Lord loss, p.12
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       Lord Loss, p.12
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  Bill-E stiffens and groans. Dervish whips the syringe out and tosses it aside. Bill-E thrashes wildly. Dervish uses both hands and knees to hold him down.

  Mad seconds pass. Bill-E stiffens again. More thrashing. Stiffens for the third time — then collapses, eyes closing, limbs limp.

  Dervish lays Bill-E's head down, then shoots to Meera's side. “Meera?” he mutters, checking her pulse, putting his ear to her lips, rolling her eyelids up. No response. He straightens her legs and arms, checks on Bill-E, looks around to see if anybody's noticed the scuffle — but the road is deserted except for us. He then turns to face me.

  “You bloody fool,” he snarls.

  I stare blankly at my uncle, then slide to the ground and give myself over to bewildered tears.

  Dervish lets me cry myself dry, then hands me a handkerchief and says gruffly, “Clean yourself up, then help me with Billy and Meera.”

  I wipe my face with the handkerchief. Stand, still sniffling.

  “You thought I was a werewolf?” Dervish asks.

  “Yes,” I answer hollowly.

  “You ass,” he says, and manages a ghost of a smile. “There's nothing more dangerous than someone half-close to a terrible truth. What would you have done if I was? Taken that axe to me? Chopped me up into little bits? Buried me in the forest and told the police I'd gone out walking and never returned?”

  “I don't know,” I moan. “We didn't think that far ahead. We thought you'd lock yourself up in the cage in the cellar. When you started for the Vale, we —”

  “You know about the cellar?” he interrupts. “You've been there?”

  “Yes. Not Bill-E — just me. I saw the cage, the deer, the books …”

  Dervish snorts, disgusted. “I knew you'd sniff it out eventually, but not this quick. I underestimated you — Sherlock Grady.”

  He bends and ties Bill-E's legs together, then his hands. He slips a gag between the unconscious boy's jaws, then picks Bill-E up and drapes him over his shoulders, much as he carried the captured deer.

  “What are you going to do with him?” I whimper, flashing on images of Dervish cutting Bill-E's throat, or caging him up for life.

  Dervish grunts. “We'll discuss that later. First we have to get him home. He'll be safe once we lock him in the cage — there's water, and he can feed on the deer. We're exposed here.”

  “But —” I begin.

  “Save it,” Dervish snaps. “We need to move — now! I don't want to be the one to try explaining to Ma Spleen that her grandson's a werewolf!”

  I smile fleetingly, then put the questions on hold. Dervish carries Bill-E to the van that Meera had been hiding behind. He pulls the rear door open and bundles Bill-E inside, then returns for Meera. I'm too terrified and ashamed to ask if she's alive or dead. Instead I pick up my axe, Bill-E's dropped sword, and the syringe — my right arm tingles fiercely where Dervish hit me, but I can use my hand now — and drop them in the back of the van beside the bodies. Dervish closes the door on the beast and the woman. Then we climb in up front and drive back to the mansion.

  For a full minute I say nothing, as if this is an ordinary drive home on a normal night. Dervish concentrates on the road, driving slowly for once in his life. His hands are shaking on the steering wheel. I watch him change gears. Then, unable to hold the questions back any longer, I spit it out.

  “You knew Bill-E was a werewolf.”

  “Obviously.”

  “How long have you known?”

  “A few months. Since he started wandering the forest in a daze around the time of a full moon, killing animals.” His head turns briefly. “You know about that?”

  “Yes. That's what put us on to you. Bill-E saw you collecting the bodies and getting rid of them in the incinerator.”

  Dervish winces. “By disposing of the kills, making sure nobody else found them, I hoped to avoid suspicion and protect him. Guess I was a little too smart for my own good.”

  I look back over the seat's headrest. I can see Bill-E and Meera. Meera's chest is rising and falling — she's alive. I study Bill-E's face. No hair. No fangs. But his skin's a darker shade than usual, his fingernails have sprouted, and his cheekbones have definitely changed shape — albeit slightly. And his eyes, if they were open, would be that eerie yellow color. And his mouth … those teeth …

  “Why didn't you tell me?” I ask softly.

  “That your best friend's a werewolf?” Dervish snorts.

  “I'd have believed you if you'd shown me proof. I was ready to believe it about you — I could have believed it about Bill-E too.”

  “Perhaps,” Dervish sighs. “But I hoped to spare you, the way I've spared Billy. I didn't know until tonight how damaging the change would be. Sometimes the madness touches us but passes. I was praying that he was merely moon-sick, that the disease was weak in him and wouldn't take hold.”

  Dervish drives in silence for a while, gathering his thoughts. I don't say anything, waiting for him to choose how to explain.

  “How much of this have you guessed?” he asks eventually. “Tell me what you think you know.”

  “The Gradys are cursed,” I answer directly. “Some of us turn into werewolves. It's been happening for centuries.”

  “Pretty good,” Dervish commends me. “Only it goes back a lot further than centuries, and it's not just Gradys — it's the entire family line. What else?”

  I shrug. “Not much. We thought you had the disease, but that you could control it, or at least lock yourself up when the moon was full.”

  “Nobody can control lycanthropy,” Dervish says quietly. “When the disease takes hold — as it has in Billy tonight — you're doomed. The change takes a couple of months, but once the wolf comes to the fore, the human never resurfaces.”

  “You mean Bill-E's gone? He's …”

  I can't continue. A terrible weight settles upon me.

  “Not quite.” Dervish says, and the weight lifts as suddenly as it fell into place.

  “We can save him?” I ask, excited. “We can reverse the change?”

  “There is a way,” Dervish nods. “But we'll talk more about that later — and whether or not we wish to chance it.”

  “What do you mean?” I snap. “Of course we —”

  “Your sister had the disease,” Dervish interrupts softly. I stare at him, horrified. “To save Billy, we'll have to deal with Lord Loss, as your parents did. And if we do, we run the very real risk of winding up dead like them — Billy along with us.”

  “What does … he … have to do with this?” I croak.

  “Later,” Dervish says. “One mystery at a time. We're nearly home. Let's get Billy locked away safe and sound — then I'll tell you all about it.”

  We pull up around back of the mansion, close to the tree stumps. Dervish turns off the engine and asks me to remove the sheet of corrugated iron and open the doors leading down to the secret cellar. He bundles the pair of unconscious bodies out of the back of the van while I'm doing that.

  “Did you gain access this way or through the wine cellar?” he asks while I'm pulling the doors open.

  “The wine cellar,” I pant — the doors are heavy.

  “Clever monkey,” he chuckles. “You'll have to tell me about it — some other time. We have more pressing matters to deal with first.” He picks Bill-E up and nods me forward.

  Down the steps. Steep. Dark. Have to tread carefully, feeling for each stair.

  “Do you need any help with Bill-E?” I ask over my shoulder.

  “No,” Dervish replies, coming down, blocking out the light of the moon. “I'll be fine. Dart ahead and light some extra candles.”

  I proceed to the bottom of the stairs, where I find a door. Pushing it open, I enter the cellar. Studying the entrance I've just come through, I note that the material on this side of the door is disguised to look like part of the wall, which is why I didn't spot it during my previous visit.

  As I'm lighting candles on the main table — keeping as
far clear of the Lord Loss folder as I can — Dervish stumbles in, goes to the cage, opens it with his left foot, and sets Bill-E down beside the deer. He makes sure Bill-E's comfortable, then locks the door and removes the key.

  “Don't go anywhere near the cage when he wakes,” Dervish says. “He'll howl like the devil, throw himself wildly at the bars — possibly injuring himself in the process — but steer clear, regardless. All he needs is a sliver of a chance to rip you open.”

  “I'll bear that in mind,” I comment drily.

  Dervish goes back up the steps and returns a minute later with Meera. He lays her down, smooths her hair back, stares at her bruised, motionless features.

  “How is she?” I ask, dreading the answer.

  “OK, I think,” Dervish says, and my fear lessens. “But she'll be out for a while. He cracked her head hard on the pavement. We should get her to a doctor, have her checked over — but there isn't time. I'll take her to the house, out of harm's way, before … before we see to Billy. We'll just have to hope for the best after that.”

  Dervish stands, walks around behind the desk, and collapses into his chair, sighing deeply. He tells me to pull up one of the other chairs, but I prefer to stand — too nervous to sit.

  “I want to know about werewolves,” I tell him bluntly. “I want to know what Lord Loss has to do with them, and how you know Gret had it, and how we reverse it in Bill-E.”

  Dervish nods. “Reasonable questions. But I'm surprised you haven't asked the most obvious one — since this is a family disease, passed on from one generation to the next, how come Billy has it?”

  “I know all about Bill-E's connection to our family,” I huff.

  Dervish stares at me, slack-jawed. “Care to tell me how?”

  “Bill-E figured it out years ago. Like he said, it didn't take a genius to guess that you were his father. Now tell me about —”

  “What?” Dervish yelps, jerking forward. “He thinks I'm his dad?”

  “Of course.” I frown. “Aren't you?”

  Dervish sits back. Groans and shuts his eyes. “I'm a horse's ass,” he snarls. “I should have seen that coming. How can I have gone all these years …”

  He clears his throat and levels his gaze on me. “Pull up a chair,” he commands. “It sounds like a bad movie cliche, but you're going to want to sit down for this.”

  I start to come back with a sarcastic reply. Spot the steel in his eyes. Drag over a chair and sit opposite Dervish, like a student before a teacher.

  “There's probably some diplomatic, sensitive, compassionate way to put this,” Dervish says, “but one doesn't spring readily to mind, and I don't have time to go searching. So I'll put it plainly, no matter how upsetting it might be.

  “I'm not Billy's father — I'm his uncle.”

  I stare at Dervish uncertainly. “I don't understand.”

  “People aren't perfect, Grubbs,” he mutters. “Even the best of us make mistakes. Life's complicated. We all …” He clears his throat. “Your mother never liked me, and made no secret of the fact.”

  “What's that got to do with —” I start, but he silences me with a gesture.

  “I visited Cal a few times over the years. She accepted that. But except for a single trip here years ago, she refused to step foot in Carcery Vale. So Cal used to come by himself. It was a serious bone of contention between them. I tried many times to talk to Sharon about it, but she wouldn't …”

  Dervish trails off into a brooding silence, then begins again. “Your father loved your mother — and you and Gret — but he wasn't a saint. He traveled a lot, on business, alone — but he didn't always sleep alone.”

  I leap to my feet, furious at what Dervish is suggesting. But before I can lay into him, he continues quickly.

  “They were one-night stands or short affairs. Meaningless. Sharon never found out — or so Cal told me. My brother had many admirable qualities, but fidelity wasn't one of them. He never wished to hurt your mother, but he couldn't remain true to her. It wasn't in his nature.”

  “Why are you telling me this?” I hiss, fingers clenched into fists, tears in my eyes.

  Dervish looks at me sideways, as though I'm a fool for asking. “Because one year he had an affair with a Valer while he was staying with me. And the woman wound up pregnant. She didn't tell him about it until after the baby was born, and then refused all offers of his to get involved. Emily Spleen was headstrong, determined to live life her own way. She told Cal she wasn't —”

  “Stop!” I gasp, stumbling back into my chair. “Don't,” I beg.

  “I took a vow early in life never to have children,” Dervish says, ignoring my plea. “I was afraid the disease would take hold in them. I was determined not to put them — and myself — through that torment. Cal didn't share that view — he thought life was worth the risk.

  “I looked after Billy when Emily died because he was my nephew — not because he was my son. Cal was Billy's father, Grubbs.

  “Billy isn't your cousin — he's your brother.”

  THE CURSE

  A LONG silence. Wanting to roar at Dervish, call him a liar, make him take the words back. But there's no reason for him to lie about something like this. Nothing but sad honesty in his eyes.

  Feeling sick. Instantly mad at Dad for what he did. But just as instantly glad — I'm not alone! I thought I lost everything when the demons attacked. Now I discover I have a brother.

  “This is crazy,” I moan, torn between rage and delight. “I don't know what to make of it. I can't handle it.”

  “Of course you can,” Dervish snaps. “You handled the deaths of your parents and Gret — this is small fry in comparison.”

  “But … I always thought …” I shake my head, not sure what I'm thinking or what I feel. “Why didn't you tell Bill-E? You should have, especially after his Mom died. He could have come to live with us. Dad could —”

  “Cal could do nothing!” Dervish barks. “Not without revealing the truth and tearing his family apart.” He runs a hand through his short grey hair. “But he tried to do it anyway. He came here to claim Billy when Emily died, despite the havoc it would cause.”

  “Why didn't he?” I ask.

  “Ma and Pa Spleen threatened legal action. He would have fought them in court, except he knew he'd lose — they'd simply point out to the judge that Emily hadn't told the boy who his father was, or allowed Cal access to him while she was alive. He hadn't a hope.”

  “Couldn't you have cast a spell on them — made them give Bill-E to him?”

  “I'm not that powerful,” Dervish chuckles humorlessly. “I ‘persuaded’ them to let me into Billy's life when Emily died, but that was as far as my influence ran.”

  I think it over some more, remembering Dad, how much he loved Mom, how happy they seemed together. I never suspected him of anything like this. I don't think Mom did either.

  “I know it's a shock,” Dervish says quietly, “but can I ask you to put it to one side for the moment? You've got the rest of your life to chew it over. Billy doesn't have the same luxury. If we don't act soon …”

  I let out a long, shuddering breath. Glance at the unconscious boy — my brother! — in the cage, his dark skin and twisted hands. Recall the photos of the creatures in Dervish's lycanthropy books, warped and inhuman.

  “OK. We'll discuss Dad later.” I lean forward intently. “Tell me about werewolves.”

  “I'll keep this as short as possible,” Dervish says. Reaching under the table, he produces two cans of Coke from a drawer, hands one to me, and gulps thirstily at his. I sip mine while he speaks.

  “The curse is ancient. We call it the Garadex curse, since the Garadexes were the first in our family to write about it. If other families have it, we don't know about them. Occasionally we'll hear of a stranger who's changed, but when we research their family tree we always find links to ourselves.

  “Scientists who've studied the lycanthropic gene say it's a freak — they haven't found it any
where else in nature. They don't know where it came from or why it functions the way it does.”

  He finishes his Coke, fishes out another, and continues. “We've kept the secret to ourselves. We're a large family, wealthy and powerful. Those of us unaffected by the disease protect the secret. That's why you and Billy aren't under observation in some scientific institute.”

  “Why would I be under observation?” I enquire. “I'm not a werewolf.” I pause as a horrible thought strikes. “Am I?”

  Dervish doesn't look at me. “I don't know,” he answers softly. “The gene surfaces at random. Sometimes it strikes every member of a family branch, wiping them out. Other times it lies dormant for two or three generations. You're one of three children. Gret and Billy both succumbed to the disease. I wish I could say that makes you more or less likely to turn, but there's no way of guessing.

  “The change strikes — if it strikes — anywhere between the ages of ten and eighteen. There have been a handful of cases involving younger children, but nobody past their teens has ever turned.”

  “That's why there are so many young faces in the hall of portraits!” I exclaim. “Those kids all turned into werewolves!”

  Dervish nods glumly. “There's no known cure. Those who catch it are doomed to live as deranged animals for the rest of their days. They normally don't last long — twenty years at most, if allowed to live.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Dervish taps the side of his can with his fingernails, a distant expression in his eyes. “It's a terrible curse,” he says softly. “To see one you love change into an animal, to chain them up and endure their
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