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Chapter 18. WELCOME HOME


Raz leads me through the sub-universe of lights for the last time, then bids me a quick farewell and propels me forward. Before I can yell goodbye, I'm thrust through a window and straight into the middle of a nightmarish war. No time to gather my senses. I have to adapt immediately or die.

I'm in the middle of a city. Blood and corpses everywhere. The air's thick with the scent of demons, and also with the buzz of magic, which I swiftly tap into. I try to erect a shield around myself but something clatters into me before I can complete it. A beast rolls with me to the ground and comes up spitting. It's a wolfish creature, long fangs, claws the size of butcher's knives, hot yellow eyes. It turns, faces me, snarls-then leaps.

I raise my hands to repel the monster, but instead of attacking me, it jumps over my head and tears into something behind, howling with bloodthirsty delight. Whirling, I spot the wolfish beast battling a demon. The wolf rips at the demon's ribcage, fangs snapping in search of guts.

Wary and confused, I cast my gaze around. There are more wolfen animals on the street and they're all fighting demons. Soldiers are at work too, tackling the demonic invaders, showering them with bullets. They can't kill the Demonata but they can injure, disrupt, and stall them.

There's a burst of magic to my right. I spot a small girl rounding on a demon, frying it with magic until its head explodes and its brains splatter the wall behind it. I'm so pleased to see a familiar face, I forget all about Raz's warning and call enthusiastically, "Bec!"

She looks up. Her eyes widen with shock, then her lips spread into a smile. She yells something, but as she does, one of the wolf-like beasts wraps its arms around me and howls into my ear, obscuring all other sounds.

I lash at the creature, trying to wriggle free, gathering my energy to fight back. Before I can, the beast laughs and says, "Surely you recognize me."

I place the voice instantly but can't believe it. I stare at the creature. He's two or three feet taller than when I last saw him, and his face is warped-dark skin, lots of blood vessels, tufts of wiry ginger hair, a yellow tinge to his eyes, mouth bigger, teeth sharper. His body is lacerated with cuts and bruises. But it's definitely-

"Grubbs!" I roar. "What the hell's happened? You look like a werewolf."

"I am," he chuckles. "That's my pack." He waves a hairy hand at the wolves. His fingers are twisted and bulging, the nails more like claws. He could probably pop my head one-handed.

"But... how... what...?"

"I'll deal with this group first and explain later," he growls, tugging at the waist of his pants. They only just fit him. He's naked otherwise, chest exposed, rippling with muscles. He's stained with blood-different colors, so I know it's demon blood, not his own. Some of the stains are fresh, dripping from his skin and soaking into his hair. But others are caked in. He's been in the wars since we parted, and he looks like he's been loving every moment.

As Grubbs pounds away to attack a group of vicious demons, I put my questions on hold and focus on how best I can help. It's a dirty, messy battle. Normally demons cross singly or in small groups. But there are dozens running riot here. This is no ordinary crossing. It's the work of a powerful, organized, intelligent foe.

As the battle rages around me, I complete my shield, then focus on the patches of light in the air. A quick check reveals two windows set a few hundred feet from each other. Demons are pouring through both. That suits me perfectly. I might not be a great fighter, but I can turn the tide of this battle single-handed.

Picking a path through the warring forces, I hurry to the nearest window. It's a large pink panel. Ignoring the demons spilling out of it, protected by my shield, I thrust my hands into the center of the panel and pull at the patches. Within seconds the window pulses, tears apart, then snaps out of existence.

The demons closest to me come alert to the threat I pose. If I can shut down the second window they'll be stranded, and demons can't survive long on this world. Screeching for support, they hurl themselves at me. For a split second I think I'm doomed. But then the road explodes at my feet, scattering the converging demons. As they scream, blinded and injured by the flying debris, sheets of fire drop on them from the air, setting them ablaze, sending them thrashing away madly.

I look for my savior and find two angels, Bec and Meera Flame, standing side by side, hands raised, energy flowing through them, wreaking havoc. Meera's always been a stunner, but she looks more beautiful than ever now, and Bec is no strain on the eyes either. Having said that, I'd probably think anyone who saved my life was gorgeous-even Grubbs!

"Come with me," I yell at them and press towards the second window. Meera and Bec back me up, blasting the demons ahead of me, calling for support from the soldiers and werewolves.

The smarter demons realize they're fighting a lost cause. Cursing foully, they dash through the window to the safety of their own universe, driving back those who were trying to cross. More break for the window but get tangled up with each other or waylaid by our forces. Panic sets in. The street echoes with the hysterical wails of monsters who know they don't have long to live.

A minute later I'm ripping apart the window, and once it dissolves the demons are finished. As magic drains from the air, some of the weaker specimens collapse and rot. The others battle on hatefully, wanting to kill more humans before they die. But it's hopeless. The bullets from the soldiers' guns rip them to shreds, and without the aid of magic they have no way of putting their forms back together. They're torn to pieces. Soon only humans and werewolves are standing. We laugh and cheer, punch the air with fists, then hurry to embrace one another. We might be standing ankle-deep in rancid guts, blood, and other vile juices, surrounded by corpses, but we're standing victorious-and that feels good!

Grubbs wants to press on as soon as the danger's been averted. The Demonata and their twisted, human mages have been working flat-out, crossing in waves. This is the fifth city Grubbs and Bec have defended in less than three days. And they've already received word of a planned sixth crossing. Grubbs is eager to get there as swiftly as possible, to stop the mage if he can, or prepare for the demons if not.

"Do you know when the window will open?" I ask.

"Within the next thirty-six hours."

"No sooner than a day?"

"No."

"Then what's the rush?"

"It's on the other side of the globe," he growls. "By the time we get to the airport, load everyone up, make the flight, roll off at the other end..."

"You don't have to do that anymore," I tut. "I'll open a window and we can be there in a matter of minutes."

"Oh. I forgot." He squints. "But the mage..."

"As soon as we get there, I'll locate the forming window and we'll put a stop to it. Let's rest awhile. You all look beat. We can afford to take a day off now that I'm back on the scene."

"Showoff," Grubbs grunts, but he can't hide a grin.

Teams move in to clean up. I was expecting hysteria, crowds of terrified onlookers, confusion and chaos. But it all runs smoothly. Grubbs explains that the world has woken up to the existence of demons. They've attacked five densely populated cities in swift succession. Even though they've been driven off each time, thousands have been killed, cities torn apart, in full view of camera crews.

The Disciples kept the war with the Demonata quiet for a long time, with highly placed allies in most of the major news agencies and governments. But it's no longer possible to cover up. The world knows about demons now, and while panic has swept the globe, most people are behaving sensibly and heeding the advice of the Disciples. They're evacuating targeted cities quickly and calmly, or staying indoors if they can't get out in time. Volunteers have flocked to recruiting centers. Disciples test for mages each time a window opens. Those with no magical ability are working with soldiers, doctors and nurses, street cleaners, electricians, plumbers... rallying to the call, doing all they can to restore order and sweep up after an attack so that life can continue as normal.

While Grubbs gathers his pack of werewolves-there were thirty-seven to start with, but only sixteen remain-and takes them off to their holding pens, I retire to a deserted hotel with Bec, Meera, and a guy in a tattered stage-magician's outfit. It's ripped all over, revealing more than it conceals, and is caked with dirt and blood. But he wears it with pride, knotting the strips of cloth around himself. His fingers (two on his left hand are missing) tremble as he ties the knots. He looks like a man who's only just holding himself together.

A frightened manager-but one who stayed when all else fled-shows us up to the hotel's finest suite. He treats us like celebrities, takes our orders, promises to do his best to process them promptly, and leaves us to collapse into chairs (Meera claims the bed) and stare at each other in weary silence.

"This is Kirilli Kovacs," Bec finally says, introducing me to the guy in the magician's costume. "He's a Disciple."

Kirilli waves weakly. Blood is seeping through the bandage around the two missing fingers on his left hand, and also through the many bandages wrapped around his body. Bec sighs, rises, and limps across the room. She sets to work on healing the worst of Kirilli's wounds, drawing on the traces of magic that remain in the air. He studies her blankly while she works, like a child being cleaned by its mother.

"Where have you been?" Meera asks, then snaps her fingers at me before I can reply. "No. Let's eat, grab some sleep, and wait for Grubbs. We've got loads to tell you and I guess you've got lots to tell us too."

"More than you could ever imagine," I mutter.

"Can it wait for a few hours?" she asks and I shrug. "Great." Then, forgetting about the food, she drops back, shuts her eyes, and is snoring softly a minute later.

Grubbs joins us as the food's being wheeled in. He tucks into Meera's meal-nobody wants to wake her-and asks the manager to deliver more food in nine hours. Then we retreat to different corners of the suite and make ourselves comfortable. I use magic to help me sleep.

We rise nine hours later and feast on the waiting meal. Meera's especially ravenous. I thought Grubbs was a big eater, but she beats him hollow and is still chewing at strips of chicken long after the rest of us have set our plates aside.

We swap tales while we eat, and the stories continue long after we've finished munching. Grubbs and Meera tell me all that happened once he left us at the hospital. With Shark and a squad of soldiers, they went in pursuit of Prae Athim, the head of the Lambs, and tracked her to the appropriately named Wolf Island. A load of Grubbs's cousins had been genetically modified and bred, producing hundreds of savage, wolfen offspring. They were waiting for the trio on the island.

Juni Swan was also waiting. She drove them back and left them at the mercy of the werewolves. The plan was to get her hands on Grubbs's piece of the Kah-Gash and deliver it to her new master. The simplest way was to let the werewolves butcher him, then direct the piece into a form of her choosing when it soared free.

They'd have all perished, but Grubbs unleashed the werewolf within himself and took command of his hairy relatives. He turned the tables on their foes, and although Juni escaped, they killed her conspirators.

Grubbs is sullen when he describes his fight with Juni. He doesn't look anyone in the eye. He's clearly hiding something from us but I've no idea what.

Twelve of them hit the island. Prae Athim made it thirteen. But only Grubbs, Meera, Shark, and someone called Timas Brauss made it off, leaving Prae behind to look after the werewolves, except for the thirty-seven Grubbs brought with him-his own personal army.

"That's pretty much it," he grunts. "Shark's out of action for a while. Timas is busy elsewhere, looking in on Shark whenever he can. Meera and I linked up with Dervish, Bec, and Kirilli, and we've been fighting demons ever since."

"Where is Dervish?" I ask, anticipating the worst. "Is he..."

"...dead?" Grubbs snorts. "Hardly. I wanted to send him back to the demon universe-he'd live longer there-but he wants to stay and fight till he drops. He stood by us in the first two battles but he was wrecked afterwards. Now he's acting as a talent-spotting scout. He's on the edge of this city with thousands of people. When the window opened, he tested them for magical ability. He's come up with some decent mages at the last two stops. I hope he finds more this time. We could use them-I'm running out of werewolves."

Nobody seems bothered by Grubbs's appearance. He looks like something out of a horror movie, twisted and misshapen, picking bits of flesh from between his teeth and under his fingernails. But they're all treating him as if nothing's changed. I guess, in times as deadly as these, you can't worry too much about the looks of those who stand beside you.

But I don't like it. He's not just physically different. Something's changed inside him too. He's rougher than before, more accepting of violence and death. He reminds me of Beranabus, the way he callously wrote off human casualties, like he wasn't truly one of us. Raz told me to watch out for Bec, but I think Grubbs is the one I need to worry about.

I ask how Beranabus died. Bec answers, telling her story swiftly. They found Kirilli on the ship after they left me, then descended to the hold, where Juni was waiting. She used a lodestone to open a strange window, through which the Shadow crossed. As Bec fought it, she absorbed some of its memories and realized it was Death. She informed Beranabus and he sent them packing, staying behind to fight their shadowy foe and buy them time.

"He transformed," she whispers. "He let his demonic half take over. I think he meant to die, whether he won or lost. He wasn't sure he could change back once he set the demon free."

"Nobody can ever change back," Grubbs rumbles, scratching a cut on his chest, then licking flaky blood from his fingers.

Beranabus destroyed the lodestone, sending Death back to the universe of the Demonata. But the shadowy creature struck before it was whipped away, and the ancient magician died in the hold, left to be swallowed by the sea.

Bec, Dervish, Kirilli, and Sharmila made it back to the deck, fighting their way through an army of zombies. But they were trapped there, imprisoned by a barrier of magical energy as the ship sank.

"Sharmila sacrificed herself to save the rest of us," Bec says miserably. "She lay against the barrier and we exploded her, punching a hole through to safety." She stops, tears welling in her eyes.

"It should have been me," Kirilli says. He hasn't said much so far. Now when he speaks he keeps his head low, embarrassed. "I was the weakest. I ran when the others fought. I've served the Disciples well in a non-combative capacity, but I'm no hero. She should be here now, not me."

"You got that right," someone laughs, and when I look around I find Dervish standing behind me, smiling weakly. He looks even older than he did on the ship, frail, trembling, about two steps away from death. The six silver, purple-tipped spikes he grew on his head in the oasis are as impressive as ever, but apart from that he looks like a man on his last legs.

"Good to see you, old timer," I grin.

"You too," he says. "We thought you were zombie pat

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