Lord loss, p.10
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       Lord Loss, p.10

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
 
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  No movement at all.

  I try pulling the bottle out — it doesn't give.

  Studying it again, frowning. My eyes focus on the cork. I grin. Put the tip of my right index finger to the face of the cork. Push gently.

  The cork sinks into the bottle. A loud click. The two halves of the wine rack slide apart, revealing a dark corridor angling gently downwards. I do a quick mental geographical check — it leads in the direction of the sheds.

  I act before fear has a chance to deter me. Step forward. Cross the threshold. Advance.

  I've taken no more than eight or nine steps when the wine rack closes behind me with a soft slishing sound. I'm plunged into total darkness. My heart leaps. My hands strike out to touch the walls on either side, just so I have the feel of something real. Split-seconds away from complete panic when …

  … lights flicker on overhead. Weak, dull lights, but enough to illuminate the tight, cramped corridor.

  My heart settles. My eyes devour the light. I smile feebly at myself. Turn and retrace my steps. Examining the back of the wine rack, thinking about how I'm going to get out later. A button in the wall to my left. I press it. The lights flick off and the rack slides open.

  I step through to the wine cellar, wait for the rack to close, then open it again and return to the corridor. This time I keep on walking when the rack closes and I'm plunged into temporary darkness. Moments later, when the lights flicker on, I glance up at them wryly and give them a carefree half-wave.

  Grubbs Grady — Mr. Cool!

  The corridor runs straight and evens out after twenty yards or so. Narrow but high. Moss grows along the walls and ceiling. The floor's lined with a thin layer of gravel. By the moss, I figure this tunnel must be decades old, if not centuries.

  The tunnel ends at a thick, dark wooden door, with a large gold ring for a handle. I press my ear to the door but can hear nothing through it. If Dervish is in the room beyond, it'll be impossible to surprise him. I'll just have to cross my fingers and hope for the best.

  I take hold of the huge gold ring. Tug firmly. The door creaks open. I enter.

  A large room, at least the size of the wine cellar. Sturdy wooden beams support the ceiling. Burning torches set in the walls — no electrical lights. A foul stench.

  I leave the door open as I step into the room and study my surroundings. A steel cage dominates the room, set close to the wall on my right. Almost the height of the ceiling, thin bars set close together, bolted to the floor in all four corners.

  Inside the cage — the deer. Still bound and struggling weakly. Lying in a pool of its own waste. Which explains the smell.

  Advancing, giving the cage a wide berth. There are three small tables in this subterranean room. Legs carved to resemble human forms. Surfaces overflowing with books. A chess set half hangs off of one of them. Pens. Writing pads. Candles waiting to be lit.

  Ropes and chains in one corner. No weapons. I thought there'd be axes and swords, like inside the house, but there isn't even a stick.

  A chest — treasure! I snap it open in a rush, treasure-lust momentarily getting the better of my other senses. Is this Lord Sheftree's legendary hoard?

  Bitter disappointment — the chest's filled with old books and rolled-up parchment. I scrape the paper aside and explore the bottom of the chest, in search of even a single gold nugget or coin, but come up empty-handed.

  Circling the room. Get close to the cage this time. Note a bowl set in the floor — for water, I assume. A door with two locks, neither currently bolted. No hatch for pushing food through.

  I consider dragging out the deer and setting it free, but that would reveal my having been here. I don't want Dervish knowing I'm wise to this setup. Not sure what he'd do to me if he found out.

  Examining the tables. On two of them the books are layered with dust, the candles have never been used, and the chairs are shoved in tight. On the other there are fewer books — a couple are open; the two large candles on the table are both half burned down, and the chair's been pulled out.

  I focus on the third table. Walk around it twice without touching it. Wary of magic spells and what might happen if I disturb anything.

  I wish Bill-E was here. I should have phoned him and cooked up some story to get him to stay the night. But I didn't want to drag him into this until I was sure — which I'm still not. So far I've seen nothing to suggest that Dervish is a werewolf, or that he uses this cell for anything more sinister than holding captured deer.

  I have to take a chance with the spells. I pull the chair back a bit more, then sit and cautiously lay my hands on top of the table.

  Nothing happens.

  The light's poor here. There are matches on the table but I daren't light a candle — Dervish might smell it when he returns, or notice that it's burned down more than when he left.

  I study one of the open books but I can't make sense of the words. If it's in English, it's protected by reading spells, like the books in Dervish's study.

  I flick forward a few pages, keeping a finger on the page it was originally opened to. No pictures, though there are a few mathematical or magical diagrams. I turn the pages back and pick up one of the other books.

  A wolf's bared jaws flash at me! I gasp — raise my hands to protect myself — almost topple out of my chair —

  Then laugh hysterically as I realize it's just the cover of a book under the one I picked up. I need to get a grip. Freaking out over a picture — seriously uncool!

  Laying the upper book aside, I open the one with the picture of a wolf on it. The words in this are also undecipherable, but there are many pictures and drawings — most of creatures which are half-human, half-wolf.

  I study the photos and illustrations in troubled silence. The paintings are wilder — men with perfectly normal upper halves, but the lower body of a wolf; women with ordinary bodies and twisted wolfen heads; babies covered in hair, with ripped lips and jagged fangs. But the photos are more disturbing, even though they're less grisly than the paintings. Most simply depict malformed humans, with lots of hair, distorted faces, sharp teeth, and slit eyes.

  The reason they're so unsettling — they're real.

  The paintings could be the work of an artist's vivid imagination, but the photos are genuine. Of course I'm aware that it's a simple matter in this day and age to forge photographs and warp reality, but I don't think these are the result of some lab developer's sick sense of humor. This book has the look and feel of an ancient tome — though some of the snaps are in color, the colors are dull and splotchy, like in very old photos. I don't think the people who put this together had the technical know-how to produce digitally enhanced images.

  The creatures in the book don't look familiar, though I study their faces at length. If there are Gradys or Garadexes in there, I don't recognize them.

  Closing the book, I pick up another lying to the right. This one's modern. Glossy photos, mostly of dead human-wolf beasts, showing them cut open, their insides scooped out. I can't read it, but I know what it is — an autopsy manual. Somebody's undertaken a study of these wolfen humans and published their findings.

  I grin shakily as I imagine what would happen if I went into a library and asked if they had any books on werewolf autopsies!

  As I lay the autopsy book aside, my eyes fall on a thin volume. Loose sheets, held together by a wrinkled brown leather folder. Opening it, I find myself staring into the red eyes of the demon master — Lord Loss.

  My fingers freeze. My throat pinches shut. It's not the picture Dervish showed me when he came to visit me in the institute. This one's more detailed. It shows only the demon's head. With terrified fascination I study the folds of lumpy red skin, its bald crown, small mouth, sharp grey teeth. Its eyes are especially strange — as I noted before, it seems to have only a dark red iris and pupil.

  Trembling, I start to turn the drawing over, to check on the other papers in the folder —

  — then stop dead at a terrible whisper.


  “Hello … Grubitssssssssssch …”

  The demon's voice! I release the paper and stare at the painted face — which, impossibly, nightmarishly — stares back.

  “Release me,” the demon on the page whispers, its thin lips moving ever so slightly, its eyes narrowing fractionally. “I hunger for … your pain.”

  The painting grins.

  I scream, slam the folder shut, and race, sobbing, for safety, imagining the demon master breathing down my neck every frantic step of the way.

  THE LONGEST DAY

  MY bed. Curled into a ball on top of it. Weeping. Shaking. Fingers over my eyes. Peeping through them at fitful intervals, waiting for the demon master and his cohorts to come.

  Hours later. Footsteps on the stairs. My heart almost stops.

  Panting. Eyes wide. Remembering the carnage — Mom, Dad, Gret. Praying it's quick. I don't want to suffer. Maybe I should take the blade of the axe to my throat before the demons …

  Whistling — Dervish!

  I moan with relief. The footsteps stop, then start towards my room. I scurry underneath the covers and draw them up around my chin.

  Dervish opens the door and sticks his head in. “You OK, Grubbs?” he asks.

  “Yes,” I answer weakly. “Just a bad dream.”

  “I can sit with you if you want.”

  “No. I'm fine. Really.”

  “See you in the morning then.”

  “'Night.”

  He only half-closes the door when he leaves. I want to rush to it and slam it all the way shut, but I don't dare step off the bed — afraid Vein or Artery might be lying beneath, waiting to snap at my ankles and drag me off into their world.

  Dawn takes an age to come, but eventually the sun rises and burns my fears away with its cleansing rays.

  As the sun clears the horizon and chases the shadows of night westward, I crawl out of bed, over to the window, and throw it open. The morning air is chilly but welcome. I gulp it down like water, my head clearing, my shakes subsiding.

  Did the painting really talk to me or did I just imagine it?

  I honestly don't know. I think it was real. But I was extra tense. Overreacting to everything. It could have been a hallucination.

  What was definitely real — the werewolf photos. I didn't imagine them. They're what I must focus on. The Lord Loss mystery can wait. I went down the cellar to find evidence of a werewolf. And I believe I found it.

  Time to call in the expert.

  “Paging Bill-E Spleen …”

  I phone while Dervish sleeps. Ma Spleen answers, even grumpier than usual. “It's seven twenty-three!” she snaps. “He's still asleep and so was I!”

  “Please,” I say calmly. “This is important. I want to catch him before he goes to school.”

  “If you tell me, I can give him a message,” she sniffs.

  “No,” I insist. “I have to speak to him in person.”

  She grumbles some more, but eventually goes to wake the snoozing master Spleen.

  “This had better be life-or-death,” Bill-E yawns down the line a minute later.

  “You've got to come over,” I tell him directly. “Pretend you're going to school, then come here.”

  “What?” he grunts. “Have you lost your mind? I can't fart in these parts without Grandma knowing. Skipping school is out of —”

  “There's a full moon tonight,” I hiss. “I don't want to be trapped here alone with Dervish.”

  A cautious pause. “What's happened?” Bill-E asks.

  “Come over. Find out.”

  I put the phone down before he can ask any further questions, confident that his curiosity will entice him. Start thinking about what I'm going to tell Dervish to explain Bill-E's being here.

  He arrives at 9:17, schoolbag slung across his back, left eye squinting suspiciously, black hair slick with sweat — he must have run.

  “Couldn't come any earlier or Grandma would have been suspicious,” he says, entering by the huge front doors, which I hold open for him like a butler. He looks around like a detective. “Where's Dervish?”

  “In his study. I told him you were coming to work on a school project with me.”

  “He believed that?” Bill-E snorts.

  “He had no reason not to. He doesn't know we know about him.”

  Bill-E looks at me smugly. “So you think I'm telling the truth now?”

  I lead him through to the kitchen before answering. “Yes.”

  “Coolio! What changed your mind?”

  I sit down. So does Bill-E. “I've seen his lair,” I mutter, and proceed to tell him everything about the deer and my exploration of the wine cellar and the sub-cellar beyond (only leaving out the section relating to Lord Loss — that's personal).

  Ten-fifteen. Bill-E arguing that Dervish doesn't pose a threat.

  “Don't you see?” he groans with exasperation. “The cage is for him! He knows the change is upon him. That's why he caught the deer and stuck it in there. Tonight he'll lock himself in, and when he changes he'll feed on the deer and stay caged there until morning.”

  “How will he get out?” I ask.

  “Meera. That must be why she's here. She knows about his sickness and probably comes every month to help him.”

  “Think back,” I urge him. “You say you've been watching Dervish every time there's been a full moon. Has Meera been here? Or anybody else?”

  Bill-E shifts uncomfortably. “Well, not every time. But —”

  “So how does he get out?” I interrupt.

  Bill-E thinks a moment. “He must hang the key nearby,” he says. “He lets himself out when the change has passed.”

  “Then what's to stop him using it when he transforms?”

  Bill-E rolls his eyes. “Have you ever heard of a wolf that can use a key?”

  “He used it the other night. When he brought the deer back.”

  “But he hadn't transformed then,” Bill-E notes. “You said he looked the same as always.” He stands and paces around the kitchen as he outlines his thoughts.

  “This is the way it must work. During the lead-up to the full moon — and for a few nights after — Dervish's hormones are all over the place. I don't think he physically changes, but he isn't in full control of himself, which is why he wanders around the forest, hunting animals. At the same time, he's human enough not to attack people. He doesn't kill.

  “On the night of the full moon, it's different. The beast comes to the fore. It takes over. He can't risk loosing it on the world. It would kill at random — animals, humans … whatever it found.

  “So he chains himself up.” Bill-E clicks his fingers with excitement. “He locks himself in the cage, ensuring there's a live animal for the beast to rip to pieces and feed on. He stays there all night, howling, transformed, wild. In the morning, when the phase passes, he lets himself out and carries on as normal.”

  Bill-E stops and smiles warmly. “I've always admired Dervish, but never as much as I do right now. He's dealing with his curse. Living as normal a life as he can, yet protecting the world from the monster within him, locking himself away when he must, enduring the loneliness and hardship …”

  “Stop,” I remark sarcastically. “You'll make me cry.”

  Bill-E whirls on me angrily. “What did you call me for?” he barks. “If it was just to sneer, I can leave as quickly as I came!”

  “It wasn't to sneer,” I mumble. “I asked you here to help.” I stare miserably at him. “I'm scared. If he changes tonight and comes after me …”

  “He won't,” Bill-E says confidently. “The cage is there to prevent that.”

  “Maybe.” I nod. “But I'm not sure I want to run the risk. I was thinking I could maybe come stay with you for a night or two … ?”

  Bill-E blinks. “I've never had a friend over to stay,” he says. “I don't think Grandma and Grandad would like it. Especially not after you woke them up this morning.” His face brightens. “Tell you what. I have a better
idea — I'll come and stay here!”

  “What will that achieve?” I frown.

  “I'm fatter than you,” he laughs, patting his stomach. “If the werewolf gets free, it'll go for me first, since I'm so tasty-looking. That'll give you a chance to run for freedom.”

  “You're crazy,” I huff.

  “Of course I am,” he smiles. “After all, I'm a Grady!”

  A long, tense day. Bill-E, despite his good-humored assertions that we have nothing to be afraid of, is just as nervous as me. In some ways he's worse — he looks very pale, and has been sick a couple of times. He says it's some bug he's had for the last few days, but I'm sure it's nerves.

  “Maybe you should go home,” I suggest as he returns from his latest vomit trip to the toilet. “You won't be much use throwing up all the time.”

  “Don't be too sure,” he smiles thinly. “Perhaps I can repel the
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