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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
He smiles bitterly. “No, it hasn’t,” he says, and goes to summon the troops, leaving me to ready the werewolves for what will probably be our final fight.
Kernel creates a window of orange light and we step through onto a grassy cliff. The tunnel is being opened in a cave beneath, but we wanted to get all of our troops assembled on this side before facing our foes. I stride to the edge of the cliff as the rest of the mages, Disciples, and werewolves cross in orderly file. We didn’t bother bringing soldiers—they couldn’t do anything against the more powerful Demonata.
It’s a wild stretch of coastline, the water dashing against the rocks far below, a sharp drop to a quick, messy death. Rain falls steadily and winds rip in off the ocean, which stretches as far as I can see. The land is barren all around. I doubt if anyone ever lived in this beautiful but desolate spot.
I feel magic building in the air. It’s almost the same as being in the demon universe. I let animal-shaped streams of steam trickle from my fingertips and watch as they dissolve in the rain. There are thudding vibrations from deep underfoot, as if goblins or trolls were hammering drums in the bowels of the earth, in preparation for battle.
Shark and Timas have been holding a hushed conversation. Now they move away from the cliff and Timas takes up position, partially sheltered behind a jutting rock. He’s brought a stack of laptops with him and quickly sets them up. Shark stabs a few umbrellas into the earth and opens them over the technical genius to provide him with cover. Curious, I amble across to see what they’re up to.
“This isn’t the time for video games.”
Timas looks at me gravely. “No game.”
“We had an interesting debate,” Shark grunts.
“What sort of a debate?” I frown.
“About the future of the planet and what happens if we lose today.”
“And?” I cast a troubled eye over the laptops.
“My way of reckoning,” Shark says thickly, “is if we get creamed, the people of Earth are better off dead than left to the vicious devices of the Demonata. We got clearance from most of the relevant authorities, but it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d objected. Timas could have cracked the security codes.”
“Maybe,” Timas mutters. “Not definitely. It would have been an intriguing challenge, but one that it is better not to have to face.”
“What are you talking about?” I snap.
Shark taps a small camera set in the shoulder of his uniform. “Several of us are wearing cameras like this. Timas will be watching. If the demons get the better of us, he has orders to press the button.”
“The nuclear button,” Timas says softly.
I gape at him, then at the grim-faced Shark. “Are you trying to wind me up?”
“Don’t be a child,” Shark snarls. “You said it yourself—this is our last stand. If we fall, the planet falls. I’d rather it fell to us than them. Quicker, cleaner, more humane. And we might take some of them with us.”
“But…” My head spins. Maybe this is what Juni foresaw. Perhaps Timas won’t be able to push the button, and the task will fall to me, and that’s how I’ll destroy the world.
“What’s the alternative?” Shark asks. “Let the demons run free, torture and kill at their leisure, make slaves of those they choose to spare? We saw what happens to prisoners in Lord Loss’s castle. Do you want your friend Bo Kooniart to have to suffer that again?”
“We don’t have the right to make this call,” I whisper.
“Of course we do,” Shark says. “But even so, we ran it by the watchmen of the nuclear community. There were a lot of dissenters, but a few gave us the green light, enough to make our job a formality. Timas is hooked up to bases across the world. If we run foul of the demon army, he’ll bring this planet crashing down around us. There won’t be a cinder ball left by the time he’s finished. Let’s see the Demonata get a kick out of that!”
I stare from Shark to Timas, then nod slowly. “But only if we definitely fail,” I tell Timas. “Don’t press any buttons just because you think we’re going to lose. As long as one of us stands, keep your finger clear. Understand?”
“Affirmative,” Timas says, then sticks out an arm. As we shake hands, he says, “Give them hell, Grubbs.”
“And all the toppings,” I promise, then turn my back on the Pied Piper of nuclear destruction and pray he isn’t called upon to play the world to its doom.
Kernel’s waiting for me. “It’s open,” he says simply.
“How do we get down?” I ask.
“There’s a tunnel beneath the waterline. We jump and swim.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I sneer. “You march bravely into a lion’s den—you don’t swim to it.”
“You have a better suggestion?” he responds icily.
I stroll to the edge of the cliff. It’s a straight drop to where the waves roll in and crash against the base. The easiest way, as Kernel suggested, would be to drop and use magic to protect ourselves. Under normal circumstances, that would be our only option. But there’s so much energy in the air, we can be creative, like in the demon universe.
The memory of an old story comes to mind and I grin. Raising a hand, I gesture to the water below. It begins to bubble and spit. Then, as curious Disciples and mages gather around me, the waves part and an avenue opens, a stretch of dry land at the foot of the cliff, surrounded by towering walls of water.
“Hark at the modern-day Moses,” Kirilli says jealously. “If I could have done that in my act, I’d have been bigger than David Copperfield.”
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” I drawl, then point my other hand at the cliff. With a low, rumbling sound, a thick chunk of rock a hundred feet to my right grinds out of the wall, forming a step twenty-five feet long, ten feet wide, a foot high. I cock a finger, and another chunk of rock slides out of the wall just beneath it, another beneath that, and so on. A staircase swiftly forms, reaching all the way down to the ocean floor.
“Will they hold?” Kirilli asks, eyeing the steps nervously.
“Only one way to find out,” I grin, then jump off the cliff and land on a step ten feet below. It doesn’t even shudder. “Hurry up,” I call to the others. “Last one down’s a rotten egg.”
They laugh, then trail down the staircase after me to the cave where the monsters are lying in wait.
THE MISSING LINK
WE creep down the stairs. Nerves fray the farther we descend. I sense a few of the mages lose their resolve and retreat. I don’t pause to berate them. This isn’t a place for the weak. We’re better off without cowards.
That’s harsh, the voice of the Kah-Gash murmurs. It’s not so long ago that you would have run too.
“Here for the big party?” I grunt cynically. “You must be loving this.”
What makes you think that? It sounds genuinely surprised.
“This is what you want, isn’t it, an excuse to unleash your full power and destroy the human universe?”
If I wanted that, the Kah-Gash says witheringly, I would have made it happen a long time ago. I wouldn’t need to wait for an excuse.
“You mean you want to destroy the demon universe?” I frown.
The Kah-Gash sighs. You still don’t understand. I don’t want anything. When there was only one universe, I had a natural urge to keep it as it was. Since it splintered, I have simply enjoyed the experience of being. I have no vested interest in the result of the battle about to take place. I’m merely a curious observer.
“But Kernel said you maneuvered us into place. According to the Old Creatures, you kept Bec’s soul intact when her body died. You chose to inhabit three humans at the same time. You set this up.”
Guilty, the Kah-Gash chuckles. But it was the fascination of watching what happens that motivated me. I have no yearning for one outcome over another.
“So will you help or hinder us?” I press.
Neither, the Kah-Gash says.
“In that case, shut up,” I snarl.
As you wish, the Kah-Gash whispers, and falls silent.
“Slow up, big guy,” Shark says, tapping my shoulder. I glance back at him. He points to a spot behind us—the mouth of a tunnel. “That’s the way to the cave. You missed it. I guess your thoughts were elsewhere.”
I smile ruefully. “You could say that.”
Kernel and Kirilli are waiting on the step by the opening in the cliff face. The Disciples who have come with us are on the steps above, flanked by my pack of werewolves. The mages are scattered across the steps behind. Most are trembling. A few are physically sick. But all hold. There’ll be no more deserters today. Those who remain are in this until the awful, apocalyptic end.
“A few words, perhaps?” Kernel mutters.
I shrug, then face my troops and roar, “Let’s kill some demons!”
With a relieved cheer—I don’t think anyone was in the mood for a long speech—the mages, werewolves, and Disciples sweep after me into the tunnel. Bidding farewell to sunlight and the world of humanity, we enter the demon-riddled den.
The tunnel is narrow but eight feet high. The floor is damp and littered with fish and other creatures of the sea, a few of which still flop or slither about. It’s hot, the heat coming from the cave ahead of us. It’s a dry, unnatural warmth that I’ve felt many times before, always in the presence of demons.
Kernel is beside me. He’s created a ball of light, which trails us like a faithful hound. His sharp blue eyes have lost their crazed sheen. He looks nervous now.
“Stick close to me,” I tell him. “We stand a chance if we fight together. Don’t hold anything back. We can’t worry about the Kah-Gash betraying us. We have to throw everything we can at this lot.”
“What about Bec?” Kernel asks. “Do we kill her or try to link up?”
“There’s no way we can subdue her, make her power work for us?”
I grimace. “We can try, but I’m not holding out much hope.”
“I wish Beranabus was here,” Kernel sighs.
“He couldn’t make much difference if he was. It’s you and me now. The others are for show, to make us feel like we’re not alone. But we are. It all boils down to how much damage we can wreak with two-thirds of the power of the Kah-Gash.”
“Do you think it will be enough?” Kernel asks.
“We’re about to find out,” I mutter, and with a few long strides I step into the cave of the Demonata.
It’s massive, far bigger than I imagined. There are large stone pillars set in a ring around it, a few dozen or more. One of the larger stones serves as the mouth of the tunnel to the demon universe. A human—I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman—has joined with it, and I see body parts mixed in with the rock. The tunnel stretches far behind, a mix of stone, flesh, and guts, veins running along the sides like railway lines on a map. Enormous demons lurk within, poised to cross. I catch glimpses of tendrils and fangs. They’re crawling through the tunnel, which is still widening. It isn’t ready to grant them access to this world yet, but in a short while it will stabilize and they’ll pop out like mutant babies from a monstrous womb.
On this side of the divide, Lord Loss awaits us. Because he once hosted Bec’s part of the Kah-Gash, he can cross freely between universes. He bobs up and down in the air close to the rock, extended arms waving gently, snakes hissing softly in the hole where his heart should be. His dark red eyes are dilated, and his lips turn down in a sad frown.
Beside him, shrouded in shadows, stands Bec. She’s wearing a shawl of webs that falls to just beneath her knees. The small girl looks even more of a threat than Lord Loss, a result of the strands of shadows revolving around her and the dark, inhuman swirls in her eyes.
“So we come to this,” Lord Loss murmurs as the rest of our troops spill into the cave and fan out.
“One chance, Bec,” I growl, ignoring the demon master. “Come back to us and we’ll forgive you. Stand against us and you’ll die along with the rest of the scum.”
“You know nothing of the ways of Death,” Bec says quietly. “I cannot die. Even if you destroyed my body, my soul would thrive. Death will claim you today and all who come with you. And I will serve as the vessel through which it operates.”
“It’s not too late to change your mind,” Kernel says, his voice cracking.
“Of course it is,” Bec says with a thin smile.
“Then let’s finish this.” I howl at my werewolves and they lunge at Bec. I focus on Lord Loss. As I race towards him, roaring madly, the mages and the Disciples crowd after me, each making the choice whether to target the girl or the demon.
As I close in on Lord Loss, I leap into the air and grab hold of the cold, clammy skin around his throat. I dig my fingers in, snarling into his face, closer to him than I’ve ever been. He laughs as my thumbs search for his vocal cords and find only doughy flesh. His arms whip around me, the snakes in his chest bite for my heart, and we whirl through the air as if dancing.
“You cannot know how I have longed for this moment,” Lord Loss purrs, his mouth no more than an inch from my left ear. “I hate you as I have hated no other human. Your death will afford me more pleasure than—”
I send a ball of energy shooting through the demon’s chin and into his brain. Fire flares behind his eyes, and his flesh turns an ugly purple color. With a gasp, he half releases me and shakes his head. Loosening a hand, I aim for his eyes, but he catches me by the wrist and bends it back, tutting mockingly. His eyes and flesh regain their normal color and he smiles as I fail to unleash another bolt.