Chapter 1 SHADOW PLAY
A five-headed demon with the body of a giant earwig bears down on me. I leap high into the air and unleash a paralysing spell. The demon stiffens, quivers wildly, then collapses. Its brittle legs shatter beneath the weight of its oversized body. Beranabus and Kernel move in on the helpless bug. I follow halfheartedly, stifling a yawn. Just another dull day at the office.
One of the demon's heads looks like a crow, another a vulture, while the rest look like nothing on Earth. It opens its bird-like beak and squirts a thick, green liquid. Beranabus ducks swiftly, but the spit catches Kernel's right arm. His flesh bubbles away to the bone. Cursing with more irritation than pain, he uses magic to cleanse his flesh and repair the damage.
"We could do with a bit of help here," Kernel growls as I stroll after them.
"I doubt it," I grunt, but break into a jog, just in case the demon's tougher than we anticipated. Wouldn't want to let the team down.
The earwig unleashes another ball of spit at Beranabus. The elderly magician flicks a hand at the liquid, which rebounds over the demon's heads. It screams with shock and then agony. Kernel, back to full health, freezes the acidic spit before it fries the creature's brains. We want this ugly baby alive.
I leap on to the demon's back. Its shell is slimy beneath my bare feet. Stinks worse than a thousand sweaty armpits. But in this universe that doesn't even begin to approach the boundaries of disgusting. I confronted a demon made of vomit a few months ago. The only way to subdue it was to suck on the strands of puke and sap it of its strength. Yum!
This wasn't a career move. I didn't read a prospectus and go, "Hmm, drinking demon puke... I could do that!" Life just led me here. I'm a magician, and if you're born with a power like mine, you tend to get drawn into the war with the Demonata hordes. I fought my destiny for a long time, but now I grudgingly accept it and get on with the job at hand.
The earwig shudders, overcoming my paralysing spell. It tries to buck me off, but I dig my toes in and drive a fist through the shell. I let magical warmth flood from my fingers. An electric shock crackles through the demon. It squeals, then collapses limply beneath me.
Beranabus and Kernel face the demon's vulture-like head and interrogate it. I stay perched on its back, hand immersed in its gooey flesh, green blood staining my forearm, nose crinkled against the stench.
"What is it?" Beranabus shouts, punching the twisted head, then grabbing the beak. "What's its real name? Where's it from? How powerful is it? What are its plans?" He releases his hold and waits for an answer.
The demon only moans in response. There are thousands of demon languages. I can't speak any, but there are spells you can cast to understand them. I generally don't bother. I'm sure this demon knows no more about the mysterious Shadow than any of the hundreds we've tormented over the last however many months that we've been on this wild goose chase.
The Shadow is the name we've given to a demon of immense power. It's a massive, pitch-black beast, seemingly stitched together out of patches of shadow, with hundreds of snake-like tentacles. Beranabus thinks it's the greatest threat we've ever faced. Lord Loss-an old foe of mine-said the Shadow was going to destroy the world. When a demon master makes a prediction like that, only a fool doesn't take note.
We've been searching for the monster ever since we first encountered it in a cave, on a night when I lost my brother, but saved the world. We've been trying to find out more about it by torturing creatures like this giant earwig. We know the Shadow has assembled an army of demons, promising them the destruction of mankind and even the end of death itself. But we don't know who it is, where it comes from, exactly how powerful it is.
"This is your last chance," Beranabus growls, taking a step back from the earwig. "Tell us what you know or we'll kill you."
The demon makes a series of spluttering noises. Beranabus and Kernel listen attentively while I scratch my neck and yawn again.
"The same old rubbish," Kernel murmurs when the demon finishes.
"Unless it's lying," Beranabus says without any real hope.
The earwig babbles rapidly, panicked.
"Spare you?" Beranabus muses, as if it's a novel idea. "Why should we?"
More squeaks and splutters.
"Very well," Beranabus says after a short pause. "But if you discover something and don't tell us..." There's no need for him to finish. The magician is feared in this universe of horrors. The earwig knows the many kinds of hell we could put it through.
I withdraw my hand from the hole in the earwig's shell and jump to the ground. We're in a gloomy realm, no sun in the dark purple sky. The land around us is like a desert. I make my hand hard and jab it into the dry earth, over and over, cleaning the green blood from my skin. Kernel opens a window while I'm doing that. When I'm ready, we step through into the next zone, in search of more demons to pump for information about the elusive, ominous Shadow.
Chapter 2 INNER SILENCE
Six demons later, we rest for a while on a deserted asteroid in the blackest depths of demonic space, each of us sheltered by a magical force field which provides oxygen and warmth. Beranabus creates a few balls of light, directing the rays down, shielding us from any passers-by. In this universe you're never safe, even in areas usually devoid of life.
You don't have to sleep, eat or drink much here, but it helps to rest every so often and recharge your batteries. I haven't been to this spot before, so I go on a stroll in case there's anything worth seeing. We've cut a wild, meandering route through demon territories since I linked up with Beranabus. He's worried that Lord Loss or others of the Shadow's forces are tracking us, so we've kept on the move, hopefully several steps ahead of any pursuers.
The asteroid's as uninteresting as I thought it would be, just pitted rock, not even any unusual formations. I thought this universe was amazing when I first came.
The physical laws vary from zone to zone. I've seen mountains floating overhead. A world made of glass. I've been inside the bowels of giant demons. Squashed miniature worlds, killing billions of bacterial demons with a well-placed foot.
I'm not so easily impressed now. It wears you down, the constant weirdness, torturing, killing. Days and demons blur. You can't stop and marvel at wonders all the time. You start to take them for granted. I see a demon the size of a city, with the face of the Mona Lisa. Big deal. All I care about is how to kill it.
I'm not scared anymore either. I was, the first few demons we fought. The old Grubbs Grady yellow streak shone through and I had to battle hard to stand my ground and not flee like a spineless loser. But fear fades over time. I no longer worry about dying. It's going to happen sooner rather than later-I've accepted that. I don't even give thanks anymore when we scrape through a fierce battle.
But close fights are rare. Most of the demons we target are weak and craven. We don't tackle the stronger beasts, focusing instead on the dregs of the universe. I could defeat most of them single-handed. We always work as a unit, but don't often need to. I've fought thousands of demons, but I could count the number of times my life has been in danger on the fingers of one hand.
Fighting demons and saving the world might sound awesome, but in fact it's a bore. I used to have more excitement on a Friday night at home, watching a juicy horror flick with Bill-E or wrestling with my friend Loch.
Kernel's playing with invisible lights when I return. His eyes were stabbed out in Carcery Vale. I thought he'd be blind for life, but you can work all sorts of miracles in this universe. Using magic, he eventually pieced together a new pair. They look a lot like his original set, only the blue's a shade brighter and tiny flickers of different colours play across them all the time.
The flickers are shadows of hidden patches of light. Apparently, the universes are full of them. When a mage or demon opens a window between realms, the mysterious lights cluster together to create the fissure. But only Kernel can see the patches. He can also manipulate them with his hands, allowing him to open windows faster than any other human or demon.
Beranabus was worried that Kernel might not be able to see the lights when he rebuilt his eyes, but actually his vision has improved. He can see patches he never saw before, small, shimmering lights which constantly change shape. He can't control the newly revealed patches. He's spent a lot of time fiddling with them, without any success.
I sit and watch Kernel's hands making shapes in the air. His eyes are focused, his expression intense, like he's under hypnosis. There are goose bumps on his chocolate-coloured skin. Beads of sweat roll down his bald head, but turn to steam as they trickle close to his eyes. He freaks me out when he's like this. He doesn't look human.
Of course he's not entirely human. Nor am I. We're hosts to an ancient weapon known as the Kah-Gash, which sets us apart from others of our species. Together with Bec-a girl from the past, but returned to life in the present-we have the power to reverse time and, if the legends are to be believed, destroy an entire universe. Coolio!
I'm constantly aware of the Kah-Gash within me. It's a separate part of myself, forever swirling beneath the surface of my skin and thoughts. It used to speak to me but it hasn't said anything since that night in the cave. I often try to question it, to find out more about the weapon's powers and intentions. But the Kah-Gash is keeping quiet. No matter what I say, it doesn't respond.
Maybe if Kernel, Bec and I experimented as a team, we could unearth its secrets. But Beranabus is wary of uniting us. We couldn't control the Kah-Gash when we first got together. It took a direction of its own. It worked in our favour on that occasion, but he's afraid it might just as easily work against us next time. The old magician has spent more than a thousand years searching for the scattered pieces of the Kah-Gash, but now that he's reassembled them, he's afraid to test the all-destructive weapon.
I miss the voice of the Kah-Gash. I was never truly alone when it was there, and loneliness is something I'm feeling a lot of now. I miss my half-brother, Bill-E, taken from me forever that night in the cave. I miss school, my friends, Loch's sister Reni. I miss the world, the life I knew, TV, music-even the weather!
But most of all I miss Dervish. My uncle was like a father to me since my real dad died. In an odd way I love him more than I loved my parents. I took them for granted and assumed they'd always be around. I knew they'd die at some point, but I thought it would be years ahead, when they were old. Having learnt my lesson the hard way, I made the most of every day with Dervish, going to bed thankful every night that he was still alive and with me.
I could tell Dervish about the demons, the dullness, the loneliness. He'd listen politely, then make some dry, cutting comment that would make it all seem fine. Time wouldn't drag if I had Dervish to chat with between battles.
I wonder what he's doing, how he's coping without me, how much time has passed in my world. Time operates differently in this universe. Depending on where you are, it can pass slower or quicker than on Earth. Kernel told me that when he first came here with Beranabus, he thought he'd only spent a few weeks, but he returned home to find that seven years had passed.
We've been trying to stick to zones where time passes at the same rate as on Earth, so that we can respond swiftly if there's a large-scale assault or if Bec gets into trouble. But Beranabus is elderly and fuzzy-headed. If not for the emergence of the Shadow, I think he'd have shuffled off after the fight in the cave to see out his last few years in peace and quiet. Kernel has absolute faith in him but I wouldn't be shocked if we returned to Earth only to find that a hundred years have passed and everyone we knew is pushing up daisies.
As if reacting to my thoughts, Beranabus groans and rolls on to his back. He blinks at the darkness, then lets his eyelids flutter shut, drifting into sleep. His long, shaggy hair is almost fully grey. His old suit is torn in many places, stained with different shades of demon blood. The flower in the top buttonhole of his jacket, which he wears in memory of Bec, is drooping and has shed most of its petals. His skin is wrinkled and splotchy, caked with filth. His toenails are like dirty, jagged claws. Only his hands are clean and carefully kept, as always.
Kernel mutters a frustrated curse.
"No joy?" I ask.
"I can't get near them," he snaps. "They dart away from my touch. I wish I knew what they were. They're bugging the hell out of me."
"Maybe they're illusions," I suggest. "Imaginary blobs of light. The result of a misconnection between your new eyes and your brain."
"No," Kernel growls. "They're real, I'm sure of it. I just don't know what..."
He starts fiddling again. He needs to lighten up. It can't be healthy, wasting his time on a load of lights that might not even be real. Not that I've done a lot more than him in my quieter moments. I wish I had a computer, a TV, a CD player. Hell, I'd even read a book-that's how low I've sunk!
I'm thinking of asking Kernel to open a window back to Earth, so I can nip through and pick up something to distract me, when Beranabus stirs again.
"Was I asleep for long?" he asks.
"A few minutes," I tell him.
He scowls. "I thought I'd been out for hours. That's the trouble with this damn universe-you can't get any decent sleep."
Beranabus stands and stretches. He looks around with his small, blue-grey eyes and yawns. This is about the only time you can see his mouth properly. Mostly it's hidden behind a thick, bushy beard. All our hair was burnt away when we travelled through time, but it's grown back. I think he looked better without the beard, but he likes it. I grew my ginger hair the same way as before too. I guess you always go with what you're used to.