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|Hell's Heroes(The Demonata #10) by Darren Shan|
“Naughty Grubitsch,” he teases. “You should play fair. But you always had a problem doing that, didn’t you? On the chessboards… in Slawter… in the cave where your brother died. You never had the courage to face me honestly.”
I bellow in answer, becoming more of a werewolf, searching for the strength to break free of his hold. All of a sudden he releases me and I drop to the ground. As I lunge back to my feet, I spot Bec repelling my wolfen pack with ease, slitting their throats, setting them afire, swatting them aside like flies. Shadowy tendrils snake from her in all directions and attack the humans behind the werewolves. The shadows only have to brush softly against the cheeks or chests of most of the mages. At a single touch they topple, eyes freezing, skin turning a grey shade, dead before they hit the ground. With each murder, Bec grows stronger as Death absorbs the souls of the slain.
“Kernel!” I bellow, looking for him in the middle of the madness.
“Here,” he calls, stepping forward. As I run to him, Lord Loss waves a hand at the roof of the cave. Stalactites drop from overhead. They pierce the skulls of several mages around me. I could protect myself with a shield, but instead I swipe the deadly pins aside in a display of contempt.
Moments later I’m standing beside Kernel. Our eyes meet and we nod briefly. I clutch him to me with a thick arm and level the other at Lord Loss. As magic explodes within Kernel and joins with mine, I let it channel through my fingers, and streaks of black energy hiss through the air and strike Lord Loss with the force of a volcano, slamming him back against the wall of the cave.
Lord Loss screeches as we pulp him with the power of the Kah-Gash. We draw energy from all around, even from the tunnel of the Demonata. Hope blooms for the first time in ages. Lord Loss is writhing beneath our touch. If we can do this to one so strong, we can do it to others. Maybe this isn’t our last stand. It might be only the first step forward to a new, demon-free future.
“The tunnel,” Kernel says through chattering teeth—like me, he’s struggling to hold himself together. The Kah-Gash wants to break free of our bodies and become a sheer force of energy. “We have to close it. Forget about Lord Loss.”
“Never,” I growl, then smile savagely. “But he can wait a while.” Closing my fingers into a fist, I sever the lines of energy streaming from them. The demon master slumps to the ground, landing in a sorry-looking heap, no longer able to float with the dreadful majesty that’s proved so impressive in the past.
I face the tunnel to the demon universe. The monsters within are almost at the opening. Their faces are twisted with rage and loathing. They’ve seen what we’ve done to Lord Loss. They feel our power. They know we’re going to thwart their plans.
I laugh and point at the rock. Drawing power from the tunnel, I direct it back, willing the walls to grind shut, the rock to crumble, the tunnel to disintegrate. The fleshy walls inside the mouth vibrate. The veins throb wildly. Some explode. The demons gibber wildly as blood rains down on them. To come this close to victory, only to be denied at the last moment… excruciating!
Their demented fury delights me. Taking a step closer, I draw yet more power from the universe on the other side of the tunnel. As delicious as this moment is, I can’t make it last. It’s time to end this battle and move on to the next. We need never be afraid of these creeps again, not as long as Kernel and I are…
Power drains from my fingers as swiftly as it filled them. With a confused cry, my head whips round. Bec is behind me, smirking. Her right hand rests on Kernel’s shoulder and she’s drawing power from him, and from me through Kernel.
“Stop!” I roar, throwing a punch at her.
She halts my giant paw with a glance, her smile widening, waves of shadows crackling across her pale cheeks. “We’re part of the same weapon, Grubbs,” she says. “You can’t unleash the Kah-Gash without my permission.”
“I’m the trigger,” I yell. “I can do whatever the hell I like.”
I try sapping power from her, as she has from us. But I can’t. The flow is one way. I can draw more energy from the air—and I do—but a third of it flows into Bec as soon as I absorb it. And while I’m fighting the shadow-wrapped leech of a girl, I can’t focus on anything else.
“Kill her!” Kernel screams, kicking out at Bec. He manages to knock her hand away, but the draining flow continues.
I turn on Bec and bare my fangs. Shadows leap from around her and dart at my eyes, momentarily blinding me. Several strands snake down my throat and I gag. Whirling away from the priestess, I spit out shadows and swipe them from my face. Kernel’s shaken from my grip and goes skidding across the floor.
Bec steps in front of the tunnel and spreads her arms. “Come to me!” she cries. I think she’s calling Lord Loss, and my eyes fix on the demon master. He’s dragged himself back to his knees, but he doesn’t look ready to rejoin the fighting.
Then I realize it’s not Lord Loss she’s hailing. It’s the others, separated from us by the thinnest of magical veils. Before I can react, a gush of even hotter air washes through the cave. As my heart sinks, the tunnel opens and a score of demons even more powerful than Lord Loss slither from their realm into ours.
THE demon masters are no larger or fiercer in appearance than most of the lesser monsters I’ve fought and killed. But their power sets the air in the cave throbbing, and the scale of it stuns me. They’re way stronger than Lord Loss. I realize, as they rise and look upon us with malevolent glee, that the heartless, chess-obsessed beast is only a minor master. I thought he was a king among demons, the pinnacle of all we’d ever have to face. But in comparison with this lot, he’s a novice.
As more slide into view, eager to be in on the killing, the Demonata set to work on the mages, Disciples, and werewolves. They butcher arrogantly, at their leisure, picking off individuals and crushing them like balls of paper, relishing their agony. These masters could wipe out everyone with the flick of a wrist, but they want to play with us first.
I hurl myself at Kernel and link with him. He’s trembling with shock, and in his eyes I see the reflection of a similarly fearful look on my own face. But I ignore the terror and focus. Drawing power from the air again, I unleash a bolt of energy at one of the masters, a green, bulbous, putrid thing, like a leech gone horribly wrong. I hit it with more power than I struck Lord Loss with. But it isn’t even nudged sideways by the blast. It glances at me with a small, pink eye and sneers.
“Oh, hell,” Kernel moans.
“More power,” I snarl. “We’re the Kah-Gash. We can take this lot. We just need more—”
“No,” Kernel says, looking around. “We need Bec.”
She’s by Lord Loss’s side, helping him. He’s hovering again. He looks furious, but shameful too. He glares enviously at the other masters. Earth has always been his private playground. He was the strongest demon who could cross, a true terror for us to tremble before. Now he’s been overshadowed by these new, stronger creatures. He knew this would happen—it’s what he worked to bring about—but that doesn’t make his loss of status any easier to bear.
A frantic Kirilli goes up against one of the masters. He shoots playing cards at it. They pierce the demon’s flesh and explode beneath its skin. Kirilli’s screaming hatefully, fearfully, but with excitement too. He thinks he can beat this thing.
“Kovacs, you nutter!” I roar. “Get away from there. You can’t—”
“I’ve got it!” he screeches, unleashing a flurry of cards, face bright red from the heat and adrenaline. “This baby’s going down. It should have known better than to mess with—”
The cards halt, quiver a moment, then join and form a blade. Before Kirilli spots the danger, the blade slices across him, severing his head from his body. His head flies high into the air, and a startled expression creases his features. As he watches, still conscious, the blade splits into a scissorlike mechanism and chops his head up into halves, then quarters, then eighths. Kirilli’s arms twitch for a second or two. Then his body collapses and bits of his head and brains rain down upon it.
“Tah-dah!” I croak miserably, eyes surprisingly welling with tears.
“That’s the way to go,” Shark yells, leaping over the mess that was once Kirilli Kovacs. He lands by our side, wipes blood from his face, and grins ghoulishly. “What’s the plan, boys? How do we cream these sons of hell spawn and daughters of demon dung?”
“We don’t,” Kernel says sullenly, wincing at the screams of the dying.
“They’re too powerful,” I whisper, staring horror-struck at the carnage.
Shark frowns, then slaps us with the three fingers of his right hand. “Enough of that crap. If they defeat us, fine, but we won’t give up. Figure out a way to beat this lot or die fighting. But don’t stand here like fools, waiting to be fried.”
With a challenging cry, he bounds away and lands on the head of a scabby demon with dozens of crablike pincers. Shark rips off a few of the pincers and jabs at the monster’s eyes. He punctures a couple, but the demon has several more. With a snort, it turns its head and blows a sheet of mucus over him. Shark pulls a disgusted face, tries to wipe the snot away, then screams as the snot burns through his flesh and bones.
I try to save the ex-soldier, extending my magic to him, working to nullify the acidic snot. But the demon blocks my attempt and chortles sadistically as Shark splatters into hundreds of pieces, all of which dissolve away to a gooey mess within seconds.
I stare at Shark’s remains, dazed that this can be happening so swiftly, so effortlessly. I thought if we failed, we’d go down valiantly after a brutal, gallant fight. But we’re being squashed like ants. This is ridiculous. When did the rules change and why did nobody warn us?
“Bec,” Kernel growls, gripping my hand tightly. “We have to grab her.”
“What for?” I wheeze, face ashen, watching the demons rip the Disciples and the mages to pieces. I see the last of the werewolves die in howling torment. One of the demons picks up its carcass and wiggles it around like a finger puppet.
“We can still destroy the tunnel,” Kernel hisses.
I stare at him. I’m supposed to be the one with the never-say-die attitude. When I became a wolfen half-human, I put caution aside and became a one-dimensional beast who didn’t know the meaning of surrender. I should be the guy coming out with crazy, suicidal plans. But I’m frozen in place, more vulnerable and helpless than I ever was before.
“If we push Bec into the mouth of the tunnel, we can explode her and use the force of the explosion to shatter the rock,” Kernel continues, impossibly composed under the circumstances. “We might die too, but at least we’ll buy the world some time. And maybe we can protect ourselves from the blast, live to fight another day.” He shrugs. “Either way, it’s our only hope.”
I nod slowly, then with more determination, regaining control. “Aye,” I grunt, mimicking the dead Beranabus. “And maybe there aren’t any lodestones as strong as this one. If we drive this lot back, they might never be able to cross again.”
We share a look that says, “Riiiiiiight!”
Kernel grins. “To the death, Master Grady?”
“To the death, Master Fleck,” I grin back.
Then we both say together, “But not ours!”
Laughing, we dart across the cave, dodging the warring humans and demons. Kernel’s feet slip in the blood and slime that covers the floor, but my claws and hairy soles are suited to gripping. I steady him and we push on at a good pace.
Bec spots us closing in on her and smiles, spreading her arms as if welcoming us home after a lengthy absence. Lord Loss straightens beside her and snarls. “You should not dare—” he begins, but we’re on them before he gets any further.
I leap, using all the power in my legs, and smash into Lord Loss, sending him hurtling against the wall of the cave again. Bec tuts and turns to deal with me. She considers me the prime threat and studies me warily, forgetting about the other third of the Kah-Gash.
Kernel takes advantage of Bec’s momentary lapse. He sneaks up behind her and sends volts of magic frying through her brain. She cries out and jerks away from him, arms, legs, and head spasming madly. Lord Loss gasps with concern and reaches for her. I drive a hairy elbow into his ugly face, then fall on Bec and pound her as if she was a human drum. I could pop her head like a grape if I tried, but I don’t want her dead. Not yet.
The shadows around Bec respond sluggishly, feebly whipping at Kernel and me, nowhere near as effective as they were before. It seems Death limited itself by uniting with Bec. As part of the girl, it suffers if she does. It can’t defend itself as ably as it could when it had a body of its own.
Lord Loss hisses savagely and throws himself at us, arms lashing out, snakes darting from his chest, spitting venom as they fly at our faces. One catches my left eye and sinks its fangs in. My eye bursts and liquid soaks my cheek. I roar loud enough to shake a house. I never thought losing an eye could be so traumatic. No wonder Kernel hated me so much after I put him through twin doses of this.
Kernel tries his old vomiting trick, hitting Lord Loss with a spray of puke that turns to acid, like the snot that finished off Shark. But the demon master has seen Kernel in action before, and he’s prepared. He freezes the vomit and it falls away in a thin, brittle sheet, to shatter on the floor.
But the vomit distracts the heartless monster and buys us a couple of seconds. Steeling myself against the pain, fighting the disorientation, I grab Bec and lob her at the mouth of the tunnel. As she lands at the base of the lodestone, I leap after her. Kernel scurries along behind me, unleashing bursts of energy at Lord Loss to slow him down.