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Chapter 20. SHADES OF THE FALLEN


There's uproar when Bec suggests Beranabus might still be alive in some form. Grubbs accuses her of living in a dreamland. Meera gently suggests that she's in denial, that she needs to accept the ancient magician's death. But Bec stubbornly pushes her case, and as she elaborates, our skepticism fades.

We know souls can be separated from bodies-that happened to me in Lord Loss's kingdom years ago, when I entered the Board. In the past, a soul couldn't survive a body's death, but things have changed. Death is claiming souls and using them. We've no way of knowing if a captured soul remains conscious or not. But if they do... if Beranabus has made a study of Death from the inside and uncovered its secrets... maybe he can tell us how to kill it.

It's probably a wild shot in the dark. Grubbs certainly thinks so and says that it's a waste of time, but the rest of us believe it's worth trying.

But before we can set off in pursuit of a dead man, we have the living to take care of. The new window is almost open. In another few hours, dozens of demons will be streaming across.

While Grubbs fetches his werewolves and Meera rustles up battle-hardened soldiers, I slot patches of light together. Dervish and Kirilli are resting-Dervish looks shattered, Kirilli scared. Bec's watching me. Something about her gaze makes me feel uneasy.

"It must have been amazing," she says. "Your trip to the stars and beyond sounds incredible."

"Yes," I grunt.

"I was wondering..." She coughs. "I'd like to touch you."

"What?" I squeak, startled, thinking she wants to kiss me.

"I can absorb your memories if we touch," she says.

"Oh." I chuckle at my mistake. Then I grow serious. "Why do you want to take my memories?"

"Not take," she says. "Share. I want to see everything you saw. The lights, the worlds, the Crux. If you grant me access, I can see all that you did."

"What does it matter if I show you or not?" I snap.

She looks surprised by my harsh tone. "Well, of course I'm curious," she says, stammering a bit. "But apart from that I have perfect recall. If you share with me, I might spot something that slipped your mind."

"I doubt it," I sniff.

"But it can't do any harm, surely, if I just..." She reaches out, then stops as I glare at her. Letting her hand drop slowly, her expression darkens. "You're hiding something from us. Just like Grubbs."

"You saw that too?" I hiss.

"Everyone sees it. Something happened between him and Juni that he doesn't want us to know."

"What do you think it might be?" I ask.

"I've no idea. But I think I know what you're holding back. You look hostile. I've done nothing to make you dislike me, so you must be... afraid."

"I'm not afraid of you," I sneer.

"Maybe not. But you're nervous... more than that... suspicious?"

I fidget uncomfortably.

"The Old Creatures said the pieces of the Kah-Gash have been influenced by the hosts they've inhabited," Bec says thoughtfully. "If my piece of the Kah-Gash was in Lord Loss for thousands of years..." Her expression clears. "You don't trust me. You think I might betray you, or that my piece of the Kah-Gash might trick us."

"Can you say for sure that it won't?" I ask quietly.

Bec starts to respond hotly, then pauses. "Actually no," she admits. Then she looks at me piercingly. "But can you make any guarantees? Can Grubbs? You don't know where your pieces were before, or why they ended up in you. Maybe we'll all be played for fools."

"Maybe." I nod slowly.

Bec smiles thinly. "Go on watching me, Kernel. I don't mind. But I'll be watching you too. And Grubbs. I don't think any of us can be trusted."

"You're right," I say glumly, then return her smile. "And we're the ones who are supposed to save the world? I don't like our chances!"

"Me neither," she laughs, and we grin at each other, united by our uncertainties, paranoia, and fear.

We could stop the mage before he opens the window, but then we wouldn't have a chance to test ourselves. I don't like the course we're taking-people will probably die-but there's no other way. If we want to learn about the Kah-Gash before we go looking for the Shadow, we have to fight. We could cross to the demon universe and test it there, but that would mean unleashing the Kah-Gash in an area of total magic. If the weapon's on the side of the Demonata, that would hand it the perfect opportunity to break free of any confines we might seek to impose.

"Stick close to me," Grubbs growls. I'm on his left, Bec on his right. Meera, Kirilli, the werewolves, and soldiers are behind us. Dervish is a bit farther back, observing. I sense the window forming. Just minutes to go. The mage is working inside a nearby building.

"We're not going for a full union," Grubbs says. "Just a partial link."

"Are you sure we can do that?" I ask.

"Yes," Grubbs says. "I'm the trigger. I can control it. Follow my lead, don't react when you feel my magic mingling with yours, and everything will be coolio."

I share a troubled glance with Bec-she doesn't like this either-but before I can say anything the window opens and demons scurry out of the building. There are dozens of scaly, bloody, multiheaded monsters, oozing pus and slime, slithering down the steps, smashing through windows, hunting for victims. A river of nightmares.

But nothing new. I faced worse with Beranabus. I'm more concerned about the werewolf between me and Bec than I am by the demons bearing down on us.

Grubbs stares at the Demonata, eyes narrow and glinting yellow. His fangs grow an inch, his lips stretching with them. He grabs hold of my hand and Bec's. Energy spirals up my arm. I tense against it but then the voice of the Kah-Gash murmurs to me. It's all right. Don't fight. No harm will come of this.

I don't entirely trust that inner voice, but even if I wanted to reject the union, I couldn't. The magic within me warms to Grubbs's and I feel power well up from nowhere. The shock of it makes me gasp. My skin crackles and my fingers dig into Grubbs's huge paw. My legs go weak, then steady.

We're drawing power from all around, from the earth, people, demons, the sky. Everything's linked. There are connecting lines everywhere, between humans, objects, the Demonata, the stars. The Kah-Gash was here before any of us, holding the sixty-four zones of the original universe together. And it still binds us in place-it just doesn't define the universes as tightly as it used to.

But it could. With the power coursing through me now, I could quench the sun by snapping my fingers, and open a tunnel between universes. Make myself ruler of all worlds, people, and demons. Limits exist only in the mind. As the Kah-Gash, I'd set those limits, not be bound by them. I could-

"Let's just kill these demons and leave it at that," Grubbs says, shattering my dreams of universal dominance.

I blink, coming out of the spell I was under, amazed by how swiftly I gave in to temptation. Grubbs and Bec might not be the jokers in the pack. Maybe I'm the weak link, the one the Kah-Gash can exploit.

But there's no time for self-doubt. The demons are almost upon us. Our werewolves are howling and the soldiers are readying their rifles. Another second or two and all will be chaos.

Grubbs roars and I feel the magic of the Kah-Gash draining from me-from Bec too. Grubbs is the focal point through which the power is channeled. No way of fighting it now. The energy that we've sucked in explodes through Grubbs, mixed in with his roar.

A stream of raw power envelops the demons and stops them cold. Their eyes bulge as they choke in a net of magic. We hold them in place a moment, as easily as we'd trap a colony of ants by lowering a jar over them. Then Grubbs blows on them the way he'd blow on a feather.

The demons shoot backwards, through the walls of the building, then through the window between universes. The startled mage is blasted through as well, torn to shreds with most of the demons. When the area is clear, the stream of energy fans out and crackles across the face of the window. It glows brightly, then crumples, and the patches of light which were used to create it flood back to us along with the magic. The stream swirls around us, breaking up into vortex-like tendrils. Then Grubbs lets go of my hand and Bec's.

The power dwindles in seconds and the lights drift away. It's like nothing ever happened-apart from the huge hole in the front of the building.

"Wow," Grubbs says, flexing his fingers and staring at them. "That was great." He looks up at us and grins. "Let's find more demons and do it again!"

A couple of hours later, in a hotel suite even grander than the last we stayed in, Grubbs is still itching to pick another fight, but Bec insists we should focus on Beranabus. The pair are arguing heatedly. I've kept quiet. Dervish, Meera, and Kirilli say nothing either. We chipped in during the early stages of the argument, but for the last hour it's been pretty much Grubbs and Bec yelling at each other.

"Forget about crossing," Grubbs shouts, towering over the small, slender girl. "I say we wait for them to come. With the power of the Kah-Gash, we'll drive them back every time. They'll soon realize they can't win and head off for softer pickings on other worlds."

"You think that's acceptable?" Bec retorts, not intimidated by the grotesque, wolfen teenager. "We pass them along and let others suffer?"

"Like Meera said, we only care about this world," Grubbs huffs.

"Leave me out of this," Meera snaps, but both ignore her.

"What about Death?" Bec jeers. "Will you repel the Shadow when it attacks?"

"Why not? Death might be more powerful than the Demonata, but the Kah-Gash can trump it."

"No," Bec says. "Death is the ultimate power. If we don't strike now, it will grow stronger and come to find us."

Grubbs shrugs. "Do I look worried?"

Bec smothers a curse. "You were all for attacking earlier. You wanted to go for Death like a dog after a rat."

"That was before you brought Beranabus into the equation. I'd still go if you only wanted to have a crack at the Shadow. But you want to free a dead man. That's what this is really about. Your beloved Bran turned coward at the end."

"What are you talking about?" Bec screeches and appeals to the rest of us. "Has he gone mad? Do any of you know what-"

"Beranabus was afraid," Grubbs interrupts. "That's why he told you to send Kernel after him. It wasn't so he could study Death from the inside and learn its secrets. He realized his soul might be trapped and he didn't want to spend eternity in the grasp of the Shadow. He hoped Kernel could get him out. You know that's true. You knew it from the moment you suggested the idea of rescuing him. Tell me I'm wrong."

Bec says nothing. Her face was red with anger moments before, but now the flush fades. Her lower jaw trembles. She looks ashamed.

"This is personal," Grubbs growls, facing us like a lawyer addressing a jury. "She's not thinking about beating Death. She only wants to set Beranabus free."

"What's wrong with that?" Meera asks quietly. "He was her friend. You'd do the same for Dervish in that position. So would I."

"I wouldn't," Kirilli pipes up.

"No surprise there," Dervish mutters.

"It's too dangerous," Grubbs yells. "I liked Beranabus but I'm not going to risk everything to save his soul. Hell, he might not even be there. Maybe Death didn't claim him."

"It did," I say softly. "I've been studying the lights while you were arguing, concentrating on Beranabus. A few started flashing as soon as I focused on him, and more have joined them. It's not like when I search for someone living, but if his soul hadn't been absorbed by the Shadow, no lights would flash at all."

"OK, it took his soul. So what?" Grubbs shrugs. "How many of you want to risk a rescue? Who cared about the mad old buzzard that much?"

He looks around the room. Kirilli instantly shakes his head. Meera nods firmly to show she's on Bec's side. Dervish looks uncertain. "We owe him," he says.

"We owe a lot of people," Grubbs grunts, "but we can't always repay our debts. You taught me that. A Disciple doesn't risk his life to save a few people, not when the fate of billions is at stake.

"If I think we have a real chance of hurting the Shadow, I'll jump at it. But if we're just going over there to free Beranabus's soul.... That's not right. Beranabus wouldn't have thought so either-not until he crumbled at the end."

"What if he didn't?" I ask angrily. "I spent more time with him than any of you. I never saw him ask for favors. He was the most selfless person I knew. What if he really did hope to learn something that might help us?"

"I'm not willing to take that chance," Grubbs says.

"You're a fool," Bec shouts.

"Maybe," Grubbs sniffs. "But it looks like we have a tie, three votes for each. You, Meera, and Kernel want to ride to the rescue. Kirilli and I have more sense. And Dervish..." He looks to his uncle for a final answer.

Dervish sighs. "I agree with Grubbs. We can't let personal feelings cloud our judgment."

"What if it was personal for you?" I softly challenge him.

"It's not," Dervish says wearily. "If Grubbs was in that position, I'd do all I could to free him. But he isn't, so there's no point-"

"Bill-E," Bec stops him. Dervish turns slowly, left eyelid ticking, but she isn't looking at him. She's staring at me. "Is it Bill-E?"

I nod slowly.

"Liar!" Grubbs howls, raising a huge, shaggy fist. "How dare you-"

"I searched for him after I looked for Beranabus," I say quickly. "I was running tests, searching for others I knew who'd died, like Mrs. Egin, Logan Rile, Sharmila. I came up blank on all of them. Then I thought of Bill-E and a few lights flashed, the way they flashed for Beranabus."

"If you're lying..." Grubbs growls, fingers clenched tight.

I step forward. I'm shaking like a rattlesnake's tail but I speak clearly. "If you think I'd say this to trick you, you don't know me at all."

Grubbs stares into my eyes. He wants to find deception, but he can't, because I'm telling the truth. His shoulders slump and he backs away. He shares a scared look with Dervish, who's been hit just as hard by the news.

Bec could crow but she doesn't. She merely waits.

"I killed him to free him," Grubbs finally croaks. "It was the hardest thing I've done. I murdered my own brother. I wouldn't have done that to save the world, the universe, or anything else. But I couldn't bear to let him live in torment at the hands of the Demonata. I killed him to spare his suffering, to set him free. Now you're telling me I didn't, that the Shadow has him?"

"I'm sorry," I whisper.

Tears of blood trickle from Grubbs's eyes. Raising a hand, he wipes them away, then covers his face with his hand and moans softly.

"We have to free them," Bec says. She crouches by his side and reaches out to embrace him.

"Don't touch me!" he barks, pulling away from her.

"Don't be silly," she smiles. "I absorbed your secret when we linked outside. I know what Juni predicted. But I don't believe her. She's insane. You would never do what she claimed."

Grubbs cries out and wraps his arms around the little girl, hugging her like a doll, weeping while we stare at the pair of them, bewildered. When he finally stops crying, he releases Bec and grins shakily at her, then casts his gaze over the rest of us, his features firm.

"Show of hands. Who's going to help me and Bec kick some Shadow ass?"

Five arms rise immediately. Kirilli is the only dissenter. "You're all crazy," he grumbles.

"Overruled," Dervish laughs, then twists his spikes into place and drawls like a gangster. "I always wanted to be part of a jailbreak!"

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