Liam, Bidely, and Bas—the Father, the Mother,
and the Holy Bust!!!
OBEs (Order of the Bloody Entrails) to:
Geir, Wiedar, Jon, and all the nocturnal
Norwegian Shan crew
Geraldine Stroud—the ripper skipper!
Mary Byrne—the tipsy first mate!
Stella Paskins—10 rounds, not out!!
the Christopher Little chorus line
And an extra special thank you to all of my demonically delightful Shansters, especially those of you who have kept me company on the web through the run of the series. But take heed—if you desert me at this point, heads will roll!!!!
THE LAST LAUGH
I miss Cal,” Dervish says. “We fought a lot when we were young, like all brothers, but we were always there for one another.”
We’re lying in the mouth of a cave, admiring the desolate desert view, sheltered from the fierce afternoon sun.
“It’s funny,” Dervish chuckles. “I thought I’d be the first to go. The life I chose, the risks I took… I was sure I’d die young and nastily. I pictured Cal living to be eighty or ninety. Strange how things work out, isn’t it?”
I stare at the hole in the left side of Dervish’s chest. Blood is seeping from it and I can see bone inside. “Yeah,” I grunt. “Hilarious.”
Dervish shifts and grimaces. He’s in a lot of pain, but he won’t have to suffer much longer. My uncle was in bad shape before we took on an army of demons. Now, having come through hell, he doesn’t have a prayer. He’s finished. We both know it. That’s why we came up here from the underground cave, so he could die in the open, breathing fresh air.
“I remember one time,” Dervish continues, “not long after Cal married your mum. We had a huge fight. He wanted me to quit being a Disciple, marry and have kids, lead a normal life. He thought I was crazy to do what I did.”
“He wasn’t wrong,” I snort.
“You love it really,” Dervish grins. Blood trickles down his chin.
“Save your breath,” I tell him, trying not to shudder.
“What for? I won’t need it where I’m going.” He raises an eyebrow. “You don’t think I can survive, do you?”
“Of course not. I’m just sick of listening to you whine.”
Dervish laughs softly. The laugh turns into a blood-drenched cough. I hold him as he shakes and moans, spewing up blood and phlegm. When the fit passes, he asks me to move him out of the cave. “I don’t think I need worry about sunburn,” he murmurs.
I pick up my dying uncle and carry him outside. He doesn’t weigh much. Thin and drawn, overstretched by the world. He rests his head on my chest, like a baby cuddling up to its mother. I prop him against a large rock, then settle beside him. His eyes stay closed. He’s dozed off. I study him sadly, memorizing every line of his creased face, brushing the wilting spikes of hair back from his forehead, remembering all the nights he comforted me when I’d had a nightmare.
With a jolt he wakes and looks around, alarmed. When he sees me, and the hole in his chest, he relaxes. “Oh, it was only a dream. I thought we were in trouble.”
“Nothing can trouble us here.”
Dervish smiles at me lopsidedly. “I loved having you live with me. You were like my son. Billy was too, but I never got to spend the sort of time with him that I did with you.”
“If you were my real dad, I’d have asked to be put into foster care.”
Dervish’s smile widens. “That’s what I like to hear. You’re a true Grady. We don’t do sympathetic.”
His eyes wander and he sighs. “I hope I see Cal again. Billy and Meera. Even Beranabus. So many who’ve gone before me. Do you think there’s an afterlife, Grubbs? Will I be reborn? Or is there just… nothing?”
“There has to be something,” I mutter. “Why would the universe give us souls if not? It’d be pointless.”
Dervish nods slowly, then frowns at something behind me. “What’s that?” he wheezes.
My head shoots around and I scan the surrounding area for danger. But I can’t see anything except dry earth and rocks. “There’s nothing—” I begin, then stop. Dervish’s eyes have glazed over. He’s not breathing. His face is calm.
I tremble and reach out to close his eyelids, blinking back tears. My fingers are just a few inches from his eyes when… snap! Dervish’s teeth clamp together and he bites the tip of my index finger.
“Hellfire!” I roar, toppling backwards, heart racing.
“Your face,” Dervish snickers—always the bloody joker!
“Try it again,” I snarl. “Next time I’ll dig a hole and bury you alive.”
“Don’t be so sensitive,” Dervish coos, still giggling. He runs an eye over my unnatural muscles, the tufts of red hair sprouting from my skin, my wolfish features, yellow eyes, jagged claws, and blood-spattered fangs. “You’re a real mess.”
“With a role model like you, I never had a hope,” I sniff.
“Poor Grubbs.” Dervish makes goo-goo eyes at me. “All you ever wanted was for someone to show you some love.”
We both laugh.
“I’m going to miss you,” Dervish sighs.
“Yeah,” I mutter. “I’ll… y’know… you too.”
“Part of me wishes I could hang on and see how it all turns out. But then I think about the odds…” He shakes his head.
“Don’t worry,” I say grandly. “I’ll take care of the Demonata. The Shadow too. I’ve seen enough movies to know how these things end. We’ll all be high-fiving each other and celebrating a glorious victory by this time next month. But you won’t see any of it. Because you’ll be dead.”
Dervish scowls. “You really know how to comfort a dying man.”
We’re silent awhile. The flow of blood has slowed, but I don’t kid myself—it’s only because he doesn’t have much left. There’s no getting better, not this time. Dervish has cheated death for the last few months, but he played his last card when we faced the demon hordes.
“What’s going to become of you, Grubbs?” he asks. “This new look… the way you kill so freely…”
“I’ll be fine.” I poke the ground with my bare, hairy toes.
“No,” he says. “You’ve changed, and not just on the outside.” He lays a weak, bloodstained hand on mine. “Don’t become a monster. Remember who you are, the people who love you, why you fight. Beranabus acted inhumanly, but he was never fully human to begin with. You were. You are. Don’t lose track of that.”
“Is this really how you want to go?” I squint. “Lecturing me like some second-rate TV psychiatrist?”
“I’m serious,” he growls.
“Don’t be stupid,” I smile. “It’s far too late for that.”
Dervish rolls his eyes, then shrugs. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Dervish shivers and glares at the sun. “It’s so cold. Why’s there no warmth in that thing?”
“Eclipse.” It’s the first thing that pops into my head. Dervish cocks an eyebrow but otherwise ignores the inanity.
“I wish we could have had more leisure time,” he says. “Apart from the trip to Slawter, I never took you on any vacations.”
“If Slawter was your idea of a vacation, that was probably a good thing.”
“Orlando,” Dervish nods. “That’s where we should have gone. Roller coasters. You, Billy, and me. We’d have had so much fun.”
“We were never meant for a life like that,” I mumble. “I used to think I could choose it, just turn my back on magic and demons. But I’ve been locked into
this course since birth, just like you. Bec, Beranabus—all of us—we never really had a choice. I hate the unfairness of fate, but…”
I pause. Dervish’s head has slumped. I tilt his head back, keeping my fingers clear of his mouth, expecting him to bite again. But this time it isn’t a joke. His eyes are closed. The last breath has slipped from his semi-parted lips. His heart has stopped beating.
“Guess the last laugh’s on you, old-timer,” I croak, letting his head rest on my shoulder and patting him clumsily.
Rising, I gently lay him back against the rock, then pad away and choose a spot in the shade. As I bend, I get the feeling that Dervish is sneaking up on me. I turn quickly, lips lifting into a smile, but he hasn’t moved. He never will again.
Sighing emptily, I clench my fingers tightly, then drive them into the dry, hard-packed soil, scooping out the first fistful of my dead uncle’s grave.
CREEPING through a factory, in pursuit of a snake demon twenty-five feet long. I wouldn’t have thought a beast that size could hide easily, but I’ve been searching for several minutes without success. I should be out on the streets, battling the masses, but this demon killed a Disciple. She was an elderly, frail lady, but she could swing a spike-headed mace more effectively than anyone I’ve ever met. I never asked her name, but I liked her. I’m going to make her killer pay.
I slide around a corner, checking the pipes overhead. I feel edgy, which is odd. I haven’t felt anything but cold, detached hatred recently. I guess the tension of the moment has got to me. I’m sure the demon won’t prove to be a serious threat—I’m more than a match for any of the familiars who cross through windows—but it’s fun to pretend I’m in danger. I’d almost forgotten what fear was like.
A scraping noise behind me. I whirl, a ball of magical energy crackling at my fingertips. But it’s only Moe. He followed me into the building, even though I told him to stay outside. Moe’s one of three werewolves who’ve been with me since Wolf Island. Werewolves don’t need names, but after a few weeks with the trio, I felt like I should call them something. So I christened them Curly, Larry, and Moe, after the Three Stooges. I never had much time for the Stooges, but Dervish loved them, so I named the werewolves in his memory.
Letting Moe fall into place behind me, I push farther into the factory, past a long conveyor belt. Workers were sitting in the chairs alongside it just an hour ago. It’s been nearly a month since Dervish died in the desert. There have been dozens of crossings since then. Hundreds of thousands of humans have been killed. People are terrified and desperate, but life goes on. A few of us know the cause is hopeless, but we haven’t shared the bad news. As far as the general population is concerned, we can beat these demonic invaders. So, as the body count mounts, folk carry on normally, manning their posts even in the face of an impending crossing, slipping away to safety at the last moment, returning as soon as the window closes.
Moe growls and darts to a nearby locker. I start to follow, assuming it’s the demon, but when he rips the locker door off and tears open a lunchbox, I realize he’s found a sandwich.
“Idiot,” I grunt, turning back to the conveyor belt.
Fangs sink into my thigh. Yelling, I fall and the snake drags me into the gloom beneath the belt, where it’s been lying in wait. I strike at its eyes, but it doesn’t have any. Gripping me tightly, it drives its fangs farther into my flesh, crushing the bones in my leg.
I once read a survival pamphlet that said if a giant snake ever got hold of you, you should lie still, so it thinks you are dead. Then, as it swallows your legs, you free your knife (too bad if you don’t have one) and hold it by your side. As the snake devours your thighs and sets to work on your stomach, you drive the tip of the knife up through the roof of its mouth and deep into its brain. That always grossed out girls when I told them!
I’m sure it’s sound advice, but I don’t have time to test it. Unlike most large snakes, this demon’s poisonous and I can feel its venom coursing through my veins. I don’t have the luxury of playing possum. Besides, that’s not my style.
Grunting against the pain, I grab the demon’s fangs and snap them off. The beast chokes and releases me, spewing poisonous pink blood. I drive one of the broken fangs into the side of its head. It squeals like a baby and thrashes across the floor. I hang on, riding it bronco-style, stabbing at it again and again. More blood froths from the wounds, soaking my face and chest.
As the snake slams against the conveyor belt, knocking it over, I thrust my head in its mouth and roar down its throat. A ball of magic bursts from my lips and rips through the demon’s body. It explodes into tattered, slimy shreds. I pick some of the foul scraps from between my teeth, then focus magic into my leg and repair the damage. Getting to my feet, I look for Moe. He’s still munching the sandwich.
“Great help you were,” I snarl, using more magic to clear my veins of poison.
Moe looks at me guiltily, then holds out the last piece of sandwich. I turn my nose up at it and hobble for the doorway, eager to squeeze in more killing before the window between universes shuts and robs me of my demonic punching bags.
The streets are awash with demons, the usual assortment of vile concoctions, many cobbled together from bodies resembling those of animals, fish, and birds. Demons are an unimaginative lot. Most can use magic to mold their forms, but rather than give themselves original, amazing bodies, they copy ours.
Dozens of werewolves are fighting the demons. I had them imported from Wolf Island, to replace those of my original pack. Most of the new specimens aren’t as sturdy, fast, or smart as those I first chose, but they get the job done. Curly’s in the middle of them, acting as pack leader in my absence. She’s a fierce creature, taller than me, though not as broad. Sharp too. She can always spot if one of the werewolves disobeys orders and attacks a human instead of a demon. She pounces on the offending party in an instant and slits the beast’s throat without blinking. No second chances with Curly.
Soldiers and freshly blooded mages support the werewolves. The soldiers don’t do much damage—you can only kill a demon with magic—but the mages are doing a pretty good job. They’re learning quickly. Not up to the level of the Disciples, but getting there fast.
I move among the apprentices, taking the place of the mace-wielding old lady. There aren’t many Disciples left, so they’re spread thinly across the world, one or two per group of mages. I see the men and women around me flinch as I pass. They know who I am. They’ve seen me kill more demons than anybody else. They know they’re safe when I’m around. But I’m a fearsome sight, and most find it hard to suppress a shudder when they find themselves beside me.
I could change back if I wished, resume my human form. But I prefer it this way. It’s easier to lead people to their death if you’re not truly one of them.
A girl, no more than twelve or thirteen, is playing with a wooden yo-yo. As a demon comes within range, she snaps the yo-yo at it. The wood splinters and the shards puncture the demon’s eyes. She replaces it with another yo-yo, this time a plastic one.
“Nice work,” I grunt.
She looks up at me and fakes a yawn. “Whatever.”
Magic isn’t a natural part of our universe. But some humans—mages—are born with the ability to tap into it. When a demon opens a window from its universe to ours, magical energy spills through. If you’re a mage, you’re in business.
In the past, very few mages got to unleash their power. Windows weren’t opened often. It was hard for the Disciples to find new recruits. Now that demons have gone into overdrive, and two or three windows open every day, it’s simple. When a window is forming, we arrange for crowds of people to wait close by, then test them for magical prowe
ss. Those who show promise are thrown into the fray after a quick burst of training, to perish or triumph.
I see a window in the near distance. A child, even younger than the girl with the yo-yo, stands to one side. A man and woman are behind her. I guess they’re using the girl. She probably had no choice in this. But, innocent or not, the Demonata are working through her, so she has to die.