FRESH MEAT

We don’t spot any security cameras. I guess Chuda Sool or his superiors thought the armed guards outside would provide enough protection. Or there are hidden cameras which we can’t see. Or they didn’t think anyone who found their way in would be able to get out.

Winding through the building, one ordinary room giving way to another. Lots of weird, demon-shaped puppets on display, but the work of human hands. Cleverly constructed, but hardly hewn in the fires of hell. Plastic, metal, rubber—not flesh, bone, blood.

I try not to lose confidence as we push further into the warehouse. It’s logical that they’d have an outer ring of genuine workshops. While this place is off-limits, some of the crew—like Dervish—have been allowed into parts of it. This is camouflage. Things will be different further in.

I hope.

I fear.

* * * * *

We come to a massive steel door unlike any of the others we’ve encountered. The full height of the ceiling and three metres wide. There’s a small digital screen on the right-hand side, the outline of a hand printed on it.

“Fingerprint controlled,” Bill-E notes, rapping the door with his knuckles. He reaches out to press his hand on the screen.

“Wait,” I stop him. “It might sound an alarm if an intruder touches it.”

Bill-E lowers his hand. “We gonna melt our way through the wall, boss?”

“Reckon so, kemosabe.”

I lay my fingers on the blocks to the right of the door. Focus my magic and tell the stone to melt. Push forward to scoop out the first handful of molten rock.

It’s solid.

I try again—no joy. Rubbing my fingers together, trying to figure it out. It can’t be that I’m running low on juice—there’s more magic in the air here than outside. I can feel it practically crackling around me. Just to be sure, I make myself rise half a metre off the ground. No problem.

“Something wrong?” Juni asks, eyeing me nervously as I float in the air.

“The wall’s protected,” I tell her, smoothly descending. “It’s been charged with magic, or there’s magic pushing out from within. I can’t melt it.”

“We could try somewhere else,” Bill-E says. “There might be another door or a part of the wall that isn’t…”

I shake my head. “It’s going to be like this all the way round. I can sense it—literally. There’s an inner structure, a building within the warehouse. If there are other doors, they’ll be like this. The wall will be the same everywhere too. And the roof.”

“Then we can’t go on,” Juni notes with relief. “Let’s get out, plug up the hole we made, and discuss a new—”

“No,” I cut her short. “I’m not stopping. Not until I’ve convinced you.”

“But if we can’t get through…” she protests gently.

“I didn’t say that. We just have to be a bit smarter.”

I move back to the screen and study the outline of the hand. My magic’s not strong enough to combat the magic of the wall, but maybe I can outfox the technology of the door.

I place my right hand on the screen, tensing in case alarms sound. But there’s no klaxon squeal. Lights don’t flash. Breathing softly, thinking hard, trying to direct magic into the screen. It’s set up to recognise certain fingerprints. I want to tell it that my prints are among those it accepts. But how do you talk to a computer which only understands binary code?

I ignore the complications. Send a simple message, over and over, letting magic flow all the time. “You know me. My prints are in your database. Open.”

Nothing happens. Bill-E and Juni keep quiet, but I sense their lack of belief. Ignoring them, I keep talking to the computer, trying to trick it. I don’t acknowledge the possibility of failure. Change tack. Start telling it I’m Chuda Sool. “You will open—I’m Chuda Sool. You must open— I’m Chuda Sool.” Picturing his long, thin face, his browless eyes and cold gaze.

There’s a click. Another. A whole series of clickings and whirrings.

The door opens inwards, silent as you please.

I remove my hand and glance back smugly at the astonished faces of Juni and Bill-E. “Oh ye of little faith,” I murmur.

We enter.

Darkness. The other rooms were dark too, but I was able to light them with my torch. This room’s too big. The beam is like a pin, showing us almost nothing of the space around us. We can tell that it’s huge, but no more than that.

“This feels wrong,” Juni says as we stand a few metres from the open doorway, reluctant to press ahead any further.

“It’s like we’re surrounded,” Bill-E agrees, squinting into the darkness.

I flash the torch left, then right. We can’t see anyone. But that doesn’t mean that people—or other creatures—aren’t there. Or that they can’t see us.

“Maybe we should come back with stronger torches,” Juni says.

“If we quit now, we’ll never return,” I mutter.

“But we can’t see anything.”

“Give me a minute. Let me think.”

I can’t make objects appear out of nothing. But magic is a form of energy. Maybe I can convert that energy into a different form.

Concentrating. Speaking to the magic within me. In a weird way it feels like I’m two people, the one I’ve always been, and Grubbs Grady—magician.

“I want to make light,” I tell my magical half. “I’d like a big ball of light to appear just above my head. Is that possible?”

In response, I feel energy stream from my hands. It gathers overhead, pulses a couple of times, then transforms into a ball of blinding white light. I gasp with pain, covering my eyes with an arm. “Not so bright!” I hiss, then squint with one eye over the top of my arm. The light has dulled slightly, but is still painful to look at. “Keep dimming. More… more… Stop.”

I remove my arm. Bill-E and Juni have both covered their eyes. “It’s OK,” I tell them. “You can look now.”

Their eyes are watering when they lower their hands. Juni looks like she’s going to be sick. “How did you do that?” she whispers.

“Easy-peasy,” I grin.

“You’re a freak,” Bill-E says. “But a useful one to have around.”

“Thanks. Now let’s see what we’ve walked into…”

I send the ball of light forward, letting it brighten the further away from us it moves, until it lights up the entire room. Only it’s not really a room. It’s a huge, single, cavernous chamber. A bare earth floor. Brick walls which rise up the full height of the building, all three storeys of it. No props, furniture, nothing… except a tall stone in the centre… and lots of shapes around it.

Bodies.

“This isn’t good,” Bill-E says nervously.

“Those look like…” Juni croaks, then starts forward.

“Wait!” I cry.

Juni shakes her head. “I have to be sure. They could be old bags or mannequins. I must check.”

“We don’t know what’s in here with us,” I say, losing my nerve slightly.

Juni pauses, looks around, then shrugs. “There’s nothing. We’re alone. Except for them.”

She carries on. Bill-E and I glance at each other. We can’t be outdone by a woman. The shame would be too much to bear. So we set off after her, away from the door and the possibility of a quick retreat.

Juni sinks to her knees a few metres from the bodies, staring hopelessly, jaw slack, disbelief in her pinkish eyes. There are twenty or twenty-five of them encircling the stone, the head of one body lying on or under the feet of the next. Emmet’s one of the dead. His mother. Kik and Kuk Kane. Their father. Others I don’t recognise.

Some of the bodies have chunks ripped out of them or limbs torn loose. Others have cut throats. A few look like they’re asleep, but I’m sure if we turned them over we’d discover fatal wounds.

Bill-E reels away and vomits, groaning over the mess, shaking his head, trying to deny the reality of this dreadful scene. This is the first time my brother’s seen anything like this. It’s hard. Not like what you see in the movies. On the silver screen, corpses mean nothing. You know they’re not real, just models or actors faking death. You can admire the staging, the special effects, the pools of blood. The grosser it is, the cooler.

But in real life it’s sickening. The most distressing sight in the world. Death’s always hard to take, but murder… slaughter… people killed in the name of some disgusting demonic cause… spread out like sacks of meat and bone…

Juni’s taking deep breaths. I’m sure she wants to vomit too, but she’s keeping the bile down. Just.

Me, I’m a veteran of atrocity. As bad as this is, as much as it hurts seeing Emmet lying there with his throat and stomach slit open, it’s nowhere near as bad as when I walked in on my parents and sister and found them torn to shreds. I’m not saying I’m cool with this, or it’s water off a duck’s back. I’m just better prepared to deal with it than Bill-E or Juni.

I turn my attention away from the bodies, not wanting to dwell on the pain they must have suffered, the tragedy of dying in this callous manner. I study the stone, the focal point of the room. It looks like a Stonehenge monolith. A big chunk of rock jutting out of the ground, mostly smooth, but with a few jagged knobs poking out of it in various places. No writing, at least not on this side. But several gouges run across the middle and near the top, different lengths and depths.

“Some of the bodies have been here a long time,” Juni says. She points to a couple of corpses in an especially bad state. Flesh rotting, inner organs dried up, bones jutting through the dry and brittle skin. “This hasn’t all happened in the last few weeks.”

“No,” I agree. “I think this goes back months, maybe longer.

Juni looks around at me. “What the hell’s happening?” she sobs. “Why?

Before I can think of an answer, there’s a scratching noise behind the rock. Then a sniffing sound, followed by raspy chuckling. Something sticks its head out. Studies us. Then steps into view.

It’s a demon. Five long, spindly legs. The body of a giant ant. A long neck and the head of some sort of rabid monkey. No arms, but several small mouths in addition to its main one, sticking out of its body, set on mushroom-like stalks. The mouths are filled with blood-red, dagger-sharp teeth.

The demon gurgles at us. I can read its thoughts—“Fresh meat!”

Juni and Bill-E scream. I scream too, but there’s magic in my cry. It hits the demon like a cannon ball, knocks it backwards, clear of the stone and bodies. Sends it tumbling across the floor.

“Run!” I roar.

Bill-E and Juni don’t need to be told twice. They race for the door, howling, terror overriding their other senses. I want to run too. I try to. But the magic stops me. Not yet, a voice within me whispers. You can’t let it attack from behind. You’ll die if you turn your back on it.

The demon finds its feet and snarls. It has several bright green eyes, set above and under its main mouth. Some look at the light overhead. The others stay pinned on me. The demon’s lips move fast. Inhuman mutterings. I sense magic and prepare myself for an assault, teeth chattering, inching away from the monster, keeping it in sight the whole time.

The ball of light dims, then is quenched, plunging us into blackness.

Bill-E and Juni’s screams get louder. The demon shrieks triumphantly. The sound of scampering feet. My first instinct—turn and run for dear life. But my magic half holds me in place. Makes me listen. The scampering sounds come closer. Closer. Any second now, those teeth will be ripping into my flesh and tearing off chunks of…

Sudden silence.

Down! the voice barks.

I drop instinctively and, in response to a second command, stick my legs up in the air. I force magic down to my feet, transforming them, directed by the voice.

The demon hits. A wet stabbing sound. My knees buckle, but I hold them straight. There’s weight pressing down on me, more than I could naturally bear. I use magic to steady my legs and support the heavy load. The demon’s struggling, screeching. Something splashes over my face and neck—blood or bile, maybe both. I scream with fear and hate, then force my feet up higher. The demon chokes, writhes a few more times, then goes still.

I hold my position, wary, in case the demon’s faking. But when, after several long seconds, there’s no movement, I allow myself to relax a bit and summon a fresh ball of light.

My legs are rigid above me. The demon’s impaled on them. I can see two grey, metallic prongs sticking out of the monster’s back. My feet, transformed into blades. How cool is that!

“Grubbs!” Bill-E yells.

I tilt my head and look behind me. Bill-E and Juni are standing in the doorway. I see panic in Bill-E’s face. He can’t see the blades from there. He thinks the demon’s feasting on me.

“It’s OK,” I call, lowering my legs, using my hands to try and push the demon off. When that fails, I use magic to propel it clear, then turn my legs back to their normal form. I stand.

“Grubbs?” Bill-E says, softly this time, uncertain.

I smile at him and Juni. She looks suspicious too. “I killed it.”

Bill-E takes a step forward. I increase the brightness of the light so he and Juni can see me clearly, as well as the motionless demon.

“You killed it?” Bill-E echoes, walking cautiously towards me, staring at the dead monster. “How?”

“Magic.” I feel weird. I’ve never killed anything before, apart from flies and other insects. I know this is a demon and it was trying to kill me, but it’s still a strange sensation. I don’t feel guilty—I’m glad as hell that I’m not the one lying dead!—but I’m not thrilled either.

Juni steps up beside Bill-E. She’s trembling. Brushes strands of white hair out of her eyes. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” she mumbles. Takes a step towards it. Stops. “Are you certain it’s dead?”

“Yes. But others might come. We can’t afford to hang around.”

“I have to examine it,” she says.

“This isn’t the time for an autopsy!” I snap.

“I have to make sure there are no wires or engines inside.”

“You think that thing’s a fake?” Bill-E exclaims. “Are you insane?”

“No,” Juni says. “To both questions. But I have to be sure. If this is real, it changes the entire way I think about the world. Before I accept that, I have to be certain this isn’t a clever movie prop that got out of control.”

Juni crouches next to the demon. Studies it closely, hands raised defensively in case it leaps back to life and attacks. I move up behind her, also worried about the demon, no longer positive that I killed it. Remembering when I fought Vein and Artery. I could cut them up into bits, but I wasn’t able to kill them. This might be a lesser demon, or I might be more powerful than I was before. Or it might only be wounded, faking death to lure us closer.

Juni kicks one of the demon’s legs—no response. She kicks a mouth stalk. It wobbles from side to side, but only from the force of her blow. Slowly, carefully, she prises its main mouth open and peers down its throat. I tense. If the demon’s faking, this is the perfect moment to strike. I see the teeth start to come together and prepare a ball of energy to hurl.

But I’m stressing for nothing. The mouth’s only moving because Juni is fiddling with the demon’s neck.

“I need a knife,” Juni mutters, running her hands over the demon’s ant-like shell. She looks up. “Either of you?”

Bill-E fishes in a pocket and passes her a small Swiss army knife. Juni pauses, grimacing, then cuts into the demon’s flesh. It’s softer than it looks, or else Juni is stronger then she appears, because the blade plunges in up to her hand. She shudders, then carves downwards along the length of the demon’s side. Worm-like guts ooze out as she slices, as well as a greyish substance which might be blood. Remembering the spray I caught earlier, I wipe a hand across my face and it comes away wet and sticky with the same grey liquid.

“I’d kill for a shower,” I mutter, chuckling darkly at the sick joke.

Juni cuts a long, jagged line through the creature’s flesh, ignoring the grey blood and guts, then hands Bill-E his knife. He grimaces and tries to wipe the muck off on his trousers. Juni looks at me and grins shakily. “I wanted to be a vet when I was younger,” she says—then drives her right hand deep into the demon’s stomach.

“This is so gross,” Bill-E moans.

“It hasn’t put you in the mood for liver and kidneys for breakfast?” I ask.

Bill-E’s face goes green and he almost throws up again.

Juni searches with her fingers for a minute, then draws her hand out. All sorts of horrible bits and pieces come with it—fleshy and slimy, no wires or mechanisms. Juni stares at her fingers, rubs them together, then tries to clean them by digging her hand into the earth.

“Convinced?” I ask.

“It’s impossible,” she sighs. “Demons are creatures of myth, the phantasmagorical creations of primitive superstition.”

“They’re the Demonata,” I correct her. “Mankind’s greatest enemies. They’ve existed since before the dawn of our species. They hate us and love to kill. Sometimes they break through into our universe and the bloodshed starts. That’s what happened here.” I lock gazes with her. “They’ve already killed some of us. If we don’t warn the others, they’ll slaughter us all.”

Juni nods slowly. “I thought I was so clever,” she whispers. “I knew so much about the mind, people, behaviour. Now…”

Her eyes clear and she gets up, businesslike. “Who can we trust?” she asks.

“Dervish,” I answer promptly. “But he won’t believe us.”

“He’ll believe me,” Juni growls and her face is beautifully stern.

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