BATTLE

Artery and Gregor spread out to the left and right of their master, falling a couple of metres behind. They’re here to make sure we don’t escape and perhaps they’ll get to kill Bo as a bonus. Neither will be allowed to harm me. Lord Loss is keeping me for himself.

“Grubbs,” Bo whimpers.

“I know,” I say softly.

“What are we going to do?”

“Be brave. Fight.”

“But I don’t know any magic.”

“Just do what you can.” Eyes on Artery and the cockroach. Trying to believe it’s not hopeless. If I can pin one of them to the barrier and kill it, Bo and I can escape. Gutted that we can’t take anyone with us, but I mustn’t think of that now. I have to focus on getting us out alive.

“Did you forget about the barrier, Grubitsch?” Lord Loss sniggers. “You are slow to learn. I would have thought, after running afoul of it once, you would have had more sense than…” He stops, frowning. “But you are not stupid. A cunning boy, as I learnt to my cost the last time we clashed. Might you have had another motive for coming here?”

He’s close to the truth. I have to act now, before he makes the connection. My eyes flick from Artery to Gregor. I settle on the baby—smaller, hopefully easier to manipulate. With a magical cry, I unleash my power. Artery shoots forward, into the air, wailing with alarm, propelled towards the barrier. I step closer to the spot where he’s going to hit, readying myself to kill the hell-child.

But then he stops mid-air. I feel a force working in opposition to mine. I scream a phrase of magic and tug harder. Artery jolts forward another metre, stops again, then falls to the ground. He scuttles back to his master, hiding behind him like a child seeking shelter behind a parent.

“That was a very nice attempt, Grubitsch,” Lord Loss murmurs. “You had me foxed until almost the very end. I should have known you had an ace up your sleeve. Dervish must have told you how to create a rip in the barrier. You planned to kill my sweet Artery and skip out of the party early.” He tuts mockingly. “That was rude. I shall have to…”

I hear noises in the background and spot people running towards us from the town. Lord Loss looks around, casting his eyes over the various faces, searching—as I am—for Dervish. But my uncle isn’t part of the crowd. He’s not racing to my rescue. These are just ordinary, terrified movie folk. They won’t be any help.

“More victims,” Lord Loss laughs. “See how they run towards me? Perhaps, from a distance, I look like an angel. Should I pretend to be good? Sweep them to my breast, shower them with kisses, only to turn vile and make my true intentions known when it is too late for them to escape?”

I focus on the cockroach. I try to pitch him at Lord Loss, hoping to knock the demon master off guard, then hurl Gregor or Artery at the barrier. But the demon doesn’t even slide a centimetre off balance.

“No, Grubitsch,” Lord Loss says. “We will have no more of that. Leave my familiars alone. Your battle is with me, not them.”

“Then come on!” I scream. “Step up if you think you can take me! What are you waiting for? Do you want to reduce me to tears before you attack? Afraid to fight me on even terms?”

Lord Loss’ face goes dead. The snakes in the hole in his chest stop hissing. “So be it,” he whispers, rising a metre higher into the air, arms spreading outwards with a slow, dreadful, majestic grace.

“Grubbs,” Bo mutters.

“Not now!” I hiss, trembling all over, preparing myself for whatever Lord Loss is about to launch against me.

“But… over there… it’s… I think I can see… Dervish!”

That startles me so much, I look away from the threat of Lord Loss. Thankfully, the demon master is also caught by surprise, and instead of piercing my defence and finishing me off, he too glances to the side.

Bo is pointing off to my right. At first I don’t see what she’s gesturing at. The land looks devoid of life, just grass and weeds. But then I notice the air shimmering slightly. The shimmer intensifies, thickens, then fades to reveal… Dervish! And just behind my uncle, between him and the barrier— Bill-E, Juni, Vanalee and the boy whose name I don’t know.

“An invisibility shield,” Lord Loss groans. “I don’t believe I—”

A wind blows up out of nowhere. It smacks hard into Lord Loss, driving him backwards, bowling him and Artery over.

“Grubbs!” Dervish yells, focusing on the wind, veins stretched across his face like ridges of blue putty. I know instantly what he wants. Pointing at Gregor, who has been unaffected by the gale, I shout a word of magic. The demon flies forward, mandibles gnashing together in a mixture of hate and fear. He strikes the invisible barrier. Sticks. Dozens of tiny legs kick at thin air as he tries to tear himself free.

“Juni!” Dervish shouts. “Kill it like I showed you!” Juni steps up to the struggling cockroach. She makes a fist and takes aim at the brittle shell of its stomach. Then she pauses and half turns away, lowering her fist. She’s smiling. She starts to say something, but before she can, one of Gregor’s hairy, spindly legs strikes the back of her head. She falls with a startled cry, tries to rise, then slumps, dead or unconscious.

My first instinct is to rush to her aid, but I ignore it. Instead I look for Artery. Concentrating on the fire in the hell-child’s eye sockets, I magically rip the flames out. As Artery squeals and slaps blindly at his eyes, I transport the flames to inside Gregor’s stomach—like cutting and pasting on a computer!

I hold the flames tight for a second, letting them increase in strength but keeping them compact. Gregor is frothing at the mouth, glowing from the inside out. I flash the cockroach a wicked grin. Then, clicking my fingers for emphasis, I release the flames and they erupt in a ball of destructive red and yellow fury.

The demon explodes with a cry of delicious agony. There’s a crackling, throbbing sound. Then a jagged line appears in the air around the demon’s remains, a rough semicircle of discoloured light— a hole in the barrier!

“Get out!” Dervish barks at Bill-E and the others. The wind is still blowing, but Lord Loss and Artery have stopped tumbling backwards and are facing into it now, the demon master furious, Artery confused, waving his childish hands at his empty sockets, trying to ignite fresh flames.

As Vanalee and the boy race to safety, Bill-E hurries to Juni’s side. He turns her over, checks quickly, then shouts, “She’s alive!”

“Then take her with you!” Dervish roars, struggling to maintain the wind.

Bill-E hesitates—I can see he wants to stay and help—then grits his teeth. Propping Juni up, he slides his hands under her armpits and drags her through the hole. As they exit, the quality of light changes and it’s as though I’m looking at them through a thin, semi-translucent veil.

Bo scrambles to the opening but stops and looks back at the crowd racing towards us. She’s panting hard, squinting. “My father and brother. I can’t see them.”

“Forget them,” I growl. “I can’t.”

“You must. They’re—”

“I’m going back for them!” Bo cries.

“No!” I shout, but she sets off regardless. My left hand rises. Magic flows. Bo comes to a forced stop. She turns her head and looks at me pleadingly. “Grubbs,” she whimpers. “Let me go. I have to do this.”

“But you’ll die if—”

“Probably,” she interrupts, “but not necessarily. Maybe I’ll find and rescue them.” She shrugs helplessly. “I have to try.”

“But your father was working with the demons. He helped bring this upon us.”

“He’s still my dad. And Abe did nothing wrong. Apart from get on your nerves, like I did,” she grins.

I grin back and reluctantly release her, knowing I don’t have the right to deny her, figuring I’d probably do the same in her place. “Don’t spend too long looking for them,” I warn her.

“I won’t,” she lies. And then she’s gone, racing past the people fleeing the town, leaving me to marvel at how poorly I judged her.

I wish Bo silent luck, then blank her from my thoughts and step up beside Dervish. I want to bolt through the hole in the barrier after Bill-E and the others, but my uncle needs me. My magical half shows me how to link up with my uncle. As I add my power to his, the force of the wind increases. Lord Loss slides backwards again, straining against the wind, but—momentarily at least—losing ground.

“You could have let me know you were here,” I growl.

“Couldn’t risk tipping Lord Loss off,” Dervish disagrees. “We were lucky. You normally can’t fool a demon master with an invisibility spell, but he was so focused on you he didn’t see through it.”

People from the town spill past us, then through the hole, called to safety by Bill-E, who’s laid Juni to one side and is now directing the survivors.

“You sent the message to everyone?” I ask.

“Yes. As soon as I saw you coming.”

“How come Bo and I didn’t get it?”

“I excluded you. I—”

“—didn’t want to tip Lord Loss off,” I finish for him.

“Sorry,” Dervish says.

“Don’t worry about it.”

The wind suddenly dies away. Lord Loss straightens himself.

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“We should get the hell out of here.”

There are still people running and limping towards us from the town, chased by demons, some missing limbs, many bleeding and screaming, all terrified but hopeful. Because Dervish told them to come. He said this was their way out. He promised.

“You’re staying,” I note.

“Until the hole starts to close,” Dervish nods.

“You’ll know when that’s about to happen? You’ll escape in time?”

“I’ll know. As for whether or not I’ll be able to escape…” He jerks his head at Lord Loss, who’s started to glide back towards us.

“OK,” I decide, proud of my courage but at the same time dismayed. “I’ll stay too. We’ll buy the survivors as much time as possible.”

Dervish smiles. “Did I ever tell you I loved you, Grubbs?”

“No.”

“Good. I hate sentimental crap like that.”

Then Lord Loss shrieks and fire engulfs us.

Dervish spits out words of magic and the flames evaporate before they have time to burn through our skin. But Lord Loss uses those few seconds to sweep across. With a cry of hate, he propels himself at Dervish, whips him off the ground and drags him high up into the air, all eight hands lashing and ripping at him.

No time to worry about my uncle. Artery is only seconds behind his master. Races at me on his tiny feet, flames in his eyes bright and vicious again, the teeth in his three mouths gnashing menacingly.

I wait until Artery’s upon me, then drop to one knee and shoot a hand out. I grab his throat. Squeeze the cartilage hard. Crush it. Toss him aside. Choked gurgling sounds. Artery brings up his hands to repair the damage. I step towards him, set on finishing him off. Before I can, another demon bursts on to the scene. It’s shaped like a monkey with several heads and has been chasing humans out from town. When it sees the hole in the barrier and spots me battling with Artery, it comes barrelling at me.

I glimpse claws and fangs. Whirl away. A blast of magic hits my left shoulder. My arm goes numb. When I look down, I realise it’s been cut clean off. It lies on the ground nearby, singed and twisted.

“Grubbs!” Bill-E screams as the monkey demon closes in for the kill.

“Stay where you are!” I yell, kicking the demon away, magically stopping the blood pumping from the gash where my arm should be. I bark a command and the earth at the demon’s feet explodes, throwing it backwards. While it’s recovering, I grab my arm and stick it back in place, blasting magic at it. Severe pain as flesh, muscles and bone knot together, but I use more magic to dull it.

I’m able to do so much more than when I first fought Lord Loss’ familiars. It’s frightening. I’m not in control of myself, just reacting, doing things without knowing how. The magic part of me isn’t even giving me instructions now. It’s bypassing the conscious part of my brain, working by itself.

More of the cast and crew stumble through the hole. Several of the demons in pursuit try to tear through after them. I scatter the monsters, then quickly establish a second barrier around the hole, which allows humans through but not demons.

A heavy thudding sound. Dervish and Lord Loss have crashed to earth. Still struggling with each other, both wounded and bruised, roaring spells and curses.

The familiars make a coordinated attack, ganging up on me. They close from all angles, encircling me. I try backing up to the wall of the barrier, to guard myself from sneak attacks, but a few have already got in behind me. Artery—neck fixed and hot for revenge—snickers. I sense the confidence of the demons. They have me trapped. My situation should be hopeless. But the magic part of me only sees this as a way to deal with them all at the same time.

I find myself rising into the air, then turning, slowly at first, then at great speed, 360 degree spins, around and around, creating a vortex. The demons are sucked towards me, collide and are thrown clear. I’m not injured by the collisions—my skin has automatically toughened.

A couple of demons try to fight the bite of the wind and drag me down, but all are repelled. Eventually they quit and return to harassing and killing other humans. I drift back to the ground. Slightly dizzy but otherwise fine, I do what I can to protect the fleeing crowd, trying to shepherd through as many as I can.

There aren’t many coming now. The stream has died away to a trickle. No sign of Bo returning. I wonder how long we have left, if she’ll have time to make it back. As if in answer, Dervish bellows, “We have to get out! It’s going to close!”

“You’ll never leave!” Lord Loss screams, digging a couple of hands deep into Dervish’s flesh. The snakes in the demon master’s chest are spitting at Dervish’s face, trying to bite him.

“Go!” Dervish shouts. “Save yourself!”

“As if!” I snort, eyeing up Lord Loss. I focus on his lumpy, writhing arms. With a cruel smile, I gnash my teeth together—and all eight of his limbs are abruptly severed. Stunned, he topples backwards, yelping with pain and shock, his disconnected limbs flopping to the ground.

Dervish crumples up into a weary ball. I hurry to my uncle, grab him and toss him through the hole in the barrier as if he was a frisbee, using magic to soften his fall. A quick glance at Lord Loss. I can’t resist the opportunity to toss a final movie-style quip his way. “Some people say you’re a bad-ass—but I think you’re pretty ’armless!” Then I skip out before he recovers and rips me to pieces.

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