Lord loss, p.13
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       Lord Loss, p.13
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  pain. … Many choose not to put themselves through the anguish. A lot of parents …” He stops tapping and his expression hardens. “They put them out of their misery.”

  I gulp dreadfully. “They kill them?”

  He nods. “They're beasts,” he says quickly before I can express my horror. “If they get loose, they kill. There are people in the family, a group called the Lambs, who handle the details if the parents can't. Family executioners, to be blunt.”

  “But you said there was a way to reverse it,” I remind him, trying not to dwell on all those faces from the hall of portraits, the gruesome ends they must have endured.

  “I'm coming to that,” Dervish sighs. “Though be warned — when I tell you, you may wish that I hadn't.”

  A long pause. Then a groan from the cage — Bill-E stirring.

  “When will he wake?” I ask, eyeing him nervously.

  “Soon,” Dervish says. “Let's go to my study — it won't be pretty when he starts bellowing.”

  “No,” I mutter, gripping the edge of the table. “I want to be here for him.”

  Dervish nods understandingly, then returns to his story.

  “Our scientists haven't been able to crack the wolfen gene and find a cure. But science isn't the only way to fight a disease. Magic works too.”

  Dervish reaches across the desk, roots through the books stacked to his left, and finds a thick tome. Opening it, he passes it to me, and I find myself gazing into the eyes of the family magician, Bartholomew Garadex.

  “Old Bart devoted a large chunk of his life to trying to rid the family of its curse,” Dervish says. “He believed it had its origins in magic. For decades he cast spells, experimented, and sought a cure in arcane volumes. But nothing worked. He could change a normal human's shape but could do nothing with a transformed werewolf. He was powerless, like everybody else.

  “And then he met a creature who wasn't.”

  Dervish's face darkens. Taking the book from me, he closes it, then reaches for the folder where I found the drawing of Lord Loss.

  “Stop!” I gasp. He looks at me questioningly. “I found that when I was here before,” I tell him, eyeing the folder fearfully. “The drawing of Lord Loss spoke to me. Its lips and eyes moved.”

  “If I'd known you were so close to the truth,” Dervish murmurs, “I would have warned you about that.” He cocks a thumb at the door leading to the wine cellar.” As I told you, the house is safe. The land around is safe too. But I leave this cellar unprotected. There are times when I have to deal with entities not of this realm, and I need a base from which I can make contact.”

  Dervish runs a couple of fingers over the leather cover, contemplating it with an expression of equal parts respect, sadness, and fear. “Lord Loss can't cross the divide between his realm and ours uninvited,” he says. “An ordinary person could look at that picture for decades without seeing anything untoward.

  “But you aren't ordinary. You've faced demons and tapped into your magic potential — when you escaped through the dog flap. He was able to use your power to speak to you. He couldn't have harmed you through the book, but he might have been able to trick you into summoning him.”

  “But who — what! — is he?” I cry.

  “Lord Loss is a demon master,” Dervish says. “One of many supernatural beings who exist on the edges of our reality, in magical realms of their own. We call them the Demonata. Some meddle in the ways of humans, most have nothing to do with us, while a few — like Lord Loss — feed upon us.”

  My hands are trembling. I grip them tightly between my knees.

  “Lord Loss is a sentinel of sorrow,” Dervish says. “He feeds on human pain and suffering. A funeral is a three-course meal to him. A lonely, suicidal person's a tasty snack. He delights in our fear and grief, encourages it when possible, then drains it and grows strong on humanity's weakness.”

  “How does he do it?” I croak. “How does he feed?”

  “I'd have to get deep into metaphysics to explain that,” Dervish snorts. “Let's just say he has a psychic straw through which he can suck a person's pain.

  “Now, old Bart knew about Lord Loss — he'd seen him feeding on grieving members of the family — but he didn't care. Bartholomew was interested only in lifting the curse, not warding off demons. But later in life, he spent time studying the Demonata. They can live for thousands of years. I believe Bartholomew hoped to learn their secret. He never did, but at some point he found out that Lord Loss had the power to reverse the lycanthropic change.”

  “You mean Lord Loss can cure Bill-E?” I exclaim.

  “If he chooses to.”

  “Then let's summon him!” I shout, leaping out of my chair. “What are we waiting for? Let's call him here now and —”

  “The Demonata are evil and selfish,” Dervish interrupts.

  “It's possible to strike deals with some of them, but they'll do nothing out of the goodness of their hearts — as you know, some don't even have a heart!”

  “Then how …?”

  Dervish gestures for me to sit. I'm exasperated, but I obey.

  “Bartholomew tried everything to get Lord Loss to help. He begged, he threatened, he even offered his soul.”

  “Souls are real?” I blurt out.

  “Absolutely,” Dervish nods fiercely. “And prized by demons above all other possessions. A soul can be tormented far worse than a body. If I was to lose my soul, my body would continue to function — but on auto-pilot. I'd be like a zombie, an empty shell, feeding, breathing, walking — but not thinking or feeling. Meanwhile, in the universe of the Demonata, my soul would be put through every kind of hell imaginable — and many that aren't!

  “If Bartholomew had been a younger man, he might have been able to tempt Lord Loss. Trouble is, a soul's only good to a demon as long as the human lives. Old Bart was close to death. Lord Loss judged it an inadequate trade-off.

  “But Bartholomew was stubborn. He pursued Lord Loss and braved the attacks of his familiars, suffering many wounds that hastened the hour of his death. But eventually old Bart discovered Lord Loss's great obsession, which he —”

  Guttural roars drown Dervish out. Bill-E's on his feet, clutching the bars of the cage, shaking them, screaming, his face a dark mask of furious lines, teeth bared, tongue lashing wildly from side to side, his yellow eyes gleaming through the narrow slits of his eyelids.

  “Bill-E!” I yell, jumping to my feet, stepping towards the cage.

  “Easy,” Dervish says, grabbing my arm. “Remember what I told you — he'll kill you if you get too close.”

  I stare numbly at Bill-E as he screams, pulls at the bars, kicks and head-butts them, his eyes all the time on Dervish and me.

  “Does he recognize us?” I ask sickly.

  “No,” Dervish replies.

  Bill-E quits wrestling with the bars and turns away, disgusted. He stumbles over the deer, which shakes fearfully. Bill-E stops and grins savagely. Circles the defenseless beast, sniffing, growling. Then he falls on its neck. Claws — teeth — ripping — blood.

  My cheeks are wet. I'm crying again.

  “Let's go,” Dervish whispers. “We can finish this in my study.”

  “I don't want to leave him alone,” I sob.

  “Werewolves don't get lonely,” Dervish says. “They feel only hunger and hate.”

  He picks up Meera and nudges me towards the door leading to the wine cellar. I pause at the exit. One last horrified study of Bill-E Spleen — my brother. Then I follow my uncle to sanity.

  THE CHALLENGE

  DERVISH lays Meera on one of the mansion's many beds. He examines her again, in more detail this time. He tries to wake her by calling her name and gently shaking her. When that fails he goes to the bathroom, comes back with a glass of water, uses his fingers to flick drops at her face. She doesn't stir.

  Dervish steps away grimly. “I could try to bring her round with magic,” he says, “but I'm not sure how serious the damage is. I cou
ld make it worse.”

  “Why don't you just leave her?” I ask. “She'll live, won't she?”

  “I think so.”

  “Then let her sleep. That'll be best for her, right?”

  Dervish stares at me, troubled, then walks out of the room without saying anything. I wrap a blanket over Meera, then close the door on her and head up to the study.

  After the dark of the cellar, the study seems warmer and brighter than ever. I lose myself in a large leather chair, knees drawn up to my chest, head tucked between them, weary and afraid. Dervish is standing by a chess set. This is his favorite set, the pieces based on characters from The Lord of the Rings. Dervish picks up a brightly painted hob-bit figurine and toys with it absently while he speaks.

  “I don't think you've ever truly appreciated the complexities of chess,” he says. “So few pieces, yet so many possibilities. No two games are ever the same. You can learn the rules in an afternoon, yet spend the rest of your life trying to master them.”

  “Stick chess up your ass!” I shout, coming alive with fury. “Bill-E's chained up in the cellar, twisted and insane. Meera's unconscious, maybe comatose. And all you can warble on about —”

  “Lord Loss plays chess,” Dervish interrupts quietly. “The Demonata are not, by nature, playful creatures, but he's an exception. I don't know where or when he acquired his hunger for the game, but by the time Bartholomew Garadex met him, he was a committed player, albeit one of limited experience.”

  “Where's this going?” I grumble, though I have an idea.

  “When you walked in on your parents, did you notice any chess boards?”

  Breathing thinly. Thinking back. The blood. Web-like walls. The demons. And, on the floor, scattered chess pieces, broken boards. Plus the gouged board in the study.

  “Yes,” I sigh.

  Dervish talks swiftly. “Bartholomew played many games with Lord Loss while trying to persuade him to help lift the curse. His familiars weren't allowed to pester Bartholomew at the chess board, so it was the safest way to conduct a conversation with Lord Loss. Over time he noticed that Lord Loss cared almost as much about chess as he did about feeding on humanity's sorrow.

  “On a hunch, old Bart severed connections with the demon master and avoided him for several months. When he finally crossed the divide to the Demonata's universe again, Lord Loss was surly and irritable, eager to resume play.

  “Bartholomew refused.” Dervish chuckles drily. “It's dangerous, riling a demon. They can be abominable angels of destruction when offended. Lord Loss could have unleashed all of his familiars upon old Bart, which would have been —”

  “He has others as well as Artery and Vein?” I snap.

  “Oh yes,” Dervish says. “They're just his current favorites. He has hundreds of familiars. If he'd sicced them on Bartholomew, they'd have torn him limb from limb, and all the magic in the world couldn't have repelled them.

  “But, as old Bart had gambled, Lord Loss didn't send the demons in. As intense as his anger was, his fascination with chess proved stronger. Instead of crushing Bartholomew, he whined and complained and tried to bargain. So Bartholomew struck for gold. He told Lord Loss he wouldn't play unless the demon master lifted the curse of the Garadexes.

  “No bite. Chess was an obsession, but it wasn't that precious to him. So old Bart tried another approach. He proposed a series of contests in which he'd play for the lives of individual family members. After lengthy discussions, they agreed to stage a number of matches, best of five games per match. For each match that Bartholomew won, Lord Loss would cure a Garadex. But if Bartholomew ever lost, Lord Loss would take possession of his soul.

  “And so the contests commenced, two or three games per week — Lord Loss set the rate. According to Bartholomew's records, Lord Loss hated losing. Like most of the Demonata, he's despisingly proud. They consider themselves superior to humans, and to lose to one — at anything — is a great disgrace.

  “Yet lose he did.” Dervish chuckles throatily. “Bartholomew gave his time over entirely to chess, playing for hours on end each day and night, with the best opponents he could find, learning, and improving. He lost six games in the first three months — then never again. He hit a fifty-nine-game winning streak, which showed no sign of ending.

  “And then he died.”

  Dervish shrugs. “He was old, and his earlier battles with Lord Loss's familiars had drained him. It was peaceful in the end — he passed away in his sleep.”

  “What happened then?” I ask, absorbed in the story.

  “For a long time, nothing,” Dervish says. “Nobody in our family knew of Bartholomew's matches with Lord Loss. He never told them how he was affecting the cures. Several Garadexes were witches and wizards, but they were unable to unlock the secrets of his diaries, which he'd encoded with strong spells.

  “Eventually, almost forty years after the great magician's death, Davey McKay — a distant relative who'd lost four of his five children to the curse — decoded the diary and discovered the demonic secret. He immediately contacted Lord Loss in an attempt to renew the contests and reverse the change in his youngest child, who was just starting to change.

  “The demon master was slow to respond. Bartholomew had humiliated him. He was wary of suffering another string of defeats at the hands of a human. Also, Davey wasn't a magician — his soul was of only minor interest to Lord Loss. But Davey was resourceful. He sought a twist to spike Lord Loss's imagination, a challenge that would appeal to his warped sensibilities.”

  Dervish lapses into a thoughtful silence. He's still playing with the hobbit chess piece. With his free hand, he pulls open a drawer and takes out a photo. Slides it across the desk. I look — Mom, Dad, Gret, and me. A snapshot taken on one of Dad's birthdays.

  “Davey's solution was dreadful,” Dervish says as I stare at the photo, “but it had to be. Lord Loss wasn't interested in anything less. The rules he proposed were — one match, best of five games, like before. If Davey won, his son would have his humanity restored, and both would be free. But if Lord Loss won, he could kill both Davey and the child.

  “Lord Loss was keen on Davey's idea, but he added a few kinks of his own. When playing Bartholomew, he'd told his familiars to stand at bay. He refused to grant Davey that privilege. Somebody would have to partner Davey and fight the demons while he played. As long as Davey's protector lived, the familiars wouldn't attack Davey. But if his partner was killed they'd be free to slaughter Davey and his son too.

  “Another new rule was that the games had to be played simultaneously, in a single sitting — to heap the pressure on Davey and his partner.

  “And his final clause — if Davey won, he'd have to enter Lord Loss's realm and fight him personally for possession of his soul.”

  “What?” I mutter, not catching the meaning of the last part.

  “The games take place between the Demonata's universe and ours,” Dervish explains. “You probably noticed in your parents' room that there were bits of our world as well as bits of Lord Loss's. That in-between state was where Davey would challenge Lord Loss. If Davey won, his son would be cured, and the boy and Davey's partner could get on with their lives. But Davey would have to enter Lord Loss's world and fight the demon master on his home turf. If he beat him, he'd walk free. But if he lost, Lord Loss would take control of his soul, and he'd live out his remaining days as a zombie.”

  “Sounds like a raw deal to me,” I grunt.

  “It was,” Dervish agrees. “But those were the terms. Davey had to agree.” Dervish pauses, then says softly, “Davey McKay lost. His brother stood as his partner. The demons overwhelmed him. Davey was killed before even one of the games was decided. His son too. All three were ripped to pieces by the demons.”

  He takes the photo from me and gazes at it in heavy silence.

  “But Davey's sacrifice wasn't in vain,” he resumes. “Lord Loss developed a taste for this new contest. He approached Davey's relatives — those with magical power
s — offering them the chance to compete for lives as Davey had.

  “Most refused. But two — both with young children on the verge of turning — accepted the challenge. One was defeated — but the other won. His victory gave hope to the others, and a series of Garadexes and Gradys have sustained the challenge over the long decades since. Some win, some lose. Most who win subsequently lose their souls in the ensuing battle in Lord Loss's realm, but a few have made the journey back, proof that it can be done.”

  Dervish lays the photo back in the drawer and closes it slowly. He blinks owlishly and wipes a hand across his eyes — he's fighting back tears.

  “Your parents didn't win,” he says. “Gret was infected. Your father and mother challenged Lord Loss. One of them proved inadequate to the task. All three died as a result. I was meant —”

  His voice catches and he turns away, rubbing his eyelids, trembling with emotion. “Your father and I had an agreement,” he says bleakly. “If any of his children succumbed to the disease, I was to be his partner. I thought he was wrong to have children, but I loved him, and I loved the kids he fathered. I wasn't going to stand to one side in their hour of need.”

  “Then why weren't you there?” I cry, tears streaming down my cheeks.

  “He never told me Gret was changing,” he croaks. “Your mother must have convinced him to let her face the demons with him. I'm sure Sharon had Gret's best interests at heart, but I was a better chess player, and a much stronger fighter. Cal should have held me to my promise. He should have called. Maybe I could have …”

  He breaks down. His eyes close. His hands clench into fists. Then he raises his face to the ceiling and howls. From the secret cellar I imagine I hear an echoing howl, as the transformed Bill-E Spleen pauses during feeding and answers his uncle's tortured call.

  I stop crying before Dervish does. I don't think he cries very often, so he has a hard time regaining control. When the tears finally cease and he's wiping his face clean with a denim sleeve, I put an accusation to him as softly as I can. “Are you saying it was Mom's fault?”

  “Of course not!” he answers promptly.

  “But if Dad had picked you instead of her …”

 
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