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Chapter 23. CASUALTIES OF WAR


It sounds like the entire universe is screaming. Dervish and Grubbs wail for Meera. In the air, Lord Loss bellows Juni's name and reaches out to her with a couple of his arms, offering Bec a brief respite. The demon hordes screech with delight, the scent of human death like a red rag to a bull. They press even tighter around us, each wanting to be next to claim a soul.

I drown out the screams and focus on the window. It's all that matters now. We have seconds to get the hell out of here, or we'll wind up like Meera. No time for misery or joy. Just focus, work fast, and pray.

A werewolf is slaughtered and collides with me as it thrashes in its death throes, opening a new, deep cut down the side of my head, just behind my left ear. I shrug it off and concentrate.

Kirilli leaps high into the air, raining handfuls of bones down upon the demons. He must have picked them up from the floor of the battlefield. They strike like shrapnel, blinding, wounding, killing. He roars with delight-then shrieks as a demon's jaws flash and his right foot is bitten off at the ankle. Kirilli collapses. His foot drops on top of me and I head it away like a football, never pausing, right hand moving mechanically, fending off demons with my damaged left hand.

Grubbs head-butts a demon and smashes its skull to pieces. His forehead comes out drenched in brains and foul-smelling fluid. Extending his tongue, he licks his eyes clean and fights on, laughing through his tears.

Lord Loss and Bec crash to earth, then rise again. They're still struggling with each other, but he doesn't seem to be inflicting as much damage. His hands move lazily, more like they're caressing Bec than savaging her. And she doesn't react as violently as before. She wriggles less frantically in his embrace, almost as if...

Before I can complete the thought, a window of pale blue light blinks into existence. I stare at it stupidly. Then exhilaration sweeps through me and I yell at the top of my voice. "The window is open!"

The Demonata scream hatefully and lash at us frantically. The smarter beasts try to crowd around the window, to block our path, but they're hampered by the mass of demons. There are too many of the monsters. They get in one another's way.

Kirilli hops to the window, grabs Dervish's right arm-he's still staring at the spot where Meera fell-and topples through, dragging Dervish after him.

A bloodied, panting Grubbs draws up beside me. He casually repels a handful of demons with one swipe of a massive arm. We're both looking to the sky overhead where Bec is locked in the embrace of Lord Loss.

"Go!" she yells. "Leave me!"

"We can't," Grubbs croaks.

"We must," I mutter as more demons bear down on us, snarling, spitting, claws and fangs at full stretch.

"But-" Grubbs begins.

"We're demon fodder if we stay," I snap, then throw myself through the window and out of the demonic universe of death.

I hit a hard floor and I'm on my feet a split second later. This is the cave where Beranabus and I were based before our quest to find the Shadow began. It was the first place that popped into my mind when I started putting a window together.

I rip at the fabric of the window, dismantling it, not waiting for Grubbs. If he crosses within the next few seconds, fine. If not, he's a fool and he'll deserve all he gets.

As my hands move within the panel of light, tearing at the individual patches, a werewolf stumbles through, wrapped in the arms of a giant insect-shaped demon. They crash past me and continue their fight on the floor. As Kirilli yelps and slips out of their way, Grubbs backs through the window, bolts of magic flying from his fists, roaring a challenge at those he's leaving behind.

Two more werewolves follow their leader into the cave. The head and shoulders of a third appear, but something clutches its legs and hauls it back. It howls and kicks at whatever has hold. Grubbs grabs the creature and pulls. But then the window comes undone. The patches of light pulse and snap free of each other. The panel vanishes and the werewolf's cut neatly in half, its lower body stranded in the universe of the Demonata, its head and upper arms dropping to the floor here. Its death roar catches in its throat.

It's over.

Well... almost. The insect demon gibbers and breaks free. It darts at the place where the window was, pauses when it realizes it's trapped, then turns on me. Before it can strike, all three werewolves pounce. They rip it to pieces and feast on the brittle remains, instantly forgetting about the trauma of the battle, fully focused on their meal, ignoring the rest of us as we sink to the floor and stare silently at each other with shock, bewilderment, and dismay.

Grubbs is the first to move. Rising slowly, groaning painfully, he hobbles over to check on Dervish. His uncle's in bad shape, the worst of any of us. Blood is pumping from the hole in his chest and I don't think any amount of magic will stop it. Grubbs starts arguing with him. He wants to open a window back to the demon universe, where Dervish will stand a chance of recovery, but the battered Disciple is having none of it. He told Grubbs a while ago that he wanted to die on Earth when his time came. It looks like he'll soon be granted his wish.

"How's the foot?" I ask Kirilli, who's sitting nearby, staring at the place where his right foot used to be. He's crying softly.

"It's gone," Kirilli moans, then looks up. "I don't feel any pain."

"You will soon," I tell him. "But I can work some magic here. I'll bandage it up and help numb the pain. Then I'll open a window and drop you off at a hospital before I leave."

Kirilli doesn't ask where I'm going. Instead he grins weakly. "I did good, didn't I?" he asks hopefully.

"You did great." I smile.

"I never thought I'd be a hero," he whispers. "I dreamed of it many times but I never believed..." He falls silent, reliving the highlights, conveniently ignoring the part where he danced like a fool in the stomach of the Shadow. I don't remind him of that, but fetch bandages from behind the spot where I used to sleep. He's earned the right to be proud. It's not stumbling along the way that matters, but how you finish.

Grubbs limps over as I'm bandaging Kirilli's ankle and healing it with magic, closing off the veins and arteries. He watches silently until I'm done, then nods at me. Leaving Kirilli, we squat near the place where we once kept a fire burning. Grubbs's face has altered. He looks more human than he did when he was fighting. He also looks like he's in a lot of pain, but he says nothing of it.

"Meera's dead," he mumbles.

"I know."

"She took Juni with her. I'd have rather killed that traitor myself, but as long as she's gone..." He sighs, then says quietly, "Dervish is dying. He asked me to take him up top, so he can die outside. I need you to open the trapdoor."

We're deep beneath the ground. A rope ladder leads to the surface, but a stone slab blocks the way out. It's operated by magic. Focusing, I mutter the correct phrase and set it sliding free. "Done."

"Thanks," Grubbs says and starts to rise.

"I could take him to a hospital with Kirilli," I suggest.

Grubbs shakes his head. "No point. They couldn't do anything for him. What a moron, letting the demons bite a chunk out of his chest. He should have kept his guard up. The old fool deserves..." He shudders, fighting hard to hold back tears.

"I'll wait for you to return," I tell him.

"That's OK. Take care of Kirilli. You can come back for me."

"I'm not coming back."

Grubbs had made it to his feet, but now he pauses, stares at me, and squats again. "What are you talking about?" he asks gruffly.

"It's over. I'm going to the ark."

"You can't. We need you. This isn't finished."

"Of course it is." I wipe blood and sweat from my forehead. I feel so weary. It will be a relief to leave this world and the fighting behind. "We gave it our best shot. We tore the Shadow to pieces. But you heard Beranabus. Death will return, and it'll be even stronger next time. We can't defeat it."

"We have to try," Grubbs growls. "We got the better of it once-we can beat it again. I'll unleash more of the power of the Kah-Gash next time."

"How?" I snort. "We don't have Bec. It's just you and me now."

"We'll rescue her," Grubbs says, as if it's the simplest thing in the world. "Lord Loss won't kill her. He'll want to torment her first. I'm guessing he'll return to his kingdom to wait for the Shadow, and he'll take her with him."

"What if he does?" I sigh. "We can't fight him there. We'd stand no chance of defeating a demon master on his home turf."

"Maybe not," Grubbs agrees curtly, "but we have to try. Everyone's depending on us. Meera died for this. Dervish will be dead soon too. Beranabus and Bill-E. All the others who've given their lives. They can't have died for nothing. We fight on until the demons kill us all. Only then do we stop."

I shake my head. "If I stay here and perish, the demons will conquer the universe completely. I shouldn't have come back at all, but I did, for one last stab at success. We tried and failed. The ark is all that's left."

I reach out and squeeze Grubbs's arm. "Come with me. They'll welcome you. You can help us keep the ark safe from demons, ensure it never falls to Lord Loss and his stinking kind. It's the best we can do. Staying here is pointless. The fight has moved on. We have to move with it."

"Abandon our world?" Grubbs sneers. "Leave Bec in the clutches of Lord Loss? Run while the demons are weak? Never! They've lost their master. The army will split. They'll fight with each other and return to their own realms. We can harry them, hit hard, drive the fear of the Kah-Gash into them. This isn't the end-it's the beginning. We have the advantage. Now's the time to press it home and make sure that even if Death does return, it has no army to support it."

"That won't work," I say impatiently. "Death's stronger than us, and it's eternal. No matter what we do, it will rise again, recruit new followers, and lead them to victory. It's over."

I stand and roll my neck. I want to sleep so badly. But I'll wait until I find Raz, then sleep as we travel to the ark. Forcing off the waves of pain and weariness, I focus on the lights in the air around me and think about Raz in the chamber on Atlantis. As patches blink, I start the long, laborious job of piecing them together.

"That's it?" Grubbs grunts. "You're just going to leave us?"

"It will take several hours to open the window. I'll be here when you get back. You can decide then if you want to come with me or-"

"What about Kirilli?"

I wince. "Damn. I forgot." The stage magician is resting, eyes closed, breathing heavily. I let thoughts of Raz slip from my head and think about a hospital instead. It only takes a few minutes to open this window. When it's ready, I ask Grubbs if he'll help me carry Kirilli through.

"Leave it to me," he says, then picks up the wounded Disciple, slings him over his shoulder like a slab of meat, and steps through before the groggy Kirilli has a chance to say goodbye.

While Grubbs is gone, I think about what I'm going to say when he returns. I have to warn him about Bec, tell him what the Old Creatures cautioned. I recall the way Lord Loss eased up on her and I realize why I felt so troubled. It looked like they were going to stop fighting, as if she'd said something to make peace with him. Could she have betrayed us like Nadia did? I need to alert Grubbs to the threat before he races after her. Maybe she doesn't want to be rescued. Maybe she's on their side now.

As I'm trying to decide where Bec's loyalties lie, Grubbs steps back through the window. I prepare myself to argue with him again, but he smiles and waves my protests away before I can voice them.

"You're right," he chuckles. "You have to go. I wasn't thinking straight."

I sigh with relief. "Will you come with me?" I'm hoping he says yes. Accepting my role on the ark will be hard. It would be a lot easier if I didn't have to face it alone.

"My place is here," he says. "Dervish, Bec, Shark... those are the people I care about. I don't care about other worlds. I'll fight and I'll die, and if that's not enough, at least I'll have done all that I could. That's what matters most, isn't it, doing all you can, regardless of the consequences?"

"Yes." I smile and extend a hand. "No hard feelings?"

"None," Grubbs says, taking my hand in one of his huge, hairy paws. His smile fades. "But you might have some."

I frown curiously. Grubbs is gripping my hand tightly. "What do you-"

Before I can complete the question, Grubbs slashes at my face with his other hand. The sharp, bloody, jagged nails that he was gutting demons with just minutes earlier carve my left eye open. As it pops and I howl with shock and agony, he sweeps his hand back in the opposite direction and rips my right eye out. Then he lets me go.

I fall to the floor screaming, and blindly try to scoop the contents of my ruined eyes back into their sockets.

"I didn't enjoy that," Grubbs says, his words only barely penetrating my veil of screams. "But you agreed-regardless of the consequences. I need you, Kernel. I can't fight on without you. So you're staying. End of story."

"My eyes!" I bellow, lashing out furiously, hoping to strike him dead. "Give me back my eyes, you son of a-"

"Can't," Grubbs says calmly. "But what I will do, once I'm done with Dervish and we've had time to patch up our wounds, get our breath back, and link up with support troops, is open a window back to the universe of the Demonata. You'll be able to build another pair of eyes there. And then you'll use them to find Bec and help me rescue her."

"You're insane!" I holler, swinging for him again. "Come here so I can kill you!"

"There'll be plenty of time for killing," Grubbs says, backing away. "Forget your crazy ark. I'm your keeper now. All other bets are off."

"Come back!" I yell, stumbling after him and falling. "You don't know what you're doing. You're handing victory to them. We can't trust Bec. She'll betray us. Lord Loss will be waiting. Death will..."

I stop. I've been shouting to myself. I can hear Grubbs scrabbling up the rope ladder with Dervish, ignorant of my cries. Apart from the werewolves, which are still snacking on the insect demon's remains, I'm alone.

Abandoned and blind, I strike the floor pitifully, then moan softly and lower my face into the blood and dust, wishing the roof would cave in and finish me off. If I still had eyes, I'd weep, not for myself, but for the multitudes of creatures who'll have nowhere to hide when their worlds burn.

"What the hell have we done?" I sob.

All that you could, I imagine the voice of Beranabus whispering. And then, after a short, bitter pause, he adds with a sarcastic chuckle, But it wasn't enough. This universe is finished. Goodnight, Vienna!

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