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Chapter 3 First Impression

the island of hybras, LIMBOONE night, Imp No.l dreamed he was a demon. He dreamed his horns were curved and pointed. His hide was coarse and armoured, and his talons were sharp enough to rip the hide from a wild boar's back. He dreamed the other demons cowered before him, then scurried away lest he injure them while in the throes of his battle spasms.

That night he dreamed this magnificent dream, then awoke to find he was still merely an imp. Of course tech-nically he did not have this dream at night. The sky over Hybras is forever tinged with the red glow of dawn. But No.l thought of his rest period as night, even though he'd never seen one.

Imp No.l dressed quickly, rushing into the hallway to check his reflection in the lodge mirror, just in case he had

warped in his sleep. But there was no change. Still the same unimpressive figure as usual. One hundred per cent imp.

'Grrr,' he said to his image. And even the No.l in the mirror was unconvinced. And if he couldn't scare himself, then he was not a scary creature and might as well get a job changing baby imps.

There was some potential in the mirror. Imp No.l had the general skeletal structure of a proper demon. He was about the same height as a sheep sitting on its rear. His skin was grey as moon dust and pebbled with armoured plating. Spiralling red runes wound their way round his chest, up along his neck and across his forehead. His eyes had striking orange irises, and his jaw had a noble jut about it, or so he liked to think, though others had called it protruding. He had two arms, slightly longer than an aver-age human ten-year-old, and two legs, slightly shorter. Fingers and toes: eight of each. So nothing weird there. One tail, more of a stump, actually, but excellent for burrowing holes if you're hunting for grubs. All in all, your typical imp. But at fourteen years old, the oldest imp in Hybras. Roughly fourteen years old, that is. It was hard to be exact when it was always dawn. The hour of power as the warlocks used to call it, before they got sucked into the depths of cold space. The hour of power. Very catchy.

Hadley Shrivelington Basset, a demon who was actually six months N°l 's junior, but already fully fledged, strolled down the tiled corridor on his way to the washroom. His horns corkscrewed impressively and his ears had at least four points. Hadley enjoyed parading his new demon self in front of the imps. Generally demons shouldn't even bunk in the imp lodge, but Basset seemed in no hurry to move out.

'Hey, imp,' he said, snapping his towel at No.l's behind. It connected with a sharp crack. 'Are you going to warp any time soon? Maybe if I get you angry enough.'

The towel stung, but No.l didn't get angry. Just nerv-ous. Everything made him nervous. That was his problem.

Time for a quick subject change. 'Morning, Basset. Nice ears.

'I know,' said Hadley, tipping the points one after another. 'Four points already and I think there's a fifth coming up. Abbot himself only has six points.'

Leon Abbot, the hero of Hybras. The demons' self-proclaimed saviour.

Hadley snapped No.l again with the towel.

'Don't you get a pain in your face, looking in the mirror, imp? Because you're giving me a pain in mine.'

He put his hands on his hips, threw back his head and laughed. It was all very dramatic. You'd think there was an artist in the wings doing sketches.

'Eh, Basset. You're not wearing any silver.'

The laughing stopped, to be replaced by a froglike gurgle. Shrivelington Basset bolted down the lodge corri-dor without pause for more bullying. No.l knew scaring people half to death shouldn't give him any satisfaction, and generally it wouldn't. But for Basset, he'd make an exception. Not wearing silver on your person is much more than a fashion disaster for a demon or imp. For them it can be fatal, or worse. Painful for all eternity. This rule usually only applied by the volcano crater, but luckily Basset was too scared to remember that.

No.l ducked back into the senior imp dorm, hoping his room-mates were still snoring. No such luck. They were knuckling the sleep from their eyes and already searching for the target of their daily ribbing, which was of course him. He was by far the oldest in the senior dorm — no one else had made it to fourteen without warping. It was getting to the point where he was a permanent fixture. Each night his legs protruded from the foot of the bed, and his blan-ket barely covered the swirling moon markings on his chest.

'Hey, Runt,' called one. 'Are you going to warp today, do you think? Or will pink flowers grow out of my armpits?'

'I'll check your armpits tomorrow,' sniggered another.

More abuse. This time from a couple of twelve-year-old imps who were so pumped up that they were likely to warp before class. But they were right. He would have gone for the pink flowers option too.

Runt was his imp nickname. They didn't have real names, not until after they warped. Then they would be given a name from the sacred text. Until that moment, he was stuck with No.l or Runt.

He smiled good-naturedly. It didn't pay to antagonize his dorm-mates. Even though they were smaller than him today, they could be a lot bigger tomorrow.

'I'm feeling pumped,' he said, flexing his biceps. 'Today is going to be my day.'

Everyone in the dorm was excited. Tomorrow they could be out of this room for good. Once they warped they were transferred to decent accommodation and nothing in Hybras was off-limits.

'Who do we hate?' shouted one.

'Humans!' came the reply.

The next minute or so was spent howling at the ceil-ing. Imp No.l joined in, but he wasn't really feeling it.

It shouldn't be 'who do we hate', he thought. It really should be 'whom'.

But this probably wasn't a good time to bring that up.

Imp school

Sometimes No.l wished he had known his mother. This was not a very demonlike desire, so he kept it to himself. Demons were born equal, and whatever they made of them-selves, they did with their claws and teeth. As soon as the female laid an egg, it was tossed in a bucket of mineral-enriched mud and left to hatch. Imps never knew who their families were, and therefore everyone was their family.

But still, some days, when his self-esteem had taken a bit of a pounding, No.l couldn't help gazing wistfully across at the female compound on his way to school and wonder-ing which one was his mother.

There was one demoness with red markings like his own and a kind face. Often she smiled across the wall at him. She was looking for her son, No.l suddenly realized. And from that day he smiled back. They could both pretend to have found each other.

No.1 had never experienced a feeling of belonging. He ached for the time when he could wake up and look forward to what lay ahead. That day hadn't come yet, and it wasn't likely to, not for as long as they lived in Limbo. Nothing would change. Nothing could change. Well, that wasn't strictly true. Things could get worse.

Imp School was a low stone building with little ventila-tion and hardly any light. Perfect for most imps. The stench and the smoky fire made them feel hard done by and warlike.

No.l longed for light and fresh air. He was uniquely different, a brand-new point on the compass. Or maybe an old one. No.l often thought that perhaps he could be a warlock. True, there hadn't been a warlock in the demon pride since they lifted out of time, but maybe he was the first, and that was why he felt so differently about almost everything. No.1 had raised his theory with Master Rawley, but the teacher had cuffed his earhole and sent him digging grubs for the other imps.

There was another thing. Why couldn't they, just once, have a cooked meal? What would be so horrible about a soft stew and maybe even a few spices? Why did imps delight in chomping their food down before it stopped wriggling?

As usual, No.l was the last to school. The other dozen or so imps were already in the hall, revelling in the thoughts of another day spent hunting, skinning, butchering and possibly even warping. No.l wasn't feeling particularly hopeful. Maybe today would be his day, but he doubted it. The warp spasm was brought on by bloodlust, and No.l had never felt the slightest urge to hurt any other creature. He even felt bad for the rabbits he ate and sometimes dreamed that their little spirits were haunting him.

Master Rawley sat at his bench sharpening a curved sword. Every now and then he would hack a chunk from the bench and grunt with satisfaction. The desk's surface was littered with various weapons for hacking, sawing and cutting. And, of course, one book. A copy of Lady Heatherington Smythe's Hedgerow. The book Leon Abbot had brought back from the old world. The book that would save them all, according to Abbot himself.

When Rawley had sharpened the blade to a silver cres-cent, he banged the hilt of the weapon on his bench.

'Sit down,' he roared at the imps. 'And make it fast, you shower of stinking rabbit droppings. I've got a fresh blade here that I'm just itching to test.'

The imps hurried to their places. Rawley would not cut them, but he was certainly not above strapping their backs with the flat of his sword. And then again, maybe he would cut them.

No.l squashed in on the end of the fourth row. Look tough, he told himself. Sneer a bit.You're an imp!

Rawley sank his blade into the wood, leaving it there quivering. The other imps grunted. Impressed. All No.l could think was: Show off. And: He's ruined that bench.

'So, pig slime,' said Rawley. 'You want to be demons, do you?'

'Yes, Master Rawley!' roared the imps.

'You think you have what it takes?'

'Yes, Master Rawley!'

Rawley spread his muscled arms wide. He threw back a green head and roared. 'Well then, let me hear it!'

The imps screamed and stomped, bashed their desks with weapons and clattered each other on the shoulders. No.l avoided as much of the consternation as possible while doing his best to seem involved. Not an easy trick.

Finally Rawley settled them down. 'Well, we'll see. This morning is a big morning for some of you, but for others it will be just one more day of dishonour, grub-hunting with the females.' He stared pointedly at No.l. 'But before we get to oozing, we have to do some snoozing.'

Much groaning from the imps.

'That's right, girls. History time. Nothing to kill and nothing to eat, just knowledge for the sake of it.' Rawley shrugged his giant knotted shoulders. 'It's a waste of time, if you ask me. But I'm under orders here.'

'That's right, Master Rawley,' said a voice from the door-way. 'You're under orders.'

The voice belonged to Leon Abbot himself, paying one of his surprise visits to the school. Abbot was immediately surrounded by adoring imps, clamouring to receive a friendly cuff on the ear, or to touch his sword.

Abbot endured this adoration for a moment, then brushed the imps aside. He elbowed Rawley out of the prime spot at the head of the class, then waited for silence. He didn't have to wait long. Abbot was an impressive spec-imen, even if you didn't know a thing about his past. He was almost five feet tall, with curved ram horns that jutted from his forehead. His armoured scales were deep red and covered his entire torso and forehead. Very impressive, and of course difficult to penetrate. You could bash away with an axe all day at Abbot's chest and get nowhere. Indeed one of his party tricks was to challenge anyone in the room to hurt him.

Abbot threw back his rawhide cloak and slapped his chest.

'Right, who wants to have a go?'

Several imps nearly warped right then and there.

'Make a line, ladies,' said Rawley, as if he was still in control.

The imps piled to the head of the class, hammering Abbot with fist, foot and forehead. They bounced off, every one. Much to Abbot's amusement.

Idiots, thought No.l. As if they could possibly succeed.

Actually, No.l had a theory about armoured scales. A few years ago he had been toying with a discarded baby armoured scale and he'd noticed that they were made of dozens of layers, which made them almost impossible to breach head on, whereas if you went at them at an angle with something hot…

'What about you, Runt?'

The raucous laughter of his classmates stomped all over No.l's thoughts.

No.l physically twitched with shock as he realized that not only had Leon Abbot spoken to him, he had actually used his dormitory nickname.

'Yessir, pardon me? What?'

Abbot thumped his own chest. 'You think you can get through the thickest plates on Hybras?'

'I doubt they're the thickest,' said No.l 's mouth, before his brain had a chance to catch up.

'Raahhr!' roared Abbot, or something similar. 'Are you insulting me, impling?'

Being called impling was even worse than being called Runt. The term 'impling' was generally reserved for the recently hatched.

'No, no, of course not, Master Abbot. I just thought that, naturally, some of the older demons would have more layers on their scales. But yours are probably tougher — no dead layers on the inside.'

Abbot's slitted eyes squinted at No.l. 'You seem to know a lot about scales. Why don't you try to get through these?'

No.l tried to laugh it off. 'Oh, I really don't think…'

But Abbot wasn't even smiling. 'I really do think, Runt. Get your stumpy tail up here before I give Master Rawley licence to do what he has wanted to do for a long time.'

Rawley pulled his blade from the bench and winked at No.l .This was not a friendly you-and-I-share-a-secret wink, it was a let's-see-what-colour-your-insides-are wink.

No.l sloped reluctantly to the head of the class, passing the smouldering embers of last night's fire. Wooden meat skewers jutted from the coals. No.l paused for a beat, gazing at the sharp skewers. Thinking that if he had the guts, one of those would probably do the trick.

Abbot followed his gaze. 'What?You think a meat skewer is going to help you?' The demon snorted. 'I was buried in molten lava once, Runt, and I'm still here. Bring one up. Do your worst.'

'Do your worst,' echoed several of No.l's classmates, their loyalties obvious.

N°l reluctantly selected a wooden needle from the fire. The handle was solid enough, but the tip was black and flaky. No.l tapped the skewer against his leg to dislodge loose ash.

Abbot grabbed the meat skewer from No.l 's hand, hold-ing it aloft.

'This is your chosen weapon,' he said mockingly. 'The Runt thinks he's hunting rabbits.'

The jeers and hoots broke over No.l's furrowed brow like a wave. He could feel one of his headaches coming on. He could always count on one to show up just when it was least wanted.

'This is probably a bad idea,' he admitted. T should just pound on your armoured plates like those other morons… I mean, my classmates.'

'No, no,' said Abbot, handing back the skewer. 'You go ahead, little bee, prick me with your sting.'

Prick me with your sting, warbled No.l in a highly insult-ing imitation of the pride leader. Of course he didn't warble this aloud. No.l was rarely confrontational outside his head.

Aloud he said, 'I'll do my best, Master Abbot.'

'I'll do my best, Master Abbot,' warbled Abbot in a highly insulting imitation of Imp No.l, as loudly as he could.

No.l felt beads of sweat spiral down his stumpy tail. There really was no good way out of this situation. If he failed, then he was in for another bout of jeering and mild personal injury. But if he won, then he really lost.

Abbot knocked on the crown of his head. 'Hello, Runt. Let's get moving. There are imps here waiting to warp.'

No.l stared at the tip of the skewer and allowed the problem to take over. He placed the flat of his right hand on Abbot's chest. Then wrapping his fingers tightly round the thick end, he twisted the skewer upwards into one of Abbot's armoured scales.

He twisted slowly, concentrating on the point of contact. The scale greyed slightly with ash, but no penetration. Acrid smoke twirled round the skewer.

Abbot chuckled, delighted. 'Trying to start a fire there, Runt? Should I summon the water brigade?'

One of the imps threw his lunch at No.1. It slid down the back of his head. A lump of fat, bone and gristle.

No.l persisted, rolling the skewer between thumb and forefinger. He rolled faster now, feeling the skewer take hold, burning a slight indent.

No.l felt an excitement build in him. He tried to contain it, think about consequences, but he couldn't. He was on the point of success here. He was just about to accomplish with brains something all these other idiots couldn't do with brawn. Of course they would pummel him, and Abbot would invent some excuse to undermine his achievement, but No.l would know. And so would Abbot.

The skewer penetrated, just a fraction. No.l felt the plate give way, perhaps a single layer. The little imp felt some-thing he had never felt before. Triumph. The feeling built inside him, irresistible, unquenchable. It became more than a feeling. It transformed into a force, rebuilding some forgotten neural pathways, releasing an ancient energy inside No.l.

What's happening? wondered No.l. Should I stop? Can I stop?

Yes and no were the answers to those questions. Yes, he should stop, but no, he couldn't. The force flowed through his limbs, raising his temperature. He heard voices chant-ing inside his mind. No.l realized that he was chanting with them. Chanting what? He had no idea, but somehow his memory knew.

The strange force throbbed in No.l's fingers, in time with his heartbeat, then pulsed out of his body into the skewer. The pin turned to stone. Wood morphed to gran-ite before his eyes. The rock virus spread along the shaft, rippling like water. In the flash of a spark, the skewer was completely made of stone. It expanded slightly into the breach in Abbot's armoured plate.

The expansion cracked the plate open a couple of centimetres. Abbot heard the noise; so did everybody else. The demon pride leader flicked his eyes downwards and realized instantly what was going on.

'Magic,' he hissed. The word was out before he could stop it. With a vicious swipe, he swatted the skewer away from his torso, into the fire.

No.l stared at his throbbing hand. Power still shimmered around his fingertips, a tiny heat haze.

'Magic?' he repeated. 'That means I must be a…'

'Shut your stupid mouth,' snapped Abbot, covering the cracked scale with his cloak. 'Obviously I don't mean actual magic. I mean trickery. You twist the handle on that skewer to make it crack, then you ooh and aah as though you have actually achieved something.'

No.l pulled at Abbot's cloak. 'But your scale?'

Abbot drew the cloak tighter. 'What about my scale? There's not a mark on it. Not so much as a smear. You believe me, don't you?'

No.l sighed. This was Leon Abbot; the truth meant noth-ing. 'Yes, Master Abbot. I believe you.'

'I can tell by your insolent tone that you do not. Very well, proof then.' Abbot whipped back his cloak, revealing an unblemished scale. For a moment, No.l thought he saw a blue spark playing about where the mark had definitely been, but then the spark winked itself out. Blue sparks. Could it be magic?

Abbot jabbed the imp's chest with a rigid finger. 'We've talked about this, Number One. I know you think you're a warlock. But there are no warlocks, there haven't been since we lifted out of time. You are not a warlock. Forget that idiotic notion and concentrate on warping. You're a disgrace to your race.'

No.l was about to risk a protest, when he was grabbed roughly by the arm.

'You slippery little snail,' shouted Rawley, spittle spat-tering No.l's face. 'Trying to trick the pride leader. Get back to your place. I'll deal with you later.'

No.l could do nothing but return to the bench and bear the insults of his classmates. And there were plenty of those, usually accompanied by a missile or blow. But somehow No.l ignored these latest humiliations, staring instead at his own hand. The one that had turned wood to stone. Could it be true? Could he actually be a warlock? And if he was, would that make him feel better, or worse?

A toothpick bounced off his forehead on to the bench. There was a sliver of grey meat stuck to the end. No.l glanced up to find Rawley grinning at him.

'Been trying to get that out for weeks. Wild boar, I think. Now, pay attention, Runt, Master Abbot is trying to educate you.'

Oh yes, the history lesson. It was amazing how much Leon Abbot managed to insert himself into demon history. To hear him tell it, you would think that he had single-handedly saved the eighth family, in spite of the meddling warlocks.

Abbot studied the hooked talons on his fingertips. Each one could gut a large pig. If Abbot's own stories were true, he had warped at age eight while wrestling one of the island's wild dogs. His fingernails had actually changed into talons during the fight, lacerating the dog's side.

No.l found this story highly unlikely. It took hours to warp fully, sometimes days, but Abbot expected them to believe that his warp was instantaneous. Hogwash. And yet all the other imps lapped up these self-glorifying legends.

'Of all the demons who fought in the last battle atTaillte,' droned Abbot, in what he probably thought was a good voice for history lessons, but in what No.l thought was a boring enough voice to turn soft cheese hard. 'I, Leon Abbot, am the last.'

Convenient, thought No.l. Nobody left around to argue. He also thought: You look your age, Leon. Too many barrels of pork fat.

No.l was an uncharitable imp when in a bad mood.

It is the nature of out of time spells that the ageing process is drastically slowed. Abbot had been a young buck when the warlocks lifted Hybras out of time, and so the spell, combined with good genes, had kept him and his huge ego alive ever since. Possibly a thousand years. Of course, that was a thousand years normal time. In Hybras time, a millen-nium meant very little. A couple of centuries could skip by in the blink of an eye on the island. An imp could wake up one morning to find that he'd evolved. A while back, every demon and imp in Hybras got up one morning with a stubby tail where his magnificent long one used to be. For a considerable time after that, the most common noises on the island were the sounds of demons falling down, or swearing as they got up again.

'After that great battle, in which the demon battalions were the bravest and fiercest in the People's army,' contin-ued Abbot, to hoots of approval from the imps, 'we were defeated by treachery and cowardice. The elves would not fight, and the dwarfs would not dig traps. We had no choice but to cast our spell and regroup until the time was right to return.'

More hooting, plus stamping of feet.

Every time, thought No.l. Do we have to go through this every time? These imps act like they never heard this story before. When is someone going to stand up and say: 'Excuse me. Old news. Move on!

'And so we breed. We breed and grow strong. Now our army has over five thousand warriors — surely enough to defeat the humans. I know this, because I, Leon Abbot, have been to the world and returned to Hybras alive.'

This was Abbot's golden nugget. This was where anyone who stood against him withered and blew away. Abbot had not come directly to Limbo with the rest of Hybras. For some reason he had been diverted to the human future, then sucked across to Hybras. He had seen the human camps and actually brought his knowledge home. How all this happened was a bit hazy. According to Abbot there had been a great battle, he'd defeated fifty or so men, then a mysterious warlock had lifted him out of time again. But not before he'd grabbed a couple of things to bring back.

Since the warlocks had been explosively removed from the eighth family, nobody had much of a clue about magic any more. Normal demons had no magic of their own. It had been thought that all the warlocks had been sucked into space during the transferral of Hybras from Earth to Limbo, but according to Abbot, one had survived. This warlock was in league with the humans and had only helped the demon leader under threat of grievous injury.

No.l was highly sceptical of this version of events. First of all, because it came from Abbot, and secondly because warlocks were being cast, once more, in a bad light. Demons seemed to forget that if it wasn't for the warlocks, Hybras would have been overrun by humans.

On this particular day, No.l was feeling a special attach-ment to the warlocks, and he did not appreciate their memory being sullied by this loudmouth braggart. Hardly a day went past where No.l did not spend a moment pray-ing for the return of the mysterious warlock who had helped Abbot. And now that he was certain of magic in his own blood, N°l would pray all the harder.

'The moon separated me from the rest of the island during the great journey,' continued Abbot, his eyes half closed as if the memory had him in a swoon. 'I was power-less to resist her charms. And so I travelled through space and time until I came to rest in the new world. Which is now the world of men. The humans clamped silver on my ankles, tried to make me submit, but I would not.' Abbot hunched his massive shoulders and roared at the roof. 'For I am demonkind! And we will never submit!'

Needless to say the imps went into overdrive. The entire room heaved with their exertions. In No.l's opinion, Abbot's entire performance was wooden, to say the least. The we will never submit speech was the oldest page in Abbot's book. No.l rubbed his temples, trying to ease the headache. There was worse to come, he knew. First the book, then the crossbow, if Abbot didn't deviate from the script. And why would he? He hadn't in all the years since his return from the new world.

'And so I fought!' shouted Abbot. 'I kicked off their shackles and Hybras called me home, but before I took my leave of the hated humans, I fought my way to their altar and stole away with two of their blessed objects.'

'The book and the bow,' muttered No.l, rolling his orange eyes.

'Tell us what you stole,' begged the others on cue, as if they didn't know.

'The book and the bow!' proclaimed Leon Abbot, pulling the objects from beneath his robe, as if by magic.

As if by magic, thought No.l. But not actual magic, because then Abbot would be a warlock, and he couldn't possibly be a warlock as he had already warped and warlocks did not warp.

'Now we know how the humans think,' said Abbot, waving the book. 'And how they fight,' he proclaimed, bran-dishing the crossbow.

/ don't believe any of this for a minute, thought No.l. Or I wouldn't, if we had 'minutes' in Limbo. Oh, how I wish 1 was on Earth, with the last warlock. Then there would be two of us, and I would find out what really happened when Leon Abbot came calling.

'And armed with this knowledge, we can return when the time spell fades and retake the old country.'

'When?' cried the imps. 'When?'

'Soon,' replied Abbot. 'Soon. And there will be humans enough for us all. They will be crushed like the grass beneath our boots. We will tear their heads off like dandelion flowers.'

Oh, please, thought No.1. Enough plant similes.

It was quite possible that No.l was the only creature on Hybras who ever even thought the human word 'simile'. Saying it aloud would have certainly earned him a thrash-ing. If the other imps knew that his human vocabulary also included words like 'grooming' and 'decoration' they would string him up for sure. Ironically he had learned these words from Lady Heatherington Smythe's Hedgerow, which was supposed to be a school text.

'Tear their heads off,' shouted one imp, and it quickly became a chant, taken up by everyone in the room.

'Yes, tear their heads off,' said No.l, trying it out, but there was no feeling in his voice.

What's my motivation? he wondered. I've never even met a human.

The imps climbed on their benches, bobbing in primal rhythm.

'Tear their heads off! Tear their heads off!'

Abbot and Rawley urged them on. Flexing their claws and howling. A sickly sweet smell clogged the air. Warp muck. Someone was entering the warp spasm phase. The excitement was bringing on the change.

No.l felt nothing. Not so much as a twinge. He tried his best, squeezing his eyelids together, letting the pressure build in his head, thinking bloody thoughts. But his true feelings shattered the false visions of bloodlust and carnage.

It's no use, he thought. / am not that kind of demon.

No.l stopped chanting and sat, head in hands. No point in pretending — another change cycle was passing him by.

Not so the other imps. Abbot's theatrics had opened a natural well of testosterone, bloodlust and bodily fluid. One by one, they succumbed to the warp spasm. Green gunge flowed from their pores, slowly at first, then in bubbling gushes. They all went under, every one of them. It must be some kind of record, so many imps warping simultaneously. Of course Abbot would take the credit.

The sight of the fluid brought on fresh rounds of howl-ing. And the more the imps howled, the faster the gunge spurted. No.l had heard it said that humans took several years to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. Imps did it in a few hours. And a change like that is going to hurt.

The howls of exultation changed to grunts of pain, as bones stretched and horns curled, the gunge-coated limbs already lengthening. The smell was sweet enough to make N°l gag.

Imps toppled to the floor all around. They thrashed for a few seconds, then their own fluids mummified them. They were cocooned like enormous green bugs, strapped tight by the hardening gunge. The schoolroom was suddenly silent, except for the crack of drying nutrient fluid and a rustle of flames from the stone fireplace.

Abbot beamed, a toothy smile that seemed to split his head in half.

'A good morning's work, wouldn't you say, Rawley? I got them all warping.'

Rawley grunted his agreement, then noticed No.l. 'Except the Runt.'

'Well, of course not,' began Abbot, then caught himself. 'Yes. Absolutely, except the Runt.'

No.l's forehead burned under Rawley and Abbot's scrutiny.

'I want to warp,' he said, looking at his fingers. 'I really do. But it's the hating thing. I just can't manage it. And all that slime. Even the thought of that stuff all over me makes me feel a bit nauseous.'

'A bit what?' said Rawley suspiciously.

No.l realized that he needed to dumb it down for his teacher.

'Sick. A bit sick.'

'Oh.' Rawley shook his head in disgust. 'Slime makes you sick? What kind of imp are you? The others live for slime.'

No.l took a deep breath and said something aloud that he had known for a long time.

'I'm not like the others.' No.l's voice trembled. He was on the verge of tears.

'Are you going to cry?' asked Rawley, his eyes bugging. 'This is too much, Leon. He's going to cry now, just like a female. I give up.'

Abbot scratched his chin. 'Let me try something.'

He rummaged in a cape pocket, surreptitiously fixing something over his hand.

Oh no, thought No.l. Please no. Not Stony.

Abbot raised a forearm, his cloak draped over it. A mini-stage. A puppet human poked his head over the leather cape. The puppet's head was a grotesque ball of painted clay, with a heavy forehead and clumsy features. No.l doubted that humans were this ugly in real life, but demons were not known for their artistic skills. Abbot often produced Stony as a visual incentive for those imps who were having difficulty warping. Needless to say, No.l had been introduced to the puppet before.

'Grrr,' said the puppet, or rather Abbot said, as he waggled the puppet. 'Grrr, my name is Stony the Mud Man.'

'Hello, Stony,' said No.l weakly. 'How've you been?'

The puppet held a tiny wooden sword in its hand.

'Never mind how I've been. I don't care how you've been, because I hate all fairies,' said Abbot in a squeaky voice. 'I drove them from their homes. And if they ever try to come back, I will kill them all.'

Abbot lowered the puppet. 'Now, how does that make you feel?'

It makes me feel that the wrong demon is in charge of the pride, thought No.l, but aloud he said, 'Eh, angry?'

Abbot blinked. 'Angry? Really?'

'No,' confessed No.l, wringing his hands. 'I don't feel anything. It's a puppet. I can see your fingers through the material.'

Abbot stuffed Stony back in his pocket.

'That's it. I've had it with you, Number One. You will never earn a name from the book.'

Once demons warped, they were given a human name from Lady Heatherington Smythe's Hedgerow. The logic being that learning the human language and possessing a human name would help the demon army think like humans and therefore defeat them. Abbot may have hated the Mud Men, but that wasn't to say he didn't admire them. Also, politi-cally, it was a good idea to have every demon on Hybras calling each other by names that Leon Abbot had procured for them.

Rawley grabbed No.l's ear, dragging him from his seat to the rear of the classroom. A metal grille on the floor covered a shallow, pungent dung pit.

'Get to work, Runt,' he said gruffly. 'You know what to do.'

No.l sighed. He knew only too well. This wasn't the first or second time he'd had to endure this odious task. He hefted a long-handled gaff from a peg on the wall, pulling the heavy grille from its groove. The smell was rank but not unbearable, as a crust had formed on the dung's surface. Beetles crawled across the craggy skin, their legs clicking like claws on wood.

No.l uncovered the pit completely, then selected his nearest classmate. There was no way of telling which class-mate it actually was because of the slime cocoon. The only movements were small air bubbles around the mouth and nose. At least he hoped it was the mouth and nose.

No.1 bent low, rolling the cocoon along the floor and into the dung pit. The warping imp crashed through the crust, taking a dozen beetles with him into the muck below. A gush of dung stink washed over N° 1, and he knew his skin would smell for days. The others would wear their pit stink proudly, but for No.l it was just another badge of shame.

It was arduous work. Not all the warping imps were still. Several struggled inside their cocoons, and twice demon claws punctured the green chrysalis centimetres from N°l's skin.

He persisted, groaning loudly, in the hope that Rawley or Leon Abbot would lend a hand. It was a vain hope. The two demons were huddled at the head of the classroom, poring over Lady Heatherington Smythe's Hedgerow.

Eventually, No.l rolled his last classmate into the dung pit. They were piled in there like meat in a thick stew. The nutrient-rich dung would accelerate their warp, ensuring they reached full potential. No.l sat on the stone floor, catching his breath.

Lucky you, thought No.l. Dunked in dung.

No.l tried to feel envious. But even being near the pit made him gag; the thought of being immersed in it, surrounded by cocooned imps, made his stomach churn.

A shadow fell across the flagstones before him, flickering in the firelight.

'Ah, Number One,' said Abbot. 'Always an imp, never a demon, eh? What am I going to do with you?'

No.l stared at his own feet, clicking baby talons on the floor.

'Master Abbot, sir. Don't you think? Isn't there the tini-est chance?' He took a deep breath and raised his eyes to meet Abbot's. 'Couldn't I be a warlock? You saw what happened with the skewer. I don't want to embarrass you, but you saw it.'

Abbot's expression changed instantly. One second he was playing the genial master, the next his true colours shone through.

'I saw nothing,' he hissed, heaving No.l to his feet. 'Nothing happened, you odious little freak of nature. The skewer was coated with ash, nothing more. There was no transformation. No magic.'

Abbot drew No.l close enough to see the slivers of trapped meat between his yellowed teeth. The next time he spoke, his voice seemed different somehow. Layered. As though an entire choir was singing in harmony. It was a voice that could not be ignored. Magical?

'If you are a warlock, then you should really be on the other side, with your relative. Wouldn't that be for the best? One quick leap, that's all it would take. Do you understand what I am saying to you, Runt?'

No.l nodded, dazed. What a lovely voice. Where had that come from? The other side, of course; that's where he should go. One small step for an imp.

'I understand, sir.'

'Good. The subject is closed. As Lady Heatherington Smythe would say, "Best foot forward, young sir, the world awaits."'

No.l nodded, just as he knew Abbot wanted him to, but inside his brain churned along with his stomach. Was this to be the whole extent of his life? Forever mocked, forever different. Never a moment of light or hope. Unless he crossed over.

Abbot's suggestion was his only hope. Cross over. No.l had never seen the appeal of jumping into a crater before, but now the notion seemed nigh on irresistible. He was a warlock, there couldn't be any doubt. And somewhere out there, in the human world, there was another like him. An ancient brother who could teach him the ways of his kind.

N°l watched Abbot stride away from him. Off to exer-cise his power on some other part of the island, possibly by belittling the females in the compound - another of his favourite pastimes. Then again, how bad could Abbot be? After all, he had given No.l this wonderful idea.

/ cannot stay here, thought No.l. / must go to the volcano.

The notion took firm hold of his brain. And in minutes it had drowned out all the other notions in his head.

Go to the volcano.

It pounded inside his skull, like waves breaking on the shore.

Obey Abbot. Go to the volcano.

No.l brushed the dust from his knees.

'You know what,' he muttered to himself in case Rawley could hear, 'I think I'm going to the volcano.'


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