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Chapter 14 Leader Of The Pack

THE ISLAND OF HYBRAS
WHILE Artemis and company had been zooming around the time tunnel, Leon Abbot had been in Council with the pride elders. Council was where all the big decisions were made, or more accurately, where Abbot made all the big decisions. The others thought they were participating, but Leon Abbot had a way of bringing them round to his way of thinking.

If only they knew, he thought, biting the inside of his cheek to prevent a smug grin spreading across his face. They would eat me alive. But they can never know, because there is nobody left alive to tell them. That dolt Number One was the last, and he's gone. What a pity.

Abbot had something big for planned for today. A big departure for the pride, the dawn of a new era. The Leon Abbot era.

He looked down the table at his fellow demons, suck-ing the bones from a bucket of recently live rabbits that he had laid on for the meeting. He despised the other Council members. Every one. They were weak stupid creatures, ruled by their baser appetites. What they needed was lead-ership. No arguments, no debates, just his word was law, and that was that.

Of course, under normal circumstances, the other demons might not share his vision of the future. In fact, if he suggested it, then they would most likely do to him what they were currently doing to the rabbits. But these were not normal circumstances. He had certain advantages when it came to negotiating with the Council.

At the far end of the table, Hadley Shrivelington Basset, a recent addition to the Council, stood and growled loudly. The signal that he wished to speak. In truth, Basset worried Abbot slightly. He was proving a little resistant to Abbot's regular powers of persuasion, and some of the others were beginning to listen to him. Basset would have to be handled soon.

Basset growled again, cupping both hands round his mouth to ensure that the sound travelled to the head of the table.

'I would speak, Leon Abbot. I would have you listen.'

Abbot sighed wearily, waving at the demon to go ahead.

The young ones certainly loved their formality.

'Things are happening that worry me, Abbot. Things are not as they should be with the pride.'

There were murmurs of assent from round the table. Not to worry. The others would soon change their tune.

'We are known by human names. We venerate a human book. I find this sickening. Are we to become human alto-gether?'

'I have explained this, Basset. Perhaps a million times. Are you so dull-witted that my words do not penetrate your skull?'

Basset growled low in his throat. These were fighting words. And pride leader or not, Abbot would soon find those words rammed down his throat.

'Let me try one more time,' continued Abbot, plonk-ing his boots on the table, a further insult to Basset. 'We learn the human ways so we can better understand them, and so more easily defeat them. We read the book, we prac-tise with the crossbow, we bear the names.'

Basset would not be cowed. 'I have heard these words a million times, and each time they seem ridiculous to me. We do not give each other rabbit names when we hunt rabbit. We do not live in foxholes to hunt the fox. We can learn from the book and the bow, but we are demon, not human. My family name was Gristle. Now that's a real demon name! Not this stupid Hadley Shrivelington Basset.'

It was a good argument, and well presented. Maybe in different circumstances Abbot would have applauded and recruited the young demon as a lieutenant, but lieutenants grew up to be challengers and that was one thing Abbot did not want.

Abbot stood, walking slowly down the length of the table, gazing into the eyes of each Council member in turn. At first their eyes blazed with defiance, but as Abbot began to speak, this fire faded to be replaced by a dull sheen of obedience.

'You are right, of course,' said Abbot, running a talon along one curved horn. An arc of sparks followed the path of his nail. 'Everything you say is exactly right. The names, that ridiculous book, the crossbow. Learning the language of English. It's all a joke.'

Basset's lips curled back over pointed white teeth, and his tawny eyes narrowed. 'You admit this, Abbot? You hear him admit it?'

Before, the others had grunted their approval of the young buck's challenge, but now it was as if the fight had gone out of them. All they could do was stare at the table, as if the answers to life's questions were etched into the wood grain.

'The truth is, Basset,' continued Abbot, drawing ever nearer. 'That we're never going back home. This is our home now.'

'But you said…'

'I know. I said that the spell would end, and we would be sucked back to where we came from. And who knows, it may even be true. But I have no idea what will actually happen. All I know is that for as long as we are here, I intend to be in charge.'

Basset was stunned. 'There will be no great battle? But we've been training for so long.'

'Distraction,' said Abbot, waving his fingers like a magi-cian. 'Smoke and spells. It gave the troops something to concentrate on.'

'To what on?' asked Basset, puzzled.

'Concentrate, you moron. Think about. As long as there's a war to be planned, demons are happy. I provided the war, and I showed them how to win. So, naturally, I am a saviour.'

'You gave us the crossbow.'

Abbot had to stop and laugh. This Basset really was a prize fool. He could almost pass for a gnome.

'The crossbow,' he panted at last, when his mirth had petered away. 'The crossbow! The Mud Men have weapons that shoot death. They have iron birds that fly, dropping exploding eggs. And there are millions of them. Millions! All they would have to do is drop one egg on our little island and we would disappear. And this time, there would be no coming back.'

Basset did not know whether to attack or flee. All these revelations were hurting his brain, and all the other Council members could do was sit there drooling. It was almost as if they were under a spell…

'Come on,' said Abbot mockingly. 'You're getting there. Wring out that sponge of a brain.'

'You have bewitched the Council.'

'Full marks!' crowed Abbot. 'Give that demon a raw rabbit!'

'B-but that can't be,' stammered Basset. 'Demons are not magical creatures, except the warlocks. And warlocks do not warp.'

Abbot spread his arms wide. 'And I am so obviously a magnificently warped creature. Does your brain hurt? Is this all too much for you, Basset?'

Basset pulled a long sword from its scabbard.

'My name is Gristle!' he roared, lunging at the pride leader.

Abbot batted the blade aside with his forearm, then pounced on his opponent. Abbot may have been a liar and a manipulator, but he was also a fearsome warrior. Basset may as well have been a dove attacking an eagle.

Abbot drove the smaller demon to the stone floor, then squatted on his chest, ignoring the blows Basset drove into his armoured plates.

'Is that the best you can do, little one? I have had better tumbles with my dog.'

He grabbed Basset's head between his hands and squeezed until the younger demon's eyes bulged.

'Now I could kill you,' said Abbot, and the thought gave him obvious pleasure. 'But you are a popular buck among the imps, and they would pester me with questions. So I will let you live. After a fashion. Your free will shall belong to me.'

Basset shouldn't have been able to speak, but he managed to moan one word.

'Never.'

Abbot squeezed harder.

'Never? Never, you say? But don't you know that never comes quickly here in Hybras?'

Then Abbot did what no warped demon should be able to do: he summoned magic from inside himself and let it shine through his eyes.

'You are mine,' he said to Basset, and his voice was layered with magic, and irresistible.

The others were so conditioned that they succumbed to just a tinge of the mesmer in his voice, but for Basset's fresh young mind, Abbot was calling forth every spark of magic in his system. Magic that he had stolen. Magic that, by fairy law, was never to be used to mesmerize another fairy.

Basset's face was turned red, and his forehead plate cracked.

'You are mine!' repeated Abbot, staring straight into Basset's captive eyes. 'You will never question me again.'

To Basset's credit, he fought the enchantment for several seconds, until the magic's power actually burst a blood vessel in his eye. Then, as the blood spread across the orange sclera of his eye, Basset's resolve faded, to be replaced by docile dullness.

'I am yours,' he intoned. 'I will never question you again.'

Abbot closed his eyes for a moment, drawing the magic back into himself. When he opened them again, he was all smiles.

'That's good. I am so glad to hear that, Basset. I mean, your option was quick and painful death, so you're better off as a mindless lapdog anyway.'

He climbed to his feet and graciously helped Basset to his.

'You've had a fall,' he explained, in a doctor—patient voice. 'And I'm helping you to your feet.'

Basset blinked dreamily. 'I will never question you again.'

'Oh, never mind all that now. Just sit down and do what-ever I say.'

'I am yours,' said Basset.

Abbot slapped his cheek gently. 'And the others said we wouldn't get along.'

Abbot returned to his own chair at the head of the lodge. The chair was high-backed and made from various animal parts. He settled into it, paddling the armrests with his palms.

T love this chair,' he said. 'Actually it's more of a throne than a chair, which brings me to our main business here today.' Abbot reached under a leather flap in the chair and pulled out a roughly fashioned bronze crown.

'I think it's about time the Council declared me king for life,' he said, fixing the crown on his head.

This new king-for-life idea would be a tough sell. A demon pride was always ruled over by the fittest, and it was a very temporary position. Abbot had only survived as long as he had by mesmerizing anyone who dared chal-lenge him.

Most of the Cquncil had been under Abbot's spell for so long that they accepted the suggestion as if it were a royal decree, but some of the younger ones shuddered with violent spasms as their true beliefs wrestled with this new repugnant idea.

Their struggles didn't last long. Abbot's suggestion spread like a virus through their conscious and subcon-scious, subduing revolution wherever it was found.

Abbot adjusted his crown slightly. 'Enough debate. All in favour, say graaarghl'

'GRAAARGH!' howled the demons, battering the table with gauntlets and swords.

'All hail King Leon,' prompted Abbot.

'ALL HAIL KING LEON!' mimicked the Council, like trained parrots.

The adulation was interrupted by a soldier demon, who burst through the lodge's flap.

'There's a… there was a big…'

Abbot whipped off the crown. The general population wasn't ready for that yet. 310

'There's a what?' he demanded. 'A big what?'

The soldier paused, catching his breath. He realized suddenly that he'd better communicate the bigness of what had happened on the mountain, or else Abbot was liable to behead him for interrupting the meeting.

'There was a big flash.' A big flash? That didn't sound big enough.

'Let me start again. A huge flash of light came from the volcano. Two of the hunting party were nearby. They say someone came through. A group. Four beings.'

Abbot frowned. 'Beings?'

'Two demons, maybe. But the other two. The hunter doesn't know what they are.'

This was serious. Abbot knew it. These beings could be humans, or worse still, surviving warlocks. If it was a warlock, he would surely guess Abbot's secret. All it would take was one demon with some real power, and his hold on the pride would be gone. This situation had to be contained.

'Very well. The Council will investigate. Nobody else goes up there.'

The soldier's Adam's apple bobbed nervously, as if he was about to bear bad news. 'It's too late, Master Abbot. The entire pride is climbing the volcano.'

Abbot was halfway to the door before the soldier finished his sentence.

'Follow me!' he shouted to the other demons. 'And bring your weapons.'

'GRAAARGH!' roared the spellbound Council members.

Artemis was surprised at how calm he felt. You would think that a teenage human would be terrified at the sight of a pride of demons climbing towards him, but Artemis was more nervous than terrified, and more curious than nervous.

He glanced backwards over his shoulder, into the crater they had just climbed out of.

'The pride comes before a fall,' he said softly, then smiled at his own joke.

Holly overheard. 'You certainly pick your moment to develop a sense of humour.'

'Usually I would be planning, but this is out of my hands. Qwan is in charge now.'

No.l led them along the rim of the crater towards a low rocky ledge. There was a wooden rod jammed into the ground beside the ledge, and hooked over the rod were dozens of silver bangles. Most tarnished and soot-caked. No.l wiggled a bunch over the top of the rod. 'Dimension jumpers leave these here,' he explained, passing them out. 'Just in case they make it back. No one ever did, until now. Except Leon Abbot of course.'

Qwan slipped a bangle on to his wrist. 'Dimension jump-ing is suicide. Without silver, a demon will never be able to stay in one place for more than a few seconds. They will drift between times and dimensions until they are killed by exposure or starvation. Magic is the only reason we're here. I am amazed this Abbot person made it back. What is his demon name?'

No.l squinted down the mountain pathway.

'You can ask him your self. That's him, the big one elbow-ing his way to the head of the group.'

Holly squinted down at the pride leader.

'The one with the curved horns and big sword?' she asked.

'Is he smiling?'

'No.'

'That's Abbot.'

It was a strange reunion. There was no hugging, no cham-pagne and no teary-eyed reminiscing. Instead there were bared teeth, drawn swords and threatening behaviour. The latest batch of imps were especially eager to skewer the newcomers and prove their valour. Artemis was the number one target in the group. Imagine, an actual live human here on Hybras. He didn't look so tough.

Artemis and company had stayed put on the ledge, wait-ing for the demons to come to them. They didn't have to wait long. The imps arrived first, breathless from the climb and just dying to kill something. If it hadn't been for Qwan, Artemis would have been ripped to shreds on the spot. In fairness, Holly had something to do with keeping Artemis alive too. She tagged the first half-dozen imps with a charge from her Neutrino strong enough to send them scurrying back to what they thought was a safe distance. After that, Qwan managed to hold their attention by conjuring a multi-coloured dancing monkey in the air.

Soon every demon who was able to climb the mountain had done so, and they were all staring at the magical monkey.

Even No.l was entranced. 'What is that?' Qwan fluttered his fingers, causing the monkey to somersault.

'It's a simple magical construct. Instead of allowing the sparks to roam on instinct, I marshal them into a recog-nizable form. It takes time and effort, but in time you will have this micro-control too.'

'No,' said No.l. I mean what is that?' Qwan sighed. 'It's a monkey.'

As their numbers grew, the demons became more and more agitated. The warriors crashed horns in a show of strength. They bashed each other's chest plates with their forearms and made a big show of sharpening their swords on stones.

'I miss Butler,' said Artemis.

'Me too,' said Holly, scanning the crowd for the greatest threat. It wasn't easy to decide. Every demon in the crowd seemed as though he was on the verge of hurling himself at the new arrivals. Holly had seen three-dimensional models of demons, of course, but she had never seen the real thing. The models were accurate enough, but they couldn't capture the bloodlust in the creatures' eyes, or the eerie whines that curled out of their noses as battle fever possessed them.

Abbot barged through to the front of the group and Holly instantly trained her weapon on his chest.

'Qwan!' said Abbot, obviously amazed. 'You're alive? I thought the warlocks were all dead.'

'Except the one that helped you,' said No.l before he could stop himself.

Abbot took a step back. 'Well, yes. Except that one.'

Qwan closed his fist and the monkey disappeared. 'I know you,' he said slowly, searching for the memories. 'You were at Taillte. You were a dissenter.'

Abbot drew himself up. 'That's right. I am Abbot the dissenter. We never should have come here. We should have met the humans head-on. The warlocks betrayed us!' He levelled his sword at Qwan. 'You betrayed us!'

The other demons growled and rattled their weapons.

Abbot took a moment to study the other members of the group.

'A human! That's a human. You have brought the enemy to our door. How long before the rest of them follow in their metal birds?'

'Metal birds?' said Artemis in Gnommish. 'What metal birds? All we have are crossbows, remember?'

There followed a collective ooh, as the demons realized that this human spoke their language, albeit with an accent. Abbot decided to change the subject. This boy was pick-ing holes in his story. 'And you brought an elf too, warlock. Armed with a magical weapon. The elves betrayed us at Taillte!'

Qwan was getting bored with all this posturing. 'I know, everybody betrayed you at Taillte. Why don't you give the order you're working up to? You want us dead. Give the order, and see if our brother demons will attack the only being who can save them.'

Abbot realized that he was on very dangerous ground. This poisonous little bunch had to be dealt with. Quickly and permanently.

'You want to die so much? So be it, you can die.' He pointed his sword at the small group and was on the verge of roaring 'Kill them!' or perhaps 'Death to the traitors!' when Qwan snapped his fingers. He did this in a very showy way, setting off a magical mini-explosion.

'I remember you now. Your name isn't Abbot. You're N'zall, the idiot who ruined the time spell. But you seem different. Those red markings.'

Abbot flinched as if struck. A few of the older demons sniggered. Abbot's demon name wasn't brought up very much. Abbot was a little embarrassed by it, not surpris-ingly since N'zall meant 'little horn' in the old demon cant.

'It is you, N'zall. It's all coming back to me now. You and that other moron, Bludwin — you were against the time spell. You wanted to fight it out with the humans.'

'I still do,' roared Abbot, overcompensating after the mention of his true name. 'There's one right here. We can start with him.'

Qwan was angry now, for the first time since he came back to life. 'We had it all worked out. We had a circle of seven in the volcano, the lava was rising, and everything was under control, then you and Bludwin hopped out from behind a rock and broke the circle.'

Abbot's laugh was hollow. 'This never happened. You have been away too long, warlock. You have gone mad.'

Qwan's eyes burned with blue sparks, and magic rippled along the length of his arms. 'I have been a statue for ten thousand years because of you.'

'Nobody believes a word of this, warlock.'

'I believe it,' said No.l. And there were some in the demon camp who believed it too. It was in their eyes.

'You tried to murder the warlocks!' continued Qwan accusingly. 'There was some commotion and Bludwin went into the volcano. His energy tainted the spell. Then you dragged my apprentice, Qweffor, into the lava too. Both of you went in. I saw it.' Qwan frowned, trying to piece it all together. 'But you didn't die. You didn't die because the spell had already started. The magic transported you away before the lava could melt your bones. But where did Qweffor go? Where did you go?'

No.l knew the answer to that question. 'He went into the future. He told our secrets to the humans in exchange for one of their storybooks and an ancient weapon from a museum.'

Abbot pointed the sword at him. 'I was going to let you live, impling.'

No.l felt a knot of rage in his stomach. 'Like you let me live the last time? You told me to jump into the crater. You mesmerized me!'

Abbot was in a tough spot. He could order the Council to attack, but that would leave many questions unanswered, and he couldn't mesmerize everybody. But if he let Qwan keep talking, every one of his secrets could be exposed. What he needed was some time to think. Unfortunately time was something he did not have. He would have to use his wits and weapons to get out of this situation.

'I mesmerized you! Don't be ridiculous. Demons don't have magic. We abhor magic.' Abbot shook his head in dis-belief. 'What am I even doing explaining myself to a runt like you? Shut your mouth, Number One, or I'll stitch it shut and throw you into the volcano.'

Qwan did not appreciate his new apprentice being threatened.

'I have had enough of you, N'zall. You would threaten warlocks? Number One, as you call him, has more power inside him than you will ever have.'

Abbot laughed. 'For once you are right, old warlock. I have no power inside me. Not a single spark of magic. What I do have is the power of my fist, and the strength of the pride behind me.'

Artemis was growing tired of this bickering.

'We don't have time for this,' he said, stepping out from behind Qwan. 'The time spell is unravelling and we need to make preparations for the journey home. For that jour-ney, we need all the magic we can get. Including yours, N'zall or Abbot or whatever your name is.'

'I don't argue with humans,' growled Abbot. 'But if I did, I might repeat that I don't have any magic.'

'Oh, come on,' scoffed Artemis. 'I know the side effects of the mesmer. Including ragged pupils and bloodshot eyes. Some of your friends here have been mesmerized so much they barely have pupils any more.'

'And where did I get this magic?'

'You stole it in the time tunnel. I imagine you and Qweffor were literally melted together by the combination of lava and magic. When you emerged in Earth's recent past, you managed to hold on to some warlock magic.'

This was a bit of a stretch for everyone present. Abbot realized that he wouldn't need the mesmer to convince anybody that the human's theory was ridiculous. He could destroy this human's argument before destroying the human.

Abbot made a great show of scoffing at Artemis. He did the whole big tribe leader bit, running his nails along the curves of his horns, and barking out short bursts of laughter. Pretty soon, almost everyone else was laughing along.

'So, human,' said Abbot, when the furore had died down. 'I stole magic in the time tunnel. You must be losing your mind, Mud Boy. Maybe that's because I'm about to order my imps to skin your bones and suck the marrow from them. Even if what you say were possible, how would you know? How would a human know?' And Abbot grinned smugly, certain that no s............

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