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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
A group of the undead are clustered around hundreds of screaming people. I scatter them with a wave of magic that rips most to pieces. “Fight or get the hell out of here!” I bellow at the humans, then grapple with a massive demon that has several heads and more arms than I can count. It tugs and snaps at me, piercing my flesh in dozens of places, focusing its largest mouth on my face.
I roll across the ground with the demon, punching savagely, biting at anything that comes within range of my fangs. I drive a fist into its stomach and feel around for guts to yank out. Before I can finish off the beast, a foul stench fills the air. Looking up, I spot Kernel vomiting over the demon. As the last drops drip from his lower lip, he touches the vomit and it flashes, becoming acidic. The lethal puke sizzles through the demon’s shell and it falls away, squealing with agony.
“You love that old vomit trick,” I grunt, getting to my feet, wiping slime, blood, and some of the remains of Kernel’s last supper from my flesh.
“It works,” he says, looking for his next victim.
“I could have dealt with the demon myself,” I tell him.
“I know. But I didn’t like its face.”
He whirls away, scanning the masses for another face that doesn’t take his fancy. He certainly has plenty to choose from. I fry a few more demons, then push after Kernel. I’m worried he might do something stupid in his wired-up state.
We fight desperately, more demons crossing all the time, each wave stronger than the last. I haven’t sensed any demon masters hitting the scene, but these are certainly A-plus students. They slaughter soldiers for fun, and don’t have too much hassle dispatching werewolves or mages either. We’ve already suffered severe casualties, and the battle is only minutes old.
I force my way through a pack of zombies and grab Kernel. “The lodestone!” I yell in his ear. “We have to destroy it. We can’t take much more of this.”
“It’s over there,” he shouts, pointing to his left.
I stand on my toes. All I can see are demons and zombies, a few hapless humans trapped among them. “How far?” I ask Kernel.
“A mile, maybe more.”
“How are you at flying?”
“Never tried it on this world,” he says. “But I’m game.”
Linking hands, we jump high. I’ve flown once before, with Beranabus, when he dragged me out of a plane. I’ve tried to repeat the trick a few times since, but there was never enough magic for me to tap into. Now there is, and we soar forward, shooting over the heads of the warring forces like a couple of blow-ins from Peter Pan.
Some of the more powerful beasts fire at us as we flit by. We easily deflect the balls of energy and rocks. But as we get within three hundred feet of the tunnel, a squadron of winged demons flaps into the air. We draw to a halt and eye them warily.
The demons, thirty or forty of them, hang in the air above the lodestone. They’re deliberately positioned, an aerial guard to protect the tunnel.
“There are others on the ground,” Kernel says sullenly. “More powerful than any we’ve faced so far.”
“Can we take them?” I ask.
“Maybe.” He casts an eye over the demons behind us. “But we’d have more fun if we tackled that lot.”
“This isn’t about fun,” I growl.
“Of course it is,” he laughs. “You taught me that. We’ve lost. All that remains is to take as many demons down with us as we can, and have a blast killing them.”
I scowl, but I can’t refute his statement. If Kernel has become a suicidal, kill-crazy goon, it’s because of what I’ve done to him.
“Let’s try for the lodestone,” I mutter. “If we slip past the guards and destroy it, this will be a victory to savor.”
Kernel considers that, then nods. He swoops ahead of me, issuing a challenging cry to the winged demons. With a curse, I tuck my chin down and fly after him.
The dogfight is short and vicious. The demons aren’t just airworthy—they’re powerful too. We try to zip through the gaps between them, but they’re faster than us and more naturally suited to midair maneuvers. We hit them with balls of energy and acidic, projectile puke, but although we cause damage and kill a few of them, most shrug off our blows and respond with ear-splitting shrieks, six-foot-long talons, and beaks that can rip a head clean off a neck.
Within a minute we know it’s a hopeless task. I catch Kernel’s eye, shake my head, and peel away. He follows, deciding he’d rather not be pecked to death by a pack of demonic harpies. They don’t chase us but settle on the ground, ready to launch another defense of the lodestone if threatened.
“I told you we shouldn’t have bothered,” Kernel says sulkily.
“How long can they keep that tunnel open?” I ask.
“Do I look like I’m an expert?” he huffs.
“I know you are—you’ve boasted about it often enough. How long?”
Kernel chuckles, then focuses on the area around the lodestone, studying the patches of light that are invisible to the rest of us. He sighs. “It won’t crash any time soon. I reckon it can be kept going for a few years.”
I feel sick. I take a couple of deep breaths, clear my thoughts, then turn and stomp away.
“Where are we going?” Kernel asks, tucking in behind me.
“To signal a retreat.”
“We’re going to run?”
“Can you think of another course?”
“Not really, no.”
“Then shut up and help me pull back as many survivors as we can.”
We summon soldiers, mages, werewolves, and civilians, then help them fight their way clear. We lead them to a convoy of trucks and buses that is waiting a few miles away, set in place by a forward-thinking general in case the battle went poorly. The demons chase heatedly, eager to chalk up more kills before we slip through the net. Some of the faster monsters target the convoy and clamber over the roofs of the vehicles, breaking in, causing high-speed crashes. A few perish in the flames, like the humans they targeted, but most walk away, laughing, lugging severed heads, maybe to settle down over a few mugs of blood later and compare kills with their comrades.
Kernel, Shark, Kirilli, and I do what we can to minimize the damage. The others look to us for guidance, since we’re the most powerful and experienced. We guide the trucks and buses to safety, repel the demons and zombies, spread ourselves as widely as possible. But ultimately we’re just four guys. We can’t save everyone. The losses are horrendous, in the high thousands. And they’ll get worse once the demons stabilize and branch out.
When we’ve led the troops to safety, we head for a makeshift camp where scores of medics are tending to the wounded or setting aside the dead. I howl a few times, calling the remaining werewolves to my side. When sixteen—all that appear to be left—are gathered around me, I march to a large, vacant tent. Timas joins us along the way, responding to my howls as the werewolves did. He looks drained, and he’s covered in blood splatters, but he doesn’t seem to have been injured. Some soldiers try to waylay us to ask for instructions, but I wave them aside, telling them I’ll confer with them shortly.
We sink into chairs in the tent and I look around wearily. Larry isn’t one of the sixteen werewolves, and there’s no sign of Prae Athim either.
“If you’re looking for Prae, she’s dead,” Timas says before I ask. “She perished trying to protect a wounded werewolf. I cut her head off and incinerated it, so she won’t be coming back as a zombie.”
I process the news, then ask, “What about Larry?”
Nobody answers. I doubt if anyone cares. To be honest, I find it hard to work up much sympathy either, not when so many thousands have been killed. Sorry, Larry. I hope you died well, but tough luck if you didn’t.
“What now?” Kirilli asks. I’ve never seen him look so miserable, but it’s not the type of self-pitying misery he once wallowed in. He’s sad because of what he’s seen.
“We try to pen them in,” I sigh. “Hit them with all the missiles we can. Drench the land around the tunnel with a circle of gasoline. Light it when they try to push out—fire will kill a lot of them if we add magic to the flames. Establish a perimeter of mages. Fly in volunteers, test them for magic, set new mages to work with the others. Make another assault on the lodestone when we have support.”
“How far can they travel if they break through?” Kirilli asks. “On the ship, they were confined by a bubble of magic. Is there a similar bubble here?”
“No,” Kernel says. “The energy from this tunnel streams out freely. There’s a limit to its reach, but that might be a few hundred miles in all directions.”
“Then we need to evacuate everyone within a two-hundred-mile radius,” Shark says. “I’ll talk with whoever’s in charge, set soldiers on the job, turn this into a no-man’s land.”
“You don’t understand,” Kernel says. “We can’t control this.”
“You just said there were limits,” Shark growls.
“To this tunnel, yes,” Kernel snaps. “But there are more powerful lodestones. I’m sure they’ll open a new tunnel soon, one of unlimited energy. The demons who cross will be able to go anywhere. And masters will be free to cross too, hundreds of demons as strong as Lord Loss, if not stronger.”
“Can’t we stop it before it opens?” I ask.
Kernel tuts. “I don’t have a magic wand. I can sense a tunnel as it’s opening, usually in advance. We can be on the scene within minutes, but what if they open two at the same time? Three? More? Demon masters will establish a toehold. If we weren’t able to break through the defenses of this mediocre lot, what sort of hope do we stand when we’re up against the real deal?”
There’s a long silence. Slowly, each of them turns to look at me, placing the burden on my shoulders, leaving me to make the fatal call. I don’t blame them. I’d pass the buck too, if I could. But if the buck has to stop here, so be it.
“Get your soldiers to move out the survivors,” I tell Shark, “then come back. We’ll rest up. Kernel will watch for tunnels. When another like this one is due to open, we’ll contact those close to it and give the order to retreat. There’s no point fighting the stronger demons. We’ll tell everyone to run. The fast will survive. The slow…” I shake my head.
“We’re not going to try and help them?” Kirilli whispers.
“We’ll save ourselves.”
“For…?” Shark asks.
“The big guys.” I crack my knuckles. “That’s my plan. We ignore the smaller, weaker tunnels. We summon the most powerful Disciples and mages, then wait. When a permanent tunnel opens, through which demon masters can cross, we hit with everything we have. If we close it, we relax and wait for the next one, then go through it all again. If we fail, there’s no plan B. We triumph or perish.”
“Our last stand,” Timas murmurs.
“It’s come to that?” Shark asks quietly.
“Good!” he booms, thrusting himself out of his chair. “I hate pussyfooting around. I’ll pass on the word, then grab some shut-eye. Make sure you call me in time for the big show—I don’t want to miss this one.”
Then he strides out of the tent, leaving the rest of us to smile ruefully, wait nervously, and prepare as best we can for the end of the world.
FOUR days of waiting. We’re all restless and itching to go into battle. It would be easier to join one of the many wars raging around the globe than sit here and twiddle our thumbs. But as bloody as the battles are—we see and hear all about them on the constant news reports—they fall short of the apocalyptic mark. Six tunnels have been opened, but all are limited, and though millions of people have fallen to the demon invaders, the world struggles on.
I spend most of the time with my werewolves. I prefer their company to that of humans. I don’t have to think when I’m with my wolfen pack, merely growl every so often to keep them in line. I lead them on occasional forays into demon-controlled territory, so they can pull out a few zombies to snack on. But apart from those welcome diversions, we mostly rest from the sun in a tent, relax beneath the moon at night, and pant and scratch a lot.
I don’t have much contact with the others. I’ve seen Shark and Timas going from one meeting to another with a variety of politicians and army officers. They’re putting some sort of emergency campaign together, acting like we have a plan, trying to keep panic to a minimum.
Kernel and Kirilli have gathered an army of mages and Disciples. They’ve two hundred or so lined up and ready for action. Many refused to answer their call, preferring to fight the demons who’ve already crossed, defending areas and people close to their hearts. Kernel and the ex–stage magician run the volunteers ragged, testing them in every way possible, toughening and sharpening them for the mother of all battles. I don’t think it will make any real difference, but if it keeps them occupied, I guess it serves a purpose.
Finally, when I’m about to go stir-crazy, Kernel sticks his head inside my tent. “It’s time.”
I snap to attention immediately. “A new tunnel’s opening?”
“Yes. Not too far from where you used to live. On the coast.”
“It’s the big one?”
He nods soberly. “Massive. It hasn’t opened yet, but already the lights are going crazy, even from this distance.”
“Tell the others,” I mutter, the many hairs on the back of my neck rising. “And Kernel?” He stops and looks back. “It’s been nice knowing you.”