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Chapter 9. TAKING TO THE SKIES


We skip from one world to another, chamber to chamber, through the sub-universe of strange lights. I try to figure out how the windows are being opened, hoping to use the information to break free and make my way back home. But I don't know how Art gets the panels to pulse and merge.

"Tell me about yourself," I suggest, partly to break the monotony, partly to learn more about my mysterious guide.

"What do you wish to know?" he replies.

"Where are you from? Beranabus only said that the Old Creatures were beings of ancient, powerful magic, who left our world long ago."

"We leave every planet eventually," Art sighs. "We are nomads, moving from one world to another, never settling."

"But you must have a home," I press. "Everyone comes from somewhere."

"Not us," Art says. "We are of the original universe. We had no beginning."

"That doesn't make sense," I grunt.

"It will-" Art begins.

"- soon," I finish sarcastically.

"Sorry," Art says. "I know this is hard. But there is much we have to tell you and it is complicated."

"Let's try something simpler then." I think about the sort of things I'd ask any stranger. "How old are you?"

Art makes a sound like someone clearing their throat.

"Oh, come on," I shout. "Surely you can tell me that much."

"There is no easy answer," Art says. "We are as old as this universe but we existed before it. In the original universe, there was no such thing as time. We were not born. We did not age. We simply were."

"You can't be as old as the universe," I challenge him. "It's billions of years old. Nothing lives for that long."

"We do," Art insists. "We exist as spheres of light, and light is almost ageless."

"Almost? You're not immortal?"

"Not anymore," Art says.

"This is crazy," I mutter.

"Be patient," Art urges. "By the end of this journey we'll reveal the secrets of the universe, the origins of life, and the cause of the Big Bang."

"What's the Big Bang?"

Art is silent for a long time. Then, in a dejected tone, he says, "This is going to be harder than we thought."

More worlds and chambers. I doze during some of the journey. In the demon universe I can go weeks or months without sleep, but here I grow tired, just as I do on Earth. I start to wonder how long we've been traveling.

"This is the fourth day," Art answers.

"How much longer will it take?"

"I cannot say."

"A week?" I snap. "A month? Years?" I lick my lips and ask quietly, "You will take me back, won't you?"

There's a pause. "If you choose to return, we-"

"What do you mean?" I roar. "Of course I'll return! Why shouldn't I? Are you going to try to-"

"Peace," Art hushes me. "The choice will be yours. I don't think you'll want to go back, but we will not prevent you from following your destiny."

"I'll definitely want to go back," I growl.

"You should not make such sweeping statements," Art says. "When you went in search of the demon masquerading as your brother, you were certain you'd return home when you found him, but you didn't. There are no certainties except death. And even that-"

Whatever he was about to say is lost, because we pass through a window into a chamber made of moss-covered stones. And the place is crawling with demons.

They're foul beasts, shaped like horses, but their flesh is rotting away and their bones poke through. Yellow blood drips down their legs from their rib cages. The heads are larger than on any horse I've seen, and each has two sets of mouths, one above the other. There are no teeth-instead, human-looking fingernails jut out of their gums, blood and drool dribbling between the cracks.

The demons had been fighting or playing with one another-hard to tell with these monsters-but they stop when we pop out in the middle of them. Then, with howls of hunger and delight, they hurl themselves at us.

I react automatically and fire a ball of energy at the nearest beast, then leap clear, onto one of the higher stones of the chamber. The roof caved in long ago and I can see out. A quick survey of the land beyond reveals a scorched, ruined world teeming with monsters. A massive demon is rising into the air a few miles away. Hundreds of beasts are clinging to it, or settled on its back in rows. Fleshy strands dangle from its stomach. Large rocks are attached to the lower ends.

A horse-demon jumps, rears its hooves, and slashes at my throat. I duck, slam my shoulder into its face, and knock it back. "Art!" I scream as others come pounding closer.

"Cover your eyes," Art says. "Use magic as well as your hands."

"What good will that do?" I yell, jumping to another stone.

There's a flash of light and my eyes melt in their sockets. The pain is intense but nothing new. It's just like when my original eyes were stabbed out.

As I howl and fight off waves of pain and madness, Art says, "You should have done what I told you. These demons are called the Sligstata. Light is my only weapon against them. Most can construct new eyes, as you can, but you have done it before, so you should be faster. Set to work immediately, but focus your other senses on the Sligstata. You can avoid them if you concentrate."

"But I can't see!" I howl. "I'm blind!"

"You'll be dead if you don't do what I tell you," Art snarls. There's real fear in his tone. "I can't fight these creatures, even if I turn into Artery-there are too many. I can blind them again, but they'll soon grow wise to that trick. I'm opening a new window but it will take a few minutes. You must defend yourself."

I curse the Old Creature, then set to work on building a new pair of eyes. It was a long, complicated process before, but this time they grow swiftly, smoothly.

As the eyes form, I listen to the demons and sense their positions. They're stumbling around, lashing out at one another, wild with blind panic. No threat as long as I remain up here. But others are coming. They swarm over the ruins of the chamber, knocking each other aside in their eagerness to tear into me, the echo of their hooves ringing louder as they draw closer.

There's strong magic in the air. I let a ball of power build in my fists and wait until the monsters are several feet away, packed tight, focused on me. Then I let them have it, a blast straight down the middle, scattering them, ripping open stomachs and heads, incinerating eyes, faces, and internal organs.

The demons screech with pain and anger, falling beneath the hooves of those behind them. One of the Sligstata hurls itself at me, both sets of mouths gnashing, fingernails twitching. I pirouette away from it like a ballet dancer and land on the opposite side of the chamber. My eyes have almost completed the healing process but I still can't see.

"Protect yourself," Art hisses. I was letting another ball of magic build in my hands, but now I divert the power to my eyes and erect a wall of blackness. I see nothing but I know when the light flashes by the screams of the Sligstata.

One of the beasts must have expected the flash and guarded its eyes, because while the others thrash around and topple into the chamber, it makes a beeline for me. No time to dance aside. Planting my feet firmly, I grab the monster by its neck and hold its spitting mouths a few inches from my throat. The stench of its breath would floor a lesser mortal.

As I'm struggling with the demon, my eyes connect with my brain and the world swims back into sight. The Sligstata's mouths are closer than I thought. Gritting my teeth, I push hard and its jaws slide back. But it's tenacious and my fingers are damp with sweat and blood. In a few seconds it will wriggle forward and finish me off.

When I first tried to fight in the Demonata's universe, I was so scared I threw up. I was ashamed at the time, but since then I've learned the value of a good stream of vomit. I send a magical buzz down my throat and a wave of digested food rises. I spray the demon with hot, thick puke. It gurgles happily, then screeches as I turn the liquid to acid. As the Sligstata burns and writhes, I drop it and look around.

Dozens of fresh demons are racing towards the chamber. Too many to fight. Some of those beneath me have grown new eyes and are knocking aside the blind Sligstata, zoning in on me, hell-bent on making me pay for their torment.

"It's looking bad," I yell at Art, firing a magical bolt at a demon as it tops the chamber wall, driving it back.

"A few more seconds," Art says calmly, pulsing steadily, hovering in the air above my head.

"We don't have that long."

"Just keep them busy a couple more..."

A blue window blinks into life. I don't wait for Art to give the order. With a yell of fear and triumph, I throw myself at it, linking my hands like a person diving into a swimming pool. The Sligstata snap at me with their nightmarish mouths, but miss, and a second later I'm flying through the panel of light. I start to cheer but the sound catches in my throat as fingernails bite into my left leg. I kick but the beast holds firm and drags me back. The patches of light are twinkling seductively, but I'm being hauled away from them, back into the chamber of death.

I try summoning magic to fry the Sligstata, but I'm temporarily drained. This looks like the end of Cornelius Fleck. I just hope they kill me quickly. Some demons can keep their victims alive for thousands of-

A crackle of electricity shoots through my leg. It sets my skin tingling but hurts the demon more. It starts to lose its grip. I glance back and see that the Old Creature has once again taken on the shape of Artery. The fire in the green-skinned demon's right eye socket narrows then expands-he's winking at me! Then he grabs hold of me and leaps. We shoot forward and the window snaps shut behind us. Art transforms back into a ball of light and wraps around me. We swoop towards the pulsing lights like a pair of birds, laughing hysterically at our narrow escape.

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