logo
Share this:

Chapter 2. A WORD IN YOUR EAR


Beranabus unleashes a burst of magic, and the gazelle-shaped demon we've been chasing stops in its tracks. The beast turns and snarls at us. It has the head of a human baby. Opening its mouth, it wails. The noise increases sharply and blood trickles from my ears and nose. I use magic to mute the demon's cry. Beranabus and Grubbs do the same, and the three of us close in on the mewling monster.

When the demon realizes it can't harm us with its harpy-like wailing, it falls silent and its look of hatred changes to one of fear. It knows who we are and what we want.

I hang back while Beranabus tortures the creature. I have a problem with demons that model themselves after babies or young children. I can't bring myself to hurt them, even though I know they've only stolen their human attributes.

I was a lonely child. Driven by unhappiness, I unintentionally tapped into my powers, kidnapped a demon, and used magic to make it look like a baby. I convinced myself the changeling was my brother and I maintained the lie for ages. I was shattered when I learned the truth. Demons like this one make me think of my "brother" Art, and I go cold at the thought of harming them. Beranabus understands. He doesn't try to push me.

Grubbs rips off the demon's head. The baby-faced monster squeals with pain and terror but doesn't die. In this universe of magic, almost anything is possible. Physical dismemberment won't necessarily kill a demon. You need to use magic to finish it off.

Grubbs hates this life even more than I do. When I agreed to join Beranabus and devote myself to battling demons, I didn't have a better choice. My parents knew I wasn't normal, and though they loved me, they feared what I might do. I didn't have any friends. It was Beranabus or a life of isolation and loneliness.

Grubbs has an uncle who he loves like a father. He has lots of friends. He could have rejected his destiny. I'm not really sure why he didn't. Maybe it was the call of the Kah-Gash. Perhaps the weapon persuaded him to leave the human world and ride the demonic waves of this universe with Beranabus and me.

"The Shadow," Beranabus snarls, grabbing the baby's head from Grubbs and gouging out one of its snake-shaped eyes. "Tell us all you know and we'll let you go. Otherwise..." He moves his thumb over the creature's other eye.

The Shadow is our latest foe in a long line of monstrous opponents. Beranabus thinks it's our most dangerous enemy yet but I'm not worried. I've seen all manner of unimaginable demons. In the early days I thought each was invincible. Every time we went up against one, I was sure we were doomed. But we always got the better of the beasts, pinpointed their weak spots, defeated them with cunning if brute force failed.

I know it's dangerous to assume we'll overcome every demon we go up against, but I can't help thinking that way. I'm sure the Shadow will fall to us when we face it, just like all the others. It's simply a matter of time, patience, and violence.

Beranabus and Grubbs believe the Shadow is the herald of universal doom. They saw it in the cave when I was blind, a huge beast that seemed to be made from strips of shadow. They say it was deadlier than anything else we've fought. Maybe they're right. If I'd seen it, I might be trembling with fear too. But I don't think so. It's just another demon. We've fought and killed thousands of them since I joined Beranabus. How can this one be any different?

We're hunting a flock of sheep-like demons. Each boasts dozens of woolly heads dotted around its body, no eyes or ears, just large mouths full of sharp teeth. Beranabus hopes they know something about the Shadow, but I think he's scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The Shadow is as elusive as the name we've given it suggests. We've learned almost nothing of the creature in all the time we've been trying to track it. We know it's gathering an army of demons, that it's promised to wipe out mankind and restore the universe to its original condition (whatever that means), but everything else about it is a mystery.

These minor demons-easy pickings for stronger members of the Demonata-won't provide us with any clues. We're wasting our time, as we've wasted it on so many worlds. We'll torture them, kill a few, then move on, no wiser than when we stepped through the window and set off in chase of the howling beasts.

As we close in on the flock, I sense a throbbing in the air nearby and draw to a halt.

"Come on!" Beranabus shouts. "Don't stop now. We-"

"A window's opening," I tell him, and excitement instantly gives way to panic.

"Start opening one of your own," Beranabus commands and steps in front of me, to protect me. The tall, muscular Grubbs joins him. They think a demon is after us. But I know better. I've come to understand the lights more intimately than ever since I built my new pair of eyes. This is a window of human origin.

"Wait," I tell Beranabus. "It's not a demon. We have company."

Seconds later a window of orange light opens and two of Beranabus's Disciples step through. One's a beautiful, fiery woman called Meera Flame. I know the other one better, and shout his name with unconcealed joy. "Shark!"

"Been a long time, kid," the ex-soldier grins, shaking my hand as Grubbs and Meera hug close by. Beranabus is squinting at the newcomers suspiciously. He doesn't like surprises.

"What are you doing here?" I gasp.

"Came to catch the sun," Shark laughs, then casts his gaze over my bald, caramel-colored head. "There's something different about your eyes."

"It's a long story." I smile broadly, still clutching him. We've spent long months in this foul universe, and Beranabus and Grubbs are poor company. The unwelcome flames of loneliness have been burning hot inside me recently. I'm overjoyed to see my old friend, to escape the dark feelings for a few minutes. I know Shark must be the bearer of bad news, that he and Meera wouldn't have come unless things were serious, but for a few moments I block that out and pretend this is a social visit.

"Hi, Shark," Grubbs says.

Shark frowns. "Do I know you?"

"Grubbs Grady. We..." He pauses. "Dervish told me about you. I'm Grubbs, his nephew."

Shark nods. "I can see a bit of him in you. But you've got more hair. You're a lot taller too-what's Beranabus been feeding you?"

"Enough of the prattle," Beranabus snaps. "What's wrong?"

"We were attacked," Meera says. "I was at Dervish's. We-"

"Was it Lord Loss?" Beranabus barks. "Is Bec all right?"

"She's fine," Shark says.

"But Dervish..." Meera pauses, glancing nervously at Grubbs.

"He was alive when we left," Shark says as Grubbs freezes with fear.

"But in bad shape," Meera adds. "He had a heart attack."

"We have to go back," Grubbs says, darting for the window.

Shark stops him. "Hold on. We didn't come here directly. That leads to another demon world."

"Besides," I chip in, "if the demons are still at the house..."

"We weren't attacked by demons," Meera says. "They were... werewolves."

That throws me. Does she mean werewolf-shaped demons? Then I recall the curse of the Gradys. Lots of teenagers in Grubbs's family turn into mindless, savage, wolf-like beasts.

Grubbs starts to tremble. Without waiting to be told, I turn, flex my fingers, and focus, thinking of Dervish. Lights pulse around me-that means the ex-punk is still alive. I begin to open a window that will take us to him. Then, on second thought, I focus on Bec instead. As much as I like Dervish, the girl is more important. She's probably with him, but if not, she must take priority. Dervish is only human. Bec, like me and Grubbs, is so much more.

When a window of amber light opens, Beranabus rushes through, swiftly followed by Grubbs. "There are demons," I tell Shark and Meera, sensing their presence in the vibrations of the lights. "Are you guys ready to fight?"

"Always," Shark grins, cracking his knuckles.

Meera gulps, then grinds her teeth together and nods fiercely.

We cross.

I find myself in a hospital ward. Bec is lying on the floor. She looks like any normal girl, a bit smaller than most, but otherwise unremarkable. You could never guess from looking at her that she'd been dead for sixteen hundred years, or that this body wasn't originally hers.

Two demons are backing away from Bec. One is some sort of lizard hybrid. The other looks like an anteater with several snouts. One of its eyes is missing, blood and goo surrounding the empty socket. I suppress a shudder as Beranabus growls at the demons, "What do the pickings look like now?"

They turn and run. Shark bolts after them. Meera and I follow, leaving Beranabus and Grubbs to help Bec back to her feet. I wonder about Dervish, if he's still alive, but I've no time to dwell on that. Another window is open and the hospital has been flooded with magical energy, but I'm still nowhere near as strong here as I am in the demon universe. My power will dwindle. We need to deal with these monsters swiftly, and we have to be cautious. It's much easier to die on this world.

I spot the remains of a few babies as we pursue the demons. My stomach churns and I tear my gaze away from the tiny corpses. Even so, thoughts of Art flash through my mind. I fill with sorrow, then rage. They shouldn't have gone after the newborns. That was too cruel. I'm going to make them pay.

The demons burst out of the maternity ward and scuttle towards the stairs. Shark crouches, then propels himself forward, shooting through the air as if fired from a canon. He knocks the pair of demons aside and they crash into the wall on either side of the staircase. As they yelp with surprise and pain, Meera and I fall upon them. I take the lizard, leaving Meera to deal with the anteater.

It's a slimy little beast. It slithers around and lashes at me with a forked tongue. Drops of poison hit my eyes and sizzle. I use magic to transform the drops into water, then grab the demon's tongue and yank hard. It utters a choked scream. The tongue slips through my fingers. I follow it back into the demon's mouth, jamming my hand halfway down the lizard's throat. Taking a firmer hold of the tongue, I rip it loose and toss it away. Black blood gushes from the demon's mouth and its beady eyes roll wildly.

I let the demon drop, then pin it to the floor with one knee. I start tearing off scales, working my fingertips into the gaps, using magic to torment the demon. For a long time I didn't understand how Beranabus could butcher so nastily. As evil as demons are... as much as I accept the need to kill them... I couldn't condone torture. But my attitude has changed over the years. I've seen too many corpses. Too many murdered babies. These monsters deserve all the agony we can put them through, and a whole lot more on top.

Shark helps Meera finish off the anteater, then studies me as I work on the lizard.

"Need a hand, kid?"

"No," I pant.

The ex-soldier squats beside me and waits for me to look at him. "I know where you're coming from," he says quietly, "but we don't have time. There are others on the loose. They're still killing."

I sigh, then shoot a burst of magic into the lizard. It slumps and I rise. "Sorry."

"No need to apologize," Shark says. "Another time and place, I'd have joined in and we'd have had hours of fun."

"Fun?" Meera barks.

"Sure," Shark smiles. "You've got to get a buzz out of fighting. It'd be a hell of a life if you devoted your time to battle and didn't enjoy it."

"Anyone ever tell you you're a sicko?" Meera snorts.

"We're all the same," Shark protests. "I'm just more open about it. Killing demons is noble and necessary, blah blah blah. But it's a blast too. Right, Kernel?"

"Come on," I mutter, not wanting to engage in the debate, afraid I'd come down on Shark's side and not liking what that says about me. "Let's kill the rest of them before they slaughter more babies."

That sobers Shark and saps Meera of her indignation. Turning our backs on the dead demons, we go into killing mode and set off in search of monsters viler and more vicious than ourselves.

We kill three more demons, then the mage who is keeping their window open. He's a thin, balding, middle-aged man in a cheap suit. He doesn't look evil. Most people who work for the Demonata don't. He shuts his eyes as we close in on him, and he doesn't cry out when Shark grabs his throat and crushes it. The nearby demons escape through the window to their own universe before it closes. We let them flee and get stuck into those left behind. Demons don't last long once a window shuts. Their bodies fall apart after a few minutes and they crumble away to dust. But they can still kill a lot of people during that time, so we afford them no mercy.

When the hospital's clean, we join the others on the roof. Bec, Dervish, and Sharmila are there. Sharmila's legs have been cut off. Beranabus is working hard to patch her up. Dervish is sitting on a gurney, looking close to death. Meera goes to him immediately, to check that he's OK.

"I'll guard the staircase," Shark says. "Make sure we aren't taken by surprise."

"But the demons are gone," I frown.

"We have humans to worry about too," he snorts, then nods at Bec. "She'll tell you all about it."

And she does, swiftly and clearly. It's a disturbing story. First I learn that an old enemy-once a friend-has returned from beyond the grave. Juni Swan, who I first knew as Nadia Moore, has come back to life in a new, mutated form.

I'm always torn when I think of Nadia / Juni. She was a bitter but kind young woman when we first met. She saved my life in Lord Loss's realm when I fell into a river of lava. She told me then to be wary of her if we ever met again, that she served the demon master now and I should think of her as a foe. But I find it hard to hate her. She's a person who lost her way. She didn't seek out evil-she got sucked into it. I pity her as much as I fear and mistrust her.

Bec describes the attack on Dervish's home in Carcery Vale. Werewolves broke in, supported by humans with guns. She tells us she has a curious gift-she can absorb the memories of anyone she touches. One of the werewolves was a Grady. Its parents turned it over to the Lambs-family executioners-to dispose of. But the Lambs kept the beast alive, and they or some other group subsequently used it as a weapon.

We discuss this troubling turn of events. Grubbs is more worked up than the rest of us-he hates the thought of his relatives being manipulated. Bec thinks Lord Loss masterminded the attack, that he knows she's part of the Kah-Gash. Beranabus agrees, then tells me to open a window. Dervish and Sharmila won't last long in this universe. They need magic to survive.

I'm glad to set to work on the window because I need magic too. My eyes are burning. It was bad as soon as I set foot on this world, but since the demons' window closed, the pain has increased sharply and my vision has started to blur. My new eyes are the work of magic. They can't function normally here. As much as I despise the universe of the Demonata, I'm a slave of it now.

As I'm working on the window, I hear the whispers from the mysterious small lights. I glance around and spot several pulsing rapidly. But the whispers don't seem to be directed at me this time. And they're not repeating a single word. There's a steady stream of phrases, none of which I can make sense of.

Behind me, Dervish and Beranabus are arguing. Dervish wants to stay and find out more about the werewolves. Beranabus says we can't waste time on them. Meera sides with Dervish. There have been lots of crossings recently and the Disciples are struggling to cope. She's afraid the werewolves might be used to target members of the secret group. If they killed a large number of the mages, demons could cross freely.

Even though I'm not paying a huge amount of attention to the argument, I find myself pausing. "It might be related," I say.

"Related to what?" Bec asks. Beranabus waves her silent and frowns at me.

"This could be part of the Shadow's plan," I tell him, the words tumbling out by themselves. The whispers from the lights have increased. I have to concentrate hard to drown them out. "It could be trying to create scores of windows so that its army of demons can break through at once. We'll need the Disciples if that's the case-we can't be everywhere at the same time to stop them all."

"Maybe," Beranabus says. "But that doesn't alter the fact that Dervish will last about five minutes if we leave him here."

"I'll be fine," Dervish snarls.

"No," Beranabus says. "Your heart is finished. You'll die within days. That's not a guess," he adds before Dervish can argue. "And you wouldn't be able to do much during that time, apart from wheeze and clutch your chest a lot."

"It's really that bad?" Dervish asks quietly.

Beranabus nods. "In the universe of magic, you might survive. Here, you're a dead man walking."

"Then get him there quick," Grubbs says. "I'll stay."

"Not you too," Beranabus groans. "What did I do to deserve as stubborn and reckless a pair as you?"

"It makes sense," Grubbs insists. "If the attacks were Lord Loss looking to get even, they're irrelevant. But if they're related to the Shadow, we need to know. I can confront the Lambs, find out if they're mixed up with the demon master, stop them if they are."

"Is the Shadow the creature we saw in the cave?" Bec asks.

"Aye," Beranabus says. "We haven't learned much about it, except that it's put together an army of demons and is working hard to launch them across to our world."

He stares at Grubbs, and as he pauses, the whispers change. They're softer now, almost musical. I feel uneasy, even slightly sick, but I've no idea why.

"You'd operate alone?" Beranabus asks.

"I'd need help," Grubbs replies, and asks for Shark and Meera's assistance. While they discuss that, I focus on the window again. I'm close to opening it. The whispers of the lights have almost died away. I feel worse than ever, as if we're in great danger. But there's no reason to be afraid... is there?

A pale green window opens. Beranabus still hasn't chosen whether or not to let Grubbs stay. "Time to decide," I tell him, and as I say that, the whispers spark up again.

"Very well," Beranabus snaps at Grubbs. "But listen to Shark and Meera, heed their advice, and contact me before you go running up against the likes of Lord Loss or the Shadow." He picks up the unconscious Sharmila. "Follow me, Bec," he says and steps through the window.

Bec doesn't leave immediately. She's confused, not sure of what's happening. Dervish is busy saying goodbye to Grubbs and Meera, wishing them luck, cursing the fact that he can't stay and help them. As he finally stumbles through the window, Grubbs has a short chat with Bec. Then she faces me. She looks more lost than I feel. As difficult as it is, I force a smile. "The world moves quickly when Beranabus is around," I tell her, trying to cheer her up.

"What's it like through there?" she asks, staring at the window with quiet terror.

"Bad." My smile slips. "The Shadow's promising the eradication of mankind and a new dawn of demon rule. Others have threatened that before, but it's convinced an army of demons-even powerful masters like Lord Loss-that it can make good on its vow. We could be looking at the end this time." I take a step into the window of light but don't cross fully, straddling two universes at the same time. I wave Bec forward. "Let's go."

She looks back once, then follows me through the window to an oasis in the demon universe that Beranabus and I are familiar with. We'll be safe here, for a while at least.

But I take no comfort from our security. I'm steady on my feet, maintaining a calm front, but inside my head sirens are blaring, my thoughts a million miles removed from werewolves, the Lambs, Juni Swan, and the Shadow. I feel sicker than when I saw the dismembered babies in the hospital.

I've realized why the whispers unnerved me. That final burst of chattering, just before Beranabus made his decision to let Grubbs go, clued me in to what was really happening.

Beranabus should have brought Grubbs along. He's been wary of uniting the pieces of the Kah-Gash, but this was the time to risk it. Our enemies are on the move, trying to kill one of us or get their hands on a piece of the ancient weapon. Beranabus should have kept us all with him, if not to unleash the power of the Kah-Gash, then to protect us. We'd be a lot safer if we stuck together. Leaving Grubbs behind was madness.

Why did someone as experienced as Beranabus make such a slip? And why did the others-myself included-go along with his bad call?

Answer-the lights. The whispers influenced us. Something didn't want us to band together, so it subtly interfered and split us up, making it seem as if it was our own choice. We're being manipulated by the whispers of the lights!

Leave a comment

We will not publish your email address. Required fields are marked*