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Chapter 4 Mission Impossible

the Massimo Bellini Theater, Catania, Eastern Sicily

ARTEMIS Fowl and his bodyguard, Butler, relaxed in a private box at the stage-left side of Sicily's world-famous Massimo Bellini Theatre. Perhaps it is not altogether accurate to say Butler relaxed. Rather he appeared to relax, as a tiger appears to relax in the moment before it strikes. Butler was even less happy here than he had been in Barcelona. At least for the Spain trip he'd had a few days to prepare, but for this jaunt he barely had time to catch up on his martial arts routines.

As soon as the Fowl Bentley had pulled up at Fowl Manor, Artemis had disappeared into his study, firing up his computers. Butler took the opportunity to work out, freshen up and prepare dinner: onion marmalade tartlets, rack of lamb with garlic gratin and a red berries crepe to finish.

Artemis broke the news over coffee.

'We need to go to Sicily,' he said, toying with the biscotti on his saucer. 'I made a breakthrough on the time spell figures.'

'How soon?' asked the bodyguard, mentally listing his contacts on the Mediterranean island.

Artemis looked at his Rado watch and Butler moaned.

'Don't check your watch, Artemis. Check the calendar.'

'Sorry, old friend. But you know time is limited. I can't risk missing a materialization.'

'But on the jet you said that there wasn't another mate-rialization due for six weeks.'

'I was wrong, or rather, Foaly was wrong. He missed a few new factors in the temporal equation.'

Artemis had filled Butler in on the eighth family details as the jet soared over the English Channel.

'Allow me to demonstrate,' said Artemis. He put a silver salt cellar on his plate, 'Let us say that this salt cellar is Hybras. My plate is where it is: our dimension. And your plate is where it wants to go: Limbo. With me so far?'

Butler nodded reluctantly. He knew that the more he understood, the more Artemis would tell him, and there wasn't much space in a bodyguard's head for quantum physics.

'So, the demon warlocks wanted to move the island from plate A to plate B, but not through space, through time.'

'How do you know all this?'

'It's all in the fairy Book,' replied the Irish teenager. 'Quite a detailed description, if a bit flowery.'

The Book was the fairy Bible, containing their history and commandments. Artemis had managed to obtain a copy from a drunken sprite in Ho Chi Minh City years earlier. It was proving to be an invaluable source of information.

'I doubt the Book has too many charts and graphs,' noted Butler.

Artemis smiled. 'No, I got the specifics from Foaly, not that he knows he's sharing information.'

Butler rubbed his temples. 'Artemis. I warned you not to mess with Foaly. The decoy thing is bad enough.'

Artemis was fully aware that Foaly was tracking him and any decoys he sent out. In fact he only sent out the decoys to make Foaly dip into his funds. It was his idea of a joke.

'I didn't initiate the surveillance,' objected Artemis. 'Foaly did. I found over a dozen devices on my computers alone. All I did was reverse the spike to get into some of his shared files. Nothing classified. Well, maybe a few. Foaly's been busy since he left the LEP.'

'So, what did Foaly's files tell you?' said Butler resignedly.

'They told me about magic. Basically, magic is energy and the ability to manipulate energy. To move Hybras from A to B, the demon warlocks harnessed the power of their volcano to create a time rent, or tunnel.' Artemis rolled his napkin into a tube, popped the salt cellar into it and deposited the cellar on Butler's plate.

'Simple as that?' said Butler doubtfully.

'Not really,' said Artemis. 'In fact the warlocks did an exceptional job, considering the instruments available to them at the time. They had to calculate the power of the volcano, the size of the island, the energy of each individ-ual demon on the island, not to mention the reverse pull of lunar attraction. It's amazing the spell worked as well as it did.'

'There was a glitch?'

'Yes. According to the Book, the warlocks induced the volcano, but the force was too strong. They couldn't control it and the magic circle was broken. Hybras and the demons were transported, but the warlocks were blasted into space.'

Butler whistled. 'That's quite a glitch.'

'It's more than a glitch. The demon warlocks were all killed, so now the rest of the pride are stuck in Limbo, held by a magical spell that was never meant to be perma-nent, without a warlock to bring them back.'

'Couldn't Foaly go and get them?'

'No. It would be an impossible mission to recreate the same circumstances. Imagine trying to steer a feather in a sandstorm, then land the feather on a particular grain of sand, except you don't know where the grain is. And even if you did know where the grain was, demon magic can only be controlled by a demon. They are by far the most powerful of warlocks.'

'Tricky,' admitted Butler. 'So, tell me why these demons are popping up here, now?'

Artemis corrected him with a wagging finger. 'Not just here, and not just now. The demons have always felt an attraction to their home world, a combination of lunar and terrestrial radiations. But a demon could only be pulled back if he was at his end of the time-tunnel mouth, the crater, and not wearing a dimensional anchor.'

Butler fingered his wristband. 'Silver.'

'That's right. Now because of massively increased radi-ation levels worldwide, the pull on demons is much stronger and reaches critical level with greater frequency.'

Butler was struggling to keep up. Sometimes it was not easy being a genius's bodyguard.

'Artemis, I thought we weren't going into specifics.'

Artemis continued regardless. He was hardly going to stop now, in mid-lecture.

'Bear with me, old friend. Nearly there. So now, energy spikes occur more often than Foaly thinks.'

Butler raised a finger. 'Ah yes, but the demons are OK as long as they stay away from the crater.'

Artemis raised a triumphant finger. 'Yes!' he crowed. "That's what you would think. That's what Foaly thinks. But when our last demon was off course, I ran the equation from back to front. My conclusion is that the time spell is decaying. The tunnel is unravelling.'

Artemis allowed the napkin tube to widen in his hand. 'Now the catchment area is bigger, as is the deposit area. Pretty soon, demons won't be safe anywhere on Hybras.'

Butler asked the obvious question. 'What happens when the tunnel decays altogether?'

'Just before that happens, demons all over Hybras will be plucked off the island, silver or no silver. When the tunnel collapses, some will be deposited on earth, more on the moon and the rest scattered through space and time. One thing is for sure, not many of them will survive, and those that do will be locked up in laboratories and zoos.

Butler frowned. 'We need to tell Holly about this.' 'Yes,' agreed Artemis. 'But not just yet. I need one more day to confirm my figures. I'm not going to Foaly with nothing but theory.'

'Don't tell me,' said Butler. 'Sicily, right?'

So now they were in the Massimo Bellini Theatre, and Butler had barely half an idea why they were there. If a demon materialized on that stage, then Artemis was right and the fairy People were in major trouble. And if the fairies were in trouble, then it was up to Artemis to help them. Butler was actually quite proud that his young charge was doing something for somebody else for a change. Even so, they had only a week to complete their task and return to Fowl Manor, because in seven days Artemis's parents returned from Rhode Island where Artemis Fowl Senior had finally taken possession of an artificial bio-hybrid leg, to replace the one he had lost when the Russian Mafiya blew up his ship.

Butler peered out of the box at the hundreds of golden arches and the thirteen hundred-odd people enjoying the evening's performance of Bellini's Norma.

'First a Gaudi building, now this theatre,' commented the bodyguard, his words audible only to Artemis, thanks to their box's isolation and the booming volume of the opera. 'Don't these demons ever materialize somewhere quiet?'

Artemis replied in a whisper. 'Just let the sublime music flow over you, enjoy the show. Don't you know how difficult it is to get a box for a Vincenzo Bellini opera? Especially Norma. Norma combines the requirements of both a coloratura and a dramatic soprano. And the soprano is excellent, comparable to Callas herself.'

Butler grunted. Perhaps it was difficult for ordinary people to get a box in the theatre, but Artemis had simply called his billionaire environmentalist friend Giovanni Zito. The Sicilian had gladly surrendered his own box, in exchange for two cases of the finest Bordeaux. Hardly surprising since Artemis had recently invested over ten million euros in Zito's water purification research.

A Sicilian drinking Bordeaux? Artemis had chuckled down the phone. You should be ashamed of yourself.

'Keep your watch pointed at the stage,' directed Artemis, interrupting Butler's thoughts. 'The chances are miniscule that a demon will be caught without silver, even away from the crater, but if one does show up, I want it on film to prove to Foaly that my theory is correct. If we don't have incontrovertible proof, the fairy Council will never take action.'

Butler checked that his watch crystal that doubled as a camera lens was angled towards the stage. 'The camera is fine, but if you don't mind I won't be letting the sublime music flow over me, I have enough to do keeping you safe.'

The Bellini Theatre was a bodyguard's nightmare. Multiple entrances and exits, over a thousand patrons that refused to be frisked, hundreds of golden arches that could conceal a gunman and countless nooks, crannies and corri-dors that probably didn't appear on the theatre plan. Nevertheless, Butler was reasonably confident that he had done all he could to protect Artemis.

Of course there were certain things that bodyguards could not guard against, as Butler was about to find out. Invisible things.

Artemis's phone vibrated gently. Usually Artemis deplored the kind of person who kept their phone on during a performance, but this phone was special and he never turned it off. It was the fairy communicator given to him by Holly Short, plus a few modifications and add-ons made by Artemis himself.

The phone was the size and shape of a two-euro coin, with a pulsing red crystal at its centre. This was a fairy omni-sensor, which could interface with any communica-tions system, including the human body. The phone was disguised as a rather ostentatious ring on Artemis's middle finger. Artemis twisted the ring so that the phone sat on his palm, then closed his middle fingers, extending his thumb and little finger. The sensor would decode vibra-tions in his little finger and send them as voice patterns. It would also use the bones in his hand to transmit the caller's voice to the tip of his thumb.

Artemis looked for all the world like a young boy talk-ing on an imaginary phone.

'Holly?' he said.

Butler watched as Artemis listened for a few moments, then hung up, twisting the phone back into ring position.

He looked steadily at Butler. 'Don't draw your weapon,' he said.

Which of course had Butler reaching for the butt of his Sig Sauer.

'It's fine,' said Artemis reassuringly. 'Someone is here. A friend.'

Butler's hand dropped to his side. He knew who it was.

Holly Short materialized in the velvet-covered seat beside Artemis. Her knees were drawn to her chin and her pointed ears were covered by a black helmet. As she fizzled into the visible spectrum, a full-face visor collapsed into sections and stored itself in her helmet. Her arrival among the humans was covered by the theatre's darkness.

'Afternoon, Mud Boys,' she said, smiling. Her hazel eyes sparkled impishly, or more accurately elfishly.

'Thanks for calling ahead,' said Butler sarcastically. 'Wouldn't want to spook anyone. No shimmer?'

Usually when fairies used their magic to shield, the only thing visible was a slight shimmer, like a heat haze. Holly's entrance had been completely undetectable.

Holly patted her own shoulder. 'New suit. Made entirely from smart wafers. It vibrates with me.'

Artemis studied one of the wafers, noting the microfilaments in the material. 'Foaly's work? Section Eight issue’.

Holly could not hide her surprise. She punched Artemis playfully on the shoulder. 'How do you know about Section Eight? Aren't we allowed any secrets?'

'Foaly shouldn't spy on me,' said Artemis. 'Where there's a way in, there's a way back. I suppose I should congratulate you on the new job. And Foaly too.' He nodded at the tiny lens over Holly's right eye. 'Is he watch-ing us now?'

'No. He's trying to figure out how you know what he doesn't. We're taping, though.'

'I presume you're talking about demons.'

'I might be.'

Butler stepped between them, interrupting the verbal sparring that was bound to follow.

'Before you two get into negotiations, how about a real hello?'

Holly smiled fondly at the huge bodyguard. She acti-vated the electronic wings built into her suit and hovered to his eye level. Holly kissed his cheek, then wrapped her arms all the way round his head. They barely made it.

Butler rapped her helmet. 'Nice equipment. Not run-of-the-mill Lower Elements Police.'

'No,' agreed Holly, removing the helmet. 'This Section Eight stuff is years ahead of standard LEP. You get what you pay for, I suppose.'

Butler plucked the helmet from her hands. 'Anything an old soldier would be interested in?'

Holly pressed a button on her wrist computer. 'Check out the night vision. It's as clear as… well… day. And the clever thing is that the filter reacts to light as it passes through, so no more being blinded by camera flashes.'

Butler nodded appreciatively. Night vision's major draw-back had historically been that it left the soldier vulnerable to sudden flashes of light. Even a candle flame could blind the wearer momentarily.

Artemis cleared his throat. 'Excuse me, Captain. Are you two going to weep salty tears of admiration over a helmet all night, or do we have matters to discuss?' 94

Holly winked at Butler. 'Your master calls. I better see what he wants.'

Holly deactivated her wings, settling into the chair. She folded her arms, looking Artemis straight in the eyes.

'OK, Mud Boy. I'm all yours.'

'Demons. We need to talk about demons.'

Holly's eyes lost their playful twinkle. 'And why are you so interested in demons, Artemis?'

Artemis opened two shirt buttons and pulled out a gold coin on a thong. The coin had a circular hole in the centre. Put there by a blast from Holly's laser.

'You gave this to me after you saved my father's life. I owe you. I owe the People. So now, I'm doing something for them.'

Holly wasn't entirely convinced. 'Usually before you do anything for the People, you negotiate a fee.'

Artemis accepted the accusation with a slight nod. 'It's true. It was true, but I have changed.'

Holly folded her arms. 'And?'

'And it's nice to find something Foaly missed, even if I did stumble on to it by accident.'


Artemis sighed. 'Very well. There is another factor.'

'I thought so. What do you want? Gold? Technology?'

'No. Nothing like that.'

Artemis sat forward in his seat. 'Have you any idea how difficult it is to have had all those thrilling adventures with the LEP and suddenly not be a part of that world any more?'

'Yes,' replied Holly. 'Actually I do.'

'I went from saving the world to geometry in a week. I'm bored, Holly. My intellect is not being challenged, so when I came across the demon gospel in the Book, I real-ized that here was a way to be involved without affecting things. I could simply observe, and perhaps refine, Foaly's calculations.'

'Which are not actually in the Book,' Holly pointed out. 'Simply observe, my foot.'

Artemis waved Holly's point away. 'Some harmless hack-ing. The centaur started it. So, I began travelling to mat-erialization sites, but nothing happened until Barcelona. A demon showed up all right, except he showed up in the wrong place, and late. I simply stumbled across him. I would be floating in prehistoric space right now if Butler hadn't anchored me to this dimension with silver.'

Holly stifled a laugh. 'So it was luck. The great Artemis Fowl trumps the mighty Foaly thanks to dumb luck.'

Artemis was miffed. 'Informed luck, I think, is a better description. Anyway, that is unimportant. I have recalcu-lated with the new figures, and my conclusions, if borne out, could be calamitous for the People.'

'Go on, tell me. In short words, though. You wouldn't believe the amount of science I had to listen to today.'

'This is serious, Holly,' snapped Artemis. His outburst was followed by a chorus of shushes from the audience.

'This is serious,' he repeated in hushed tones.

'Why?' asked Holly. 'Surely it's just a matter of sharing your new figures and letting Foaly take care of the rest with light-distortion projectors?'

'Not quite,' said Artemis, settling back in his chair. 'If a demon appears on that stage in the next four minutes, then soon there won't be enough projectors to go round. If I'm right and the time spell is unravelling, then Hybras and everyone on it will soon be dragged back into this dimen-sion. Most of the demons won't make it alive, but those who do could pop up anywhere and at any time.'

Holly switched her gaze to the stage. A raven-haired woman was holding ridiculously high notes for a ridicu-lously long time. Holly wondered if the woman would even notice a demon popping out of the air for a second or two. There wasn't supposed to be a materialization today. If there was, then that would mean Artemis was right, as usual, and a lot more demons were on the way. If that happened, then Artemis Fowl and Holly Short would be up to their necks in the whole saving-the-fairy-race thing, yet again.

Holly glanced sideways at Artemis, who was studying the stage through a pair of opera glasses. She would never tell him, but if a human had to be involved with saving the fairy People, then Artemis was probably the best man, or boy, for the job.

the island of hybras, Limbo

No.l struggled up towards the first rocky ridge on the side of the volcano. Several demons passed him on the trail, but not one tried to talk him out of it. In fact, he'd bumped into Hadley Shrivelington Basset, who had offered to scratch a map on a piece of bark for him. No.l suspected that if he did take the big dimensional jump, no one would miss him any more than they would miss their favourite crossbow target. Except perhaps the demoness with red markings who smiled at him. The one from the compound. Maybe she would miss him a little. No.l stopped in his tracks when he realized that the only demon who would care if he was gone was one he had never spoken to.

He moaned aloud. How depressing was that!

No.l trudged onwards past the final warning which, with typical demon subtlety, was in the form of a blood-reddened wolf skull mounted on a stick.

'What's that even supposed to mean?' muttered No.l as he passed the sign. 'A wolf's head on a stick. Big wolf barbe-cue tonight. Bring your own wolf.'

Barbecue. Another word from Lady Heatherington Smythe.

No.l sat on the ridge, wiggling his rump to dig a little trench for his tail. Might as well be comfortable before jumping the hundred or so metres into the mouth of a steaming volcano. Of course, even if he didn't get whisked away to the old country, the still wouldn't be vaporized by the lava. No, he would probably be dashed against the rocks on the way down. What a cheery thought.

From his seat on the ridge, No.l could see the jagged mouth of the crater and the rhythmic wisps of smoke that drifted skywards like the breath of a sleeping giant. It was the nature of the time spell that things progressed as though Hybras were still attached to the rest of the world, albeit at a different pace. So the volcano still bubbled and occa-sionally burped up a skinny column of flame, even though there was no Earth beneath it.

If No.l was honest with himself, his resolve was waver-ing. It was easy to imagine hopping into an interdimensional crater when you were rolling your cocooned classmates into a becrusted dung pit. It had seemed then, as the flakes of ash had fluttered down on him, that things could not get any worse. And there had been something in Abbot's voice that made the idea seem irresistible. But now, sitting on the ridge, with a gentle wind cooling his chest plates, things didn't seem quite as bleak. At least he was alive, and there was no guarantee that the crater led anywhere except into the belly of the volcano. None of the other demons had made it back alive. They came back all right. Some encased in blocks of ice, some burned to a crisp, but none hale and hearty like the pride leader. Although for some reason, when No.l thought about Abbot, the many moments of cruelty he had suffered at the pride leader's whim seemed hazy, hard to focus on. All he could remember was that beauti-ful insistent voice telling him to cross over.

Moon madness. That was the heart of the matter. Demonkind was attracted to the moon. It sang to them, agitating particles in their blood. They dreamed of it at night and ground their teeth at its absence. At any hour of the so-called day here on Hybras, demons could be seen stopping in their tracks to gaze at the space where the moon used to be. It was part of them, a live organic part, and on an atomic level, they belonged together.

There were threads of the time spell still in the crater. Wisps of magic that curled about the mountain top, snag-ging any demon stupid enough to be caught without silver. And coded inside the magic was the song of the moon, calling the demons back, enticing them with visions of white light and weightlessness. Once those pale tendrils had a grip on a demon's mind, he would do anything to be closer to the source. The magic and moon madness would pour energy into the atoms of his being, vibrating his very electrons to a new orbit, changing his molecular structure, pulling him through time and space.

But there was only Abbot's word that this journey would end on Earth. It could end on the moon, and as much as demons loved the moon, they knew that nothing survived on its barren surface. The elders said that sprites could not fly close without freezing to death, spiralling to Earth with frozen wings and blue faces.

For some reason, No.l wanted to take the journey today. He wanted the moon to call him into the crater, then deposit him somewhere where another warlock existed. Someone who would teach him to control his strange powers. But, he admitted miserably, he didn't have the courage. He could not just hurl himself into a rocky crater. The volcano's base was littered with the charred corpses of those who had imagined the moon calling to them. How could he know if the moon's power was truly beckoning, or if it was simply wishful thinking?

No.l rested his face in his hands. Nothing for it but to return to the school. The imps in the pit would need turn-ing or their hides could suffer dung lividity marks.

He sighed. This was not the first time he had made this desperate journey. But now No.l really thought he would do it. Abbot was in his head, urging him on. He could almost bear the idea of the rocks rushing towards him. Almost.

No.l toyed with the silver bangle on his wrist. It would have been so easy to slip off this trinket and just disappear.

Slip it off then, little one, said a voice in his head. Slip it off and come to me.

No.l was not surprised by the voice. Actually it was more a feeling than a voice. No.l had supplied the words himself. He often conversed with voices in his head. There was no one else to talk to. There was Flambard the shoemaker, and

Lady Bonnie the spinster and his favourite, Bookie the lisp-ing gossip.

This voice was new. More forceful.

A moment without silver, and a new world could be yours.

No.1's bottom lip jutted as he considered. He could remove the bangle, he supposed, just for a moment. What harm could it do? He was nowhere near the crater, and the magic rarely strayed beyond the volcano.

No harm. No harm at all. One little tug.

The ridiculous notion had No.l now. Taking off the bangle could be like a practice run for the day when he finally worked up the courage to feel the moon madness. His fingers traced the runes on the bangle. They were precisely the same as the markings on his chest. A double charm. Repelling the moon magic. Removing one meant that the force of his own markings was reversed, pulling him straight towards the moon.

Take it off. Reverse the power.

No.l watched his fingers grip the bangle's rim. He was in a daze, a buzzing fugue. The new voice had coated his mind with fog and was in control.

We will be together, you and I. You will bask in my light.

Bask in my light? thought the last conscious sliver of No.l. This new voice is quite the drama queen. Bookie is not going to like you.

Take it off, little one.

No.l watched his hand tug the bangle over his knuck-les. He was powerless to stop himself — not that he wanted to.

Moon madness, he realized with a jolt. All the way over here. How can that be?

Something in him knew. The warlock part of him, perhaps.

The time spell is breaking down. No one is safe.

No.l saw the bangle, his dimensional anchor, slip from his fingers and spin to the ground. It seemed to happen in slow motion, the silver flowed and rippled like sunlight through water.

No.l felt the tingle that comes when every atom in your body is overloaded with energy and boosted into a gaseous form. It really should be terribly painful, but the body doesn't really know how to respond to this kind of cell damage and so throws up a pathetic tingling.

There was no time to scream; all No.l could do was disappear into a million flashing pinpoints of light, which quickly wound themselves into a tight band following a path to another dimension. In seconds there was nothing left to show that No.l had ever been there but a spinning silver bangle.

It would be a long time, relatively speaking, before anyone missed him. And no one would care enough to come looking.

the Massimo BELLini theatre, SiciLY

To look at Artemis Fowl, you would have thought that he was here simply for the opera. One hand trained a pair of opera glasses on the stage, the other hand conducted expertly, following the score note for note.

'Maria Callas is the acknowledged seminal Norma,' he said to Holly, who nodded politely, then rolled her eyes at Butler. 'But I have a confession: I actually prefer Montserrat Caballe. She took the role on in the seventies. Of course, I have only heard recordings, but to me, Caballe's perform-ance is more robust.'

'Really,' said Holly. 'I'm trying to care, Artemis, really. But I thought it was all supposed to be over when the fat lady sings. Well, she's singing, but it doesn't appear to be over.'

Artemis smiled, exposing his incisors. 'That's Wagner you're thinking of.'

Butler did not participate in the opera-related chit-chat. To him it was just another layer of distraction to be zoned out. Instead he decided to test the night-vision filter on Holly's new helmet. If it could indeed overcome the white-out problem, as Holly claimed, then he would have to ask Artemis to procure one for him.

Needless to say, Holly's helmet would not fit Butler's head. In fact it would barely slot over his fist, so the body-guard folded the filter's left wing out until he could squint through it by holding the helmet to his cheek.

The effect was impressive. The filter successfully equal-ized the light throughout the building. It boosted or dimmed so that every person in the building was seen in the same light. Those on the stage appeared caked in make-up, and those in the boxes had no shadows to hide in.

Butler panned across the boxes, satisfying himself that there was no threat present. He saw plenty of nose-picking and handholding, sometimes by the same people. But nothing obviously dangerous. But in a second-tier box, adjacent to the stage, there was a girl with a head of blonde curls, all dressed up for a night of theatre.

Butler immediately recalled seeing the same girl at the materialization site in Barcelona. And now she was here too? Coincidence? There was no such thing. In the body-guard's experience, if you saw a stranger more than once, either they were following you, or you were both after the same thing.

He scanned the rest of the box. There were two men behind the girl. One in his fifties, paunchy, expensive tuxedo, was filming the stage with his mobile-phone camera. This was the first man from Barcelona. The second man was there too, possibly Chinese, wiry, spiked hair. He had apparently not yet recovered from his leg injury and was adjusting one of his crutches. He flipped it round, removed a rubber grip from the foot, then nestled it against his shoulder like a rifle.

Butler automatically moved between Artemis and the man's line of fire. Not that the crutch was aimed at his charge, it was pointed stage right. A metre from the soprano. Just where Artemis was expecting his demon to show up.

'Holly,' he said in a low, calm voice. 'I think you should shield.'

Artemis lowered his opera glasses. 'Problems?'

'Maybe,' replied Butler. 'Though not for us. I think somebody else knows about the new materialization figures, and I think they're planning to do more than just observe.'

Artemis tapped his chin with two fingers, thinking fast. 'Where?'

'Tier two. Beside the stage. I see one possible weapon trained on the stage. Not a standard gun. Maybe a modified dart rifle.'

Artemis leaned forward, gripping the brass rail. 'They plan to take the demon alive, if one turns up. In that case, they will need a distraction.'

Holly was on her feet. 'What can we do?'

'It's too late to stop them,' said Artemis, a frown slash-ing his brow. 'If we interfere, we may upset the distrac-tion, in which case the demon will be exposed. If these people are clever enough to be here, you may be sure their plan is a good one.'

Holly claimed her helmet, slotting it over her ears. Air pads automatically inflated to cradle her head. 'I can't just let them kidnap a fairy.'

'You have no choice,' snapped Artemis, risking the audi-ence's displeasure. 'Best and most likely case scenario, noth-ing happens. No materialization.'

Holly scowled. 'You know as well as I do that fortune never sends the best-case scenario our way. You have too much bad karma.'

Artemis had to chuckle. 'You're right, of course. Worst-case scenario, a demon appears, they anchor it with the dart rifle, we interfere and in the confusion the demon is swept up by the local polizia and we all end up in custody.'

'Not good. So we just sit back and watch.'

'Butler and I sit back and watch. You get over there and record as much data as possible. And when these people go, you go after them.'

Holly activated her wings. They slid from her backpack, crackling blue as the flight computer sent a charge through them.

'How much time do I have?' asked Holly, as she faded from sight.

Artemis checked the stopwatch on his watch.

'If you hurry,' he said, 'none.'

Holly launched herself out over the audience, controlling her trajectory using the joystick built into the thumb of her glove. She soared above the gathered humans, invisible.

With the aid of her helmet's filters, she could clearly see the occupants of the stage-side box.

Artemis was wrong. There was time to stop this. All she had to do was throw the shooter's aim off a little. The demon would never get anchored, and Section 8 could track these Mud Men at their leisure. It was simply a matter of touching the marksman's elbow with her buzz baton to make him lose control of all his motor functions for a few seconds. Plenty of time for a demon to appear, then disap-pear.

Then Holly smelled burning ozone and felt heat on her arm. Artemis was not wrong. There was no time. Someone was coming.

No.l appeared on the stage, more or less intact. The trip had cost him the last knuckle on his right index finger, and about two gigabytes worth of memories. But they were mostly bad memories and he had never been very good with his hands.

Dematerialization isn't a particularly painful process, but materialization happens to be a thoroughly enjoyable one. The brain is so happy to register all the body's essential bits and bobs coming together again that it releases a surge of happy endorphins.

No.l looked at the nub where his previously whole index finger used to be.

'Look,' he said, tittering. 'No finger.'

Then he noticed the humans. Scores of them, arranged in rings, rising up to the heavens. No.l knew instantly what this must be.

'A theatre. I'm in a theatre. With only seven and a half fingers. / have only seven and a half fingers, not the theatre.' This observation brought on another fit of giggles, and that would have been about it for No.l. He would have been whisked off to the next stop on his interdimensional jaunt, had not a human near the stage aimed a tube at him.

'Tube,' said No.l, proud of his human vocabulary, point-ing with the finger that wasn't altogether there.

After that, things happened very quickly. A flurry of events blurred like mixed stripes of vivid paint. The tube flashed, something exploded over his head. A bee stung No.l on the leg, a female screamed piercingly. A herd of animals, elephants perhaps, passed directly below him.Then most disconcertingly, the ground disappeared from beneath his feet and everything went black. The blackness was rough against his fingers and face.

The last thing No.l heard before his own personal blackness claimed him, was a voice. It was not a demon's voice — the tones were lighter. Halfway between bird and boar.

'Welcome, demon,' said the voice, then sniggered.

They know, thought No.l, and he would have panicked, had the chloral hydrate seeping into his system through a leg wound allowed such exertions. They know all about us.

Then the knockout serum caressed his brain, tipping him off a cliff into a deep dark hole.

Artemis watched events unfold from his box. A smile of admiration twitched at the corners of his mouth as the plan unrolled smoothly like the most expensive Tunisian carpet. Whoever was behind this was good. More than good. Perhaps they were related.

'Keep your camera pointed at the stage,' Artemis said to Butler. 'Holly will get the box.'

Butler was squirming to cover Holly's back, but his place was at Artemis's side. And after all, Captain Short could look after herself. He made sure his watch crystal was trained on the stage. Artemis would never let him forget it if he missed even a nanosecond of the action.

On stage, the opera was almost over. Norma was lead-ing Pollione to the pyre, where they were both to be burned. All eyes were upon her. Except those involved in a drama of the fairy kind.

The music was lush and layered, providing an unwitting soundtrack to the real-life drama unfolding in the theatre.

It began with an electric crackle downstage, stage right. Barely noticeable, unless you were expecting it. And even I, if some patrons did notice the glow, they were not alarmed. It could easily be a reflected blotch of light, or one of the special effects these modern theatre directors were so fond of.

So, thought Artemis, feeling the excitement buzz in his fingertips. Something is coming. Another game begins.

The 'something' began to materialize inside the crack-ling blue envelope. It took on a vague, humanoid shape. Smaller than the last one, but definitely a demon, and definitely not a reflected blotch of light. Initially the shape was insubstantial, wraithlike, but after a second it became less transparent and more of this world.

Now, thought Artemis. Anchor it, and tranquilize it too.

A slender silver tube poked from the shadows on the opposite side of the theatre. There was a small pop, and a dart sped from the tube's mouth. Artemis did not need to follow the dart's path. He knew that it was headed straight into the creature's leg. The leg would be best. A good target, but unlikely to be fatal. A silver tip with some kind of knockout cocktail.

The creature was trying to communicate now and making wild gestures. Artemis heard a few gasps from the audience as patrons noticed the shape inside the light.

Very well. You have anchored it. Now you need a distraction. Something flashy and loud, but not particularly dangerous. If some-body gets hurt, there will be an investigation.

Artemis switched his gaze to the demon. Solid now in the shadows. Around him the opera steamrolled towards Act Four's crescendo. The soprano lamented hysterically and almost every eye in the theatre was riveted on her. Almost every eye. But there are always a few bored audience members at an opera, especially by the time Act Four comes along. Those particular eyes would be wander-ing around the hall, searching for something, anything, interesting to watch. Those eyes would land on the little demon downstage, stage right, unless they were distracted.

Right on cue, a large stage lamp broke free of its clamp in the rigging and swung on its cable into the back canvas. The impact was both flashy and loud. The bulb exploded, showering the stage and orchestra pit with glass fragments. The bulb's filament glowed with a magnesium glare, temporarily blinding everyone staring at it. Which was almost the entire audience.

Glass rained down on the orchestra, and the musicians panicked, fleeing en masse towards the green room, drag-ging their instruments behind them. A cacophony of squeal-ing strings and overturned percussion instruments shattered any echoes of Bellini's masterpiece.

Nice, thought Artemis appreciatively. The clamp and the filament were rigged. The stampeding orchestra is a lucky bonus.

Artemis appreciated all of this out of the corner of his eye. His main focus was the diminutive demon, lost in the shadows behind a canvas flat.

Now if it was me, thought the Irish teenager, I would have Butler drop a black sack over that little creature and whisk him out of the stage door into a four-wheel drive. We could be on the ferry to Ravenna before the theatre crew got the bulb changed.

What actually happened was slightly different. A stage trapdoor opened beneath the demon and it disappeared on a hydraulic platform.

Artemis shook his head in admiration. Fabulous. His mysterious adversaries must have hijacked the theatre computer system. And when the demon appeared, they simply sent a command to open the appropriate trapdoor panel. Doubtless there was someone waiting below to transfer the sleeping demon to an idling vehicle outside.

Artemis leaned over the railing, gazing into the audi-ence below. As the house lights were brought up, the theatre patrons rubbed their dazzled eyes and spoke in the sheep-ish tones that follow shock. There was no talk of demons. No pointing and screaming. He had just witnessed the perfect execution of a perfect plan.

Artemis gazed across to the box on the far side of the stage. The three occupants stood calmly. They were simply leaving. The show was over and it was time to go. Artemis recognized the pretty girl from Barcelona and her two guardians. The thin man seemed to have recovered from his leg injury, as his crutches were now tucked underneath one arm.

The girl wore a self-satisfied smile, the kind that usually decorated Artemis's own face after a successful mission.

It's the girl, Artemis realized with some surprise. She is the brains here.

This girl's smile, a reflection of his own, rankled Artemis. He was not accustomed to being two steps behind. No doubt she believed that victory was hers. She may have won this battle, but the campaign was far from over.

It's time, he thought, that this girl knew she had an oppo-nent.

He brought his hands together in a slow handclap.

'Brava,' he called. 'Brava, ragazza!'

His voice carried easily above the heads of the audience. The girl's smile froze on her lips and her eyes searched for the source of this compliment. In seconds she located the Irish teenager, and their eyes locked.

If Artemis had been expecting the girl to quail and trem-ble at the sight of him and his bodyguard, then he was disappointed. True, a shadow of surprise flitted across her brow, but then she accepted the applause with a nod and royal wave. The girl said two words before she left. The distance was too great for Artemis actually to hear them, but even if he hadn't long since trained himself to lip-read, it would have been easy to guess what they were.

Artemis Fowl, she said. Nothing more. There was a game beginning here. No doubt about it. How intriguing.

Then a funny thing happened. Artemis's clapping hands were joined by a scattering of others from various spots in the theatre. The applause grew from hesitant beginnings to a crescendo. Soon the patrons were on their feet and the bewildered singers were forced to take several curtain calls.

On his way through the lobby minutes later, Artemis was highly amused to overhear several audience members gushing over the unorthodox direction of the opera's final scene. The exploding lamp, mused one buff", was doubtless a metaphor for Norma's own falling star. But no, argued a second. The lamp was obviously a modernistic interpreta-tion of the burning stake which Norma was about to face. Or perhaps, thought Artemis as he pushed through the crowd to find a light Sicilian mist falling on his forehead, the exploding lamp was simply an exploding lamp.


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