BITTER SWEET

I feel the difference as soon as I step through the hole. Magic drains away from me instantly. Tiredness sets in. My left arm and shoulder ache like no pain I’ve experienced before. But I’m not completely powerless, not yet. I face the gap in the barrier, summon the final dregs of my magic and prepare myself to fight any demon that tries to follow us through.

Dervish groans and forces himself up, helped by a trembling Bill-E. One of Lord Loss’ hands is embedded in the flesh of his stomach. He prises it out and tosses it away. It twitches for a few seconds, then disintegrates into an ash-like substance.

I see humans running towards the barrier. “Faster!” I scream. “You don’t have much longer! You’ve got to—”

Lord Loss glides across the face of the hole, blocking my view. His face is a mask of hatred and fury. Snarling, he starts to come through… then pauses, looks around and drifts backwards.

“He doesn’t dare cross,” Dervish mutters. “His magic would fail him out here. He’d have to fight on our terms.”

“You will suffer for this,” the demon master snarls. “Your deaths would have been horrible, but now they’ll be far worse. I will find new ways to—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bill-E says, stepping up beside us. “Go blow it out your rear, you pathetic waste of space.”

Lord Loss hisses and starts to spit out a spell. Before he completes it, there’s a sharp cracking sound and the hole in the barrier seals itself. Lord Loss looks up and down, in case there’s any crack remaining, but it’s been completely repaired.

“I will answer your insults later,” he vows, new arms forming from all eight stumps. “You will die at these hands eventually. Only now it will be much slower and far more excruciating than I had originally planned.”

Glancing backwards, the demon master flexes his fresh fingers and points at the people still fleeing Slawter, those trapped within the bubble of magic. “Your day of reckoning will arrive sooner than you imagine, Grady scum. For now, watch as I content myself with this sorry lot and consider it a taste of the horrors to come.”

Having delivered his threat in a manner any movie demon would be proud of, the eight-armed, heartless monster floats towards the doomed humans, warding off his familiars, saving these last few victims for his own warped pleasure.

“Look away,” Dervish says wearily to those of us on the safe side of the barrier. “This is going to be ugly. You don’t want to watch.”

“We have to get them out!” a woman wails. “My son’s still in there. You have to go—”

Dervish looks at her darkly. Puts a finger to his lips. She falls silent. Then my uncle turns his back on the town, sits on the ground, and very slowly and deliberately closes his eyes and places both hands over his ears—blocking out the sights and sounds of the inhuman, bloody slawter.

Dervish is right. It’s not something that should be seen. Yet I have to watch, at least for a while, as Lord Loss savages and slaughters one person after another, dragging them kicking and screaming up close to the barrier so we can see and hear more clearly. It’s dreadful, the ways he finds to torture and kill them. I want to reach through and stop him, but my powers are swiftly fading. Even if there was some way of breaking through the barrier, I no longer have the strength to harm him. I’d have to go back in, but that would be suicide.

Juni regains consciousness while Lord Loss is hard at work. Groans, sits up, looks around groggily, then leaps to her feet, eyes wide. “It’s OK,” I tell her. “We made it. They can’t—”

“What happened?” she shouts, striding up to the barrier, stopping just short of it, studying the bloody scenes within, astonished, on the verge of tears.

“You were knocked out,” Bill-E tells her. “We pulled you through.”

“But… the barrier…” She touches it. Pulls her hand back quickly when she feels the power.

“The hole’s gone,” I explain. “It was only temporary. We got out as many as we could. The rest…” I shake my head sadly.

Juni stares at Lord Loss and his victims, her pale skin flushed, dried blood caking the back of her head where she was struck. She’s trembling with confusion and fear, like the rest of us. I think about giving her a hug but I’m too tired. So I just stand and stare with her.

Gradually we all turn away from the horrific scenes, sickened, weeping and shaking, grasping each other for support and comfort. I’m one of the last to look away, watching for Bo, hoping against hope that she’ll show, that another hole in the barrier can be opened, that I’ll be able to get her out.

But she doesn’t appear. She’s either still looking for Tump and Abe or—more likely—has been killed by a demon. If the latter, I hope it was quick and painless, though I don’t suppose it was. Who’d have thought that of all the deaths today, Bo Kooniart’s would hit me hardest.

Eventually, I look around and do a quick head count. Thirty-four. Of all those working on the film… hundreds of people… only thirty-four remain.

I’m about to sit, when one of the faces catches my attention. Slowly, incredulously, I march across and glare with contempt and hatred at a bruised, dazed but very much alive Chuda Sool.

“You!” I snarl. He looks up timidly. “How dare you? So many dead because of your treachery, but you sit here among the living, meek as an innocent child. You should have stayed behind with your masters!”

“Please,” Chuda croaks. “I didn’t know… they said… I thought…”

“You knew!” I scream. “They said they’d spare you—that’s the only thing you got wrong. That’s your only complaint.” I grab his head and force him to look at the destruction on the other side of the barrier. “You made this happen! They’re dying—dead—because of you!”

Chuda starts to cry—but with fear, not regret. “Don’t hurt me. Please… I can help you… I know spells. They promised me a long life, hundreds, maybe thousands of years. How could I say no? Davida convinced me. She set this up. She’s the one you should blame.”

“Davida’s dead,” I growl. “She got her comeuppance. Now you will too.”

I reach deep within myself for the dwindling flames of magic, intent on destroying this traitor.

“No, Grubbs,” Bill-E says quietly, laying a hand on my right arm.

“He deserves it!” I yell.

“He probably deserves a whole lot worse,” Bill-E agrees. “But it’s not for you or me to pass judgement. We don’t have the right to take his life. You’ll become a killer, no better than any of those demons, if you murder him.”

“It’s execution, not murder,” I growl.

“Different word, same thing,” Bill-E says. “It’s wrong. You’d hate yourself.”

“He’s right,” Juni says, leaving the barrier and stepping up on my other side. “You’re a child, Grubbs. No child should ever kill.” Chuda smiles at her pitifully, but her eyes are hard. “Especially when there are plenty of capable adults around,” Juni whispers, then grabs Chuda’s head with both hands. His eyes fly wide open—then fill with a white light. He gibbers madly, trying to knock her hands away, but Juni holds firm, pumping magic into Chuda’s brain, frying the circuits, her mouth twisted into a wicked leer.

Chuda falls back when she releases him, jerks a few times, then dies, face contorted, skin black at the sides of his head. Bill-E and I gawp at Juni, shocked. Dervish is staring at her too, along with most of the people around us.

“I did what I had to,” Juni mutters, looking away to hide her shame. “We couldn’t let him walk away, not after…” She gestures at Slawter.

“B-b-b-but…” Bill-E stutters.

“Don’t,” Juni stops him. “The last thing I want right now is a child lecturing me about ethics.” She walks off, rubbing her hands up and down her arms.

“Leave her,” Dervish says sadly. He looks over his shoulder and spots Lord Loss finishing off another of his playthings. Sighs and stands. “Let’s gather everybody together and get out of here. I’ve had enough of bloody demons.”

How do you explain away a massive demonic killing spree? Easy—by covering it up and pretending it was an accident.

Dervish spends the rest of the evening making calls, to the Disciples, police, politicians, journalists, firemen, doctors and nurses. The Disciples have a network of contacts, ready and waiting to smooth over the cracks when something like this happens. It’s how they’ve managed to keep previous crossings quiet in the past. They come in their droves, the first arriving late at night, setting up camp close to the barrier around Slawter, so they can move in swiftly and mop up when the time is right.

They keep the survivors together for four days, in vans and tents brought to the site by more of Dervish’s contacts. Nobody’s allowed to leave or make a call. Counsellors work hard, making the most of the time, trying to help people stave off nightmares and come to terms with the deaths of relatives and friends.

Waiting for the demons to finish off the last few victims and return to their own universe. I often feel like going back to the barrier, to view the devastation, to curse Lord Loss or just stand there and let him curse me. But I don’t.

The barrier finally dissolves when the last of the Demonata take their leave. Dervish and a team of volunteers enter the town and demolish the magical lodestone in the D warehouse, closing the tunnel between universes. When the threat of a follow-up invasion has been averted, they retrieve the bodies and body parts, stack them in buildings around the town, then set the place alight. It’s a gruesome end for the unfortunate victims, but necessary to mask the demonic marks and trick the outside world into believing they died in a ferocious fire.

That’s the official story, built on the bones of Bill-E’s gas leak rumour—there was a massive explosion and a wave of fire swept through the town with brutal speed, killing most of the cast and crew. I doubt if all the survivors will stick to it. I’m sure a few will protest in the months and years to come, tell their friends, go to the media, try to spread the truth. But who’ll believe them? If anyone goes on a TV show prattling about demons, the audience will think they’re a crank.

The teams destroy the film reels too. Davida’s notes. The models, props, costumes. A thorough job, leaving nothing behind, removing every last trace of the Demonata, planting fake evidence in its place. The only people who knew what the film was about were all in Slawter. As far as the rest of the world will ever know, Davida Haym’s last film was going to be a departure from her earlier movies—a love story with a touch of science fiction.

I think, if Davida’s watching in some phantom form, that will hurt the most. Not the deaths, the betrayal by the demons, her own grisly slaughter. But that her film was destroyed and all traces of her masterpiece removed.

Good! I hope her ghost chokes on it.

Standing beside Dervish as the fires rage, the night sky red and yellow, thick with smoke. Watching Slawter disappear forever. Most of the survivors and emergency crew are with us. Silence reigns.

“It’s over,” Dervish says as the roof of a large building—maybe the D warehouse—caves in with a raucous crash, sending splinters of flames flickering high up into the sky. “In the morning we can leave. Everyone can go.”

The sweetest words I’ve ever heard.

Juni is gone before we wake. She leaves a note for Dervish. She’s been quiet and withdrawn these past few days, not saying much, refusing to discuss the mayhem or her killing of Chuda Sool.

In the note she says she’s confused. She knows Chuda was guilty, deserving of punishment, but she can’t believe she acted so callously. Her whole world has changed. She knows about demons now and she’s seen a side of herself that she doesn’t like. She needs time alone, to reflect, consider, explore. She says she has strong feelings for Dervish, but doesn’t know if she ever wants to see him again. Tells him not to look for her. Promises to visit him in Carcery Vale one day—if. That’s the last word—if. I think she meant to write more, but couldn’t.

Dervish doesn’t say anything when he reads the note. Just hands it to me and Bill-E once he’s done, then goes for a long, lonely walk. I’d help him if I could, say something to make him feel better. But I don’t know what to say. Bill-E doesn’t either. So we don’t say anything when he returns, only stay close in case he needs us.

The evacuation proceeds smoothly, people leaving without a fuss, driven home or to train stations, airports, wherever. Some of the counsellors travel with the worst affected, not only to comfort them, but to make sure they don’t harm themselves or wind up in trouble.

I think some of the survivors won’t be able to live with what they’ve witnessed. This will haunt all of us, but it will hit some harder than others. I think there will be a few more deaths in the years to come.

I’d like to do something to help the worst afflicted, but I can’t. It’s not possible to save everybody. Even heroes have their all-too-human limits.

By four in the afternoon the last cars are leaving. The press has been told of the supposed fire and news teams begin to arrive, eager to scour the ashes of Slawter—renamed Haymsville for the benefit of the rest of the world. They’re angry to find none of the survivors here, and they hit the roof when they learn that the emergency crews were on the scene so long before them. But there’s nothing they can do about it except moan.

I watch with little interest as the reporters circle the skeletal remains of the town. I’ve had enough of the place.

I just want to forget about it. Put it behind me and move on.

Bill-E is beside me, silent as a corpse. He’s kept himself busy in the aftermath, spending a lot of time with the other children who made it out alive, talking about what happened, trying to help. That’s been his way of dealing with the tragedy. He doesn’t want time alone to think about it, to remember, to fear. At night he wakes screaming, but in the day he fights the memories. What will he do when we’re home and he has nothing but ordinary life to occupy his time? What will I do?

“They didn’t find all the bodies,” Bill-E says. “I heard Dervish talking about it with another Disciple. The demons took some people back to their universe. Maybe Bo was one of them. Maybe she’ll escape and return. I’m sure it’s possible. I mean, Dervish did it, right?”

I grunt negatively in reply, knowing in my heart that Dervish would have told us if there was even the slightest glimmer of hope.

I turn to face Bill-E. I instinctively know that this is the right moment, the one I’ve been waiting so many months for. Time to tell him we’re brothers.

“Bill-E…” I begin, but before I get any further, Dervish appears.

“Hey,” he says with forced good humour. “You want to stay here all night or are you coming with me?”

“Coming where?” Bill-E asks, turning, and the moment is lost. I won’t make the great revelation, not now. Later. When another good time comes around.

“Yes—where?” I ask, turning like Bill-E, so we’re both looking at our uncle.

“Home,” Dervish croaks. And as soon as he says that, for reasons I don’t quite understand, all three of us smile shakily and then start to cry.

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