Chapter 20—Army of Lies
Zagan stepped out of the darkness from the back of the cavern and into the light next to Tate. He was just as he had been in his office a few hours ago, his gray suit jacket buttoned over a black tie, blue eyes glossy in the silver light cast by the links of Tate’s chain.
“I gave you what you wanted,” Vanessa stepped forward toward Zagan. “You have the Truth.”
Glancing at Tate, Zagan walked slowly toward them, his steps measuring his words. “You want your sister.”
Vanessa nodded, “We had a deal.”
“We did, indeed.” Zagan stopped, only a body length away. “We did indeed. Lucas and I also had a deal.”
Lucas met Zagan’s eyes, looking past Vanessa’s shoulder. Along the periphery of his vision, Lucas saw things moving in the shadows cast by the chain’s light. They formed as if from smoke, black eyes surrounding Zagan like they had in his office, only down here they seemed to be bigger, lining up behind the demon in countless ranks.
His army of lies. Lucas ran his fingers through his bangs and glanced behind him. The small group of kids shifted restlessly. Tom’s hands curled into fists while Cassy looked like she was about to cry. Jayden and Devon swayed back and forth, swinging their arms as if they were stretching before a wrestling match. And Brandon looked like he was about to wet his pants. Lucas put his hand on Brandon’s arm and gave it a squeeze. Brandon looked at him and nodded, wiping his palms on his purple skinny jeans.
In front of Lucas, Max folded his arms in his usual stance, looking almost bored. Lucas realized that was what Max did to keep people from knowing that he was really sad or happy, or, in this case, probably scared out of his wits.
“We had a deal,” Lucas agreed with Zagan.
“What are deals?”Zagan waved his hand in the air. Behind him, a giant devil shadow twitched his barbed tail and grinned, fangs poking down over his gray bottom lip.
“Deals are where you deliver something you’ve promised. Where’s my sister?” Vanessa demanded.
“Getting kind of bossy, aren’t we?” The corner of Zagan’s mouth turned up into a half-smile, crinkling one blue eye. “Deals are deals and promises are promises.”
“You said we had a deal, Zagan.” Vanessa ground the heel of her boot into the dirt.
“Ah, but you never made me say the magic words.”
“What magic words?” Lucas’s heart sunk. He wasn’t surprised that things were taking a bad turn, but he had still hoped it might be as easy as making Zagan come through on the deal.
The other side of Zagan’s mouth smiled and crinkled his other eye. He had sharp teeth, like the satyr and Cassy’s catsnake. “You never made me say ‘I promise.’”
He dragged out the s on the end of promise, his tongue forking out of his mouth like a snake’s. Then he laughed, a chuckle that deepened and lengthened into a roar. Vanessa stumbled back into Max, who put his hands out and steadied her. Zagan blew up like a balloon, his gray suit ripping from his back and arms. His head stretched into the stalactites, breaking off the tips of a few of them and sending them racing into the ground where they shattered. The sound echoed in the darkness, and as it faded, Lucas heard the low growling of the shadow army, their talons and claws scraping the packed dirt floor as they shifted restlessly in their ranks.
Zagan towered like a skyscraper, black scales absorbing the light, darkening the room with the force of his presence. His eyes were still just as blue, but they were now the size of footballs, blinking down on the small gang.
“This is definitely not the movies,” Brandon shook his head.
“Nope,” Lucas agreed.
The shadow creatures moved toward them, stepping or slithering or flitting, hungry grins brightening their black eyes.
“Now?” Cassy whimpered behind Lucas.
“Definitely now,” Max answered.
She took a deep breath, “I don’t like ponies. I only wear this shirt because I saw it in a magazine once.”
From behind Lucas, Jayden and Devon talked about games they’d never won and girls they’d never gone out with. Tom said something about the score of a water polo match.
Next to him, Brandon had his eyes pinched closed, his hands on his ears. “And in first grade I took the candy out of Mrs. Hansen’s desk and told her it was Peter but it was really me, and I ate it all and didn’t share it with anybody and flushed the wrappers down the toilet.”
Focus, Lucas. He sifted through his own mind for the lies that had led to Vanessa bringing him to Mendacium. He watched her run into the shadows behind Tate, looking for something. Tate glanced up as she ran by, then let his head flop back to his knees.
“I didn’t play marbles in the park on the way home from ditching school,” he said it under his breath.
“That all you got?” the satyr asked by his knee.
“I didn’t write my essay for Mrs. Farnes because I didn’t want to, not because Pa was sick,” Lucas watched the satyr fade a little.
The army stopped moving, as if the truths drew an invisible line that the shadow creatures couldn’t cross. Lucas smiled. It’s working.
That’s when Cassy screamed. Her catsnake shadow, faded a little since Lucas had glanced at it last, coiled around her legs, up to her waist, and over her shoulder. Its little sharp teeth nipped at Cassy’s ear, the long body squeezing the breath out of her as Cassy shrunk into a half-soul.
In front of Lucas, Max’s gryphon leaped on his back and pinned him to the ground. Tom was nowhere to be seen, and Jayden and Devon swung in the air, their arms pinned to their sides by their giant shadow creatures, kicking their legs and squirming to get free.
They’re turning us. Lucas panicked.
The satyr kicked Lucas’s shin.
“Ow!” Lucas leapt back, but the creature was attached to his shadow and came with him.
Brandon still had his eyes closed, muttering something. His dragon scampered around his legs, spurting little shadow flames at Brandon but missing.
Lucas looked at Max in time to see him push himself up, the gray skin of a half-soul. Max looked back, his eyes black and bottomless.
We’re losing, fast. “I wasn’t lost, I was trying to run away.” The satyr jumped on Lucas’s back and pulled him over. Although he felt a little stronger after telling a few truths, it wasn’t enough, not after seeing his friends turned by their own shadow creatures. He hit the ground with a thud, landing on his shoulder in the dirt.
Zagan’s army crept closer. A lizard beast the size of a small child crawled toward Lucas on stubby legs. It licked a pair of jagged fangs with a wormlike tongue. Lucas watched it wriggle nearer as the satyr jumped around him, whistling.
Then all he saw was a giant blue pupil. It blinked, twice, the eyelid a deep black leathery stretch of skin. It shook as an earthquake rumbled through the cavern, small rocks bouncing around Lucas’s head.
No, not an earthquake. He’s laughing.
Zagan’s breath followed his laughter and Lucas wanted to puke. It smelled putrid, like several things had crawled down the giant black throat and died.
“Little boy,” the demon’s teeth were the size of pee wee baseball bats, “are you lost?”
“I was never lost,” Lucas breathed out, glad to tell the truth. He was on the edge of turning into a half-soul himself, maybe only one lie away, and the satyr had started whispering in his ear, making it hard for him to focus. It’s what happened to Max and Cassy. He twisted his neck around. At least Jayden and Devon are still fighting. The two boys kicked their legs, screaming whatever truths they could think of, maybe even making some up, but they didn’t look good. Lucas could see that they were about to go, too.
“How does it feel to be special? With all of your friends becoming mine?” He looked behind him at Tate. Lucas followed the giant eyes. Tate appeared to be shrinking, huddled tightly in a ball. “Soon he will be gone, too, thanks to you. Vanessa never would have found him on her own. She’s too…good.” He laughed again, the rocks by Lucas’s face dancing.
Lucas looked at Tate again, the chains sagging on his shrinking shoulders. The ugly giant didn’t notice that they were loose enough that he could get free if he would just look up.
Zagan’s eye hovered above him again and the black demon grinned. “It’s almost over, and the Truth will be gone forever. The world will be full of dishonesty and lies, little boy.”
Reaching into his pocket, Lucas brought out the tiger’s eye, looking at the amber swirled in the black. You are my good boy, Lucas could hear Pa’s voice in his head. Sorry I lied, Pa.
Lies. Maybe he didn’t have enough truths to tell, but he might have enough strength left for one more lie.
“Zagan, look behind you. We won. Tate’s free.” Lucas pointed to the cowering creature shrinking in his chains.
The blue eyes opened wide and Zagan’s black leathery head spun around as the demon swung over to Tate and sniffed at the chains. He soared to his full height. “You liar!” Zagan’s voice boomed through the cavern and echoed down the tunnels, repeating several times before being buried by the hungry snarls and growls of the shadow army and the final screams of his friends.
Then everything dimmed. Lucas’s vision faded as he felt a stab and the satyr tugged on something that went all the way into his belly, like a fishing line had hooked his insides and was pulling them out through his throat. He gripped the tiger’s eye, a brilliant flash of light blinding him before everything went black.
As he felt the world slipping away with his soul, Lucas thought he heard singing…