I want so much not to be doing this. One half of me is screaming bloody murder at the other half, telling me I'm mad, I should run, protect my own neck and damn the rest. But how could I leave Bo Kooniart to save the day? I'd never be able to live it down.
We pass from one street to another. No sign of the Demonata, though the cries of the dying and the roars of demons are everywhere. I'm sweating buckets. Can't stop shivering. I never knew I could be this scared. After all, I've faced Lord Loss before. But it's even scarier this time. I'm starting to understand that fear is like cancer-you can beat it back, but if it returns it can be worse than ever.
We turn a corner and find three demons feasting on a dying man, tearing into his flesh, gulping down bloody chunks as if they were marshmallows. One of the demons is shaped like a short elephant, another a giant cockroach, the third a huge slug that's been partially melted. Sick rises in my throat, but I force it back.
As the elephant-shaped demon moves aside to chew on a piece of gristle, I recognise the unfortunate victim. It's Chai, the mime artist. Even in his death throes he's remained true to his role. He isn't screaming aloud, but is instead miming weakly. It would be hilarious if it wasn't so tragic.
I want to help Chai, but it's too late. Even as I take a step forward, he stiffens, makes a few last feeble gestures, then goes still.
I study the demons again as they continue to strip the corpse of flesh. They don't look like they're especially swift on their feet. I check with Bo and the others. They're terrified, but each nods to show they're ready.
"Hey!" I try to shout, but the word comes out as a squeak. I try again, but my mouth is as dry as a lizard's arse.
"Some hero you are," Bo mutters. Then she cups her hands over her mouth and bellows, "Hey!" The demons look up. "Come and catch us, uglies!"
She turns and runs. The rest of us follow. The demons shriek and give chase.
Running as fast as I can. With my long legs, I quickly pull ahead of the others. Start to leave them behind. Feeling good, like I'm going to survive. Even if the demons catch up, they'll have to chew through the other three before getting to me. Maybe they'll stop there, happy to have one human each, leaving me free to race to safety and...
But that's not the plan. I'm supposed to be helping, not outpacing the others. I keep the speed up for a few more seconds, wrestling with my conscience. Then I curse and slow down, letting Bo and co catch up with, then slightly overtake me.
I look back. The demons are close, only ten or twelve metres behind. They can move a lot faster than I thought. If I don't stop them, they'll be on us long before we make it to the edge of town, never mind the barrier beyond.
I stop and force magic into my fingers. Trying to think of the best way to stall them, when they suddenly stop, stare at me hatefully, then turn and shuffle off.
"What the...?" I squint at them, thinking this must be a trick, but they keep going.
"What's happening?" Bo asks. The three of them have stopped. They're staring dumbly at me and the departing demons.
"I don't know," I mutter. "Maybe they sensed my magic and decided there were easier pickings elsewhere. Or-"
Something barrels into the boy whose name I don't know. He screams once, then is silenced. The girl and Bo leap away from him. I see a squat, long demon, like a dog, but with spikes sticking out all over and no legs. It's munching on the boy's head. I start towards them. Come to a halt when I hear a familiar voice high above me.
"You did not think I would leave you to the whims of my familiars, did you, Grubitsch?" I look up and spot Lord Loss, hovering above the roof of the building to my left. He descends slowly, gracefully. "I gave orders for you, your uncle and brother to be spared. I plan to finish you Grady boys off by myself."
Lord Loss comes to within half a metre of the ground and stops, his eight arms extended, smiling viciously. "What now, poor Grubitsch?" he murmurs. "Have you the strength of character to fight a demon master or will you run like a cowardly hyena?"
"Run!" I roar, then race away from him. Bo and the other girl hurriedly join me.
Lord Loss laughs and sets off in pursuit of us, savouring our fear and flight. He doesn't have the slightest clue that I'm running for a reason other than sheer terror, that I'm trying to lure him into a trap. He glides along after us, calling to me, the usual crap, telling me how desperate the situation is, how I'm going to let myself down, the pain I'll suffer, the tears I'll shed. He says I'll betray Dervish and Bill-E, abandon my friends, beg for mercy.
I know he's messing with my mind, trying to stoke up my fear, to wring more misery out of me. But it's hard to ignore him. I feel myself losing hope, seeing the future through the demon's eyes. Part of me wants to surrender and accept a swift, painless death. And perhaps I would-except I remember his look of hate when I beat him at chess, his vow to make me suffer before he killed me. There will be no quick, easy death if I fall into Lord Loss' hands.
A strange skittering sound. I look over my shoulder. The dog demon is chasing us too. It's almost upon us. It uses its spikes to move, a bit like a centipede crawling, only a hell of a lot quicker. It has a head like a dung beetle's, but dog-sized.
"Go, Malice," Lord Loss says, and the demon leaps high into the air, coming down on Bo's head, mouth opening wider than its narrow body, fangs glinting.
I shoot a bolt of magic at the demon called Malice and knock it sideways. It squeals, hits the ground, twists sharply, launches itself at my face. Without thinking, I turn my right hand into a blade, drop to one knee and slash at the demon's underbelly. Malice sees the threat but can't change direction. My hand slices its stomach open from neck to tail. It's finished by the time it hits the ground, entrails spilling out, whining feebly as it flops into the dust.
"Fool!" Lord Loss snorts at his dying familiar. "I am ashamed that one of my servants should be despatched so pitifully." He spits on the dying demon, then looks at me and smiles. "You are stronger than the last time I saw you fight. You were unable to kill Vein or Artery then, yet here you have killed two just as powerful. You must be feeling confident, like you could even defeat me?"
"Maybe," I growl, magic bubbling up within me, picturing the demon master dead at my feet, tasting the triumph of revenge.
Lord Loss chuckles. "Do not delude yourself, Grubitsch. You are not that strong. A demon master will always outrank and outpower a human."
"Dervish beat you," I sneer. "He fought you on your own turf and won."
Lord Loss' features darken. "That was not a fight to the death. He had only to get the better of me in battle. He could not have killed me. Just as you cannot kill me now."
Lord Loss reaches out with all eight arms, pauses, twists slightly and beckons. The girl whose name I didn't ask for goes flying towards him, screaming. I try to pull her back, but before I can, she's in the demon master's embrace.
"Poor little Karin," Lord Loss sighs. "You had such fine dreams. A movie career, marriage, children." The girl screams, struggling to break free. I try to pry her out of Lord Loss' grasp, but he deflects my magic easily, then kisses her. She goes quiet. Stiff. Her skin turns grey as he sucks the life out of her. I hear bones cracking. Her feet jerk a few times, then stop.
Bo's crying. She sinks to her knees, defeated, staring at the demon master as he drains the girl of the last vestiges of life. I want to give up too. But I know I won't be killed as smoothly as this if I do.
"Come on!" I roar, grabbing Bo's arms, yanking her to her feet.
"I can't," she sobs.
"You can!" I shout, pushing her ahead of me. "Run! Now! Or I'll kill you myself!"
Bo curses me but does as I command, lurching forward, running blindly, wiping tears from her eyes. I look back at Lord Loss. He casts the girl's ruined body aside and smacks his lips. "Karin was a tasty little girl," he says with relish.
"I hope you choke on her!" I scream in retort, then wave a hand at the building above him and cause the outer wall to explode. It showers Lord Loss with bricks and chunks of cement, taking him by surprise, driving him to the ground. I know I haven't killed him, but I've delayed him and that's all I wanted. Turning, I race after Bo, screaming at her to run faster, trying to judge how much further is left and what our chances are of making it to the barrier alive.
Lord Loss is soon on our trail again, scratched and bruised but otherwise unharmed. He congratulates me on the way I brought the wall down on him, but adds that if I'd thought of it a bit earlier I could have saved poor Karin. Making me feel guilty, as though I'm to blame for her death.
I ignore the demon master. Turn corners wildly. Race through the streets of Slawter. I stumble occasionally, fall hard twice and scrape my hands and knees. But I keep ahead of our hunter and force Bo on, making her stay ahead of me so I can see when she falters and roar at her for support.
Two more of Lord Loss' familiars join him. One is the giant cockroach I saw earlier. The other is even more familiar. A young child's body but with an unnaturally large head. Pale green skin. Balls of fire instead of eyes. Maggots for hair (it used to be cockroaches). Small mouths set in both its palms. The hell-child, Artery.
"No need to introduce you two," Lord Loss says.
"Although, if you are interested, this fine specimen-" he nods at the cockroach-"is called Gregor."
"Very amusing," Bo snorts, but I don't get the joke so I just keep on running, saving my breath for a scream of triumph. Or a death cry. Whichever proves more appropriate.
Finally, as I'm starting to think we've lost our way, I spot the old hat shop. Seconds later we dash past it and are out of town, racing across soft, grassy ground. Lord Loss and his familiars pursue us casually, taking their time, confident we can't escape. "You should have tried to hide," Lord Loss taunts me. "You stood a better chance that way. This was a poor call, Grubitsch. It will cost you your life. Bo's too. I will make you watch while Artery eats her from the inside out. That will be the last thing you see in this world."
Looking for Dervish and the others, but there's no sign of them. My heart sinks like the Titanic. I'd be able to see them if they were here. No trees or bushes for them to hide behind. It's open ground. Maybe I got the meeting place wrong, but I doubt it. I think they've fallen. They didn't make it out of town. They ran into some bad-ass demons and are dead now. Just like Bo and I soon will be.
"Where... are... they?" Bo gasps. She looks more petrified than ever.
"Keep going," I reply. "Find the barrier."
"Do it!" I roar, then whirl and yell a spell at Lord Loss and his familiars, prompted by my magical half. The ground in front of the demons bursts upwards. Blades of grass thicken, lengthen and entwine. They form a net which wraps around the startled demons, tightening, choking them, holding them in place.
I look for Bo. She's still running. I jog after her, keeping one eye on the Demonata, hardly daring to hope. And I'm right not to. The grass around them turns brown... red... burns away. Seconds later, Lord Loss is free and his familiars are soon clawing their way out. There are blades of green jammed into many of the cuts on Lord Loss' body, but unless they turn septic and he dies of disease much later-some hope!-he's going to be fine.
I try the same spell again, but this time Lord Loss is ready and with a wave of two hands the blades of grass bend downwards and spread out, flattening, not getting in the way of the demons.
"Fool me once, shame on you," Lord Loss says. "Fool me twice..." He pulls a smug expression. "But nobody has ever fooled me twice, Grubitsch. And you will not be the first."
Bo yells with pain and surprise. My gaze snaps forward. She's come to a halt and is struggling with an unseen force, arms and legs jerking slowly, as if caught in a web. Moments later she frees herself and falls backwards.
We've reached the barrier. Nowhere else to run. With an empty feeling in my gut, I stop and face the approaching demons.