t think that big.
“What happens now?” Timas asks as Kernel and I sit and stare at the dead landscape of the asteroid. “Are you going to return to the ark?”
“I wouldn’t be able to find it,” Kernel sighs. “Bec has a perfect memory, but I don’t. The Old Creatures guided me there and back. I don’t know how to locate it by myself.”
“Well, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow anyone a bit of luck,” Shark beams. “I guess that means you have to come back with us now.”
“For all the good I’ll do,” Kernel grumbles. “Maybe I’ll just stay here and wait for the universe to end. It’d be a lot simpler.”
“But nowhere near as exciting.” I stand and shake blood from my face, using magic to heal the damage to my ears and nose. I don’t feel depressed. I have a sense of destiny clicking into place, of things playing out the way they were always meant to. We’ve tried every angle we could think of and they’ve all failed. We’ve passed the point where we can save the day with a cunning plan. We’re puppets of fate now. There’s no use worrying about events we can’t control.
“Where next?” I ask cheerfully.
Nobody meets my gaze. They don’t have any ideas. We had targets to aim for up to this—Juni Swan, the Shadow, Lord Loss, the Old Creature. Now all we can do is return home, put up a good fight, and accept annihilation with a rueful grin.
“We could…,” Timas says, then falls silent.
“If Bec is part of Death, and we kill her…,” Shark begins.
“There are other Old Creatures…,” Kirilli murmurs.
“Kernel?” I cock an eyebrow.
The surly teenager shrugs. “It doesn’t make any difference.”
“Then take us to Prae Athim,” I decide. “If I’m going down fighting, I want to go with my faithful pack behind me.”
We find Prae, a few units of soldiers, and my enhanced werewolves battling demons and a bunch of zombies outside a small town. We fall in beside them, surprising and delighting Prae. No time to exchange pleasantries. I howl at the werewolves, letting them know their leader’s back. They happily return the howl and fight with renewed vigor, keen to impress.
Larry breaks away from the carnage and loops around me, snapping with excitement, sniffing me all over to ensure I’m the real deal, not some demonic doppelgänger. I bark a few commands to the last survivor of my original pack, telling him to stop sniffing and get back to fighting. As he bounds away, calling others to his side, I focus on strays around the edges and pick them off as they try to sneak away. I don’t care whether they’re demons or zombies. Some of the others have a hard time slaughtering those who were once living people, but they’re all the same in my wolfen eyes.
It doesn’t take long to bring the demons and zombies to their knees. The pack had control of the situation before I arrived. My presence merely speeds things up. Within minutes we’re relaxing on a mound of mutilated corpses, cheering because it’s what you do to celebrate a victory, even though it’s just one small triumph in a doomed war.
“Didn’t expect to see you again,” Prae grins. “It’s been hell here. I thought you’d fallen on some far-off demon world.”
“Not a hope,” I smile wryly, running an eye over my pack, noting the new arrivals, yapping at some of those I recognize from before.
“What’s been happening?” Shark asks, and Prae quickly brings us up to date. Earth’s in a lot worse shape than when we left. Six weeks have passed. Windows are opening at a rate of four or five a day. Demons are having their wicked way in most countries. The Disciples, mages, werewolves, and soldiers have been fighting doggedly, but I see desolation in Prae’s eyes. When we left for Lord Loss’s realm, people still had hope. Not any longer. From what Prae tells us, realization has set in across the globe. Even those who’ve avoided contact with the demons know they’re living on borrowed time. They go through the motions, but without any real expectation of victory.
The zombies came from nearby. Prae says hundreds of them—and even more demons—are massed outside a city a few miles away. A lodestone must be buried somewhere close. Once Bec located it, the demons set to work, assisted by one of their treacherous mages, and opened a tunnel. Hordes of demons pushed through with vicious glee, and the dead have been coming back to life to help them.
There’s a strange magical energy in the air, which Kirilli recognizes from when he fought the Shadow on the ship. Death used that energy to reanimate the corpses, and it’s pulled the same trick here. The blank-eyed zombies are driven by a force they have no control over, killing recklessly, slaves to their ever-hungry master.
The first clusters of walking dead clawed their way out of crypts and graves, but many of the people killed by the demons have also been brought back to life. A lot of victims are ripped to shreds by overeager demons, but those who are left largely intact are revived by the magic of Death.
“We haven’t been able to get close to the mouth of the tunnel,” Prae sighs. “So we’ve been trying to pen them in, to stop splinter groups like this one from spreading. The demons aren’t particularly strong, and the zombies are no more powerful than ordinary humans. If this tunnel is a one-off and we can hold them here, it won’t prove too much of a problem.”
“It’s just the first of many,” I tell her. “More will open and in time stronger demons will cross.”
Prae nods slowly. “I guessed as much, but I still… you know… hoped.”
“Forget about hope. We don’t have time for such fantasies.” I cast an eye over the dead around us, then peer at the city in the distance. Planes circle overhead, dropping bombs. Teams of soldiers and mages are dotted around.
“Call off the planes,” I growl at Prae, starting towards the city.
“You’re going in?” she asks.
“Yes. I’ll find the lodestone, destroy it, and that’ll be that.”
“But there are a lot of them. More crossing all the time. They’re not especially strong, but there are so many…”
“All the more for me to kill,” I chuckle, then break into a jog, howling for my werewolves, leaving the humans to retreat or follow as they please.
Carnage. Bloodshed. Mayhem. We cut our way through the ranks of demons and zombies, dismembering, disemboweling. Kernel guides us, tracing patches of light to the location of the tunnel. I’ve assigned five of the toughest werewolves—including Larry—to serve as his bodyguards, although I don’t think he really needs them. Kernel was never the ablest fighter, but he lays into these opponents with determination, using magic to liquefy them or make their heads explode. I’ve never seen him so bloodthirsty. I guess a lot of people will be acting this way now that we’re close to the end. Desperation tends to make humans act unnaturally. But if they all fight like Kernel, that will be a good thing.
Our opponents fall like bowling pins, overwhelmed by the raw force we strike them with. They kill a few soldiers and werewolves, even one or two mages. But their successes pale in comparison to ours, and it’s clear within minutes that we outpower them.
They make their final stand on the outskirts of the city, where the lodestone rests in an excavated ditch. Some of the smarter demons retreat through the tunnel, back to the safety of their own universe, but most crowd around it and defend it to the death. I don’t think they do so out of loyalty—they’re simply too dumb to know when they’re beaten.
I gut a boar-shaped demon, spit out entrails, and shoulder my way forward. Then I’m on the stone. It’s an unremarkable piece of rock, set in the mouth of a small tunnel. I peer over the top of the lodestone and see a woman behind it, joined to the stone by her chin, parts of her body scattered all around, still functioning.
The woman snarls at me and says something in a foreign language. I could use a spell to translate it, but why bother? I’m sure it’s more of the same old crap.
I ball my right fingers into a fist and crush the woman’s head. Apart from her agonized squeal, this has no effect. Several demons throw themselves on me, but I flex my muscles and swat them aside. Then I lash at the rock with my fists, one punch after another. It cracks on the fourth blow, splits on the fifth, then crumbles after a few more.
As the lodestone breaks, a wind rips out of the tunnel. It quickly picks up speed and sweeps across the land, gathering all the demons and zombies, knocking over some of the humans and werewolves too. Using magic, I root myself and watch as the wind is sucked back up the tunnel, returning its catch to the realm of the Demonata. A few human and wolfen innocents are taken too. I can’t say I’m too bothered. This is a tough world and it’s getting tougher. Only the strong are worth caring about.
As the wind drops, the tunnel closes, and rocks and earth grind together. I glance around at those who remain. Many were knocked over and are picking themselves up, weeping and groaning. Prae has been clinging to a werewolf. She lets go and staggers away, then hurries to check on the rest of the pack, showing that odd maternal concern that she reserves for these hairy misfits.
“That wasn’t so hard,” I grin at Kernel. His eyes are wild, darting this way and that, looking for something else to kill. “Easy, big guy,” I calm him, laying a firm hand on his shoulder. “It’s over for now. We can rest awhile.”
“Rest?” he sneers. “Don’t be a child. There’s another tunnel. I can smell it.”
“Where?” I growl.
“The other side of the world. We can be there in minutes. You game?”
“What’s it like compared to the one we just shut?”
“Bigger. It’s only been open a few hours, but already more demons have come through there than here. Stronger ones too. A lot nastier than these familiars.”
“Are there Disciples on the scene? Mages? Soldiers?”
“Who cares?” Kernel hoots. “I’ll take them on by myself if you’re chicken.”
“You want to be careful who you taunt,” I snarl.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Kernel smirks. “You won’t harm me. You need me. I’m your quick way in and out of the madness.”
I eye Kernel warily as he works on opening a new window. I don’t like this new, wilder version of Cornelius Fleck. Something switched off inside him when the Old Creature was killed. He thought he had a greater purpose, that he was going to save the universe. Now he’s been reduced to the same level as the rest of us, scrapping to salvage an unremarkable planet on its last legs. The demotion hit him hard. I’m not sure how many brain cells he’s operating on. In this state he could do anything.
But there’s no time to try and help the borderline-crazy Kernel. Because even as I’m worrying about him, the window opens and he darts through. I have no option but to call my pack of werewolves to my side and push on after him, before I lose him to an army of demons and the walking dead.
BIGGER, BETTER, BADDER
I know straightaway that we’re in trouble. When you fight as often as I do, you develop a knack of swiftly judging the course of a battle. To any normal person, this would look no different from the war zone we came from, a group of humans and werewolves up against demons and reanimated corpses.
But looks are deceptive. The magical energy in the air is much thicker than it was outside the city. That’s good for us, but even better for the demons. It means stronger monsters can cross, beasts who can channel the energy and wreak more havoc than the creatures we crushed a few minutes ago.
There are already some mages and soldiers on the scene. We wade in beside them, werewolves running wild, Disciples unleashing bolts of magic, soldiers firing concentrated bursts, shredding the bodies of weaker demons and zombies.